My husband doesn’t look like himself now that he is dead.
It’s that placid expression on his face; it’s completely wrong. Martin never looked that serene while alive. I should have asked the mortuary to do something about it, but it’s too late now. They can’t just wheel him out, casket and all, to the back of the church to touch him up. The peculiarly tranquil look will have to do.
I know people will probability blather on; they will say it was my doing. The ones who know about the events last Thursday may even take it as a final ‘screw you’ on my part. The rest might see it as a grieving widow’s ill-advised good intentions. I had no part in it. Now, the pink shirt under the suit is a different matter altogether: that is indeed for my own private amusement.
The last time I locked eyes with my husband, his face was barely visible, protruding ever so slightly from between a woman’s open legs. It was my fault: I deviated from our routine. Had there not been a misunderstanding with the reservations at the restaurant, I would have taken longer to finish my meal, and he would have had sufficient time to finish his before I returned home.
I knew about the women. It was to be expected—we hadn’t touched in years. I can’t remember who stopped first, and it no longer matters. Martin and I argued about everything, and his solution was to flee. The first few times, I rebuked myself for irritating him with my quirks or pressuring him with questions about work. I was certain that if I could just be a better wife, he wouldn’t need to leave to seek peace, but find it in my company. Eventually I wised up: I was a good wife; he was just a lousy husband.
People arrive in droves and pile into the church. I’m not surprised. Martin was popular, but the fact that the ushers have to keep pointing me out to mourners so they can express their condolences is a testament to my role in his life—or perhaps I don’t look distraught enough to be a widow. Even my friends’ support is laced with hesitation. Still, no one has asked the one question on everyone’s mind, whether or not I killed him.
I wish I could take credit for his death. I am not sure I can. My last words to him were, ‘Just die, Martin,” which he then proceeded to do. He clutched his chest, a horrid grimace on his face, toppled over, and rolled down the stairs. I must say that, sadly, this was the only time he so summarily complied with one of my requests. He rolled past me in a blur of flailing arms and legs. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, I heard a hideous noise which took me back to my short stay at my uncle’s chicken farm in Kentucky: the unmistakably unique snapping sound of a neck breaking.
The medical examiner’s report, required by the insurance company, stated Martin had a heart attack–the product of exertion from his sexual arousal and the jog to catch up with me as I ran out of the house, even if those details won’t make it to the official document. The cause of death, however, was trauma to the neck. He might have survived had it not been for the fall.
Of course, I didn’t completely mean what I said to him—it was merely an expression of frustration. His infidelity suited both of us. I had no problem with him taking his prurient needs elsewhere, as long as I could pretend not to know. When the lid was violently blown off, I could no longer keep up the pretense. I knew I would have to consider the unthinkable: divorce. I would much rather be a widow than a divorcee–no messy division of assets or unnecessary airing of dirty laundry. Death is tidier.
Only my dreams betray me now. Martin is in them nightly. His actions are not the kind that belonged to him in life, at least not in the last ten years. He is nicer, softer. They are vivid dreams, and every morning, in the protective cuddle of my somnolence, I relive the loss and begin my mourning anew, the way a woman who loved her husband might. Until I am awake enough to remember. Then the feelings recede, and I am numb again.
“At some point, you have to give in to it, and let yourself feel it, Ginger,” my psychiatrist said the day before the funeral. My best friend thought she was doing me a favor by summoning professional help. I don’t even know why I saw the woman twice a week for eight years. I have never been much for emotional vomiting.
“There is no pain.”
“Anger then.” She knew about the women.
“Fuck him,” I said. “There. That’s as much anger as I am willing to invest in him.”
Once the funeral and the reception are over, and everyone has cleared out of the house, I decide to box up Martin. I feel the urge to eradicate all traces of him from the house and reclaim his space as mine. I start by removing every single one of his photographs and replacing them with pictures of friends and family. It’s funny how the absence of photographs can almost negate someone’s entire existence. I do not burn them or shred them. I organize, box, and label his belongings. Later, I’ll ship them to my daughter under the pretext that I miss him so much that seeing his stuff around only upsets me. I have spared Trish the truth about her father—just because I have no love or respect left for the man, it doesn’t mean she should be deprived of either.
