When you're sitting in a crowded office building, filing papers, posting memorandums, penciling people into your date book, it's very hard to meditate on the cosmos and the enormity of the universe and the randomness of it all. And yet, that's just where my mind was that day. How appropriate, and how coincidental, for that was the day my world--my own personal cosmos--fell apart.
I first met Miranda when I was thirty-four and not yet a widower. It was raining that day, and while I hadn't sought the company as I first entered the restaurant, I didn't reject it when it was offered. She was a warm body, and intelligent, and probably pretty then, and somehow that made all the difference in the rain. It's a wonder how rain can wear on one's soul, as if with each drop, a part of you washes away.
I prided myself on my solitary lunches, then. At the office, things were crowded and loud, and the air smelled like people, toner, and cold coffee. To get away for forty-five minutes at lunch was comparable to taking a five-year vacation in the tropics, minus the monsoons. I didn't get my full forty-five minutes very often, and I usually resorted to eating a cold sandwich in the break room while my copies were being made. On certain days, I was able to get ahead of my workload, and I fancied myself the envy of the department for this. And thus, I prided myself on my solitary lunches.
Miranda came into the restaurant after I had placed my order. We worked in the same building, but I had never seen her before. She recognized me and asked to sit at my table, as there were none available when she came in. She had somehow snagged a full hour for her lunch break, and I instantly envied her.
The talk was not of work that afternoon. I was glad to have someone intelligent to whom I could relate, who wasn't obsessed with demographics or statistics. And I admit, the next time I made the effort to get ahead of my workload, I wasn't aiming for a forty-five minute solitary lunch. Miranda and I met up at the restaurant that afternoon, and I spent all of my forty-five minutes enraptured by her strong voice and the way her throat moved when she spoke.
To describe it like that sounds sexual, and it wasn't sexual. I came from an office of fluorescent lights, where everyone around me looked pale and green. Miranda was the most colorful person I could even hope to see in a workday, and I held onto that color as if it were my salvation, as if by staring at her enough, I could soak her up and thereby color the rest of my world. It must have worked because life became more tolerable. I smiled in the elevator, I greeted my coworkers, and I took time to visit the water cooler. The stresses of life melted away. There was a new fluorescence in my life.
Yes, Miranda and I were friends. We took lunch together several times each week, and sometimes shared a cab after work. She was someone in the middle of my day who added to my tropical vacation. Her vigor, her presence, and her intellect all combined to make her a human triptych, a work of art which, though comprised of different elements, came together as a masterpiece to be admired. Friendly as we were, she was always like a work of art: off-limits, guarded, untouchable. In the five years that I knew her, we never more than hugged one another goodbye.
She was my junior by several years. Perhaps that's part of what I first found so captivating about her. We could have conversations about the most interesting things, but I would know something about a certain era or a certain year that she had never known. Similarly, there was a certain youth culture scene that I did not know. Miranda and I connected on many levels, and yet we were two very distinct people from two very distinct backgrounds. In the office, backgrounds and people--no matter how distinct or interesting they were outside--faded into the off-white wash of the walls, where they slid down and became puddles on the gray carpet. We walked through the puddles everyday and never stopped to examine them. In the office, we were a race of automatons. With Miranda, I was human.
The guilt I feel now is not guilt for having known Miranda. In fact, it is guilt that I felt no guilt. I did not see anything wrong in our relationship. No, I never mentioned it to my wife, and the one time that Miranda phoned me at home, I explained her away as a colleague phoning on departmental business, but I never felt guilt. I kept her from my wife, but not out of malice or spite. I never told my wife about how I felt towards my lunch break or that I thought the mailroom clerk read our paychecks before distributing them or that the "K" on my keyboard stuck. There were many everyday things about work that I did not share with my wife. To me, Miranda was part of this. I saw no need to mention her, and I felt no shame in not. This is, perhaps, what has gripped me worst of all.
Once, after three years of knowing her, Miranda came to my office. We had planned to meet in our regular restaurant at our regular time, but I had been blindsided by a new report that had to be done and copied and distributed by four p.m. sharp. After waiting twenty minutes, she had ordered sandwiches to go, and came to find me. She had never been to my floor before.
I still remember how she looked when she strode into the department, her pale pink suit coat blowing slightly open as she walked in. It was a half-hearted billow, as vague and feeble as the sexuality of our relationship. She didn't see me, and I saw her trying to not look out of place. And I confess I watched her, first because I didn't know why she had come, and then because it was so easy to do it. She asked around, and one of the paper-pushers pointed her in the right direction to find me in the break room. I turned my back as she approached, so that she couldn't tell that I had seen her.
She put my ham and Swiss on the counter. "I missed you," she said. Never had I felt so needed in my work life. If I were ever out sick or on vacation, no one would ever say to me upon my return, "Hey, we missed you." But Miranda missed me. And I had only been absent for twenty minutes. So we ate lunch together that day in the break room while my copies finished printing. Afterwards, I took her around the floor and showed her exactly what it was we did up there. I showed her my desk and the new rolling chair I had gotten the week before. I did not show her the picture of my wife. Miranda knew I was married; she had doubtless seen my ring, and we had talked about my wife. But I never showed Miranda a picture, just as I never told my wife about Miranda.
