Fiction

Grief Is a Hall Pass

What happens when your heaviest secret becomes irrelevant?

Photo: Mark Bonica/Flickr

MyMy husband Carl told me in a huff, after dinner, bag already packed, that I was the most inflexible person he’d ever met. That I was too cold and too set in my ways, that I hadn’t made room for him in my life over the last six years — in fact, I’d made none. I’d squeezed him out, he said. I’d expanded and pushed his body against the walls of the house. And he’d had it with me, he really had, and he was leaving. He’d booked a hotel room for the night and would send his brother for the rest of his stuff in the morning, because he was done, done, done.

The next day, I was sitting in my spot, the armchair in the living room, drinking iced tea and mindlessly flipping through TV channels. It was a Saturday. I was thinking about whether my affair with Trevor would affect the divorce filings, if I’d get to keep the armchair or even the house, when the phone rang — the landline. It was Carl’s brother, John: “Lydia, are you sitting down?”

“Why, John?”

“I have some bad news.” He exhaled for a long time.

“What, John?” I exhaled back.

“Lydia, Carl died.”

I heard the clinking of ice, felt the sugary mixture inching back up my throat.

“What are you talking about?” My first thought was that it was a trick — that maybe he’d misheard or misunderstood. I wanted to clarify: No John, the marriage died but Carl is alive and well and in a hotel somewhere.

“The hospital called me this morning, they tried to call you and I was the last person he spoke to last night so his phone, or something… I don’t know. They called. Housekeeping went in and he was on the floor. Heart attack.”

“I don’t understand, I just saw him last night, and — ”

“Despite everything, I assumed you’d still want to host the shiva.” Before I could answer, he continued: “I know he was planning to leave you, Lydia.”

That’s what John said to me right after he told me Carl had died. Yes, Carl was dead, but he was on his way out, anyway. Through his stoic grief I could hear it: John liked being one step ahead; that day, he was two.

“Yes, so you’d heard.”

“I thought you should know that I knew.”

“Right, okay,” My hand was starting to ache, my grip too tight. “I’ll host the shiva. Thank you.” A shiva could be comforting.

“I’ll make the funeral arrangements,” John said, wrapping up. “The rabbi thinks the funeral should be Monday. And I am sorry, Lydia. For our loss.”

Monday, then. I wondered if Trevor would notice I wasn’t in the office.

I had met Trevor at work about two years ago. I was just warm skin in a chair, absentmindedly entering numbers in spreadsheets and responding to emails and asking people to “connect offline,” when Trevor stopped by my desk. He was in a navy blue V-neck sweater and wore thick round glasses and I felt a heat on my earlobes that told me I was attracted to him. I don’t really know why I was attracted to him. My husband also had thick round glasses. I thought you usually ended up cheating with someone who is your partner’s opposite.

Trevor was new on the marketing team and he had taken note of my thoughts at the morning meeting. He found my insights extremely interesting. Would I mind grabbing a cup of coffee later, to talk them over? He also wanted to know where the coffee machines were. He was only a few years younger than me — I wasn’t actually sure, but I assumed maybe 33, 34 — but he seemed shiny and small, doe-eyed behind the round, brown plastic rims. He nervously scratched at the back of his neck.

He relaxed and I leaned in to say, yes, I would like to get coffee with a handsome, bespectacled coworker who finds my insights interesting, thank you for asking, Trevor. Now I was warm skin and hot earlobes with something buzzing ahead of me, past the spreadsheets and the numbers. It wasn’t me choosing to betray Carl. It was an awareness of my body and it was so clear and sharp what that body wanted, it felt like a relief to oblige.

It took about five weeks of working together, getting paired on projects, and lingering at happy hours for one extra drink. I would have gotten there in four, but Trevor played a long game. On week five, Trevor kissed me on the sidewalk and then invited me to his one-bedroom apartment. We slept together the same night we kissed on the sidewalk. It didn’t make sense to waste time.

Carl was a manager at a bank, in a department that handled lending to commercial food companies. He was very adamant about the difference between a convenience store, like a 7-Eleven or a gas station, and a drugstore, like a CVS or Walgreens. They were not interchangeable, Carl reminded me often, though they were obviously both convenient.

Detail oriented, yes, but Carl was not observant.

