Rosemary and the Red Pens
Mary was still asleep when Seamus tiptoed into their shared closet in the brown and white wool socks she’d given him that year for Christmas. He flicked the light on as he shut the door behind him, in an attempt to let her sleep. In the two-and-a-half-years since their son Jacob’s death she’d barely slept, only at odd hours of the night, when she wasn’t cleaning the house or reading on the porch. He’d roll over in the middle of the night and find her laying there, her white thinning fingers clutched together, her eyes wide and spinning with the ceiling fan in the darkness. The first few times just after Jacob’s car accident, he had grabbed her, pulled her into him and kissed her forehead, held her against his body. They would weep together, imagining their youngest child asleep in the bed only footsteps away from their room, breathing deeply, full of life, still being a seventeen-year-old boy. But after a while when he would lean over, she’d retreat, his body nothing but a reminder of what they had created and lost. She’d pull the covers over her head and whisper quietly to him.
“Mus, please don’t.”
Seamus stopped touching her then. He stopped hugging her when she wrapped herself into her blanket cocoons and kissing her before he left for work in the morning. When Tommy was gone at college the house grew quiet with just the two of them, their dark shadows moving silently through the rooms that had once been full of such joy. They were ghosts, the two of them, some days Seamus wasn’t sure if they’d spoken aloud at all, just gliding through the house, waiting for the pain to dull. There were days when he forgot all together what Mary’s voice sounded like, until they were outside of their four shared walls, sitting at dinner with friends, or when the kids were home for a weekend. On those days she was alive, breathing, laughing and loving, the best that she could.
It was just when they were alone, that she retreated into silent grief.
The closet was overflowing with clothes, each of the shelves he built what seemed like an eternity ago were piled with dulled out colors. Every time he was in the closet he was surprised at how little color was left in his and Mary’s life. There were no pinks, red, or sky blue sweaters, but shelves full of dull grays, blacks and faded whites. He ran his hand over one of her soft cashmere sweaters, letting the fabric linger between his thumb and forefinger. He could still smell her, that old smell, the one he loved, fabric softener, mint and rosemary, a mixed blend of her life, her quiet love of gardening, folding endless loads of kid’s laundry and the same rosemary perfume her mother always wore before she died. Now Mary smelt like nothing, just air, moving past him, sometimes he couldn’t even recognize her.
She had rolled over on her side when he walked out of the closet, the dog Crocket had curled himself into a ball next to her still body. Her deep blue eyes were open and staring off past the bedside clock and out the open window. They could see the ocean from their bedroom, on the small second floor above the back porch. They’d bought the land years ago because of the water, because Mary had wanted a room with a view, a place to get away, a window above the Atlantic Ocean. A space to stare off into the distance in the morning when she drank her coffee and watched the world go by. She’d always been a quiet woman, years ago when she was younger her quietness was calming, so different from his loud Irish family.
“Where are you going?”
He turned around to face her. She was still looking out the window.
She rolled back over, curling up on the other side of the bed.
Three years ago she would have asked who he was meeting. She’d assume it was one of his friends from the work, maybe one of his contractors who wore only Carhartt jackets covered in white and blue paint stains. She would have smiled and kissed his cheek, her breath full of mint from her toothpaste. She might have asked him to pick up a new bag of coffee beans if they had them. Once a long time ago she would have asked if she could come, let the kids feed themselves cereal and watch cartoons and sit beside him, her hand placed gently on his lap.
He glanced at her tiny frame hidden beneath an off white down comforter, sprinkled with penny sized blue flowers. She had shrunk in size since the funeral. Her body was tiny, her once strong, runner’s legs were skeleton like, her blue eyes faded and her once full cheeks, hollowed out, worn from frowning. But she still looked beautiful to Seamus and whenever they went out to eat with her girlfriends they would gasp and praise her for her diet, ask what she had cut out to make her look so fantastic. But when Seamus stumbled upon her naked in the bathroom watching herself in the mirror some nights he would grimace and fight the edge to wrap her up in his bathrobe, covering up the fading woman who used to be his wife.
“I’ll see you in a couple hours Mar.”
He waited a moment for her response, but she didn’t turn, didn’t speak, just wrapped herself tighter in the blankets, barely breathing. He couldn’t remember the last time she kissed him goodbye.
