Caroline sat in the metal chair in the hallway of the hospital, legs crossed at the ankles, hands in her lap, her eyes staring at the tiles in front of her.
So much she would have to do. There were phone calls she would need to make. She would need to contact funeral services, the family accountant, perhaps a lawyer. She would have to let the local papers know and pick a burial plot and take time off of work.
All that, and soon.
But first, she’d have to let people know. She’d have to call up the people she knew. She’d have to call up her family. She’d have to call her children.
Oh God. Her children.
There was a hum in the hallway, a slight and persistent hum whose origin Caroline could not exactly place. Someone was talking on the phone at the nearby nurse’s station, their voice muffled and distant.
Her back was rigid. Her eyes traced the lines of the tiles, following the gentle pattern. Blue tile. Gray tile. Blue tile. Gray.
There was so much that needed to get done, and none of it was on her to-do list even an hour ago. Almost exactly one hour ago, she was finishing up in her office. She was going over everything that needed to be completed, project deadlines menacingly approaching. She was exhausted and drained and annoyed at the fact that she’d have to come home and make a dinner and tend to the house and God knows what her husband would do, if anything.
Then she got a call from her husband’s coworker. Henry had just been rushed to the hospital. Dropped to the floor in the middle of a meeting, with what the EMTs would later say was a heart attack.
Just like that: one minute, sitting in on a meeting and talking and possibly even laughing and the next minute, no heartbeat.
He was gone before Caroline would get there.
The EMTs did everything they could. The doctors did everything they could. They just could not revive him. Deepest condolences.
And now she was spending her evening sitting in an uncomfortable chair. The hum faded and a deep ringing replaced it. She broke her gaze from the tiles and looked around, wondering if anyone else was hearing the ring. All she got was a lonely corridor with one end blocked off by a set of double-doors. A series of doors along the corridor, most of which were latched shut. White walls with gray railings along the side. Fluorescent fixtures that buzzed but didn’t seem to give off any true light.
She’d start with calling her oldest up. She didn’t know what she would say – in fact, she might not say anything, but burst into tears the second she heard her son’s voice, a voice that had the same cadence and melody as Henry’s. She’d work her way down, calling her second child, and then her third. She’d call her father, and cry some more (how much Henry had started to remind her of her father, both good and bad, especially as Henry got older). She’d probably ask him for help, help to call the local funeral parlor and make arrangements.
And then she’d have to call Henry’s family. She’d have to call her mother-in-law and tell a woman with failing health that her son beat her to the finish line. She’d have to break that terrible news and hope her mother-in-law would volunteer to tell the rest of her family. Tell Henry’s sister. Aunts. Uncles. An entire family that will live on, including those who were decades older than him.
He was 63. So close to retirement age, for both of them. She knew he wouldn’t actually retire by 65 – heaven knows, she had no interest in retiring, either. But now it was front and center in her mind. Two years off from retirement. Two years away from what could’ve been a chance to start over. Two years away from a fresh start.
A chance to get their Golden Years right. To finally get something right.
But that was now two years toward a future that wouldn’t come true. Now, Caroline was sitting alone with her ankles crossed and her shoulders stiff.
The life they built together. It was a phrase Caroline used a lot in reference to her marriage. They had celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary the year before. Framed pictures from their wedding day – two people, essentially kids, dressed up in a gown and a flimsy suit, respectively – had been placed around the church function room. She probably used that phrase – “the life they built together” – in countless ways with every single conversation she had that day, always alluding back to what they had built, as if the words themselves were the very foundation of their marriage, as if the statement was the magical spell that kept everything together.
And now what of that life they built. Henry was gone and now what. Now she had phone calls to make and a set of in-laws who would awkwardly try to show support and then a modest, empty house to return to. Those precious, magic words were revealing themselves to be the sham that they were.
The life they built together.
At some point, a counselor was supposed to come by. Or maybe a priest. A pastor would be better suited – she was Baptist after all, not Catholic, and hadn’t been Catholic for a while – but it didn’t seem to matter. Whoever he (or she) was, they had been held up. She would talk to this person and she would talk to more doctors and she would sign some forms and she would make some phone calls and she would cry and she would cry and she would cry herself raw and then she would go home to that modest, empty house and collapse on the floor and fall apart just a little bit more.
