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HER HUSBAND’S WIFE by Joaquin Fernandez

Her husband’s wife used to watch them fuck. This was back when it was still fun, back before her husband was her husband, back when her husband’s wife was still her husband’s sick wife, not her husband’s dead wife. Her husband’s wife used to watch them, alive and cancer-free, snapshot trapped, posed happy in drugstore frames, from the wall, from the dresser, from the nightstand that they shook and shook and shook. She watched them while she was moved into hospice, coughing blood in deep, primordial growls. She watched them the day she died, sweaty with hunger while his phone rang unnoticed. After her funeral, she watched them play house, aprons and scotch and licked whipped cream. She watched until her husband took her photo off the mantle, replaced with her ashes. For a long time after, she would watch nothing.

It was the third year after his wife died, in the second year of their marriage, when she found the box. She had gotten used to finding him asleep on the couch in the morning. He had gotten used to her turning her phone over when he walked into the room. This was when they had moved beyond the kindness of excuses, bored in their certainty, like an endless day trip car ride, all worn out songs and tapping fingers, fidgeting into morse code how long, how long, how long do we have to do this?  

She would have left if she hadn’t found his dead wife’s things, basement deep in the cobweb dark, labeled neat and plain like we do to things we intend to forget. She had been getting her suitcase. She stood, looking at the box on box on box of the dead woman’s things. She wiped dust from the cardboard and thought of her husband, of their husband. She ran a fingernail along the scotch tape seam of the top box, letting her curiosity get the better of her. She felt herself cross from tourist to grave robber. She smiled in the dark.

Why shouldn’t I?

She opened one box, then another, then another. She read diaries and love letters and college transcripts, heady with the thrill of a voyeur. She plunged her hand into a box of lingerie, watching it disappear into the penned ocean of silk and lace until she grazed the dead woman’s jewelry box. Inside, her rings and necklaces, pearls and bracelets twinkled in the basement dusk. She tried them on, one at a time, then two and three in gaudy combinations. An hour passed before she heard her husband lumber upstairs. She slinked up to meet him, her suitcase long forgotten.

That night, her husband slept. She tossed and turned, scrolling her phone and frowning at the ceiling. She thought about lingerie and jewelry and her husband’s wife. She thought about all her pictures, staring at her, smiling at her from every room. She thought about the boxes downstairs.

Why shouldn’t I?

In the basement, she drank wine and wore the dead woman’s robe. In the dark, she paced, a ring on every finger, her neck straining under the weight of a dozen chains, gold and silver, the kind her husband had never bought her. She pawed through the lingerie, wishing suddenly for a mirror. She needed to see herself. She looked instead to the pitch black softness of the dead woman’s box, smiling, pleased, as something there began to stir. 

She was still smiling when she woke, alone, aching, and exhausted, nude except for the dead woman’s wedding ring. She held it up to the morning light, a rainbow catching on the diamond. She thought, for a moment, about taking it off. Then the moment passed. She walked her house, naked under the dead woman’s robe, seeing it with new eyes. She dragged the dead woman’s ring down the hall, scratching last year’s paint job into a trail behind her. She tapped the ring on the counter, smiling at the pleasant clink of gold on marble while she took her coffee. She knew she couldn’t keep it, even as she held it up, admiring it on her hand.

Why shouldn’t I?

Days passed. Then weeks. She began to laugh at her husband’s joke’s again, though they still weren’t funny. She brought him scotch in the den, clinking the dead woman’s ring on a sweating glass. She did that thing he liked with the whipped cream, and always had to shower afterwards. She began to meet his hungry eyes at dinner, recoiling inwardly. 

In the night, she slipped downstairs with a glass of wine, the dead woman’s favorite vintage, and dressed in her clothes. In the night, she couldn’t help herself. She lit candles and unpacked old photos. She began to mimic her make-up, perfecting the dead woman’s smokey eye before wiping herself bare with a tissue. Some mornings she woke in the basement, curled on a chair. Some mornings she woke alone in bed, with her husband still on her breath, sour and intimate, running her thumb over the ring, mouthing silently: 

Did he know? 

Did he notice the ring?

Would he help?

She stopped working. She spent whole afternoons pacing the house in the dead woman’s lingerie, tight at the belly, loose at the bust. She stared at a stranger’s face in the bathroom mirror, lost in the metronome of her own tapping finger. 

He smiled the day she put the dead woman’s pictures up. He smiled when she served him dinner, bland, demure, and screaming on the inside. He smiled when, at last, she reached for him with one hand while her other tapped a frantic protest on the kitchen table, too loud to ignore unless he was trying. That night, after the scotch and the whipped cream, after the dishes were done, she sat staring at a glass of the dead woman’s wine and he called to her from the bedroom, with a laugh in his voice.

Are you coming to bed?

She stood without hesitation and fingered her ring. She checked her makeup and frowned at the stranger in the mirror before she slid off the dead woman’s robe. Her husband’s wife beamed at her from a dozen different picture frames as a smile crept onto her face and she opened the bedroom door, chirping in a stranger’s voice:

Why shouldn’t I?

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