I sat at the old desk we found years ago at a junk store, sorting bills under the glare of the gooseneck lamp, deciding which ones to pay online and which to send in the mail. It felt like a balancing act, though in actuality the two or three days it took an envelope to reach its recipient didn’t give me any real advantage. It made me feel better to imagine their slow journey. I had never before been one to worry about money so having some sort of process made it less onerous. I made one stack of envelopes, then another and then a third, before shifting bills back and forth between piles, deciding based on late fees.
My wife, Mary, entered the alcove that we had elevated (in name) to home office, dressed for a run—my oversized hooded gray sweatshirt and her neon green leggings. In headlights, she always looked like a pair of torso-less running legs; we used to laugh at that.
She handed me a sheet of notebook paper.
“Take a little dictation,” she said. After speaking, her mouth quickly returned to the unforgiving line that had divided her nose and pointy chin for months.
I placed the paper flat on the desk surface, between bill stacks and said, “Okay, go.”
“I can’t take it anymore. No one is to blame. I leave everything to my wife.”
I scrawled quickly.
“Sign your full name.”
I scribbled my name as I was preparing to do on checks, folded the sheet in half, and handed it back to Mary. I suspected the request to be some sort of test that I would immediately fail if I questioned her about it too soon.
“I should be back in forty,” she said and was gone.
I wanted to ask, forty years? Forty days and forty nights? A joke but given the way things were between us, I knew neither of us would laugh. We used to laugh all the time; you could say that was our thing: laughter. We laughed when we talked on the phone, when we traveled, when we made love, even when we said our vows. When we watched the old black and white films that we both loved. We laughed when we fought, when we called each other names. We laughed at how ugly we could get, at how stupid and mean people could be. She sometimes called me “One-to-Laugh in the face of danger,” Mary being the danger. I thought of her as slightly off, a bit maniacal in her laughter—as she was with her humor. But I didn’t tell her that. It was how she had gotten by during a difficult childhood. In the long run, no one was more competent and stable than she.
And the thing was, we totally got each other.
That was before the girl, Risa, got sick. We always called her “the girl” or “our girl” until she was diagnosed with a rare syndrome that the doctors said was similar to Farby disease. After that, she became Risa, her given name, which felt like a dark irony since we had once found her name—meaning sea nymph or laughter—slightly comic. We became more and more solemn with every bit of news regarding Risa’s condition: that she would have some hearing and vision loss, that her skeleton would not form fully or evenly, that her head could become larger than normal, and that she would have life-long bouts of pain in her hands and feet. Eventually her kidneys could give out. We grew slightly hopeful to learn that the disease would not affect her intelligence and that, with proper care, she could live into her forties, maybe longer. She would be able to experience life, maybe travel the world, but probably not outlive her caretakers.
During the learning stage, our only big laugh came when we were told her medications would cost over one hundred thousand dollars a year. Of course, we laughed—dark bitter spasms—it was absurd. Mary talked of burglarizing the drug store. I enjoyed seeing her smile at the idea of assembling an all black cat burglar get-up. Her scheming felt like old times. She said we could sell the other drugs we got in our haul. It would be too obvious if we only took Risa’s meds. Though the episode restored our familiar feeling of laughter, our plans could not withhold the weight of reality; even if we didn’t get caught, we couldn’t rob the store every month.
In the year since, we turned into people we didn’t recognize. Or at least Mary did.
“Daddy? Where’s mommy?”
Risa stood in the doorway to the home office, the exact spot Mary had been moments earlier. Like her mother, Risa’s face was pale, except for a spatter of light freckles across her nose, with delicate features scrunched in the center of her face. She inherited Mary’s fair coloring, her wavy ginger hair. But she had my round face, dimpled chin and dark eyes, and shortly after the diagnosis her eyes became underscored with the same shadowy bags I have had since childhood. The pouches would have concerned me if I hadn’t had them all my life; instead they connected us and gave her face an odd maturity. Risa’s head looked disproportionally bigger than her torso—a bit like a Charlie Brown character—but I wasn’t sure I was imagining that, given what I knew could happen, plus her nightgown was so wispy. I reminded myself that all five-year olds have to grow into their heads. I left the desk to squat beside her.
