Eddie says things must change between us, that they can’t be as before.
“Because I’m not here anymore, not really.” He has tried to explain it in too many ways now and has reverted to one that is cryptic, imprecise.
“Then maybe you can stop moving the furniture,” I say, stepping out of the shower.
“Don’t change the subject, Alice.”
“I’m not sleeping in the goddamn living room, Eddie. Move the bed back.”
He’s been reading the latest book my mother bought me on grieving. I’m still in the first stage, he says, the one where I won’t believe it. I have given up arguing with him on this point. Because most ghosts - the real ones - you can’t actually see, and it lets you get on with things.
I made the mistake of asking my mother, asking her if she thought death was really the end. You need to stop talking about death, Alice. Reproach in her voice. People will think you’re fixated. She started buying me books that Eddie can calmly recount to me, waiting until part of me succumbs to the want for him to hold me, or sing to me the way he used to, to look tenderly at my nakedness as I undress.
At first, I thought I was squarely losing my marbles. Of course, I did. When he first was gone, I was sleeping in his clothes, cocooned in the oversized arms and legs, smelling what was left of his sweat. I told myself the pain and the longing were making me see things. But his scent left over time - the spicy cleanliness of it - and the muddy smell of life settled over top of it. He started appearing more frequently over the weeks until he was always here.
He is cross-legged on the floor now with his back pressed to the wall, the crooked black curls of his hair fuzzing in the steam from the shower. His face can’t hurt me the way it used to. I notice today that its rounded, jutting bones, the soft mouth, don’t make the back of my throat itch quite as much as yesterday. And the heavy ache between my collarbones; that’s been gone for months now. I unearth clean scrubs from the laundry basket, impatiently shaking the wrinkles out of them.
“I need to go to work now,” I say.
He wants to keep talking, I can tell he’s ready to pout. But suddenly his teeth are showing, and he says “I’m thinking about getting a cat.”
I start to remind him he’s allergic to cats but stop myself. Because it is one of the things that is no longer true.
“You should go.” These words are thin now, worn to the point of meaninglessness.
“I will.” He says this with his new and naked earnestness. But I know he will be here when I get home.
I show him the power button on the TV. He forgets where it is nowadays. Pulling a wool cap over my wet hair, I shoulder my workbag and lean away from the comforting weight of it. I swing the door shut to a soft electric click, the hollow sounds of a circuit coming to life.
The bus is a few minutes late, but it’s early enough in the day that the windows haven’t yet started to sweat from the wetness on shoes, the moisture in people’s breath. A man near the front shifts his briefcase meaningfully, and as I pass his cologne introduces itself awkwardly - suddenly too close - like a loud noise in my nose.
The shrink asked me a few weeks ago why I cut my hair. Why does anyone cut their hair? I said, Because I needed a change. It seemed dangerous to say that Eddie’s wife had long hair, to tell her how he would press his nose lovingly into the tangles at the back of her skull. I didn’t want to say that I wasn’t that woman anymore. She asked me if I had cut it myself. I lied and said I hadn’t. Something about her questions always seems perverse to me; like she is asking that I pull moments from my body one at a time; sticky and smelling of blood.
I try to tell the truth, though she still doesn’t know about the thing in my house that looks like Eddie. The thing that every day becomes less and less the man I loved and fought and built a life with. Over the months, it has become little more than a clumsy grappling, a perpetual question without form.
I realized almost right away that the things I missed about Eddie were small - minuscule habits and movements and words I thought went unnoticed. The way he settled in to eat or write with his left elbow pressed into the table, and how misplaced things were always in his hands as he absent-mindedly stewarded them home between rooms. The worst; the warmth of his wide palm on my shoulder or back as he lumbered around me in the narrowness of the kitchen. I tell myself that as long as I breathe, there are things I could never forget. But memory is always in motion, and I find the interaction from this morning stealing more space, replacing pieces I want to protect.
Snow is blowing off the roofs and awnings, and commuters find themselves surrounded by powder as fine as flour. They stoop into their coats while the flakes settle into an accidental pattern on the pavement, a frantic scatter.
A day gains momentum; it begins almost softly with the flick of light switches and coffee being made, with gloves being gently tucked into the pockets of coats. It gives way to the ring of phones, the creak and hollow thud of doors, the play of different voices over one another in some inadvertent orchestra.
