It was my idea, when he asked what he was supposed to say when the tenants asked who I was.
“Can I be Jane?”
And so his cousin Jane accompanied him to the property on Lighthouse Drive, and we walked around as Daniel realized that everything outside had gone neglected for the entire three year lease.
“That will have to be redone. This deck needs to be power washed. Look at all the dead shit. This was a beautiful tree…”
I worked, and I worked, and I worked like I had signed my life away. Not my home, not my idea of a good time, not my burden, not anything like the rest of what that town was doing for the Fourth of July weekend. I was on the ground in the kitchen scrubbing grime. Then I was taking a shovel to the root balls of hostas and hammering them apart, getting them properly divided and replanted. Meanwhile the lake was crowding with boats, jet skis and men standing in water to their waistline as they held fishing poles. I would see them all on our runs to Home Depot for tools, riding along with him, dirty, waiting to be whatever assistance he wanted.
Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some kind of reward at the end of this.
“There’s just so much bullshit to catch up with Mom,” he said in to the phone. Always Bluetooth, always playing through the dash while he drives. ‘Say a command.’ ‘Call Mom Cell.’
“You and her shoulda gone out there every year, Danny-“
“She wouldn’t have come out here, Mom.”
By the time we were done Daniel was hungry. When he says we’re going out to eat, I don’t have the slightest disagreement.
He took me to a local Chinese place that he and his wife had frequented. When he looked down at the paper placemats he read the zodiac symbols for him and her.
I have a Chinese Zodiac, too, I thought to myself. I was starting to feel left out.
Later, during one of our unpleasant conversations he would reflect, “I’m sorry. I missed it.”
The Asian waitresses came over and recognized him. He relayed the news about his wife. He relays the news about his wife at every single opportunity, with every person he encounters. I don’t blame him – it’s just that it so happens to be every person I encounter as well, we when we’re together. We can encounter a lot of people. And it does begin to sound different towards the end of the day.
By the time we were done with our meal, he was standing at the counter talking with the staff and I found myself seated alone, watching everything as I always have, one world apart. I was nobody. I was just Jane.
Jane got really sad, hopped up and ran in to the bathroom to pull herself together. Jane fights with bouts of jealousy and depression because she’s the brilliant one who thought there was nothing wrong with letting her heart go to Daniel. I would suddenly seem different. I wouldn’t smile or look at him. I’d hold my head down or look out the passenger window until he made me tell him what was on my mind.
“Let’s not ever do that again,” he suggested on the drive home. I think I knew, even the moment I claimed it as my idea to be Cousin Jane, that it would only cause a problem. It reminded me of a song I had heard on the radio.
“So alone all the time at night
Lock myself away, listen to me, I’m not
Although I’m dressed up, out and all with
Everything considered they forget my name
They call me Hell
They call me Stacey
They call me her
They call me Jane
That’s not my name
That’s not my name
That’s not my name
That’s not my…name”
Maybe I just had to try to forget in order for me to remember.
There are a lot of things that Daniel planted of mine, at his home. He said that it would make me feel more comfortable, to have things of my own among things of theirs. He dug a lot of holes, because I lined my entire trunk with garbage bags and brought as much with me as I could.
We also shopped at a nursery together and picked out a few annuals to incorporate. Using some of my own things and mixing it with his, I filled several planters. Anything I’ve shared in the past doesn’t really compare to the creations on his property; it really is a difference of worlds. But I am trying to learn all of the time, how everything could possibly work together.
Sometimes it’s something simple that means a lot, like this pole I wanted to keep because the symbol means something to me.
This is my little shrub that now has accent rocks and better soil.
My lilies are doing well, if not better than ever. I split them with my mom.
my lantern used to sit on concrete in a corner. It lights up at night.
this plant came from my mom and I think it looks good here.
a begonia planter I bought; no matter how impossible it is to keep up with everything I still bought a new things because it made me feel better as I was moving.
in one of the dining rooms there are an awful lot of indoor plants; many of them from the funeral home. I have been rotating them, watering them and watching them grow. I want to try to space some of them out and replant a few arrangements, although it is always with a silent caution that I slip around, tending to these things, getting to know them.
They have several rose plants that are not doing well, and several more that Daniel transplanted from a neglected rental house of his. He wants them to all be saved, as if in some way he can save a part of his wife. I have pruned them, fertilized them, watered them and disinfected them. Some of them are turning yellow while ones like this are spouting new growth. They are in shock, so many changing variables…it is a waiting process that makes me nervous sometimes.
One day we were out working together and he came over to where I was bent down, working on my arrangements. He brushed my dirty hair back with his hand and said, “Are you going to make me fall in love with you only to have you-“
I turned my chin away, breaking up the thought.
When you’re picking up stones, there is no where to kneel.
