Lately he had become very afraid of his wife.
But he shouldn't have been; that wasn't right. She was devoted to him, really—kept all the cooking salt- and fat- and sugar-free, had given up alcohol to keep him company, made sure he didn't miss a single doctor's appointment... She kept life regular and pleasant. And she'd stood by him through a lot—the slipped disk, the arthritis, the weakening eyesight, the rising blood pressure, the unsteady heart... she made sacrifices he hadn't expected from a young woman.
"I'm falling apart," he muttered.
"Aren't we all?" retorted Dr. Robillard, smiling. "I'm going to give you something new for the heart, Will—let's just keep an eye on it. Otherwise you're fine. Remarkable shape for your age," he added, in a tone that made Will worry to the contrary.
He worried more now than he ever had at fifty. At fifty—sixty, even—he had felt deceptively strong, like some kind of extremely late bloomer: twenty-some-odd years in AA, seven years now on an unimpeachable diet, regular hours around the track at the gym—only the occasional cigar, and Claire got upset enough over those.
And Claire ... she was his fourth wife. (Fourth? God, he had never dreamed he would lose count. It must be the memory going.) In the last few years he had become very watchful of his health. Self-conscious about it, almost. At first he'd pulled her in without thinking about it, made her part and parcel of his life without a qualm, but now, as he felt himself weakening physically, ready to pass seventy, he began to feel that he owed her something, that he had wronged her somehow.
She was out in the garden when he came home late that aftemoon—God, did she look pretty out there, kneeling in the carnival of azaleas in denim cutoffs and an old threadbare plaid shirt of his, stripes of honey gleaming in her ponytail. Hearing the back door creak and crash open-shut she looked up, gleamingly quick, resting back on her haunches. Dirty-gloved hands hung off her knees.
"Clean bill of health?" she called.
On the deck he nodded and rattled his newly-filled vial of pills: "New addition to the pharmacy."
The sky of her face seemed to cloud. "I hope everything's okay—"
"Will be if I take them."
She rose from the azalea bank with a decisive launch of her hips, like a flower springing up from nowhere—like Picasso's Françoise Gilot sketches, lithe stick-figure daisies that unfurled up the paper as if to open mouths and sing, smiles with petal haloes. She had a Françoise reprint he'd bought her at the Picasso exhibit in Atlanta (God! Think how long ago—twelve years ago at least) before they were married. She still had the ticket stubs, even—the napkins from the High Museum restaurant, the Picasso at the Lapin Agile play programs, the Girl Before a Mirror notecards she'd bought without the heart to use...
She was on the deck in front of him, cocking her head—"Are you there?"
Shake it off, Will. "I'm here, here. Little dazed from the drive—all that sun, you know?"
He'd gotten to know her, a friend of a friend's daughter, in drives in Big Blue with the top down, wheedling her to skip class—he was incorrigible, a joyrider, a wanderer. They'd driven to Atlanta, or to Tuscaloosa and UAB and Montevallo for readings and plays and anything, anything to get her out there alone. Before that (before she was born, even), he'd driven across the state of Arizona on a whim, spent hours on Highway One in California, wandered down the eastern seaboard from Martha's Vineyard to Dixie—the car was his medium, and it was hard to imagine driving would ever be too much for him.
(He had just been covering for his spaciness, but now he really started to wonder if his age would ever prevent him from driving.)
She laughed and shook her head, tossing her soiled gloves to the patio table; her arms wound around his neck to kiss him resolutely on the lips. "I finished my chapter," she announced.
"I haven't started dinner yet, so whatever you feel like..."
"I don't know myself..."
"Well, we'll think about it then." She seemed unusually ... he wasn't sure. She was always pleasant, always sweet—sometimes cranky, but even that she played for laughs. Today she seemed—light. Clear. Profoundly unburdened. Very attentive. The wind kicked up, idly ruffling the chimes by the kitchen window—the pendant crystals among them, the kaleidoscopic play of late sunlight on her face like kisses...
