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The after life | Becca Leonard

In most of my memories, he’s two-dimensional. Pressed flat. Like a character, or hologram, or specter. A smudge of mood and anger. As dark as an ink spot, bleeding pigment onto bits of memory. I don’t know how to make him feel real, more three-dimensional, more than just a memory, except to highlight the better things. No bleeding ink, no blurred edges, no anger. Not yet.

 

***

 

This comes to me first, like a Polaroid: the day he asked me to be his girlfriend. We were kayaking with friends after school. I tied my boat behind his and he pulled me along for a while. I liked the way he looked, the rhythm of the movement, how easy it was for him to cut through sparkling water in the spring sun. He kissed me on the car ride home.

 

Before we were dating, when we were just friends, I’d see him in the hall at the end of the day. Sometimes he’d hug me goodbye. I’m tall and was glad I never had to search for a place for my head or arms or elbows. His hand would idle across my upper back as I stepped away, a slow lazy drag that felt more familiar than friendly. It made me warm. Like I knew something no one else did. This boy touched me like he saw me. Like he knew me.

 

 And this: when he was laughing—really laughing—the skin around his eyes would crease. I still miss that.

 

 Football games. A handful of memories here. Preseason, post-season. Pro games. Bowl games. Games we watched at bars, at our house, on our laptops, on our phones. Watching him play high school, then college, the way he would see me in the stands and wave.

 

This, pressed into my mental high-school scrapbook: the first time I was drunk. Senior year, New Year’s Eve, his house. My dad had called his parents to ask about the party—would there be booze, would they be driving, will you both be home? All my best girlfriends and his guy friends spent the night at his with vodka that smelled like rubbing alcohol. The girls made brownies and the boys made an ugly blue cake.

 

Someone told me to go to bed when I said the room was spinning. He followed me upstairs. Sat beside me, quiet, rubbed my back, until I rolled over and went to sleep. This boy likes me, I thought. He’s sweet, I thought.

 

Prom was at his house too. We were dating by then. He made Malibu and Cokes and brought them to me in the pool. I spent the night in his old football weightlifting shirt, and we talked until the dark sky turned to light. Played the back-and-forth early-dating question game. What’s your favorite thing about yourself? I’m smart. What makes you insecure? My legs. What’s your favorite color? Yellow. What do you want to do when you grow up? Help people.

 

 This stays with me too: the way he said my name. He’d call me Becky when he was teasing me. I don’t usually like that version of Rebecca, but I didn’t hate when he said it. It was softer, coming out of his mouth like that.

 

 He planned a day trip to Boston for St. Patrick’s one year. We saw a comedy show and ate chowder. He bought me a gray shirt at Patriot Place, then drove me home and kissed me on my living room floor. I threw the shirt away just last month. It’s too small for me now.

 

 He had a temper in traffic. Would start seeing red sometimes. I’d sit quietly, patiently, and pat his arm. There, there, I’d hum.

 

He’d walk up to me when we were out in bars, half kidding, half drunk, asking, “Can I fight them?” and point to someone who happened to bump into him, or looked at him funny, or wore a shirt he didn’t like.

 

“No, honey,” I’d say and pat his arm again. He had nowhere to put that aggression, that I’d think, after graduating college. No more teams to play on.

 

We would order more drinks and wander to the dance floor. We loved to dance.

 

***


Bigger photos, aged, glued into my metaphorical album: his three older sisters. Two were half-sisters, from his dad’s first marriage, but he never thought of them as anything less than whole. He was close to his parents. Had a dog. When I first saw it, I thought there was a wolf outside the window—a black-and-gray furred thing with blue eyes, quietly standing in the snow on the other side of the glass. No, that’s just Rocky, someone explained with a laugh.

 

His house was in a little patch of woods. A short gravel drive over a stone bridge, through an arch of trees, past sprays of flowering plants. Leaving the road and crossing that bridge felt like coming home to a pocket of magic. There were gardens his dad kept and birds his mom watched. A pond, a pool, paths of flowers, and patios. Stone walls and old floors and a Civil War-aged kitchen tucked in the back of the house, surrounded by additions. For years my socks snagged on the nail that poked up from the floor by the living room.

