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.
She blushes. Oh jeez does she blush. I haven't seen anything like that in years. She doesn't look away though. She looks me straight on, red-faced and all.
"Well, yes. It's patchy too."
"Then shave it."
"Shave it. Make yourself smooth and beautiful."
"And then I suppose you'd want to go to bed with me?"
"Oh that! Shoot, I already want to do that. This would just make me want to worship you!"
She laughs; I laugh. We're enjoying the silly moment. I say "Come here" and pull her in and we hug. That's the instant of the transformation. It's quick, a blink. We're hugging and laughing and we look each other in the face and I kiss her.
We're not laughing. We're not saying anything. Her eyes grow wide, then she leans into me and we're both kissing, mouth over mouth, lips touching and brushing, sucking, breathing each other's air, our bodies touching all the way down. I can feel my penis start to grow between our bellies and I know she can too.
Then we're not kissing anymore. She's stepped away and looks frightened.
"I'm sorry. I have to go. I really do. I really appreciate your talking with me. But... you know."
What have I done?
"Look, I'm sorry about that kiss. I didn't mean anything. It just happened."
"Oh I know. It's just that I really have to go. You know. I'll call you later, okay?"
"Sure. I really am sorry."
"No. Don't worry. It's okay."
So we're both fumbling around with words, trying to make everything normal between us while we walk to our cars, she afraid that she's shamed herself and afraid of the complications, me afraid I've fumbled the role of confidant and driven her away, and that's how things stand when she starts her car and leaves. It's a terrible memory but at least she's alive in it.
It happened that I was looking for a copy of some book and when I turned back Miriam was in my office doorway. Like a spirit. When Ebenezer Scrooge first saw Jacob Marley's ghost, it was as a transformation in his door-knocker. She was a transformation in the space of my doorway, suddenly there, out of nothing, Miriam in a trench coat, and I got a chill up my back.
"Hi," I said, finally. "I was a little worried about you."
I had decided that she wasn't going to see me again, or return emails, or anything. I had given up when she came by.
"Can I come in?"
Her voice was little, and quiet, and she sounded somehow obsequious.
I rose but didn't walk toward her. What to do?
"Do you have a little time?"
Of course I did.
"Can I shut the door?"
Then, with the door closed, "I have something I want to show you. Is it okay?"
"Of course. That's what friends are for."
She looked around the office. It was far too quiet.
She said, "You have to be honest with me, Jake. I couldn't stand it if you weren't honest, even if I don't like the truth."
"I will. Whatever you ask, I'll tell the truth." I didn't know if I would or not.
She fumbled with her wig and then she was holding it down by her hip and her head was smooth and bald.
"Is this... horrible? You have to be honest!"
I thought she might bolt.
Then I did walk up to her, slowly, to keep from spooking her. I thought she was like a young colt, in everything but appearance. She was odd looking without hair, but I never thought her ugly, just unusual. Just needing getting used to. Like the women in "Alien Nation," who were seductively beautiful once you'd seen them enough.
I went up to her and she didn't move, and after a minute I put both my hands on her scalp. Just my finger tips at first, then my palms, and I moved my hands all over her head. She was silky under my hands. She didn't bolt. She didn't move at all, just looked up at me from under her eyelids. After a moment I pulled her head down a fraction and kissed the top of her head. It was enormously better than kissing the wig. I ran my lips over her, then pulled back and raised her face by putting my fingers to her cheek. She still hadn't made a sound or a move. With her face up we looked in each other's eyes and I knew I could kiss her again, and I did.
It was just like in the park, except that she didn't stop things. She began panting almost immediately. I think she'd been holding her breath. I used my right hand to pull her to me and kept caressing her scalp with my left, and my mind was seventeen steps ahead because she'd trusted me with all this and I knew what else she'd trust me with.
"You look just fine. Wonderful. Don't ever worry again about how you look with a smooth head. Never again."
We kissed again. We heard someone walking down the hall outside the door, and we clung quietly to each other. When the steps were past we began kissing again. As a child I had caressed my pillow case with my lips. A wonderful thing for a child. Now I did that to her skin, a wonderful thing for an adult, but in a minute she put both hands up to my chest and softly pushed me back a step.
"There's something else I have to show you."
She undid her belt and began unbuttoning the coat, and I knew before she finished one button that she wasn't wearing anything under it. With that I knew everything else that was important. She had thought about me every day since the kiss and had finally shaved her body for me. She must have thought about it a long time. Maybe there were false starts and vows to stop being stupid, and worries about the sinfulness of it. Shaving off her pubic hair would have been the kinkiest thing she'd ever done. Did it make her hot to do it? She'd wanted to prepare her body for me, and now she was going to offer herself to me.
