On May 1st, our forty-ninth day of quarantining in our Portland home, my husband turns to me over morning coffee and says, “I have to make a quick run into the office later.” He means the real office. The non-home office. And he says it all casual, like oh-by-the-way. Like how you might tell your partner you’ll be swinging by Publix to pick up toilet paper on your way home. (Before we were all fighting over toilet paper.) It’ll be the first time either of us has started the car to go somewhere in weeks.
The thought of him being in a space that isn’t adjacent to my space—where other human breath besides our own resides, where surely those tiny aerosols, the ones that linger in the air for up to three days, invisible to the naked eye but laden with the spiked crowns of COVID-19 particles, are lingering like an invisible choking dust cloud waiting to curl into the corners of my husband’s lungs—makes my brain whir.
When he shuffles towards the door at 10:30 AM, I review the checklist I’m certain he’s already forgotten, my mouth moves fast, babbling about things like masks and door knobs and hand sanitizer and nose picking. “I got it,” he says. He kisses me on the mouth, turns to walk down the steps of our front porch, where I hang my head out the door and remind him of the Zoom call we’ve scheduled with a friend at 2 PM. He says he’ll be home before that. In time for lunch.
A couple hours later, I start fixing lunch. I toss a few bundles of soba noodles into boiling water, pierce into the pink flesh of a half dozen radishes and bang on a bag of walnuts until they crumble into dust. I glance at my phone, 1:05, and my whisked hand laps at the silver bowl full of ginger pulp and lemon zest and grapeseed oil.
At 1:30, with no sign of him, I set my bowl down at the kitchen counter and set his bowl next to mine. He’s going to walk in any minute. With my right hand, I fork noodles into my mouth. With my left, I flip through emails to distract myself from the emptiness of his chair. I tell myself I will not call his phone. Not yet.
At 1:50, I start pacing. From the kitchen island to the front window. At the window, a dozen tomato seeds are just beginning to burst through the soil. They’re lined up on the sill like a fleet of toy soldiers, their faces stretching towards the glass where warm southern light bathes their tender leaves. My husband’s parked Toyota Camry usually forms a backdrop to the plants but right now they’re framed by an empty gray spool of suburban road. I look up and down the street. I look down at the dog, the seventy-pound mass of brown fur that is never far from my heel. I dribble the plants with flecks of water until their soil darkens, look up and down the empty street again, then over at the untouched bowl on the counter. I call his phone. It rings as usual but when it arrives at his voicemail, his greeting comes through quiet and garbled, as if his automated self were drowning in a distant pool of water. My stomach feels like a bowl of concrete. I hang up. I try again, same thing. I text him, “please call me,” and email the same. I stare at the text message string between the two of us and wait for the wave of ellipses. They never come.
If I had to pinpoint the exact moment when there’s a switchback, it’s likely now. Just a few seconds past 2 PM. This is when the brain swerve happens and I become certain, my husband is dead. My hands shake. The tiny fibers of my chest knit together. My heart starts a series of mismatched percussive beats like there’s an EDM concert happening inside my chest. Pain scourges me from the inside out. It’s as if there are hot metal hangers – the kind you bend straight and dangle over a campfire with bulging ‘mallows at the end – branching from the marrow of my bones and poking at my skin, sadistic and random. My scalp tingles and my intestines contract and I run to the bathroom.
My husband is dead, I say to myself when I reemerge, trying to absorb the shock. I catch sight of my face in the bathroom mirror and am frightened by what looks back. My skin is white like the inside of a pear but it’s only because I know. Myhusbandisdead, myhusbandisdead, myhusbandisdead.
This is not an unfamiliar thought. See, I’m the kind of person who is chronically afraid, and oftentimes certain, someone I love will die of something swift and unexpected. I wake in the morning thinking about it. I dream of it at night. I am thinking about it right now, as I type. Sometimes I think that if I made a comic book version of myself, she would be something like Worry Woman, a fierce and heavily bosomed woman in worn out Lululemon leggings who saves the world with her unparalleled ability to sniff out death before it arrives. Worry Woman has an equally anxious brown dog, one with golden globe eyes and a nose that twitches, as her trusty sidekick. She calls him Fearful Fido. See, I’m the type of person that gets told they should be insurance underwriter a lot. When people say this, they act like it’s because I have a unique talent for calculating risk. Like I’m some kind of Will Hunting. But I know what they really mean. What they really mean is, “because you’re paranoid as fuck.”
