by Gregory Koop
Yesterday, I was pulling the silkiest green tops off wild strawberries we had collected from the back of our quarter at the edge of the brush. Do you remember scattering strawberry plants over that corner of our field? We really had to look. It was like an Easter egg hunt, putting them in a basket lined with tea towels. Greer found so many. Inside, while I was prepping the strawberries—slicing them, putting them into jars with sugar the way you showed us—our little girl, she pointed at the egg timer and said, “Is that a ghost in there? Moving the arms?” Her face, powder white, was soft and bright. I saw your lips, pink and subtle, and they glistened, almost shimmering, with a lick of her tongue after a big bite of strawberry.
“Is there a ghost in there? It’s a ghost moving. Popi?”
I feel badly now about my answer. My back was hurting. I know, I should get it checked out. But at that moment I had wanted to finish the berries and get them sugared, so I blurted, “No.” My mind, at least the part that once thought the man on the moon could see me skip stones over Black Gully Lake, was silent. Why didn’t it speak up to tell our little girl that, yes, ghosts do live in clocks?
That part of you speaks up. I think of the way the two of you would make dresses from packing bubbles or build fridge-box cities in the garage. I can take her out to the field and pick berries, I can show her how to change an oil filter, but I couldn’t revel in her imagination.
I said, “No. It’s a mechanism. There’s a machine in there.”
Disappointing, right? But she disagreed.
“Time can be a ghost,” she said.
It was strange, but I was really proud and envious. I was proud of her for disagreeing with me, and envious because now I have this letter I’m writing, I have no ability to imagine you getting it. If you could read it, and imagine the parts of our life, the parts I’m proud of, you’d know that we are okay. If you were to receive it, then maybe a smile would crack across your face when I tell you Greer gets herself ready all by herself for preschool. She still asks me to help brush her hair, though. And on picture day I used your hot curlers. She sat on the countertop in the kitchen, and we curled her hair. You even left a can of hair spray.
“I smell pretty,” she said, “like Mommy.”
My mom kept telling me that it’s not about you getting the letter. That’s right, my mom told me to write this. She showed me an article about some place where on one day every year townsfolk get together in the square with their unmailable letters. Everybody with a letter gets a free balloon, any color. Greer wants us to use an orange balloon. She still sleeps with your orange receiving blanket, tucked between her knees, pulling the corner up to her cheek. Anyway, in that town you take a balloon and tie your letter to it. And all at once the whole town lets go.
I’m not sure what I’m letting go of. You’re gone. Somebody—I can’t remember who—called you my estranged wife. I wasn’t sure what they meant. The people who have said that you are the bad guy in all this, the people who shit on you for being a bad mother, wife, or woman, I understand their words—they’re insults, ugly words like bitch, cunt—but I don’t know what estranged means. Are they saying you’re being selfish? I don’t know. It’s too ambivalent or ambiguous. If you were here, I’d ask you to tell me the difference. Maybe it’s both.
I know if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d be called a deadbeat dad. That’s easy. But the two terms aren’t synonymous. Not even close, because when these people call you estranged, it’s with venom on their hot breath. It’s really hard to express how confused I am. It’s like having a disease with no diagnosis.
You’re my estranged wife?
I have to admit that it would be easier if you were my dead wife. That felt as horrible to write as it would be to read. And I don’t wish you dead. I really don’t. Maybe the dead fantasy is a man thing. If it makes you feel better, I usually imagined you dying in a car wreck: a drunk driver, icy roads, a moose, those kinds of things.
Did you ever wish I were dead before you left?
I’ll admit I fantasized about your funeral before—and on more than one occasion. Every time we fought, actually. In the moments after storming out of the house down the laneway, I never thought about a divorce, or never coming home. I’d storm out and inevitably my mind would put me behind a podium in a black suit and black tie. In front of me were all our friends and family, and I would start, “Gloria was a wonderful wife and mother . . . ” It never got further than that. I don’t know if it was because I lacked imagination or if it was symbolic of our marriage, but I couldn’t sum our lives up. Then I’d walk home and apologize. I feel badly for admitting all this to you, and even worse, that I also carry some romantic notion that other women would find me more attractive if I were a widower, a wounded fawn to take into the tub, to bathe and bottle feed. But a man with an estranged wife is just a loser who couldn’t keep a wife. That word, estranged, is somehow pointed.
I know I carry the shame on my face. Maybe that’s what this letter is supposed to do, lift my spirits. Greer sees how I feel. Funny story: We were going to the pool this weekend. I was shuffling along, dragging my feet, and probably thinking about us. Greer looked up at me and said, “Daddy, I will pat you on the back.” But the swim bag was on the same side I was holding her hand. She patted the bag and then said, “Or the bum.” So she patted me three times on the bum. “That make you better?”
I was going to lie and say yes. The words were right on my tongue, ready to fall out of my mouth.
But then she said, “You’re not a loser.”
I almost cried outside the swimming pool. Good thing I didn’t, because I’m pretty sure only losers cry outside a public pool. I did find her choice of insult curious, so I asked, “Who said I was a loser?”
“Oh,” I said.
“It was the time you yelled and it hurted my ears. And Mommy shouldn’t hurt your feelings.”
And she’s right. I shouldn’t allow you to hurt my feelings. You should be allowed to be estranged without that word slashing away everything you did for us before you left. If this wasn’t supposed to be your life, that’s okay. The people who call you selfish, call you a bad mother, wife, or woman, to hell with them. You deserve to have dreams and aspirations and goals. You chose the life you wanted, and I have to accept that we’re not in it. I just wish for all your talent that you could have written Greer, told her why, because no matter how much time passes, she’ll feel that part of you inside her, that crazy imagination, and it will grow bigger and stronger, and she won’t know it’s you. I’m the machine, mechanism guy, but you’re the ghost lady. That’s weird . . . our little girl was right about the clock ticking.