“Widow” by Julia Lemyre-Cossette is the First Prize-winning story in the Romance category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.
Widow by Julia Lemyre-Cossette
I stare out to the sea as I sit on a wooden bench perched on the highest point of the island. The clear blue sky seems as infinite as the sea below it, both stretching on forever in the horizon as though in hopes of finally meeting somewhere in the middle. Though the view is overwhelmingly beautiful, I feel stretched out myself, my heart hopelessly reaching for something I will never grasp again. The salty breeze cools my sun-kissed skin, my blue cotton dress flows, softly caressing my legs. The emerald waves crash into small caves down below in an omnipresent, far-off rumble. The sand-colored cliffs seem to soak up the stifling heat. Will I ever find my home again? “Home is where the heart is,” they say. My heart is nothing more than a dull ache, hardly fit to call home.
He died nearly three months ago, but I am not a widow. It seems so absurd and unfitting for a thirty-three year-old, successful businesswoman to be associated with such a term. Widow, widow … aren’t they supposed to be the bitter old hags of fairy tales? The ugly, wrinkled ones whose only purpose is to add eeriness to the tales. Even so, saying I’m single feels worse, like I failed at something, when really it had all been going so well. We were so truly happy. It’s not as though I’m single because no one wants to be with me, or because I’m one of those workaholics who doesn’t know what a work-life balance feels like. It isn’t that I have commitment issues or can’t figure out how to share someone’s life. I did it all. I did it right. I found my happiness, my true love. Life simply, cruelly, robbed me.
I definitely don’t want to be thought of as single. I barely feel single, in truth. My fingers still mindlessly toy with the rings I haven’t been able to take off. Able to, wanted to … The truth is they bring fewer questions, especially now that I’m a stranger in this village where nobody knows my story and few speak my language. Men who are interested in me walk away when they spy the jewelry. People don’t think to ask me about my love life. I think they would rather assume I’m happily married, are content with the explanation. Sad series of failed dates and complicated boyfriends make for more interesting stories, I suppose.
What’s more, I can’t feel single when I still feel him. He’s all around, constantly with me. In my thoughts. In my heart. When I planned his funeral and burial, I kept picturing the conversations we would’ve had going over all the details, like we used to.
“How can we spend so much money on flowers?” he would ask, hovering over my shoulder as I sat at the kitchen table working on my computer. “It’s insane! I’m not the king or anything, do I even need flowers?”
“Of course you need flowers,” I had replied to my imaginary husband. “I want everything to be beautiful and tasteful. Besides, you deserved all the flowers.”
“But I won’t even know they’re there! You should save your money: No one will notice that you didn’t buy a ridiculous amount of flowers. I promise you they won’t, honey.”
“They will definitely notice if there are no flowers at your funeral! I want everything to look nice for your last goodbye. I want people to feel you were loved … Trust me, babe, they won’t think of how much money I spent on this, but they’ll definitely think I cheaped out if there are no flowers at the service. I want the focus to be on you, not the flowers, and for that to happen, there have to be flowers, so people don’t notice there are no flowers.” I’d heard myself speaking too fast, but hadn’t been able to help it. He had to understand.
“Wow,” he’d respond. “I didn’t get any of that.” He would have blinked at me comically, like he always did when he thought I was exaggerating. “Ok, get flowers if it’ll make you happy, but don’t pay so much for them, please.”
He would wrap his arms around my shoulder until I could almost feel his embrace, and I ended up dropping the order down by half. He was right after all: I was going overboard.
I’m not going crazy. It’s not like that. It’s just my grief. I bet if I were to ask a shrink, they’d tell me something along the lines of: My mind is making conversations up from past memories, to help me cope. Maybe that’s what they are: a healing balm to my broken heart. Maybe he really is sticking around. Maybe it’s my fault for not knowing how to let him go. Maybe it’s everything.
Widow. What a strange word.
The day after the burial, I stood in front of the mirror in our bedroom. I had been wearing his old t-shirt to bed ever since the night he had died. It was almost like having his arms around me. Almost. I could see my hair was still slightly curled and tangled from the updo I’d attempted the day before but had only half taken down before collapsing into bed, exhausted. My eyes were red and surrounded by dark shadows. Standing in the morning light, I said the word out loud to my reflection for the first time.
The sound of my own voice was startling.
The word didn’t have any meaning.
It rang so empty.
Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow.
A tear slipped from my eye, slowly drawing its way down my cheek, warm. It still sounded wrong to my ears. It wasn’t me. It still isn’t me. I am not a widow. My husband is only dead.