He was in the kitchen without remembering how he got there. Claire's family was vaguely northern Italian at its roots—Alpine blonds, reported her Aunt Kate the amateur genealogist; to tease Claire sometimes, he would call her "Swiss Miss"—and her father was a chef. She cooked in the flavor palate she'd grown up with—not the Southern meat-and-three, but three generations' marinara recipes, olive oil everywhere, homemade pasta from a machine her father'd given her for Christmas—and Dr. Robillard approved.
He was also learning, here and there, to cook. He'd always cooked for himself before; even in his previous marriages he was a wanderer, and often lived in separation. (He'd taken Claire home in the early days and made her sandwiches for dinner, and damn if he didn't make the best sandwiches around, if he did say so himself.) But what with cutting down his hours at the company and Claire just settling into a career, well—he liked to be able to cook for her. He liked to impress her. So he helped her cook at night with an eye to learn the dish himself, and it was nice to spend that time with her.
The late July sun was winking on her through the windows, splashing her like the tapwater over her hands in the sink—every time he looked at her everything around her was at play. How had he not noticed it in so long? She had an ordinary face; a small, ordinary form—nonetheless something nameless sparkled there, brilliant today. She was obviously having a grand day—probably because of the finished chapter, come to think of it. She was always a doll after she'd finished a chapter.
But he—he felt weirdly mellow under her spark. Passive. Claire let him cut greens for the salad, grilling him on the doctor's precise words, but he was a reticent schoolboy:
What did you do in class today?
What did he say about your EKG? Was it good?
It was all right.
"All right," or "good-all right"?
Shrug: All right.
And she shook her head again with that laugh, that strange motherly indulgence. Sometimes he did feel like a little boy next to her, now that she'd "grown up" and come into herself, her "own," as they said.
After dinner he had her spoon before him on the couch, a position that made him feel that she was smaller, under the afghan to watch TV. TV was a regular habit, like a hearth fire to ignore or warm their hands by as they wished, but always to have that friendly glow cast on the room. His eyes ached, for some reason, and he turned the lamp off. She snuggled into his open shoulder (his arm curled around her, under her breasts and back over, his hand on her side) and he found himself fixating on her hair again in the flickering dark.. It did smell like flowers, her hair. Different. She must have changed her shampoo. He spent most of a sitcom debating whether that elusive scent was strawberry or jasmine.
He wasn't paying attention to the programs. She flipped around and found one of her true-story shows with writerly zeal—48 Hours, 20/20, Dateline NBC, Behind the Music—he couldn't tell them apart. He thought it was the latter, unless it was The E! True Hollywood Story; they were doing Elvis. A "noted physician" said that Elvis, slumped off his toilet and drugged to the gills, had died of "polypharmacy," and the word reverberated endlessly in Will's head. Elvis had just had so many damn drugs—appetite suppressants in his elephantine days, downers to sleep, uppers to shake the sandbags off, probably a dozen things to help the ensuing strain on his heart, and then just the plain ol' good-time drugs—that they'd all conspired to kill him in their sheer confusion. (No ... profusion? Which was the word? Probably both ... )
It made him think of the last thing Robillard had said:
"And Will—go easy on the Venerex."
Viagra, of course, was out of the question with his heart problems—as it was for most people now, except for the kids who liked to get high on it and screw around. Viagra was passé; they had come up with Venerex a few years ago, answering the demand for a drug that wouldn't give you a heart attack. (Those were easy enough to come by during sex; if you were old enough to need Viagra out of natural decline, you were old enough for sex to kill you anyway, in Will's opinion.) He didn't even use Venerex that much—wasn't dependent on it, he was proud to say—but when you have a young wife, you like to have a back-up plan. He felt that he owed it to her.
He didn't know why Robillard had said that about the Venerex—he didn't think that it worsened a heart condition like Viagra could. Surely Robillard would have said as much; he was probably just joking. He was probably just teasing him—Robillard himself was nearing sixty; it was probably a joke between two aging men. But there'd always been stories—anecdotes, urban legends, plot points in movies—involving men who dropped dead of heart attacks in medias res. Usually it involved adultery but it didn't have to—he remembered, a few years back, hearing how Bob McCullough had expired in bed with his own wife, and all his friends had shaken their heads: "What a way to go."
