Saturday, March 6, 2010

Susan, after


I met my wife at a dinner party. My sister had a habit of putting these things together so that they always ended with a fierce argument, and I dreaded going for just that reason. This one was no different; her husband's friends began arguing about social philosophy, of all things, and even trying to follow the conversation gave me a headache. I took my drink and wandered into the library, and there she was, standing in front of the bookshelf, glass of wine in one hand and a book open in the other. She was dressed smartly in deep maroon, and with the evening sun catching her hair I fell in love at once. I cleared my throat, and she looked over at me.
"Lovely party, don't you think?" she said with a wry smile.
I chuckled. "I hate these things. All of those pompous people arguing about useless things. But," I continued as I settled into an armchair, "Marcy's cook is top-notch. The food almost makes it worth it." She smiled slightly at me. "I'm Richard, by the way. Marcy's brother. It's why I'm forced to come to these silly gatherings."
"Susan." She set down her book and shook my hand. "I'm one of John's publishers. When Marcy found out that I'm... unattached, she insisted I come by and meet her husband's charming friends." She shook her head. "At least the library's been worth a look."
"What do you think of John's books? I couldn't get through the first one, myself."
"Well, they certainly have their audience. Not exactly my cup of tea." She took a sip of wine and turned away from the bookshelf. "And what do you do? Business, like the rest?"
"Oh, no," I laughed. "I'm afraid I let my family down entirely and became a chemistry teacher."
She shook her head at me and chuckled. "Maybe Marcy's hoping they'll rub off on you."
"I wouldn't be surprised." I watched her tuck her hair behind her ear. "And you? Have any siblings meddling in your life?"
"No. I, um, used to." And a shadow passed over her face.
"Oh. I'm sorry." I stood up. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"No, it's all right." She gave me that little smile again.
A knock came at the door; it was Marcy.
"There you are! Oh, come now, they'll be serving dinner soon. Susan, I have you sitting next to Theodore, he's a writer like John, you know, and I think the two of you will get along fabulously--"
"Marcy," I interrupted. "Why don't you sit Susan next to me instead and let those boring gentlemen entertain themselves?"
My sister glared at me. But Susan was smiling at me, really smiling, and I knew anything was worth that smile.


Every year on the anniversary of their death Susan went to visit her siblings. We were two months engaged the first time I went with her. I bought flowers beforehand, a variety, because I figured, with three of them, they might have had different tastes. I confessed as much to Susan, feeling foolish, but she smiled a little and kissed me on the cheek.
At the cemetery, we had to park the car and walk up a hill to get to the right spot. I scanned the stones as we walked by, and then, there we were. One headstone for Susan’s parents, and one slightly smaller next to it, listing the names and dates for the three children. Underneath it read “Beloved brothers and sister, cherished friends.”
Susan stood before the grave stone and stared at it somberly. I stood next to her in silence, as a breeze stirred the grass in front of us.
“It was a train accident,” Susan said after a while. “They were coming into the station, and there was an explosion—a bright light. Twelve people died. There was a lot of wreckage, and they, um…” She looked down and gulped. “They never found the bodies.”
I squeezed her hand, and she breathed deeply as a few tears fell from her face. I looked down at the ground, and noticed how small it was, too small, in fact, for three coffins.
“Even if they’re not here,” Susan said quietly, “I wanted them to be near Mother and Father.”
I handed her the flowers, and she carefully placed them at the base of the headstone. Then we stood again in silence, holding hands, until the sun started to set. Susan looked at me and nodded, and we stiffly walked back down the hill to the car.


Susan didn't have much family. With her parents and siblings gone, the only family she was at all close to was her uncle. She told me that she had met him during the war, when the children were sent to the country for safety. Susan liked to visit him, and I looked forward to meeting him.
Finally we went to the country together to see him, since he wasn't strong enough to come to the city. His estate was lovely, and I tried to picture Susan running across it. I could almost imagine her siblings, from the photo and the stories I had heard.
The uncle was thoroughly pleased to meet me, he said, beaming at the both of us. Over the course of our visit, though, I got the idea that he and Susan were more comfortable without me around. I was encouraged to appreciate the grounds and enjoy the rest, and the other two would sit together and talk. I obliged like a good fiancee, though I did wonder about their conversations.
"He's the only one who's been where I've been," Susan told me when I asked. I nodded. She smiled at me, a little sadly. "We do a lot of remembering," she added.
When her uncle died, Susan was very upset, but she had known it was coming, so she held my hand tightly and stood firm. That was my Susan; she was the strongest person I knew. She was grim but collected throughout the funeral, the visits and condolences of relations, and the business of her uncle's estate. The only time she let it get to her was when we dealt with the furniture. A few of the more interesting pieces we would keep, some were going to relatives, and the rest was being appraised.
"Yes, I think I know an interested party for that vase," the appraiser was saying, "and--ah. This wardrobe is a quite intriguing. What an interesting piece!"
"Oh--" Susan said, eyes wide. "No, not this. We can't sell this one. Richard," she said, turning to me, "let's keep this. We needn't keep it in our room; we can put it in the spare bedroom." She looked at me pleadingly, almost frantically.
"Of course, dear, whatever you like," I said, a bit taken aback. She was relieved, and squeezed my hand in gratitude, looking at the wardrobe. "I don't mind if you'd rather have it in the bedroom," I told her.
"Oh, no, it wouldn't match," she replied distractedly. But after a moment she turned to the appraiser, and nodded for him to continue. After that she had herself under control again, and the wardrobe ended up in our spare bedroom, where it sat for years, ignored most of the time.


