When things are tough, we're supposed to persevere--it builds character. But there comes a point when it's best to cut your losses.
He stirs. That noise again. That ringing sound. The phone, of course. He sits up; images continue to haunt him. It is not the first time he has had that dream, and it will not be the last, he knows. Not by a long shot. Over the years, it will come back with new and dreadful variations. Never the same, yet always the same.
The damned phone again. His machine clicks on. He hears his voice announce that he isn't able to come to the phone right now. He sounds slightly distracted.
It is a call from his wife. She's at the hospital. Her mother, she says, her voice as strangely calm as his own, has decided to stop fighting and accept that she's dying.
He looks up. Outside, a hawk appears, dropping out of the sky to perch on a light pole at the edge of the freshly mown field next door.
"Do you want to see her?" his wife asks, sounding like she doesn't much care one way or the other.
Yes, he thinks, I want to see her. But he doesn't move. The hawk lifts off from the light pole. I want to see her and I want to tell her that I know how sentimental people get at times like these. But I don't care and I want to tell her how much I admire her courage. How much she means to me.
The hawk pauses in midair, wings beating, then strikes, swooping down to dance a deliberate, deadly step among the shorn grass and stubble, wings raised, arcing high. Then with slow, easy beats, it takes flight again, flapping heavily back to the same pole, its prey, a long greenish snake, wriggling in its grasp.
I want to tell her she'll live forever in my heart. Tell her I'll never forget her. Tell her I'll always love her, always miss her. Tell her all the things I didn't tell her when I had the chance.
He will have memories of her, he knows. Will be seized, while doing ordinary things, with sudden grief at her absence. While walking along the beach, hiking through the hills. Will have stabbing memories, sharp enough to stop him in his tracks, staring blindly at the earth beneath his feet, remembering her. Then looking up into the infinite blue like a child, he will picture her overhead, in some Sunday school version of heaven, looking down, watching him, watching over him.
In the sunny room, the phone rings again. He listens to his voice declaiming its unchanging message. There is a loud click, a clatter, then the dial tone, followed by the whir of the tape rewinding itself. Someone decided not to leave a message, to comply with his instructions, to speak after the tone.
Speak, he murmurs to himself, staring at the hawk picking daintily at its still-struggling meal. After the tone. Woof.
Abruptly the hawk drops the limp snake and flaps away. He looks at his wrist. Time to go.
As he's heading for the hospital, he notices again that feeling on the finger where his ring used to be. Somewhere, he knows he still has the receipts. Just that morning, stiffly, with difficulty, feeling a strange urgency, he got up, threw on his robe and rummaged in the closet, delving into boxes until he found the small, orange and gold brocade sack, buried in a wad of old tax records.
Taking it out to the living room, sitting down on the couch, he is transported back to the day they went to the jeweler's together. He remembers the friendly clerk explaining to them that in China this kind of ring is an engagement ring. "But if you want to use them for wedding rings," she smiled, "that's OK." Her smile, he recalls, felt like a blessing.
Afterward they walked down the street to have lunch in the Garden Court, under the ancient glass dome before it was cleaned and refurbished. During lunch he leaned back and happened to catch a glimpse of ancient dust hanging in long dark strings over the lush buffet and bustling blackclad waiters. A few years later the jade fell out of his ring. He sent it back to the jeweler, who fixed it at no charge, and returned it promptly.
Across the room, the wedding album is sitting on the bookshelf. He gets up, walks over, takes it down. As he flips through it, he sees that the pictures have taken on the sad irony of happiness before disaster.
He stops at a picture of them at the beach house, then moves on. Here is one of the cake, here one of his wife in the wedding dress her aunt bought for her. One of him, in his dark blue, almost black Givenchy suit, which he still wears now and then.
He sees that she is today still the same slim, sloe-eyed beauty she was then, with the same flowing dark hair, shot now with streaks of gray. The same awkward winsomeness, same crooked jaw, long upper lip.
And here, a picture of the priest who married them. One of the groom toasting her family, his new in-laws. And his second-favorite picture, the one of him and his four closest friends, sitting on the front porch of their house, after the reception, quaffing Dom Perignon out of a paper bag. Tired. Elated. All of them, he realizes, gone. Dead, divorced, or just plain disappeared. Gone from his life, inexplicably lost to him.
