Absolutely present-tense.

There are about two tons of Stephanie’s stuff in the living room – some in boxes, some on the table, some on the floor, and all of it is eventually going to be part of my planned Steph Shrine.

One of those possessions is her cell phone, sitting on top of her pillows, on top of a box jammed full of stuff, on top of another box full of stuff. Her phone rang today. It was eerie to hear that familiar ringtone, and bonkers thoughts went through my mind.

My first thought was that she’s calling me, and I’d better spring out of my chair and answer the phone before she decides I’m not home and hangs up. I moved quickly, believe me, but such fantasies had already been dismissed before I was halfway to the phone.

As I reached for it, I was asking myself whether I wanted to answer it or not. Do I really want to explain to whomever’s calling why Stephanie can’t come to the phone? But not many people have Steph’s cell number (she preferred the landline), so I figured it had to be someone she knew, or something important, and I’m trying to honor her by being a nicer man, so I answered it.

No, Stephanie does not want to make a donation to Scott Walker’s campaign for Governor, and I’m flabbergasted that her number ended up on their list. That schmuck Walker has worked very hard to ruin the economy in Wisconsin, reduce health care for poor folks, dismantle unions, oppose the concept of civil rights except for gun nuts, and on and on. I donated a profanity instead, and then sent another $25 to the guy running against Walker.

* * * * * * * * * *

Some nights, just before I fall asleep, in that final fog before fading off, I think of something I’d like to do with Stephanie. Or for Stephanie. • We should go for a walk together.It’s been too long since I bought her some ice cream.Tomorrow I’ll get up early and surprise Steph with some fancy cookies from the bake shop. Very quick, fleeting thoughts, but absolutely present-tense, as if she’s still alive.

It’s a brief moment when I don’t know that she’s gone, a tiny fraction of a second when there’s a tomorrow with Stephanie in it. Of course, it jolts me awake, wide awake, back to this tedious unwanted reality. It’s a vastly overrated concept, reality, and not my favorite place to be.

Often I need a pill to get to sleep. The sleeping pills are almost required on work nights, else I’d be a wreck at the office the next day. On the weekends, though, I try to sleep without pharmaceuticals, and of course I don’t sleep well. Crossing over to the edge of sleep and back again several times in a night, I might have perhaps two or three of those Stephanie moments before falling asleep. It’s disorienting and depressing, and yet it’s the closest I’ll ever get to having her back. Honestly, those momentary glimpses of a little more life with Stephanie are sad but also sweet, so sweet it’s sometimes worth the sadness.

* * * * * * * * * *

For all our years together, whenever I came home, if Steph was there she’d say “Doug?” as soon as I’d opened the door and stepped inside. I miss that, but I’m no longer expecting Stephanie to be at home when I get back from work or the grocery store or wherever.

When I actually open the door and step inside the apartment, though, I’ve continued being surprised that she’s not sitting at the desk, playing games on her computer or watching Judge Judy. I reckon being disappointed a couple of dozen times has let it start sinking in, because lately I don’t even have the brief fraction of a second of habitual optimism. Nope, I’m going to open the door and step inside an empty apartment and spend the  evening alone.

* * * * * * * * * *

A couple of days ago, sitting in the living room, I heard a noise that seemed to come from down the hall, where the bedroom is. It was nothing the heat coming on, or the cat attacking a piece of fuzz on the carpet, or a car passing on the street outside. But for a quarter of a moment it could be her, and then, of course, it couldn’t be.

* * * * * * * * * *

In a dream the other night, Stephanie and I were talking, and it was so sweet. It was in the bathroom, and I was in the shower while she was on the toilet. Yeah, life was cramped sometimes in our apartment. Then suddenly I remembered that she’s supposed to be dead, yet we were talking like everything’s normal. I can’t remember what exactly she said, but she was talking about the cat. I was so happy and excited to hear her voice, I yanked the shower curtain out of the way to see, and her voice ceased and I was looking at an empty toilet – in my dream, that is. I was actually in bed, of course, but the dream left me rattled and unable to get back to sleep.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes I hear myself telling Stephanie that I love her. Well, obviously, since the cat doesn’t speak and I’m the only person at home, I’m not just hearing it; I’m also saying it. But I don’t habitually talk to myself and it surprises me when I do. So – I hear it, then realize that I said it, then perhaps nod my head a bit, in agreement with what I’ve heard.

It’s always “love,” by the way; it’s never “loved.” And I always hear it in a sad voice, presumably because I always say it in a sad voice. Today, though, I heard myself say “I love you, Stephanie,” in a mellow, wistful tone, instead of such a sad voice. It’s the first time since she died that I’ve heard it in anything but that sorrowful, brokenhearted voice I’d have never used when she was alive. Not sure what that means.

* * * * * * * * * *

After several weeks of imagining and planning Steph’s shrine in the living room, today I started actually putting it together. The shrine will include some of Steph’s favorite books and other possessions, displayed on a couple of bookcases, as well as several of Steph’s favorite items of clothing, some tacked to the wall and some hung on a coat-rack purchased for that purpose. Also included will be her half-finished knitting or needlepoint project (I never know which is which, and she did both), some of her oft-nibbled snacks, a bottle of A&W root beer (she loved the stuff), the Afrin she sniffed nightly at bedtime, and a thousand other bits of Stephanie memorabilia.

Even at our best financial state, we were never quite middle-class, so all of our bookshelves are either particle-board units that you buy and assemble yourself, or they’re something we found at a garage sale and dragged home. Steph’s shrine will include one shelf-set of each pedigree. This morning, I dragged our biggest particle-board shelves from their long-time spot in the spear room to their new spot in the living room. Stephanie always did the assembly of our particle-board furniture, and she was good at it, so the shelves hardly even wobbled in the move. Nice work, Love. There was nothing she put her mind to that she didn’t do well. If I had put those shelves together, they would’ve fallen apart.

The shrine is barely underway. Most of the shelves are still empty, the coat-rack is bare, and nothing’s on the wall except a couple of tiny Van Gogh prints that she loved. Eventually it’ll be a much bigger shrine, with bigger prints of the same two paintings, and I’ll pick my favorite photo of Stephanie and have it blown up huge and hung on the wall. So the shrine is only perhaps 5% of what it’s going to be, but still, when I sit at the desk I can see it plainly, and it warms my heart.

Posted 10/7/2018.

More about Stephanie.

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