The Widows Club

Rosemary Harp

We aren’t really widows. We just wish we were. We discuss our fantasy widowhoods philosophically. We are especially interested in the aesthetics of widowhood, the style it can take. Would we be, we ask each other, a Jackie: coiffed and determined in a sleek sheath dress and big sunglasses to hide the tears, with a grief-stricken and prematurely stately child at each hand? Or a Georgia: desert-wrecked and wild-haired, keening for Steiglitz over her watercolors? We flip through our catalogue of widows. We try them on for size. Widows, we agree, are iconic, eternal. They have dignity even when they’re coming apart. They have a singular power we aspire to.

Our spouses, well, they don’t do anything so very wrong. They don’t cheat (that we know of) or hit us or gamble away the mortgage payments. They understand the intricacies of consent. And yet. The couch always seems to bear their imprint. They work their tight ACLs with foam rollers, inveigh cleverly against the current administration, play video games on their phones, and submit their poetry to online literary journals while we pay bills, pack lunches, wipe their molted hair from the shower floor, hide the dog’s heartworm pills in chunks of cheese, email our bosses back at 10:50 pm. They’re feminists who don’t do laundry. They say “hashtag” and feel young. We know these aren’t capital offenses. But focus for a moment on the semantics, on the grammatical nuance of the thing: we do not wish our spouses to die. We wish them to have died. We want to grieve nobly, and then, when it would be fitting, move on. We know we would be good at this.

One point of honor in the Widows Club is that none of the spouses suffer when they meet their fictional ends. The deaths we devise for them must be clean, quick, and as painless as we can possibly manage. These are relatively young people we’re talking about, though. Middle aged, anyway. They can’t all drift off in their sleep or have a fluke heart attack. That’s not realistic. Plus, we have to give our imaginations some compass, some room to range. We enjoy it.

Except Alissa, who is back from her husband’s stint working in London, and who, until recently, found our pretend widowhoods too unspeakable to participate in. Alissa moved to Chicago when we were twelve, from a place we’d never heard of: the Upper East Side. When she explained she meant Manhattan, we still didn’t know this meant New York City. She seemed, even then, to be made of finer materials than we were. We cherished her, always wanting to be more like her, and at the same time wanting somehow to punish her delicacy. Her sensibilities are still more refined than ours especially after living in London, yet she is in our midst, asking us questions about the way we make-believe widows operate, so we must have something she needs.

“I’m going to make more coffee,” she tells us now, and leaves the room.

“Is she ready, do you think?” Lara looks worried.

“If she wasn’t ready she wouldn’t have invited us all over for blackberry tart,” Kate says. She is the truest pragmatist among us. Her parents named her simply Kate, not short for anything, as if to predict or determine her uncomplicated, staccato directness. Unswervingly competent, Kate reminds us of a pile driver, but cuter, with that hard shininess former gymnasts always have. She is not prone to melancholy or self-doubt.

We’re here by invitation, as Kate is right to point out, to initiate Alyssa into the Widows Club. It may not be easy, but it’s what she needs, and we’re here for her.

“I just don’t think I can pretend Philip is dead,” Alissa says, back with the fresh coffee. “What a terrible thought.”

It is, it is, we assure her. It’s a terrible thought. No question. But…

“Don’t you ever feel like your life would be more your own without him?” asks Kate.

“I took a vow.” Alissa sips.

Of course. But then we all took vows, didn’t we?

Sylvia rolls her eyes.

Alissa holds out a silver dish. “Have some, Sylvia,” she says.

“No thank you,” A three-decade rivalry exists between them as to who can eat less. Alissa’s third pregnancy has given Sylvia a leading edge.

The words we use to describe Sylvia invariably evoke stringed instruments and an edgy energy held in restraint. She and Kate are the closest friends in the group, one as complex and tense as the other is sanguine and impervious and because they are so different they never compete. When we were young they reigned over us: Sylvia the visionary who cooked up the schemes and Kate the enforcer who never let us back out.

Sylvia has imagined for her husband Laurence a swift death by drowning. He’ll be in a little wooden sailboat, tacking valiantly, but the wind will come up too mutinously, the waves will overtake him too ably. He won’t panic, though; he’ll retain his usual calm. As the water weighs him down he’ll think of Sylvia, her clean limbs and fine form, and be flooded with a final surge of desire.

“That’s terrible,” says Alissa for the second time in an hour.

“We understand you feel that way,” Sylvia says. “Yet here you are.”

And Sylvia’s widowhood? She’ll take up bee-keeping, a scary hobby with ugly and incomprehensible gear, to combat the worldwide shortage of bees.

Lara, arrayed in her usual posture of sprawly largesse, pats Sylvia’s knee, pours some of the fresh tea someone’s just brought in. Lara is the group’s natural mother, our baker of wheat bread, our starter of yogurt cultures. If she could, Lara would make her own organic oxygen and siphon it off to us in biodegradable tubes. She married Becky right on the heels of the SCOTUS ruling. Big and blonde as a polar bear, Lara was easily the most radiant and relaxed of all us brides. She reminded us of a jovial tsarina, regal and ready for fun. Together she and Korean-American Becky have the sharp, contrasting beauty of a photographic negative. In this we agree with Alissa: it’s heartbreaking to think of Lara without Becky. Still, what must be, must be.

