With a notecard and a roll of packing tape in hand, I marched my way up to the mailbox.
"Cameron is dead," read my message in stark red Sharpie, which I now realize looked a bit garish. However, in the weight of the moment, I was too proud, too dedicated to my mission to retreat and revise. I was not going to stop, even for a second, until my message was fastened to the inside of the mailbox. Unmissable to the postman's eye.
Our My postman's name is Paul, which I've found to be a very fluid name. I've met Pauls of countless temperaments. Pauls that were covered in tattoos of naked women and rode motorcycles. Pauls that were so uptight and square, you had to coax a laugh out of them. Pauls that were sociopathic know-it-alls. Pauls that were of the same ilk as my late husband, Cameron. You know the type. The small-town redneck boy with an army family who knew the clerk at the local vape shop intimately, reposted videos of police chases on Facebook with boyish glee, and was especially susceptible to government conspiracy theories. Ah, yes, that was my Cameron.
He died in a hunting accident. I might as well tell you now. I'm not one for talking about death in riddles and metaphors. Better to just spit it out.
It was a true country boy death. I have a feeling his friends think it was kind of badass. They presumably shotgunned a beer in his honor and moved on with their monotonous lives.
I wish I could be so passive to the movement of time, the change of the seasons. It's finally getting green here again, and I'm filled with nothing but resentment. Subconsciously, I know this is because the one-year anniversary of his death is right around the corner.
That's always the hardest, you know. Even harder than their birthdays. Something familiar vanishes, and you never come up for air again.
Fuck! I said I wouldn't resort to metaphors and abstractions. Not anymore. Now, I tell it like it is.
So, here it goes:
Cameron is dead. We were married for five years, and he was five years my senior. Cameron's brother, Connor, was the one who fired the fatal gunshot. An accident. A tragedy that befalls naive boy-men who think they're invincible.
The local women flocked to my house for months with baskets of food and prayers - the house of a 25-year-old widow growing more haggard by the hour. Their well-wishes and pitying glances did nothing but chafe against my already uncomfortable grief.
Drooling, sticky children and fat-wristed babies followed at their ankles, and they would stand in my kitchen, as if trying to flaunt their sacrifice, the weight of motherhood.
I was childless, and would sooner die before having my IUD removed. Still, their parades of children through my empty house felt like mockery. I threw most of their casseroles in the trash.
Shortly after the care packages and condolence cards stopped rolling in, I became motivated instead of dazed. I had to make this house my own. Just mine. I had to clean it out and refill it to be perfectly catered to my daily life. My wishes and whims. So I switched out all the soaps to the girly ones Cam used to complain about. I gave all his clothes to Goodwill. I threw out or drank all of the liquor he bought before being fatally wounded in the woods. That imbecile.
I was enraptured by passion projects during the day and sat idle in the evening. Reveling in the realization that whole days could pass and I didn't have to check in with anyone or listen for the sound of his truck door. No. I was, for the first time, completely unencumbered. Widowhood swiftly became a matter of marking my territory.
Such is what leads me to my defiant morning march up the driveway to the mailbox.
I had grown tired of the constant stream of mail bearing Cameron's name. Driven mad, even. All the sales pitches churned out in a constant loop. I swear, Cam must have been on every marketing list known to man. Someone sold his name and address to someone else who would apparently hold onto it forever...and ever. Amen.
It's kind of funny. You don't think about the chore of having a name forgotten until it's forced upon you by circumstance. There's so much talk about never forgetting the deceased, about forever preserving their memory. Well, that's nice and all, but the real kicker is trying to instigate the proper erasure.
Hence, my short, sweet, and to-the-point message: "Cameron is dead." I wanted to deter postman Paul from even thinking of sliding another piece of mail bearing his name into my mailbox. Send it all back. Throw it in the dumpster. I don't care. Just not here. Because Cameron is not here.
I'm sure word is already getting around that I'm turning into a troubled recluse. Leaving such a forthright yet cryptic note in the mailbox is sure to be the cherry on top of the small-town rumors about Valerie Downs's grief spiral.
Fuck them. I don't care what they think. Honestly. They only know half the story, given they'd never consult me face to face. It's easier to become a caricature of grief anyway.
I'll even play along, and chase them off my lawn like a villain in a kid's tv show. Scram! Get! It's sort of fun to see others tip-toe around me. People who never used to even look at me, who just knew me as "Cameron's girl."
His family seldom reaches out. I assume I've officially gotten the boot. I never reproduced, never carried on their family line. So, I guess I'm just done. Released from familial obligation. Similar to Connor, who killed his brother, I'm ready to brush out all the edges of my old life and reinvent myself. Reset.
Contented with my display of defiance waiting in the mailbox, I strode back into my house. It's now 8:37 a.m. I open all the windows and feed the dog. Then, I head over to the bathroom mirror. I still had my anti-wrinkle neck patch on from the night before. I peeled it off in a clean sweep and admired the smooth surface. I really wanted to own 25, make it resemble the unabashed voracious girlhood I never got to indulge in.
I met Cameron when I was 17, and he was 22. Of course, I saw nothing strange about a five-year difference then, but now it seems appalling. It makes me want to scream. I, barely out of high school, and easily deluded into domestic daydreams. Cam, an automotive worker at his father's shop, who gulped down beers at bonfires every Saturday night with a string of stranded hometown boys.
We never had a honeymoon. Just a simple local ceremony at the church five minutes from his house. His whole family assumed I was pregnant. I could see it in their darting gazes across my homely dress.
After we were husband and wife, he took me back home and picked me up honeymoon style to kiss me before crossing over the threshold. It was awkward and youthful - him recreating something he saw in a movie. He was still wearing his work boots, and he smelled like earthy aftershave.
