The steady beep-beep-beep of the heart monitor was somehow soothing, sort of like elevator music, something that's always there, but which you don't notice unless it's not there.
I knew that as long as I heard that constant noise, things were all right.
I was sitting in a chair in the intensive-care unit next to the prostrate form of my husband, who was just an hour or so out of open-heart surgery.
At that moment, my emotions were just about wrung out. I had cried, I had prayed, I had raged at my helplessness. I like to stay busy, which is why I still work as a teacher even though Ricky makes a very good living as a lawyer, and I like to be in control of my life.
And I could do nothing but sit there in the quiet riot of the ICU, with midnight approaching, and wait for my husband to come out from under the anesthetics -- the little death that allows surgeons to do the things they do -- so we could begin the long process of recovery.
The surgeon, the cardiologist and the attending nurses had all said the procedure was a success, that Ricky would make a full recovery, but I knew I'd have to see it to believe it.
The crisis that had led us to that point had come on us suddenly, just six days earlier.
It was a Sunday in early August, and hot like it can only get way down South. Because it was so hot, we'd spent the day indoors doing laundry, with a baseball game on in the background.
I teach English at the local high school, and had started back to work the previous week. We still had another week to get ready before the kids started their year, and I had a few odds and ends to get pulled together that day, so I'd be ready the next day.
He got this funny look on his face, and I noticed he was making an effort to belch, without success. After a few minutes, though, he seemed to relax and the moment passed.
A few hours later, I'd gone on to bed while he'd gotten on the computer to do some preliminary research so he'd be a little ahead when he went to work the next day.
He is a general practice lawyer here in the small Southern town where he grew up, and he's the best at what he does.
About 12 years ago, he traded in the rat race as a high-profile corporate attorney in Philadelphia, where I grew up, for the much slower pace of having his own firm in a smaller town.
I sleep with the light on until he comes to bed, so I wasn't totally out of it when he came in looking pale and slightly disoriented.
"Beth?" he said softly, and I could hear a slight bit of panic in his voice, which brought me out of the light sleep into which I'd fallen.
"Ricky? What's wrong?" I said in a voice still thick with slumber.
"Something's not right," he said. "I can't get comfortable, and I've got this ... weird feeling in my chest, like I've got a hard ball in my esophagus, and a tingling feeling down my left arm."
He sat down heavily on the chair in our bedroom, and that's when I got up and looked him over. I was alarmed at what I saw. He didn't appear to have a fever, but his skin was clammy and his face was covered in a cool sweat. He also seemed to be having a little trouble breathing
"Go lie down on the couch in the den," I said. "I'm calling 911."
"You don't have to do that," he said as he stood up on legs that looked shaky. "I'm fine."
"You are not fine," I said, a little more crossly than I intended. "I'm not having you drop dead on me. Something's wrong and we're getting an ambulance out here. Now!"
Just then I noticed a grimace cross his face, and he didn't argue with me, but went right into the den and laid down on the couch.
Less than 10 minutes later, the ambulance was pulling in the driveway and the EMTs were starting to work. The first thing they observed after checking his blood pressure and pulse rate gave me a little bit of comfort.
"It doesn't appear that he's having a heart attack," one of them said. "But something is going on, so we'll get a nitro drip going as soon as we get him in the truck and we'll let the hot-shots take a look at him."
Ricky seemed to relax once it became clear that we were going to the hospital. He was alert and even a little jovial, although he was still clearly in a fair amount of discomfort.
Once they had him secured, they hustled him out to the ambulance while I threw some clothes on, then our 16-year-old daughter and I got in the car and followed them to the emergency room.
That began the six-day whirlwind that led me to the ICU and a nearly-comatose husband lying on the bed.
It turned out that Ricky had had an angina attack, not quite the same as a full-blown heart attack, but still nothing to ignore.
Once they got the pain abated and his condition stabilized, they sent him on to the large general hospital in the city nearest our hometown, where our two sons live, and began the battery of tests to find the source of the problem.
It didn't take them long to find it.
We were stunned to learn that Ricky had already had a heart attack. We have no clue as to when he had it, but the evidence was clear as day when we looked at the picture they got from the heart catheter. He had one artery on the back of his heart that was almost completely blocked and two others that were more than 50 percent blocked.
The cardiologist didn't hesitate. He recommended immediate bypass surgery.
"Frankly, I'm amazed that he's just now showing signs of trouble," he said.
I consulted some people in the medical field in this area that I trusted and got the name of the heart surgeon they considered the best, and said that was who we wanted. He was put on the schedule for the following Friday to have the procedure done.
We were completely baffled as to why he'd developed heart trouble. He had no family history of heart trouble, he was only 51 years old, he'd always been healthy and kept himself in good physical condition.
The only thing we could come up with was his 20-some years of smoking cigarettes. He'd taken up the habit in college, but had quit nearly 10 years earlier.
Whatever had caused it was irrelevant. It was a problem that had to be dealt with, and Ricky didn't look back for a second once the decision was made to have surgery.
I'll be honest, though; we were scared. Up to that point, our lives had been a fairy tale, and now suddenly we were confronted with a mortal crisis that could take my Ricky away from me.
