“The End Is Only a Beginning,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle


HomeHome / Blog / “The End Is Only a Beginning,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Nov 10, 2023

“The End Is Only a Beginning,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

By T. Coraghessan Boyle T. Coraghessan Boyle reads. His wife wanted to go with him, but her mother was still dying, really taking her time with it, as if it were something to savor. And maybe it was.

By T. Coraghessan Boyle

T. Coraghessan Boyle reads.

His wife wanted to go with him, but her mother was still dying, really taking her time with it, as if it were something to savor. And maybe it was. You looked at these hopeless cases—the blinding pain, the loss of volition and dignity and even personhood—and wondered why they didn’t just kill themselves, but then you wouldn’t know until you got there, would you? For his part, he was determined to go by his own hand, and when he was depressed, which had to be at least eighty per cent of the time, he dwelled on the details of how he was going to do it (car, garage, exhaust), mentally composing his obituary as if it were a story he was writing. A physician friend of his had told him that if you were terminally ill you could legally end your suffering by depressing a plunger on the IV tube that would flood your veins with benzodiazepines and morphine, but the rub was that you had to have the ability to use your hand, your thumb, your brain.

In any case, he was going to Paris and Caroline wasn’t.

Air France, first-class cabin, the boredom ameliorated by champagne and Cognac and the in-flight cuisine, which only the French, Germans, and Dutch still seemed to care about, though he wasn’t particularly hungry, not after three glasses of Taittinger, so he sat back and engaged with a new novel by one of his rivals, which so maddened him with its grace and fluidity that he finally had to put it aside and just stare out the window until the clouds below crept inside his skull and everything went pleasantly fuzzy, though he didn’t sleep. He never slept on airplanes, no matter that he had his own gleaming little pod and the seat reclined into a simulacrum of a bed. He just couldn’t get past the idea of his own fragility, suspended in the ether at thirty-five thousand feet like an unscrambled egg in a hurtling aluminum shell.

T. Coraghessan Boyle on pandemics and blame.

Across the aisle from him, in her own pod, was a woman of thirty or so with a honed physique and a face that wasn’t conventionally pretty but was darkly erotic like that of a French actress from the sixties whose name he could never remember. Before takeoff, she’d talked on her phone in very bad Spanish to her maid or housekeeper or au pair about her daughter’s needs and expectations, then washed down two tiny white pills with her champagne and fallen unconscious. She didn’t move at all, not even to change position, until they were descending into Orly and the flight attendant was obliged to bend down and rouse her, at which point she hustled to the lavatory with her makeup bag. When they landed, she swept off the plane like a diva emerging from the wings to a roar of applause. As for Riley, he felt as if he’d been shot through the breastbone with a very short, very thick arrow—from a crossbow, wasn’t that what they were called? He shuffled down the aisle like one of the walking dead, his roller bag clipping his heels all the way.

The good news was that Mireille was waiting for him in the arrivals hall. She was his editor, the granddaughter of the man who had founded the publishing house, and since all editorial decisions were made in New York long before the manuscript reached her desk their relationship was relatively uncomplicated. She vetted the translation, and if it passed muster with her he was fine with that, because he wasn’t about to blunder through it himself, even with Google to fluently obfuscate things for him. There was the embrace, the three obligatory air kisses, and never mind the virus that was just beginning to infest the news reports (a virus that no one really knew anything about, so why worry?). And then she was asking him if he’d slept on the plane and, lying because it seemed appropriate, essential, even, he told her that he had.

“Good,” she said, smiling widely, with her lips and eyes both, “because I thought it might be relaxing for you if we enjoyed some lunch?”

“Déjeuner,” he said, just to say it, dredging up his limited vocabulary and creative pronunciation in order to remind himself that he was, at least for the time being, out from behind the tombstone of his desk and in another country altogether. Free for a couple of days—that is, free from the grind of work and of Caroline, too, though of course he loved her, etcetera, and never tired of her company. Or almost never. But to be on your own was always an adventure—and this adventure was unfolding in Paris, City of Light, where the possibilities were as multitudinous as the raindrops that were beginning to slicken the pavement outside.