Two full years he was satisfied with only one-third of me — oblivious to the third I saved for Trevor and the third I kept for myself.

I assumed he was oblivious, at least. But after John hung up, a small, guilty thread wound itself around my stomach and clenched: Did he find out? Was that what broke him, and broke everything, or was he just… done? Was he really going to leave?

I hadn’t felt any overwhelming guilt from sleeping with Trevor, though I did feel something about the absence of any remorse. And so, for Carl’s last birthday, I’d tried to do something a little more thoughtful and bought him a beautiful watch with a leather strap. I liked it because if you put your ear really close to the face, you could hear the most delicate ticking. The second hand was whisper thin, almost invisible.

As Carl stood in the doorway the night he left, fuming after dinner, I noticed he was wearing the watch. His wrist pulsed around the handle of his packed bag. The veins in the top of his hand were juicy and alive. Had I watched them closer, maybe I would have heard them screaming.

With Carl dead, my peaceful house felt different, suddenly, obviously. I felt like an echo. I called Trevor and asked him to come over. It wasn’t our routine, but in the moment, I needed someone in the house. Trevor was at my door within the hour because he was not in a position to turn down sex on a Saturday morning, and my understanding is I’m fairly good at it.

I did not arrive at this understanding through sex with Carl. I didn’t marry Carl because we lit up a bedroom. I married him because everything worked and I liked when things worked. I had met Carl on a blind date, nine years before he died; we married six years before he died. Carl was quiet, two inches shorter than me, great at mental math, obsessed with gathering rewards points on our credit cards, and didn’t like red sauce on his pasta.

Trevor was different — younger, more energetic, yes — and inquisitive as all hell. He wanted to know what I liked and what I didn’t, and he had some kind of mental sex catalog filled with my answers.

When you’ve known someone for nine years, you know most of the answers. That was its own kind of comfort. I find too many questions exhausting.

When someone dies, you can’t ask them any more questions, like does this feel good or could this make things feel better or did you know?

I led Trevor to the guest room. I didn’t answer when he asked, “Is Carl coming home soon?” I wasn’t sure which answer he was looking for — the illicit thrill of the “yes,” or the safety of the “no.” I gave him neither, and instead lunged to kiss him before he could ask any more questions. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had sex in my house. To my credit, I think, I wasn’t sleeping with my husband and my hook-up at the same time. I was exclusive in that way.

Trevor played his part well. He lifted my legs higher and ran his fingers down my back. He bit me to see if he could get a scream. He got nothing.

It was over quickly, and Trevor started to doze off next to me, hand behind his head and the other awkwardly resting on my stomach. The truth came rushing to the surface before I could — or even wanted to — stop it.

“Carl died, Trevor.”

He didn’t hear me, or didn’t process what I’d said. I tried again, nudged his shoulder.

“Trevor.” He looked over. “Carl. He died last night.”

Trevor sat up and pulled the duvet to his neck, like a kid waking up from a bad dream.

“He — what? What? Are you sure? Is he here, now? Is that why I’m in your guest room?” I always figured Trevor thought I was a little crazy — but honestly, that would have been purely morbid.

“No he’s not here, Trevor,” I stared at the ceiling. “But you should go.”

We dressed in silence, Trevor fumbled with his buttons for two minutes before letting me help him line up the edges of his shirt. He opened his mouth to ask questions he didn’t know how to ask, to say the thing we both were thinking but couldn’t verbalize. This was obviously, climactically, over. The reason for our secret was dead. Sleeping together was like fucking a corpse.

I walked him to the door and in lieu of “goodbye,” which felt too obvious, said: “I won’t be in Monday or Tuesday.”

The shiva was small. Only three people knew that Carl had planned on leaving me: his brother John, his lawyer Arnold, and myself.

A man, a lawyer, and a widow walk into a shiva.

Leave it to John to make a shiva more uncomfortable than necessary. He avoided me the entire day, yet never took his eyes off me, and his watery, slightly angry gaze made my cheeks hot. If he knew Carl planned to leave, maybe he knew something of the aforementioned dry spell, or some other reasoning Carl had for the divorce. Maybe Carl complained that I hadn’t expressed interest on our yearly vacation. Last year we spent a week in Puerto Rico. We sat together on the beach, reading. That was nice in its own way, though I spent the bulk of the trip picturing my first day back at work, Trevor seeing my shoulders golden brown and wanting more. I pictured how my tanned body would look on his light blue jersey sheets. I ended up with more of a sunburn than a tan, and Carl stocked our shared bathroom with aloe and vanilla lotion, which I threw in my bag to apply at work before heading to Trevor’s.

