The more I disappoint my wife, the more clothing she puts on. At present, she’s in the kitchen fixing a pot of coffee. She wears this heavy-duty, industrial-type nightgown that doesn’t show a speck of skin. The fabric moves like a wet curtain on a windless day. This thing zips all the way up to the very top of her neck, where a little white lace, like plumage, fans out—giving her the look of a woman being choked by a doily.
We’ve been married seven years. In the fifth, her mother got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the thing turned corners fast. My wife obsesses on it, especially the language—tangles and plaques, stages and hippocampus. “It’s just so visceral,” she says, “Can you imagine? My own mother, lost in the tangles of her brain.” I get it, I say. It’s awful, I tell her.
From my stool in the kitchen, I fuss with the newspaper. I pretend to laugh at the funny pages to cover the weird current left by the opening round of the morning: “Turn down the thermostat, Herbie, you sadistic son of a bitch!” These are harsh words, even for Lorraine in her present funk, and I worry. The sun hasn’t even started its engine yet.
When she catches my eyes on her, she goes to rub her back theatrically with her right hand. Apparently she slept badly. She had the dream again—the one where she’s writing letters at the kitchen table and gets stuck, literally, inside punctuation marks. Somehow, she connects the marks in the dream to the words of the disease. It’s the finality of them, she says. They’re the same kind of certain, she says. But they’re just periods and commas, I tell her, ellipses and quotation marks.
She used to write for a show called Wake Up, Missouri. Now she calls it Wake Up, Misery. She hasn’t picked up a pen in months. I tell her the dreams are just her subconscious trying to get out, but she’s come to believe that the whole business is symbolic or something—that she’s a marked woman, doomed to get Alzheimer’s just like her mother. She might get better sleep if she takes off the hazmat suit that she wears to bed, and telling her this occurs to me, but if I’m reading the momentum of the morning right, it isn’t yet my turn to speak.
“It’s July Fourth,” she says.
“Yes, it is,” I say. “Happy Birthday, America!”
“I’d like to go to Birdie’s to see Mother,” she says.
“What about dinner?” Her sister, Birdie, doesn’t cook.
“You are a grown man,” she says. She stops fumbling with the creamer and the sugar and looks longingly out the window, maybe at the naked birds splashing in the bath? Beads of sweat form on her brow. Is she too proud to wipe them away? “And as such,” she continues, “you’re perfectly capable of grocering this house yourself.”
“See what I did last night,” I tell her.
I put down my newspaper and go to my wife. I take her clammy hand in mine and lead her to the living room, just a few steps off the kitchen. The place feels absurdly small, as if we’re still kids playing in a tree house. It sits like a miniature L, for Love or for Lousy? The verdict’s still out. We bought the house in her prime childbearing years, though it has turned out not to matter. “It’s so cozy,” she had insisted.
“You did all this? Just last night?” She reaches for one of the pictures I framed on the fireplace. They highlight her best qualities. She has the same expression in all of them—a soft, open face, like a woman without a past. Now that same face is a series of inscrutable angles with eyes like sunken soufflé and, probably due to all the sweating from the extra clothes, she’s lost half herself in body weight. She traces the pictures with a pale fingertip. My legs move like squiggly lines, a holdover from a self-conscious childhood. I worry she’ll think I’ve placed them here to nudge her in the right direction should she ever wish to reclaim what was.
“And here I thought you just burned your eyes out all night watching reruns of Columbo,” she says.
“I did watch one episode.”
“Which one?” she asks.
“The one with Janet Leigh. Where she plays the dancer.”
“Where she murders her husband?” she says.
“That’s a good one,” she says.
“Do you think I look like Peter Falk? I think I look exactly like Peter Falk,” I say.
“I can see that,” she says. “You’re both short.”
The moment registers like something close to agreement between us. I feel emboldened. “Look at this one,” I say. I reach for a picture from our Colorado rafting trip. She wears a blue life vest, the same color as the sky behind her.
“Nice,” she says, but the word doesn’t match the shadow that’s fallen over her face. “Why’d you do all this? What possessed you?” She points to the pictures with her whole arm instead of her hand.
“I don’t know why. They’re nice, right?”