I've never felt more alone in my life -- notwithstanding all of the family, friends and clergy that were surrounding me -- than in that moment when they wheeled him into the operating room. I was absolutely lost, and that's when I finally cracked. I just buried my face in my father-in-law's shoulder and sobbed uncontrollably.
Now, as I sat by Ricky's bedside, I thought back over the 27 years of our marriage, plus the three years of courtship before that, and the life we'd made together.
You would be hard-pressed to find two people from more diverse backgrounds than ours, and I've always been convinced that we were fated to be together, because it took a peculiar set of circumstances for us to meet.
I'm the middle child from a family that was a fixture on the Main Line of Philadelphia. We're talking old -- very old -- money. If you've ever seen the movie, "Trading Places," with Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy, you have a fair idea of the kind of life I came from.
My father was a financier, much like in the movie, and my brother, Allan, three years my senior, followed eagerly in his footsteps.
My sister, a year-and-a-half younger than me, also followed the pattern. She was always gorgeous, always flirty, always popular, and she did the debutante thing with gusto.
For a long time, we also hated each other's guts, because she was everything I was not. I was pretty enough, just not in Lisa's class, and I was a little taller than average and a little gangly as a kid.
I was also a bit of a rebel. I preferred being alone, preferred the sanctuary of books to the company of others and I absolutely abhorred the society dos that were so much a part of my mother's and my sister's lives.
I wasn't so much of a rebel, though, that I could defy my folks on where I went to school. So I dutifully trotted off to an exclusive prep school, where I did pretty well, just not well enough to get much attention in the uber-competitive academic environment the school fostered.
So when my mom insisted that I follow her footsteps and attend Bryn Mawr -- and, oh by the way, join the same sorority she'd been a member of -- and hinting that she and Dad wouldn't pay for me to go anywhere else, I was stuck.
It was the worst two years of my life. The only halfway decent thing I got out of it was that I learned a little bit about sex. I started to fill out during my senior year of high school, and I was somewhat amazed to find that I could attract guys.
Unfortunately, the guys I met when I was at Bryn Mawr were the same kind of simpering idiots like my brother, snobs who thought their shit didn't stink.
After my fourth abortive relationship with some moneyed clown, I'd had enough. I informed my parents that I was transferring, and I'd wait tables if I had to in order to pay for it. I'd poured myself into my studies, so I had the grades, and I chose to go to Penn.
My parents was taken aback at my determination and acquiesced.
Being an Ivy League school, Penn isn't exactly like Penn State or Michigan or some other such state university, but it was a whole different world from Bryn Mawr. I actually met real people for the first time in my life, and I threw myself into campus activities.
I even dated some, but after my earlier experiences I had made a vow that I would not have sex with just anyone, and I kept that vow. Right up to the day I ran into Ricky Smithers at a campus event.
I was helping organize the event, some speaker whose name I've forgotten, and I saw this sandy-haired guy across the auditorium. He wasn't real big, but he seemed to move with a sense of grace and confidence that intrigued me.
I asked one of the girls helping set up who he was, and she kind of gave a little sneer and told me who he was, and walked off with a little disdain in her step.
I was puzzled at her attitude, so I walked over to him and introduced myself. I'd never done anything like that before, but, like I said, I was fascinated.
As soon as he opened his mouth, I sort of understood the girl's attitude. Despite all the years he spent in Philly, Ricky never got the South out of his mouth. He had -- still has -- a soft, slow drawl that was all magnolias and cane syrup.
Ricky is about as country as they come, other than the fact that he loves rock-and-roll music. While my roots are deep in the Main Line, his are just as deep in the red-clay soil of the Deep South.
His parents, Roland and Virgie, ran a hardware store in the downtown area of a small town in southern Georgia, until it got too much for them as they got older.
For some reason that's never been adequately explained, it took them awhile to have children, so they only had two. Ricky was the oldest and his sister Julie was a couple of years younger.
They grew up in a small house out in the country, where their parents still live and still keep a rather extensive garden. They've never been very well-off, but they are rich in the kind of things you can't put a price tag on.
They always worked hard at their store, which still operates under the ownership of a friend to whom they sold it a few years ago. They pay their bills on time, tend their garden and attend services at the First Methodist Church every single Sunday, rain or shine. They are good, good people.
Unlike me and my siblings, Ricky and Julie have always been close, and I can't tell you how much I owe Julie for her help in getting me adjusted when we moved back here 12 years ago. I can honestly say she's my best friend, and I leaned on her something fierce when Ricky had his heart trouble.
It didn't take me long to learn that Ricky was a legend in the town. He'd been the first student at the high school there to make a perfect 36 on his ACT, he was valedictorian, class president and voted Most Likely to Succeed.
He'd always been ambitious, and wanted to attend college in a completely different environment from his hometown, so he chose Penn from the many scholarship offers he received.
He seemed so confident and self-assured when I first met him that I was shocked when he told me how many times he almost left and went back home his freshman year. He was considered a hick by the Ivy Leaguers he'd encountered and had developed few friends and had no love life.
