Ask anyone that’s been married for more than a minute and they’ll tell you; marriage is a tricky thing. There are the obvious pitfalls like when to buy a home, how to share your money, and the big one; when do you start a family. Those are all true and fine, but to me (and most men would agree with this) the challenge of a marriage comes in the little things. The day to day ins and outs of sharing a space with someone who, in most cases, is the exact opposite of everything you are.
Sophia and I were like that. We met back when we were both young; she a college freshmen and me a college waste of time. It was her smile that attracted me first, I think. It had this little twist to it, that said she knew more than most and that she was keeping it a secret just so she could watch the rest of us stumble through life. Yeah, that smile turned my heart inside out the first time I glimpsed it in the commons of the student center at the university.
It took me three days to build up the nerve to ask her out. I wasn’t the smoothest cracker in the box to begin with and when faced with such beautiful potential I was my typical suave self.
“So I was uh — well I was thinking over the last few days that uh — you know that there’s a pizza joint nearby that has the best calzones and uh — “
Yeah, you get the picture. John Frankel at his most dashing I would say. I did finally string together enough incoherent sentences so that she could figure out that I was asking her out. When I had stopped babbling and stood there sweating profusely with what I’m sure was a look somewhere between an idiot and a stalker. Thankfully she took pity on me.
“I’ve been coming here for three days and that’s what I get it for it?” She said with that twisted smile.
We dated exactly three times before she moved into my tiny one bedroom apartment that overlooked the back of a strip club. The first time she opened the window in the living room and smelt the wonderful aroma of pee mixed with sour beer she sighed; “I sure do love the smell of the outdoors”. We were married a month later.
Those years during college were the best and most challenging for the both of us. For instance; she figured out that never in a million years was I ever going to learn to put my softball cleats in the closet where they should go, that dinner to me was either fish sticks and macaroni or pizza, and that clothes had three different levels of “dirty”. I learned that women in general like things in their place, that food is something they think about a lot but rarely partake in, and that mornings were something created by the devil only to torment us.
Now understand, I wasn’t one of those “hey the morning is here, the birds are chirping, and I think there’s a rainbow coming out of my rear end right now” types, but I was a functional morning person. I’d get up, make coffee, and smoke my first cigarette of the day with an outlook that was overall positive. Sophia on the other hand was more of a “wake me and you’ll die a slow and agonizing death” sort of person. The general rule of thumb in the Frankel house was that no one spoke for the first thirty minutes of the day. Even our cat Max learned not to meow during those first thirty minutes and that’s pretty impressive for an animal with a brain the size of a walnut. Through it all though we knew we loved each other and that was all that mattered. By the end of our fifth year of marriage life was going good and then — well it wasn’t.
They found the spot in her brain during a pre-employment exam for a law firm that Sophia had seen on late night cable. They specialized in personal injury stuff and were apparently quite serious about making sure they didn’t hire a potential lawsuit off the street. Fifteen minutes in an x-ray room and a week later we were staring at the back of a neurosurgeon with more vowels than consonants in his name as he reviewed her scans. He made this weird clucking sound as he rocked back and forth on his feet and I remember thinking that for some reason it made me think of Thanksgiving.
“It’s a tumor. Too deep to operate I think. You have six months. Maybe a year with aggressive chemotherapy;” doctor too many vowels said without turning around.
“I — don’t — .I don’t understand. What are you saying,” I stammered and then looked at Sophia.
“Thank you doctor,” was all she said as she took my hand and led me out of the office.
The funeral was simple. A few family and friends showed up. We had the services at a spot near the lake where we always liked to camp during the summers and then we buried her in a plot I’d found that was under a magnolia tree (her favorite). Everyone else left before the casket was lowered, but I stayed. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I wanted to watch dirt being poured over my wife’s coffin, but that was the only thought I had in my head and so that’s what I did. When the workers had finished and I was staring at nothing but a mound of fresh dirt, I left and headed straight to the nearest bar.
I stayed drunk for almost a half a year. I’m not talking about just a little tipsy either people; I’m talking blacked out “where the hell did my pants go and why do I smell like three day old trash” type of drunk. There were days I’d wake up in places I wouldn’t remember only to drink myself back under till I woke up in a place that was at least familiar. It was because of the drinking that I missed the whole “people are rising from the dead” news.
The first I heard of what some were calling “walkers” and others just “zombies” or “z’s” was when I’d gotten out of rehab and found myself in the basement of St. Mark’s for a meeting. There was a newbie there, Mike Booth. He was a short wiry little dude with coke bottle glasses and a thinning hair line that would put Homer Simpson to shame. I’d zoned out (most of the time I did unless it was someone I actually liked) and then something he said pulled me out of my daze.
