Adam stopped by six days after the funeral, breaking my widow’s quarantine. My eyes were so swollen I put on sunglasses just to open the door, but even Adam didn’t look so good—his eyes more red than blue and his face sprouting a thick black stubble.
“Any reason I can’t come in?”
I stepped back and wished I’d ignored the door, or at least worn real clothes or brushed something—my teeth or hair, or even the sleep nuggets from my eyes. I smoothed over the lapel of my robe and cinched the waistband, the way a drunken housewife might primp for the delivery man. I felt like I was having that dream where I’m naked and trying to pretend that wearing a scrap of paper napkin is a perfectly dignified thing to do.
“How are you?” he said, leaving the door open behind him. “Sorry, dumb question.” He jammed his hands into his jacket pockets. “Maggie said you might need some things from the store.”
Nixon trudged down the stairs like a dog three times his age. He sat down next to me without so much as a sniff for our guest. I hadn’t heard him bark in more than a week.
“Thanks,” I said, pushing the sunglasses back up the bridge of my nose, really just wanting him to leave. “But I’ve got stuff here.”
“Like what?” He narrowed his eyes. “You’ve barely been out of this house for almost two weeks.”
I shrugged and curled my hands into the sleeves of the robe. Actually, I had a refrigerator packed with foil-wrapped funeral fare that I couldn’t bring myself to eat. It felt so hypocritical, fueling this life when I felt so dead myself.
He put a hand on the back of his neck and looked around at the vase of dead gardenias, the stacks of unread newspapers, the unopened envelopes scattered on the floor. “Well, Maggie’d have a fit if I didn’t bring you back something. Come on, Cereal? Juice? Toothpaste? Soap?”
“I hear that stuff’s useless unless you bathe.”
It was just a hint of a laugh, but it was Carl’s. My skin prickled under my robe and I wrapped my arms around myself.
“Tell Maggie I’m fine. But thanks.”
He took in a deep breath and let it out through his mouth, filling the air with a faint, sweet smell of used beer. “So, nothing. You sure?”
“I’m sure,” I said, feeling a little dizzy.
He stepped back through the open doorway and turned to look at me with his eyebrows squeezed together. “Okay, then.”
I watched him walk out to his truck. For just a second, I squinted my eyes and pretended he was Carl, and it was just some ordinary afternoon. And just for that moment, I felt warm and it felt true.
Something had woken me from a dreamless sleep. My nerves felt tangled as I sat up in bed.
“Christine!” It was Carl and he was calling my name. And only a slight feeling of unease told me something was wrong.
Oh, yes. Carl couldn’t be yelling, because Carl was dead.
It was like the time I thought I’d help him tighten the boards on the deck and I missed a nail—that moment of helplessness in which I had to accept the fact that I’d just pummeled my thumb with the hammer and that very, very soon, a debilitating pain would sweep in and hijack every nerve in my body. And there, in my bed, the promised stab of reality made me sure I was really awake.
“Christine! Open up!”
I got out of bed and walked downstairs, the nuisance of life clinging to me like a needy child.
When I opened the door, Adam brushed past me with four plastic grocery bags dangling from each arm. “Thank you,” he said, a little sarcastically. He released the bags unto the crowded counter and shook his wrists out. “A few more minutes and I would’ve been an amputee. You were sleeping?”
“Yes,” I said, as if I was proud of it. “I told you I didn’t need anything,”
“And I told you Maggie would kill me if I took no for an answer. She nearly did.” He moved his wrists in circles.
“Thanks, but,” I became suddenly aware of something crusted to my cheek and tried to rub it off while he was turned away. “You guys don’t need to feel sorry for me.” It sounded noble, if not convincing.
“No offense, but if I can be honest here,” he glanced at me quickly and turned back to the counter, as if to study the chipped Formica. “You’re the widow. You can sleep and sulk, and walk around in your robe while everyone tiptoes around you. I’m just a guy with a dead brother,” He let out a long breath through his teeth like a tire going flat, and groped through the bags. He pulled out a beer and popped the lid. “Yeah, I feel just a little bit sorry for myself. Pretty pathetic, I know.”
I held my breath and tried to think of the right thing to say, if there was such a thing. “I’m….so.” Sorry, was the line running as if on a loop in my head. But self-absorbed was more honest.
But before I could speak, I had to catch the can of beer that was flying toward my face. “Your reflexes still work. That’s good news,” he said. “If plans had gone right, that would have been a fifth of vodka sailing towards you, but the liquor stores were closed.”
