He texts, and I respond, most of the time.
But I never initiate, unless a misaddressed package or piece of mail has come for him. I let him know I’ve got it, and ask what good times are to bring it over, because I don’t want him to come here, and I won’t show up there unannounced.
Usually, at the appointed time, I drop stuff off and scram. Occasionally, though, he meets me on the porch, and I’ll get to see his dog, who used to be our dog. I always like that: she’s so excited to see me that she’s just a little wiggling ball of fur and wagging tail. He seems to like that too, because he gets to see my dog, who used to be our dog. (I’ve often thought how odd it was that at the end, everything just cleaved neatly in two, like tapping quartz with a hammer and having the smooth crystal faces split apart like they’d never been together at all. That was even true for the dogs: one for you, one for me.)
He texts about different things: his estranged mother getting lost in her neighborhood and having to be brought back home by the cops, food, a YouTube clip, a show or a movie that he’s just watched.
I respond to specific prompts and direct queries. But I don’t offer anything else. I don’t tell him about huge family news. I don’t tell him about job offers. I don’t tell him about trips, or meals, or neighbors, or what I’ve done with the house. I don’t tell him what I read, what I watch, what I think.
I definitely don’t tell him I’m writing.
I don’t want to share any of these things with him. We’re not friends. I don’t trust him, a hard-won mindset that feels like anything but a victory.
This week, he sent a note telling me that he’d recently ordered from the ribs joint that catered our wedding reception.
He texted: The place has gone downhill. I couldn’t eat more than two ribs. It instantly gave me the same sick body feel that I had after too many ribs on the beach.
The beach: that was our first trip to the Outer Banks, hoping to avoid what seemed like inevitable hurricanes. He’d rented a house near the beach with a hot tub, which seemed an odd choice for someone who can’t stand getting wet in either cold or hot water, outside of a shower. This whole thing seemed to be for me. So during the day I’d swim in the ocean by myself, and at night I’d sit in the hot tub by myself. (A widow in training.)
It was a great time.
While we were there, we’d gotten a vacuum-packed rack of ribs, and ingredients for a dry rub that we’d found a recipe for online. It was our first experience barbequing ribs ourselves, and they were so good that we ate the entire rack, just the two of us. He was so sick the next day, though. He said he felt like he was exhaling pig with every breath. (As for me, I was unbothered, having a notoriously robust constitution when it comes to overeating.)
I texted back: Nothing stays the same.
I thought that maybe I’d revealed too much, but his reply concerned cutting corners and the quality of the meat being suspect.
It’s an acute dissonance to feel like his widow when someone who looks so much like him is just a five-minute walk away. Especially when that someone seems to share dear memories, seems to be asking if I remember.
I’ll never forget.
But that’s no longer for him to know.
One of my favorite memories of the whole trip was an interlude during the long drive back home.
He drove, while I dozed in the passenger seat, our first (indivisible) dog curled up against a rear wheel well and fine white sand in the carpets. There were no words between us, but it was right. There was just quiet, sunlight, trust and ocean-salty exhaustion, and the sensation of being taken care of, being driven home, both facing the same direction and heading that way together. The tracks of one special, particular, entire album unfurled and floated along with me. I could hear it still while I slept lightly: it was the softest part of our hurtling cocoon.
That album, I listened to on non-stop “repeat all” for most of the next year. And the year after that.
And if I’m listening to it right now, that’s my secret.
He texted: Are you okay with everything?
We’d just had our divorce hearing, over a conference call with the county court, two hours prior.
I texted back: Yes, are you?
He replied: Yes. Just weird.
The hearing took about fifteen minutes. He hadn’t gotten a lawyer, but I had, so I’d been debriefed, and knew what to expect.
The judge had asked: “Do you both attest that there is no possibility of reconciliation?”
I was glad I’d had a chance to practice, because that’s a big question.
“Yes,” I replied.
There was a noteworthy pause before he was able to give the same answer, because it’s not just a big question, it’s a final admission.
We did not make it.
At the end of the hearing, my attorney made an additional statement: “The plaintiff wishes to resume the use of her maiden name.” (Despite the fact that the law still holds tight to the arcane language that codes women as property that passes between fathers and husbands, I’m no fucking maiden. I’ve got too many scars.)
The judge noted for the record that this stipulation would be added to the divorce decree.
