by Drew A. Carmichael
The name of the woman lying next to me is Jennifer or Janine, I’m not sure which. We met at the grocery no more than two hours ago. She stood in line behind me and placed her items on the belt with mine without using the plastic divider. It wasn’t until the cashier confused our items that she stepped in to clarify. There was a time when such an innocuous act wouldn’t have drawn my attention. In the past a woman would’ve had to look me in the eyes and spell it out in no uncertain terms. Jennifer or Janine smiled at me and shrugged. That was all it took. She followed me back to my place and let me undress her.
She looks about my age, maybe a few years younger. Her body is still in good shape. Most women don’t keep up with their bodies after forty. Jennifer or Janine is putting up a fight. I watch her move around the room, gently touching items with her fingertips as she goes. She traces the edges of the furniture and the framed picture of my wife, the one I refuse to remove from the bureau. I should put it away when I have company.
Jennifer or Janine doesn’t seem to mind, though. She wears a sympathetic smile and asks if she should leave. I shake my head and pat the bed, inviting her to stay if she wants. When I finally fall asleep her head is resting on my chest.
Three years ago my wife lost her battle with cancer, at least that’s what I tell people who still ask about her from time to time. The truth is it wasn’t so much a battle as it was a hostile takeover. Bone cancer. Her doctor said we should expect a rough road ahead. His words, not mine. I watched helplessly as my wife’s body imploded in the hands of the deleterious cells, her face contorted in constant agony; but she refused morphine, refused to ameliorate the pain.
I still can’t bear to take off my wedding band for long periods. I don’t know why. It’s just an inanimate object that keeps reminding me of till death do we part. Once, I washed it down the drain on purpose while flushing out a coffee cup, but had it back on my finger within the hour, disappointed to discover how easy it was to take apart the piping underneath the sink. Last week I dropped it in the trashcan along with the leftovers on my dinner plate, but tore open the bag and sifted through the decomposing foodstuff for nearly an hour before going to bed. An unexplainable calm washed over me when I returned the ring to my finger.
I want to move on or stop moving on. I’m not sure which anymore.
Every time I bring a woman home I think of how strong my wife was, despite her tabescent condition. She never capitulated or took the caducity of her existence for granted; yet in the face of temporal desires I find myself giving in time and time again, as if there is no fight in me at all.
It’s been this way for a while now. Women approach me, not out of lust but sensing the lapsed need within me. It is a desire to heal that compels them, complete strangers, to turn themselves over, to take hold of my loneliness and grief for a short period. Three years ago I would’ve mistaken a flirtatious smile for an apology. I would’ve gone home oblivious to the fragile intimacy Jennifer or Janine was offering up, never imagining how far she would go in allowing me to touch her and commit the most sacred acts of pleasure.
The first woman that approached me came just two weeks after the funeral. It is the one time I didn’t go back to my place. Afterward, I found a newspaper opened to the obituaries, where my wife’s name was circled in red. I gazed at the unapologetic woman intertwined in a heap of blankets on the living room floor and wondered how often she approached men like me. I imagined a black book on her bedside table filled with names of the recently widowed, vulnerable and wounded men happy to forestall the creeping void for a moment longer.
Jennifer or Janine wakes me at midnight, smiling like she’s repaired me. She is already dressed to leave. I’ve learned the women never linger through the night; they get dressed quietly and make up excuses like frat boys trying to justify drunken interactions. I know my loneliness is too much to bear. I’d never ask them to stay. I let them go with the same ease they come into my life. Jennifer or Janine is no different. I’d rather she left furtively, but she needs to see my eyes.
My wife was too kind. She would want me to move on—but not like this. I’ve moved on so many times I’ve become numb to the process. My wife lived with the pain. She took what life had to offer, good and bad alike. She endured. Numb isn’t what she wanted. I can’t say the same for myself.
I take my wife’s picture to bed. I lay it on the pillow next to me and pretend she’s here. She is still young and vibrant in the photo, oblivious to what is yet to come. I speak to her photo like a madman. I try to warn it. I shout to be heard through the glass.
I see Jennifer or Janine at the store a few months later bagging grapes in the produce section, but I’m invisible to her now. Fixed. Her original desire replaced with an adamantine sense of accomplishment. This is always the inevitable consequence; but the woman in the cereal aisle doesn’t see me that way, not yet. She bumps her cart into mine with a laugh, the desire to heal rendering her helpless to my condition. She says her name is Leslie or Lori and she doesn’t think it’s a good idea if I go home alone tonight.
Drew A. Carmichael is the author of two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, and several screenplays. His work has been published and rejected, lauded and chastised, and once burned in public. He has appeared in such journals as CAIRN: The St. Andrews Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Blue Collar Review, among others.