I sat down at the kitchen table and opened the beer he’d thrown me. I wiped the foam that spilled over with the sleeve of my robe. “I’m sorry.” There. I had said it, even if it did sound like my consolations were directed toward the liquor store situation.
He snorted. “You know what someone asked me? If he was my only brother.” He looked at me to see if I understood. I took a swallow of beer to try to hide the fact that I didn’t. “My only brother. Like he’s replaceable. Like, oh, his brother died, but it’s okay because he had a spare.”
His laugh was the kind that makes people clear their throats and change the subject, but I didn’t feel like doing either. I took another sip from my can and let the bubbles burst on my tongue.
“Wish I did have a spare,” he said, before taking a lavish swallow.
“Who asked you that?” I asked him, more to diffuse his words, which were just hanging there like a thick fog.
“Some nutcase at the funeral. I didn’t know her. I think she was there for a free lunch.”
I hoped it wasn’t my therapist.
He crumpled up his beer can and aimed for the overfull trashcan. It ricocheted off an empty can of Pedigree and landed on the lusterless tile floor. Adam laughed again, this time amused. “I’ll take care of it after the groceries.”
He reached into the first bag. “Milk and cereal,” he said, displaying them. “Easy stuff. You don’t have to think at all.” He loaded the milk into the refrigerator.
“Cap’n,” he corrected me. “And some cucumbers for your eyes. Maggie says they’ll take down the swelling. I figured that’s why you had those Terminator things on.” He looked over at me. “Looks like I was right.”
“Those were Carl’s,” I said, a little defensively. I imagined him calling Maggie from his car to report in. Well, she still has a pulse, but she looks like shit.
He handed me a big plastic bottle to load into the fridge. “And some V-8. If you can’t bring yourself to eat, this stuff can keep you alive for, like, years.”
Something else was hurling in my direction. “Toilet paper,” he said. I watched an eight-pack of the pricey billowy stuff land close to the trash-defiant beer can.
Then he modeled – Vanna White-style – a trash-bag-sized portion of Fritos.
“That’s a big bag.”
“Well, it was a choice between ‘fun,’ ‘grab,’ and ‘family.’ I thought ‘family’ was most appropriate.”
It felt nice to smile.
“And a movie.”
He pulled out Spinal Tap, Carl’s favorite. His face got still, as if he wasn’t sure if I would find it funny or upsetting. “What do you think?”
What I was thinking was that he was the closest I’d ever come to Carl again. Ever.
“Do you mind if I…” I gestured to my robe, which for the first time in a week felt more of an encumbrance than a comfort. “Change?”
“I certainly wouldn’t take issue,” he said, with a little smirk.
I went quickly upstairs to take my first shower since the funeral. I pulled a crumpled pair of underwear out of the dryer, shook out my jeans, dusted off my bra, unknotted my matted curls. I even flossed.
“Wow,” he said, as I came down the stairs. He stopped in the front doorway, the full bag of trash over his shoulder like Santa. “A wrist corsage and you’d be ready for the prom.”
When the kitchen was tidied up, he slipped in the tape and sat next to me on the couch. Nixon heard the loud plastic crinkle of the Fritos bag and came downstairs to beg. As the movie played, I slipped handfuls of the salty chips to the dog and Adam laughed in all the right spots. It could have been any Saturday night of my former life.
I was sorting through the stacks of mail when Adam called to ask if I wanted to go out.
“There’s a documentary,” he said.
“With you and Maggie?” I hoped not.
“Just me,” he said, a little apologetically. “It’s a nature film. Maggie says she’s sick of real life. She actually told me to call you.”
“Well, she told me to call a friend,” he said. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”
His white pickup pulled into the driveway at six sharp, when I was still working on my makeup. I greeted him with only one eye finished. I told him I looked like Marilyn Manson. He told me that wasn’t quite the Marilyn he’d compare me to. I smiled and sashayed back upstairs to finish the job.
When I started back down the stairs, face complete, he was lying back in the recliner in front of the TV, his feet raised toward me. I stopped and stared. The black hair. The flannel shirt. The worn soles of his shoes. It was a still-life of my world two weeks ago.
He looked up and laughed. “What’s up? Don’t I look okay?”
“Yes. You look,” Like you belong there. “Like you found the beer.”
He gave me a goofy smile.
