Ten years ago today, I was driving a Ryder van eastward through Nebraska as eight o'clock PM approached, aware that it was the time when she would be getting off work back in Denver, where she and I had been living together since 1996. I knew it would take her about fifteen minutes to get to our apartment, and with every passing minute it seemed to me that I was driving myself clear of the epicenter of an atomic explosion, and the farther I was away from it, the greater the chances would be of my survival.
That morning I waited until she left for work at around eleven AM. She gave me a perfunctory kiss and descended the stairs from our third floor apartment. I went to our bedroom window overlooking the parking lot and watched her as she drove out of sight. Then I moved the van I had already rented to the bottom of the stairs, packed everything that was mine - books, cds, a computer, clothes, papers, photographs, mementos - in boxes and carried them down. I was done in two hours, but I expected her to return at any moment, having forgotten something or other, and interrupt my departure. I left a goodbye note taped to the screen of her big screen TV. I somehow did not expect to get away scot free.
It was only once I had locked the front door and slid the key underneath it, and driven the van to a nearby gas station that I began to feel as if I was in the clear. By the time she made it home that evening and found the note, I was several hundred miles away. I had second thoughts and contemplated pulling off the highway into a motel and thinking it over. I could always go back and make things up with her, couldn't I? But I kept on driving, knowing that it was beyond hope, my love for her - that she took without returning. Our life together had become as airless as a tomb. I loved her, but there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.
I haven't seen her since that day - today - ten years ago. When I created this blog in 2007 I called it "Widower's Tango," after the poem "Tango del Viudo," written by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda had been sent to Rangoon, Burma in 1927 as Chile's honorary consul. He encountered a community of expats there, mostly English, with whom he quickly had a falling out because he consorted openly with a Burmese mistress.
On the street she called herself Josie Bliss, and dressed in Western clothes, but when alone with Neruda she put on a sari and told him her Burmese name. Their relationship was passionate, but she quickly showed Neruda a terrible side of her, an insanely jealous side. He awoke one night at a noise and in the darkness of his room, outside the mosquito net, he saw her pacing around the bed like a Burmese panther. And he saw the dagger that she clutched in her hand, as she fought with the idea of killing him, since only his death would free her of her jealousy.
The next day, Neruda found her dagger and buried it under a tree in the garden. Hopeless, he knew of no way out of his predicament until he received orders from his superiors to transfer to Ceylon. Seeing it as his only opportunity for escape, Neruda said nothing about his transfer to his mistress, and on the day of his departure by ship, he dressed and left his home just like he was going to work. Boarding the ship that was taking him to Ceylon, he abandoned everything he owned so that Josie Bliss would never suspect what he was doing. As he was sailing to Ceylon, the first words of the poem that would become "Tango del Viudo" came into his head. "Ah maligna..."
Oh evil one, you must by now have found the letter, you must have wept with fury,
and you must have insulted my mother's memory,
calling her rotten bitch and mother of dogs,
you must have drunk alone, all by yourself, your twilight tea,
looking at my old shoes forever empty,
and you won't be able any longer to recall my illnesses, my night dreams, my meals,
without cursing me aloud as if I were still there. . .
Of course, I knew the story of Neruda's escape from Josie Bliss before I made my own escape ten years ago. Unlike Neruda, the woman in question didn't track me down or camp out on my doorstep, eventually calling for the intervention of policemen and the woman's deportation. Neruda carried the wound of those years in silence until he wrote his memoir Isla Negra in 1963. He even wrote two more poems to Josie Bliss, wondering what might have become of her.
The image of a widower, dancing a tango without a partner, a man dancing with a ghost across a void, seemed apt enough for my situation. And while I was not a Pablo Neruda, neither was my woman a Josie Bliss. Neruda was just 23. I was 42. Neruda feared for his life. I feared for my soul.
Evil one, really, what an enormous night, what a lonely earth!
I have come again to the solitary bedrooms,
to lunch on cold food in the restaurants, and again
I throw my trousers and shirts upon the floor,
there are no coat hangers in my room, no pictures of anyone on the walls.
How much of the darkness in my soul I would give to get you back,
and how threatening to me seem the names of the months,
and the word winter, what a mournful drum sound it has.
(Donald Walsh translation)