It was foggy the day my fourth lover died.
I was 25.
The sun had risen at 6:15. Anthony had risen at seven. My alarm wasn’t set, and I didn’t hear him go. I didn’t hear his heavy boots on the stairs or the shrill beeps as he punched in my security code.
I didn’t hear his car start. I did hear it crash.
My eyes opened, sudden, and I knew. The sound had been glass shattering on pavement and semi horn blaring its too-late warning to the blue Jetta with one broken taillight that Anthony would never need to fix.
I got up and made coffee. When the officers arrived, I had their cups ready and asked, “cream or sugar?”
“Ma’am?” Jones knew me. We went to school together, but still, in this situation, he reverted to manners, like I was a lady and not the demon we both knew I was.
“Sal,” Michael said.
Michael knew me too, same reason, but he never had manners to revert to.
“Anthony is dead,” I told them in my best resigned voice. I never would be resigned to these visits, but that’s no reason to make the cops uncomfortable.
“You slept with him, didn’t you?” Michael asked.
I handed him the coffee cup, black. “Yes. Of course I did. I always do eventually.”
“You promised, Sally.” Michael’s eyes are slits. He’d known Anthony pretty well. They went to college together, same fraternity.
“Yeah, well, you try convincing a man not to have sex with you.”
Both men opened their mouths, but neither commented. I suppose it was easy for them to convince men not to have sex with them, being straight and all, but they knew what I meant.
After they left, I poured the undrunk coffee down the drain and stared out the window. The wreck was mostly cleared away with the fog, but I could see shards of glass catching the sunlight on the pavement, and I indulged in a brief fit of sobbing. Then I took a shower, gathered my things, and went to Rhonda’s house.
* * *
I was only sixteen the first time it happened. Jones was there for that too, come to think of it. Jones Cunningham, the boy with two last names. He was under the Camp Creek bridge with a bunch of guys from school when Ryan’s car crossed the yellow line and hit an 18-wheeler full speed head-on.
Ryan had taken my virginity just two hours earlier. We’d done it in my pink bedroom with the ruffled curtains and my collectible Barbies standing watch from white shelves. It hurt a little, but not too bad, and Ryan was gentle. He was older than me, eighteen, headed to college in a few weeks.
He’d maybe had a few sips of a beer he’d stolen from my fridge. Dad wasn’t likely to notice one missing.
The boys under the bridge all screamed, Jones told me. They ran for the bushes and hid, but came out when the cops arrived. Hard to believe Jones is a cop himself now. I wonder how often he remembers that night, his friend’s body being pulled from the mangled truck, no hope he was alive.
I had sex and the boy I had sex with got killed.
It was a coincidence Rhonda told me. He was drunk. A drunk driving accident ending in death had nothing to do with my virginity. I didn’t tell anyone else, not even a month later when my period was late and I was certain I was pregnant.
Rhonda said it was a “hysterical pregnancy.” She read about them on the Internet.
Coincidence. That’s all. Horrible, terrible, soul-shattering coincidence.
That coincidence kept me from having sex again until I left for college in Vermont. There, one icy evening, working late in the library with this hot guy from my English class, Ryan felt so far away. That night on my childhood bed, the tiny spot of blood on my pink sheets, the funeral three days later, and Ryan’s mother sobbing on the front row. It was all a distant memory.
A horrible coincidence.
Shane took me in a dark corner. We giggled at the cliché of college-library sex. He wondered aloud if there was a copy of the Kama Sutra nearby. Should we do it there, with the book open beside us.
We’d maybe had a little to drink. Shane snuck it into work in his thermos. He was 21. I still liked older men.
We were snowed in all night. We fell asleep on an old beanbag chair with his big coat over both of our bodies. The next morning, we left in his Jeep. He dropped me at my dorm, pulled back onto the road, lost control of his vehicle and died upon impact. Jeep meet tree meet Shane’s perfect sandy blond head.
I didn’t hear it that time either. I was in my shower, Rhonda asleep on the top bunk. I felt happy that morning. I’d taken a step in the right direction. I’d let high school go, quit taking the blame for Ryan’s death.
No one thought to call me. No one even knew I knew Shane.
I read it in the paper a day later.
Rhonda held my hair back while I vomited.
I didn’t have sex again for four years.
* * *
Only Rhonda knew about Shane. It was better that way. On the morning of Anthony’s death, Jones thought I’d killed a third man. Three was better than four, right?
I sighed. Rhonda sighed.
She did not tell me it was a terrible coincidence.
We passed coincidence with Richard.
I met Richard at a party after graduation. Rhonda and I moved back home. We hadn’t taken to the cold in Vermont. We were Southern girls, and the Alabama humidity greeted us that summer like an old friend. It hugged us tight and invited us to don our bikinis and spend long days at Lake Martin or down at Gulf Shores in her Mama’s beach house.
