Artwork by Art AI Gallery
Three extensions, all usable both as telephone and intercom. Two rings mean, "I'm going to the bathroom," so I don't inconvenience her and am not myself interrupted. Three rings means I took my blood-thinner. Three rings from her means I should do so if I've forgot. One ring means, "I'm going to bed," though neither of us bothers with that one much. If one of us is going for a walk, we say so face-to-face, usually as we're on our way out the door.
I have my room, she has hers. We used to share a king-size mattress before she hit menopause. Hot flashes, frequent urinations, night sweats, insomnia. I couldn't get two hours sleep without interruption, and once I'm awake, I'm up for hours. I started sleeping in the spare room, the one Jerry grew up in. It still has the Minnesota State comforter on the bed. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. My wife was apologetic about the menopause. Can't be helped, I said the night I picked up my pillow and headed into the boy's room. It will pass, I said. God, I hope so, she said.
It did. By then, though, we had gotten used to sleeping alone. If I crept into her bed for a cuddle, I always intended to spend the rest of the night there. But after half an hour of staring up at the ceiling listening to her adenoids—did she always snore like that?—I headed back to Jerry's room. She didn't object, just turned over and wrapped herself more tightly around the bedclothes like they were a stuffed animal. But she's never let me use the phrase, "my room" to refer to the one where I sleep. It's "Jerry's room," even though I spend almost all my waking hours there, too. Where she sleeps is "the bedroom."
That's how it's been for almost five years. The intercom was my idea. With one extension in the bedroom, one in Jerry's room, and the other in the living room, wherever we are we can contact each other in case of emergency. I don't know how this arrangement would work if one of us actually had a stroke or heart attack. Would we be in any condition to dial even a one-digit number? My wife doesn't even keep her extension within arm's reach, leaves it on its cradle four feet from the bed.
We also have a ring code for "I'm going to make something to eat." That means, "If you want to use the kitchen, do so now because I don't want you in the way." Another ring means, "Going in for my shower/bath. Please use that room now if you have to." Since she fell and broke her hip, it also means I should get ready to help her in and out of the tub.
It was a bit of a shock, the first time I saw her naked after menopause had set in. I'd noticed a loss of weight, but she didn't look all that different in clothes or a bathrobe, and her body felt much the same under the covers. So I was unprepared for the woman I saw the first time I helped her into the tub. If she were an inflatable doll, I'd say someone had taken half the air out of her. Her once nicely rounded breasts and plump bottom were half-empty pouches. Her other parts looked much the same: tiny waist, long legs, swan neck, dainty hands and feet. But the stuffing was gone from the fleshier parts, sucked out.
Lying in the steamy water, though—she likes it too hot for me even to put my hand in—she looks so much like the woman she once was that I get aroused. When I'm toweling her off, I want put my lips to her pretty pink nipples. But I don't, and she thanks me for helping her in the same voice a child uses when a parent's told them to be polite to a shop girl who's given them a free cookie. When my wife fails to thank me, I remind her in the same tone said parent would use if the child didn't show proper gratitude: "What do you say?" But sarcasm is lost on that woman.
She's nearsighted. Can't see worth a damn beyond two feet. She's always worn thick lenses but now has cataracts as well. Which made what happened the other night seem all the more remarkable. She was lying in the scalding water. Before she broke her hip, she used to let the tub fill up till it almost overflowed or actually did. I wouldn't know until our downstairs neighbor was banging on the door. Now that I control the taps, she complains the water's never hot enough, but at least it stays in the tub.
Anyway, she's lying there parboiling, thinking about whatever it is she thinks about. I'm on the toilet seat nearby, keeping one eye out for the spider who lives under the broken space heater attached to the wall opposite. I once watched an epic battle between that spider and a worm—at least it looked like a worm, caught in its web. They went at it like the snake and the mongoose in the famous video, the worm arching up and jabbing as if it had hind legs, matching the spider blow for blow. I'd never seen anything like it. What's left of the worm is still in the spider's web along with half a dozen other trophies. I try to make sure I don't accidentally drown the spider when I'm filling the tub. One night I fished him out just in time. "What are you doing?" my wife demanded. I told her I was saving a friend from a watery grave. "What?" she said. "Are you out of your mind?" I laid the spider on a piece of toilet paper to dry out. A couple hours later he was back in action.
