I asked her to let me set up the back room for her --the back room where I used to live and where I still had my old bed. That took me far longer than I intended.
She sat in the actual office, still in Stephanie’s chair. But she had wheeled herself over to the door and watched me from just over the threshold between the office and the back room --watching me and talking to me as I stacked up shipping cartons full of plumbing parts and office supplies to make room on the floor. We talked and joked and all the while I fumbled with boxes, making a fool of myself as she laughed and joked back. I eventually achieved a large enough space on the floor and proceeded to tug at the bare mattress that set wedged in an upright position behind a storage shelf. I maneuvered it into the middle of the cleared off floor then took out the one set of sheets that remained there in the office all those months. Still talking and joking, I made up the bed. Finally I was satisfied and I went back into the office to her. I helped her stand from the chair and walked her into the back room/bedroom with me.
I won’t get into the full details concerning how we managed everything. But the most difficult part was just plain getting her clothes off. It was slow delicate work. She told me she had temporarily hired a private duty nurse to stay at home with her for the next three weeks who --among other things-- helped her get dressed each morning because she was unable to do it on her own. “I wanted to wear a shift dress today,” she explained, “because it was the best choice in an outfit that can simultaneously hide the rib brace and not interfere with its function.” And thus I achieved my accidental education on what a shift dress even is.
But a shift dress --as I further learned that day-- is also a slightly tight dress with a zipper running all the way down the spine. It was too tight around her legs to merely lift it up, so it had to come completely off and that was a major undertaking, constantly interrupted by the tiniest of gasps and wincings from her. After I finally managed to slide it down to her ankles, I found she wore a very short yet form-fitted slip underneath, and under the slip I could feel the velcro straps of her rib brace. I briefly surveyed the slip, ornamented with lace and other embellishments. Then I looked back to her face and awaited her next decision on the disrobing process.
“I find the rib brace very ugly,” she whispered while shaking her head, “and I made the mistake of telling myself while I watched you set up the bed that I could deal with the pain of not wearing it. And so I told myself I would have you take the brace off of me along with everything else, and I was even willing to do that in spite of the bruises I still have. But I can already tell I’m not going to be able to tolerate the pain from it coming off. So is it okay if we also leave the slip on just to cover up the stupid brace?”
“Oh god, yes! Of course it’s okay!” I laughed. “You’re beautiful! I wouldn’t begrudge you the wearing of a slip!”
Part of me was disappointed as I recalled the beach photo of her with my former captain: the one-piece bathing suit she wore in the photograph so tantalizingly hinted at a very nice body underneath. So now that I had her with me, live and in person, and gleefully saying to me the one blessed word of “yes,” it seemed so unfair for fate to yet again deny me a full glimpse of her bare body. But I would never force such a thing from her, so I resigned myself to forego the privilege of that image.
We made attempts at a lot of different approaches, positions, strategies, and ultimately it came down to her lying completely still and my not being too aggressive. Slow and steady wasn’t terribly difficult for me. My only challenge was not touching her rib cage in any way. MK had always liked --when I finished, and only when we engaged the classic standby of the Missionary Position-- for me to simply remain on top of her. Unless it was an unbearably hot night I never complained about that because sinking down in utter relaxation upon MK’s beautiful breasts and even falling asleep there was an extra treat I always enjoyed. I at first questioned MK about that preference of hers very early in our relationship, asking her how she could possibly even breathe with the dead weight of a two-hundred pound man crushing down upon her lungs for several hours of sleep. MK replied that when God made Woman he engineered her so she could breathe while a giant baby kicked at her lungs from underneath her diaphragm for several months, and therefore he simultaneously engineered her so she could likewise breathe while a giant man slept atop her rib cage for several hours. But there would be no touching at all of Catherine’s upper body, and certainly there would be no falling asleep upon her breasts.
When we finished, the next (and usually unspoken) question for all first-time lovers of “which side of the bed do you prefer” didn’t even have to be wordlessly figured out or negotiated. Since it was impossible for Catherine to lie on her right side, I had to take the left --the same side I took when I helped her rise from the table at Hal’s, the same side I took when I walked her to the park, the same side I took when we leaned against each other on the bench, and the same side I took when sat together in the limo. After I settled down on Catherine’s left I found myself feeling quite grateful for that twist of fate because for MK and I, the left-side/right-side question had always been the reverse arrangement. Achieving as much divergence as possible from most MK-isms --no mater how trivial-- made me immensely happy.
During our quiet “after-time,” we lay there side by side, she on her back and me on my side and leaning toward her. My initial attempt to wrap my right arm underneath her shoulders wasn’t at all comfortable for her, so I settled for resting the full length of my bent-at-the-elbow arm completely flat on the mattress in a way that merely framed the top of her head. I kept my left hand on her left shoulder while she clasped it with her own left hand. I wanted just once to hug her tightly against me, but that was impossible. I settled for stroking her shoulder endlessly.