 

His dad would laugh and tell him you really stepped in shit with this one which meant, somehow, that his son was lucky to have me. He’d say you better talk to her nicer and you better watch out, she’s smarter than you. His mom made me soup whenever I had a cold. We drank the wine that they made in the garage and played games and watched movies and ate with his parents and spent hours hours hours kissing in bed. My lips would be chapped, my chin peeled, my eyes sticky and heavy when he’d drive me back home in his pickup.

 

 I could sketch this into a diary: pictures of the flowers he’d send me in college. Occasionally, I’d find them by my dorm room door, a sweet mid-week surprise. More often, I’d pick them up at the Student Center. A holiday or anniversary or special occasion treat.

 

We were long-distance—he was in school about an hour from our hometown and I was in Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. We flew back and forth to each other every month or so. He surprised me at a ball freshman year. I surprised him at his twenty-first birthday. He visited me when I was studying abroad. I went to all his dances.


***

 

Fold this up like a note I’d rather forget: my closest friends hated me when I started dating him. One girl, mostly, and then everyone else got caught in the middle. She’d liked him for months. I’d listened to her talk about him when I knew he wanted me. Knew the way he hugged me. Knew he wouldn’t answer her texts but send me messages instead. Texts I’d cut short, ignore, avoid until I didn’t anymore. Until the math sessions and running groups dwindled into dates. Until he held my hand, and I didn’t know how to tell her. Until he asked me to prom, and she found out in front of everyone else on the bus. We never really fixed the things that broke after that.

 

I remember telling another friend, “I know she’s upset, but, like, at least I’m with him and it’s real, you know? It’s not like a fling or whatever, you know?” I don’t think I convinced her.

 

“I really like him,” I told yet another friend, one outside the drama, while we finished volunteer hours at the nursing home. “He’s really sweet,” I said.

 

“Do you love him?” she asked.

 

“I don’t know, it’s only been a few weeks. Maybe.”

 

I saw him that night and wedged myself between his body and a wall of couch cushions. “I think you like me,” I said.

 

“Ya, I do,” he smiled.

 

“I think you like me a lot,” I said.

 

“Ya, I like you a lot,” he said back.

 

“I think you maybe more than like me a lot. I think you maybe love me,” I said. He smiled.

 

“I love you,” he said. I kissed him.

 

 He was allowed to sleep over if he stayed in the downstairs living room and we weren’t in my room with the door closed—something that came with the territory of growing up Catholic. I’d stay with him until one or two in the morning, then slip back up to my bed. Or I’d sleep over at his house, then tiptoe across the hall to a guest room so that the we’ll sleep separately promise to my parents could be true.

 

 Saved in a box in a closet—this is not a metaphor, they’re really all there—are his letters. He wrote them to me once he left for college. He had to go early, in June, for trainings before classes. Couldn’t have a phone for weeks. His notes were rushed. Short. Sweet. “I really can’t wait until this is over so I can see you again.” He wanted to join the Catholic Church for me. The first line of his first letter: “Hey babe, sorry but this is the first chance I’ve had to write to you. I just met with the chaplain here and talked to him about getting baptized.” He wanted to marry me. He wanted to wait for me. He loved me. “Once we make it through this our lives will be perfect.” I was keeping him going. I was his glimmer of hope.

 

And our honeymoon. The loveliest, laziest, stickiest week in Costa Rica I will never forget. The long hours we soaked each other in like the sun. Bodies tangled as we learned each other slowly, shampooed each other’s hair, laughed at the attendant who asked if we planned on leaving our cabin that day. The frogs and flowers, sloths and iguanas, fresh fruit from the garden. The strange dark color of the sand. The walks to town for fish, for piña coladas, for strolls through stores. Ending each day with him in a hammock, me in a rocking chair. The relief of having him all to myself. A week untouched, lost in the jungle, still wild.

 

Once we were married, it became clear that he was messier than I’d realized. Zoom in, and you’ll see me teaching him how to clean a toilet in our first apartment. Zoom out, and you’ll see moment after moment of him asking me where his things were. I’d put his sneakers, pocketknives, water bottles, old notes from work away. “Why are you always moving my stuff!” he’d shout when he needed the old notes, the pocketknives, the sneakers, the bottles.