“I have invited also your American friend May Carey?” Another smile, wider yet. She was glad to see him, genuinely glad, and he wondered, with a pang of jealousy, how glad she was to see her other American authors—or the French ones? The Italians?

Mireille was sad-eyed and pretty, and today she was wearing a sort of ensemble he’d never seen on her before—a red vinyl motorcycle jacket thrown over a retro T-shirt and black jeans, definitely not business attire. But this wasn’t business, was it? Or not entirely.

Podcast: The Writer’s VoiceListen to T. Coraghessan Boyle read “The End Is Only a Beginning.”

“We have become great friends since you were here last, did she tell you?” She laughed. “You knew we would hit it off, didn’t you? We have so much in common, commonality, yes?”

The main thing they had in common, aside from the language (May was fluent in French, though even he could discern how gratingly she mispronounced it), was alcohol. They were dedicated drinkers, daytime drinkers. Like him. Lunch would be a meal to drift away on.

Mireille said, “I thought of this restaurant Chinois, very elegant, and they have their own vineyard. They make a pink wine—bubbly, you say—and it is prized throughout Paris.”

Lunch wasn’t the problem. Nor was his exhaustion. The conversation was like adrenaline—books, music, gossip, and more gossip—and all the while the dutiful waiter kept bringing little dishes of Porc Laqué au Miel and Crevettes Pannées à l’Ail et Piment, and, at some point, Soupe Wonton, which nobody seemed to want. After the second bottle of bubbly, they had a third and, after that, realizing that they really couldn’t drink any more—not in the middle of the day, certainly not—they ordered a half bottle and, when that was gone, a second half bottle. He was floating on air, buoyed by the attention of the two women, who occasionally lapsed into a brief duet in French but mainly stuck to English for his benefit. No, the problem arose afterward, after they’d maneuvered through their long vinous three-kiss goodbyes and his taxi had deposited him back at the hotel. It was 5 p.m., too early to collapse on the bed, the sole thing he wanted to do at this juncture. But he couldn’t do that, could he? Not if he wanted to acclimate himself to French time so as to be at least semi-coherent for the book signing and the round of interviews scheduled for the following day.

So what to do? He couldn’t go to dinner, the thought of which sent up faint flutings of distress from his digestive tract, and he couldn’t feature having to negotiate a bar, where his French, or lack of it, would cripple the high he was riding. On the coffee table in his room was a fruit-and-cheese plate, compliments of the manager, and in the refrigerator a cluster of wine bottles. He chose a half bottle of Sancerre—a demi—tucked it into his messenger bag along with a heel of bread, a wedge of cheese, and a sprig of grapes, and went out the door, thinking to head down to the river and station himself on a bench there to kick back and revel in the moment.

He was halfway to the Seine before he realized that he’d forgotten his umbrella. A light misting rain had been sifting down most of the day and here it was still, prickling at his scalp and infusing the arms and shoulders of his sports coat. It wasn’t anything, really, not like the deluges that crashed down back home in the countryside, where he and Caroline had just sprung for a new roof on their nineteenth-century farmhouse, so he decided against going back for the umbrella. By the time he got to the river, the rain had intensified, but he was resourceful, wasn’t he? And drunk, drunk, too, don’t count him out on that score. Up ahead was the pedestrian bridge to the Louvre, which he’d taken advantage of on earlier visits when he was feeling touristic, and he saw that there was shelter beneath it, and even a little alcove in which some thoughtful clochard had left a nice, clean pallet of cardboard for the use of anyone in need, and in that moment it occurred to him that he was very much in need. So there he was, the distinguished American novelist and prospective interviewee, crouched over a slab of cardboard, opening the Sancerre, and so what if he’d neglected to bring a wineglass along? He was out of the rain, he was in Paris, and the aperture of the bottle fitted so perfectly to his pursed lips that it was as if he were playing an instrument, the sounds of the street and the river swelling joyously around him in accompaniment.