Richard was a real boyfriend at least, not a one-night stand in a musty school library. Although, had Shane lived, maybe he would have been more. I’ll never get to know some things.
We dated three months before we slept together. I was afraid to tell him why I was holding him off. I just sounded like a crazy person, and besides, I didn’t want to admit to Shane. Something about that felt worse than Ryan. With Ryan, I hadn’t known I was deadly. And Shane... I’d had to sit alone in the back at his funeral. No one even knew who I was. I couldn’t hug his mother and tell her I was sorry, even if she would just think I meant I was sorry for her loss, not sorry that I’m the one who caused her son’s death.
You just can’t explain that to a grieving mother.
What would it matter anyway?
So I told Richard I was a virgin.
Yes, I lied. But I did it for his protection.
I told him I was waiting until I got married, and he suggested we elope. He was kidding. I think.
He called me a tease. He got angry. I cried.
And I had sex with him.
I had hot angry sex with him in his apartment, and I was the one who drove away after. I thought maybe that would fix it, if the guy didn’t have to leave as soon as he had sex with me.
For a few weeks, it seemed to work. Richard called me the next day and we went to dinner that evening. After, we went back to his apartment to watch a movie, and ten minutes into some black and white film he insisted I was un-American for not having watched, he was kissing my neck.
I let him.
We’d had sex already, and Richard wasn’t dead, so everything was okay.
Everything is okay, I whispered to myself.
Richard didn’t hear me. He’d pulled my shirt off over my head and his mouth was on my nipple. I looked down at his head and tried not to cry. It was an odd reaction to a man sucking my breast, but I’d already watched two lovers go into the ground. I had a right to be a little terrified.
We had sex twice that night.
And Richard lived.
By day seven, I was ecstatic. Rhonda had been right. It was all an awful coincidence. I wasn’t cursed. I was normal. I could have sex with men.
Richard felt like the luckiest man alive for his last two weeks on earth. I woke him up with sex and tucked him in with sex, and I took to not wearing panties at all. I’d show up at his job, some computer something or other in a huge office building. We’d find an abandoned cubicle and I’d straddle him in a desk chair, biting my lip to keep from screaming.
It was wonderful.
And then he was pulling out of the Winn Dixie parking lot, having stopped for the cookie dough ice cream I was craving, and a huge truck didn’t see him. It took the whole front end of his car off. He died instantly.
I was 22 and declared myself celibate forever.
I considered a convent, but I wasn’t Catholic.
* * *
“Sal,” Ronda had said when I started seeing Anthony, “You should tell him. It’s the only way to keep him from wanting to have sex with you.”
“I told him I’m religious,” I replied.
Rhonda stabbed some lettuce with her fork. “But you aren’t religious.”
I shrugged. “I put a cross painting on the bedroom wall and I burn a Virgin Mary candle when he’s over.”
“There’s more to religion than crosses and candles.” Rhonda was a Christian, the good kind. She did things like pick up homeless women and feed them dinner. She was dating a guy who worked as a youth pastor at her church, and she spent too many weekends staying in musty cabins with teen girls, talking about God’s plan for their lives.
“I know that,” I promised. “I do, but I just need him to believe it enough to not pressure me.”
“You can’t hold him off forever, Sal.” She took a bite of her salad and watched me while she chewed.
I leaned my head on my hands and closed my eyes. “I know. I know, really, but I like this guy, Rhonda. He’s sweet, and kind and-”
“Already dead. I give him two months.”
He got three. We’d been dating almost a year at that point, and I’d just got my first teaching job. To celebrate, he booked the presidential suite at a fancy downtown hotel in Montgomery. He took me to dinner and then made me close my eyes as he drove to the hotel, guided me into an elevator and stood me at the door to the room.
When I opened my eyes, I saw candles everywhere. Red candles and white candles, all flaming beautifully in the dark room. There were chocolate covered strawberries and a bottle of champagne, and I melted faster than the wax from my own Virgin Mary.
I insisted on driving home. I started picking him up for dates. He was perplexed but, by that point, used to my anxieties and eccentricities. It took four weeks for me to calm down.
It took six weeks for me to realize I was pregnant.
I was going to tell him. I was going to pick up an Auburn baby onesie from the sports store in the mall and give it to him over dinner. Instead, I opened my eyes to the sound of his car being crushed like a tin can. I made coffee, and I watched Jones watching me.
Jones knew. Of course he knew. He’d been there the night Ryan died. He was clueless about Shane, but he was the cop that came to my door when Richard died, and there he was again to tell me about Anthony. There was no away around it. Jones knew without me saying a word.
* * *
A week after Anthony’s funeral, Jones showed up again.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m just checking on you.”
“I’m fine.” I was standing in my apartment door wearing a giant sweatshirt and flannel pajama pants. I hadn’t showered in seven days.
