Kimberly Kolarich

Kim Kolarich is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her fiction was long-listed for The Fish International Short Story Prize, and a finalist for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. Her stories have appeared in The Bridport Prize Anthology, FreeFall, Julien’s Journal, 3711 Atlantic, 34th Parallel, Karamu, Rollick Magazine, After Hours, The Gap Tooth Madness, Streetwrite, Intrinsick Magazine, Paragraph Planet, The Furious Gazelle, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Third Coast Magazine.

The Afterlife

Laugh, Pagliaccio,

For your love is broken.

Laugh of the pain that poisons your heart.

Pagliacci, opera and libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo

 

Our cutlery set dates back to my husband’s bachelor days. It’s a variety of knives in a wooden butcher block, which we keep in a corner on our kitchen counter. They haven’t been sharpened since we were married, which places their cutting ability a notch above that of a butter knife. To slice anything takes some resolve. A lot of pressure has to be applied ¾ even attempting to put a little of your weight into the motion is a good idea. It’s a household problem easily forgotten until the pile of carrots in front of me becomes the enemy and wields the power to delay dinner. I didn’t realize how much these knives would complicate our life.

My husband declined a dinner party invitation we had received. He told me he was too busy at work with a project, which was code for I don’t want to go. Being single for the night, I told my friend I would come by early to help her to prepare dinner. When I arrived, she poured me a glass of wine, pointed to an onion, and placed a knife next to it. I picked up the knife and pushed the blade down as hard as I could into the onion. The knife cut through the vegetable so quickly that I lost my balance, and my elbow hit the counter. I gasped and snapped back, instinctively holding the knife away from me. I foolishly checked to see if all my fingers were still there, but I was more taken aback by the two perfectly sliced onion halves resting on the cutting board in front of me.

“Careful, June Cleaver,” my friend said with a laugh. “You’re not trying to cut through a rock.”

“I know, but I forgot that I’m not using my knives. Mine are so dull. God, this is sharp,” I said, studying the blade as if I might be able to visually detect its sharpness. I placed the knife on top of the onion again and slowly drew it back. A flawless circle of sliced onion made a cathartic plop onto the cutting board. I blinked in disbelief at how swiftly the knife had cut again. I went on happily slicing the rest of the onion, secretly giddy at the blade’s cutting prowess.

I had forgotten what it was like to feel such precision. Experiencing the exact capability of something that was so tangible and unwavering, no matter how small, was powerful. The sensation made me feel alive, and strangely washed my anxieties away. I liked this new gumption and enthusiastically chopped through everything that was put in front of me. The rhythmic tapping of the knife against the cutting board became hypnotic, leaving me feeling slightly stoned. My body, normally locked in a state of fear, forgot about my usual concerns and let me slip into a sense of ease during dinner. This way of being was both familiar and unfamiliar, riding on some distant memory. I’ve always been reluctant to let myself become something new, using the synthesis of unfortunate givens in my life as my guide. But that night, I was protected by my own happiness, however brief.  The tension in me had disappeared, and it left my body and mind pliable. My senses opened, allowing me to take in everything around me. Each breath I took felt clear and cool. My skin caught the silky breeze coming off the lakefront and the sparks from the fireplace teased my eyes. My wit, usually dulled by my apprehensions, was fearlessly present and delighted the other guests. But just as suddenly as my euphoric spell had come on, the lightness of my being and the rampant bliss in the air became intolerable. Stabs of guilt and doubt pierced through me, dousing any pleasure I might have had. I was used to walking my life on a tightrope, and I didn’t know how to react without the tension. I allowed my joy to slip away because I truly didn’t believe there was anything to feel but life’s loneliness. It was the only way I had learned to be. That night, I dreamed I was asked to prepare a meal for dignitaries. I wore a white doubled-breasted chef’s jacket and a chef’s toque. A Secret Service agent escorted me to a large table of fresh vegetables. As I began to slice, nothing happened, the food remained whole and perfect. I tried over and over again, pushing harder and faster with the knife until I couldn’t see what I was doing, and in my frenzy, I cut my finger. The knife slipped out of my bloodied hand onto the floor. I was shocked when I realized that the knife I was using came from our home. That morning, my husband found me sleeping in a corner of our kitchen holding one of our knives.