After a while he began to realize that the shelter beneath the walkway had become a way station for diners, couples, mostly, on their way to a restaurant on a barge that was docked no more than a hundred yards away, and how had he missed that? People stared at him, shook out their umbrellas, and went on up the ramp—gangplank?—to the restaurant, and that was as it should be. He didn’t need company. He was enjoying himself, all by himself, a man of inner resources. There was the deep working odor of the river and the wet streets, the romance of the lights springing to life up and down both banks, the women who were perfect effigies of themselves, and all of them, even the ones linking arms with their dates, gazing over their shoulders at him. It was great, it was glorious, but . . . he was almost out of wine. Yes, O.K., time to call it a night. Or evening. Or whatever.

Just as he was tucking the empty bottle into his bag, where it made a mash of the forgotten grapes and fromage, he became aware of a woman standing on the pavement just below his alcove, which was elevated three or four feet above the pavement so that, even sitting, he towered over her. She was striking, blond, decked out in a pale-blue knee-length raincoat, a flowered scarf, and the heels that were standard issue for all Parisiennes between the ages of fourteen and ninety. “Monsieur Riley?” she said, making a question of it.

He didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no.

“Are you”—she glanced over her shoulder—“waiting for someone?”

“No,” he said, feeling confused. What was he doing? “I was just, well, taking a walk, and then the rain . . .”

“I am a great admirer of your books,” she said, staring up at him with a round beseeching face. “Especially ‘Maggie de la Ferme’—so sensitive and, how do you say, knowing. When I read this book I said to myself, ‘Here is a man who knows the mind of a woman, truly.’ ”

He began to feel less confused. His exhaustion hovered momentarily, like a bird that’s flown too far from the roost . . . and then it was gone. “Could I buy you a drink?” he offered.

When he awoke late the following morning, there were messages from May and Caroline, the latter of whom said, “Call me.” It occurred to him that he could do that—call his wife—without guilt or resorting to subterfuge, because he hadn’t slept with his editor or with May (though May’s body language had seemed to intimate that she was up for it, despite her friendship with Caroline, which went back to before Caroline had even met, let alone married, him), or with the woman—Sandrine—who was not a prostitute or a lunatic but an apparently sane and decent book lover who’d recognized him from the picture in the paper promoting his book signing. She’d put her arm through his, unfurled her umbrella to shelter them both, and led him up the ramp to the barge, where she negotiated a table by one of the windows overlooking the dark roil of the river.

What did she do in life? He didn’t know. She told him, but he wasn’t listening. He’d reached a point at which he was beyond listening, except when she was staring directly into his eyes and praising his books. She had a salad and pain et beurre and a glass of wine; a small inner voice told him that he’d had more than enough wine, so he ordered a Cognac. She insisted on paying, even restraining his hand with a surprisingly firm grip when he tried to present his card to the waiter. That was a moment. Her hand was on his, communicating a level of intimacy that on another occasion might have sparked him to action despite his wedding vows, which he’d always taken more as aspirations than as absolutes, but he was beyond exhausted and she had uneven teeth and a runny nose and kept punctuating her stream of chatter with a delicate cough that she muffled with her fist. She walked him back to the hotel, chattering away. He promised to personalize her book at the book signing. They parted. He dropped into bed as if from a great height.

Link copied

Then it was noon and he was in the dining room, eying a soft-boiled egg in a ceramic cup and a mug of heavily creamed and sugared coffee and staring into his phone, a device he resented, hated, even, because of the demands it made and made again, hour after hour, day after day. He didn’t particularly want to call Caroline, thinking it could only be bad news—if her mother had finally died, there was no way he was flying back for the funeral because he’d just got here, hadn’t he?—but that wasn’t it at all.

“Hello?” Caroline chimed, her voice coming at him magically, on the first ring, though it was, what? Six in the morning there?

