Nels Highberg


The Husband

Some people thought—or wanted to believe—my Facebook account had been hacked. But once I posted the photo, everyone knew I was telling the truth. Making it the cover photo that stretches across the top of my profile page confirmed it. Gary was a private person, so much so that the dissertation he wrote for his PhD in history focused on the philosophical principles undergirding privacy as a legal concept from the Enlightenment to the founding fathers to contemporary America.

He asked me never to use his name or photo on Facebook or Twitter, and it was never an issue in the decade since I created my accounts. I just called him "the husband." The husband and I watched the first part of Kill Bill on DVD tonight. I promised the husband I wouldn't watch Downton Abbey until we could see it together tomorrow night. When Gary passed his dissertation defense, I said so online, but I deleted comments from anyone who knew him and congratulated him by name. "They should know by now I don't want my name out there like that."

After I made the calls to his best friend, to my best friend, to my sister, to anyone I knew how to reach who needed to know, I posted online: "A few hours ago, I found the body of my husband, Gary, on the floor of his office. He had died sometime in the night." I wrote more, but everyone said it was seeing his name that stunned them.

Less than a week earlier, we had returned to Connecticut from a tour of Japan. I had all of my photos and Gary's on my computer so I could spend the coming weekend deciding what to post online. I knew each time someone had taken a photo of us together because Gary never liked having photos of himself taken. This had been true his entire life and not just a fear born after the creation of social media. We had only been out of the United States three times in our lives and always together. The UK in 2004, Russia in 2008, and Japan in 2016.

Maybe it had been built centuries ago or maybe it had been created in more recent decades just for tourists to stand on for photos, a perfect view of the water and trees right behind.

Each time I took a photo of him or someone had snapped one of us, I easily remembered when and where it had been taken. Gary in front of the Kremlin or the Tower of London. Us together in front of Edinburgh Castle or in the middle of Red Square. That was still true of every photo in Japan. A photo of each of us taken by the other at a rooftop restaurant in Kyoto. Together on the steps of a Shinto temple in Takayama or in front of a Buddhist temple in Nara. After I had revealed his death online, I knew which photo to post, one from Kanazawa. Dozens upon dozens of people learned Gary's name and saw his face for the first time when I posted to Facebook to say he was dead.

As soon as the photo had been taken a couple of weeks earlier, I said, "There's the one for the Christmas card." Our group had just taken a morning bullet train from Kyoto and had arrived in Kanazawa less than an hour earlier. Our bus was ready and waiting, so we rode to our first tourist spot, Kenroku-en. It used to be a private garden for the Maeda clan, a samurai family. They started developing it at some point in the seventeenth century. It was opened in the public in 1874. Monday, June 20, 2o16, our bus pulled up to the front gates.

Kasumi Pond was one of the first things we would see. It would be one of the first things anyone would have seen after buying a ticket and following the arrows at the entrance. Everyone crowded around the first corner. There was a stone bridge on the edge of the pond. Maybe it had been built centuries ago or maybe it had been created in more recent decades just for tourists to stand on for photos, a perfect view of the water and trees right behind. There had to be hundreds if not thousands of photos around the world of couples and families standing on that bridge, smiling and proclaiming to the world, "We're really here!"

The youngest daughter of the annoying family offered to take the photo for us. She hadjust earned a nursing degree and was thinking of medical school. She was the nicest one in the group. The father wanted to play golf, and the mother wanted to go shopping. They talked loudly of their Japanese friend who lived in Osaka and had made over ten million US dollars from the housing crisis.

Her brother was the one who really kept pissing me off. He had been out of college for a few years and never acted like he wanted to be there. He didn't understand why the restaurant where we had lunch the first day wasn't showing the basketball finals airing in the US. He hated that the ferry we rode across Hiroshima Bay to Miyajima on the second day didn't have Wi-Fi. He had some real estate deal going back home in Jersey and his time was money.

