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He had known from the very first that she would have to die. Before he even met her, he knew that he would kill her.
When the idea first came up, that she take time away from it all, Janice McKenzie reacted badly.
"My husband is dying," she protested, a trifle too sharply. "I can't just take time off from that, like taking a break in the housework."
She let herself be persuaded, though, in part because she had reacted so badly. That did prove it, didn't it, that she was stressed out--"overloading," as Jeffrey would put it--an expression she had never quite understood until now.
It was the new doctor who initially suggested it--the young one whose name would not stay in her mind. Weingarten? Gardenvine? Hollywood and Vine? She could see in his eyes when she objected, that he thought she was not taking it right. And why, she asked herself angrily, should she be noticing his eyes anyway?
Because she had never noticed men before: men who were not her husband. She had barely, with all their talked out, thought out, liberated, up to date and compatible sex, noticed her husband, not actually looked at him. Not since she'd had to, on their honeymoon, because he'd had this thing about leaving the lights on that first time, and she had been a little curious. You heard so many different things.
Now they were everywhere: men, attractive men. It seemed as if she could not go to the supermarket, the car wash or a restaurant without tripping over them.
She would have liked to talk to that young doctor with the blue-gray eyes about that phenomenon--if she hadn't been afraid hewould think she was some sort of nymphomaniac, just because she brought it up. Because, really, what kind of woman would bring that up with her husband's doctor?
It wasn't just sex, though, that troubled her, or masculine bodies, or anything strictly physical. It was just part of the whole problem. Like hating her husband.
Oh, not that she ever really could. Not Douglas, her darling, her sweet and oh, so damned nice husband. All those years they had been married, up and down and sideways married, through everything, for better and for worse, just as they had promised, and never, not once, had she regretted, had she thought of leaving or dreamed of another man, the way she heard other women talk. Not even Robert Redford. How could she? Why should she, with what she'd had?
Had. That was what made it so hard, living now with what he was, with what, day by rotten, horrible, unbearable day, she had to watch him becoming.
They could not even talk. It wasn't that he was not willing, still. She had to remember now, not to open doors that led to conversation. It was so hard for him. And for her, watching him struggle to give her words when he thought she wanted them, needed them, all the words he could summon up, like a fresh young boy stealing roses to bring his love, and thorns be damned.
He would speak slowly at first, not just slowly, but with such effort, while she hated herself for forgetting, and tried not to show that she noticed the effort. Slowly at first, like a gate rusty on its hinges, getting a little smoother with each swing, till the words ran in a quick, rhythmless flow, so unnatural, so much harder to bear, even, than the effort had been.
And, yes, how could she help sometimes hating him, for being sick, and not being the healthy, strapping man, the lusty and lustful man she had married? Her loins would ache, and that part of her blamed him for leaving her to ache, to long for a man. To long for a man necessarily not her husband, because that was gone, for a long time now, and it wasn't coming back.
Well, you could not tell a good-looking young doctor that sort of thing. She could not, at any rate. Certainly she was not going to. Nor about those days when she felt as if she were simply going to explode, upward, into the air, finally soaring like a comet with a tail of smoke and burned-out promises following after. But, hadn't she always managed to keep that from showing? Had she ever been unable to smile and put on a good front?
"I want you to get away, really," Douglas said, and you could see the effort in his face. "It will make me feel better, too."
How could she refuse after that? Anyway, they were right, of course. She knew that. She did want to go, to get away by herself. Not, as he had suggested, a long trip, a vacation. No, surely not a vacation.
"Just into the city," she agreed, finally persuaded, and Douglas said, "One day a week, then--a weekly vacation. You'll be home before I have time to miss you."
Which was silly. He would miss her before she had been gone five minutes. He missed her when she was right there, sometimes, for that matter. She knew that. Just as she missed him. And had, for oh, so long, though she could not say that to him.
That was not the reason for choosing San Francisco, however, just across the bay from their home in Marin. She could have visited her Aunt Margaret in Ohio. She still lived on that big, sprawling farm, with roosters for alarm clocks and hens muttering their asides. That had been Douglas' original idea: that she go there for a real rest.
"Aunt Margaret would be delighted to have you," he said.
She was not so sure about Aunt Margaret's delight. Anyway, it was the city that she wanted. Not people, certainly not individual people--intimacy was what she fled from--but the aggregate, the detritus of humankind en masse: cars and busses and rattling cables, noise and fumes and litter, confusion and jostling. She wanted swallowing up, the way a city could swallow you up. A farm left you whole, it seemed to her.
