After packing her suitcase, Sylvia sorted out Leon's daily vitamins and spread them like a winning poker hand on the kitchen counter. She had been leaving Leon for years. But just because she didn't love him anymore didn't mean she wished her husband bad health.
Sylvia's getaway felt more like a memory than a conscious act, and the escape had been so thoroughly rehearsed that her heart and mind were adrift upon a calm sea. As she folded panties and selected shoes for her exodus, her hand was steady, her face content, dreamy. Preparing Leon's vitamins and supplements was Sylvia's way of saying she was already gone and that her leaving was complete and tidy. All she wanted from him now was a clean break, one without tears, one without even a goodbye.
Twisting off the cap to the fish oil supplement, she remembered the pearl earrings in her cut glass jewelry box. Leaving Leon did not include leaving the pearl earrings, which often figured in her post-Leon romantic fantasies. More than once she had toweled dry before her bedroom mirror, then, standing alone and naked in heels, reached for the necklace and the matching earrings. At thirty-two, her flesh soft but assured, her figure harmoniously proportioned, Sylvia saw in the mirror a woman as ripe and ready as a tender fig. As she clasped the necklace, her imagination drifted like a receding tide and her eyes fell into a dreamy repose.
Then from somewhere in the house would echo Leon's voice, and her future with him would unfold before her, the image in the mirror slowly melting like hot wax. "No, no," she would whisper, aghast as her breasts shriveled and sagged, her thighs drooped and thickened. In defiance, Sylvia would press on red lipstick, sending Leon far, far away. "No way," she'd say, her eyes flaming blue as indigo, her revived flesh burning once more with a spirit hot for living.
The earrings. Sylvia paused before entering the musky dim light of the bedroom she shared with Leon. Before her, the brown leather suitcase lay open like a great and wise book. She pictured it resting on the crisp sheets of a North Myrtle Beach motel room, one filled with clean salty ocean air and morning sunshine, one ablaze with life's possibilities.
A quick inventory of the suitcase's contents confirmed a new beginning. But by the time she'd sorted through the neat layers of satin and soft cotton and rearranged her makeup for perfect balance and symmetry, Sylvia had forgotten about the earrings.
"Damn," she said aloud when she re-entered the kitchen and spied the fish oil capsules. Dreaming again of tomorrow, she fetched the earrings then absent-mindedly set them on the counter beside the pills. She didn't want to forget them.
But she did forget them. And around midnight while Sylvia lay dreaming in her oceanfront Rhonda Vu Motel room, Leon came home drunk. He swallowed the pearl earrings along with his vitamins and supplements. Maybe it was something in the metal or in the pearls, or maybe it was the lethal concoction of whiskey, vitamins and earrings that killed him.
The coroner's report stated only that he died in the shower, that when his heart sputtered he suddenly dropped to a sitting position and just went kaput. His soft, chunky butt made an air-tight stopper for the shower drain. And the next morning as Sylvia's neighbor, Trish, stood outside watering her lawn, she looked across the narrow stretch of green cotton that separated her house from Sylvia's and spied water gushing like an open hydrant from beneath Sylvia's house.
Anger and disappointment smoldered inside Sylvia. The life-altering act of leaving Leon, of finally striking out on a new path, had been intended to make a statement loud and clear, but no one heard it. No one even knew she had left him.
Sylvia trudged through the burial arrangements, the funeral and its aftermath, and only she knew that her woe was for herself, not Leon. While he was alive, Sylvia could have left him. But in death Leon had made that clean break impossible. Her husband's sudden departure seemed to Sylvia the ultimate act of fraud and infidelity. In death he had turned the tables on her in true Leon fashion, carelessly. From the hereafter he had fettered her and affixed himself to her spirit like a suckerfish, leaching the life from her. Instead of a widow's emptiness, Sylvia burned with a nervous anticipatory energy, a detached restlessness for the life she had planned. For months everyone, including her neighbor Trish, mistook her highly charged but directionless urgency for grief.
How do you leave a dead man? Sylvia asked herself.