Imagining Claire

by Lee Strickland

Appears in Other Voices #32

Peter had cancelled dinner the night before, saying something cryptic and uncharacteristically formal about a rain check. For the second time that morning, Tracy dialed “1-800-Dr. Laura” on her cell phone, then pressed end, and clicked the phone closed.

She must be going crazy. Had Peter said Claire was having another reaction to medication? Or had he said complication requiring medication? Tracy was getting it all mixed up lately: the symptoms, the emergencies, this dire cascade of incontestable reasons he couldn’t see her. She had the sense Claire was dying, though Peter hadn’t said so directly. But was that any reason to call a radio talk show? Tracy was the last person in the world…. She had a masters degree in marketing, she was an expert in consumer behavior, and to do this, to call in, was completely, demographically uncharacteristic.

But the commute seemed longer every day. Two years before, when Tracy had first taken the job with Peter’s market research firm, she’d been happy and eager each morning driving the thirty miles of tollway out from the city. The suburban office park had seemed welcoming, peaceful and green, almost bucolic. She loved her new job, loved it even before Peter announced his complicated feelings for her (which he did not do, officially, until Tracy had been with the company for five and a half weeks.) But lately, ever since Claire, his chronically ill wife, took such a sharp turn for the worse, ever since Peter began to speak in maddeningly vague clichés—hard to watch, a tough time, about the same as last week—Tracy hated every minute of the drive. Often she lingered despondently after she’d cut off the engine, her chin dropped onto the steering wheel, her still eyes taking in the manicured, turquoise grass as fake-looking as the stuff in Easter egg baskets, and the three miniature geysers spitting symmetrical jets of fluid from the center of the concrete lagoon. Her chest hurt. Her intestines were agitated. Would Peter be there when she went inside? Or would he be absent, home doing something mysteriously marital with Claire?

During the drive, the radio had become Tracy’s friend, Dr. Laura both her comfort and nemesis. She could forget her worries as she banged her fist on the console, guffawing and squealing at Dr. Laura’s haughtiness, her insufferable self-righteousness, and the way she reduced her troubled callers to stuttering fools. The callers, too, were ridiculous, their problems pale, self-inflicted and shallow—My mother-in-law yells at my kids, should I send her a Christmas card?

Tracy turned up the volume. A caller was telling Dr. Laura she’d slept with a guy a month ago, and he hadn’t called her back. Should she call him?

“You’re doomed, honey,” Tracy yelled, “He is not, repeat NOT, going to call you.”

These callers were pathetic. Tracy’s own experience—her “dilemma,” as they said on The Dr. Laura Show—had subtlety, moral ambiguity, sub-plots, a certain kind of narrative, if not moral, merit. One more time, she pushed at the undersized depressions on her cell phone. She organized her story—part fact, part wary obfuscation—and, this time, pressed the phone hard against her ear and waited.

A female producer spoke with her briefly, then put her on hold for Dr. Laura. Tracy congratulated herself on having made the screen, on having come across as relevant, sincere, and perhaps a little dumb and malleable. But, a second later, she saw that her qualifying circumstances (sleeping with a married man who was her boss) were humiliating. The story was made worse by the fact that, for the sake of discretion, she’d ditched certain laudatory aspects of her bio, like the masters degree and the weightiness of her professional responsibilities.

While she was on hold, she grabbed the rear view mirror, giving it a rough, downward tug so she could see to dab on some lipstick. The cell phone was caught between her shoulder and ear, and the little bunch of yellow freesia she’d bought for Peter gave off a sweet, forlorn scent from the passenger seat. She thought of hanging up again, but did not. Instead, she retreated mentally from any further details of her story that might resemble her real life, preparing to assume some new identity.

Tracy thought about Dr. Laura a lot. She searched for some vulnerability, some brutal life experience or lack thereof to explain the radio therapist’s definiteness about everything. Nothing in life felt definite to Tracy. There’d been a time, not long ago, when she’d gone everywhere with Peter, his star associate, his primary focus group moderator. He’d never traveled without her. Claire had existed in some shady netherworld of chronic unhealthiness Peter visited only out of obligation. And, of course. Tracy and Peter were deeply in love … perfect for each other. Then Claire, the safe and steady background of their love, had gotten sicker, and Peter had started taking days off work, uncharacteristic and disturbing absences, which were to Tracy like finding b-b-sized lumps in her neck: head cold or Hodgkinson’s?

