Alexandra Marshall


Child Widow

Plougshares, Volume 29, Numbers 2-3, Fall 2003

Selected for "100 Other Distinguished Stories" in The Best American Short Stories 2004

"Quick weddings and short marriages are all I know," I admitted in my interview at June's Brides, "but I love lace, and I'm capable of telling white lies to brides' mothers. I was a psych minor, so I know everything is harder than it looks." I got the job.

And for the next few years, June's Brides and I took advantage of the convergence of a high divorce rate and a stock market that allowed the brides of Westchester County to spend more on their second and third weddings than their parents did on the first. Our designs were custom knockoffs, and because we made it fun to shop at June's—only the month was named June, but we all pretended we were—we attracted business from the city too, taking advantage of our great location across the street from the Bronxville station just twelve minutes by train from Grand Central. With the Junior Bush administration's economic downturn I got downsized, however, so I decided to mark my thirtieth birthday by retracing my steps to figure out how—starting with my two marriages—I went wrong.

My ticket was on the Ghana Airways direct flight to Accra, and though I knew to under-pack, at the last minute I brought along a carton of lace samples to give away. My first stay in Ghana was as a Peace Corps volunteer, but because I left in such a hurry I'd brought back nothing more than my husband's body and no simple answer to the question of what happened to him. Married less than a year, I was still a child bride when I became a child widow in the minute Martin's motorcycle slid out from under him. Marrying soon again, but this time to someone I'd known since second grade, I just as quickly became one more divorced woman than Manhattan seemed to have use for.

"Is this your first visit to Ghana?" The passenger next to me was enjoying his Scotch while I sipped a Star beer, thinking it would work on me like a madeleine, which it didn't.

"I was last there six years ago."

"Peace Corps," he guessed. He looked about my father's age.

"It's that obvious?" He was right, though. I was wearing Eileen Fisher's wrinkled linen, which made me look slept-in, the way American travelers travel.

He smiled. "I still remember the first group that came to Ghana in 1961. They sang our new national anthem, in Twi, on arriving at the airport."

That photo was Exhibit A of our Peace Corps training, including how dressy they looked in their skirts and trousers. "It was broadcast throughout Ghana, we were told."

"I heard it on the radio and, like all the best public relations, I never forgot it. And then of course your last president brought his family to visit. I saw that on television." He was crowding me now, having relaxed into my half of the narrow armrest and let his beefy knee fall in my direction.

"President Clinton in kente cloth," I said, "was when I saw I had to come back." As I said this, I discovered how true it was. "And here I am."

"In transit," he corrected me as he ripped open his envelope of peanuts and funneled them into his mouth.

At the airport I'd noticed the flight attendants in their crew clusters, and I'd observed that KLM's uniforms were the color of their uniformly blue eyes, while Ghana Airways wore the midnight brown of theirs. To the extent that this was a marketing concept, I guess you could say it worked, at least as an effective reminder that by flying with a foreign airline, the trip begins immediately. As we boarded I'd noticed that, almost without exception, this Ghana Airways manifest was on its way home.

"You have a new president," I said neutrally.

"It was about time," he answered, equally matter-of-factly. His voice was soft but deep.

I decided to say, "But, for a change, yours was democratically elected. Unlike my own."

And now he laughed. "We noticed that." Hesitating before continuing, he then added, "We're wondering whether or not you Americans will still send yourselves around the world to monitor fair elections."

So now I laughed.

After the meal he slept with his knees pressed against the seat in front, boxing me in. With his watch set ahead, I could see it was evening, local time. I'd brought an anthology of Ghanaian poetry, but since it was in the overhead compartment I had nothing to read. There was no view, this high, not counting the dense white on white of the earth's atmosphere.

