One Thursday in October, I went to the restored theater downtown for the film-society showing of The Thin Man. Just as the movie started, a handsome man sat down two rows in front of me. First I noticed the hair—thick and wavy like my husband’s when we first met. Then I found myself studying his profile, how his expression changed as the black-and-white movie menaced us with its long shadows, its echoing footsteps and tilted fedoras. I thought how like a scene in a movie it was: him unaware that I was watching him as he watched the screen, his face alternately illuminated and shadowed by what was playing out above us.
Afterward, the society president announced that we were all welcome to meet for drinks at a restaurant down the street. I’d never gone along before and didn’t know anybody in the group, but the hair guy was walking over, so I thought what the hell, why not try to meet some people? Everyone clustered around the bar, waiting to order, and I worked my way through until I stood next to him. He was squinting up at the chalkboard above the bar as if he couldn’t quite make out the list of wines and beers.
“How could you see the movie if you can’t see that?” I asked.
Though his eyes were small and his nose a bit too thin and sharp, the hair was so luxurious that when he smiled I felt foolishly pleased with myself.
“I can see what it says,” he said, putting out his hand for me to shake. “I just can’t decide what I want.”
His name was Preston.
“Preston, huh? Like the writer of The Great McGinty and The Palm Beach Story?” Movies my husband showed me years ago, back when the only dates we could afford were nights at home with a six-pack and a video.
He made a cute little half bow. “I wish I could say that Sturges is my middle name, but it’s really Edward.”
“The official middle name of the male wasp.”
“I had a Jewish grandfather, so I’m not technically a wasp.”
“Saved by the mohel!”
He laughed, and I thought, this guy likes to play. When our turn came at the bar, he asked if I’d share a bottle with him. I said I preferred red. The film-society people were talking around a big table on the other side of the room, but when the bartender set the Sangiovese and two glasses in front of us, Preston carried them to a small table by the big plate glass windows overlooking the street.
As he poured, he said he was working on a PhD in film studies.
“You seem remarkably cheerful for somebody in that line.”
He laughed in a good-natured way; maybe he’d heard that before. “And what do you do?”
“For the last eight years, I’ve mostly been home with my two children, but now my youngest is in kindergarten. So I work part-time in a paper store.” (For some reason, I forgot to say it was my husband’s store.) “You know, writing paper, printed invitations, party supplies, that kind of thing.”
“You’re a stationer. That’s so wonderfully old-fashioned.” He leaned his elbows on the table and gazed at me as he listened. I knew it was partly the wine, partly his determined interest, but I couldn’t help looking at that hair and wishing I could get my hands all in it. That he was younger—in his early thirties as opposed to my just-turned forty—made his attention all the more flattering.
Each Thursday after that, the film-society people sat at their big table, and Preston and I shared a bottle at our two-top. After a few weeks, I realized that he assumed I was separated from my husband. I knew I ought to correct his false impression, but I didn’t want him to think I’d assume a man wanted to date me just because we shared a few bottles of wine and some laughs.
Each Thursday, I arrived home later—eleven, eleven-thirty, midnight—giddy from flirting, gobbling breath mints and swearing I would never drive myself again after that many drinks. The house was always quiet when I came in. Even the dog couldn’t be bothered to get off his bed and greet me. Upstairs, the bedside lamps would be on, my husband under the covers—a book fallen on his chest, his head lolling to the side—completely unconcerned about my safety or my fidelity.
On Saturdays, my husband stayed with the children while I ran errands and visited my father. When Daddy first moved into assisted living, he would scold me.
“You don’t have to check on me all the time. Live your life, out there in the world.” As though it were a place he was glad to have escaped rather than one he’d fought leaving. But if I didn’t come for a few days, he’d go down to the nurses’ station and make them call me. “Where the hell have you been?” he’d ask when they handed him the phone. “Down with the clap?”
“Yeah, Daddy. The fleet was in last weekend, and now I’m on penicillin.”
“Serves you right.”