Anyway, there I was, one arm extended to the tub faucets—the water needs constant adjustment—one eye on the lookout for the spider. I hadn't seen him for a couple weeks and was worried. I didn't tell my wife, though. She's not afraid of bugs, but she doesn't like the idea of one camping out in her bathroom. We used to have a cleaning woman in. She made the place sparkle, but I was afraid she'd do away with my spider. She didn't. You have to be at just the right angle to see under that heater, which is just a few inches off the floor.
"What's the face for?" my wife said.
"The one you're making. I've never seen you make that face before."
Never mind she claims to be unable to see anything not right in front of her nose, which at that moment was six or seven feet away from me. I said I didn't know I was making a face. I said I would try not to.
"Don't get cute. What were you thinking about?"
I wasn't aware I was thinking at all. The spider doesn't count. I look for him every night. I had no idea what she was talking about. Once she's steeped in hot water, she usually goes into a daze and seems to forget I'm there until some bitter memory makes her glance up and give me a dirty look.
I checked out my face as best I could without getting up and looking in the mirror. Everything seemed in its normal place.
"Is that better?" I said.
"Yes. What were you thinking about?"
"I wasn't thinking about anything."
"Nobody makes a face like that unless something's bothering them. Do you find my body repulsive?"
"I know I'm an old bag. I'm sorry you have to see me like this. If I could manage on my own, I would."
Her eyes had gone moist. It was as if the water she was lying in had seeped into her pores and was leaking out her eyes. She's cursed her menopause any number of times, and she's cursed old age even more often. But she's never apologized because of what she's lost as a woman. My own eyes started to fill up. At the same time the blood began pulsing into my groin.
I managed to dry her off without her having a clue to what I was feeling. She's never been good at reading my mood. When I was done, I handed her the towel.
"Don't forget to leave the space heater plugged in in the living room," she said. "The other morning I almost froze."
"God forbid," I mumbled, the blood draining from my loins. She removes her hearing aid before taking her bath.
I went into my room—excuse me, "Jerry's room"—and had a look in the small mirror over the dresser that still has a few of our son's old things in it.I scrunched up my nose the way she said I did in the bathroom a few minutes earlier. Definitely not one of my expressions. But vaguely familiar, like something out of an old dream.
Two days later we were back in the bathroom, same scene, my wife musing in the tub, me on the toilet looking out for my spider.
"You're doing it again."
"Are you talking to me?"
"Do you see somebody else I could be talking to? You're making that face again. What are you thinking about? Who are you thinking about?"
"'Whom,'" I corrected. She's a stickler for grammar. She'll stop you mid-sentence if she thinks you've used the wrong tense. "'Whom am I thinking about.'"
"Answer my question."
"Nobody, if you want to know the truth. And I didn't know I was making a face."
She stared hard at me. Her face brightened. "I know where you got that expression! That cow you were married to. Made her look like a pig in labor."
"Is that right?"
"I'll thank you not to subject me to it. If you want to moon about your first wife, please do so when I'm not in the room."
I went into Jerry's room and scrunched up my face in the small mirror. It was indeed Sarah's, my first wife's, expression. She used it all the time, not just when she smelled something bad or was disagreeing with you. It used to get on my nerves, especially when we were having an argument, which was all too often. It made her look idiotic, comically so if it hadn't been so annoying. She actually had a nice face, which made up some for her being overweight.
Sarah hated spiders. Any bug, but spiders especially. She would rather see a mouse, and we had plenty of those in the floor-through we lived in when we were first married. She gave them names: "Jimmy," "Peter," "Sam." No girls. We heard them at night scrounging for the crumbs I did my best to sweep up before turning out the lights. She lay beside me and mused, "I wonder if that's Sam. I think I saw him yesterday. They move so fast, it's hard to tell."
