When she leaned down to retrieve her bag from the passenger floorboard she caught a glimpse of movement in the side mirror. She smiled crookedly as she opened the door, waiting for him to wrap his arms around her, holding her close in that special way that kept her warm in the cold northern nights.
He didn’t, and she turned around, a question on her face. He wasn’t there at all. The movement must have been more of the falling leaves that blanketed the ground as far as she could see, except for her pair of tire tracks weaving among the trees.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and slammed the car door. A tear tracked its way down her left cheek as she stepped carefully around to the back of the truck to gather the grocery bags. Some days, it felt like he’d been gone at least a hundred years, and some days like he had just stepped outside for a quick smoke.
Two bags swinging softly in each hand, she trekked through the yard and onto the front porch, where she spun once, scanning the acres between her steps and the long dirt road to nowhere.
Not a soul.
She sniffed, and rubbed the tear from her face with the back of her hand.
As she unpacked the groceries she realized that she’d bought his favorites once again: mac and cheese and those stupidly expensive all-beef bun-length hot dogs. She left everything where it was on the kitchen counter and walked, head down, to their–her–bedroom to throw herself down on the mattress and sob and sob and sob until she was red and puffy.
It was the next morning when she woke with swollen eyes and a throbbing headache. She opened her eyes and stared at the thin strip of sunlight tapering across the wallpaper next to the bathroom door.
His voice echoed in her head, “just where it gets in my eyes when I try to shave.”
She closed her own eyes again, squeezing them until all she saw was the brilliant kaleidoscope of pressure on her optic nerves. This time, when she opened her eyes, his presence was completely gone.
She kicked off her shoes and went downstairs to finish putting the food away, but had to stop and laugh at the wreck the neighbor’s dog had made of her kitchen. She knew it was old Rider; the devil was lying underneath her kitchen table, tongue hanging out on the floor, shreds of fancy hot dog wrapper scattered around his swollen gut.
“I didn’t give the front door that extra push, did I, boy?” She laughed again, louder. “I forgot how poorly you resist temptation.”
Rider startled awake at the sound of her voice, and began to scramble guiltily to his feet, but she knelt to scratch behind his ears.
“Good boy, Rider. Good boy.”
I pulled up to the cabin in my Jeep and cut off the engine, heaving a sigh of relief and just sitting a moment, taking in the familiar view of the log walls and blue lake and sky. Finally I got out and set to work hiding my tracks. I didn’t need any nosy parkers following my trail to the lake and interrupting my peaceful grief here.
I pulled a few things out of the boathouse before parking the Jeep inside and covering its shiny redness with a moldy blue tarp I’d found in a corner. Then I spent the next couple hours scuffing out my tire tracks for at least three hundred yards from the cabin. By the time I was done, I was covered in loose forest dirt and pine needles up to mid-thigh, and I’d wiped my hands and arms across my face so many times my skin felt tight with grime and cracked when I grimaced.
I wanted nothing more than to collapse into bed and sleep for a couple days, but once I got inside the cabin, leaving my crusty boots at the door outside and my crusty jeans at the door inside, the memories came flooding back to me, and I was wide awake and somehow refreshed.
The last painting my family owned done by my grandfather still hung on the wall in the living area, and his ashes still rested in an urn on the rough-hewn mantel above the fireplace. Even though he’d been gone since I was a child, and I’d spent more years here without him than with him, this was still his place, and stepping inside was like stepping into his warm embrace one last time.
The couch was covered in a sheet of clear plastic, but I could see the same old heavy blue-jean quilt lying over the back, waiting to warm me when it got cold again. Next to it, my dad’s worn armchair, wooden arms dark and shiny with decades of body oils. The rug my mom found in a thrift store and declared “just perfect” for our vacation getaway, our home away from home.
It was all perfect, and exactly how I remembered it. I walked further in, stripping my shirt over my head, careful to keep the dust and twigs inside the cloth, and froze when I reached the kitchen.
There was the yellowing Amana fridge, and held onto its face with alphabet magnets, a crayoned landscape made by yours truly at nine years old. The years had given me fresh eyes although the picture felt deeply familiar, and I saw my own potential as a stranger might have. Pride swelled briefly in my chest before I remembered that part of my life was put forever behind me with the loss of my wife.
I crumpled into a chair at the dining room table and cried for what felt like forever. I came here because she never had, because this was the one place that I thought I could live for a while without seeing her face every time I blinked, but I was wrong. I couldn’t breathe without seeing her face. She was my whole world, and now she was gone.
I cried myself to sleep at that table, and when I woke up I was in so much pain I could hardly stand. My joints creaked audibly, and my shoulders protested my efforts to put my arms down at my sides from where they had pillowed my head throughout the night. My back screamed in agony at my hours of poor, stiff posture.
I refused to turn the generator on, so I knew the water would be ice cold, but I stepped into the shower still in my bra and panties. I turned the knob, and the water was so cold I tried to scream and couldn’t. I knew hot would have been better for my sore muscles, but the massage of the pounding drops was better than nothing, and my skin grew numb after a few moments.
