Miriam is dead. Nothing else is important.
You don't die that soon, not after your first surgery, do you? If I'd known I'd have gone to her, I don't care who would find out. I'd have to. But then, no, I wouldn't. You know that. I couldn't let her husband know, her kids know, and leave her dying in bed and needing them while they worked through knowing that she was a whore and had betrayed them.
She wasn't a whore. I'm only saying that because it's what they'd have thought. She was just a sweet woman dying. Through most of her life she hadn't even been particularly sexual, though I hardly believed it when she told me. She said some things just seemed different to her with the clock winding down.
So I didn't get to see her again, not really, or say good-bye. I didn't get to touch her or kiss her or do any of the things I wanted to do. That I still want to do. I did sneak into the hospital after they cut on her, after visitors' hours so no one would know, but it didn't work out because she sent me away. She said she didn't want me to see her like that. I thought, maybe later, but she spiraled down. Hospice was called.
I can't even grieve, not around anyone I know. Her husband could, though. He couldn't stop crying at the visitation. He tried to be brave, but he couldn't do it. I've never seen anyone so stricken. He shook my hand and mumbled "hello" while his daughter held his other hand and their minister kept butting in to tell him how all things work together for good to them that love God. I think he remembered me from when our kids took strings together, but who knows? What I remember was feeling his big hand in mine and seeing his eyes all wet and his face red and wanting to smack that fat, red face.
She wanted you, you stupid son of a bitch. She wanted you, not me. I was just a substitute. It was always you, but you wouldn't give her what she needed and now it's too late.
It was crowded in the funeral home. Everyone was there because everybody knew Miriam and everyone liked her, so it took forever to reach the front of the line. They all knew her, but not like I did.
Her body didn't look right. I've never seen one that did, though people have told me of lovely dead aunts or grandfathers, but it didn't matter. I was only depressed by the shell-like aspect for a minute, not more than that, with that awful wig and terrible make-up, looking not asleep but as though she'd never been real, and then I saw her as she'd looked in bed with me, so thin and waiflike, so beautifully pale and smooth, hairless, her breasts distinct balls because she'd lost so much weight. They'd put a falsie on the corpse to make it look realistic and the fake breast made me think of the tiny lump she'd hated me to touch.
I guess I stared at her for a minute, certainly not long enough to make people wonder what was going on with me, then I went out somewhere, looking for something that doesn't exist.
God I loved her. I had to be careful how I told her, though, because she wanted the fantasy that it was only sex that joined us. When I told her I loved her she insisted I really loved my wife and she loved Al. I had to say I had enough love for more than one woman and that she knew what I meant. I know she really did love her husband, and I know the sex really did draw us together.
She loved everything about the sex. She liked my penis. Yes, I know. Lots of women like penises, and some don't, but this was different. She liked mine during sex but also afterwards, when it had shriveled and shrunk to almost nothing. She thought it was cute.
"Cute? What the hell is 'cute, ' Miriam? This thing just fucked you, lady!"
"I know, silly, but when it gets so small after sex it's just, well, it's cute. And don't use that word!" She made a little pout. "Al's is always about the same length. It just gets rounder and harder and sticks out when, well, you know."
Oh yes, I knew. She went on,
"But yours. It gets so teensy-weensy when you're done. It's just precious!"
I didn't answer her for a moment. It wasn't what she said. She had that Carolina accent that always makes people sound simpler and more innocent than they really are, so it would have been hard not to laugh at the way she said "precious." I was just surprised, because it was the first time she had spoken her husband's name in bed. That was bad luck for her. It brought the guilt on.
