The first time my husband tells me he loves me, I am already dead.
He does not know I am in the house, tucked away in the sickly sweet smell of the honeysuckle he’s carried into our bedroom. His mother told him all his life it was his favorite, and so he believed her and has filled up the spaces where we built our lives with their wet, wilting blooms.
I cannot open my mouth to tell him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Somewhere where my body still exists, there is no mouth, no tongue, and here, where I am now, there is nothing around which my intention can take shape.
Instead I watch him talk to the airy dream he has spun. “I love you,” he says into the bleached out winter sunlight, and I hope that all of the cold buried inside the frozen earth will find its way inside his skin and teach him what it means to rot.
Mornings, he sits on the porch and drinks one and a half cups of sugared coffee, and he puffs the air out of his lungs so that his breath drapes around his face like a ghost. Even that is a kind of insult. I think he knows it.
I curl myself into the smallest spaces I can. The toe of a shoe. A thimble still sitting at the bottom of the sewing kit my mother gave me on our wedding day like it was a kind of prayer that needed answering.
“I love you,” he says at night into the empty room, and I stand over him with my ruined, pretty mouth that is no longer a mouth open wide, wide, wide, and I imagine gobbling him up like the wolf in any of the old fairy tales my father told me when I was a girl.
It was always the wolf I had hoped to find in the forest. Not the princess or the prince or the abandoned kingdom. No. Teeth and claws were the only things I recognized, and when my husband had come calling when I was sixteen—a girl still living in my father’s house—my mother had smiled for me and told him yes.
If I could find her in this place I’ve come to occupy, I’d fill her up with stones as heavy as the years I lost.
There are three rooms in the house. Two of them gather dust. Sometimes, my husband will open those doors and linger in the doorway. He will curl his fingers against the knob and then go away. Once, I see him standing in the center of one of the rooms, his hands working furiously at his crotch, his mouth gaping open and his eyes glazed.
When he comes, he does not say “I love you,” and it’s a comfort.
Some nights he lies in bed, staring at the ceiling where I am spidered, and I know he is listening for me. Waiting for the telltale creak or groan. He is waiting for a haunting I won’t give to him because I remember everything he hopes I’ve forgotten.
My body pressed beneath him when I was sixteen and unaware of how a man could make a woman small. How he could turn her mouth into a thing of service instead of something she could call her own. How he would call me “little woman” and ask me to bring him his meals and my body hot. These were not the things my mother had taught me of love, but I learned them any way.
He moves through the house more slowly now. His knees aren’t what they used to be when he would chase me up and down the hallways in a mock show of playfulness. I wonder how long it will be before he joins me in this place I’ve come to feel is safe. The thought of him tainting all of these tight corners I’ve claimed as my own makes me feel like I’ve been stuffed with cotton.
When he does die, I won’t let him come here. Won’t let him come looking for me.
“It will be good,” he told me on our wedding night. Already, he hovered above me, and I looked away. Ashamed and embarrassed at his nakedness and my open thighs. My mother had told me nothing of this. Only to be a good girl and listen to my husband, and when he’d parted my legs and circled my nipples with his thumb, everything had faded to a dull roar. I wondered if my mother knew it would happen. If she knew it would not matter anymore what she had told me because there was only his need and me and everything that came between.
“It’s good that you’re young,” he said, and then it was over, and he left me to clean myself up.
At night, I try to whisper in his ear. “Rotted. Empty.” I recite words that would frighten him, but he only shifts and sighs, and in the morning he wakes up without panic.
“I am not the little girl you brought home and claimed as your own,” I try to say. He does not hear me, but I say it again and again to myself until I know it is the truth.
“I am not the little girl you knew.”
For six months, I teach myself to hide. My husband looks for me in all of the places you would look for a ghost, so I find new holes to empty myself into. “I love you,” he says to the stain on the bedroom wall, but it isn’t me. I am not a stain.
It takes a year for my husband to find another woman. At first, it is only her smell. Earthy and sharp as copper. Sharp as blood. His fingers are stained with earth as if he’s been digging, and he smiles in his sleep.
I hear him on the phone with her once. She is panicked, and he is all soothing words and calm tones, and I remember and remember and remember and come to understand that hell is something like memory.
“You’re not anymore,” he says, and his hand claws at the roll top desk where I used to write stories I never sent anywhere.
“No one will find out,” he says. If I could still feel fear, I would feel it now.
There is snow the first time my husband’s new lover comes to the house. The world tastes of ice and cold. It’s fitting that winter is the landscape for this new girl. This new, pretty, little mouth.
She sits on the edge of the couch while he fixes her a drink, and I crouch beside her. She has never had a drink before, and her hands fidget with the hem of her frilled blouse, her cuticles, her hair the color of crows. She is too young to be here. Too young to know what it is that is about to happen.
“I was you, once,” I say, but she cannot hear me. She doesn’t know how to listen. Not yet.
“I put some juice in,” my husband says, and she takes her drink and looks up at him over the glass. Her mascara is smudged at the corners, and her lipstick is a shade too dark, but she is playing at being grown up, and this is the moment she knows she is supposed to be coy.
“Thank you,” she says, and I pass my hands through her heart. She doesn’t blink, doesn’t shiver, or shudder or any of the other things you’re supposed to do when a ghost touches you.
She used to be one of his students. Last year. A doe-eyed freshman clutching her notebooks to her chest and doodling letters and hearts on her inner arm.