I was for asking the landlord to send in an exterminator. I may as well have suggested we put down the cat, who was useless when it came to mice and was even fatter than his mistress. He begged for food continuously, and Sarah couldn't bear to see him hungry. It was all I could take to watch the two of them chowing down. They seem to get bigger before my eyes. The cat died young, and soon afterward we moved into a mouse-free apartment.
Spiders were another matter. We got another cat, but this one ate as much as she liked without gaining an ounce. That annoyed the hell out of Sarah. "That animal never does anything but sleep and eat and never puts on weight."
"Glands," I said. A doctor once told Sarah her weight problem was due to glands. From that day on she figured it made no difference whether she stuffed her face or not.
But, "Spider!" she would declare when I was deep into a life-and-death battle with a leaky radiator.
"Can't it wait? I finally got the valve off. It won't take me five minutes to finish up."
She looked as if she didn't know whether to cry or scream. I knew which it would be, so I stopped what I was doing and went to deal with the existential menace. It was only after I'd removed the spider—tossing it out the window, I never killed one—that she would make that face.
Now here I was imitating her expression despite the fact that I'm actually fond of the little guy under the heater. What was going on?
A few nights later I'm sitting in my usual spot, my wife in the tub, when she gives me a nasty look and says, "What's that?"
"What's what?" I said, my mind on the baseball season that was about to start, actually on the dumb move my team had just made not to re-sign its best outfielder.
"I'm not making any face!" I said, checking to see if my nose was in the right place.
"Not that face. A different one. It looks like someone put calipers to your mouth and was pulling it down on either side."
"Not now. You can't have that look and talk at the same time. What were you thinking about?"
"As in baseball team."
"Well, it's spooky, watching you turn into other people. Was that another one of the fat cow's expressions?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
I dried her off and handed her the towel. I was about to make my exit when she said, "You're not having an affair, are you?"
Her bottom lip was trembling the way it does when she's trying not to give way to tears. Her breasts hung like empty socks halfway down her flat belly. The skin of her arms and thighs looked like boiled pink crepe.
"At my age?" I said. "Are you serious?"
"Age has nothing to do with it. There're plenty of women who'd like to get to get their meathooks into a man like you."
"I'm 76 years old!"
"You're still good-looking," she said as if stating a clinical fact like my weight or blood pressure. "Lots of women would be glad to have you. And not just old ones. You could do very nicely for yourself."
I knew she wasn't pretending. My wife doesn't know how to act coy or devious, how to act at all.
Three feet away I could feel the heat of the bath radiating from her body. I took a step forward and kissed her cheek. "I'm glad you think so."
"Just watch yourself."
Back in Jerry's room I thought about all the women I'd been involved with, then about my female family members. But I couldn't remember any of them using the expression my wife had just accused me of. If this was another case of possession, it was by a total stranger.
A few days later I was in the tub myself, getting ready to take a shower. For me the world is divided into two camps: bath people and shower people. Females make up the majority of the former, males the latter. I don't know why. I've tried to convert, but it's no use. Much as I enjoy a warm bath, I don't have the patience to just lie there and stare at the faucets and tiling. My wife, on the other hand, soft-boils for half an hour or more. And it does her good. She emerges in a better mood, sometimes downright friendly. I don't knock a good soak, it's just not for me.
I have a little ritual I go through before I turn on the taps for my shower. First I lay down the rubber mat my wife uses to prevent falls. I didn't used to use it until the time I almost took a header myself. They say men die from falls more often than women, so I put my pride aside much as it made me feel even more like an old fart than I already did. Once I've got the mat down, I insert a mesh trap into the drain to collect hair and other flotsam. Then I turn on the water, let it run till it's good and hot, and I'm ready to go. The last thing I do is check to make sure my friend the spider isn't in the tub. He gets in but can't get out, and if I don't see him before I turn on the water, there's a good chance he's a goner.
