“I can’t explain it,” Izzy said on Monday morning, clutching her coffee as if it were a life preserver. “There’s just no chemistry.”
“One date?” said Emily. “You could tell that from one date? Come on, the guy seemed perfectly nice to me.”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t nice. I said there was no chemistry.”
Emily sighed. “Sometimes I think you just make this too hard.”
Henry snorted from the vacant cubicle chair next to me. He hadn’t left my side all weekend and for the first time in our married life, had accompanied me to work, something I will admit I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with. But after what constituted my first argument with a dead guy, it was decided that I should go.
“I don’t want to leave you tomorrow,” I told Henry on Sunday night. We were lying in my bed (actually I guess I was lying in it, he was more lying over it) when we talked about what should happen the following day.
“I know you don’t,” he said, his voice coming to me in the dark, which was somewhat disconcerting since I couldn’t actually feel him in the bed next to me and, therefore, he just sounded like a voice in my head. “But let’s face it: It’s possible I could be around for a really long time. You can’t just stop working.”
“Why not?” I said. “The weather is pretty nice here. I could stop working and just live in a cardboard box. I mean, it’s not like you take up that much room. And think of how low-maintenance it would be.”
“If you quit working, lose the house, and tell everyone it’s because you’re living with your dead husband again, I have a feeling you won’t find yourself in a cardboard box – probably something a little more padded with plenty of prescription meds around.”
“Well, what if I just take some time off?” I asked, desperately wanting to find a solution.
“Jane, I’ve met your boss. I can’t see her ever going for something like that. Besides, as much as you want to stay home, going to work has been good for you, I think. It at least forces you to get out of the house a little.”
And that’s when we came up with the compromise: Henry would come with me to work - something that, to be honest, I wasn’t too crazy about, but was better than missing a moment with him. So, the next morning, we hustled off, chatting the entire way there until I noticed this woman looking at me like I was a lunatic as I was laughing at something Henry said. It suddenly occurred to me that she couldn’t see him and, therefore, I probably thought that I was the funniest person I knew.
Now, sitting with him in my office, I felt self-conscious. I loved spending every minute with him over the weekend, but work had always been mine. My space. Henry had always speculated that Emily, Izzy, and I just sat around gossiping, trading recipes, and that I constantly talked about what a dynamo he was in bed. And I always defended us, insulted by his assumption that we got absolutely nothing done.
“We work,” I would always say when he would tease me about it. “We work really hard. Do you think the only people on the planet who know how to put in a full day are the ones who possess a penis and a law degree?”
Now, listening to Emily and Izzy go over every little detail of Izzy’s fizzled romance (that had lasted all of 48 hours), I was starting to worry about the big “I told you so” that I would get when we left at the end of the day. But I couldn’t think of how to make it stop. I mean, I couldn’t very well say, “Would you guys shut up? Henry is rolling his eyes and telling me that we’re the company’s in-house Oprah show.”
I tuned them out a little while I opened my email and saw a message from my mother pop up in the middle of the list of requests for company t-shirts and water bottles.
Aunt Marge has the flu so send her a card when you get a chance. Have you checked your eggs lately? Remember that expired eggs don’t taste very good and you won’t know it until you start eating them. Do you have eggs on your grocery list this week?
“Listen,” Izzy was saying. “I didn’t get married when I was fifteen years old like you two did. I decided to wait, which means that as far as dating goes, I’m old and crotchety and set in my ways. I can tell within the first few minutes of a date whether or not it’s going to work out. And even though Jeff is really nice, he’s just not my speed.”
“Nice is not your speed?” Emily asked.
“Not that nice. That kind of nice is more Jane’s.”
There was a moment of silence, which Henry broke only to me. “Will you tell her to shut up?”
I shot a dirty look his direction that Izzy immediately picked up on.
“What?” she said. “I’m serious. He’s really nice, smart, and funny. You two seemed to kind of hit it off the other night.”
“What you do mean we ‘hit it off’?” I asked her. “We barely spoke.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t take a full conversation to know if something might work or not. You should give him a try. If anything, he might be good for a fling.”
The conversation was starting to make me feel uncomfortable, especially knowing that Henry was there listening to it. Our eyes met for a moment, but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking and I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to know. Right before I tore my eyes away from him, I noticed the screen on Emily’s computer flicker slightly, almost as if it had a short.
“I’m not ready to be flung,” I said, shifting in my seat.
“Why not? If you don’t get flung sometime soon, your flingability might expire. And let’s face it; you’re a widow, not a nun.”
“Let it go,” Emily said, trying to defuse the situation in her mom-like way. “If she’s not ready, she’s not ready.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Just because you seem to feel it’s necessary to fling every man in Texas and the bordering states doesn’t mean I do.”
“Hey, just because I date a lot, doesn’t mean I’m – “
“And just because I haven’t been…flung…in a while doesn’t mean – “
“How’s it going, ladies?” Michelle said, entering our little nest of cubicles.
