CBC Literary Prizes

A Borrowed Husband by Sarah Van Goethem

Sarah Van Goethem made the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for A Borrowed Husband.

2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist

Sarah Van Goethem is a writer living in Bothwell, Ont. (Kirsten Van Goethem)

Sarah Van Goethem made the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for A Borrowed Husband.

She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her work has been published on CBC Books

Chanel M. Sutherland won the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Umbrella

If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31.

You can read A Borrowed Husband below.


WINTER

The first time I borrowed your husband the world was dark and I did not think I would ever be warm again. A chill had climbed deep into my bones, and I thought myself akin to the ice-glossed trees, a ballet dancer poised against a leaden sky. 

Despite this, I agreed to my house being part of the Christmas tours, and it was decorated in bows and tinsel and garland. It was achingly beautiful, like something from a storybook. This is what I've learned about grief: the smallest things are prettier somehow, more treasured. 

I drank three glasses of red wine and pretended I was fine on my own. I hid my shattered heart behind a lipstick-smile and said all the right words, "Welcome, Merry Christmas," as I served veggie trays and stuffed mushrooms and I cannot, will not, lie — I felt your husband's eyes on me from across the room.

And when all the guests went home later, your husband stayed. 

I kissed him first, I'll have you know. It wasn't something I planned, but I didn't stop. Instead, I laid under the fake tree and told him I was a gift. Bold, I know. I could blame it on the drinks, but really that was just me.

I took him upstairs and let him unwrap me in the glow of the twinkle lights. He was one of those people who peels the tape off slowly, afraid to rip the paper. Maybe he thought I was delicate, like a tatter of antique lace. Maybe he was the same with you (this is a question I will not ask).

We clung to each other. Survivors in a warm bed on a cold night. It was just the two of us, cocooned in a snow globe, everything silver-blue. He smelled sweet, like freshly mown hay or grass, and I dreamt of the summer sun, of hazy afternoons.

I only thought to wonder after — did he think of you?

I know I did.

-----

He came back, again and again.

I was an addiction in the dark times. The timeless young widow, a Henner painting, oil on canvas, a weeping nymph.

This is what I've learned about widows: they indirectly belong to the sphere of death. There were two halves of me then. I had one foot in this world, one in the next. I wonder if he knew that — that I was only half-alive. 

Maybe half was enough.

This is what I've learned about widows: they indirectly belong to the sphere of death.

We used each other. Everything was a fleeting moment, nothing was guaranteed. I'd learned that, too, and I didn't expect anything more. I think it's important you know that.

He tethered me to him, like he thought I might float away. He trailed his fingers over my skin and showed me I was still alive. I almost believed him.

In return, I wrapped my legs around him and offered him an escape — from you. 

I didn't offer him my heart.

I never intended to.

SPRING

Tulips pushed up through the ground. A warm rain washed away the grey slush, the grass turned green, and the trees blossomed, all like a magic trick. I emerged from the house like a wildflower and hung clothes on the line, surprised to feel the sun's warmth, after going so long without. I cut the grass myself and had a new garage door installed and changed the filter in the furnace.

When your husband came, he brought your younger kids, two of the four. I did the math straight away. Your four plus my three is seven. Seven is a litter, an impossible number. Especially when they were broken, their eyes like stormy oceans. They were the same as my own children, all of them with different and jagged scars. I wished they'd all had broken arms or cuts, something that bled. Something that could be fixed.

I wished all of us had a different story. 

We played a game of baseball in the yard. I was never good at catching the ball. Instead, I shoveled dog poop onto third base when your son was running for it, don't ask me why.

"Eww, that's gross," he said, his nose wrinkled, but everyone was laughing and I'm not going to lie — it felt like I won some invisible challenge.

Your husband patted your son on the back, a gleam in his eye. "Ahh, your mom probably would have done the same thing," he said.

It wouldn't be the only time he said those words.

-----

I told myself I was fine on my own, until I wasn't.

I was washing dishes when I spied a raccoon out the window. It was broad daylight. There was something wrong; it staggered like a drunk, lurching towards my kids who were playing in the yard. 

This is what I've learned about single moms: they are hardened and calloused, protective to a fault, their shoulders heavy with burden.

I ran out the door and grabbed my son's baseball bat. I sent the kids inside and stayed in the yard until the raccoon was dead, until I won. Until I was fully terrified of what I was capable of.

I wanted my own husband back, but that choice was taken from me. Forgive me, but I called yours instead.

I dragged myself inside, shaky and broken. For all my tough veneer, I am liquid inside. Right then, I was only pulp, whatever was left after the liquid was squeezed out.

I wanted my own husband back, but that choice was taken from me. Forgive me, but I called yours instead.

-----

He brought me a card sometime after that. 

This one was the kind that sings when you open it and turns your world upside-down. Taylor Swift sang You Belong with Me while I stared at the words he'd written. 

I love you.

I wondered how we'd gotten here. 

I wondered if he could love me enough when he still loved you.

Somehow, I already knew he wasn't mine to keep.

SUMMER

Heat swept in and the sky opened up to a cornflower blue. Your husband whisked me away to a small coastal town and we stayed at an old inn with a widow's walk. I slipped out on the cupola and thought of the women in the past who watched the ships come in, anxiously awaiting their husbands' return to port. It likely seems romantic to some, with the blue and sunlit skies, but not to me. I know how an image can be smudged, how a scene can turn damp and bleak, covered in a grey veil.

