April 4, 2017

“In Love With a Ghost” by Jenny Cokeley

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“In Love With a Ghost” by Jenny Cokeley

In Love with a Ghost

It was a silent slipping away. They hadn’t just grown apart. That would make it seem like they could grow together if they had the motivation, but they had no compelling incentive to move together, or move on for that matter. They would rather be unhappy together than alone. It had been 15 years, after all. They became roommates who shared the same bed, mailing address, and monthly Sunday romp. She didn’t talk to her friends about her loveless marriage over coffee or her profound loneliness over lunch.

Jesus, just finish already. I faked it ten minutes ago. I even finished my shopping list. Maybe you should lay off the pork rinds for a while. You shouldn’t have to work this hard. Do you have to pant and groan in my ear? It’s a real turn off. At least you didn’t try to kiss me. I swear, you’re getting heavier by the minute. I can barely breathe. Oh, my god, I thought this would never end. Now, get off.

He rolled off and left a layer of sweat on her body. “That was great.”

You’re kidding, right? I can’t wait to wash you off of me. I feel disgusting.

He was a chore, a checkmark next to her things to do, much like paying the bills, feeding the dog, and faking it during sex on Sunday nights. He provided financially, attended select obligatory school functions, and changed the oil in the car. She overcompensated for his overall invisibility, volunteered at the school, and bought all the birthday and Christmas presents. She signed the cards “From Mom and Dad,” but the kids knew they were really from her. They knew more than she cared to admit.

***

“I don’t know why I bother asking, but do you want to go?”

Of course, you’re shaking your head. Why am I not surprised? One of these days, it’s going to roll off your shoulders. I guess that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I could use it to prop the door open when I bring the groceries in by myself, or maybe the kids could kick it around the yard a bit. At least you’d finally be playing with them. Maybe there’s use for you, after all.

“Listen, I don’t want to go either. I can’t stand middle school band concerts, but it’s important to the kids.”

That’s right. Just stare at me with your dead eyes. Do you even remember your kids’ names, or mine for that matter? I haven’t heard you say my name in…Jesus, I can’t even remember. At this point, I’d even answer to bitch. At least you’d be talking to me. Just say something. Anything. I don’t even care if you tell me you hate my hair cut or the hamburger casserole I make every Monday. I know you hate that casserole. I put extra mushrooms in it because I know they gross you out. Just so you’d say something.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go?”

Why are you staring at me like that, like you don’t understand what I’m saying? It’s not a complicated question, asshole. What are you even thinking about? You might as well be invisible. No one at the school believes you exist anyway.

He turned his eyes to the T.V. “I’ll go to the next one.”

I’ve heard that way too many times, buddy.

“Get in the car, kids. Daddy’s not feeling well. He’ll go next time.” I hate lying to the kids. Why do you make me lie?

***

“I don’t know why I bother asking, but do you want to go?”

Do you know how hard it is for me just to get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other? I’m exhausted all the time. It’s a struggle and, to be honest, some days just aren’t worth it, but I don’t want to leave you. I try to fight it. I try, but darkness is filling up all the empty space in me and there isn’t room for anything good.

“Listen, I don’t want to go either. I can’t stand middle school band concerts, but it’s important to the kids.”

I know you don’t want to go. I’m sorry you’re always the one to go. Do you know that most of the time, I don’t even want to live? It’s not like I want to die, but I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I try to fight it, but never mind, you’ll never understand. It doesn’t help that you look at me with those gray, piercing eyes.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go?”

I want to go. I wish I could go. This pain is crushing my chest with its weight and I can’t get up.

“I’ll go to the next one.” Please don’t look at me that way. I want to go. I’ll try harder next time. Hell, who knows if I’ll even be alive by the next concert. All I can do is get through the next minute. I can’t even think about an hour from now. Just a string of minutes. I had to look away because I didn’t want you to see me crying.

“Get in the car, kids. Daddy’s not feeling well. He’ll go next time.”

Don’t leave me! This isn’t me. I’m trapped in here. I wish you could hear me screaming for you.

***

On the day he died from a sudden heart attack at the age of 52, she wasn’t sure if what she felt was sorrow or anger at the disruption in her routine. She was used to a life of schedules and rituals, even if that meant letting him sweat all over her once a month. He was a step in the sequence of events that occurred each day and when he was gone, she couldn’t figure out how to get from point A to B. You son of a bitch. I swear you died to make my life more difficult. I walk in the house and expect to see you on the couch, just like always. I need you to be there.

Six months later, she found her way to B. She donated the indented couch to Goodwill, stopped putting mushrooms in the hamburger casserole, and threw out all his stale junk food. New routines replaced old. Some things didn’t change from when he was among the living. She still went to band concerts alone, sat next to an empty chair during school conferences, and carried in the groceries by herself. The kids cried for a while. She cried because they cried and she couldn’t make up for what he took from them. Even if he was invisible, he was still their dad.

The most thoughtful thing he did for her was take out a life insurance policy. It wasn’t a lot, but enough to replace the furniture and buy a new car. It was time for a change. Before the Goodwill truck pulled up, she lifted the couch cushions to clean underneath. Jesus, what a rat’s nest. Dirty socks, pork rind shrapnel, candy wrappers, popcorn, and twenty-seven notes folded in perfect squares.

She opened each note written in his messy handwriting. Was this what he thought about when they were living their separate lives? Everything he wanted to say to her but couldn’t give voice to the words, so he kept them for himself?