The only things I did that day were buy a ticket to Rome for the very next day and pack a bag. I hadn’t managed to pack nearly enough clothes though, because everything I owned reminded me I was no longer married, and so I brought only his t-shirt, which I couldn’t leave behind, a bikini, underwear, my toiletries and the jeans and t-shirt I wore to board the plane. I ended up using the money he convinced me not to spend on the flowers buying new clothes in Italy.
Once I got to Rome, I ignored all the emails and phone calls from my office. I guess they were from colleagues who were wondering if I’d ever come back to work. I still wonder, really. I bought a train ticket to the Amalfi coast. I figured that at least here I’d be able to wear the bikini I had brought. I found a little apartment in Positano, in a pink villa with a large stone balcony overlooking the sea, tiny at the bottom of the mountain. It feels humbling, to be so small next to something so mighty. I like that. I didn’t speak any Italian when I first arrived, but two months later, I can manage to get groceries, order limoncello at the sea-front bars, communicate with the landlady, and get directions when I go exploring. The language barrier makes it so that I don’t bond much with the people here. It’s a relief not to be able to tell my story. I don’t know that I could, anyway.
I spend most days sitting on the stone balcony on a pile of great, big, colored cushions, drinking wine, eating fresh tomatoes, cheese, and meats. The book I brought along with me has been lying next to me untouched, day after day. It seems I can’t crack its cover, so instead I stare out to the sea and get lost in its waves, in my thoughts and in my memories. I go down to the beach and swim for hours. I bought a mask and snorkel at a local shop, on a whim. I went in to buy a beach towel and flip-flops, things I hadn’t thought to pack. I float on the water’s surface and watch the fish swim below me, while slowly breathing in and out of the purple plastic tube. They seem so peaceful, swimming around, having no other purpose in life than to feed and to breed. They’re hypnotizing, really. So I watch them day after day, while I sway with the waves. I feel lost in space, like I am no one, nowhere, floating.
Sometimes I walk around the village, looking at the colorful stores full of white lace and coral jewelry. When I saw the woman walking down the steep, roughly paved street in six-inch heels I almost felt him put his arm around my waist, like he would, bending down to whisper in my ear: “Why would anyone pretend it’s a good idea to walk these streets in those heels? Is she trying to break an ankle?” In that moment he was everywhere, taking my breath away, tingling through my fingers. I stopped in my tracks, a smile ran from my lips and I closed my eyes, feeling his lingering breath on my cheek and in my ear. Heart racing, cheeks flushed, I fought hard to keep him with me, but I knew when I opened my eyes all I would find was the emptiness of the crowded street. So I kept them closed, and him close, a minute longer.
Last night, I couldn’t sleep, so I hiked to the top of the mountain, in the middle of the night. I followed a path in the moonlight and I watched the sun rise over the mountains, lighting the sea with unimaginable colors. It was beautiful, but I was empty. So empty. I wept a long time for not feeling him at all in that moment.
When I came back down, I walked straight to the docks and took a ferry to Capri. It’s said to be one of the most beautiful islands in the world. I can plainly see why. The town is so colorful and alive with merchants and fishermen bustling around the docks in front of a never-ending line of ocean-view restaurants. I skipped the chairlift to walk up the hill in the little, unevenly paved pedestrian roads. Charming villa followed charming villa, all surrounded by vines, olive trees and flowers of every bright color. The little houses painted in pinks and yellows and blues … The journey up took about two hours, as I stopped to pet the stray cats and smell the plants, basking in the sun. I was sweating by the time I reached the town square at the top, and settled on my bench, hiding under my wide-brimmed straw hat.
The streets behind me are teeming with children running around and begging their parents for gelato, couples taking pictures in front of the viewpoints, friends drinking iced limoncello on the patios, locals talking animatedly to one another, as Italians do so well.
No. I cannot be a widow. Any way I look at it, I can’t make the word mine. It’s like a shoe that doesn’t, can’t, won’t fit.
I walk away from the bench to the far side of the island, farther from the square and the swarms of people, and make my way up to the emperor’s fortress. The great structure is set at the highest point, overlooking the sea by the cliffs. It’s a large stone building in pretty good shape, considering it’s a ruin. The red stone walls keep the empty rooms nice and cool, but as I walk back out onto the ramparts and into the sunlight, the midday heat is made bearable only by the sea breeze. Over the wall, a steep cliff drops down straight into the sea, where waves crash onto the rocks over, and over, and over again. Steady as the rhythm of my heart.
I pull the rings from my finger and look at the silver and ice gleaming in my palm. Slowly, I turn my hand to the side and let them slip out, right over the edge. I never hear them hit the water, neither do I watch them fall.
Home is where the heart is, and I don’t know the Italian word for widow.