And there, finally, is his favorite picture. The newlyweds. Heads together, smiling. Dazed, but happy. Captured at their zenith, twinkling brightly for life's moment, together, before their long, hard fall.
He stands beside the hospital bed, across from her, her dying mother between them, emaciated, dwindling. The door to the outer hallway opens. A short brunette in a crisp white nurse's uniform bustles in. "Time to hang a bag of blood," she declares.
With a few brisk motions, she sends the thin red tendril snaking down the tube. He watches against his will, fascinated by its bright, oddly hypnotic and inexorably downward motion. He mumbles something about sitting down, then sags at the knees, feeling for a chair that isn't there. The next thing he remembers he is coming back to consciousness, lying on his back on the cold hard floor, looking up at a ring of bright faces peering down at him, clinically scrutinizing his condition. In the center of the circle, crouching beside him, hand raised to slap him again, is that same nurse. "Can you hear me?" she is saying, over and over again. He feels oddly elated.
A month later that he finds himself sitting in the back seat of her brother's car, holding the cardboard box that contains all that is left of her mother. As they drive to the memorial service, he looks down, reading the label showing her name, date of birth, date of death. Such finality, there on his lap.
What did she feel at her last, long breath, he wonders, as she lay there, alone in the hospital, harried doctor stepping into the room a moment too late to be with her as she slipped away? Was it that same euphoria?
For months afterward, her remains move from drawer to closet to mantel to drawer again as arguments rage about the best way to lay her to rest. Periodically his brother-in-law calls. "Why don't we just go up behind the city, into the mountains, and scatter them up there?" he says to his wife. At that, she invariably panics. "No, no," she replies, sharply, "I don't want that, I don't want that." Later, she tells him that visions of wild animals rooting around in her mother's bones haunt her for days after those conversations.
Years later, when the phone rings, she will still for a split second think it is her mother, calling to see how she's doing, see if she needs help, make sure she's OK.
There is a fire in the fireplace the night she finally confesses. They always had a fire back then, in the evenings, during the winter months. That's one more thing he misses, the primal sense of warmth and comfort, in a life shared with someone else.
Every year, as summer came to an end, he ordered two cords of wood, ponderosa and pinon, for a hundred dollars a cord. It was a good idea to mix the two because the pinon, a harder, fragrant wood, but more expensive, burned longer. The cheaper, softer ponderosa burned hotter but faster.
Delivery day would come, then the appointed hour. The sagging truck would pull into the drive, back up to the garage. Pulling on his gloves, he would climb up and help the driver unload, tossing the split chunks onto the floor in a great heap. Then, after the truck left, he'd spend on hour or two stacking it up along the walls. When he was done he would stand there for a while, relishing the feeling he got from the neatly stacked rows, the feeling of being prepared for the worst that winter could bring.
Because the garage was detached, many yards from the house, they had to haul wood in by hand, dumping it into a large basket near the fireplace. As soon as he got home from work every night, he built a fire. And for the next three or four hours, he would tend it carefully, rearranging it, adding logs and paper as needed to keep it burning and burning well.
So that's where he is when she comes home. He is sitting in front of the fire, watching the news, when he hears the sound of his wife stepping up onto the porch. He hears the the rattle of her keys, then the familiar squeak as she turns the stiff handle. His heart leaps up, and she is there again, in the same room with him. He feels once more, for the millionth time but as though for the first, the joy he always feels, still feels to this day, the simple fact of her existence in the same world with him.
But tonight something is wrong, he sees. Very wrong. Pale, shaking, she says hello. Her voice is faint, hesitant, scared. Setting her briefcase down next to the table, she drops her purse, shrugs out of her coat, ignores the mail. She comes over and sits down beside him, tells him she has something important to tell him. Puts her hand on his knee. Her voice is trembling. Her hand, too.
This, he recalls, is the night of her weekly visit to her therapist. They always talk afterwards, about how it went, what she said, what the therapist said, how she felt. She enjoys confiding in him, hearing what he thinks, what he has to say.
"There's something I have to tell you," she says again.