My friend Joyce sat next to me on the couch. She rubbed my back and made sure I always had a plate of food in front of me. She was my best friend by label, but didn’t know about the leaving or the cheating. It seemed easier that way, and to be fair, I’d only recently found out about the leaving myself. I didn’t cry — not at the funeral, not at the house. I felt frozen in time. Like a dream where you know you need to run faster, to push yourself up the hill, but you can’t get your legs to move. My couch was molasses.

“Honey, don’t forget to eat,” she said, running her long nails up and down my spine. “Come on, a bagel.”

“Joyce, I’m fine. I’m not hungry.” I surveyed the room, watching people bend their heads and talk quietly to each other. My aunt ran her hand along my armchair. Get cream cheese on that fabric and I’ll kill you.

“Lydia, honey?” Joyce was a good friend, but also very irritating.

“Joyce, can you go check the kitchen situation? Make sure none of the platters are too empty?”

“You sure you don’t want a breather?” she said. Scratch. Scratch. “If you want a minute we can go for a walk.”

“Joyce, please. The kitchen.”

She knew I was pushing her off, but she could take a hint. I didn’t like touching deli platters.

It was three days after the shiva, with leftover bagels sealed in the freezer, when Carl’s insults from that final evening started to reverberate through the quiet house, like boomerangs that had taken ages to return. I heard “inflexible” and “cold” over and over. I stood in the kitchen and saw him in the doorway, bag in hand and watch throbbing. I heard him yell: “When is the last time you felt passionate about anything, let alone this marriage?”

I wasn’t ready to answer. I needed time to think through things, to weigh the pros and cons, to ultimately let someone else decide. You tell me, Carl, when was I passionate? I’ll go with whatever you say. Had I ever even claimed to be a passionate person? Had Carl? My need for clear-cut answers could no longer cross our divide. I wanted to sit down with him at the kitchen table, to understand what pushed him over the edge, but I couldn’t. I wanted to make an offer, to negotiate, “I’ll go to Puerto Rico, if that’s what is making you so upset.” I shook my head to clear it and began going through the pile of unopened mail.

The local community center catalog had arrived, and an insert slid from its pages onto the counter: Ready to dance your troubles away? Three spots left in our Intro to Modern Dance class! Register ASAP, all levels welcome! Starts in two weeks, meets Mondays and Wednesdays.

I called and signed myself up. I was told to wear tight-fitting clothing, like leggings or a leotard if I had one. And to be prepared to dance barefoot.

“You’re taking a dance class?” Joyce was in shock. That’s because Joyce had seen me dance at weddings. She also saw me dance at my own wedding.

“I’m dancing my troubles away,” I corrected.

“Honey, is this a grief thing?” I could hear saliva collect around her wad of gum. “Have you tried therapy?”

“I’m going to try this first. No therapists in my network.”

“Oh honey, if this is what you want to do, I support you!” The smack of gum. “Is there a recital?”

Oh, God. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. But of course you won’t be invited.”

“Sweetie, I know you’re grieving and I want to be sensitive to you, but if there is a recital for your Intro to Modern Dance Class, I am sitting in the fucking front row.”

Before I left for my first class, I attempted to stretch. I lifted my arms high above my head, and felt my cotton T-shirt lift and expose my stomach. I dove forward, aiming for my toes. My fingertips grazed my shin bones, right above my ankles. A muscle in my right leg sparked.

Maybe Carl was onto something. Maybe I was the most inflexible 41-year-old on the block.

I thought about what Carl would say if he knew I was taking a dance class. He’d probably laugh. He’d tease me for my knock-knees. He’d remind me about every wedding we went to, how I couldn’t be convinced to go to the dance floor until I’d had at least four glasses of wine. I would say, “Carl, you have no idea what you’re talking about, I love to dance!” Though, yes, I’d be lying. In my head I’d probably think: Trevor will be excited for me, Trevor will want me to show off my new moves.

