In Annell López's short story, “The Widow,” a woman grieving the loss of her husband meets a man through a dating app designed specifically for bereaved spouses. Instead of "swapping Joan Didion’s book about grief like a safety blanket," she eventually decides to follow a stranger into the woods--a hunter who promises her that taking a life will be the remedy that reconnects her to her own. Though grief is universal, an experience we all will ultimately one day share, “The Widow,” with its many twists and turns, reminds us that each person’s journey to the other side of it is unpredictable.
The problem was that Nina’s husband was dead. To no avail, she had been in grief counseling. She’d seen a therapist and partook in a support group where widows of varying degrees of sadness had, too, experienced unimaginable loss. There, she met people who were learning how to cope by either knitting or baking, running in the park, learning Tae Kwon Do, or swapping Joan Didion’s book about grief like a safety blanket.
Despite her efforts, one night, it all became unbearable. She woke up hyperventilating and gasping for air, wrestling and writhing her way from under two weighted blankets the way a snake sheds its skin. She wrapped her right hand around her wrist and watched as her fingers left indentations, then she squeezed her arms and shoulders and the nape of her neck. No one had touched her in months. Not her family, not her friends, not strangers trying to make their way through a crowded Newark Penn Station. She felt a kind of emotional famish that made her bones ache, made her wonder what it even felt like to have someone else’s fingers pressed against her flesh. Anyone’s.
She ventured into LoveAgain, a dating app the widows had mentioned, designed exclusively for widows and widowers. LoveAgain’s logo was a pair of mourning doves perched on a branch, beaks touching. “Mourning doves?” she questioned out loud, her eyes still fixated on the image. She rolled her eyes, then googled doves. Each scroll took her deeper into a rabbit hole of meaningless trivia. Meandering from post to post, she learned that doves were supposedly monogamous, but further scrolling determined this wasn’t unique to doves, as most birds mate for life.
She would have spent the rest of her life with her husband. In bed, he always made her feel good. He was gentle and slow, which she liked. He’d watched her body, kept track of the sound of her breath, asked questions only when necessary, mostly at the right time and always in the interest of her pleasure. Even if she didn’t always reach the peak of enjoyment, she knew she was cared for and treasured beyond the prospect of momentary ecstasy. But now her husband was gone, and she was reading about doves—mourning doves to be exact—and it reminded her of that Prince song, so she stopped her search to play the song, then wondered if doves actually cried. Was Prince referring to the tremolo of their cooing, or did he refer to actual tears? Which she came to find were indeed a possibility because doves, too, had tear ducts that kept their eyes from drying out. But were the tears always functional, or were they the byproduct of grief, of sadness? Although, when she thought about it, every form of tear had some functionality, whether physiological or otherwise. And so she cried, like she had every day for the past year, in paroxysms that appeared out of nowhere, as unpredictable as hiccups.
She wiped her face, then browsed for a photo of herself to include in her dating profile, eventually deciding against every picture. She no longer looked the same. It had only been a year since her husband passed away, but her face seemed unrecognizable. She had lost weight, and her cheeks were hollowed. Her smile, in turn, looked too wide for her now small face.
She sat up on her bed, flipped her hair to the side, and held her phone up to the light. She snapped the photo and then looked at it, zooming in on her eyes, noticing how even her eyelashes looked thinner in the gaps between clumps from days’ old mascara she hadn’t cared to wash off. She tried to scoot over to the left side of the bed—her husband’s side—where a tall, brass lamp curved overhead, but there were a myriad of items strewn all over: a bottle of lotion, hand sanitizer, the case for her glasses, a cell phone charger, a laptop, a notebook, a handful of pens, a Runner’s World magazine her husband didn’t get to finish. This pile of things taking more space than the husband himself did, a barrier between her and the lamp. So, she pushed them over and onto the floor, unflinchingly waiting for the noise of every item hitting the floor to stop. She snapped the photo and deemed it good enough to post.
It occurred to her, once she put her phone down, that she lost track of her late husband’s urn—or rather the wood-carved cigar box where she kept the few spoonfuls of ashes she had left. The box, usually next to her in bed, was no longer there. Did she push it off the bed with everything else? What if the ashes were now scattered all over her trash? She took a deep breath. There was no way she would have accidentally disposed of her husband like that. Not when she’d been carrying his remains with her for nearly a year.
