The walk home is long at six in the evening. Fifteen blocks of families and lovers rushing to dinner. I can see the disenchantment in their faces. The wives wear too much make-up, the girlfriends don’t wear any. There are fathers in wrinkled Dockers with daughters who refuse to hold their dad’s hand. I’m glad I don’t have any children. I don’t know if I would make a good father, I don’t know that I believe in the nobility of sacrifice. The sole of my shoe is wearing and I can feel the small gravel piercing the soft pad of my foot. The light is on in the living room. Helen’s home. She’s always home.
“Hey. How was she today?”
“Better, the bed sores are healing. She did some exercises, but it’s going to be awhile before we see a big change.”
“Ok, thank you. I’ll walk you to your car.” Our eyes always meet, but she always says no.
“Oh, you don’t have to, I’ll be here on Monday bright and early.”
Stephanie is Helen’s caregiver. She’s been working with her for almost a year. I take care of Helen at night and on the weekends. I have to take care of her. The insurance money covers most of the cost, but not all of it. It is my duty to help her. I check my phone, no calls. I start biting my nails.
The grease on Helen’s skin covers my lip like balm when I kiss her. Her lips are chapped. I go into the kitchen and consider doing the dishes, but I just got home. I ask her to turn the television down so I can immerse myself into forced silence. She doesn’t have the strength to walk, but at least she has the feeling back in her legs. I watch her struggle to reach the remote on the end table, but I don’t help her. I’ve done nothing but help her this last year and I’m tired. I can’t keep this up anymore, but I don’t know how to end it. I can’t just leave her, she needs me. It would be unforgivable. We haven’t slept together since the accident.
Tap, tap, tap. Her foot asks to be recognized while her mouth is still. The foot is always trying to draw attention to itself. It asks for a recognition which the speaker is too passive to relay. We used to talk all the time and laugh. God, I used to tickle her just to hear it. Her laugh is like singing karaoke at a crowded bar, exciting while embarrassing, obnoxious, but charming.
“Would you please stop that?”
“Sorry, I’ve had this song stuck in my head all day. Did Stephanie tell you that I finished all my exercises today? I think I might be walking by the end of the year.”
“She said it’s going to be a long time before we see any real change.”
The foot stops tapping. It’s been found out. She turns her head away from me. The foot lies flat, embarrassed and depressed by its own inelegance.
I walk into the office. Our home office is full of filing cabinets, the catacombs of proof. My favorite chair sits in the corner right up against the wall. It’s old, but familiar. I left my coffee cup from yesterday next to it, that’s going to be hard to wash. I leave it and fall into the chair. The paint in here is chipping. I pick at it, but soon grieve the damage I’ve caused. I don’t want to have to paint the room again, even though the pale green reveals the room’s illness. I don’t want to have to set the room up for painting only to have to put it all away again when it’s finished. I lean to the side and rest my head against the wall. It’s cool. I put my palm against it. The wall beats in rhythm with the passing car’s subwoofers. I can almost see its metallic purple paint. Morbid vanity rolling over cracked pavement. I check my phone and dial. No answer. I’m hungry.
“What do you want for dinner?”
“I’m good. I’ll fend for myself.”
“You’re a walking contradiction. If you don’t want anything why would you need to fend for yourself? Besides, it’s not like you can just make it yourself.” I shouldn’t have used that phrase. Clichés are an infestation that clutter and dim the imagination, and yet, the impulse to use them in awkward situations is astounding.
“I just ate a big lunch, grouch.”
We’ve been together for four years. Two months ago I realized that four years is thirty-five thousand hours. Even if we spent a year apart or in silence, that’s still about twenty-five thousand hours of quality togetherness. They say that a genius spends twenty thousand hours working his craft. I don’t have any genius insight to our relationship. I don’t want to leave her alone, though. I don’t like the mess of having to separate our things. Plus, I don’t want to move into a new apartment, put my half of our life away, and buy new things to replace her half.
“Do you mind getting me a drink?”
She drinks a lot. Bourbon during the week, wine on the weekends. She says it helps her mind relax. Nothing has really happened that makes it a problem. It’s just that I hate washing all the glasses. She needs a new glass with every refill. She can’t wash the glasses, so I do it. Every day. How many glasses can one wash in thirty-five thousand hours? I don’t think I’ve ever broken any. Maybe that’s what my genius was wasted on, the proportionate amount of dish soap necessary for three glasses at a time. We order out a lot, so mostly I just wash glasses. Dish washers never get any credit. The phone vibrates in my pocket. I’ll check it later.
“I’m tired.” I have to carry her to our bed. She doesn’t like to spend nights in the hospital bed we put in the living room. She’s not heavy, quite light actually. She was always active, taking dance lessons, walking everywhere. She once told me that people who walk at least two miles every day live longer. How long does she have, now? Her idiosyncrasies are what drew me to her when we met in the library. That damn pen she was clicking. When I walked over to ask her to stop, I accidently knocked over her coffee. She easily forgave me and I promised to buy her another cup. We spent the whole day in bed and I made her that promised cup of coffee the next morning. I wonder if she remembers that.
“I’ll be ready in a sec, I’m just finishing up chapter four. The Menglesons have found their daughter’s journal. I think I’ll have them confront her about hiding her relationship with James.”
“Oh? Ok, well, wrap it up soon, I’m tired.”
We are lying with our backs to one another. I could try to warm her up, but there’s no point. She always shirks away. She says she’s not able to make love the way we used to and she’s embarrassed about her disability. Here we are in bed together, the most intimate setting for lovers, and yet we lay, motionless, in silent agony. Under the sheets our feet touch. She sweeps her foot against the two hundred thread count sheet in one deafening lunge. That’s an improvement, I don’t think she’s moved that much in the last year. I’m cold and I have a piece of chipped paint stuck under my fingernail. I don’t want her to know I’m awake so I’ll suffer it as a penance.
