His wife’s hospital room was calm now, and the visitors knew not to visit. Not yet,
anyway. He turned to face Greta’s bed. The fresh daffodils he’d put in the vase a few
days prior had started to wilt, and the speckled petals looked a lot like her papery
skin. The white walls had the grey pallor of a smoker, and the smell of disinfectant
burned his eyes. Greta looked so small hooked up to all those wires. Shrunken.
Soon, the beeping machines would be silent and a small family of sad faces
would be huddled round her bed.
Jack stood by the closed window keeping an eye on the car park down below,
thinking about the children. Would they cry, or would they share his relief? A shiver
rippled through his body. He couldn’t decide if it was fear or excitement he felt – it
was so long since he felt anything.
Any moment now Liz’s Honda would arrive and he’d put his hand to his
mouth to hide his smile, remembering the smell of its interior, a mix of tobacco
smoke and McDonald’s take-out, and the floor on the passenger side covered with
empty fast food cartons. He liked Liz’s messy car. How could he not? It was the scene
of their first kiss, of his first kiss in more than twenty years. Twenty-two years, three
months, and ten days, to be exact.
Did Greta keep track the way he did? He didn’t know, never asked. There was
so much he didn’t say.
Was it too late to start talking now?
Or just pointless?
One of the machines emitted a flutter of beeps, and he glanced back at his
wife, listening for a moment to her mechanical breathing. Not long now, he thought,
and hurry up, and how much more of this do I have to endure, and will the children
be surprised when Liz moves into the house?
He felt worst when he caught himself wishing for Greta’s passing. He wasn’t
that kind of man. Not really. Despite her many flaws, he never wanted her to suffer
unnecessarily. He knew she’d suffered enough already. He was what Greta called, “a
good egg.” What she meant was: weak. She never used that word, but the way she
mocked him made it clear.
“For God’s sake, Jack, take your elbows off the table while we’re eating. You
look like a schoolboy,” she said the night of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
“My God, Jack, just because you work at a school doesn’t mean you have to
dress like a geography teacher,” she said often, a running joke only she was in on.
“Stop muttering, Jack. It’s a wonder those kids learn a thing the way you talk.
It’s them that should be getting an award not you,” she said the night he won the
title as the Best Career Guidance Officer at the County Awards.
He wasn’t the kind of man who had affairs, either. But he’d become one.
He checked his watch for the fifth time. Where was Liz?
It never occurred to him he’d be attractive to anyone again let alone Liz.
“You look downtrodden,” Greta said so often it became a self-fulfilling
His shoulders started to slump. His hair turned salt and pepper. His cardigans
got baggier, and his socks acquired holes. His belly grew. His biceps shrank till the
skin on his upper arms sagged like his shriveled penis – the penis that Greta refused
to touch for twenty-two years, three months and ten days.
Down below, the car park was still as a graveyard on a winter’s morning.
He spotted Liz on her first day at the school, in the admin office, with her big
hair and friendly smile, the easy way she chatted with the other women, instantly
infiltrating their clique with her common sense and kindness. Something about her
made his heart swell, or crack, or ache in a way he tried and failed to ignore.
He’ll never forget that first conversation with Liz, sitting in her little blue
Honda in the McDonald’s car park, eating take-out on a rainy Tuesday afternoon
while having a heart-to-heart. Greta was bed-bound by then. Liz was just being
supportive. He never intended to be so honest but it all came tumbling out. The
relief of finally telling someone made him cry, big heaving sobs, he was mortified.
But Liz assured him it was healthy, and even congratulated him for being in touch
with his emotions, went as far as to call him brave. He was so grateful to her in that
moment, he could have proposed. Instead, he did something he hadn’t done in more
than twenty years. He took her face in his hand, stared her straight in her brown
eyes, and kissed her. The windows fogged up. She dropped her chicken nugget on
the floor. That was three weeks ago.
