May 5th, 2011 - Lacey Rowland
It was the last week before finals, and I was sitting in my American Literature survey class in the Liberal Arts building on campus. The classroom had a distinct mugginess in the afternoon from being air-conditioned by a swamp cooler that rattled in the ceiling. It’s one of those buildings that never got updated because it houses departments that are small and insignificant. The instructor was an older woman who constantly talked about golf and only assigned the male authors from the anthology. In May, in the afternoon, Boise takes on a pinkish hue and lights up the nearby foothills. Magnolia blooms turn from clenched fists to open palms. Cottonwoods shed their down and the Boise river cuts slow and low along the campus. It’s hard to sit still when the world wakes up.
I was engaged to a man who was 13 years my senior. He was a widower. That was his most defining attribute. I was just 23 years old then and planning my wedding in between potty training my fiance’s twin toddlers and writing essays about the Beats and Modernism. That week I would’ve been laid off from my seasonal gig at the convenience store on campus and transitioning to taking care of the kids full time. On May 5th, I was savoring the fleeting independence of intermittent childlessness. I could still pocket my ring and pretend I was alone.
That spring I became an amateur archaeologist. I was sharing a house with a ghost. In the bathroom under the sink there was a box of expired pregnancy tests and lemon-scented perfume. In the basement, boxes of knick-knacks, old scarves and blouses, diaries, textbooks, and her Weight Watchers binder. The late wife had been a reader too, in love with literature like I was. My fiance didn’t talk about her much. What I learned about her, I found through my own snooping when he was away and the twins were napping. Sometimes I’d spend hours sifting through her things in the basement trying to learn about a woman I would always be compared to but never meet. Who was this person who saved crafting moss in a tupperware container and wore slinky, black leather boots?
I found an old cell phone that belonged to my fiance in a cupboard and played the last voicemail she’d left for him. It was something about groceries, something inconsequential, like all voicemails are when you’re happily married and unaware that you’ll drop dead in a few weeks from a pulmonary embolism. Her voice had a higher pitch than I’d imagined. It was tragic. She was so young. That’s what they said about her anyway. I remember resisting the urge to delete the message and erase a part of her.
In the classroom, trying to pay attention to the lecture on Hemingway or Jack London, my thoughts were drifting to her. She was a constant shadow I couldn’t shake. I wondered if she was a better student than me. A better mother. A better lover. At night when my fiance and I would have sex, I feared he would cry her name as he came. I tried not to see the similarities in our appearance. We both had short, dark hair and fair skin. You could describe us as sturdy women. I ended up getting highlights in my hair and exercised obsessively to stay trim.
I was checking boxes in May. Finishing classes. Buying a wedding dress. Pleasing my parents. Fulfilling God’s will. Settling down. Playing the dutiful mother. Cleaning house. Planning the wedding, but not what comes after.
When class finished, the chairs screeched along the tile floor as we made our way out into the fleeting afternoon sun. I savored those afternoons, between school or work and the half-mile walk to the daycare to pick up the twins. Some days I took the long way along the river. Some days I walked through the neighborhood where I used to live on Potter Street in the one-bedroom basement apartment. I’d pass the community garden which was mostly weeds and the Mormon church until I got to Beacon Street and the pink stucco daycare center.
These days I can no longer hear the late wife’s voice with much clarity. The twins have a new stepmother. I’m at another precipice in my life now. My partner and I have been discussing the future, though I’m more cautious these days. We fantasize about buying a home, having children together. But for now, we’re content to be as we are—happily cohabitating in our little apartment with two cats and no ghosts. In the yard, our magnolia tree is getting ready to bloom.
Lacey Rowland is a writer from the west. Her work has appeared in the Tahoma Literary Review, Pleiades, Hobart, Cutbank and elsewhere. Most recently she received the AWP Intro Journals Prize in fiction. She's a graduate of Oregon State University's MFA Program in Creative Writing.