One Man; Three Widows

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.

David died on a day so ordinary that I couldn’t find it on the calendar when I looked back.

We knew David was going to die. He had been ignoring the harbingers of diabetes and heart disease for years. He carried a perfectly operable hernia in front of him for years and ignored the warnings that he needed to get screened for polyps out back. When colon cancer got its hooks in him, he ignored that, too. It ran to his brain faster than radiation could catch it. By the time I flew to Seattle to say goodbye to him, the man I had known was already gone. He was fifty-five.

After that, I was one of his widows.

David was married to his lovely and long-suffering wife across three decades. He was with his other girlfriend for years before he met me. I was the latest, the newcomer, and when it came time to grieve, although we were all anything but traditional, some very old ideas clung to me. The one he was married to—she was the real widow. None of us had the right to mourn him like she did. The one he had known longer—surely her suffering more real than my own. I had no right to complicate that for her, or to claim what little of this grief wasn’t already reserved by the first in line.

Like most of the old ideas we carry, these weren’t mine. They didn’t fit and I’d never even worn them; only kept them in their box and moved them with me from house to house. I remember trying to unpack them in the midst of grief, all the time wondering out loud at the novel experience of a widowhood like mine.

With multiple partners, the math gets exponential. My capacity for joy has become endless even as my free time is decimated. My exposure to my own insecurities and jealousies chills me to lows where I’m sure I’ll die of it, but I’ve learned to clothe myself anew. My opportunities to know and be known reproduce and appear all around like the seventeen-year brood of cicadas, screaming as they emerge into the light, too numerous to count.

Opportunities for grief lie on the ground in that same number, like the shed carapaces of those numberless bugs. Each one a hollow, a shape where something once lived. The sudden profusion can paralyze the city of my heart as I figure out how to handle the glut of death choking my gutters. A slow horror dawned on me in the days after David’s death: chances are good that I will be widowed in this life a dozen times or more, by people who are as dear to me as a spouse even if we never lived together in the type of pair bond that usually produces the long black veil.

But was the veil even mine to wear? There’s nowhere to go with grief like this but to the other girlfriend—sure she must be feeling the same. But when I sought her to take comfort in how we’d both lost a man we’d never really had, I found her not at home. She’d sought out the widow.

I don’t know why I expected her to be mad at me. She was never mad at me in life. She saw me come and go, sleeping in her husband’s bed. She’d cooked for me and I for her. She’d made coffee for our sleepover mornings, read my books, welcomed me with kisses. There was nothing that was hers that she felt I threatened.

The other girlfriend apparently wasn’t carrying around all this baggage—she’d gone straight away to the sympathy of the other widow, knowing that it would be alright. I came last. I brought cake.

I expected that we’d mourn him together, that we’d talk about why we loved him and what was best about him. That kind of thing is fit for a eulogy; we were doing something else.

The wife had to start it, I think. There were no rules here, she never claimed precedence. But she did set the tone.

“That dumb bastard did not have to die so young.”

There it was. We were all thinking it. We had said as much to his face, but more kindly.

And the senior girlfriend followed fast. “I told him a thousand times he needed to look after himself.”

There was a place laid for me at this table. What we were eating was bitter, but my mouth watered for it all the same. “He died of terminal fucking stubbornness.”

And the feast was on.

How curiously freeing it is to speak ill of the dead. We who had loved him knew him well enough to hate him eloquently, to list with exactitude his sins against himself, ourselves, and others. We had never, in life, aired our grievances to one another. Polyamory creates peculiar pockets of privacy; what is usually secret between only two can become much more complicated, and what is shared with one but not the other becomes a kind of currency. Each of us may have complained to friends, to therapists, in our diaries about David. This was the first time we could do so with each other. And so the feast became richer, more concentrated, for who could know better the failings of a man than his widows?

It was only after we’d gotten all this out of the way that we could tell with tenderness how fond we had been of his military neatness. Of the sweet, breakable heart he had carried in his huge, bear body. Of his silly-ass stories, told a hundred times. We repeated his punchlines without context, because we were the context. We carried what was left of him inside us.

What was left of him was composted in a forestry process that he chose for himself when he knew time was short. His wife sent me a miniature urn with my share of that rich earth. Like the right to grieve, like that space at the table, she had made my share equal to her own. Another went to the other girlfriend. Grace is like a big blanket that covers everybody on the couch. The long black veil was big enough to share.

Weeks after he had died and his widow had handled the legal tasks at the end of life, a package arrived on my doorstep. Delivery required a signature, and I gave mine with an eyebrow raised. I hadn’t any idea what it might be. Ripping the envelope revealed a tasteful black box, the lid swinging open like a coffin. Inside there sat an exquisite fountain pen I had lusted after in private and in the pages of my most recent novel; it was what fountain pen enthusiasts refer to as my grail pen. The Visconti Homo Sapiens, its body made of black basalt from Mt. Etna, its nib wrought in palladium, shone up at me from inside the velvet lining.  

Enclosed was a note from the widow. She had inherited, and thought I should, too.

I took the pen and marked the day David had died in smooth ink, black as a widow’s weeds.

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