|Excerpts > Winter 2004|
You're Not You
I wasnt sure I was the caregiver type. The ad asked for a helper for a woman with Lou Gehrigs diseaseI kept trying to remember who Lou Gehrig was. Eventually I recalled he was a baseball player, and I imagined a woman slowly transformed into a thick mannish figure, growing daily more meaty and sad. Then I realized I was thinking of Babe Ruth.
Anyway, caregiving seemed like the kind of job where you spend a lot of time smiling sweetly and brushing back people’s hair. I could handle that. But I wasn’t sure about the rest. Obviously they help people go to the bathroom, and I spent some time wondering about tampons. Though perhaps she was too old for that.
I was hoping the money would balance it out; already it was May and I’d have to pay tuition soon. I’d gone through a lot of jobs in the past few years—I’d waited tables, worked in a factory in Kenosha that made toilet seats. Once I was a secretary at a magazine where they wrote about nothing but cheese. So in the end I set up an interview, figuring if I didn’t like it, I’d just quit.
Their neighborhood was the kind that’s all cul-de-sacs, with flat new lawns and beige stone houses. When I rang their bell, the door swung open by itself. I peered in and then stepped into the front hallway.
The woman in the wheelchair smiled at me, and so did the man standing behind her—probably the husband I’d talked to on the phone. Even sitting you could see how slim she was, with long dark blonde hair that hung in a straight sheet past her shoulders, and bright brown eyes. The husband, Evan, had told me Kate was thirty-nine, but she looked younger. Somehow her prettiness and her berry-red dress were a relief and a surprise to me. Kate shifted her leg to the side so that her knee pressed something, a switch of some sort, on her chair. The door swung shut behind me.
The leg threw me off. I’d thought Kate was paralyzed, but obviously she could do some things, and so I held out my hand for her to shake. She gave me a little shrug and a smile, and looked down at her hands, which rested in her lap.
“I’m kind of an idiot,” I told her.***
Together they showed me around. Evan had stayed home from work that day, which he could do because he owned the company. (“Martin Consultants. PR work, mostly.”) He showed me how to lift Kate from the chair to the car, how she preferred her makeup to look, where they kept the nutritional shakes. He had thinning blonde hair and a habit of stroking his beard with the pad of his thumb.
Evan said he got her up, dressed, and helped her to bed. I nodded, relieved at least to avoid the dressing for now. I was wondering what it must be like to be married to someone who could hardly move. I couldn’t help it; I saw they had a big double bed and I wondered about that, too.
When I complimented her on the house, Kate said she used to be an interior designer. Her clothes were a similar palette of bright colors and her hair a few shades darker than the color of the woodwork. Only the black wheelchair seemed out of place.
I kept trying to figure out what she said before Evan repeated it. Her voice was soft, the sound coming from low in her throat. When she’d said hello to me her pronunciation was blurred, like she could barely clip her weak breath into words. I had to watch her mouth carefully. I was afraid that once Evan left I wouldn’t be able to understand anything Kate said. Evan seemed to understand her perfectly, though sometimes he had to double check a word or two.
As they showed me around I took in the miscellaneous details of a stranger’s home: an old-fashioned shaving brush in the bathroom; a pair of dumbbells on a chair in the bedroom; on the hallway table a big stone sculpture of a naked girl. The stone girl’s long neck and affected pose looked like something from the Renaissance art class I took the year before, but she was too slender: slim flanks, flat stomach. Her breasts, nipples erect, looked like implants.
She was all wrong with the rest of the house, and, what was worse, someone had set her too close to a hanging spider plant, which spouted its tendrils so low it gave her a mermaidish mop of green hair. For some reason I tapped the girl’s cool shoulder as I went by. Kate saw me do it. She smiled and rolled her eyes at the statue. Evan, walking ahead of us, didn’t see this.
The kitchen had a butcher block island in the center and huge dark slate counters. There were cookbooks all along one wall, a dozen tarnished copper pans dangling from hooks in the ceiling. Kate’s lunch was a vanilla shake, and Evan was showing me how to feed her.
“Do you miss food?” I asked. It seemed a ridiculous question once I’d asked it. How about movement and independence? Ever miss that?
She nodded. “I was a fabulous cook,” she said, Evan repeating it and affirming, “She was.” “Tamales,” Kate added after a moment, with Evan translating just after her. She nodded toward the cookbooks. “I miss tamales with pork and red chiles.”
I had to pour the shake into a white plastic funnel that was attached to a tube in her stomach. It slopped, thick and grainy, over the lip of the funnel and onto the knee of her dress. She glanced at me and said something, which Evan repeated.
“Don’t be nervous because of the valve,” was what she said. “It freaks out everyone.”
Once Evan translated, I felt better—I could hardly take my eyes off it. It was actually a little plastic valve embedded in Kate’s flesh, a few inches above her navel, and it opened and closed with the kind of plug that holds air inside water wings. I had to insert a rubber tube into it, fit a funnel over the other end of the tube, and pour in two cans of milkshake at every meal. I thought there was no way I wasn’t hurting her with that sickening tug. And it was so intimate. I had to just grit my teeth and fit the implements together and hope I wasn’t too red in the face. I tried at first not to touch her, but there was no way to avoid it. She had very soft skin. There was a single freckle on her rib. I worried I would have to moisturize her.