But, for now, she sat. Ankles crossed. Hands in lap. Her back a solid half foot from the backrest. Her eyes on the tiles. The muffled noises of the hospital echoing in from miles away.
Anna stepped outside and placed two shaky hands against the porch railing. She wrapped her hands around it, pressing her palms into the cold painted wood, and kept them there until they settled down. There was a chill in the air, the kind that only really comes about at that time of night, when the world has retired and nothing is moving. Her palms started throbbing and her feet were going numb. She leaned forward onto her forearms, her weight shifting to the balls of her feet.
She stared off into the neighborhood. No other lights were on. The scattering of streetlamps gave sporadic pools of light. The skies were clear and cloudless, revealing a brilliant crescent moon. Everything was so silent. No passing cars. No voices. Just the darkness of night.
Nothing good happens at two in the morning, she thought to herself with a mild smirk. There was an ache rumbling inside of her, one that weighed down her heart and started working its way out.
She let herself ache. She let herself grieve. She grieved on behalf of the younger version of her. She grieved for the younger version of her. She let the echoes that the news had created ripple out. She let herself feel. She learned a long while ago that letting yourself feel is sometimes the only way to keep your head above water.
She learned about Henry’s passing on the internet. She learned after getting up from bed, insomnia striking her yet again, and going downstairs. She learned within minutes of picking up her phone.
How different things are now. How quickly she was able to learn that Henry had had a heart attack and passed away earlier in the week, a string of mutual acquaintances alerting those they were connected with. Without the internet, Anna might never have known.
This constant connection. What if the internet had been like this back when Anna was 25? Would things have been different? How would’ve things played out if you never really detached from people, if you knew what the insides of their houses looked like, if you could see pictures of their family, their children, their wives?
Nothing good happens at two in the morning. And now she was standing on her front porch, looking out at the world, having a heavy, wordless conversation with her younger self, pulling out old memories and handling them with care. She let herself relive what she needed to relive, and sent them off like a final farewell to a complicated man.
She stayed on the front porch until the shivering got to be too much. She took a few deep, chilled breaths, surveyed the street one last time, and went back in. She walked around the first floor of the house, not wanting to return to any electronic device but also not knowing what else to do. She plopped down on the couch, leaned her head back, and sighed. The ache was turning into an incredibly uneasy feeling, one that made her feel foreign in her own skin. Eventually she got up, trudged back to the second floor, and climbed into bed.
Rupert was laying on his side, his back to Anna. Anna knelt next to him and gently touched Rupert’s shoulder. When he didn’t respond, she gave him a slight shake.
Rupert woke with a short inhale, his eyes moving wildly before looking over at Anna.
“Hey…” he said, rolling over towards her. “What’s the matter?”
Anna bit at the insides of her cheek and let her back slump forward. Rupert propped himself up in bed.
“Anna? Are you okay?”
Anna let out a sigh and hung her head to one side.
“Do you remember the worst thing I ever did?”
According to everyone else, the wake and the funeral were both lovely affairs.
Truth be told, Caroline couldn’t tell you much about either. Her memories had been formed in sporadic snippets – small, two-second frames, as if attempting to retrieve footage from damaged film. Small snippets, like standing straight, body rigid, with her grown children on one side and her husband’s casket on the other.
Small snippets, like when people came up to her and shook her hand and told her how sorry they were for her loss. She started tallying up how often people said that to her – verbatim, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” over and over and over again – until she almost started saying the numbers out loud.
Eighty-seven times. Between the wake and the funeral. Eighty-seven.
But, for the life of her, Caroline couldn’t string together the snippets. She could remember looking over at her oldest kid, her son, and she could remember gazing at a bouquet of gardenias, but she couldn’t tell you when those happened, or what happened in between. It was as if she were in a fugue state, with small snapshots of clarity here and there.
She ended up not speaking during the funeral. Her children did, and those were the moments Caroline remembered vividly. She could hear Henry’s voice as clear as day through her son. He even did the same types of pauses when attempting to speak in public. He was composed and solemn and spoke slowly and reminisced about his father’s love of adventure. Her middle child was on the verge of tears with every word, talking of her dad’s big heart and outgoing personality. Her youngest was nothing but tears, and her speech was cut short by her own sobbing, and mercifully concluded with a loud round of applause.