“Fine,” we all said in chorus.
Izzy gave me a foul look and turned around to face her computer. Emily shrugged as if the two of us were so immature she was beyond us. And Henry sat in a stony silence.
“Glad to hear it,” said Michelle. “Have a good weekend, did we?”
“Yes,” we all replied.
“Good. Did you notice that it’s Monday morning now?”
“Perfect. Can’t wait to hear those little fingers clicking away!” She said with mock cheerfulness. “Oh, and when you all get a minute, come into my office and sign a bereavement card for Sheila over in Accounting.”
“Why? What happened?” asked Emily.
“Her dog died over the weekend,” said Michelle, shaking her head sadly. “Jane, I’m sure that you’ll have something particularly helpful to say in the card, since you’ve been through a loss like that.”
I stared at her for a minute. “A loss like what?”
“You know…losing something you truly love. I know that it’s heart-wrenching. I’m sure you can really sympathize with her.”
With that, she turned and walked back to her private cubicle giving us a view of a skirt that was too tight in the back and a run in her tights she would find when she got home that night because none of us liked her enough to tell her it was there.
“She did not just say that,” said Izzy under her breath.
I could feel Emily and Izzy looking at me as if waiting for me to either say something that would smooth over the situation and make everyone more comfortable or come up with a plan to mess with the brakes on Michelle’s car. But I was too stunned to say anything at that point.
“I have to run to the restroom,” I said suddenly. “Cover my phone?”
“Sure,” Emily said slowly turning back to her monitor. I could feel Izzy’s eyes on my back as I made my way out of our bullpen and I walked the gray maze to the women’s bathroom, Henry trailing behind me. When I opened the door to let us both in, I did a quick peek under the stalls to make sure no one else was in there.
“What?” I asked Henry, crossing my arms in front of me.
“Nothing!” He said, trying to make his face look innocent, but still looking a little irritable.
“Don’t give me that. You’re annoyed. At what? Michelle?”
“While I’m not crazy about the fact that I just got put into the same category as something that drinks out of a toilet, no. I’m not annoyed with Michelle.”
“Then what is it?”
“I just find it a little convenient that we ran into that guy the other day and then first thing this morning, his name comes up again. A little coincidental, don’t you think?”
“Well, I didn’t bring up his name.”
Henry’s shoulders seemed to relax a little. “I know. I guess I’m just jealous. I’m dead and I’m jealous. It’s like I want to fight for you, but I know I can’t. Or that I shouldn’t. I mean, put yourself in my place.”
“I know,” I said, trying to soothe him. “But I meant what I said. I’m not interested in dating him. Or anyone. And especially now that you’re here…I just don’t feel like I need to fill that spot in my life.”
Henry looked at me for a minute, seemingly trying to digest what I’d just said. “I think I’m going to go home.”
“What? Why? I thought you wanted to be with me.”
“I do. But I think you need a little space. I mean, if I were alive, I wouldn’t be coming with you to work. I think you need some time with your friends without worrying that I’m…hovering.”
“But I don’t mind that you’re hovering!” I insisted, even though I kind of did. “I like being around you. Don’t – “
Just then the door to the bathroom banged open and in walked one of the women who worked in the Facilities department. I was always friendly with Carla because she was kind and it was always helpful to be friends with someone who can expedite a new chair or a replacement lightbulb, but most of the time I did my best to avoid her. I think she was a little lonely, working in a department of unsocial men, so if you got cornered by her, you could be in that corner for at least twenty minutes.
“Hey, Jane!” she said in her I’m-glad-to-see-you-let-me-give-you-a-run-down-of-my-weekend-with-my-goldfish voice. “How are you?”
“Um…I’m good. Fine. Everything’s good.”
She glanced around the bathroom quickly. “Were you talking to someone?”
At that moment, I looked behind me and saw that I was the only person in the bathroom. Henry had left, not that she could have seen him anyway. And that suddenly made me feel panicky.
“No, no one,” I said, my voice jittery. “Hey, I’ve got to go. Catch up with you later?”
“That sounds great!” she said. “I can’t wait to tell you what happened to me this weekend – “
I bolted out the door and over to my office where Izzy and Emily were busy working. Henry wasn’t in the vacant chair and I felt a streak of fear run through my body.
What if he was gone again?
“I have to go,” I said, frantically picking up my purse and looking for my keys.
“What’s wrong?” asked Emily and she and Izzy both turned around in their seats to face me.
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Stomach pains. I’m worried I’m coming down with something. Tell Michelle, okay? Tell her I’ll call her later.”
I didn’t wait for an answer as I raced out of our bullpen and out the door of the building. I ran to my car, threw it into gear, and screeched out of the parking lot. Getting on the highway, I swerved through the slight mid-morning traffic before pulling off on the exit to my townhouse. By the time I let myself in the door, my face was streaked with tears as I dropped my purse on the floor and ran through the house.
