By C.L. Baptiste
Rosa, the widow of Andrés Romero, did not wear black to her husband’s funeral. Instead, she wore a bright red, skintight vinyl zip-up dress, bright red lipstick, and red faux-leather stiletto heels. Her mother-in-law gaped in undisguised outrage from behind her black lace veil, and even her own mother tried to usher her out of the church. It was no good. The new widow stood defiantly in the front row of the old Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción throughout the funeral Mass, then took her place under the heavy black pall. Throughout the whole of the procession, starting on the steps of the church and proceeding in blistering shadeless afternoon sun along Cuesta de la Bolita, past squat barred-windowed brick apartments and dying gardens, Rosa was a glittering redfish in a sea of black ink. With her heels clacking and her bangles ringing, she gave the small Spanish town of Tarancón something to gossip about for the rest of the month.
Her husband waited to inquire about it until she came home and only did so with the utmost politeness.
“It’s not my fault you died,” she snapped, turning on the bathtub faucet at full blast. She unzipped her dress, shucked it off and tossed it on the floor. “I wanted to look how I did the day I met you. I’d been wanting to do that for one of our dates. When are you coming back, anyway?”
“I don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon,” said Andrés’ disembodied voice. “I’m dead.”
“Fuck you.” She sank into the bath so forcefully that water lapped over the sides.
On the edge of Tarancón, their apartment was one of many in a boxy, thin-walled brick building constructed back in the sixties. The couple had moved in a few months before their wedding three years ago. Rosa hadn’t cleaned often when times were normal, and since Andrés’ death last week, it had already become a chaos vortex of unwashed clothes and dishes.
They hadn’t meant to stay so long, in this town where both of them had grown up and where nothing much ever happened. Back when they were newlyweds ready to conquer the world, Rosa had assumed that their love would be enough to catapult them out of town in a few months. Her longtime dream of moving to Madrid to become a professional dancer had slipped away somehow, forgotten in her obsession with Andrés. Life happened: Andrés lost his job and spent months unemployed, and Rosa picked up the slack with her restaurant job. There was never enough money to move; it was never quite the right time. Her obsession with him turned into a clinging desperation as his eyes stopped following her, as he grew accustomed to a bride whose youthful body no longer held any secrets for him.
Now she folded her arms, still refusing to look in his direction. “I hear José’s still single. And then there’s your friend Antonio. Maybe I’ll call them both up.”
“Please, no. At least not José; he’s a scumbag.”
“These are going to charity today. I’ll have nothing of yours left in this house.”
“What do you care? You’re fucking dead.”
There was a long silence between them. Rosa leaned her head back in the water, washing the shampoo out of her hair.
“How’s the afterlife, anyway?” she asked. “Was it worth giving us up? It fucking better have been.”
“Haven’t been there yet. I’ve heard it’s good, though. Like being born again, but not into a place as sad as this. They call it the Land of Flowers.”
“Then why aren’t you there instead of here?”
“Well, no one can pass through that gate unless they truly want to go, and they can’t come back once they’ve gone. And I wanted to see you and say goodbye to you and make sure you’re all right before I go.”
“Why do you care all of a sudden? You should have cared when you were alive.” She almost looked back in the direction of his voice but forced herself not to.
“You didn’t show it. You ignored me.”
“It’s a little overwhelming to be drowning in an unlimited amount of Rosa while being expected to adore every atom of you the whole time.” His voice carried only a sad hint of the sarcasm that used to permeate most things he’d say when he was alive, but Rosa still felt the heat of rage rush to her face and ears.
“But I’m concerned, Rosa,” he continued before she could retort. “You ironed all my clothes and polished all my shoes before my funeral, which I appreciate, but you know I won’t be around to wear those anymore. You even made me a coffee and breakfast, which looked delicious, and I would have eaten them if I could, but I can’t.”
“Well, you weren’t here to do your own laundry or make your own damn breakfast, so here I am being the dutiful wife. Why’d you get into that stupid crash in the first place? How dare you do that?”
“It wasn’t my fault, Rosa.”
She jumped to her feet and whirled around towards his voice, water sloshing out of the tub. It was coming from the open window just outside the bathroom. Behind the thin white curtain, she could see the shadowy silhouette of the late Andrés Romero.
As soon as she focused on it, his shape disappeared.
“Get back here!” she cried, stomping over and yanking the curtain aside. When she leaned out the window, she saw not a single human shape up or down the street.
“Fine,” she muttered bitterly, shutting the window and locking it. She wrenched a towel off the bathroom rack and dried herself off.
