12 Fragments from the First Day
8:00 AM, on the subway station platform
They called me to tell me he was dead. I don’t remember who called or what their name was, but I remember the sound of their voice, deep and smooth and shiny like melting dark chocolate.
There was a shooting in a bookstore. No, not Barnes and Nobles, but a small local chain that’s
been around for fifty, sixty years. There was a man with a gun playing hide and seek among the shelves: biographies and memoirs, home goods and cooking, fiction authors last name K-L, YA Romance. The man brought matches and home-made explosives in his backpack. There was a fire and an impromptu book burning. More than 11 people were found dead on scene – faces burned, limbs torn, chests shot.
They found your husband in the shrapnel of bookshelves and the ashes of paper. No, he’s not your husband? Please forgive me. The paramedics found your … friend and rushed him to the hospital. There was a mistake finding his insurance and he died on the hospital bed, waiting to see the doctor. Fractured skull, broken ribs, blood loss. But his phone was perfectly intact. Not a single scratch on the glass – can you believe the technology of the newest iPhone? It’s incredible.
9:00 AM, on the plane
They offered refreshments and I considered asking for alcohol, but they only had red wine, which I detested. So, I sipped fancy fizzy water with a vaguely French name and placed tiny salted pretzel crackers into my mouth without chewing, letting them melt into nothingness on my tongue.
I never thought I would return to Texas after I moved away all those years ago, but I had booked the next flight to San Antonio. I had packed underwear, shirts, the sweater he liked, the socks he got me for my birthday with the tiny fruit wearing hats. One pair of workout shorts and a sports bra, in case I needed to exercise. Two books, laptop, chargers.
It was a 3 hour flight. I looked out the window the entire time, not bothering to take out my laptop or either of my books. The clouds were spread in one flat, gray blanket beneath me. I glided aimlessly over the world a thousand feet below. When the plane landed, a single drop of condensation formed and wept down the windowpane.
12:00 PM, in the Uber
They blasted 2000s club music in the air-conditioned sedan, and I focused on my breathing as we inched through traffic. I had a headache. I hadn’t eaten since the phone call this morning. I checked my phone. There had been a time zone shift, but I forgot in which direction. Outside the window, ugly gray concrete buildings crowded the streets. At some point I had filled my water bottle with airport fountain water. I opened the bottle and took a warm, tepid sip. I marveled at the power of setting healthy, long-term habits.
1:00 PM, in the hospital
They escorted me to his body. He was covered in a clean white sheet. The nurse, a woman with short hair and Crocs, asked if I would like to identify the body. She had kind eyes and a low voice. She was young and did not look too much older than me.
I was distracted by the cardboard box at the foot of the bed. It was the kind of box we used when we were moving apartments. Inside was his brown canvas backpack with the one functional strap and the one broken strap held together by duct tape. The left strap had broken during our hike to Mt. St. Helen’s the summer before we quit our jobs – it had snagged on the way down in the rock scramble. The surface of the backpack was singed and smeared with dirt, but still intact. Beside it, a brown paper bag with the name of the bookstore stamped in red block capital letters. A hardcover sliding out.
His final effects. I left the nurse lifting the corner of the white sheet, peeping at the burned remains of his smile, as I slid the book from the paper bag. A hardcover with embossed letters. I opened the book and read the inside sleeve. My fingers traced the signature splayed in black sharpie across the front page. I slipped the book into my backpack and closed the zipper. I walked away from the cardboard box holding the fragments of his last moments – the gray Patagonia dusted with ash, the sneakers torn and stained, the wallet etched with burn markings. I didn’t want to see what parts of him had survived the fire – credit cards, receipts, old business cards. I looked up towards the nurse, who patiently held the corner of the sheet between her thumb and forefinger. I looked down and followed her gaze. I did not recognize the burned, petrified skull, but I recognized the smell of his soul, silver and burning and whimpering, rising out of him like steam, so I knew it was him. I nodded at the nurse. I signed my name on the lines of clipboarded paper. She shoved the cardboard box in my arms and presented me with a stack of paper – shiny brochures about funeral homes, cremation centers, coffin catalogs. I nodded, said thank you. Maybe I smiled.
2:00 PM, on a bench under a tree near the hospital entrance
They ignored me as I walked out of the hospital. I unpeeled the visitor sticker, folded it neatly in half, and placed it in the cardboard box, beside his wallet. I deposited the box in the dumpster behind the parking lot. I kept only the hardcover book in my backpack. I didn’t need his ghost following me around.
The hospital had called only me because I was his emergency contact. They did not know the rest of his family was in Canada. I found a bench and called his brother, who answered immediately.
Have you seen the news? About the shooting at the bookstore?
He said he would meet me at the hotel tonight. He booked two rooms – one for him and one for me. He texted me this as he was driving to the airport. He sent me the confirmation email as he was boarding his flight. I wondered that maybe he would have wanted the cardboard box, but it was too late – there was no way I would fish it out of the dumpster.
