Figure Out the Damn Year

“Oh, wow,” says my husband. “I blacked out.”

He and I are sprawled on our bed; we’ve just had sex, and I’ve got my arm around him. “You dozed off,” I say. “Both of us did.” It’s the Monday after Pandemic Thanksgiving, a gray day in upstate New York. A kitty circles the bed, the only cat in the world who doesn’t move on little fog feet, and we listen to the sound of her claws on the wood floor.

Frank yawns and checks his watch. “Huh, 1:15. No wonder I’m hungry.” I say we’ll have lunch right after our call, and he says, “What call?”

“1:30 with Joan,” I say. Joan’s the real estate agent; we’d planned the whole sex thing to be finished in time. But Frank yawns again.

“What about her?”

Honey,” I say and give it a beat. In our house he cooks; I remember what day it is. “The sale of the loft!”

“We’re selling the loft?”

“Very funny,” I say. “I mean, please be kidding.”

This sale, in Brooklyn, a hundred miles south, is our big grand financial move. For months we agonized over holding or selling, renting, or waiting, until at last—on the theory that life is for living—we put the place on the market. And now the offer is low, but we wonder if we should take it. I just turned sixty-five; Frank’s ten years older. Times are uneasy. When this pandemic ends, we want freedom from money worries. We want to travel and throw parties, to be generous with our families and support progressive causes. Frank no doubt plans additions to his painting studio, brand new upholstery, some cockamamie bathroom renovation.  At some point I’m destined to say, “Oh, come on, Sweetheart! Let’s slap on a new roof, lock the doors and go to Sicily.”

I get up to wash my face and give him time to wake up, and when I return, he’s gazing at the ceiling. His white hair is puffy above his ears, and he looks like an angelic Netanyahu, as he generally does. I sit on the edge of the bed and take his hand. “Hey. Remember now about the phone call?”

“Give me a minute,” he says. He doesn’t sound too concerned. “It’ll come to me.”

“Well,” I say. “How ‘bout Thanksgiving?”

Maybe, I think, this is only about the loft, a potentially more loaded subject than either of us knew. It was, after all, the home of our youth, the place where we fell in love and fed neighborhood strays, where we blew unemployment checks on big dinner parties—sometimes with a tablecloth on the floor because our little white table sat only three. Where we dreamed up amusements that didn’t cost money: “Let’s walk to Manhattan,” Frank proposed one summer’s day, “and get the addresses of buildings we see from our windows.” Where I kept track of time by whatever Beethoven he was working on, the third sonata when we met, then the tenth, then the seventh, eventually the Waldstein, the Pathetique, the thirtieth; and where, at that same tiny table, I wrote a poem about the skiffs that puttered the neglected waterfront. Delivering sandwiches, we surmised to each other. My first published work.

And then, with this century, DUMBO arose, and the rent tripled on Frank’s studio five blocks away. Gradually he took to painting upstate, and now he’s primarily here. We’ve moved to a smaller city place, and I commute—though at present I don’t because classes are remote. Still, the sale bears certain baggage, so I take his fingers in mine. “You remember Thanksgiving.”

“Thanksgiving.”

“Last week?”

“Oh, cut it out.” He gives me a shove. “Thanksgiving was not last week. What’d we do?”

I go to the kitchen and text the real estate agent: NEED TO POSTPONE. SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH FRANK. I phone our physician friend and leave a voicemail, keeping my voice down. “I don’t know, some like COVID confusion?” We suspect Frank’s had the virus; he was out west in January and terribly ill, though the time to confirm it passed some months ago. “Call when you get this, okay?” I’m still in only my socks, and for a moment I do nothing but stare at my phone, then I realize to my horror that Frank hasn’t left the bed, and I return to the bedroom and get him to raise his arms, then his legs. He does it all with an air of humoring me, but when I ask what year it is, he knits his brow and looks thoughtful. I leave him puzzling out the year and go to dial 911, then hang up after a ring. Maybe it’s simply about finding the right trigger.

We’d spent Thanksgiving with friends in our pod, and as a post-dinner entertainment Frank had lip-synched to Pagliacci in a blousy shirt with Kleenex pompoms down the front. He’d stuck another pompom on a backwards baseball cap and powdered his face, picked up a couple clown props and mugged hilariously to “Vesti la giubba,” and I find a photo on my phone and return to the bedroom. He’s up now, briskly making the bed. Everything washed in a gray glow from the skylight: the pallor of the bedroom, the blank of his undershirt. He glances at the Pagliacci shot and says, “Where’s this?”

