The first wife was dead, which called for a reverence of spirit when speaking of her, a lowered voice and furrowed, sympathetic brow, but the problem was that the second wife didn't feel reverent toward the first wife. She felt fascinated, curious—but not reverent. She liked to ask questions about her, questions like, Did she read a lot of non-fiction and did she always cook a vegetable side dish with dinner (the second wife did not) and what were her thoughts on movies in which a man and woman switched bodies? There was a gingerliness embedded in the husband's manner as he answered these questions; she sensed that he felt they were disrespectful of the first wife's memory, but the second wife did not. When I die, she often said, I hope there is someone who wants to know if I liked eating watermelon in the summer and going to amusement parks.
She liked watermelon all right, I guess, the husband would sigh, or We never went to an amusement park together, and the second wife would record these tidbits in her mind, like a court reporter. She also began revealing every preference of her own to the husband, every like and dislike and general opinion on the world. She tried to make these strong, interested opinions, so that in case she died he would have more information to report to the third wife; he could do more than sigh and say I don't know. He would know, rather, that she liked black beans but didn't prefer pinto, would be able to report that she found the idea of eating fish on Fridays appealing, though she hadn't been raised Catholic.
There were still signs of the first wife around the house. Her charcoal sketches of farmhouses and barns hung in the study, and her golfing trophies stood tall and proud on the living room mantle. When the second wife wondered aloud at the first wife's natural athletic prowess, the husband glanced at the trophies and remarked that they should be moved to the basement. The first wife had been in charge of home décor.
There was a small black dog, the first wife's dog, and the second wife often held him on her lap as she watched TV, and as she petted him thought, This is the dog that my husband's dead wife petted, or, I wonder if he likes me as much as he liked her—the dog, not the husband. He (the dog) seemed to like her (the second wife) a good deal, settling in against her thigh when she sat down on the couch. He appeared to enjoy the same reality TV programs that she enjoyed.
At some point the second wife began wearing the first wife's clothes. They hung neatly in the guest room closet; it seemed that the husband had not bothered to get rid of them. The second wife began to feel sorry for them and asked the husband wouldn't he please take them to Goodwill or the Salvation Army so that they might be worn again, these poor clothes, hanging so hopefully. When he refused, she began to wear them—slowly at first, just scarves and socks, until it became clear that the husband wasn't noticing that she was wearing the wife's clothes. It made the clothes happier, she told herself, and anyway the first wife was much more fashionable than the second wife had ever been.
And so it wasn't long until she was going through the first wife's clothes with abandon, reveling in this new sartorial world that had been so quickly and so gloriously opened to her, putting on the first wife's bomber jackets and pencil skirts and ankle boots and admiring herself in the mirror. She would wear these things out to coffee shops, or the grocery store, all the time thinking, This is the cardigan that a dead woman wore, or this hat was on the head of a dead woman. She couldn't get over the novelty of it. It was like knowing a celebrity.
When she discovered the first wife's collection of cookbooks, stashed—after her death, the second wife wondered?—inconveniently in one of the lower cabinets, behind the food processor and other seldom-used small appliances, her heart fluttered. These were well-worn, frequently used cookbooks, with the pages of favorite recipes dog-eared and lovely little notes in the margins, things like good with rice! and less butter okay (1/4 c.)
She sat the husband down and spoke to him with great seriousness. Why was he hiding these from her? The first wife was a part of him and she wanted her—the first wife—to be a part of her, too. Besides, didn't he miss eating his favorite meals?
I didn't know you liked to cook, the husband said. To be frank, I wasn't aware that you knew how to cook. He gestured at the side of the refrigerator, where she had pinned a magnet shaped like a take-out menu, holding five or six actual take-out menus. She had always thought this funny, clever in a silly, playful way, and she wondered if the first wife would have agreed.
She softened a bit. I don't, she said, know how. But I'm going to learn.
That night, she felt it almost a blasphemy that she ruined the eggplant parmesan the first wife had so painstakingly notated. She hadn't let the eggplant weep enough, either that or it had wept too much and too passionately. Whatever it was, it had worked itself into quite a soggy mess.
I'm horrible, she said, flinging down the casserole dish before the husband. I can't even duplicate a simple recipe.
The husband was cutting into the eggplant parmesan with a spatula. It seemed that, in addition to being overly watery, it was also very tough, and he had to stand up to get more leverage.
Did she make this often? the second wife asked.
The husband shrugged. Every now and then. He put a wet, messy serving of eggplant on his plate. It reminded the second wife generally, though not precisely, of brains.