I walked her to the elevators, and I was sorry when one of them came and she had to leave. But the doors closed on her, on my Miranda, and she went back to work many floors below. People in the office asked if she was my daughter. They must have underestimated her age and added a few years to mine. Maybe she looks mature for what age they thought her, and maybe I look young to them. At the time, I was thirty-seven, and she was twenty-six. I could have been forty-five, and she twenty. People whose names I should have known approached me and asked if she was my daughter. They, unlike Miranda, had seen pictures of my wife, some had met her, and they knew that she and the pink-suit-coated girl were not the same woman.
I had a hard time explaining Miranda away. Telling the boys, "We have lunch sometimes," just isn't enough. They thought of her as a seesaw, good for a ride during the recess after lunch. I tried to explain how my workday was a desert and that my wife was the oasis, but Miranda was a glass of water along the way. The men only took this as a sign of true sexcapades. They left a toy boat full of condoms on my desk with "S.S. Nooner Schooner" written on the side. I found limericks in my inter-office mailbox cleverly rhyming "fling," "thing," and "Roman spring." There were memos taped to my computer asking how good various matinees had been on certain days. And I found copies of Tristan Tzara essays lying on my chair with "Trist" underlined or highlighted and "Thought you might find this interesting" scrawled across the covers.
Eventually, they left me alone. The novelty of the idea wore off after time, and I refused to respond to their jokes. By not talking about Miranda, I erased her from their memories. She stayed strong in mine, however, and we began having lunch more frequently. We shared cabs more often. We spoke of playing hooky and going to a museum for a day. We spoke of meeting at night for the opera. We spoke of barbeques we could have. We spoke of benefits to attend or Christmas parties we could plan. We spoke of a lot of things, but all we ever did was talk and dream. And we never dreamed together.
I got a phone call that afternoon at work. I was in some sort of daze, thinking about how arbitrary life was, wondering about its purpose and my role in the world. I got a phone call. That's all I remember. Seventeen years of marriage, and that's all I can remember. I got a phone call.
I first met Miranda when I was thirty-four and not yet a widower. We were not lovers. We shared the same office building and had lunch together sometimes. But we were never lovers, and I never cheated on my wife. After my wife's death, what I had done with Miranda felt like cheating, even though I knew it wasn't. But I blamed myself. I thought if I hadn't been having lunch with Miranda for all those years, God would have liked me better. He'd have saved my wife that afternoon. Or He'd have known how much I still loved her, and He wouldn't have dared to take her from me. I loved her truly and faithfully for seventeen years of marriage and for the two years before that when we dated. I never stopped loving my wife. I never loved anyone but my wife.
I got a phone call that afternoon. All those years of devoted love came to an end in one moment. And all I remember is a phone call.
Miranda only found out because I hadn't shown up for lunch, and she came upstairs to find me. They told her. She left work right then and rushed home to call me. I let the machine pick up, and I listened to the message she left. It was strange to sit there on the sofa and hear the phone ringing, hear my wife's voice on the machine, instructing callers to leave detailed messages, and then hear Miranda through the wires and the speakers. Miranda, who had always been a source of life for me, disembodied on my answering machine, responding to my dead wife's instructions, as I sat and listened on the sofa.
She wanted to come to the funeral. She wanted to support me. She wanted to bring me dinner. Two days earlier, she had been one of my best friends, and now I was so angry that I wanted her to leave and never speak to me again. I blamed myself, yes, but I also blamed Miranda. She had seduced me. She had made me be unfaithful to my wife, and now my wife was dead.
In my heart of hearts, I knew Miranda had not seduced me. Nine years I had known her, and we were nothing more than friends. I was a faithful man. I loved my wife. I just never told her enough, and that ate at me. At the funeral, I wept, trying to remember the last time I said, "I love you."
The hardest part about moving on was, in fact, Miranda. Because of my anger, and because of my guilt, I broke away from her, and the separation made my grief that much worse. Not only did I then mourn the loss of my wife, but I mourned the loss of a great friend, the main source of light in my otherwise dismal, gray life. I wanted to bring Miranda back into my world, but I felt that by doing so, I would appear disrespectful to the memory of my wife. I wasn't seen around town at all, except for work, for almost a year. Being friendly with people so soon after my loss would have been callous, I felt.
But Miranda never pushed. Except for the message on my machine, which I did not return, she left me alone. She didn't come to the funeral, and I think she stopped going to our restaurant. I wouldn't have known; I stopped eating out altogether. I woke up, went to work, came home, had dinner, and went to bed. I slept for thirteen hours a night and woke up exhausted. I stumbled through life in a constant daze. My movements and actions were governed by ingrained habit. It was muscle memory that kept me going; my previous life was an amputated limb, and I felt the shadow pains of it every day. I reacted to them, instead of my real life. Wake up. Why? Because I always have. Go to work. Why? Because I always have. Come home. Why? Because I always have. Dinner, bed. Why? Well, I always have.
