The morning of Claire’s funeral, I lie naked on the table and wait for her mourners to arrive. Thomas scrapes a knife against whetstone in the kitchen. When he appears above me, the blade glints harsh in his hand. It’s all I can see. To minimize the pain, he explains with a paternal smile. I smile too.
Can’t seem ungrateful.
Still, pain is pain.
I resist the desire to guide Thomas’ hand with my own as he poises the knife over my abdomen. Seems romantic to make the first cut together. Instead, I grip the dark wood of the table. Thomas pins his other palm on my sternum to steady himself. Only one chance at this.
Claire would have done this for you, after all, he says. As if I hadn’t known her. I clench the table, claw its underside. Knuckles go white, pink, white again.
After all. After they found Claire splayed and pale in her driver’s seat. Her car parked behind the grocer, no idea how long. In the flat glamour of repose: mouth slack, eyelids like open beetle wings. A blue tableau of heart failure in anonymity. She was always so kempt but so tired. Still, fifty-five was too young.
Thomas had cried with his head in my lap, wet soaking my nylons. I traced his veins with round nails, considered his own organs, dutifully continuing when he felt too weak to. I had no other dead loved ones. How long did he have? I finger-combed patches of his thinning hair.
It would mean the world to Claire, Thomas had said, begging me to be the spread.
Of course I had said yes.
Thomas dips the blade into my stomach and it glides back red. I dog yelp and heave through the hurt like a crowning mother. Breathe. I have the sense not to writhe too much but when I do, Thomas jabs the heel of his hand in my ribs as a warning.
He reaches in to excise me.
When it is over and I am empty, Thomas drops cups of chilled fruit into the space.
I met Thomas and Claire while waiting tables third shift. Under diner light, they doodled on napkins in a corner booth. Said they were resolved to make their marriage work for themselves. Just themselves, Thomas repeated, no children. He said the open relationship was Claire’s idea. She sat there a quiet smolder, disinterested. Everything she had seen ran in lines through her face. I thought they were putting me on until I found Thomas’ number in my apron, on a scrap of Claire’s smudging art, laughing moons with crooked eyes.
When I called, more curious than hesitant, it was Claire who convinced me. Three makes a family, she said. Like they had been waiting.
Thomas hauls a damp bag of my innards to the compost. The paper tablecloth against my back feels clinical. As I sit up, the jagged hole folds in the rolls of my gut. It’s more yellow than pink. Nearly endearing. Fresh berries, melons, grapes bubble from me like druzy. Too pretty to eat. Kind of thing Thomas always says, too pretty to work, too pretty to talk. His compliments are instruction. In his warm voice, they feel self-evident. I await and comply.
Cool juices pool at my spine. There is no practical way to contain all that fills me. I lie back down, lightheaded. Blood loss might be too much. Instinct tells me to pray, though I haven’t since childhood, bartering obedience, loyalty, faith to be the next Virgin Mary. Not from a want to nurture. From hope to be essential.
No use asking for anything now, so much further from God with nothing to offer.
Drawers open and slam in the kitchen, flatware rings. Thomas doesn’t know where things are without Claire. He returns holding a paring knife for my edges. He trims so cautiously, a half tongue pinking out the corner of his mouth. I’ve never seen him work before. The room he calls an office is barren except for framed photos of Claire. I don’t think he’s ever used it; he is so rarely home.
Once, after dinner with all three of us, I cracked a glass in their sink. Claire pulled shards from the dishwater, dried and set them on the rack. She checked my hands for splinters, kissed my pruned fingers.
I cracked another on purpose.
This is the sexiest I’ve ever seen you, Thomas tells me and wipes blood off my pelvis. I tense my stomach and ask how long this will be. He only says, Stay, and leaves the room.
I hang my head off the table and watch him walk away upside down. Vertigo flushes my face. Thick, curled hair like Claire’s would dust the hardwood from this height. Likely her stray grays still constellate the floors; I can’t see to know. Instead I trace the seams in the wallpaper to where Claire had parted it with chainsmoke.
Anxious that Thomas was straying, I had asked Claire for help loving him. Made her a mentor in my mind. Claire was sure and calm like I never could be. I wanted her experience, her rationed breaths, patient answers.
She seemed to want for nothing.
We sat together, waiting for Thomas to come home. Claire’s housedress soft on her angles, the bones now reaching like twigs through her skin.
I demanded to compare notes: What more can I do? What won’t you do?
Claire kept devoted eye contact but said nothing. I tried goading her. Don’t you know what I am worth?
Have you fucked in this room? Because, we have. I punched the cushion between us. She lit a new cigarette with the last one’s filter, eyed me like a spill edging too near her.
Tender girl, she blew at me, shook her head. There are always others.
I ripped the cigarette from her mouth and snuffed it under my heel on the carpet. Claire stood, hand raised to strike. I pinched my eyes closed, ready for a hit that never came.
On my way out, I heard the snatch of her lighter’s flint.
Thomas didn’t return my calls for three weeks.
The room fills with lilies and wreaths and photos, chairs set where they don’t belong. Thomas lines napkins, dishes, and wine along my table. I am the centerpiece. The bisected woman. Too pretty.
Thomas kneads my shoulder with his thumb, surveys the room. After this, he says, we can be alone again.
Fruit flies begin to crowd.
When the mourners arrive, I’ve been open for hours. My limbs are slow to circulate. Vision fades. I can’t discern specific features. Bodies are half human, the rest ocular eclipse. Which is Thomas?
All the women wear black heels, clicking in chorus. Pairs on pairs of black pants and stockings titter when they reach me. They spear the fruit from my gut. They are calloused hands and open mouths. I know their thoughts. Spider-veins tell pressed-trousers all I am with two words.
One fat hand sets a plate of used napkins by my knee. I want to ask the hand to take a photo of me with Thomas. I know I shouldn’t – it would be rude – but how else will Thomas remember?
The afternoon imbues the house with gold light, heaven-like. I grope the hole in my stomach. Nearly empty. A few melons float where my navel should be. I pinch a honeydew from the puddle.
I always knew, or should have, that I will not make it.
There is no after.
Can only hear the flies inside me, the women’s clicking heels. So much clicking. So sure of themselves – that they knew Claire, know me.
I close my eyes and roll the fruit in my palm. Soggy. It puckers in my fingers. I want to say grace. Something should be said.
Claire could never lie here. Not like me, in front of all these people.
The weight of my half-body surprises me as I whip myself off the table. I am too quick. Knock a plate on the floor. I step into its shards and feel nothing.
The guests turn toward me like children. Like children, they wait.
I drop the fruit into my mouth and chew.