How it happened
She came in poking around, looking for something, looking to distract me.
I had the speakers on, the sound routed through the house like a nervous system. I was playing a mix she'd made me when we were first dating, an afternoon mix of songs about being in love, of course, called 'the long slow ways'. It was nice out, Indian summer California, the best time of the best place. It was right, the right thing to do, the right kinds of songs, us: right. The next day she had to be there and ready early, so we didn't have much time left and I, of course, wanted it just right for us.
I am, but I want my hat.
It's on the table.
Why so mean?
It's not ready yet and I don't want you to see it.
Ok, I'll be on the porch for the next twenty minutes, but then I'll want a cream soda and you won't be stopping me.
She went back out and I went back to work. It was something, alright, it was a sight. Today was it, the last time, the last day again before the fresh round of treatment and it was what I wanted for the two of us. The lunch before me was coming together, and it had things she liked. I knew, if I was lucky, she'd get down a bite, two maybe of a couple things. The fruit salad had cantaloupe, strawberries, spinach, blueberries, mango and pasta and the green goddess dressing that sounded awful and hippie but tasted like cool summer cream. The sandwiches were grilled cheese with meat and tomatoes and avocadoes and mustard on the inside of the bread with butter on the outside, crispy, the way she liked it. If it had just been me, there would have been hummus too, but she'd burnt out on it a few years back, too much a good thing she said. The killer, the finisher, was the tray of brownies. She'd found this recipe, this way, years ago and we'd been working on it since then. It had chunks of chocolate, jam so they all tasted a little like raspberries, and depending on how we baked the tray would goo up like spooned pudding or cake together, a plated mouth bed. I knew she could smell it all, I knew she knew it was coming, the windows were open, the breeze carried her sunscreen smell in and my secrets out, but then I knew better too.
I'm hungry now, can I come in?
Yeah, gimme two seconds and turn around.
She faced away, the back hillside, and I put everything on the table. The morning light had us all warmed up, and there was plenty of it, but I still took the tea light tray and set six or seven aflame. Something else that went back to the dating, the candlelit breakfast, lunch, sex, chess, three a.m. snack, photography. Anything we could do with the little lights lit we'd do it.
Thanks, this is splendorous.
For you, you know.
Man, did I luck out.
It had only been a year since we found out, but it was fast moving and the time went together and apart like taffy in a nervous pulling machine. Days would be better and worse, like any two lives lived together. Before we knew, before this reason, we'd go through the bad days anyway. There were times, the rough ups that have to be taken; it didn't matter what there was to do, she couldn't. I'd look and ask and try and make it better and say things that made sense to me and made her cry all the harder. Not all the time, just once in a while she'd go through it--we'd go through it. In the grips, she wouldn't look at me when I talked to her, wouldn't say anything without a head shaking five minutes of build up and some gasps of snotty throat air. It took me a while to figure it out, and she helped me do it, of course. On this one time in particular she looked at me, still crying and not all back together, but she looked. My arms grabbed her and squeezed her so hard that the crying went to coughing, her rib cage compacted. I stayed that way. A few more minutes and she stopped, just stopped. When I loosened a little she was back, looking at me all the way and better.
It was you. I needed you.
You've got me all the time, I've been here for the last hour. What are you talking about?
You, I need you with me. I need your body on mine. Locked in, like a straight jacket. It's something about your body, your skin, it makes sense to me and that's what I need, the skin sense. It's the logic of our skins together, it's the thing that works, right?
Seems that way.
Well, now we know. In case, for next time, try it again and don't let up for a while.
Ok, don't worry.
It did come in handy later.
