Chapter 2: Sierra Thibault’s Marriage Breaks Up
It is morning. Dawn’s light colors the grape fields golden. Tremulous winds ruffle the leaves of the vines, soothe the ocher earth, roll over soft hills. John Thibault, just polishing off a glass of cold eggnog, rocks in a white wicker rocking chair, gazing across the land that belong to John’s current employer, Alexandre Girard. John is a mechanic for privately owned exotic cars: Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, Aston Martins, Mayfairs, Bentleys, Bugattis. Bound to western continental Europe by his profession, when he travels to the garages of the wealthy, he is quit of his and Sierra’s Surrey estate for months at a time, leaving Sierra free to write. John sets down the glass with the scotched up eggnog dripping from its inside and picks up his iPhone.
“Yes?” Sierra answers John’s call. “I’m writing.”
Sierra Thibault, mooning over her latest novel—about people’s life after death—can be opaquely discerned through a dense cloud of cigarette smoke. She taps the ashes against the tray, brings the cigarette between her plump lips, and inhales. Surrounding her are her stimulants: cigarettes, chai blended with milk and honey, Benzedrine; food stuffs: a kilo of kiwis, a cutting board and knife, an aluminum can of honey roasted peanuts; and writing tools: a mirror to make faces into so that she can more accurately articulate her characters’ expressions, a divan of pillows for dreamy brainstorming, New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a thick thesaurus, a Moleskine notebook, her late grandfather’s brown bowler hat which she’s pressed into service as a Thinking Cap, and a rectangular bulletin board covered with push pins and 3 x 5” notecards of her characters’ attributes. Paper. Pens.
“Your pauses are telling,” says Sierra.
“Yeah,” she breathes. “The familiarity that underlies our ten years of marriage lets me understand that you’re gathering your poise, an ironclad characteristic of yours which includes patience with my gelid aloofness. During my iciest spells, John, you exhibit a self confidence and a warmth that mollifies my behavior and helps to keep our marriage together. These velveteen silences which settle on the connection are one of your better character qualities.”
“You’ve said you liked my language.”
“I have said that,” John agrees.
“It’s natural for me.”
“Sure. Well. I’m ending our relationship.”
“What? Why? Come home this instant, you darling ass; we’ll fix whatever’s wrong.” She says it coolly, fishhooking her cigarette in the ashtray.
“No,” he says, his voice distant and droning. “I don’t think I will.”
“Why? Are you joking?”
“No, no…” he trails off. “Marriage has been a prison during this last year. I’ve got to escape.”
“Yes. People ask what the secret is to a good marriage. I’ve learned it. The secret to a good marriage is marrying the right person. This is not a good marriage. I need to take a new direction.”
“Who is she?” Sierra asks, interested.
“There’s no one. When I wake up in the mornings, I no longer think of you. The mornings are cold.”
“What do you mean?”
Tracing his finger around the top of the eggnog tumbler, he is, as if the glass were a Nepalese singing bowl.
“Come on, Sierra. Are you feigning misunderstanding?”
“I don’t know what you mean, John.”
“They are cold because of you.”
“Have your soothings and placations always been apathy?” Sierra’s caravan of consciousness halts abruptly at the thought that she has always misjudged the most important character in her life, yet the worry is an intellectual one: concern that she has been misnaming his emotions, disquiet over her inaccuracy at knowing him.
“If so, that is a fascinating new quality of your character!” She wants to feel that she wants him, but she remains stalled at her metaphorical caravanserai, the bobbled feelings that she always drops become like voices exchanging silk road secrets at a khan inn, voices in volumes too low to understand. Something important is being missed; Sierra can feel it. “You’ve always been diverting,” she continues, “Now more than ever. It’s lovely, really. So you want to end the relationship? Suddenly? Without foreshadow? Hardly a, shall we say, climactic moment. But go on. See whichever places you like. Go where you want to go. Come back in two weeks, and I’ll welcome you home. I won’t ask any questions of where you’ve been, what or whom you’ve done—just find yourself, because I have a feeling that this story is not yet finished. We’re just getting a new narrative.”
“No,” he dully stares into the empty glass. “We’re finished.”
