The Canterbury Sisters
You know that old Chinese curse that goes “May you live in interesting times”? I’ve always thought the modern-day corollary was “May you have an interesting mother.” Because I was cursed the minute I was born to the impetuous, talented, politically radical, and sexually experimental Diana de Milan.
The “de” was her idea. “Diana Milan” wasn’t big enough to hold her. She needed to stretch her name with that small but exotic middle syllable—the chance to make her life roomier and looser, a way to give her something to grow into.
As for me, my name is Che.
I know. It’s utterly ridiculous and it’s not even a nickname. I was named in honor of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara on the day after he was executed by a Bolivian firing squad. My mother always claimed it was the shock of his murder that sent her into labor, but that’s just one more piece of her intricate personal mythology. According to my father, I was two weeks overdue and labor was induced.
My birth marked the first and last time in my life that I was late for anything. If I had been born on September 24 as predicted, I would have entered the world as the somewhat sugary, but ultimately tolerable, “Leticia,” in honor of the maiden aunt who’d left my parents the apple orchard on which they built their first commune. But by lingering in the womb too long, I was branded Che de Milan, a name better suited to a revolutionary than a wine critic, and ever since then I’ve made it a point to arrive places twenty minutes early.
MY MOTHER became religious late in life, after she had already lost one lung to cancer and my father to a sudden stroke. And I don’t mean religious in the drum-beating, breast-baring, goddess-channeling manner of her youth. Oh no. Diana de Milan never did anything halfway. When my mother turned to God, she twirled several times en pointe and leapt in the air like a ballerina. She went back all the way to her spiritual roots—which in itself is ironic, for she had always proclaimed Catholicism to be her own curse, one she’d spent a lifetime trying to outrun. But now there were spots in her last remaining lung and she’d begun to crave a very specific deity, the one she called “the God of my childhood.” Diana spent the last seven months of her life in a nursing home run by the local parish, a gloomy Gothic building that looked like the establishing shot of a horror movie. I don’t think I ever went there when it wasn’t raining.
For the nuns and priest running the place, she was a true prodigal daughter. They didn’t seem to mind that she’d marched for every liberal cause known to mankind or that in her youth she’d written a briefly infamous memoir on the joys of bisexuality. In fact, I think all that made them like her better. The bedfuls of sweet old ladies at the nursing home, women who had spent their entire lives working bake sales and bingo halls, were mostly ignored, while the more sinful patients were treated like celebrities. The priest would come and get my mother each morning for mass, as if it were a date. He would roll her wheelchair down the chapel aisle himself.
As the cancer continued its slow but relentless march through her body, Diana began to entertain fantasies about a miraculous cure. She was especially obsessed with the idea of going to Canterbury. She wished to kneel at the shrine of Thomas Becket, a place reputed to be the site of all sorts of spontaneous healings, offering hope to the blind, the lame, the infertile. Even lepers. She never asked if I wanted to go, just as she’d never asked if I wanted to come along on any of her half-cocked adventures, but I suppose that at some point in those agonizing last few months I must have agreed to take her there. Anything to keep her spirits up, and besides, on some level I think we both knew she’d never make that trip. She barely had the strength to walk me to the elevator after my visits, much less to hike the rutted trail that stretches from London to Canterbury Cathedral.
“Sixty miles, more or less,” I’d told her once. “So it might be out of reach. At least for now. Maybe someday, when you’re stronger. Definitely someday.”
Yeah. It was a lie of the rawest sort, but it’s hard to be honest in the presence of the dying and it’s hard to be honest with your mother under any circumstances. So when your mother is dying, the effect is squared and you enter into the most bizarre netherworld of bullshit. Words just start coming out of your mouth at random, because you’re willing to say anything you think might get you through a particular moment. I once found myself reciting the capitals of the fifty states to her, in alphabetical order.
And when I did that, somewhere between Denver and Dover, she’d turned in her hospital bed and looked at me. Looked at me like she had so many times before. Like I was a surprise, some sort of eternal mystery, and she couldn’t figure out how I’d happened to show up here in the middle of her life.
YOU’D THINK that Diana’s death would have marked the end of the Canterbury guilt trip. But three weeks after the memorial service, when I received the urn filled with her ashes, there was a note attached.
If you are reading this, she had written, then I am at last and truly dead. Per our agreement, you must now take me to Canterbury. Do it, Che. Take me there. Even if you’re busy. Especially if you’re busy. It is never too late for healing.