He reaches out, turns off the television.
"I have a friend at work," her voice quavers. "We've been friends for several months now. He's interested in Buddhism, and I've been helping him learn about it."
There is a long pause. He can feel a pain begin in his sinuses. "And, um, it's a friendship that has a sexual dimension to it."
"Take your hand off my knee" is the first thing out of his mouth. He stands up, moves away, then turns, forcing himself to look at her. How can he know that the pain will last the rest of his life, will never get better? She is sitting on the couch, stricken, crying.
He goes to the kitchen, soaps his finger, twists off the ring. Taking it to the bedroom, he puts it away in its brocade bag. Then, to his surprise, he finds himself uttering an atavistic oath, one that condemns her to a life of misery and suffering, one in which the pain she is causing will come back to haunt her a thousandfold, nothing she wants ever comes to pass, in which nothing she cares for will flourish, a life of frustration and desperation, barren futility.
She doesn't notice the missing ring that night. In fact, she doesn't notice it until some weeks later, when they are having dinner in a Chinese restaurant. They are in the middle of their mu-shu pork and pot stickers and kung pao chicken. He is lifting a glass to his mouth. She is telling him something about her job, her boss. They are imitating life, acting like a normal married couple, posing as people whose hearts are not broken.
He sees her eyes go to his hand, to that finger, then widen in shock. Her face crumples, tears spring to her eyes. Her mascara starts to run, giving her raccoon eyes. He feels his lips draw back from his teeth in an involuntary grimace. She thinks he is smiling, and is hurt. The familiar impulse to soothe, to reassure, rises up in him, but he deliberately puts it aside.
"I took it off because I don't feel married anymore."
He can see how frightened, how guilty she is. Her eyes dart here and there, returning always to that empty place on his hand.
"I can always put it back on, when things are OK again, if we want, when we really feel married again," he says.
If you need inpatient psychiatric care in that small midwestern city, you only have two choices. The first is a ward on the top floor of the city's acute care hospital. They start there. They park, go inside, ride up in the elevator. When the doors open, they step out a long straight hallway with doors on either side, some locked, all with small square viewports at eye level. Black and white linoleum, harsh fluorescent light.
In the small, cluttered office near the elevator two staff members look up from their charts and say hello. During the brief conversation, they are friendly, supportive, and professional. But when a third staff member comes in and interrupts to confirm a doctor's order to have a patient put in restraints, she decides it's time to leave.
The second choice is more inviting, has an almost residential air about it. Built around a renovated TB ward, it has a cluster of half a dozen, contemporary, one-story, pentagonal buildings, the kind that are filled with brightly painted walls, clean open spaces, carpeted floors, and vaguely modern furniture.
There is a park-like area in the middle of the cluster, a quad of sorts, a pleasant space, one that they will find themselves in more than once over the next few weeks, taking slow walks, sitting, having long talks.
On the appointed day, they pack a bag and drive down to the office for her intake interview. He drives his car; she follows in hers. Having her car there will help her feel less trapped, he thinks. But he doesn't know that, car or no car, she will be in a locked ward, will need permission to leave, something she won't obtain for weeks.
The intake interview is extensive. Toward the end there comes the inevitable question about her reason for doing this. After a long silence, she answers vaguely. "I just haven't been feeling very well lately." The plump, bearded young intern is plainly nonplussed. He obviously feels her answer isn't adequate, but isn't sure how to say so without seeming clumsy and unprofessional. He fingers his beard.
After a prolonged silence, he speaks for his wife. "Depression. Sleeplessness, lethargy, all the classic symptoms." It seems to help. With obvious relief, the clerk fills in the blank, the scratching of his pen sounding loud in the small, still room.
Accompanied by the intern, they walk over to the adult ward. He is carrying his wife's bags. As they cross the grassy quad, knots of adolescents flow around them, loud, defiant, self-conscious.
The doors are kept locked; visitors must be buzzed in. Once allowed inside, he is asked to hand over her bags for safekeeping behind the front desk. They are shown to a small private office, with a desk and a couple of chairs, to wait for another interview.