Seamus drove the twenty miles to the small breakfast place three towns over from Rockport. He followed the zig zagging coast, fiddling with the old, scratched gold wedding ring on his finger, squinting in the morning light reflecting off the deep navy blue ocean waves. He could still remember the first time he’d seen Mary, twenty-six years before. He was studying at the Boston Public Library for the Bar Exam, which he didn’t end up taking, when Mary sat down across from him. She was dressed in a long white dress that went to her ankles, big brown boots and a thick green jacket and her hair was in one long braid at the back of her neck. She was reading Jack Kerouac with a red pen. He watched her across the table, scribbling in the margins and crossing out lines of text. Finally, he had asked her what she was doing. She had looked up startled and her red pen had rolled across the table. He remembered thinking she was a little odd, her big gray blue eyes had blinked at him for a minute before answering.
“What do you mean?”
“Why do you keep crossing out his words?”
She glanced down at the book in her hand.
"I don’t like it, so I’m editing it.”
“Can you do that?”
She looked around the hall filled with wooden desks and green shaded laps on every desk top, the eerie silence of a room so full of strangers.
“It’s not a library book, so I guess I can.”
“Would you like a coffee?”
He had blurted it out, because he knew that if he let this odd young girl wander out of the library without asking her out, he’d never see her again. He could imagine her disappearing, sinking into the background, curling up on the trains and reading in the corner seats, looking up from the pages of her book only at her stop, changing the course of the stories along the way.
“Why do you want to get coffee?”
“I think it’s a good idea.”
She glanced at the pen in his right hand and then at the door behind him.
“Can I have my pen back?”
“If you come to get a coffee with me right now you can?”
Every year since then Seamus had bought her red pens, a paperback and coffee beans and put them in her stocking at Christmas. When the kids were little they loved hearing the story and every Christmas morning when Mary pulled out those pens, they’d squealed with joy, begging to hear the story again. When they went to bed Christmas night, Seamus could always count on her being in their bed, curled up with the new book on her lap and the red pen held in between her teeth.
Last year was the first year he’d forgotten to get her the red pens she liked and when she opened the ones he found at CVS two hours before it closed on Christmas Eve he’d watched her eyes fill with tears. “It’s just Jacob,” she said into the early morning silence, Tommy and Rory everting their eyes. It was always Jacob now. He was always in the room with them, no matter what, now that he was gone, their beautiful almost eighteen-year-old boy, lost forever and he had taken his mother with him.
Seamus pulled into the parking space next to the familiar little black BMW. He glanced at his graying hair and crow’s feet in the rearview mirror, before unbuckling his seat belt. He had never worn one before Jacob’s accident, but now it was the first thing he did, a tiny flood of relief washing over him every time he heard that click. He walked the familiar gravel walk way into the small café, his boots scattering pebbles before him. He nodded at the hostess and glanced around the small room full of people.
She was sitting in the corner, her dark brown hair cut just beneath her ears, small gold hoops shimmering in sunlight. She was chewing on her straw, her thick painted red lips moving up and down slightly. He smiled, waved and headed in her direction. When he got to the table she stood up and threw her arms around him. He could feel her breasts against his chest, smell the perfume, behind her eyes that had become so familiar to him. He ran his hand down her back and kissed her lightly on her lips and then brushed away the lingering lipstick with his ring finger.
“What took you so long? Was Mary giving you a hard time again?”
He glanced back behind him, almost like a habit, all those years of Mary walking into places behind him, slowly taking everything in, counting clouds.
Rebecca smiled and kissed him on the check, then rubbed her thumb against the lipstick mark.
“You poor thing.”
Seamus met Rebecca at a bar in downtown Gloucester. She was thirty-six, separated, with two little boys and a big German Shephard that was sitting outside the bar tied to a telephone pole while she drank gin and tonics on the wooden barstool at 2 pm on a Tuesday. After Jacob died, Tuesdays were days that Mary and Seamus went to see the grief counselor, but after a year, Mary started going on her own. She had asked Seamus if he could let her go alone, she wanted to talk to the counselor about personal things. Seamus had asked what personal things she couldn’t talk about with him sitting next to her on the navy blue, bumpy couch, but Mary had shrugged and waved him off, walking out onto the porch with her coffee a faded paperback tucked into the pocket of her bathrobe.
So Seamus started going to the bar while she sat at on the couch down the street. He’d drink two or three Dark and Stormys on a barstool while she sat and talked to Dr. Conway about their dead son without him. Those first couple weeks he thought a lot about Jacob when he sat there alone. He thought about his soccer games that filled most of his fall afternoons, the way Jakey would jump up onto the backs of his teammates when he scored a goal, his right fist held high. The way he hummed in the shower before jumping in the beat up old Toyota that he’d given him as a sixteenth birthday present, drinking hot chocolate in a to go thermos. Jacob had been a sweet kid, the most thoughtful of his three kids, the baby of the family. What Seamus thought about most was Jakey curled up at night, tucked in the corner of his wife’s arm, his lips slightly apart, somewhere off dreaming.