It was all special at first because I was 19 and had no conception of broader horizons, of other options, of another life for myself. Hell, I hardly knew who I was. Everything felt momentous because it was entirely ordinary. You see, I always thought of growing up as a checklist, and this was simply my means of hitting the next mark. Compiling my life montage for peak impressions on Facebook.
All this pressure to catalog life made it so that I hardly lived it. I had no real friends. No connections outside of those made attached to Cameron's arm. I worked in sales. It was droll and lonely. Just a way to make ends meet.
Everything blurred together during those first few years. That is, until I made the momentous mistake of getting drunk at one of the obligatory family gatherings. At such events, Cameron would usually end up ditching me to buddy up with his cousins - the type who carried knives in their pockets they desperately wanted to show off and called their wives "the old ball and chain."
I'd usually stare at a bonfire for hours or find a quiet corner to crawl into and hide. That night, it was the latter. However, I was not alone in my impulse to step away. I somehow ran into Connor, the infamous older brother, in the laundry room. My drink splashed a little on his button-up shirt he left half-open.
As you now know, I'm not one to beat around the bush. So I'll just jump to the juicy part. The jaw-dropper.
We hooked up. In the bathroom. Cam never even noticed I was gone.
It was a sort of frantic and bleary-eyed event. Quick. Breathless. But it changed everything for me. With Cam, sex was rote possession of my body. With Connor, I truly knew desire, and I quickly became infatuated. It was only after the impromptu party bathroom bang that I realized I never actually loved Cameron. I loved the concept of Cameron - that is, the concept of ownership - that was shoved down my throat from the second my chest filled out. A man picks you, hooray! All your friends marvel and jest with hints of jealousy. You simply must play along.
I can honestly say I never knew how to be an individual until Cameron was dead and buried. This realization has filled me with nothing but resentment for the past, for this younger Val, who romanticized the ache between her legs after Cam took her virginity in the back of his truck. Who never spoke up about the taste of weed in his mouth when he'd come home expectant for a body. Who cleaned up his goddamn mess for five years, so he could sit and scroll through Facebook and rail against the "dirty commies."
Let's just say we were well on the outs by the time the accident happened. Yes, the "accident," which I'm sure you're now suspecting to be something more sinister. You're starting to think me devious.
To that, I say, I'm flattered. Truly. I wish I had it in me to perfectly execute the murder of my husband at the hand of his brother/my lover. I giggle at the thought of my sullen little face popping up on one of those crime shows about female killers. They're usually titled something like Snapped or Revenge, which is very telling indeed. Female violence against a man is often a response to longstanding abuse and repression. Push me to the brink, and you'll pay for it.
Sometimes, I have lucid dreams of being out in the woods with the two of them. Violent dreams. Strange dreams. Sexual dreams. No matter the context, it's never me who pulls the trigger. Because I know, deep down, I never could.
Connor did kill Cameron. The whole town knows as much. What I'm still trying to figure out is how much I had to do with it.
That preceding winter, I knew there was an altercation between them. I was aware of this mounting tension. I never said a word, but, presumably, Connor spilled the beans about us. I suspect it happened right then and there in the woods, and things, well, spiraled out of control. That is death in a nutshell, isn't it? Our body spiraling out of control?
Anyways, before I lose you, I have one last thing to confess about the aftermath of Cameron's death. I got a call from Connor before I even heard the news about the body in the morgue. He sounded emotional yet resolute.
"I know you didn't love my brother, and I understand why. I do. You were like a pet to him. He never saw you as a person."
"What did you do?" I asked calmly, though I had all but foreseen this violent, sensational end to my first marriage.
"Maybe I'm mad. Maybe I did it for you. For us. So you wouldn't be so stuck anymore. So you could be you, Val."
For something so glaringly permanent, it seemed fanciful to deal in "maybes." Maybe we were destined to be together. Maybe Connor was just another angry man with a short temper. Maybe everything was doomed.
"I'll see you when I can," he concluded before hanging up. I have yet to see him face to face. Like his dead brother, he has this fixed trait of paranoia. He thinks he needs to lay low and make sure that things have truly smoothed over.
I, however, know for sure that he is home-free. The Downs family knows the local police well. It was easy to cover up. A tragic, violent accident. Boys will be boys.
Left to my own devices, my year-long grief spiral has stemmed less from heartache and more from a resigned sense of culpability. I should have realized sooner. I should have never married him. You know the drill...shoulda woulda coulda.
You can call me cold and callous if you wish, or plain delusional. My grief is certainly odd and stunted. It thinks of Cameron somewhat like a dead deer that I accidentally hit while driving too fast. I wasn't paying attention until it was too late.
I feel terrible that it died, of course, slumped over in the woods. If only I took the long way home instead. If only I was running late. If only I wasn't speeding... If only. If only.
It's that kind of grief. The kind you can only escape by distraction or erasure.
It's the kind of grief that leads me to tape a jarring note inside the mailbox. It's the kind of grief that lands me in front of his computer for some password housekeeping.
RESET YOUR PASSWORD, each new site entreats.
I've reset at least 7 by now, so his computer can, at long last, transition to my computer. He always had a better one than me "for gaming." I never protested.
Each time I reset, the new password I create is always the same:
It's a new grief tactic of mine. Desensitization.
The more I type it in on a routine basis, the quicker it will become mindless, muscle memory.
Cameronisdead. Cameronisdead. Cameronisdead.
It's the final nail in the coffin of grief. Even my stubborn mind will give way to the hurried flit of my fingertips across the keyboard. Not a thought about the weight of meaning and confession held in a garbled slew of letters.
You know, the best thing about passwords is their routine, universally accepted secrecy. You hold them close but dare not utter them aloud.