I wrote this piece not long after my husband, Ken, died in 2016. Earlier this year I submitted it to the Timeless Wisdom International Writing Challenge sponsored by Exisle Publishing. It has been chosen to be published in the book, Love and Loss, a collection of short stories to be published in April 2020.
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Learning to walk again. That’s what it can feel like after you’ve lost a loved one. The death of a partner, the aftermath of divorce, the loss of a parent or child, a beloved sibling or friend – sometimes the pain is so wrenching it feels as if the normal patterns of life have fallen away.
How did you used to walk? How did it feel to wake up in the morning and have that person in your life? Who will support you now – who will tell you you’re going to be okay, you’ll get through this, you’ll find your way?
You’ve entered an unknown country. You’ve arrived there without a guidebook, not speaking the language, not knowing the rules. And you really, really don’t want to be there.
This new place is familiar and yet different. There are streets, houses, apartment buildings. People commute to work, take their dogs for a walk, shop for groceries, play with their children. The sun rises and sets, it gets cold at night, warms up during the day. The very familiarity is jarring: shouldn’t it stop, if only for a moment? How can it be that the world can carry on when the one who made it interesting has gone?
You feel like Alice, viewing the world through a looking-glass. An invisible wall separates you from the others. In time, the wall will melt. You, too, will shop and commute and maybe take a few tottering steps in this new place, hoping you won’t fall and make a fool of yourself. Maybe you’ll join a group or take up a hobby. You’ll find a way to stop feeling guilty about being alive – stop apologizing for things you said or should have said.
You never saw yourself as a wife. The word had such baggage – love, honour, obey. Housework. All those things you dismissed when you were young. How could they compete with freedom – adventure – finding yourself? And then you take the plunge and find yourself sharing your life with this other person who likes some of the same things. Greek food. British humour. Sex. The Beatles.
Is that enough? There are times when it isn’t. Shouldn’t there be poetry? Romance? Money?
Oh, yes. Money. It’s the only thing you fight about. No, correct that: you fight, he listens. Or goes into the other room. Or stays up late afterwards, watching soccer. While you storm upstairs, slam the door, determined not to cry.
He comes to bed, thinking you’re asleep. Hoping it’s one of those time-of-the-month things. Which it is, sometimes. But not always.
Why do you go on? Why does he stay? Why do you continue to believe it’s worth it? You have your reasons. There was, after all, that time with the sofa.
It was early in the relationship. You’d been together a few weeks – a month, maybe. You were sleeping together of course … well, you weren’t kids. He’d been married before, you’d had lovers. You were adults. You went to bed on your first date. Which you, a child of the sixties, shouldn’t have to explain but somehow feel that you do.
So: the sofa. It was an old green second-hand couch left behind by your former roommate. Actually, second-hand is being kind. By the time it came to you it had been through many hands. It had not been treated kindly. There were stains on it that might have been left by incontinent cats but you were inclined to suspect fornicating couples, given the source. It sagged where it shouldn’t and bulged in unexpected places. You made a point of putting a towel down when you sat on it.
When your roommate moved out you insisted he take it with him. It had come from his friends after all, not yours. He refused, said it wouldn’t fit in his new place. His one concession was to drag it out of the living room into the bedroom. And now every morning when you opened your eyes there it was, leering at you, a great green blister waiting to erupt.
You tried to sell it with no luck. You couldn’t even give it away. Goodwill came and took a look and said they didn’t want it. The Salvation Army wouldn’t even come and see it. Nobody at work was interested. It wasn’t old enough to be interesting or new enough to be desirable. It was just an old couch.
It was Saturday. You and he were in bed, thinking about getting up and heading out for coffee and a paper. The sun streamed in through the bedroom window. The sofa, if possible, looked even worse in the daylight.
“God, I hate that couch.”
“What’s the matter with it?”
“It doesn’t look so bad to me. Why do you hate it?”
And so you told him. You’d told others about that couch. You’d mentioned it at work a dozen times, whined about it to friends, considered paying someone to take it to the dump. If you knew someone with a truck. Who was strong enough to lug it downstairs – there was no elevator. Who was willing to take the time to do it.
People were sympathetic. They made suggestions: have you called Goodwill? Yes. Maybe you should put a notice in the grocery store. Tried that, they took it down. Is it worth getting it reupholstered? It could be fine with a new cover. No, it couldn’t. Try ignoring it. I can’t.
Now you said it was more than just a piece of furniture. That couch, you said, represented everything you loathed about your ex-roommate. Not being able to make it disappear made you feel helpless. You did not want to live your life with your ex-roommate’s castoffs.
He got up, got dressed, said he’d be back in half an hour. When he came back he had a saw and a hammer. He sawed the couch into three pieces, carried each section to the second-storey balcony and dropped it on the pavement below. Then he went downstairs, picked up the sections and carried them around the back to the dumpster. The couch was gone. He made it disappear.
That was it. That was when you knew. This was a man who could make things go away. Who would chop a couch in half – in three pieces actually – simply because it bothered you.
A few weeks ago you made a wrong turn and drove past your old apartment. You thought of the sofa. The balcony is still there – the dumpster may be gone. It would be harder now to get rid of an old couch. But he’d find a way.
Eventually, you will stop envying those on the other side of the wall. The ones who haven’t experienced this kind of loss. The ones who can still take the present for granted, as you used to do, and assume the future will continue. Your own future has changed forever. At some point, you’ll see the way forward. You’ll find a way to navigate the trails in this part of the world.
Right now, though, if you could, you’d go back in time – not far back, just far enough. Back to when you took for granted all the bits and pieces that make up a day. The small conversations, the shared jokes, even the occasional arguments. In this strange new country the stories aren’t remembered . . . they’re waiting to be told.