“We did everything we could.”
She had him cremated and did not hold a memorial service. They had no children. The few friends they had lived far away.
At first, sleep had been a welcome respite from the horrible silence that had taken over their home. The unconsciousness had come easily with the grief, but as the days passed she found herself being awakened by the anxiety that crept out of the quiet. She tried turning the TV to high volume, switching channels frequently to keep it on all the best shows. But the feeling she had did not come so much from a lack of sound, but rather from an emptiness that had settled into her soul.
After several weeks of this, she finally washed and blow-dried her silver hair, and she went out into the world. She put together a rumpled outfit of stretchy clothes from the dryer, and a ball cap. The sun was too bright, so she wore her darkest sunglasses, even inside the stores. They blocked out the awful fluorescent lighting. After stepping through the automatic sliding doors, she snatched up a shopping cart (to have something to do with her hands) and went wandering through the women’s clothing section. Her arms brushed against the different textures and patterns as she meandered by them. Pants. Blazers. Blouses. The items around her were all new, and yet also familiar and comforting.
Her fingers rested on a particularly silky scarf looped on a hook. There were many scarves on many hooks fastened to a display wall at the back of the section. The one in her hand was purple and gold. She looked good in purple. It was the color of her birthstone. She wouldn’t even have to try it on. She bought it.
At home, she hung the scarf in her walk-in closet in a prominent location. The corners of her mouth hinted at a smile, but she wasn’t ready for that yet. His clothes still hung on the other side. Seeing them seemed to suck the breath out of her, and she quickly flicked off the light and closed the closet door.
The next day, she considered wearing the new scarf, but couldn’t bear to open the bedroom closet. She grabbed the dark sunglasses again and headed back out. The yawning emptiness of the house made her feel anxious and desperate, and she had to get away from it. She remembered another scarf that had caught her eye, and thought it would look good with a blouse she had seen on the sale rack.
Skipping the carts this time, she headed straight for the items in question. Her heartbeat quickened when she saw the two pieces together. She had been right - the turquoise in the scarf tied in with the color in the paisley pattern of the blouse. She bought them, and a pair of pants to match. For a moment, she had not thought about his death. Only a moment.
She went out again the next day, to another store. She needed shoes to go with the outfit. Fall was fast approaching, and she would soon receive the life insurance money. She bought three pairs and went home. Still unwilling to open the walk-in closet, she stacked the shoe boxes in the corner of their bedroom. She draped her new outfit over a small, cushioned chair sitting in the corner.
In the morning, she admired her outfit and boxes of new shoes, and a tiny piece of her felt that she had something to look forward to. Every morning before his death, she had always had him. Until then, she hadn’t realized how much space he had taken up. Now everything around her, carefully curated within a partnership that spanned decades, reminded her of the life she no longer had. Except for the outfit. And the boots.
She wore the new outfit, but then went to a different store. She wore a new pair of shoes, too, and came home with so many bags, she had to make two trips into the house. Lovingly, she took each item out of its bag and laid it out to admire. Clothes decorated every surface of their bedroom. More shoeboxes were added to the stack in the corner. She told herself she would put everything away on another day, when she felt ready to open the walk-in closet again. Lying in her bed that night, she felt a sense of peace as she looked around at her beautiful new things. The quilted bedspread, the one with the pattern that had been his favorite, was now invisible beneath layers of denim and satin and one-hundred-percent cotton. She slept a little better that night, comforted by the weight of the clothes spread over the top of her.
The house was still too quiet. Each day she went out in another new outfit. A skirt suit. A sundress. Khaki capris and a white button-down blouse. As the weather got cooler, she bought boots and slim-cut jeans to wear with them. More scarves. More long-sleeved blouses. She decided to buy one large, plastic tote for storing her summer clothes. Once it was filled up, she placed it next to the stack of shoe boxes. It was now as tall as her. She noticed this as she stood there, but reminded herself that she was shorter than most women.