I quickly realized this out under the hot afternoon sun with my pale, unprotected skin and not the single shadow of a tree in sight. Daniel had just landscaped along the side of one of his rental properties, a project along the way of many projects in a very long, hard day.
“Hey Autumn,” he always says when I am in the midst of completing something in the idea of him, “Can you come’ere a sec?”
Do I really have a second? I suppose all I have is an uncertain amount of time. Sometimes I worry about the time I lose for my tasks, accompanying him in his, but maybe I’m learning something about support. I stopped power washing his back deck and walked around the house.
“What do you think if I put those hostas over there, over here in this bed?”
The hostas wouldn’t have enough shade and they were overgrown, overgrowing as it was.
“How about we divide the day lilies.”
He practically breathes through his electronic cigarette, the drag and the long sigh I’m used to hearing before his sentences, “Alright.”
Such a long day. I got burned pretty badly and I was emotionally tired. Toward the end of what I personally refer to as my “shift”, Daniel had another suggestion for me.
“Hey, do you think you could just pick up those rocks out front and put them in this bucket?”
The previous tenants had dumped small gravel on to the front lawn, causing a mess. Simple enough, I should have believed, I looked out at that searing yard and I could not believe some of the predicaments I had willingly entertained at the request of this man. But they were what he wanted, what he believed mattered most – even if at the cost of his own well-being – so they were what I had to do. As long as I mentally and physically could.
These are our days, together. This is what we do. This is how we are.
When you’re picking up stones, there is no where to kneel. I laughed when I thought that to myself, the hard lumps in the grass digging in to my legs. And as I was reaching out, combing the soil, sweating, completing this task, the new residents pulled in and I heard Daniel shout excitedly to them…
“Come over here and look what I did.”
What I did?
“My wife would love this. I should have done this years ago. My wife would just love it.”
It is during moments like those, when I am pushed beyond my limit and tested to the fullest, that I understand why it is so highly advised to refrain from romantic involvement with a recent widow. It isn’t fair, that someone lost their life – but it also isn’t fair to feel how your heart’s desire would be happy only if their late spouse would spring up from the grave and fill in their ghostly, number one spot with flesh and bone again.
My image is instantly discarded. I am suddenly a fool, a mistress, an idiot. My chest begins to hurt and I wonder, what I could have to gain by being placed here by God. Did I owe the world more karma than I could have possibly restored if I wasn’t struggling now? Had I been selfish, had I walked away from too many things that I did not think would fail to follow me wherever I went?
Did I say goodbye to happiness? To time, to moments in the shade, to the peace I seemed to steal between the mundane things I called responsibilities?
Did I say goodbye to love?
Daniel teases me about everything, without reservation or consideration. Normally I welcome the challenge and I try to match the audacity. Today I said, after he had related the granola bar crumbs and abandoned yogurt lid on the counter as something only a breaking-and-entering-pig could have left (“I’m calling the police”)…
“So why do you always leave the empty toilet paper roll on, and the full roll on the sink? Why can’t you finish the task?” It was something I had observed on separate occasions, amusingly enough, and I always removed the cardboard and put the new one on for him. No big deal. It’s just something he’s done.
“You know what, Autumn,” he asked. It was the way he wasn’t really asking me anything. It sounded like putting on gloves. Rolling up sleeves. Picking up stones.
I am the hardest person on myself. I am not my biggest fan, although I know I ought to be. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I endure these rollercoaster days filled with grievance. Consoling. Suggestion. Accompaniment. Support. Affection. Tears. Survival. Work. Maybe I lack the self-respect, but I will tell you something. My name still means something to me. And the tone in his voice, when he said ‘you know what, Autumn’… it hurt. And I will be dammed if someone else takes my name, after everything I’ve been doing, and uses it like that.
When you’re picking up stones, there is nowhere to kneel.
He said, by means of a heated lecture, that the toilet paper was left on the sink because his life is over once he goes back to his teaching job in the fall and the seconds it had taken to complete the change were decidedly lopped in order to tackle the even bigger, more impossible, heart-wrenching duties that drowned his soul that day, that week, that month, etc.
I was just pushing back, mirroring the granola crumbs. He was supposed to call me a bitch and we were supposed to go back in to the living room and sit down together.
“You don’t have a clue. (insulting) You’ll see, if you last that long (I can’t believe you just said that), when I’m working, how hard I have to work.”
I stood in the kitchen, wiping the counter tops after a meal I had prepared for on his behalf, and I listened to many things I had heard before. About the absence of free time. The loathing and the misery. This man is surrounded by a lifestyle that he has, in part, created. I do not waste my sympathy on his decisions no matter how they have dominoed and snowballed with time. I listened to his speech, to the way he said my name, and my mind went back to the stones.
I felt the bucket getting pretty full.