My mother would have said that somebody ought to have incarcerated my father long ago, but she hadn’t lived long enough to gloat. Four years ago, she’d left her vacation house at Sea Island, Georgia, put her car key in the ignition, and collapsed on the steering wheel before she could turn it. An aneurysm. Her husband, a retired banker, found her when he came home for lunch after golfing all morning. “Never knew what hit her,” he said when he called, as if her lack of self-awareness might, for once, make me feel better. The banker, she’d always maintained, was an afterthought and not the cause of her split from my father. She and my father had opposing dispositions—his dark and cynical, hers relentlessly, almost abusively sunny. His rude salty talk was just one of many things about him that she didn’t care for.
“Jesus, Charlie,” she’d say, “you cuss like a sailor.”
“I am a sailor,” he’d roar, jostling the ice cubes in his glass to let her know he needed more scotch.
Sailing was how they’d met, through friends of friends, at a beach club near Wrightsville in 1964. She’d just graduated from the women’s college; he was forty-two, divorced, a partner at a respected Raleigh law firm. When they were introduced, he frowned and said, “Well, you’re an attractive little thing,” as though attractiveness was an obstacle he was going to have to work around.
They were married the next summer. She had double-majored in classics and art history, planning to become a curator, but my father was old-fashioned and didn’t want his wife to work. She filled her time volunteering until, after two miscarriages, I came along. I was too late—they were already irreconcilably unhappy, often arguing and worried about money. Sailing remained the one thing they could stand to do together, momentarily forgetting their quarrels as they jibbed and tacked.
They sent me to sailing camp, where I failed to progress. As much as I loved the wind on my face on a sunny day, I couldn’t be bothered with navigation and ropes and all the figuring out that the work of sailing required. Even so, nautical terms were our family lingua franca, and it was a regular thing for the three of us to speak as code the names of the flags sailors use to signal other vessels, one flag for each letter of the alphabet. Many an evening my father would come home from the office, glowering, and head straight for the wet bar. If my mother asked him what was the matter, he’d throw up his hand and say, “Delta,” meaning, Keep clear of me. I am maneuvering with difficulty.
I used to try them with my husband, but he’d just raise his eyebrow and say, “Really? A flag? That’s all I get?” Even my jokes about semaphornication, complete with hand gestures, couldn’t win him over to the flag system.
It was just as well. Married twelve years and together for sixteen, we’ve developed our own private language. For instance, if he mentions the Civic hatchback he drove when I first knew him, I’ll say, My, she was yar, and he knows I mean that those were happy days. It’s Katharine Hepburn’s line in The Philadelphia Story about the sailboat Cary Grant designed for their honeymoon. They’re divorced, but as soon as she says, My, she was yar, with that wistful expression on her face, you know they’re going to get back together.
By the time my father went to assisted living, he had forgotten about the divorce and the banker. When I visited, he would fuss because my mother wasn’t there to receive me. Out shopping, he’d grouse, as though she, not he, had been the impulsive spender. I didn’t argue. He’d go on complaining about her, the irritation in his voice so fresh that sometimes I almost believed that they were still married, that she was still alive.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving was the first time my children saw my father after he moved into the nursing wing. Assisted living had been bright and lively, with Bingo games and a resident golden retriever. But the nursing wing was “one of those places,” as in, when your friends—whose parents are still playing golf and cruising to Puerto Vallarta—say, “I’d never put my folks in one of those places.” (To which I say, “Good luck with that.”) The fluorescent light pressed down on you, the beige walls pressed in on you, and if that wasn’t enough to choke you and make you want to run, there were the sickbed odors, masked by something cloying and purportedly floral. Every now and then the ambulatory patients set off the exit alarm with their ankle bracelets.
The oldest resident, Mrs. Beamon, 101, always parked her wheelchair where you would be forced to walk close to her. Everything about Mrs. Beamon—white hair, ecru bathrobe, pallid skin—was devoid of color except her pink slippers and her baby doll, wrapped in a blue crocheted blanket. When she saw my children, she extended a trembling hand toward them and made a guttural noise.
“Say hello,” I prompted Jacob, who was staring as though Mrs. Beamon were a rare albino animal exhibited behind glass. When he spoke, she gurgled again, and Elsie put her face in my skirt until I told Jacob it was okay to move along.
Down the hall in Room 132, my father’s favorite CNA, Bobby, was helping him brush his teeth.
“He’s the only one I’ll let bathe me,” Daddy would say. “He’s not queer like most of these male orderlies. He’s got seven children and four grandchildren.”
“Homosexuals have children, Daddy,” I sighed.