She was already turning off at her exit, about to give up, when she heard Dr. Laura’s voice through the phone, “Hello, Claire. Welcome to the program.” Speaking with the producer, Tracy had chosen the name Claire, thinking it sounded angelic and perfect for her radio debut. Now she was stuck with it.

She pulled herself together, trying to sound perky, trying not to waste precious airtime sucking up about how much Dr. Laura had helped her and how much she adored the show. A lot of callers did that and it was just bullshit. Plus, it invited Dr. Laura’s sadism. Instead, she began, “I’m my kid’s mom,” jaunty and confident as a regular. No female caller without children had a shred of credibility, so at least one imaginary child was a necessity.

“Great, Claire,” said Dr. Laura. “What can I do for you?”

“Here’s my dilemma. I am in love with a wonderful man and he loves me very, very much.”

Dr. Laura asked if this man was her child’s father, and whether the child was a boy or girl, probes urging Tracy to drum up a family of some dimension and specificity.

“A beautiful little five-year-old girl. Apple of my eye. No, he’s not her father.”

“Does your little bunchkin know this man you’re seeing?”

“Oh, no.” Why this focus on the bunchkin? Tracy wanted to talk about the man. “My daughter sees her biological dad every weekend. I wouldn’t want to confuse her.”

“So, what’s your question for me, Claire?”

“Yes. Well, the man I mentioned,” Tracy hesitated, feeling as if Dr. Laura had already cast judgment on her situation, “this particular man is married. Technically, that is. Sort of.”

“Oh, a new kind of marriage? A technical, sort-of marriage. Uh-huh.”

“I can explain, Dr. Laura, his wife is very sick and he takes care of her, but it isn’t a real marriage and he doesn’t love her anymore, but he can’t leave her because if he did she wouldn’t have anybody to take care of her, but there’s nothing between them anymore and she’s very needy and he’s the kind of….”

“His wife’s sick? I’d ask what she has, but it really doesn’t matter, does it, Claire?”

Tracy mumbled as if in agreement, but this part about Claire’s condition was just so frustrating. She didn’t have one of those rare or popular diseases they play up in People and Newsweek. What she had was some chronic, degenerative, multi-factorial auto-immune mix-up, part neurological, part glandular, part vascular, that seemed to have gotten out of control along the way and promised to shorten her life drastically, but not with any predictability. Good thing Dr. Laura decided not to ask.

“I don’t see any dilemma here, Claire,” Dr. Laura said. The man was married. Claire had a little bunchkin daughter to raise. “This is not good, babe.” Dr. Laura paused, a sinister moment of silence designed to invite more self-incrimination from her caller.

“He says he wants to marry me. After. You know.”

“Claire, how old are you?”


“Old enough to know better. Feel that thing down your back? It’s called a spine, honey.”

Poor Claire! Pathetic Claire. Tracy watched the digital pattern displayed on her cell phone as it dissolved into squiggles and dots. She had been disconnected. She turned the radio back up, and endured a vitriolic lecture about stupid attachments, the conversion of her—Claire’s—private pain into a media lesson with national relevance.

Dr. Laura had missed all the subtleties. She’d focused on the imaginary child to the total exclusion of meaningful questions about the man. She’d never given Tracy a chance to explain how unique the situation was. Tracy and Peter were going to be married. They talked about it, never using the “d” word to refer to the thing standing between their stressful and morally ambiguous present relationship and the relationship they envisioned for the future. Peter would say, “When we are finally able to be together,” or “when things are different” and Tracy would take this to mean when Claire was no longer living. Dead. Not exactly the kind of engagement she’d imagined as a girl, but something that served to organize the present and create faith in the future. Something that, until recently, until Peter had grown distracted and worried and distant, had kept Tracy afloat.