The door is locked, offers the intern, because the patients prefer it that way. They like the security of knowing that the world can't get at them, he claims, can't walk in off the street to accuse, attack, hurt them. But of course what he doesn't say is that it also makes the hospital's job easier. It's harder to hurt yourself when you are in an environment controlled by others who are paid to remove sharp objects from your luggage, paid to regulate your meds, paid to come by every hour on the hour at night and shine a light into your room to make sure you're still alive.
The nurse comes in, sit down, begins the interview. Not long into it, she turns to him. "I'm sorry," she says, not at all apologetically, "but you'll have to leave now." And so he does, walking back out through the main door, hearing the firm click as it closes behind him.
He's been home for less than an hour when the phone rings. It's his wife.
"Would you bring me a blanket? It's really cold down here. They went through my suitcase to see if it had anything sharp or dangerous in it."
"They took away my curling iron," she says. "And my scissors."
Later she introduces him to her roommate, a blond anorexic toothpick. Stepping into the bathroom, he sees that the mirror is festooned with yellow stickers, each with an affirmation written on it in a childish, loopy hand. "The body is a machine and food is its fuel." Every time he visits, the roommate is on the exercycle, matchstick legs pumping furiously. His wife shows him the small kitchen, the main room, the group meeting spaces, the private offices. Then they sit down in one of the offices and she begins to cry.
The next time she calls, it is to tell him that she has set up a meeting with the chief psychiatrist. He gets in his car and drives down to meet her. After a brief wait, he is buzzed into the ward. She is standing just inside the door. They go into one of the small conference rooms. Sitting down, he helplessly feels the joy he always feels in her presence. As they talk, the rapport between them is as strong and rich as ever. No matter how bad things get, nothing seems to destroy it. Is that good or bad? He doesn't know, and doesn't care. But it confuses him, because he can't accept that this person would treat him badly.
"Our appointment isn't for a few minutes," she says. "I wanted to talk with you first."
His sinuses begin to ache, and he suddenly knows what's coming. Tears well up in her eyes, roll down her cheeks. "I need to be honest with you," she says, face crumpling, voice breaking. "I haven't ended the affair. It started up again a few months ago, and I haven't been able to break it off."
"You said it was over."
"I know. That's why I've been so depressed the last couple of months. That's why I'm here. I just don't seem to be able to stop."
As she talks, he can tell that she is genuinely horrified by her behavior. There isn't time to say anything else before their appointment. They get up and walk across the ward to the doctor's office.
"So we don't need to worry about you going out and getting a gun and shooting someone?" The doctor smiles, but the question is serious. At the end of the session, he stands and holds out his hand. "You've stuck it out through a lot more than most couples I see," he says. As they leave, he suggests a trial separation and more counseling.
A week later, the hospital agrees that she is doing well enough to go out for the evening. She can leave at 6, she tells him, but has to be back by 8:30. He drives down and takes her to dinner at the only four-star restaurant in the state. Two weeks later, she checks herself out and drives home. To him, she seems calmer, less frantic. But she's not so sure. The experience may have been a mistake, she tells him, may have done more harm than good.
They celebrate Christmas at the beach house. He has left his job, and the plan is he will stay there for the three months of their separation, then return home. She will stay only for another day or two, then fly back. When the separation is over, she will return and they will drive back home together.
When it is time for her to leave, he stands in the driveway while friends bundle her into the car. They tell him later that she weeps throughout the entire two-hour drive to the airport.
At the horizon a tanker slips hull down, showing its superstructure, then its stacks, then nothing at all. Rising from the couch, he takes his hat and coat and heads for the door. Far off in the distance, at the opposite horn of the sandy crescent, he can just make out the cluster of rocks that mark his daily destination. Out in the water there are the usual black shapes of the surfers. At the far end of the beach, small sticklike figures are moving in tiny ways.
Approaching the halfway point, he can see that a fishing boat has run aground. He joins the small crowd that has gathered to watch, perhaps to lend a hand. There it sits, in the surf, bow inland, surging gently back and forth, small waves breaking over its stern. A small group of Vietnamese, the crew, huddle on the beach nearby. The ship's name is the Lucky. His friend Nick is in the crowd.
"Did it spring a leak? Lose its engine, drag its anchor, drift ashore?"