“Not in Jamaica, they don’t!”
Now my father stared at the television as Bobby handed him a cup of water and held a pink kidney-shaped tray under his mouth. Elsie made a sound of intrigued disgust when Daddy spat, and Jacob nudged her. They started poking and scrapping until I threw them a look.
“Knock knock,” I sang, hating my own false cheer as I rapped my knuckles on the open door.
Daddy’s eyes darted to me, shrunken and angry behind his bifocals. “Foxtrot,” he said. The flag that means I am disabled; communicate with me.
“It’s all right, Mr. Charlie, we’re done.” Bobby wiped Daddy’s chin with a washcloth and stepped back. “Now you’re all fresh for a visit with your daughter and your beautiful grandchildren.” Bobby was good like that—he always found a subtle way to remind Daddy who I was.
An anguished cry came from across the hall—a man, pleading, “Help me, Father.”
Daddy shook his head. “Calling for his priest. Does it all day and night. He can’t help it. Poor old bastard doesn’t know where he is.”
“Yes, it’s true,” Bobby agreed. “He’s confused.” With his usual inconspicuous efficiency, he finished straightening the things on the hospital table, then beckoned to the children. “Here’s the little man, not so little, what you, about nine?”
“Eight,” Jacob said.
“And, Miss Lady, your mama tells me you’re a dancer. Is that true?”
Elsie shuffle-ball-chained, bit her lip, then added some jazz hands.
“Look at you, with your razzle-dazzle! You see that, Mr. Charlie? Your grandbaby can dance.”
Daddy frowned at us, then turned his eyes back toward the television. “Your mother didn’t tell me you were coming. She never tells me anything.”
By the middle of December, they had Daddy on oxygen, and I was stopping by the home every day, always missing the doctor on his rounds, never able to find the right nurse who could tell me about my father’s condition. With Christmas coming, things were crazy at the store and the children were wild with Santa fever. Still, I managed to get to film club on Thursday nights. My life at home felt like low-budget mumblecore—a plotless ramble, all awkward pauses and tense situations—and I was looking to Preston to put me in a zippier feature. I yearned for sparkling dialogue, zany capers, dance numbers, and satin gowns cut on the bias. I wanted to drink my morning coffee while wearing a feather-trimmed dressing gown, winking at a man with brilliantined hair on a goddamned train.
Sure enough, one Thursday night Preston walked me to my car, took me in his arms, and kissed me in a way that let me know he’d been wanting to do it for a long time. His lips felt and tasted surprising, different, wrong. But also appreciative, eager, and, if not right, then right on. We were only kissing, after all. I could stop after kissing and still be considered a faithful wife. When he ran his hand inside my blouse, it was startling but not unwelcome.
Romeo: The way is off my ship. You may feel your way past me.
Soon, though, we had climbed into the back of my Honda—only because it was cold, I reasoned, and we couldn’t very well stand around making out in a parking deck where we might be seen. The car was the perfect spot in which to explain to him that we had to cease at once. But maybe, first, just a little more kissing, because that damage was done already, and I might as well enjoy it before I shut it down forever. But then, somehow, pants were off, and it was only a matter of minutes before even I couldn’t trick myself, in any way, into thinking I was still a faithful wife.
Alpha: Diver below.
Bracing my left foot on the back of the driver’s headrest, I abandoned myself to him, not caring that the sharp corner of a juice box was pressing into my behind.
Bravo: I am taking on or discharging explosives.
“I want to be with you,” he whispered.
Something in me summoned the wit to say, “Well, of course you do, after that.”
“Come home with me.”
I said I’d come over on Saturday. I figured I could visit Preston, shower at his place, pick up the dry cleaning, see Daddy, do the grocery shopping, go home and put the food away, and still make Jacob’s karate tournament by 2 pm. When I got to Preston’s apartment that Saturday, much more groomed than I usually am on the weekend, we went at it right away. In true romantic comedy fashion, we stumbled around the apartment in progressively giddy undress before falling onto his futon. After performing the sex act in several classic—but for me nearly forgotten—styles, I caught sight of his alarm clock and gave a cry that he mistook for pleasure. I had allotted time for married sex, not adulterous sex, and I was already late for Jacob’s tournament. Obviously, Saturdays were going to be more complicated, schedule-wise, than I had envisioned.