“Right here. In the living room. See the edge of the yellow chair?”

“I don’t recognize it.” Mere statement of fact. I take his arm and lead him to the French doors of the living room, closed now to save heat, and pushing open the doors, I ask if he knows the room. A little impatiently he says, “Of course I know the room. But when did we get this furniture?” Oh, honey! Only around 2016. I say we’ve had it a while.

So here it is, on an ordinary November Monday, 1:15pm. The sudden redirection of our forty-five years together. Perhaps all couples sense the moment bearing down on them, and perhaps all work to ignore it as we have done, existing as heedlessly as complementary colors. Hale, autonomous, mostly cooperative. Then the abrupt turn, and what does that life become? Some network of care, I imagine, a network of care and loss. Unknowable now as we stand barefoot in our quiet house, but manageable, probably, with medical intervention. Learnable only through trial and error, through all sorts of terrifying blunders yet to come—and maybe margins of breakthrough. One does hope for breakthroughs.

It might have been either of us, I think, running a hand down his spine. It might have been car crash or cancer or depression, and it might just as easily have been body, not mind. But it has turned out to be Frank and mental, and at last it’s arrived, as we knew sometime something would. It strikes me suddenly that at least he can walk and speak, and I note with relief that he can still make a bed; he seems physically unimpaired. I wonder if he can cook or drive; if I’ll be able to leave him when I return to commuting. Will he forget where we live?

My graduate school mentor, an eminent poet and one of the few souls who changed my life, now doesn’t recognize his own poems when he hears them, but he’s able to appreciate their beauty and craft. I wonder what conversations Frank and I’ll have once we’ve sorted out the year, for what exact portion of consciousness has fled, and how much essential self yet remains? For that matter, how much inessential self can be forsaken like some flapping vestigial organ—and still leave the person I love and rely on?

Beside me Frank murmurs, “If I could figure out the damn year…” and I want to fling myself on him, to kiss his head and say it’ll be all right and together we’ll get through it and a hundred other unenforceable clichés. But I won’t have him feel diminished—for now, that’s on ice—so I follow him to his studio, where the overhead lights are up, and the exhaust fan draws off the odor of turpentine. One large painting lies flat on the floor, a glaze drying on its surface, and Frank asks who did some drawings pinned to the wall. I say it must have been he since I’ve never seen them. “I didn’t do them,” he says. He asks why a certain blue painting is on the rack, and I say I suppose he was looking at it, then I point to a piece I know is in progress and ask if he recognizes it. “Of course,” he says, gesturing. “I put the yellow on this morning.”

The phone rings, 911 calling back. “There was a call from this number; everything all right?” I say my husband has some weird neurological thing happening and might need an ambulance, and the guy has me have him perform several simple actions. Raise one arm, then the other, then together, then each leg. “Ask him to smile. Is his smile symmetrical?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s just his memory.” I tell the dispatcher our place is hard to recognize, a converted farm building that doesn’t look like a house, but he says, “Down by the trout stream. Yup, sending a crew now.” That rural mentality: everyone up in each other’s business! I once got a call that my cat had been sighted in a nearby village and told the caller I lived just down the— and she cut me off. “We know where you live.”

Awaiting the ambulance, Frank’s sanguine and occupied, and I’m on a calm/steely trip learned from my mother. We get dressed, we pull on shoes, we brush our teeth, and all is normal. I pat his ass—nothing odd about that. Then I venture some question he struggles to answer, and I watch surreptitiously, wondering what he’s thinking. What in the world he could be feeling? He’s back in his studio when I hear him cry, “Hello there! Come in!”—always the host with the most—and I grab a mask, wondering if he remembers masks. But when I walk in, he’s masked up; of course, EMS comes prepared. Someone’s left the door open, and those drawings on the wall flutter as the crew introduce themselves. Connor, Sally and the crew chief, Denise. Connor takes Frank’s temperature and pricks him for blood, has him press his palms against his fists and do the smile thing once again, and I follow impatiently. Having summoned the world to our island of isolation, I’m suddenly desperate for worldly action.

One of the women says he should be examined, and Frank says he’s fine; all he needs is to focus. “Honey,” I say, laying a hand on his forearm. “Today’s the day we overreact.” Denise says if it were she she’d choose Albany Med, and I say I’ll ride along to keep him company in the ambulance. Connor says kindly that I’ll need a car to get home, and it strikes me I may not be thinking clearly myself. Then the landline rings, and I take it in another room. Our physician friend, Chuck, returning my call. “He said he blacked out,” I say and tell him of the furniture Frank didn’t recognize; the painting he did.

