In bed, on a Sunday afternoon in late summer, a man and woman, each divorced and twenty years past young, or so one would say if young now didn’t last so long: they were kissing a little, touching a little, the walls around them magic-lanterned with shadows and jumpy dots of sunlight, which passed through the leaves swaying protectively over the woman’s open window. He and she had arrived at the relationship, romantically speaking, empty-handed: harrowed and childless, on guard but well-intentioned.Their expectations had been kept forcibly muted for enough years to make muted their primary setting and, so far, these echoing conditions had worked out for them: the sex was good, compatible, unstrained, often physically intense.As for the rest, it might be too much to say they enjoyed each other’s company (often they did, of course), but more important, at their age, they didn’t at all mind each other’s company.
It’s been two hours and forty minutes, she said. Her fingers were gently touching and letting go of his exceedingly erect penis. Bits of a breeze slipped over them, tinged with the first hints of autumn.
Don’t be a clock-watcher, he said. Or a cock-watcher.
I’m concerned, she said.
Let’s not get neurotic about it. I’m sure it won’t fall off.
They kissed and began to press harder against each other, kissed more, and then he slid an arm under one of her legs and turned her, willing, onto her stomach. Pressed down hard against the bed she made deep noises and she had a way of curving herself back up to take him that inspired him to a certain athleticism and fierceness. It made him wonder at the beauty of the human spine.
It was the usual thing, they had met on the Internet, in chilly March. The first time she’d taken him in her hand, she’d whispered a delightfully filthy exclamation of her desire, which he remembered now every time she touched him and every time he entered her. On other fronts, they had moved slowly—like the infirm. Each had a jagged life history, sharp enough to draw blood; they had not yet attempted to bring these unfinished pieces together—had plainly avoided it, in fact—to see if any of the edges fit.Their relationship, an evening or two during the week, Saturday nights leading to Sunday afternoons such as this one, felt less like integral moments in the histories of their lives than like unique respites from those histories. He had been married for twelve years, and only after it was over was he able to acknowledge that throughout those years, even during the engagement, he had been hoping for (and endlessly planning) his escape. His wife had smelled this on him as if it were another woman, and it had driven her into ever more prolonged periods of estrangement and rage. He spent a year sleeping on the couch before she finally threw him out; he had gotten what he wanted without having to say the words his own father had delivered to his mother: I’m leaving you. It required no genius to see that this victory had not been worth the years required to achieve it.Yet for a time—he was trying to break the pattern—he had continued to relate to women in this way, attracting them and seducing them and then, almost systematically, making them furious.A woman he’d been seeing a few years earlier, a psychologist, had called him one day after they’d been together for a couple of months: Look, she’d said. Let’s end this before it gets toxic.
Normal breath was returning; they lay facing each other again, exploratory fingers interlacing and trailing along the other’s palms. Suddenly she pulled her hand away, fell onto her back, and said, Now it’s like three hours.When do we call the EMS people?
I can’t stand it if you’re going to do this, he said. Why did you take that thing!
I’m fifty-three, he said. Men my age tend to over-insure. Next year I’ll wear white shoes.
But now look, she cried. How much did you take?
Twenty milligrams, he said.
That’s the biggest dose!
Self-confidence is everything, he said. And the pill was shaped like a rugby ball, and it was blue, a nice shade of blue, like the pineapple candies my grandmother gave me. Except more opaque.
That’s not all that’s blue, she said.Your grandmother. Jesus . . . She sat up. I want some tea, she said.You?
Frankly, you know, we need to deal with this, he said. Before we can think tea or a snack or whatever.
She said,We dealt with it already. More than once. I mean it was great, but I’m done.
It never was completely dealt with, he said. He tried to present this in a relaxed and cheerful tone, wanting to find what he knew to be caring and concerned in her, rather than this, which was closer to unnerved and horrified. He said, I mean, it never, you know . . .
Came? she said. Is that the word you’re grasping for? It wasn’t for lack of chances, I just want that on the record.
There is no record, he said.
There is always a record, she said.
We need to deal with it just one more time, he said. It won’t take long. I can tell.
Listen, she said, I just want to hand it over to medical science at this point.
She rose then and, in a short off-white silk robe and bare feet, left the room to make the tea. He was always amazed at how a woman can get up from such fucking and appear so unaltered—undisturbed—by it. This was true all through the animal kingdom, he’d noticed. Chased, captured, held down, ravaged. He’d seen it with cats, ducks, geese. Afterward, they give a shake and walk away. He watched her through the door, watched her ass move in the robe and her foot’s strong tread on the wood floor. She could fuck all day, it wouldn’t faze her. Her floors were very clean. She lived neatly, frugally, and on schedule. It was a little foreign to him, a little frightening. She wrote everything down, kept lists, rose early. But after two glasses of wine she was a different soul, a mischievous flirt. If a bunch of people stripped and jumped in the pool, or the ocean or the lake, she’d invariably be one of them.At such moments she looked a good bit younger than her age. Someday he’d like really to set her loose, he imagined at a fashionable party of some kind, leave her there and wait to see what she would bring home.