“I made it,” he said.

“Are you jet-lagged?”

“Mais oui.”

“Listen,” she said, “I just wanted to tell you that they’re saying on the news to be careful. This virus is really beginning to cause problems in Italy and France, too, and you know how you always get sick when you travel.”

He wasn’t a hypochondriac and he wasn’t yet one of the elderly (fifty-eight on his last birthday), and he didn’t have any of the comorbidities that made you especially susceptible to this, but her warning froze him for a moment. On his flight, a couple had been wearing surgical masks, which he’d thought bizarre—ludicrous, really—and in his haze of clouds and champagne he hadn’t wanted to parse the implications. Now, staring into the bright, glowing yolk of his egg, he decided to tune it all out, since there was nothing he could do about it, in any case. “How’s your mother doing?” he asked.

Getting into the spirit of things, Caroline said, “Comme ci, comme ça.”

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “Just send me a hazmat suit, O.K.? I’ll wear it on the flight home.”

They were fairly well insulated on the farm, which had come with 6.3 acres of woods backing up on former hay meadows that now sprouted various architectural wonders designated as single-family homes, though they could have accommodated whole tribes. The air was crisp and clean. A late-March snow smoothed out all the angles. Caroline came down with a cold, but he felt fine.

The fifth day back, he took her to Eladio’s, a twenty-minute drive from the house on roads that were ice-ribbed and haunted by ghost images of snowstorms past but well worth it for the cuisine (Milanese, no fusion, no gimmicks). Western New York wasn’t Paris. Which was why he liked it—the deep trance of the frozen nights, the icy panoply of the stars. Who needed haute cuisine? Or, for that matter, the Louvre? To visit, sure, but then you come home to the real world and take your wife out to the only restaurant deserving of the name for fifty miles around.

He had two drinks before they ordered. Some people they knew stopped by the table for a peripatetic chat about nothing in particular, a kind of catechism of the usual, then Eladio himself made an appearance, dispensing small talk in his soothing basso profundo. Caroline had a Martini, but she barely took a sip of it, and when the food came—she ordered the osso buco—she didn’t do much more than push it around the plate with the tines of her fork. She took two bites, maybe three, but he wasn’t really paying attention because he was talking, running off on a monologue about May and Mireille and even the woman with the umbrella, Sandrine, a fan, a true fan, and how about that?

Caroline didn’t respond. Her Martini was getting warm, her osso buco cold. At that moment, the music paused—Vivaldi, far too insistent—and he could hear the faint rasp of her breathing, a human soundtrack with too much static in it. “Are you O.K.?” he asked, not alarmed, not yet, but getting there.

This was Caroline, his wife, his beauty, his love, the woman who’d stridden into his life like a warrior-savior on the heels of his second divorce, she who was consummately fit and polished and never at a loss for words. But not tonight. Tonight she looked washed-out, even in the forgiving glow of the candles, and she’d hardly said a word. She shook her head, balled up her napkin, and pressed it to her mouth, the first cough predicating the second and the third and then a whole taut string of them.

“Just get me home,” she said finally.

The infection, if that was what it was, was viral, so antibiotics had no effect, which meant that there was no treatment beyond the cold medications, syrups, and lozenges that anybody could get over the counter. It began with sniffles and developed into a cough, and what you read in the paper or saw on the nightly news tended to minimize its impact on healthy adults. Caroline, who was supremely healthy and fourteen years younger than he was—a child, an infant—went straight to bed that night and didn’t get up until after ten the following morning, and then only to use the toilet. He was downstairs at the time, at his desk, scrolling through his accumulated e-mails as a way of postponing the moment at which he would have to plunge back into the book he hadn’t glanced at or even thought of since he boarded the plane for France, when he heard the toilet flush overhead and then the ascending notes of a ragged fit of coughing. By the time he mounted the stairs she was back in bed, her face flattened and reduced. She put a hand to her mouth and produced a long, dredging cough.