She looked to her right and found the box on the nightstand. Relieved, she hugged it, held it tightly to her chest, put it down on her lap, and opened it. She paused for a moment, asking herself in disbelief if she would do that thing again. She unfolded the small plastic bag inside the box and then slipped her fingers inside, massaging the ashes against the tip of her fingers like grains of sand. Then she licked her finger, gagging at the strange taste, at the thought of her sickness, a compulsion she’d succumbed to after her body demanded what remained of him, like a latent nutrient deficiency. She closed the box and set it next to her on the bed.
She turned her attention back to her phone. The dating app unsettled her. It made her feel watched, like an animal behind tempered glass. Regardless, she went ahead and made a profile, added her pronouns, and self-identified as a widow.
It hadn’t been an hour when she received a message. A white man from somewhere in the middle of New Jersey, a town she didn’t recognize. He wore a blue hat and a polo shirt in his profile photo, sitting on a bench on what looked like a boardwalk and balancing a Marlin on his lap as he smiled from ear to ear. He seemed attractive in an older, modest way. He hadn’t specified his age. Based on the photo, she assumed he was in his forties, at least a decade older than her. He wrote, “Hello, how are you? I wish this didn’t feel so awkward.”
The greeting, unthreatening and unpretentious, endeared him to her. “It’s awkward, but it’s ok,” she responded.
They talked about the site. The functionality of its model. The pros and cons of dating fellow widows and widowers. The risks of wallowing in twice the amount of grief, of basking in unchecked sorrow. But addicts, he told her, befriend one another all the time despite their perpetual urges. They, too, could become friends who helped one another stave off grief, or at least keep it from multiplying.
He said it would be best if she didn’t ask about his wife. The request brought her a sense of relief because she couldn’t talk about her husband, or about his freak accident, and the way in which she had been living in squalor and isolation, unhelped by her recent unemployment.
When he suggested they meet, she agreed almost immediately. She looked hazily at the screen, squinting at his photo. Maybe the widower would bring an interlude to her sadness, a pause long enough for her to unlearn her panic breathing, the loud gasps for air that blindsided her at random hours of the day.
The widower said he could drive out to Newark. His grandmother, a Polish immigrant, had grown up in the Ironbound. As a kid, he would buy kielbasa from a Polish butcher, a man who knew his family from the old country and would speak to him in Polish, despite being completely fluent in English. She didn’t have the heart to tell the widower that Sobieski's had closed years ago, the inside of the store gutted and turned into an unlikely boutique. Instead, she let him blabber away a deep-seated nostalgia for a place he hadn’t visited in years. This attempt to connect was one she was used to. People from outside Newark, people like this man, brandished these remarks like white flags: I COME IN PEACE. I AM NOT THE ENEMY.
“Do you like kielbasa?” He suggested they pick some up and take it to his cabin in Central Jersey. He could grill it for her, and he had a fantastic wine that’d pair nicely. Sulfate-free, organic. He had so much of it he didn’t know what to do with it. Kielbasa or otherwise, he’d make her anything she’d like. A meal, he titillated, that she would never forget.
A home-cooked meal, much like physical touch, was something she also craved. When was the last time she had a fresh home-cooked meal? Not a casserole delivered to her doorsteps made with equal parts pity and morbid curiosity for the woman whose husband choked to death a few feet away from her, a husband who in his pursuit for air had knocked down the wedding photos on their credenza as he grabbed a chair from the dining set and attempted to give himself the Heimlich maneuver, and had even in his dying breath—or lack thereof—dialed 911 after learning, presumably, that he wouldn’t make it to the basement where his wife, wearing noise-canceling headphones, cardio-ed her fat away on a treadmill machine he never agreed on buying in the first place. And so, it’d been a long while since she had a warm, home-cooked meal because every casserole came with questions. With the presumption that she would talk about her husband’s death and answer the preternatural how. How could you let this happen? How could you not hear any of it?
They met on the sidewalk across from the old Sobieski Deli. Cigarette in hand, the widower waved Nina over. Nina stood paralyzed, speechless at the sight of this stranger whom she’d failed to let know the old deli was now a boutique.