“School starts Monday,” Jones said. “You ready?”
“Come on, Sal.” He tried to step into the apartment, and I moved forward to block him.
He left defeated, but he didn’t give up entirely. He was assigned to the high school where I taught. Sometimes he’d wander past my classroom and wave.
When my belly could no longer be hidden, he dropped off a wrapped gift from an expensive baby boutique. I didn’t open it, but it was my daughter’s first present, so I did keep it. I set it on my dresser at home and sometimes I held it and imagined what it would be like to be pregnant in a happy situation.
As luck would have it, the day I went into labor, Jones was on the job. He was standing near my classroom, talking with another history teacher, when I poked my head out the door.
“Mr. Klein,” I said, trying to control my breathing. “Can you cover my class?”
“Sure,” the older man answered. “Everything okay?”
“Yes,” I assured him. “Just a pregnancy thing. I’m sure it’s fine, but I need to go.”
Jones watched me walk down the hall, and maybe that would have been that, but a pretty hefty contraction hit before I could round the corner. I leaned against a locker, bit my lip like I used to do in Richard’s cubicle, and rammed my fist into the metal beside me.
“Sal.” Jones was beside me in an instant. “Let me help.”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“You aren’t fine,” he snapped. “Quit pretending everything is fine. You’re in labor.”
“How would you know?” I pushed the question out between clenched teeth.
“I’m a cop.”
I gasped and bent double. “Do you arrest pregnant women?”
“No, but I have to know things.”
“My mom homebirthed, okay? I don’t like to talk about it?”
“Why?” The contraction passed and I stood up again.
“Because I was sixteen when my brother was born, and Mom wanted us all in the room. It was embarrassing.”
His face was a furious shade of red, and I laughed. “Alright, fine, I’m in labor.”
So Jones drove me to the hospital in his squad car and he didn’t leave until Tonya was born. Even then he stuck around a while, making sure I got something to eat and that my mother arrived safely. She and Dad had moved about an hour away, to Birmingham, the year before. Neither had been thrilled about my pregnancy, but when Mom got there, she hid any sign of disappointment and was every inch the doting grandmother.
* * *
After than, I let Jones come around sometimes. He fell into my life so seamlessly, I didn’t even notice we were dating. Somewhere along the way, he started paying for my meals. He’d help me put Tonya to bed and we’d stay up watching sit-coms and eating take-out Chinese. On my birthday, he kept Tonya all day while I went shopping with Rhonda and got my hair done.
That night, feeling more myself than I had since Anthony died, I let Jones Cunningham kiss me. Three weeks later, I told him we had to break up.
“No we don’t,” he said.
He didn’t ask why. He knew why.
“Yes we do,” I insisted. “I’m not doing this again. I can’t do this again.”
“Do what again?”
“Don’t pretend, Jones.” I crossed my arms where I stood beside the couch.
He was sitting, looking up at me. “You don’t kill the men you date, Sally.”
It was the first time he’d used my whole name instead of just Sal. I’d been just Sal since grade school.
“You’re right,” I agreed. “I don’t kill the men I date. I kill the men I sleep with.”
This was true. I’d dated three guys who were still living, but I hadn’t had sex with any of them.
“You slept with Ryan?”
I blushed. “Just the once, the night he died.”
“Damn,” he shook his head. “I told him he’d never get you in bed, that you were too good for him.”
I glared. “I wasn’t too good for him.”
“Well, I thought you were.”
I was flattered despite myself. “There’s no use talking about this. You deserve more than a sexless relationship with a single mom.”
“You’re right, I do, but this isn’t going to be a sexless relationship. Or it doesn’t have to be.”
“Yes, it does, Jones. Men who sleep with me die.”
“I get it, okay, three dead lovers is a big coincidence but—“
“Four,” I corrected.
“Four?” I’d taken him off guard. He didn’t know about Shane.
“I had a one-night stand in college. He was dead within hours.”
“Sit down, Sally.”
There it was, my name again. Only my daddy ever used it, and I sat down without thinking. I liked how my name sounded when Jones said it.
“Were they all car wrecks?” He asked.
“Yes.” I nodded. Maybe he was starting to get it.
“Then I’ll quit driving.”
“You can’t quit driving.” I rolled my eyes. “You’re a cop for crying out loud.”
“I’ll take a desk job for a while, and the station is within walking distance of your apartment. I’ll stay here.”
“We’ve gone from having sex to living together awfully fast.”
“Nor for long, just until-“
“No,” he snapped. “Just until I prove that you aren’t cursed.”
“You can’t prove that,” I told him.
“Let me try,” he took my hands. One at a time, he kissed my palms.
And then my wrists.
And then the inside of my elbows.
And I am a weak woman.