His father is a gentle man, and soft-spoken, but Ricky said that Roland put his foot down and told Ricky he wouldn't let him back in the house if he quit school at Penn. With his family's encouragement, he'd gotten through that first year and started showing the kind of results everyone expected.
Even by the time I met him, though, midway through our junior year, he was still something of a social outcast, although his academic record had earned him plenty of respect.
I asked him about it, and he just shrugged.
"It ain't easy," he said. "But that's life."
I would soon come to find out that was his stock phrase for explaining the unexplainable. He said it was the refrain from a song by David Bowie, but it wasn't a song I was familiar with.
"It ain't easy," he'd say, and he'd always say it with a shrug. I guess it was his philosophy for dealing with the ups and downs that life had thrown at him.
I couldn't understand the attitude of the other girls at school, though, because from the very first Ricky Smithers set my pulse racing. There was just something about him that turned me into a quivering mass of Jell-O whenever I was around him. In fact, he still does.
After the event that night, he invited me to join him for a beer at an on-campus pub and we talked about our lives. I kept my cards kind of close to the vest, because I didn't want him to think I was bragging about my background (not that I would anyway).
He was a perfect gentleman that night, and I was stunned that I was actually disappointed. I'd never been around a man that I so much wanted to ravage me only a few hours after I'd met him. But he didn't even kiss me.
He did, however, get my phone number from me, and he called me the next day. We were off and running, and it didn't take us long to fall madly in love.
I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to find out why no one had snapped this guy up. He was everything I could have wanted in a boyfriend -- polite, easy-going, an interesting conversationalist and a wonderful kisser.
I wanted him from the very first, but I took it slow because I wanted to be sure of my feelings, but by our fifth date, we knew we were ready to take our relationship to the next level.
To this day, I remember every detail of the first time we made love.
He took me to dinner that night, and we were unusually keyed up. It was early spring, a really gorgeous Saturday, and we'd spent the day at the park. We'd ostensibly been studying, but we'd spent more time on the blanket making out than cracking the books.
I think we knew where we were headed that night, and I was excited. We had gone downtown for cheese steaks, a local treat he'd come to appreciate.
That's one thing about our relationship; we've always found ways to enjoy the guilty pleasures of each other's local tradition. He came to enjoy things like scrapple, and I've learned to love stuff like grits and turnip greens (although I'm still not too sure about okra).
Afterward, we rode the bus back to my apartment, and I invited him in for coffee. When we had our cups, we sat together on the sofa and chatted aimlessly, about nothing in particular. When my cup was drained, I set it on the coffee table and we sort of melted together.
I was nervous, because I really wanted this to go well. I had feelings for him like I'd never had for any of my four previous lovers, and I so wanted it to be good.
Ricky's hands caressed my body as we kissed with ever-increasing ardor, our tongues slashing together as the passion mounted between us.
He moved subtly on the sofa to where he was slightly on top of me, and I could feel his hardness gently burrowing into my crotch area.
"God, Ricky, please," I panted. "I want you. Please, love me?"
He just smiled and whispered to me.
"I want you too, Beth," he said. "You are so beautiful. You're the woman I've dreamed about all my life."
Then we kissed again, passionately, wantonly, now that we knew what we wanted. As we kissed, Ricky's hands started exploring, unbuttoning my blouse with one hand while the other was gently massaging my crotch through my tight jeans.
I could feel my lust starting to soar, and I responded by reaching up to find Ricky's cock. I didn't have to search much. He was hard as a rock under his Levi's, and he groaned as I softly caressed his cock.
At length, I rolled him over and stood up. I'm sure I looked a sight with my soft brown hair tousled and my face flushed with lust. My blouse was hanging off my arms and I quickly discarded it.
That got a smile from Ricky, who had looked at me with some concern when I stood up, thinking he'd done something wrong.
I reached back and unhooked my bra and threw it on the floor on top of my blouse. I swayed lustfully as I played with my naked breasts, my nipples hard as rocks.
"You have the most beautiful titties," he whispered, and that sent my arousal spiking to hear that from the man I was falling in love with.
Trust me, my breasts are nothing special. They're kind of smallish, with quarter-sized areolas and perky little nips. I've always been sensitive about my bust size, because Lisa is fairly well-endowed, and don't think she didn't let me know it when we were teenagers.
In fact, I'd broken up with my last boyfriend, months earlier, after he suggested that I'd be a lot sexier if I had a boob job. Asshole.
But Ricky said they were beautiful. Of course, I didn't believe him at first.
"You're just saying that because you want to get in my pants," I teased.
"No, really," he said as he stood up to gather me in his arms. "Well, I do want to get in your pants. But, seriously, anything more than a handful's a waste. No, you have gorgeous titties. They're perfect for your body."
And to demonstrate, he bent down and captured one of my nipples with his lips and began to softly suckle me, lightly running his tongue over my hard little tip.
I could feel crackles of real passion exploding through my body as Ricky nursed me, moving easily from one to the other. I was on fire from his mouth, as I knew deep down he'd be good, seeing as how he was such a great kisser.
I finally had to pull him away from my chest, because I was already close to a climax, and it had been my experience that once I came I had a hard time staying in the mood for sex.
Little did I know.