***

I took Halsted Street south into the Loop to a professional knife-sharpening business. A faster route there, requiring on- and off-ramps and speed, would have served me better, but I felt skittish about bringing my old and dull knives to a place with the word professional in its name, so I needed the comfort of a slower street. Nestled in her car seat was my daughter. She eyed the lump beside her that was the butcher-block cutlery. I had wrapped it in a towel, and it looked like a tiny alien who had just showered.             The word daughter still sounded foreign to me. My husband told family and friends that he and I were adopting a baby, when our reality was that my husband’s one- night indiscretion had resulted in a pregnancy, and the mother did not want the child, or an abortion. My husband quickly confessed to me his regrettable action, then immediately proposed that we raise the child. I agreed, hoping that it would be the missing piece able to keep our marriage together. Those close to us were uneasy about it, and I overheard their hushed discussions questioning my maturity and my ability to take care of a baby. I wanted to believe that my husband and I could live happily ever after, and I longed not to feel the distance between us. The familiar mantra whispered in my ear: for better or worse.

As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw a woman going into the store dressed in a half-buttoned, white chef’s jacket­­ ¾ just like on the cooking shows in which the contestants refer to one another as chef so-and-so. She swung her knife kit at her side, and she walked with a bit of a swagger.

I gripped the steering wheel as my back tightened with nervousness. I let go and placed my hands in my lap and tried to force my body to relax. I imagined entering the store and getting a disdainful look from the owner, who would wonder why I was in an establishment intended for professionals. I thought about my husband. I wished he had agreed to take on the burden of the knives, but I knew better than to ask him. He would consider it to be housework, although he would never admit it. And to confirm his belief, he would continue working in his vegetable garden or feeding his adolescent interest in baseball by putting on a game and ignoring the circumstances.

Breathing deeply to calm my nerves, I found the courage to get out of the car. I carried my daughter in her car seat at my side and wrapped my other arm around the bundle of knives as if I were carrying another child. My daughter tried to reach up to play with the bundle possibly thinking that it was one of her stuffed animals. I stood hidden behind a streetlight and watched the store’s entrance. After some time passed, the professional-looking chef left the store, and I tentatively went in.

***

Later that week, our neighbors offered us their tickets to Pagliacci at the Lyric Opera, and I happily accepted. The seats were very good ¾ on the main floor and right by the orchestra. My husband agreed to go with me even though he wasn’t interested in the opera. He wanted to accompany me only because he was curious about the way the acoustics worked in an old venue. After 20 years working as an engineer, he said there had to be something left that still intrigued him on a professional level. I thought it might be interesting for us because the opera takes place near Calabria, one of the regions we toured on our honeymoon in Italy, seven years earlier. I met my husband while I was in college. His firm was across the hall from where I was working as an intern, and we rode the elevator together every morning. He started our relationship with just a smile and a quick good morning. By the end of the semester, he would wait for me in the building’s lobby with coffee, and on our way up, he would ask me questions about what I did over the weekend. When I let him know it was our last commute together, he was expressionless, almost as if he didn’t know who I was anymore. But at the end of that day, two dozen pink roses were delivered to my cubicle with a handwritten note from him inviting me to dinner. He took me to the Italian Village, the upstairs restaurant, and eagerly told me he wanted to protect me and to give me a life of happiness. He was ten years my senior with movie-star good looks. The first time I saw him I blushed, and I had to turn away to regain my composure. I instantly knew that there was something different about him. His natural reserve and easy manner were offset by a charm that I allowed to woo me. When he spoke, I could feel his voice resonating inside of me, and his eyes had such a strong look of rescue in them that it conjured up a feeling that life had the chance of always being good. When I finally touched his body, I felt as if I were a weary bird that had found its nest, and I had found my home.

***

The atmosphere of the opera was beautiful and dizzyingly entertaining to me. As we walked in, my eyes immediately moved upwards to the architectural detail of the elaborate gold ceiling with its musical trumpets blossoming out of the corners. I felt like royalty when we walked up the red-carpeted stairs that were bordered by grand marble pillars. Looking out over the balcony, I smiled when I discovered the comedy and tragedy masks unassumingly intertwined around the ceiling lights. I felt beautifully cocooned in my black chiffon dress, and relished the cool feeling of my jewelry against my skin. I took my husband’s arm as we went back down the stairs and then walked down the generous aisle of the theater to our seats. After the overture, the strong velvet curtains opened on stage, and the first note gently pulled my body to attention. My husband listened to the opera with his head slightly down and with his ear toward the stage to concentrate on how the sound was moving. Every once in a while, I tapped his arm and motioned for him to look up at the stage. During intermission, we drank champagne and walked around the grand foyer.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Of the opera?”