She walked over to the widower and attempted to shake his hand. “Nina,” she said with a quavering voice, as if she were borrowing her name, usurping a person she no longer was. She moved closer, registering the widower’s brown eyes. His face was cratered like the moon, and he had a skin tag dangling on the corner of his eyelid like a teardrop made of flesh. Still, he was attractive in the way he stood tall, his broad shoulders unapologetically taking up space.
The widower smiled. “I don’t like to shake hands,” he said. He flicked the tip of his cigarette and took a last drag before putting it out with the heel of his boot. He was a tall man. Much taller than Nina. His long hair spilled from the sides of a loose bun. “That doesn’t offend you, right? Also, we already kind of know each other,” he added.
It didn’t offend her. To feel something, even the slightest indignation, took more energy than she had at the moment.
“Yeah, no, it’s fine,” she said. She stared down at her shoes, a pair of black boots scuffed at the tips. An old Christmas present from her husband. She asked the widower for a cigarette, though she had never smoked a day in her life.
The widower pulled a pack of lights from his back pocket. He took out a cigarette, but he put it in his mouth instead of handing it over. “You don’t smoke,” he said.
“How do you know?”
The widower chuckled. “You have the nicest smile I’ve ever seen. Also, you’d have your own cigarettes if you did.” He took out another cigarette and handed it to Nina. She took the cigarette and placed it between her middle and index fingers.
She’d grown up in a household of heavy smokers. Her husband had been one himself until she demanded he quit, though she knew he’d never completely stop. She had once seen him outside his job sneaking a cigarette. “You’d at least have your own lighter,” the widower added.
Nina looked at him and nodded, unsure how to respond. She’d come to dread conversations since her husband died. His untimely, unusual death both canonized him and vilified her, making it so that no one in her immediate circle wanted to speak to her. Her brother and sister-in-law no longer talked to her. Her own parents had shunned her, ashamed that she had allowed something like this to happen. She hadn’t caused her husband’s death, yet everyone treated her as such, even in those support groups where she was supposed to find solace. In her experience, it was in those melancholy spaces that people judged her most. She felt it on her skin, in the way their lingering gazes lasered through her. How could she let this happen? Others had no choice. Their spouses had succumbed to ailments and preexisting conditions beyond their control.
She caught herself staring at the widower’s body, his perfect posture. The sudden realization that she was in his presence made her palms sweat.
“Grab a drink with me,” said the widower, breaking the awkward silence brewing between them. “It’s obvious we’re not buying any meat today.” He winked in what seemed like an attempt to ease her anxiety over the kielbasa faux pas.
She tried to think of a bar to take him to, a quiet place where they could talk. For a brief moment, she considered her apartment but quickly disregarded the idea when she remembered she’d knocked over the pile of things taking up half the bed. They still sat on the floor, aggravating the ant, gnat, and silverfish problems.
“Let’s go to the cigar bar,” he said before she could offer a suggestion. “Since we both smoke.” He winked again.
It surprised her that he seemed to know his way around the city. She wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans. “I’m sorry about Sobieski's,” she said.
“Oh, please. I already knew.”
The fact that he hadn’t told her he already knew seemed duplicitous, weird even. But maybe he was simply treading lightly, trying to ward off any seedling of discomfort. Perhaps he was trying to be nice because he, too, understood how weird it was for her to come out to meet him, this strange man who wasn’t her husband.
The cigar bar was nestled between the arena and the train station. It was more of a speakeasy, a local gem of sorts known for live music and hand-rolled Cubans and a corporate clientele on some days, an artistic one on others.
The widower led the way through a sloped parking lot and a paved patio encircled by vines and dangling lights. Patrons sat around metal bistro tables, others near a fountain spouting water from the statue of what looked like a Greek goddess. Women in black dresses walked around cutting and lighting cigars for men in suits—beautiful, young women who all looked the same from a distance.
Nina remembered her husband frequented this place. She imagined, nonsensically, that at any point, she would turn a corner and find him smoking there, talking to one of the servers. But there was no husband to run into. He was dead, his presence a projection of her muscle memory.