That afternoon, as I sat, aching, on the hard bleachers, cheering on Jacob as he sparred, I told myself that having an extramarital affair was a common enough life experience. Not one I’d planned to have, surely, but it was too late for plans now. Besides, didn’t I believe in fate? This affair with Preston was meant to be. Why else would my husband have suggested that I start attending the film-society screenings? Why else had Preston been sitting right where I could admire his lupine hair and feel those first stirrings of lust? I had been sent to the theater expressly to find Preston because there was something I was meant to learn, to discover. It was some kind of test. I was going to grow. As a person.
The whistle blew, and we clapped as Jacob bowed to his opponent. My dalliance with Preston wouldn’t hurt my family. I’d make sure my husband didn’t find out, and anyway, I was sure it wouldn’t last long. I just had to get Preston out of my system, and the only way I knew to get a man out of your system was to keep having sex with him until it didn’t seem fun anymore. I figured you didn’t have to be married to do that.
About two months passed, and the less I enjoyed the sex, the guiltier I felt. Tenderness crept in without my meaning for it to, and that worried me. Once or twice, I allowed myself to think what it would be like if I left my husband. I imagined sleeping every night in Preston’s one-bedroom apartment, with the moldy shower curtain and the bicycle in the living room. I’d miss my pillow top mattress and my matching blue Chinese ginger jar lamps. (I could bring them along, but Preston had no bedside tables.) I’d never again eat my husband’s sweet potato pancakes with my children on Sunday morning. And how many years would it take to achieve the companionable silence I now enjoyed with my husband? I couldn’t imagine returning to that phase when somebody was always saying, “What’s wrong? Are you sure? You seem upset.” It was like when somebody asked if I was going to have a third child and I thought about going back to all those diapers and sleepless nights.
So when Preston asked if my divorce was moving along, I’d say, “It’s complicated. I don’t want to talk about it.” But that didn’t satisfy him. He wanted to visit my father and play with my children; he was sure they would all become fond of him. They wouldn’t, I promised. I assured him that they were difficult, opinionated people whom he didn’t want to know. I reminded him to live in the moment. It didn’t matter what I said, though—he pressed; he sulked. Obviously, I’d soon have to break up with him, but I didn’t know the etiquette, and I liked having somewhere to go on Saturdays besides the nursing home. Plus, there was this one thing Preston did on that futon that my husband had never much gone for, and I wasn’t quite ready to give it up.
Then my father took a turn for the worse. It was the week of Valentine’s; the film was Bringing Up Baby. To my embarrassment, Preston brought me a red rose and put his arm around me during the screening. If any of the film-society people ever met me in the grocery store with my husband, I was going to be in big trouble. At the bar afterward, we took our usual table. I explained that I wouldn’t be able to come over that Saturday and that, no, he couldn’t visit my father with me.
“You’re my break from all that, Preston. You’re my Philadelphia Story. You’re my Palm Beach Story.”
“I know it’s probably been a long time since you’ve seen those movies,” he pouted, “but you might recall that in both of them the husband and wife get back together.”
I had to backpedal. Managing him had become too much like dealing with a touchy girlfriend—all hurt feelings and guesswork and apologies. “Oh, Preston. You know what I mean. Romance and all that. Good times. Black-and-white.”
He clasped my hands on the tabletop, and I prayed nobody was watching. “But I want to be more than that,” he said. “I want to be with you. I want to be there for you.”
Behind the big windows of the restaurant, the street was slick with rain.
The Saturday after I told Preston I couldn’t see him, I went by the library on my way to visit Daddy. The day before, the x-rays had come back, confirming that he had pneumonia. Too weak to rearrange himself in the bed or cough up the stuff in his lungs, he hadn’t been up for talking. All he could do was work on breathing. So I thought this time I’d just sit with him, even read to him if he liked.
At the library, I picked up a Czech novel I’d seen reviewed and a cookbook I thought would interest my husband. I dawdled among the shelves, looking for something I could read to Daddy. I hated seeing him the way he was now—his eyes yellowed, nails brittle, skin flaking. In the last few months, I could barely bring myself to touch him; a pat on the shoulder, a kiss on the forehead, or a brief hand squeeze was all I could manage. I’d back out of his room, throwing him bright promises of return, and then hurry to the visitors’ bathroom to wash my hands with antibacterial soap and the hottest water I could stand.