“Could be promising,” Chuck says. “Connecting to his work.” He pauses a moment, then says, “Dave, there’s a condition called transient global amnesia we don’t know a lot about. Comes on very suddenly—”

What I hear is amnesia, like some thriller-ish plot twist; but I jot the full phrase on an envelope. “And of course,” Chuck goes on, “I can’t offer a diagnosis. But if it is TGA, it could resolve on its own.” To what degree and what time frame, he’s not certain.

Technically, then, that’s the spoiler. The reveal that the great shift won’t be settling on our house—at least, not permanently, this random Monday—but will leave us as we are a little while longer. That tomorrow Frank will roll over, give an actor-ish start and say, “Who are you?” and we’ll both laugh; that by midweek, when he misplaces his glasses or gets an easy one wrong on Jeopardy! I’ll ask if this is one of his episodes.

But the moment feels horribly not like a spoiler, not a bit like a reprieve. Competing futures now range through the rooms of our house, one of them magical, the other blunt and constricting. Our phone line by the trout stream is chronically unreliable, and my friend’s voice is echoey, even somewhat disembodied. He’s like a genie nestled comfortably inside some pretty bottle, proffering the kind of wishes no sane person trusts: It’ll all just go away. Which is nice, but so what, for down the hall I hear Frank chatting amiably with Denise. “The president… wait. You mean the one now?” Yes, comes the response. “If I could just have a moment to work that out,” he says, passing my doorway; and it’s this, not the genie, that’s what’s happening in real life.

Chuck says I should have Frank checked out, and I say the EMS team just arrived. “I’ll let you go,” he says quickly. “Keep me posted.”

I ask Frank if he’s got his insurance cards; he says he’s all set. I ask if he needs something to read, wondering abruptly if he’s still able to read. His book’s on the bedside table; it’s To the Lighthouse, and I pick it up and set it down. “Maybe today something other than Virginia Woolf,” I murmur, and from the doorway Denise chuckles, though I wasn’t exactly joking.

“All set?” she says. The others are outside. We head out together, and she pauses beside the building, away from the ambulance. “Excuse me, but…” She’s got her hands in her pockets and looks at me seriously, while beyond her Frank’s spryly climbing into the ambulance, eager as a ten-year-old, making friends, checking out equipment. “Any chance you two were… being intimate when this happened?” Denise asks.

“Yes,” I say brightly. “And frankly I’m a little hurt he doesn’t remember!”

What on earth prompts a quip at this terrible moment? Is it some reflex, flippancy under stress, or concern that she’ll ask what exactly we did? Our hijinks during quarantine have grown somewhat more edgy, though on the spectrum of bedroom acts I doubt we’re extreme. But the idea that sex—sex, flagrant emblem of any gay coupledom, but also our solace through the lonely days of quarantine and a realm, furthermore, we have lovingly nurtured, even as other couples gave up the ghost—that sex, of all things, should have brought us to this point: that feels punitive. It feels much too sharply like that other pandemic, when we were half as old as we are now, and when I redden Denise looks sympathetic.

It’s possible, she says, that something like this once happened to her brother-in-law. “He was making love to his wife when suddenly he went blank.” But no, she doesn’t know how long his recovery took or how much came back or if it happened again. “And of course, this might be a completely different circumstance,” she adds quickly, as Chuck had done just a little bit earlier.

Now there follows a hideous trip behind the ambulance. Almost the instant we leave the driveway the heavens open, and Sally’s a faster driver than I. She threads down twisty roads and through hamlets I’ve never noticed, and when we get to I-90 she sprints down the left lane in sharp pelting rain. I set my jaw and play out dozens of outcomes: he gets worse, he gets better, something’s happening up ahead. Twice I start weeping and can barely see the yellow line, and the rest of the time I can’t see through the rain. I follow the ambulance as it exits I-90, and at a traffic light in Albany I text a handful of friends. KEEP FRANK IN YOUR THOUGHTS. And then I’m at the hospital and dealing with the car and being turned down at the ER and finding the visitor’s entrance and making my case for admittance despite COVID restrictions, and through all this my phone dings, and I haven’t a moment to respond.

*

According to Frank, his memory returns fully during the ambulance ride. He chats up the EMS team, and when Connor says he’s renovating a house on Greene St, it turns out Frank knows the house and has thoughts on the fenestration. He asks Denise about her family and recalls whispering, about Connor, “How adorable is that boy?” He remembers her putting a finger to her lips. And he retains all their names, which I have not. In the hubbub I’ve barely registered Connor, though he is, according to Frank, extremely Irish-guy cute.