“You sound terrible,” he said.

“It’s just a cold. But I feel wiped out, like I climbed a mountain. Like I can’t catch my breath.”

He wanted to make a joke about altitude sickness or Sherpas or something—yaks—but it was no good. “You want me to call the doctor?”

“I just need sleep, that’s all.”

“How about something to eat? I could bring you some toast, a cup of tea? Or a muffin—you want a muffin?”

She shook her head.

“Tea? Juice?”

Her voice was so weak he could barely hear her. “Juice,” she rasped, then coughed into her fist.

“O.K.,” he said. “O.K. I’ll be right back.” And he turned and thumped down the stairs, converted in that moment into her nurse, a role for which he’d never auditioned and was hopelessly ill-prepared, because it was Caroline who took care of the domestic details—the grocery shopping, the meals, the cleanup, the feeding of the cats, and the emptying of their shit-fouled litter into the compost pit out beyond the denuded apple tree, where the wind knifed down out of the north.

She was asleep by the time he got back upstairs with the juice—and a muffin, because she had to eat something, didn’t she? He saw that she’d thrown back the covers as if the weight of them were too much to bear. Her hair was ragged. And her feet, her beautiful, perfect feet, whose arches he’d kissed a thousand times, were blotched and discolored. He was about to leave the tray on the night table and back out of the room when her eyes flickered open. Caroline coughed. Her face flushed. “I can’t breathe,” she whispered.

It always irritated him when people said “I don’t like hospitals,” as if they were expressing an original thought, as if anybody anywhere liked hospitals. You didn’t go to the hospital by choice or for pleasure—you went because your choices had been reduced to zero. Caroline coughed all the way there, coughed as the doors drew back to admit them, and kept on coughing through the ritual at the desk and the long, grim wait in the emergency room while gurneys angled past and everybody stared at the floor. At some point—they’d been there an hour, at least—a nurse called Caroline’s name and took her into a back room, and at a point beyond that, after he’d sat packed in, elbow to elbow, with the snifflers and the groaners for who knew how long while trying to read an article about bass fishing in the sole magazine left in the place (not that he gave two shits for bass or fishing, either), a doctor appeared and called his name.

The doctor was tall and young, dressed in surgical scrubs, a mask, and nitrile gloves. There was a bump where the bridge of his nose poked at the fabric of the mask. His eyes, isolated in the space between mask and cap, gave up nothing. “Your wife tested positive for the coronavirus,” he said, “and we’ve isolated her in the I.C.U. for her own safety and everybody else’s, too.”

Riley felt a shiver of fear. “She’s going to be all right, isn’t she? I mean, it’s just like a cold, isn’t it?”

“Truthfully? Your wife’s the first case we’ve seen here, not that we didn’t know it was coming sooner or later. She tells me you’ve been abroad recently—France, wasn’t it?”

“Paris. Last week.”

And then the eyes, interplanetary eyes, eyes attached to nothing, fastened on his. “You’ll have to self-isolate. And we’re going to need a list of everybody you’ve been in contact with since you got back. If you begin to show symptoms, consult with your own physician—but if at any point you feel that your breathing’s compromised or you’re running a fever, you’ll need to have somebody bring you back here. I can’t stress this enough—don’t hesitate.”

“What about a test? Can’t you test me?” He felt as if he’d been shoved over a cliff, legs churning in the air, hands grasping for something, anything, to cling to.

“We’re only testing patients with active symptoms.”

There was the hiss of the intercom. A siren shrieked from beyond the windows, then died abruptly. “Can I see her?” Riley asked.

The doctor shook his head. “I told you, she’s on the isolation ward.”