One of the first patients of the day is a young man with a round nose and small chin, strings of yellow hair combed flat to his head. He’s pale, but the wind outside has whipped circles of colour into the angles of his cheeks. The pockets under his eyes look doughy and bruised; he hasn’t slept. After I take his name, I watch him curl into the clinic’s waiting room detritus; into its familiar cracked vinyl seats, old magazines sagging over laps. When I call someone, they look up, expectant. They want to hear that their bodies are still with them. That the mechanics have not failed. If something is malfunctioning, they rely on the certitude that there will be help: to identify, to prescribe, to stop the decay.
Mrs. Frankl shows up fifteen minutes early and is eating canned peaches out of a Tupperware container with a serving fork. She looks more like a toddler than an old woman; happy, zealous, and out of proportion. Dr. Grant is at my shoulder. He has been at the clinic for only two weeks and is younger than the other doctors. He still moves tentatively, holding his elbows in, his eyes tracking people as he shifts around the chaos of the reception station. I feel - rather than see - his perfectly upright posture, the thick hair on his bulbous wrists, his quiet polished leather shoes.
“Can I see you a moment?”
I nod, watching his pen scribble on his prescription pad. It’s one of those fancy fountain pens; one I’ve seen him fill carefully with expensive ink from a squat glass bottle using a syringe. There are always stains on his fingers, like short words lost at sea.
I walk back to his office, and he holds the door, closing it gingerly behind me.
“Alice, I’m sorry you saw that yesterday. I know it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.”
I see it now. He’s talking about how I found him last night in the bathroom. His coiffed brown hair unravelling over his face, tall frame stooped over a pill crusher on the edge of the sink and the snipped end of a drinking straw in his hand. The pill crusher fell to the floor, emitting a puff of white dust before it skittered behind the toilet. I apologized and shut the door behind me.
“It hasn’t been going on long. I’m getting help.” He reassures me, and I can tell he is accustomed to pretending. “It’s not as bad as it may have…”
“I won’t tell anyone.” My interruption is clipped, factual, but must sound impatient because he looks startled.
Relief slackens his jaw as he falls back into his chair. He is confused, and I realize he didn’t think my silence would be achieved merely by asking.
“Was there anything else?” I ask.
“No... Thank you, Alice.” I pivot towards the door but his words come from behind me, holding me in place “I heard about your husband.” I don’t say anything in reply. “Can I ask what happened?”
“Infective endocarditis.” He knows that is an infection in the heart.
“Did they determine a cause?” There are no innocent questions, though I can’t fault him for asking them.
“No previous surgery. He didn’t… do drugs.” I say “It was just bad luck.” He may know that it’s the five-in-a-hundred-thousand kind of bad luck.
“I’m sorry,” he says. That is what people always say, and you are expected to thank them.
“Thank you, Dr. Grant,” I say.
“I think you’d better call me Matthew” He chuckles silently, his long fingers splaying out helplessly.
“Mrs. Frankl’s in two.” I tap my knuckle on his desk lightly, but hard enough that he looks at it, suspended in the air.
I have thought about all the different kinds of eyes in people’s heads. They can be vacant, or laughing, or knowing of secrets; they can be cold as glass, or shine like wet stones. But I leave his office thinking about how some people are born with eyes that are always afraid.
Eddie has taken up smoking. He steals cigarettes from the French woman across the hall with the houseplants. Her face is blurry in my mind, but I recognize her by the dirt pushed underneath her nails, the way that words come from her throat. I nod at her in the hall as I turn my key in the lock.
These days I come home to a Rolling Stones record. Always the Rolling Stones. Eddie’s asked me to buy more of them, says he’s getting sick of Emotional Rescue. But part of me has become almost accustomed to the girlish play of Mick Jagger’s falsetto. He must have dragged the bed back in the bedroom, but the couch still sits at an odd angle, not parallel to any wall.
He is standing where he often does now, at the window with his head tilted quizzically to one side - his wide back to me. Today he is pressing a hand into the wilderness of frost on the windowpane. But instead of leaving an imprint, the bristles of ice glitter in the orange streetlights; mocking.
Eddie is the one who taught me how to poach an egg, but he follows me to the kitchen and watches with the lazy hiss of the gas in the background. After dropping it into the water, I watch what is clear become translucent, then opaque; then ease the swell onto a scratchy slice of buttered toast.
He barely eats now, nothing but raw rice grains from our wedding that I saved in an envelope. He lines a few of the dusty nubs up on the counter, giving them each a name and exchanging pleasantries before consuming them.
“Hello Russell, cold today, isn’t it? Long time Marjory, you’re looking well.”
I eat slowly, paging through a flyer and pretending not to watch him from the corner of my vision. He suddenly pauses, a smirk painting his face.
