Between the Bindings of My Grief
by Jacob Davis
Sunrise comes with all its usual aches and pains: sore neck and sour stomach, jaws aching from a night of grinding teeth. Morning light pushes through the bedroom window and places a warm white box on my face. I turn over, hoping to hide my eyes in the shadow and drift back to fitful sleep, but a familiar scent teases my nostrils. It's Cassie, sure enough, the smell of her hair and the enticing calm of that essential oil she always would dab on her pillow before turning off the lamp at night.
I risk opening my eyes and find myself alone. No dream here, just the haunting smells. The bed creaks emptily. It never made a sound with both of our weight resting on it, and now it's ceaseless in its complaint whenever I lay there trying to fall and stay asleep. Turning onto my back, I search for more of the smells, but they're gone, a flash of light, the entirety of birth and life and its sudden end. The ceiling above glows with morning warmth, but I can't feel it, it's just an off-white oblivion taunting me. Shapes become recognizable if I stare at it long enough, giraffes and sailing ships, at least that's what Cassie and I would pick out as we lay tangled in Saturday morning sheets. Now I see horror, monsters and demons, my own dark premonitions and musings drifting from my mind in the night and forming on the stucco for me in the mornings.
The alarm goes off, and I wonder briefly about how many times I could call in sick before the world would move on without me. It's been four weeks though, my first day back at work, and I've been told that getting back to life will make me feel better. Slowly but surely.
The thought occurs that I wouldn't miss it, all of the buzz and dreary movement, and it wouldn't miss me either. Still, the grief counselor had suggested that I get back to the job soon, that I at least try to pretend like life could be normal again.
"One day at a time." I say to no one in particular as I drag my feet over the edge of the bed. My physique rails at me, but I'm up, and I know that my body will feel fine as the day slugs along, all except for the abyss growing in my stomach that will try to swallow me whole.
I go into the bathroom, start the shower, and hop into the cold water. In and out, keeping my head up. I can't look down at the bathtub floor. If I do, I'll see it all over again: her body lying under the cascade of water, and she's long gone already, even in the three seconds it took me to get in there. Doctor said it was an aneurism—completely fine one second, and then gone the next. No pain. She likely didn't even have time to realize she fell, he had said, trying to be a comfort. I wash quickly, and get the hell out.
I dress for work, a plaid flannel shirt and some nice jeans. The coffee has already begun its daily automatic-brew, finishing a full pot by seven thirty in the morning if I remember to fill the machine with water and grounds the night before. I usually do; it's the one bit of foresight that I can manage each torturous night to prepare for the unbearable morning. I work my way to the kitchen, trying hard to ignore the pile of books stacked next to the bedroom bookshelf that I've yet to sell—her books, dozens of them. Something in me says I need to do it soon. It'll help me move on, I tell myself.
My phone dings that annoying tone it always dings when I have voice messages waiting. Multiple messages from my father-in-law, each sounding more desperate than the last.
"Just haven't heard from you in a few days," he says with concern, "give me a call back. It'd be good to hear your voice."
I delete them all and move to the fridge. It's full of casserole dishes, pity meals from friends and family.
Leftover pasta that Mom brought over is an easy breakfast if I don't microwave it. I shovel the cold noodles down quickly in the small kitchen nook in order to leave before I catch other evidence that I've ever lived here with anyone else. I think to myself that it's time to move, but I know nothing will come of these thoughts, that as helpful as it might be, I am not ready to let go just yet.
Dishes are stacked in the sink, but I set mine on top and rinse it with water to keep from attracting ants. What's another dish? I throw on a coat and quickly walk out the door, closing it on the small house, four rooms including kitchen and bath all connected by four doors planted at the center of the building. Four years of memory pulsate menacingly behind that door, each day a lifetime of happiness and struggle and love that will never be as happy as they were when we were both alive, together.
At twenty-eight years old, I never would have guessed that I'd be a widower.
