Lareign Ward’s work has appeared in Electric Literature, The Mary Sue, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. She’s a Texas native who currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.
Ward's nonfiction, “Two Boyfriends,” was originally published in The Southeast Review Volume 35.2 .
I have both a live boyfriend and a dead boyfriend.
I don’t see much of either one these days.
The live one lives two-and-a-half hours away, including a ferry ride. The dead one lived and died three miles away, in a white wood-frame house on a street named after an Ivy League school. I pass that street all the time on my way to the north side of town, but I’ve never let myself make that right turn. Not since I heard the news.
I talk to the live one all the time via text and occasionally phone, although he’s almost completely deaf in his left ear, which makes the latter difficult.
I talked to the dead one via text until he stopped talking to me, and I was sure he was sick of me. Three months later, I found out he had actually just been sick of being alive.
So then I started talking to him like he lived in the insulation, like he had died and gotten stuck in my attic on the way to the afterlife. I yelled at him, and cried, and yelled some more.
He never answered, of course. So I started talking to him more quietly, in my head, like when I walked down the streets of Seattle that sunny day in late February, the landscape bright and loud, and it seemed for the first time that two ideas could coexist in my head: sadness that he died, and happiness that I hadn’t died with him.
I met both boyfriends online, on the same Internet dating site. They both messaged me first, albeit a little over a year apart. The live one simply said, “Hello.” The dead one noted that the party favor I held in my profile photo, the one of me on New Year’s Eve in some distant state, at first looked to him like “some big-ass gas station cigar.”
To the live one, I replied, “Hello. Is it me you’re looking for?” To the dead one, I said, “Everything is bigger in Texas, but the cigars aren’t that big.”
In each case, I added a smiley face.
Last winter, the live one was supposed to see me over Valentine’s Day weekend, or at least on Presidents Day, but he had just started working again, and it turned out that the check that was supposed to get mailed the week before wouldn’t actually get mailed until Tuesday. And I didn’t have any money at that moment, either, so I waited.
The dead one, I waited for and waited for, convinced it wasn’t over for us, that we still had things to learn from each other. Then I learned he was gone. Just enough time had passed that I could only find his obituary online, not in the big stack of recent newspapers the library kept on file. I wanted a way to hold his absence in my hands and feel it as something tangible, but that too eluded me. There hadn’t been a note. Not for his child, not for his siblings, not for anyone.
They both have wives, technically. The live one filed for divorce more than two years ago, after his wife cheated on him repeatedly, but custody issues have dragged things out. He recently found a combination wedding registry and baby registry for her. He is not sure if she is actually pregnant or just planning ahead. There is plenty of drama in their shared past, and even though they’re split up now, there’s the potential for plenty more in the future.
The dead one’s wife left him a few months before we met, leading him to his last unsuccessful suicide attempt, the one he told me about when we went camping. After he shared it, I said, “I’m glad you’re still around.” He smiled, a smile that grows more distant to me every time I recall it.
Not long after he shared that story, I asked him about filing for divorce. In a non-committal voice, he said they both wanted to file at the same time, adding, “Divorce isn’t cheap you know.”
They both work or worked with computers.
I’ve told them both I love them. With the live boyfriend, I said it with my eyes closed, in a whisper, but he heard me all the same, and he said it back.
With the dead boyfriend, I didn’t say it until he was long past the point where he could hear me, much less respond.
The live one tells me he wants to be honest about everything. He sends me filings in his divorce, attachments that sit unread in my inbox because I am already scared by how invested I’ve become in this.
The dead one went silent one day in the car when I tried to apologize for something, then told me, “I guess I don’t want to talk about it.” Perhaps in his mind, none of it mattered anymore, because it was already over, or close enough.
With the live one, he tells me he cares, and I’m scared to believe him. I’m scared to become a woman who knows she is loved like that.
With the dead one, his sister tells me cared, and it’s a relief to believe her. He’s not around to argue the point, so it must be true. His sister is the only one in the family who knew there was another woman after the separation. I do not know what, if anything, she has told the rest of the family about me. We are Facebook friends, but I don’t know for how long I’ll be useful to her, or vice versa.
I’ve met the live one’s mom and dad, but not his brothers. His dad thought I had a “kind face, like she seems trustworthy.” When the live boyfriend relayed this conversation back to me, I felt both happy and guilty.
The live one’s name starts and end with a consonant. The dead one’s name starts and ends with a vowel.
