Read an Excerpt
SHE WAKES TO HER OWN SHOUT. RIGHT THERE OUT IN THE open like a character in a book. “Christopher?”
His side of the bed is empty, the covers pushed back in a tangled wave, and suddenly Susan is aware of the sounds coming from the closet, thuds of shoes being kicked, jangling of empty hangers, muffled agony.
In an instant she has pushed aside her own covers, touched her bare feet to the soft carpet. The closet is a small room of its own with a door that folds back on itself like a fan.
“Christopher! Hold on. I’m here,” she says as she fumbles with the tiny knobs, the flimsy panels. The closet light comes on as the doors open and there is her husband, hunkered in a nest of shirts, pants, ties.
He looks up at her with the wary, watchful eyes of a nocturnal animal coaxed into light. “Where thing loud you sit?” he asks.
“The toilet. You want the toilet.”
Christopher nods, and she grabs his hand, pulling him gently to his feet. She is younger than he, and taller. And for a moment she has the sensation that she is pulling a child from a sandbox, a reluctant, drooping child. Peter, their son, who used to play for hours and hours on the monkey bars until she dragged him home.
The bathroom is small and narrow. The toilet sits at the far end, the vanity and sink beside it, the tub along one wall. Susan enters first, reaching for a hand towel above the sink, which she drapes over the medicine cabinet mirror, something she remembers the rabbi doing when he came to sit shiva for her mother. In this case it is so that Christopher will be not be startled by his image.
In the middle of the bathroom, Christopher halts, turns, backs himself to the edge of the receptacle like a man parking a semi. He reaches behind, feeling for the lid, the rim.
“You’re there,” she says as she turns on the sink faucet, a tip she’d read somewhere, to use the streaming faucet as a cue.
Christopher nods. With a faint grunt, he hooks his thumbs in the elastic waistband of his pajama pants, shoves them down.
In the old days, this is when she might venture downstairs alone to start their breakfast, while Christopher dabbed lotion on his face, shaved himself with a plastic razor. No more.
“That’s great,” she says, watching him slowly straighten to pull up his pants. His movements have become old even though he is not old, not really, barely seventy. She reaches behind him to flush the toilet, something he never remembers to do. Never did remember to do, she reminds herself. “Now wash hands.”
He turns to her, surrendering his hands to hers. He has small, wiry hands, the hands of the builder he was before he became an architect.
“Soap, first.” She slips the soap in and out of his cradled palms. “Rinse, next.” He is not always this docile. Sometimes he calls her “the enemy,” sometimes “the bitch.” Sometimes when she takes his hands in hers, he pulls away as though her palms are on fire.
This morning he looks curious, a little afraid.
“Water,” she says. “You used to love water. Swimming in water. This water is nice and warm.” She squeezes his hands lightly, submerging them in the basin of warm water, then lets them go.
“Soft,” Christopher says. “Clouds.”
The water swirls with tiny air bubbles, a milky trail where he has waved his soapy hands to make what looks to Susan like a galaxy. “Beautiful.”
He nods, though he looks confused, and Susan presses on the drain, hoping he won’t startle at the croak and whirl of the water disappearing.
In the kitchen, Susan places a tablet of glyburide and a glass of water in front of Christopher at the table. “Here, while I make you an egg.” Sometimes it is easy like this, Christopher swallowing his medicine without hesitation, an automatic response.
She watches him as he sets the glass down, then slides his clean hands into the box of buttons she keeps on the table to keep him occupied, something she read in a book. He scoops them up, lets them dribble through his fingers, then dives his fingertips in again. To her relief, he is smiling, absorbed. Content for the moment.
What is it her grandmother used to say? Buttons for memory. Why? Why buttons? Because they’re so easy to lose?
She turns away humming a little tune. Oh when the saints … Perhaps it’s not going to be such a bad day. The refrigerator door opens with a mild wheeze. The seal is weak, the plastic encrusted with some sort of dark scum she hasn’t had time to clean off. When she bought the house, she bought the appliances, too. The old electric stove, which she loathes; this decrepit refrigerator; a dishwasher that can’t be fixed. It was the easiest way; the fastest way. One of her mistakes. One of the many.