Oh, why had she even called? Maybe she was just as troubled as Dr. Laura’s other callers, and was only beginning to realize it. A kind of breakdown of denial and grandiosity. Or maybe she called out of some histrionic discouragement about Peter. Or maybe (and this was the hypothesis Tracy favored) she called because she wanted to make Dr. Laura cry. Rarely, but it did happen, a caller’s plight would cause even Dr. Laura to sniff and stammer, to moan dramatically, “Why do feelings make your nose run?” Tracy had heard it, generally in reference to the tragic deaths of children, but often enough to believe in its possibility. Sniff, sniff, and then that rare radio silence, and, with it, the sufferer’s complete exoneration. There were such special souls, callers for whom Dr. Laura gave her know-it-all mouth a brief, respectful rest. Callers whose dilemmas demonstrated the awesome truth that there are one or two brands of suffering in the world that cannot be traced to stupidity. Tracy wanted to be one of those callers.

All day at work, Tracy worried. The name Claire had jinxed her conversation with Dr. Laura. Claire was a very unlucky woman. Chronic illness of uncertain cause. Loss of mobility, wasting, a growing tendency toward whininess and unattractive dependency, a clutching, suffocating way of asking questions. (That’s what Tracy read between the lines when Peter spoke about his home life.) It was just plain bad luck to marry a handsome, healthy husband who was ambitious and successful and who ultimately (despite his own best efforts to remain faithful) fell in love with another woman. Claire’s real story might have elicited a tear or two from Dr. Laura. But what was her real story? Sometimes Tracy thought that none of the facts and theories she had culled from a reluctant Peter quite captured the essence of Claire, her motivations, her state-of-mind, even her physical condition. Maybe Claire was in charge of her fate, had chosen her illness and confinement. Maybe she deserved it as a result of some pattern of self-indulgence, a few big mistakes she had made, bad habits, sins from a past life, refusal to face reality, failure to exercise or eat right or recycle or take her anti-oxidants.

Tracy was wild with curiosity about Claire.

Discreetly, she had asked around the office. No one, with the exception of Andrea Stenovich, Peter’s long-time office manager, seemed to have actually seen Claire. Andrea instinctively disapproved of Tracy and was never going to open up with her treasure of information: details of Claire’s deterioration, pictures of what she’d looked like before she got sick, some idea of what Peter’s wife—this mystery, this apparition—was really like. No, Claire was a specter and, like the Virgin Mary, made visitations only to the chosen: Andrea and, of course, Peter.

Tracy had tried asking Peter about Claire, but, at the mention of her name, his face clouded. “Claire won’t live long,” he would say. “The medications are killers. All her major organs are compromised.”

Tracy pictured Claire’s organs, little pocked, peach-pit affairs, pulsating and malfunctioning deep inside her body.

“Claire doesn’t care much about herself,” Peter would say, speaking soto voce as if they were inside a museum or a church, “or about anything anymore except her religion.”

Claire was Catholic. Peter had stated so suggestively, as if this were part of her diagnosis. “She believes her suffering helps others. Indirectly,” he had said. His position on this was generously neutral. He explained to Tracy that Claire believed the world contains some finite, measurable amount of suffering. If one person uses up a lot, then, quite logically, there is less left over for other people. In her particular brand of religiosity, Claire suffered so that Peter could have a sparkling, pain-free life. And not just Peter but her nurse Consuela, her sister, her second cousin Zoe who taught on the reservation outside Truces, New Mexico, lepers in New Dehli, malaria-infested children in Rwanda, all manner of ethnic Albanians and Chechnyan orphans. Tracy imagined a beautifully-appointed bedroom and Claire, dressed in one of her many Lana Turner silk bed jackets, draining pain from the world.

Which made Claire’s job more important than Tracy’s.

Tracy helped in the development of better-tasting low-fat frozen entrées, of more compelling ways to talk about refrigerated cookie dough. She explored the ramifications of 99-cent specials on the Jumbo Juicy BBQ Chili Cheeseburger or three new wow-your-tastebuds flavors for a line of bite-size, grab ‘n go, crème-filled sandwich cookies. With her warm face and plain features and non-threatening non-slenderness, she generated instant trust and rapport in focus groups, siphoning off the secrets of strangers. She was mobile—even agile—and got up at 5:30 on weekdays to jog and lift weights. She worked hard and met her client deadlines. She provided Peter Whitmore with shop talk and sex and laughter and a travel companion and some fantasy of a happy future after the pre-ordained, tragic early death of his pitiful, sick wife. That was what Tracy Ostergaard did with her life, while Mrs. Peter Whitmore suffered on behalf of the whole world.