She runs her finger along the rim of her glass when he asks her if she is cold. “Yes,” she says, and he takes her hand in his and lifts it to his mouth. I look away because I now what comes next.
When she leaves the house, her cheeks are wet with tears my husband cannot wipe away. I imagine they taste like rainwater and the dark purpling at twilight.
Still, in the night, he calls for me. “I love you,” he says, and it’s my name on his lips like a poison. My name and my body he cannot learn how to forget.
Twice more, she comes to the house, and I listen to her tell him of her shame, and how he laughs and calls her little dove and to calm herself because no one will find out. I wish I could tell her how I memorized those same words when I was not much older than she, but she still does not know how to listen in the right way. Even when she holds her breath as he comes inside of her because he says it’s better that way, and she lets herself blink into the silence, she does not know how to listen for me. Later, when she’s a woman, she’ll know. Will stare into a darkened ceiling and remember those moments when a man heaved over the girl she used to be, and she’ll hear and know. But that is not now, and she only wipes the place between her thighs clean and walks home.
“Come back to me,” my husband says when his girl is gone. I curl into a ball and imagine the way it felt when rain fell against my bare arms, my legs, and I wait for him to drift off to sleep, but each night it seems to take him longer and longer until finally, I know he is not sleeping at all but staring up and up into the darkness waiting for the pale streak of me to appear before him.
When we first got married, he held my hand everywhere we’d go. His fingers laced over mine, and his hand against my back pushing me where he wanted me. This is mine. This is what I’ve bought with my skin and blood. I would let myself go hollow and drift wherever he went because I was a child and only knew obedience in its most raw form.
Only the dead understand resistance.
In another few months, there is a new girl. Younger this time and wearing glasses he asks her to leave on because she’s so fetching in them. So charming. I wonder if her parents know as mine did. I wonder if they care.
He leaves her alone in my bed to go and wash himself up, and I drape myself over her and wait for her to grow cold. She traces her fingers over her lips, and I can feel her heart quicken. Like a rabbit caught in a trap.
“Hello?” she whispers, and her fingers trail through the air, and I push against her, my mouth pressed to her ear, and I tell her everything I know. All of those buried hurts flooding out of me like water. An education in what her world could become.
She leaves without saying anything, her dress crumpled on the floor, and her back pale and bare as she flees the house. When my husband comes out of the bathroom, he calls her name only once before going to sleep. I wish I could spit in his face.
In the morning, he does not call her as he has every other morning for the past week but sips his coffee in silence and watches the chair I used to occupy.
“You’re here. I know it. All this time you’ve been here,” he says, and I know it is the truth, and somehow, the knowing of it is worse than my death.
I throw myself at the windows, rattle the doors and the locks, but my body cannot find escape. It is the only certainty I have come to know.
Behind his coffee mug, my husband bares his teeth, and I remember the thick taste of him, how he pushed himself into my throat. I cannot be rid of it, even in death.
“I knew you’d come back,” he says.
For three weeks, I wait. Keep myself away from my husband even though he looks for me in the places only he knows best. I gather the shredded parts of myself together. I fill up the air with screams I learned to swallow when I was a girl.
I cannot stay long at first, but each night, my husband sleeps, and I creep inside his skin. Stretch myself so that I fill up every inch of him, feel his blood pass thick and warm over me. I go slowly, and his breath only hitches a little. Once, he mumbles something that still sounds like my name, and when I hear it, I throw myself out of his body, remembering that first time he put himself inside of me.
I am teaching myself a lesson. What it is, I’m not sure of yet.
I dip inside of him over and over until it is easy for me to stay. Easy for me to see the sun rise from this new form. Only when I feel him waking do I let myself leave.
“I love you,” he says. I wonder if he knows how empty the words are.
There isn’t another girl at the house for a long, long while. I imagine he is ashamed. Ashamed to know that I can see everything I already knew. Stupid.
I am good at being inside his body when the next girl finally comes. Can slip inside without even a sigh. Can settle myself—so still, so quiet—he would never know a ghost had claimed him.
The last girl is slight. A tiny thing that trembles when she’s nervous, and she’s nervous quite often. At first, she only nibbles at the dinners he makes her and presses her hands against the silverware, her glass that holds only water with a single cube of ice.
He watches her as someone would watch a bird. Hesitant. Careful. As if she could fly off at any moment. Or as if he could catch her between his teeth. These things are really the same. We only pretend that they are different.
“You’re beautiful,” he tells her, and she blushes because she isn’t. Not really. Not in the same way the other girls at school are. Her face is long and narrow, and her eyes too large and her mouth twisted so she always looks hungry.
When my husband isn’t looking I touch the moisture on her lips, and she starts and looks at the space I’m supposed to occupy.
She smiles, and I know what it is I’m supposed to do.
My husband makes her bleed. She only stares over his shoulder at the spot I’ve taken on the ceiling. When he comes, it’s my name he calls into the darkness.
He takes a long time cleaning himself up, and the girl presses herself flat against the mattress. She opens her mouth. She says one word.
It is enough.
I’ve learned how to cling tight. How to fill up every blank space. How to stay silent. These are the things I learned as a wife. These are the things I learned as a ghost.
I am pumping through the girl’s blood when my husband kisses her goodbye. “We can’t do this again,” she says, and my husband frowns.
“No one will know.”
“We can’t do this again,” she repeats and turns and opens the door.
The air rushes against my face. It is spring warm and filled with the taste of green.
I laugh, and the girl laughs, and together, we run.