Trevor and I avoided each other at work now. He didn’t come up and tap me on the shoulder to see if I could join him for coffee; I didn’t go out of my way to walk by his desk on my way to the bathroom. The guilt felt too solid. It could have gone another way, of course. It could have been a release — hey, the obstacle dropped dead! Go at it! — but it wasn’t. If you want to fuck a married woman, you don’t settle for a widow. If you want to cheat on your husband, and your husband dies, then who are you really cheating on?

Trevor may have been helpful for stretching, though.

The community center was next door to the local middle school. I’d been there a few times, but not within the last six months. For a year, I’d belonged to a book club that met in one of the center’s youth rooms, but there was too much reading and not enough wine. I took a CPR class four years ago as part of a bonding-slash-training event with my team at work. We sat in a circle, pumping blue, squishy mannequins back to life to the beat of ironic music. Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive, ah, ah, ah, ah.

I pushed through the revolving door and saw the long table set up to the left, where a local youth group was selling wrapping paper. Every Christmas, I’d drop off a bag of canned food at the same table for the holiday food drive. I supposed this year I would volunteer at the drive and help sort the foods to earn back an iota of good karma.

The dance class was in room 403, on the fourth floor. I got in the elevator with a tall, lean woman with gray curly hair. She had a collarbone that looked at you and muscular arms. She carried a navy blue duffel slung over her shoulder. She stood tall, like she didn’t have secrets pulling her spine into her stomach. How nice for her.

She took a look at my baggy T-shirt and leggings and asked, “Are you here for Modern Dance?”

“Guilty,” I said.

“I’m Theodora, your teacher.” She patted my arm as the doors opened. “I’ll show you the way!”

The room still had folding chairs set up in rows from the last activity, maybe choir — “They’re supposed to clear these!” — so I helped Theodora move them from the center of the room. On one end of the room was a mirror and a ballet barre, on the other was a row of hooks for bags and a bench. The short wall, opposite the door, was all windows, overlooking the middle school playground. I was glad to be on the fourth floor, above eye level.

“Well, make yourself comfortable,” Theodora said, clapping her hands. “I didn’t catch your name?”

“Lydia.”

“Make yourself comfortable, Lydia,” Theodora said, heading to the bar. “Maybe stretch, or warm up your muscles. Is this your first time dancing?”

“I’ve danced at weddings.”

Theodora smiled and swung her leg up onto the barre. Her calf pulsed through her sleek leggings. “Ah, so you move. That’s good! All dance is good dance.” She began pouring her upper body over her outstretched leg, like water. I saw how muscles rippled.

I moved to the back corner of the room and feebly stretched over my own legs. I could see myself, far away, in the mirror. Five more women and one man filed in, all dressed in tighter clothing. One woman even wore dance shoes. Another had her hair in a tight bun. Everyone placed their bags in the back of the room. The lone, lean man stripped off his baggy sweatpants to reveal ultra-tight, shiny leggings. He didn’t have any secrets, either. Not anymore.

Theodora clapped her hands and everyone looked to the front of the room. “Come join me!” she said, beckoning everyone forward. Three went in front — Mr. Leggings, High Bun, and Jazz Shoes — and four of us stayed in back, in our less-professional dancewear and loose ponytails.

“Welcome to Modern Dance. I’m Theodora,” she bowed her head slightly. “I am so happy to have you all here. For eight weeks, twice a week, we will dance inward and outward. We will pull energy from the room that will lift us up and make us stronger, and we will use our movements to release things that are holding us back. All levels are welcome here, no one needs to be shy.” A wink. “Now, I’d like each of us to go around quickly and say your name, as well as what type of energy you are bringing to today’s class.”

My stomach clenched. The flyer said nothing about bringing energy. It said water bottles.

“I’ll start,” Mr. Leggings said. He pivoted around gracefully on his toes to face the group. “I’m Zachariah, and I’m bringing the energy of autumn here today. I tend to move like the breeze — that’s where I draw most inspiration for my movements. My history is in ballet.” He did a small leap. Theodora smiled. Unexpectedly, I wished Carl was alive so I could tell him about Zachariah and his leggings and his autumn breezes. My stomach clenched.

High Bun was Zoe, and she was bringing positive energy. Jazz Shoes was Eleanor, but we could call her Elle, and she brought excitement and adventurousness. Next to me in line was Georgia (happiness), Teresa (calm), and Ursula (bravery). I was last.

