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Death Husband Club

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. megelison.com

I got married when I was young and stupid, and ended up divorced. Tale as old as time.

Before that, I got married when I was younger and even more stupid. Tale I never tell.

I was 22 years old and got involved with a much older man. I had been abandoned as a child, and on my own since I was 14. I was astonished to find anyone who wanted me, and I didn’t know how to evaluate the conditions of that desire. I thought it was novel that anyone would be possessive about me, because I hadn’t ever been possessed. When he asked me to marry him and make that condition permanent, I said yes.

Twenty years later, I got a job with a federal contractor. Though nothing I do in this job is secret or of grave consequence, this requires a full background check. I had to cough up the birth dates and whereabouts of members of my family I haven’t spoken to in twenty years or more. Also, the last known address of my first husband.

I hadn’t exchanged a single bit of information with him since our divorce was finalized in 2006. I had no idea.

At first, I couldn’t even remember when the day of our wedding had occurred. I, who plan my outfit with extreme care when I go to the grocery store, couldn’t recall what I had worn on that day. It took place in front of a justice of the peace in Portland, Oregon. I remembered picking up a friend who had agreed to stand as a witness. I remembered sitting at the freeway onramp, noticing I had a chance to turn left and leave town instead. I sat transfixed by that possibility so long that someone had to honk at me to get me to move.

I remember getting a pamphlet that said I didn’t have to do this, that nobody owned me and marriage didn’t change that. I can’t remember the words that I said. I signed my name. I was married.

Googling someone in 2024 is often a startling experience. I was shocked to find I could easily locate my own address from when I lived in Portland two decades ago, along with others in three states I can barely recall having lived in. Using the one we had shared, I resumed trying to find my ex-husband. I could use the address of the apartment we lived in during our three months of wedded misery, but I was a little curious to see if I could find out where he had gone.

Six seconds later, I had it. I had his middle name, long since memory-holed, and his last name which I did not take. I also had a big red word beneath his name to read: DECEASED.

I can’t recall how I felt about him when we were married. I can’t remember a single moment of pleasure, or even of young love. I can call to mind exactly how dizzy I was at nineteen over my German internet boyfriend, how I flew to Europe to be close to him. The first man I married is like a blank line with an exclamation point at the end.

I remember best the way it ended: in a betrayal that stunned me in its exactitude. No one had ever read my diary, so I didn’t hide it and I didn’t lock it. He read it. He wrote in it, scribbled all over it, took out his preliminary anger on it before I got home. Once I came through the door, he was up in arms, demanding my email password from me, demanding I show him my phone. I didn’t know much, but I knew better than to give in.

It was the first and the last time an intimate partner ever hit me.

Friends came and helped pack me out. When they asked me to explain it, I rationed out words like they cost me money. I didn’t want anyone to know how stupid I had been. One in four women will experience domestic violence at some point in her life. It doesn’t mean she’s stupid and it doesn’t mean she should have known better. With odds like that, it doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s just a thing one can expect, having been assigned female at birth.

Trying to find him online, trying to point him out to the federal government, not to press charges or attempt to get any kind of justice but instead to justify my own identity and detail my past, brought up a ghost of the shame I had felt when I had to leave him. It brought me back to a place I hadn’t been in two decades: the chair in the corner with the dunce cap on. I don’t tell this story because I hate having to admit what I was willing to do for love.

Finding that he had died felt like nothing at all. It didn’t kill the shame; that’s my feeling about me and has nothing to do with him. It didn’t bring me sadness, because I haven’t lost a thing. I read the red word over and over: DECEASED DECEASED DECEASED.

A small relief bloomed within me, followed by a sprig of good cheer. I clicked the radio button the form to mark my first husband as deceased, and the question of his last known address disappeared.

Then I put on a red dress and went out for a drink. Widows wear black. Survivors wear whatever we damn well please.

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