Like Molly, I carried on with my regular schedule as if by ignoring the nightmare I might vanquish it. I went to a scheduled dentist appointment eager to see if I might feel anything after days of feeling nothing. As usual, my hygienist and I chatted about our lives, our families, our kids, during moments before and after when my mouth was not open in a lockjaw position. As the chair shifted back, she paused with a breath and exhaled, “My husband lost his job.”
“Well, it could be worse. My husband killed himself this weekend.”
She dropped her dental scraper.
“I guess it’s weird that I still came to my appointment…I mean I probably shouldn’t even be out in the world yet. I don’t think it’s sunk in.”
“I’m so sorry!” she said, gathering fresh tools before scraping my teeth and digging into my gums. I didn’t even wince.
The State Examiner’s Office informed me they were releasing Neil’s body and would send him on to a funeral home. The mortician needed clothes. Neil, the impeccable dresser who had once changed his clothes multiple times a day and had worn two outfits for our wedding, had died in khaki shorts worn for so many days that dirt rimmed the seam of the pockets most likely with a lighter and a few cigarette stubs in the right pocket. I also needed to sign release papers so they could send the body to England as his mother and girls wanted, relinquishing my claim to their son and father without hesitation. That ball had been rolling well before his death, our bond and my commitment frayed from years of lies.
Someone from the funeral home would meet me at City Hall, a short walk from my house. The same day as the dentist, I stayed home by myself in the house for the first time since his death. It was a too-hot day, more like August than May.
I stood outside the closet where a week earlier I’d shoved clothing he’d left scattered all over our bedroom. I reached for the door handle. It stuck. I leaned my weight against the old wooden door until the latch popped and it opened with a wave of cologne, cigarettes, scent of Neil disappearing into the atmosphere mixed with the bitter smell of mothballs. I dragged the heavy bag out of the closet, grasped the zipper and pulled it with a ripping sound as the cheap plastic separated. On top was his beloved, faded jean jacket. I lifted it and held it to my face and inhaled. I once loved how Neil’s odor lingered on my own clothes after his embrace, evoking memories, promises. I filled my lungs and as I exhaled, a dam of anger, resentment and disappointment crumbled under the weight of my grief.
I muffled the awful sound of the strange sounds that erupted from me, into the pile of Neil’s clothes. Sobbing, I emptied the duffel, burying my face in his sweaters and jeans, cursing and aching-for, the man I loved. A red ascot, the one he wore the day we met in Bosnia, I held against my cheek, the wrinkled silk soft against my cheek. I put it to my nose and inhaled as if I might capture the thrill and sweetness of our first days together. Any hope of life with the man who wore these so handsomely, speeding through sniper fire, was gone. No more promises – never again. His promises had become mostly lies, but as long as he lived, in some distant recess of my being I still believed him and still hoped. Now I was left with this sorry suitcase of clothes. I put the tear-drenched silk with a few different ties, into a plastic bag. I zipped a white shirt and his grey suit into a garment bag.
Still weeping, I walked down to City Hall across the running track and baseball field. We walked here together on our way to see the neighborhood kids march in the parade. Now, I clutched a suit he’d bought to wear to one of his daughter’s weddings, not for his own funeral. This couldn’t be happening. I sat on a bench beneath a row of blossoming trees just beginning to drop their white petals. I held the clothes close to my chest, tears streaming down my face. A middle-aged man with dyed black hair in a shiny suit must have easily known it was me he was looking for.
“Mrs. Hamilton?” he asked.
“Yes.” It sounded strange to be called this now.
“First of all, I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” I wiped my face with the back of my hand.
“There are a few papers I need you to sign so we can release the body to your husband’s family in England.”
I signed the papers without reading them.
“And these are the clothes?” He motioned to the bag I still held to my chest.
“Yes. I also have a few ties here – so his daughters could choose. Can you send those along?” I handed him a plastic grocery bag of neckwear including the tear- drenched ascot.
“Of course.” The man took the clothing and shook my hand, his as damp as mine.
“Again, my sympathy.”
The entire transaction took less than five minutes. Empty-handed, I walked back to the house and returned to the closet. I put everything back into the duffel bag but couldn’t get the zipper to close. I pushed the bulging bag back into the closet and leaned against the door. Molly would be home from school soon and I needed to pull myself together.
A few days later I called the coroner’s office for the results of the tests on Neil’s body. As cause of death was obvious, a youngish sounding woman who identified herself as a medical examiner explained, they had only done a toxicology test.
“The tests showed cocaine, anti-depressants and alcohol present in his system at the time of death,” the woman read this from her report with as much warmth and sympathy as such clinical text would allow.
“Thank you.” I could not think of anything else to say so simply said goodbye and hung up the phone.
Finally I had a definitive answer to the question I had lived with for so long. Since becoming aware of Neil’s addiction, I never looked at him without searching his eyes, watching him rub his nose or suck his teeth, wondering if he was high, always wondering. He always swore he was not and I always doubted him – thinking his kiss tasted bitter, suspicious of his twitching lips. For once, I had absolute confirmation. The death certificate cites cause of death as hanging but in fact, years of snorting that fucking deadly powder is what killed Neil. I had not lied to Molly when I told her he died from drugs. Cocaine had devoured our family. I looked at the clock. Molly would be getting off the bus in a few minutes.
“Let’s go Tet, it’s time to get Molly.” I hooked Tetley to his leash and followed him out the door and down the street to meet my daughter’s school bus.