The live one is five-feet ten inches, right around my height. He seems to have gotten a little smaller as we’ve known each other. Sometimes we stand next to each other and I seem like the taller one. He blames this on his back problems, which seem to be worsening as he gets older. He turned thirty-two years old in the spring.
The dead one was just over six feet tall. He has grown larger every day since the last day I’ve seen him. He died a month after his thirty-first birthday.
I thought I was ready for the live boyfriend, that enough time had passed, and after all, I told myself the best way to honor whatever I had with the dead man was to live, and to love.
That makes it sound like I ever knew how to do either one.
My relationship with the live one has already lasted about twice as long as my relationship with the dead one, although the relationship with the dead one continues inside my head, subconsciously and consciously, whether I’m asleep or awake.
Sometimes the live boyfriend gets caught up in work and won’t text me back. It doesn’t help that his poor hearing means he often misses the “ding” of the text message. I am usually confident that he is fine, but sometimes, doubt creeps in, and I am convinced his almost ex-wife has decided paying someone to whack him will be cheaper than a child custody trial.
I no longer worry that a man will leave me so much as I worry that a man will leave this mortal plane and leave me behind to sift through everything and assign myself a role.
If the live one told me I was dumb and unfunny and fat, if he told me every single fear I have about myself was true, I would be furious, but I would know who I was to him, or at least who he said I was. There’s a bright, painful, clarity to knowing exactly what someone thinks of you. You may not know the why, but you will know the what.
With the dead one, I don’t know what I was, much less what I am. We were headed toward making it official. We had a conversation once and agreed this was not casual, that we were Seeing Where Things Were Going. So I call him a boyfriend because I can’t stand the thought of mourning this deeply for a simple lover. I’m giving myself a legitimacy that he never quite granted me while he was alive.
On the way back from our first and last camping trip together, he saw signs for another campground and said, “We should do that sometime.” He said he would call me Thursday. He seemed—no, he was—making plans for a future that involved me.
But if I was his girlfriend, I was pretty easy to erase. If I was his girlfriend, even a newish one, you’d think someone would have notified me of his death within a few days. I wouldn’t have been the first person to get the call, but my name should have been somewhere on the list. But instead I had to go searching for any news of him, had to stumble upon it by accident. If I had no standing after his death, maybe I’m deluding myself about any standing I had in his life.
My live boyfriend doesn’t want to leave any doubt about his standing. He’ll text me at random times to say, “Hey. I love you.”
I’ll say it back, even as I wonder if the dead boyfriend has ruined the possibility of love for me. I worry that I don’t know how to love a person, only the idea of one.
Even with the live boyfriend, we are Seeing Where Things Go. He is trying to start his own business even after he fights his wife for custody of their children. There was talk of a trial soon, but now there may have to be a continuance, because, in his words, he needs more time for the lawyer he can’t quite afford yet to go to work.
“How much time?” I asked.
“A year, maybe,” he said.
My first instinct is to think, I don’t have a year to wait. I want to meet his children sooner rather than later, not feel like everything is constantly on hold while his still-technically-wife keeps throwing shit at him via the court system and hopes something sticks. Nothing has so far, but it’s still made a mess.
How can I tell the live boyfriend I won’t wait a year for him when part of me is still, forever, waiting for the dead one? How can I get mad at him for putting the final divorce on hold when I put my whole damn life on hold for a ghost?
I don’t know what I’m waiting for, but I must be waiting on something. If not, why is a dead man on my mind so much? Why, for months after I found out about his death, did I draw a line through everything and classify it as Before or After he killed himself?
I drove around town and saw the Mongolian grill we went to on our first date (Before). Down the street is the crematorium where they took his body (After). On my phone is a photo of me laughing with some friends at a party one fall (Before). Also on my phone are screenshots of our text conversations, ones I went back and saved while crying (After).
I fear I am a nicer girlfriend to my dead boyfriend than to my live one. Dead boyfriends don’t hog the bed, because they have transcended corporeal form. Dead boyfriends don’t live two hours away with no car, because they don’t live at all. Dead boyfriends don’t have to hire lawyers, because there are no more motions to be made or ruled upon.
Dead boyfriends, on the whole, are more convenient for women like me, women who are frustratingly, achingly, used to being alone even as we complain about it. Women who say they want to love and be loved, then push away the live boyfriend in favor of the dead one every chance they get.
Women like me, women who are thrilled and sustained and devastated by relationships that exist only in our heads.