“Yes,” I said, expecting to hear his thoughts about the acoustics.

“Well, I think the trouble with Pagliacci is that he’s just so fucking sad.”

“It’s because he’s afraid that Bippo’s having an affair with his wife,” I said, surprised that I spoke so easily on the subject of adultery. My husband took in what I said and paused. His hesitation paralyzed me for a moment.

“How can you be that sad when you make a living as a clown?”

Relieved, I let out a laugh, and in his protective way, my husband grasped my elbow to steady me. His lips wore a receptive smile, which was something that I hadn’t seen for quite some time. I permitted myself to believe that I knew where I belonged for a moment. My reverie was quickly interrupted when he handed his champagne glass to me and went off to look for the men’s room. I welcomed the opportunity to be alone and to observe the opera crowd. A pair of crystal blue eyes met mine, and then looked back to a woman who was tapping his shoulder (his wife, I assumed). He pulled out a loosely gathered bundle of cash from his pocket and gestured toward her. She plucked the bills, one by one, almost defiantly, out of his hand, and then stepped into the line at the bar. He looked back at me with a slight smile. He was my physician. I immediately thought of our solemn conversations on the phone, the blood tests, and the snowstorm that I drove through to make the appointment when he told me that I was HIV positive. Suddenly, chimes sounded and the ceiling lights flashed. I was startled for a moment, until I realized that intermission was ending soon, and it was just a warning. I shrugged my shoulders at my doctor while raising both glasses into the air in a mock toast, indicating that things were fine. He turned away from me when his wife returned with their drinks. Moments later, my husband found me, took his glass from my hand, and swallowed the last of his champagne. As we made our way back, a cacophony of notes rose from the orchestra as the musicians warmed up their instruments. Our seats were a few feet from the stage so I motioned to my husband that I was going to take a closer look. As I leaned over the large wooden balustrade of the orchestra pit, I felt the strange energy of random musical notes rush up at me. I noticed the harp first because it was my dream as a child to learn how to play one. A loud noise pulled my attention over to the timpani section. I smiled when I saw the musician beat the drums so seriously and then try to silence them as if they were spoiled children. A cellist played wildly as if her life depended on the strength of each note. I took a deep breath and looked down at the string section at the front of the orchestra. I became confused for a moment when I saw the face of a man who looked familiar to me, but something about him seemed to be missing. As I watched him, my brain sorted through the pages of my memory to find his face. A pair of weary green eyes, sunken in a gaunt face, finally looked up and noticed me. Wisps of fine hair lay across his head and his shoulders hung from his body. He rested his viola on top of his thigh and waved his bow at me. I timidly waved back. A rush of memories flooded my mind, making me dizzy. I eased my body around in the other direction and went back to my seat. I quickly flipped through my program to find the list of musicians’ names and there he was.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” my husband said.

“Oh, I thought I saw someone I knew from years ago,” I said, “but it can’t be him because he used to play the violin. This guy plays the viola.”

“Well, it’s possible for some musicians to switch instruments, especially between the string instruments. I’m sure it isn’t too hard to do,” my husband said matter-of-factly and then went back to reading his program.

“I guess it’s not,” I said.

The viola player happened to be the last man I slept with before I met my husband. Seeing his deteriorating health told me everything about why my life had turned out the way it did. I didn’t hear the rest of the opera, even though I sat and listened. On the way home in the taxi, my husband hummed something from the show as the city flashed past in the snowy night. I looked out the window and was comforted by the snow’s ability to silence a city as big as Chicago, and then was surprised by the touch of my husband’s gloved hand as it gently took hold of mine.

***

“What’s this?” I asked.

My husband, wearing a dishtowel as an apron, stood behind the island in our kitchen and waved his arms over an array of food. His face wore an expression of eagerness. Our daughter rocked back and forth in her highchair and reached her arms out to me.

“We’re going to cook tonight. Together,” said my husband.

“You know I don’t know how to cook.”

“You’ll learn.”

“I see,” I said, as I took off my coat. “The opera must have inspired you to teach me.”

“I could see Italy, and I could hear it, but I couldn’t taste it,” he said as he flipped open a cookbook.

