Never Before

by Jennifer Pacioianu

She stood at the sink washing a last dish. The water was hot, turning her hands a deep pink from the wrist down. Jim's favorite Chopin Etude carried in from the living room. She lifted her hands out of the scalding water, holding the dish aloft. Never before had the music divided itself into recognizable measures, rising off the page, channeling through agile fingers to her ears. She'd always enjoyed it through Jim's enjoyment. He would cock his head and close his eyes, remarking about the beauty of the piece.

But she kept her eyes open because she wanted to hear the music, not Jim's voice, to see what was in front of her, not Jim's face lingering behind her eyelids.   She kept them wide open until the pills took effect every night.  She walked until she couldn't stand, so that when her head finally touched down, she was already asleep, like one of those dolls whose eyes closed in instant slumber when moved from vertical to horizontal. 

When she woke, her habit was to propel herself from bed at the first moment of awareness.  No more long stretches or rolling over into another half hour of sleep.  No more lazing under the chirp of birds or flipping on the news for a check of the weather.  She was moving and tasking before the vague, feathery dread solidified.  Jim's side of the bed was bare of pillow and tightly made, night and day, so she could walk by it without a glance after neatening her side.  Tucking the bedspread over his pillow would be like inviting hope that his head would rest there again. 

When she let the memories creep in, they were polished clean.  Never before had Jim looked so good.  Erased--the time he slammed the car door on her finger and berated her rather than apologize.  Erased--all the evenings he refused to eat leftovers or anything resembling what he'd had for lunch.  Erased--the two years of silence between them after his affair.  He was the Jim who made her laugh, who doted on the kids, who folded the paper crossword-side-up and placed it by her chair.  He was the Jim whose flesh filled space between his skin and bones. 

Her daughter steered her toward the grief support group, but those people wanted to talk.  She just wanted to keep moving until she stopped.  She joined the fellowship committee at church, cooking for any and all events.  She delivered Meals On Wheels.  She read to residents at the nursing home.  She volunteered at her granddaughter's school.  She gardened, cleaned, shopped and walked.  Lately, she'd started scanning the real estate section for open houses. 

The music faded to a dying note and the suds sizzled on her hands.  She rinsed, dried and put away the dishes.  In a moment of panic, she could think of nothing else to do.  Her eyes swept the yard and spied the half-empty bird feeder through the kitchen window.  Rubbing her arms against the chill, she walked to the shed and carried out a heaping scoop.  The overflow of seed dimpled the snow at the feeder's base.  Never before had the wrens eaten so well.

BIO: Jennifer Pacioianu is a writer, student and social worker. She lives in Topeka, KS.