The flashbacks are harder to handle now that spring’s almost here. They strike when I can’t easily get back to my pandemic bubble of myself and two cats. It’s been twenty-four months since I last had sex with Sam, with anyone, but my body remembers like no time has passed, when the memories strike. Once, Thanksgiving 2016, we fucked so many times in a row we stopped counting. Me, a 38-year-old then, Sam, a 40-year-old. We paused only to gulp from a bottle of Blue Chair coconut rum, aiming it at each other’s mouth and inevitably spilling more than we drank, until the distance between our mouths became too great and excruciating and we fell back onto the mattress, sticky, sweaty, manic in our reclaimed youth. Promising I love you I love you I love you.
After Sam ended our relationship the second time, to pursue a renewed fixation on his first wife, the binge-eating tendency that has stalked me since early-adolescence took hold, and I let it. How else was I to protect myself from the devastation of being continually rejected by someone I couldn’t convince my addicted heart not to love, a person whose interest I desperately wanted to keep.
The first time Sam ended us went like this: Suddenly he demanded a divorce so he could go to grad school. He could not be a husband and a doctoral student at the same time, he insisted, the day after we moved back to New York (the whole reason we had left eleven months earlier had been to get married and establish ourselves somewhere different). Sam was good at History and wrote a brilliant statement of purpose about the important contributions he hoped to make to the study of Quakers and whaling. The university that offered him funding clearly was not concerned about his age. Out of nothing less magnanimous than fear of abandonment, I tried, early on, to convince Sam that starting a PhD at 43 might be an issue, though not because I believed this to be true. Rather, I couldn’t compete with his fantasy of arriving to campus unencumbered by our marriage, scrubbed of my scent and free to meet someone in his “league,” as he put it.
Day after day after evening after night, while he visited and re-visited the faculty web pages of prospective mentors, ordered transcripts from colleges he had attended as a freshman and sophomore before taking a fifteen-year hiatus to avoid addressing worsening symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, I begged him to consider letting me come along. My job in book publishing was remote, and with my income plus his stipend from the university we could afford a comfortable life. With my support, he could focus on coursework, networking and attending conferences, come home to prepared dinners and Cadbury our cat. But all my unskilled, emotional bargaining achieved was more distance between us.
When Sam killed himself a year and a half after he left me the second time, binge-eating wasn’t enough to protect me from feelings. Sam definitely was not coming back, so the alcohol dependency that had been creeping alongside my years with him took charge.
No one wants to talk about suicide, except maybe in the form of statements that reflect how it will never touch them: My daughter isn’t really depressed, she’s just a teenager. You know teenagers, they grow out of it; I keep telling my father lots of people over 50 change careers—I mean, 50’s the new 40; Did you hear about that poor lady who snuck out of the nursing home so she would freeze to death instead of catching the virus like her husband? I’m so glad my parents are staying at the cottage for now, where it’s safe.
Definitely, no one wants to talk about suicide during a pandemic, with the surviving spouse as she grapples with binge-eating and alcohol dependency and not just everyday inconveniencing grief but something therapists call “complicated grief.”
The day Sam took his life, Sunday, August 9, 2020, I slept in. This isn’t usual for me, I’m an early riser, but the night before I had overindulged on Grand Marnier and MacDonald’s to fill Sam’s absence. We hadn’t spoken in a few weeks. I had asked him for space because our hundreds of texts per day were stressing me out rather than making me feel secure in our third attempt at a relationship, this time long-distance because the pandemic was between us. For me to get that space, I had to block Sam on Facebook and by phone (this last didn’t actually prevent him from phoning but sent him straight to voicemail, which he typically filled with breathing sounds).
The day before Sam took his life, I texted him at noon, when I figured he would be on his lunch break. He was working at a no-kill refuge for cats now, because leaving me for grad school and then leaving me for his first wife hadn’t met his expectations. I still had Cadbury our cat. “Hey! Can you tell me if you’re at the same mailing address so I know where to send the divorce papers?” I regretted the text as soon as I sent it, regretted it as I wrote it, but I needed a reason to check in. To ask, “How’s it going?” would only revive our compulsive texting, rekindle our codependence. While friends were trying hard to make me see Sam was bad for me, leaving me whenever he thought he could do better elsewhere and then doubling back with histrionic promises to give our marriage a chance, I knew the truth: I was no better for him. What I needed from him, bottomless love to fill my bottomlessness, was not something he could give.
The night before Sam took his life, I was at my computer, supping a tumbler of Grand Marnier neat to lessen the sickness. Sam hadn’t answered my lunch-hour text or my late-afternoon phone call, so now I was trying him on Facebook, where I could see when he read my messages. “I’m sorry about bringing up the divorce papers, I just need to know you’re okay.” I messaged his first wife and one of his co-workers. Everyone said he was fine. His first wife had talked to him the day before, and his co-worker had seen him on the job that afternoon. No reason to worry. They would tell him I was looking for him. I continued to worry. Sam had never ignored me for so long.
The next morning, a police officer phoned to report Sam had been found hanging by his belt from the shower in his studio apartment. I texted one close friend: He did it this time. He finally did it. Then I got ready to meet her for a walk in the park, which had been our plan for a week. Sam’s first wife phoned before I left. She cried and I cried with her. She told me that around 5:00 AM, the hour Sam died according to the coroner, one of her toddler’s battery-operated toys woke her up, making weird sounds and crashing into things like a lobotomized robot. This had never happened before. She believed it was Sam visiting her and assured me he would visit me soon, it was God’s will. I said I couldn’t see it happening because magical things don’t happen to atheists. Plus I was still waiting for Sam to acknowledge any one of my twenty-plus texts, Facebook messages, and voicemails from the night before.