I didn’t grow up being this person but rather became her after a series of sudden family deaths in my youth—end-capped with my sister, who was found dead from blunt force trauma to the head while traveling in India, with no witnesses and no answers as to how—broke my brain. I did all of the things they tell someone with a broken brain to do and a lot of the things they say not to. I avoided it via achievement, taking twenty-one units of coursework a semester and graduating early from college and later earning my PhD. I swallowed Ambien with wine before bed to avoid the chronic terrors that led to sweat-stained sheets and a galloping heart. I sat through rounds of talk therapy with a harsh draconian therapist who diagnosed me with PTSD and more rounds with a kind-souled whispery therapist who said, “Those letters can sometimes be overwhelming. How do you feel about the words ‘uniquely hypervigilant’?” I down dogged and journaled rabid thoughts and meditated on the wool carpet of my bedroom floor and in mindfulness workshops and on park grass that made me scratch at the backs of my thighs but the brokenness of the brain, the way it could spin out and do a hard swerve to the right from just the slightest bump, remained.
I resented other people for not being like me. I joked to my husband that he was “my little ostrich,” blissfully ignorant with his head in the sand about all the things in the world that could kill the people you love. He didn’t like that so much but what he didn’t know was that I said it because I envied him. I envied everyone, often. What it must be like to live without the weight of impending death on your shoulders, I thought. What one might be able to accomplish with sand between your ears instead of terror.
I, on the other hand, was a trauma person. I had a trauma brain.
And my trauma brain was screaming at me now, myhusbandisdead.
As the clock ticks past 2 PM, I phone the friend who’s already waiting on his side of Zoom. I don’t dial into the Zoom meeting because I don’t want him to see my white skin or my downturned eyes. The way my hands rattle when I try to hold things. I tell him, keeping my diaphragm taut to tamp down on the shaking, “Barrett isn’t home yet from the office. He said he’d be home but he’s not home yet.”
“No problem,” he says. “We can reschedule for another day.” I tell him thanks. “Oh, and don’t feel bad about rescheduling,” he says. “I have a ton of work to wrap up before the weekend.” I’m confused by his comment. There are things that matter and there are things that don’t and doesn’t he know I have to focus on surviving now? Hasn’t he ever lost his person and had to rebuild a life without him? Doesn’t he know what it’s like to drown in air?
After we hang up, I pad the number of my husband’s coworker, a man I know relatively little of but I imagine him being the kind of man who coaches little league teams and helps with algebra homework. I think to myself that if I want anyone in that office to deliver me the bad news, he’s the one. He answers and it takes him a second to put it together when he hears my voice on the other end. He says he hasn’t heard anything from my husband since 8 AM but he’ll call some of the others they work with and get back to me.
I dial my husband’s phone again. It rings only once this time, then goes to the same strangled voicemail. I’m looking out over the tomatoes again but I’m not seeing road. I’m seeing his car, mangled and bent, steam blooming into the gray of Portland’s sky as if the two were being wed. I imagine a paramedic cradling his shattered phone and pressing ignore. I remember the photo that shows up when I call. It’s a photo of me standing in an apron in our kitchen looking over my shoulder with a half-smile. My back is turned towards him in the photo. There’s nothing but a tangle of apron strings to cover the arc of bare skin. I stop calling.
While I wait for the coworker to call me with the news I already know, I spot the stack of letters my husband and I had each written to our friends and family for Mother’s Day. They’re sitting on the countertop next to his uneaten soba salad. To bide the time, I take each one, stack his on top of mine, and fold them into envelops. As I do, I read his words. This isn’t something I’d normally do, maintaining marital privacies and whatnot, but since he’s already dead I decide it can’t hurt. Privacy rules only apply to the living. One by one, I read, fold, stuff. My eyes stop on the words he wrote to one of our best friends. “You’re one of the best mother role models we know.” The line resonates in me over and over. It reverberates inside the web of my rib bones. I imagine what he’d have said to me if I’d ever become the mother to his child and I feel a blankness in my belly, like the empty feeling that happens when you miss a step. I push the burn in my eyes backwards, shaking my head like a wet dog trying to dry. I question whether I should set the letters out for the mailman, who’s due to arrive any minute, or if I should hold onto them. As keepsakes. I decide to send them. This way, his mother will receive a card, as if from the divine departed, even though her son is already gone. I’ve got plenty of keepsakes anyway. The note he left for me under the coffee maker that one morning, just because. The voicemails on my phone. I’ve kept them all over the years so I’d have pieces of him whenever he was gone. I’ve prepared for this day.