Martin had stayed on for a second Peace Corps term, so that by the time I got there he was already an expert. He was overly persuasive, by which I mean that I too was capable of love at first sight—loving Ghana immediately, if not Martin, who seemed pushy—but in the end Martin also won me over, by proposing. Because Martin got word that his parents were divorcing after twenty-nine years, he convinced me to allow him to compensate. He taught in a secondary school upcountry, and although I'd been assigned to a village nearer to Accra, he'd decided I ought to be transferred. Cleverly, he arranged for me to visit him in Kumasi in the few weeks between the end of the harmattan winds and beginning of the rainy season. The city's seven hills had their way with me too, but Martin seduced me with his knowledge of the female body—more sophisticated than internal exams—and the palm wine that grew on me with repeated applications. The motorcycle also helped.

Surprisingly, Martin was a cautious driver. He made us wear helmets that were so big they looked more suitable for outer space than life only five degrees from the equator. He never drove at night, to avoid collisions with roaming animals, and he always kept his eyes on the road. The only chance he ever took was in allowing me to press my body against his and slip my hands down the front of his pants.

"Tell me again," he'd say every time I told him I was happy.

"Again," I'd tease.

"Tell me again and again."

"Again and again."

That these were our last words to each other made me feel less guilty than if I'd been in a hurry and refused to play it for the two-hundredth time. Was there anything else that I might have noticed about that final encounter? The young policeman was ready to investigate me with his notebook and pen, but all I could say was, "Nothing."

Martin had one brother who lived with their mother in New Hampshire, but I didn't dare call in case she answered the phone and I had to say, "You don't know me, but I was married to your former son." The U.S. Ambassador was away that week on what I later learned was a golf getaway to Bermuda, but someone else figured out how to send semi-official sympathy to the family. Of course Washington took care of all costs, including a coffin that was simple by Ghanaian standards, a plain gold-painted box with no carving on it. There was no autopsy required, since an eyewitness reported seeing nothing unusual in the moments before the motorcycle left the road. Because Martin's parents couldn't agree on a proper funeral, there wasn't what you could call a fitting tribute to a young man who, as his mother admitted the only time we met, had always been something of a stranger. Martin's younger brother said he knew Marty would love the coffin, though, which was when I learned Martin had that nickname, and which explained why he'd asked me not to call him that again, please.

Because the death was ruled "Accidental" there was a bit of insurance money I signed over to his mother once I saw how little she had. This seemed fine with her since I guess she didn't feel she was to blame, the way I did. I made copies of the pictures I'd taken of Martin in the year I'd known him, but she said he looked too different, in his adinkra cloth, from what she chose to remember. I didn't tell her adinkra is the word for farewell.

The eerie gray-green fluorescent streetlights made Accra look otherwordly as we circled before landing, but once in the terminal I recognized the chaos. Pressed from all sides for help I didn't need with my luggage, I was suddenly unsure why I'd come. I had no need for added proof of my own insecurity, but I asked myself anyway what I hoped to learn—to change—with my return to Ghana. Adaptively, the answer to this question could automatically become the new purpose of the trip.

The white light of the terminal extended onto the sidewalk outside. Flight crews from the various foreign carriers immediately vanished into vans to four-star hotels where they could change out of their uniforms and quench their thirsts with beverages imported from their own countries of origin. Ricocheting voices were a mix of tribal languages older than English, rising up in a cloud of sound absorbed by the dark sky whose gold stars looked closer to the earth here. The evening air was cool, fragrant with the sweet toxicity of diesel exhaust.

I knew better than to rent a car in Accra, and although the Peace Corps taught me to use local transport, after the long flight I decided to spare myself that ultimate crowding experience. A woman who balanced on her head a tray of stacked loaves of what looked like white bread pointed over her shoulder when I asked, "Taxi?"

My hotel was a one-star—hot water and fan—that called itself The Riviera Beach for its good location. As advertised, its "sea-facing" bar caught the evening breeze, and I easily remembered I was being welcomed when the desk clerk said, "Akwaaba!" The shower was shared, but because there were so few guests it was an upgrade to a private bath at no extra charge, he said gently. The water was lukewarm, in fact, but nothing could have felt better. With the exception of Martin.