She must have seen me coming to work and leaving. I must have seen her. But I don't remember seeing her, and if she saw me, she never said hello. I can only hope that she saw me in my bland suits, my crooked ties, my mismatched socks, and knew that I was in a confused state of mourning. I can only hope that she never took it personally that I stopped coming around, and I can only hope that while I foolishly blamed everyone, she never blamed herself.
I don't remember what first made me decide that it was okay to talk to Miranda again. It might have been the overwhelming loneliness suddenly crushing me like a sunset wave, or it might have been that I finally just stopped being angry one day. I don't know what inspired me to do it--I just remember calling her.
"Miranda," I said, "it's Peter. Can you come over?" I gave her directions to my house. Ten years I had known her, and she'd never been to my home. Eleven months I hadn't spoken to her, and she drops everything at nine o'clock on a Friday night to see me on my spontaneous whim. Truthfully, I hadn't known she would be home. A girl like her, an independent, able-bodied thirty-three-year-old woman home alone on a Friday night didn't seem possible. For me, in my still-fragile state, having never phoned her before, it would have been enough just to hear the phone ringing. I hadn't placed a call in months. I forgot what socializing sounded like.
Miranda got there just before ten. I opened the door, and we just stood staring at one another. I wanted to embrace her--or something--because I hadn't so much as shaken anyone's hand since the funeral. To embrace is to understand someone's reality. I could see her before me, but I needed physical contact to believe it. But I was frozen. I had been frozen for a long time, and I couldn't move that night. She stared at me for the longest time, and we just stood there. The bugs flew in with the door open like that, but I didn't care. Miranda and I were making up for eleven months of missed lunches and conversations, so what care had I for bugs? She later told me that she stared for so long because I had gotten so thin, and she was willing the weight back on.
After an eternity at the door, I stepped aside and led her into the living room, where we sat on opposite ends of my wife's white couch. We were silent for a very long time before I finally said, "I don't want to talk." And she replied, "Good, because I don't want to listen." It took all the energy I had to smile, and had I been better, I'd have laughed. That was the first time since the accident that I had been able to let go enough to smile.
People have told me that I should have been able to see it in that one night, my calling Miranda, her being home alone, her coming immediately over, the two of us just sitting there for hours. But I've asked her if she loved me all along, and she's always said she didn't.
It had been three years, and my life had returned to some state of normalcy. I was back at the office, taking long lunches with Miranda--me with my ham and Swiss, her with her tuna and lettuce. In fact, things seemed almost better than they had ever been. I laughed at work, and I didn't dread going; there was nothing for me to regret leaving at the house in the mornings, and I began to make genuine friends at the office. I spent more time at the water cooler. People make jokes about water coolers--but it's true, water coolers and coffee makers are the places where we do most of our socializing during the workday. But the boys began to regard me as more of an equal, whether it was out of pity or because I became more at ease. We even went out after work on Friday nights and took turns hosting game parties on the weekends. I am, of course, hesitant to say that my life got better when my wife died, but this many years after the fact, I think I can admit that I did become more free.
I was still so attached to the idea of my wife, however, that when Ramsey first suggested that I start dating, I blanched. What was more grim at that moment, though, was that Jeffrey immediately cut in with, "What do you mean, Rams? Pete's got that girlie from the first floor." He meant Miranda. He very clearly meant Miranda. I stammered when I tried to protest, but Ramsey saved me by saying, "Really? No… Pete?" His appeal to me left me open to clarify, "No, she's just a friend." Twelve years, and she was my very best friend.
We became closer during this time, started sharing more than lunch and taxis. We did play hooky a few times and go to the museum, and we did go to the opera once. It was nice to dress up and go somewhere fancy, feel like part of the elite for one night. I made my cabdriver let me out a block away from the music hall so that no one could see me getting out of a cheap taxi in my rented tux.
It was mud season in the Catskills the first time I kissed her. And I still remember it, after all these years, that first virgin kiss, tender and light and sweet. One could expect little less from Miranda, I suppose. We had rented a car one Saturday and driven through the Hudson Valley, exploring the historic sites. Real tourists, we were. We didn't know about mud season--imagine us, two city folk accustomed to firm cement sidewalks and unyielding asphalt pavement, suddenly thrust onto soggy earth. By that evening, we must have been ankle-deep in mud and had laughed at one another and ourselves so hard that we couldn't tell where the comedy ended and the sobriety began. Traipsing through the mud fields, ruining our shoes. Mud season. Who'd have known? So that night when I pulled up in front of her building, we were so intoxicated with laughter that I kissed her. Just right there in the car, I leaned over and kissed her lightly before she got out. And she didn't protest, and she didn't rush to leave, and she didn't look shocked. I suppose it was then that I knew that when I moved on from my wife, I would move on to Miranda.
We were married the following March. I hadn't loved her until long after my wife had died, but there's still that guilt. And I know it's unfair of me, but there's still a part of me that won't let go of my first wife. There's a part of me that will always love her better because I loved her first. And that part will always love more intensely and more purely than any other part of me. It's like a flame fueled for eternity by memory and loyalty. And guilt.
Sometimes it amazes me how long it took me to accept Miranda as a lover and a wife. It's like she walked into that restaurant and took twelve years in sitting down.