I start the walk to my workplace, a coffeehouse about a half-mile away from home. Autumn has come late, and the mid-October day is crisp and bright. The leaves are turning, and all of the trees are half-green, half-orange or red and bright yellow. There's a gentle breeze today, and the fallen leaves skitter across the street on pattering feet. Despite the sun, there's a cold that slows the joints and stiffens the muscles. My hands are already starting to turn pink.
The air smells like dead leaves, heavy with the fertile smell of fall. It gets me thinking about Cassie, about how she's in the ground, turning like the leaves, becoming a part of the smell that lingers in the air, a smell that had once been a favorite of mine. The pit in my gut grows like a silent yawn, and I start to feel sick. I pull a cigarette out of my pocket, light it, and the nausea begins to shrink again. I inhale and blow smoke out of my nose in a puff so all I smell is the acrid vapor that is killing me but not killing me fast enough. It's a small protection.
Mike says he's glad to see me at work, and pats my shoulder awkwardly. He apologizes for my loss, and it twists like hot knives inside me, but I thank him anyway as I clock on. A line has already started, and I'm glad to be the one working the espresso machine. Its heat gives life back to my fingers, and the solid feeling of the portafilter in my hand, the exacting whir of the espresso grinder bring me a quiet peace. Not much, but something to go on. I'm glad it's busy, and I pull shots of espresso with fervor and accuracy. I greet people with a quiet hello, but leave the customer service to the barista steaming milk and calling out drinks.
The first hour goes by quickly, and I feel like I'm in my element behind the rounded bar, moving quickly, pressing the espresso tamp on the grounds with just enough pressure and plugging the filter into the machine. The smell of coffee fills the air. My mind is pulled in several directions at once, and I'm thankful for the attention to detail that my job requires. It's a reprieve from everything.
Then the line slows down. Jessica, the barista who is steaming the milk and taking the brunt of customer interaction, is sent to go clean the coffeehouse, which is no small task in the large open commons that we work in. I set about to keep busy, restocking cups into the metal sleeve next to the register, shaking my apron free of the dark brown coffee grounds, even dusting the oak shelves that house many old and outdated coffee-brewing apparatuses. Anything to keep busy, to keep from thinking, to keep from feeling.
That's not how it works, though. When someone you love dies, there's no escaping it. Sure, you keep busy, throw yourself into whatever work you do, making coffee, building houses, sharking loans, whatever. But the pain doesn't leave. The person stays there, always in the back of your head, even when you're busy, moving on the shadowy edges of your thoughts from tree to tree in the forest of your mind. Cassie's there, I can feel her standing behind me, watching everything I'm doing, not saying anything, not really existing but still haunting me with the silent vibrations of her permanent absence.
By the time I've done all of the work I can, customers have become sparse, and there's not much to do but wipe the same counters, taste the espresso again, adjust the grinders and help those who do come to the counter. Mike takes an order from an elderly woman, one of those spritely little things with a shock of white hair and thick round spectacles. She rounds the bar as I start making her drink, and I can see that she's dressed nicely, carrying a thick book in her arms. Her face is wrinkled and kind, and I can see rosary beads wrapped around her left wrist, the pewter Son of Man dangling on His cross. She sets a book down on the counter as I begin steaming the milk for her latte. Its title is Getting Through Grief.
"Good morning." She says in a voice that strains to sound happy.
"Good morning," I reply, "how are you today?"
She shrugs, and I can appreciate the honesty.
"I'm struggling, but trying to make it through the day."
I say I know what she means, still looking at the book that she's set down. She notices, and pushes it towards me so I can get a better look at the cover. It's pretty straight forward, the text overlaying a picture of a man walking through a meadow. He's looking into the sky wistfully. He looks free.
"I recently lost my husband." She says quietly. I feel that hot pain in my stomach again. I try to ignore it, and tell her that I'm sorry for her loss, wondering if she has knives shifting around in her abdomen, too. She smiles and sits in the seat closest to the espresso machine. Something inside me wrenches.
"My name's Barbara."