Evan wet a sponge and dabbed at the dark spot on Kate’s dress. “You can always give me a call at work if you need anything,” he told me. He glanced at Kate. “Or you can call Pauline, who’s the other caregiver, or even one of Kate’s other friends. A lot of them are old caregivers.” He smiled at no one in particular as he scrubbed. “No one wants to lose touch with her.”
Kate grinned at me and said something, glancing at Evan and then back at me. I smiled uncertainly at her. It was hard to get to know someone like this. Evan laughed and quoted Kate to me: “‘They come to worship me.’”
“Something about the wound in my side,” added Kate, and in the middle of laughing I realized I’d understood her in the first place.***
On my third day, I used my new key in the door, walked in and called hello. Evan’s voice called back from the bedroom. Kate was lying on top of the quilt on her bed, and Evan was in the easy chair, flipping through the channels of the television. He looked up at me and smiled.
“I’m not here,” he told me.
“You’re not, huh?”
“I mean, I am, if you need me, but we thought we’d let you take over today and I’ll just be back-up.” He ran a hand through his hair. He was a handsome guy. They had been quite a couple—I’d seen a photograph of their wedding, Kate in a long sapphire column of a dress, him in a suit, a tie the same color blue. (“I almost wore white, for the irony,” said Kate, Evan chuckling as he translated.)
“Okay,” I said. “Hi, Kate.”
“Hi,” Kate said. She lifted her head and grinned at me.
“She took a nap,” Evan explained. “Why don’t you help her up?”
I took a deep breath and planned how I would do this. When I watched him lift Kate, it seemed almost elegant, at least pretty easy: pull-and-turn, bend at the knees and then stand up. I started by taking hold of her ankles and pulling her feet over the edge of the mattress, and then I pulled her into a sitting position by her wrists. Her head dropped forward, her hair falling in two sheets around her face. But her feet didn’t end up neatly on the ground like they were supposed to. Instead her knees were curved coyly to one side, and I tried to hold her upright while I aligned her. I didn’t want Evan there, watching me. He could probably do this with his eyes closed, and he had to mind seeing his wife tugged around by some grad student.
My hair fell into my eyes and I swiped it away. I wanted to ask him to open a window.
I placed my hands beneath Kate’s arms—even her armpits in her sleeveless plaid dress were cool and dry—and stood, lifting her. But then, anxious to set her down, I lowered her into the wheelchair too fast, and left her sitting awkwardly on one buttock, leaning against the arm. Then I tripped over the footrest.
Kate said something.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I watched her closely as she dipped her head to swallow and repeated herself. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Evan in the chair by the window, observing.
“‘Ray?’” I asked. “Uh, rate my…” Kate shook her head. She glanced pointedly down at her feet, which were tucked one over the other; I’d managed to make her look like a parody of a shy little girl. I had begun to feel hot in the face and armpits.
“Your feet?” I guessed. Kate nodded. “Oh, straighten them.” I set her feet neatly side by side. I realized that to straighten her hips I would have to cup either side of her buttocks. Well, I had to. As I loomed toward her, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was about to kiss her and grab her ass like a high school boy, and I stopped and stood back.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. Kate smiled and shook her head again. She swallowed carefully before she said something. I stared at her lips.
“‘Just lift me up’?” I repeated. Kate nodded. Again I grasped her under the arms and lifted her into a standing position, paused to be sure the position was right, pivoted her so she was in front of the wheelchair again, and finally, finally, set her down in the chair.
Evan applauded. “I know it’s a lot harder than it looks,” he said. “You’ll be good at this, though, I can tell. I bet you’ll be better than me.”
He was only being nice. I knew I’d botched it, and I didn’t ever want to try it again. Evan got up from his chair. He gathered Kate’s hair into a ponytail and fastened a rubber band around it, deftly drawing through the flat loop of blonde hair. He cupped a hand beneath her chin and tipped her head back, kissing her mouth. I wondered whether they’d pay me for the days I’d already worked if I quit the next day.
When I got home that day I called Jimmy at his office.
“Bec!” he cried. “Missed you, honey.”
“Since yesterday?” We’d met up at a park and made out behind a tree. I had a raw spot at the small of my back.
“That’s all it takes. When do I get to buy you dinner?”
We met at the same place we always did, which was the Middle Eastern restaurant across the street from my apartment. When I got there the proprietor smiled and shook my hand, and led me to the back corner where the dewan was. It was a low round private table curtained off from the rest of the dining room by rosy damask. Jimmy always wanted to sit there. After five months I still loved it, loved ducking behind the heavy fabric to see him, wearing my low-necked blouses with my hair half-spilling over my shoulders. I didn’t care that it was a little uncomfortable—the tabletop so low you had to splay your knees beneath it, hunching over your food.
Jimmy was already there when the host drew aside the curtain, an open bottle of wine on the table in front of him. He waited until the host poured my wine and drew the curtain shut before he slid across the cushions and kissed me. After awhile he touched my neck and smiled at me. I could feel a silly grin flash across my face.
“Every restaurant needs one of these,” I said. It was our running joke. We also thought grocery stores should have them, bars, pharmacies. I thought it’d be interesting to see who else ended up behind the curtains.