No one knows what having children will be like until it happens. Susan was astonished when she got pregnant for the first time. And for the next nine months we tried to prepare ourselves. But we both cried when our daughter was born.
"Oh, Richard," Susan whispered to me as she held her in her arms. "She's so beautiful. How can she be so beautiful?"
The first night home from the hospital, Susan stayed up late to watch Elizabeth sleep in her cradle. I woke up and saw her leaning against the door with tears in her eyes, just looking at our daughter.
"I thought I'd done everything," she told me with a smile. "I thought I’d lived a full life. I thought I was complete. But I never knew what this would mean. It's so much more than I'd imagined." She sat down beside me, leaned over, and kissed me. "I love you, Richard," she told me. "I don't know what I'd be without you."
"I love you too, sweetheart," I replied groggily, "now come to bed."
Susan kissed me again and got into bed. We slept in each others' arms for the few hours before Elizabeth began to cry again.


I found her crying one night in the spare bedroom. She was huddled in front of our antique wardrobe, sobbing quietly but wretchedly. I knelt beside her and wrapped my arms around her, and she cried into my shoulder for a long time.
"Susan," I said, "Susan, what's wrong?"
"They left me," she whispered back, and shook her head. She sniffed and wiped her eyes, and tried to laugh, but it came out as a sob. "It's been so long; I know I should give it up. But I always thought they would come back for me. How could they leave me behind like this?"
I rocked her in my arms, trying to think of what to say to comfort her. "Susan, sweetheart, they didn't mean to leave you. It was an accident. There’s nothing anybody could have done about it."
She shook her head. "Oh, Richard," she sighed, "you don't understand. Of course you can't understand."
"Susan," I told her gently, "I know what you're going through. When my father died, I felt the same way. But you have to go on living."
Susan reached up and stroked my neck. "Richard, you know I love you. I wouldn't give you up for the world. But... It's so hard to let go of my siblings. Even after all this time. I thought that with time it wouldn't bother me anymore. But it still does; there are times it hurts so bad I can hardly think." She looked up at the wardrobe, tears forming in her eyes again. "They were so important to me. We were important to each other."
"I know, sweetheart. I know. And of course you were. You went through war together."
"It's more than that," she mumbled. She paused, then continued, "it's much, much more."
"What do you mean?"
"There's... there's something I never told you, Richard." Susan was quiet for a moment, and I held my breath, afraid of what my wife would say, afraid of what secrets she had kept even from me, even after all these years.
"Peter, Edmund, and Lucy, they didn't die that day," she began bitterly. "No, don't say anything yet. I know it sounds insane. But, when we were children..." Susan sighed and shook her head, then stood up to stare at the wardrobe. "There's no real way to explain what happened to us. But when we were young, we discovered a hidden world. Lucy went through the wardrobe, and on the other side..." She closed her eyes and said quietly, "On the other side was a world with magic and danger and it needed us badly."
"I know. Of course I know. All children have imaginary worlds. But this was different. We slipped through the wardrobe the one time, and lived there for years. We were kings and queens, and only when we had grown up did we find the wardrobe again, and come back to be children in a land without magic, where we could do nothing and change nothing."
Susan fingered the carvings on the door of the wardrobe. "Growing up was so much worse the second time around, Richard. With the war... And I couldn't do anything about it, couldn't even control my own life. But I tried to move on. And then when the others left, I didn't know how I would make it through a second lifetime on my own."
I stood up to hold her again, searching her face, trying to find a sign of what was going on inside her head.
"Richard, I know you think it's crazy. I can see it in your face. But I swear to you, on my life, that this is real. I wish I could prove it to you. I want to so badly. But I don't think anything I could do would make it all make sense. I have nothing to show for it. Just a lot of pain."
I grasped for something to say. "This wardrobe..."
"When we stayed with my uncle, during the war. Lucy stumbled through by accident, and took us all back with her." Susan's eyes filled with tears. "It didn't work after that. But I couldn't let a stranger take it after that."
I looked at the wardrobe. I had never given much thought to it after it was put in this room. Now I could get no answers from the carvings on the front, so I pulled open the doors and pushed aside the winter coats.
In the back was a wood panel. I stood there and looked at it, not knowing what else to do, but Susan reached out and put her hand on it, and began to cry in earnest again.
"Aslan," she sobbed, "why? Why them and not me?"
She cried, and I looked on, bewildered and afraid. Finally I led her back to bed and held her until she fell asleep. It took me a long, long time to do the same.