Nick shrugs. "No radio, no one speaks English, four families depending on it for their livelihood."
The next morning, the first thing he does is take his binoculars and go outside. The Lucky is still there. Later that day, an orange salvage barge steams up and takes station briefly offshore.
When he checks again, just before sundown, the salvage barge is gone and the Lucky is still lolling drunkenly in the surf. Planks have sprung from its sides, water is gushing through them.
Two days later, a frontend loader snorts up the beach. Scuttling back and forth, it unceremoniously smashing the Lucky into pieces, scoops them up, and hauls them off to be dropped into a dumpster. He watches until the end, the scene blurring and reforming in his lenses.
Months later he is still finding the odd shoe, jacket, splintered piece of painted timber and metal plate as they surface briefly before sinking back beneath the sand.
Six weeks later, she flies out for a visit. Holding her hand, he takes her for a walk on the beach, makes an oblique, gentle allusion to the end of her affair. She does not reply. At the rocks marking the halfway point, they stop to rest. Sitting on the sand, arms on her knees, she looks out to sea, blinking in the late afternoon sun.
"Oh, sweetie," she says, voice hushed, turning her dark up to him. "Actually..."
They stand and slowly continue their walk, tears still running down her cheeks. Back at the house, they sit at the table. Her tears are still falling, making a pattern of small dark dots on the light fabric she is wearing. She sits without speaking, staring at the floor.
"Please don't feel any guiltier than you already do."
"I don't know how to stop all this."
He says nothing. She looks down at her hands, clenched in her lap. "You're in my heart," she says. "I do love you, and I want us to recover from all this. But I don't know how. I need to get some help."
"I can't keep doing this."
"I can't seem to change it."
Two days later, she leaves again. And as she gets into the car for the drive to the airport, she begins to weep, wondering aloud if it might not be best for them to get divorced, since she can't seem to make a commitment, but can't stand the pain her ambivalence is causing.
Sadly, he agrees. If that is her choice, so be it. There is nothing he can do about it. It takes two to make a relationship, but only one to end it.
But then, as she closes the car door, still crying, she says, "This doesn't feel right, this doesn't feel right," over and over again. "I don't want this, I don't want this." And so no more is said about it then, nothing is done to put the process in motion. Instead, she continues to affirm her love for him and her desire to have him back in her life. Again she tells him she will end the affair. Again he believes her.
In early April, the separation ends. Relieved, ready to go home, he packs his bags and heads for the airport. Pulling into the parking lot, he feels optimistic, excited. Life is beginning to seem worth living again.
After a short wait, he sees her plane settle down onto the runway. It slowly taxies to the gate, begins to discharge its passengers.
Only after everyone else has emerged does she appear. Strained, taut, she is clearly under great pressure and looks miserable. She does not emanate any hint of pleasure at seeing him again after all these weeks.
Two days later, it is Easter Sunday. They are still a long day's drive away from home, traveling fast through open country. The town where they have spent the night is falling rapidly behind. Having gotten up early to hit the road, they are looking for a place to eat.
She breaks the silence, a note of desperation in her voice. "I have to talk to you," she says.
"Whatever it is, it'll be OK. Just tell me the truth." Some dark thing floats at the edge of his vision. The hair on his neck stands up.
Hesitant, fearful, mustering up all her courage and strength, she stammers, "Well, sweetie, the truth is I'm not quite ready to have you come back yet. I wasn't able to stop seeing my lover during our separation." Her voice is small, shaky. "I didn't keep our agreement."
The all-too-familiar familiar emotions rush through him once more. The trucks hurtling by are suddenly twice as big, three times as fast, four times as loud, ten times as threatening. The light and spacious landscape is filled with groaning wind and scudding dark clouds.
He takes the next exit, heads for the truckstop there. They pull in, get out, make their numb way inside. It is a flyblown cafe, filled with men wearing cowboy hats, baseball caps, tractor hats. Two tired waitresses wander up and down, slapping down plates and shouting out orders. From somewhere in the back come the sounds of sizzling and clattering. They sit down, order pancakes and an English muffin, wait for the aftershocks to subside. For the first and last time, the thought crosses his mind that he could put her on a plane and let her fly back without him. But no sooner has the thought occurred to him than he dismisses it. After a while, they get up and leave, without eating a bite. They drive onward into the gathering darkness, stopping only for meals and gas. He hears her say the familiar things, tells him how much he means to her, how much she has missed him these long months. Driving hard, they make it home just after nightfall.