The morning after Claire’s radio debacle, Tracy called Dr. Laura again. This time, she was Ivana, mother of two, whose alcoholic, abusive husband drove her to have an affair with her boss. The next day, she was Danielle, a single working woman having an affair with a married neighbor whose wife started having an affair first. Then, Marguerite, who had lost a child and was dealing with her grief by sleeping with her boss. The ultra-feminine names Tracy chose for her callers spoke of their comfort in the role of the other woman in a way she felt the name Tracy did not. These were women too sexy, mercurial and delicate for the little humiliations and oppressions of marriage.

No matter, Dr. Laura treated them all the same.

“Listen, Danielle,” she said, her voice shrill as an angry nun’s. “You’re not listening!”

“Wake up, Marguerite! You’re asleep! You are stupidly trying to harvest an empty field.”

“Sweetie babe,” she told Ivana. “This relationship is going nowhere. Repeat after me: no-where.”

Tracy liked populating the world with women whose mistakes and needs were as dismal as her own. She even felt some pleasure when Dr. Laura scolded her women. But she couldn’t get a tear or a sniff out of the radio therapist, and this failure fueled her belief that Dr. Laura, with her arch-conservative, black-and-white view of the world, reserved the power to bestow upon Tracy’s quite ordinary, reproachable suffering some nobility.

“I can’t leave her and I can’t tell her,” Peter explained to Tracy, not for the first time. “Claire’s very, very sick.”

“Right.” Tracy sighed. The testiness she’d been fighting since she started calling Dr. Laura urged her, against her better judgment, into this conversation. She kept chasing phrases from her head: sleeping with the boss, involved with a married man, or, worse, fucking a sick woman’s husband. She kept hearing the word spine, feeling a sharp current down her back like a phantom limb.

“Claire’s got nothing left,” Peter said, “but her illusion of this marriage.”

The yellow freesia hung over the lip of an old peanut butter jar on Peter’s desk. Over the sad, deteriorating floral arrangement, Tracy studied the pretty sea green of his cotton shirt. She liked the slenderness of his body. His arms were muscular and wiry from playing squash. His office, its warm incandescent lighting, its three walls covered with grass cloth the delectable, masculine color of mocha, was like a cozy cottage to Tracy. Meager and facing an empty hallway, it offered no colossal corner view, no mezzanine looking down imperiously on his staff. Peter preferred his surroundings modest.

“Claire needs to know the truth,” Tracy said.

Leaning back in his chair, his knees pushing against the desk, he looked exhausted. Poetically alone. Tracy was bothered by her tendency to observe such things, by her weakness for the absent, the invisible, the dangerous or, as Dr. Laura would say, the patently unavailable.

“I know this is hard for you to understand, T. You’re such an honest person. But the last thing certain people need is to know the truth.”

The words “certain people” made Tracy feel as if her presence introduced some danger or pollutant preventing him from uttering Claire’s name. “Maybe I need for certain people to know,” she said angrily, “maybe I need for Claire to know.”

“You and I will be together, Tracy. That’s definite. And it will be sooner than you think.”

“Then she will have never known.”

“That’s right. She’s different from you.”

“Well, of course, she’s different from me.”

“And that’s probably why I am so in love with you. This is the way she wants it.”


“Why? Believe me, I’ve tried to understand that myself. I guess it’s the old what-you-don’t-know-can’t-hurt-you. She lives by that. Always has, even before she got sick.”

“That’s crazy! How can you just let your husband screw around …”

“Come on, Tracy. Don’t talk like that.” He turned away, as if he wanted to be somewhere else. “I don’t think of it as screwing around.”

“Then what is it?”

“I want to marry you.”

“It’s wrong, Peter.”

“Tracy, we’ve been together for two years. You didn’t used to think it was so wrong.” He leaned forward, his arms crossed under his chin on the desk. His lids were heavy, like a dog’s, and sad and tired. Tracy tried to ignore him.

“Maybe I’ve changed my mind,” she said.

“Look.” He jerked back in his chair, shoving himself away from the desk. “I’m under a lot of pressure here. Maybe you could just let me know when your mind’s made up.”