Others spoke. A few church members, talking about Henry’s contributions, his role at the church, his place in the community. How vitally he would be missed. A few key anecdotes. A few stories that effortlessly painted Henry as the warm and goofy father figure and guardian. Someone everyone could look up to and admire and aspire to be.
Little snippets, and Caroline couldn’t exactly put them in order. When did the church members speak? When did the pastor talk? Her children?
Little frames of life, like seeing her father as one of the pallbearers, or how the world looked from the limo when it took a left at a busy intersection – an intersection temporarily on pause as the procession rolled through.
She could remember how her high heels dug into the soil at the cemetery and she could remember her youngest flinging herself into Caroline’s arms as they lowered the casket and she could remember not knowing exactly what to do other than keep her arms tight and tense and keep her daughter from falling.
The day was parceled out in fragments – but she knew exactly how she got to her kitchen table at two in the morning. Because she could always remember the nights.
She could string together every single night since the heart attack and retell it with startling accuracy. She could tell you about every long and tedious and painful and tortuous minute, laying on her side of the bed and feeling empty and naked and scared and lonely and angry and paralyzed. She could tell you about the patterns on the ceiling and how quickly her eyes adjusted to the dark and how, by 3 a.m., even the lights on her alarm clock were too bright. Each night played out so strongly and so slowly, that it almost shocked her to remember that the sun could rise the next day.
According to everyone else, the wake and the funeral were lovely. A proper attendance, a true show of support.
And then – like that – life moved on. For everyone else, at least.
In the haze and chaos, Caroline wasn’t ready for such a sudden drop. She wasn’t ready to wake up one morning and find her house empty and the roads filled with cars and people continuing on their life. She wasn’t ready to wake up and not spend her days talking with funeral directors and ironing out her long, black dress.
She wasn’t ready for it, and yet she had no choice but to wake up to a world that had paused on the inside, but not on the outside. A world that was deafeningly quiet around her while filling with noise outside of her. A world that felt so crowded and so empty, so weightless and yet so pressed down. She wasn’t ready for any of it, but she had no choice in the matter.
So much to do, and now she had plenty of time to do them.
The first was life insurance, then Social Security. Then she’d have to close out any subscriptions he might’ve had, close out all of his credit cards. Eventually she’d have to do something about the house and the deed. Small, systematic, pragmatic ways of proving to the government and the world around her that Henry was no longer in the picture.
Paperwork. Files and forms and more paperwork. Find their marriage certificate and get adequate copies of the death certificate and dig up every tedious document. She had a checklist of what to look up and what to send out.
So much to do.
They had a set of filing cabinets in their basement – old, metal ones, both about hip height, filled with manila folders. Tax returns, housing documents, everything. A beige and a grey filing cabinet, tucked in one of the corners by a set of power tools that rarely got used and the workout equipment that actually did.
Her job that Tuesday morning – after her kids had flown back and the church members stopped ringing and the house was vacant and spacious and empty – was to pull out every possible document she’d need. Tedious, slow work, something she hoped she’d get lost in. She hoped to spend the entire day organizing files and checking off things from her list.
Life insurance. That would be the first one. She pulled the bottom drawer from the beige cabinet and thumbed through until she hit the Ls. She found two folders, one marked “Life Insurance – Old” and “Life Insurance – New”.
Caroline furrowed her brow at the folders. There had been exactly one life insurance policy in place for the last 20 years. It had been the only life insurance policy. Something they got as the kids started getting older and they started getting older and they both had to take stock of their own mortality. And so they signed up and started payments and never really went back to it ever since.
They had never revised the insurance policy, never updated it. There would be no such thing as a “new” policy.
Caroline pulled out both and sat cross-legged on the floor. She opened the “new” folder and flipped through it. From the looks of it, it was the same document they had signed two decades prior. If the new one was the old one – how old was the old one?
Caroline set the folder aside and picked up the one marked “old”. There was something about just picking up the folder that unsettled her. It was considerably thinner – far fewer pages than the first folder – but the papers took up more space. There was more air in between the pages, and the folder compressed down significantly with the tiniest bit of pressure. It felt less like a stack of documents and more like a compilation of loose-leaf papers.
With the folder in her lap, Caroline opened the folder to the first page.
Caroline looked down at the cursive handwriting. The lines were slightly slanted. Caroline knew exactly what she had in front of her. Sitting on her lap was the first page of who knew how many pages of love letters.