The widower glided through clusters of people, jauntily stopping now and then to greet them. It was fascinating to watch him. It seemed as if everyone knew him and as if he knew everyone. With his rugged looks and his confidence, Nina couldn’t imagine him as the grieving widower, sitting at a support group with other widowers, sulking in an echo chamber of meaningless affirmations.
The cigar bar was once someone else’s house. Through the patio and inside, there was a living room. Dim lighting, leather couches, tables, bookshelves and bookcases, candelabras dripping wax. A jazz singer riffing off the crowd, a grandfather clock, and a bar out back where another cookie-cutter server made craft cocktails with bitters and tinctures.
The widower handed her an old-fashioned, his hand brushing against hers. He leaned in. “What do you miss most?” he whispered in her ear.
The question made Nina pause. Not because she hadn’t thought about it before, but rather because the question was always there, like the low hum of the air-conditioning.
“What do I miss most?” she repeated.
She didn’t know where to begin. Nothing seemed to belong to her anymore. Not the apartment she shared with her husband or the places they frequented, not even her own body. Every aspect of her being was tethered to a memory.
“I miss everything, I think.” She wondered how long until she would tell him she carried her husband’s ashes everywhere she went. That in moments where she couldn’t hush the howl of grief, she ate them until her stomach lurched in protest.
The widower looked at her. “You don’t,” he said. “You miss you. You just gotta find you.”
He spoke with the authority of someone who had mastered grief. Nina wondered if that was part of the future that awaited her once she crossed the finish line. The imaginary threshold of sorrow. The frontier that divided joy from pain.
He told her she needed to burn the oil of her suffering. Since his wife had died, he had become a hunter. He hunted pheasants, ducks, deer, and bears, and in doing so he exerted control over life, over another being’s existence. It helped excise his grief, halt its machinations to the ground.
“Come with me,” he said. “Let’s hunt a bear.”
She laughed unexpectedly. “I could never.”
“Because it isn’t me.”
“Do you honestly know who you are right now?”
“I’m a woman from Newark. I find safety and comfort in littered sidewalks and the cacophony of honking traffic.”
“And in the ra-ta-ta-ta-ta of guns popping off like fireworks in the distance?” he said, punctuating the sentence with laughter.
“I was waiting for the Newark joke,” she said, and he quickly apologized.
“We can do anything you’d like to do. May I?” he asked, tucking her hair behind her ear, a gesture that made her feel tender. Maybe he was right, she thought. Maybe what she needed was to sit in stillness.
“What would we even do with a dead bear?” she asked.
“Turn it into a rug,” he said. “Just imagine it placed in front of a reclinable chair, the soft light of a lamp overhead shining against the pages of a book. You’ll want to sit on it, bare-legged and barefooted. You’ll want to run your hands through its plush, velvety coat.” He reached for her face, then ran his fingers across her eyes. Soft, softer. She’d been harboring the suspicion that maybe the widower didn’t like her all that much. But the gentleness of his touch made her feel otherwise.
She imagined the rug and she imagined herself wielding a gun, in charge of her life the way the widower was in charge of his. It was enough to make her wonder if she was ready for an unexpected thrill. A jolt that would make her feel like time was moving again.
Nina had never hunted before. She’d never even held a gun, so shooting the bear was out of the question. She had seen a black bear once, roaming near the hiking trails before running away as soon as it caught sight of humans. But the thought of killing one had never occurred to her. Her husband hadn’t hunted. He was the kind of man who’d ushered bugs to safety’s embrace. His gentle hands would cup around the intruder’s exoskeleton until the critter was back in their element and outside their home. She’d read about bear hunting season in the paper, but she’d chalked it up to a thing white people did out of boredom. A woman like her had no reason to harm a bear, let alone hunt it for sport. But maybe this is what healing was, an exploration of the unknown, an excavation into soil that doesn’t belong to you.