“My mind? I didn’t think I was the one who couldn’t decide what I wanted in life.”

“I know what I want, Tracy. And I know what I have to do. For five years before I met you, for me there was no conversation of any consequence, no sex, no social life, no laughing …”

“I know. You told me.”

“…nothing but sickness and doctors and depression and limitation. I don’t even expect you to understand that, Tracy. Why should you?”

Her hands shook and she felt a red pressure building behind her eyes. Scraping her chair against the floor with an ugly noise, she ran down the hall into the restroom, and splashed cold water on her face, leaving her eyes rimmed a terrifying, veiny pink. She leaned against the sink, her head on the cool mirror, wondering if Peter would follow.

He knocked. “Tracy, open up.”

She stood with the door held open, looking at the tile floor. He held a computer disc in his hand.

“We’ve got work to do.” His eyes cast blame on her unprofessional behavior. “I need you to manage this study. I need you to focus on it.”

Tracy followed him down the hall, three steps behind like a delinquent kid on her way to the principal’s office.

Frustrated with Dr. Laura’s unyielding judgments on beautiful Danielle, Marguerite and Ivana, Tracy became Consuela. She spoke with a tiny hint of a Spanish accent. “Hello, Dr. Laura, I am my boss’ devoted companion.”

“Do you have kids, Consuela?”


“Well, I hope you are your kids’ mom first. Now what’s with your boss?”

“She is such a nice lady. Very, very sick, many, many problems, almost cannot move. I take care of her.”

Tracy knew all about Claire’s nurse, Consuela. Peter spoke easily about her, not realizing what a window she was to Claire. Tracy knew where Consuela lived and that her husband was a drinker, out of work, and about their four kids, only one left at home. She knew—or imagined, for Peter certainly hadn’t confirmed this—that Claire and Consuela were close. That they talked about Peter.

Mr. come home last night?

He did, Consuela. Home by eleven.

They do what they want, huh, Mrs? Go where they will.

He works so hard, Consuela. Another late meeting last night.

Tracy imagined Consuela, her back turned to empty a wastebasket, clucking and shaking her head. Behind her, Claire is propped upon mounds of pillows, her nails brightly manicured, her face pale in a delicate geisha way. Consuela crosses herself as she passes by the little crucifix mounted opposite Claire’s bed, Jesus draped like an October vine over the cross, his head, thorn-haloed, and twisted like a yogi’s. How the small, bronze crucifix comforts the Mrs., protects her from the worst of her pain, like a little self-managed morphine drip.

Consuela told Dr. Laura about her concerns for her boss lady, about her suspicions that the Mr. has been unfaithful. Should Consuela tell Mrs. her fears?

“We don’t mess in other people’s dirty laundry, Consuela. Do your job and keep still. What are you getting out of this?”

“Nothing, Dr. Laura. I just take care of this sick lady.”

“Well, if I were you, honey, I’d keep an eye on my own family. Like what about your husband? Where’s he?”

“Is somebody from the Mr.’s work, Dr. Laura, a lady at his work. I know it.” Tracy’s hand was wet where she gripped the phone.

“Consuela, mind your own business and just take care of your boss. You need to stop getting distracted by other people’s lives.”

“Other people’s lives?” How hurtful, this notion that a woman’s betrayal by her husband should be nothing but some peripheral issue to her devoted nurse. “My boss, she is my life, Dr. Laura.”

“Consuela, it’s a job.”


“Don’t but me, Consuela.”

Like the others, Consuela had run out of airtime. Tracy felt sorry for her. It was Consuela’s job, as Tracy imagined it, to serve as a buffer between Peter and Claire’s illness. A certain boyish elan in him was endangered. Consuela knew Peter did the best he could within the limitations of his gender and personality. But should the Mr. get too close, should he become oppressed by the hard realities of sickness the way Claire and Consuela were, the ember of energy and happiness barely still warming the Whitmore home would die, and they would all be finished.