At the movie, our fingers kept touching in the barrel-sized vat of popcorn, and when they did, little jolts of either guilt or giddiness charged through me. I decided I was just plain giddy. We were watching a documentary about geese and I was growing restless, after all. What did I have in common with a goose?
After we’d eaten more than any two sane adults should, he wiped my greasy fingers with a napkin. He even polished the oily popcorn sheen off my wedding ring. But he didn’t let go of my hand.
I blinked back my tears, and laughed at myself for almost crying, and reinvented every second of my recent life. With the room dark and our hands clinging together, it was just like the accident never happened at all.
He hadn’t hugged me since the funeral, but now he and I were standing in my kitchen in a full-on embrace.
I’d been clever. I had even called Maggie myself. Of course, I knew it was a night she was teaching, but I pretended that I’d forgotten—which is completely forgivable when you’re a new widow. Nearly everything is.
She was so nice when she gave her regrets after I’d rattled off everything I was already preparing—sesame chicken with ginger sauce and fresh peas. I even embellished a homemade lime sorbet. “Oh, please don’t let it go to waste on account of my schedule,” she said. “Adam would love to come. Just send him home with a doggie bag!” She was speaking in one of those overly emotive voices that people often use on children, which disturbed me only because I found her tone comforting.
“Will do.” The casual confidence of the phrase felt foreign on my lips.
“I’ll make sure he knows to be there by seven,” she said.
So there we were, in the middle of my kitchen, my nose buried in his neck. I wanted him to smell like Carl. Instead he smelled like the beers I had plied him with.
“I’ll be back.” I broke away and headed for the bathroom.
“Where you going?” Was it my imagination or were his words starting to slur?
“Just stir the sauce, will you?”
I rifled through the medicine cabinet. There it was – Carl’s aftershave. I flipped open the top and breathed in the soapy menthol scent that I never knew I would miss. Magic! Why hadn’t I been huffing this stuff? I dabbed some on my hands, rubbed them together like I’d seen him mindlessly do almost every day of the past seven years, walked back to the kitchen and massaged my fingers into the back of Adam’s neck.
“Relax,” I said, wrapping my arms around him, nestling my head into his shoulders, closing my eyes and inhaling my past. “Want another beer?”
I woke up with the receiver already at my ear, having reflexively picked up the ringing phone. “Hi,” I said. I sounded like Courtney Love coming down from a three-day bender.
Her voice shook. “Adam hasn’t made it home and it’s almost two a.m.”
I opened my eyes, blinked through the goopy stuff and nearly rolled off the couch. My left foot was cupped in his hand. His head had fallen to the side and was making a little slobber circle on the shoulder of his faded red polo. His body labored with every raspy snort of breath—unbecoming but reassuring signs of life.
“He’s here,” I said, obviously not thinking that through. He’s alive, my fuzzy brain wanted to add.
“He’s there?” I wasn’t sure if she was angry or just anxious, so I nudged him with the phone. He could do the explaining. He woke up with a squeak, as if trying to scream in his sleep.
“Who?” Not the right thing to say when the phone is a foot from your face.
“Here,” I said, putting the receiver to his ear.
He pushed my foot off his lap and wiped his drool-drenched cheek. “Hello?”
Now he was pacing, saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” I fidgeted with my wedding ring. It was getting loose.
“Yeah, I’ll be right there.”
After a curt apology, he clicked off the phone and handed it back. “Any idea where my shoes are?”
He sounded flustered. “I’m fine. Now, where are my shoes?”
I pointed to the brown loafers by the back door before I remembered they were Carl’s. Not that it mattered. Not that he noticed.
I went to his office with a boxful of Carl. The receptionist remembered me and was extra nice—I still had that widow’s halo. She told me I could wait in his office.
He stopped when he saw me, and looked both ways down the hall before he came in. “Everything okay?”
“Everything’s great,” I said and meant it.
He shut the door and I rose to hug him. I took a deep breath and smelled Carl. He’d been wearing the aftershave ever since I stuffed the bottle into his jacket pocket. His hug ended before mine did, but I was sure it was because the phone rang.
It was Maggie calling. My stomach churned while he was talking to her—mostly in monosyllables—and I wasn’t sure whether I needed a cracker or a confessional. Luckily I had a Lorna Doone in my purse.
When he hung up, his face was a little red. “Sorry,” he said. “She was just checking in.”