When he had been gone for three months, she decided to open the walk-in closet door again. The urge came not so much from a feeling of readiness, but from a need to organize her clothes. Her new wardrobe was now piled up on the chair and on his side of the bed, and had spilled out onto the living room furniture as well. She knew that it had to be dealt with. It was a problem, and the shame and embarrassment she felt around the piles of clothes gnawed at the corners of her mind.
After a deep breath, she opened the door and flicked on the light. The first thing she saw was the purple scarf, and for a moment she felt a tiny bit happy. But then a draft of air from the closet wafted over her and everything but sorrow vanished from her body. The odor was of him. His clothes still held the scent of his cologne, his deodorant, his musk. It hit her like a boxer’s punch and she was on the ground, gasping and sobbing, clutching at the door frame. He was gone and she was all alone.
She crawled on her hands and knees into the closet, tugged one of his flannels down from its hanger, and sobbed into it until she fell asleep.
The next day she bought more plastic totes. She emptied out his side of the closet into them, hastily stuffing them in as bundles with the hangers still on them. His dresser was emptied out neatly, as everything in it was already folded. She knew that the worn socks and underwear were as good as garbage, but she stowed them away, anyway. The totes were snapped shut and quickly shoved into his office. She did this without turning on the light or looking, but simply pushed each tub into the room with one foot and then pulled the door closed. She was in fair health, but at her age, the work was tiring.
That night she drank a glass of red wine in the walk-in closet with his flannel shirt and fell asleep crying again.
The next day she bought more hangers, and more totes.
His things - collectible toy trucks, bear statues, little silver spoons with the names of all the places they had visited written on the handles, classic fiction novels, presidential biographies, battered subscription magazines about politics, and his favorite coffee mug - lay scattered throughout the house, and she carefully packed away each one. Fragile items were wrapped in paper. The totes were all labeled. Once they had been filled and closed, she went to put them in his office. She knew there were too many for her to keep shoving them in there without looking, as she had done before. A tiny part of her considered donating some items, but the thought was quickly swallowed by the grief that always seemed to ebb and flow within her now. She poured herself a glass of red wine for the task.
The office was small, not big enough to be a bedroom, though it had been considered one when they bought the little house, all those years ago. It had a desk (with a chair) pushed against one wall, and a bookshelf full of neatly arranged books against another. The totes full of his clothes were in the way, so she stacked them and pushed them in front of the bookshelf, blocking the book spines and all of their titles from view. The totes of his personal belongings went up against the back of the office chair, trapping it against the desk. She closed the door again and realized she had been holding her breath.
Each day, she slept in a little longer, stayed out a little longer, stayed up a little longer. She hung up her new clothes on his side of the closet, but it felt wrong to put them there. She stopped wearing those clothes. Every once in a while she would attempt to sort her things and would add a few more items on hangers to the rods, but the closet had become a void where new things went to die.
Her bedside table had grown too cluttered with used books (from the little shop downtown), so she moved his ashes to his side of the bed. When that was full, she moved him to the dresser, and then to the fireplace mantle. After the holidays, she couldn’t bring herself to take down the new decorations she had put up (the old ones, still tucked away in the attic, held too many memories for her to bear looking at them) and his urn had been almost obscured from sight. She decided to carefully wrap him up and fold him into a tote, clearly labeled, for safekeeping in his office. The guilt had given her nausea for days, but it was better than being reminded of his absence every time she saw the urn. It felt like, no matter how many things she had crowded around the vessel that contained her husband, the emptiness had seeped out of it, like a black hole that blocked the light of the stars nearby.
Time slid by. She was still alive. She had stopped trying to wash her clothes when the laundry got to be too much. She never seemed to be able to put it away, and so it ended up in a pile on her bed. Picking through it became too much work, so she simply bought more clothes and wore those. She slept on the couch, since the bed was covered. The bedroom was less like a bedroom and more like a small collection of mountains and valleys. Stacks of shoeboxes and totes full of out-of-season clothes lined the walls. Clean clothes had completely engulfed the little soft chair. The bedside tables seemed taller due to the stacks of books teetering atop them, and the surface of the dresser was no longer visible under the spread of jewelry that she had acquired. Her old jewelry box had been pushed into a corner of the walk-in closet and forgotten, most of its contents gifts from him. In front of it she had piled bags of new clothes, intending to hang them up but finding the task impossible with no room on the bulging, sagging curtain rods.
