Will and I sat outside the VA on a bench, watching cars circle for spots while an ambulance blared from the dock around the corner. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head, trying to erase the last hour of our lives from my memory, focusing instead on the weather and our neighbor’s wife they’d found in the freezer. We’d read the article in the paper that morning an effort to distract ourselves from the appointment. We knew what today would be—but we didn’t want to. We couldn’t entertain the idea, so we read the paper. We never read the paper, and now I knew why. You learn horrifying things like your neighbor shoved his wife’s dead body in the freezer after she’d had a heart attack. Couldn’t be without her, so he kept her. They’d been a cute old couple. Retired.
“You remember when we last saw her?” I said, mostly just to say something to break the silence, but then I really couldn’t remember. Like recognizing an actor but not knowing from where.
“A year ago, I think. She gave you her pumpkin pie recipe.” He shifted, crossing his arms over his chest, shoulders slumped. I wanted to touch him, but he didn’t look like that was a good idea, so I clasped my hands in my lap and stared at them intently.
“Right. Pie.” I had thought I could bake after binging Pushing Daisies one weekend. Stupid.
“Yep,” He let out a shaky breath. “Pie.” His tone was flat and I felt like there was an elephant sitting on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. We just stared at the parking lot. “So—.” He drew out the word slightly, like he wanted me to finish the sentence. I didn’t. I couldn’t even think it. I never wanted to hear that word again. Ever. Especially not here next to an ashtray/trashcan that had more buds in it than the flowerbed next to it. “Cancer.”
It was like he had jammed a pencil in my ear. Cancer. Terminal. Fucking. Cancer. I could feel my world crumbling under me. He wasn’t old enough to have cancer. He was healthy. He was Will. He was my Will. He couldn’t have cancer.
“How did he get her in there? I mean that takes some muscle to—you know—” I made a heaving motion with my arms.
“Does it matter?” He sounded like we were late and I still wasn’t ready. “We can’t sit here forever.”
I turned to look at him, and after a moment he met my eyes. The shock was wearing off. I could see it. He was wading into the pool. I didn’t want to test the water. I couldn’t even look at it yet. This wasn’t the end of our story. This was not going to end with “and he died of cancer.” That wasn’t how this was supposed to go. We had met in college. Our freshmen year. We’d been together since we were eighteen. We were a team. We’d been through everything together. Finals. Job interviews. Flat tires. Senior bar crawls. Crappy jobs. Joining the freaking army after 9/11. All of it. And we handled it. Together. This wasn’t going to be it. Fuck cancer. We weren’t done.
“My forever’s a little shorter than yours in case you forgot.”
“Asshole who doesn’t really wanna die here so—” He tapped his watch. The one I’d gotten him when he left for his first tour. It was beat to hell, and consistently about fifteen minutes fast, but he refused to retire it, or get it fixed.
“That’s what you’re going with? Seriously?”
“Six months isn’t that long. We need to get a move on.”
“We wouldn’t need to be in such a hurry if—”
“No.” The word was like a slamming door and I couldn’t look at him. He’d said no before we got the official diagnosis. After the last appointment. He’d watched his grandfather die like that and said he’d eat a bullet before he went out like that. I wanted to hit him. Scream that it wasn’t just his choice. It was mine too. His wife. We’d made vows. We were supposed to get old in a nursing home and yell at each other about Jell-O on a goddamn porch swing. He didn’t just get to decide not to fight this. I was entitled to a say. I wanted a say, but it was his decision. I’d want it to be mine, so I bit my tongue until I tasted blood.
He snorted, a smile spreading across his face.
“It’s my party, and I’ll die if I want to.” He tried to sing, choking between fits of laughter. I couldn’t even process what was happening. I wanted to push him off the bench.
He stopped after a minute, bright red and wiping away tears, then he looked at me and smiled. “Let’s go home.”
My stomach hollowed. “No.”
“Please?” He stood, taking my hand and I looked into the eyes of the man I’d married. If I got up, it was over. We were going to go home and that was going to be it. He was going to die there. That was not a valid option. I never wanted to see home again. I wanted to glue my ass to the bench until the end of time. Forever. We were going to live outside that miserable stupid hospital until we died how we were supposed to. Of old age, or boredom. No. I was not going to get up. We were not going anywhere. It wasn’t going to happen. No. I refused.
I got up, drove us home, and the asshole died four months later.
My life became a sea of food and flowers and people trying to fix it. I watched as they invaded my home. Our home. My father wouldn’t look at me, but he busied himself fixing odds and ends around the house Will and I had never gotten to. His father sold his car. A classic, he said, and would get a good price. Then he began packing up Will’s things. Old Eagle Scout badges he said were stupid but kept anyway, and his tool collection he’d spent years building, until our life together was reduced to a half-empty bottle of Old Spice and his Rangers mug.
His sister cleaned everything she could get her hands on until the whole house smelled like Clorox. My mother followed me around, making sure I ate and slept and showered, like I’d forgotten how to function as a human being. Maybe I had. His mother tried to get me to plan the funeral. She pushed flower choice and food options like it mattered if there were lilies or orchids, the veggie tray or the meat platter. It didn’t. He was dead and would have thought it was a stupid waste of money anyway because he was dead. Dead people didn’t care if there was a picture slideshow or not. They were dead.