Jimmy was a graduate assistant at the university, six years older than I was. He’d come back to school after working for a few years, unlike me. Certain of my own unemployability after undergrad, I took out more loans and went straight to graduate school for an MBA I didn’t even know if I would finish. We met on campus through an old friend of mine. I kept running into him around the same buildings, and after a few weeks he asked me to lunch. It took me a little while to realize his interest wasn’t a smart teacher’s for an undirected student. When I picked up on that, it amazed me how flattered I was.
I sipped the water. It was scented with orange blossom and I always knocked back about half a pitcher when we were there. “Come on,” I said. “Ask me interested questions. Ask me about my day.”
The waiter came back and we ordered what we always ordered: couscous with lamb, chicken with harissa and olives. When he left Jimmy folded his hands before him and turned to me and said, “Tell me about your day, Bec.”
“I got her out of bed by myself. Then I helped her in the bathroom for the first time,” I answered. Jimmy paused in chewing.
“How’d that go?” he asked. I loved it that he wasn’t the kind of fastidious guy who’d say, “I’m eating.”
“Maybe it made it worse that I was kind of dreading it,” I said. “I don’t think I did it very well. This woman is really nice and I think I embarrass her.” I stabbed at a carrot. “I thought I would be better at this.”
I thought about adding the rest of it, that I was afraid she hated it when I touched her, because that’s how I thought I’d feel. The worst part was wiping toilet paper between her legs. She’d had to tell me to do it more firmly. The rest of the time she gazed calmly at the wall.
“You’ll get used to it,” he said. “You’re just new to it is all.”
He was being supportive, so I didn’t want to disappoint him by saying I wasn’t even sure I’d keep the job. “Maybe,” I agreed doubtfully. “It’s harder than I thought. You sweat when you’re hoisting a woman around.”
I didn’t mind quitting usually. I don’t think it’s some character achievement to stay with a job you hate. But that usually had to do with bad pay or a boss who was a jerk. This was just me being uncomfortable doing exactly what I’d known I’d have to do. Maybe I’d have minded less if she were seventy and wrinkled. Old bodies need some help, and personally I think a little pity lets you do a lot you wouldn’t expect. But she wasn’t old, and I had seen enough to know that even without muscle tone her body was still lovely, lovelier than mine. Maybe the problem was that there was a faint thrill to touching a beautiful woman so closely, a body I might once have wanted to have myself—it made me feel sleazy to notice that. It embarrassed me to wedge my hands in her armpits or to pull her underwear up after she’d urinated.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I usually get used to jobs really fast.”
“Yeah. If I were waitressing I’d have my own section by now.”
We ate our food slowly, sipping the perfumed water. By the time we left it was almost seven o’clock. “Shouldn’t you be getting home?” I asked.
He linked his arm through mine as we headed up the walk to my front door. The windows were dark; my roommate was at work. “I’m at a department meeting,” he said. “Besides, I have the cell phone on in case she calls.”
“Oh.” I was feeling strange; too much spice, too many protein-rich mashes of chickpeas and eggplant. We were at my front door. “Well,” I said, “no more time to spend on chitchat.” He kissed the back of my neck and pulled me against him while I unlocked the door. I didn’t bother to grab the mail. “Let’s keep these meetings running on time.”***
“He’s a grad assistant,” I told Kate a couple days later. We were in the study, organizing insurance papers. I liked this part of the job, the efficient paper-shuffling. Kate had an entire filing cabinet full of insurance stuff, medical forms and triplicate copies of claims. She even had her own copy machine. It was too bad the job wasn’t all like this.
“He’s a writer,” I went on. “He used to have a music column in Chicago magazine.”
I didn’t tell her that that was where he’d met his wife, who’d been a friend of the editor’s. I’d seen them, Jimmy and his wife, at the university Union the night before, sitting by the lake with a bunch of people. I recognized the wife from a photo. She was voluptuous and dark-haired, a lawyer. She was putting him through graduate school.
I also knew she liked the blues, Guinness, and that she could discuss Middlemarch with him all he wanted. He’d told me these things, though I’d preferred it when she hadn’t really seemed to exist, like in the beginning when she was just a wedding ring that had nothing to do with me.
Shouldn’t she like chardonnay and peonies? I once asked him. Shouldn’t she wear chintz?
It’s complicated, he said, and I told him I couldn’t believe he’d trotted that one out.
Kate grinned and looked away toward the wall for a moment while she took a swallow. She had a way of shifting her gaze while she prepared to speak, and I’d learned to give her a moment, not to follow her every glance around.“Sounds like a keeper,” she said. “When do I meet him?”
It had turned out to be easier to understand her than I expected. Once I was listening to her all the time I picked it up fast, like an immersion program. It was important to watch her lips; half the cues lay in the familiar shapes you saw people form every day but never noticed. Her lung capacity was low enough that the sound she made was almost less important than the way she shaped the air.
“Soon,” I said vaguely. I wanted her to meet him. I thought they’d like each other, and I wanted to be able to introduce him for once, like a regular boyfriend. But I’d got nervous all the sudden; you couldn’t be sure who knew whom. I tried to change the subject. “Anyway, you probably could care less about boyfriends and stuff. It must be nice to be married, huh?”
As soon as I said it, I thought of Jimmy’s wife. Then I decided not to. Kate made a face: raised her eyebrows, turned the corners of her mouth down.