” — so anyways I say to her; “yeah well if your aunt does come back from the grave I’m going to ask her where the hell she left my chainsaw that’s for sure — ” Booth was saying to a spattering of chuckles.
I stared at Booth with the intensity of a boardwalk hypnotist. What was he talking about? People coming back from the grave? And he said it so nonchalant like he was talking about eating a peanut butter sandwich or something. I tried to stick around after the meeting, hoping to get a chance to speak to Booth one on one, but he left with his sponsor and so I left the meeting more confused than straight in the head. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the first thought that came to my head was finding a drink, but instead I just went home.
Home was a one room garage apartment that the folks at rehab had found for me. The couple that owned it wasn’t in recovery or anything like that. Their son had overdosed a few years back and according to my sponsor the apartment was their way of coming to terms with that. They charged me three hundred and fifty dollars a month, utilities and cable included, and I had a place to myself so it was a good arrangement.
The place wasn’t bad for the money. There was a sofa that pulled out into a bed, a little 32″ flat screen T.V., and a kitchen with a four burner stove. The only thing it lacked was a computer which after the meeting (and besides the drink) was all I wanted. I decided to settle for the T.V. and hoped that one of the news channels would have something to say about what Booth had been talking about. My hand dropped to the sofa where I’d left the remote earlier that morning and came up empty. I was just leaning forward to see if it had landed on the floor when the faint scent of magnolias mixed with molded dirt hit my nostrils.
I jumped up from the couch and turned around quick and there she was; standing in the corner of my garage apartment. How the hell she found me was a question for the ages, but there was no mistaking the purple dress she wore (I’d picked it out myself) or the way it hung off her sunken frame like tattered rags. It was Sophia all right and she was back.
“unhhhhhh — ” the thing that had once been my wife moaned as if saying “honey I’m home”.
It shuffled forward and there was a moment, just a small one, where I thought I was going to lose it. I mean my guts, my bowels, my sanity — all of it. Then, as it drew closer, her face came into the light of the lamp that sat beside the couch and I saw the damndest thing. That twisted smile and even though I could see her back molars through her rotting flesh I felt my heart turn inside out just like it had that first time back in college.
“Well I’ve been waiting for over a year and that’s the best you can do?” I said, hoping that somewhere inside she got the joke. I guess she did because that night she didn’t try to eat me.
That was one of many things I learned over those first few days; humor will generally keep you from getting your brains eaten. Other things I learned after I splurged on a computer and paid extra for internet access. Two clicks of the mouse and it was all out there. Story after story of how the dead had started to rise about six weeks after Sophia’s funeral filled my computer monitor and it was all I could do to not laugh out loud at the insanity of it all.
I even found a support group; People with Afterlife Challenged Spouses or PACS for short. They met every Monday and Thursday in the same basement as my AA meetings. It was there that I learned the six golden rules of surviving in a marriage to a zombie or “ACs” as they liked to be called.
Rule 1: Never argue with an AC. They are always right unless you prefer to be eaten.
Rule 2: Absolutely no pets. In the world of an AC brains are brains.
Rule 3: Under no circumstances should alcohol be given to an AC at any time — day or night.
Rule 4: Always be sure to secure all windows and doors before going to sleep. If an AC gets out and devours someone’s loved one- YOU WILL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL CLEAN UP AND FUNERAL EXPENSES.
Rule 5: Never, ever wake your AC in the morning. It is best to let them arise on their own and to get started with their day of shuffling and moaning at their own pace — not yours!
Rule 6: Humor is your best friend. ACs love the sound of laughter and it will generally distract them from eating you long enough to defuse whatever situation you’re in. (Tip: It is always good to keep a small container of goat brains with you in case of emergency)
Most of what we discuss in the PACS meetings turned out to be helpful and some of it not so much. Some things they had never thought of and couldn’t be found in any manual (I don’t even want to get started about how difficult man and wife relations are), but I did the best I could and each day I woke up with my brains intact so I guess I must have been doing something right.
We’re going on our second five year anniversary now, although most of our family and friends still insist we’re not going to make it (well actually they say I’M not going to make it). When I hear that kind of stuff I usually sigh and go back to what I was saying at the beginning; marriage is a tricky thing. It takes a lot of working around the small things to make it without tripping up or getting eaten — whatever your particular case may be.