“Dearest Henry…” Caroline parroted to herself, her voice dripping with venom. She could feel her teeth clench as she lifted the first page and began reading.
I write with an ache in my soul, a longing in my bones…
With each line, old memories returned to the surface, to the point that she stopped seeing the cursive ink and instead saw Henry’s face, 30 years younger, telling her in a low voice and puppy eyes what he had done.
I still think about how the waitress witnessed our banter and remarked on how we must be married. In another life, right, my love?
Caroline could feel her chest tightening. This wasn’t part of the narrative. She had supposedly meant nothing to Henry. How often he asserted that. How many times he concluded his statements with, “…and I didn’t even like her.”
She was supposed to have meant nothing. But you don’t keep love letters from someone who didn’t mean anything. You certainly don’t hide the love letters – and the love letters certainly shouldn’t have a crinkle to them that suggests that they’d been taken out, time and time again, to be looked at.
I desire such simple things, like sharing my coffee with you in the morning, or hearing you joke about whatever frustration is currently in your way. I long for your laugh, your voice – have you any clue what type of music your voice truly is?
At some point, Caroline had stopped breathing. These words – as flowery and overly-sentimental as they were – did not paint Juniper in the same light as Henry had painted her.
Oh yes – how could she forget a name like Juniper? When Henry revealed her name, all Caroline could imagine was some vapid flower child, talking about energies and auras.
Henry talked of Juniper with a scowl on his face. He talked about how dim-witted and self-absorbed she was. He revealed that she was a woman who was, in every way, a downgrade from Caroline – and perhaps that was why he went for her, as if to prove to himself that he didn’t deserve a love as great as Caroline’s.
(His words. And it would be those little moments of psychoanalysis that Henry would point to as why they didn’t need counseling. He could already analyze himself – why pay someone to do it?)
Juniper – full name Juniper Snow, as if to really drive the flower child point home – was supposed to be a floozy with a slight drinking problem and a bad marriage. Someone who habitually cheated on her own husband, who took pleasure in luring in other married men. She was simultaneously a master manipulator and too stupid to have a proper conversation with.
God, Caroline, you were such a fool.
I miss you in tender and beautiful and constant ways.
This meant something. This obviously meant something. It was clearly too much to think that her husband had actually come clean, that he had wanted an honest and open and vulnerable marriage. No, no…she should’ve known he had given her only a tiny slice of truth while creating a brand new narrative around it, one that minimized his actions to the best of his ability.
Caroline finished the first page and read on the page underneath. Every letter had been handwritten on printer paper. The cursive bumped and skidded at points, as if Juniper had become so overwhelmed with emotions that it affected her penmanship.
Yes, sure. This meant nothing. This was just a moment of weakness during a tough time. It meant nothing. He didn’t even like her.
There are times I swear I can feel your presence – and I can only hope that I’m picking up on when you are thinking of me, too, when you are missing me. And it takes everything in my power not to call you up, right then, and hear your voice. My goodness, darling, you have no idea how beautiful your voice is.
Caroline could feel the bile filling in her throat. How many times did Henry come down to read these letters? How many times did he disappear to the basement under the guise of exercise or housework or anything and just sit by the filing cabinet and reread these letters? And could she survive finishing reading this one?
Caroline turned the page, mercifully coming onto the last and final page of this particular love letter. It was barely a quarter page long, signed with hearts and name written out in long and looping letters.
She could feel her blood run cold as she immediately skipped to the signature. Her hands tightened around the letter, to the point that it started to crumple around her hands. Her hands started to shake and her whole body started to tremor. Her jaw locked so tightly that a jolt of pain went up and through her temples.
Suddenly, all the flowery words and overly-sentimental statements meant nothing. All of her previous thought patterns stopped dead. Her eyes locked in on the bottom of the letter, re-reading the last words over, and over, and over again.
With all of my love, Anna
Caroline threw that page to the side and flipped wildly through the rest of the letters. Every single letter – some a few pages long, some barely a few words long – were all signed by this Anna. Twenty, thirty, maybe even forty letters in total. All warped in the way constantly handled papers warp. Every single one of them ending with, “With all of my love.” And a name that was anyone’s but Juniper Snow’s.
