It’s been a year since Slink Chunk Press published this short story, so to honor the occasion I am reprinting it here. Enjoy!
They say that everything is made from everything. Matter never disappears, it just becomes new matter. A cell from your skin catches a southeast breeze and eventually gets inhaled by a penguin; an atom expelled in some dinosaur dung finds its way over the eons to your pomegranate tea; a molecule from the sweat that glistened on Caesar’s temple evaporated and is now raining into your car through the window you left open.
We’re all just cosmos junk, recycled. Never ending, only changing. Ever since the universe’s first big sneeze, all that energy has been riding its waves wherever it can go, moving from one place to another. Perpetual tourists, all of us.
So then what happens if a bit of energy changes its mind? Has a change of heart on the metaphysical interstate and decides to detour over the center divider, head the opposite way?
Decides to come back?
My brain awakes slowly like an old, flickering light bulb on its last legs. I don’t even have enough cognitive power to wish I was still asleep when my eyes drift open and I see her.
Wait hold on what the hell wait what?
I bolt upright.
“Oh!” she says in surprise. “I’m sorry! Did I wake you?”
“You’re supposed to be dead!”
“Funny thing about that. You see really I’m… Well I guess you could say I’m… You’re right. I’m dead.”
She sits on the edge of the mattress. She looks the same as ever, only her colors are all muted, washed out. Her lines and textures appear in flux, subtly fading in and out as if they’re not sure they’re in the right place. The boundary of her shape blurs with the background, making me squint.
I rub my eyes, my cheeks, my whole face, as if I could rub away the shock. My morning stubble chafes my palms.
“How is this possible?” I ask. “How? How?”
“Dunno,” she replies in her quintessential Marjorie way. “The universe is a crafty little rascal, isn’t it?”
Now that the surprise has worn off, we sit talking as if nothing ever changed. It’s amazing how quickly one adapts to the impossible when there is nothing else to do.
Alright then. My Marjorie is a ghost.
“What does it feel like?” I ask.
“Yeah. Well, specifically, being dead while not being dead. What kind of dead is that? Half-dead? Faux-dead? The vegan meat substitute for dead?”
Marjorie laughs, and then thinks. “It feels like… Do you ever have this vague sense that you’re lost? Or a mood you can’t quite understand or a feeling that something bad is about to happen or like you forgot something but you don’t know what?” She struggles for a moment, and then says, “You know when you go into a room, and you’re positive you needed something in there, but then you suddenly can’t remember what it is? So you kind of mill about for a second, waiting for the answer to show itself, but nothing comes up? It’s like that. Only all the time.”
I long to touch her. I have not yet, because I worry that like cream in a mug of coffee I’ll stir her away and never find her again. I long to touch her, not just because of this new form, but because… she’s my Marjorie. My Margarine.
That’s what I call her. Others call her Jorie. Or, if they want to piss her off, Marge. But I’m the only one who calls her our special nickname. It’s even more accurate now. Margarine: the almost-butter. Just like she’s almost-alive.
I grieved so hard over her death. Only recently had I managed to edge into the final stage, find some scrap of acceptance. But now she’s here, the second chance that anyone in the throes of loss wishes for. Maybe that’s what grief is—wishing. And wishing all the harder because you know it’s impossible. You mourn for the what-ifs, attend the funerals of the maybes.
I gesture to her arm. “Can I…?”
“Of course,” she says.
My hand starts to go to her, then stops. Goes again, pulls back. No, no. I can’t do it. What if she turns to mist? What if I lose her a second time? No, I can’t, I can’t, I—
Sweetly, softly, like snowfall on a silent morning, she places her fingers on my arm. I see the act with my eyes but do not feel it on my skin. Or, rather, I feel it in a different way. There is no pressure or texture or temperature, nothing I could feel in a tactile way. What I feel is more like… electricity.
“Stand up,” she says.
“Walk into me,” she says.
Right into her body I pass, like entering a shower. She stands in my center. My bones, my muscles, my viscera all shiver. I can feel her, her, all of her, the most her-ness I have ever felt before, intermingling with my atoms. And it occurs to me that we are more connected now, more so-called “one” now than two human beings could ever be, no matter how heartfelt and candle-lit their lovemaking. And I realize by the taste of salt at the corner of my mouth that I’m crying, and then my head is whirling so fast I throw up.
After I’ve washed up last night’s pineapple pizza from the carpet and had a good swish of mouth wash, we lie down side by side on the living room floor. It’s soothing down here, despite the layer of dirt and crumbs and toenail clippings. I really should give this place a sweep. Grieving offered me little time for hygiene, to which anyone who smelled me during the initial weeks of her death can attest.
Looking at her feels almost normal now, as if her pigment had always been this foggy grey, as if her skin had always warbled in and out of reality like that. In these minutes with her, I have forgotten her death as easily as I might forget my car keys or a dentist appointment.
The arm facing Margarine prickles with goose bumps. The long, dark hairs stand so tall it’s as if they want to leave my skin and go to her instead. When I glance at Jorie to see if she is as amused by the phenomenon as I am, she is looking elsewhere, at something beyond me, beyond this room. I search for her fingers, feel nothing but empty space and a humming coldness.
“Hey,” I murmur. “Can you…?”
She blinks a few times, as if I have just pocketed a swinging watch and uttered the trance-breaking word. She looks down at the hand to which I’m gesturing, wraps it in hers. The coldness is still there, but at least I’m not going through her. She drags the knuckles to her mouth for a kiss, and with it comes a ripple of vibration.
She places my hand on what would be her sternum if she still had bones, and if she were alive right now I would hunt for her heart beat. She would ask me how fast it was going and I would chant its rhythm out loud. If she were alive right now, I would watch her ribcage rise and fall, listen to the breath coming from her nose that squeaks sometimes when she rests. If she were alive right now I would—
This would not be happening at all.