“It’s not perfect,” she said.***
That Friday I stayed out till four a.m. even though I had to be at Kate’s by eight the next morning. It was only my second week of working for her, and I knew it was stupid to stay out so late, but it was one of those nights you just can’t bring yourself to end. I was at a series of bars with my roommate Jill and some people from my old job. More people kept latching onto our group and finally we ended up at our apartment eating gyros and french fries and the last thing I remembered was Jill making me a vodka tonic in a thermos.
When my alarm went off I prayed it was early but it wasn’t. I managed to brush my teeth and pull my hair into a ponytail and shuffle out to my car.
When Kate saw me she said, “You look jaundiced.” It took me a second to get that word. Then I smiled a little, trying to feel better. I was bitter and pissy right then. Why the hell did she need me so early on weekends? Nothing needed to be done right then. Where was Evan, anyway?
She nodded toward the cupboard and when I opened it I saw a big bottle of ibuprofen. She raised her eyebrows at me and I took four with a glass of Coke.
“I was going to go to the farmers market,” she said. Before I could stifle it I looked at her in horror: it was unspeakably sunny and hot and the market would be crammed with people. Still, Kate was usually pretty flexible. I’d been banking on being able to suggest we watch some tv and do stuff around the house.
When I did, she pressed her lips together and gave me an appraising look. “It’s not like I’ve never had a hangover, Bec. But when you know you’re coming here you can either go to bed early or fake it.” She turned her chair and started toward the bathroom. Shamed, I shuffled along behind her. With a jolt I realized she hadn’t quite made up her mind about me either. She was probably debating whether to fire me. I still wasn’t very good at helping her in the bathroom, and I tended to splash nutrition shake on her clothes because I looked the other way when I poured it.
At the door to the bathroom she turned her chair around so she could back in. She caught me swaying with a little lurch of nausea, wincing at my headache.
She broke into a grin. “Oh, it’s just a hangover,” she said. “I used to run races with hangovers.”
I laughed even though it still hurt to move my head. I imagined a night out with the Kate of ten years ago, knocking back drinks and shouting in noisy bars, and for a second something plummeted in me. I was too late to know her that way and that was that. I followed her into the bathroom to do her makeup.***
Jimmy and I were eating spinach omelets on State Street. We sat far back in our seats so we didn’t touch. We were too near the campus, where his students and coworkers were, and where his wife had gone to law school.
“Well, I’ve decided I’m staying,” I told him. He looked up, startled.
“With me? Was it in question?”
“With Kate. I was sort of giving it a month’s probationary period before I was sure.”
He gave me a look. “Did she know this?” He knew me too well.
“Well. Not really. I bet she was deciding about me too, though.”
“What’s to decide? You’re great.” He made a circular, all-inclusive gesture with his iced tea glass.
“Well, I’m better than I was. Plus, you know, it’s a real pain to find caregivers. Her husband has to do a lot of it but I don’t see him as much as I thought I would. I think she really needs me around.”
Jimmy nodded, cutting his omelet with the side of his fork. “I bet you’re great. You never think you’re as good at anything as you really are.”
“I’m still not very good with some things,” I admitted. “I can never look at her when she’s going to the bathroom. I pretend I’m doing something else.”
After lunch I went to Kate’s. She was in front of the television, watching a video. The blue screen of the TV lit up: a kitchen, filled with people. It must have been an office kitchen, too white and plain to be in someone’s house. The camera was focused on a door. The sounds were all disembodied conversations from the people milling around. Someone peered out into the hallway and turned back to the room, flapping her hands and shushing, and everyone got quiet.
In the video the door opened and Kate walked in. She had this fast, bouncy stride, and she was turned halfway around, talking to another woman as she walked, and when people yelled “Happy birthday,” she gasped, her hands flying up toward her face and her whole body leaping in a flutter of surprise, and then she leaned against the woman next to her and laughed. When they raised their cups in a toast, you could see just the slightest tremor in her hands. And in the video you could tell she saw it too. As her cup gave a tiny lurch, a shadow of confusion flickered over her face.***
I’d been working for her for a little over two months when she asked me to come to work an hour earlier.
“I’ll need you to get me up, help me dress,” she explained. Her eyes were closed while I brushed on shadow, and I could see the shifting of her eyes, the soft coins of her corneas, beneath her eyelids. The cosmetics were spread out over the bathroom counter.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “For this week, or permanently?”
Kate opened her eyes. “Probably permanently. Evan’s moving out.”
I stopped sharpening the eyeliner and watched Kate’s lips carefully. “He’s moving out?”
Kate nodded. She shut her eyes again so I could smudge the gray eyeliner near her lashes. I drew her eyelid taut and dotted the liner on, smudging it with a Q-tip. I was learning a lot about makeup. I didn’t mind handling her face, touching her eyes and jaw while I did this. By now I had gotten pretty used to the other parts of the job too. She opened her eyes and peered into a mirror I held up. “More blending,” she said. I flicked a stiff brush over her eyelids.
“He thinks,” Kate said, “he should get a little extra on the side.”
“You mean women?”
“His family acts like I should be grateful …”
I nodded to show I was following. I swirled a wide sable brush in a jar of powder and then swept it over her face. It left a gleam on the smooth apples of her cheeks, the high slope of her cheekbones.
“… grateful he wants to live with me, and just accept it.”
“You talk about this with his family?” I held up three lip liners. Kate nodded at the Tawny Rose.