He could see his reflection in the window of Greta’s hospital room, and felt it
was impossible not to notice the change. He stood a little taller. He’d started
showering every day. He bought weights, and set them up in the kitchen so he could
bench while he watched the morning news.
“You’re only fifty-eight,” Liz said. “You’re still a young man.” Damn right, he
thought, I am a young man.
He’ll never forget that conversation with Greta, the one when she ended all
physical contact, at first, blaming postpartum depression, and later, her “hormones.”
She said it was hormones that forced her to throw out the double bed in favor of
two singles six months after Rachel, their youngest, was born, almost twenty-three
Did Greta keep track the way he did?
No, he decided she did not.
Or maybe he just preferred to think of her that way, not wanting to
contemplate the alternative, and hating himself for that, for his weakness, his
inability to confront his wife, to demand answers, to what? Demand she fulfill her
wifely duties? He couldn’t force her to love him. How could he do that? Love can’t be
forced. Forced love has no value. Does it?
Greta was a force: stubborn, blindly self-righteous, and more disciplined than
a drill sergeant. She’d been unstoppable, once. Up at six every morning, children’s
breakfast and lunches made before seven, kids out the door by eight, dinner on the
table at six-thirty every evening, beautifully cooked. The thought of the early years,
of her sitting in the rocking chair breast-feeding the baby with the smell of fresh
baked bread wafting from the oven still brought a tear to his eye. She was quick to
smile back then, and her obsessive habits seemed harmless, even cute.
He liked that she thought it important to mop the kitchen floor every night,
and insisted on color coordinating the clothes in the wardrobe, the toiletries in the
bathroom, and the groceries in the cupboards. Attention to detail was her motto,
and back then, he was a detail she attended to. It surprised no one when her interior
design agency won Best Startup at the County Awards the year after he’d won his
He’d hated standing on that stage with Greta, her in her linen suit, him in his
corduroy pants, looking like the average picket fence, middle-aged couple, all smiles,
and sexless. He’d hated feeling like a fraud. A year later, she got sick and the
sympathy cards started rolling in. It took all his willpower not to burn them in the
barbecue pit on their wooden deck.
Still, it was her values he imparted to his students, advising them to adopt
discipline as a path to freedom. He saw every one of those kids as having the
potential to live the life he never did, and he made it his business to ensure they had
the motivational tools to strive for the difficult goals, and embrace challenges as
He had given himself the same pep talk every morning for twenty-two years,
three months and ten days, telling himself again and again that any day now Greta’s
hormones would snap back to reality, and they could rekindle the romance they’d
Before Liz, all he had was that hope, and fragile as it was, he clung to it, not
realizing he was living in a trance, or not living at all. It was Liz who helped him see
that, coaxing him in her soft voice.
“Abuse,” she’d called it. He’d never thought of it that way.
“How did the situation make you feel?” Liz asked, before biting into a chicken
“Heart-broken,” he confessed. That was when the sobbing started, and when
Liz put her hand on his arm. He’d stayed for the children. And because he didn’t
know where else to go. He was weak, just like Greta said, a good egg.
“Or incredibly loyal,” Liz said.
Was he loyal?
He thought of the one time he’d gone to a strip club determined to end his
celibacy. He hated the sticky carpets and the sleazy music and the thought of sharing
one of those cubicles where so many other desperate men like him had been,
seeking out the same relief from their version of hell, tormented by the same
feelings of despair. There was no way he could “just get into the moment,” the way
his friend Dave urged him to do. At the first chance, he slipped out the door, never
to return. To his mind, sex was a private encounter not a public spectacle, and he
hated Greta in that moment for reducing him to that.
Privately, he’d grown to despise her bed-time routine, the way she religiously
mopped the kitchen floor every night at nine, then showered and spent fifteen
minutes rubbing a cocktail of creams on her face, chest, elbows, and feet, a different
cream for each body part, the bottles neatly arranged in her nightstand drawer.
