Daniel opened his eyes and looked around. What had happened?
He and Beth lay entwined on the hospital room floor. Daniel could feel Beth’s weight on him, could feel her frail body. She had dwindled these past months. Her head lay on his chest. A small pool of yellow-green vomit was soaking into his shirt there. Thin trails of spittle connected it to her cracked lips.
How long how they laid there like this? Only seconds, at most — no orderlies or nurses had come rushing in yet. He must’ve blacked out a moment. Beth, weak anyway, was unconscious. Not a surprise.
The seizure had come on her so fast. She had been trying to get out of bed, not a good idea. He had told her as much. Then it had started and she had swayed. He had managed to get under her, to place his own body between her and the floor, before she fell. There was a dull penetrating ache in the back of his skull — he had hit his head on the linoleum.
He could hear the thin rasp of her breath, so unlike the gentle purring it once was. With each rattling inhalation he could feel her chest push against him ever so slightly. She was breathing — that was good. He feared for her constantly these past months. The seizures were getting worse. She denied it but it was fact; the doctors had told him as much. And more.
She was dying.
That was the long and short of it. Short, most likely, if the seizures continued increasing in frequency. The ache in his head could not match the one in his heart. Beth was his life, had been ever since he had met her. He wondered if she knew that.
Where was the hospital staff? Well, he couldn’t wait for them. The seizure had passed, she was okay for the moment.
“Beth, baby, we have to get up.”
He nudged her, ever so gently. “Hmmmmm?” She was startled awake. “What? Where?”
“You had a seizure, we’re on the floor.”
“It’s okay. C’mon now.”
Daniel helped her to a sitting position and held her up — she was so weak — while he got to a crouching position.
“What’s going on here?” came a stern female voice from the door to the room. About bloody time.
“She had a seizure, but she’s okay,” Daniel said, still holding onto Beth, not looking at Nurse Smith. Her voice was unmistakable.
“I’ll get an orderly and we’ll get her back into bed,” the nurse said.
“No need,” Daniel said. He wrapped his strong arms around Beth and lifted.
“Wait for the orderly, sir!”
“I’ve got her.”
“I’m sure you do, but there are insurance issues to think about too.”
As fast as he could, and being very careful, Daniel laid her on the bed and covered her with the sheets.
“It’s done,” he said, looking toward the nurse.
Nurse Smith left the room in a huff, shaking her head the whole time.
Daniel pushed non-conforming strands of long dark hair from Beth’s grey eyes. He sat on the edge of the bed beside her and smiled. She smiled back, though then turned immediately to stare out the window.
“It’s okay,” he said.
“No, it’s getting worse. I hate you seeing me like this.” She turned back to him.
“I’m not leaving.” But his eyes sought the window then, looking away from her stare. He saw a deep orange glow; the sun would be down soon.
She grasped his hand, laying across her belly. She squeezed with all the strength she had. It wasn’t much.
“Please don’t.” Her eyes pleaded as much as her words. A pause. “I know that you would never leave me,” she added. That was a fact, but both knew the truth underlying it. Or, at least, that was what Daniel assumed. She must have known. Maybe she was too weak to care anymore.
Rising from where he sat, he fetched a tissue from the nightstand. He wiped the last remnants of spit from her chin and lips. She looked at his chest then, saw the puke stained shirt.
“I’m so sorry.”
He smiled again. “No worries, it’s just a shirt.”
She closed her eyes. Sleep claimed her again in seconds. Weaker; she was growing weaker all the time. How long did she have? Days now, the doctors had told him — had told him six weeks ago. What did they know?
Using his free hand he pried each of her cool fingers from his own. He went to the bathroom of her room and investigated the stain on his shirt. His eyes darted to his face, to his hair and the traces of grey that were becoming more apparent every day. He removed the soiled garment and retrieved another from the bag he had brought with him. It happened so often now that he had started bringing a spare. From the bag he also produced a small bottle of cologne. This he applied it to his neck and wrists before returning it to the bag.
Then he made for the outer door to the room. A slight ache was starting at the back of his skull. He could feel a bump forming there. A small sigh passed his dry lips. He licked them, already imagining the whiskey there. She would be out for hours. What could he do here? He had time.
Daniel slipped his wedding band from his finger and placed it in his pocket.
He took one final glance at Beth as he placed his hand on the door handle. Ten years…, he thought as he left. What have I become?
Beth pulled another cigarette from the pack. She knocked it against the surface of the table a few times and put it to her lips. With practised ease she brought up the lighter and lit it, sucking in as she did so. The paper caught and crackled. Smoke erupted through red embers. “Ahhhhh…” She exhaled thick strands of smoke.