But when Denise finds me hunched in a corner of the visitors’ lobby, she tells me nothing has changed. During those same chats she peppered Frank with inquiries about the year, the president and so on, and each time he said it would come to him soon. She squats down before me and says she’s sorry the news isn’t better and sorry also for the wait; it’s taken forty minutes to get Frank checked in. “But they’re not too crowded. He’ll be seen pretty soon.” Did I make a request to get into the ER, she asks, and I say I did, but I’m now too demoralized to fish for info on the brother-in-law. “Good luck,” Denise says and presses a gloved hand to my sleeve as she takes off.

The waiting room’s basically an intersection of hallways. Not many lights are on, and more than a score of masked people sit carefully distanced, everyone pitiable and worried looking, including me. To the side there’s a booth, a little makeshift, like at a PTA fair, where the visitor’s rep weighs petitions for access, but when I’d entered the lobby, the little booth had been empty, and I’d run around frantically asking whom I should see. “They’ll be right back,” I was told by a uniformed guard and a parking attendant and a woman rearranging index cards at a long folding table. “You’ll get your turn.” Then the rep had appeared, short and doughy and—as far as I could tell—gay, and I’d pointedly said husband in a ploy for special treatment. Now I alternate between texting my friends and looking winsomely at the booth.

I’ve scheduled office hours via zoom, and I email my students to say I’m unavailable. My phone is now flooded with texts—STANDING BY–WE CAN JUMP IN THE CAR and OMG PLEASE KEEP ME INFORMED and rows of little hearts and LIKE LAURA SAID, ANYTHING YOU NEED WE LOVE YOU GUYS. I picture them all at their desks and in their studios, and I’m afraid I might jinx it if I mention the genie’s offer, so I say WAITING TO SEE HIM and then later STILL WAITING. The texts come in response: WTF ARE THEY DOING?

Then the little rep beckons, and I trail him down corridors, murmuring thanks. Ahead, the brown shape of a curtain bulges squarish around a gurney tucked to a wall. Two people stand within; I can see legs in blue scrubs and legs in a skirt and sneakers. With a flourish, the patient rep draws back the fabric, and now there’s Frank’s head, the brown disc of his bald spot. “Hi, darlin’,” I say, smoothing his white hair. “How you doing?” He cranes a little awkwardly to grin over his shoulder, still with the insouciance that’s been his mien the whole time and takes my fingers in his.

I’m given a chair at Frank’s feet. The doc in the skirt says it’s good I’ve arrived, since he’s having some trouble reconstructing the day. She’s exceedingly diplomatic. They’ve established, she says, that we had pecan rolls on the porch, before the weather changed— “But after that you’re not sure. Is that right?” She looks at Frank, and he nods.

I pat his ankle and say that after breakfast we both went to our studios. I tell them of the yellow painting he recognized and yellow furniture he didn’t, and Frank says, “Oh, very briefly. I’m fine. I’m fine.” At this I’m tempted to make him describe the damn furniture—right down to the piping, buster! —but some decent angel makes me leave the guy alone. Recalling Denise’s brother-in-law, I say we’d had sex just before, and the two women blink at us; then I ask, since they don’t, if he’d taken a Viagra. “Not today,” he declares. But how the hell would he know?

The doc in scrubs asks what year it is. “Well, I hear it’s 2020,” Frank says wryly. She asks about the president, and he says, “Oh, you know. Fuckface. Give me a minute, it’ll come to me.” The next time she asks, it has. At some point the sale of the loft comes back too, and though Thanksgiving remains foggy, he does understand it was only last week.

We bivouac in that hallway for almost seven hours. Gradually it grows clear that Frank is recovering, and with that we’re surrounded by people worse off than we. Behind the next curtain I hear a woman in distress, and when I go to the john I see her with a companion, the woman’s face anguished, the man looking worried. The man seems younger than she, and I think he must be her son, but when the doctor takes their info it’s clear they’re a couple. And they’re at the ER because of gallstones or some other body ailment, not any despair, for apparently mental anguish is now the woman’s normal state. Fate has landed on these two already. Meanwhile, a patient with neither shoes nor a mask hurries down the corridor, pursued by an orderly who cruises me as they pass.

A nurses’ aide brings me cookies and ginger ale, but Frank can’t have anything until blood and urine results are in. Around teatime he falls asleep, and when an orderly wakes him for a CT scan he cheerily asks how I’m doing. Even half empty, his glass is half full. “Hurry back,” I call as the guy rolls him away. “Do keep in touch!”