“I don’t. He did.” She let her mouth relax. I cupped her jaw in one hand and with the other feathered the pencil over the rounded wings of her upper lip. I switched to broader strokes over the pillow of the lower one. Kate rubbed her lips together.
“They think I’m being unreasonable,” she continued.
“You’re probably not asking for my opinion,” I ventured, “but I don’t think you’re unreasonable.”
I dredged the stiff short bristles of an eyebrow brush in a light brown shadow and then blew away the extra powder in one puff. I brushed it against the grain of Kate’s fine eyebrows, admiring the way their arch emphasized the almond shape of her eyes and the high dome of her lids.
“Damn right.” Kate took a breath and looked away. “I guess we had ten great years,” she said.
“You can’t work it out?” I asked. Awhile back, I might have thought, Can’t he just have an affair and shut up about it? That gave me kind of a sick feeling. I had always thought of Jimmy and me as something that was only about us, not about him and his wife.
“We tried,” Kate said. “He doesn’t just want some sex on the side. He wants to have a whole affair. I can’t just sit here while he dates. I need to have some say in something. Why does everyone think I don’t deserve to mind?”
I dipped a fat brush in powder and tapped it hard on the edge of the cup. Then she closed her eyes and I cast a fine dusting of powder over her face. “How did you marry him in the first place?” I asked. It popped out before I’d thought about it.
Kate sighed. “He was older. Sophisticated. He turns his attention on you,” she swallowed, “and it’s so flattering. The dumb things he did just seemed like quirks. When he tells total strangers how much money he makes, you know, or brings home bad art like that naked stone Barbie doll and pretends it’s for me. Still. I thought I could work with it.”
“A friend of mine dated a guy like that once. The older part, I mean,” I said. I felt close to her right then. This was more than she’d ever told me before. I thought maybe we’d be good friends now, especially without Evan around. She was the kind of person who’d be fun if all you did was sit at a table and talk. Come to think of it, that was a lot of what we already did.
A little elated at the thought, I went on. “He was only a few years older though. But it seemed like more.”
Kate nodded. Her eyebrows had lost their high arch, they were knit together in a straight line. Stupidly, I continued. “She said it was like playing dress-up. Romantic dinners, the whole thing. The problem was, he was married.”
I stopped. Kate looked down at the bottles and jars on the counter. I reached over and closed the lid on some eye shadow, recapped a lipstick.
“Maybe your friend was pretty fucking selfish,” she said.***
I dwelled on that for a couple days before Jimmy called me. I was at home, sipping a beer and flipping through my class notes. I was stretched out on my stomach on the futon, the phone on the floor next to me. I touched the receiver and felt the vibration ring through my hand. When the answering machine came on I heard Jimmy’s voice, as I’d known I would.
“Those damn department meetings,” he said. “Got another one tonight. Should go till at least seven.”
There was a long pause, while I listened to the staticky answering machine tape running in the living room. My hand was still on the phone.
“I’m not saying we don’t get a lot done in these meetings,” he continued. “We do, we make some very essential decisions. In fact, I would even say I find these meetings exhilarating. Since we had to postpone last week’s department meeting, I’ll have a lot to do.”
I almost picked up the phone. It wasn’t like I had to tell Kate about it. He wasn’t her husband. Jimmy’s wife was perfectly healthy.
I started to pick up the receiver and it made a loud clicking noise over the machine. But then I put it back.
“Baby,” Jimmy said, “are you really not home?”***
Evan called one afternoon during my shift, his voice carrying through the speaker phone in the living room. He had rented an apartment downtown about three weeks before. I pulled a chair over next to Kate, who had wheeled over to sit in front of the speaker.
“I’d like to move back in,” he said.
Kate said he could if he dumped Cynthia.“You have to dump Cynthia,” I repeated into the speaker phone.
There was an awkward pause, then a different tone: “Hello, Rebecca.”
“Anyway, I don’t think I can do that. She’s very attached.” Back to the softer voice.
“Oh, come off it, Evan,” I blurted. Kate kicked me in the shin. I stared at her. I didn’t realize she could muster up a kick.
“You are me talking,” Kate reminded me. “You’re not you right now.”
“Katie?” Evan’s hollow voice rang from the speaker. “I wish you would listen to me for a minute. This is more complicated than you admit.”
Kate shook her head and I hung up. I wanted to give her some kind of encouragement, but she was stronger than I was. The best I’d been able to do was avoid Jimmy for the past couple weeks, and I still wasn’t sure we’d broken up at all. What if I called him, would we just slide right back? Sometimes I thought that would be just what I wanted. Sometimes I didn’t know why I was avoiding him at all. Because of Kate? I was fine before I met Kate. Sleeping with a married man, okay, but wasn’t this supposed to be the irresponsible time in my life?
My shin throbbed. Kate and I sat there for a moment. I rubbed my leg.
She saw me do it and said, “Sorry. Remember it’s me, though.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you had so much movement in your legs.”
I thought she’d smile at that, but she turned her face toward the window. It felt like greeting someone with a big hug and they pull away as if they wouldn’t even have shaken your hand.