Becky, we have brainstormed, will meet her end in a freak accident in her chem lab at the University of Chicago. Chem labs are great makers of widows, being filled with toxic, flammable, and otherwise hazardous substances. The only problem is that immolation seems awfully likely in that setting, and Becky does not deserve that.

“Is it possible,” Lara asks, “she could be exposed to some kind of poisonous gas?”

“Yes,” Alissa says. “Through a miscalculation, maybe, or a wrongly applied formula.”

Kate and Sylvia exchange glances. Sylvia is about to speak, but Kate cautions silence and Sylvia tightens her ponytail.

“Great idea, Alissa,” Kate says. “Maybe an odorless, tasteless gas.”

Faced with nothing more frightening than breathing, Becky feels herself growing pleasantly dizzy. She collapses to the floor supine, her braid over her face, and drifts off.

“God, I’ll miss her,” says Lara, wiping away tears. We all will, we assure Lara. But then, after an appropriate mourning period, Lara can get that baby she wants so desperately before her last intact egg drops. The baby Becky doesn’t want at all. After Lara’s grief begins to wane, we’ll accompany her to the sperm bank the way we shopped for prom dresses together. We’ll flip through the official Donor Information binders together: this one went to Yale; this one’s six-two; this one played professional soccer in Spain for a couple years; this one published his first novel at twenty-three. We’ll help Lara pick the genetic material.

“It’ll be so nice for my three to have a playmate,” Alissa says. She pats her cresting stomach.

We could not agree more.

Kate smiles at Alissa and helps herself to another piece of Alissa’s tart.

Kate met Mike at her company’s corporate retreat. She didn’t want to line up her friends like paper dolls in matching outfits, so we chose our own dresses. For the first time at a wedding we felt loose and free in our own skins: unmasked, uncostumed. The secular ceremony was twelve minutes long and the reception lasted until four the next morning.

Tragic that after such a memorably festive celebration, their union should be torn asunder. Kate’s still working out the details.

“You don’t see him in a car crash?” asks Kate. “I totally see him in a car crash, the way he drives.”

We’ve been through this with her before. Too banal, too generic. We explain to Kate for the nth time that each spouse’s death must somehow match his or her life. That there has to be a poetry to it, or at very least a sort of symmetry, however bizarre. It’s the form of the thing that matters, we tell Kate. It’s this failure of imagination that makes Kate so sane, so invulnerable to fear or self-doubt. It simply never occurs to her that she might fail.

After the company went public in a lackluster IPO that scared off more investors than it attracted, upper management began to slice away at costs. Mike, who had quickly established a reputation for prickliness and callow disregard for team-play, was first to be down-sized. Kate was promoted the same day and again six months later and again last week. Mike has yet to find a new job. He has interviewed and been rejected for jobs he wouldn’t have considered straight out of college, let alone twenty-some years post-graduation with an MBA. Kate tells us that after her promotion to Chief Brand Ambassador for Marketing, Mike threw his phone, packed with the names and phone numbers of connections that once seemed so promising, into the sluggish Chicago River—a river that flows backward. He wears flannel pajama pants all day. Their couch bears his imprint.

“I’ve got it,” Kate says. We set down our cups, incline toward her in our seats.

“He’ll be at a Blackhawks game.” We nod. Mike organizes his life around hockey. He played some himself in high school and college. Kate seems to have taken our point about symmetry and form.

Mike will be at a hockey game, in the good seats right, above the Blackhawks’ goal.  Kane will pass to Toews. Toews will shoot. Stick will meet puck with a bone-cracking impact. Mike will hear the sound before he sees the puck—hurtling, airborne, heat-seeking, the very essence of projectility—coming at him. In the seconds before contact, Mike will note how beautiful this sport can be, his thoughts momentarily as lofty as the puck itself. And then, and then. Puck will meet forehead, cranium will meet brain. Frontal lobe—perfectly, instantly anaesthetized—will yield to jagged shards of cranium. Mike will fall to the ice, where the Blackhawks’ own team physician will rush too late to his side.

We don’t breathe for a moment. Frankly, we didn’t know Kate had it in her. Sylvia seems not to blink for a long time and Alissa does her fingertips-to-lips gesture.

“Whoa,” says Lara.

“It’s just a rough draft. I think we still have to finesse it. Wouldn’t it be better if Toews made the shot?” Kate asks.

Sylvia thinks, drums her long fingers on the table. “I don’t see how that’s possible,” she finally says, “given the laws of physics. Or the rules of the NHL. Would the officials allow a goal if the puck had just killed someone?”

“Oh no,” Alissa says, a little breathless. “Don’t change a thing. It’s perfect just the way it is.”

We lean toward her. It’s her turn now.


Rosemary Harp’s fiction and essays can be found most recently in Electric LitBrain ChildAtticus ReviewHobart, and Everyday Fiction. She is finishing a novel about first love, scandal, and tragedy at a New England boarding school. Her hobbies include parenting and playing hockey.