Maybe it was just the whole concept of polypharmacy—excellent word!—that Robillard was warning him about. After all, Robillard was responsible for the majority of his medications. That was partly why Will's mind drifted off to his "pharmacy" while Claire watched Elvis' Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall with rapt attention: at ten they would close up shop and begin the nightly ritual. He had long ago kissed spontaneity goodbye for the regularity of good health, and Claire was good enough to thrive on routine herself, or at least pretend that she did.
An entire dresser top was given over to the pharmacy, the amber-plastic bottles laid out like cosmetics on a woman's vanity. They each had separate medication schedules that converged at night for final doses: The special-formula vitamins, his and hers; the zinc, the echinacea, the vitamin C to ward off seasonal illness; calcium for both of them; pills for his heart, his blood pressure, his arthritis; drops for his eyes; iron for her anemic tendencies, antibiotics for her problem complexion (daisy-clear with vigilance), antidepressants for her chronic melancholy, Wellbutrin for her inattention, Ambien to pull her back down and help her sleep... And her oral contraceptive in particular: he was old but not dead, as he liked to say ... and she also had some bothersome polycystic something or other that the Pill kept in line.
Looking over it all he had to laugh: We are well-matched, he thought wryly. Made for each other.
Still, he envied her sometimes. To hear her medication roll call you'd think she was a terribly unstable person, and she wasn't at all. Most of the meds she'd collected in college and had been steadily adjusting them for well nigh on ten years now. Modern medicine was amazingly adept at feeling out your frailties and compensating for them. You'd never guess Claire had any of the problems she was dosed for ("But you're not depressed!" "Exactly") precisely because of those doses. God knew that he didn't dare miss his own ... but in his case he just felt that he was staving off inevitable decreptitude. Diminishing returns ... lions at the door ... (or was it "wolves"...?)
Claire did work well with routine, it turned out. (Well, routine was the first thing they prescribed for the easily depressed and despondent.) She was, however, a notoriously troubled sleeper, and had to adhere to a fairly strict regimen of eating, rising, and sleeping lest her insomnia act up or her blood sugar go down (she was hypoglycemic, too). To lend credence to working at home, she'd trained herself to get up in the momings like clockwork, the clitter-clatter of the keyboard in her little study furious no later than nine in the morning. The Doran kid at the office had snarked that Will wouldn't be able to "keep up with a young thing like Claire," but he had been, at first, almost too rough-and-ready for her. (And Doran was a jealous asshole.) Nevermind. They were even now.
(Sometimes he felt too sedate. Sometimes he felt like a child, forced to swallow pills and eat and nap when he was told to, and not make too much noise and be careful or he'd hurt himself ... )
She slid beside him, behind him, on her side of the bed (had he meant to turn his back to her? He didn't think so) and nestled up silkily against his back. They lay there very quietly for a while, and he was so engrossed in thoughts of her that he only gradually noticed that she was kissing the nape of his neck, her arm curled over his side so that her fingers could strum his chest... He glanced back at her and she kissed him full on the mouth, coaxing him down onto his back, and one thin cobalt-blue strap fell tantalizingly off her shoulder...
"Let's not, just now," he stammered, mouth dry, and touched her cheek apologetically.
"Nothing's wrong, I'm just—he said there'd be some side effects at first, you know, they'll wear off and finally the benefits will kick in—"
She nodded sagely: "Like my Zoloft. You have to feel all flushed and headachy and 'held down' and you don't even get to feel better at first. Well, that's fine then, if that's all it is." She kissed him again, sportingly. He rubbed her back, eventually consenting to "fool around" a bit; he stopped before that became a problem and made her lie back so he could rub her stomach, something her mother had done when she was a child and sick; it always put her to sleep.
