By Lolly Winston
I stand with my arms at my sides and watch as she fills the bag with Ethan's coats. Oh! The suede jacket with the lamb's-wool lining that we dubbed the Marlboro Man coat. She tucks the arms inside the suitcase carefully, as though she's making hospital comers. You don't need a coat when you're dead. It's that simple.
I reach into the closet, pull Ethan's ski sweater off a hanger, and curl it against my belly, massaging a pinch of the wool between my fingers. The familiar scratchy fabric is as soothing as a hot bath. I didn't know how to ski when Ethan and I first started dating. He patiently rode the T-bar up the bunny slope with me for hours until I could make a parallel turn and graduate to the chairlift. "Take your time!" he called up the hill as I doubled over my skis, rear in the air, eight-year-olds whizzing past me.
Now, Marion takes the sweater from me and folds it into the suitcase. When she reaches for Ethan's down parka, a spider lurches out of the sleeve. Marion smacks it with her bare hand, making me jump, then brushes the creature onto the floor and gives it one swift stomp.
"They bite, you know," she says, returning to the coats with dour concentration. She is a first-rate widow. Not a woman who needs a man around to kill her insects.
We lug the boxes into the garage, creating stack after stack, and pretty soon I have to move my car into the driveway to make more room. The concrete is cold and gritty on my bare feet, and Marion says why don't I put on some shoes. Then she tells me that the Goodwill truck is coming Monday morning between eight and noon. Can I be home then? Yes, yes, I nod, and smack invisible dust from my hands. I survey the boxes, locating the one with Ethan's ski sweater.
After we finish packing Ethan's belongings, Marion takes me to a salad bar restaurant for lunch. 1 drizzle nonfat ranch dressing onto nonfat honey corn muffins, spoon nonfat sour cream into a steaming baked potato, munch Chinese chicken salad, and sip diet soda. I've always enjoyed food, especially lobster, blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup, and beer, but I've never felt so compelled to eat. In the year before Ethan died, food actually seemed like a nuisance—having to worry about what to make for dinner or where to find take-out lunch close to work. But now eating's like crawling under the covers, food a tunnel to burrow into. The green salad is cool and soothing—the kidney beans as soft as felt.
Marion eyes my salad, which is loaded with raisins and croutons and chopped eggs. "Looks like you haven't lost your appetite," she says, her tone of voice somewhere between talking and singing. "I lost fifteen pounds after Charlie died. Couldn't bring myself to eat alone."
Marion's right. All of the grief books say that widows lose weight. There's nothing in any of the chapters about wanting to devour a minimart.
I dab my mouth with my napkin and fold my hands in my lap. "It feels good to eat and sleep," I try to explain.
Marion nods and butters a ladylike corner of corn muffin. She has never lost control, of course, never ransacked the host's medicine chest at a party or inhaled a box of Thin Mints. She probably thinks I'm not a very good widow. I wish I could be. I want to be a classy widow—a Jackie Kennedy kind of widow. Slim and composed, elegant and graceful. White gloves and a string of pearls. But I seem to be more the Jack Daniel's kind of widow—wailing in the supermarket and mowing through the salad bar, hair all crazy like an unmade bed.
Lately, life requires so much self-discipline. While most people have a to-do list, I have a don't-do list. Don't eat Oreos until your gums bleed. Don't sleep in your clothes. Don't grab the produce boy's teenage wrists and sob.
Marion excuses herself and heads for the fruit. I get to work on the potato and then the gluey soup. But I'm interrupted by a chubby toddler who stumbles up to the table and rudely points a waxed-bean finger at me. He blurts something incomprehensible, foamy spittle bubbling up around his pacifier.
It sounds like "How come you don't have a baby?"