3:00 PM, on the sidewalk
They were not used to pedestrians and so they honked at me and shook their fists out of pickup truck windows. It was summer and it was humid, but I didn’t mind. I walked towards the city with my backpack melting into sweat and my suitcase rattling on the chipped concrete like a bundle of bones. I looked behind me multiple times to make sure no one was following me. Surely ghosts would not walk so loudly.
I found a small ice cream shop with a long line wrapped around a patio with wooden floorboards and yellow plastic chairs. I surrounded myself with their conversation and smiles and gossip. The girl in a pink apron and large smile was Jamie, the eponymous owner of the ice cream shop. Her father wore an ice cream costume and sold his body’s image as advertisement. Balloons festooned the shop front. It was the grand opening. I stood in line with my suitcase and ordered two cones – one for me and one for the ghost. Dark chocolate for me, and a concoction of strange experimental flavors for him – olive oil with rosemary, fermented rice wine with basil. I found a table in the shadow of the awning and waited for my ice cream. I took the book from my bag but I could not open it. I could only stare at the face on the front cover and the name beneath the face. I watched the people in line for the shop. I observed the young man ordering two scoops for himself and two for his grandmother. I observed the father in the ice cream costume complementing the grandmother’s outfit. I observed two children tripping up the sidewalk, pulling on their mother’s yoga pants, screaming for a cold treat. I let my vision blur. I let my lips curl into a vacant smile. The air was warm, like a sauna.
4:00 PM, outside Jamie’s Ice Cream Parlor
They brought me my two cones. I held his cone in my left hand and mine in my right hand. I let the strong flavors fill all my sensations. I let the cold hit my brain. I tried his and liked them more than mine. Children congregated, and with them their mothers. It was a warm day. Women sweating in workout clothing, little boys with tiny backpacks running in circles, mothers calling their children’s names.
I heard his name, and I nearly knocked my suitcase over as I turned to look in the direction of the sound. He had a common name. It was a little boy with strawberry cream on his nose. And again, a few moments later, I heard his name once more. It seemed that every little boy had his name or some variation of it. His name was everywhere around me, licking melting ice cream, chewing on waffle cones, asking for napkins. I could not eat fast enough and the ice cream in my left hand melted until the hand was covered in white slime. My fingers went numb from the cold, but I let it sit there, sticky and sweet and savory. All the carefully concocted flavors, all the meticulously planned mixing and freezing and scooping, melting into a single soup on the back of my hand, covering it like a translucent latex glove. The father of the girl owning the shop, the one dressed in the ice cream costume, came up to me and asked if I liked my ice cream, then eyed the melted cone and asked if everything was okay. I nodded and laughed and made a polite joke. He didn’t press further. Maybe he laughed along.
I finished the cardboard pulp of both cones and wiped the sticky stain on the table with a napkin. Then I sat and watched the children and the mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and grandfathers and lovers, happy in their own worlds.
5:00 PM, on the sidewalk again
They called from the hospital, the police station, the publishing company, the airline, the lawyer, the health insurance company, but I ignored all of them. I had fourteen voice messages. I turned my phone on Airplane mode and used the map in offline mode to navigate my way to the hotel.
I dragged the suitcase with my clean hand, the right one. The left one, I let the melted ice cream harden into a casing of sugar and milk and olive oil and fermented rice. I imagined that he was holding my hand under the sun.
I walked slowly. I had a lot of time to kill. His brother wouldn’t arrive for another few hours. I waited on the side of highways. I sat on benches near small parks and stared at the people walking by with shopping bags and water bottles and lunch boxes. I counted the clouds and airplanes in the sky.
7:00 PM, in the driveway of the hotel
They were waiting for me, opening the gilded glass doors to let me into the lobby. My right hand was numb from the vibrations of plastic wheels on cracked concrete. The air conditioning covered me with its jagged whispers.
His brother was waiting for me on a couch, legs crossed, arms folded. He saw me walking in and waved but didn’t smile. He strode to the front desk, sleek titanium suitcase gliding on four perfectly tuned wheels. His credit card flashed like a shooting star. I closed my eyes and made a wish. He turned to me and gestured his head to the elevator. “11th floor,” he said. “Presidential suite. I had enough points for an upgrade.”
Silence in the elevator. He stared at his phone the entire time, scrolling with furrowed brows. The elevator dinged and he left without a glance, as if I were a stranger exiting on the same floor. I trailed behind him, sticky fingers clenching and unclenching.
The suite was excessive – plush carpet, leather couch, a television larger than an art installation, king bed with linen sheets. Balcony overlooking the river, which moved slow and green like a snake. He looked up from his phone. “Do you want to clean up? I’ll take you out for dinner.” I released my suitcase and it collapsed to the ground. I scrubbed my hands with hot water. The white trails of ice cream streamed down the drain like amputated fingerprints.
He didn’t look up when I came out of the bathroom. He was flipping furiously through his phone. “You must be hungry. They have nice steaks at the hotel restaurant. I came here for a business trip once. Have you eaten yet?”