Jacob had fallen in love and Seamus was thankful for that. The summer before Jacob died, he’d watched his son and his girlfriend Lily on their trip up to Maine, holding hands and sneaking kisses when Mary wasn’t looking. He could hear them wandering off after Mary and he lay in their tent at night and he wanted for a moment to feel that again, that swift rush of desire, that need for contact, for flesh, for every bit of each other.
Mary and he had that once, years before, before the kids, mortgages, before everything and even then, two years ago they had it sometimes, when he wasn’t drinking too much and she was happy, there was desire, deep, loving hunger for each other. But everything changed when Jacob died.
The last time Mary and he had made love was in late August, on the anniversary of Jacob’s death. Mary had gotten drunk with him, something she rarely did, the two of them alone in their bedroom and they had cried, drunk, sad, sloppy tears and then Mary was unbuttoning his shirt and she made love to him, passionate, drunken, sad sex, that left them breathless and silent, holding each other in their arms until they finally fell asleep. Since that night, she hadn’t touched him, had barely looked his way.
So maybe that was why, as he stood in the bar doorway, kicked out of therapy with his silent wife that he didn’t stop at the barstool by the door and slipped onto the one right next to the young, pretty, woman doing a crossword puzzle.
She looked up as he sat down and the bartender Pete brought him the usual Dark and Stormy.
“Come here often?”
She smiled, the cap of her pen resting against her bottom lip that he couldn’t take his eyes off of when she spoke. “I know that sounds like a line,” she smiled, “but the bartender knows what you get, it’s only just after two in the afternoon, I gotta assume you’re a regular.”
Seamus glanced at Pete.
“Um, yeah. I do, I come here every week, on Tuesdays at two.”
“Tuesdays at two. You a widow?”
He cleared his throat. He was taken aback by how blunt she was and he was also aware of her deep brown eyes, the thick breasts stretching the fabric of her bright red sweater and her long legs in the lightest blue jean he’d ever seen. She was the opposite of Mary, nothing like her gold blonde hair, grey eyes and her small runner's body that only started to fade after Jacob died.
“Yeah, I feel like a lot of widows follow similar routines that they had with their wives before they died. Like go to a coffee shop at seven in the morning on Fridays or Saturday evening mass, you know?”
“I guess so, but no I’m not a widow.”
“Lose your job?”
He shook his head.
“Hmmm…meeting your mistress?”
He smiled. “No, just waiting for my wife to get out of therapy.”
“Your wife a sad housewife with too much time and not enough appreciation or something?”
He looked up at the television and thought about Mary. He wondered what she would say if he told her he was sitting at the bar with a pretty young, fast talking, energetic woman, drinking cocktails. Would she care if he told her the story?
She nudged him with her pointy elbow and put her hand on top of his, squeezing it in a mock gesture of support. She leaned in close to him, her breath sweet and sticky with booze.
“You can tell me anything,” she smiled and he could see all her big, straight, shiny block white teeth.
Seamus could see the flecks of mascara that had fallen from her eyelashes onto her tanned skin. The tiny patch of freckles on the tip of her nose, the scar just above her right eyebrow.
He cleared his throat.
“I don’t even know your name.”
He watched her name roll off her tongue and felt the thud of his heart in his chest.
Rebecca’s hand squeezed his on the counter top and Seamus looked away from her pretty face and squeezed her hand back, thick hot blood pumping through his body. It felt good to feel something other than a stiff drink in the early afternoon.
Seamus usually drove to the soccer fields after seeing Rebecca. He’d drive the fifteen miles from Rebecca’s apartment, through town, slowing down as he passed the Rockport Elementary School where he’d dropped Jacob off all those years ago, Tommy’s bright green hamydown backpack too big for his tiny shoulders, the bottom hanging below his knees. Mary and he had gone to drop the kids off that day, knowing that it was a their last, first day of school, that there was no more room in their small red bungalow. They’d taken a picture of Jacob in front of the brick pillars of the school, his beetle shaped nametag clipped right above his heart to the Boston Red Sox jersey he had begged Mary to iron for his first day of kindergarten. The picture had been on the fridge for fifteen years. He could still feel Mary’s hand in his as they stool together, tears in their eyes watching their baby boy walk into his first day of kindergarten, the backpack bumping against the back of his boney knees as he marched through the doors. They’d driven back home in silence that day, both of them praying that time would slow down, Seamus’s fingers still laced around Mary’s cold ones.