Once she had safely turned away into her own cocoon of sleep, he tried to follow her and could not. A little after midnight he got up—gingerly—to walk around the moonblued house. He could get by on five or six hours a night and still be up before Claire to make her breakfast. She, on the other hand, was a zombie without a full eight.
He wandered outside to smoke a contraband cigar on the plank steps of the deck. (His mother, too—God, so many years ago—had hated smoking. His cousins, tall men in soldiers' drab, would sneak him packets of cigarettes to smoke late at night in the apple orchards. It made him feel like Huck Finn, puffing covertly in the root-nooks with his pajama legs rolled up to escape the mud.) Afterwards, he felt better. Clear.
When he came back he leant against the jamb of the bedroom door to watch her sleep: she had rolled over onto her side, one leg straight and the other foot on that knee, like a flamingo. When she was twenty she had always clung to him in sleep; now she had more independent patterns. Her nightgown glimmered bluely, and her hip was round and high beneath it. She did not look like a child, only blank. Content.
God help me, he thought. Me and my weak ventricles both. He had turned seventy the month before, in June, and she would be twenty-nine on New Year's Eve. That March they would be married nine years—what anniversary was that? He'd seen her almanac lying on her desk in the study, in her quest to correctly number the days of 1946 for her book. China, it told him, traditionally; leather, modern. That would work out well; she could easily find something in leather for him. A wallet, or a wristwatch, or something. Leather was a manly thing. He'd go over to the Carriage House antique shop they roamed sometimes on Sunday afternoons and hunt up some more of that Delft willow pattern she liked so much. Much easier than the year they'd been stuck with "iron" and "wood"...
He sighed and returned from his tangent. Facts had to be faced. Even at first when she was still terminally shy and he was still terminally married to someone else, they'd spent every waking hour plotting to meet each other on the sly. (He and wife #3 had atrophied in separate houses long before he'd met Claire; his last ex had even been living up north, seven states away.) But Claire had flourished under his "tutelage," if you wanted to call it that. She was one of those bright, bookish girls who never thought she'd fit in, and the physical slow simmer of his age had been just right to draw her out. He had patience; he had perspective; he was catnip. And just look at her now: twenty-nine, and not sick of him yet. Imagine her at thirty-five—imagine her hitting her fabled sexual peak. He'd be up a creek without a paddle then, weak ventricles and all.
The next idea had been rumbling around in his mind all evening—since he'd left Robillard's, in fact. It wasn't as if he could become a monk. That was plainly impossible—oh, he could probably accomplish it a lot more easily than he'd like to think, and Claire might even support him on it. But she wasn't even in full flower yet. She wouldn't have to cheat on him; just the fear of it would kill him first.
He chuckled nervously, forgetting that she was asleep: he really was damned either way.
He got up to make her French toast. It was not his plan to abstain, but as he whisked milk into the eggs he realized concretely that he didn't feel like testing his luck just yet. He could read up on the subject, perhaps. Talk to Robillard again...
She emerged tousled and happy in her flyaway robe, jubilant that he'd read her mind on the subject of breakfast, chattering away about whether to start her new chapter as she tore the toast into dainty pieces with her fingers and splashed them with syrup. He didn't hear a word she said because he was, from his own chair across the table, fixating on the low neck of her slip and how off-kilter it looked under her robe... Under that soft grey cotton—thin grey cotton—the strap might have fallen entirely off her shoulder. (Yes? No?) Perhaps—she reached for the syrup again and sat back—perhaps now—yes, see? Both straps had likely slipped down both her pale shoulders, her soft pale shoulders—he wondered if he could divine this simply by laying his hands on her shoulders, feeling through the grey robe. Then could he know? As it was the chemise seemed to cling dangerously to the precipitous swells of her breasts...