In Sierra’s imagination, speakers in the caravanserai mutter through the darkness, murmuring past white candle sticks whose wax coagulates in gobs against the sides; the utterances of the dark, sweaty men are absorbed by stone tables and chairs and by the cloth howdah which lies shadowed in the corner; ancient starlight peeps through the cracks of the stone roof; a camel coughs in the sparsely grassed courtyard. Something, Sierra understands, is being said of import, but what it is remains irretrievable in her consciousness, lost. “As you please. But do tell me what’s wrong. Tell me now, if you please or… Mmmm… tell me when you return. Make me wait in anticipation—dramatic!”
“You can keep the house,” he says. “I’m not coming back.”
“Keep the house? It’s that serious? Well John,” Sierra grins, “Don’t you know how much the house is worth?”
“Yes, I know. Don’t you care? Don’t you care about our relationship more than the house? Is it apathy or, like you say, kena.. kene…”
“It may be kenosis… Others might call my apathy ‘disassociation.’ I only know that you are a child with words, John.”
“Even now, when I am leaving you, it’s like you want to see me as a character to be critiqued and improved, rather than as someone to be loved.”
“This has been a riveting, compelling conversation.” Sierra lights another cigarette, inhales deeply. “And somehow that strikes me as aberrant. Have you always been this perceptive?”
“Perhaps not, perhaps not,” he says nonchalantly, distant once more, and now she knows that the conversation is ending, she’s missed the secrets that the wind lightly carried, lost the train of thought, if she ever had it.
“I’m a little confused,” she blurts. “Handy dandy John, don’t you think you can quote unquote fix me?”
“I can’t. Do you know why? Because you don’t care. I want you to care. But you don’t know how. I loved you once; I really did. Bye, Sierra.”
And pip pip, John cuts the line.
She realizes that there exists something worse than the loss of her husband: she has misunderstood his character. In her imagination, the metaphorical caravan drivers have called it a night; the candles are guttered; the wine bottles are empty; the moon is full over Persia; the sweating, odorous men have left her alone in an inn where she is a stranger on a frightening journey. She misjudged his character all along.
She realizes that she understood him because she couldn’t feel anything towards him. That kenosis preponderates her other thoughts. Whatever that bolus of illuminated humanity is inside the heart of the human body, she sure as hell can’t access it. She has the chest, there’s no treasure inside. An interesting problem. She inhales on the cigarette. Surely, surely, there is some reasonable solution…? Surely, she has but to think one up?
But now something quite peculiar For an instant, in the corner of the room where the pillows are piled, a radiant being shivers into form. And well, well, well… the being looks like an angel! Hard to say with certainty, considering these cynical times, but an angel is certainly what that being appears to be. It is vivid, but not gaudy, dressed in white, watching affectionately over Sierra and… then the being vanishes, just as Sierra turns around. It was there one second, gone the next… Huh. It might never have been there, just a trick of the imagination or a playful amusement orchestrated by the light, a mirage or nothing at all. Regardless, Sierra trots over to the corner pillow pile and tumbles across it, leaving the halogen above her head to burn within its tribal cover. And there she lies, wandering through her packs of cigarettes, plotting story lines about John’s return. Also dozes lightly. She sleeps and daydreams straight through that blue January day.
She does not rise from the pillow pile until noon the next day, at which time she goes to draw a bath.
Sierra—in the tub, smoking marijuana, feeling philosophic—is shaving her pubis with a feminine trimmer that she’s dubbed “Occam’s razor,” because it’s simpler than laser hair removal or creams. Sierra Thibault gives her sister, Angie Silversmile, a call.
“Hello there, Mrs. Silversmile, do you have a minute to talk?”
“Sure thing, Mrs. Thibault. What’s up?”
“It’s not Mrs. Thibault for much longer, and that’s the problem. I have slept through yesterday, but not only that, through much of this day as well. It’s like I had the bite of the tsetse fly, that vector of wicked soporific power.”
“Oh goodness,” giggles Angie. “Tell me simply what you mean.”
“Fine, girl. Fine. I’ll keep my lexicographic embroidery to an uncomplicated pattern: John left me. From deep in the vineyards of France, he called me for purposes of cessation and separation, and he would abide none of my entreaties. It seemed as if I, the ole ball and chain, had been hewn off his ankle. I sensed from him a sense of weightlessness, as of being freed. He spoke of emancipation explicitly, referenced a prisoner escaping. You have seen our marriage, Angie, perhaps more closely than anyone: did I hold him captive?”