Restless, he reached down, grasped the offending member, and found that even he wasn’t interested.And it was sore.What a lifetime of trouble you’ve caused, he muttered. He didn’t mean it. He liked his penis, as most men do, he approved of its doings, when it worked. He got up, put on his underwear and an open shirt, and wandered out of the bedroom.When he found her, she was at her desk opposite the dining table, online and tea-less. She had not made it to the kitchen. One of her cats, still as an Egyptian statue, sat on the desk beside the laptop, its eyes watching her fingers flit on the keypad.
I looked it up, she said. I’m finding a lot of humor and porn of course, and blog commentary, but not much by way of solid medi- cal information. I mean what exactly is the problem if it makes the leap from three-hours-fifty to, like, four hours and ten minutes? I’m assuming the concerns are cardiovascular.
Such ad hoc health research was her forte. She was a fan of all ailments and, figuratively speaking, she kept near to hand an exten- sive set of deadly diseases with which she was conversant. She feared them on an as-needed basis. In the narrative arts, she tended to reject tragedy, which, he wanted to tell her, was something she might work on a little.Tragedy can perform the same psychic cleansing functions as hypochondria but without the nutty doctor bills.
The cat lifted its hindquarters, turned, arched and stretched, and jumped off the desk. With a muffled peh-dump, its soft feet hit the wood floor.
I have years of experience with the penis, he said.The concerns are gonna be with the brain.
She looked up at him, standing there.You should button those boxers, she said.
He said, Let’s go to the kitchen. Tea sounds good. I can fill you in on the medical perils. Basically, it’s insufficient blood flow northward—he pointed from his boxers toward his head—leading to catastrophic cell loss. Memory and judgment are always the first to go, with the ability to tell right from wrong an invariable early victim. Soon the majority of so-called higher functions are gone. By the second day, all that’s left are addresses and phone numbers from one’s youth. Some odd facts, you know, like CarlYastrzemski won the Triple Crown in 1967. Frank Robinson did it a year before, Mantle ten years before that, but, bizarrely, no one did it again for forty-five years. Four-plus decades. That’s what runs through your head. That and the lyrics to “Close to You” by the Carpenters.
She stood, and he hugged her and hummed the tune into her neck. She put a hand on his chest. Not too close, she said.That thing is still loaded.
In the kitchen, he watched her handle her things, always an insight. She worked with delicate efficiency, filled the kettle, placed it on the stove, reached for the teapot, ran it under hot water, brought out the tea. Gentle movements, no banging and clanging; so much of our lives lived in the interstices of these humble rituals, so much of what we know arrived at in this sacramental way. Small scoops of tea—three—into the pot.The fruit of the vine, the work of human hands. All these gestures of daily life like artful sacrifices. He had few greater pleasures in life than watching other people work: twenty minutes and he felt he knew the person he was watching . . .
Okay, she said, so when you fall into the total vegetative state and they give you the earphones—
All Carpenters, he said. I’ve written it into the living will already. Revive?
Hmm, he said. Not sure.
A tough one, she said. I’ve thought about this a lot. You don’t want to lie there and starve to death. On the other hand, it’s kind of brutal. It looks like someone’s trying to siphon gasoline from your throat.And there’s the funnel.
God, let me go fast, he said.You know what worries me? People feeling compelled to visit the hospital every day.The times in my life when I’ve had to go to the hospital every day were the most awful imaginable. I’d rather be in the hospital than have to visit it every day.
Not me, she said. I’d rather visit. Bring chocolate, argue with your doctors.
He couldn’t have explained why, but he said,You’re planning to be there at that stage?
She paused—she came to a momentary stop against the countertop, stilled as the cat, mint-leaf-adorned tin of tea in her hand. He felt her consciousness fall, falling, an unexpected tumble into a chasm of thought that began with what he’d just said and deepened and widened quickly into her past, her future . . . He felt the room change. They looked at each other. Her eyes—he had never quite really seen her before, now he was seeing her. God she was beautiful there, in nothing but that little silk robe.Words, sentences started to float into his mind, then he thought, no, stop, just look at her. He thought, just look at her. This required a certain courage. Neither spoke.Then she began to move again—how long had it been, three seconds? He felt a softening, an easing of tension in his shorts—as if this intense small moment had begun to draw all his blood back up toward his skull, passing first of course through the heart: his erection was fading, finally, like a ship going down in a silent, glassy sea.
Just in time, he said, pointing.
And she looked—at his boxers, his groin—and smiled a peculiar small quick smile, warm and a little sad. Yet he, suddenly, felt happy. And lightheaded and flushed—he assumed from the pill. He stepped toward her. On the stove the pressure in the kettle was rising, for the metal pinged like a little bell, a child’s thing, a short note that was delicate and slightly distorted, like the notes on a steel drum. The small sound had been sent, it seemed, to mark the time—four hours!—and he wanted to say, no, it’s alright—it’s alright—the danger has passed.
This story first appeared in AGNI 83. Spring 2016.