After that, she’d slip into bed, wearing a knee-length nightie, read for twenty
minutes, and lights out by ten. By ten-thirty she was asleep, exhausted by the effort
of maintaining her routine. She was up by five, and exercising by six, and he
imagined her body was in good shape under that nightie.
She could dent his dignity but she couldn’t rob his imagination.
The longing died of its own accord.
He was grateful for that.
Then there was the night last week when Greta begged him not to leave her.
She was lucid again, and scared, terrified, like a small child, her bird-like face tense
with fear. He held her all night the same way he’d done when they’d fallen in love in
college almost forty years ago.
“I’ll love you forever,” he said to comfort her. Some small part of him meant
“I love you more,” she said in that warm voice from their early days, the one
she used while sitting in the rocking chair, talking quietly, not wanting to wake the
sleeping baby in her arms, her hazel eyes ablaze with love, her lips as inviting as a
hug on a cold night. He’d lost count of the nights he’d fallen asleep, tears leaking
from his eyes as his body ached to be touched, and his heart wished for words that
didn’t sting. Finally, she was saying them. Finally, he held her in his arms. But she
offered no explanation for her absence, showed no regret, shed no tears. She never
asked how he felt, or what he wanted, or if there was anything he needed to say.
And he never said a word.
That’s what enraged him the most: his absence.
His participation in his own torture.
She felt so frail in his arms, it wouldn’t take much, no more than a prolonged
squeeze. He could easily hold his hand over her mouth and nose. He thought about
it, for a second, how much pressure he’d have to apply. Another shiver, this one
stronger, accompanied by a shudder in his stomach. He knew it was fear: the fear
he’d never be able to look the children in the eye again; and hatred of what he’d
become, what he’d allowed her to reduce him to.
But it didn’t have to end that way. She didn’t have to die thinking she’d won,
leaving him alone, a broken man.
He’d found a way back.
It was a miracle.
Liz was the miracle.
Who knew it would happen to him. Him? Average in every way. Average
height and build, nondescript haircut, glasses and cord pants. His most distinguishing
feature was the bitten fingernails on his left hand – he’d trained himself only to only
chew the nails on that hand.
Liz rubbed coconut oil on the cracked skin that first night they spent alone. It
was the most erotic thing he’d ever experienced, he still got hard thinking about it.
When she leaned into kiss him, he thought he might cry. Instead, he devoured her,
tasting every inch of her luscious body, losing himself in her warm flesh. They stayed
up till dawn, and in between bursts of passion, they lolled in her tossed bed-sheets,
sipping malt whiskey from crystal glasses, feeling giddier than a pair of teenagers on
the hop from school.
What good could come of telling Greta now except to ease his conscious?
Other than to punish her? Let her know she didn’t win?
He’d already won. He had Liz.
He pressed his palms and forehead against the windowpane. The cool glass
sent another shiver down his rigid spine. Still, he couldn’t name it, and that bothered
Did he owe it to himself to speak up, as Liz said?
Would this thing with Liz even last? Could it last?
He was all in, that was sure. Was she?
Could he rely on her the way he could rely on Greta?
Imagine he told Greta and a month later Liz dumped him? He’d have to take
it on the chin. That would be the reasonable thing to do. But he was so tired of being
reasonable and patient and understanding and forgiving. He wanted to be angry and
passionate and loud and selfish and opinionated. He wanted to love and be loved.
He wanted to feel alive, and be alive.
He was alive.
Greta was dying, and he was alive.
He would not lose Liz the way he’d lost Greta.
He’d love harder, cater to her every whim, conjure her every fantasy, never
doubt her, and never leave her side. He’d spend his days finding out what she
wanted, and making sure she got it.
He’d be brave.
Another flutter of beeps from the machines snapped his attention back to
the room. Down below, the driver of a white Ford Fiesta was trying to park in a tight
spot. Behind him, a small voice said his name. He turned to face Greta’s bed.
She was smiling at him.
Taking a deep breath, he walked to her, and took her bony hand in his. For
the first time, he noticed how much bigger his hands were than hers.