The funeral was like a cheap sympathy card had thrown up. It was a menagerie of putrid green and pastel hell. Floral wallpaper reigned, and where it ended, nature murals began. People were in tears, most I didn’t know, or maybe I just didn’t remember, either way, I didn’t care. I wanted them away from me, but they persisted, gathering around, pulling me into intrusive hugs and blubbering conversations. They wanted something from me I couldn’t give them, but then slowly and inevitably, everyone went back to their lives, leaving me in the crater of what had once been mine. Nothing felt real anymore and I spent my days staring at our bed and the absence of his things.
It was nearing December when I read our neighbor’s obituary in the paper. Eighty-nine years old. I stuffed the paper down the garbage disposal and turned it on, listening to the grinding noise until I heard a commotion outside. I shut it off and peeked out the window. A yard sale. People milled around what looked like the entirety of the house displayed in the driveway. Old china and appliances. Picture frames, and desks that looked like they’d been pulled from the attic. Then I saw it. Next to an ironing board and a rack of clothes. The freezer. Gently used it said. Fifty bucks. I had fifty bucks.
I grabbed my coat and went around the front. The woman standing behind a foldable table counting out change looked like him. Their daughter probably and I wondered if they had other children. She had her mom’s eyes, or at least I thought from what I remembered. I looked around at the artifacts of her parents’ lives. They’d had good taste. I walked over to the freezer and ran my hand over the top. It was cream colored and textured on the outside. It didn’t look like it’d had a body in it. I wondered if it was even the same one. The other one had to be evidence, but maybe not. The old man hadn’t killed her or been charged with anything. He was just sad and wanted to keep her with him for as long as he could and I couldn’t say I blamed him.
“You like it?” I turned to see their daughter.
“Yeah,” I tried my best to smile. “I’ve been looking for a spare for the garage. It’s nice.” I looked back to it.
“It’s old.” She smiled, a genuinely kind smile and looking at it I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had smiled at me with anything other than pity. “But my dad was pretty good at keeping it up though. It runs like new.”
I nodded. “Is cash alright?”
“Of course, you live around here?”
“In that case,” She leaned in conspiratorially. “I’ll take twenty-five.”
“Oh, no. Please take fifty.”
“My father mentioned you. Said you and your husband were very nice, considerate neighbors.”
She took the money and got a guy to help me move it. I gave him the other twenty-five. The garage was so empty without the car and the tools. I still couldn’t bring myself to park in it. It wasn’t my space. It was his.
I ran my finger over the edge of the lid. It just looked like any freezer, meant for Sunday night leftovers and preserved slices of wedding cake. I propped it open and stared. It looked big enough that she would have fit comfortably. I crawled inside and it smelled like all thawed freezers smelled, but with a hint of Lysol. It was roomy like a coffin. I had laid in a lot of coffins to make sure they were comfortable—they weren’t so I made them line it with memory foam. He had been so uncomfortable at the end, and he needed to be comfortable.
I sat up and studied the lid, all propped open and innocent. It was white and I realized the freezer wasn’t cream colored. It was just yellowing. I lowered it and the edges squished together, sealing me inside. I took a deep breath and wondered how long it would take to suffocate. Would I notice or just pass out?
The doorbell startled me out of my tomb, and the fresh, cool air washed over me. I breathed deep and stood, a little lightheaded, looking up at the speaker Will had installed, and I felt like he was handing me a stick. There was something I’d read about a therapist once, she said her patients did all the fighting and that all she did was hand out the sticks. I didn’t want a stick. I wanted my best friend back. I waited until I was confident whoever it was had left before going to check the door, and on the front step was a pie with a note that said: “Mom’s famous pumpkin pie, thanks for being so kind.” I looked toward their house before going back inside. I lifted the foil. It was still warm, and un-charred.
I walked into the kitchen, put it in the oven and turned it on. Three hundred and fifty degrees, just like the recipe said.
I left the pie and went back to the freezer, settled in, and tried to remember the look on his face when I’d taken the pie out of the oven and its resemblance to a charcoal brick. I’d forgotten to set the timer or put batteries in the clock or something stupid. He’d warned me it was a bad idea.
“You frequently burn the popcorn, and there’s a popcorn button on the microwave. Baking might be a little out of reach.”
“I can follow a recipe. It isn’t that hard.” She’d written everything out so clearly. It didn’t sound hard. “And it’s not like you’re Gordon Ramsey.”
“Hey, I’m the one who used sour milk to make macaroni and cheese. There’s a reason we order out. I’m just saying.”
The fire alarm jolted me back, and I sat, listening to the incessant, high-pitched screeching, feeling it in the center of my brain. It echoed in my mind, blocking out all my thoughts and memories. It was the first time since he died that I didn’t feel his loss in my bones, like a missing limb, a phantom pain.
The smoke seeped in with a certain serenity and I breathed deep, feeling it scratch up my lungs like warm sandpaper. My eyes grew heavy and my mind began losing track of thoughts. The confusion was a welcome relief and I surrendered to it, letting it swallow me whole.