Nina had no idea where to even begin, so it was up to the widower to handle the logistical matters. He let her borrow a camouflage sweatshirt, which she wore with a dark pair of tights. It had belonged to the widower’s dead wife, and it fit Nina nicely. It wasn’t the best hunting outfit, but as there were only a few days left of bear hunting season, he didn’t think Nina needed to invest any money on hunting clothes she may only ever wear once. He let her borrow a hat and asked her to tie her hair up to keep it away from her face. She was to be there and observe, act as a companion, not as a hunter herself. He would, in turn, make sure he executed the kill shot. Afterward, if everything worked according to plan, he would call a friend to help them move the bear onto the widower’s property. To all of this, Nina remained optimistic, excited even, to be a part of it in whichever way.
The widower had already been stalking the bear, a mid-sized male that had already meandered onto his property twice, eating his shrubs and brambles with abandon. So they waited behind a large tree near the creek’s bend for the bear to come out.
During the long stretches of silence, the widower ran his fingers across her palm, carefully caressing her wrists, then leaned in for a silent kiss on the side of her face. There amid the burbles of the creek, she could hear nothing but her gentle breathing, the quiet inhales and exhales she’d been controlling to keep her pulse steady. It seemed as if she’d explode at the slightest touch from his hands. And so, she wasn’t afraid of the bear or the uncertainty of the hunt. Instead, she was there with the widower, fully present, willing the moment, this feeling of fullness, this long-awaited relief, to last forever.
A few hours into the hunt, they spotted the bear, large, then larger as he got closer. Nina hadn’t predicted how the animal’s body would make her feel. The bear’s presence, though unintrusive, rattled her insides. The bear seemed almost majestic. Angelic in the way that it moved about, unaware that it was now prey and not predator. Nina watched it as it ambled near the creek. Its looming death now seemed unfair. An aberration much like her husband’s.
Her heart beat faster with each of the bear’s crunching steps. She could feel the palpitations in her throat, the thump of her heart on her temples. She feared that the bear might hear it too. And so she held her breath and watched as the widower nodded and drew his rifle, preparing for what looked like a clear shot. There, she thought the anticipation might kill her. She pulled a pair of silicone earplugs from her right pocket and slowly pushed them into her ears. She wished not to avoid the boom of the rifle but rather whatever noise would come out of the dying bear’s mouth—a noise, she thought, that would sound like the sounds her husband must have made gasping for air, trying to dislodge the hard candy stuck in his throat.
She could not stop thinking about the bear. Would it suffer? How long would it take for it to die, to stop feeling pain, for its brain to stop firing nerve impulses, like electric currents traveling through live wire?
Anxious, she inadvertently stepped on a branch, the snap loud enough for the bear to run off. The widower, still aiming, took his shot. But he missed the bear by a few inches. He lowered the rifle, then dropped to his knees. His face tinged with the look of defeat. He looked at Nina, then wiped his brow and took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” Nina said. He didn’t respond. He picked up his rifle and then turned around. Nina, ashamed of the mishap, followed.
“I’m not upset,” the widower said. “I just need a moment.”
He stopped, crouched, and sat on the ground, bending forward to hang his head between his knees. Nina didn’t know what to offer other than apologies for having ruined the hunt. The widower would now either have to travel outside the state or wait a year for the next hunting season. The idea made Nina anxious. She felt guilty and responsible. If this was his coping mechanism, what would he do until then? What would mollify his sadness, bring him some reprieve?
The widower extended his hand as if asking her to help pull him up. But when she grabbed his hand, he pulled her down onto him. She fell on top of his body and froze, paralyzed and unsure what to make of his playfulness. But then he hugged her, embraced her so tightly her bones cracked, and she felt something akin to comfort and relief. She smiled at the widower, and he smiled back, reassuring her he wasn’t angry. One thing he had, he told her, was time. The next bear hunting season would come, and if he were lucky enough, she would be there.
In the cabin, the widower cooked her a steak, rare, though she asked for medium. She imagined he had slaughtered the cow, butchered it into consumable bits, boiled the bones and marrow until they disintegrated and congealed, cured its skin, and turned it into leather. Would he slaughter her? Break her apart, make sure no part of her went to waste? He poured her a glass of wine. The bubbles reminded her of gurgling blood. She thought of the bear, how they weren’t able to kill it. She wondered whether it was still out there, roaming, waiting.
The widower raised his glass. “Salud,” he said.