I settled on a book about Churchill—“never, never, never give up” was one of my father’s favorite sayings—and as I was checking out, my phone vibrated. Preston wanted me to come over for a “quick glass of wine.” I reminded him I had to go see my father. It was the same excuse I gave my husband when I went to see Preston; now I was trying to use it to get out of seeing Preston.
“You have time for just one glass.”
“All right. But no funny business.”
“I love that you call it funny business.”
By the time we made it out of the bedroom, it was nearly four o’clock, the time I was supposed to be back home.
“Fuck. I haven’t even been to the nursing home yet. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” I struggled into my coat.
“What’s the big deal?”
“I have a family, you know. I can’t just be gone all the time.”
“Okay.” He frowned, uncertain how to take my anger. “But you’re separated. You’re allowed to date.”
Uniform: You are running into danger.
“My father is really sick.”
“I know that, sweetie, but I don’t think it’s fair for you to be mad at me because I invited you over for a glass of wine and made love to you—”
I can’t stand to hear a man say “made love.” It sounds so cheesy and sentimental.
“—You never said you had to be home at a certain time, and I don’t think it’s fair for you to be mad at me because you have scheduling problems.”
He lay on his back, his hands clasped behind his head so that his elbows stuck out, the sheet draped to hide his junk. There was something so lazy and cavalier about him just then, his beady eyes roving over me as I dressed, that I got mad. It sounded like he was taunting me because he thought he was free and I was trapped.
“You know what, Preston? I think I’m getting sort of tired of you.”
It was the first time I’d ever been mean to him, and I saw what went on in his face. He struggled not to say something mean back, like “Your pussy wasn’t tired of me ten minutes ago.” No, that was too vulgar for Preston. Hoo-ha? Too comic. Straight-up “vagina”? Forget it. He couldn’t say words like that. The point is, I saw him think of mean things to say and dismiss them. I saw him decide to take the high road. Now, there is nothing I hate more in an argument than when somebody takes the high road. Because you know what people do up there on the high road? Look down on you. Look down on you, all smug, as you scream and shake your fist and dare them to come down and fight.
There were a hundred nasty things I wanted to say, but this time I took the high road myself. I told him I had to visit my sick father and go feed my children their supper. He didn’t need to know that I don’t do the cooking at my house. Properly chastened, he said that he understood. I kissed him to show we were made up and ran out to the car.
Three women in teal scrubs smoked in the parking lot, looking at their phones. Shift change. Inside, televisions blared, and the med techs moved in and out of doors doling out pills, worker bees in a hive of unmoving queens. I turned at the photo collage of residents, turned again at the framed poster of a Mary Cassatt mother and child, and hurried around Mrs. Beamon cradling her baby doll. Daddy’s door was closed; he usually napped in the afternoon. Not wanting to wake him, I opened it just enough to see his bare freckled back. Bobby and a female attendant were bathing him or changing his diaper, so I softly closed the door again and leaned against the wall to wait.
After a few minutes, Bobby came out, gave me a sorrowful look, and put his hand on my arm. He’d never touched me before. I thought my father must be really bad off, and he wanted to prepare me for what I was about to see.
“We’ve got Mr. Charlie’s shirt on him now, and I’ll come back in a few minutes to shave him.”
He spoke quietly, as though he didn’t want anyone to hear. I wondered why he was continuing to pat my arm, shaking his head mournfully and moaning in gentle commiseration. Finally, it dawned on me to ask, “Are you saying—is he dead?”
His eyes widened, and he pulled back without letting go of my arm.
“Oh. I’m sorry! The nurse said she would call you.” He shook his head again, this time at the ambient incompetence that suffused the place and made his job even harder. I reached for my phone. Then I realized how pointless it was to check my voicemail to find out what I already knew. Helpless, I held up my empty hands to Bobby. Now what?
He touched the door handle. “Do you want to see him?”