The man I fell in love with wears a wedding ring that will occasionally graze my palm when I take his hand. That ring is one of the most sacred symbols of marriage. The way I see it, as long as the wearer has it, it is its own living entity, signifying a connection between two people. It’s a beautiful thing.
A widower must choose when to take the ring off and put it in a new, special place – if they ever choose to remove it, at all. It’s up to them, within their own sense of time, how to deal with that. I would hope that Daniel wouldn’t choose a specific date that brought turmoil, like the date of his wife’s death, to take that step moving forward. An anniversary, perhaps, but who can say what is best for someone who lost a love of their life?
Is someone who wears their wedding ring, incapable of loving you? I believe that loved ones passed will be forever loved – and that our hearts are strong enough to be in love again, after we have lost. Daniel earned the right to wear his ring and I support his every day of dealing with the tragedy he suffers from. But sometimes, as my emotions for him grow, I find myself increasingly attached to the moments between us two – and I am thrown off and saddened by the unexpected feeling of his ring against my hand.
A girl grows up learning to avoid men wearing rings. We know to look for the pale color it leaves on their finger, should they remove it before going out. The commitment, the occupancy, the ties and multiple factors combined are engrained in us from an early age and those raised well know better than to ever become involved with a married man. Just the same, we are wary of the widow because he is surely lost and taken, just the same.
I have been lucky enough to have never lost a companion the way that Daniel did. Breakups with friends and dear ones have been hard enough – I cannot imagine the pain and devastation of losing someone who did not want to go, whose time on Earth was suddenly taken. I feel like I am always meeting the same woman he has lost; celebrating the image of someone he’s mourning, ultimately connected to someone special as I am wishing for a place within a heart designed for one woman.
Every day spent with Daniel is at the sake of my feelings. I am not his focus, as much as he has tried to see me just like the million other things in life that require attention. Part of the impossible puzzle, he knows I’m there feeling, seeing, unintentionally being strung along in a scenario that everyone else would advise against if they only knew the half of it.
The man with the wedding ring is the man that I fell in love with. What I didn’t expect – what worries me – is that he’s the one I’ve come to need more and more, every day. He’s a loyal, intelligent person who has been telling me that it’s time to plan for my future…
He ought to know better, the price you pay when you dare to dream.
It came easy to him, to just open up and begin talking about his life, with me. When we walked around the property, Danny showed me all of the plants that he and his wife had tended to. I was able to recognize things, relating them to the climate, and he realized that I liked ‘flowers n shit’, too. I even showed him photos from my laptop of the things I’ve done in my own gardens.
“I’m going to need help this summer,” he reasoned, looking out in to his little Eden.
I brought him over yellow begonias in a terra cotta pot with old English ivy growing down the sides. He said it was beautiful. And every day I dropped in to talk, I would gauge how he seemed to be doing. Always seemed to be doing a little better, given the occasional sadness. In everything I did I reminded myself of the woman still there, still loved very much, and I always let him tell me about who she was.
What he didn’t fully realize was that I was also inspired to come back from a dark period in my life, because of him. While he assumed I was giving him attention, he overlooked the fact that I might not eat that day if it wasn’t for the Cheerios, waiting. And I might not know what to do with myself if I didn’t have to get over to Danny’s where his home was under attack.
Another time I brought my meal over, an apple. Original sin.
I explored a dining room while he graded bulky cardboard science projects, often cursing as he unfolded them, looking for graphs and pictures.
“I just want this fuckin’ shit outta my house.” A teacher’s work is never done.
Meanwhile I was touching things on a bookshelf, lots of books on Christianity. He almost became a priest at one point in time. I emptied my change in to a little dish of coins. Collection.
Then one night, in the rain, we jumped in to the hot tub. It was the first time he had opened it back up in many months. I noticed that he never removed the chain from around his neck, as he let the water touch it. A blue light came on underneath and I watched our hands collect the bubbling foam, gathering it up and tossing it over. A lot of quiet moments, when we didn’t speak.
My mind is always running, always creatively observing, as I watch this man.
Opening up some doors, he said, “I just wanna see something. There was this jacket…”
And all of her clothes are there, lining the entire thing left to right, a beautiful master closet.
“I’m sorry. Are you OK with this? Is this weird?”
I smiled inside. Of course, it’s weird. But I am accompanying on this adventure. “It’s fine.”
He told me a story about a golden Pooh bear I found at the edge of a guest room bed. He had set it in the Disney store’s window with her name on it, during a scavenger hunt.
“Here it is.” He pulled out a blazer in hounds tooth fashion and took it off the hanger.
“You always say I talk about money and shit, but seriously, do you have any fucking idea how much this cost? I just, really quick, I just wondered…”
I put it on. It fit. It was lovely. And I saw his hand out, respectively wanting it right back. I told him it was beautiful. And that the golden Pooh story was awesome.
