We had a system in the morning. The alarm squawked at 6:08, and I switched it off, no snoozes allowed. I ran a hand through Jesse’s adorably pillow-flat hair to wake him, and he nuzzled me a little, stubbly chin tickling my jaw, then swung his long legs over the side of the bed, sighed, and headed downstairs to make coffee. I jumped in the shower, and ten minutes later Jesse got in while I slid past him, pretending to be outraged as he copped a feel. My outfit, chosen carefully the night before, lay across our reading chair. I dressed quickly, dried my hair upside down for volume, and carefully applied a layer of makeup using the closet mirror. Jesse donned a suit and dress shirt, pausing only to ask my opinion on his choice of tie. Together, we pounded on Trey’s door until we heard a moan and the heavy thud of bare feet hitting the hardwood floors. Once downstairs, we shared a cup of coffee, split a bowl of yogurt, and hugged Trey goodbye when he slunk into the kitchen. We walked out the French patio doors hip to hip, shouted overzealous “Good mornings!” to Mr. Eckhardt next door, and laughed when our cranky neighbor ducked his head, pretending he hadn’t heard us. Then we kissed, a real one, somewhere between perfunctory and embarrassing, got into our cars, and began our days.
Our shared life was perfect.
Until two years ago, on a bright, clear summer morning, when Jesse’s Volvo tapped the median on the Kennedy Expressway. If he’d been driving during the aching crawl of rush hour, it would have amounted to a fender bender, but traffic was sparse that Sunday, and a mere brush with concrete at sixty-five miles per hour sent him spinning off across all four lanes, slamming into a few cars on his way over to the guardrail, where his car flipped once, twice, and hit the concrete bottom with such force it flattened the top of Jesse’s car.
People said I should be thankful no one else was seriously injured. I wouldn’t wish pain on anyone, but I had to admit I did wish the universe had disbursed it more fairly—a broken leg here, a fractured clavicle there. Jesse took it all, his body crumpled and broken, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I would, though. I’d have had it any other way.
Because now? That perfection? That safety? That comfort?
Our perfect system.
I jabbed the snooze bar for the third time, settling in for another dip into the dark underworld of sleep, when Trey pounded on the wall between us, shouting, “Just get up already!”
“You can shower first!” I said, trying to sound chipper from beneath the duvet. Our elderly hot water heater was in its last throes, crackling and popping ominously every time we tried to take two showers at once. Trey said something that sounded vaguely like a curse word, but then I heard the groan of the pipes and the light rain of our weak water pressure.
I tucked my nose under my arm and sniffed. Not terrible. If I skipped a shower, I could close my eyes awhile longer, and push the start of morning to the side until after Trey left for school.
What felt like a few moments later, the jolt of an almost-man scream tore through my veil of sleep. “Mom! MOM! It’s freezing!”
Wincing as the sun’s bright rays bullied their way through my tightly shut blinds, I hauled myself out of bed. “I’ll call the guy,” I said, though I wasn’t quite sure which guy. The plumber with no sense of humor? The heating guy who always smelled like sauerkraut? Jesse would have known. The first phone call should have been to him.
Trey flung open the bedroom door, a towel around his waist. He shook his head like an angry dog, longish dark hair slapping wetly against goose-bumped skin. “This has got to be fixed, like, now.”
I managed a half smile. “How about later? Tools are required. And possibly mechanical equipment. And . . . a brain. I don’t think I have any of those right now.”
Shivering, he ran a hand through his sopping hair. “I could take a look at it.”
He looked apprehensive. Both of us knew he wouldn’t know what he was doing. Jesse hadn’t quite gotten around to teaching him basic fix-it skills. I put my hands on his frigid shoulders. At seventeen, he was taller than Jesse ever was, and more solidly built, and I brought myself up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “Taking a shower in cold water is energizing. Look at the bright side.”
He eyed me suspiciously. “Since when are you into bright sides?”
“I have a good feeling about today.”
“Whatever,” he said. “But if we don’t have hot water later, I’m sleeping at Colin’s.”
I mentally Rolodexed through his friends, as he’d begun hanging with a new crowd this year. “I don’t know his family. I’ll need to speak to his mother before you spend the night.”
Laughing, Trey turned back toward his bedroom. “Yeah, good luck with that.”
“His mother isn’t home?”
“His mother doesn’t treat him like a child.”
But you are still a child, I thought. A scared, lonely child. “Text me her number anyway.”
When Jesse and I planned our wedding ceremony, the priest offered to let us write our own vows, but like we did in every other aspect of our lives, we played by the rules and went with the conventional wording, the litany that ended with “Till death do us part.” Though we’d seen young people die at each other’s hands in the gang-infested neighborhood we grew up in, a tiny square just northwest of the city’s center, we felt untouched by it. We were too young, too new, with a future bright enough to blind the grim reaper.
So I gave no thought to what “parted” really meant. How unfair it was, how permanent, how out of our control. At his service, everyone said he was still with me, but the truth was that not only was he gone, parts of me went with him. I missed them, too, and like Jesse, they weren’t coming back.
We had a good courtship story because it started with friendship—we found each other in eighth grade, in a rough city school in an even rougher neighborhood. Now the place boasted a Starbucks on every corner, but in the ’80s and ’90s, gangs ran the area—Polish and Puerto Rican, and they weren’t like the carousers in West Side Story. If Jesse and I hadn’t teamed up, our options would have been death, jail, or getting hooked on drugs. Instead, we did our homework together while Jesse’s mom and my grandmother played bingo. We walked home from school, shoulders touching, heads down, minding our own business. Somehow we managed to make ourselves invisible. But I could always see Jesse, and he could always see me.
We were careful with our friendship, because we knew it was the key to our survival. We didn’t hug or hold hands or experiment with each other, and when others sparked our interest, we didn’t talk about it or offer advice. Those infatuations never lasted longer than it took for us to realize relationships threatened our trajectory toward success. Success was all that mattered.
So we remained careful, and we remained together. Junior college to save money, then a state school. I majored in graphic design with a minor in business. He became an actuary. We lived together as friends to save funds, and then, during our senior year, we decided to stay living together. As more than friends.
Forever. Till death do us part.
The thing is, no one tells you what to do when the parting happens. And they forget to explain that when death is sudden, the parting is actually a ragged tear, not a clean separation. It leaves all the ends unfinished, and they just unravel and unravel and . . .