The high school soccer field was usually quiet on Saturday mornings. Sometimes the high school girls’ softball team practiced on the field, but they never noticed Seamus as they did laps around the diamond. He’d watch the girls from the bleachers, thinking about the little league team he and Mary had coached together one year, when Tommy and Jacob were both on the Dodgers. Mary didn’t like baseball much, but she’d bring chocolate chip cookies to all the games and give each kid a cookie after they went up to bat. Jacob used to sit next to her on the bench and try to show her how to use the scorebook, help her fill in the little diamonds with doubles and triples, take the clipboard from her when she stopped paying attention. Jacob had always been that kind of kid, not afraid to sit next to his mom, even when he was surrounded by Tommy and his friends. Mary called him her ‘little buddy’ and she’d sneak him extra cookies across the clipboard when Seamus wasn’t looking.
Today there was no one at the fields, except a lone high schooler running around the track, his neon sneakers the only thing brighter than the sun. Seamus started walking along the outside, listening for the pounding of the young kid’s sneakers against the frozen pavement. When Jacob was training for varsity soccer his freshman year, they spent so many Saturdays here, Tommy and Jacob racing around the track as Seamus stood at the finish line, a stop watch in his hand.
Mary would come some mornings in those days, her ratty old running sneakers and jogging pants on. She’d stand at the starting line with the boys and stare straight ahead, her lips pressed into a thin line. Most of the time the boys beat her, they were taller than their mother by that time, but part of Seamus always believed that one of those days, she was going to out run them. He’d watch her as she sprinted next to them, her arms pumping, her lips curling into a smile as she pushed herself to keep up with them, her ponytail flying out behind her as they came around the bend, her stride only inches from the little boys she’d once carried inside her. As they came to the finish line Seamus would pull her into his arms and kiss her burning lips as she gulped for air, believing that there would always be Saturday morning races.
Now the track seemed too long to walk, his feet too heavy to pick up, the miles too far gone. So Seamus stood there, his hands thrust into his jacket pockets, his fingers on the stopwatch that hadn’t tracked time in two years. He never understood his need to come to the field, maybe it was to remind him of what he once had, or maybe he just needed to forget about how good it felt to lay in bed with Rebecca, her head resting lovingly on his chest, her fingers playing with his thick black chest hair.
Seamus and Rebecca had been laying like that when her ex-husband dropped the kids off that morning. Rebecca was giggling as she pulled on black leggings and a sweater and put her long finger to her lips as she shut the door to her bedroom behind her. Seamus sat on the end of the bed pulling his sweater back over his head, listening to the two little boys giggling in the kitchen. Seamus had never met them, only seem the pictures that were in thick wooden frames throughout the small apartment. They both were tanned, with thick black hair and raspberry lips. They looked so much older at seven and nine than Tommy and Jacob had been, stronger, less childlike. But as he sat on the end of her bed, listening to their laughter vibrating through walls, Seamus feel the urge to run from his hiding spot and into the kitchen and pick up one of those beautiful, little strangers and spin him around in his arms, to smell the strawberry kids shampoo, hold those small sticky hands in his and run them outside and play a game of catch.
When Seamus opened the bedroom door and glanced down the hall, he could see Rebecca’s back, her hands on her hips, shaking her head as one of the two boys was saying something Seamus couldn’t hear. He hesitated, listening to Rebecca scolding one of them, her voice turning hot, just like it did sometimes when they talked about his marriage. He wanted to tell her to stop, to love those kids, to cherish every stupid, reckless thing they did, because one day they might get in an old beat up Toyota and drive up the coast and crash head on with a drunk driver. Instead he picked up his shoes and turned to the door. As he was shutting it behind him, he heard one of the boys laughing and Rebecca’s voice go sour and Seamus couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there in the first place.
Mary was in the kitchen when he got home a little after noon. She was dressed, in faded blue jeans, the fabric hanging loose on her legs, the cuffs rolled up, showing the protruding ankle bones and he ghost white toes. She had a paperback in her hands and a pen held in her front teeth when he walked in. Her blonde and white long wavy blonde hair was pulled back into a loose braid. As he walked in she glanced up at him from the pages, her eyes and lips forming the faintest surprise. He stopped walking and smiled back at her, cautiously. For a moment she looked years younger, the woman he had fallen in love with. When they were young and living in a tiny apartment he would come home to find her curled in a corner with a book, her eyes lighting up when he walked in the room. She’d glance back at her book, finish her sentence and then run up to him, throwing herself against his chest. Now she put the book down and smiled up at him.