“I’m Lydia,” I said. “I’m bringing… guilt, I guess.”

That cemented it — no one would want to be my dance partner for the entire eight weeks.

I didn’t tell anyone else about the dance class — even Joyce let it drop. On Mondays and Wednesdays I left work a little early so I could run home and change, and my boss never questioned it. Maybe he thought I was in therapy. Grief, or the appearance of grief, is like a hall pass.

Each class began with an exercise to loosen up the room. Usually it involved us imagining ourselves somewhere else. I liked this part. During one class, Theodora assigned us an animal, and we had to move around the room that way. I was a peacock. During another, we were all inside an aquarium. I pantomimed swimming around, like a normal person, while Zachariah went for a dramatic expression of being trapped inside, banging on invisible glass and begging passersby to help release him. Another story for Carl.

Then, we would stretch. By week three, my fingertips were lightly grazing the tops of my feet.

Then, we would work on a routine that Theodora was teaching us, week by week. Sometimes I had to be in the front row. I would watch myself in the mirror, thinking how odd it was that the woman moving her arms and hips was the same woman whose body I inhabited. Despite Theodora imploring us to feel the music and listen to our bodies, I found that my body wasn’t really interested in engaging in conversation. It just wanted to mull over death.

No one realizes what it feels like when a heavy secret becomes irrelevant. When the person you hurt disappears, or when the thing you stole goes unnoticed. You aren’t supposed to carry secrets around with you like that. They are supposed to break you — supposed to crack you open, like a faucet left on that soaks the floor and the walls and pours onto the sidewalks. At a desk, or in front of the TV, I could tap keys and buttons without intention, sinking into my new reality. In class, I went left while others went right, consistently bumping shoulders with the others and only then, with the shock of someone’s sharp elbow in my side, could I feel slightly grounded.

A few weeks into class, a few weeks after all the death, Joyce came over to help me sort through some of Carl’s things. John was going to pick up anything I didn’t want and either keep or donate it. John had no interest in doing the actual sorting, and that was fine. I preferred Joyce’s company and most of Carl’s belongings were in the bedroom. I’d been sleeping in the guest room, even though my new memories there weren’t any less frustrating.

“What about this?” Joyce held up a photo album. Carl’s handwriting: Puerto Rico, across the front.

“If I say toss it, are you going to have me committed?”

“No, honey,” Joyce put the album down on her lap gently and started paging through. “But sweetie, you might want these photos one day! Or at least a few.”

“Joyce, I don’t need a photo album of our vacations. I just don’t. If you’d like a picture, take it.”

Joyce bit her lip, and some of her dark lipstick ended up on the edge of her front tooth. In silent retaliation, I didn’t tell her.

We continued opening drawers, putting things into boxes labeled “clothes,” “books,” “misc.” Carl didn’t have a lot of “misc.” belongings. And of course, he’d packed up a fair amount of clothing when he decided to leave me. If Joyce noticed he was low on underwear, she didn’t say anything.

“So,” Joyce said after some time had passed in silent organizing. “How’s your little class?”

“Fine, a bunch of weirdos.”

“Mhmm, sure,” Joyce nodded, folding a sweater over her knees. “Do you feel like it’s helping?”

“Helping what, my coordination?” Joyce gave me a look. “I’m not getting better at dancing if that’s what you mean.” I leaned against the wall of the bedroom, stretching my legs in front of me. My hands smelled like dust and forgetfulness. I was getting a headache.

“I want to make sure you’re getting through it, you know,” Joyce said, mirroring me as she leaned her back against the foot of our bed. My bed.

“Joyce,” I said. “Carl and I — we weren’t that happy together. It wasn’t a perfect marriage.”

“Well of course not, hon!” Joyce sat up straighter. She could give advice now, which was Joyce’s favorite thing to give. “There’s no such thing. My parents hated each other’s guts for 50 years.” I’d met Joyce’s parents at her house for a holiday dinner and could see this being true. “Is that the problem here? You didn’t love him madly so you don’t want to be sad?”

“No, it’s not that. I just wanted you to know.”

