June 6, 7:10 am
Keith Woo slept deeply the night of June 5, well into the next morning. It was more sleep in one night than the previous three combined, since his body had reached a point where sleep was impossible to avoid. In fact, he slept so deeply that when he awoke, with the morning sunlight already angling through the venetian blinds, for a moment he was unsure of where he was, or even who he was.
The memories didn’t come flooding back, like some tide held at bay. It was just that one moment he felt empty, and the next, he realized that what he thought was emptiness was really just grief.
He awoke with his right hand stretched out onto the side of the bed where Richard slept, as if it had been searching the landscape of the mattress during the night.
Richard was not there. The sheets on his side of the bed were rumpled, but unturned. His pillow, untouched. Keith pulled the pillow to him, and could smell a tiny hint of Richard’s scent in the yellow cotton. It was a combination of his natural musk, Pert shampoo, and the lavender beard oil that he sometimes used. Keith wondered if he should keep that pillowcase unwashed, or whether the smell of his lost lover in the empty bed would eventually become too painful to endure.
It wasn’t unusual for Keith to sleep in their bed alone. They weren’t the kind of couple that needed to be together every moment. Richard had often attended academic conferences out of town, while Keith endured a painful visit to his mother in Las Vegas each spring. But waking up alone in this bed now felt different, because Richard wasn’t just out there somewhere else in the world. He wasn’t visiting his editor in Dallas or speaking at a linguistics conference in New York. Keith could no longer pretend his husband was waking up alone in some hotel room, and that in his sleep, Richard’s hand had been searching the unfamiliar mattress for him.
After three days and four nights of grief, Keith felt strangely numb, as if the loss had just made a nest in his body, and settled in to stay.
As he lay in bed, sun streaming through the window, he thought of the little rituals they used to have, especially each morning. Those rituals were simply over now. Like so much else, they had disappeared in a crash of glass and a spray of blood.
Keith half expected the tears to return, as they had so often these past days. But they didn’t.
Perhaps the crying is over now, he thought. That, at least, would be a relief.
Rolling away from Richard’s side of the bed, he opened his nightstand. In the drawer there was a small notebook. It was the kind you could buy cheap at the University Coop—nothing fancy, just some lined paper, an elastic to hold it closed, and a black ribbon to mark his place. He’d filled many similar notebooks over the years. Writing had always helped to settle his mind and had been the best tonic for stress.
He thumbed through the pages. This one was nearly full. He’d have to buy another when he returned to work at the University Library. The bookstore was on his way.
The Bic four color pen that Keith used for his writing was clipped to the elastic band of the notebook. It was the same kind he had used since high school, and his habit was to write in a different color each day, cycling methodically between the four colors: Black then blue, green then red. Thumbing through the notebook, all the colors made it feel bright and even festive. He paged through long stretches of narrative, punctuated by snatches of poetry. Over the years, the poetry had become more prominent, and although he didn’t have any intention of putting it out into the world, he found the writing itself therapeutic. Everyone needed at least one place in their lives that was reserved for themselves alone, and his journal had always been his unique, private place.
All at once he regretted that decision. There was so much in this journal that was about Richard and their lives together, but Richard had never read a word of it in the more than ten years they were together. It was true that much of it was useless minutiae—hashing over the little conversations they had, or making even the smallest ripples in the emotional landscape between them into dramatic, rolling vistas. Perhaps it was all silliness and self-indulgence. Certainly his relationship with Richard never lacked candor and honesty. But would it have killed him to share some of those private thoughts with the man he had chosen to spend his life with? He had often written in bed, next to Richard, as his lover was engrossed in some scholarly article or novel. But Richard had always sensed the journal was private. He never asked Keith to share what he was writing, and by force of habit, Keith kept the notebook in the drawer, out of sight.
Keith closed the cover. None of it even felt real now. His life felt as distant as a movie he had watched long ago, and no longer remembered the plot. He felt like he should try to write something, but he just couldn’t. He couldn’t believe that writing would help him feel less like his life had spiraled into oblivion.
He tossed the book onto the nightstand, rather than returning it to the drawer. No reason to keep it tucked away now, he thought.
His phone was there, cradled in its charger, and he knew Michelle must be waiting for him to text that he was awake. But he decided to wait a few minutes. Texting her from bed felt like a particularly pathetic cry for help, and he knew that she’d be over within a few minutes of him writing. He needed some time to himself first. He had to at least start the day on his own, just to prove to himself that he could.