Last night he showed me a photo album from the Pooh scavenger hunt. Afterward they had dinner at the first place they’d dated, and he presented a rose to her with promises tied on. The promises had been pressed into the book and he tried reading them out loud. His hands had been following along with the words, dirty nails from when he had his hand in the soil earlier – but he stopped.
So I read them.
He had a moment. And he hugged me, and asked me what I thought about him. I did not give an answer.
He asks me, all of the time, what I’m thinking.
“Well. For the past however long, things have been this way, I was just thinking about how I have you, this place, this dog, and your wife on my mind. Every day. I think about you guys.”
We spent some time weeding the islands in his front yard. Neighbors looked on. I stayed low to the ground. I bet they all look at us and consider his fragile state. Everything is definitely very delicate…and I’m not just talking about him.
Our moments together are important to me, and I feel driven to the center of them. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really like this guy.
And I’m going to follow my heart.
Danny suffered a violation the day he went out to handle funeral arrangements for his wife. Her family broke in to his home and tore it apart for things of value. His mattress had been moved. Jars, turned on shelves. Jewelry he had bought and specially designed was stolen. I attribute the move to being stabbed repeatedly after lighting has all but killed you. He saw the ugliest side of those who should have been there to support him. It was like losing additional people, and having everything and more taken away at the worst time in his life.
He changed the locks immediately and covered the windows in thick sheets. Heavy flower arrangements needed attention as they swallowed space. People continued to call. People tried to get in. Cards were flooding in. Everyone. Was. After. Them.
I showed up for coffee. I’m not sure how I did it, but it involved getting dressed and making that decision to answer to everything that was happening.
“I’ve always wondered about him,” a coworker warned. “Just make sure…he really had a wife. And that. She wasn’t murdered.”
I showed up early, without calling ahead, in hopes of catching the entire concept of intimidation off guard. He had removed the sheets from the windows, letting in the light. And then he let me inside.
“Hey. You look nice.”
I began feverishly locking everything behind me. It wouldn’t take him long to notice that and thank me for it. Protection. You can just feel the need for it.
“What the fuck, girl? You’re like, super early and I’ve been cleaning toilets and shit.”
All of the shapes. All of the colors. The dog, jumping up on to me, something I could cling to.
“I’ll give you the grand tour. Starting off with the master bedroom. Come on.”
I laughed. He knows he’s funny, even when he knows he isn’t joking. I was standing there in his bedroom, looking around. Very nice. I joked to myself about being possibly strangled in there, something that would blossom in to the Serial Killer Theory, but I wasn’t afraid of this poor man. This guy couldn’t kill me. Not like that. Not with death.
As he got ready I listened to the fish tank filter, a crowded bunch of rescued pond fish overwintered. I flipped through his music collection and saw photos of his step children on the floor, facing the wall. So many dramas, so many stories, I would never tell them myself – but there is a lot of pain, within them.
“Okay, well, we’re going to go over to my mothers’ so I can look at her car. She says it’s leaking fluid. Okay?”
My first visit and he just wanted me to jump in his car with his big dog and ride over to his mom’s place. Scatterbrained? Just comfortable? I couldn’t be sure but I knew it made perfect sense to him. I laughed.
A little later on he received a phone call from his mother and I did not indicate that I could hear her clearly, right away, blasting out from his phone.
What kind of person just comes over to my home like that? How old is she? Danny, it’s just too soon. This is bad. Don’t bring her over to your house, this is wrong! I can feel it! You need to think about your reputation within that community!
Harlot. Jezebel. He took the call elsewhere but the impression had been made.
I was quiet for a while, after that. He asked, “What. What is it. What’s wrong.”
“Nothing.” And then, the next time he asked the same thing, “I could. Hear your mom.”
“I know you did. I’m sorry. I’m embarrassed.”
And as we moved throughout his home, talking, he showed me examples.
“Look at these ladies pushing strollers down the street. They’re looking at us.”
Sure enough, two women walked by, heads turned completely sideways, staring, scowling.
We decided to take the dog for a walk one night. Danny was running around, getting ready and I heard him yell, “’He’s bendin’ her over right now!’ That’s what they’re saying.”
When he pulled on a tee-shirt, his entire shape shifted. There’s something about him, his lines, his proportions – that are not typical. He is in good shape, is smaller, skinnier, for his age. And in certain moods, his language will slightly change, elevating, often sounding very youthful. I am always adjusting to it, and he caught me looking at his ‘Aeropostale’ shirt transformation.
“What’s wrong, why are you looking at my shirt? Is something wrong with my shirt?”
I didn’t know if I should explain, so I simplified and met his eyes, “Can I fuckin’ lookatchu?”
He shook his head and walked off in to the other room. “I know you wanna do it.”