I got out when my teeth started to chatter, and, unable to face the bedroom alone, unable to face any bedroom alone just yet, I pulled the plastic from the couch and wrapped myself in the blue-jean quilt before collapsing onto the worn cushions. I shivered for a long time before dropping off into a slightly more restful sleep than I’d gotten at the table.
When I woke I was warmer, even though my short hair and the underwear I’d slept and showered in was still damp. I realized that I hadn’t brought my bag in from the Jeep, and so had no fresh clothing to put on. I slipped on a pair of the clogs that we’d always kept by the front door for running out to fetch more firewood and went to the boathouse in my undies. My family owned this land for miles, so I knew I didn’t have any neighbors across the lake to ogle my nakedness.
I flipped the tarp out of the way and pulled my duffel from the backseat. The tears threatened again, and I quickly covered her Jeep back up. God, I missed her so much. The pain in my chest felt like nothing could ever make it go away, like it was something I would live with for the rest of my lonely life. I smoothed the tarp over the back windshield and headed for the cabin, my right hand fisted against my chest to keep the pain from bursting out of my body.
I dropped my bag on the table just inside the door and considered how lucky I was that the bathroom was the first door down the hall, that I wouldn’t even have to pass my or my parents’ bedrooms just yet. I kicked the clogs off, nudging them back into their rightful place to the other side of the door, grabbed my bag, and returned to the couch.
I let my wet underthings slap the carpet beneath my feet as I stripped down, and I dressed myself in the first full set of clothes I pulled from my bag. Luckily enough, it was a tshirt and a pair of sweatpants. My hand rested on a pair of wool socks, but I decided against them, shoving them back, deep into my duffel. I slid the bag to the floor and curled up on the couch again, beneath the heavy comforting weight of the quilt. My mother would never know that I left wet clothes on her precious thrifted rug.
I knew it wasn’t good for me to sleep so much, but right then, I didn’t have anything but sleep to help my state of mind. I succumbed again, a willing victim of sleep.
This time I didn’t dream of her.
When the servant knocks upon the door of every single room
And the nightshade blossom does appear to you
Your scent lingers in the air like an aftertaste of guilt
From the day we beat upon the bucket made of tin
And its approximation of a drum began.
The knot of sadness rose up my body from my stomach
And I choked the fierce repulsive bitterness back down.
The rhino stayed by my side the whole night through
And I felt the carnal rattle of no future in my chest
As I learned loss makes a cynic of each and every one.
I hear echoes in the dimness where the colors disconnect
And the bluntness of your words cuts like a knife.
Now follow me on the long and winding road
Where your polar divinity is clearest crystal
And use death’s eraser on us all.
He sailed onward, onward, ever on,
Knowing ahead she waited, waited alone.
The wind in his sails
And the salt in his nose
And the anchor never unstowed.
The breeze fell calmer, calmer, and it stopped,
He frowned, and frowned in deep concern.
She checked her watch
And checked again
He was always prompt before.
Three days and nights and nights and days
He drifted, drifted aimlessly.
The sun stared down
And burned his skin
He lay awake in pain.
The wind picked up and blew some more
He cheered and cheered aloud.
She was gone from the dock
When he made shore
And so he left again.
Silvia stood outside the warehouse door, a thin ribbon of smoke trailing upwards from the business end of her cigarette. She lifted the butt to her mouth and inhaled, squinting her left eye against the sudden breeze that carried the smoke straight into her face. Her vision remained fixed on the small boy playing in the yard across the street.
The chain link fence protected him from stray dogs and strangers with candy, but it was unable to stop the chill wind from reddening his cheeks and pudgy little fingers as he dug determinedly in the large sand pile that dominated the yard. A small patch of red fabric covered the wear hole on the elbow of his hand-me-down jacket.
The boy was out in the yard most days that Silvia took her cigarette break, and she watched him build his sand castles every chance she got. He dug and dumped, dug and dumped, happily busy in his world that didn’t include her, even though she was thirty yards from him.
Silvia took a last drag, then turned the cigarette in her hand to make sure none was left. She flipped it around with practiced fingers and tossed it halfway across the street as she took one last hissing inhale of the cold winter air through her front teeth. Her eyes darted from the path of the cigarette back to the small boy, narrowing as she noted that he had disappeared from her view.
The breath she hadn’t realized that she was holding escaped her chest as he tottered back into sight from the far side of the small mountain of sand, and the tightness in her throat relaxed. She rubbed her right eye, trying to convince herself that a speck of dust had flown into it, but knowing in her heart of hearts that she had yet to be done grieving.
It’s Mother’s Day here in the US; for the first time in ten years, it hasn’t been a day of grieving my infertility.
It feels good and it feels bad. Bittersweet, and I hate that word. It’s my husband’s first Mother’s Day without his mother, and I hurt for him. I’m sorry, Ian.
But it hasn’t hurt me not being a mother today like it has in years past. I don’t know how to explain; I can’t put words to it. Can I?
I’ve let it go. Today is a day, just as yesterday and tomorrow. What happens, happens.
It isn’t throwing in the towel. It’s being present and being able to appreciate what I do have, rather than shed tears of longing for what I have not.