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A Story of Love, Death, Grief and the Afterlife




Excerpted from
The Rooms of Heaven; A Story of Love, Death, Grief and the Afterlife
By Mary Allen

I'm sitting here trying to picture Jim Beaman, to conjure up his physical presence, tune him into memory like an image on a TV screen. I can almost but not quite see him. What I get is vague, hazy. Some dial needs to be turned to bring the picture into focus and there isn't such a dial, as far as I know. Maybe there's some kind of special meditation, some trick of metaphysics or the imagination, but if there is, I don't have access to it. All I can see are individual features. He had thick, short brown hair parted on the side, and at the back of his head was a tiny dot where there was no hair, and it was as if all his hair issued from that one spot. I don't know why, but that used to really interest me. He had a perfect masculine chin, not too square, not receding but not jutting out, either, and it had a dimple in it. There was another dimple on the side of his face, but that might have been a scar. And he had beautiful lips, just the right size and shape, though I didn't notice them right away-they were just there like everyone else's: a pair of lips. But after I noticed them I continued to notice them, I looked at them all the time. I used to say they were the most beautiful lips in the world.

But it doesn't seem quite accurate to look at him this way, to break him down feature by feature. It's like describing a painting in terms of the brush strokes. It doesn't capture him, it doesn't even capture what he looked like, it doesn't make me see him. I come the closest to seeing him when I picture his eyes. His eyes were large, blue, deep-set; they were clear, bright, translucent, like light on water, water with light in it. It's that light that I can't see anymore when I try to picture him, it's that light that brought the picture into focus.

Another way I can sometimes get him to come in-come in a little, at least-is to picture him in motion: talking, gesturing, grinning, alive and full of animation on the other side of my bed.

I've had the same bed, or at least the same bed frame - a full-size, walnut-stained four-poster-for almost thirty years; I bought it from a used-furniture store in 1971. It's not in perfect shape; it has a few scratches and stains, some small patches of varnish have worn off the knobs on the posts, but I like it. It's one of the few things that have remained constant in my life for many years. It's seen me through bad-job-induced insomnia, the guilty naps of freelancing, the anxious sleep of unemployment; through three (not counting Jim) long-term relationships, two of them more or less harmonious, one an out and out psychological death struggle; through a series of one-night stands; through an affair with a married man; through lengthy stretches of solitude.

Not only has all that taken place in the same bed, but most of it-the part that involved me alone, at least, which is nearly all of it-has taken place on the same side of the bed. For some reason, I always sleep on the right; I never, ever venture over to the left. For twenty years I had a foam mattress and by the time I met Jim the mattress was split-level. The side I always slept on was flat and low, the other side rose away from me at a slight but distinct angle. Every now and then I'd accidentally roll over onto it, notice vaguely that I seemed to be lying on an incline, feel a little bit bad but not too bad about the cause of it-over the years I'd gotten used to being single-then slide back down to the flat familiar part of the mattress and go back to sleep.

One of the first things Jim and I did after getting together was drive to Sears and buy a new mattress and box spring. We brought them back to my house in the back of the truck and carried them awkwardly in their plastic wrappers into the bedroom. Jim had the idea of leaving the old box spring and simply putting the new one and the mattress on top of it, and that's what we did, removing the giant plastic wrappings, angling the new blue box spring and mattress around till we could lay them one by one with a whump on top of the old one. We peeled off the paper claim stuck to the mattress, tossed the guarantees aside, made the bed, took the sheets of plastic and the old foam mattress out to the curb to be carted off by the garbage truck Wednesday morning. Then we came back in and admired the bed. The added altitude of two box springs lent it an illusion of grandness that went beyond mere height; it seemed larger than life, almost mythical. When I sat on it next to Jim, our backs resting against the headboard, it seemed not only high but wide and spacious, a magical kingly perch.

It is on my bed that I see Jim the most; it was there, as on an island, that most of our relationship-at least the most important parts of it-seem to have taken place. We did all sorts of things on that bed: We talked, and occasionally we read, leaning up against gray reading pillows, though this never lasted very long because one of us would say something and we'd get involved in conversation. Most of the time we forgot about our books altogether, though Jim brought his faithfully to my house at bedtime just in case. "Every night I take my book for a walk," he said. Once we ate a pizza on the bed; another time, facing each other, sitting cross-legged, we played with a Ouija board on the bed, and twice-over Thanksgiving and Christmas-we rented a color TV and a VCR and watched a bunch of movies lying side by side. Once I hypnotized Jim on my bed, and sometimes I rubbed his back or feet with Icy Hot, a soothing greasy balm for muscle aches; one of his shoulders hurt all the time from tuck-pointing, and his feet, which had unusually high insteps, also bothered him. When he lay on his back his feet assumed a certain position-heels together, toes flopping outward-and I used to say they looked insouciant and rakish, like outlaws and rebels; I used to call them Frank and Jesse, after Frank and Jesse James. We slept in my bed and told each other our dreams in the morning. Jim talked in his sleep as well; once toward the end he said, in the halting, dreamy, childish voice of sleep talkers, "I have a bowl of fish for you."



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