Turning on his autopilot, he got out of bed, and began going through the motions of getting ready for the day.
His first challenge was to take a shower. The hot water felt good on his tired muscles, and he realized that he’d been carrying stress and tensions in his shoulders and neck ever since that night. It would take more time for those knots to undo themselves, but standing under water as warm as he could stand it definitely helped. He and Richard used the same soap, but different shampoo, and seeing Richard’s bottle of Pert brought a sick heaviness to his stomach that he had to fight to suppress.
I suppose I’ll have to use that up. Or throw it out.
After the shower he stood in front of the mirror, his towel wrapped around his waist, and brushed his teeth. When he was finished, he looked at his reflection in the mirror—but it was ghostly, the condensation from the shower clouding the glass. Taking the hand towel from beside the sink, he wiped the glass. But everything still had a surreal, hazy quality. And through the fog, for a moment, he imagined he could glimpse Richard standing behind him.
The vision didn’t last, and it didn’t even really startle him. He was alone. He knew that. But it was strange the things the mind could manufacture.
So many mornings he and Richard had shared this bathroom. In fact, it was one of those daily rituals, now gone forever.
They would usually wake up with the same alarm clock, and Richard always wanted to spend a few minutes snuggling in bed before they got up. Sometimes, the snuggling got more frisky, but usually, it was just a way for them to reconnect in the morning before they began their respective days. Keith hadn’t realized until he was thinking about it, that those few minutes before they climbed out of bed was almost always the best few minutes of his day.
When they finally pried themselves out of bed, Richard would usually shower while Keith brushed his teeth. Keith would shave his sparse beard, lamenting how he had never been able to grow more than scattered fuzz.
Eventually, Keith would join Richard in the shower which they had remodeled their first year together specifically so it would be large enough for them both. They would wash each other’s backs, and usually took those few minutes together to talk over what they had planned for the day. Usually, that meant Richard would talk about his classes, or some political drama among the faculty. Keith always had less to discuss, his work in the circulation department at the University Library being so much less demanding. The shared shower time was usually brief and rarely led to anything more intimate than playful groping and tickling. But the feel of Richard’s hands on him and their wet bodies sliding against each other was always exquisite.
He let himself picture Richard’s tall, furry body, wet from the shower, his hair and beard askew from the towel. His husband had been in pretty good shape for a man in his fifties, and he kept his muscles toned by regular trips to the gym—something Keith could never be bothered with. Richard was on the stocky side, but he certainly wasn’t anywhere near as round as Keith. In fact, Richard always joked to friends that, “I’m built for efficiency, but Keith is built for comfort.” His mental image of Richard broke into the smile he always had when he said those words.
And then the image of his lover dissipated like the fog on the mirror.
Keith looked at his own short, stocky body in the mirror. Richard was right, he was built for comfort. He was practically hairless, especially compared to Richard. And his belly was as round as a little Buddha statue. Richard loved Keith’s softness and his curves, and especially running his hands up and down his lover’s belly and chest, as they lay spooned together, side by side. They fit perfectly that way, Richard’s knees behind his own, his hips against Keith’s ass, and Richard’s chin on top of his head. He loved to feel Richard’s passion grow as they lay together, until his lover could not stop himself from sliding inside, moving slowly, whispering the words, “this is perfect… you’re perfect…” in his lover’s ear.
Keith was surprised to feel himself responding sexually to the memories. He tried to fight it, but he couldn’t. If only Richard could come out of that shower right now, and wrap his arms around him, the way he always did. Gently taking his towel away… Leaning down to bury his face into the back of Keith’s neck and inhaling his smell. Richard’s naked, wet body against his own. One hand toying with Keith’s nipples… The other hand running down his belly, then touching slowly, almost shyly, between his legs, as he leaned back against the damp fur on Richard’s firm, strong chest…
Keith shivered, and his eyes snapped open. The mirror was empty. There was nothing but his tired face, distorted by the slowly evaporating moisture.
He realized he wanted to write. No, he needed to write. He wasn’t sure what, but he’d seldom felt the compulsion come on so strongly. In fact, it felt more like a lifeline—that if he didn’t write, and right now, he’d lose himself in these memories and never find his way back.