* * *
I don’t know how he arranged it, but he did get assigned to a desk for a few weeks that summer. He’d get up with Tonya for her six o’clock feeding and once she was back asleep, he’d leave for work. I’d sleep till about eight and then make coffee and shower before Tonya was awake for the day. It was nice.
But it couldn’t last.
A cop I hadn’t met showed up on a Sunday afternoon. He had his hat in his hands, and I knew.
“But he wasn’t driving,” I said, squeezing Tonya close, her head resting on my shoulder.
The officer looked confused. “What do you mean? Who wasn’t driving?”
“Jones. He walked to work today. How could he die in a car wreck when his car is parked outside?”
“Die in a car wreck?” The poor cop was so lost, and I was too upset to circle back, to explain how I already knew what he’d come to tell me.
“What happened?” I asked, finally.
“Jones was shot.” The man met my eyes. His were soft and brown, and this was all different. No car accident. A gun.
I was still trying to process it all when he went on. “He’s in critical condition, in the ICU. You should come.”
The ICU? Jones wasn’t dead.
I called Rhonda who drove straight over. She took Tonya from my arms and reminded me to put on shoes and get my purse. She handed me my car keys from the diaper bag and rushed me out the door.
Halfway down the stairs I ran back up and opened my apartment door.
“Sal, go,” Rhonda demanded.
“But, what if… he’s going to die, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “But neither do you, and he might not. So go.”
I steeled my spine and left again. When I walked the waiting room, Jones’ mother was there.
“He hasn’t woken up,” she said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“There was an emergency call. He rode out with another officer, as back-up. A robbery, the guy ran, and they chased him. He fired at random.” She had to stop talking. She was crying.
Jones’ brother, Miles, came out of his room, the younger one, the one he watched be born so he knew I was in labor.
“He’s still out,” Miles told us.
Mrs. Cunningham buried her face in Miles’ chest. There were tears in the teen’s eyes, but he was holding up okay, being strong for his mom.
“But he’s going to be okay?” I crushed my purse against my stomach, scared of the answer.
“He died, Sal. He was dead for almost three minutes. One of the paramedics was able to revive him. The nurse said these first 24 hours are critical. If he doesn’t wake up soon, he may not wake up at all.”
The words echoed inside my skull. He died. But now he wasn’t dead anymore.
I’d technically killed a fifth man, but the fifth man could still survive.
“You can go back now.” Miles nodded toward the hall. “Room 174.”
So I went. Step by step towards his door, I prayed to a God I’d only ever pretended to believe in. I promised I’d go to church with Rhonda and I’d start giving money to the homeless man at the I-85 entrance ramp, and I’d make sure Tonya believed in Jesus even if it all still sounded crazy to me. I mean, men dying after having sex with me seemed pretty crazy too, and it had obviously been true four times.
I walked into Jones’ room and sat in a chair near his head. It was still warm from Miles. I stared at Jones’ face, his thick eyelashes, the freckle near his left ear, the five o’clock shadow from skipping his shave to feed my daughter. I reached my hand to touch his fingers. They were cool, but not cold, and I squeezed his hand between both of mine.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I told you. I told you, you stupid stupid man. I warned you this would happen.”
The room was quiet for a while I sniffled and wiped my eyes. I don’t know how long he was awake before I noticed. When I met his eyes, I startled.
“Sal,” he croaked.
“You’re alive!” I stood up, still holding his hand, and he groaned. “Oh, sorry.” I let go of him.
“You warned me about a car accident, you crazy woman. You never said a thing about a bullet.”
It was so ridiculous, I laughed. He tried to laugh too but only coughed, and then a nurse was there, and I was led away. I fetched his mother and Miles. The other siblings were starting to trickle in, two sisters, twins, and another brother, younger than us but older than Miles. We all waited together.
* * *
Rhonda asked me once, “How long will it take? How long will Jones have to live before you stop being afraid?”
“Forever,” I said. “I need him to live forever.”
It was foggy the day my fifth lover died.
I was 81.
By the time I put this last man in the ground, we are old. Tonya is 55, a grandmother. Jones Jr. is 50 and has two kids in college. Lacey and Louise are 47, and our youngest, our surprise baby, Cooper, is about to turn 40. They all sit beside me on the pew in the same church where each of them was baptized. I kept my promise. I’m not sure I ever came to entirely believe in God or Jesus or anything else, but I prayed promises that day in the hospital, and I kept every single one.
Heather Truett drinks Sweet Cream in her coffee. Her DVR is set to record Doctor Who, Grey's Anatomy, and Modern Family. She has a serious chapstick addiction, a history of purple/blue/green hair styles, a tattoo on her left ankle, a whole solar system of freckles, and she may or may not spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince her kids. She is a Time Lady from Gallifrey. She is represented by Peter Knapp of New Leaf Literary.