Some nights, the hoard felt like a castle she had built for herself inside the home that they had shared, like she had made her own space within a life that no longer existed.
Some nights, she took a bottle of wine with her into the walk-in closet, where she still kept the single flannel shirt, and cried as she drank. The shirt was beginning to lose his smell the way her mind was losing the memory of the way his voice sounded.
The glass recycling tub by the kitchen door was overfilled with wine bottles. She was too embarrassed to take them out to the curb. Each week she added more to the pile until they were mostly lined up in neat rows along the wall, some of them rolling around and clanking together when she added a new one to the collection.
When she really stepped back and looked around her house, the quietness of it seemed to grab hold of her. She felt that, if she stayed there in it, the empty places would reveal the memories of a life now gone. Those reminders ached like candy stuck on a cavity. So, she left. She bought more clothes. More jewelry. More books. She bought trinkets to replace the ones of his that she had packed away. She decided to start a new collection.
The people at the stores she liked the most began to recognize her and call her by name. So, she drove further to visit different stores. There was a larger city about an hour away, and she could shop at the world market store. The patterned baskets and intricate rugs they sold gave her the same feeling that the purple scarf had, when she had first seen it.
The living room floor had some clear spaces, but not enough for the rug. She rested the rolled-up carpet against a stack of totes in the corner, then nested the baskets inside one another and placed them atop the totes. She had to stand on her tiptoes. Looking at the piles of objects, she could see the mess, but she also saw a new life unfolding around her. She let her fingers caress various items she appreciated each one and where it came from. The possibilities of what she could do with all of these things excited her. Each day she saw less of him around her.
One night she tried to climb into the walk-in closet and found that she could not push the door open enough to squeeze through. It had been filled waist-high with clothes, hangers, and shopping bags, depressed in the middle like a sort of nest. Carefully folded, his flannel shirt stood out against the mess, resting atop a pile of wine bottles that had not made it out of the back corner of the tiny room. But, she could not reach it.
When she woke up the next morning, her head throbbed and she could not remember how much she had drunk. Three empty wine bottles clinked softly next to her, but there was no telling what evening they had been forgotten there. Perhaps the night before, perhaps not. She had fallen asleep on a pile of clothes in front of the walk-in closet. The floor of the bedroom was no longer visible. She climbed, slowly and carefully, between her mounds of belongings, collecting pieces for an outfit as she went along.
She changed in the living room. There was no need to worry about pulling the curtains closed anymore, as the windows were completely blocked up with plastic tubs, shopping bags, and precariously stacked items of furniture. A stool threatened to topple from its place atop a particularly tall pile, one of its legs grazing the popcorn ceiling. She had slept through breakfast, which was fine. In her old age, she found that she no longer had an appetite for three meals a day. Even if she had, the kitchen was no longer usable for cooking food. When the countertops had filled up, the stove had been stacked up with items, and she had never been a fan of microwaves.
Even still, the house felt empty, as empty as an echoing cavern where the bats disappear from sight before they even reach the top.
More shopping. More clothes. More stools. More antiques. More pillows. More fake flowers. More woven placemats. More wall sconces. More bottles of red wine.
More stacking. More balancing. More feeling the mound beneath her shift like a pile of loose gravel as she climbed across it. More wondering if a woman her age should really be getting around like this. More searching for a comfortable place to sleep at night. More lying in the pitch blackness because she couldn’t get to the light switches anymore. More listening to the sounds of scratching at night and wondering if rats had moved in. More drinking until unconsciousness took over.
The next day, she crawled out of her house wearing the same clothes she had worn the day before, and when she returned, she could no longer open the front door. It had happened. She had finally filled up the vacancy that he had left behind. And yet, at the same time, she thought she had never felt more empty.