It didn't help that he was always in a muscle shirt that stuck to his toned pecs and left his developed biceps fully visible. Or more accurately, it didn't help that he was Gary's exact physical type. When I finally opened up the file with the photos Gary had taken a couple of weeks after his funeral, there were a handful of shots of this guy mixed in with the landscapes and architectural photos, each one from a bit of a distance as the guy stood to the side ignoring our tour guide or seated at the end of a table at lunch. I laughed, one of my first genuine laughs since his death. If he had gone through the file of my photos, he would have seen more than one burly businessman at a train station or on a street corner.

The photo doesn't look like Japan. Lakes surrounded by trees appear all over the world. It was taken with Gary's phone, so it has GPS data embedded in the photo (that was the exact kind of privacy issue he would sometimes go off about). If the spot already wasn't burned into my memory, I would be able to find it on a map. Gary's in a new dark t-shirt he bought for the trip. Whenever we had traveled, we printed three photos upon our return home to put in black wooden frames from Ikea we would hang in our breakfast room. There was always a photo of me, a photo of him, and one of us.

Over the last decade, after our legal marriage, we put our arms around each other. We had ten more days together after this photo on the bridge. Four more photos would be taken where we do just this.

In some of them, Gary wears a white t-shirt. Before we left for Japan, he told me, "Make sure I don't even pack a white t-shirt. I look like Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!" The dark shirt shows a sweat stain right in the middle, and he would have hated that even though it hadn't been avoidable. It was hot and humid the entire time, something I grew up with in Texas but wasn't expecting in such intensity on the other side of the world. I should have been wearing shorts, but I hadn't brought any. I had only packed my brown slipons because they were the best for walking and easiest to remove for all those places that required it, and those shoes just did not go with shorts. It's not clear I can tell the story of Tom Ford's or Alexander McQueen's rise to stardom from my orange t-shirt and jeans, but a basic sense of fashion was a factor when I traveled.

He may have hated having his photo taken, but there are dozens of photos of us over our two decades together where we look just like this, slight differences appearing with age. Memories exist in past tense, but photos live in the present. He stands over me. We lean into each other. My smile is open, his closed unless the photo is taken from a distance so no one would notice the gap between his top two teeth. Over the last decade, after our legal marriage, we put our arms around each other. We had ten more days together after this photo on the bridge. Four more photos would be taken where we do just this.

In each, Gary wears his watch. I bought it twenty-one years earlier for the first birthday of his we would spend together. After Auggie, our black Shepard-chow mix, tried to eat it during her puppy phase in 1999 and scratched its face, I told him he could buy another one. I wouldn't mind. "You bought it for me, and I'm going to keep wearing it." Auggie had been gone for almost a decade, and we never wanted another dog because it would not have been her. He still wore the watch, changing bands and batteries as needed over the years. When I gathered everything to take to the funeral home, thinking of how he would look not just for his funeral but for eternity, the thought of keeping the watch slipped into my mind. But there was nothing right about that. He would have wanted it not just with him but on the wrist where it had been ticking for decades. He had just replaced the battery two months earlier. I often wonder if it's still ticking.



“This essay is quite simply about what it's about: the experience of posting my husband's name and image online after his sudden and unexpected death. In the shock that would last for several months, I remember very little, but the moment I proclaimed what had happened to the world is entrenched in my memory. There's an irony that I used Facebook to do it, a site most people dismiss for its memes, quiz results, and fake news. On that day, it became my primary point of contact. My friends and family promised not to hound me with repeated texts asking if I was okay as long as I posted something once each day. But I went back to the post with this photo the most. It's become iconic to me if not to anyone else. It's evidence of what was. It's not all I have, but it's a lot.”

Nels P. Highberg is an associate professor of English and Modern Languages at the University of Hartford, where he teaches courses in American and world literatures and film. His work has appeared in Concho River Review, Feminist Teacher, Performing Ethos, Feminist Formations, Medical Humanities Review, and other places. Riding Light Review nominated his essay, 'Waiting,' for a 2016 Pushcart Prize.