Not a member? Sign up now
Then she died, Nancy. I saw Bill in the Family Room the next morning, emptying his part of the refrigerator, clutching a paper bag.
"Hey," he said dreamily.
I shut the door behind me and locked it. I hugged him and the paper bag. He patted my back with his free hand. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I kept saying to him.
"It isn't what I expected," he said.
"What did you expect?"
He set the bag on the floor. "I'm not taking these. They're those frozen dinners. You can have them if you want."
"Okay," I said gravely. His face was pale and puffy. He smelled like worn-out peppermint gum and french fries. I hugged him again and cupped my hand around the back of his neck and he pressed into it the way a baby who can't hold his head up does.
"Look," he said almost inaudibly. "I feel that I should apologize."
"For what?" I let go of him.
"For what's gone on with you and me."
"There's nothing to be sorry about."
"I feel that I behaved badly," he said.
"No," I said.
"I didn't want to leave the room. They took her her body out after a couple of hours. People came to see her, to say goodbye. Her folks, her brothers, a couple of her best friends and then they took her away and I just didn't wanna leave, you know, the room."
"That's understandable," I said. I was holding myself, my arms crisscrossed around my waist. "I can see wanting that."
He sobbed. He made small, whimpering noises, and then he found a rhythm and his cries softened. I rubbed his shoulders. He went to the sink and leaned deeply into it and rinsed his face and then dried it with a paper towel. He took several deep breaths. "Anyways, you know something? I never cheated on Nancy up until now. That's the truth. Maybe you don't know that, but thirteen-plus years and I never cheated. I almost did once or twice, but I never followed through. That's normal human temptation. That can happen in any marriage. But I didn't do it. I honored the vows." His voice quavered and he took more deep breaths. "The vows meant something to me once upon a time." He paused. "And don't get me wrong. None of this is your fault. I hold you responsible not one iota. You're a beautiful girl. A top-notch young lady. I was the one married. It has nothing to do with you."
The bag of frozen dinners shifted without either of us touching it.
"It didn't take anything away from what you had with Nancy," I said. "I never thought that."
"No. Definitely not. My allegiance was always with her. No offense, Claire. I think you're wonderful. I mean, you are one very, very pretty girl. And smart too. Kind." He clutched the edge of the counter with one hand. "And what am I when Nancy needs me the most? I'm a pathetic old man."
"You aren't old."
"No. Not old, but to you I am. I'm too old for you. I lost my morals."
"Plus, what was I doing gallivanting around and meanwhile she's dying?"
"She was sleeping. She probably didn't even know you were gone."
"Oh she knew. She knew." He put his hand on his forehead and pressed hard.
"We weren't gallivanting anywhere. We were at your house," I said softly. He stayed with his hand pressed to his forehead. I picked the dirty spoon up and set it silently in the sink. It seemed the least I could do.
"Well," he said after a while. "I wish you the best. I'm hoping for a miracle for your mother."
"Thank you." I patted his hand on the counter and we looked at each other, serious as animals. He took my hand and kissed it and then pulled me to him and held me hard against him. His breathing was heavy and I thought he had started to cry again but when I looked at him, I saw that his eyes were calm and dry.
"Claire," he said, but didn't say anything more. His fingers began to slowly graze my throat, down over the top of my chest, over my breasts, barely touching me. Suddenly he grabbed my face with both of his hands and kissed me fiercely and then stopped kissing me just as quickly. "What am I doing?" he asked sadly. He pulled me to him and squeezed my ass, hips, thighs.
"Stop it then," I said. I unbuckled his belt, unzipped his jeans. I got down on my knees.
"This is completely wrong."
"Stop me then," I hissed. I took his cock in my mouth. I had the sensation that he was going to hit me; that he was going to smack the side of my head or yank me away by the hair. I also had the sensation that I wanted him to do it. I had never wanted a man to do this, but I wanted it then so that something would be clear, so that something would be right and that he would be the one to make it that way.
"Jesus," he whispered. He leaned against the wall and held onto it to keep him up. I smelled his man smells, his cock smells: a sour salt, a sharp subaqueous mud. He came without a word and I swallowed and then sat back on my heels. I touched the hairs on his thighs, kissed one knee.
He reached for the sides of my face. "Oh," he whispered, "I can't stand up."
"Something about you sitting in the window reminds me of when you were little," my mother said. "Sometimes I see your face and I can see just exactly what you looked like when you were a baby and other times I can see what you'll look like when you're old. Do you know what I mean? Does the same thing happen to you?"
"Yeah, I know what you mean." I pulled a chair up next to her, coiling my way through the IV lines.
"Yes," she said. "Come sit next to me." Her words were slurred from the morphine. Tomorrow she would become delusional. In three days she'd be dead. "That's what I'm glad of. That you're here with me. I'll never forget that you were here with me. And sitting the way you were, in the window, it made me think of that, of all the things, of you being little and everything and now being grown up."
"Do you feel better?" I asked. "You slept for a long time. You slept for twelve hours straight."
"It was the same way as when you used to sit in that window in Pennsylvania. Do you remember the window seat in the apartment when we lived in Pennsylvania? Oh, you were too small then. You wouldn't remember. That was your spot. You liked to sit there and wait for the mail to come."
She paused. I thought she would have to vomit, but she didn't.
"You liked to see the mailman come and put the mail in the box and then you wanted to be the one to go and take it out."
"I don't remember." I leaned forward and rested my head on the bed. I would not be with my mother at the moment of her death. She would wait to die until she was all alone in her room and this would kill me. It would kill me for a long time.
"That's how you were," she said happily. "It's how you are."
"How's that?" I asked.
"The way I taught you to be. Good."
She lifted her hand from the bed. Softly, she stroked my hair.
Cheryl Strayed and Nerve.com