“Honey, I’m your best friend. Even if being friends with you is like trying to hug concrete, I’ve had dinner with you two. I never pictured you as passionate lovers.” She said lovers in a low, dramatic voice that made me laugh, and then I caught myself. I couldn’t laugh while folding Carl’s blue sweater with a hole in its sleeve that I had promised to try and fix.

“You know, I didn’t even want to go on our trip this year — that annual vacation. To Puerto Rico.”

“Well, so what? I bet he was a real pill on a vacation — ”

“He wasn’t. He was fine.”

“So fine! He was fine. But honey, you can be sad someone’s dead, even if you only liked them some of the time.” She chewed the inside of her cheek.

“I liked him, Joyce, I just don’t know if I loved him,” I said. Talking felt like choking.

“Hmm…” Joyce said, running her nails along the spine of the album. “I would bet it’s actually the reverse.”

Every once in a while, Joyce made a very interesting observation.

Every goddamn class, Theodora came over to me and touched some part of my body. She tried to loosen my hips, to soften my shoulders. Every once in a while, she’d tap my hip and my arms would tighten, tapping into some sense memory of Carl guiding me through a crowd. Theodora implored me to relax, to let the music move me, to avoid the mirror and just dance. “Try to bring some light into you,” Theodora said more than once.

It’s like you’ve given up on trying, Carl said from the doorway.

I want to try something, Trevor said, his face hovering above mine, his arms looped under my knees.

They tried to call you, John said quietly.

Every Monday and Wednesday, I tried to enter the room with some semblance of positive energy — once, I even went a little drunk — and it was washed away by self-consciousness and exhaustion. I felt myself going stiffer each week as I watched my classmates become air. They memorized the routine and their muscles responded. Even Ursula, Georgia, and Teresa — my back row buddies — had become confident in their twists and turns.

On Wednesdays, the group went out for drinks. I knew they went out for drinks because on the second Wednesday I used the bathroom after class and so I was late leaving. I reached the lobby of the community center and saw the group congregated outside and heard mention of Bill’s. I waited two extra minutes before getting in my car and driving over, and I saw them walk in, one Spandexed leg after another. I did that for two more Wednesdays before I understood it was a thing. On the sixth Wednesday, I went inside. Fuck ’em, I thought.

I ordered a very large amber beer. Liquid courage. When I walked up to the tall table they huddled around, beneath one of the large, bright TVs, everyone shared a quick glance before shuffling around to make room. “Hope you guys don’t mind me joining,” I said.

“Of course, please,” said Zachariah.

“We just didn’t think you seemed like the drinking type,” said Zoe, glancing around for approval. “Of course, you’re obviously — of course, please join us! Yes.” I thought she was going to choke on her wine.

“Well, thanks.” The beer was flat.

“You liking Modern Dance?” Zachariah asked. “You still bringing that — what was it? — guilt to class every day?” He smirked. The question he’d been longing to ask.

“Well, sure,” I said. “I bring it everywhere. It fits right in my purse.”

“What do you have to be guilty about anyway?” he asked. “You seem harmless to me.”

I looked around for a beat. I could just tell them now and get it over with, spit it into my beer and spill it onto the table. I felt weird, in a bar wearing leggings at 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday.

“I was cheating on my husband for two years, he decided to leave me, and then he died. But he didn’t know I was cheating.”

Zoe actually did choke on her wine. The television announcers discussed the beauty of a pass down the field. I could hear the tap behind us, filling a tall glass.

“Well, fuck me sideways,” Zachariah finally said. He looked impressed. “Who knew.”

“And you’ve like, you’ve never told anyone. About the cheating part.” Teresa looked at me wide-eyed.

“Well, I just told you.”

Zachariah laughed and lifted his beer up into the center of the table: “To expressing ourselves, as they say.” We all clinked.

I knew it didn’t really count, telling them. Telling a secret to strangers was like whispering to a ghost. But still, a small pressure valve behind my ribcage had been released. A collective valve had been released, too — everyone shared their darknesses in a row:

Zachariah: “I stole a few thousand dollars from my parents last year. I blamed it on my sister.”

Georgia: “I have a friend who refills a prescription for me, under the table, because it helps me keep the edge off.”

Ursula: “Freddy? I use him too.”

Georgia: “No, Tim at the hospital downtown.”