"Does it look weird?"
She let her coat slip down her arms to the floor so that it formed a pile against her ankles, and she kept her arms straight down by her sides, as though fighting a desire to cover up. Her legs were close together. Her head was bowed a little. She wasn't looking directly at me. I think she couldn't. Again, I knew what she was thinking. What if I rejected the offer? Could I accept it?
She must have stood something like that in front of her mirror, looking at her body, certain she'd never actually be able to show herself to me, or even to Al. Her desperation must have been terrible. Nothing in her life had prepared her for such a step, but her need would have kept the thought there, the idea of being transported by sex. Did she lie in bed at night thinking about it, thinking she couldn't die without experiencing it? She must have hated how she looked.
The hate was misplaced. She was thin and marvelously pale. Were both from the chemo? I could see her ribs and the bones of her chest, and faint bluish veins in her breasts that radiated from nipples that were dark and womanly against that white skin. I couldn't see a lump. Though she held her legs together I could see her labia, slightly darker than the rest of her, and the little, reddish slit of her vagina where it disappeared between her thighs. It was as shy as the rest of her.
I stepped back up to her and spoke as quietly as I could, "Don't move," and I began touching and caressing her everywhere.
It was far easier to find times and places to fuck than I had ever imagined. We did it two or three times a week, in my office or at her house or mine. It wasn't enough. For me it wasn't, and she said it wasn't for her, and I believed her because she called and sent emails to try to set up trysts we couldn't work out. We were almost caught only once, and it was so silly that it seemed afterward to be almost something from the Three Stooges. We laughed about it hysterically when we got together that very night.
I wish we could have done it every day. She'd missed out on so much, and we just couldn't cover everything. Me, I'm not young but everything of mine worked for her and I'd have taught her everything I could. Miriam, sister of Moses, found water on the desert. Miriam found water in me. I'd get hard at night, trying to fall sleep, after we'd fucked that day.
We were so conspiratorial, plotting to do this and that. She wanted to try almost everything she'd never done, and she'd done very little. A good, Southern Baptist girl in a Southern Baptist marriage. Almost everything was sinful. She'd had no ass-play ever. Nothing oral beyond a little kissing and licking as foreplay. She was afraid to suggest things at first. Was she afraid to compound her sin, or was she just shy at the thought she would disgust me? That first day, I pushed her down onto the couch and knelt between her legs to eat her. I'd never done that with a woman who shaved.
"Don't," she said when I started.
"You don't have to do that."
"I'm not going to pass up the chance at a naked cunt."
"No, that's not what I mean. And don't use that... oh!"
She kept saying things, though they became less words and more grunts and gasps with time. Later she told me it was the first time ever for her, and the experience was overwhelming. By the time she told me that, she wanted my mouth almost every time we were together. This first time she didn't know how to act, or what to expect, and she kept jerking and twisting, and whimpering "what are you doing," and "oh God," and "please, please." When she began building toward orgasm she grew even louder. I had to stop for a minute and wait for her to come down a little, until she was gasping but not crying out.
"I love doing this, but you're going to get us caught. Try holding both hands over your mouth."
So she muffled herself and I licked and sucked and she came. She yelled into her hands, silencing herself pretty well, though anyone walking past the door would have known exactly what was happening.
After she finished she lay on my couch and cried. She was inconsolable. I had to hold her for the longest time, and kiss her and murmur how everything was going to be fine, before she finally quieted. She never told me why she cried. I only have guesses.
She was awfully thin. I could feel her spine and all her ribs through her clothes. She was a bird, a sparrow, hollow and empty. I thought I could lift her with one arm. We were walking in Kilkelly Garden and no one else was around because it was so out of season. My left arm was around her waist and I just lifted her up and swung her around to face me.
She gave a little shriek.
"Jake, no, don't!" She tried laughing, an embarrassed little laugh. Then, "Jake, I can't breathe." She brought both her arms to my neck and I held her up with both my arms around her waist. She was flying, her legs in the air, and it was so good to kiss my little bird, sparrow-like in everything except her breasts, which were round and hard against me. She tried to push against me and whispered "Please, Jake, I can't... can't breathe." There was almost no air behind her words.
So I put her down and loosened my hold, and she leaned against me, breathing ragged gasps, my weak little sparrow. I loved her more then than before, and I hated myself. It was the first time I felt she might actually die--the first time it seemed real to me.