The calls began at two in the morning, the first from her oldest daughter, begging her to come to the hospital. George, her husband for twenty-five years, and ex-husband for four, had come out of the coma into which he had lapsed after his stroke, and was now conscious. He was asking for Lydia, not Sloane, the new wife.
“Mom, he’s very agitated. He keeps asking why you’re not here. He doesn’t remember Sloane at all and pushed her away when she tried to touch him. She’s pretty upset. The doctors think that his memory will come back in stages, but they’d like to keep him calm in the meantime. Could you possibly come to the hospital and see him, just so we can keep him quiet?” Michelle had begged.
After a few more pleading calls from both daughters, Lydia heard herself saying, “OK. A few minutes. When do you want me?”
He was asleep when she arrived at six fifteen that same morning. Wife number two had acknowledged her arrival, her usually carefully made-up face, pale. Her eyes were undefined and watery, her eyeliner and mascara having long-since slid off her chin onto her snug white t-shirt. For once Lydia felt like she looked better than Sloane, although the younger woman still had the better body, tighter and lighter than Lydia’s generous proportions. Sloane gave her a sad half-smile, before she resumed her chair in the far corner of the room. She said nothing. Lydia’s daughters ushered her to an easy chair positioned at the left hand side of the bed. She had been startled when she saw him lying there. He looked dead except for the gentle rising of his large chest. She felt very out-of-place and uncomfortable as she took her position by his bedside. The girls took this opportunity to go and get something to eat in the hospital cafeteria, leaving her alone in the room with Sloane and her unconscious ex-husband.
His face looked flaccid and shapeless against the white starkness of the hospital pillow. The eyebrows that had been full and arched in his youth now looked grizzled and shaggy, the original dark brown now mixed with an infusion of wiry grey hairs. The lips that had never been clearly defined, that she had once actually considered to be sensuous, now drooped lifelessly, one corner of his mouth significantly lower than its opposite. The oxygen tubes inserted in both nostrils gave his prominent nose a pinched look. His hair, which he had taken to wearing long enough to cover his ears, to please his new wife, spread out against the pillow, creating a wispy halo around his head. His breathing was slow and shallow. Lydia found herself counting the breaths, measuring the intensity and depth of each, as she sat silently watching at his bedside.
Lydia tried to rehearse in her mind what George might say when he woke up and how she would respond to the various scenarios she imagined, including if he had recovered his memory and wanted to know what in the hell she was doing here. If he woke up verbally swinging, she would simply walk out the door. It was the other possibilities that were the more unnerving. She couldn’t fathom how she was going to react.
After about twenty minutes, George began to stir. His hands moved to the oxygen tubes, as though to make sure that they were still there. He slowly opened his eyes and blinked in the bright light of the morning sun. He seemed to sense a new presence and turned his head slightly so that Lydia came into his field of vision. The light of recognition ignited in his eyes. He smiled weakly and mumbled, “I knew you would come. Please, don’t leave again. I need you here.”
The effort of speaking seemed to tire him; his eyes closed, but his features appeared to relax. His right hand, the one without the IV, reached out blindly, as if searching for Lydia’s hand. She responded from old habit and placed her hand near his. He found it, grasping it with a surprisingly firm hold. He drifted off again. Lydia heard a muffled sob from the back of the room. Sloane had witnessed this scene. Lydia felt a strange alliance with the new woman. They were connected by pain. Lydia’s old pain seemed to be vindicated by Sloane’s new pain. Some of the hostility towards her abated. This man had wounded them both deeply.
Lydia tried to pull her hand away, but George hung on despite his unconsciousness. Without removing her hand, Lydia turned to look at the new wife. She was leaning forward into her lap, her face in her hands, her shoulders visibly convulsing, although she made no sound. Lydia knew that kind of voiceless agony. She had cried those same tears of silent anguish many times during the first months after George’s announcement that he had filed for divorce.
Although he had made it clear to her that he no longer wanted her in his life, he didn’t want to let her go completely, either. He had called her regularly on one pretext or another for three years. They dated and enjoyed some of the best sex they’d had in many years of marriage. Then he stopped calling. Lydia had known that he had found someone new. There had been a twinge of pain at the thought of him with someone else, but it was mingled with relief. She could now put the past behind her. But here it was back again, complicated by the witnessing of the new wife.