“Just out for a run,” I said, wrapping my arm around her waist. Her breath felt warm on my face, smelled milky. “Does something hurt?”
“No, I’m okay. I just felt one of you go out.”
That was the way she talked now. She never heard or saw anything. She felt it.
“Do you want me to read you a story?”
She nodded. I scooped her up and carried her to the living room where we snuggled together in a large armchair upholstered in cat fabric, representative of Mary’s cat stage—as were the three live cats we housed and fed. I picked up the book that I had left spread open on the arm before she went to bed.
“No, don’t read one; tell me a story—about you and mommy.”
I told the one about the first time Mary invited me to dinner and how she served water soup. I dislodged myself from our chair to stand and act out the flourish with which Mary placed the large bowl of steaming clear water in front of me before sitting down to her own bowl across the table. Though she had heard the story many times, Risa squealed. I mimicked Mary: Is yours okay? Enough salt? I mimicked myself salting the water. Risa threw her head back in giggles.
We both turned at the sound of the front door opening. The new grim Mary entered, only to break into a smile when she spotted Risa sunk in the chair.
“What are you doing up?” She lifted Risa and carried her off to bed, stroking Risa’s hair with her free hand, without even looking at me.
We had both been angry at the diagnosis but Mary redirected her wrath at me when I quit my job. Dazzles, where I worked, was outwardly sympathetic about Risa but as the year wore on, they began to see me as the person they could make do anything, the person who could not quit no matter what they threw my direction. I was supposed to be general manager but on the night two waiters and the dishwasher didn’t show, Henry, the owner, said, sorry, you drew the short straw. I thought Mary would be proud of me. She was the bigger earner, the one with the health insurance. She always liked to say—only half in jest—young man, I like your spunk! My salary was like a drop in the proverbial bucket. But she was not amused. She had screamed You what? You what? Your job pays for half her medication! The other half was covered by insurance.
“It’s a shitty job, getting worse every day,” I had said. “I can find another, a place where they won’t know about Risa.”
In the past, Mary would have wanted the details, a description of the look on Henry’s face when I walked out. We would have found it hilarious. Now, all she cared about was the medication and the fact that by quitting I had blown my chance of receiving unemployment. Of course, in the past I would have told her before I quit. Even if I hadn’t known the exact moment that would trigger it, I would have warned her it was going to happen. I found another job that paid only slightly less within the month. Still, whatever strands had been holding us together were further frayed.
Mary returned to the living room and sat on the couch opposite the cat chair and crossed her brilliant green legs. Measles, our black cat with one speck of white on his tail, pounced into Mary’s lap. I thought that maybe we should not have named our cats after illnesses—Measles, Typhoid, and Mumps—but didn’t say it aloud. Surely, the same thought had crossed Mary’s mind. A harbinger of sorts. Maybe not, the cats were years older than Risa. Mary stroked Measles and eyed me. The youngest of seven children, a big Irish Catholic family, Mary had not been allowed pets because of the cost of care and feeding, though there had been a mean outdoor Tom to scare away rats that Mary considered her own. Mary loved the silky feel of our indoor cats.
“So, aren’t you going to ask about the note?”
“I could see what it was. A suicide note,” I said, and, then, trying to affect a gangster accent, added, “I’m worth more dead than alive.”
Mary didn’t laugh.
With the diagnosis, we had both taken out unusually large amounts of life insurance for people in their early thirties. After a year, which we had just passed, we could even collect in the event of suicide, though an accident would be more profitable.
“I’ve always wondered how those men who killed their wives and then pretended it was suicide got their wives to write the fake notes,” she said. Along with our love of noir films, Mary is an aficionado of true crime. “Turns out it is much easier than I thought. Though don’t worry, it was just a joke—to see how you would react or whether you would or ask any questions.”
Mary watches every one of those murder shows. She has drawn me into watching them as well, though not with her zeal. They used to fascinate her, sometimes amuse her. How in the world did that tiny woman get her husband into that suitcase and out to the pier; someone had to have helped her. Seems like you can poison anyone over sixty and get away with it—no autopsy once you hit that age. Why would anyone not just get a divorce; child support ends at eighteen. These people are all so stupid to believe that in this day and age with DNA and so many types of forensics they could commit a perfect crime. Since Risa’s diagnosis, the shows made her angry. The fact that people could waste other people’s perfectly good lives for no real reason. She still liked the old noir movies—maybe because unlike the ugly true stories, they were glamorous.
