By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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You’ve heard the old lovers’ cliché: “I don’t know where you end and I begin”? I don’t buy it. When my husband’s life ended — that’s when I didn’t know where mine began.
We’d been there, on the love front: writing letters back and forth in a fever, kissing envelopes, me pressing my lips to his stamp, imagining those molecules of his saliva entering me. I remember running through train stations in Europe, believing I would finally be whole once I was in his arms. We’d lie in bed all day listening to Miles Davis. Once, we took turns being each other’s air: he cupped his mouth over my nose and filled my lungs, and I inhaled, letting his breath fill me. Then he let me do the same to him.
When they took the ventilator out of his mouth, it took away my breath too.
It’s been almost a year. I am haunted by train stations, postage stamps, Miles Davis. I pretend that I am not. I am good at pretending. Look at me, raising two kids by myself. There I am at the third-grade play with a video camera all set up in the front row, holding my three-year-old on my lap. I made my daughter’s Gretel costume by hand and brushed her hair a hundred strokes to get her braids to glisten like that. I don’t feel sorry for myself, I think. I am too spiritually evolved for self-pity. The kids don’t see me at night, drinking red wine straight from the bottle after I’ve put them to bed.
I’ve smelled all his sweaters. I’ve laid out whole outfits of his on a chair and then fallen into them. But he’s not there. On good days I can imagine that his breath is in the wind. It has to be.
I go for long walks. I walk like a fool for miles in search of wind. I don’t take the dogs, who look at me, confused: we always brought them with us on walks. I wear unsensible shoes that fill with mud because it’s spring. I walk straight up a ridge where there is a known mountain-lion den. I like to see the big predator’s scat. I like to think it’s watching me, stalking me.
“Mommy, come in. Paging Mommy. Do you hear me, Mommy?” My pocket zings with my eight-year-old daughter’s voice.
I take a few more steps before I bring the walkie-talkie to my mouth. “Yes?”
“We’re sick of watching cartoons.”
“Then play in your rooms for a while. I’m almost home.”
That’s a lie. I’m still walking in the opposite direction from the house. I don’t have a turn-back bone in my body. The air is a dead calm.
“I’ll be back soon.”
“Can’t we eat peanut-butter sandwiches?”
“No! Don’t eat anything.”
“You don’t have to get so mad.”
“I’ll be back in a little bit.”
I pick up a rock and throw it down the ridge. Perhaps it will hit someone who’s hiking down below. I don’t care.
I used to say to my daughter, “Just because I love your little brother, that doesn’t take away from how much I love you. There’s no limit on love.” But that’s not true. There is. And I’m up against it.
I imagine my three-year-old boy’s face blue from a peanut-butter-clogged windpipe, and this causes me to turn back. I don’t just walk now. I run, imagining a little grave next to his daddy’s. My husband hadn’t wanted a grave, but we set up a headstone at the edge of the property anyway. We needed a place to go.
We should never have left Seattle. We did safe things there. We ate sushi, went to the ballet. I would never have left my children alone to go for a walk in Seattle. This was all his fault, him and his big Montana ideas.
Let go, he’d say. You hold on too hard. They’re going to be paranoid.
He bullies me still. On bad days, like this one, I wear his shirts. They give me the courage to have his big Montana ideas.
At the house, the kids are doing a puzzle. Each has a neatly assembled peanut-butter sandwich on a plate.
“Can we eat our sandwiches now?” my daughter asks, her forehead showing worry lines she shouldn’t have yet.
“Sure,” I say, trying to seem blithe but feeling as if I’ve left all my oxygen behind. “Hang on. I’ll be right back.” I go outside and drop my head between my knees. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe for me, you asshole.
The wind picks up, and for a moment I feel like I could forget. I go inside and sit down on the couch. But when the kids climb on me, sticky with peanut butter, I pull away and head for the door.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” My three-year-old should not know the answer to this question, but he looks like he does.
“It’s windy outside. I was thinking we could fly a kite.”
“Daddy’s kite?” asks the eight-year-old.