 

“Because you’re always leaving everything out!” I’d yell back. I had to start giving him a countdown: “If this is still all over the house by Wednesday, I’m putting it away” followed by threats of “If this is still out by Saturday, it’s going in the trash!” It didn’t matter, he was still always annoyed when things went back to their places. Men are ridiculous, I’d complain with my friends.

 


 

There’s an image of his college chapel in my mind. The day he was baptized. Confirmed, too. He took religion classes for a few years and wasn’t sure, by the end, if he wanted to go through with it. What started out as a sweet gesture towards the girl he liked had become a burden. Something he didn’t quite believe in anyway. I gave him space but prayed hard. Harder. Hardest. When he went through with it, both his parents came. We went out to brunch, after.

 

***

 

 One afternoon between our years at school, he gave me one of my favorite birthday gifts, ever. We stood outside, apart from the family in the backyard. The blue sky of summer behind him when he told me he donated to Lourdes, my favorite shrine. Even though we both knew he didn’t care much about religion, hardly came to Mass anymore, sometimes argued with me about faith. He still did it for me. I put my arms around his neck and smiled.

 

This might be the kindest thing he’s ever done.

 

***

 

Stand back and peer at the pictures. See bits of lives intertwined. Watch as the ghosts grow and grow and grow until suddenly, one of us is here. A three-dimensional, whole, living, breathing thing. Not him, though, but me. See me stretch out to reach the edges of my life, step into places I was meant to be, and fill in the outline God sketched for me with colors of my choosing. See me taking down the pictures in our home. Packing them into boxes, hiding them in closets, putting away the albums. Becoming more real than I’ve ever been before.

 

***

 

I’ve been trying a lot of new things lately. Come on a tour of my closet and you’ll see the Irish dance shoes—hard and soft—hiding in the corner by a practice mat. I did Irish dance as a child and tried to pick it back up last year. I loved it just as much as I did back then. Had a harder time picking up choreography, though, and the shin splints were brutal. Humbling, to run up against something an older body can’t do.

 

By the shoes, there’s a basket of knitting supplies I was gifted one Christmas. Skeins of soft yellow yarn. A bundle of crochet hooks and bits of leftover string from the few lopsided blankets I made and gave away. A ring light and a Canon camera from when I tried my hand at blogging. Cardstock from when I was leading a committee at work and was more interested in making pretty bulletin boards than anything else. Stacks of old art supplies, too, from high school. Paint brushes, charcoals, acrylics, sketchpads. Watercolors from my first return to art post-divorce.

 

I’d tried to get back to painting earlier than that—right after college when we moved into our first married house. I opened the box labeled Art Supplies and sighed with relief when I realized I’d have time again. No more lectures or clinicals or long nights studying. I was an adult now. I had time for whatever I wanted.

 

He was gone for a weekend at work, and I spent my time by the window, looking out across the street to the ocean, sketching little boats and waves and harbors. I started a draft for a painting until I realized my period was a few days late and God, he’d be so mad, and he’s just started being sweet again and it’d be my fault and I can’t I can’t I can’t and somewhere along the way the box got taped back up.

 

This isn’t in a drawer or basket or closet, but another hobby has come back to life—I remember I used to like writing. It’d become a distant thing, like a bit of personal trivia—did you know I used to do that? I used to really love it? All through my childhood and high school years, I’d written short stories, comics, handwritten novels. Shared poems on the internet. Loved English class most of all. Finally, now, today, writing is less past-tense trivia and more present.

 

And in this present, I’m not just remembering, but learning. Meeting parts of my personhood that have spent time quietly flowering. A small, soft renaissance.

 

The next thing to grow: my love of animals. I’ve always liked them—who doesn’t? —but now more than ever before. I volunteer at an animal shelter. I’m convinced that sitting with small adoptable cats is teaching me something about the patient presence of God. I got my parents a floating stair for their pool so fallen-in rabbits could escape. And the last time I bought furniture, I went to the trouble of buying a couch that was vegan leather, not the real kind. I don’t eat red meat anymore because pigs and cows have feelings. No more calamari either. Or lobster. This is one hard, because I’ve always loved lobster, but it turns out I love thinking of lobsters mating for life more. And picturing them crying in a pot as they die makes me want to cry too.

