In an instant, a life can divide into Before and After. A phone call, a news flash can do it. Invariably, something remains as a reminder. For Joseph, a colleague at Chloe’s office, it is Bach playing on the stereo before the screech of brakes, the crunch of metal, an ambulance, the hospital.
“I hear Bach now and think: oh, yes, I used to love that. Before. In my other life.”
For Chloe’s sister, Anna, it is a body shampoo. She told Chloe how the shower was hot and steam clouded the glass. She stood in the warm fog, then sniffed the fresh, pine scent of the new Badedas body shampoo. That clean scent of mountains and good health. Just seconds later, her fingers, tentative, pressed back and forth, smoothing the skin as her brain bristled indignantly. It can’t be! But it is, yes, it is. I think it is. A lump.
And after – doctors visits, surgery, chemo, hair loss, pain.
Chloe will be reminded of these conversations in four minutes. Right now she chooses a pretty china cup, Staffordshire, patterned with red roses. She pokes the tea bag with a spoon while she pours in the boiling water and then decides to start the laundry while the tea steeps. Dan’s shirts are already loaded in the washer but she pulls them out anyway, to shake them. She is nervous that a stray ballpoint might lie forgotten in a pocket, leave a Caspian Sea of navy ink never to be bleached away. As she shakes the shirt, something flies out, floats up like confetti to land on the lid of the dryer. She studies, frowning, a pair of ticket stubs for a New York City theatre.
She is puzzled at first. Then remembers, of course, the business conference in New York City. Seven days had stretched to ten; Dan had been exhausted when he came home, complaining about the demands of clients, the tedious conversation of his colleagues. Chloe studies these tickets with a sense of unreality, as if she is watching
herself on a movie set, frowning for the camera. But her mind is seething with questions. Dan had not told her of this theatre visit. Off-Broadway does not seem appropriate, somehow. Hedda Gabler is an odd choice for an evening with a client. Or a colleague.
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With cold clarity, Chloe sees that these stubs will lead to questions that she does not want to ask, but must ask. That will lead to answers she does not want to hear. Later, a Decree Absolute, loneliness.
Chloe knows as she stirs her tea, stirs what is now gungy, tarry soup, that she is already in the after. She throws the tea away, gets a fresh teabag, starts over. The tea, though freshly brewed, still tastes thick and stale.
She understands now, that she has moved in space, slid towards some other life. She has crossed that invisible but solid line. Lipton’s Orange Pekoe has joined Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and Badedas with Original Scent, to be forever in the before. And there is no going back.