There were of course more days, and she had troubles. Her hands made something every day, a sculptor of sorts her whole life, and when they didn't create she'd go through it. It was easy to see her little fingers as a kid and the mashed potatoes she'd get in trouble for playing with. We didn't meet until we were both out of college, she was in grad school, but the things she made into art, they were always natural. It was just what her hands did during the day. Out on dates she'd pick up the straw wrappers and curl and pull and flip them until the turned into swans or throwing stars or wedding rings. When we went grocery shopping she'd take her big canvass bag and make the arrangements so that everything fit, no matter how much, and the fruit and bread would be on top and not squashed. It was her talent. When we got home sometimes she'd turn her hands on me, and those were good days.
So tomorrow's an early one right?
Will you go with me?
Nah, I've, you know, got that stuff that needs doing, you remember, the more important stuff. You can just drive yourself back after right? And pick up some beers on the way home because you know I'll be watching the game.
You think so.
We'd been before, and more times than anyone should have to go: the gynecological oncology center halfway between the vet and downtown. It's called a visit, like you're just strolling down the street and decide go in and see if your wife's cervix is making cells it shouldn't, and like the attendants are there with lemonade and cookies made, and maybe you'll just sit and chat for a while with her legs spread apart and some other man in there up to his last knuckles. The first time we found out there were abnormal results. It was supposed to be something 'easy', just a go in and clean up, but there was something more at the next one. The check up did not check out. Each time, the man doctor would take the big glasses and look up and into her, the woman for me, the woman I love. Soon, when the cells were more and worse, the chemo and radiation started, and we thought we'd gotten it. She'd worry sometimes, then the bad days had their reason and I couldn't just hold out and wait for it to pass.
The round of chemo had gotten us a little more time, a little skinnier, and we thought about it like a practice try. It made sense to me that way. You try, you either get it right or you don't and if not then try again later. It wasn't so simple, of course, this was her body, the thing that held her, and it's a trickier system than you'd be led to believe.
What it meant for us looked like this: there was an empty bed and an overfull bathroom which was cleaned more thoroughly and often than it had ever been, the refrigerator would alternate with wilting vegetables and big pots of soups, the thick scalp smell of her filled both pillows and most of my shirts, and the book piles that stood next to the bed and the couch grew and took over more and more carpet. When we were quiet, I ran my fingers across the back of her neck, slowly, the thing I could still do to pleasure her.
It's the good thing you know, this is giving me all the time to read. When we're done I'll be smarter and skinnier and healthier than ever. Maybe I'll take over the world finally.
Yeah, I know you've been meaning to get around to that.
Yeah. Ok ok, maybe I'll go to the grocery store and carry back the things for a big dinner by myself.
I don't mind.
I should contribute.
You should heal and get well.
Yeah I guess.
I mean it, that's all.
Can I love you too?
Oh fine, I guess we can squeeze that in.
Then it's a deal.
She sat with me and the little perfect fingers of her long hands picked out and apart the things she tried to eat. With the appointment in the morning, they wouldn't take her if she'd had dinner, so this was it. We had a system, of course, things like systems we were good at, and this was the one for eating: when she could, when most of what she could get in would stay down, she'd eat and drink cream soda or root beer. The root beer was better, settled her stomach a little more, but the basic premise was the same for both. She'd eat, a few bites, and smile and talk to me and then a few more and then a big swig of the soda. Then she'd wait, and we'd talk and the whole time she'd look like she was thinking about something far away, like trying to remember something specific about someone she'd known as a child, and right at the moment that I got concerned that she was looking so serious, her face so unusually stern, she'd belch in a huge, deep, resonant way. For really good ones I'd duck under the table, or run to the windows and throw them open, her laughing the whole time. If it was a particularly good day and I was being sneaky, I would fall directly to the floor, eyes closed, dead and wait for her to revive me. Always starting with my feet and making her slow tiger way up my prone body, she would sniff me, stopping behind my knees, at my crotch, right up in my armpits. At my face, she'd take a couple laps around my hairline and jaw, take in the corners of my mouth, sniff sniff, up each nostril, and then hit my mouth hers. Back when she was allowed to, this was when I'd take her, my trap executed, and make love to her, regardless of where we were. We didn't go out to eat much, even in the early days.