"—it was just so great to finish that chapter, you know, it felt like a major turning point in the book, like it's all downhill skiing from here, as it were—it practically writes itself. I can't believe I finally came up with the idea to have them elope—"
Look at the way she ate! Was she trying to drive him crazy? She had to know what he'd decided—she was doing it on purpose, to be perverse. Look at the way she childishly kiss-licked each sticky fingertip— the way the syrup glistened on her lips— the way she ran her kitten tongue carefully around her shining mouth before blotting it with the napkin—! He remembered now having heard that as women knowingly sized up a man's nose or hands or feet, you could look at a woman's mouth and know all of her secrets—God, it struck him, how true! She'd never considered her mouth one of her better features but he'd always liked it—small and delicate and shell-pink, curving down quickly to comers that wicked up when she smiled, laughed, kissed—
He refocused on her in a daze and found himself mute.
"You're not even listening to me!" But there was laughter in her voice. Then: "Will—? What's wrong?"
He opened his mouth and nothing came out. He wondered if he was having that heart attack now.
She crept over to him, frightened, and bend down—took his hand; he worked his mouth some more until he could croak, "Fine, fine ... I'm fine."
"You don't look fine."
"I'm a little bit ... tired, is all. You know. Stupid. Spacy. Couldn't sleep last night."
"Again?" She sat on his knee now (oh, don't do that). "You shouldn't have gotten up so early—to make me breakfast! Poor thing. Maybe you would've slept better if we had... "
Oh, God. Not that. Don't mention that. She had to know. She was just being cruel. His eyes fell just above her breastbone and fought the urge to descend. No, she couldn't know—couldn't read his mind like that. That was the worst of it—she was just a healthy young woman who expected certain things, and here he was afraid of her. It wasn't fair to her. (Would it be any more fair if he died on her?) Now he was being perverse—he wanted her just because he'd decided he shouldn't. Like something out of Poe—"The Tell-Tale Heart," and he choked down a laugh.
She had her fingers in his ever-thinning hair, combing through it lovingly.
"Headache," he croaked. She cooed sorrowfully over him, "Tension or migraine?"
"Migraine, I think. Just starting ... from not sleeping, probably." She kissed his temple and he added, "Maybe a hot shower'll clear it up."
"Maybe it will."
So he locked himself into the bathroom, more and more ashamed of himself by the rninute—locking his own wife out, lest she try to join him on some romantic impulse!—and felt like more like a thirteen-year-old boy sneaking around a pretty stepmother than a happily married man.
It hadn't always been like this. He'd always thought of himself as sort of brusque and undomesticated and restless—not a tame animal, so to speak. He'd do what he liked, go where he wanted, and if you didn't like it, fuck you. And a lot of friendships got broken that way, but fuck them too (he thought mournfully now). Back when he had been living in Santa Monica on the cusp of the '80s, he had gotten himself fucked up but good on tequila shots one night and woke the next morning in the glare of the burnt afternoon reflecting off the red rocks around him. The top of the car was still down and he was sprawled in the back seat. A glob of tumbleweed springheeled past at that point, as if on cue, directing his eye to a sign that read TEMPE, 6 MI. He looked at the car, and Big Blue looked back at him (as only cars can) and said, "You're gonna have to get your own ass out of this one, Sport."
They say that all the alcoholics who recover have The Moment where they realize it's gone too far. Surprisingly, this had not been his.
It had taken two years more, but he'd had it. It was almost anticlimactic at that point—embarrassing, really, that he was a known falling-down drunk, had honestly known it himself, and had just kept going. By now he hadn't had a single drink in more than thirty years (Jesus! His AA membership was older than his wife. He'd never thought of it that way before), and he'd mostly gotten Claire off the stuff as well. It had taken some work, though—she was used to collegiate party traditions like Dain Bramage and Back to School Retox, not to mention the garbage cans full of Jungle Juice during finals…
Which was not to say that she was a hellraiser at all; she was actually a very sweet soul. Her problem was more that she couldn't say no—she was always afraid that she might be "missing out on something" if she didn't go, "lose out" if she didn't give in… If she'd had an ounce of gumption she would have never ended up with him, and he knew it—had used that insight against her, in fact. She had plenty of friends going out with "older" guys, but a sixty-year-old and a college sophomore? Even love couldn't be that blind—it was obvious that it wouldn't work out, but he'd wanted her, perhaps even more because the idea was so ludicrous, and that was all there had been to it.