I just smiled and opened the box I’d brought. “I think you’d like great in this,” I said, holding up Carl’s purplish oxford shirt—he’d called it ‘merlot,’ and it was the threshold of his sophistication. Then the blue-striped tie that he credited with landing him the job at the dealership. The no-iron khakis that I always ironed anyway. The cozy blue sweatshirt with ‘Teamwork!’ across the front that he won at some sales retreat in Miami. Like they needed sweatshirts in Miami.
“Think you’ll wear them?” I asked, but I was already pushing the box across his desk.
“Sure,” he said, with a weak laugh.
“He’d want you to have them.” I circled around his desk and kissed his cheek. Even his ears were red.
“I better walk you out now,” he said. Little beads of sweat were forming just above that familiar curve in his upper lip. “I’m pretty swamped today.”
When we walked down the hall, I noticed he was wearing the brown loafers. I smiled, knowing I was gluing my life back together, piece by piece. Step by step.
A car pulled into the driveway and Nixon barked just like he used to. I put down my mug of wine and got out of bed. It was Adam’s pickup. The knock was more of a pounding so I yelled down, “Just a second.” My pulse raced as I pulled off my mangy sweats and stepped into jeans. I threw my bulky sweater to the floor and pulled on the most fetching T-shirt I could find, gathered my tangled hair into an emergency ponytail. The knock came again.
“Hold your horses,” I yelled, sounding annoyed despite my excitement. It had been two whole days since he’d made any effort to see me; he could stand to wait another millisecond.
I ran down the stairs with Nixon panting at my heels and threw the door open.
“Can I talk to you?” Maggie asked, looking more like a widow than me.
I’d turned into a pretty good liar, but not a very fast one, so I let her in.
She made a bee-line for the couch, her cropped hairstyle looking like some type of spiky defense mechanism. I offered her some wine—the bottle on my nightstand upstairs was nearly full—but she shook her head and stared vacantly at the rug, which I noticed had developed some type of synthetic mange. “I don’t know what’s going on with Adam.”
“How about some lemonade then?” It had always been her favorite.
She shook her head again. She took off her heavy glasses and squeezed between her eyes. “Have you seen him lately?”
I shrugged. “Here and there. You sure you’re not thirsty?”
“Okay, fine.” She didn’t need to act so exasperated.
As I came back from the kitchen and handed her the glass, she said, “I know this has been tough for us all—you and Adam especially.” Without so much as a placating sip, she put the glass on the side table and let her shoulders sag. “It’s just, he’s been so unavailable.”
I thought of all the clichés that had appeared on my doorstep, in my mailbox, on my answering machine in the last month or so. “You know, they say, time heals all wounds.” I recited, with a sick feeling in my gut. It was the equivalent of there, there, I knew, but I couldn’t risk losing my life all over again.
I knew the look she gave me. It was the same wide-eyed, almost tight-lipped one the lady cop gave me when they came to tell me Carl had run his car into the tree. Did he maybe have a drinking problem, the cop wanted to know, and her stare was one of both sympathy and blame.
Maggie took a deep breath and let her head rest back against the couch—roughly the same spot her husband had drooled on a couple of weeks before. “I hope you’re right,” she said. Her face softened and she turned to me with a polite but distant Emily Post smile.
I gave her what I intended to be a lived-and-learned Ann Landers one back.
“He does seem to find a lot of solace in you. I guess you’re his last link to Carl.” She picked at her cuticle and looked lost in the carpet again. “God, it’s just that….I don’t feel like I know who he is anymore.”
“Yeah,” I said dumbly.
“You’ve seen it too? You’ve noticed?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but it was empty. Her eyes started to gape open and she brought a hand to her mouth. “Oh my god, listen to me. Here I am, telling all my troubles to you when you’ve lost your—” Her mouth kept moving but her voice had stopped.
I finally breathed. “It’s okay.”
“No, no, it was…” Her fingernail was tearing away at the side of her thumbnail. “I was… God, I’m sorry.”
“It’s really okay.”
She stilled her hands and stared over at the glass of lemonade. Several long minutes went by before she spoke. “You do seem to be doing so much better. I’m really glad.”
“I think that’s why I sat here and droned on. You seem to be doing so well.” She patted my knee, before getting up to leave. “Adam should be home any minute.”
She never touched her lemonade.
I asked him to meet me at the dog park. He didn’t answer quickly enough. “Hey, you’re the one who gave him Nixon,” I wanted it to sound like playful teasing. He didn’t seem to find anything fun about it at all, but said he’d be there.