Words were Riley’s intimates. He knew definitions, nuances, implications. Caroline was isolated. He himself had to get home and self-isolate. Still, he said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

When his own mother was dying, ten years ago—or more, maybe more—he’d been apprised of it in a late-night phone call from her second husband, whom he really didn’t know that well. His name was Patrick—not Pat—and he was an eerie replica of Riley’s father: skinny, Irish, a drinker. They lived in San Diego. Riley saw them maybe once or twice a year. As far as he knew, they were in reasonably good health for their age, so the news that his mother was “gravely ill,” as Patrick put it, came as a shock. At first, he tried to deny it—his mother couldn’t die, no way in the world—and then, to his shame, he began calculating how he could avoid the whole thing, deal with it from a distance, on the telephone, and, yes, send the ashes here to me and I’ll spread them in the woods, because she always liked nature, didn’t she?

He was between wives at the time, so he had no one to nag him to do the right thing, the only thing, but within minutes of hanging up the phone he’d come around, because this wasn’t about him, it was about her, his mother, and whatever the end of her life might mean. By the time he got there, standby on the first flight out of Buffalo, she was in a coma. Liver failure. Her system was shutting down. And, no, there would be no transplant, or even any possibility of it, because donor livers were in short supply and went only to people who could fully utilize them, people far younger than she was.

Patrick and the doctor (fiftyish, deeply tanned, a yachtsman, and fiendishly, as it turned out, an aspiring screenwriter who wanted to talk about nothing else) preceded him into a low-ceilinged room with twenty or more patients crowded into it. My mother, he was thinking, my mother, and here were all these people—strangers—dying their antiseptic deaths alongside her, as if it didn’t matter whose mother she was. As they made their way across the room, dodging gurneys, the doctor was saying, “So R. T. Blankmanship—he’s my protagonist?—winds up bottoming out on a reef off of Tonga, and it wasn’t even on the charts. . . .”

Riley didn’t recognize his mother. She was bloated and yellow, like a piece of fruit, like a vegetable. He was afraid to touch her, but he forced himself, just a tap there at the shoulder, and he leaned in close and whispered to her, saying the sort of things none of his characters would ever say on the page. Clichés. Only clichés could blunt what he was feeling.

And now Caroline was the one in the hospital. With a breathing tube down her throat because she couldn’t breathe for herself. And who’d put her there? Who’d come back from France, the hotbed of infection, and kissed her, breathed on her, shared sips from a wineglass, and slept in the same bed? But, if he was the guilty party here, why wasn’t he coughing? Why wasn’t he in the hospital instead of her? Would he trade places with her the way the selfless heroes did in the movies? Yes, he told himself, yes, of course, but he knew it wasn’t true. She was stronger than he was, younger, and she’d never smoked and didn’t drink even half as much as he did.

He called the hospital in the morning. Nobody knew anything. It took him fifteen minutes just to get through to a human being, and that human being transferred him to another human being, who, after audibly tapping at her keyboard and consulting with another live voice, informed him that Caroline was in isolation.

“I know that,” he said, fighting to control himself. “I’m the one who brought her in. I want to know how she’s doing, for Christ’s sake—is she better? The same?” A term came to him, a term you heard on the news, and he employed it now. “Is she stable, at least?”

The human being on the other end of the line—he pictured a nurse, or was she just a receptionist?—said, “If there’s any change, you’ll be the first to know.”

His own doctor, Marv Zwaga, with whom he was on a first-name basis and who had, through the years, treated him for a whole spectrum of ailments, from a dislocated shoulder to wasp stings, broken toes, and a particularly nasty knife-sharpening mishap, told him over the phone that he had no tests available. Nobody did. “Just assume you have it.”

“And do what, drink plenty of fluids?”

There was a pause as Marv assessed the level of animosity here. Then he said, “It’s never a bad idea. But, really, you just need to isolate until we find out what’s going on with this thing.”

“So I wait?”

Link copied

“You wait. Some people are asymptomatic, but if you start to show symptoms—fever, chills, a cough—call me right away.”

“And then?”

“Then we get you to the hospital. A.S.A.P.”