Where the fuck is he? she thought. She had only known Daniel a few weeks. But he was the one. She knew it, and she would make him see it too. He said he’d be here at eight.
The ashtray held two more butts before a knock came at her apartment door. About fucking time, she thought.
Rising she went to the door. She flicked the deadbolt open and then glanced through the peephole. Satisfied, she slid the chain out of the slider and opened the door.
“Where were you?” she asked, even before the door was closed.
“Ah, what?” he asked, startled.
“You said you’d be here at eight, that was half an hour ago.”
“Half an hour?” He paused, surprised at her reaction. “Geez by, traffic was bad. Relax.”
She bit her lip. Relax? But she said, “We’ll be late for the show.”
“It’s not until 10; we have plenty of time.”
“Not if we want good seats.”
“The movie opened last week for God’s sake! We have lots of time.”
“I just wish you’d be more considerate.”
“Considerate? Holy fuck! It was half an hour, Beth, half a bloody hour!” He turned back to the door, hand on the handle. But he didn’t make any motion to turn it. “Perhaps you’d rather find someone who’ll synchronize their watch with yours.”
She was startled, she hadn’t expected this reaction. “Please, don’t go baby.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. It was a strong shoulder too, she knew. Already, many times, she had dug her nails into those shoulders. Had raked them down his muscled back, while he made her fly.
He turned back to her. “Alright, just cut the shit, okay? I got here as fast as I could.”
One corner of her lips rose into a mischievous smirk. “I have an idea.” She had to get him to forget her reaction to his arrival, had to show him that she was his, all his. “Fuck the movie.” She thrust forward and kissed him, pushing her tongue deep into his mouth, rolling it around his. With all her weight she knocked him back against the door. Her hands worked over his chest and back, rubbing, squeezing. Finally, they found his belt and the zipper of his pants. With a metallic rip it came down and seconds later the rest of his pants followed it.
Daniel felt cold hands on him, but only briefly before being enveloped in warmth. Beth was on her knees. He swallowed, lost in the sensations. All mine, she thought, tonight and always.
The morning sun warmed Daniel’s face. He raised a hand to block its heat. The smell of weed, booze, sweat and… something else… filled his nose as he inhaled. He opened his eyes. Even with the brightness of the direct sunlight blocked by his palm a jolt of pain went through his head. It throbbed. Fighting the queasiness it caused he opened his eyes again. He surveyed the room.
It helped place the smell he could not before — run-down motel. His stomach lurched. What the fuck have I done this time? he thought. As if in answer a slender female hand reached across his chest. He jerked back and looked toward the owner.
On his right — and how he didn’t realize right away he had no idea — lay a young blond woman, twenty-something. And behind her was another woman, this one Asian and roughly the same age. Seeing them jogged his memory. With the pain in his head starting to subside, he remembered.
What a night it had been.
After he left the hospital he had found his way to this motel and paid for a room for the night. Then he had proceeded to the nearest, seediest bar he could find. He looked for an easy woman who would fuck to cover her bar tab. Apparently, she had had a friend.
He rubbed his hands roughly down his face, trying to wipe the remnants of sleep and sweat from it. I have to get to the hospital, he thought. He slipped from the bed, trying not to wake the women. He hoped he wouldn’t have to speak to them. His feet hit the floor and he stood, shakily. Several used condoms lay strewn about. Thank God. At least I’m not that dumb. Not yet at least.
The deep orange and brown of the room did nothing to help Daniel’s mood. He dressed, being as silent and quick as possible. He wanted to escape, get away from these demons he had created. Why did he keep doing it? He had no idea, other than that it was not completely his fault. Beth had a hand in it, he had no doubt about that.
Fuck. Something had occurred to him.
At the window he looked through a sun filled gap in the heavy drapes. It was enough to gaze at the parking lot. He found what he expected almost immediately: Jerry.
The man stood next to Daniel’s car, resting his weight against the driver side front door. Every fucking time. Oh well. Daniel had anticipated this and stopped at an ATM before he went to the bar.
He pulled on his coat and did a final check of his belongings — wallet, keys, watch. Yes, nothing was stolen. You could not trust, or at least should not, women who will have sex for booze. He glanced toward the bed one more time before he left. The naked, half-covered forms there exuded the vibrant vigour of youth. As he placed his hand on the doorknob something occurred to him. This scene was a mirror image to the one the night before, in Beth’s hospital room. Her, ill, begging him to stay. These women, overflowing with life, not caring if he was there when they awoke.
It’s not all my fault, it’s not, he thought and left the room.