“Right, but why’d you frame them? Why’d you put them up? This trip,” she says, “was before we were married.” As if we have no business thinking back that far.
“I just thought you’d like to look at them is all. You said they were nice. So, they’re nice.”
“Well,” she says, “OK.”
“What do you mean OK? I thought you’d like them,” I say.
“OK,” she says. “It’s very sweet.” She puts the picture down on the mantel and squares her shoulders to face me. Sweat nestles in the dark curls near her temple.
“This is about Mother, isn’t it?” she says. “About taking her. What? Why’d you make that face?”
“When you don’t even cringe anymore, when you talk about taking her like she’s a pet or an object, maybe it’s time to think about another option.” Another option is code for old folks’ home, but the talk is so tired already that we don’t have to say what we mean because we know what we mean.
“We have a home right here,” my wife says.
“And where will we put her? In the master bath?”
“She can sleep in my room,” she says. “I mean our room. With me.”
There’s an admirable quality to the way my wife lilts over words when she’s being extra careful, as if each thought is tethered to an invisible thread on her tongue, and she’s experimenting with just how far she can pull and push it from her teeth.
“Well, this is a new development,” I say.
“No, it’s really not. It’s just a new ... reality,” she says.
I pick up a photograph of Lorraine. She’s standing with her right foot perched on a small boulder. She squints toward the sun. Her hair is longer than it has been in years, shoulder length, and the smile on her face looks easy. “I like this one,” I tell her. “I’d like to show it to our children someday.” Between Lorraine’s teeth, a sort of squeal escapes. She flutters her hands at her sides like a sick bird that can’t figure out how to take off. She sidewinds into the bedroom, approximately 12 steps away. I’ve gone and mentioned the C word. When she reappears an hour later, she’s wearing a skirt that goes all the way to the floor and a full-on fuzzy mohair sweater.
“Marriage and Dementia. I know it’s a crude metaphor, but in both cases, you do sort of forget who you were before.” At the grocery, I knock on a cantaloupe and bring it to my nose. I have the cell phone pinned between my ear and shoulder, talking to my sister, who moved to LA to launch her acting career. So far, her only break has been as a receptionist in a plastic surgeon’s office.
“Obviously Lorraine isn’t with you,” she says.
“Nope. She has to work at three o’clock. She’s probably trying to figure out how to change her clothes without taking anything off.”
“Nothing. Never mind,” I say.
“What did I tell you when you broke up with Dolores?” Maggie says.
Pick just one thing she told me when I broke up with Dolores? I take a stab at it. “Um, home isn’t home until you’ve lost something there?”
“No, but that’s totally true.”
“The clitoris is not the only holy grail.”
“I’m kidding. I know what you told me. You told me not to marry a Gemini. And marry one I did not! Lorraine is a Sagittarius,” I say.
“I told you not to expect so much—that modern people can’t be happy in marriage.”
I haven’t seen this much of Lorraine’s skin since I caught a glimpse of her calf in May . . . my hands are afraid to touch her.
I don’t say anything because I’ve spotted a tiny American flag at the discount table across from the greeting cards. I put my cantaloupe in the cart and wheel it over to the table. I pick up the little stick and twirl it between my fingers. Independence Day and flags both make me feel unworthy, but Lorraine will love the gesture. She can put it in the hanging pot with the pansies.
“It’s not an indictment,” Maggie says to the silence. “It’s a fact, so don’t get defensive. It’s cultural. We’ve just lost our need for it. Especially if you’re not having children.” I flinch automatically at the C word.
“What did our parents do to us?” I say. Perhaps I’ve caught her on a bad traffic day. I picture her on a bright California highway, cars swishing by and sunlight slicing through the trees.
“Do you have big sunglasses on right now?”
“I hurt your feelings. You always do that when I hurt your feelings.”
“Change the subject to something completely stupid.”
“I’m just holding the line is all,” I say, “because that’s what I got.” I edge my cart past a substantial woman. The woman tries, a second too late, to reach for her toddler, who has his hands wrapped around a can in the middle of a canned soup display. The boy yanks hard and dozens of cans spill forth and roll about frantically on the linoleum, as if they’re assembling for a meeting to discuss next steps and escape routes.