“Salud,” she responded, her eyes fixated on the mantelpiece. She hadn’t noticed it before, but there it was, on top of the mantelpiece, a picture of the widower and his wife—a curly-haired woman with round, wide hips like hers. She felt a pang of sadness for the dead wife who reminded her of herself. She then felt a gnawing, a feeling she couldn’t quite place.
She ate in silence, trying to ignore the heaviness of the dead woman’s sudden presence. She tried to focus on the meal. The steak he cooked. The salad he made. And when that wasn’t enough, she tried to focus on the widower. The way he touched her. The patience and grace he continued to show her.
After dinner, she transitioned to the couch where the widower kept bringing wine. He pulled her in, which made her smile. He then kissed her, and grabbed her hand, and led her toward his bed.
The widower was comforting, indisputably so. He enveloped her body, and while he held her, he seemed to become a bear himself—large, warm, covered in hair, and even dangerous. The danger hadn’t escaped her. He was, despite the kind baritone drip of his voice, still a stranger to her, different from every man she had encountered and considered sleeping with. Yet here she was, under his body, smelling the faint scent of his sweat, hoping he would either make her feel good or crush her under his weight.
He kissed her as he brushed her hair behind her ears, holding her face with his left hand. He pushed into her, biting her bottom lip, breathing hurriedly into her ear. He cupped her breasts and pulled at her nipples, and when she moaned, he pulled a little harder, twisting with his forefinger and thumb until her moan morphed into little yelps, little groans of pleasure and pain. She slid her hands inside his pants, stroking him gently. But then he went soft, which made her stop altogether. She removed her hand from inside his pants. Wanting to disappear, she avoided his gaze.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he said, still on top of her.
She wanted to say it happens, but it’d never occurred to any man she had slept with before, at least not while in her presence, and so she began to wonder if she had done something wrong to spoil the moment. Did he not find her attractive enough? Was she too desperate or too sad or too weird? Had he just drank too much?
Before she could utter a word, she felt a teardrop land on her cheek. The widower, now suddenly smaller, was crying. “I have something to tell you,” he began. “I haven’t been able to, you know, since my wife died.”
“Able to have sex? We don’t need to have sex,” she said.
“Able to stay hard.”
She couldn’t quite understand what that was like. But she empathized with the widower, reiterating that they could do anything else instead, that she felt the best she’d felt in a year.
He sat on the bed, legs crossed. “I need to hold something of hers,” he said. “I’m embarrassed to say it’s the only thing that works for me these days.”
She thought of the people she’d met at the support group. She had learned they all kept reliquaries. They’d all held onto something sacred from their former lives. Some women still texted their husbands. Some listened to voicemail greetings on repeat. Some slept next to their dead loved one’s clothes. The widower was speaking to her in a language she understood.
With a glance, a wordless plea, he gestured at a pile of folded clothes sitting atop his dresser. “Would you? Just this once.” And though it would take no convincing, she considered the request and the subsequent silence that would follow her after she obliged this one time for the sake of this man and his grieving heart, for the sake of release, of an exit path toward something else—anything else—past the horizon of the here and now.
She grabbed a pair of his wife’s leggings off the dresser. She held them in the air while looking at him as if to ask, are you sure? And when he nodded, she inserted each leg into its respective place, pulling the leggings up toward her navel, adjusting where she saw fit. The clothes clung to her body like a second skin as if they belonged to her, as if the widower had planned this all along.
The sudden realization felt almost disembodied. However, it had no bearing on the here and now, or on the certitude that she would wear the clothes and extend this moment of grace, however strange the gesture may feel, because she wished someone had done it for her.
She grabbed the tank top. The scent of the dead wife’s perfume rose into the air, overwhelming her for a moment before she could look at the widower’s yearning face and instead see her own, the similitude in the way she cradled that cigar box and swirled her late husband's ashes with her fingers. She couldn’t fathom a whisper of judgment, so she slipped into the shirt and smoothed out its creases, watching as the widower wiped his tears and waved her to climb onto the bed.
There, she kissed his forehead and furrowed brow. She sat up and cradled his head on her chest, letting him sob himself to sleep. Hours would go by before she’d slip out of the dead woman’s clothes. Hours before she would walk to the babbling brook and scatter her husband’s ashes, where she would wail as if trying to keep the bears away.