He was a marrying man—he knew it, and wasn't deluded exactly, but—that was his style. Sure, it was something of a risk—Claire was his fourth wife, after all—but he almost believed that past failure arbitrarily increased his chances for success. What were the odds that it wouldn't work out this time?
Besides, that was what made her so attractive: youthful inexperience. He could play the sage for her and she'd eat it up. That was how it started, her being just a kid that he could mentor, a sort of protégée, someone who didn't contradict him or doubt him or second-guess him. He'd watched her grow up, really, over those three years, Karyn's daughter's friend—didn't even have a clue, in fact, that she'd developed a crush on him until she kissed him one day, aged nineteen, a fire-engine blush flaming on her cheeks. She wasn't sorority-girl pretty; just an awkward sort of winsome, and it had won him. But even then... had she known? Had she been able to see through him? That was his greatest fear, that he could assume the Mystical Mentor role, even play the Untamed Anti-Hero card, but no one would ever be fooled. It would still never be enough. Back when she was still in college, he'd tried to drop mention of his former marijuna use to make himself look that much wiser now in her eyes—but she had only laughed hysterically: "You must have been hilarious on pot!" This was, of course, not the reaction he had hoped for.
One day later that week he spied Claire through the window, gardening. He had been trying to read quietly in the den to keep his mind off the way the muscles in her cutoff-shorted thighs tensed when she crouched to weed the iris beds…but that was no way to live. Besides—if he was really so afraid of death, he needed to spend as much time as possible with her (even if at a safe distance away). He doubted that, on his deathbed, he'd recall reading Winesburg, Ohio all Sunday afternoon as one of the things he'd been glad he'd squeezed in before going to meet his maker.
She rose and waggled muddy fingers at him in greeting. "Dirty, dirty girl," she cooed, laughing.
He turned around and went right back inside.
They proceeded to have a very stupid non-fight over that reaction later that evening. She had not come in immediately afterwards, preferring to puzzle over it (and sulk, if you'd rather not mince words about it) as she washed her hands under the garden spigot.
Claire believed in talking about things rather than letting them fester, but she also imposed a waiting period of roughly twenty-four hours, in case the answer to her concern bubbled up more subtly in the meantime. Dinner was therefore a lot of fun—she eating a great deal of salad to fill the silence, he picking at his food…
"I thought the tomatoes turned out well," she said blandly, reaching again for the vinaigrette.
She had crammed tomato plants in along the driveway because her late grandmother had always grown tomatoes, and Claire fussed over hers relentlessly.
"Hmm," he said.
It took him a minute to realize that she was neither dieting nor even fond of salad so much as she was trying to draw his attention back to anything garden-related, so as to get him to talk about that afternoon. He thought it was a very stupid thing to get miffed about, him simply not replying to a joke she had made and returning to the house, and did not feel he had the strength to address her little moodswing. Really, he hated the way she would just keep at him until she ferreted out the "problem." There were some things just not meant to be talked about. This, for example. He would never be able to talk about this. To say it aloud was almost to make it come true. And now, not only was he going to have to fight himself off, but he was going to have to fight her, too. It made him feel tired.
After dinner he said he had a headache. A migraine, in fact—one of those shooting pains behind your eye. You know. He said he thought he'd try to lie down—not go to bed, exactly, but…
An eyebrow went up and down resignedly, and she said she'd be along after a while. She didn't come to bed at all that night, in fact, staying in the den instead to work on her laptop and afterwards curling up on the couch, under the stripy moth-eaten afghan. She did this a lot when she got into her writerly "zone," but he knew that that was not why she had slept in the den tonight. Relieved to have the bed to himself, he was also a ashamed, and a little uneasy besides.
"Look, what is this?" she demanded at breakfast.
Shit. He hadn't counted on an A.M. strike, but should have.
"You've been weird for, like, the past two weeks. What is going on?"
