“Before I Do” by Rebecca Andem

ON SUNDAY, the garden. Only rhubarb ripe in June. Eight years since she planted the stalks. That first spring of her independence, the garden like a rite of passage. Or acceptance. Resignation, her mother called it. She kneels now in the moist soil. Rhubarb leaves as broad as elephant ears against her face, a hint of jungle. Fertility. The pink stalks firm as she reaches in. She slides her hand to the root, seizes the base. A twist and a tug, and the stalk breaks free. She loves that moment. She lays the rhubarb on the grass and repeats. Morning dew dampens her ankles, and the sun seeps into her hair as the harvest grows. Her last harvest. She carries it in her arms like a child, lays it on the kitchen table. That night, perched on the edge of the tub, she draws a bath. Her fingertips beneath the flow, checking for not too hot and not too cold. The dirt dissolves, but instinctively, she pulls back. She knows that moving on means letting go. But still. She turns the water off, unplugs the drain. Her fingers to her nose, she breathes the garden that remains.

ON MONDAY, the pie. An annual indulgence, a rhubarb pie and hers alone. Her fiancé, so treasured and yet so strange, he doesn’t care for sweets. Suite Bergamasque plays on her phone. Carefully, she removes the leaves. Slowly, she cuts the stalks. This is how she meditates. Sugar and cinnamon and dabs of butter. The pastry, she mixes by hand, and the flour packs beneath her nails with the dirt that is already there. The soil that is hers. She sits at the table alone while it bakes. She catches the first scent. Redolent. The sweet and tart, the fullness of home. Her cat on the windowsill. The chambray curtains she hung. She pictures them gone. When the timer dings, she jumps. Careless now, alarmed, the tender skin of her wrist brushes the metal rack. It burns. She almost drops the pie. Cool water first then a bag of frozen peas, but her skin, it bubbles and weeps. This too she wants to keep.

ON TUESDAY, the boxes. First the living room. Mementos of her solitude. Books like friends, like confidants. Jars of seashells combed from the shore. Gorse-scented candles ordered online. For years she harbored a dream of walking the Scottish moors. In the bedroom she strips her weathered clothes from hangers. She finds boots forgotten on a shelf. Scarlet suede. That winter when she pictured herself as somebody else. Rice paper lamps are cocooned in blankets, and the clock is silenced and stilled. But the kitchen makes a racket. Pyrex bowls and aluminum pans. Utensils tangled in a periwinkle vase. She worries nothing of hers will match. Her fiancé’s kitchen is a culinary dream. Hers was stocked at secondhand shops. She holds a box between her knees and pulls the tape to seal it shut. A sound like tearing apart. It chases her, and her haste snags on the cutting blade. Her thumb torn, and she sits back. Stunned. Then mesmerized. Her blood bubbles and pools. How quickly it collects. It tempts her to leave a trace, to smear herself in a secret place. Instead, she sucks her thumb between her lips. The metallic taste of pain. It quenches a yearning she hasn’t learned to name.

ON WEDNESDAY, the furniture. Comfort assembled bit by bit. That first week, a rubberwood table. Lettered pieces pulled from a box, the diagram, the hex key. The pride that carried her on to a bookshelf, a plant stand, a shoe rack. Building by numbers, perhaps. But hers. She reupholstered chairs and refinished a cedar chest. She bought a painting of a cottage garden, a woman’s place. Hung like a stamp of approval. And her yellow couch. A joyous find! She pulls it now to the center of the room. She stacks the empty shelf, the stand, the rack. All of it at once fatigues her. Bit by bit, she falters. A table leg pins her toes. The bed frame knocks her shin. Box after box she carries to the truck as bruises sprout on her skin. And yet she carries on. Packing her life away. Eventually they will sort and match. Hers to his and his to hers. Eventually they will be the same.

ON THURSDAY, the bucket. A splash of lemon-scented cleaner. Water too hot to touch. Latex gloves and a deep breath, she plunges in. Scouring. She scrubs the house new again. Windowsills and molding. Parquet floors and cupboard doors. Radiators, ceiling fans, refrigerator shelves. She vacuums cat hair from the corners, finds her own tangled in drains. Her hands grow pulpy and dry. Bending again and again, she cleans. Her hair falls in the bucket, skims the black water that carries still the scent of lemons. She holds it beneath her nose. Inhales. Fresh and grimy. The idea she could be both. This thought consoles.

ON FRIDAY, the cat. A mattress on the living room floor, a stack of microwave meals, a wedding dress in a garment bag. And Milo. The silver stripes she knows by heart, the crooked tail. They are all that is left, facing each other now across the echo of emptiness. The cat knows the meaning of the crate. He eyes her with distrust. But she lies on the floor. She does what she must. Tempting, coaxing, begging. Remembering. The kitten who climbed her clothes. Surprise attacks from the laundry room shelf. Winter mornings burrowed in quilts, the gentle claws at the base of her skull, kneading. Content. It’s her tears that draw him close. A cruel trick. But her fiancé doesn’t care for pets. Milo licks the salt from her face, and she hustles him into the crate. This too she will have to carry.

ON SATURDAY, the dress. Creamy satin and clean lines, appropriate for an older bride.. She will be the epitome of taste. She will be chosen. She will be loved. But as she sits on the edge of the tub about to draw a bath, she sees it. The dirt beneath her nails, the blistered skin, the bruises and scars. She smells the citrus tang, the sweat, the salt of herself. She hesitates. Again. Each night this moment replayed. She hasn’t been able to bathe. And now she wonders if it might make sense, if a bride should carry this evidence, proof of herself and the life she made. The wound of giving it away. She imagines herself in the satin dress, but with dirty hair and dirty skin. Bruised and blistered and scarred. She imagines what people would say. She would be an unusual bride. But still. This is how she will wed. A woman in love. A woman in loss.

Rebecca Andem earned an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in over two dozen literary journals, and her short story collection, The Estrangement Effect, was published in 2020. For a decade, she lived as a nomadic teacher in SE Asia. She now lives in Tucson with a rather talkative cat and a big blue sky.