Am I supposed to believe this garbage? Really, you loved me, you longed for me, you thought I was beautiful? You selfish asshole. You let me walk around empty. All you had to do was say it. Just once. It could have even been a beautiful lie. It’s all I needed. She crushed the notes and threw them in the sink. “This is what I think about your stupid, little notes.” She doused them with lighter fluid and watched them burn to ash. She scrubbed out the sink, wiped down the counters, and moved on to her next chore.

***

She began to notice things she swore were real. The left side of the new couch was always warm, the television clicked on in the middle of the night, and the painstakingly centered pictures were cockeyed. She awoke to little gifts left on her pillow. Instead of dead birds and mouse heads gifted to her by the cat, there were little things she treasured – wild flowers, sea glass, red ribbons, and sunstones. When she told the kids, they laughed at her for being ridiculous and rolled their eyes.

She accepted her mind was slipping away when he revealed himself to her. He was clean shaven and confident like he was when she decided to spend her life with him. She hadn’t seen that man in years. She wasn’t startled, which she found surprising. She was annoyed, which didn’t surprise her at all.

“Seriously? Move the fuck on to wherever you’re supposed to spend eternity. I don’t give a shit where, but it isn’t here.”

He didn’t move on. He became part of her daily routine. She tried to ignore him, but he followed her around the house while she did her chores, sat next to her at the dining room table when she balanced her checkbook and paid the bills, and watched her check the front door three times to make sure it was locked. The kids didn’t see him, of course. They just saw their mother stare into space and mutter obscenities under her breath.

***

She sunk into a tub of bubbles and lavender oil, her auburn hair piled on top of her head except for a few loose strands that caressed her face. She closed her eyes and let the world drift away. No kids, no dead husband. Just the sweet smell of lavender and the sound of a drippy faucet. When she returned to the world, he was sitting on the edge of the tub.

“Why can’t you just leave me in peace?”

“You look very pretty tonight.” His baritone voice moved through her and made her spine shiver. She convinced herself she had just imagined it. She could live with half a mind, even a quarter, but not one completely lost. “Stunning. Gorgeous, really.” Bubbles hugged her curves when she got out of the tub and grabbed her robe.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said to herself. “It’s just your imagination.”

He followed her into the bedroom. “You always look pretty.”

She cinched her robe tighter. “They’re going to lock me in the nuthouse for sure.” She wandered into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. “Crazy,” she said and laughed. She curled up on the couch and watched the kids play video games.

He knelt in front of her. “Babe. Look at me.”

“Kids, did you hear that?” There was an urgency in her voice. “Your daddy. Did you hear him?”

“Are you serious, Mom?” The kids snickered and shook their heads. “We’re trying to play our game.” She clicked the T.V. off with the remote. “Mom!” Her son jumped up and turned the T.V. back on. “Great. We’re dead. Thanks a lot, Mom.”

She stormed into her bedroom, slammed the door, and flopped onto her bed. She rolled over to find him lying in bed next to her.

“Did you know your eyes turn gray when you’re angry?” She rolled back over. “Just about every time you talked to me, your eyes were gray.” He placed his hand on her back and she felt the warmth of his wedding band on her skin. “But when you’re happy, they turn this amazing blue. Look at me.” She turned her face to him. “Gray.”

“Please leave me alone,” she whispered. “Please.”

He grabbed her hands and intertwined their fingers. “It wasn’t my choice to leave you.”

“You left years ago.”

“I wrote you little notes, but I was too afraid to give them to you. Embarrassed, really, so I hid them.”

“Wasn’t I enough for you?” She let loose of the tears she had pushed down throughout their marriage.

“You were everything to me.”

She wiped her tears and snickered. “You could have fooled me.”

“Believe me,” he said and kissed her.

His lips sent electricity through her body and his life played like a movie in her mind. He was chased by a sadistic beast with the strength to pull the brilliance from his heart and replace it with murk. Darkness and excruciating pain clung to him like tar and the harder he tried to pull it off, the more entangled he became. He wasn’t blue or out-of-sorts. He was a hollow, colorless imposter who watched the years slip through his fingers. The fearless man she married cowered in the corner of his prison cell and his screams to his wife were drowned out by silence.

In a heartbeat, she felt all his pain and sorrow. She caught sight of the man he longed to be, used to be, and left to be. Electricity continued to flow through her and all his love and desire for her lit her on fire. She let it melt the hailstone that used to be her blazing hunger for him. Their lips parted and her blue eyes smiled.

***

The kids took notice of their mother’s peculiarities – laughing in the middle of the night, talking to herself, wearing an evening gown to watch television. They worried she was having a mid-life crisis. Even if she were experiencing a crisis of some sort, they decided it was a good kind because they had never seen her so happy. They kept an eye on her nonetheless, just in case she cracked, but they did so haphazardly. If they had been watching carefully, they would have seen her kissing and caressing a hallucination and called for an intervention.

Just before dawn, she felt a kiss on her neck and felt his breath on her skin.

“Babe, it’s time,” he said.

“Already? I don’t want to get up. I can call in sick and we can spend the day together.”

“It’s time for me to go.”

She shook her head. “Stay with me.”

“I would love nothing more.”

“Then stay. I need you.”

“You’re ready.”

She jumped out of bed and tried to follow him. He turned to her, wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. He put one hand on the small of her back and the other caressed her cheek. She fell into the kiss and closed her eyes and when she opened them, he was gone. For the first time in her life, she missed him. She was in love with a ghost.

* * *

Jenny lives in Salem, Oregon with the love of her life, two amazing daughters, a diabetic weenie dog named after a famous director and another who can be quite the wiener.  Jenny was born with a writer’s heart.  During the day, she’s paid to write policies for the government, and off-the-clock, she writes what she loves for free.  Jenny’s first short story, “All Things Buried” was published by the Fictional Café in 2014.

 

 

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