He haunted my second marriage, or so Jesse complained, by having had the unfair advantage of being a complete stranger. Jesse and I remembered each other from the era before acne medication transformed adolescence, back when other city kids our age would kill each other for gold necklaces and sneakers. Our private school world was semi-precious in this regard, but our parents never knew the half of what we did in their apartments when they went out and we pretended to study.

Like me, Jesse was the child of academics, but he traded up with his first marriage to the daughter of a corporate honcho, whose money wasn't sufficient to bribe her into pretending to be heterosexual. Jesse blamed himself for being a boring sexual partner, and since he was, it was difficult to argue. We decided we were each other's consolation prizes, but neither was that enough to make our marriage work. We haven't stayed in touch the way we might if we'd never married, but because Jesse writes our class notes in the Friends School Bulletin, I know that the three children he has with his third wife fulfill his only real ambition. He proved how happy he's become by bringing all four of them to a recent reunion, making it obvious how little I have going for me compared to what I once had, twice.

The cliché lesson to live as if you'll die tomorrow was my inheritance, and I spent it. My commitments never lasted longer than my interests, including on my twenty-ninth birthday when I woke up next to a man whose last name I couldn't recall having asked him the night before. The job at June's Brides was all about putting all of your eggs into one basket—repeatedly—so it wasn't any wonder that my own attention wandered from one customer to the next. I noticed this, but I wasn't ready to quit until the day I got laid off, when, yet again, I had the advantage and the disadvantage of the freedom to start over. This was when I traded in the cliché of living as if you'll die tomorrow for its opposite—as if you'll live forever—and saw how much harder it would be to put together a deliberate life.

If Martin had been Ghanaian, his brother could have married me—even without children, I'd have had some value—as a way of keeping my third of the estate in the family. It would be less easy to postpone adulthood here, where I could be a grandmother at my age. This wasn't hard to imagine, either, because Martin had already assumed I'd extend my Peace Corps service, like him, for at least one more term. That I'd left immediately after he died would have been understandable to anyone, but that I'd had no impulse to return would have been a mystery to Martin. Was I fleeing? The entire time?

My bus ticket to Kumasi cost less than fifty cents an hour at the rate it took to get there. I had a seat by an open window, so, unlike the other passengers whose hair grew close to the scalp, mine flew like a pinwheel. Every time the bus slowed, pubescent girls approached from the side of the road balancing on their heads shallow basins holding knotted sandwich-size plastic bags of cool water—"Iiiiiisss-wata!"—I didn't dare to drink. From the bus station a taxi took me a short way to Orchids Guesthouse, where I lay on the bed under the ceiling fan for the best twenty minutes of that day. In the morning, after a square of pale toast and tart citrus jam, I was ready to travel the road where Martin's motorcycle took him with it—or vice versa—at the place where now there was a little building and six women sitting at their sewing machines to work vibrant batiks into fitted dresses with short full sleeves and long straight skirts. The sign on the rusty corrugated metal roof said BRIDAL'S.

Martin and I lived in a cement-block house adjacent to the secondary school where he'd taught, but first I knew I had to present myself at the Chief's compound to pay my respects with gifts of cash and a good bottle of schnapps for libation. I'd decided that the carton I'd carried on the plane was for the Queenmother, who favored lace for her curtains and tablecloths. Though it had been six years since we'd seen each other, it was reasonable to assume that my life was the most changed. But it seemed not, when I was immediately surrounded by girls whose young mothers had been girls on my last visit.