Jerry was finishing a cigarette when Daniel approached his car. A pile of discarded butts lay on the ground, some still issuing tendrils of smoke. Jerry had been waiting a while.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Daniel said.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
Jerry blocked the car door with his slight, but muscular, bulk. In the man’s line of work he had to be in good shape.
“Don’t suppose you could move?”
“Of course… with some incentive.” Jerry smiled, teeth showing. He took one final drag on the smoke and discarded that one too.
“Yeah, yeah, normal routine, right?”
Jerry blew a cloud from his nose and then inhaled through his mouth before responding. “Hey, I could just run to your wife and tell her what I’ve seen.”
“You know better than that. We have a deal.”
“I also have a deal with her.”
“I pay better.”
“Yes, you do.” That smile again.
Daniel retrieved his wallet and started thumbing through the bill clip. He had to fight back a sigh.
“Ordered Chinese last night? With a side of blond? Nice.”
“Fuck, man, get a life.” Daniel pulled out the usual amount from his wallet.
Jerry took the bills, started to count, then paused and looked at Daniel. “Well, thanks to you and your wife I can.” He laughed so hard he started to cough. It rattled in his chest. Daniel wondered what was so funny. “You may fuck these girls, but I’m raping you!” He laughed again.
“Yes, hilarious.” Daniel wanted to be gone from there. “I’m sure everything is in order,” he nodded, indicating the bills in Jerry’s hand.
“Yeah, we’re good.” Jerry moved away from the car door. Daniel opened it and started to get inside.
“I suppose these little transactions will be stopping soon.”
Daniel’s eyes narrowed and his jaw grew tight. “You don’t want to say anything else.”
“Hey, man, just saying. You’ll be off the hook soon.” Daniel’s hand shot out and grabbed Jerry’s sport-coat lapel. “Hey, hey, take it easy. I’ll leave it alone.”
“That’s right, you will.” Daniel released him, got in the car and shut the door.
He pulled out of the parking lot, saw Jerry fixing his shirt and coat, that I-own-your-ass smile still on his face.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Daniel asked. He pulled the car around a corner, checking the street name to make sure it was correct.
“Yeah, why not?” Beth asked.
“Well, I don’t know.” He pushed his hand through his hair, something he had done when he was nervous ever since he had been a child.
“You don’t want to?”
“I didn’t say that. It’s just I’ve never even thought about doing this before, not really. I mean I suppose everyone has at some time or other. But never thinking it would ever happen.”
She sighed. “Well now it will, and it’ll be good. I think it’s exciting.”
“Uh-huh.” He turned onto another street. The streetlight was dark on the corner and he couldn’t read the sign. He hoped they would get lost. Then he wouldn’t have to go through with this.
She punched his arm. “C’mon, a lot of girlfriends wouldn’t let you do this.”
It was his turn to sigh. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“Are we almost there?”
“Yeah, just another couple of streets.”
“Good. I can’t wait.”
“Uh-huh.” Beads of sweat were running down the back of his neck. For the past three years he had done his best to make her happy. And now he would do this too.
Sure, things hadn’t been great between them for the last while. But he didn’t know if this was the solution. Then again, he didn’t know it wasn’t either. He had to admit that the idea of a threesome was kind of exciting; he just wouldn’t have proposed the idea himself.
She was all he wanted. Apparently, she didn’t feel the same way. But he loved her and didn’t want to lose what they had built.
He took the final turn and pulled up to the curb below a stone apartment building. Daniel glanced at Beth’s left hand, where the engagement ring lay. Only… it wasn’t there. She had taken it off.
“Ummm, where’s your ring?” He asked.
“Hmmm?” She asked, distracted. “Oh, I left it home, figured, you know, it wasn’t appropriate, considering.”
“Right.” He opened the car door and entered his future.
“You’re a fucking bastard!” Beth yelled.
“Me? You started all of this!”
“What, I told you to go sleep with that, that hooker?”
“She wasn’t a hooker.”
“So, that makes it all okay?”
“Well, you didn’t seem to mind so much when that guy had you at that party last week!”
Daniel let himself fall into the chair in the living room of their apartment. He wishes the cushions would swallow him.
She eyed him from the opposite side of the room. “You were at that party too. Brunette with perky tits if I remember.”
“Fuck, I wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t wanted to go.”
“Yeah, right. Okay, so if that’s the case,” she was going to try logic now, “why did you go out behind my back and screw this non-hooker?”
She walked across the room and stood before the chair where Daniel sat, glaring down at him. He lay his head in his hands and sighed.
“I don’t know.”