Who. The hell. Was Anna.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
That was the question posed by Rupert on their second date. Sitting across from each other in a slightly exposed table in the middle of the restaurant, a glass of wine in the center of each of their place settings. Save for one other table, the restaurant was practically empty at that point, and the hostess had started vacuuming – a not so subtle hint that it was time to get the check and go.
What’s the worst thing you ever did? It felt like a fitting way to cap off the night at the end of their second date, given that they started their first date with, “What is your brand of crazy?”
To be fair, Rupert only asked the first question because it was something Anna posed on her dating profile. In lieu of the usual commonplace phrases – loves to laugh, must love dogs, enjoys long walks on the beach – Anna had let loose a torrent of opinion, asking why post about your favorite color, your favorite movie, when those in the dating pool should really be asking, “What is your brand of crazy?” and “What demons are you dealing with?”
It didn’t make her dating profile the most welcoming page in the world (how few people want to stray away from favorite colors and movies and long walks on the beach when first getting to know someone), but, as Anna saw it, if she was going to return to the treacherous world of dating, she was doing it on her terms. She had done enough damage to herself, desperately trying to make herself fit into something she wasn’t, constantly attracting men that seemed to prove to her her worthlessness.
(And, perhaps, in some ways, that was what she had wanted, at least back then. She wanted to be reminded she was not worthy of actual love. That she deserved to be mistreated. She had to find her atonement somehow, right?)
And then Rupert came along and asked her right off the bat: “So…what is your brand of crazy?” and they spent the rest of the night wrapped up in the things that made them tick, the things that derailed them, the nagging voices they’ve spent their entire lives quieting down. They sat across from each other at the restaurant they were now spending their second date in, also there until the rest of the patrons had filed out and the employees were starting to close up shop.
And now they were back, just days later, in the same restaurant, again straying far away from the safe boundaries of the early dating rituals. She still didn’t know what his favorite color was, or what his favorite movies were.
“What’s the worst thing you ever did?”
Anna paused and took a large gulp from her glass.
“What’s the worst thing you ever did?” she said with her eyes still on her wine.
“Ah, I asked first,” Rupert gently chided. “I mean, if you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to answer. I know I’m upping the ante, a little bit.”
“No, no, it’s okay.” Anna put down her glass and looked around. The people at the other table were standing up, putting on their jackets and pushing in their chairs. They were across the room from Rupert and Anna, but there was a feeling of vulnerable rawness, like they were within the blast radius, like they could pick up what Anna was feeling and forever be affected.
Anna traced the edge of her wine glass with her finger. Rupert took the moment to pick up his and take a sip. For a moment, all Anna could see was the gentle glass stem and the flattened base and the maroon tablecloth underneath it. The rest of the world had blurred around her.
Maybe it would be best to mention the second worst thing she’d ever done. Or maybe just mention ambiguously that she had let her first marriage fall apart. Perhaps a sweeping statement about making dumb choices in her twenties.
(Her twenties, her twenties – that was essentially three decades ago. And it had been over twenty-five years since she had destroyed everything. Would there ever come a time when the atonement would stop?)
She could hear the hum of the vacuum cleaner as if it were simultaneously right next to her and a thousand miles away. She couldn’t tell exactly how much time was passing – maybe a moment, maybe a couple minutes. Anna became too aware of the distance between her eyes and her hands, her head and the table, her body and the floor.
Did she take on more than she could handle, with her proclamations on her dating profile? Maybe. But that was the point. If she was going to attempt the dating world again, it would be with all the old baggage in tow. She was done attempting to be whatever she needed to be to keep someone around.
Perhaps she really was a terrible harlot with a nasty soul and would never really deserve love. But that would be on Rupert to decide. If anything was going to go forward with this man, it would be with the real her. The raw her. At the core of it all, she just wanted someone to see her, all of her – see her precious, fragile, sinning little soul and feel connected. She wanted someone who saw her dings and dents – and she wanted someone whose own dings and dents lined up well with her own.
If she was going to do something as perilous and unlikely as date when she was closing in on 50, then she had no choice but to go after exactly what she needed, even if it meant losing out on what she thought she wanted.
Anna placed one hand on her neck and closed her eyes.
“What’s the worst thing I’ve ever done?” she said, eyes still closed, hand still on her neck. “I cheated on my first husband with a man who was married with three kids.”
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