by Jenni Innes
Darren is hopelessly in love with the woman across the hall. It had all started innocently enough: nods and smiles at the mailbox, holding the elevator door, neighborly small talk about the weather, “I hope you didn’t forget your umbrella,” and, on three separate occasions, relieving her of shopping bags as she struggled with the ancient locks on her apartment door. Their exchanges remained brief and casual but were frequent enough that his mind began to invent intimate details about her. She does not eat red meat. She snores a little. She is ticklish behind the knees. She never tries to talk her way out of a speeding ticket. She has a harmless heart murmur. Every detail delights Darren. He has come to regard her as his only reason for waking up in the morning, his only reason for breathing, his only reason for living. His wife, Pam, on the other hand, sees things differently.
Pam is completely aware of Darren’s growing obsession with Victoria, their impossibly blonde new neighbor. It has not escaped her notice that Darren spends most of his time in the living room, jumping up at every subtle noise to put his eye to the peephole. Pam does notice, and it does bother her, but it hardly keeps her up at night. That is not to say Pam sleeps well. Her restlessness, however, has little to do with Darren’s yearning for Victoria and everything to do with the cancer that started in her left breast and spread, like Darren’s comparatively benign infatuation, across the hall and into neighboring organs.
Darren is home with her every day on extended leave. He fixes her the scant bits of food she can stomach, he helps her use the toilet, he bathes her, and he drives her to the hospital on the worst days. Yesterday, he spoon-fed Pam like a child. He made a show of blowing on each spoonful to cool the broth, even though they both knew it was tepid. Nausea gripped Pam with each sip, and Darren would wait several minutes between spoonfuls for her stomach to settle. They sat quietly while Pam’s stomach protested the broth, and Darren’s imagination gave Victoria a dislike for cilantro. Darren stared at a scuff mark on the parquet floor, and tried to decide if Victoria ought to have played high school field hockey or volleyball. As he weighed the relative merits of hockey kilts and volleyball shorts, he tenderly stroked Pam’s arm with the tips of his fingers. Darren is always touching Pam. He touches her to soothe her. He touches her because he cannot help it. His skin seeks out her skin, warm and familiar. Victoria belongs to a food co-op, says his brain. I belong to Pam, says his body.
This morning Darren is rubbing Pam’s feet. The act itself offers little relief, but it was something Darren did for Pam even before she became ill and the routine is comforting. Darren’s thick fingers, warm and slick with tea tree oil, knead the tender flesh of Pam’s soles. Her feet are incredibly soft; they live in slippers now. Her feet used to spend the day in high heels. When Darren would remove her shoes in the evening she would groan with pleasure. He would take a tired foot in his cushy lap and run a finger up her instep. Her toes would reflexively point, straining toward him, and her entire body seemed to follow her toes, all of her energy flowing toward that point.
Now, Darren sits at the end of the bed, rubbing Pam’s left foot with his head tilted, one ear aimed toward Victoria’s apartment. Pam pictures Peter, their lumpy cat, eating food, his ears swiveled backward, ready to react to any new sound. She feels an urge to drive her oiled foot into the bridge of Darren’s nose, but her body lacks the energy. The anger seeps from her and is absorbed by the bedding beneath her.
Darren laces his fingers between Pam’s icy toes, pushes deep into her joints, and inhales the sharp and woody scent of the oil. He imagines the hallway outside their front door. The walls are peach, the carpet is beige. Under the glow of the amber wall sconces everything has a fleshy blush. Victoria stands in front of his apartment door, her cheeks flushed, her hair wild. She is barefoot. Her delicate toes dig into the subtle nap of the rough carpet.
That night, Darren dreams not of Victoria but of Pam. He sees her not as she is now, more bedding than person, but as the woman he took to the emergency room one afternoon eight months ago. When the nurse readied the needle to draw blood, Pam turned her head towards Darren. Her eyes flickered when her skin was pierced, but she steadied her gaze for Darren. Her blood moved slowly through the tube; it took several minutes to fill all five vials. The Nurse had shrugged and called Pam’s blood sluggish.
“My wife’s blood is not sluggish,” Darren had argued. “It is graceful. Everything in her body moves with purpose.” He threw one arm out in a dramatic, sweeping gesture and knocked his can of Fresca to the floor. He stooped to blot up the spill and slipped. His comfortable rear was fine, but the seat of his pants was soaked with soda. Pam laughed; the nurse, barely looking at him or the mess, told him to just leave it. After the nurse left with Pam’s blood, Darren squeezed Pam’s hand and asked if she would like to go to a movie when it was all over.
Darren wakes with Pam’s hand in his; they sleep this way, hands held, and an ankle hooked together. In his dream, Pam’s eyes had filled with needles and spilled from her sockets like water flowing from a faucet. He tries to crowd the image out of his head, but it is too big. He stares hard at the stucco ceiling, it blurs, and then jumps. His head roars, and beyond the rush of blood he can hear the hum of hydraulics and the grating sound of metal scraping. The ceiling is rolling toward him. The pressure empties his lungs; he feels his veins bursting. He pulls himself free from Pam, and curls away from her. He squeezes his eyes shut, and counts Victoria’s brightly painted toes, ten tangerine promises, over and over until the orange light of morning seeps in through the window.
Pam, awake now, listens to Darren, and can tell he is not asleep. She turns and finds him far away, clinging to the edge of the bed. A wild jolt of rage floods her body with adrenaline. It numbs the pain for a moment. It is, she knows, the only relief from pain she will feel all day. She watches Darren pretend to sleep and, like so many times before, she is struck by how tragic it is that he should outlive her.
Jenni Innes earned her bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Brooklyn College. She lives in New Jersey with her family, three dogs, and one brave cat. “In Sickness” is her first published story.