Peering into the refrigerator, she pushes aside a container of yogurt, a quart of milk, a brick of cheese, a half-eaten jar of raspberry fruit spread. No eggs. “Damn it.” She shuts the refrigerator door.
Christopher looks up from his buttons.
“Nothing. Forgot to buy eggs. Cereal instead. Buttered toast. Or we can have some yogurt.”
“Eggs stole? Stole? Who?”
Too many choices. Too many words. Christ. Once they were all about words. His province was the daily crossword puzzles; hers, the Sunday Times. Occasionally, she copied the daily puzzle at work and they lay in bed, shoulder to shoulder, racing. To her amazement, he often won. But more often they complemented each other: she knew all the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses; Christopher knew the songs.
“Not stolen. I forgot. I—forgot—to buy—eggs.” Slow it down. Keep it simple.
“I want eggs. Christmas eggs.”
That means he wants them wet, scrambled, running with cheese the way his mother used to make them. “Listen, we don’t have eggs. I’ll make oatmeal today; eggs, tomorrow.”
Susan sighs, squeezing her temples between her thumb and forefinger. What now? Run for eggs? Drive to the café? An image comes to mind of a photograph she once saw of a man in the Dolomites, roping from the pinnacle of one rock spire to another, a man who looked as though he were swinging on a pulley along a high wire, and the caption read, “Timing is critical in this maneuver; one mistake means instant death.” Christopher’s medicine needs to be taken with food otherwise his blood sugar will start to lower. He needs to eat now.
Susan breathes deeply. “Here, a yogurt. To get started. Then we’ll go get some eggs.”
The second she puts the yogurt down, he sweeps it off the table with the back of his hand.
“Shit,” she says, kneeling to retrieve the plastic cylinder whose lid she was smart enough to leave on. “Behave.”
Christopher’s mouth turns down, his chin drops. “Egg.”
“All right, egg. We’ll get in the car. We’ll go to the café. Or the diner. Only we’ve got to be dressed. We’re still not dressed.” She looks down at her satin pajamas, a pale blue that makes her think of ice. Christopher looks almost boyish in his red plaid pajamas, his stocking feet. “Want to get dressed?”
Christopher nods, but as they cross the living room, he stops in front of the Christmas tree, planting his feet in a way she’s seen before, as though gravity has increased tenfold.
“Come on. Going upstairs. Going to get dressed. Then we’ll go out for breakfast. Christmas breakfast.” Though Christmas and New Year’s passed over a week ago.
The tree is a blue spruce with shadowed needles and a pungent, woodsy smell that makes her yearn for a brisk walk in the outdoors. She put it up herself, acting on sheer willpower. Not that she cares much about Christmas trees: she comes from a family of socialists; she is Jewish. Christopher loves Christmas, though, has delighted in it since he was a child. Every Christmas Eve of their married life until Christopher got sick, they held a trimming party, a crackling fire in the granite hearth, trays of smoked salmon on squares of stiff Norwegian bread, and of course, Christopher the beaming host, mixing his famous Manhattans.
“Okay. Here.” She twists an ornament from the tree. “Remember this one? Your mother gave it to you.” A gnome on a cardboard square; pipe-cleaner legs, acorn body. How could it have lasted so long?
Christopher shakes his head as he reaches for a red metallic ball dangling chest high from a spiny twig. With both hands, he rubs the ball on his chest, polishing it like an apple.
“Take it easy,” Susan warns, but even as she does, he is raising the shiny red ball toward his open mouth.
Susan leaps forward, batting the ornament away, her fingertips brushing the side of his mouth in a light slap. Christopher steps back. Both of them can hear the light metallic crunch of the ornament under his socked heel. A second later, he begins to howl.
“Oh God,” Susan says. “I’m sorry.” She would like to take a look at his foot, but as she reaches for him, he pushes her arm away.
Kneeling, she picks up the shards, iridescent as beetle shells. Behind her, Christopher curls up in his special chair, a light blue La-Z-Boy. She is fifty-seven, twelve years younger than Christopher. She was twenty-six when they married. Then his seniority seemed so comfortable, she tucked herself into it, a perfect fit. Her knees ache as she gets to her feet. Christopher is still in his chair, his howling reduced to quiet sobs. She dumps the handful of glass in the wastebasket, blowing gently across her palm to make sure the fine splinters are off. Then she goes over to Christopher.