Lydia turned back to look at George and let her mind drift into memory.
Theirs had been a marriage of euphoric highs and precipitous lows. The first seven years had been almost idyllic, at least from her perspective. The sex had never been great; she had always felt a little disappointed in George’s lack of emotional sensitivity and his physical clumsiness. He had always asked her what she liked; two days later, he would have forgotten anything she might have requested earlier and asked the same question again. She eventually stopped responding, verbally and emotionally. The sex became mechanical and passionless, and less and less frequent.
The lack of noteworthy sex had been partially made up for by George’s professional supportiveness and boisterous “cheerleading.” He had seemed to be her biggest fan, constantly bragging about her accomplishments to his friends and colleagues. She had been gratified and had interpreted his ebullient tributes as evidence of his love for her. In retrospect, she had come to realize that it was about his image, not hers. Having a successful, intelligent, professional wife enhanced his self-image, like a new Mercedes. It had little to do with how he felt about her.
As for his relationship with the girls, he had been a less than indulgent father, never getting over his disillusionment in not producing sons. However, he had managed to reconcile himself to never having a LeBron James or Tom Brady in the family by living out his fantasies in his brother’s son, Craig, an all-star quarterback at Purdue. Female athleticism didn’t carry the same weight. Even though both girls had been accomplished soccer players, and he had dutifully attended some of their games, they never enjoyed the same status as their cousin. And, as long as he paid for their private schooling, their dance lessons, and their orthodontia, he considered himself a model father. It never occurred to him that setting an example and guiding his children was part of the parental commitment. He left that aspect of parenting to her.
While she had always been vaguely aware of his increasing indifference, in the last years of their marriage, he had become totally disengaged. This was made evident by his lack of concern over the violent threat made by a disgruntled employee or the questionable Pap smear, all part of a growing list of examples pointing toward an egocentric shift in his priorities. She had felt that she ranked somewhere between his golfing buddies and the family dog—not exactly a self-esteem building position. And so the downward spiral began. He began lying to her about the trivial, as well as the significant, not telling her about things that should have called for joint decisions. She began to see him as amoral and bereft of personal values or ethics. She ceased to respect him, of which she knew he was acutely aware. After two years of endless quarrelling, he decided to file for divorce. She still kicked herself for not facing the inevitable and beating him to it, especially after discovering that he had been involved in several “office affairs” over the years.
Lydia’s reverie was interrupted by an intensified clasp of her hand. George stirred on the pillow, groaning softly as he opened his eyes. As his gaze focused on Lydia, he gave a weak smile and asked, “How long have I been asleep? Did you call Morton and tell him that I won’t be back at work for a few days?” Morton, his boss at Sheffer Electronics, had been dead since 2002. Thinking that she should not point out this time lapse, Lydia responded, “Yes, I called him. He said that you shouldn’t worry about anything and should just focus on getting well.”
Her answer seemed to satisfy him. He closed his eyes, and she thought that he was drifting off again, when his eyelids snapped open, and he stated,” I want to take you somewhere special for our twentieth anniversary. We haven’t ever had a chance to get away alone without the girls. Maybe I can swing tickets to Paris. You’ve always wanted to visit the Louvre. Paris is supposed to be a very romantic city. Maybe we can recapture what we had in the beginning. I’d like to have that feeling again. Wouldn’t you?”
Lydia was taken aback by this question. When they were married, George had never wanted to travel very far or take more than a few days off. It was hard for her to come up with an appropriate response. She felt like such a fake, but she replied, “There’s plenty of time to talk about that after you’re well.”
Lydia heard Sloane rise from her chair quietly and slip out the door. She obviously had found this exchange to be disturbing. George didn’t seem to notice. There was an urgency in his voice when he said, “Look at me, Lydia.” She forced her gaze to meet his searching eyes. He looked deeply into her eyes, something he hadn’t done since the early years of their marriage. “This thing scared the hell out of me. I need to know that we will have a better future. I want to be closer to you. That seems important to me, now.”