“I better go,” I say. I move the phone around to hear my sister above the clanking.
“You can throw a pebble into the water and a thing happens,” she says, “but it’s not like the pebble and the water made an agreement.”
My sister has always been abstract.
“So, it’s not the life you chose,” she says. “Join the club. You’re part of the sandwich generation now. You’re only pissed because you got stuck with the crappy half of the sandwich.” With this, she hangs up.
Inspired by the chaos, the boy in aisle four picks up a can of cream of mushroom mid-roll and chucks it into the remaining cans on the shelf. His mom glares at me like I offered her son coffee or heroin.
“What are you looking at me for? What did I do?” I say.
“This is what happens when you walk around a supermarket glued to your cell phone.” She bends over to pick up a can of tomato basil and her breasts bend over with her, settling like enormous clumps of dough just beneath her chin.
“Look,” I say, “Your kid just blew up Mount Vesuvius, and it’s my fault?”
The woman squinches her bright red face at me from this compromised position and stands abruptly to arrange body parts, tucking things in and pulling things up. She adjusts her purse and reaches for the little boy’s shoulder. He offers a rote little cry. “You’re the problem with this country is what you are,” she says.
Suddenly enraged, I pick up a can of chicken noodle and shake it at her like a weapon.
“Are you threatening me?” she says.
“Do the world a favor,” I say, “and don’t have any more kids.”
Abandoning their cart, they round the corner of aisle four, the boy mechanical in his bawling, like a Weed Eater.
Our house, at one time, functioned like a regular porn operation. We did it everywhere—under the snapdragons that grew to an ungodly height in the backyard, on the recumbent bike in the garage. I still have scars from the mesh seat scratching the hell out of my back as I pedaled away to ecstasy. The only place Lorraine and I haven’t done it is in the shower and that is why, on this night, I choose to enter. I figure I have the element of surprise on my side. Ever since the fireworks abated, a pitiful tenderness has sprung up in me. Momentarily gone is the fear of mortality, which has situated itself between us like a broken hip.
“I’m coming in,” I tell her. “It’s all right if I come in?”
My wife gasps and sputters like a failing engine. My confidence wilts in the steam. She takes her time. “All right,” she says. From upon the shower curtain, the faces of scowling pansies seem to rebuke me for my boldness, but even they cannot dissuade. I gracelessly enter the side opposite the spout, regretting that there’s no romantic way to step into a bathtub.
I haven’t seen this much of Lorraine’s skin since I caught a glimpse of her calf in May. Shampoo suds billow forth from her hair like dollops of beer froth; her eyes squint against the water that trickles down her nose. My hands are afraid to touch her. She looks rubbery and unwell. My fingers move of their own accord, though, unhinged from impulse as if conducting a symphony that only they can hear, and, in one stunning bit of choreography, they just settle themselves right on the top of her head. I can’t bring myself to move them. She doesn’t move them. We stand there. I refuse to blink or look away. My wife’s pores seem larger than normal, as if she’s pixilated. Finally, I just pet her head a little, the same as if I were ruffling the fur of a small hamster or ferret. I think we’re both surprised to see I have an erection. “I’m sorry,” I say, too loudly. I lean in to kiss her. My mouth lands greedily, also separate from my bidding, above her left eye.
When the deed is done, when the spool is unwound, the hot water starts to run cold, and she tussles my hair playfully.
“Who knew,” she says, “that sadness could be such an aphrodisiac? Then again,” she says, “I guess it’s all chemical anyway. Hand me my towel, will you?”
“We could still decide different,” I say.
“About Mom, you mean?”
“We could look for a bigger place.”
“There’s still a little time yet,” she says.
“I mean about kids.”
“Until there isn’t,” she says.
A possible version of our life settles in me then, as acute as a gunshot. At its center, the shedding of ideas, like clothes. I wrap the towel around Lorraine’s shoulders and pull her to my chest.
Danielle Vermette is a writer and actor based in Portland, Oregon. She is an MFA student in Portland State University’s fiction program and has been an Imago Theatre company member since 1999. Currently she’s employed at Oregon Health and Science University’s Division of Abdominal Organ Transplantation.