His voice came again from behind her, as clearly as if he were inside the house. “I’m sorry I have to hide, Rosa. It’s just that I’m dead, and I’m a little insecure about it. I don’t want you to see me like this.”
Refusing to look back towards him, she marched over to the bedroom closet, still naked, pulling out armloads of his clothes and throwing them on the floor.
“These are going to charity today. I’ll have nothing of yours left in this house.” She lifted a framed photo from their honeymoon off the wall and smashed its glass pane on the floor. “Getting rid of that stupid project car of yours too. It’ll be like you never lived here. I’m twenty-four. I’m going to start all over again. I’m going to live a new life.”
No response came. She looked over her shoulder, saw no one, and let out a few more strings of curse words in case he was still around to hear them. Then she sank to her knees and gathered his clothes up against herself in bunches, clutching them as if ten of his empty shirts could somehow equal some fraction of a full embrace.
“When she woke in the evening, the room was empty.”
He next appeared two days later as Rosa woke up well past noon after a full twelve hours of sleep, finding herself splayed facedown in the middle of the bed and clutching the twisted blankets and sheets in a sort of nest. Back when Andrés was alive, she knew he would have scooted her back over to her side of the bed in an instant, grumbling under his breath. Now, all he could say was, “Feel better?”
“No.” She rolled over. “Let me sleep.”
She lay awake and stared at the ceiling for an hour.
She glared. “What, you’re still there?”
“Yup. Look, Rosa, you can’t just keep living like this. Also, aren’t you supposed to be at work? Do they know what’s going on?”
“Guess I’ll just lose my job, then.”
“I know you hate working at that restaurant, but now that I’m dead, you really need to—”
“I haven’t had a break from anything since I married you, not from work or from cooking and cleaning or from hearing you talk your shit all the time, and now I am taking that break.”
“You shouldn’t be all alone like this. You should be with your mamá or your sisters. Or you could call my mamá even—she’s not easy to get along with, but she’ll at least cook a—”
“They all hate me, and they all think I’m trash anyway, especially after that funeral. Besides, I’ve told you a million times, I pushed everyone away when I married you because they told me it was a bad idea, and I can’t go back. I should have listened to them.”
“I wore what you wanted. I pretended to enjoy things in bed that I didn’t. I gave up going to dance conservatory in Madrid. I gave up my backup school plans….”
“We need to talk about what you’re doing with the rest of your life.”
“Are you going to keep micromanaging me like this for the rest of my life? Aren’t there plenty of dead whores in the underworld for you to enjoy now that death’s done us part?”
“That’s enough, Rosa. You need to figure out some sort of career now that you’re the only one taking care of yourself—”
“Like you ever had one!”
“—and you should probably start dating again. A hobby would be a good idea, too.”
She laughed. “What, start dancing again?”
“Isn’t that what you’d be doing if you hadn’t married me?”
“I don’t even want to think about how much I wish I hadn’t married you.” She lay back on the pillow for a while, then sat up slowly and looked around for him. She could see his silhouette behind the curtain again.
“How’d you get out of that coffin, Andrés? I saw them lock it. I saw them bury it.”
“I go where I want, when I want, now that I’m not one of the living. Though I’m the same man, they buried.”
“Why do you stand over there? Come over here.”
His shadow didn’t move.
“Come on,” she said again. “Can’t I see you and touch you?”
“Well, as I said, I’m the same man they buried.”
“You can’t be that bad, and I need you now.”
“You identified my body at the police station. You know what that crash did to me.”
“I guess, but I don’t remember. My memory must have cut that part out of the camera roll. Besides, that wasn’t really you. Just a torn-up piece of meat.”
He gave a sigh, the same sigh that had infuriated her for the whole of their marriage, that always told her that she wasn’t about to get her way. “I will come closer, only if you agree to keep your eyes shut and don’t try to touch me. I will sit in the chair next to the bed until you fall asleep.”
She shrugged. “I’ll take what I can get.” Obediently facing away from him, she lay back down. She heard the floor creak under slow, careful footsteps, heard the chair shift as he settled into it. She lay there for several minutes, considering breaking the agreement and turning to see him before she fell asleep.
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When she woke in the evening, the room was empty. Hauling herself out of bed, she picked up the red vinyl dress off the floor and zipped it back on.
“Where are you off to in that?” she heard him say.
“Going out. Going to have some fun.”
“Prowling for fresh meat tonight, aren’t you?”
She plopped down on the bed dejectedly, pulling her stilettos on. “I need someone to touch me. Someone I can close my eyes and pretend is you.”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
“I thought you wanted me to date.”