Elle: “I cheated once. Well, twice. Actually, I’m cheating on my boyfriend now. Not, like, now now. I’m talking to you now. But later, I will.”

Zoe: “I stole milk from the grocery store on accident a year ago and got away with it. Now I do my grocery shopping in small bursts and I don’t really — I don’t pay for stuff.”

Teresa: “When I was 10, I was playing dentist, and pulled a kid’s tooth out on the playground. It wasn’t loose. I made him tell his parents he ran into the jungle gym. I kept the tooth.”

We were all just crazy, bloodthirsty liars donning leggings and searching for rhythm. We ordered more beers and got lost in the buzz of our secrets, feeding off of our relief.

Somehow, a few hours later, the chairs began piling up on top of tables, which made walking to the front of the bar feel like traveling through a forest of spindly trees.

Zachariah’s eyes flashed: “I know what Lydia needs — what we all need.”

Georgia looked hungry: “Oh good, what?”

Zachariah smiled: “She needs to dance that shit out of her system.”

I backed up, thinking no, no. I didn’t take Intro to Modern Dance because I wanted to be someone who turned to dance to solve my problems. Who had a sign in my kitchen that says: Dance Is Cheaper Than Therapy. Who woke up early on Saturday mornings because I needed to move my body.

But we were all liquid and bending to Zachariah.

The back of the bar had an empty parking lot. Good suburban parents weren’t drinking until 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, but I wasn’t a good suburban parent — or even a good suburban wife — anymore. Zachariah had parked a few feet from the bar and the lot was dark. “Everyone take a spot!” he yelled. “I got the music.”

Like ants following marching orders, we all lined up next to Zachariah’s car. Some took the row behind his car so that our group formed a rectangle. I was between Ursula and Teresa, across from Georgia.

“Ready y’all?” Was he southern, or just tipsy? Could we get DUIs for posing as cars, drunk in their parking spots?

A low drum filled the lot and bounced off the brick walls of the bar. It was like a chant, summoning us to our spots, summoning movement out of our tendons and livers and fingertips. Ursula began thrashing around like a jellyfish — her two arms seemed to multiply and moved through the air like it was syrup. Elle, two spots down, began rotating her head so quickly I had a flash of it rolling down the sidewalk. Zachariah called above the music: “Lydia, move that fucking body!”

I stepped side to side trying to find a beat, feeling the two beers slosh against the sides of my stomach as each foot hit the pavement. I hated it. The tall streetlamps illuminating the lot made us all look like ghosts, creating shadows and light on cheekbones and ankles, then dissolving us when we bounced out of its glow and followed our movements into the dark.

“Come on Lydia,” Ursula said, in the midst of a dramatic spin. “Be something, do something. We’re doing this for you, dumbass.”

This group was kind of mean.

Carl yelled you’re inflexible but Trevor whispered that I made him feel so good and John called saying Carl is dead they found him on the floor unmoving in his hotel room.

I began moving like a monkey, the only animal I could think of, pretending my arms were longer and reaching into the air to grab at anything — invisible fruits, thick branches. I hopped more intensely from foot to foot, dropping to the ground and springing back up, hearing you’re inflexible so I reached for my toes, hearing that feels good so I arched my back. Zachariah sounded far away when he yelled, “You go girl!” and I felt some kind of rhythm — finally — each jump matching the drum beat moving faster and faster. I thought, Maybe this is how you do it, maybe you sweat out the bad. The rhythm could be a magnet for me, it could be the jolt I needed to get the fuck past Carl and past Trevor and move forward. I hated feeling so stuck. I imagined climbing a tree, I brought my knees up to my hips and saw vines and leaves circling around me. I swung my body left and right. Come on, I thought, out with it.

Then: a sharp pain and the street lights went out or maybe my eyes closed, and I felt the black top digging into my leggings.

The doctor referenced the X-ray and the bones without much explanation, as though I had any idea what I looked like on the inside.

“It’s a bad sprain, and we should be able to get you in a boot by the end of the day.”

The drugs made me feel like I was floating. I was a jellyfish like Ursula, swimming in this bright hospital room. The curtains on the window were seaweed, they fluttered and waved at me.

The doctor was making notes in his chart and asking me questions — had I had surgery before? Any broken bones? Family to call? What’s my pain right now on a 1 to 10?