In spite of herself, Lydia’s eyes filled with tears. She wondered if this was a vestige of his thinking from some distant past moment or if he was operating in an anachronistic “now.” Before she could respond, she heard a rustling at the back of the hospital room. Sloane had reentered just as George made his last statement. She backed out of the door, and Lydia could hear the sounds of muffled weeping becoming fainter, as Sloane hurriedly walked down the hall. She herself was approaching emotional overload. She needed to get out of there. She wondered where Melanie and Michelle were. They had somehow managed to slip out sometime during this strange conversation, as though they were uncomfortable witnessing a too-intimate moment between their parents.
Lydia rose from her chair and gently disengaged her hand. With a false cheerfulness, in her best wifely tone, she told George, “I should leave so that we can both get some rest. The girls and I will be back tomorrow. You need your rest.”
George seemed reluctant to let her go but saw the wisdom of her words. As Lydia turned to leave, he asked, “Don’t I even get a kiss?” Lydia hesitated before turning around, trying to erase the distaste from her features. She leaned down to kiss him on the cheek, but he turned so that her lips made direct contact with his. His lips felt so familiar, like a missing piece of her own body that was suddenly returned to its rightful place. The feeling terrified her, and she quickly turned and left the room without looking back.
It was afternoon by the time she got home. She let herself in the front door of her apartment and headed directly to the cabinet where she kept the liquor. She rarely drank anything stronger than wine or an occasional margarita at a Mexican restaurant. Today was different. She needed a more resounding numbness. She poured herself a scotch. She gagged as it burned down her throat, colliding abruptly with the remnants of an old ulcer. She felt the constriction in her chest easing but along with it came a body-blasting sob, that been building up for hours and finally found an outlet through which to explode. That familiar ache in her heart, a physical presence that had been so much a part of her everyday existence until the last year, was back. She sat down on the kitchen floor, buried her face in her knees and sobbed—deep wracking sobs—until she was finally quiet. She didn’t know why she was so disturbed. It wasn’t like she entertained any hope of resurrecting her relationship with George. She didn’t even find him attractive anymore. But this morning’s experience had dredged up all the years of agony, and, ironically, bliss, that she had finally put behind her. She was not prepared to go through it again, no matter whose life was at stake. She had done her duty, but she would not go back. She knew that she couldn’t continue the charade with George. He would have to recover without her.
Seeing Lydia leave, Sloane returned to George’s room. She peeked through the door to see if he was asleep before entering. He became upset when he saw her in the room, a stranger. The daughters had explained her presence earlier as a hospital counselor, which had temporarily mollified him. She turned off the overhead lights and returned to her observation station at the back of the room. She couldn’t bring herself to leave him, even though his lack of recognition was torturous. How quickly one’s life could change, she mused.
Three days ago, she had been the center of his universe, the love of his life. Today, she had no more significance than the nurse who came in to change the IV. And there was nothing she could do but wait it out. The doctors said that it could be weeks before his full memory returned, but they were optimistic that it would be much sooner than that. She hoped that she could hold on. Right now, she had her doubts. She knew that after today, she could never look at George in the same way.
She had met George at the gym where she worked as a personal trainer. Although she wasn’t working with him directly, she had often caught him staring at her while she was working with other clients. One night, after he had finished his workout, he made his way to the gym’s Jamba Juice bar where she was ordering an Acai Super Antioxidant smoothie.
“What do you recommend for cooling down?” was his breathless opening line.
“That depends. If you want to cool down and get a vitamin boost, the Citrus Kick is very refreshing,” she responded and walked away.
That had been the extent of their initial conversation. She hadn’t been attracted to him in the beginning, but it seemed that almost every night, they met at the juice bar, and their conversations got longer and more personal. She learned that he had been divorced from a “difficult marriage” for three years and that he was currently not dating. After a few weeks of these abbreviated conversations, he asked her to join him for a drink after she finished work. She agreed, and they ended up dating for several months before he proposed, declaring that he had never really been in love until he met her. Their age difference had bothered her at first, which caused her to ask for time to think, but he made her laugh, he liked animals, and they rooted for the same football team, so she allowed herself to fall in love with him. Once she was convinced that she would not be the “trophy wife,” she accepted. Six months later, they were married by the ship’s captain on a Cunard transatlantic wedding cruise to Norway. What had been a romantic marriage of two years now seemed as sterile as the hospital room she now sat in.