“Knock Knock,” he says playfully before the sound is mimicked on the thick wood of the front door.
I am not surprised to see Matthew. His narrow shoulders are slumped into the doorframe, the point of his chin pushed into the vulnerable shadow of his throat.
“I don’t know why I came,” he says.
“OK,” I say, and a silence stretches, like a thread of saliva between parted lips, growing longer and thinner until it snaps and pools at the corner of a mouth.
I open the door wider and turn to let him through. He walks in, miserably apprising the apartment, avoiding my gaze. He rests on a photo of Eddie and I from our first trip to Saskatoon to see his parents, the one where the Toyota gave up and stranded us in Lashburn with nothing but a bag of Cheezies that we shared on a motel bedspread.
“He was handsome,” Matthew says blandly.
“Yes,” I say.
“How long has it been?”
“Just over a year.” I wait a beat before I gently wonder out loud “Are you all right?”
His shoulders shrug, his lips twisting to one side and trembling in a tight knot.
“Sit down,” I say. “I’ll make some tea.”
“Don’t trouble yourself.”
“The water’s boiled, it’s no trouble.”
Eddie is playing solitaire on the scarred kitchen table. The deck is missing cards, and he has drawn an ace of clubs over one of the jokers with a ballpoint pen. He doesn’t look up. I return with the two mugs, tags dangling over the edges.
“What was it like? When he died?” Matthew nudges his chin toward the photograph. I still marvel that people think that such a thing can be explained.
“I don’t remember much. Everything still moved, people asked questions, tasks were completed. But I didn’t feel connected to any of it anymore.”
“And now?” He asks. It is my turn to shrug.
“I see it there, you know, all the time. Death. I know that sounds crazy. It’s just… I spent years studying these complex systems, these bodies.” He looks bewildered “Watching people is like watching air being let out of balloons.” He scrubs the top of his head with his palm. “I’m sorry, that must sound terrible.”
“It doesn’t,” I say, a little startled by his honesty. There is the shuffle of cards, like a fluttering of stiff wings in the next room. I put my mug down on the coffee table.
“I used to be married, you know,” he says “Seven years. She left me.” His left ring finger flexes with the memory of weight.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Don’t be, she left me for someone who actually loved her, and I didn’t have to pretend that I did anymore.” He grasps into his coat pocket and extracts a bent and worn photo from his wallet. A baby with a round face, gumming a wet jellied teething ring.
“Louise.” He chuckles ruefully. “There’s no way I don’t ruin her life. She’s nine now. Old enough to be completely messed up by my shitty choices. It makes me hate myself.”
He lays the photo flat on his thigh, smoothing the creases with his thumbs.
“When she was small; it was amazing. Her first Christmas, it was all about the tissue paper. We spent all this money on clothes and toys that needed batteries, but she couldn’t get over the tissue paper. I would toss it into the air, and let it fall down on her. She’d giggle and squeal, topple over she was laughing so hard. We did that for hours.” I see him smile for the first time – really smile – and blink slowly the way people do when they are remembering.
“Life is so simple at the beginning,” he says.
“And at the end…” I say.
His eyes are suddenly on me, so grey that they are almost colourless. His right hand, thin and cold, hesitates.
After Matthew leaves, Eddie comes in and sits at the foot of the bed. I stare at the ceiling, cartoon faces resolving into the stippled plaster.
“Will the snow go away? The cold?” He asks.
“Yes,” I say. “In a couple of months.”
I remember how he would come to walk me home on cold nights, his thick eyelashes beaded with ice.
The beautiful silence: our footsteps and all the sounds of the city swallowed into the white. He never noticed the way different snows fell to the ground; all the paths to earth.
“I don’t want to leave.” His admission flaps in the air.
“I know.” I sigh “You don’t have to.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“I’ve reached the acceptance phase,” I say, pulling the covers to my chin.
“You skipped the others. Anger, Bargaining, Depression…”
“I really didn’t.” My voice is dry and sure. More sure - I notice - than it has sounded in some time.
“Matthew seems nice,” he offers quietly.
“He’s a junkie,” I say.
“But a doctor…” Eddie grins. “Your mother will love that.”
Stephanie Tamagi is a Pushcart Prize publisher-nominated writer living in Northern Alberta. Her work has previously appeared in Other Voices, Blank Spaces, Just Words, The Avalon Literary Review, and Exile Quarterly. She is a finalist for the Howard O’Hagan Award and is currently working on a short story collection and her first novel.