“My husband is dead,” I said. My voice sounded like it came from a phone overseas.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

The drugs made me realize I was sorry to say it. I was sorry that I got to soak in everyone’s pity when Carl should have been the sponge.

“I could call my brother. In-law. I could call my brother-in. Law.” Sentences were so hard underwater.

“The nurse can notify him,” the doctor said, closing my chart. “Just give me his number.”

Before I fell asleep I thought it was so funny how John kept getting calls that Carl and I were hurt or dead.

When I woke up, John wasn’t there. I wondered if he would come at all. Maybe he would send Joyce.

A bubbly nurse walked in the room with a purple gift bag. “Your friends sent you something!” she said a little too loudly. “They came by while you were asleep and I didn’t want to wake you.”

“My friends?” Joyce was one person. The nurse put the bag on the table next to me and her scrubs swished her out of the room. I rotated to open the bag. A Post-It note on the outside said: We’ll miss you at the recital! Signed by all of them. Zachariah in large looped letters, Tessa scrunched in the corner. Inside was a pair of sleek, shiny leggings. The kind Theodora had wanted us to buy so we could “dance as one.” Not my size, and certainly not my style. I held them up in front of me and they looked like tentacles. I liked the texture. They were so thin, they felt like water.

There was a loose thread on the waistband and I began pulling. I pulled gently. I didn’t want the thread to rip. But I wanted to watch them unravel, and I pulled and pulled and pulled. When John showed up an hour later, I had a large boot on my ankle and a web of dark thread sitting on my lap. He knocked on the door and we stared at each other.

“What happened, Lydia?” Standing in the doorway, exhausted and frustrated, he looked like Carl. “I have to be home in an hour.” He adjusted his watch.

My lungs filled up so quickly with air it gave me the hiccups. What happened. I had a flash of spelling it out with the thread, stringing an explanation along the white hospital wall like a deranged spider web. John moved into the room to stand awkwardly at the foot of the bed as he nudged the watch again, and I realized it was Carl’s. The brothers’ wrists were both thick, covered in dark hair. I remembered Carl’s pulsing in the doorway the night he left; I watched John’s flick back and forth in nervousness, awkwardness. He needed to tighten the strap, but it wasn’t my place to say. It wasn’t my place to say anything at all really, except to thank him for coming and detangle him from my guilt, let him float away and grieve on his own.

John pinched the skin between his eyebrows and let out a long, exhausted sigh. I sighed back, picking up where he left off; it was like a gust of tired wind was leaving the room.

“What did he pack?” I asked, winding the thread around my ring finger and watching the tip of the flesh turn purple.

“What do you mean?” He knew what I was asking, but maybe he’d been dreading this conversation. I knew he had access to an interior that Carl hadn’t let me see.

“You got to pick up his stuff,” I said, nodding to the watch. “You got the bag he packed. I don’t want it, I didn’t ask for it. But I want to know what he packed. How long was he going to leave for?”

“I haven’t opened it,” John said, and I knew that was true.

“Was it heavy?”

“The bag?”

“Yes, the bag. Was it heavy? Like packed to the brim? Or fake-packed, maybe? A display of dramatics?”

“It was…” John paused. “Medium-heavy, I guess. I don’t know why this matters. He was going to leave, I was — I was supposed to come for the rest of his stuff. I had a truck booked.”

“A whole truck.” I shifted in the bed; I couldn’t tell if my leg was going numb or if my whole body was numb, and my broken ankle was the only thing awake. “Were you going to ask me what you could take?”

John adjusted Carl’s watch again. “I wasn’t, no. I wanted to take what I thought Carl should have.” I nodded. I understood. There were things Carl should have had, and now, somehow, I ended up with everything.

It occurred to me that John was deeply sad. That his sadness was pure — unlike me, whose sadness was stained with guilt, entangled and messy like the ball of thread in my lap. That my sadness and guilt were so indistinguishable, I couldn’t tell which I felt more profoundly. So the feelings gathered and rolled around in my stomach, causing it to clench again as John cleared his throat, a wet crackling that betrayed how completely he was grieving. I would have killed to feel something so clearly and completely.

The nurse swished in. It was time to leave. The rest of the questions, I could find a way to answer for myself.

Audience Development at Medium / Previously: Time Inc., Real Simple, childhood

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