Other places she'd talk about him and her kids all the time. I remember walking that path through the hill behind her subdivision, through the trees. There was a little creek with mossy rocks and dragonflies during the hot months and all those things that seem magical though they can't keep you from dying, and there we could walk holding hands, and she'd go on and on about her family. We could kiss. I could feel her up. Once I moved my hand down, all the way down inside her panties, and massaged her while I was kissing her, and I got her so high she almost came right there, her breath on my face accompanied by little whimpering sounds and her eyes completely closed, but when we broke away to walk some more she told me how she was arranging things to ease the transition as much as possible for Al and the kids, when she passed on. It was only in bed that she couldn't mention him. Until we got to penile comparisons, it seems.
"You know," I told her, "it would be just as easy to talk about how big and hard it gets when you make me all bothered. A little pixie dust from you and it can fly."
"Oh you men! You really do have the frailest egos." She had been tickling my ear, but now she moved down to my groin and used her mouth to boost my ego.
We'd never have sexed if she hadn't gotten cancer. We didn't know each other that well, and when she came over to me at a celebration for a professor who had died I didn't recognize her at first, because she'd lost so much weight and was wearing a straight, blond wig. Her eyes were a little bloodshot and her eyelids were inflamed.
"It's just from the chemotherapy. It was really bad, but I'm feeling so much better now. I'm going in for a second round that will be shorter, so they can get the tumor shrunk before the surgery."
We got together because I didn't react very well to finding out about her breast. It wasn't terrible, but enough to eat at me, so I sent her an email volunteering to be her sounding board when she needed to talk to someone besides her usual family and friends. A week later the need was upon her.
In my mind I can see the transformation happen. I see it from all angles, the two of us on the hiking path in Towne Park, passing through that wooded patch where no one can see us. It's warm and sunny, awfully warm for October, so that the red dogwood leaves seem out of place. We're holding hands. It's innocent. I took her hand because she was a little down and I thought it would help, and neither of us feels disposed to let go. What were we talking about a second ago? I don't remember that. How did we come around to it? I don't know. It isn't out of the blue, though. Something leads to something else. It isn't out of the blue when she stops walking and jerks her hand from mine. She turns half away from me and says,
"They're going to cut my breast off and I'm going to die and my husband won't even make love to me!"
She is looking slightly downward and I don't for all the world know what to say. No one ever prepares you for that, do they? She isn't crying but it's terrible. Because I never know what to say, I've learned not to be stupid and to say nothing. I don't croak "you're not gonna die," because she'd think it was dumb and it was only part of her point. The one thing I can think to do is step to her and put a hand on her shoulder. Then, because she doesn't respond, I lean forward and kiss her on top of her head. The wig isn't like hair. I can't smell or feel her through it.
She leans her forehead against my chest just for a second. When she lifts off she has this tight little smile.
"It's not his fault. Really. I didn't mean it that way. I'm just a mess right now. My hair is all tufts and scraggles because of the chemo. It's like I have mange or something."
"Oh." What should I say next? "I thought all of a person's hair fell out from the chemo."
"Maybe it will eventually, but not yet. It's pretty ugly."
From somewhere I get the most brilliant advice in my life.
"Why don't you shave it smooth?"
"Shave it smooth. Um, isn't it the patchiness that's the problem? Shave it off and make yourself beautiful."
She smiles at me.
"You think a bald head would be beautiful?"
"Ah, sure. Of course. Your legs are bald and they're beautiful, aren't they?"
"That's not the same. Who'd want to go to bed with a bald woman?"
"For starters? Me. Not that I'm coming on or anything."
I don't think I am. Probably I'm not. But I'm starting to feel flirty.
"Bald. No wig. Lovely smooth skin to caress. Like caressing your legs. Did the chemo affect your body hair too?"
"Yes. Not on everyone, but it did on me."
She's looking at me with a different expression. There's something subtly hungry about it.
"Well then take the time you're saving shaving your legs and use it on your noggin."
Now she does smile and seems about ready to laugh.
"It isn't that simple, you goof! My body hair is patchy too."
"Oh. Uh, all your body hair?"
I string out the "all". I decide I am starting to come on to her.
"You mean... ?" and she gives a quick nod in the general direction of her crotch.
.... There is more of this story ...