Your husband was patient with me. 

On the way home, he stopped at this giant sand hill on the side of the road. "Let's do it," he said, gesturing at the teenagers who were already climbing.

"I don't see the point," I told him.

He opened my door, made me clamber up the hill until my lungs thirsted for air. At the top, he scooped my hair back and kissed me.

"Are you ready?" he asked, kicking off his sandals.

We ran down the hill barefoot. I spread my arms and pretended I could fly. For a brief moment, my heart was light.

-----

I took over your life, assumed your identity. I did the things you'd always done. I rode bikes with your kids and went to the beach and camped in your trailer. It should've been you there, I know that, with your toes in the sand and the sun warm on your face. It should've been your back your husband rubbed sunscreen on.

I took over your life, assumed your identity. I did the things you'd always done.

Maybe you didn't need sunscreen. Maybe you didn't burn. 

Sometimes it's tiring, you know, living both of our lives. Trying to be enough for everyone.

-----

I moved into your house. I painted walls and bought new furniture and hung different curtains, light and airy ones, the kind that the light shines right through. I packed up your heavy dishes and put my durable Corelle ones in the cupboards. I hope you understand. It was purely self-preservation.

I changed the sheets and swept the dust from the corners and cleared away the cobwebs.

Still, you are everywhere. Like the ghost you are, you haunt the halls and skulk about in the shadows. You are in the funeral candle, the one with your face on it that no one will ever burn. You are in the clothes in the attic, all tucked away like you might come back and dress yourself. Even outside, you are in the garden stones, the fairies and angels. 

You are otherworldly, the same as my husband.

The thought has occurred to me, maybe you've borrowed mine?

All I know is this: if I want yours, I have to take you and your kids, too. It's a package deal.

Blended families, they're called. Like bricks in a blender, maybe. It is rarely a perfectly mixed smoothie; often it is hardened edges and clotted chunks — little bits to choke on.

This is what I've learned about second wives: they can never be the first. Not the first love, not the first kiss, not the first of anything.

In time I will learn I will not be the last either.

AUTUMN

The leaves changed colours, amber and auburn and crimson. There was a dew in the mornings, a new chill that raised goosebumps on my arms.

Regardless, I knew there was still much life left in the old year. 

Your husband took me to see your gravestone. 

I was prepared for that.

I wasn't prepared to see his, attached to yours. A double stone. It felt like a splash of cold water, like icy fingers prematurely kneading my scalp. 

"I understand why you did it," I murmured, my mouth making words my heart didn't feel. I did understand, though. He'd only been half-alive, too. I see that now.

Maybe together we are making up a whole, just doing our best to mend the pieces back together.

That doesn't mean I don't hate the stone.

-----

One of your sons yelled at me, "My mom was an angel."

Funny how death has a way of raising a pedestal.

I know you weren't perfect but I'll keep your secret. Just like I kept your picture on the shelf.

This is what I've learned about stepmoms: the kids see us as wicked, like in the fairy tales. But we see ourselves as Cinderella.

This is what I've learned about stepmoms: the kids see us as wicked, like in the fairy tales. But we see ourselves as Cinderella. The stories are all mixed-up and flawed, all of us just trying to figure out what character we are.

But I am something you are not — I am alive.

-----

I took your clothes from the attic, the ones you will never wear again, and brought them to my mother-in-law who sews. 

She cut them into patches, squares of eyelet and plaid and jean, and I laid them out, arranged them into a pattern. We worked together, the woman who'd lost her son and the woman who'd borrowed your husband, the two of us making quilts for your kids. She stitched them together with a backing of soft fleece. There was just enough fabric to go around.

-----

I went back to the cemetery, alone. 

I spent a long time there with you, like maybe we were good friends. Sometimes I think we could have been. 

That day, I looked at the dates on your stone, and then on his. This is what I noticed: the dash after his birth date ends in an empty space. Someday it will be engraved. Someday in the distant future someone, maybe a stranger, will stop by the joint stone and ponder the husband and wife and the lives they lived. Maybe they will notice the different death dates and wonder what your husband did all those years without you. 

They will not know about me. I am the blank space after the dash, the absence before whatever those numbers will be.

I am only the woman who borrowed your husband for a brief moment in time. 

For only a season.

And in death, I will give him back.


Read the other finalists

Listen to Sarah Van Goethem on London Morning

About Sarah Van Goethem

Sarah Van Goethem was born in Chatham-Kent, Ont. Her novels have been in PitchWars and longlisted for both the Bath Children's Novel Award and CANSCAIP's Writing for Children Competition. She also writes short stories, one of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, many of which are published in anthologies. Van Goethem is a nature lover, a wanderer of dark forests and a gatherer of vintage. You can find her at auctions, thrift stores and most definitely trespassing in anything abandoned.

The story's source of inspiration

"Love. How love is messy and unpredictable and not always easy. I like to hide behind fiction, but my mom is always insisting I write my story. After my first husband died, I spent the next year writing a journey through grief that no one has ever seen. In doing so, I learned that the harder you love, the harder you grieve. I avoided writing this story for a while, because I knew it would hurt. But in the end, it is also a love story. Just a different one than most people imagine. I wrote it to the first wife because it is her story, too. Just like my late husband, she holds a piece of this story we all share."

About the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2022 CBC Short Story Prize is currently open for submissions until Oct. 31, 2021.

The 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January and the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize will open in April.

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