W sits at the kitchen table, the paper bag holding my husband’s ashes in front of him. He sifts through the remnants with his fingers, the way he’s seen me do so many times. My husband chats with W while he does this, tells him about the floorboard I stashed his box of porn under, our secret swimming hole at the beach, the way I yelled at him for months after he died.
Don’t ever die on her, my husband says, and W laughs.
I take W’s hand in mine, brush my husband from his skin, look at his fingers. They’re bigger than my husband’s, stronger. I shiver at the thought of them running down my sides, at them knotting through my hair in bed. I’ve fallen for W—the way he wakes earlier than me, the way he showers with the door open, the way his dog squishes between us on the couch. There was a guilt when I met him a few months ago. A pull I hadn’t felt in a long time.
What was it like when you were together? W asks.
I look at him steady, try to find those impossible words. It was the opposite and the same as this, I say. Smooth and cool. Gritty and scorching.
W leans over the kitchen table and kisses me like that.
My husband’s ashes let out a sharp pop.
We listen to Tom Waits while we fry bacon, while we poach eggs. Sing, now you’re gone. Sing, I don’t care if you miss me. Sing, must be blind love.
My husband’s ashes rustle.
Let’s get out of here, I say to W.
We walk out the back door, toward the park where my husband and I used to get high and watch the snow geese migrate, all the birds flying in tandem. We used to marvel at their synchronicity, at their numbers.
Look at the way they rotate through when one gets tired, my husband said the last time we saw them together. They’re so in tune with each other.
W walks beside me. I hold my husband’s ashes, my palm sweaty against the paper bag. W slips his arm around my waist and it feels like it’s been there forever.
We sit on the same park bench my husband and I used to. There are no geese today; the sky empty and gray. I open the paper bag and my husband snakes his ashes around my hand, up my bicep, into my hair. He paints himself on me thickly. W throws a ball for his dog while I cry.
I’m not ready to go, my husband says.
I put my nose over the bag and inhale, the way we huffed paint thinner at the park when we were kids. My husband’s ashes coat the inside of my nostrils, slip down my throat. There is nothing comforting about the way they move or smell; they make me gag, but I do it again—deeper this time, longer—until his ashes reach into my lungs and I begin to cough.
Come with me, he says.
I look at W and it’s like being torn in two.
I select a chunk of my husband’s bone from the paper bag, rub it between my fingers and wonder what part of him it came from. Wonder what was tough enough to withstand the heat. All of him, I think. All of him was tough enough.
I stuff the piece of bone inside my pocket and it’s cold against my thigh.
I blow what’s left of my husband’s ashes from my palm and he wisps away in a fan. I wait for him to say goodbye, but he doesn’t. There’s an itch inside me, a tugging, and I shake it away as I stand, think about how my husband’s coated on my insides now, the way he’s been coated on my thoughts all these years. Think about how memories aren’t for letting go of.
W and I walk back the way we came. He offers to make coffee once we’re home, and I picture the way he’ll rinse my morning mug instead of grabbing a fresh one. The way he’ll count the scoops out loud, so he doesn’t make the coffee too weak. The way he’ll pour the milk in first.
In some ways, he’s been living with two ghosts.
My lips are chapped from my husband’s ashes, my throat raked raw. It’s quiet in the backyard without his banter; peaceful but odd. I take his bone fragment from my pocket and jam it into the soil between the begonias, pile earth on top and mark it with a stone. Wonder what, if anything, will grow there.
Jennifer Todhunter‘s stories have appeared in CHEAP POP, Necessary Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her work has been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at @JenTod_.