She buttons her shirt neck to navel, tugging on the hem to straighten faint wrinkles. Beneath the plaid covering bra and breasts, no stranger would suspect she is one body containing half a person.
With strangers she finds her solace. Teens bagging wine bottles at the grocery store and dour civil servants at the post office do not see the empty space inside her. They stare past her, giving her pain anonymity. It is their lack of knowledge that sustains her when she drives far out of her way to strange supermarkets and bank branches never visited before. The familiar aches, memory’s light reminding her she has no shadow.
She folds the comforter, spreading it across the back of the couch. Fluffs the throw pillows and places them in the corners, arranging them as though she were a real person who sleeps in a bed and not in front of a muted television, covered in a quartet of cats she can’t believe are hers alone. They mewl, purr, knead, and hiss, vying for the little spaces beside and atop her. She can’t decide if their behavior has changed or if they always acted this way. The past is an uncertain blur of things forgotten, uncertainties, unknowns. The angles of the bygone slump sideways and she is unable to right them, to remember how life had been, how life should be. Each memory raises a question, not of what she remembers, but what she didn’t see.
She scoops litter, feeds the cats, washes her hands, and grinds coffee. Aside from the patter of padded feet, the sound of kibble clinking in metal bowls, the quiet whirl of her refrigerator, the house is silent. Every sound she makes, socks slipping across linoleum, coffee mug meeting counter, spoon measuring grounds, seems a blasphemous cacophony. Filling up so much space with herself.
Milk for her coffee. An orange for breakfast. She hates all the foods she once cherished. Pleasing to her palate, the presence of them alone in her fridge reminds her there is no more negotiating over grocery lists, no more conversations over her preference in apple varieties or colors of corn. She makes these choices independent of outside influence, buying tofu to scramble instead of eggs, blue cheese instead of chevre, oatmeal instead of boxed cereals. A lone box of Honey O’s gathers dust in the pantry, waiting for someone who wants to eat it.
She’s making adjustments slowly. Her clothes in the top drawers. His in the bottom. She puts their books back on the shelves in any order she pleases. She tells herself this is progress, one moved item, one pair of torn boxers thrown away. She swept his beard trimmings off of the sink and into a Dungeon Master’s Guide that rests atop a pile of his unfinished reading material next to the couch. She runs her fingers over its smooth cover at night, feeling the dips and dents from years of use. Wondering if his deep laugh echoed in his heart, wondering if the joy she felt with him belonged to her alone, hoping he found spaces within his darkness to experience joy.
She leaves the bedroom to him. His phone still plugged in. His computer closed. His tablet’s black screen gathering dust. She doesn’t respond to rings or dings. Intruders from outside get the same silence she receives. Glowing cords and charging lights form a shrine to technology, to connectivity, to lifelessness. A tumbler is ringed with lime scale from slow evaporation. His thick glasses are still folded by the bed. She doesn’t like how the sunlight filters through the curtains, casting the room in a reddish glow.
The loneliness is hard. Grief is harder. But, guilt is what lies between her past and her future. Her perception of what was is saturated with smiles, happiness, laughter. Hard times only heralded good times that were to come. Their life together was a structure built by two pairs of hands, each laying bricks from blueprints upon which they both agreed. It rose through their years together, foundation to floors, walls to roof. She never stopped to check if his foundation was solid, if his mortar was strong, if his walls had wide windows to allow in enough light.
She tries to see their life through his eyes. She tries to see the hopelessness. And can’t. The house always seemed strong to her, an edifice of which they both could be proud. She saw sagging lintels and thought they secured them. She smoothed plaster over the cracks. She painted over leaks in the ceiling. Difficulties arise, she told herself. Breaks can be fixed, holes plugged, floors sanded. What she saw as process, he saw as decay. What she saw as fixed always remained broken.
There comes a point at which something is broken beyond repair. Ruined beyond resurrection. She couldn’t understand how he saw himself as one of those things. She didn’t understand until she was a broken thing herself, dragging her feet through a home that belonged to them.
She spins her empty coffee mug on the kitchen table, hearing it scrape against the finished wood.
He took himself and half of her. He died. They died. And she alone is left to ache over cracks she tried to fix, signs she might have missed. Memories agonize over what could have been done differently, but she has only half the brain with which to wonder. Half a heart, which beats without reason.