“Not like that. Take your time, find someone responsible and stable who’ll treat you—”
“I need someone tonight. You can’t stop me, not unless you’re willing to take my hand and drag me into that grave of yours and take me with you to wherever you people go. The Land of Plants, or wherever. So we can keep having stupid arguments like this forever and ever.”
Hearing a dead man sputter was almost enough to make her laugh. “You… I… Look, I’m… that’s not… don’t think like that… don’t make me think like that!”
“If you won’t take me with you, don’t you dare tell me not to look for someone else. I need… I need to be beautiful. To be treated like I’m beautiful.”
She waited through a long pause, then heard him give that infuriating sigh again. He seemed to do that more often since his death than when he was alive.
“Careful, then. Don’t drink too much. I’ll keep an eye on you as best I can, but don’t you have any friends who can go with—”
“All my friends are fucking married.”
“… she heard a shrill male scream, and José rushed out with his pants unzipped and bolted for the door.”
A few hours later, she came home.
“You’re alone,” he said.
“Couldn’t find anyone I was into. Stupid idea. Anyway, I realized taking home some drunk idiot for a one-night stand won’t make me feel any better.” She could feel tears start to prick at the insides of her eyelids and hid her face in case he could see.
“Remember to think about your life, too.”
“Come here and touch me, Andrés.”
“Yes. Go, please go. I need… I need some time.”
The next day, she called José. That night, they went out to dinner.
She had dated José for a few months in high school before meeting Andrés. He’d been cool back then, a whole year-and-a-half older than her, an aspiring rapper, a real ladies’ man. Since then, he’d put on about thirty pounds and worked his way up to being a branch manager at a banking franchise, which suited her just fine.
She tried to converse as a normal single woman, but found it impossible to talk about her life without mentioning Andrés every step of the way. She felt dull and superficial. José, on the other hand, did Andrés’ memory no favors, slurring on Andrés’ few months of unemployment, his later bartending job, even his music tastes. “Bastard thought he’d gotten you forever, Rosa, but we know who got the last laugh now, don’t we? Your good old first flame.” Rosa rolled her eyes but ignored the smear, because before they left the restaurant, José had at least told her what she wanted to hear: “Rosa, you are so beautiful and I have been thinking about you ever since we broke up. You should have been with me this whole time.”
She brought him home. When they got there, she poured two glasses of wine, then fixed her lipstick in the bedroom mirror while José stepped into the bathroom, saying he’d be just a minute. About thirty seconds later, she heard a shrill male scream, and José rushed out with his pants unzipped and bolted for the door.
“I saw him! I saw HIM!!” José cried, before bursting out the door. She heard his car engine start, then fade quickly into the night.
“You owe me a screw, Andrés,” she growled, moodily sipping her wine.
“I told you he was a scumbag. You never knew the things he’d say about you and your body, even after we got married—”
“He was the only man I could think of who’d be enough of a scumbag to go out with me a week after my husband dies.”
“I’m sorry. It’d be easier for me to watch you sleep with a stranger than with him. Did I tell you what he did at my bachelor party? Remember he was married to Manuela at the time—”
“I don’t want to hear a damn thing about your bachelor party. You told me you all you guys did was watch the fútbol game.”
“Well, I lied. Anyway, José lost his wedding ring inside the stripper and didn’t realize it until—”
“I didn’t pick him for his upstanding character, Andrés. Also, someone’s got to help me finish the rest of this bottle.”
“I can’t drink it. I’m dead.”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me you can’t get it up because you’re dead, either.”
She put down her glass and wandered over to the bed, stripping off her red dress as she went. “We’ll see about that.” She slid her undergarments off, tossing them in different directions around the room. Leaving her stilettos on, she climbed onto the bed, posing on hands and knees, arching her back to tilt her hips upwards. She slid one hand between her thighs and slowly began to rub.
“Still can’t get it up?”
She heard that sigh again. “Okay, Rosa. You win. You’ve given a dead man a boner. Happy now?”
“Of course not. I want a lot more than just hearing that you’ve got a boner.”
He was silent for a few long seconds. She swayed her hips in the air, still rubbing. In her mind, she played through all their best memories as vividly as she could: the night he’d first taken her home in that stupid red dress; the time she’d straddled him in the surf, on their honeymoon in Valencia; the few months of wildness here in this room, before it all started to wear off and before she was suddenly nothing but a wife.
He gave his signature sigh yet again. “Fine. But you have to promise not to look at me, okay?”
“Okay. You can even blindfold me if that turns you on.”
“Eyes closed is fine.”
She heard his footsteps move across the creaky wooden floor, and felt the edge of the mattress depress as he put his weight on it. She kept her eyes closed as she felt two hands take hold of her hips and run up and down her back. “Oh yes, Andrés,” she whispered. “Oh yes.”