Since everyone’s talking about life lessons they’ve learned from the pandemic, let me share life lessons I’ve learned from Sam’s’ suicide:
Before I met Sam I was married to an English professor eleven years older than me. We were a respected couple among friends and colleagues in the upstate college town where we lived, which was one reason it took me so long to leave the relationship, why, maybe, it took a thunderclap like Sam to call me to action. It can be surprisingly hard to justify leaving someone who doesn’t treat you badly but who isn’t right for you. Immediately after I left (and before anyone knew about me and Sam), some friends and colleagues said, April, Why? “J” takes such good care of you. You can teach part-time, write most of the time, and summer at your in-laws’ Cape Cod vacation home. Why rock the boat? It was a rare opportunity for me to learn what some people really thought of my capacity to be my own person.
A few months into our separation, J told me his father wanted to know how I was holding up (J had delayed telling his parents, in case I changed my mind). I said give your dad my campus number, and the next day J’s father phoned me. Failing to extract from me a “reasonable” explanation for my “irrational” decision to leave the marriage, my father-in-law of many years declared that all I had accomplished while with his son was because of his son. And then he hung up.
There’s an ad for intermittent fasting that appears daily in my Facebook newsfeed, even though I’ve never consulted the web about fasting. I’ve never fasted. My strain of disordered eating and drinking is all binge and no purge (I purge in other ways, so it balances out eventually). Once binging has served its purpose, I return to healthy patterns, lots of steel cut oats and little else in excess, until the next emotional spike. I’ve never been overweight but the preoccupation with thinness is always there, as regular as my exhalations, even when I’m thin, which is most of the time. I want to be too thin now, skinny like I was with Sam, when I never knew from one moment to the next if he still loved me, still wanted to be with me, still found me attractive, still liked my writing. When I was with Sam, I binged on codependency.
Before he killed himself, Sam handwrote a six-page, single-spaced note with no beginning and no ending, a fading in and fading out of his thoughts as they swerved between first-, second-, and third-person perspectives. In his note, Sam says he was never able to love, the most I ever was to him was a recurring fixation. In my low moments, I choose to interpret this as a form of love: He couldn’t get me out of his system. I was on his mind until he died.
In my low moments I look down at my belly when I’m in the shower and recall the different illustrations in the intermittent fasting ad. No, it’s not a gluten belly. It’s definitely not a post-baby belly. It’s not a booze belly either (well, maybe a little). It’s a sadness belly, as unloved and untouched as the rest of its host. One of my friends, who’s had more paramours than there are days in five years, doesn’t believe me when I say my last time was with Sam. When I say this, he says back, “Come on, be honest.” We’ve known each other for a decade and he’s done more for me than I have for him as far as I can tell. Lately, when I can handle projecting into the future, I imagine having sex with him, no pandemic or complicated grief in the way.
I will tell you this much: It’s almost spring, spring is followed by summer, and summer one year ago Sam committed suicide. Sam and I did not have a good run, a very long run, and I imagine certain people feeling vindicated, smug, the ones who admonished me for loving him. You are making his life worse by the hour! We were together not five years, and now he’s dead. A few days after his death, I received his belongings by courier, including the belt he had used to hang himself from the shower in his studio apartment. The belt had been severed into equal halves; Sam’s body was so still when the EMTs arrived, they could be that precise. One night, I examined the halves for hours, praying my atheist heart out for traces of Sam—his blood, sweat residue, anything—to appear. I pressed the halves to my nose and inhaled what might be left of him. Another night, I looped my own belt around my neck and reenacted the way I imagined Sam had hanged himself. I missed him, wanted to be with him because I didn’t know how to be without him. He still had not, as his first wife promised he would, visited me, told me it’s not my fault or it’s all my fault. He still has not.
Our first two years together, we had the time of our lives. Sam told me more than once, “You’ve given me some of the best days of my life,” and it’s what I need to believe. If I don’t believe the good things he said, if I believe his letter, that he was never able to feel love for anyone, then what story can I tell? There’s no room in my binged-out body to store more grief, so now grief is forcing a story out of me. The purge. People have said, Oh April, you could write a book, a terrific book like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and I want to answer, “There can be no book.” For there to be a book, I would have to tell Sam’s secrets, which are not my secrets to tell. For there to be a book, I would have to keep alive what Sam so plainly wanted to kill. I could tell many stories about our greatest and our worst moments together, because everything between us was either the greatest or the worst, but I could never give anyone the full picture because I can’t see it for myself.
So instead, for Sam, I tell our story in palatable fragments. And try to let myself feel everything as I remember the sweetness of Blue Chair coconut rum.
April Ford is a bi-national author, sharing her time between Canada and the US. Her books include Carousel, Winner of the 2020 International Book Awards for LGBTQ Fiction, Death Is a Side-Effect, and The Poor Children, winner of Santa Fe Writers Project 2013 Literary Awards Program for Fiction. She’s the recipient of a Pushcart Prize for her short story “Project Fumarase.” Author website: aprilfordauthor.com.