After I put our daughter to bed, I wrapped a dishtowel around my waist and stood at my husband’s side, watching him mix the ingredients to make the dough for what he said was a crostata. When he was finished he placed the ball of dough on the counter, sprinkled a bit of flour on it, then took my hands and placed them on the dough. He placed his hands on top of mine. His touch made my heart flutter.

“This is how you knead the dough,” he said, as he began to push down gently.

“I hope I don’t get this wrong,” I whispered.

He stepped behind me, wrapped his arms around me, and reached for the dough again. “Now use the heel of your hand to knead it.”

A rush of warmth moved over my skin. I turned my head back and smiled at him.

“This takes a great deal of concentration. You had better focus,” he said teasingly. I returned to my task and he let go of my hands. “I think you’ve got it!”

“Well, it’s not brain surgery,” I said.

“Tell that to my Sicilian grandmother.”

“You don’t have a Sicilian grandmother,” I said and laughed.

“Well, I certainly can feel one in my soul.”

He picked up a plump tomato from his garden, tossed it into the air, and caught it. He picked up two more and started to juggle.

“I don’t believe it!” I squealed.

“I learned this trick when I ran away and joined the circus.”

His playfulness made me feel safe and at ease. I hadn’t felt that way since we were first married and before our lives got in the way of us. He caught the tomatoes, one by one, and put them on the cutting board.

He handed me a rolling pin. “What do I do with this?” I asked.

He made a rolling motion in the air and turned back to his work.

“If you say so,” I said and began to roll out the dough.

The sound of a zing hit the air as my husband slid a knife out of the butcher block.

I sighed and stopped rolling the dough. I waited a moment to see if the urge to kiss my husband, something we didn’t do anymore, would subside. I decided that I couldn’t hold anything in any longer. I stepped behind him, wrapped my arms around his waist, and kissed his cheek. My touch startled him, making him lurch backwards into me. The sound of an uncontrolled knife hitting the marble counter, then the floor was all that I could hear. Something warm coursed over my hands like a river and my skin began to sting. I saw blood seeping into the cutting board as I stepped back in disbelief. A red blossom spread across the front of my husband’s shirt as he pressed his folded arms into his chest. He gestured toward me and said, “You’re bleeding, too.”

***

A gust of cold air mixed with an antiseptic smell came at us each time the doors slid open while we waited in the emergency room. A blood-soaked dishtowel, acting as a bandage, was wrapped around each of our right hands. The bleeding had finally stopped. My husband’s arm rested over my shoulder, keeping me close to him. I nestled my head against his chest and found comfort in the rise and fall of his breath and in the sound of his heartbeat. Our daughter slept undisturbed in her car seat next to me. I lifted my head and surveyed the room for other injuries and their severity, wondering when we would be called. I stopped and looked at the side of my husband’s face. It was the profile that I watched as he slept at night. He noticed me looking at him and turned to me with a soft smile on his lips. He leaned in closer as if to kiss me and I closed my eyes to accept. I felt my whole being cascade down onto itself, anticipating being awakened by his kiss. Suddenly, his body pulled away from me when the nurse called out his name. I didn’t need to open my eyes to know that he was gone. The burst of air from his brisk steps moving past me said his farewell.

*****

I recognized him even with his back to me. Of course I did he once was my husband. I stepped behind a pillar to hide from his view. He had the same smile, and his body still moved with confidence as he let a young family with luggage and baby stroller squeeze past him to find a seat in the boarding area. I glanced at his gate information to see where he was going just as he opened a guidebook to Italy and settled it in his lap to read. A small child called out Daddy and ran past me. Her mother followed her in a playful game of chase. My heart stopped when I saw that child crawl into my husband’s lap and call him Daddy again. A moment later, the mother of the child was standing in front of my husband. Her silky hair flowed over her shoulders as she bent down and kissed the child on her head and then kissed my husband. He put his hand at her waist and tenderly slid it down the side of her hip.

“I can’t wait to do this,” my daughter said as she came up behind me. She pushed a magazine and a pack of gum into her carry-on bag like any excited teenager would do. I continued looking at my husband.

“Mom?” she asked and leaned around to look at me.

I turned and looked at my daughter’s face. All I saw were her father’s features. Something that I had forgotten long ago, but today I was startled into remembering that she looked just like him. She waved her boarding pass in front of her like a fan.

“We’re going to Italy together and I can’t wait,” she said taking my hand in hers and swinging it at her side just like she did when she was a child.

“Yes, I can’t wait, either,” I said and took in a deep breath I felt that I could never let out.

© 2019 Kimberly Kolarich