“Henry? Henry?” I screamed.
“What? What? Why are you home? What happened?” He said as he emerged from the bedroom.
“How could you leave me like that?” I said, hiccupping and crying. “You were just gone. I thought you’d left me again!”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry,” he said, his face looking like if he could cry he would. “I told you that I wanted to give you some space. I thought you just needed some time with your friends without me standing over you.”
“Well, we need to come up with a better system,” I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. “Promise me that you won’t leave me like that again without telling me first.”
And although I didn’t finish the sentence, the rest of it ran through my head like a banner.
Like you left me before.
And so Henry and I fell into a pattern that week, not unlike how we lived before he died: Apart during the day and then together at night. I would go to work and spend my days organizing events that other departments and customers thought fell into the “life or death” category while I began to absorb how trivial what I did really was. The frivolity was both a blessing and a curse: It allowed me to concentrate at my base level without really investing myself. But it also made me bitter when someone would walk into my office and make demands, assuming that there was nothing else more important going on in my life.
Emily and Izzy didn’t seem to notice the change in me at first and how preoccupied I’d become. I participated in our conversations as I always did, but as soon as work was finished, I bolted out the door to my car, making excuses why I couldn’t go out for a glass of wine with them or meet for dinner later in the evening. Because while I appreciated Henry’s insight into giving me a little space, as I spent my physical day at work, my mind was always at home, yearning to be with him and fearing that one of those days, I would go home and he wouldn’t be there.
“Maybe I should quit my job,” I said to him one evening at the kitchen table as he was watched me eat my Lean Cuisine.
“Why?” He asked. “Don’t you like it anymore?”
“No, I do. At least I think I do. But I don’t like being there when I can be here with you.”
Henry gave me his stern look. “We’ve already had the living-under-a-bridge discussion. And I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason.”
“What? Why? Don’t you want to spend time with me?”
“Of course I do. That’s why I’m here. At least I think that’s why I’m here. Frankly, I’ve had some time to think this week and that’s been the number one question on my mind.”
“What? Why you’re here?”
“Haven’t we already established that? It’s because I wished for you.”
“I know. But I think that answers the ‘how.’ Not the ‘why.’”
“Well, do you have any theories on that, Dr. Stewart?” I asked playfully.
But Henry’s face was serious. “I do, actually.”
“Let’s hear it.”
Henry put his arms on the table and leaned forward toward me, a look of concentration on his face. “I think that you and I had such a pull toward each other that we couldn’t let go of each other yet. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time with you since my death, because I can’t imagine being without you. And I know that I’ve been the main thing that you think about all of the time and in many ways you’re not ready to live your life without me either.”
“Well, I would think that’s normal.”
“Maybe. But with both of us so unwilling to move away from each other because we were always so dependent – and I don’t mean that in a bad way – it’s like we formed a bond that can’t be broken. And I’m not sure that that’s such a good thing.”
“But I don’t want to break away from you,” I said, hot panic rising in my stomach.
“I know. And I don’t want to break away from you either. But I think until we figure out a way to let each other go a little, we’re both just going to be stuck.”
“What do you mean? You feel stuck?”
“I think I am. Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure there is something beyond this, something beyond what I’m doing. Because I don’t see other people over here like I should. Like, I don’t see my grandparents. I don’t see the kid I went to high school with who was killed in a car accident the night before our graduation. I don’t see Kurt Cobain.”
“So where are they? Where did they go? Why aren’t there a zillion other people – spirits – around me?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t either. But it would make sense that they went someplace else.”
I was silent while I thought about this. And then I felt that familiar prickling behind my eyes and knew that if I said what I needed to say out loud, I would start to cry.
“But Henry,” I said, taking a shaky breath in. “I don’t want you to go anywhere else.”
“I know. I don’t want you to go anywhere either. I don’t want you to move, to date, to get married again, and have a whole other life that I won’t be a part of. But I think that until we both work through that, we’re both going to be stuck where we are.”
I watched a look of pain come across his face. “And think of what this is like for me,” he went on. “I don’t want to go anywhere either. I don’t want to leave you. But staying here, not being able to touch you or to be the husband I once was…it’s like hell for me. And I don’t want to feel this way forever.”
We were both quiet for a minute, thinking over what had just been said.
“So what does that mean? What do we do?” I finally asked, almost positive that I didn’t want to hear the answer.
Henry’s face came as close to mine as it could. If he had been alive, I would have thought he was about to kiss me. My body couldn’t help but brace for what it hoped I was coming and my legs went weak and seized at the same time, but my heart hurt with the knowledge that it wasn’t possible.
And then he whispered, his face so close to mine that I swore for a minute I could feel his breath, I could feel a piece of him pass through me.
“We help each other let go.”