Back in their own house, sitting on the couch, waiting for her to return from an errand, he has a moment of eerie deja vu when he hears the familiar thump of her step on the porch, the key in the lock, the squeak of the handle as the door opens. She walks into the room and, yes, he feels once again that same immutable ecstasy at the very fact of her existence.
They settle into familiar routines, wash their clothes, fix something to eat, laugh, play, relax, embrace, hold hands, hug, kiss. But then she twists away from him. "I'm not ready yet," she says, tears forming in her eyes.
Hardly knowing how he does it, he says, in a flash of intuition, "Let me guess. You're pregnant," knowing he's right and strangely thrilled by that fact, even as it reveals yet another level of horror to him.
Four months into her pregnancy, he picks her up outside her therapist's office. For the dozenth time, she has decided to go ahead with the procedure, now more complicated since she is in her second trimester. He drives her to the doctor's office, one that they have been to several times before. She has become strangely proficient at calculating just how much time she has left before a given procedure can no longer be performed safely.
He finds a place to park near the doctor's office, then turns off the car and sits back. He looks over at her, sees she is shaking. Her lover has told her that if she harms this baby, he will hurt her and her family. He can tell she is terrified.
"I still think this is the right thing to do. But I know it's your decision to make, and I will support you no matter what you decide. Whatever you decide, I will support you," he repeats.
She sits, paralyzed.
Finally he says, "Look, you don't have to go through with this."
She looks at him in mute appeal. "In fact," he goes on, "the more I look at you right now, the more I think it's probably a bad idea to do this unless you're really sure about it. Going ahead with it when you're not sure about it could be very painful later. And none of us wants an even unhappier person on our hands."
After a few seconds, staring out at the parked cars, she agrees, her voice almost inaudible, that she isn't quite ready yet. He starts the car and drives away, leaving his life behind on that anonymous street of parked cars and ordinary houses, filled with strangers living normal lives.
Five months into the pregnancy, she continues to put off the need to buy some maternity clothes, instead wearing looser clothing, larger sizes. Eventually, he convinces her to admit the truth and tell her friends and co-workers. She can't quite bring herself to call her family, so he does it for her. "I'm glad you're there," is all his father-in-law can say to him, over and over again. He takes her to several maternity shops. In one, the proprietor, naturally assuming the baby is his, fawns over them, making the usual fuss about new parents. He plays along.
One month later he finds himself driving her to a clinic in a city a few hours to the north, one of only two in the country where she can get an induced stillbirth at that late stage of pregnancy. And a few weeks after that, he find himself driving her to the airport for a flight to the other clinic. As they approach the offramp, he asks her again if she wants to do this. "Tell me what you want, sweetie," he says, as they drive closer, closer, closer. "Just tell me what you want, what's in your heart, and it will be OK."
Entering the room, he notices again that the doctor's office is full of strange junk. Old clocks. Shards of pottery. Random chunks of cypress and pine. A stuffed quail. Ancient, broken-spined books, splayed open from the pressure of the expanding mass within. Fraying oriental carpets. On the wall, a chart of the moon in all her phases. Couch, chairs, in one of which sits the doctor himself, large, round, and bearded. Only the glowing eyes, behind utterly drab glasses, are alive. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, says one of the ancient clocks.
He sits, describes the dream again, for no particular reason. Then it is the doctor's turn. He says the usual things. As he drones on, his sharp, knowing eyes watch his patient, watch the patient watching him back.
Tick, tock, tick, tock. The voice flows on like a river over smooth, rounded stones, burbling, bubbling, murmuring, babbling. The patient's attention wanders. Tick, tock, tick, tock. He thinks about his wife's dying mother, the hawk, his wife. Tuning into the conversation again, he hears the doctor say something with repeated emphasis.
"So that's how it looks to me."