I stepped into the tub that day not in the best of moods because of some unpleasantness about a bill I forgot to pay. It was only when I turned on the water and started to fine-tune the temperature—it runs hot at first, then cools down, then heats up with a vengeance—that I noticed something in the trap. I figured it was a bit of lint, sock threads from between my toes. Only, I wear black socks and the object in the trap was grayish brown.
I turned off the water, reached for the roll of toilet paper on the wall, and snapped off a couple sheets. I dumped what was in the trap onto them. Whatever it was, it didn't move. I dabbed at it gingerly so its lungs or whatever spiders use to breathe could get some oxygen. But maybe I did so too roughly or the spider was already dead, because it didn't respond. I put it down on the floor under the space heater so it would be right by its web when it came round. Maybe it was just playing possum. Waterbugs play dead like that. When they do you can squash them easily, though I never do.
It was just a spider, I told myself, a bug. I eat chicken every day, and chickens are living, feeling animals like myself. But the chicken parts I bake in the toaster-oven are just food, except on those days when I can't help but remember they're not. The spider, though, was something I cared about. It was a kind of pet, a fellow traveler even. I wanted it to wake up and crawl back in its web.
I sat down on the closed toilet. Sat and watched. Every minute I got up to check to see if the figure on the toilet paper had changed shape. I prodded it gently. It seemed to extend what looked like a leg in response, but I couldn't tell if that was a sign of life or the corpse was just starting to dry out. It didn't matter that if I was responsible for what happened it was out of carelessness, not intent. I should have checked the trap before turning on the water. All these months I had looked after it. Now, thanks to one distracted moment, I had failed it, fatally. I told myself it was stupid to get upset over an insect. But there are a lot of things it was stupid to get upset about, including a lot of things I should feel guilty about but didn't.
"Are you planning to stay in there all day?"
I moved the spider closer to the wall where it would be less likely to be stepped on.
"Are you finished?"
"What's that supposed to mean? Did you take a shower or not? I need to use the bathroom."
"Go ahead," I said. "But please be careful not to disturb what's on that piece of toiler paper under the heater."
"What piece of toilet paper?" she said, straining to see. "When are we going to do something about getting that heater fixed? I freeze every time I come in here."
"Soon," I said. What did it matter now, I thought, if the heater was in working condition? I started to squeeze past her.
"Harry," she said. It had been a long time since she had said my name in that tone of voice. "Are you all right?"
"I drowned the spider. By accident."
She stared at me with the deep frown she shows when she's getting ready to fire a volley of bad temper in my direction. I felt her cool fingers on my arm. "I'm sorry to hear that. I really am."
I couldn't bring myself to dispose of the body. It remained where it was, a reminder of my unforgivable negligence. Then one morning it was gone. So was the toilet paper. Had my wife removed it? That seemed unlikely for a number of reasons: her poor eyesight, arthritic back, bad memory. Instead of feeling angry, though, I felt grateful.
That night the extension next to our son's bed rang.
"I thought the voice sounded familiar."
"Why do we sleep in separate beds?"
"You tell me."
"I don't like it."
"It's not my first choice, either."
For a moment neither of us spoke. I glanced at the glow of the clock radio: 3:10.
"I have a pain," she said.
"Under my right rib."
"Isn't that where the appendix is?"
"Are you running a fever?"
"Would you take my temperature?"
"You don't have to."
"I'll be right in. As soon as I can find the thermometer."
"Maybe you should sleep in here where you can keep an eye on me."
"You mean... now?"
She still snores, but I mostly sleep through it. After all, I'm up two or three times myself. By rights, we both should be sleeping worse than we did when we each had a bed to ourselves. But I feel just as well- or ill-rested, and my wife hasn't complained so far. The truth is, I can't feel close to someone if I don't sleep in the same bed with them. When they're unconscious, they look so vulnerable you can't help but love them, just for being mortal.