The Queenmother invited me to sit in her parlor, where I'd spent the afternoon and evening of Martin's death, but now it was crowded with a boxy furniture set upholstered in a deep mahogany synthetic plush. Women gathered in her courtyard with the excuse of bringing Nana Abena a few warm eggs or okra pods from garden plots closer than the fields they also cultivated. They came shyly, but soon the carton was opened and its contents distributed, displayed against the brown fabric so the patterns were more obvious. When one woman draped a panel around her shoulders and another at her waist, a full-length mirror with broken corners was fetched and propped at an angle. And soon they all wore white, while they pointed to their reflected images and kept saying two words I didn't understand. How could I guess—when I imagined them pretending to be brides—they were saying white is the color for widows.

Next they shouted out their surprise at how easy it is to imagine their husbands dropping dead. The Queenmother was the only one not to indulge, and she said the others were just pretending. "Because they know I'm a widow?" Nowhere else in the world, but here, would I be known as a widow rather than a divorced woman.

"No, no," Nana Abena said, "since although of course they know you were a widow, they assume remarriage. They simply take pleasure, looking in the glass, in playing at make-believe, as I think you call it."

Because, here, the brides wear traditional dress for rituals that matter, this dress-up play wasn't about fairy tale weddings where commoners pretend to be princesses marrying their princes. Here, to wear white was the opposite of belonging to a man. For this interval between marriage and remarriage—here was the reason for their outright laughter—it became possible to wear a non-color.

At June's Brides we always wore black, as if, for the effect, we could represent the men in their rented tuxedos. Like most women I know I prefer to look smaller than I am—I avoid white—and, though I couldn't admit this when I worked there, my two wedding dresses weren't just "off-white" but way off-white. The Queenmother would remember that Martin and I wore the kente cloths he'd commissioned, and the next time, as I told her, my dress was gray—silver, Jesse called it, always looking for that lining—because I was used goods.

"There is no such thing in Ghana," the Queenmother scolded, "as you remember from your short time here." Her assumption was that this time I intended to stay longer.

"They look happy," I deflected, watching them admire each other. It went without saying that, against their uniformly dark skin, the lace couldn't have looked better.

The bus trip back from Kumasi to Accra was shorter than the way up, but it was sufficient to convince me to drop by the Ghana Airways office to pay the penalty for changing my plane ticket from later in the week to sometime in the future. Then I stopped off at the Peace Corps office, which had remained in the same location. On the bus I'd realized I hoped it was an option for me to complete my interrupted term.

"Please, one moment," I was told by the young man at the front desk.

I knew my own way to the upstairs corner office, but since I was only asking to make an appointment for the next day, it surprised me to be taken right up. The taxi driver was happy to wait, since, as he'd already told me, I was his first paying customer of the day.

Other than the newer computer on the desk in the hallway, nothing seemed changed. There was a laminated set of instructions for personal email, but the random issues of Time and Newsweek were still stamped DO NOT BORROW. The official photograph of the newly elected president, J.A. Kufuor, had replaced Flight Lieutenant J.J. Rawlings after his twenty years in strict power. But it was the same picture frame hung above eye level on a wall not recently re-whitewashed.

"Welcome," said the American woman who came from behind the closed door, "you caught me just as I'm leaving, but come in anyway." She indicated that I was to sit, but she remained standing. "For Cote d'Ivoire." From her pronunciation of Ivory Coast I was meant to see she spoke French. I was to understand she'd been a volunteer herself from the framed snapshot on her desk, showing her in a rural health clinic. Contrary to the Ghanaian way of exchanging formalities before getting down to business, I was expected to explain myself this efficiently.

It was shocking how little time it took to tell Martin's story. My Peace Corps portion was short, too. "I left Ghana early," I decided to say, "and now that I'm back, I don't want to leave prematurely again."

"I'm gone ten or more days," she said, squinting at me with provisional suspicion, "and I suppose your visa's about to expire." The puff of air she expelled conveyed she had to deal with visas more than she liked.

"I'd need to renew it, but not immediately."

"In the meantime?"

I knew this was a test as well. If I said I'd go back to New York in order to put my affairs in order, she'd know not to bother with me. This is why I said, "On my way out, I could email a friend about subletting my apartment."