What was it like when she made it? the second wife persisted. Was it like this? Of course it wasn't like this. She was meticulous, right? Wasn't she meticulous?
The husband chewed a piece of eggplant for a long time. Do you want to know what she was like? he said finally. I can tell you what she was like.
Oh, yes. Thank you.
The husband put down his fork. She was confident to the point of arrogance, he said. But she was insecure, too: if she sensed that you were less than overjoyed about eating the dinner she'd planned for that night, she'd refuse to make it, and she'd make you choose something else instead, like pizza. At first you'd refuse and say you wanted to eat the thing that she was going to make but she'd press hard and finally you'd give in and get the pizza—you're hungry, after all, and you do like pizza—and then she'd take this as proof that you really didn't want to eat her food and be pissed at you. And then when you did eat her food, it didn't taste good.
The second wife frowned. Go on, she said.
He went on. She performed complicated moral calculations in order to determine if things were fair, he said. If we saw her parents for three days at Thanksgiving, we saw mine for no more than three at Christmas, even though we both had more days off of work then. And since we had to drive further to see her parents, that mattered too, it meant that we should spend more time there.
She was very... organized, okay. But generous, too. I bet she gave great Christmas gifts.
They were okay. I think last year she got me a gift certificate.
I don't remember. Does it matter?
If it was for somewhere that you really like, it might have been a great gift.
So she was frugal, the second wife said. But you were kidding about the food, right? She was a good cook. Better than this. The second wife held up a forkful of eggplant, a string of cheese hanging from fork to plate.
The husband considered this, and then took another bite. No, he said. This is actually an improvement.
Soon after that the second wife began sleeping in, getting out of bed later and later each day until finally she was not getting out of bed at all.Sometimes at night she'd get up, though, to eat ice cream right out of the carton, or to get one of her take-out menus off the fridge, until finally she began keeping the stack of them, plus the cordless phone, on the nightstand.
I think I'm sick, she called one night into the living room, where the husband was using his laptop.
Hmmm? The husband said. Do you want me to get you something? I can go to the drug store.
No, she said. I think it's bad. I think it might be... something very bad.
She heard the husband rise from the couch in the living room, and then she heard the jangle of the dog's collar as he, too, rose. He had taken to sitting next to the husband, not her, as if exasperated by her sleeping habits.
The husband came in and stroked her forehead, pushing back her bangs, which she had purposefully not washed for two or three days—but not longer, because that would be gross.
There's a tea I used to make for her when she got sick, the husband said. I could make you some.
The second wife brightened. Would you?
And so they continued on like this: he made tea for her in the morning before he left for work, a second cup when he returned. He sat on the bed while she drank it, and she used this time to tell him all about herself, in case she died, about how her mother believed that you shouldn't mix too many food groups in the same meal and why she disliked the man her sister had married and how she got the scar on her elbow (a game of Red Rover, age nine). He nodded politely, but she wasn't convinced, and took to keeping a diary, but soon many of the words in the sentences that she wrote down seemed extraneous, and she began just writing lists: All-Time Favorite Songs and Five Dream Vacation Destinations. Sometimes there were short paragraphs, mini-dissertations on specific matters, like Thoughts on Cats Versus Dogs as House Pets, or sometimes, just singularly titled subjects, like Toucans. She kept her notes in a leather-bound journal that she found to be very beautiful. It had belonged to the first wife, though she had never written in it except to record her name on the inner cover, as well as her phone number, in case the book were to become lost. The second wife often stared at these numbers, ran her fingers over them, thought that surely the husband was wrong about the first wife.
A doctor came and went. There's nothing wrong with you, he said, and the second wife thought him most unsympathetic, because she knew he'd been paid extra to make a house call; he could have at least diagnosed her with anxiety, or allergies. She would write a paragraph about him, she decided, in the first wife's leather-bound journal, and when she touched the beautiful soft leather of its cover, she felt that she could not possibly continue on this way, that she would get her own journal, not leather-bound but made of some other fine material, one that was beautiful and unexpected and something that eclipsed leather, like feathers. But as she lifted her tea—the first wife's tea—from the nightstand to take a sip, as she turned to the next blank page and wrote The Doctor, she thought to herself that perhaps she wouldn't get her own journal, that she'd better press forward with this one instead. And though the tea had grown cold, the taste of it on her tongue remained the same, a taste that was rich and sweet, and it nourished her to the core.
Title graphic: "Tea Time" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.