Lying there we remained awake, sometimes whispering, sometimes giggling, sometimes saying nothing at all and just listening to each other’s breathing. During one such period of silent and eyes-shut listening, she started shivering and I opened my eyes in concern.
“Are you cold?” I asked as I saw the goose bumps rising on her otherwise smooth and flawless skin.
“The A/C is too high,” she whispered, and I immediately rolled leftward completely off the mattress in an effort to avoid jostling her around. I jogged into the next room and clicked off the trailer-wide air conditioning.
Before going back to her I grabbed the letterman jacket I had unwrapped earlier. I returned to the rear room where she still lay and I covered her with it.
“Thank you,” she whispered, much as she had a week earlier when I found her on the floor of the elevator car and likewise covered her with the same jacket.
I kissed her forehead, then I excused myself and used the bathroom. After that I lay down beside her again and closed my eyes, my hand on her shoulder as before.
A long while of blissful silence passed, then she whispered: “What time is it?”
I opened my eyes again and glanced at the clock. “Quarter to five,” I whispered back.
She opened her own eyes and sighed. “It’s very hard for me to stand up. But I have to stand up. Can you help me with that? Then I can get dressed and go.”
The sadness that arose in me caused actual pain in my stomach, like a relentless squeezing of my guts. I felt tears rising in my eyes.
“Can’t you stay any longer?” I whispered. “We could go to dinner --my treat.”
“Are you taking back your good-bye?” she asked.
I hesitated and looked away.
“No,” I finally said, shaking my head at the wall.
“Then I have to go. And it’s better if we remember each other in happiness and not in conflict. This was only supposed to be a long good-bye, not an interminable one.”
I helped her up, again with much care and attention. She asked to use the bathroom. As she used it I remained out beside the mattress and started to get dressed. It took her a while in the bathroom so I actually finished dressing before she emerged. Then her own clothes all needed to go back on.
I had to help MK get dressed a few times when she was in her final weeks of being pregnant with Jason. That experience proved quite the education in some of the more obscure factoids not only concerning women’s clothing, but even their bodies. Taking a woman’s clothes off of her body doesn’t require as much knowledge as putting them on. So now with Catherine I had my first opportunity to help an unpregnant woman get dressed. And much to my surprise I again got schooled in women’s clothing and anatomies --and I thought I knew it all.
After I zipped up the back of her dress for her I watched her slide her shoes --emerald green shoes-- onto her feet. Then we went back into the office and I pulled two non-rolling chairs up to the window overlooking the ugly spectacle of my shop yard. I helped her sit in one chair then seated myself in the other. Together we waited for when her driver would pull in. After a few moments she asked for something to drink, so I went to the office fridge and retrieved a pair of juice boxes and some lunch-pack portions of crackers with peanut butter.
“Not very gourmet,” I confessed, “but munchable.”
“No it’s great. I make these at home all the time,” she smiled while devouring her share.
“You eat crackers and peanut butter?” I asked.
“Doesn’t everybody?” she shrugged.
I laughed and imagined the impossibly middle-class spectacle of her spreading peanut butter on crackers while standing in that undeniably upper-class kitchen in Glicksville. I also imagined Misty watching her nearby. When we were done eating, she timidly held out her left hand to me. I smiled and took it with no hesitation. The thumb stroking began as before.
Sitting there together, holding hands, talking and fully clothed again, made me want to change my mind and take back my good-bye. There is a special bond of knowingness that arises between two people during that initial hour right after their very first time in bed together. It’s subtle but unavoidable. It covertly springs to life during the act of lovemaking, manifesting itself during that quiet time of togetherness after the fact. And at no point is the potency of that knowingness more evident than after the clothes go back on and the couple both return to being “civilized” again --in spite of the irretrievable knowledge they now each have of the other’s body. Clothes might as well be optional at that point. So our sitting in those civilized chairs with our civilized clothes was almost like a game of pretend. But we --as does every other couple in the world-- looked past the ludicrous uselessness of the clothes, and got dressed anyway and sat side by side with the same poise and dignity as we might display while sitting and waiting for a flight in a public airline terminal. As for the chairs, those two office chairs looking out on my crummy shop yard might just as well have been two hotel balcony chairs looking out across a beach, or two porch chairs looking out upon a garden. Our bond of knowingness was very much alive --even the left-side/right-side preferences were firmly in place at that point. We were at each other’s sides now, holding hands, stroking thumbs, and it felt absolutely natural and just plain right. Maybe we could remain at each other’s sides --for years, for decades, experiencing life together and repeatedly sitting down side by side in whatever two chairs presented themselves in each new setting. To hell with Doctor Tuxedo, and to hell with Catherine’s doomsday speechmaking. Maybe. Just maybe.