“C’mon, lighten up.” She slides her fingers down the back of his collar, pressing the bony lumps at the top of his spine, kneading the flanges of muscle on the sides of his neck. “Relax, now. It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.” But even as she works to keep her voice even, under control, she can hear a raging voice in her head that could possess her at any moment. Why can’t this ever let up? She gives Christopher’s shoulders another rub, pats the top of his spine. Still he won’t uncurl. “If you’re going to be like that, I’m going to need to breathe.”
She reaches into the cabinet beneath the television for her blue mat, which she unfurls with a great flap before settling it like a beach towel in the wind. She wasn’t always this flexible of mind, one minute, getting dressed; the next minute, doing yoga. The disease has taught her this—seize the moment, the day, the hour.
As she lowers herself onto the mat, she catches a glimpse of Christopher getting up and heading for the stairs. Follow him, says the voice in her head. Her spine stiffens. In a minute. Then she’ll zip into her clothes, get Christopher to the diner for eggs.
She slides the video into its slot, and the television screen blooms into peacock blue, a chorus of angels humming Om. Susan breathes deeply and sweeps her arms overhead, interlacing her fingers and stretching her inverted palms. She can feel the tug of her diaphragm lifting, separating her torso from the weight of her bottom and thighs. Ecstasy. In such a small movement. She can’t fathom why. Her friend Molly Tyne chose this video for her. “The only one you’ll find bearable,” she said. “Minimal reverence required.”
Aside from the mild affront that Molly thinks she needs something, Susan is grateful. It is true that in the mornings, her body is stiff as a board; her limbs crucified to their sockets. She should schedule a massage, find someone to realign her. But it’s far too complicated with Christopher. He can’t be parked like a car in a garage, or an infant at the nursery. Susan rolls her neck to one side, letting the weight of her skull stretch her neck muscles. “Breathe,” says the yoga instructor, and Susan tries, though this is the hardest part for her, letting her abdomen balloon after years of being trained to “suck it in.” “Let the breath fill up the lungs from the bottom, let the breath expand the torso.”
Susan frowns, straightening her neck, squeezing the pouch of flesh over her abdomen as she begins to twist, lightly, keeping her back straight, lifting, gently twisting, until she can look back at the living room wall, a wan bone color, bare of photographs, of art of any kind. Keep things simple, the books say. Keep things uncluttered. A Zen monastery would be the perfect place to live with this disease. A Zen priest, the perfect caretaker.
On the video, the instructor is down on all fours, calling for “downward-facing dog,” her rump sticking up in the air. Susan follows, letting her spine sag, tilting her sacrum skyward until she experiences a moment of abandon, of release. Her liberated buttocks expand, spread open, spread wide.
Without warning Christopher is against her, his bare calves, his stocking feet, his penis. “Hey—” she begins. She assumes playfulness on his part, though the Christopher she knew was never playful quite like this. “Cut it—”
He yanks down her pajama pants, her underwear. And she can tell from the tickle of his hairiness against her bottom that he is naked from the waist down. In one motion, she flips neatly on her back, shoves up at his chest to free herself, but she can’t get up, her ankles are bound by her pants like a Chinese jump rope.
Christopher lowers himself on top of her, nudging her legs open.
What should she do? Knee him? Let him have his way? It happens sometimes that Christopher’s lust thrusts itself out of nowhere, sparked by nothing, it seems, but testosterone releasing in his brain.
Christopher’s hands press onto her shoulders, flattening them, as he lifts his chest, seeks her opening, like a soft blind animal that can’t find its way. The air has suddenly become clotted with the smell of his sweat and hers. A drop of something, a tear, a splatter of drool, lands on her cheek and she would like to wipe it away, but can’t. She can’t see his face, only the skin of his neck, the pepper-and-white stubble, stretched taut over the knot of his throat. She reaches down, grasps his penis, guides it.
When he plunges into her, his moan is like a wolf’s howl, all rage and release. And it strikes Susan that the pain between her legs is like the pain of giving birth and, perhaps, of dying, that lying here on her back, she has fulfilled Christopher’s deepest wish—that no being has ever wanted anything more.
© 2010 Alice Lichtenstein