Here is the prompt I randomly flipped to for today: Write a story that ends with the line, “And this is the room where it happened.”
3. It’s a Wonderful Life
She sells the house. Or she tells herself she must sell the house. When she lays awake at night, turned on her side, curled up on that couch so small she feels like she could fit in someone’s hand, she presses her hand to her flat belly, and knows she must sell the house. It’s hard to know the right thing to do. That’s what she says to her friends. It’s hard to know the right thing to do and they nod, kindly, warming their hands around their coffee cups, the diamonds on their rings sparkling. They all wear nail polish–french tipped, mauve, a light pink. She likes the color red, nearly brown, a color darker and deeper than even blood. And her hand is ringless now, too. She wonders about these differences, if other people in the coffee shop can feel the chasm between these women, her friends, and herself. If they feel it. Or if it is only her. If she is crazy for thinking her friends look at her differently, at her red, berry stained finger nails, and ringless hand, and think of her differently. She wonders if she wears an invisible sign around her neck. When someone holds the door open for her, she thinks they must see the word written there and feel pity for her. Oh, that poor woman.
The market isn’t good. She knows this. Her friends tell her this. Wait, they say. See what happens. But she cannot wait, there is a rushing in her head that makes her feel dizzy. She must sit down and rest after standing for only a few minutes in the kitchen. Her friends, those women, they don’t get it–what it is like to live in the house, the shell of their home, or that the future, the foundation one builds her very life on can shift in an instant. The market isn’t good? Who says it will get better? No one can predict the future–not even her friends with foreheads that make her think of construction workers smoothing cement out with a trowel. Nodding and pursing their lips, they think her story will never be their story but no one can predict the future. Those rings are not crystal balls. In fact, they only represent a fifty percent failure rate. She’s never been one for numbers but nonetheless. She sees it in their eyes. Thank God it happened to her and not to me. If it happened to her, then it probably won’t happen to me.
She drinks her coffee with these women, with these friends, and she does not say: don’t you get it? Because it happened to me, it can happen to you, too. It can happen to anyone.
She remembers when they first saw the house with the realtor. “It’s beautiful,” she sighed without thinking, even though he told her to give nothing away. They needed to be able to negotiate, he said. She wondered, even then, what a man in Prada loafers got out of negotiating when he didn’t need to negotiate at all. I can’t explain it, he used to say. There’ s just something about it.
“A fixer upper, no doubt,” he sighed, giving her the eye behind the relator’s back.
The stairs creaked and the banister shook a little as they made their way up. In the master bedroom, he asked the realtor if they could have a moment alone. “We could put in a huge skylight,” he said, pointing above the bed. “Right there. Sleeping beneath the stars.”
“I love it,” she whispered, leaning forward to kiss him. “There’s just something about it.”
There’s just something about her, these friends she meets for coffee say once she leaves. She’s different than she used to be. I can’t put my finger on it.
So they bought house and they fixed it up and argued over tile and paint chips and made love beneath the stars and afterwards he would do horrible impressions of Jimmy Stewart from her favorite movie: “You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon.” She giggled until her stomach hurt. She felt as if she was sixteen and in love for the first time. They sang “Buffalo gals won’t you come out tonight and dance by the light of the moon,” from the movie too, in off kilter voices, as if they were drunk. She fell asleep to his voice, beneath the stars. She knew contentment for the first time in her whole life. Ah, her soul sighed, so this is what contentment feels like.
One morning she wakes, her body cold, though his arm hangs heavy over her. Her first thought, like every morning: why did we buy such a big bed if all we do is spoon on one side of it? The night before he made up silly stories about the constellations. “And there’s the soup ladle.” He traced it with his finger and then his hands found her face in the dark, stroked the back of her neck, before her pressed his mouth to hers and kissed her tenderly, as if it was the first time. But she is cold now, so cold, and turns in his arms to press a kiss to the scuff on his jaw, to cuddle up and warm her feet on his chins so he squeals like a little girl. But he is colder than even she is. He is the most cold. The coldest.