But then I paused in my yearnings and glanced across the room to my desk. I took in a long eyeful of Jason’s photo and sighed.
By five-twenty the limo pulled up.
“He’s early,” I mumbled, not moving from my chair.
“It’s his job to be early,” she said, also not moving. “But I don’t have to be out there until five-thirty. So we have ten minutes. And truthfully, etiquette allows me to be five minutes late, but no more than five.”
I turned my chair toward her, leaned forward to her and set my hands upon her knees. Then I bowed my head down sideways onto her lap. She stroked my hair.
“I’m sorry it has to end,” I said.
“At least it can end on a nice note,” she said, still stroking my hair.
“It barely even began,” I sulked.
She took a long pause before her next statement:
“I was taught a long time ago never to question someone else’s family conflicts. I don’t need to know the terrible details of what it is you can’t tell me. But your family is your family, and your son is your son. And regardless of the details of why you can’t see me, I’m glad you were honest with me about the final upshot of it all. But if you had chosen to play both ends against the middle and strung me along for months and kept me hidden away as some shameful secret, I never would have forgiven you. So I say this sort of an ending is far preferable.”
She continued to stroke my hair. Meanwhile I didn’t want to think anymore about the reasons behind saying good-bye to her, so I changed the subject.
“How are you going to take care of that place all by yourself?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I have other names on the list my husband left me. But you were the closest plumber, geographically speaking.”
“Who else is there?” I asked. “Any plumbers I might know?”
“The next-nearest plumber on the list is in Tennessee.”
“I don’t know anyone in Tennessee,” I laughed. “What about the rest of the facility? The elevators alone require very specialized attention.”
“I’ll work it out.”
“Did you ever find that missing elevator key?” I asked.
“I have another key in my husband’s study,” she said.
I suddenly remembered the freight elevator and the dog tags that operated it. I lifted my head from her lap.
“The dog tags,” I said. “I still have them.”
I jumped up and ran to my leather jacket which I had tossed aside onto the fax desk. I searched the pockets of the jacket and retrieved the dog tags. I turned and walked back to her with them dangling from my outstretched hand.
“Here. I’m sure you want them back.”
I stood in front of her, awaiting her response. She looked at them with a near-revulsion as they swung from my fingers. I assumed my returning them to her would make her happy. Instead I saw an entirely new kind of sadness befall her face. After she waited, staring at them for a particularly long and awkward moment, she eventually took them and placed them around her neck. They weren’t emeralds, but they still looked great on her --in my mind anything would have looked great on her.
“Thank you,” she mumbled to the floor. Her clutching hand gripped the tags at the end of the chain with such a fierce tension I feared she’d snap the chain right off her neck.
I decided I needed to help end this whole dog tag moment and move things along.
“Can I walk you to the car?” I asked while holding out my open hand. I almost phrased that question with a different wording --I almost asked her if I could walk her “to the limo” but I switched my word choice at the last second because I sensed she disliked the word “limo” and preferred the more vague word “car” instead. I later learned the word “car” is used by the rich as a deliberate understatement to water down those portions of a conversation that might otherwise sound like staged bragging.
She suspended her sadness and downgraded to a somberness. Then she released her grip on the dog tags and took my hand. I helped her to stand. Together we walked out the door, down the steps, and to the waiting limousine. The driver jumped out and opened the door for her. I helped her in and this time I didn’t join her. I lingered in the open car door, the driver waiting with the most admirable measure of patience for me to leave.
“I truly wish I could see you again,” I shook my head.
“I think wishing has a proper place in life, Mr. Walczak,” she nodded. “And so does resignation.”
She reached for her purse and cracked it open. In it I saw two identical, very fine looking cotton stationery envelopes with handwriting on them. She pulled out one and held it out for me to take. It was addressed to “Mr. Walczak.” As I extended my hand to take it I caught a fleeting glimpse of the other envelope that remained in her still-open purse. It was addressed to “Peter.”
“Your bonus,” she whispered. I nodded and accepted from her hand the first envelope. I rotated it in my grasp, getting ready to open it, but she held up her hand in a motion for me to stop. I froze and waited for her.
“Please wait until I’ve gone,” she said.
I nodded and slipped it into my back pocket.
We said our final good-byes without any farewell kisses or other gestures of intimacy. I nodded, backed out of the open car door, finally allowing Larry to shut it for her.
As the limo drove off I stood there in painful emptiness, regretting having listened in on Mrs. Valera’s phone call.
-------------------End of Chapter 33--------------------