Mary’s phone buzzed. She pressed it to her ear.
“Hi, Em,” said Mary. “Yes, she’s fine.”
Mary rose and walked into the alcove to talk.
I remembered that she had not told me that the soup was water—and only water—until we had been seeing each other for over a month. She had called that a joke as well, but I knew that—as with the note—she had been testing me, to see what I could take. She had been let down a lot in her family. Never anything but hand-me-downs. Very little attention from her parents. Her father had a drinking problem, would sometimes disappear for days. Her next youngest sibling was five years older than she; the rest were closer to each other in age, only a year or two apart. She felt left out of their antics. Bullied sometimes. No money left for Mary for college. She had been tested with every decision her family made, and had turned into a tester, usually a playful one, able to get away with saying “it was just a joke.” Yet, somehow, the note felt more serious. The fact that she told me not to worry worried me. Plus, she had not been playing many jokes for the last year.
Unlike Mary, I had a privileged—though not over the top—childhood. Only one sibling, a younger sister, Stephany. College had been expected and delivered to both of us. I earned respectable grades though did not distinguish myself. When I became a waiter after college my parents didn’t complain. When I was still a waiter five years later, they offered suggestions but didn’t interfere, said the important part was obtaining the education not using it to make money. When I moved up in the ranks to an assistant GM, they behaved as if I had been nominated to the Supreme Court. They liked Mary but didn’t fully approve of the fact that she had never attended college, only a few non-credit business courses. I don’t know what they thought of the fact that she had ascended the culinary ranks, leaving the actual restaurant where we both started as servers to climb the corporate ladder. She oversaw three high-end restaurants now, two in Chicago where we lived and one in New York where she traveled once or twice a month. When she focused her sometimes manic behavior on an objective, she usually achieved her goal.
“Em is coming down,” said Mary, as she shoved her phone in her back pocket.
Em lived on the top floor of our three-flat. Her rent and that of the two guys below us paid the mortgage.
Mary bought the place the year we met. How had she saved so much as a waitress? Stole it, she said. Just joking. She was the only person I knew in our mid-twenties who owned a house, a building in fact. She was so much more motivated than I. Funny and ambitious and lovely with her fair Irish looks. And I loved the way she dressed; in vintage clothing arranged like it was an ensemble created by an exclusive modern designer. Fur collars. Silky blouses. Jackets with shoulder pads. Fascinators tilted on her head. She had created a stylish look before she actually had money to pay for it. My parents were nuts to think Mary had gotten the better end of the deal. If Risa hadn’t been born, I might not have even accepted the promotion from waiter to assistant GM. Being a waiter, having a few drinks at the bar after closing, suited me fine.
I thought of asking Mary to return the suicide note now that I had passed the test but I couldn’t find the right tone to strike before Em knocked on the door. That was how bad things had gotten between us—that I couldn’t simply ask. Or maybe I thought the test wasn’t over.
As was her habit, Em entered without waiting for one of us to let her inside. Our door was always unlocked. The door opened into a hallway with stairs up to Em’s and down to the guys’ apartment, next to the outside door which was always bolted.
A few years older than us, Em already lived in the building when Mary bought it. An attorney, she would probably have left soon to buy her own place if Mary hadn’t arrived. They became fast friends. They were both ambitious and hard-working, though Em’s countenance was quieter. She wore plain suits for her position at work, and crew sweaters and jeans for hanging around the house. Mary’s ginger hair fell in wide waves past her shoulders, while Em’s white-blonde hair was cut perfectly straight at chin level. Her features were bolder than Mary’s, pretty in a firm rather than a delicate way. She wore glasses with clear rims on the bottoms and dark lintels across the tops, like an extra set of eyebrows; they looked like old maid specs to me but Mary assured me they were expensive and stylish. And despite the glasses, Em had the type of look that women have in optical ads; the glasses did not become part of her face, rather her face served as a vehicle to model them.
