Suddenly everyone in the circle is looking at me expectantly, and I wish I'd had a little more time to prepare for the meeting before racing here from work. I can feel my uncooperative curly brown hair puffing in crazy directions, as if it wants to leave the room. On some days it forms silky ringlets, on others Roseanne Roseanna-danna frizz.
"My name is Sophie Stanton and my husband died of cancer three months ago...," I stammer, tucking my fingers into the curls. My voice sounds loud and warbly in the too bright room. I try to talk and hold in my stomach at the same time, because my slacks are unbuttoned under my sweater to accommodate a waistline swollen from overmedicating with frozen waffles; I think I feel the zipper creeping down my former size six belly. That seems like enough for now, anyway. "Thank you," I add, not wanting to seem unfriendly.
"Thank you, Sophie," the social worker says. Her voice is as high and sweet as a Mouseketeer's.
Maybe later I'll tell the group how I dream about Ethan every night. That he's still alive in the eastern standard time zone and if I fly to New York, I can see him for another three hours. That I'm mixing chocolate and strawberry Ensure into a muddy potion that will restore his hemoglobin. When I wake at three or four in the morning, my nightgown is soaked and stuck to my back and the walls pulse around me. But by the time I get to Dr. Rupert's office, I've sunk into a zombie calm. It's sort of like when you bring your car into the shop and it stops making that troublesome noise.
Dr. Rupert says to keep busy. For the past three months I've been rushing from work to various activities: a book club, a pottery class, volunteer outings for the Audubon Society. We rescued a flock of sandpipers on the beach. Something toxic had leaked from a boat into the water, and the birds reared and stumbled and flapped their wings as we scooped them into crates. I rented a Rototiller and turned over the hard, dry earth at the very back of our yard and planted sunflowers and cosmos that shot straight through the September heat toward the sky. Everyone said how well I was doing, how brave I was.
Then I drove my car through the garage door. "Screw the birds!" I yelled at Dr. Rupert in my session that afternoon. "Screw the books, screw the sunflowers!" He scribbled on his little pad, then told me about this group.
There are fifteen of us in the circle. My eyes scan the sets of feet, counting: two, four, six, eight, ten. Two, four, six, eight, ten. Two, four, six, eight, ten. Thirty feet. Fifteen people. Hush Puppies and Reeboks and penny loafers.
The group meets at the hospital where Ethan died. I haven't been back since his death. But I remember everything about this place. How Ethan lay in bed, gray and speckly as a trout. The smells of rubbing alcohol and canned peas and souring flower arrangements. The patients, wrapped like mummies, being wheeled on gurneys through the halls. The monotone pages over the PA, the operator saying things like "Code five hundred" and "Dr. So-and-So to surgery" as calmly as if she were reporting a spill in aisle six.
Great idea! Let's go back to the hospital once a week. You remember the hospital.
Now everyone is looking at me again, and the social worker is saying something.
"Pardon?" "What did your husband do, Sophie?"
I push my glasses up on my nose (a little problem with oversleeping prevents me from wearing my contact lenses these days) and peer out at the circle of forlorn faces. "He was a software engineer." "I see." She adds that to her yellow pad.
How odd to reduce a person to a job title. While he didn't like sweets, he did eat sugared cereals, I want to tell her. His feet were goofy. A couple of those toes looked like peanuts, really. And what a slob. You would not want to ride in his car, because it smelled like sour milk and you'd be ankle-deep in take-out wrappers and dirty coffee mugs. He loved Jerry Lewis movies. One movie made him laugh so hard that beer shot out of his nose. I fight to suppress a giggle as I think of this. Or maybe it's a scream. A dangerous tickle lurks in the back of my throat, and I check to see how close the door is, in case I need to escape.
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