He hasn't been listening, has no idea what the doctor is referring too. Watching him, the doctor realizes this, and elaborates.
"It looks to me like she's got a gun to your head."
He's still not sure what to make of this. Then it comes back to him, becomes clear what the doctor means. "You mean when she says, 'I really love you and want you in my life'? That's the gun?"
Silence. Has he gotten it wrong? He sits up straighter, wanting to make sure he understands. "And you have an idea about what I should say to her then. What I need to say to her then is..." But now he can't remember what he's supposed to say, what the doctor thinks he's supposed to say to her then.
The doctor takes pity, recites the litany. "What you need to say then is, 'I can't stand this anymore. Either put the gun down or pull the trigger.' "
Oh, he thinks. That's right. Maybe he's right. What's the worst she can do? he asks himself, then answers his own question. Exactly what she has been doing.
"And that is?"
He's been talking out loud again, without knowing it. "Nothing," he says. "Make no decision at all." He wants to change the subject. "What I wonder," he says, "is her doing nothing is deliberate or not? Does she mean it, I mean?" Does she mean to be abusive? he wonders. How could she? She loves him. He loves her. They love each other. They are in love. Have been, for years.
"What do you think?"
Rhetorical question? Dizzy, he pulls back and tries again to focus. What was the point? The doctor's question wasn't rhetorical. Anything but. I desperately want to answer that question.
"What question is that?"
After all their years together, what happened? How could she do this to him? His beloved. Of all humankind, the one he loves most truly, most dearly, trusts without reservation, the one who, without doubt, loves him in return. Always has, always will--so she says--just as dearly. His heart's companion, his life's partner. She's behaving like some kind of monster. But not savage --
"That would be easier to comprehend. No, one of those sad, miserable monsters instead, the kind that sobs and snuffles and wails in self-pity as it tears your flesh and cracks your bones."
He doesn't know how to respond to this. Tick, tock, tick, tock.
"So, since you understand the dynamic, and since you're choosing this, there must be something you're getting out of it."
"Yes," he agrees.
The doctor blinks, waits. Then, prompting, says, "What?"
"I am getting something out of it."
"What? What is it you're getting?"
"I'm not sure."
"The satisfaction of knowing that you haven't walked away from your commitments, even though they've put you in a terrible bind?" The doctor's face is expressionless. "Is the satisfaction worth the pain?"
Tick, tock, tick, tock.
"The hope that she might change her mind?"
He shrugs. Tick, tock, tick, tock.
The doctor shifts in his chair, clears his throat, puts down his notes, looks at the clock and his watch. "We'll have to take that up next time. Our time is up."
Tick, tock, tick, tock. He shifts uneasily in his chair, assailed, obscurely implicated in something that is not his doing, not his fault. Suddenly chilled, he gets to his feet, coat clutched around him, notes the faint tensing of muscles in the doctor's body, slight narrowing of his eyes. Stumbling a little, he steps into the hall and turns up the thermostat. Could it really be 68 degrees in here? For $80 an hour, I should at least get heat, he thinks. Then he turns, makes his way back into the room, to the window behind his chair.
The day is dark, overcast. Under a weak sun, grass and trees toss frantically, but there is no rain yet. Behind him the heater groans and ticks in response to the higher setting.
In the reflection he can see the doctor behind him, see him pick up the phone, punch in a number and, after a moment or two, begin to murmur into the mouthpiece. He can also see his own dark eyes, long nose, mustache. Tired, always so tired. Big circles under the eyes. Already graying, gaunt. Tired and getting more so, thin and getting thinner. Behind him, the doctor puts the phone down.
It is almost completely dark outside. Only the dim streetlights and the headlights of the occasional passing car can be seen. Looking up, he can faintly make out the stars. For a moment, the chaotic wash of lights forms an almost intelligible pattern, one of those constellations whose name he can never remember.
The last time he felt like this was when he met her guru. But then he had the presence of mind to spend a few minutes, before stepping into the room, setting aside his defenses and lowering his guard. It was a gesture of devotion, to the teacher and to the student. A way of saying, If he is a true teacher, he will see me for what I am.