"Nothing's going on…"
"Then was what all that about yesterday, you going back into the house? I mean, what exactly did I say wrong? You had this look on your face like I'd insulted your mother—"
"You were shaking mud at me," he said, his voice brittle. "All I wanted to do was come out side and read. Nice, quiet day, weather's fine, and here comes the Swamp Thing at me—"
Until that moment she had her open face on, her Let's Make a Deal face. Then it flatlined.
"I Had. A Little Dirt. On My Fingers," she said crisply. "Maybe tonight I'll go sleep on the porch so the Swamp Thing won't mess up your precious couch, too."
"Maybe you ought to until this little mood of yours clears up—"
"My mood? My mood? I'm not the one calling people unnecessary names—"
And he just didn't hear anything she said after that. Amazing how quickly it went bad. He must have said a few things back to her, because he remembered his face getting hot (apparently, the temper had been independent of the drinking, because he still had it) and he remembered her getting very pissed off at him, which was why he wound up stalking out the door.
"Where are you going?" she shouted after him, as if to say, At least you can divulge me that information.
"Taking Big Blue out!" he snapped back, and put a little slam into the door that instantly made him feel bad.
It wasn't the same Big Blue he'd woken up to in Arizona, of course; like a champion dog, it was one of several, a beloved lineage of cars. He always felt better after driving. He used to like to speed recreationally, too—that was one of the few things that Claire had made him give up. That, and cigars. (Sometimes, when they were feeling really profligate, he'd "let" her have a nice salt-crusted margarita and she'd produce one of the Cubans she'd brought back from a college trip—she still had a good stockpile for him ten years later because she hid them very, very well.)
His hand went slack on the wheel, something like heartburn rising beneath his ribs. They almost never fought, and when they did, it was because she insisted she had the right to sneak a drink when she wanted. But she was a good girl most of the time (that, or good enough to get away with it unnoticed), and he didn't like to fight. Besides…he was in the untenable position of being outwardly wrong but unable to tell what was really bothering him. And pissiness did not make him feel very proud of himself.
She was such a good, good kid. Took such good care of him, too. Moreover—she needed to be taken care of herself. After all, she clearly didn't see any reason to stop drinking; she only stopped because he bullied her into it. She'd been a mess when he'd met her at sixteen—half-anorexic, no self-esteem, writing other people's papers to make them her "friends"—and this before she'd gotten to college and hit the party circuit—
Jesus, he'd been with her literally half her life. She really was his baby, like that Norwich rose he'd raised to climb the arbor. She might even need him more than he did her—what would she have become without him, a nugget of talent inside that ball of nerves?
Unable to focus much on the road, he pulled off in Mountain Brook Village for coffee. There wasn't much down there—a few haughty-looking boutiques, an antiques shop, a Rite Aid; one of the many bookstores Claire patronized, the five-and-dime where she liked to spoil her niece, the Western to which she made Saturday-morning pilgrimages for the groceries like clockwork…
It was a curse that he saw her in every place that he passed. There was no coffee shop around per se; the Western might have drawn him in because of the wide, tented racks full of plants that fronted the store. Hanging ferns in pots and pansies, petunias, cosmos, gerberas—the delicate stuff, the miniature spray-rose bushes and the orchids, were inside by the revolving rose refrigerator (but Will was not too sure anything you bought from a grocery store could be very "delicate"). Claire had bought her much-beloved, greatly-mourned hisbiscus tree here; the blooms had faded from vermilion to orange to lemon yellow before finally expiring. He'd had a very hard time convincing her that it wasn't any neglect on her part that had killed it, but rather the fate of a tropical plant exiled to a mainland winter. Besides—who else had a rainbow hibiscus?
Lord love her. He felt more and more troubled as he made his way to the self-serve coffee machine beside the deli. It really wasn't fair to her—she was being pissy, yes, but how could you expect her to argue rationally if she didn't know what she was even arguing about? It wasn't fair to her at all, not on any level. Everyone had told her not to marry him. Oh, he didn't know that for a fact, but why wouldn't they? She'd reach the prime of life just as he would keel over. It wasn't fair to her for him to live up safely on a shelf, but it wouldn't be fair if he died on her hands, either.