“How was breakfast?”
He thought of Rebecca. Of her naked body on top of his. Her heart beating beneath his, her smiling, laughing and loving him. She was so different from Mary, but most of the time she made him feel something other than sadness. He didn’t look at her and see his son, he saw life,.
“It was good.”
“Where’d you go after?”
He looked at her for a moment.
“To the job site, had to check a couple things.”
He watched as Mary glanced out the window and then at the watch on her left wrist.
“I was thinking of taking Crocket for a walk.”
“Okay, sounds good.”
She paused and looked at him, her hollow cheeks flushing.
“Would you like to come?”
He was surprised. Mary hadn’t asked him to walk with him in a long time. It was something they used to do together some nights when the kids were doing homework, or on weekends when her shins needed a break from her running. But since Jacob had died the woods had been Mary’s, one of her private spaces for her to get away from the bungalow.
He glanced at his watch and then back at his wife. He was supposed to be taking a shower and then getting back out of the house to go to dinner with Rebecca and her best friend.
Mary smiled and stood up.
“Great, let me just change my shoes.”
Seamus nodded and pulled out his phone. He needed to make a phone call. He walked out the back porch and down onto the grass. It was loud out here, the waves crashing against the rocks. He’d always loved the sound of the waves and since Rebecca he knew it was the perfect spot to have conversations that wouldn’t carry in the wind.
Seamus glanced back at the red bungalow as he pressed his phone to his ear. Rebecca picked up on the third ring.
“Coming back soon?”
“Look it’s going to take longer than I thought. Mary, she umm...she wants to take a walk with me.”
There was silence on the line for a moment.
“You said no right?”
“No Bec, I didn’t. I thought maybe it would be a good time to talk, you know?”
He could hear her breathing on the other end.
“Look, you need to rip off the bandaid Seamus.”
“It’s not that easy. We lost a child together.”
Rebecca cleared her throat on the other end of the phone.
“I know Seamus. I can’t take that away from you, but you both need to move on, try and be happy. I don’t want you to be stuck in this term-oiled grief, you need a change. Let me help you.”
Seamus glanced at the bungalow. He knew Rebecca thought Mary was cold, that their marriage was nothing now, that there was no love, that all they had was their dead child. Somewhere along the line she started believing that Mary was the villain and he was the victim.
“Listen Seamus, you need to have a conversation today. You need to tell her you want to separate, you need to move on with your life. You promised me this morning you were ready.”
“I know I did.”
“Seamus it’s time.”
He could hear her breathing on the other end.
“I’ll see you at five, don’t be late. I love you.”
The back door opened and Mary and the old dog stepped onto the porch.
He hung up the phone as his wife walked cautiously down the steps. She was smiling, her wisps of hair blowing in not yet spring wind. She looked beautiful, her tiny, withering body hidden beneath her bulky jacket she’d always worn. It was the same jacket she had worn when they were young, walking the streets of Boston in January, the jacket she wore home from the hospital after having their oldest, Rory. She wore that jacket on those early mornings when he’d look out the window to see her shoveling with the kids, laughing as she watched them throw snow at each other. The jacket she wore to make snow angels and walk the beach on Christmas Eve before dinner. As she reached him in the yard, he felt the urge to throw his arms around her and hug her tight, smell the jacket, full of memories, a token of their life together.
“Who was that?”
He put his hands in his pockets.
She smiled, her face quiet, sad and beautiful.
“You ready to go?”
“Beach or woods?”
“Whatever will make you happy.”
“The trail we used to do with the kids? The one where Jacob saw the snapping turtle?”
Mary reached out her arm and touched his check, her fingers were cold against his skin. Seamus could still feel Rebecca’s lips from earlier. Rebecca was so alive, living breathing, keeping him afloat, making him feel something other than the gaping hole that had taken over his heart. And his wife was here, right in front of him, silent and drowning. He could hear the waves behind them, crashing violently against the rocks. There was a storm coming. The rain clouds were crawling across the sky and soon it would be pouring, but right now the sun was still there, bathing them in lukewarm light. Seamus pulled Mary into his arms and pressed her against him. He could smell the rosemary, the detergent and the faintest whiff of their children. He wanted to tell her that he missed her, that it was good to hold her, but he just held her fraying body, listened to her breath against him and let the tears come. He pressed his fingers against the back of her head and felt them close around a red pen tucked into her ponytail, a tiny love letter of years past.
About the Author: Alix Bullock lives in a seaside small town north of Boston with her dog, Kona. She is an MFA candidate at the University of New Hampshire and one of the fiction editors of Barnstorm Literary Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.