A Matter of Difference

His breathing is loud and heavy, in unison with the swinging pendulum in the next room. The darkness calls attention to sounds you cannot see. He moves through his sleep like a steamship through a dark ocean. His huge chest presses against my shoulder - I am pinned under the beat of his heart. His left leg is wrapped around mine. I can feel the silky hairs from his body against me, making me warmer than I want to be. He is always warm. Hot. He is well protected. A man that doesn't need a coat in the winter. I do not wish to disturb him, so I wait.

He is turning now, like a ship changing its course. His body stretches across - his arm goes up and out, taking the blanket he doesn't want. He also tries to take me, but somehow, quietly, I slip away. It's easy to slip away from a sleeping man. I turn on the light to smoke and to contemplate this beastly thing that keeps me awake.

He lies on his back now, occasionally snorting, as if to remind me of how strong he is. His arms stretched across, palms up; his hands show that he builds things. First he builds them on paper, and then with his hands. I lean forward to feel the hard callous on his thumb. I rub it gently and his fingers flinch at my touch. These calloused hands have touched me everywhere, have taken me aboard, have kept me afloat. My hands, he says, "are like a little girl's." Time stands still for this man.

Years ago I left him. I left him to think. "For something more," I said. He understood; he waited, although he didn't wait long. I cannot picture, as I look down now at his pulsating chest, nor can I imagine, vitality in waiting. It seems to me that God made him huge to meet the demands in his life. To be the navigator.

I am a woman born in the wrong time. I am jealous of his leadership. I become irritated when the dog listens to him and not to me. It is difficult for me to accept my female ways. There are times when I am weaker, more female. When he rolls around in the grass with the St. Bernard or carries the children about on his shoulders, I again am jealous. Not only do I want to be the dog or his child, to be whatever he touches, but even more strange, I want to be him.

I look now at my tamer, my leader, his jaw is relaxed, leaving his mouth open. Once, he left me. He traveled across the Atlantic into the Mediterranean, to an island so small I couldn't find it on the map. He was too late. His father, already dead, was being carried from the church on a canvas stretcher. Two weeks later he returned home. His skin was brown. His eyes were vacant, sad. All of his energy seemed to have been drained. The dog ran away twice that week. The children became irritable. Night after night he came home, too tired to talk. He grew calluses to cut off the vessels to his mind. I envy his power to live alone with pain. Damn it, why must I be a woman possessed by this need to share? My frustration looms: I confuse his silence with rejection, my capacity is like that of a sponge - I absorb his sorrow, and the silence causes me to think we are shipwrecked.

Several nights later, his tan almost gone, he waited for me in bed. His feelings poured from him like a wave being released from a dam. He had carried his father on a stretcher from the church to the cemetery. It was hot, dry and white. The heat escaping from the red earth was vaporizing before his eyes. They had dressed his father in a faded black suit. His father's hands were tied down with rope to the wooden frame of the stretcher. A white handkerchief was tied under his chin and knotted at the skull. "They buried him that way," he said. "It seemed so barbaric. No embalming, no coffin, nothing." They had removed the ropes from his father's hands and the cloth from around his head before he was lowered into the ground. Since then, all he could think of was the way his father's mouth fell open, and the way his arms and legs were twitching and jerking.

When he dies, he said, he wants to be cremated; to just "go away." His head was in my arms, heavy against my chest. My breast was wet from his tears. We moved together that night, the tugboat pulling the steamship home.

I reach out to close his mouth. He grabs hold of my wrist and mumbles in his sleep, "Come to bed." I touch the silver hairs near his temple. His eyes are opening, squinting at me. He says, "Can't sleep?" I say, still thinking of his father, "I don't want to grow old and die."

"Which is it?" he asks, "the growing old or the dying that you don't want?" He has the ability to dismiss my seriousness, to somehow make nothing of my words. It is the cord between us that offsets my nature. He reaches out and shuts the light. He brings me into his chest, his arms are wrapped around me, anchoring me to his strength. He says, "Don't worry, I'll never let you die." And like a child who wakes from a bad dream to the sound of its mother's voice, saying that dreams do not come true, I believe him.