At the end of the meeting, as they stood to leave, the guru made the effort, despite the brace on his leg, to rise to his feet as well. Limping across the room, he reached out, embraced him, declaring in an oddly high-pitched voice, "So, it seems you are a true gentleman."
Tick, tock, tick, tock. The doctor says nothing at first, sits quietly for a long moment, gazing into the middle distance, then asks if it seems that inanimate objects are speaking to him.
"You mean, literally? Literally talking to me, asking me things, literally?"
"Yes," replies the doctor, easing back in his chair, crossing his legs. "That's what I mean."
That night he is awakened out of a profound sleep by the angry screech of tires and bang of metal on metal from the highway. Then there is nothing but ominous silence, followed, at length, by the wailing of sirens. He gets up and goes to the window, but can see nothing.
Slipping back into the bed, pulling up the sheets, he falls deeply asleep again and finds himself lying on the hard blacktop, unable to move, blood running from his mouth and nose, terribly, terribly cold. Both of his shoes and a sock have come off. The exposed foot is freezing. The rain is turning to snow. Moving his head to one side, he sees something moving in the distance, but has lost his glasses and can't tell what it is.
Slowly the image swims into focus. Several figures stand silently on the shoulder, watching him, saying nothing, doing nothing. He tries to wave, to gesture, but fails and can only lie helplessly on the rough wet surface.
Then he recognizes one of them. It is his wife. Again he struggles to wave. She sees him, but does nothing, just stands there, mute, unmoving, staring in silence. Trying once again to raise his hand, he can see his own blood freezing on his fingertips.
The day is warm and bright. When he walks into the room, she is sitting up in bed, nursing the baby.
"Oh, sweetie," she says.
"I just feel so scared."
"What are you afraid of?"
"I feel like I've been caught up in this whole big thing. And all that's going to come out of it is going to reveal me to be a worm. And all that resolving it will do is show how deluded I've been, how much I've hurt everybody."
He helps her give the baby a shower. Placing a folded towel on the floor of the bathroom, he puts the infant down on it and quickly undresses him. Then he undresses himself and steps into the shower. First making sure his footing is secure and the water is warm but not too hot and the flow not too strong, he calls out to her, tells her he was ready. She gently hands him the curious baby. Holding the child carefully, he moves him under the stream of water, a little at a time. First his back and legs, then his chest and belly, then the back and top of his head. Then, very, very gently, his face, letting the water wash over it, making sure it doesn't get in his eyes.
The infant is alert and excited. He doesn't cry or struggle. He seems to enjoy the experience, though he's slightly uncertain about it. It must be comforting to feel the warmth of his body and the water, he thinks, but a little disconcerting too. In any event, the baby handles it well, with an endearing sense of wonder and openness. After five, ten minutes, he hands the clean little body back to her, and she dries him off and dresses him.
Then they have go for a walk in the stroller and return to the house, to sit on the front steps in the sun, enjoying the warmth. The phone rings. He picks it up. "Hello," he says. No one answers. He hangs up. A few minutes later, it rings again. She answers it, goes inside to talk. The baby carries on, babbling and crowing in that noisy, nonsensical way babies have, that seems to carry the rhythms of speech. He listens, enchanted. When the baby stops, he responds, making similar noises in a similar way, as a kind of benign echolalia, moving his head around in visual emphasis. The baby watches and listens, plainly fascinated, and waits until he stops. Then he replies, with a good five seconds or more of highly convincing baby talk. Then he stops again and looks up, clearly waiting for a response. They go on like this, back and forth, for some time, 15 minutes or so, just as though they are having a real conversation.
She comes to the door. "You have to leave," she says. He reaches for her, sees something in her eyes, draws back. "He's on his way here. He says he's had it and that I have to choose between you and the baby, once and for all. If I choose you, he'll fight me for custody. I can't let anyone take my baby away."
He stands up, kisses her. The baby watches, eyes wide with hurt and surprise, as he walks away.
Eric Skjei (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior writer at Autodesk in Marin County, California. He lives in Stinson Beach with his laptop and his kayak.
InterText stories written by Eric Skjei: "Sooner or Later" (v3n6), "Motherless Child" (v4n2), "Bright Time, Dark Time" (v4n3).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Eric Skjei.