“No,” I whispered. He spoke very fast, like a man put on 2x video speed. He finally looked up and I saw that his face was wet and shiny as if he had smeared beauty products on his cheeks, dribbled them down his chin. His eyes were red and his lashes were thick and wet. His thumb continued scrolling on his phone and I saw that he was on a blank notepad, refreshing and refreshing to the same emptiness. “Let’s eat first,” he said. His lips trembled. His voice shook. “We can go to the hospital after. The food here is phenomenal. You’ll love it, I promise.” “I don’t eat meat,” I whispered, but I’m not sure he heard me, because the words were halfway out of my mouth before I ran to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet.
8:00 PM, inside the restaurant
They brought us a bottle of red wine and a woven basket filled with warm, sliced bread. I sat across from his brother, my leg shaking uncontrollably beneath the white linen tablecloth. It was bad to drink and I knew it was bad as I did it, as I emptied my glass of wine to smother a dread with no voice and a suspicion that crawled like poison down the back of my throat.
My phone was on silent but throughout the dinner I saw it light up, flashing like a holiday – condolences from the agent, the reporters, even the caterers. One sip for each email, for each text message. I ignored all of them. I cut my steak. Five years I was vegetarian because of him, but today was different, right? Was steak always this thick, this difficult to chew? The steak was red and weeping, redder than the blood dried on his bag and on his shoes. We ate in silence. I watched his brother cut the entire steak into cubes before forking each slice individually, chewing slowly, methodically. It felt like the perfect recipe for a date – a man, a woman, steaks medium rare, a bottle of wine from Tuscany. We had never occupied the same space before, just the two of us. He had always been there. Even now, his presence was the heaviness dictating the silence of our meal. I finished my food because he hated unfinished food. I asked for the dessert menu and ordered ice cream and a tiramisu. “What are we celebrating?” his brother asked, eyes red. He was drunk, too. We were on our second bottle of wine. “Feels like we are celebrating something.” I tried to count the days in my head. The last few weeks had been hectic, filled with organizing the book tour, the flight schedules, the kitchen remodeling, the promotion at work. For many weeks my life had been like this, and I counted back mentally, trying to remember dates and cycles. The wine dulled my memory. I strangled my fingers under the white napkin on my lap. In that moment, I hated myself, but I could not stop the glass from reaching my lips.
“My last period,” I said. “Maybe more than two months ago.”
He cried. I laughed. We finished a third bottle of wine.
9:00 PM, on the roof of the hotel
They didn’t stop us as we stumbled up the stairs, found an open door, snuck onto the roof. We could see the city sparkling like diamond jewelry. Who were these people? Who were these people that came to the bookstore for his signature – who loved his words – his name – his being? These people who would continue surviving without him just fine? And how come I would never know any of them?
His brother wept on the roof, but I shook with laughter from the wine. I hadn't been this drunk in years. I wrapped my arms around myself and trailed my fingers down my arms. There were goosebumps on the skin from the cold wind. I closed my eyes, and his ghost wrapped his arms around me and kissed the top of my head, combed his fingers through my hair, leaned down to my face and whispered, in my ear, “How come you’re not crying for me?” Someone was leading me down the stairs. Someone was putting his arm around my waist and his coat on my shoulders. Someone who smelled like him but was not him. Someone who looked like him but was not him. Of course, it was his brother, the older brother he looked up to and loved more than me sometimes. His brother shepherded me to the elevator and led me to the presidential suite upgraded from business points. His brother invited me into his room, but when I shook my head, he unwound his arm from my waist and looked sadly at me. “You have a very beautiful laugh.” Maybe he would be the last to hear it. I shut the door separating our suites without a goodbye or good night. He would understand. I lay on the king bed and stared at the ceiling. I could hear him moving around, unzipping, showering, brushing his teeth. After the funeral, what would we be? Friends? Not family – I wasn't tied by marriage. Acquaintances? Pen pals? Would we stay in touch? Do business together in the future? Avoid the cities the other lived in? Send a happy birthday text once a year?
11:11 PM, in bed alone
I opened my backpack and took out the book I had found in the paper bag in the cardboard box at the hospital. I opened to the front cover and found his signature again, the swift, confident strokes. How many seconds after this signature did he die? I traced it with my fingers. I mimicked the pen strokes, shadowing the movements of his hand that only one day ago had motioned similarly. A name that now can only be used in present tense, never future tense.
I lay in bed with the book over my heart. I longed to cry, to feel the grief, to remember him and to know his loss. The sound of his brother’s shower, the water falling and wailing and weeping, reminded me that I should be crying, but the tears wouldn’t come. I was a statue in bed, heavy with wine. I opened the book to the last page and stared at the picture of his face. I memorized his gaze, his mustache, his shy smile, his choppy haircut, the navy collared shirt he always wore, then threw the book against the wall. It fell on the ground and the shower stopped.