She was tired of herself, of all the work of being herself. She felt as if she were walking along a perilous ledge that was slowly crumbling beneath her, but in what direction she should jump, she had no idea.
In San Francisco, for a few hours, she thought she might not have to exist at all if she did not want to. She would leave Janice McKenzie at home, like a sweater you left hanging on the knob of a chair, and when she returned, why, she could just put her on again, and wouldn't she feel more comfortable for not having been worn a while? Only, not so long that it lost the shape.
The last thing, the very last thing she had expected, was to have a fling, or whatever they called it these days to make it sound less shabby than it was--certainly not a fling with a man young enough to be her son, though it was not until later that she even thought of that.
If only she had not started to cry. On the ferry, of all places: she hated women who displayed themselves like that, in public. A young girl could do it, perhaps, and make it cute, coquettish even, but there was, to her mind, something inherently grotesque about a forty-five-year-old woman honking her nose overtly and smearing her mascara about.
He only made it worse, with his "Are you okay?" and "Can I help?" in one of those deep, resonant male voices that could not but remind her of the lack of maleness in her life at present.
Even worse, she could not stop crying, and she could not look up at him, let alone at all the others she felt certain were staring in that titillated way people had when you made a fool of yourself--when, for instance, you walked smack into a glass door clearly marked "pull" and everyone was smiling smugly through the glass at you.
Consequently, what she mostly saw of him was the faded legs of jeans, and a pair of very battered sneakers.
What could she have said, anyway, in answer to his questions? That her husband of twenty-five years was terminally ill, and they were both of them embarrassed by the fact? So far, they hadn't managed to talk it out between themselves. She had not even been able to talk to herself about it, for heaven's sake, and here was some man she did not know, could not even look at, thinking she was going to tell him.
"I'm fine, thank you," she mumbled through her handkerchief, and was annoyed when the sneakers stayed where they were.
They docked then, the boat bumping and rocking and finally coming to rest. She waited, not looking at anything, for what she thought a safe interval, long enough surely for all those amusedly curious people to lose interest and go on their ways, before she left the boat.
It is difficult to walk, however--particularly to disembark from a bobbing ferryboat, and most particularly in high-heeled shoes--when your eyes are kept down and are tear-filled to boot. She caught a heel in one of those crevices just waiting to trap the unwary, and nearly turned an ankle.
"Damn," she said aloud, which was maybe the fourth or fifth time in her entire life that she had sworn aloud. For a moment her balance was precarious. She might have fallen, if something hadn't caught her.
Someone, actually, for there they were again when she looked down, the same dirty sneakers, and there was the same masculine voice saying, asking, something indiscernible, and if he had not put an arm about her shoulders she might still have been all right.
It was that, that did it. It was too strong an arm, too sure and masculine, with the wrist just visible from the corner of her eyes, dusty with fine, red-yellow hair. It had been too long since she had felt the comfort of a man's arm about her.
Just like that, here was Janice McKenzie, reserved, conservative--some said priggish--Janice McKenzie, crying on the shoulder of some man she did not know, still had not yet so much as looked in the face, and she felt stupid and embarrassed and ashamed of herself, and damned if she could stop.
"Look, come with me" he said, "I know some place..."
The rest of it slid by her. It seemed rather pointless now to think of standing on any sort of ceremony, now that she was there in his arms, quite as if they were old acquaintances, and even if he were planning an axe murder, it would be rude of her to bring it up at this juncture, after he had been so nice, wouldn't it? She was not a woman often guilty of rudeness.
So she went, only slightly relieved, when she finally stole a sideways glance at him, to see that he looked all right--better than all right, though that she grasped more gradually. Not handsome, but nice, boyish. Red hair, or maybe blond--it seemed to change with the light--and not the green eyes you would expect with that hair, but brownish, or brown-green, actually, the sort of color you saw in country creeks in the spring, after the rain. But a nice smile, when he saw she was looking at him, shy and bold all at once, a smile quick to come and to go.
"Feel better?" he asked. They were in a cab, though of how they had gotten there she had no clear memory.
"Some. Thank you," she said. She looked out the window at the street sliding by. Pacific Heights, she thought. Surely not the sort of neighborhood you would take someone to garrote them.
"I should get out here," she said, and actually put her hand on the door's handle, and leaned forward, meaning to tell the driver to stop the cab.
He reached for her hand, not holding it, but lightly grazing it with the tips of his fingers. "No, don't," he said, "please," in that baritone that reminded her all at once of Douglas--of a much younger Douglas, before he'd had to work at speaking.