alone, together

It made the woman’s soul itch–to be in the sky but have it interrupted by things so far from their wildness–crop tops, a song about Friday night blared from someone’s phone, a bag of taco bell. You could drive to the top of this mountain, so it was always crawling with outdoorsy posers– girls with straightened hair in their athleisure, using it for an Instagram backdrop.

It was her husband who had celebrated the accessibility– a place all kinds of people can be alone, together, he’d said.

There was a cluster of teenagers with their legs dangling off a boulder at the edge, smiling like lovers with their coy eyes and long hair for pictures they took of themselves. The woman considered herself a proper feminist, but she hated them a little, for being so pretty.

There were couples of varying ages on benches, on picnic blankets, throwing frisbees for their dogs, holding hands, talking, not talking, staring at the lowering light, staring at the light from their phones, staring.

It would be better to be old, she thinks, to have had a whole life together. But also it would be worse. Worse because people feel less sorry for you then.

Worse because that’s a different kind of alone– to know you’ll be alone until you die.

She had always been a quick learner, but it had taken her until college to learn the word widow. She kept thinking people were calling women windows.

As if women with dead spouses– through some lasting and metaphysical bond of love or law or the dandruff still dusting the back of the couch– were a portal to the afterlife.

Or maybe that they were just at risk of jumping out of one.

It’s like how she used to think that the word version was virgin and asked her dad which virgin of hot sauce he liked best.

She had been an anxious child, the smell of her fear fishlike and attractive to sharks with silky ponytails and Uncrustables in their lunch boxes instead of her mom’s egg salad and babaganoush.

Her most particular anxiety was that her parents were going to die– she was so afraid of this, she would lie awake at night going through a list of all the ways they might be killed:

car accident

mass shooting

heart attack

brain tumor

robbery gone wrong


regular murder

regular suicide

She made herself imagine each scenario, visualize it, because she figured there was a protective magic in anticipating things– if you think about it happening, it won’t.

That’s why she never let herself imagine herself getting boobs or growing up or falling in love. She wanted that all too badly.

Of course, she’d imagined her husband getting in a car accident a thousand times– every time he sped through a stale yellow light, slapping the ceiling of the car and shouting, Take your top off! and the one time she called his bluff and removed her t-shirt and bra, and he’d swerved onto the curb before he regained control.

She’d imagined a semi slamming into the driver’s side, shattering glass and bone and cage-free eggshells every time he took too long at the grocery store. Every time he was more than five minutes late, she had pictured this. And still, it had broken his neck.

Heads turned to the widow as she found a small boulder of her own, furthest from the parking lot, closest to the drop. Between what she was sure was a radiant grief-light and her lingering anxious fish-smell, they probably couldn’t help but notice her. Or maybe it was because she was alone. Or maybe it was because she was crying. Not in some big dramatic way, no, just the way she was always crying these days– leaking, choked, silent.

It’s something you don’t understand until you understand– the absurdity of your person dying. How fucking ridiculous it is when all of the sudden they don’t exist anymore– not wearing their clothes, not laughing at their own jokes.

One day you wake up next to them, annoyed that they didn’t rise before you to start the coffee, and the next, you will never wake up next to them again. Does that sound dramatic? It is. It’s dramatic to pour his half of the coffee down the sink every morning because you got used to measuring for two. You have to watch all of that dark liquid bleed down your just-bleached sink.

It’s dramatic to pull out your phone to tell him about a man you saw kissing his dog on the head because you think it’s so human and so paternal when he does that to your dog, but then you remember, and you just drive like that for a while with your phone in your hand, wondering what would happen if you dialed. What if he answered?

What if you’d had kids?

What if he had waited one more exit to get gas?

What if you had filled the car up the evening before when you noticed, yes you noticed that it was getting low and just assumed he’d take care of it because he always does, always did.

The what ifs, the guilt spiral, the crying, the sink, she knew it was all cliché. She wants to yell at all of the people on this mountain that she knows that, okay?

But knowing that doesn’t make it go away. That’s the thing no one knows until they know. She can see her single friends bite their tongues when she talks about the coffee thing or how she just stares at the Roomba when it gets stuck in a corner because he was the one with the home office and thus the keeper of Cindy Mopper, their Roomba. He was also the one who named the Roomba that because Roomba’s just want to have fun, he said.

It’s a different kind of being alone, she wants to tell them.

She did not tell them that she’d already had fantasies about getting laid again because that was disgusting. Disgusting that she’d even imagined meeting someone here, painted in gold, drawn to fill the ache in her.

There’s a legend about this spot– called Jump Off Rock for the Cherokee princess who dove off of it after receiving word of her lover killed in battle.

It was her husband who’d told her that story. He’d mentioned it offhandedly, noting that it didn’t look like you would die if you jumped from here. She’d answered that maybe the cliff had softened since then– erosion, you know. So many people coming up here? She’d added that the lover had probably not died in battle but by guerilla massacre or smallpox or something else that was probably the fault of the ancestors of all the white people now sitting up here on their woven picnic blankets with their bottles of Rose and logs of goat cheese from Whole Foods.

“Why can’t we watch a sunset without making it political?” he’d asked. “And you love goat cheese.”

The widow didn’t know why she was thinking about that now.

A strangled kind of laugh broke from her at the memory, and it felt loud in the silence she only now realized had settled over the people on the mountain like a membrane. Silently, they agreed to get quiet for this.

The sun was close to the earth now– a full orb transforming even the industrial part of town into something distant and glinting and full of promise. Even the bag of Taco Bell was soft in this light.

It only took fifteen minutes to drive up here from town. Why didn’t they do this more? Why didn’t everyone?

The widow turned from the sunset to survey her company. Even the teenagers had stilled, looking more like children with their faces slack, their dangling legs bouncing off the rock beneath them. Almost all the couples were holding hands now. The dogs rested with their frisbees, retired to a contented gnawing.

All of them, painted gold for an instant.

All of them, still for an instant.

She felt the air begin to cool on the skin of her cheeks and the chill of it made her take a deep breath. Like jumping into cold mountain water, that breath. Like the inside of her head and the inside of her chest were clean with oxygen and fresh air and light.

No one approached her. No one fell in love with her or understood her or even sat beside her.

But she sat alone until the sun sank itself into the hungry belly of the earth and the people walked back to their cars two by two in silence and the sky went dark, an old promise that everything ends.


Mara Aguilar-Erdman is a writer living in Asheville, NC where she works as a crisis counselor for LGBTQ youth. She received her MFA from Queens University in January 2023. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Rising Phoenix Review, Vestal Review, and others. She is the recipient of the Sullivan Writer’s Grant for excellence in Fiction and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of Net. She has attended Tin House Workshop and has received support for her time at Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference, Disquiet Literary Conference, and the Ragdale Foundation. She is developing her freelance editing business while entering the trenches of querying her debut novel, an excerpt of which is upcoming in EXCERPT Magazine.