“Will you marry me?” is crossed out and replaced with the more forward statement. “Marry me.”
This isn’t how he proposed. I don’t even know what this is. But it feels good to know he struggled with how to ask me. this was one of his attempts. His handwriting was so very bad.
“I found it in his wallet when I went through it.that’s when I got it. you know? like it or not, you are the truth about Ben. He loved you fiercely. and just because he didn’t tell me, doesn’t mean he didn’t love you. I just have to keep telling myself that. It’s a hard one to make sense of, but anyway, you should have these things. He would want that.” she smiles at me, grabbing my chin like I am a child. “I am so proud of my son for loving you this way, elsie. I didn’t know he had it in him.”
It feels nice to think that maybe susan could like me. I am actually overwhelmed by how nice that thought feels. But this is not the susan I know. and it makes me feel uneasy. If I’m being honest, part of me is worried she’s going to wait until my defenses are down and then sock me in the stomach.
“Anyway, I would love to get to know you,” she says. “If that is okay with you. I should have called before I came up here, but I thought”—she laughs—“I thought if I was you, I’d tell me to f**k off, so I didn’t want to give you the chance.”
I laugh with her, unsure of what exactly is going on and how to respond to it.
“Can I take you to lunch?” she asks.
I laugh again. “I don’t know,” I say, knowing my eyes are swollen and I haven’t showered.
“I wouldn’t blame you for asking me to leave,” she says. “I was awful, when I think about it from your point of view.and you don’t know me at all, but I can tell you that once I realize I’m wrong, I do everything to make it right. I’ve thought about this for weeks and I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t ready to do better. I really do want to get to know you and I’d love to just . . . start over.” she says “start over” like it’s a refreshing thought, like it’s something people can actually do. and because of that, I start to feel like maybe it is possible. Maybe it’s easier than it feels. We will just start over. let’s try again.
“Yeah,” I say. “We can try again.”
Susan nods. “I’m so sorry, elsie.”
“Me too,” I say, and it isn’t until I say it that I realize I mean it. We sit there for a minute, considering each other. Can we do this? Can we be good to each other? susan seems convinced that we can, and she’s determined to take the lead.
“All right,” she says. “let’s get composed and head out.” “you are much better at composure than I am.”
“It’s a learned trait,” she says. “and it’s entirely superficial. Hop in the shower, I’ll wait here. I won’t poke through anything, I promise.” she puts her hands up in air to signify swearing.
“Okay,” I say, getting up. “thank you, susan.”
She closes her eyes for just half a second and nods her head.
I head into the bathroom, and before I shut the door, I tell her she’s welcome to poke through anything she likes.
“Okay! you may regret this,” she says. I smile and get in the shower. While I’m washing my hair, I think of all the things I have been meaning to say to her for weeks. I think of how I’ve wanted to tell her the pain she caused me. I’ve wanted to tell her how wrong she was. How little she really knew her own son. How unkind she has been. But now that she’s here, and she’s different, it doesn’t seem worth it.
I get dressed and come out into the living room, and she’s sitting on the sofa, waiting. somehow, she’s put me in a better mood.
Susan drives us to a random restaurant she found on yelp. “they said it was private and had great desserts. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” I say. “I’m always up for someplace new.”
Our conversation, when not about Ben, doesn’t flow as freely. It is awkward at times, but I think both of us know that is to be expected.
I tell her that I am a librarian. she says that she loves reading. I tell her that I am not close with my parents; she says she is sorry to hear that. she tells me she’s been working on occupying her time with various projects but can’t seem to stick to something longer than a few months. “I realized I was too fixated on the house so I stopped renovating, but truthfully, renovating is the only thing that keeps me occupied!” eventually, the conversation works its way back to the things we have in common: Ben, dead husbands, and loss.
Susan tells me stories about Ben as a child, about embarrassing things he did, tricks he tried to play. she tells me how he would always ask to wear her jewelry.
The visual of Ben in women’s jewelry immediately cracks me up.
She drinks her tea and smiles. “you have no idea! He used to always want to dress up as a witch for Halloween. I would explain to him that he could be a wizard, but he wanted to be a witch. I think he just wanted to paint his face green.”
We talk about steven and how hard it was for her to lose him, how much of steven she used to see in Ben, how she feels like maybe she suffocated Ben, trying too hard to hold on to him because steven was gone.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “at least, from my point of view, Ben really loved you. He worried about you. He cared about you. We talked about you a lot. He . . .” I don’t know how much I should tell her about Ben’s intentions and worries, about why he never told her about me. But it feels so good to talk to someone that knew him as well as I did, that knew him better than I did. It feels good to have someone say, “I know how much it hurts,” and believe them. It all just rolls off my tongue and into the air faster than I can catch it.
“He was scared that if you knew that he was with someone, in a serious relationship, that you would feel left out, maybe. not left out, but . . . like he was moving on and there wasn’t a place for you. Which wasn’t true. He would always have a place for you. But he thought that if you heard about me, that you’d feel that way and he didn’t want that. He kept putting it off. Waiting for the right time. and then the right time never came and things with us progressed to the point where it was weird he hadn’t told you already, which made him feel bad. and then it just became this big thing that he wasn’t sure how to handle. He loved you, susan. He really, really did. and he didn’t tell you about me because he was thinking of you, however misguided. I’m not going to say I totally understood it. or that I liked it. But he didn’t keep it from you because you didn’t matter. or because I didn’t matter. He just, he was a guy, you know? He didn’t know how to handle the situation gracefully so he didn’t handle it at all.”
She thinks about it for a minute, looking down at her plate. “thank you,” she says. “thank you for telling me that. that’s not what I thought happened . . . It’s not necessarily good news, but it’s not entirely bad, right?” she is unsure of herself, and it’s clear that she is grappling with this. she’s trying very hard to be the susan I’m seeing, but my guess is, she’s not quite there yet. “are we at a place where I can make a gentle suggestion?” she says. “From one widow to another?”
“Oh. uh . . . sure.”
“I poked,” she says. “In my defense, you did say it was okay, but really, I’m just nosy. I’ve always been nosy. I can’t stop myself. I tried to work on it for years, and then I just gave up around fifty. I just resigned myself to it: I am nosy. anyway, I poked. everything of Ben’s is still in its place. you haven’t moved a thing. I looked in the kitchen. you have food rotting in the fridge.”
I know where this is going and I wish I’d told her she could not make a gentle suggestion.
“I’d like to help you clear some things out. Make the place yours again.”
I shake my head. “I don’t want to make it mine, it’s ours. It was ours. He . . .”
She puts her hand up. “okay. I’m dropping it. It’s your place to do with what you want. I just know, for me, I waited too long to move steven’s things into storage and I regret that. I was living in this . . . shrine to him. I didn’t want to move his little box of floss because I thought it meant I was giving up on him—which I realize sounds crazy.”