When I heard that my husband was dead, my first thought was about underwear. To be more specific, I imagined myself, not as a widow, but I saw my clumsy orange-sneakered feet standing on a decal at a fancy lingerie shop counter, somewhere a little more exclusive than Victoria Secret but with the same bottled scent of crushed rose petals filling my nostrils, waiting to purchase something lacy to impress the next man I’d have to sleep with. Then I tried to picture what Junior might have been wearing under the dark blue dad-jeans he was wearing that day – the underwear he went to the hospital and died in.
Only then I imagined Junior’s face at the funeral – unmoving, cold, layers of makeup pasted on his by-then waxy, inhuman skin, his body stiffened by rigor mortis, atop a white cushion in a pine box, in front of strangers, in a church he never attended when he was alive. Did they even use pine for coffins anymore? I didn’t know but it didn’t stop the forest smell from coming to mind. Then I thought about the people who would come to mourn, to gawk, to rub my shoulders and say they were praying for me; old Mr. Harvey who had been trying to get me to book a massage session with him for as many years as he should have retired from that line of work, he would probably think it was apropos now to offer to help me relieve my stress.
I thought about our children, ten-year-old Zach and seven-year old Trudy, our son struggling to rein in his tears, Trudy content to wail loudly and revel in the attention it brought, when they finally understood that they would never see their father again; the photo-box I would buy at Michaels and help Trudy decorate with decoupage so she could save the little scraps of paper she would undoubtedly gather from around the house, for memories, when the attention-givers returned to their daily life.
I thought about the house, the box of stuff Junior had brought into our bedroom when we moved, a mess of college memorabilia with long-broken pins and buttons from the first time he volunteered on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He had planned to show up to volunteer again but he’d gotten enraged about something and spent so much time dithering about it, he never got around to it. There was so much to be mad at that who can remember where it all started, but eventually, he’d gotten disenchanted with Madame President as he always referred to her, and decided to throw his weight behind Bernie Sanders instead, but before that, back when he had first shown me the box, he thought when he arrived wearing the throwback button, not only would he get a well deserved laugh but that it would also seal his commitment, confirm his status as a longtime supporter. Whoever was in charge would definitely choose him. Or so he’d boasted when he first displayed the button, pride glowing on his brown face.
I realized in a flash that that box would become a permanent part of my bedroom room now. I’d had more chance of getting rid of the stuff when Junior was alive. I hadn’t planned to nag him about it. Nagging didn’t work on my husband. But I had been working on an elaborate plan to get him to think throwing it out was his idea. After the election and the Trump inauguration and his general malaise that turned to disgust with everything that seemed like it pointed to the past, I felt like I was getting close. Now that he was dead though, everything he owned, everything he touched would become a shrine. Now that he was dead…
And that’s how it finally started to sink in. My husband was dead. Junior was gone and he wasn’t coming back. The shrines were things I would set up myself, unable to separate the things associated with the memories, and the memories themselves.
My husband was dead and I would hold everything like a relic.
My husband was dead. No. My husband is dead. Not was, but is. The present continuous tense. The status that doesn’t change until the future. But what of the future? My husband is dead, I realized, with finality. The finality of death.
I said it over and over, rocking myself back and forth on a hard-backed hospital chair that didn’t move with me so I could feel the rotation in my spine and lower pelvis as I tried to unsettle it but merely unsettled myself. So I wailed, not caring if anesthetized patients on surgical tables heard me. Not caring if the dead in the morgue below us heard me. If I could resurrect the dead with my cries, I would. Undo this status that had attached itself to me on a random Tuesday afternoon in June.
Through the tears, I noticed the blurred faces of the people in the waiting room around me. They huddled on the other side of the room that they had to share with me, recoiling from fear that my grief was contagious. Fear that if they stood too close to me, my bad luck would jump onto their clothes and get stuck there, like lice. Or fleas. I couldn’t remember which one got stuck.
An old woman, with white silky hair and a brown fleece that showed she knew that hospital waiting rooms were cold no matter the temperature outside, sat directly opposite me in the little bad-news corral. She pursed her lips and shook her head, her way, maybe, of empathizing or not. I didn’t know.
I didn’t need her. I didn’t need anyone. I had planned to spend my life with someone. I’d prepared to spend my life with someone. I’d thrown a huge party and announced it to the world that I was no longer alone, that from now on, I was a part of a team. The universe had called my bluff.
My husband was dead. No, is dead, I reminded myself. Junior is dead. I thought about the underwear again, the lacy things I would have to buy, but now not even that image would come. I kept seeing the stale things that filled my drawers and then I thought about his, wondering again, what kind of underwear Junior had put on today. He had some nice red silk boxers I had bought for him sometime, maybe a Valentine’s Day, maybe one of those rare occasions when we had tried to do something out of the ordinary. But he hadn’t worn them then and hadn’t worn them since. I couldn’t remember why, but the paper tags still drooped from the little plastic coil that some store clerk had probably shot into the waistband with a price gun. I had worked in the receiving department of a children’s store when I was in college, knew how things got sorted, knew how expensive clothes got bought for cheap and the prices they ultimately got sold for was decided with some complicated calculus depending on how many items they’d bought, how many they thought they could sell at the highest price they dared ask for, and whether it was seasonal and just early enough that they could take care of the shoppers who were determined to buy whatever the store first put on the floor so they wouldn’t have to return when it was crowded and haggle like the plebs. I was a haggler. I didn’t buy it at regular price if I knew I could come back and get it on sale. And I always knew that.