The hands were cold, though. They were softer than before, too, and moist and slippery. Something in the air smelled strange; rotten and sickly sweet.
She held her breath, letting her mind soar into a perfect world, letting the funeral and burial and the misery of widowhood melt away. She fantasized about his lips on hers, his hands tracing circles around her nipples. She pictured his strong hands and forearms, his lean, muscled chest and abs, the dragon tattoo on his left pec and the crucifix on his right. The image became so strong that she instinctively rolled over to face him, and in doing so, she opened her eyes.
Then she screamed, and pulled away from him and jumped off the bed.
“I told you not to look!” he shouted. She tried to run and immediately tripped over her stilettos, face-planting on the floor. A retch jumped up in her throat, and she pulled herself up on her knees again, vomiting the remains of her date-night dinner on the rug.
“I… I need…”
“You need me to go?”
The sweet, rotten smell was overpowering now, seeming to restrict her throat and choke her as strongly as a hand. The smell of a decaying corpse.
“Yes. Go, please go. I need… I need some time.”
She turned her face away from him and heard his footsteps rush across the floor to the window, and then she was alone.
“… blurring her vision and clouding her mind until her world went black from complete exhaustion.”
After he was gone, she leaned over the bathroom sink and finished clearing the bile from her throat, then stared at her face in the mirror for a long time. She’d looked good at the beginning of the night, but now her eyeliner ran in streaks, and her skin looked drawn and clammy.
The sight of his corpse wouldn’t leave her mind. She focused on her own face instead, trying to block out his mangled image, but instead saw the state of his face juxtaposed over hers. Her own face was torn up, with the nose missing and half the skin burned off, and the lips twisted up on one side, showing far too many teeth.
The memories that she’d clung to for so long were gone now, probably marred forever by what she’d seen. He was dead now and wouldn’t get any less dead. The night ticked slowly by. She finished the bottle of wine. Everything around her—the off-white walls of the apartment, the marriage bed, the pictures of them together on the wall—started to feel less and less real. Andrés’ ruined face kept intruding on her mind, and that was when she started toying with the kitchen knife.
At first, she considered whether the knife was the best method and visualized which way was most botch-proof—just jab it in? Slit her own throat in front of the mirror and hope she’d have the nerve to cut deep enough? Or just prop the blade up somehow, use bookends or firm pillows, and fall on it? Maybe a knife wasn’t the best bet. She could use bedsheets to hang herself (from what? The shower curtain rod? Would it support her weight?) or try to make a reasonably fast-acting cocktail of over-the-counter painkillers. She could crash her car into a tree.
If you won’t take me with you, Andrés, then who says I can’t go after you myself? Be your bride in the afterlife? She couldn’t take the thought of him loving someone else in the Land of Flowers. And if she lived her life out until death found her in old age surrounded by great-grandchildren, wouldn’t she enter the Land of Flowers as an old woman while Andrés had stayed forever young? What was so wrong with her dying young and pretty, to be together forever in tragedy?
She tossed the knife away, watching it skitter across the floor. She made her way to the bed and lay down, then took out her phone and began scrolling through old photos of him, from back when he was alive and handsome and before everything was all wrong. All the date photos, beach photos, hanging-around-and-goofing-off photos. She began to cry. The tears came slowly and unnaturally at first, then the faucets turned on, and her face crumpled, and she sobbed and sobbed. She pressed her face briefly into the pillow, then kept scrolling.
There were wedding photos on her phone, too, which brought a sudden wave of bitterness now. She closed her eyes and let it pass, trying to understand what it was all about, letting the pain roll until she realized how badly she wished that she had never married him in the first place. Was it because she knew about the strippers at his bachelor party? That didn’t seem to fit as an explanation now—maybe if he was still alive, she’d throw a fit, but now the thought just bounced dully off her brain. Her longing to step into those photos faded now. She felt numb and lifeless.
She scrolled back before the wedding. Mostly dance photos now; a few semi-professionally-shot music videos; selfies with friends dolled up for a dance competition or a night out. A few date photos with Andrés. And here, she realized, was where she wanted to go back to. Not to the past days of their marriage—who knew how long they’d have lasted, anyway? Another couple of years?—but to those days before. Start over.
She had loved Andrés, for sure, but there’d been something wrong from the start. She’d needed him or thought she had. She’d needed to be beautiful, needed it more desperately than she needed Andrés or dance conservatory in Madrid. However, they were both means to the same end. Being beautiful and perfect; feeling wanted, admired, desired. She must have thought marriage would give that to her because enough was never enough in dance. But it was the same in marriage.
She glanced again at the knife lying on the floor.