Now she seemed to see she hadn't asked me anything about my life since Martin's death, so she did.

"Well," I said, "I remarried, but mostly to understand why I'd married Martin in the first place. And after that second marriage ended, I found my way to a shop called June's Brides, probably for the same reason. At the moment, I'm unmarried and unemployed."

Her look conveyed sympathy and disapproval. Not much older than me, she wore large gold hoop earrings and wrapped her hair, like a gift, in the same green and black Akosombo batik as the fitted blouse and skirt she wore with Chaco sandals from someplace like Eastern Mountain Sports. Her skin color was also a blend. In a polite voice she asked, "And would you say you understand why?"

"Not yet." Then I told her, "I can tell you why I joined the Peace Corps, though, and why I've come back here. Unfinished business."

"Your own?"

"That too, but I was thinking of the world's."

At The Riviera Beach, when I told the desk clerk I'd need a room for two weeks, it was as if I'd single-handedly erased the hotel's budget deficit. I was provided a top sheet without having to request one, and the ceiling fan seemed to work on all three speeds. The afternoon sun was still high above the horizon, but it was clear that from this window I would have an unobstructed view of a Gulf of Guinea sunset.

Already, the sun spread its wealth, turning the water gold. This land continued to be mined for the precious mineral that lured foreign exploitation throughout Ghana's fierce history. Because Peace Corps volunteers are descended from those same colonizers, our mandate was to give more than we got. This is why I mistrusted the feeling I had in my chest, a fist-like clamp releasing its hold. Was it possible to seize power without taking anything from anybody?

From here the coastal road continued to the harbor at Tema, then north to the Akosombo township village I'd abandoned to join Martin in Kumasi. At the time nobody questioned my abrupt departure, but it was also true that I hadn't been asked to account for my arrival either. Once again it appeared that my immediate future was being radically reconfigured without any specific plan. This harshly exhilarating feeling seemed familiar to me, with a difference. Now I felt as free as sunlight.

"What would you like to do when you leave the Peace Corps?" was the one phony part of the application process, which is why I can't recall what I answered the first time. Since the Peace Corps was designed as transformative, I now know it's a trick question, but the truth is that not even a psych major could have predicted my spending three years in a bridal boutique. Martin told me he could never go back home to New Hampshire, where anarchy passed itself off as rugged individualism. Here, he said, the greater good required collaboration, which was why he wanted me to pledge myself to him—to this—for "whatever forever" we were to have. If this was a clue that Martin's time was limited, I obviously missed it.

My intake interview the first time had lasted an hour, whereas this afternoon it took seven or eight minutes. When I said my motivation was the world's unfinished business I saw I had her attention, so I suggested to her that, while she was out of the country, I'd design a project she could fund or not fund. "I might be out of a job," I told her, "but I'm not out of work."

She supplied, "I understand your need to finish what you began," and then she asked, "but what do you hope to find?"

"The person I might once have become."

Filling my chest with a deep breath I held onto, I made myself focus on the bright surface of the Gulf, sparing my eyes the harsh reality of a direct look at the dense fiery sun. It shocked me to realize how few people would need to know I'd be remaining here for an indefinable duration—how few knew I'd left home, for that matter—which was what allowed me to weep for the impulsive boy who never turned twenty-six, and for the girl he married.

He always asked, "Tell me again," and, "Tell me again and again," and I'd answer, "Again," and "Again and again." That last time it would have been simpler for me to tell Martin, "I'm not in the mood," instead of, "Good idea!" I only wish I'd been more reckless about birth control, so that the seed he'd planted in me that last morning might have had a chance to grow. This might have been his intention, to the extent that he had one.

I felt unsteady on my feet, so I focused again on the brightly fractured water surface. Martin's impetuous love, I saw, had the power to stay alive within me, if I only let it. Turning thirty, I could toss the rest of my twenties overboard—not like an anchor—like a fish. ▣