Waiting wasn’t Riley’s strong suit. He called the hospital every couple of hours—that day and the next and the day after that—but all he got for his trouble was “She’s resting,” and when he asked if he could at least speak to her—or FaceTime, what about FaceTime?—he was told that she’d been sedated. What he didn’t yet understand was that you had to be sedated to tolerate having a polyvinyl-chloride tube jammed down your throat 24/7 while a machine did your breathing for you. Or that the virus produced lesions of the lung tissue, which scarred over and made it still harder to breathe on your own, progressively harder, minute by minute, day by day. Or, worse, that the intensive-care unit wasn’t necessarily a place you graduated from. Oh, it sounded good on the face of it—care, intensively given—but there were limits to what care could do, no matter how intensive it was. Nobody bothered to mention that.

Layered atop all this was his fear for himself. Every sniffle and sneeze, every hiccup, was fraught. Did he have a sore throat? Was he feverish? Weak? Dizzy? He tried to work, but it was impossible. There was TV, but he hated TV. He took long drives. He started drinking earlier in the day, until by six, when he should have been slipping a frozen entrée into the microwave, he was passed out on the couch. By the fourth day, he’d had enough of isolation. He got into the car and drove to the hospital under a cloudless sky, the sun laying a brutal hand on the snowbanks, ice gone to slush, the blacktop glistening because all of a sudden it was spring, and where were the pussy willows? Should he stop someplace and pick some up for Caroline? Or lilies? What about lilies?

He walked right in, and nobody said a word to him. People were wearing masks—the staff were, anyway—and he almost turned around and walked back out. But he didn’t, because he was angry and scared and he needed to see his wife, see Caroline, who was locked up in here like a convict in prison. He knew enough to avoid the desk, instead going straight to the elevator and pressing the button for the third floor, where the I.C.U. was. Two other people rode up in the elevator with him, both in scrubs, both masked. When the doors opened, he hung back a moment, then followed them out into the hallway, with its windows like panels of light and the faint, lingering odor of human decay that no amount of disinfectant could ever erase. The door to the I.C.U. would be locked, of course, he knew that, but here were these two people ambling along ahead of him, these nurses or doctors or whatever they were, and they punched in a code and the door swung open to admit them. It was nothing to lean forward and catch the handle on the rebound.

At first nobody noticed him, which was a kind of miracle in itself, and as he moved deeper into the unit he saw the way it was configured—a central desk, bristling with nurses, and the patients’ rooms, each with sliding glass doors for easy visibility, laid out on all four sides. Two of the rooms were unoccupied, but in each of the others he could see the dark forms of patients stretched out on their backs and immobilized as if they were corpses already. But which one was Caroline? Where was she? What did she even look like?

“Sir!” a voice cried out behind him. “Sir, you can’t be in here!”

In the next instant a pair of nurses converged on him, the shorter of the two taking hold of his wrist, the way Sandrine had done in the restaurant in Paris, intimately, forcefully, and with a show of strength that he found alarming—and unnecessary, because he was just here to see his wife, that was all, to know something, to be informed, and wasn’t that his right?

Apparently not.

Because when he jerked his arm away a buzzer sounded, and before he could lay eyes on Caroline or even locate her he was being escorted from the room by a pair of sweating puffed-up underlings who didn’t bother to wait for the elevator but frog-marched him down a damp echoing stairwell, through the lobby, and out into the glare of the springtime sun and the bright seep of the snowmelt.

May flew in for the memorial, which they’d had to postpone until summer because the whole world was in the grip of the virus now. She appeared at the door against a backdrop of greenery and the searing yellow slash of the taxi, and this time there were no air kisses to negotiate, just a hug that took all the air right out of him. She moved into the guest room, taking charge to help him get through this, to cook and shop and clean and look after the details while he mourned on the sofa with a handle of Scotch. Caroline had been cremated, her ashes consigned to the urn he’d brought back with him from the mortuary. As for him, he never developed so much as a sniffle, though he lived in dread.