Now that was strange, even by Diana standards. Not just the funny lawyerish language of “per our agreement,” but that bit about “never too late for healing.” By the time your body has been incinerated and swept into an urn—which was surprisingly heavy, by the way—it would seem that any opportunity to rally was pretty much kaput. My mother had spent most of her life mildly stoned—first on the cannabis that she cultivated among the apple trees and later on the morphine that the nuns doled out along with steady drips of Jesus. But I didn’t think even Diana believed it was possible to be recalled from the grave.
The urn had been shipped to my office. Delivered UPS, along with a case of twelve new Syrahs that a fledgling vineyard had sent for me to sample and possibly review. My newsletter, Women Who Wine, goes out monthly to thousands of restaurants and wine shops and a mention from me can mean sales for a new label, especially if the review is positive. Few of them are. I am known across the industry for my discriminating tastes. I do not approve of many things, so when I do give a wine the nod, it counts.
I took the twelve bottles from their shipping crate and then unpacked the urn, struggling more than I would have guessed to free it from the well-padded crematorium box. In the bottom I found the book about Canterbury that I’d given Diana for her last birthday gift. It was one of those big square coffee-table kinds and she’d had trouble even holding it. I’d sat beside her in the hospital bed, the book open across both our laps, and read it aloud to her like a child. The routes you could walk, how a priest—Anglican this time—would give you a blessing when you entered the Cathedral, how he would even kneel to wipe the dust of the trail from your shoes. She’d loved that part. The book listed quite a few medical miracles that had allegedly been confirmed at the shrine and explained how those clever medieval monks had begun mopping up Becket’s blood seconds after he was murdered, certain that each drop contained potential magic. Or at least potential profit.
Magic born of murder. Money born of both. It had struck me as odd, even sinister, but Diana had nodded in satisfaction, the way you do when the last piece of a puzzle finally drops into place.
SO HERE I am. Blinking, as if I’ve just awakened from some sort of trance. I sit back in my office’s one chair and consider the lineup of items on the table. The wine, the urn, the book, the note. The handwriting is thin and shaky, hardly recognizable as my mother’s, and like it or not, I know I’m stuck in my promise.
I’ve always been an only child, and now I’m an orphan as well, and the time has pretty much passed for having children of my own. Not that I ever particularly wanted such a thing. The bumper sticker on my Fiat reads, I’M NOT CHILDLESS, I’M CHILD-FREE, but still, to find myself utterly alone in the world, at least in terms of blood relations, has hit me harder than I would have guessed.
Diana died so slowly that somehow I thought I would skip this part, that I had finished all my grieving in advance. But I hadn’t counted on there being so much difference between going and gone. Going is busy. Going has tasks involved with it—meeting with doctors and social workers, snaking your way through the system to find an empty bed in a decent place, cashing out mutual funds and putting furniture in storage. Going demands many visits, and at times, during them, you begin to think these Judas thoughts. You think that it would be better for everyone if she weren’t still here, so trapped and suffering, and you imagine that when you get that final call, it will be a relief.
And it is, at least at first. But after a week or so, life goes back to what people call normal, and only then do you start to realize that going was easier than gone. It’s only then that you face the final silent emptiness that’s at the heart of every human death, and it’s not just a matter of the extra hours that suddenly appear in the day, strangely difficult to fill, it’s also that there’s nowhere to put the mental energy that circles around the space your mother once occupied.
And Diana occupied a lot of space.
I stare at the urn. We want our mothers to see us for who we really are—or at least that’s what adult daughters always say. Why doesn’t she understand me? we agonize. Why does she never even ask what I think? But when our mothers try . . . when you get that occasional weak, tentative question, that unexpected “And how are you?” always uttered at the end of a conversation that was largely about her, inserted after the hanging-up ritual has begun—you realize that understanding wasn’t what you wanted after all. You shut this pallid attempt at real conversation right down, you say a quick “Great, Mom,” and tell her you’ll be there on Sunday as always. But then comes the day when your mother is finally dead, not dying but dead, not fading but invisible, and you know that she is absolutely not, never will, flat-out is not going to ever get you . . .
So here we have it. Twelve bottles of Syrah, none of which I’m likely to enjoy, a book about a cathedral I don’t want to visit, a shaky command, and an urn of my mother’s ashes. I pick up my phone and press the button at the bottom.
“Siri,” I say. “What is the meaning of life?” The little purple microphone flickers as I speak.
And then she answers, I don’t know, but I believe there’s an app for that.
Great. I’ve reached a point in my life where my own phone greets me with sarcasm.