I nodded. Inside, the blinds were drawn against the fading afternoon, so the room was fairly dark. The female attendant cleared away the soiled diapers and the pan of water they’d used to wash him, then scurried out, mumbling her condolence. The head of the bed was raised to an angle between sitting up and lying down, as though Daddy was just relaxing to watch some TV. They’d buttoned his blue-and-white-striped shirt at the throat, wet-combed his silver hair, and drawn the institutional blanket up to his sternum. His mouth hung open, and without his dentures, his caved cheeks made him look more gaunt than usual. He needed that shave Bobby was going to give him, but all in all, he didn’t look terrible for a man who would have been eighty-one in a few months and who’d been sick a long time.
“I’m just not hungry,” he’d said on Thursday. “It hurts when I try to put food in my stomach.”
Whiskey: I require medical assistance. I’d known he was dying, of course. I just hadn’t wanted to think about it.
I crossed to the bed and put my hand on his chest, thin and hard under his shirt. If I knocked on it, I wondered, what kind of sound would come?
“When?” I asked Bobby. Where had I been?
“Maybe forty-five minutes ago. Maybe an hour.”
“Was he alone?” I undid the top button of Daddy’s shirt, then the second. Now he looked more comfortable, more natural.
“Yes. He was alone. I came in to check on him a while ago, and the TV was off. That was strange because usually he turns it on at lunchtime.”
“He said he couldn’t hear the screamer down the hall if the TV was on.”
Bobby nodded. “For a minute I thought he was asleep, but then I saw.”
Daddy’s right hand hung out from under the blanket, dangling off the side of the bed. I remembered how I used to flop my arm off the top bunk at camp just to freak out the girl in the bunk below. “Oooh!” she’d squeal. “Stop it! It looks like a dead body’s up there!”
“Was he feeling worse? Did he ask anybody to call me?” Was he mad because I wasn’t there? That’s what I really wanted to know. But Bobby had no answers. He approached the bed, took rubber gloves from a box on the hospital table, and put them on. “I think your father passed peacefully.” He pushed the chin closed, then stood, holding my father’s jaw, staring at the closed blinds. It struck me how many times Bobby must have helped people this way.
When I’d been there earlier in the week, Daddy had complained that his back was sore from lying around so much. Rubbing his shoulders through his nylon pajama shirt, I realized it was the first time I’d touched him that long in years.
“Oh, that feels so good,” he’d sighed. “You used to beg to rub my back when you were a little girl. You were too small to do it hard enough.” He scratched his whiskers with a thick overgrown fingernail. “But it’s the thought that counts.”
I’d thought of Preston, then. How simple was the thing I’d been seeking; it could have come from anybody. Ashamed, I had massaged Daddy’s back until he said my arms must be getting tired and it was okay to stop.
“You don’t have to hold his mouth closed,” I told Bobby. “It doesn’t bother me.”
“Maybe if we do this.”
He lowered the head of the hospital bed, then rolled up a hand towel and wedged it between Daddy’s chin and chest. We agreed that was better. Bobby showed no impatience, but I knew he had work to do and told him he didn’t need to stay with me. He bowed his head.
“I will pray for your father’s soul to rest. And for you and your family.”
After Bobby left, I took my father’s dangling hand and tucked it under the blanket. His stillness unnerved me. Now what? I rummaged in my purse for a notepad to start a list: Call the undertaker. Pack up Daddy’s things. Call his brother down in Baton Rouge and his cousin in D.C. Write the obituary. But the problems weighing on me were not the ones I was writing down. I needed to call home.
“Oh, honey,” said my husband, his voice breaking in sympathy. “I’ll just drop off Jacob and Elsie at the Lawrences’, and then I’ll be right there.”
“Don’t tell them yet. I’ll do it when I get home.”
“You know what I was thinking just now when I was calling you? I was thinking that if Daddy was the one making this call, you know, about me, or something, he would’ve flagged you. When you answered the phone, he would have said, ‘Oscar.’”
“What’s that mean?”
“Poor Charlie. At least you were there with him.”
“But that’s just it,” I said, before I could chicken out. “I wasn’t here.”
There was a pause. Waiting for him to respond, I walked over to open the blinds, but it was five-thirty in February and already dark outside. I could smell the dinner trays out in the hall.
“Of course you were there,” he said firmly.
From the pause, and the way he spoke, I realized he didn’t want me to tell him anything. There would be no catharsis through confession. He was not going to indulge or absolve me, and my father, cooling on the bed, that towel under his chin, had gone where he could no longer help me, even if he’d been the kind to help, and I’d been the kind to ask.