 

I’m caring more for this planet, too. I’m not perfect—I have a bad habit of shopping online for new clothes—but I try. I have an extra recycling bin. I drive a hybrid. I switched from tampons to a cup to save a little paper. I’m planting a lawn that’s more sustainable than grass.

 

And I think I might like gardening. I hate weeding and always have, so I’m not sure if I can really say I like to garden while throwing out the boring parts. But the fun part is this: as an adult, I’ve never lived in a home long enough to even consider a garden. Aside from the potted tomatoes I killed one summer in North Carolina, I never even had an interest in plants. Now, in a longer-term home, with no plans to leave, I find myself spending more and more time in the garden department of Home Depot. So far, I’ve planted boxwoods. Hyacinths. Tulips. Rose bushes. Most recently, a row of yellow daffodils along my front porch. They look almost silly, sticking straight up and smiling, but their cheer is infectious. And now I find myself talking about plants to people who never asked. The bulbs are coming in. They have buds now. They have flowers now. They smell so good when you walk by.

 

I like weightlifting now, too. I used to just lift little colored weights at home, but then my gym started offering classes. Once or twice a week, I line up with eleven others, mostly women, and learn how to properly execute deadlifts and chest presses and upright rows. I was doing cleans the other day and could almost feel him a shadow of him over my shoulder. Is this what you did at the gym all those hours you were gone? I asked. Followed by this: why couldn’t I have gone with you? And this: look, asshole, I’m strong now too.

 

And I’m asking more questions, not just of myself. Questions of politics. Questions of religion. Questions of what I want, questions of what is true. I used to be a devoted, obedient girl, never really poking too hard at what I believed. Until I was faced with the thing that I thought was impossible: Church Girl Gets Divorced. It opened a space in me, and other things became possible too. There’s more empathy. More compassion. A change in politics, a change in worldview, a change in me. More God, but more honestly. More lovingly.

 

If you saw a picture of me now, you’d see this: a body that’s changed on the outside as much as it’s changed on the inside. It’s softer. Wider. More cumbersome, sometimes. But freer. Stronger. More mine.

 

***


We used to argue, him and I, about growth. “Isn’t the point of growing up, like…to grow? Don’t you want to grow? As a person?” We stumbled here when he brought up his hatred of travel, or reading, or some other thing that nagged at me until I picked at this like a scab.

 

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I don’t really care.”

 

“What do you mean you don’t care? Like, don’t you want to grow? Get smarter, or better, or anything?”

 

“No, not really.”

 

“What? Why?” I never understood his desire to just…coast.

 

“I like who I am.”

 

“Well, sure, but…everyone can grow? Be a better version of themselves?”

 

“I don’t want to change who I am. I like myself.”

 

“What is even the point of being married, then? The whole point is to help each other grow. And, like, love more, and be better, and all of that.”

 

Another shrug. I was getting too philosophical again.

 

***


I picture my friends and their small children, living the life that I used to want. It still stings, briefly, to see another face I used to know holding another crumpled newborn, with worn blankets and hospital tags, tired eyes, and smiles. They’ve all never known love like this, and hearts have never been so full and their whole world fits in a frame. I wonder what that’s like, for a moment, to have a heart so expanded. Why haven’t you chosen me for this? I ask God. Did I miss my chance? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Because more of my moments—most of my moments—are feeling like a life I didn’t plan but one I still love. I’m okay. Like really, actually okay. I like my life. Enough that I’m not longing anymore. Just living. Content.

 

***

 

I bought my sister a print for her house when she graduated college. See it, now: a cluster of bright green houseplants scattered across a light pink background. A quote underneath: “Growth is the only evidence of life.” I still think about those firm, determined words, surrounded by soft little plants. Leaves that stretch towards the sky, even in print. And I wonder what he’s doing today. Until I tip my face up, stretch myself towards the sky, and the feeling fades.

 

Becca Leonard is a writer of nonfiction and, when she’s in the right mood, poetry. She has a background in nursing but now spends her days writing blogs for a tech company (which is much less stressful and much more fun). She holds an MFA from Western Connecticut State University and lives in Nashville with her dog, Pickles.

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