“Yeah, why not?”
“Do you know how to fly Daddy’s kite?” she asks.
“Sure, we used to fly kites all the time when we lived in Seattle. Don’t you worry. Come on.”
Without being told, they put on their bike helmets.
“You don’t need those.”
They look at each other.
“You don’t need helmets,” I repeat.
“I’m going to keep mine on just in case,” my daughter says.
“Me too,” says my son.
I resist the urge to yank their helmets off their faithless heads and instead put my energy into finding the kite. “I don’t know why your father had to keep everything in impossible places,” I say, climbing onto the shop table to reach it. “Here it is.” I flash them a smile, but they are both staring at his maps.
“Daddy got lost,” my son says.
“No he didn’t, stupid. He got buried in snow,” says my daughter.
The tannic taste of the night we spent waiting for the search party to come back fills my mouth. The children both start to cry. I wonder when the last time was that I curled up with them in bed.
“Come on. Let’s fly a kite.”
They follow me toward the meadow. The dogs howl to see us go, and I can’t stand it, so I tell my daughter to let them out of their kennel. I hate the way they bound along beside me, so cavalier about big Montana possibilities. “We’re just going to the meadow to fly a kite,” I say to the golden retriever.
They were with him when the accident happened.
How could the dogs be here and you be gone? How could any of us be here? Why won’t you come to me in a dream and tell me what to do once the life insurance runs out? Why did I have to be there when they took your ventilator out? Why did you have to have a living will? I wish you were still here, bruised and swollen, the machine breathing for you, so I could hold your hand, kiss your forehead, rub the grain of your thumbnail. You wouldn’t even need to know I was there.
The wind comes in gusts. The children run ahead with the dogs. These kites really are tricky to get into the air. It takes two people: one to hold the kite, and one to hold the strings. But with the right wind, he always said, one person can do it alone.
“Can I help?” hollers my daughter.
“No!” I shout so loud the dogs cower.
I start walking backward, letting out line. The kite has dark wings and the beady eyes of a hawk. I used to see it as purple and majestic, but now it looks evil. The dogs growl and chase the kite. I remember the little shop on the Oregon coast where we bought it. We flew it together on the beach, him holding my hands, standing flush behind me, leading the kite across the sky. Once I got the hang of it, he let go.
“No, stay with me,” I said.
He stayed and slowly pulled me down to the sand so that I was lying with my back against his chest. We traced the horizon with the kite until the rain came and the kite fell, drenched.
The beak of the hawk grabs and drags in the grass, and the kite tumbles and lies on its back, tangled in the line.
“Do you want me to hold it up for you?” my daughter shouts in the wind.
“No!” I shout back.
I go to the kite and untangle it, swearing.
“You said a bad word,” my son says.
The wind picks up, and the children scream and lift their heads to the sky. They both take off their helmets and start running in circles, chasing the wind.
I right the kite and walk backward again, letting out the lines. It lifts, and I clench my hands into fists, ready for the pull of the kite. Then it nose-dives. The golden retriever barks and pounces on it. The lines wrap around his neck, and he whimpers and runs, dragging the kite behind him into the ditch.
I go to him. “Good boy,” I say. “It’s OK. Good boy.” I’m more worried about the kite being ruined.
By the time I get it untangled, my son is crying. My daughter puts her helmet back on. What wind there was has died down. I give up and walk across the meadow, and neither of them follows me. I walk to the edge of the property and sit under the lone ponderosa pine and stare at the marble marker: 1966–2005. Such a short life. I put my palm on the marble, which is cool despite the sun. He’s not here. I had him cremated. I don’t know how people can stand the thought of a loved one rotting in a box, wearing his best suit. He’d never owned a suit anyway.
I close my eyes, because I’m sick of seeing everything: his name carved in marble, our children, this land he loved. Then I open them again, and when I do, I spot something purple flashing across the sky, swooping back and forth. The wind has switched direction. I follow the kite strings downward to my daughter’s hands, my son at her side.
Laura A. Munson