As the seconds tick by, I think about how I’d asked my husband months ago to tell me what type of funeral he wanted. I’d urged him to put it in writing for the “IN THE EVENT OF DEATH” folder I started for us when we were in our twenties, which contains our wills and our powers of attorney and other important documentation and meaningful mementos. He said he didn’t know what kind of funeral he wanted, said he didn’t really care to think about it either.
I think of the towers of soup and stews I’d prepared and frozen at the start of our quarantine in case one or both of us got sick. I’m grateful to have them. I won’t be able to cook for myself for a long time.
I think about how many days it will take for someone I love – my mother in Louisiana, my best friend in South Carolina—to get to me in Oregon. I think both of them should drive the 3,000 plus miles since air travel is too dangerous and I need them to stay alive now more than ever.
I tremble over how we’d never gotten around to having children. How the perfect time was now somewhere in the past.
Maybe I can adopt and raise the child by myself, I think.
Maybe I’ll name them Barrett.
I call my mother. I tell her, “Something is wrong, I know it. Barrett was supposed to be home and he’s not home and my gut is telling me he’s dead, mom. Barrett’s dead.” In a low voice, she tells me to breath and I do. She tells me to call 9-1-1 and inquire about any accident reports on his car.
“Do you know his license plate?” she asks. I stumble around by the front window, biting my lip and gazing emptily at the tomato plants. They’re so new to the world and blind to death. “What about his car make and model?” If you’d asked me that morning, I would have known. But right then, while I gaze out to his empty parking spot on the street, it’s as if my brain has been zapped of all memory. His car is a ghost. He is a ghost. I tell her I’m going to drive his route to the office, an office I’m certain he’s either already departed from or never arrived to, and I hang up the phone. I fill my water bottle, toss a change of clothes, a granola bar, a toothbrush, and a mask into a bag, and twist the front door handle to unlock. If the best-case scenario has happened, if he’s somewhere in a hospital bed unconscious and alive, I’ll need a neighbor to feed the dog, our dog that hasn’t been left alone in an empty house in forty-eight days.
I’ve only just buckled my seat belt when a text dings through from my dead husband.
“Got stuck on a work call. Be home later.”
His words confuse me at first. His tone is so easy. So alive.
I empty my lungs of air that was sticky like sap and follow with, “I’m just glad you’re okay.” And then, “BUT WHAT THE FUCK?”
He calls a minute later. I choke on the tears I’d swallowed. In the heat of a parked car whose engine never even turned over, everything that had built up, an entire ocean of anticipated loss, bursts out of me. My husband is alive. He explains he’d gotten stuck on a phone meeting and had texted to postpone our Zoom call. Says he hadn’t noticed the little exclamation mark next to it until the coworker he was on the call with, thirteen states away, interrupted their phone meeting to say, “Dude, you need to call your wife.”
When we say goodbye, my frame falls against the seat. Its curves cocoon me. I sit there for several minutes, tears streaking down my cheeks, wild howls collide with the echoless chamber of metal and cheap leather until a bead of sweat falls down the valley of my spine and I climb out of the car. My feet are heavy as they carry me up the steps to the front porch, where my dog’s golden eyes peer through the glass, wide and alert, as if to say, “Oh thank god you’re back, I was anxious already,” and I understand. I pass the mailbox on my way to the unlocked door. The stack of Mother’s Day cards has already vanished, whisked away quietly by a mailman while I was somewhere else. The cards are on their way to women around the country who will rip apart the white envelops several days from now then toss them aside into a pile of cards. Lucky ostrich women who I imagine will never think something like, I should hold onto this card.
In the event of death.
Brooke Bass is a writer, sociologist, and messy home cook living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has appeared in Gender & Society, RENDER: Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly, Life & Thyme, and Portland Monthly. She’s currently working on her first book, a memoir about the years she and her husband spent living on a small sailboat following a set of unlikely parallel traumas. And she is thrilled that her tomato plants are finally starting to turn color so she can stop worrying about them and start eating them on tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches. Find her on Instagram at @brookebasspdx or on her blog at www.chocolateandmarrow.com.