“Honey,” she murmurs. “Honey.” She shakes him.
But only an hour later there is no murmuring. “What?” she snaps at the doctors when they tell her, long after her she shakes him and he doesn’t wake, long after she screams his name, long after she dials 911. “What?” she snaps at them when they tell her that her husband died of a stroke in the middle of the night. “That’s impossible,” she tells them coldly. “He’s forty years old. He’s healthy.” They look at her, over their glasses. Don’t worry, darling girl, they think, soon you won’t be using the present tense at all. Of course that’s all wrong. Why would a doctor call her darling girl? He called her darling girl. Only sometimes, when he was particularly sentimental or drank an extra glass of wine. Oh, my darling girl. What would I do without you? She never asked: but what would I do without you?
They pat her, like she is a puppy or a child and she is neither so she stands and leaves the hospital because she cannot be there. She wants to sleep forever, slide into a darkness so deep even grief cannot reach. But the bed…Their bed…At the funeral, she catches the best man at their wedding gossiping with a group: “How long do you think she laid there sleeping under him while he was just…gone? Sleeping with a corpse. Gives me the creeps.”
“You give me the creeps,” she says coldly and much too loudly. “You should leave.” He looks at her blankly, a child caught doing something he shouldn’t. “If you can say those things, now, then you never even loved him. You never…even–” She begins to weep, finally. She sobs because she did love him. She loved him so much that she doesn’t care how long she slept beside him after the stroke because she was still sleeping beside him. She wants to scream at the best man from their wedding and all his cronies: you don’t even love your wives enough to be faithful and still, you get to keep them! And to the coffee crew: you don’t even love your husbands anymore; you turn away from one another in the dark instead of towards.
She sleeps on the couch. She naps on the couch. Her back aches. She is too tall for this couch. But she can’t sleep in their bed. Not without him. So she decides to sell the house, their house, with the skylight. She turns her head away, when she remembers his face, above her, the moon on his back, silvering his face, while they made love the very last time, but it’s a memory and it doesn’t matter which way she turns her head, it still leaves her aching and carved open, her insides on display.
“I’m sorry,” the realtor says.
“It’s time for a new beginning,” she replies because these trite phrases are the only things she can think of that she can say in polite company. Maybe she should write greeting cards! Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ll throw a lasso–
The realtor takes giddy notes as they walk through the house. “Lovely, what you’ve done with this place. Just amazing! I can’t imagine leaving it.”
She turns her head sharply as if she realizes what she said. The realtor blanches, in her practical heals, pant suit, and pearls. She wants to smile like a cat at this woman who can only see dollar signs. She wants to reach out and scratch her face. She wants her to bleed. You have no idea, she thinks. You have no idea what I’ve been through. But I am going to show you. Just a tiny piece. You could never handle more than that, you snide prune faced woman.
“Let’s go to the second floor,” she murmurs instead. The stairs do not creak this time and the banister does not shake. The realtor is quiet; she knows she overstepped. They walk down the hall, skipping the other rooms and enter the master bedroom. “You can’t imagine leaving this place,” she repeats the realtor’s word back to her. The woman swallows. “Can you imagine waking up to find your husband dead in that bed?” she points, her arm quivering with rage toward the bed, sheets still a mess, duvet half on the bed, half off. “A stroke, a blood clot and then an artery burst, or something like that. I can’t remember all the words, not when I’m thinking of appraisal values and interest rates. Can you?”
She takes a step closer to the woman who begins to quiver. She raises her hand. She snaps her fingers. The sound echoes off the skylight. “Like that,” she whispers gutturally. “Like that and he’s gone.” The realtor is growing more pale, sinking into herself.
“When you show the house,” she instructs, calm again,”be sure to tell the prospective buyers about the poor bereaved widow who found her husband dead at forty. Make sure you tell them that he ran four miles a day and didn’t eat red meat. That we loved each other. Tell them that too. But he died. And this is the room where it happened.”