He rushed back to the bed, and sitting there in only the towel, he jotted a few lines. They came easily, and all in a rush. Remembering to breathe, he looked at what he had written. It’s the beginning of a poem, perhaps, he thought. Just two more short lines poured from him, and then suddenly his inspiration was gone. He re-read the stanza and was not impressed. The lines felt right, but he had no idea how to end what he had written. Like his life, it was unfinished, and just stopped without really going anywhere.
He wrote “Waking up Alone” in the margin and realized that he had chosen red ink for today. The contrast between the red ink and the white page made him feel a little nauseous, so he closed and tossed the journal aside again, and hurriedly got dressed.
Putting his wallet and his phone in his pockets, he walked downstairs. He was still feeling detached, empty, and broken, but at least he had managed to get himself out of bed, and get ready for the day, all on his own. Feeling his phone in his pocket, he knew Michelle would probably be sitting there at her house, staring at her screen, and waiting for him to check in. Stopping at the bottom of the stairs, he texted her, just to let her know he was awake. He figured he had about twenty minutes before she showed up, if that.
Looking down the corridor into the kitchen, Keith could see the paperwork from the funeral home, arranged neatly on the kitchen table. That’s exactly the way Michelle would do it, of course, he thought. She’s such a control freak. And the thought actually made him smile a little. He should go through the paperwork before she got there, just to get a handle on the options he’d have to decide between when the three of them went to the funeral home. Pil could help them make the best choices.
Just thinking of the big man, and his deep, brown eyes, made Keith feel better. Pil had been so kind these past few days and had done so much to make things easier for him and Michelle. But that had meant he had been gone a lot, working with the police and the contractors who did the cleaning and repairs at the house. He was grateful to Pil, but also wished that he had just stayed with them instead. There had been times these past few days when he and Michelle had become overwhelmed by their grief. Having Pil there would have kept them from spiraling each other downward.
He turned, intending to go into the kitchen to see Michelle’s handiwork. But as he passed the entryway, he turned and glanced into the living room.
And wished that he hadn’t.
Suddenly, he realized that everything in his world was still as fragile as an eggshell. His feeling of accomplishment at getting himself ready this morning disappeared. And all the grief hit him with such an unexpected and crushing weight that he felt like a wrecking ball had crashed into his chest. The wall and carpet were clean now, of course. He had confirmed that last night. But for just a moment his imagination filled the wall and the carpet with blood, the way it had looked that night. That horrible tree-shaped stain was back on the wall, dripping down into a puddle on the carpet, with Richard sprawled under it like a shattered marionette. He even saw himself there, holding Richard’s misshapen head, the blood covering his face like a veil. He heard his own voice screaming. And he felt so small, so insignificant, like his own life was just a gust of wind away from flickering out. He felt the stickiness of the blood and saw again the way Richard’s eyes went from clear to glazed as he died. He saw the absolute terror in his lover’s eyes in those final seconds, and the way he looked up at him with such longing, as if he was begging him to take his hand before he fell from a cliff, or like he had one last thing to say. He saw again the way Richard’s hands had jerked and reached for his own face, then for Keith’s face, which was now screaming and covered with blood. He watched again the way his dying lover tried to find words, and how none came.
All the helplessness he felt as Richard slipped away crashed back against him like a shock wave from a megaton blast. But instead of pushing him back, it threw him forward. The tears welled up, and the pain in his chest felt like a second explosion getting ready to ignite. He sank to his knees on the carpet, all his breath gone, trying desperately to take in the air.
So the tears have not ended, he thought.
And giving up any semblance of control, he collapsed onto the carpet and erupted in a wail of pain and despair that he thought might just crush him out of existence.
And for a moment, he hoped it would.
I remember your reflection in the bathroom
mirror, where once holding me naked,
I first saw that need in you. So beautiful
it should have etched the glass.
Later, you thought I slept, but I watched
through drowsy eyes as your hands
traced contemplative snakes across
the landscape of my chest.
The next morning your need took me,
like a hunger, an insistence I’d never known.
Sliding so easily, your eyes
closed as you found your way.
Alone now, the morning seems unreal,
the light through the window, too pastel.
I seek your scent in an unwashed towel
and lightly touch your missing reflection.
Your towel to my face
and my fingers on the glass
is all of the world
I’m yet ready to bear.
—Excerpt from “Waking Alone” by Keith Woo, as it appears in “The Heavy Work of Vanishing: The Collected Poetry of Keith Woo,” edited by Pi’ilani Kilani, page 200.
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
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