EVEN AFTER the arrival of the ashes and my mother’s strange note, I’m not sure I would have made the decision to go to Canterbury. Not if something else hadn’t happened the same day.
It came in the form of another letter, this one delivered not by UPS but by general mail, sent not to my office, but to my condo. I had arrived home from work and dropped the six untasted bottles of wine and my mother in the foyer, then snapped a leash on my Yorkie, Freddy, so I could take him straight out for a walk. Since my keys were still in my hand, I circled by the mail station to see if there was anything in my box.
I don’t check my mail every day. I bank online and no one writes letters anymore, so I doubt I drop by the mail station more than once a week. And even then there’s usually nothing more than ads and pleas for charity. I’m saying something to Freddy, who’s a jumper and a barker, as I slide the key into the box and swing the little silver door open and . . .
Suddenly I’m engulfed in bees.
It takes me a minute to realize what’s happening. One stings my hand, just in the fleshy part of the palm between the thumb and first finger, and four or five more swarm out behind him, swirling around my head. Freddy is going nuts. The mail has dropped at my feet, the heavy thud of newsprint circulars and some flyer informing me that I can provide Thanksgiving dinner for a homeless man for just ninety-two cents. And then the strangest of all possible things falls to the ground beside them—a personal letter. I look down at the envelope in a kind of frozen shock and recognize the handwriting on the front as my boyfriend Ned’s. Why is he writing me? We Skype every other night at eight, right on schedule, and of course we text throughout the day. He sometimes sends a card, but this is clearly a letter. The envelope is long and businesslike, with the address of his law firm in the corner.
I swat at the bees and another catches my shoulder, reaches me through my shirt, while a third is trapped in my bangs. It doesn’t occur to me to run, but it occurs to Freddy, and his leash pulls from my hand. I am screaming, batting at the bee in my hair. I’m ordinarily not much of a screamer—this may be the first time since childhood that I’ve let go with a total shriek—and then I hear the blast of a car horn, the echoing squeal of tires.
Our lives can sometimes turn in a moment, just like this. A stab to the palm, the slide of a leash, a letter that falls at our feet.
Don’t worry. Freddy wasn’t hit by the car. There’s darkness in this story, but that isn’t it. The car was driven by one of my neighbors, a woman with dogs of her own, and she has managed to stop in time. She jumps from the driver’s seat, shaken and crying at the close call, and grabs the leash. Freddy is happily leaping, and this woman and I are both babbling. The bees, I say, they came from nowhere. They were in my fucking mailbox. The dog, she says. I almost didn’t see him. He came from nowhere, just like the bees.
My hand is throbbing as I take the leash from her. I’m so sorry, I say, as I bend to pick up the mail. I tell the dog I’m sorry too. He strains against his collar, unperturbed, only wanting to finish his walk.
Put ice on it, the woman tells me. Scrape a credit card against your skin to make sure the stingers are out. And take a Benadryl, just in case. Thank God, she says. Things could have been so much worse. She says this over and over.
NO DOUBT you’re way ahead of me on all of this. No doubt you’ve seen what was coming from the minute you learned that the letter was sent from an office. Maybe it was his name, Ned, so minimal and careful, or the fact that he’s a lawyer, or maybe you even picked up on the bit about Skype as evidence that we live in different cities, which everyone knows is the relationship kiss of death. But I was still preoccupied with the stings and the dog and the fact that I looked like an irresponsible fool in front of my neighbor. I crammed the letter in my jacket, threw the rest of the mail in the trash, and took Freddy on the long loop, the one that goes around the man-made lake and through the landscaped woods.
It was not until hours later, when I was in bed with the lights off and almost asleep, that I even remembered Ned’s letter.
I turned on the bedside light, to the dismay of the dozing Freddy, got the letter from my coat, put on my reading glasses, climbed back into bed, and ripped open the envelope. Three pages, typed and single-spaced, followed by a fourth one containing numbers. An estimate of how much it would cost one of us to buy the other out of our vacation cottage in Cape May.
And that’s how I learn what you’ve undoubtedly already figured out.
That I am being dumped.
THE GIRL Ned is leaving me for is named Renee Randolph. He wants to make sure I know the facts right up front. He isn’t going to make excuses or pretend she doesn’t exist. He respects me too much to go through all the standard stuff about us growing apart or how it isn’t me, it’s him. He wants, he says, “no artifice between us.” We are far too good friends for that.
