“It ended,” she says.
Why must everything be a life lesson? Why can’t I just act like I’m married and everyone leave me the hell alone?
“Well, if I . . .” I trail off. I’m not sure of my defense.
“Go on,” she says. It seems like she knows what I’m going to say, but I don’t even know what I am going to say.
“If we stopped being married when he died . . .”
She waits for me to finish my thought.
“Then we were barely married.”
Susan nods. “that’s what I thought you were going to say.”
My lips turn down.
“Who cares?” she says.
“Who cares if you were barely married? It doesn’t mean you love him any less.”
“Well, but . . .”
“We were only together for six months before we got married.”
“So, I mean, being married is what separates him from just some guy. It’s what proves he’s . . . he’s the love of my life.”
“No, it doesn’t,” she says. I just stare at her. “that doesn’t matter at all. It’s a piece of paper. a piece of paper you don’t even have, by the way. It means nothing.”
“It means everything!” I say.
“listen to me; it means nothing. you think that some ten minutes you spent with Ben in a room defines what you meant to each other? It doesn’t. you define that. What you feel defines that. you loved him. He loved you. you believed in each other. that is what you lost. It doesn’t matter whether it’s labeled a husband or a boyfriend. you lost the person you love. you lost the future you thought you had.”
“Right,” I say.
“I was with steven for thirty-five years before I lost him. do you think I have more of a right to pain than you do?”
The answer is yes. I do think that. I’ve been terrified of that. I’ve been walking about feeling like an amateur, like an impostor, because of it.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Well, I don’t. love is love is love. When you lose it, it feels like the shittiest disaster in the world. Just like dog shit.”
“When I lost steven, I lost love, but I also lost someone I was attached to.”
“You didn’t have as much time as I did to be attached to the man you loved. But attachment and love are two different things. My heart was broken and I didn’t remember how to do things without him. I didn’t remember who I was. But you, you lived without Ben just last year. you can do it again. you can do it sooner than me. But the love, that’s the sharp pain that won’t stop. that’s the constant ache in your chest. that won’t go away easily.”
“I just feel like I had him for so little time,” I say. It’s difficult to talk about. It’s difficult because I work so hard to keep the self-pity at bay, and talking like this, talking about all of this, it’s like opening the door to my self-pity closet and asking its contents to spill all over the floor. “I didn’t have enough time with him,” I say, my voice starting to break, my lips starting to quiver. “It wasn’t enough time. six months! that’s all I had.” I lose my breath. “I only got to be his wife for nine days.” I now begin to sob. “nine days isn’t enough. It’s not enough.”
Susan comes closer to me, and she grabs my hand. she pushes my hair back off my forehead. she catches my eye.
“Sweetheart, I’m telling you, you love someone like that, you love them the right way, and no time would be enough. doesn’t matter if you had thirty years,” she tells me.“It wouldn’t be enough.”
She’s right, of course. If I’d had ten more years with Ben, would I be sitting here saying, “It’s okay, I had him long enough?” no. It would never have been enough.
“I’m scared,” I tell her. “I’m scared that I’ll have to move on and meet someone and spend my life with them and it will seem like”—my voice cracks again—“it will seem like Ben was . . . I don’t want him to be ‘my first husband.’”
Susan nods. “you know, you’re in a much different position than I am, and I forget that sometimes. no one begrudges me giving up on my love life.they understand. they know I won’t date again. they know I’ve had my one love and I’m done. But you, you have to meet someone else in this life. I can’t imagine how much of a betrayal that would feel to me if I had to do it.” “It is a betrayal. all of it feels like betrayal. I had this amazing man—I can’t just find another one and forget about him.”
“I understand that, elsie. But you have to find a way to remember him and forget him. you have to find a way to keep him in your heart and in your memories but do something else with your life. your life cannot be about my son. It can’t.”
I shake my head. “If my life isn’t about him, I don’t know what it’s about.”
“It’s about you. your life has always been about you. that’s what makes it your life,” she says and smiles at me. “I know nine days is short. I know six months is short. But, trust me when I tell you, if you go on and you marry someone else, and you have kids with them and you love your family and you feel like you would die without them, you won’t have lost Ben. those nine days, those six months, they are a part of your life now, a part of you.they may not have been enough for you but they were enough to change you. I lost my son after loving him for twenty-seven years. It’s brutal, unending, gutting pain. do you think I don’t deserve to grieve as much as someone who lost their son after forty years? twenty-seven years is a short time to have a son. Just because it was short, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It was just short. that’s all. Forgive yourself for that, elsie. It’s not your fault your marriage lasted nine days. and it doesn’t say a goddamn thing about how much you loved him.”
I don’t have anything to say back. I want so badly to take all of her words and fit them like the pieces of a puzzle into the hole in my heart. I want to write those words down on little pieces of paper and swallow them, consume them, make them a part of me. Maybe then I could believe them.
I’m quiet for too long; the mood shifts somehow in the silence. I relax and the tears start to dry. susan moves on, gently. “did they fire you?”
“No,” I say. “But I think they are going to ask me to take some time off.”
She looks happy to hear this news, as if it all falls into her master plan.
“Stay with me in newport then,” she says.
“let’s get you out of this apartment. out of los angeles. you need a change of scenery for a few weeks.”
“uh . . .”
“I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and this is a sign that I’m right. you need time to sit and feel sorry for yourself and get it all out so you can start over. I can help you. let me help you.”
I try to think of a good reason to say no, but . . . I simply don’t have one.
I don’t like going home as much as I used to,” Ben said to me. We were walking along the streets of venice Beach. I had wanted to go for a walk in the sand, and Ben always liked to people-watch in venice. I preferred the quiet, romantic beaches of Malibu, but Ben loved to watch the weirdos along the boardwalk.
“Why?” I asked him. “I thought you said your mom’s house was really nice now.”
“It is,” he said. “But it’s too big. It’s too empty. It’s too . . .”
“I don’t know. I always feel like I’m going to break something. When my dad was alive, it was not an impressive house. He never cared about that stuff and he hated spending money on, like, crystal vases.”
“Your mom has a lot of crystal vases?”
“She could never have them when he was around, so I think she’s trying to make the most of the situation.”