After dealing with dull tax laws all day, Em was a perfect audience for Mary’s humor, but hadn’t seemed to get mine. Naturally, I hadn’t liked Em at first; I felt we competed for Mary’s attention. But when Risa was born, she was there for all of us equally; plus a built-in sitter. And when Risa got sick and Mary hardened after I quit my job, she was there for me.
“Scrabble anyone?” In offering, Em held out her old maroon game box, all the corners broken so that the top didn’t fit snuggly and she had to clamp the bottom in place on the ends with both hands. With the three of us, it was always old films or games.
Mary and Em set up the board and letter racks while I made us tequila and cran-apple juice cocktails, using the thick blue glasses we had bought in Mexico on our honeymoon. It was a Sunday night. Monday and Tuesday were my days off at the restaurant. Such is the restaurant business. It was a work night for Mary and for Em, so she would stick to one drink. Risa had kindergarten, a full day. My turn to get her up and ready but I could always go back to bed after I dropped her off.
We sat cross-legged around the coffee table to play. I seldom won but I liked the fact that some of the tension between Mary and me dissolved when it was the three of us focused on the game. The first four letters I picked were “S,” “I,” and two “U’s,” which reminded me of the word suicide. I considered mentioning the note, telling Em about the “joke,” a guarantee that Mary could never use it. I quickly scolded myself—Mary would never use the note. It was a test from a woman with a very sick daughter whose birth family had failed every test that had ever arisen. To mention the note in Em’s presence would be a betrayal that would ensure my permanent place on the list of those who had failed her.
On her first turn, Mary scored big with the word “adz” on a triple word square. It had taken me at least a dozen games to realize that winning was more dependent on strategy than vocabulary. College had failed me there. I could have done “pursuit” and scored reasonably well with the three point “P” on a double letter. Instead I did “Up,” the double point square remaining barren. I was hanging on to three letters that could be used in “suicide” in case I picked the others. If I put the word on the board it would be unnatural for me not to mention the note. I practiced how I would say it in my head: Funny I would get that word. Suicide.
My phone vibrated during Em’s turn. My parents calling.
“I should take this,” I said. It turned out they were calling to make me an offer of paying for the three of us to go to Disney World during Risa’s spring break; that was almost six months in the future, but they said that to get good rates, they needed to book now. This was a big deal since I knew they were also investing for Risa’s college and helped out with large checks on our birthdays and holidays.
Mary’s face transformed at the news. A huge smile.
“Really? That’s great! Florida in March. Will we be staying with them?”
Disney World was not the sort of vacation my parents had ever planned when Stephany and I were children. They liked educational trips. They had moved to Florida a few years ago, less than an hour from Orlando, but talk of Disney World had never come up before now. I have to say it wasn’t exactly what Mary and I would have chosen for a vacation either. But everything had changed with news of Risa’s illness.
“They only expect us to stay with them a few days. The rest of time they’re putting us up at a Disneyland hotel, so we won’t need to drive to the grounds every day.”
Looking forward to a future trip changed our lives more than I ever would have guessed. We were laughing again. When I called the hotel to check on something in our room, the Disney World operator had repeated and confirmed our names by saying Carl with a “C” as in “Cinderella,” Mary with an “M” as in “Mickey” and “Gordon” with a “G” as in “Goofy.” Mary cracked up when I told her. We talked that way whenever we could. Do you want to go out to dinner tonight, dinner with a “D” as in “Donald Duck”? Em joined in the game, and Risa tried though she could only spell a few words and didn’t know all the Disney characters.
I completely forgot about the suicide note. There was no way Mary would kill me and take Risa to Disneyland on her own. Of course, I knew there was no way period.
The dynamic between the three of us grown-ups changed as well. While it had first been me and Mary, then Mary and Em, then the three of us, and then Em and me, it was back to Mary and me, with Em at the outskirts of our acute triangle. I was glad not to need Em so much. Nothing had happened between us—not really, just the way she had touched my hand and removed her glasses on a night she joined Risa and me for dinner once when Mary was in New York. There had been something in the touch, in the way our eyes connected and hers seemed to say: I am here for you in any way you need. I tried to return her gaze with a look that said: I need you. But we both agreed, without a word, that we would not hurt Mary. I realized when she went up to her place that the most serious tests were often the secret ones that only the test taker or giver knew about. I didn’t see the tacit offer as a betrayal on Em’s part. Em was there for both of us. Besides, I would not have pursued it, even when Mary and I went for weeks without sex and she scoffed at the attempts I made at reconciliation. But once the dynamic shifted with word of the Disney trip, I sensed that Em felt a little left out. I tried to include her more but saw that any special attentions only made it worse, as if I pitied her.