The bedroom is easy enough. Martin all but exiled himself from it years ago. His insomnia worsened over the last decade, and he spent most nights reading in his study. I can’t remember the last time he was in bed next to me when I awoke. Still, after clearing his nightstand, I dispose of the old cotton sheets and replace them with new satin ones, the type that Martin couldn’t sleep on because of his allergies. It is a silly detail, but it feels like an act of emancipation.
I tackle the walk-in closet and bathroom next. His wardrobe, which consists of expensive high couture suits and ridiculous golf outfits, fits into two large boxes; his toiletries don’t even amount to half a trash bag. I move to the kitchen, where I discard the take-out menus and frozen gourmet dinners that were the mainstay of his diet.
There isn’t a trace of him left anywhere except in his study, his lair. It is the last room I pack up. Unfortunately, I can’t just dump the contents into a box. I have to leaf through paperwork more thoroughly. There are important documents I need. I have promised his partners I will gather all material pertaining to the company for them. Gene, our lawyer, will be by within the week to sort out most of the affairs. Even if he failed as a husband, Martin was a good provider. He made sure I would be taken care of financially in his absence.
Being in his room feels inappropriate. I am an intruder in my own home. After we stopped communicating, Martin took to locking himself up in his study as soon as he set foot in the house, only venturing out for sporadic morning jaunts to the garden and frequent sojourns to the kitchen and bathroom. The room smells of stale cigar smoke—Montecristos, if I remember correctly—and his Polo aftershave.
His desk and cabinets are in utter disarray. There is no apparent logic or pattern to his filing. Nothing that merits the term ‘method.’ I start sifting though the papers in no particular order, making provisional piles. In the back left corner of his top desk drawer, tucked under a manila folder, lies a stack of papers secured with a rubber band: letters. There are a few dozen of them, addressed to his P.O. Box in round, neat cursive: a woman’s handwriting. The sender is Dinah Peterson—a name I recognize. I know her as an industry associate, but it is obvious from the care that has gone into safeguarding these letters that they are no ordinary business correspondence.
I hesitate, unsure whether I want to be privy to details. The call girls were one thing; he had expensive taste and his indiscretions routinely showed up on our joint credit card statements, suitably tagged as ‘entertainment.’ I’d even assumed he’d had the occasional fling while out of town. This is different—a protracted relationship presupposes a level of intimacy I am content to believe he was no longer capable of. A stable partner would mean he just wasn’t capable of it with me. I open the envelope with the most recent postmark date, take out the single page, and unfold it.
I received your letter yesterday, and it made me smile. I’m glad Trish is doing well in Prague. It reminded me of our trip through Europe. Do you remember? We were so young. We knew so little. And yet, we were so very happy.
It’s great to know business is good. I never fret about your finances. You were always destined to do well. Maybe you ought to relax a bit, take some time off. It would give you and Ginger the time you need to find each other again. It sounds like things haven’t improved. I’m so sorry. I could sense the sadness in your tone.
Talk to her, Martin. Tell her you are sorry—as many times as it takes. It can’t be easy for her to forgive; or forget, for that matter. Why can you tell me how much you love her and miss her, but you can’t tell her? If she knew, she might change her mind. I admire her. She is a stronger woman than I am, Martin. Had you done that to me, I would have walked away.
Anyway, that’s irrelevant now. Everything here is going well. Of course I will keep you posted on the new venture. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
For the first time in a decade, I cry—mostly for the blunders, and the words that will remain unspoken; for the expanse between us, which we were unwilling or unable to traverse, and the needs we starved, originally out of spite, and then just out of habit.
One letter isn’t enough to undo the damage inflicted over years of indifference and neglect, sadness and loneliness. Yet I decide to keep one picture of Martin and me. It sits on the desk in his study. It’s a candid Trish took with her first camera, before photography became her life. Even then, before the pricey art college tuition and the even more expensive soul-searching year in Europe, she had a natural flair for composition. She captured the essence of what we had been. Martin stands behind me, holding my body to his. We are both laughing and looking away from the camera, squinting at the setting sun.
Life without Martin is not that different than it has been for the last decade. Still, when the need strikes, when I find myself in a wistful mood, I unlock the door to Martin’s room. I sit at his desk while one of his Montecristos smolders away, perched on the glass ashtray. Sometimes I pull out Dinah’s letter and reread it. Occasionally, I cry. But when the craving for nostalgia subsides, as it inevitably does, I return the note to the drawer, snuff out the cigar, turn off the lights and lock Martin back up in his room.