"Hi Barbara. I'm Jonas."
I begin to pour the milk into the espresso, but my hand is shaking so badly that any contrast between milk and coffee just starts to swirl around. Our shop is known for creating beautiful latte art in our drinks, but all I've made is some sort of nebulous spiral. I push the drink towards her, and she takes it with gratitude. I clean the steam wand as she sits at a bar stool, and she begins to tell me about her husband, Howard.
"We met in high school. Married before we graduated, actually."
I nod and make an understanding noise, and the heat in my belly grows. Cassie moves from the back of my head to the forefront of my mind. Oh God, I realize, I'm starting to forget what she looks like. There's the shape of her face, but features are beginning to blur slightly. I used to know every contour of her, every mole and acne scar, even. In the background, Barbara's going on and on.
"He had cancer. It all happened so quickly. Before I knew it, he was gone."
I'm beginning to feel sick again. Barbara is talking about how cautious Howard was in life, and how that caution contrasted her spontaneity so well. He was such a kind and gentle man. She goes on and on about him. She says she thought it was odd that he was the first to die. The pain in my stomach makes me want to heave.
"I'm just so thankful," Barbara says as she fingers the cross at the end of her rosary beads, "that I have the Lord to comfort me."
Suddenly I'm angry, not at her, but at Cassie, at life, at this little silver Jesus hanging from this old woman's bracelet. I feel as though it is obvious that I am distraught, but if Barbara can tell, then she's pretending not to notice.
"How is that a comfort?" I ask, strangling to get the words out. She looks at me, surprised.
"Why, I know that Howard loved the Lord." Barbara explains, "When Jesus returns, He's going to resurrect the dead, just like God resurrected Him after He died on the cross! 'And every tear shall be wiped away.'"
I feel like am going to throw up. My hands are shaking with rage, and I hear myself say no, Cassie is dead and in the ground and she will not be rising up again, not in three days, not in three years, not in three centuries.
The coffeehouse is silent, and I realize that I have been shouting. My throat hurts. Mike looks at me with a strange mix of horror and pity, and I feel the blood rush to my face. I glance at Barbara, who is staring back at me in shock.
I walk straight to the back room, my hands shaking. After doing some damage control with Barbara and the other customers, Mike lets me off early. He says I don't have to come in tomorrow, and says that it's okay, that he understands. I don't bother to tell him that he's full of shit. I just bolt from the coffeehouse, reeling from grief. Thoughts are flying up a storm in my head, most of them in the shape of Cassie. Before I know it, I'm home, though I don't remember the walk at all and I feel winded. Did I walk, or did I run? Collapsing on the porch, I pull out another cigarette.
My hands are shaking so badly that I can't keep the lighter from going out in the wind. Inside my head are flashes of emotion, brief glimpses at partial thoughts. The pain of losing Cassie feels fresh and jagged inside me, but I feel like I'm starting already to forget her. The wind is finally still enough for me to light my cigarette. My hands are still shaking, and questions begin to pour out. I'm desperate to remember her, anything about her that might make her mine again.
Her eyes were blue, but what kind of blue? Pale like ice, or bright like the sky?
How big were her hands when she lifted them up to mine to compare size? Did they reach to the top knuckle joint, or were her fingers even shorter than that? What did her voice sound like?
And this goes on for hours, me sitting on the porch, smoking like a forest fire, clawing at any memory I can but never able to grab hold. I'm exhausted. Night has fallen, and I finally go inside. The clock over the stove says that its only 7:30, but I can't continue this struggle to keep my wife with me when she is gone and the last little bits of her are blowing away in the wind. The realization comes now that I am losing her, truly losing her.
I walk heavily into my room and don't turn on the light. My foot kicks against something heavy and hard, and I curse loudly as I simultaneously try to rub the pain out of my toes and reach for the light. In the chaos before I flip the switch, I hear the sound of paper flapping and small thuds and realize that I kicked the stack of books. With the light on, I now look at the pile of pages and bent spines before me.