I had to watch that. Sometimes I thought we were closer than we were. But why would she want to be? I was nosy and clumsy. I was the kind of girl who fucks a married man. We sat there, Kate looking away and me trying not to show that I was embarrassed and worried. I pictured her telling me to find a new job, and I thought, what else is worth doing? Selling food? Answering phones? Anyone could do that.***
Kate found a smaller ranch house halfway across town. She called contacts left over from her interior design days and started making plans to widen the windows, doorways and the shower. She also made plans to tear down a kitchen wall and add ramps to the front door and off the back porch. I had to learn a whole new set of terms when talking to the architect. She gave me a book to read so I would understand her when she said words like “load-bearing.”
There was still a lot to do, even after we moved her in. We spent most of our days working on the house, driving around town after certain types of wallpaper and paint. Kate had me thinking I should recover my futon pad in scarlet. I ended up calling my landlord from a paint store and getting his permission to paint my room. I bought a gallon of saffron-yellow, and now the walls glowed cozily. She gave me one of her copper pans, and I kept it in my room, where it reflected the burnished glow of the saffron paint, and where my roommate knew it was off-limits.
One evening I got Kate into bed and said, “What else do you need? Do you want the remote?”
She shook her head. “The other caregiver usually does this,” she began. I turned aside, laying a blouse on a hanger, to hide a flare of annoyance. What could there be that I couldn’t do?
“It’s in that drawer,” Kate said, turning her chin toward the bedside table. I opened it and saw a blue butterfly, modeled out of some smooth, cushiony rubber. Its wings were attached on either side to two loops of black elastic. When I picked it up I saw there was a compartment for batteries. “The loops go around your legs, like underwear,” Kate said.
“My legs?” I said. I had realized what the butterfly was for, and I had a terrifying flash of myself standing at the foot of Kate’s bed, stark naked except for black straps slung over my hipbones and a butterfly buzzing brightly between my legs.
She started to laugh. “No, mine,” she said. She blushed, and looked away, then said, “I need something, you know?” There was another pause. “You just put it on me and put me on my stomach and go out for an hour or so and that’s it.”
I was blushing too. I thought I had gotten over this. Wiping away urine or shit was just cleaning. Even with bathing her I just relied on briskness, and my hands stayed safely behind a sponge or a removable shower head. But now I was as mortified as on my first day.
I hadn’t dealt with this yet and frankly I’d thought I’d never have to. That there was a clitoris tucked behind the lips of her vagina was something I knew but had been pretty careful not to consider. I’d always assumed she was angry at Evan for getting the sex she couldn’t have, but now I realized she was capable at least of some things. He just wouldn’t give it.
I brushed my hair behind my shoulders.
“No problem,” I said. I pulled the covers aside and reached beneath her nightgown. I pulled her underwear down, trying to be gentle and less businesslike, folded them and set them on the chair. She was still blushing a little, gazing firmly at the lamp as I came back to the bed. I put the two loops around her ankles and pulled the butterfly up, lifting her legs to make it easier.
I settled the butterfly on the soft brown curls between her legs. I was thinking of my own body and I tried to put it low enough that it would touch her clitoris. I adjusted the straps over her hipbones. “Is that all right?”
Kate nodded. “Thanks,” she said. I turned her onto her stomach, making sure her head was comfortably to one side and her hair out of her face. I started to leave but then I stopped at the door, one hand on the light switch.
“Do you need me to turn it on?” I looked back over my shoulder at the headboard of the bed. I focused just above her blonde hair. I could see her smile.
“I can do it,” Kate said, and I nodded and took a deep breath. I turned out the light.***
I saw Jimmy while I was on my way to class a few weeks later. I tried to pretend I hadn’t seen him but he came jogging up anyway. He was wearing a jacket I’d never seen before. Gift from the wife, maybe.
“Hey Bec,” he said. We stood there awkwardly for a moment. He took off his headphones and then he kissed my cheek. Just a friendly, public, my-wife-knows-you kind of kiss, but no one had touched me in weeks, and the rough warmth of his mouth made me close my eyes a moment, exhale without meaning to.
“Hey,” I said. “How you doing?”
He shrugged, grinned. “Okay. I’m glad I saw you. I was just thinking about you the other day.”
“Oh yeah? What about me?” I wanted to hear how someone’s perfume reminded him of me, or maybe how he’d been missing me a lot. I’d never called him back, but I’d saved the answering machine tape.
“I was wondering why you just dropped out of sight. You never even told me what you were thinking.”
With him standing right there my resolve was thin. His hair was shaggy, his eyes greener than I remembered. I bet if I asked him he would come home with me.
“I started thinking it was selfish, is all.”
He looked startled. Then he nodded and said, “Yeah. Listen, I’m sorry we met when we did. I’m sorry I was an ass to both of you. But I miss you.”
I didn’t see how I could answer that except to agree that I did too, and I didn’t want to admit it. Instead I said, “Are you going to tell her?”
“Maybe someday. Things are a little precarious right now. I figure if I feel like shit, then that’s my problem. I don’t get to make myself feel better by foisting it off on her.” He ran a hand through his hair. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, stuck his hands in his pockets. I never noticed before how constantly he moved. He switched his briefcase to the other hand.
“Listen,” I said. “Why me? Or could it have been anyone, anyone pretty?
“Of course not,” he said. “You because you’re funny and smart and you never seemed to realize how smart you were. Are. And I guess it might not have happened if my wife and I weren’t going through a rough patch. But that’s no reflection on you.”
