Jim & I
I lay there in the dark, listening to my husband's breath labor under the weight of his chest, and stroked myself while I imagined a younger man who could carry me around the room on his back, wrestle me around every room in the apartment, and pin me to the kitchen table.
Is it wrong to fantasize about my husband the way he used to be?
It hadn't started out like this - husband snoring away oblivious to his wife frigging herself beside him on the mattress - while my fingers pretended to be his, I remembered my Jim, my brand-new husband who danced along the curb the night we were caught in the rainstorm. He belted out that Gene Kelly tune, kicking up arcs of water as he mock-tap-danced across the street and swung twice around the post for the crossing sign. I giggled the way I did when I was twelve and applauded. He kissed me while the rain tickled down our faces like children's fingers.
I was starting to make grunting noises and bit my lip as I came so I wouldn't wake him with the clumsy fantasy about my husband who could still walk. The wet rhythm of his breath never changed, and when I drifted back to reality I listened to it limping along. I felt guilty that I wanted his old body and wasn't satisfied with the struggling flesh wheezing away next to me.
I tried to bludgeon my conscience with the blunt facts: Could I remember the last time I referred to us as Jim and I? No, but I remembered that I hadn't spoken to anyone in the past three months other than Jim and the people at the Social Security help desk while trying to sort out the snag in his benefits payments.
Somewhere between the reality and my fantasy of that rainy kiss my Jim got lost inside the skin of the man sleeping next to me. I didn't blame him for taking my Jim away. The doctors said it had something to do with his thyroid. And, when the treatments didn't stop him growing they thought it might be his pituitary gland. And, after a year on levothyroxine didn't fend off another hundred pounds they scratched their heads and tested his blood glucose uptake, scanned his organs, and even accused us of lying about how much he ate.
I watched as his body slowly swallowed him.
We used to stay up late and watch the neighbors in the naked windows of the apartment building across the street. We'd lay out our stories about why the man on the third floor end unit was eating alone, or what the couple on the ground floor were arguing about, or if the couple in the middle forgot to close the curtains or left them open on purpose when they had sex. It was so much better than television, but Jim sank deeper and deeper into his flesh until he couldn't make it to the sofa anymore, and we couldn't see across the way from the bedroom window. It didn't matter because I began finding reasons to leave at night.
I started going to lectures and presentations - Painting with Spare Thought, In Search of the Phantom Womb, Our Immigrant Soldier: Fighting for the Surrogate Motherland - I didn't care what the people talked about. I didn't need to care. I only needed a reason to be away, but last month I stopped going to the groups at all. Instead I sat in the bus station picking up fragments of other people's lives as they climbed in and out of the hissing coaches that brought us together briefly under the humming fluorescents then split us apart again.
I still kept feeding Jim lecture titles, even though they only existed in my head. My favorite was "Sinister Mirrors: Beyond the Rabbit Hole". I knew he wouldn't care if I simply said, "I'm going out for a while," but my conscience still needed a gathering of people to give it permission to go.
At 5:30 I'd spoon his dinner into his mouth, chase it with his pills - irbesartan, sertraline, cilostazol - and then try to eat my own dinner, but I never managed more than a few bites before the knot in my throat got so tight that I had to tip my plate into the garbage. At 7:00 he got his benzodiazepine - courtesy of the nurse who thought she was forging the prescription for me. Then I waited until his breath leveled out into that choking grumble that told me he was asleep before I slipped out into the open night to suck greedily at two hours away from the smell of the apartment.
When I got home he was always on his stomach in the exact same spot on the bed where I had left him, still buried in sleep, his open mouth spilling rattling breath out onto the floor where it pooled around my ankles and drew all the heat out of my blood.
At the end of every night I'd atone for my lies; gather the basin and sponge, and wash him as he slept.