Fall 2017 (Volume 21, Issue I)
IT’S STILL FATAL
I saw my ex-husband in a hotel lobby. He was with a group of conference people and smiled broadly, unlike in the past. I knew his secret of false teeth. He could appear confident in his black leather jacket with the collar up. I wasn’t fooled.
“Hello, my pet,” he said, swinging my way across the gleaming floor. Long ago, I’d heard from mutual acquaintances that he had a new wife and also dogs.
I said, “No pet of yours. It’s the full Susanna now.” I used to go by “Sue.”
The check-in clerk behind the glossy counter said, “Photo ID and credit card, please.”
I was bothered by the over-strong smell of lilies. When I turned, there they were—Asiatic ones, pink fleshy blossoms, freckled, and bright stamens with cinnamon-colored pollen. In huge gold vases, three, spaced along the counter.
“A quiet room,” I said, “Not near the elevator.”
My ex followed me across the lobby where I spoke to the concierge. “Yes, Thai food, I think. And within walking distance.” In his cap and uniform, the concierge nodded. Then he handed me the folded area map and brochures about harbor tours.
“Who are you with?” my ex asked.
I attend this annual conference, in publishing, a field we share. Me as author, he as agent.
“I don’t need company, Alex.” Curt, appropriate. I wheeled my burgundy and black carry-on behind me, zipped into a just-closing elevator, and was down the hall, sliding the room card out to the green light, when I heard the room phone ring.
“Remember that restaurant in Houston, right off Westheimer?” He always had a long memory.
“The one with the string lights shaped like chili peppers?” I thought I could see them.
“Exactly.” He paused and I suppose we were both in that place, back twenty plus years ago in memory. I stared at the framed art above my bed, a pseudo Georgia O’Keefe in a garish orange.
A scene came back to me of that very restaurant and Alex proposing marriage. Ridiculous now to think how excited I had felt. A small ceremony a few months later, at an author’s house, with a justice of the peace who made house calls officiating. Too far to travel, we justified, no one from his family or mine invited.
“You never invited my father to dinner,” he said now. Our minds and words sometimes echoed each other even after years.
“Whitey? I couldn’t stand him. Do you remember him insulting me when I told him I wrote about child trafficking? ‘Deserve what they get.'”
“Meet me for a drink,” he was insisting now—his voice purring like in the old days. “I’ve got news to share.”
I hung up my clothes, put underwear and bra in the small flat dresser drawer, stowed running shoes and gear in the bottom of the closet. My husband would want to know I’d arrived safely so I called—two time zones back.
“Go on to bed,” I told him. “I’m here at the hotel just fine. And it’s raining.” I consciously didn’t mention Alex. Why worry my guy? “Love you, sweetie!”
The receiver back in place, I picked up the embossed hotel stationery there by the blotter on the desk. How odd! It came back to me—a folded half sheet that said Vancouver Sheraton with my name in black ink on the outside of an envelope, slipped under a hotel door. 1532. It was here in Vancouver at a different hotel a year or so ago. The mutual friend of the ex and me—someone I ran into at breakfast—and the note simple, “I don’t know if you heard, but Alex had to have open heart surgery.”
Maybe that’s what Alex wanted to tell me about. I lay on the bed now, resting my head on the pillow. Cold, I thought, it’s cold in here. I pulled up the coverlet, slipping off my shoes, to rest for just a few minutes. Once I hit fifty-five years old, my feet ached by mid-afternoon. With eyes closed, I saw Whitey, almost shuddering when I remembered his trafficking comment. A short man, he had a tight round protruding belly. And beady eyes like a ferret. He lived with Alex’s mother in a double-wide, Arizona. Maybe he noticed me looking around on our one visit: Lay-Z-Boy chair, check, beer (cans) in the fridge, check, no reading material, check. I hadn’t been dismissive, even in my mind, till the racist comments and other language.
I was long past blame or hurt. It had been twenty-five years. Still, something vague tugged at me—some surprise of sympathy bubbling up for Alex. Was it for his surgery, or the earlier AIDS scare after a transfusion? He who had railed against gay men, even saying, “They deserve what they get. I hope they all die.” How far can the apple fall from the tree? And then poor hygiene: he had false teeth by thirty-five years old. Dope-smoking, candy, a prescription drug habit.
