"Don't be, I get it." He walked around the table to give her a hug. Val let herself be wrapped in his arms and closed her eyes. She needed a minute to collect herself, to somehow absorb the unwelcome news. Slowing her breathing, she turned her attention to the familiar sounds of her early-morning world: the determined tapping of a red-headed finch at the feeder just outside the window; the hiss of steam forcing its way through sixty-year-old pipes; Jeff's heart beating steadily against her ear, pressed to his chest.
"Isaac was a big part of your world for a really long time," he whispered.
"This has to hurt."
Valerie could tell Jeff wanted to protect her. He looked into her eyes as if waiting for tears, but there weren't any. In truth she felt strangely empty. Glancing at the clock above the sink, she gently withdrew from his embrace. She stood up, smoothing the wrinkles from her black woolen trousers. "I've got to go to work." Her voice was tight and controlled.
"Valerie, honey, don't do that thing," Jeff said. "It's okay to have feelings about him. Even about her."
Val sighed. For two years she and Jeff had avoided talking about Lilly, at Val's request. Which didn't mean Val had ever stopped thinking about Lilly—goodbye for good.
Though it was barely snowing outside, the slate path leading from the house to the driveway was slippery. Val secured the top button of her shearling coat, and clutched a brown cashmere scarf tightly around her neck. It occurred to her that the chill she felt was as much about Isaac as it was about the weather.
She figured the half-hour drive to work would calm her down. No music, no news, just the sense of moving forward. Instead, her anxiety increased along with the speedometer.
By 80 miles per hour, long-buried feelings began to surface. Isaac, she thought, now what? We'll never have a chance to get things right, to fix what went wrong.
The heat in the car was blasting, so Val was surprised when she unexpectedly shivered. She had the eerie sensation she was no longer alone. She checked to be sure the doors were locked. She glanced at the empty passenger seat, and nervously eyed the back of the car through the rearview mirror. She couldn't shake the feeling Isaac was right there with her.
But rational thinking didn't help. Val needed to speak to Isaac—and she knew, against reason, he needed to hear from her. Oh, Isaac, no more anger. We had enough of that.
She paused, biting her lower lip, only to remember how Isaac would always tell her to stop. "It's unbecoming," he would say, reproachful words softened by an affectionate tone.
You see? Every little thing reminds me of you. You're part of me, whether I like it or not.
In frustration, Val smacked her fist against the steering wheel. The horn hit a strident note, but Val didn't notice.
You died thinking I hate you! But it's so much more complicated than that. I love or had ever stopped struggling with the decision that their last goodbye was you. Despite your faults, despite the many ways you are…were…so imperfectly human.
Fat, wet snowflakes melted against the windshield of Val's car. The repetitive rhythm of the wipers was soothing. She slowed down and tried to focus on her driving. It was dangerous out there.
Be here, be now, she told herself. Breathe.