“Oh, no,” I agreed, keeping a tremor out of my voice. It was so sordid. He should have just gone to a strip club. “It barely seems to have anything to do with me when you put it like that.”***
I’d been driving past a store called “A Woman’s Touch” for months, but one day I decided to stop in and browse. As I walked past a noodle shop and a used CD store I refused to glance around and see who might be watching. I strode up to the glass doors of the store and went in without hesitating. Inside, there was music playing softly, and two women were looking at a silk teddy on a hanger. One woman lifted the silk and rubbed the fabric between her fingers. She grinned at the other woman, who laughed. I smiled nervously at the woman behind the counter, who was plump and blonde, in a flowing skirt and muslin blouse. She looked like a waitress in an organic restaurant, which was somehow reassuring.
Along one wall were books and videos, vibrators and dildos and harnesses along the other. I glanced over my shoulder: the other two women were now examining a package of body paints. Then I faced the vibrators, glad to turn my back on the rest of the quiet store, and set about scrutinizing them as though I had some idea what I was doing. The store was so hushed that I could hear the murmur of the two women as they decided on their purchases. I thought I ought to be acting like a discerning customer, so I picked up a hot-pink vibrator with a long shaft. A pink plastic bunny head was attached to the same base as the shaft, the bunny’s nose facing inward toward the plastic column, like an opposable thumb.
I turned it on. A whirring sound filled the store as the shaft rotated like a joystick and the bunny’s head pattered back and forth, as loud as a woodpecker. I almost dropped it. The whole apparatus seemed extremely complicated. I turned it off, forcing myself not to look over my shoulder.
I kept browsing, sticking to the simple items now. Finally I settled on a Japanese-made purple wand, buying a tube of Silk Glide to go with it after the clerk said, “You’ll want lubrication,” and, to demonstrate, made me run my finger along the sticky rubber of the vibrator. I drove home with the windows down, tapping the steering wheel in time with the radio, and retired to my saffron-yellow room.***
“Let’s go to the zoo,” Kate said.
“The zoo?” I asked. “What are we, kids?”
“I like the zoo,” she said. “Everybody lets the chick in the wheelchair go straight to the front.”
So we made our way into the gorilla house. It was set up so the people were enclosed in glass and the gorillas had free reign of their hillside. The gorillas lounged around like teenagers, digging through their fur and champing steadily at something in their mouths—bamboo, gum. One relaxed on a fallen log, gazing up the hill with one foot propped up on a rock. The gorilla picked up a long stick, plucked at the bark, and contemplated it, his brow low and his long, leathery lips working slowly.
“Watch,” said Kate. “He’ll bend it into a wheel.”
I chortled. “They’re probably building a barbecue pit on the other side of the hill.”
We were sitting right up at the glass. Another gorilla had come up to the edge to stare at the caged people. He looked rather bored.
“I feel like we ought to be entertaining him,” a voice said. I noticed Kate turn her head. “Maybe they need more to do in there.”
That was when I realized it was Evan’s voice. Now both of us turned to look. Evan was about ten yards away, standing on a deck that allowed a better view of the gorillas. With him was a woman and a boy in a bulky sweatshirt, who carefully avoided looking at Evan.
“Cynthia?” I murmured. Kate nodded.
“It must be adultery day at the zoo,” I said. It occurred to me to wonder why Kate wanted to come here. I didn’t like to think she’d had me follow them. Kate was watching the threesome as Evan tousled the boy’s hair. The kid ducked his head away and left them, walking down the steps to the glass. He leaned forward and tapped the window. Evan and Cynthia kissed.
“Let’s go say hello,” Kate said. I started to protest, but she gave me a look. You’re not you, I reminded myself. Like it or not, you’re her. So I didn’t say anything, just followed Kate to the base of the platform where Evan stood. By the time we got there and Kate craned her neck to look up at them, Evan and Cynthia were very still.
“Hello Kate,” Cynthia said, smiling awkwardly. She wore black pants and a blue silk shirt. I had expected her to be cheap-looking and brassy, but she was as polished as Kate. There were pearls in her ears and her auburn hair was drawn back in a knot. “You look lovely.”
I placed myself close to Kate. It was loud in the ape house.
“Thanks,” Kate said. “Thanks,” I repeated. There was a silence. Kate looked at them, but they kept looking at me, maybe because I was the last one to have spoken.
“I guess I mentioned at the lawyer’s that we’d be here today,” Evan said.
Kate shrugged. Without meaning to I gave a little shrug myself.
“We used to come here sometimes,” Kate said to Cynthia. I repeated it.
“Yes, well … my son likes it,” Cynthia said. Her eyes darted over toward her son, then away, as though she wouldn’t let us see which one he was. He was far enough away that he hadn’t even noticed us. Kate lifted her chin to swallow and took a breath.
“How does he like Evan?” Kate asked. When I’d repeated it Cynthia’s face hardened.
“I don’t want this in front of my son,” she said. I could have spat at her. But I kept quiet and waited to hear what Kate would say.
“I’m not the one who put this in front of your son,” Kate said. Her voice, which in its weakness always seemed to issue from some flaccid muscle low in her throat, was higher, stronger, but it shook. I called up, “I’m not the one who put this in front of your son.”
Cynthia stared at me. Evan leaned over the railing at the edge of the platform.
“This is not appropriate,” he said to me. I took a step to one side and looked at Kate. Before she could say anything Cynthia joined Evan at the rail. Her son was still across the room, looking out the window.