Though there was nothing for the defendant to say at that point, his quiet had the feel of an echo bouncing off an abruptly-materialized wall.
I’d hyphenated when we got married. My name was us, together. And in fifteen minutes, that tether was undone: the sharp crack of a hammer, and smooth crystal faces staring across a sudden divide.
He texted: Are you using any of those ship prints or photos that were in my room? If not, can I have a few? If you are using them no worries. I just have a nautical wall with empty space. I also have a Wall of Hubris where I hang my published stuff.
He included a picture of this Wall of Hubris: the first image he’s shared of the inside of his place, where I’ve not been since I moved him out. A piece of my original art hangs there, next to covers of his independently-published horror and cyberpunk anthologies. It’s the piece he used for the inside cover of his first, just-published comic book. It looks like a virus; perfect for a horror story about a plague that creates zombies.
Prior to publication of the first comic, he’d asked me which name I wanted to use for the credits: the one I had when I painted the piece, or the one I have now.
I told him I wanted to use the one I have now.
But this piece of mine hangs on his wall of conspicuous pride (and even defiance of the gods), and it’s fiercely tempting for a pseudo-widow to seek meaning, to look for a sign. But I won’t ask him what it means. I won’t consult clairvoyants or search out séances, either. And with only my own feedback as a guide, I’m circling the idea that it means nothing.
We’re not friends.
But we’re still connected.
An ex- is a thing undone, a not, a no more. It’s in the past tense.
I can’t find a word for what we are.
I never initiate texts… but there’s always an exception to “never.”
This July 4th, out of the (red, white, and) blue, I texted him the photo from the final scene of The Shining, with a note that read: Happy 100th Anniversary of that legendary Overlook Ball…
As horror fans, we both grew up with that film, and were haunted well into adulthood by Kubrick’s last, leisurely dolly shot: a glacially slow, ever-so-slightly off-center reveal of a photograph capturing a crowd of well-appointed revelers, with an art deco script caption that reads “Overlook Hotel, July 4th Ball, 1921.” Jack Torrence, whose frozen corpse sits out in the hedge maze next to a bloody axe, is front-and-center in the photograph: tuxedoed, wide open, gleaming and grinning. (It’s the first image of him, really happy, in the film.) He’s always been the caretaker. He’s home.
This final shot unfolds to the melancholy foxtrot echoes of “Midnight, the Stars, and You.” It’s always been one of our favorite songs.
He texted back: Nice.
I suppose when “your song” is the ultimate theme of a possessed psychopath suffering from a whopping side helping of alcoholism, and is synonymous with the idea that a place (or a disease) can absorb a soul, it should probably preclude being surprised by anything.
He’d commissioned an illustration for me, and given it to me for Valentine’s Day. The oil-and-pencil pair balance together on a crescent moon, with a perfect starry night surrounding them. They’re conjoined: tethered at the liver by a visible but vanishingly-fine filament. It’s a version of us from a dream, or a sepia-toned photograph that’s not the correct vintage for either of us.
It has to be a dream, because he’s the one gazing at her, completely focused on her, holding onto the cord between them, while she turns away.
It came without a title, but in my head, it’s always been called “Midnight, the Stars, and You.”
Nearing the end, I dream that he’s been drinking.
Waking up, I hear a noise from his room, the distinct clink of glass on glass. I get up and knock on his door. It’s two in the morning and I can hear voices (the TV). The smile on his face when I come in is not for me: it’s for the world he’s set up for himself in these moments that are just his, and in a second that smile disappears utterly. I’m foreign in that room. I don’t belong. I’m an invasion, a destructive force, even though I’m just in my underwear, with a sleep mask shoved up on my forehead, messing up my hair. I might as well be swinging a baseball bat.
“I had a nightmare that you were drinking.”
“I’m not drinking,” he scoffs, humorlessly.
But the bottle is sitting right beside him on the floor.
And from there, underwear-clad, sleep mask askew, I’m a booze-finding dervish. It’s in closets. It’s in bags. It’s in drawers.
He hates me. There’s naked, then there’s standing in front of someone in your underwear, in a nightmare you can’t wake up from, and feeling them hating you. Exposed down to dreams and fears, scars and bones, with no love for cover.
And then he turns away.
“Midnight, the Stars, and You” now faces the back wall of an upstairs closet.
It’s gorgeous, and it meant the world to me. I will keep it safe.
But I can scarcely bear to look at it.
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