It had been agonizing watching Lydia, the bitch ex-wife, hovering over him like a wife in good-standing. As she listened to their conversation and witnessed the affectionate look in George’s eyes when he looked at Lydia, she had realized that their relationship had not always been the miserable nightmare that he had painted. At some point, there had been an intimacy that she and he had yet to reach. They had raised children together, something she would never share with him, and Sloane was jealous. The girls had always treated her graciously, but she knew that they didn’t need another mother. She would always be their father’s “new wife,” nothing more. She had resigned herself to that. But she had thought that she brought George a kind of happiness and passion that he had never experienced before and this knowledge was reassuring. But now, she knew that she had been wrong. It was as if she had watched a video of George and Lydia taken during their “good” years, and she knew that she had seen truth. Her relationship with George would never be the same because she could never wipe that video from her memory. Its shadow would haunt their intimate moments forever, and she would never be able to explain to George what she had really experienced.
Sloane awoke abruptly when a nurse tapped her lightly on the shoulder. She must have dozed off. The room was dark, only a dawn dimness shadowing the sterile white hospital room. Her cramped neck and shoulders told her that she had slept awkwardly contorted for several hours, in sheer exhaustion.
“Why don’t you run on home, Mrs. Cromwell. I just gave your husband a sedative through his IV. He’ll probably sleep for hours. You should try to conserve your strength. The next few days could be rough on both of you. I’ll call you if there is any change,” the nurse said sympathetically.
Sloane fought her way to full awareness. “Maybe you’re right. It’s been a long night.” She wearily picked up her purse and jacket, and took one last look at George. He looked peaceful for the first time since the stroke. She found herself hoping that it was the medication, not his conversation with Lydia, that gave him that new tranquility. Before she started to cry again in front of the nurse, she turned her head and headed for the door.
For the next week, George continued to ask for Lydia, but they were able to explain her absence away as a bout with the flu. He wanted to call her but they told him that she was too sick to talk. He was irritated but accepted their explanation. He still did not recognize Sloane and wondered at her constant presence. Didn’t she have other patients that needed counseling?
On the following Saturday morning, Sloane sat in her corner, trying to focus on an article in Cosmo. She was more optimistic these last few days. George had stopped asking for Lydia, and last night, had reminded his daughters that he was a divorced man. His memory seemed to be filling in the recent past, moving gradually toward the present. She looked up from her magazine when she heard George stir restlessly in his bed, and then the mechanical sound of the bed repositioning. He had cranked the head of the bed up high, so she could see his face clearly. His eyes opened. He seemed confused at first, but then slowly scanned the hospital room. His eyes finally rested on Sloane in her corner. She saw a flash of recognition, the first.
“Honey, when did you get here? I’ve been waiting for you,” he asked petulantly. “See if you can get someone to bring me breakfast. I’m starving.”
Sloane stood and looked into George’s eyes, searching for that thing that had been hers exclusively two weeks ago. She couldn’t find it. She looked away at a point on his left cheek.
“Sure thing, dear,” she replied. Her voice sounded hollow and remote, even to her. She made herself smile brightly back at him, but her heart was no longer in it.
Writer: Nadine Arndt left a career in business to return to school and earn her Master’s degree in English. She began teaching as an adjunct professor in the fall of 1993 and was hired full-time in fall 1997. She retired (sort of) in June 2014 but found that she missed her students and colleagues too much, so she returned this semester to work in the Writing Center. In addition, she will be teaching two courses in the fall. She has accepted the fact that her heart is inextricably linked to Fullerton College, and, therefore, she is never leaving, at least not willingly.
Artist: Lin Greene has been excited about photography since childhood, leading to many blurry pictures on his parent’s film cameras. After learning how to use digital cameras from blogs, he is now enhancing his techniques at Cypress College under Professor Gregory Rager.