Karen had named and renamed the house every few months in her mind since Geoff died seven years ago. Quiet place, empty sex palace, hoarder’s delight, messy goat barn, happy crypt. It started as a game to please him, the person she felt watching her through the tightening lens of what she remembered about their twenty-three years together.

At breakfast alone eating eggs or coming in the door late at night, a new name for the house of her memories would appear and her expression would come alive like she’d crossed through a waterfall, eyes wide, saying the new name softly to herself.

The new name would protect her for a while. Fewer tears and dry heaving. When its power was beginning to wear off she’d feel it at night mostly, the floor or the walls shifting when there was neither a strong wind nor a chill outside; she’d know a new name was needed, if only to pretend he needed to know she hadn’t forgotten him.

Did she love him that much? Love is not a present thing. It is past and future gripping the will to live, to set part of yourself into someone else, have them sing you back to life when they notice you’re fading. So she kept singing, as it were, because it felt good to love his absence. She was a maybe, she decided, on the question of loving him that much. He was still a known quantity, a comforting empty set.

When the emptiness lost its shape, feeling less and less like him, she would let her grief repair it, smash at it, accepting whatever outcome it would lead to for her memories and doubts.

Was he suffering? Did he care about hers now that he was gone?

“You keep ruining your recovery and you know it,” best friend Leandra said near tears, a refrain spoken out of loyalty about as often as Karen gave the house a new name. “It’s ridiculous what you keep putting yourself through. Just because you have the money and the time doesn’t mean you owe it to him. And don’t say—”

“—Honey, you know I love you, too.” The stock reply, more cruel than kind, openly distrustful, afraid that Leandra, among others, wouldn’t respect her art.

Her friends had also lost people. And to things more terrible than cancer. She knew.

They did not. Because she hadn’t told them how, why or what about the house and her habits combating grief as performance art and martial art within its walls.

How it still gathered, that was the feeling, her acts of breathing his life back into it as it breathed something of his absence back into the world, to haunt and be haunted by imagining her life had purpose in plight. A normal one she could make her own, though it would fade; one day she would be a plightless bird. The pun never made her smile.

Alone in bed listening to the house sigh between worlds of emptiness and memory, she lay like a body between sheets deep beneath the earth, listening to the dead throughout its living skin, asleep in flesh that could bear new flesh, as the ancients said.

They call you too-madly devoted whether or not they care to remember how much you wanted him gone sometimes. They who knew the whole shape of loss long before she did—that disease was the real evil. Suffering is the real infinity we should fear, the faceless pain breeding eternities into a cruel, short life.

Couples become twin warriors “battling” with “devotion.” What a story! But is it a heroic tale or a ghost story? Two sides of the same flipped coin, Karen knew. It had to land somewhere. You couldn’t turn away and ignore the outcome. She hadn’t. She had watched each turn and when the coin settled, stared down the face of death.

Trying to tell others what was up with her would lead to so-called straight talk and praise for the banal. She didn’t want to win some stupid debate or be rescued. Just some respect for a wider circle of permanent privacy perhaps.

Perhaps what she was afraid to say to Leandra and others was that death is unforgivable sometimes. Absolutely these things happen. But perhaps we never have to accept it. Perhaps we just need new names ad infinitum, to impose some cold understanding on the forces beyond death. As we keep naming and pouring life into inadequate living things, those forces may never respond, but maybe they’ll begin to feel their otherworldly existence crack, too. They might feel for a moment as mortal as the people we once pressed upon ourselves with love white-hot as a brand searing an open beating heart. Maybe that. The cut of hot metal into living blood, screaming new names. Maybe that, if only for a few minutes each day, until her life was over, too.

Matthew Jakubowski

Matthew Jakubowski

Matthew Jakubowski's short stories are forthcoming from The Brooklyn Rail and are available now on the short-story app Great Jones Street. Matt lives in West Philadelphia, grew up bouncing all over the world, and runs a litblog called truce.
Matthew Jakubowski

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