“I just can’t stop. I need help. It’s… I don’t know, I crave it. You didn’t want to, you weren’t feeling well. And well, we fuck other people all the time. It’s just that you weren’t there.”
She sat on the couch, parallel to the chair where he sat. “You could’ve asked me.”
“So, it would’ve been okay then?” He looked up.
“No! Jesus, you have no clue.” She got up and stormed down the hallway, grabbing her coat. “Why the fuck did I ever marry you?!”
The door slammed against the frame and bounced open again from the force of her exit. Daniel rose, crossed the room and shut it.
Where is she going to go? No, who is she going to go to?
He forced another sigh through the weight in his chest.
Beth was awake when he entered the hospital room.
Good, he would tell her everything, get it out there. At least that was what Daniel had decided on his trip from their house. He had gone home from the motel, showered and pondered things for a while before coming here. The pondering had led him to the only logical conclusion: tell her. He loved her. She was dying. She deserved to know.
But now he was here, confronted with the task. It had seemed so much easier when the hot water was washing his sins down the drain of their bathtub. Does she really need to know? he thought. She was sick, it wouldn’t help her condition. Perhaps it was best if she went without ever knowing.
“So, you’re back.” She was staring out the window and didn’t look at him when she asked the question.
“Hey, baby, yeah, I wanted to let you rest.”
“I think I’m soon going to get lots of rest.”
“C’mon, don’t talk like that.”
“Well, I am dying. It’s not like this cancer is going away. Besides, my body is too far gone anyway.” She coughed, harsh, dry.
Daniel retrieved a glass of water from the nightstand and put it to her lips. She drank, small sips, letting the cool liquid coat her torn throat.
“Thanks.” She looked up at him. “I do love you, you know?”
The surprise he felt must have been written on his face.
“That shocks you?” she asked.
“What? No, of course not. I… did you think I didn’t know that?”
“No, I suppose I knew. But sometimes you, people I mean, wonder. I know I can be hard to get along with, demanding.”
He sat next to her, took her cool — too cool — fingers in his hand.
“You’re warm,” she said.
“And you’re beautiful.” And she was. Even pale and skinny she was magnificent. “I love you too.”
“I know. It’s just…”
“Why do we hurt each other so much? If we love each other, I mean.”
He swallowed. “I’m not sure I follow?”
“I know, Daniel.”
“About them, all of them.” He started to shake his head; she looked him in the eye. “Don’t deny it.” Tears were running down her cheeks.
“Jerry told me everything.” Daniel had to bite his lip. That Bastard. “I think it’s partly my fault.”
“No, I have a problem. I know it.”
“Well, yeah, I can’t argue with that. But…” She hesitated.
“Yes, what is it?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“Two years ago, right before I found out I was sick. You…,” she swallowed, “fucked that woman, that one you worked with.”
He hung his head. Daniel wanted to apologize again, wanted to say it had meant nothing. Because, truly, none of them did, it was just physical. Pure and simple. He knew that didn’t help, but it was the truth of it. “Yes, we both know this.”
“Well, after we fought, and I left the apartment that night I… I went to a bar.” He said nothing, knew what was coming, but he didn’t know how bad it would be. But did the number of men involved mean anything; was two or ten any worse than one? She continued, “I let them have me.”
He still had to know. “How many?”
“Holy shit.” He stood and started pacing the room.
“You’re going to judge me?”
“No, I suppose I can’t.” He walked back and forth for a minute in silence. His hands wanted to move, his mouth wanted to speak but he didn’t know what to do with his hands or what words to say. Finally, “It’s all out there then I suppose.”
“Yes. I didn’t want to… go, not without telling you everything.” She held up her left hand. “I’m still wearing them, you know.”
The engagement ring and wedding band caught the light as she moved her hand.
He smiled. “You are my wife.”
“And you’re my husband. No matter what.”
“Why do we hurt each other so?” He returned to the bed, taking her hand in his once more.
“I guess, yeah.”
“Are we just animals you mean?”
“No, that’s not… yeah, I guess that is what I mean. I love you, I would do anything for you.”
“I know. Me too. But perhaps it’s what we share.”
“What?” He asked, unsure what she meant.
“The pain. It’s a circle. You hurt me, I hurt you. We come together.”
“That doesn’t sound healthy.”
“No, but it’s what we have.” She clenched his hand tight, as tight as her weakness would allow. “Will you stay with me?”
Daniel was an animal. His desires, instincts overpowered him at times. Perhaps they always would. But he was also a man, a human being. He could reason. The animal part might not understand reason, but it would obey nonetheless.
“Yes. Always.” And he meant it this time.