We had a scare about a month before the trip when Risa showed extreme signs of fatigue, broke out in rashes on both her arms and needed to pee so frequently that she wet her pants at school. A near-mortal embarrassment to her, but she was a trooper, never complained. After a series of tests and a week of bed rest, the docs verified we were good to go. It was Risa’s second trip to Florida but she didn’t remember the first one. We bought her a miniature plane in an airport gift shop and the flight attendant gave her a small faux brass pin with wings. My parents babysat Risa one of the nights we stayed with them so that Mary and I could go out to dinner and dancing. Dancing! We hadn’t done that since before Risa was born. Mary wore an amber-colored dress from the forties with a wide belt, a swing skirt and sequins sprinkled across the deep neckline. We got home in the wee hours and made love on the bathroom floor since we were sharing my parents’ guest bedroom with Risa. We laughed and laughed—even more because we had to hold the noise inside—as we slid on the pink rug and maneuvered our tangled bodies between the pink sink and the old pink bathtub, a human ship coming into port. The next morning, my parents took Risa to play miniature golf so we could sleep in. Before they returned, I got up and made us Bloody Marys.
Our hotel was magnificent in its campiness. Even better, my parents had gotten some sort of special pass from a Disney executive in their gated retirement community that allowed us to skip most of the long lines. It seemed that everything was in Technicolor—both the exhibits and the real skies above. Risa loved the Mad Hatter’s tea party and It’s a Small World. And she found Ariel’s Grotto so enchanting that we went through three times. We took a photo of her sitting on the giant half shell throne beside Ariel in her shimmery green fish tail. Risa gasped at lunch when we told her that her name had something to do with being a sea nymph.
“Maybe I’ll grow up to be a mermaid!” She looked down at her pale twig legs in her tiny shorts as if she might be able to see scales forming.
The first night Risa was too tired for the parade and fireworks, so we put her to bed after dinner; Mary and I—arms linked around each others’ waists—watched the colorful explosions from our hotel room window, knowing as we stood together that we would do anything for each other, and that the two of us would do anything for Risa.
At the pool in the late afternoon of the second day, we took turns splashing with Risa in the kid’s pool. When she found another girl to play with, we sat on the side making up stories about the other hotel guests. Which couples were having affairs—who would bring his mistress to Disney World? Which families were happy. Which were wealthy and which took out a high-interest loan to bring their five children to Disney World. Except for a few calls Mary had to take about the New York restaurant, it was the perfect afternoon. By the third day we had grown weary of the perky voices of all the Disney employees but not of Risa’s excitement. We continued taking rides until time to head for the airport. All three of us were exhausted when we boarded the plane. A man behind Risa’s window seat hacked a phlegmy cough, so after she got to watch take off from the pothole, I traded my aisle seat with her so she would be as far away from the sick man as possible. Mary wrapped a thin scarf around Risa’s nose and mouth. Naturally, she needs to be particularly careful about catching colds.
We were thrown back into our old lives full force. I woke the next day with a sore throat and my ears occluded but had no choice except to go into work after being off a week. Mary got a call about some problems in New York, so needed to fly back out the night after we returned. The second day after our return, a Saturday, Mary still in New York, my head so clogged, I could barely see or hear, Em came down to babysit while I drove blindly into the restaurant. It was the day we opened the outdoor patio for spring and summer—there was no calling in sick.
When I returned home, Em greeted me at the door, a slip of paper in her hand.
“What the fuck is this?” she demanded.
She handed me the paper and made a gesture of shoving her glasses up her nose (though they had not slipped down), then knotted both fists on her hips and glared at me.
I looked at the message on the paper. Given the severity of my cold, it took me a moment to assimilate and focus.
I can’t take it anymore. No one is to blame. I leave everything to my wife.
“Where did you find this?”
“Where do you think? Where you put it. Under the lining in the medicine cabinet.”
“What were you doing looking under the lining?”