We were good at this, at loving each other.
I don't want 'until death do us part' in the vows.
What do you want in?
Just you know, we promise to love each other. The end.
Ok, but aren't you going to love me until we die?
Yes, I just don't want you thinking that death will get you out of this one, buddy. I'm not excluding the possibilities of afterlives or reincarnations, and I pretty much want you there for those too.
So you want my eternal soul?
Well, yes please.
This explains that creepy laugh you do while you're standing over me and you think I'm sleeping....
Yeah, you found me out.
Frankly I don't like this talk.
Why not? Too serious? Too much wedding?
No, death, I don't want it.
We don't have a choice, but it's nice to know I'll still love you dead, right?
Love me too.
There, married. Let's honeymoon.
It was something known right away. We dated a grand total of three months and then got married; there was just no other way about it. The wedding itself was small because we were still young and poor so it was just the two families at her parents' house that overlooks the pacific. Lots of cake, and smearing, and a nice long night.
She ate more than I thought she'd be able to, a little of everything, but once she was done she had to go lie down for a bit. Even with the burping, her stomach took most of her energy. It was good, gave me the chance to get everything cleaned up and put away without feeling too much like I should have been doing something exciting with her. I washed the plates and put the leftovers in the Tupperware and went into the study to check on her.
Her head was up against the arm of the couch, her body making only small dents in the big cushions.
Thanks again, that was great.
I'm glad you liked it. What's the matter?
My stomach hurts.
Can I get you something?
No, just stay here.
And kiss me.
It was a kiss like the ones she used to give me, the all enveloping, the strong and almost mad and wet. It was great. For probably the thousandth time since we'd found out I was turned on, and had nothing to do about it. The whole time, when she was sick or puking or puffy or snotty, every day she still looked like my wife, the woman I married, the woman for me.
I don't feel good.
What is it?
I don't feel good, honey.
I know, what can I do? You want some tea? I'll go make some.
I love you.
I went out and had the kettle on she liked her tea with milk and sugar, but only after it had set for a few minutes. Another process, her method I'd learned. Steep four minutes with nothing, add sugar for three counts, milk for two, stir. I did this. It was herbal, but the milk and sugar made her feel like she had when it was earl grey, another thing we'd had to cut out. It took a total of roughly eight minutes, from lighting the stove to tea. As the kettle whistled, I heard her say something, but couldn't make it out and called back that I'd be right there. Added sugar, milk, stirred, went back.
She wasn't sleeping and I knew it right away. I went to the couch and took her, held her. I squeezed her hard enough to know that she should have been fighting back, yelling at me, stabbing her pointed fingers into my armpits. She didn't and I held her still. When I loosened her limbs were already loose, and she wasn't looking at me. I didn't feel what should have been in her chest, I knew it. My mouth on hers, I tried to blow air in, the way they show you, and nothing. The thoughts of ambulances came and went, the thoughts of more doctors and more prodding with gloved hands; I kissed her. She looked beautiful, as always, and comfortable for the first time in so long. I kissed her again. Her face wetted from mine, I ran my hands down her arms, held her hands, held. I played our game, sniff sniffed at her mouth corners, and nothing. I held her feet, legs, knees, hip bones, ribs, breasts. I held her neck and I held them all again with my mouth. I held her back, her thighs, all her parted parts in my mouth the way I hadn't been able to, and wanted to for so long. So many times I'd been there before and I'd missed it, missed that about her. I held her warm body, cuddled, stroked, smelled. I knew. This body, I knew, this was what I had left. There, on our couch in our home, I made love to her body with mine. It made sense, our skins together, it was the only thing that did. I knew the rest would come, the phone calls and the ceremonies and everything else, but then it was still just us, still her and me, husband and wife.
About the author:
Elizabeth Castoria is very happy you've read her story. Thank you. For further reading, pick up progress chrome.