It was sunny and cool outside, but the dog park was a fenced lot of thawed mud. Not that it mattered to Nixon. I let him off the leash and watched him run like a freed prisoner—and hump like one too—for a while before I saw Adam’s broad-shouldered silhouette plodding toward me, the sun bearing into his back. He had something in his hand.
“I can’t stay.” He placed a brand-new leash in my hand. “Maggie’s in the car waiting. I told her you forgot Nixon’s leash.”
I felt the line starting to form between my eyebrows, and reached my arms toward him. It was the short series of pats on my back that I chose to ignore. I took a deep breath of him, but smelled only used beer. No soapy menthol scent.
“I’ll call you later,” he said, walking away.
Just then Nixon saw him and charged toward him at full speed. He jumped up, his paws landing on Adam’s hip. “Down boy,” he said, but Nixon was too enamored to listen—all these weeks of pent-up emotion. Adam walked toward the gate with the dog practically attached to his leg. “Get this dog neutered,” he called to me from the gate, crimson with aggravation and embarrassment.
I replayed the whole exchange over and over again in my head before his exit struck me as funny. Too bad Carl missed it. It wouldn’t have taken him an hour to laugh.
My therapist called. “Haven’t heard from you in a while,” she said, as if she were an old friend. “Thought we might schedule a visit?”
That’s what she liked to call them—visits, instead of sessions. It had always irked me, but now it made me want to scream.
“Actually, I’m doing really well,” I said. I actually sounded quite charming.
She just made a sound like hmmm. I thought about mashing the phone down on its receiver at that point but realized that might make me seem a little unstable.
“No one gets through this easily,” she said.
Now I made the hmmm sound. It didn’t seem to bother her at all.
“Are you eating? Regular meals?”
“I’m even cooking,” I said. “I had a friend over for dinner just the other night.” I didn’t mention that ‘the other night’ was nearly a month ago, that we drank ‘dinner,’ or that my ‘friend’ was my dead husband’s brother.
“Good.” She seemed skeptical. “And how’s work?”
I also didn’t tell her that I’d played the widow’s card and called in for extended leave. I especially didn’t tell her that I didn’t plan on ever going back.
“Great. I might be up for a promotion.” I didn’t know why I was lying. Maybe I was just getting too much practice.
“Well, I’d like to see you. I hope you’ll schedule a visit soon.”
“I will.” There I go again.
My left hand.
It was the first thing Adam noticed when I met him for dinner. Not my new dress, not my new haircut. In fact, he’d barely looked me in the eyes when his eyes flickered down to my hand—stripped naked for the first time in nearly seven and a half years.
“I’m getting it resized,” I said. “Didn’t I tell you?”
He was quiet as he sat down. He took a sip of water, and said something about the power of denial, about moving on, but I was too busy trying to catch our waiter’s attention to listen. I’d already ordered him a drink some time ago and wondered why it wasn’t already here.
“So how was your day?”
“Pretty crappy.” He loosened his tie—a silvery one I’d never seen before—and looked around nervously. “That drink couldn’t come a minute too early.”
When it did, he took a sip and drew back like he’d gotten a mouthful of soured milk. “What’s this?”
“Gin and tonic. What do you think?”
“I don’t drink gin,” he said, finally looking at me.
“It’s Beefeater, even.” Boy, he was so ungrateful sometimes.
He placed the cocktail on the side of the table and took another sip of water.
The waiter came to take our order. “Let me guess,” I said to Adam, smiling. “Filet mignon.” His favorite.
He paused, rubbed the back of his neck and asked the waiter for a bowl of minestrone soup.
“Minestrone soup?” I asked, trying to laugh off the back stab of betrayal.
“Maggie actually made dinner reservations tonight. I’m sorry.” He sneaked a glance at his watch and didn’t sound sorry. Not in the least.
My heart twisted. I stared at the shrinking ice cubes in my ice tea.
We didn’t say much through the single-course dinner, and his eyes were focused mostly on the bottom of his glass—double vodka rocks, stupid me. When he finished, he slowly took hold of my naked hand. “We’ve got to stop this. You’ve got to stop.”
My lip started to twitch and I felt my face felt plump with blood and tears. I couldn’t fathom this coming to an end. I couldn’t fathom another end at all.
He mumbled some type of apology and stood up to leave.
As he walked away, I called after him. He turned and glared at me with sagging eyes. “It’s Adam, Christine.”
“My name’s Adam.”
Kiera Stewart is a freelance writer living in Vienna, VA, and working on her first novel, THE YEAR OF THE COCK.