“I am not going to be angry,” she told herself as anxiety took her stomach hostage. “Anger is weakness.”
She was starting to regret her decision; she shouldn’t have come. She had planned this trip with the sole purpose of making peace with the site—an exorcism of sorts. She had been hoping for closure, not resentment.
Walking the same streets she had walked so often, the odd sense of familiarity surprised her. Despite the fact that she had not set foot in New York City for twenty years, she knew the way. Completely oblivious to her commands, her eyes combed the surroundings for evidence of him. She read a hint of recognition into every red head of hair in the crowd. Perhaps she was looking for proof that he had indeed existed, that he hadn’t been her creation, a grotesque figment of her overactive teenage imagination.
Before she realized, she was there, on her old street—his street. Being this close, even as violently distressing as it felt, was a private act of defiance, proof that she had survived, confirmation that there had been life after him and in spite of him. Coming to Manhattan had been an exercise in assertion, an opportunity to reclaim the city as hers also; a tiny step towards the larger goal of seeing it as a neutral location and not as his domain, a place where she needed his permission to exist.
Part of her was incensed that he had mattered this much, that he still had this grip on her mind, that he had been the reason she had spent five years in an institution after a psychotic episode. The scars of his transgressions were invisible. The only physical evidence, in the shape of thin scars across her arms and legs and two thicker ones along her wrists, he had inflicted by proxy; self-harm had been the main outlet for her torment, a materialization of his abuse expressed through her own hands.
From the corner where she stood, she counted down the doors. It was the sixth one on the right, number seventeen. She let her eyes travel from the door up to the window. How many times had she stared out from it, trying to focus on something other than how he felt inside her? She became instantly overwhelmed.
Something moved across the room, and she instinctively sought refuge, fearing recognition. If he saw her, then maybe she’d somehow be his again. She knew her fear was unfounded. She was thirty-five now, and she did not look like the fifteen-year-old he had preyed upon. She wouldn’t have even if she had not had the nose job and the cheek implants ten years before, when she was still desperate to escape from herself, from her past, to crawl outside the boundaries of her skin, as if physical morphing might somehow signify a rebirth and a chance to get it right.
Lost in her own thoughts, she had started to walk towards the buildings. She stopped in front of number fifteen. The pavement in front of the door still bore the E and C she had traced on that hot day when the concrete seemed to be taking forever to dry. She wondered whether Eliza still lived there as well. She had meant to keep in touch with her. She had written several letters but could never bring herself to mail them. It was almost as if she didn’t want any part of her in New York—not even an extension of her, in the shape of something she had written.
The first time she had met Eliza, Celeste had been sitting on the curb, disoriented and numb, unaware blood was trickling down her inner thighs and dripping onto the pavement. A year younger than Celeste, Eliza had had the presence of mind to comfort her and take her up to her apartment, where she’d helped her out of her clothes and into a hot bath.
A door opened, and an older woman walked out. Celeste recognized Irene Wolf immediately. She looked older and exhausted, but she still had those unique dimples, even if they were now forming on sagging skin. Irene waved her hand from side to side to attract her attention.
“If you are here about the room, you’re at the wrong door, dear,” she said as she motioned her to come over; to Celeste’s relief, there was no trace of recognition in Irene’s eyes.
“I’m Mrs. Wolf. Come in, dear,” she said moving out of the way to let her in. “I’m sure you want to have a look. Shall we?”
Celeste followed the old lady into the building and up the narrow staircase. The place still smelled of spices from Mrs. Pathak’s kitchen. She used to make the most delicious Indian dishes and let Eliza and her sample them until they were stuffed. She would let them watch her cook and tell them stories about monsoon season in her village in Maharastra.
“I’m sorry, dear,” Mrs. Wolf said once in the sitting room, “I don’t think I caught your name.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I’d said,” Celeste responded, briefly disoriented. “I’m…Angela.”
“Oh, you are British.” Her face lit up. “We had a British exchange student once. It seems like ages ago now. Celeste was her name. She was lovely. Actually, the room we’re renting was once hers.”
A loud thud broke the silence. Mrs. Wolf hurried towards the back room. Without even thinking, Celeste followed her. The wooden floorboards creaked under her feet—a noise she had learned to hate.
An older man lay on the floor, groaning. He had fallen out of his wheelchair. His legs were twitching and he sobbed quietly.