“Aren’t you expecting an awful lot out of Evan?” Cynthia said. “He and I, we just happened.” She too leaned over, holding onto the rail with both hands. Her long nails gleamed. Cynthia tilted her head, her brows knit ruefully together. “That doesn’t mean coming here is right.”
“You knew I existed,” Kate said. “So what’s the problem. Here I am.”****
Kate asked to be perfectly centered on the mattress. Once she was, I began the outline at her head. I kept the marker as close as I dared without getting ink on her clothes or skin. I wanted the silhouette to be crisp and unmistakable.
We were in her old house, now Evan’s, in the master bedroom. A comforter, sheets, and mattress pad all sat in a royal blue heap on the floor. A box containing the last of her things sat by the door: a few minutes ago I had walked through the house, picking up the items Kate nodded her head at, putting them in an old nutrition shake box. She chose a framed photo of herself and a friend who had since died in a car wreck, a gilt-edged copy of Jane Eyre, a book on dictating an effective living will, a stray makeup brush, and a big stone molcajete, its pestle set at a jaunty angle inside the huge bowl. I grinned when she indicated that the molcajete should go into the box: it meant that soon I would be grinding cloves of garlic, pumpkin seeds or rings of sliced onion against the rough stone bowl, while she watched and gave directions. She had guided me through crème brûlée, boeuf carbonnade, and real pesto. The most Kate herself ate was a sliver of the custard dissolved on her tongue, enough of the beef’s dark sauce to coat a teaspoon. We served the rest to guests, or I took it home.
I traced around her hair, which she’d had cut into thick bangs swept across her forehead, stylishly haphazard wings framing her face and neck. I got just right the silhouette of her earlobe and the hoop earring where it peeked out from a bell of dark gold hair.
Next I traced the stem of her neck, in which a tranquil pulse beat just beneath the curve of her jaw line. The small shoulder was easy, then the line of the arm, so slender it tapered below the shoulder joint, swelled at the elbow, and clearly showed the bone of her wrist. On the middle finger of her right hand was a thick gold ring with a topaz set flush in the metal. I spread the fingers enough to trace the outline of its bulky band. I coveted that ring, and though Kate offered to let me wear it, the ring needed slim, long hands like hers.
I moved the marker along her ribcage, from the tuck of her waist to the arc of her hip. The outline of a slim thigh was effortless, and of the knees. Below the calves, the cool purpled skin was puffed with fluid that obscured the bones in the ankle and in the tops of her feet. Except for the feet, the silhouette would be all sweeping lines, slim bone. I was kneeling at her feet, one hand braced by her leg. A few years ago Evan would have been in this same spot. I used to sit up on my elbows and look down at Jimmy as he knelt at the foot of the bed. I figured somewhere both of them might be in this position even now, marveling at a slim body or a rounded soft one, marveling the way everyone does for awhile. The way you’re so determined to remember each detail that you learn it several times over, with your fingers and eyes and mouth. There’s that pocket of time between people, when you’re so rapt in the heat and furrow of another body and every flaw seems like just a clever variation, but then of course you start to seek out every mole and stretch mark without wanting to, and that electric skin cools and sets beneath your hands.
Kate had lifted her head and now she raised her eyebrows at me. I realized I had paused and I resumed tracing the calves, then around the soft skin of the heel, out along the swollen ankle. When I got up to her left hand, now bare of jewelry, I was glad I had been so careful to show the bulge of the ring on the other hand. I didn’t want Evan thinking the ring just didn’t show up. I wanted him to know it wasn’t there at all, that a few days before, Kate had gestured with her chin to indicate the wedding band, and said, “Take it off.” We had put it in the nightstand, in the drawer below the blue rubber butterfly.
I was back at her head again, the careful tangle of glossy hair and the curve of the jaw. I kept tracing until I closed the line at the crown of her head.
I pulled her into a sitting position and steadied her there with a hand at her back. She was so slim, the light bones of her shoulder blade sharp and warm against the palm of my hand. She’d been sick with the flu, and she’d lost weight. I’d had to sponge bathe her for a few days instead of dragging her into the shower. It was soothing somehow, squeezing out the big natural sponge into one of those old-fashioned basins, lifting her up from the mattress and wiping it over her neck and her shoulders, down her thin arms and legs, toweling away the traces of water and soap. It wasn’t easy to give someone a sponge bath in bed without getting the sheets all damp. I was good at it now.
I lifted her to a standing position, pivoted, and placed her in the wheelchair. We both gazed for a second at the silhouette on the mattress.
“It was a good idea to do both sides,” Kate said. I laughed.
It felt like it had taken forever but it looked perfect. The outline had been my idea. When we’d come into the bedroom to see what else she might need, Kate had said to me, “I bet he can pretend I was never even here.” And I’d wanted to remind him that she was. I would have liked to do something like this in Jimmy’s house, a house I’d never seen. But I would have put my figure on his side of the bed instead of in the center, the lines of my body indelible and hidden under his.
I spread the mattress pad down again, covered it with the sheets, and smoothed the quilt over everything. Before we left the house Kate told me to crack a window, and once I locked the front door I took the key off the ring and tossed it through the open window into the front hallway, where the brass key ricocheted off the nude statue and landed beneath the swaying tangle of the spider plant.