“I was grabbing Risa’s meds—not that how I found it has anything to do with it. Carl, what the fuck were you thinking?”
Em could be a bit proper. I had never heard her say fuck two times in rapid succession.
I must have had a temperature well over a hundred. My ears were so clogged I could barely hear and with every breath I felt like I was inhaling glass shards. I thought of explaining, but that seemed unfair to Mary, given how well everything had gone in Florida. Plus I wasn’t coherent enough to tell the story in a way that made sense.
“It was a really bad time. In fact, I completely forgot about the note.” I laughed weakly. “Plus, I have a lot of life insurance.”
All three statements were true.
“You asshole,” she screamed. She grabbed the note back from me and ripped it in half, then fourths, then eighths. “I have half a mind to tell Mary. But she has enough on her plate. Don’t you dare think of doing this again. Ever.”
She crumpled the scraps into a ball.
“You go to bed,” she said, her voice regaining normal pitch. “I’ll be down in the morning to take Risa until Mary gets home.”
Taking the note with her, Em slammed out of the apartment. I took a double dose of cough syrup with codeine. I barely pulled off my clothing before I fell into bed, trembling from chills. I didn’t wake until Em stuck her head in our room in the morning to tell me that she and Risa were off to the park and that Mary called to say she would be back from New York in the late afternoon. I staggered to the bathroom, drank straight from the cough syrup bottle and returned to bed clasping the bottle, and left it on the bedside table in case the feeling of a glass-shard-lined throat returned. I slept through the day, until it was nearly dark outside.
I awoke to find Mary sitting on the side of the bed, wearing her short swing car coat, driving gloves, and a feathery fascinator hat—festooned with a tiny veil—clamped at an angle on the right side of her head.
“Risa and I went out for pizza with Em.”
“How was New York?” I croaked.
“Horrible. It looks like we are going to have to close the New York place.”
I knew that was the corporation’s main money maker.
“I’m so sorry.” My response sounded weak, unsympathetic or unaware of the severity of this action, but it was all I could muster.
“I’m going to sleep on the couch so I don’t catch this. In the meantime, I made you this concoction. Sit up.”
She held a tall water glass containing a substance that glowed an unnatural red in the light that leaked in from the bedroom door. I pulled myself up to lean against the headboard and took the tall glass from her outstretched hand.
“What is it? Radioactive Koolaid?”
“Flu medicine mixed with cough syrup, perfectly safe.” I glanced at the cough bottle and saw that it was nearly empty. I couldn’t remember how much the bottle contained the last time I took a swig. I drank half the concoction down without stopping. It had a sickly sweet metallic taste that felt good on my throat. I remember how Mary told me that as a girl she learned not to drink milk at dinner if it appeared in a pitcher. If not poured straight from a carton, it meant her mother had made the milk from powder to save money. She said the artificial milk had a terrible chalky taste.
I tried to hand the glass back to Mary.
“Finish it,” she said.
I swallowed the rest. She took the glass from me and placed it on the table beside the empty cough syrup bottle. I sank back down beneath the covers. Mary rose and walked to the door. As she stood in her heels, silhouetted in the light, she looked—with her fancy hat—like a femme fatale in a movie from the forties.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“Me too,” I said.
Within seconds, sleep began to wash over me—heavy liquid dreams mixed with distorted shadows cast by the bedroom furniture—and words I needed to say that I couldn’t bring to the surface of my consciousness. What, what, what? Then, amid my dreamscape of mermaids, talking furniture and swirling teacups, I remembered. I needed to tell Mary that the suicide note was gone, ripped to tiny pieces; I struggled but couldn’t roust myself. Then I felt a gentle surge of relief as the memory of Em finding the note floated within reach; Em was a witness; she might even have saved the scraps. But a mistake—an accidental overdose—would be even better. I tried to push myself up; I needed to tell Mary. They couldn’t know she poisoned me! The next thing I knew was darkness, complete extinction. I doubt I have ever gone so deeply under before, so far beneath the surface that I was surprised when my eyes opened to the gray light of morning to find myself alive. Mary could have committed the perfect crime but hadn’t. Oddly, I did not feel I had passed her test, I felt she had passed mine. All I needed to do was get up and start another day, where the girl would have us both.
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