Sierra lifts her right foot from the water and lays her foot over the roll rim of her claw footed tub where the water drips from her Achilles onto the honeycomb tile floor.
“What? Hold him captive? You gave him so much freedom as to make it seem like you didn’t care. Are you sure that there’s no one else? You sure he felt wanted enough?”
“Therein lies the paradox: for while he fretted over his purported captivity, so too did he comment upon my kenosis.”
“Kenosis? I think I am going to hear some of self-analysis?” Angie sighs. “I can feel it coming.”
Sierra grins, and she rubs a warm wet hand over her cheek. “You know me too well, dear. Indeed. Yes. You’re referring to my ‘philosophical chatter’, as you once dysphemistically called it. But no problem. Angie, you as well as I know my peculiar—well, why should I say peculiar and appease society?—my personal ontology”
“No, no Hon. I’ve seen the bones but am unfamiliar with the skeleton. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Mmmmm… Perhaps my belief system was explained to you over the years piecemeal. You know, in such nebulous, amorphous stages that you were unsure of the final shape of my beliefs. I believe that each of us can determine our own afterlife during and after our deaths. That’s the sum of it. For a long time, I was confused myself. I long found that the lines of my theology and ontology were without clear demarcations. Definitions were unspecified and ever-changing. Where my beliefs should have shed light, instead shadows manifested. However, that is the conclusion that I have reached. Every person has eschatological agency.”
“And John? What does this have to do with, John, Sierra?”
“This is about John. See, Angie, my philosophy and my separation from John are closely connected. I think that I have spent so much time considering eschatology—while writing my book for instance—and so much time philosophizing and emptying myself of emotion, that I have lost John. I intentionally emptied my passions and desires so that I could be a tabula rosa, so that I could write well, and so that I could be accepted into everyday society. I believe I’ve gone too far. I’m empty now. I can’t connect. When he broke up with me, I didn’t feel anything except a concern that I had misunderstood his character.”
“I know, it can drive a person nuts, feeling isolated.”
“But that’s just the problem! I don’t feel like it drives me nuts. I don’t feel anything. I feel empty.”
“So you have trouble feeling emotion. It’s okay, Sierra. Loads of people have trouble feeling.”
“It’s not just that, Angie, I have unlearned my feelings, and now I want to feel again, but I can’t do it. I’m stuck in ice. I’m an outsider to society, kenosis’ unwilling anchorite.”
“Yes, obviously you do have to belong to society.”
“Yes, it’s the only practical way to survive. Because everyone else belongs.”
“And you’re saying that your beliefs made you lose your marriage with John? Maybe it’s not lost yet, Sierra. This just happened the day before yesterday. Give him a call. Tell him you love him.”
“I can’t, Angie. I don’t know if I love him. I don’t know if I have for years. I think he knows this, senses it. I think he senses how strange my beliefs are, and that he left me because I’m weird, cold, empty inside.”
“Sierra, what you’re going through is what many people go through. Lots of people feel excluded, sad. Sometimes people feel very blue. Especially after a breakup. Especially after you slept for an entire day. But you’re a wonderful person, you write excellent books which show that you understand human character. You are, even if you don’t know it yourself, a very easy lady to love.”
“Angie, it’s not a depression. It’s my philosophy, my personality, and it’s my disconnection from the rest of society. Philosophically, I’m weird, and John knows it. Even the corporeal nature of the world is in doubt for me.”
“Ah, yes. Ha! I recall that. Hee hee!”
“Metaphysical solipsism, in a nutshell.”
“Bah. I don’t know what those words mean. Goodness, Sierra!”
“I have detached myself so far from the world that I sometimes doubt whether I am really a part of it. Is it just a dream? I am on the outside, looking in.”
“Well, it’s a real world, Sierra. You can count on that.”
“How do you know?”
“I feel it.”
Sierra pursed her lips. “I don’t. I feel like I’m on one planet, and everyone else is on another, and I’m watching them from afar. I feel like I could wake up at any moment, and it would all be gone.”