With the strangeness and relief and impossibility of this day, I had forgotten.
If she were alive right now, this “right now,” this Tuesday the fourteenth at 11:43 in the morning, we would not be lying here like this. There would be no kissing of hands or hunting for hearts or smiling at squeaky nostrils, because Tuesday the fourteenth, and Monday the thirteenth, and Sunday and Saturday and back and back, my Margarine and I would still have been fighting.
Just as we were that day on the bridge.
“Margarine,” I begin tentatively. “Why did you come back?”
For a long moment she looks at the space of floor between us.
“Do you remember that day?” she asks, swallowing, even though she has no functioning esophagus. Force of habit from the living.
I answer, “Yes.”
“And that thing I said? Just before… you know?”
She swallows again, hard. “I said a horrible thing.”
“On the way down, I realized… The very last emotion I left you with was that. That, of all things. You’d have this new, horrible definition of us, and because it was the last it would stain us forever. I would never be able to change it or correct it. I could never take it back. You’d have to just carry that new definition always, and I couldn’t bear such a thought, because that thing I said… It wasn’t even true! It wasn’t true.”
“It wasn’t. I’m so sorry.”
I draw my forehead close to hers, find her perimeter by the sensation of opening a window on a winter evening. Ah, there it is. Our eyes close, and when I open mine I can see the floorboards through her skull.
“I wanted to tell you that,” she says, “but I also think I had to. I think that’s the only way for me to go on to whatever’s next. I was hoping, even though I know I don’t deserve it… Maybe you could… forgive me.”
I roll onto my side up against her, feel the vibration shaking up my organs. I don’t know how to reply, so I don’t. Instead I just hold this airy nothing who is my everything, let the sadness slide off as I take in her words. It wasn’t true.
And now she’s back. We can make amends, we can do it all over, we can be the “us” that came before, we can—
“Whatever’s next?” I ask.
“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know what that is yet, if it’s heaven or reincarnation or if I’ll just dissolve into the ether, but either way, to go on with you still hurting, without your forgiveness…”
“What are you saying? You want to go on? To leave? Again?”
“I… Oh. I didn’t think of it like that—”
“I don’t forgive you.”
“I don’t forgive you.”
“I don’t forgive you.”
We fight. About that, about everything. Everything that came before, everything that caused this in the first place. She sobs, producing no tears, her facial features clenched like a fist. She flees into the bathroom, locks the door. Fine, I think. Hide if you must, just like you always did. But stay.
This isn’t how it always was. In our early time together, we called in sick from work to go play mini golf and waste quarters on Pac-Man like a couple of kids. We had contests to see who could fit the tallest tower of sandwiches in their mouth. We put ourselves in laughing fits on a daily basis and at night I’d watch the moon sail across her eyes. We were good before and we could have been good again if the accident on the bridge hadn’t taken her. I loved her then and I love her now and I know we could have mended things if we’d just had more time.
I approach the bathroom door, stand so close to it that all I see is painted wood. Through it I call, “But why? Why can’t you stay? Haunt me like a real ghost?”
No response. I place my forehead against the door. There is a small glob of paint that long ago dried mid-drip. The silence drags on, and with nothing else to do I stare and stare at that bumpy drip, the mockery of it, this stupid nub of paint ruining the smoothness of the door, and just as I reach up to scrape the damned thing with my nail, the door opens.
Jorie looks at me, not angry, and not crying. Just drained. I realize how shallow her eyes look, the irises and pupils appearing as though drawn with pen. There is no reflected light in them, no wetness to the whites. Marionette eyes going nowhere.
“Remember how I described being dead?” she asks.
I don’t answer.
“Look,” she says, opening her hands to display herself, her boundaries quavering in and out of focus. “Look at me. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“I don’t want you to go yet,” I say.
“I don’t want to either.”
She inhales, holds it in her mouth as if tasting her reply. She exhales and looks at me with so much regret I can hardly stand it, because I know what it means.
“You don’t have to forgive me,” she says. “I can’t make you. But I can’t stay here. Whatever this state I’m in, this… limbo, whatever you want to call it… It won’t let me. It’s pulling me somewhere else. I just wanted to say I was sorry before I couldn’t anymore.”
Jorie wobbles past me into the living room, shuffles as if in sleep towards the front door.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
She pauses mid-step, looks slowly around as if lost in a dream. At first I think she didn’t hear me, but then in a hollow voice she answers, “I don’t know…”
She passes through the front door without opening it.
I rush to follow, unlocking the knob and the deadbolt and the chain which together feel like fifteen locks instead of three, and when I finally get outside she’s already across the street. I run to the sidewalk, call her name, but the ghost doesn’t turn.
“Margarine,” I call again. The ghost looks up at a tree, the breeze rustling its branches while fallen leaves spin at her feet. Her hair lies still.
“Margarine,” I call once more, louder, seeing nothing but her, her, her, as I step off the sidewalk and into the road.
At last she turns and opens her mouth, but I don’t hear her over the screeching tires.
When I wake to the sight of her face for the second time today, I don’t know where I am. There is no street. There is no apartment. There is no rustling tree.
I’m on my back. My body is gone, but also not. I feel nothing. And everything.
“Are you alright?” Concerned eyes peer down at me, eyebrows high.
“Where are we?”
Margarine helps me to my feet. “This, my dear, is limbo.”
“I’m sorry,” I blurt out. “I’m so sorry. I never meant any of that. Of course I forgive you. I always did. I just thought if we had more—”
“It’s okay,” she says. “I know.”
“But I just want to tell you—”
“Tell me later,” she says gently, taking my hand. “We’ve got lots of time.”