He paid for the coffee, patiently shuffling through the checkout line, and, waiting, his eyes passed over the florist's section beside the door. It was the kind of thing you didn't notice much, going through it as you came inside, but going out you could see the tubs of cut sunflowers and dry baby's breath, insubstantial as bridal tulle; the stiff-jointed carnations, the glossy arrogant lilies, the shy pots of velvety African violets; and there, below the florist's counter, sheaves of gladioli in buckets.
Gladioli had always made him think of Claire, even back when he didn't know her well enough to know why. Given their showy garden, he understood it now, of course: just a certain joie de vivre that bubbled out sometimes.
"You wouldn't happen to know the names of any of the glads, would you?" he asked the woman at the counter.
He hadn't thought she would; in fact, he had to explain what he meant by "names," until a younger woman appeared at her shoulder. "The only reason I know," she piped up bashfully, "is because I saw the invoice this morning."
The woman—Pam, according to her name tag—stepped aside to let Carrie come around and take over.
"The purply ones are Blue Mountain," she explained, pointing here and there. "The yellowy-orange ones are…um…Talisman. Yeah, Talisman—the white ones are Artic Queen. If you're interested in white you might want to get some of the Artic Queen—we had some Sierra Snow in last week, but they weren't half as nice…"
"You know a lot about flowers?"
She blushed faintly. "I'm in school right now…biology major."
he said, feeling a strange warmth towards her.
"Planning to go into—what would that be, botany?"
"Horticulture," she said, smiling. He got the impression that he was the first person in a long time, if ever, who hadn't blurted out, "Well, what can you do with that?"
She asked who he wanted the glads for; he told her his wife, that she liked vibrant colors, extroverted flowers. "You might try one of these, then," she said, pointing out a scarlet and a vermilion-streaked orange.
"What are they called?"
"Carnival, and that one, Candy Apple." She laughed: "I guess they kind of go together."
When they had first been together, he and Claire, in the early rushes of intimacy after that August kiss, he had taken her to the city park Halloween fair, even as she'd been terrified the whole time that someone she knew would see them. He'd dragged her out there as a lark (because everything is fun the first time together, of course), and she did get into the spirit of the thing, dressing up vaguely as a cat—a headband with furry black ears and a leopard-print top fitting so closely that he couldn't keep his eyes off her all night. It was candy apple that jogged his memory—"I haven't had one of those since I was a kid!" she'd cried, aged all of nineteen. Once he had wiped tears of laughter from his eyes, he bought her one and watched her negotiate the uncooperative caramel as she bobbed and darted to catch the drips with her tongue even as she was trying to lick her lips clean with childlike pleasure. That was the first night he remembered being honestly smitten by her, not just smart enough to take advantage of her infatuation—he licked her fingers clean himself, took her to the back seat of his car and made love to her there on the wooded back road, tinny music and the jostle of children's voices faraway but plainly audible, the taste of caramel and Claire in his mouth.
"Make me a bouquet of those two," he told Carrie.
As soon as he was back in the car—he'd left the coffee; oh, to hell with the coffee—he pulled his cell phone from the glove compartment and called the house. It rang continuously for about two minutes straight.
Jesus, Claire, pick up the phone.
"Are you there?" he blurted out.
"Yeah, yeah—sorry, I was outside."
"What are you doing?"
"Gardening," she said pointedly.
"Never mind that," he said. "Go wash up. I've got a present for you."
"A present," she repeated flatly.
"Look, I'll really give you something when I get home," he said, his voice for some reason cracking on the last word. But Claire only heard a tone she knew well—a tone she'd missed—and squealed happily, convinced that the fight had blown over.
So with the flowers wedged inside the cupholder, he made up his mind. He turned the radio to his favorite station; the top was already down, and his hand shook as he turned the key in the ignition, jingling the others on the ring.