They met in a gym, he explains, and then adds that this fact will probably amuse me. I can’t imagine why, until I remember that he and I met in a gym, or at least the workout room of a hotel, each of us on side-by-side treadmills. And at that point I begin to skim. I can’t seem to keep reading from left to right in any sensible fashion—I hold the paper in front of me and words and phrases swarm up from the page one by one, like a thousand little stings.
This woman, this Renee, it would seem she has a bad husband. Worse, she has a bad foreign husband. He comes from one of those countries where they divorce you for having only daughters and then they try to kidnap the daughters. She lives in fear, he writes, never knowing when this man will appear, or send some sort of heavily armed emissary on his behalf. The teachers at her children’s school have been instructed not to let the girls leave the campus with anyone but Renee.
Yes, she’s got a bad husband and then she trumps that by being sick. Something is wrong with her. She has some unpronounceable disease—more of a syndrome, really, the sort of thing that’s tricky to diagnose, the sort of thing they decide you must have when you don’t seem to have anything else. But this syndrome, this illness, it may require him to give her . . . I don’t know, something. Something vital. A cornea, his bone marrow, access to his most excellent health insurance. My heart.
She needs me. The words float up from the page, accompanied by their silent echo, and you don’t.
He’s right, in a way. Since we met six years ago, each of us on a business trip, walking side by side on those treadmills, staring up at CNN, Ned and I have had a partnership, a friendship sweetened by an almost epic sexual compatibility. I liked it and I thought he did too. The way we left each other alone through the week to work, but how on vacations we would meet in so many interesting places—Napa, Austin, Miami, Montreal, Reykjavík, London, Key West, Telluride, and Rome.
When we bought the cottage in Cape May we put sunflowers on the table and a hand-braided rug on the floor. Our furniture was old, good wood but old, and we painted each piece burgundy or moss green or Dutch blue. Van Gogh colors, that’s what Ned called them. It was a perfect little world, made complete by a couple of carefully planned imperfections, the kind you throw in just to make it clear that you aren’t, you know, Those Kind of People. Each Sunday morning we would walk down to the corner café for two copies of the New York Times so that we could sit at our table, racing each other through the crossword. We were well matched. Sometimes he won, sometimes I did.
Was I in love? I think I was. I must have been. It was a very modern sort of romance, or at least that’s what I told myself as I traveled back and forth, always in some car or train or airport. And we laughed . . . dear God, Ned and I laughed all the time.
And when you laugh that much, when you finish every puzzle at precisely the same time, when you look up across the painted table and your eyes lock in satisfaction . . . it has to mean something, doesn’t it?
I’m sure I loved him on the weekend that we bought Lorenzo. Lorenzo was a lobster. We got him from one of those roadside places where the signs read “FRESH” and they have a bunch of hand-drawn pictures of smiling seafood. He was packed in ice and Styrofoam, his claws bound shut with big rubber bands, and I had begun to feel regret over the whole idea before we’d even managed to pull Ned’s Lexus back on the road.
“Do you think it can breathe in there?” I’d asked, and Ned had said, “Lobsters don’t breathe.”
Well, that’s ridiculous. Everything breathes, in one way or another. But I didn’t say anything and after a mile or two Ned said, “If he needs anything, it would probably be water.”
Of course we were silly to be so concerned about the welfare of a creature that was hours from its execution, but I knew even then that we’d never bring ourselves to boil Lorenzo. You can’t boil something you’ve named. We went ahead and made several more roadside stops, collecting our lettuce and tomatoes and lemon and herbs and sourdough bread, and by the time we pulled into the driveway of the cottage, Ned had already taken to talking to the lobster, pointing out landmarks we passed along the way, as if Lorenzo were a weekend guest. We made the salad and opened the wine and even set the big pot of water on the stove to boil, but it was a lost cause. We ended up snipping Lorenzo free from his bands and tossing him into the bay.
“You know,” Ned said, raising his wineglass in salute as Lorenzo drifted out to sea, “we need to stop thinking of this place as an investment and start thinking of it as a home.” The next weekend we went out and bought Freddy.
Now he says that he wishes me the best, but the best is what I thought we had. No, “the very best,” that’s what he writes. That he wishes me “the very best of everything.” According to him, I deserve nothing less.
Is he telling me the laughter didn’t matter? Nor the friendship, nor the sex? We worked crosswords together, for God’s sake. We had a lobster and a dog. He’s the only man I ever dated that my mother liked.
But evidently that’s all out the window now that he has found his wounded bird. Now that he has stooped to rescue her, now that she is fluttering in his hand. And he has written to inform me that he has never been happier.