Tracy was in a foul mood. For almost two weeks, she’d been calling Dr. Laura every morning on the way to work. It was becoming a compulsive habit, and she was getting nowhere. She was angry because Peter was on his way to Orlando for a new client presentation and hadn’t even mentioned bringing her along. The night before, he’d arrived at her apartment an hour late, red-eyed and unapologetic. Claire had been admitted to the hospital. There was some question about cancelling the trip, and Peter stayed only for a quick cup of tea and some superficial conversation about work. When Tracy asked about Claire, he shrugged. He seemed too weary to talk about it.

The traffic was thick and slow and Tracy was desperate to speak with Dr. Laura. She’d purchased the hands-free phone holder offered on an insert in her wireless phone bill, which allowed her to file her nails and sip coffee during the interminable wait for a few seconds of morning phone therapy. Angrily, she’d jammed the car into neutral, immobilized in the jungle of noxious exhaust and horn-blowing, and she came close to crying when she finally heard, “Hello, Christina. Welcome to the program.”

“Oh, Dr. Laura, I’m so glad you took my call. Let me get right to my dilemma.” Tracy snapped the phone off its holder and tossed her nail file to the floor. Her various identities were so second nature to her she no longer bothered to prepare. The stories fell together with no effort, her women’s names emerging spontaneously like dreams. Christina was an in-your-face, whiny sort. She did not mince words, but explained about the crippled wife, about the man having absolutely nothing in common with her anymore, about the man simply wanting a life. She pushed past Dr. Laura’s interruptions to describe the wife’s stubborn refusal to help herself, and to reveal the wife’s many bad habits, all the kinds of things Dr. Laura abhorred like smoking, no exercise, junk food, sleeping all day, addiction to tranquilizers, and the occasional marijuana cigarette. Christina made no bones about the fact that this wife was a regular lazy basket case and not your usual victim, cripple type at all. Christina told Dr. Laura about the man’s many efforts to help his wife, and how it was perfectly obvious to any reasonable human that this woman preferred sickness and dependence over taking responsibility for herself.

“Dr. Laura,” Christina said, very close to tears. “Where exactly does a person’s responsibility end?”

“Christina, honey, haven’t you ever heard of til death do us part? Not to mention the Ten Commandments? Ever heard of those?”

Tracy tossed the cell phone to the car floor, clicked the radio to FM and scanned for rock. She turned the volume to a level just below unbearable, dropped her head down hard against the steering wheel, and screamed for Christina. Christina had stood up for Peter. She had argued his pitiful, lying program to all of America, only to be humiliated in front of a national audience of upright housewives.

And where had Peter Whitmore been (that adulterer, that callous liar) while all this was taking place?

Riding in a big, black limo on the billboard-peppered outskirts of Disneyworld, that’s where. Polishing his dazzlingly forward-thinking remarks to the new client, then making a dutiful call to the hospital to check on his sick wife, that’s where. And all the while, managing to feel good about himself.

Tracy and Peter shared a carry-out Italian supper at her apartment. Peter had cut his trip a day short in response to a call from Claire’s doctor. He wouldn’t say exactly what the problem was, beyond the quaintly annoying phrase “a worsening.” He wanted to stay close to the phone and the hospital, they’d have to make the visit quick, he’d said.

“Haven’t you ever heard of the seventh commandment, Peter?” Tracy asked.

“Jesus, Tracy. What are you trying to do?”

Of course Peter knew the seventh commandment. He’d been raised Presbyterian, an upbringing not dissimilar from Tracy’s, which was Methodist. They’d both been forced to dress up and behave piously and attend Sunday School, but without the intrusiveness of hellfire and damnation, the Virgin’s intercessions or second comings. His religious scruples had taken their rightful place in his psyche, there but not conspicuous, like a vague memory of the difference between isosceles and right triangles or the precise articles of the Bill of Rights.

“Maybe I’ll just have to call Claire,” Tracy said. “And we’ll see what she says about all this.”

Peter looked into his pasta with an air of mourning.

“You don’t think I’d do it, do you? What makes you so sure I wouldn’t?”

“Because I know you. You’re a decent, compassionate person. You wouldn’t hurt a dying woman.”

“I would,” Tracy said, sobbing. “I would, I would, I would.” And she covered her face with her hands.

“I have to get back to the hospital.”

“Back? Now?”

“Tracy. You don’t seem to understand where we are here.”

“No, you. You don’t understand, Peter.”