The sun peeks in through the broken blinds. Her lips aren’t chapped anymore. I can live with that. I love her. Do I? Why am I asking myself whether I do or not? Doesn’t that mean I don’t? But, if I didn’t, why would I feel the urge to wipe the hair from her eye and brush my fingers over her exposed breast? Isn’t wanting to comfort the turmoil of others an act of love? I do love her. I just don’t like her, sometimes. I always feel better in the mornings. Not going to bed angry is hard, but waking up wanting to reconcile is easy. I think that’s just a saying for old people to live by. After a certain point in the arc of life, you realize you might not wake up again. Although, what is there to regret if you’re dead? I guess making amends is for the sake of the one who will live, but isn’t breathing enough of a comfort? Grandpa always smoked cigars in the house and grandma hated it. At the funeral she said he could smoke as much as he wanted. No, there is no comfort until a few thousand hours force their way between memory and reality.
I shuffle to the cupboard and grab my favorite mug. It has a small chip, but is still useable. My coffee is too bitter. I left it sitting on the burner too long. I check my missed call, just mom. I can hear Helen rustling in the bed. I imagine Katie’s smile, she’s different than Helen. She can walk. Why would I think that? I’m a horrible person. Helen is not deficient because she can’t walk. She just, she’s just different now, she needs too much. I walk into the room with a scorching cup of guilt in my hand. I gave her extra sugar.
“Good morning, thanks for making coffee, it smells great.” She says.
“I remembered to set the timer on it, for once.”
“Do you want to go get groceries?”
“Yeah, I should. It’ll be easier if I just go, though. I want to run down to the bank before it closes. Is there anything special you want?” I don’t really want to go through the hassle of loading her into the car and attaching the wheelchair to the trunk. I hope she says she doesn’t want to go.
“No. I just…never mind. I’ll see you when you get back.”
That was a big sigh. I know she’s fretting. I can tell because she’s not making stupid jokes about burnt coffee. She always teases me and says that I shouldn’t be in the kitchen because I can’t grasp the basic concepts of hot and cold. I guess that’s kind of funny, since I really don’t know what temperature anything needs, I always just wing it.
“I had a great dream that I want to write down. I think I’ll start working on turning it into a story. You were in it.”
“Ok, you’ll have to tell me about it later, I really want to get going.”
I’m on my second cup of coffee. They say that coffee enhances mood. I don’t know about that though, she drinks coffee all day and it just makes her click her pen with more vivacity. Click, click, click. What good is going to come of weakening the steel spring? Putting pressure on it repeatedly is going to wear it out. You wear out the parts you need most with tedious repetition. When I come home at night, all I see are broken pens that still have ink in them cluttering the bedside desk. Where are my shoes?
“Why don’t you grab my card and get some cash out?”
“That’s ok, I’ll get it.” She’s on a fixed income and I don’t like taking her money.
“I don’t know why you always insist on paying for the groceries.”
“I don’t always insist, I just have more money. I’m not trying to invalidate you.” I don’t want to start another fight, but I never seem to use the right words.
“What’s with the ‘I’m not trying to invalidate you’ crap?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Do you think I need your validation?”
“No, of course not, I just thought that you might think I was putting you down some way by paying for the damn groceries.”
“It’s not the fact that you want to pay for the groceries all the time, but that you think I need your validation or that I need coddling in some way.”
“I was only trying to tell you that I don’t care about paying for them and that it had nothing to do with you as a person.” Does it?
“You’re full of shit.”
I let the door slam.
I meander through the grocery store and choose a few non-perishables. I push the cart to the register, the cashier is attractive. Does she have a boyfriend? She’s young, probably the jealous type. Helen is never jealous, she always trusts me. Four years, four long years. I put the car in drive, turn south, and dial the number.
“Hi, it’s me. Where are you right now?”
“Do you mind if I come over?”
“Not at all. I was hoping you would call.”
Her studio is cluttered and smells like cigarettes. She offers me a drink and I accept. She’s not beautiful in the traditional sense, but she’s cheerful and available. Helen and I haven’t slept together in so long. I need this, I deserve this. I put the glass on the table and ask her about her day. She rambles on and I stare at the silk blouse clinging to her chest. I lean forward to touch her bare leg, but I stop. My shaking hand displays more truth than I want to admit. I realize I don’t know anything about this woman. I met her a only a few weeks ago. We’ve barely spoken on the phone. This is not who I am. Her voice is hoarse and unsettling. I feel awkward now. I pretend to get a text and tell her I have to leave.
The drive home is hell. The tears are welling in my eyes and I can’t see which side of the road I’m on. I have to pull over. I turn on the hazard lights and try to catch my breath. She is not Helen. I delete her number. I can’t do this, not like this. I think about the last time I cried. It was in the hospital.
I walk up to the door and I realize I smell like smoke. The fire was put out, but the smell of infidelity wafts all around. My cheeks burn as I grind my teeth to defy my tears. The doorknob seems to turn from its own volition.
“Hey honey. Where are the groceries?”
I shut the door quietly behind me and remind myself to breathe.
“Helen, I can’t, I couldn’t…”
“You couldn’t what?”
“I couldn’t buy any groceries because I didn’t make it to the bank in time.” I’ll throw out what I bought. I don’t want anything to remind me of that trip.
“Oh. Well, that sucks.”
“Yeah. That’s ok though, I really want to hear about your dream.” I walk over to bed and tickle her.