His mourning took the form of focussing on himself to the exclusion of all else. He drank, tried to work up a smile when May made some comment or other that was calculated to cheer him, ate nothing, did nothing, just lay there reviewing his life with Caroline in a series of neural film clips drained of color and coherence. His agent called. Mireille called. Everybody he’d ever known called, all of them as stiff and formal as diplomats negotiating a treaty. The newspapers ran obituaries, “wife of noted novelist,” and all the rest of it. They’d asked him at the hospital if he wanted to view the body—a grief counsellor, her hair pinned to the top of her head like the leaves of a cabbage and her eyes big bleeding vats of nothing—and he’d said no, he did not want to view his wife’s body, he wanted to view her, his wife, alive and well and present, emerging from behind those locked doors and sliding into the car seat beside him.

Intensive care, oh, yes, indeed.

Caroline’s mother, long given up for dead, appeared at the memorial in a wheelchair, an attendant at her side. She’d never meant much to him and now she meant even less, but he gave her a dose of chitchat and let her take hold of his hand for a minute while May, his self-appointed keeper, watched vigilantly from behind the bar the caterers had set up. At one point, Caroline’s brother, Tom—a Christian of some sort, a platitude-spouter and self-righteous brick of certitude—came up to him, tears in his eyes. Tom took hold of his hand—everybody seemed to want his hand all of a sudden—and averred, tearily, “It’s not an end, only a beginning.” And Riley, the novelist, whose imagination had put him in any number of scenes like this, which always managed to fall flat on the page, said, “You talking molecules or God?”

“Jesus,” Tom said, his throat clenching on the first syllable. “ ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ ”

Riley really didn’t want to do this, but deep down he was scared and guilty, guilty, guilty—Paris, Sandrine, the hotel, the airplane, the whole seething world of filth and infection he’d embraced and stupidly brought home with him—and he couldn’t help himself. “I don’t know where you’re going to find Jesus, but Caroline’s molecules are right over there in that urn wreathed in flowers—and maybe there’s a few extra knocking around in the exhaust pipe at the crematorium.”

Tom’s face was like a plastic bag fluttering on a fencepost, and Riley wasn’t giving an inch, not on the surface, but deep down he was crying out Caroline’s name with every squeeze of his heart. Death, where is thy sting? Here, right here.

“You’ve got to have faith,” Tom said.

But Riley didn’t have faith. All he had was his memory. And here came the past running at him in an unstoppable rush as Caroline’s brother spouted cant and people threw back their drinks and gobbled canapés and May studied him like a specimen ripe for preservation. He was seeing the day that he and Caroline first met, at a pool party in Brentwood thrown by a producer who’d just bought the rights to his second novel. Caroline worked for the agency that had closed the deal, and that was a good thing, a fine thing. He felt unconquerable, aglow like a comet trailing its own glory. There he was, semi-looped on champagne and hovering over the big blue mirror of the pool, while Caroline—stretched out on a chaise longue in a two-piece swimsuit, her legs crossed at the ankles and painted gold by the sun—made the whole party go away because she was talking in a soft analytical voice about the nuances of his book, its genius, the brilliant evocative language that was its cinematography. For once in his life, he just listened, and in that moment nothing could touch him, nothing,

“You know what?” he said. “I could listen to you all day.”

“Sweet,” she said. “Me, too. Or no, I mean—I’m not dominating the conversation, am I?” She was wearing sunglasses and she slipped them down the bridge of her nose to show him her eyes, which were cornflower blue with constellations of golden specks rimming each iris. It was a leading question, flirtatious, but she didn’t wait for an answer. She said, “Jesus, it’s roasting out here! You want to jump in the pool?”

“I’ll race you.”

“Underwater,” she said. “To the other side and back. Deal?”

“Deal,” he said, and then they were in, down deep, locked in a well of silence. He kept his eyes open, even against the pressure of the water and the sting of the chlorine, watching the slick tube of her body and the flutter of her feet and the way the bubbles kicked up and rocketed away.

She beat him, easily, because he ran out of breath and she didn’t. ♦

Podcast: The Writer’s Voice