The Pink Envelope
Long before she was diagnosed with cancer, Karen asked me to write her a joke.
“It should be short and sweet, no more than a sentence or two. But definitely funny.”
I was to write the joke on an index card and seal the card in an envelope.
“I’ll write you one, too,” she said. “But we gotta save them for the worst day of our lives. The day when we don’t think things will ever get better and laughter seems impossible.”
She was smiling when she told me the idea. It was her cute smile with the big eyes and deep dimples. The type of smile that made bad days seem impossible.
I agreed to write her a joke and spent weeks thinking about a concept and more weeks perfecting the wording. We exchanged them on our first anniversary. Hers came in a pink envelope and had a bunch of Valentine’s Day-style stickers on it. I kept it in the top drawer of my desk underneath my checkbook and often thought about opening it, just to see how well she knew me, how well she could make me smile. But I had promised her I’d save it for a bad day. And I couldn’t break a promise to Karen.
When Karen got sick, I started to look at the envelope again. She was thin and weak and tired all the time. And then there were migraines and vomiting and the sickness got worse. Some days her mind wasn’t sharp and some days it wasn’t there at all. When I left her at the hospital, I was often sure it was the worst day of my life and, when I combed through her paperwork and hospital bills and read about her chances of survival, I couldn’t see how things would ever get better. I could force a smile when I came to see her, but it was the movement of muscles with no internal feelings. Karen was brave; her smiles seemed natural and some days she even had the strength to squeeze my hand, comforting me when I should have comforted her. But I had to leave her at the end of the night. I’d kiss her on the forehead, and try to match her bravery.
“The treatments will help,” I’d say in a prayer. “We’re gonna make it.”
But I knew the truth. Felt it in the stillness of the apartment. Her scent had left the sheets and the mugs she used for coffee never left the cabinet. I watched her favorite TV shows with my eyes closed, hoping to feel her head on my shoulder. But my brain was preparing for what was next, even when my heart couldn’t allow it to be imagined.
Karen’s funeral was lovely. Her face had color for the first time in months and that look of pain was finally gone. I wanted to speak, but as hard as I tried, the words just couldn’t form in my head. So her mother talked about the end of suffering and how she couldn’t be totally sad because Karen was in a better place. It was a nice sentiment, but I still felt cold and empty. After the service, people offered me kind words and light hugs, but none of it made any sense. Everything felt distant. I knew I was in the world, but I was not a real participant. It was like being hypnotized. I was aware of what I was doing, but not conscious of why or how I was doing it.
A week went by, and then another. I was alive in the eating, shitting, moving sense of the word, but I wasn’t alive in the experiencing sense. I looked at Karen’s envelope every night and ran my fingers over the stickers. I wanted to open it. I knew she could make me happy, if only for a second or two. But I couldn’t open the envelope no matter how bad I felt. That joke was the last of our life together.
And time went on and on and one day I couldn’t take it anymore. I can’t explain why it was the darkest day of my life. Nothing in particular was different about the world or how I felt. But I needed to hear from her in some way. I left work without telling anyone and raced home in a frenzy of speeding and leapfrogging lane changes. I ran to my desk and opened the top drawer. The envelope was in its familiar place underneath the checkbook and I swear I could smell Karen when I picked it up and carefully slit the top. As I pulled the card out, I remembered how lovely her handwriting was, with the curved Ts and exaggerated dot over the I.
Not now, stupid, on your darkest day was all that was written on the card. I started to laugh and cry and scream all at once. It was the perfect joke.
About the Author
Mike Koenig received his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He currently lives in Columbia, Maryland and works for Discovery Communications. His fiction can be seen in Phoebe, Quiddity, Clover, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The Tulane Review.