That's when I notice a small bright-red novel sticking a corner out of the mess, and I reach down and pull it out. It's a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. I read it to Cassie every night before bed in the weeks before she died. I loved Vonnegut. She found him with a mild indifference. I saw such humor in the writing, but she always took him so seriously. I had never appreciated that as much as I did now.
Sitting on the bed, I began to flip through the pages of the absurd novel, remembering the warmth of my wife against me as I read aloud to her. I'm not sure why, but sitting there, skimming through the unfortunate adventures of time-traveler Billy Pilgrim felt comforting. It was a memory I could hold.
I flipped towards the back of the book, trying to find the last page I had read to Cassie before she was gone. Where had we left off? I flipped the pages, and suddenly the book skipped to page 209, a crude drawing of a chain necklace sitting between Montana Wildhack's massive breasts and holding the place of the page was a photograph.
It was of Cassie's twenty-sixth birthday, just a few months after we had been married. Goof-ball that she was, she had insisted on going to a local pizzeria and throwing a "Happy 6thBirthday" celebration. In the photo, we are sitting next to each other, dressed as children. She's wearing a bright orange t-shirt with overall shorts on, her hair done up in pig tails. I'm wearing a white polo shirt with thin blue stripes, and my hair is plastered to one side in a horrible picture-day comb-over. My head's thrown back in laughter, and she has an open-mouth smile. I had forgotten the way that the space between her eye brows crinkled when she laughed, making her look like some beautiful Klingon.
Suddenly I can remember the sound her laughter again. The memory hits me like a punch, worse than the fear of forgetting her, and then I am sobbing horribly in short, awkward barks. My entire body shakes and I slump to the floor, weeping onto the hardwood. She's gone, she's gone, and I say it out loud in a maddened cry, over and over again, she's gone she's gone she's gone. The pain is too much, and I can't take it, I shout to the empty room.
I inhale sharply, let out a wail, and hear the sounds of my groaning being absorbed into the floor. The sounds continue to dig, penetrating deep into the earth and I can hear the world churning and throbbing with the agony of every mother who's lost her child, the pain of every friend who has ever had to attend a funeral, the isolation of every Son who has ever been left to die on a cross by some ineffable and aloof Father, the grief of every spouse who has been left too soon to face the world alone. I don't stop crying until there is nothing left to come out of me but pitiful and bitter whimpers.
When I finally stop, it's still dark outside. My face is sticky from all of its leaking, and my back aches as I get to my feet. Instead of putting the books back in a stack, I get on my knees next to the bookshelf and begin to place them there in alphabetical order. Before ordering each one, I flip through the pages, and occasionally find sticky notes that Cassie and I used to hide for each other to find while we read. Most of them are strange, inside jokes that no one else would understand, but I find myself chuckling. It takes hours to find all of the notes, but it passes quickly, and I am surprised at the smile I feel on my face. The last one I find is on the inside of the back cover of Slaughterhouse-Five. It's purple, with Cassie's scribbling cursive writing in big letters:
"I love you with my whole being."
Tears are running down my cheeks, but I'm still smiling.
"I love you too, darling." I whisper. I leave the note in the book, and place it on the shelf. Light begins to crawl through the bottom of the bedroom window, and I'm tired again, so very tired. I undress, pull back the covers, and fall down onto the bed.
My impact sends fragrances into the air, and I can smell her again, her hair and the oil, but I breathe deeply. The scent fades quickly, but this time I don't let go of the memory. The loss is still unbearable, though it's an iota less unbearable than before. I know that it will never go away, but it will hurt less and less as the days go on.
Moments pass by in my mind—stupid fights, romantic dinners, the taste of her kiss, and I cry for a few minutes more in the dark. The pain is too much, Cassie. But god damn, how I loved you and that makes this agony worth every moment.
I close my eyes and see her lying next to me. She breaks into a smile. Her nose crinkles, I can hear her quiet laughter, and then I am asleep.