I think, he writes with a killing simplicity, that she may be The One.
Yes, he capitalizes it, lest I miss the point. The. One.
I LIE there in the dark for hours, my heart pounding, my legs numb. He will call me on Monday, the letter says. We have many things to discuss, but he didn’t want to drop them on me unawares. That’s why he has written in advance, to give me time to absorb the news. Which, of course, is utter crap. He sent the letter because he didn’t want to hear me wail or cry or attack him with questions. When did this happen? How long has he known her? Were there times when he came from her bed to mine, and did she thus win him slowly, in tiny incremental ways, or was her victory over me accomplished in one swift stroke? And which answer would be harder to accept?
It’s almost light when I emerge from my bed. I open another bottle of the Syrah, slosh some in a juice glass, and go to my desk to turn on the computer. For a minute I fight the urge to google the girl, to learn all about Renee Randolph, but I stop myself. She is undoubtedly beautiful. Beautiful and tragic is such an appealing combination, the natural stuff of romances, while average-looking and tragic is just . . . average-looking and tragic. Certainly not compelling enough to drive a man to upend a life as pleasant and convenient as the one Ned and I shared. So she must be beautiful. Nothing else would make sense.
I take a long, slow draw of the wine and consider the search line where I’ve typed REN. What could Google possibly tell me about this woman that I would find comforting? If she is more accomplished than me, that will sting . . . but what if she’s less accomplished? Somehow that would be even worse. Finally I delete REN and enter PILGRIMAGES TO CANTERBURY instead.
What I’m thrown into, of course, are sites devoted to literature and history. Articles about Chaucer and Becket and Canterbury’s reputation for miracles. I sit back in annoyance as the scholarly articles roll by and while I’m waiting, my eye falls on a copy of my alumni magazine, which has languished for God knows how long on my desk. In the back they always list guided tours and I’ve noticed them before, in a passing sort of way. I’ve always thought it would be nice to have a professor lead your group through museums, battlefields, and palaces. To have someone there to point out the important things. It’s easy to imagine how these trips would be appealing for lonely single women, those sad souls who have reached middle age with enough money to travel but no one to travel with.
I scan the catalog by the glowing blue light of the computer screen and soon enough, there it is: the name of an art professor who escorts both groups and individuals through southern England. She looks like just what I need—pale, serious, academic, disinclined to asking personal questions. I send her a quick email, telling her I need to walk the Canterbury Trail ASAP, top to bottom, from London to the steps of the Cathedral. And then I google how to transport ashes on an international flight.
Evidently the dead are a sizable segment of the travel industry, because the answer pops right up. The urn must be carried onto the plane, not packed in a suitcase. It must be scanned and taken through security and I will need a note from the crematorium confirming that the contents are human remains and not something like plutonium. I must be prepared for the fact that security can open the urn at any time if they wish, that small bits of my mother might fly out onto the airport carpet or dirty the hands of a TSA agent. Or perhaps I might choose to eschew the urn altogether, the site suggests, with a gentle but pointed hint. Transfer the ashes to something less heavy and likely to trigger the scanning machine. Like, for example, a ziplock bag.
I always meant to take my mother to Europe, but my travel was so often for business or I was meeting Ned in some romantic place. And of course she was busy too, fostering misunderstood pit bulls, walking for Amnesty International, framing houses with Habitat . . . Then she got sick. We let all our chances pass, Diana and I, and now at last she’s coming with me, but she’s coming in my carry-on bag. I put the wine down, thinking that it’s bitter, but I know I’m being unfair. I’ve been drinking while thinking of something else, which is the cardinal sin of wine tasting, for everyone knows how easily emotions can trickle from the mind to the tongue. Has the wine gone bitter, or have I?
The sun is up. I rise and leave my desk, the juice glass still in my hand. I pour the remains of the Syrah into the kitchen sink and look down at the dark-red stain. In my email I told the professor that I could be in London as early as Sunday and I would like a private tour. It probably costs a fortune to hire a personal guide, but all I can think is that I need to be gone, long gone, before Ned calls to apologize and explain again about how he just couldn’t help himself, how no man can resist a woman in need. The desire to escape feels huge within me. In fact, if I don’t get out of here right now, I’m not sure what will happen.
I pick up my phone and try again. “Siri,” I say. “What’s the meaning of life?”
A pause and then the answer: I Kant answer that. Ha ha.
Ha ha. She’s quite the hoot, that Siri.