“It’s OK, poppet,” Mrs. Wolf said, as she helped him sit up.
Celeste stood in the doorway, inert. The room appeared smaller than she had remembered it, less intimidating. It reeked of bleach, which almost successfully masked the lingering tang of stale urine.
“This is my husband, Charles,” she said as she picked up the chair, which was lying on its side, its wheels still spinning inches away from an oxygen mask attached to a tank. “He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago. That’s why we need to have a tenant. We need the extra money. Would you mind helping me get him back in the chair, dear?” She asked as she sat on her heels carefully.
Celeste didn’t move from the safety of the doorframe. The thought of touching him repulsed her and scared her equally. Mrs. Wolf, who had already assumed her position to hoist her husband up, looked up, her eyes searching hers. Celeste felt the urge to turn around and leave; instead, she walked up to where Charles sat and crouched next to him, imitating Irene’s pose. He looked even worse up close. Badly stained clothes clang to his withered body, which smelled of rancid sweat and cheap cologne. His skin looked parched and scaly and he had a horrible rash on his face. Karma, it seemed, had handled retribution quite appropriately.
On Mrs. Wolf’s count, they both lifted his body above the chair and then down into it. As she was releasing him, he latched on to her wrist with surprising force for an incapacitated man. He locked into her eyes. There was recognition in his.
Celeste tried to pull away but his grip tightened.
“No, darling, this is Angela.” Mrs. Wolf bent over, so that her face was at his eye level, and articulated slowly, as if she were talking to a child. She took his hand off Celeste and held it, patting it lovingly. “She is here about the room.” She straightened up and turned toward Celeste. “I’m so sorry. He is mostly out of it nowadays. He has few coherent moments. He thinks you are the girl who used to stay with us. It must be your accent.” She shook her head, as if trying to thrust aside a clingy thought, perhaps the realization that she hadn’t said a word in his presence. “He just really loved that girl, and he was so sad to see her go.” Her eyes grew misty. “I think she was the daughter we never had. I couldn’t…you know…” she trailed off, her hand reaching for her stomach instinctively.
Celeste shuddered. She had often wondered if Irene had known. She had often thought she had to have known, which made her an accomplice. A thought got stuck in her mind: had Irene given her up in sacrifice, to compensate for her inability to give him a child?
“Oh dear.” Mrs. Wolf looked agitated. Celeste followed the old woman’s eyes. Charles’s leg was bleeding and the blood was soaking the leg of his pajama pants. “And I haven’t bought new bandages. Would you mind terribly if I just ran to the corner store?”
Before Celeste could digest those words, let alone react, Irene was gone. She was alone again with him—a moment she had dared envision only in her most intimate daydreams. Except in her fantasies, he was still young and healthy and she had become, by some sort of divine intervention, a heroine equipped with a range of superpowers, which included an insoluble courage and a mean right hook.
She’d pictured herself kicking him to the ground, standing over him, finally telling him exactly what he had done. How he had, in one drunken afternoon, robbed her of her ability to trust. How he sent her home a broken girl, repulsed by even the once familiar touch of her own father. How he had molded her to his desire: nihilistic, prone to self-harm and self-destruction.
But words were meaningless now. It was true he couldn’t hurt her anymore, but it wasn’t by virtue of her inner strength. He had been rendered frail, vulnerable. The victory didn’t belong to her but to chance.
“Celeste?” He said.
“I’m sorry,” he started. He was holding her eyes, and she saw the expression in his change. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, his tone completely different, “I didn’t fuck you more often while I had the chance.”
He started giggling, like a little boy. His body convulsed as the laughter poured out more freely, becoming a cackle, then a cough, until he was wheezing. His thin arm shot out, his index finger pointing insistently. Celeste followed his gaze toward the oxygen tank. She looked back at Charles, whose lips were quickly losing their soft pink hue in favor of a faint bluish tint. And all she could do was stand. Stand and watch him run out of precious breath. The anger she had been holding back rose in her uncontained, uncontainable. She lowered herself so their eyes were level. His breaths, shallow and labored, came at longer intervals.
“Well, Charles,” she said with a viciousness of which she didn’t know she was capable, “I guess you can consider this me fucking you.”
With that, she walked out of the room, dragging behind her the oxygen tank, which she stashed under piles of heavy winter coats in the closet by the entrance, before leaving the apartment, the building, and getting lost among the masses on the street.