Downstairs an hour later, I could see his head and jacket when I came around the corner of the bar. Alex stood up, “Oh, let’s get a table.”
All suave and confident. An act, I thought again. Remember how nervous he got before every social encounter? And before our wedding. Called it “nerves.” Him asking me to ask our friends for Valium. I’d had the sense to say no. “You ask!”
“So you’re going to a Thai place for dinner?” I could tell he still wanted to hang out. He kept looking around—was he worried about someone seeing us together?
I lied, “Yes, meeting some friends at 7.”
“Look, I wanted you to know I had surgery. A blocked artery. And now I have breathing troubles, COPD. Not all the time but just occasionally.” He lifted his drink, sipping, the ice knocking. “Smoking really did hurt my lungs. Glad I quit when I did.”
Curious, this, both the disclosures from him and the looking back. I didn’t know if it was a ploy for sympathy (and maybe I’d relent and include him for dinner), or it was simply our shared past—though it had been only four or five years of togetherness.
I could see our Houston flat, peeling paint on the ceiling. Rituals of Friday night dope smoking, eating Twix bars. How many bad habits had both of us had? When you’re young, you think, “no big deal.” It was our late twenties, early thirties. Both finishing grad school. In two years, we’d be history to each other.
“Is Whitey still alive?” I wanted to keep the conversation on safe subjects, old stuff.
“Oh god, no. He’s been gone ten years.” He lifted a finger to signal the waitress.
“My brother has a brain tumor.” I said this calmly, letting the words sink in.
“Do you mean Steve?” He coughed, then fumbled at his right pocket for a small inhaler he pulled out. “Excuse me.”
“Since he’s the only brother I have, yes, . . .” I paused. Steve is my twin, my lawyer brother who never left Seattle.
“They can operate.” His voice was normal again. It always bugged me when he’d sound like an expert.
“No, in fact they can’t.” I was picking at a loose thread on a button at my cuff. Tempted to just yank the damn thread.
“Well, radiation then.”
“Sure, but it’s still fatal. He’ll be gone by. . .” What month was this any way; oh yeah, holidays over; this was January. “He’ll be lucky to make it to May.” Or would that be lucky? I could see my brother’s unsteady walk, his right foot dragging in a brown slipper. I could see his blank eyes.
He was staring. “I like your hair with those streaks. It’s good to have hair, isn’t it?” He patted his own. He had had a habit in the past of putting me down, over and over. Comments like “Did you do something to your hair?” Or: “Gee, I think those pants add about five pounds to your waist.” One time I told him I was feeling down, and he chanted at me in a mocking way, “Sue is blue, Sue is blue.” Maybe that was gone. Was he more kind?
Now he said, “Should I order us an appetizer? I’m starved.”
“What about a harbor tour tonight, Alex, what do you think?” His eyes widened.
“But the water: won’t there be swells? You know I get seasick.” He actually looked a bit green already. I knew he wouldn’t come.
It was a reflex of mine, this pushing people away, saying I had dinner plans when I didn’t. I desired some company; now I could feel that, and it was like food hunger but somewhat different, a different synapse. I felt at peace. I had made the overture. Only half listening now, I could hear him saying how he’d gotten sick once on a boat, how he didn’t like leaving shore. I tuned him out.
I desired a plan and in my mind one formed: I would put on my running shoes and go out for forty minutes. A hot shower later, I would find the Thai restaurant and eat alone. I desired now to go on the harbor tour either alone, if Alex didn’t come as I suspected, or maybe with someone else tomorrow when the weather might be more fair. Perhaps someone from the conference would go. I desired to have a sympathetic soul. Could wishing for more sympathy help me gain more?
My heart went out to Alex, and to me. He was chewing and talking while I was thinking, and I wondered how his gums were holding up, if he ever had those false teeth adjusted. We were going to die. We were going to have to face it, together and alone. We clinked our glasses, “To friendship,” he said, and I concurred. And then we ate the sautéed button mushrooms, one at a time like golden pills, like antibiotics to protect us from what would come.