Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.
Walden, Henry David Thoreau.
She was asleep, he nearly so; I sat in the corner, trying and failing to concentrate on my book. There were a thousand places I would rather be than here, but she needed him, and he needed me.
(In retrospect, these many years later, I think we were both fooling ourselves, he and I. It was the other way around: he needed her, and I needed him.)
I checked the clock—twenty minutes, and I would have to leave. I hated hospitals. Even the prospect of seeing an attractive nurse failed to compensate for the oppressive atmosphere of concentrated misery.
As his head dipped, he started and looked up. He too checked the clock and apparently arrived at the same conclusion. Gently lowering her hand to the bed, he began to stand up, clearly stiff from sitting so long.
I stood to lend him a hand, but he waved me off. "Stop treating me like an old man," he said softly with a smile. Even here, even with her here, he maintained that smile with a persistence born of long habit.
Both of us stretched as we walked out of the room. Neither of us spoke as we took our customary lap past the nurses' station to the visitor lounge.
Once there, however, he gave me a serious look. "Have you finished Walden yet? Don't you have a test next week?"
"'I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, '" I responded with my own smile. "Yes, I finished it once, and yes, I'm still re-reading it for the test, and no, Dad, you don't need to worry about it."
He laughed hoarsely. "You had that quote ready for me, didn't you? 'The Pond in Winter, ' as I recall."
He turned sober and looked out the window. "Winter sharpens everything, Jason. It clarifies life, reduces it to its bare essence..."
He chuckled abruptly and pivoted, taking my arm as we started back towards her room. "But you, young man, need to get home. We promised Jenny you'd be home by nine, and she has enough to worry about with your sister. We don't need to add your lack of punctuality to her list of concerns."
She was still sleeping, so I quietly grabbed my books and departed after he gave me a quick hug.
When I got home, mom was putting Lisa to bed. I leaned against my sister's doorframe watching while Mom kissed her forehead; I did the same a moment later.
After shutting Lisa's door Mom asked, "How are Frank and Eleanor?"
I shrugged and looked down. "He's doing well, she's... resting." I tried to look her in the eye, but the compassion I saw there made it difficult to maintain a steady voice, so I looked away again. "She was only awake for a few minutes this evening."
Mom stepped forward and gave me a hug. "Go get some sleep. Are you going back to the hospital after school tomorrow?"
I nodded and went to my room, not trusting myself to speak.
I was studying Walden the next evening when a nurse came into the room to check on Eleanor. This required waking her, and Frank spoke softly to her in greeting as he moved from the recliner to her bedside.
She looked sternly at him. "You're still here?"
He smiled and took her hand. "If you haven't managed to get rid of me by now, what in the world makes you think I wouldn't be here? Besides..."
Frank glanced up at the nurse and winked, then looked at his wife again. "Besides, the nurses around here are mighty cute."
Eleanor, eyes wide, looked up at the young but distinctly male nurse. She tried to laugh, but it came out as a cough instead. The nurse shook his head, gave her some water, and retreated to the corridor.
"I've been thinking," Eleanor said after finishing her water, "and I think it's time to level with you." She looked Frank directly in the eye, squeezed his hand as tightly as she could, and continued. "I'm not the woman you think I am."
Frank arched an eyebrow, but said nothing. I sat there trying to figure out how I could quietly take my leave.
"Remember the broken window pane in our back door, on Drummond Street? The one that the neighbor boys broke with their baseball while you were at work?"
Frank pondered for a moment. "I'm not sure I can remember that far back, hon. That was over twenty years ago!"
She frowned. "Well, I have a confession to make. That wasn't a baseball—I did that while sweeping, with my broom handle. I saw a spider, and you know how I feel about spiders..."
She tried to look sheepish, but the twinkle in her eye gave her away. I silently breathed a sigh of relief and tried to return to Walden.
Frank coughed, causing me to look up again. "I have a confession too, m'dear." He looked genuinely embarrassed, and I again began to contemplate a rapid exit.
Before I could decide, he continued, very quietly. "I never liked apple pie." He looked down at his feet.
Eleanor's eyes grew wide again. "My apple pie? The apple pie I made for you half a dozen times a year for all these years? My apple pie you don't like?" I hadn't heard her voice this loud in ages.
Frank apparently realized clarification was needed and looked at her earnestly. "No, not your apple pie, any apple pie. I never liked it as a kid. I know you made great pies... I just never liked apple pie."
She turned at looked at me. "He expects me to be mollified because it wasn't just my pies. Would you please explain to my soon-to-be ex-husband that I wasted hundreds of hours of my life baking those pies for him because I thought he liked them?"
I just shook my head and threw my hands up in the air. "Eleanor, you know I love you dearly, but I am not getting in the middle of this one. But..." I figuratively scratched my head, wondering if I could safely pull this off.
You only live once, right? I gave it my best shot. "But, if you do divorce this lazy good-for-nothing apple-pie-hating old fart, I'll happily ask your hand in marriage so you can bake me as many apple pies as you can manage."
She laughed, and coughed; he laughed, and coughed; I grinned like the cat that ate the canary. I decided to take my bow and give them some privacy before I screwed up somehow.
I left the room, stuck my hands in my pockets, and took a walk.
I flirted with a cute nurse for a bit before heading back to the room. I still hated hospitals.
I stopped short of the door, listening to see if they were sharing any more confidences before I walked in. Sure enough, I just was able to make out Eleanor's voice. I heard her say, "I should have told you this long ago."
I shouldn't have listened, but I rationalized it to myself as a way of leaving myself an opportunity to participate again in a joke.
Plus, these two had been my model for a happily married couple as long as I'd known them. My dad had divorced my mom years ago—Frank and Eleanor gave me hope that it didn't have to happen to me, too. What could she possibly have to confess, really? That she accidentally destroyed his favorite tie and had to buy a similar one and hope he didn't notice?
"I cheated on you once."
This wasn't a burnt tie. This wasn't even apple pie. I couldn't tear myself away.
"Do you remember William and Gladys? They had those tacky Halloween parties every year."
Frank murmured something.
"I was tipsy. More than tipsy. I had my mask off in the bathroom to freshen my makeup, when someone in a mask and long robe walked in." She coughed and paused, probably to take a drink of water. I couldn't hear Frank.
Eleanor continued. "I slapped his shoulder, said something about the other guests thinking we were taking liberties in there. He just looked at me, didn't say a word. I probably giggled, and turned back around to look in the mirror again.
"He stepped up behind me and placed his hands on my shoulders. I was nervous, not really sure what he had in mind... I didn't even know who he was.
"Then he ran his hands over my neck, through my hair... he touched my cheek..."
Frank murmured something again. Eleanor said sharply, "Just be quiet, this is hard enough.
"I don't know why I let him do it. He just kept caressing me, my face, my hair, finally my sides and... other places. I was drunk, but not so much that I didn't know what was happening."
Tear Jerker /