But back to the old-man briefs Junior liked but that I sometimes stuffed at the bottom of the laundry hamper so he would have to wear something else. I couldn’t remember what was in his drawers now, the last time I looked, what his options had been this morning when he put his hand inside to do something so mundane and automatic. What did he think when he stepped into them, one foot at a time, normal, no matter how else he saw himself? What was in his drawers? I smiled at the pun but the smile faded into nothingness as easily as it had been birthed.
If Junior had known how the day would go, how would he have chosen differently?
If you like, you can see him, the doctor said behind me. I didn’t realize she was still there and her voice might have surprised me, except while it was heavily accented, it remained soft, a tone she probably reserved for interactions like this. I shook my head but got up and followed her anyway. I didn’t want to see him, didn’t want to see him dead but suddenly, I knew I had to find out. What do you wear to die in?
And that’s how I came to be in the room where my husband lay, dead in a hospital bed, probably resenting me when he died because he hadn’t wanted to come and I had forced him.
I’ll give you a moment alone, the doctor said, her voice soft and sympathetic, almost as if she wanted to disappear from this moment and so she did, slipping away so fast her hair caught in the door as she pulled it closed so she had to twist the knob and try again. She must be new, I thought, but then she was gone and I stopped thinking about her.
I looked down at the body, already sensing that Junior was gone. My husband, the man whose hand I had squeezed when Zach passed through my body wailing as hard as I screamed, the hand I’d squeezed so hard Junior had nursed it for a couple days until we went home and I screamed at him that if he thought that was bad, he should have the next baby himself. Maybe that’s why it had taken three years for Trudy. For a lot of that time, we didn’t so much as touch each other. I knew what underwear he wore because I washed it, took the stained briefs or boxers from the laundry hamper in our room and scowled whenever I saw the evidence that he had worn them, telling myself I hated him for acting no better than our infant and then toddler son. So I treated him like the child he behaved like; not the son I coddled but like the stepson foisted onto me by an unfaithful husband, with slight tolerance that had no chance of morphing into love or even acceptance. All this, I did, without ever really saying what I despised so he could change back into the husband I loved.
He could have become an unfaithful husband then – other men might have. Months, years, passed where we spent nights in bed without any intimacy further than shared joy at our son’s development. And one night, he appeared in our bedroom, wearing the tuxedo he’d taken his vows in. I was tired and sleepy and in no mood for the antics but he’d knelt on the floor next to the bed and held my hand. The cheap, tight jacket strained audibly as he settled into the crouching position and offered the same hand I’d squeezed over two years before in the delivery room and said, simply, I want you to squeeze my hand like that again. I love you, J.G.
J.G. That’s what he’d called me when we started dating. It was short for Junior’s Girl and it was premature – he hadn’t even asked me to go steady, or whatever you said when you were in college and meeting people all the time and expected to go out on dates and sow your wild oats or allow wild oats to be sown in and around you, but you’ve found the farmer that you don’t mind leasing your farmland for a little while. At nineteen, we considered ourselves too old to have boyfriends, too modern to be courting and going steady was an outdated term but we didn’t know what else to call it. Either way, he hadn’t asked and I, when describing him to Celeste and Laura, my roommates who gushed about how tall he was when he first came to my dorm to meet me, I had just gone ahead and said in the terms from the old teen romance novels I still hid under my bed although I was hundreds of miles away from my parents. We’re not even going steady, I’d said and they teased me mercilessly afterwards, such that the phrase had stuck with me, waiting as I did for him to invite my false consideration and eventual consent. The question never came but we started holding hands in public and kissing on the front steps leading to the dorm, girls from my floor bumping into me even though we leaned on the railing and they had more than enough berth to go by. And so, we advertised to everyone else what we had never said aloud, letting their confirmation seal ours. Words weren’t Junior’s forte, no matter what they would have meant to me to hear them. But when he spoke, I listened and acted. Maybe if he’d said it before, we would have done it before. But when he said he wanted me to squeeze his hand again, I knew what he meant and it wasn’t strange. I just knew we were back to being who we were.
I was the talker, the wordsmith, the one who talked everything to death if I could, but that night, I merely lifted up the covers so he could climb in next to me. He wasn’t wearing anything under the pants of his wedding suit. My underwear couldn’t fit in the pants, he’d said in explanation as he got undressed and slipped under the covers and we’d both laughed until we stopped laughing, which for us often took a while.
Almost a year later, Trudy came and we settled into being parents of two, best friends and occasional lovers and it seemed like this was life.
Except now life had been replaced with death and here was Junior, dead.
So I lifted up the white sheet that was over him. His shirt had been cut open, the bloody shreds clinging to his ribcage. I didn’t want to see because I didn’t want to process it. I moved the sheet down to his waist and pulled the belt away from his stomach, the stillness of his body shocking.
Behind me, beeps and buzzes, in the room and in the yawn of hospital corridors just outside the door.
The bright red shocked me and my first thought was, Is he bleeding down there? Did they miss something? Is that why he’s dead?
Behind me, someone knocked on the door. Mrs. Jacobs, are you okay in there?
I pinched the waistband and pulled it up and out of his pants. The fabric was slippery under my fingers so I had to hook it and pull it out. The knock came again but I ignored it as before and pulled until it was clear what I was seeing.
Junior was wearing the red silk boxers!
And for the first time, I considered, Junior didn’t come here to die but what did I really know about how my husband was planning to live?
… come back tomorrow for part 2
Copyright (C) 2017 by Karen Wright
The above is an excerpt from an ongoing creative writing project which will probably be heavily edited in the future. Please do not copy or otherwise share this content.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
A few months ago, I started a new novel and shared some of these chapters on this blog. I am finally finishing up this project so I decided to start again at the top and release them to you. Over the course of April, I will share the entire story here on this page. Come back tomorrow for chapter 2.