Maybe she’d loved him, maybe he’d deserved every ounce of love and done the best he could with it, and maybe she had already committed some form of suicide to be with him, two years ago, at that wedding.
Her mind began to widen out as if stretched by holding thoughts that it had never held before. She saw realities and futures branch out like city streets leading in opposite directions. One led into the shadows of the life she could have had with him, which she would have taken for granted if he had never died, being ignored forever and indefinitely, nagging and begging until something snapped. Conversely, she also saw the life she could have had without him if she’d listened to her family and her friends and gone to dance school instead: the late, hard-partying nights in Madrid, in between competitions and performances and video shoots and relentless practicing, and the makeup and the staring at herself in the mirror and the dietary obsessions. It was gone now; she was years out of practice and too old to compete with eighteen-year-olds. She longed and ached for that future as she itemized it and boxed it up, realizing how much that unacknowledged longing had dug into their marriage since the beginning, deepening the pain under the numbness of being taken for granted.
But the one future that stayed dark was the one into which she was headed, without Andrés and without those youthful dreams. Every time she tried to see through that darkness, her mind hurt uncontrollably. The tears came again and again, blurring her vision and clouding her mind until her world went black from complete exhaustion.
When he did not, she pulled away from his grip, the opened her eyes and turned around.”
A few days later, the widow of Andrés Romero wore black.
She had emptied her husband’s closet, donating its contents to charity. She’d even fetched a fair price for his half-finished project car, letting some collector tow it out of the garage on a trailer. Now, early on a Sunday morning, she stood by his grave in her high-necked black dress and black lace mantilla, holding a bouquet of white lilies and roses, memorizing the sight of his engraved name and epitaph.
She bent down and laid the bouquet on his grave. Tied to the bouquet were a photo of the two of them—the one from the wall, whose frame she had smashed—and a thick cream-coloured envelope containing a several-pages-long handwritten letter. She’d tried to convey everything she needed to in that letter and had been up most of the past two nights writing it.
As she straightened up, she heard a voice from behind.
“I’m just here to look out for you, Rosa. I’ll protect you as long as you need me. Forever, if need be.”
She felt a hand trace down her spine. She closed her eyes, letting the ecstasy of human touch wash over her, but did not look back.
“Nothing can take me away from you,” he murmured in her ear.
“Andrés, I’ll be okay. It’ll be a while, but it’ll happen. I can’t move on with my life until you’re gone, and I want you to go to the Land of Flowers. Isn’t there a lot waiting for you there? This world isn’t the place for you anymore.”
“I’m afraid. To go. I’m afraid to be without you, to be alone. You’re my soul, Rosa.”
She closed her eyes, feeling the tears start to prick behind them, realizing she’d been waiting to hear words like that throughout their whole marriage. Why did they have to come now, of all times?
“Neither of us can stay here, standing between life and death. I’m leaving town. I’m leaving our home and your grave behind. You should go too.”
“No.” His voice had a desperate, trapped-animal edge to it now. She felt his hands take hold of her shoulders. “You need me, and I’m afraid of what will happen to you.”
“Andrés, I can’t be okay until you’re gone.” She kept her eyes closed. Her voice was almost a whisper. “Let go of me.”
When he did not, she pulled away from his grip, then opened her eyes and turned around.
No one was there.
“As she pulled out of the driveway, she found herself smiling.”
She had left the apartment in complete disarray after getting rid of his clothes and halfway packing her own things for a move. Still, when she got home, everything had been neatly put away, and the floor had been swept clean and scrubbed. The pile of dresses and blouses that she’d pulled out of the closet and tossed on the bed had been folded and packed into the cardboard boxes she’d brought home yesterday; all the kitchen utensils and dinnerware sat in two more boxes in the hall.
“Where do you plan to go?” She could see a shadow behind the curtains.
“Madrid. Going to start over, somewhere where no one knows me. Going to look for a job that I don’t hate. Think about putting myself through college.”
“What about dance?”
“That dream’s gone. I need new dreams. Don’t worry, I’ll get them. But what about you?”
“Dreams?” he murmured.
He paused for a long time before she heard his voice. When it came, it was soft and distant. “…Without you, now there are so many.”
As she watched, the silhouette blurred and faded away until only rays of sun were left, streaming in through the thin curtains.
She changed into jeans and tennis shoes, hauled the boxes into the trunk of the car, mailed the key and the final check to the landlord, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
As she pulled out of the driveway, she found herself smiling.
C.L. Baptiste’s short stories have appeared in Aphelion, Mithila Review, and Lamplit Underground under various pseudonyms. She resides in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and is currently working on her first novel.