Her death is sudden, so there is no time to prepare—no protracted sickness. A stroke: Henry wakes to find her dead beside him, stiff and cool.
You have never met Elaine. You have only seen pictures: the one on his desk with the lacquered frame, and the wedding picture on the hall table that one time you went to their house, when Elaine was visiting their son in college. I imagine you encountering that picture of Elaine in her white gown and dark lipstick. You had to study it quickly; Henry’s hand was on your shoulder, ready to propel you to the guest bedroom. He wouldn’t have sex with you in their bed. Their bed, where a year later she dies.
So I imagine you had only seconds to absorb Elaine’s face, her hair thick and glossy, a pelt. Seconds to take in the knickknacks flanking the picture: porcelain boxes with brass hinges, shaped like fruits and vegetables. You recognized the Limoges boxes because your aunt Harriet has one. Cherries on a stem, a peapod, a radish, an avocado half. You touched the bulbous pit of the avocado. “She collects them,” Henry said, before steering you away.
Now, when he tells you Elaine’s body was cool, you think of that porcelain avocado pit.
A stroke. She was only forty-seven, younger than Henry, though not, of course, as young as you. After he calls, you spend the whole day thinking about the word stroke: strokes of luck, clocks chiming, petting the silky fur of Persian cats.
Going to the funeral could be construed as respectful: the least you owe her, this woman from whom you have siphoned. But Henry emphatically does not want you there. He does not want you anywhere near there. Consider sneaking in anyway. Who is Henry to order you away? The hot way he said “No,” when you said “Should I?” But you don’t have the courage, finally, to defy him.
He needs time, he says, and while you could retort that you have given him plenty of time—nearly five years—instead you nod. Because he can’t see you nod—you are talking on the phone—say, “I understand.”
There is a joke your friend Hannah told you. Why does the adulterous man stay with his wife? Because the mistress will always understand; because the wife will never understand.
When you were growing up in Kansas City and you got sick, your mother would prepare a queue of foods. First, clear broth; then, dry toast and flat ginger-ale; finally, soft-boiled eggs. Always that order, stepping stones to recovery.
Design your own regimen. One week eat only red foods: raspberries, tomatoes, roasted beets that turn your very urine red. Think of that line in Wuthering Heights where Catherine Earnshaw describes her dreams going through her “like wine through water.” Perhaps because your name is Catherine, you always loved that character, selfish and vicious, desired by everyone.
Do not call Henry. Instead, take long walks. For years, you have kept to your wedge of San Francisco—North Beach, Nob Hill, the financial district—but now walk all the way to Ocean Beach. On these wanderings, talk to Henry in your head. At first, be cheerful and patient. Discuss plans to go somewhere sunny. You can swim and drink margaritas, you can help him grieve. As the weeks go by, though, and you don’t hear from him, these conversations alter. They begin, “How can you.”
From the shore of Stowe Lake, watch a couple peddle-boating. Think of the man before Henry: Ricky, your first lover. When you got pregnant, he offered to marry you. You were twenty, Ricky twenty-two. His expression was grim and despairing. But still, he could claim those words—“I asked you to marry me”—so deny any accountability for the back-alley abortion that left you (you were told) unable to have children. He could break up with you and have a conscience as clean as the aluminum sinks in his lab. Ricky was so skillful at blaming you for what he wanted you to do. Eight years later, you understand this is how he can love himself. But then, you were wrecked, like that doctor told you your uterus was wrecked. You moved to San Francisco in 1959 because it was the furthest you could go without sinking.
On your walks, observe San Francisco changing. It is the summer of 1967. In Golden Gate Park, see girls wearing ponchos who are the age you were when you moved here. Feel old and longing. From a card table on Haight Street one girl sells tie-dye shirts. Buy a blue and yellow one that makes you think of wheels inside wheels.
Have a drink with Hannah, who is now your only friend, because Bea had no tolerance for your relationship with a married man. Hannah tells you she saw Henry in Grace Cathedral, and that after the service, he was surrounded with women: widows, a divorcee. “Like flies to a syrup pour. Don’t wait too long,” she says.
He told you he needs time.
Concentrate on his defects: his teeth are stained. He is fifty-one, you are twenty-eight. But who else will want you, crooked as you are?
So test that: convert the rhetorical question into a real one. Timid 1950s girl, you have slept with two men in your entire life: now, have sex with another. Meet him at Vesuvio’s, the bar next to your favorite bookstore; go home with him. His skin makes you think of bourbon shots. Feel tempted to stay in his Victorian flat with its view of Alcatraz, a helmet in the bay. But do not ask for his last name; do not give him your phone number.
Try LSD. Put a tab with a picture of a windowpane on your tongue: feel you are stepping through that window into an underwater world. Drag your hand past your face and see contrails. Your hand is a dinosaur with a horned frill.
Assemble on your bed all the presents Henry has given you, over the past five years. Finger your favorite, the gold silk shawl embroidered with parrots that he bought in Mallorca. He was there with Elaine, on their twenty-fifth anniversary. She got Spain, you got a yellow shawl covered with bird claws.
All this walking has made you so thin. Study yourself in the mirror. Put on the lingerie Henry gave you and feel dismayed. Your breasts have deflated. They look like empty paper bags.
The lace scratches, but you wore lingerie because Elaine would not. You were always on the alert for the things she refused. She wouldn’t give him head. She hated oysters, Henry’s favorite food. So you pretended to love them. You sat on bar stools with him at Swan’s on Polk Street and ordered dozens, though their slippery texture repelled, though the look of the shells on the chipped ice was appalling. You paid attention to what Elaine balked at, and you cornered that market.
Now the market is so wide: you are alive.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department at Mills College. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review, Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Breakwater Review, Broad!, Cleaver, Corium Magazine, Crack the Spine, descant, The East Bay Review, Fiction Southeast, 580 Split, The Gettysburg Review, Gravel, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Jellyfish Review, JMWW, Literary Orphans, Moon City Review, New South, Oakland Review, Parcel, Sixfold, SNReview, Squalorly, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Word Riot. She is working on a novel and a short story collection.