A friend texts to say that of course Frank’s diagnosis would come through decor recognition, and I text back SO GAY. For a moment it’s like before the pandemic, when we sat around cracking jokes at each other’s expense, but very quickly she says she’s not really making light, and in a burst of emotion says health and friendship are a treasure. I LOVE YOU DAVE, LOVE YOU FRANK. Love to the cluster of friends on the thread. Then Frank is wheeled back, and it’s seven p.m. Now it’s eight and now nine. He’s still not allowed to eat, so he takes a mental inventory of what’s in our fridge. “There’s the red sauce,” he says. “That might hit the spot. Or wieners’n’beans.” I tell him he should rest while I scramble some eggs, and he looks pained. “Guess the kitties’ll be hungry.” Then, abruptly, results arrive, everything normal. When I ask the resident if this was indeed transient global amnesia, she says hurriedly she doesn’t think there’s a diagnosis, and sure enough, on his discharge papers: only CONFUSION.

Frank never regains much memory of that day. Pecan rolls/scan results is pretty much his recollection. Apparently during TGA the mind doesn’t form memories, so he’s tempted with friends to call the whole thing overblown, maybe even Dave-based hysteria. “Honey!” I say, “You didn’t recognize the furniture!” I tell him he sounds like a conspiracy theorist.

And yet something’s shifted. We now have proof that fate hovers above us, that it could drop any time. That it could choose either one of us, that it’s got all sorts of modes. I believe this because I remember that day vividly, and Frank believes because he doesn’t—who can say who suffers more? Six days after the episode we risk sex again, and I handle him with kid gloves, and all is fine. No one blacks out, just a little petit mort. He begins a course of online Italian, goes back to the Waldstein and continues with Woolf, swiftly charging through Orlando. Maybe he thinks he’s got something to prove. Yet even when he’s reading, I catch myself watching, for it can happen any time, and I need to be ready. He watches me, too, thinking the same.

I develop arthritis in my hands. It comes on suddenly, in the last weeks of the year, and it’s so awkward to do dishes that I cut my fingers on the cat food cans. The snow comes, and we see almost no one and go outside less and less. The white walls of our house, the daubs of color on Frank’s t-shirts. We feed the birds, we empty the compost, and someone makes a joke about fucking each other’s brains out—though I’ve learned that TGA is not limited to sex. We see friends masked in their yards and on porches, shivering, making it quick. “Catch you in springtime.” We feel at risk, physically, politically. Everyone does, not just we of the ER, and now friends grow nostalgic in ways they weren’t when it was warm, describing last acts before the world shut down in March. They went to a concert or the theatre, they ate out with friends or snagged a hookup online. And then they no longer did any of it, and the months rolled on and on. Not quite a husband who doesn’t know his own sofa, but there are parallels in the waiting, in the hoping, the uncertainty and the hush.

Frank and I try not to feel old. We have never felt old! But we-who-are-not-old now tread terra non firma, and the effort is taxing. It’s the vigilance that burdens us—and the low expectations. The waiting for fate, for the sale of the loft, for friends to return and a book to get written. One day he feels listless, and I watch him like a hawk, despite knowing full well that I’ve been listless for months. But something emotional is going down too, for this genial careless husband was never a crier. I’m the crier, as I warn my students, but him I’d seen cry only twice in four decades, first for Bernini, then DeKooning. Now he’s tearing up over Casablanca, over Alex Trebek; he cries over Orlando and a football documentary. But aren’t we all much more teary these days, helpless inside time with our phones and TV’s? It’s the pandemic, and it’ll pass, with the vaccine, with spring. Soon we’ll be immortal again, and whatever that dull sound may be up above us—that flapping of wings, the swift shush of that scythe—we’ll grow so accustomed we’ll go back to ignoring it. Or we’ll simply forget. Oh, to forget it, but together this time! To black out simultaneously on our freshly rumpled sheets. To relinquish, in the broad shaft of the skylight, all these currents of loss, of age and pandemic, grinding, grinding, grinding their crude wheels.

 

Comments
  1. Laura Miller on

    Such a beautiful story! A small world wobbles on its axis as the big wide one shudders and heaves. Dave King makes us feel and see the new normal in every vivid detail.

  2. DeWayne A. Powell on

    Wow! What an inspired and powerful piece of writing. If you pay close attention, you’ll find much to help you figure out your own “damn year.” Thank you, Dave.

  3. Maureen Sladen on

    I’ve shared it. No greater compliment, writer to writer. Thank you, Dave.

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