“Call John,” Angie said stubbornly. “Tell him—”
“How do you expect me to react to my separation with John? With feigned anger and denial? ‘Too soon!’ should I exclaim? ‘John will return!’ Shall I act disdainful and haughty? Call him a capon? A castrated chicken being made ready for the plate? Hm. You see? I don’t know what to do! The real problem is, I can’t feel my own emotions, so I have to take cues from others.”
“You sound frustrated. That’s an emotion.”
“Look Angie, I know you are full of vim and vigor. But I simply don’t feel lively. In moments where there might be mutual feelings of intimacy, I feel emptiness. Or disconnected. I’m still not sure which. I’ve considered it metaphorically. If I were piloting an airplane, in every instance where others’ emotions rise, in me there would be an instant of the engine choking, shuddering, dying. I involuntarily volplane in emotional moments; I remove my hands from the stick, my feet from the pedals. Down, down, down, spirals the craft, and inside is an empirical, detached pilot. Will I realize when the tiny two-engine has struck the ground? or will I be dead before the crash registers?’”
“That is a solipsistic question of philosophical import. But look, babe,” Sierra takes another drag on the dope, “I don’t want to sound all poor, all Oliver Twist. Kenosis’ propeller rotates two ways. I feel that my emptiness makes me more objective, and that the objectivity allows me to write more clearly. So I don’t know how to respond to my emptiness: with love, with hate, with gratitude, with distrust…? What’s a woman to do with a mannerism that propels her career and, in inverse proportions, impels her husband away from her?”
“It’s a Catch-22. Do you feel sad that John’s gone?”
“Not even a little?”
“I feel that I misjudged his character.”
“Then why do you want him back?”
“I want to try to learn to love.”
“Okay: ambitious, laudable.”
“I suppose. I don’t know. Thanks for telling me earlier that I’m an easy lady to love. I appreciate that, and I think I needed to hear it. Hey. Change of subject. I had another reason for calling. I wanted to ask you if you wanted to—” Sierra lets the roach’s ash fall into the tub, where it sizzles, “Get away. Take a holiday. I really need to try to figure myself out.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Machu Picchu. The Nazca Lines. Lima.”
“No hablo Español.”
“I speak a little. We can get by.”
“Hey, Sierra? I’ve got to run, duty calls. I’d like to go on a holiday with you, but give me some time, and choose another destination, somewhere in this hemisphere, preferably. Catch you soon?”
“Good luck with John! Keep me up to speed! Bye bye.”
Sierra sets the phone outside the tub, then turns to the weed.
She removes a paper from its box and lays the paper flat on her hand. The marijuana maven weighs her dope options, all of which she’s laid out on the floor in Ziploc bags that are labeled with masking tape and felt tip marker: the powerful White Widow, violet hued Purple Power, sweet and hardy Holland’s Hope, spicy Aurora Indica, and Christmas tree shaped Mazar—which Sierra suspects is named after the eponymous Afghan northern provincial capital. Mazar’s her selection for her next blunt, so she rolls a joint in the rice paper and lights up the potent strain. Strange, Sierra thinks as she lays her neck over the tub’s porcelain rim and inhales, how poorly demarcated the physical world’s boundaries are.
During the next three weeks, Sierra writes and researches for fifty to sixty hours a week, weighs trip destinations, and philosophizes. She scribbles an activist poem. She vacillates between a cruise to the Med or a flight to Peru, and between comfortable sanity and concern over her own mental health. Sierra wonders what is the function of those neurons and electrons that bounce about her brain and that are causing her psychological distress. In romantic anomie she was before John left, now he’s gone, and his absence should hurt but doesn’t. Even her solipsism that she was once certain of is losing its single-minded, Spartanesque omnipotence as her ontology becomes ever more byzantine. Yet even as she loses herself in invariably crosscutting paths of philosophical and religious questioning, she is tracked all the more closely by a supernatural being. Without Sierra’s awareness, the angel appears more and more often, ivory robed in dawn’s camouflaging fog, gliding vigilantly near midnight clouds, floating above her bed and sleeping form, hovering behind her back, vanishing just as she turns, reappearing with observant eyes and a granitic expression.