He didn’t have time to argue. He left sadly, without another word, left Tracy standing by the window. A white beacon swept the city sky and cast an intermittent eerie light over the apartment. She saw Peter on the sidewalk eight floors below, saw how small he looked and how briskly he tucked himself into his car and slammed the door. She heard a siren and wondered about Claire lying in her hospital bed awaiting Peter’s return. Was she scared tonight? Was Peter any comfort to her, or had she grown to hate him? Was she only pretending to include him now, her journey so advanced and treacherous and solitary?

Dejected, Tracy lay down on the couch. When she couldn’t sleep, she practiced yoga breathing, hearing the words of an instructor she’d had one summer in a night class at the local adult education center. His name was Shami or Yami or Shandra, something like that, and he’d had a soothing way of guiding the students into relaxation. “Breathing in harmony,” he would croon. “Breathing in peace, that’s right. Now breathe out all stress and negativity and fear.”

It wasn’t prayer. Tracy hadn’t used prayer since childhood. But it was the nearest thing to it she knew.

The phone must have awakened her. It was 5 o’clock when she checked her watch, when she heard Peter amplified strangely by the machine. She didn’t want to talk. She heard something new in his voice, even in her sleepy state, something heavy and remote, and she wanted to screen it out, but the words came through, and she heard him clearly when he said, “Claire’s gone.”

She should have picked up, but she didn’t move off the couch. She was deserting him. What could she say? He was standing in a fluorescent-lit hospital hall, leaning on the shelf under the pay phone. In his hand was a list of names and numbers, with no mention of Tracy Ostergaard. He was speaking from a place she’d never been, a world of giant, adult realities like marriage and death.

After he hung up, she picked up the little cordless receiver, staring into it like a mother with a newborn. She brought it to her lips, rubbed it against her chin, soothing herself with the coolness and smoothness of plastic. The old-fashioned formality of Peter’s announcement—Claire’s gone—touched her.

The walls of her studio apartment seemed to move toward her: the book shelves with all their clutter, the bureau with its dusty family photographs, the old perfume bottles, the doily she’d had since junior high. She felt like a girl in a girl’s room and imagined Claire’s wide empty marriage bed, Claire’s dog Goldie curled and waiting sadly under the bureau. She sat on the edge of her own bed for a long time, trying and failing to imagine tomorrow, the shape and purpose of her life without Claire.

When the sky filled with its morning pinkness, Tracy went out in the hall for the newspaper. She read the obituaries, though obviously it was too early for Claire’s, and the times and places of all the funerals. She would attend the service for Claire as an employee, to show respect for her boss. She would sit on a pew with Andrea and the others, a bit toward the back of the church so as not to disturb the family, and she’d imagine Peter marrying Claire, a pretty girl in a huge white dress under these same gothic arches, a girl saying, til death do us part, without knowing anything of parting or death. Peter had always said she was a flirt, a good dancer, an extravagant spender, a little ditzy and not particularly quick-witted. She was a wife and she suffered and now she was dead.

Tracy felt a wave of tenderness for Peter, and wondered if he was at home, alone now, and if she could reach him to say something. She dialed his number. He had given it to her “for emergencies,” and she had memorized but never dialed it. “You don’t know me,” she used to want to say, imagining Claire answering, “but Peter’s been coming over here every Saturday afternoon for two years. I think it’s time you and I had a woman-to-woman chat.”

The phone rang and rang. Then Tracy heard the click and the switching over, and knew that voice mail would pick up.

“We can’t come to the phone right now.”

Claire’s voice was clear and sweet. She didn’t sound one bit sick.

“But please leave us a message and one of us will get right back to you. Bye, bye.”

No pain in her voice, no frailness. Not a hint of neediness. Tracy saw this: Claire rising regally from her arm chair at the head of the teak dining table, a low bowl of floating petals in its center; Claire dabbing at a trace of Cabernet on her lip, warmly thanking their friends for the wonderful evening they’ve shared. She is wearing black. A scooped-low cocktail dress and, on her smooth neck, a stunning choker of pearls. A gift Peter bought for her on one of his trips. She looks graceful as a dancer, and steps smoothly away from the table, without help.

Tracy took a deep breath, determined to speak.

“It’s Tracy,” she said, breathing out love. “If you need to talk.”