by Michelle Kouzmine
The plan was Vera would take a nap while Frank showered, and then they’d unpack together. But Vera never could rest in a place that was unsettled. Instead, she texted their son to let him know they’d arrived and surveyed the room, which was small and lavishly decorated in the pretentious, faux-Rococo style favored by European five-star hotels. It made her feel claustrophobic. She opened the curtains to bring in the light; Frank had closed them when they had arrived so she could rest. The bed, she noticed, was also small, a double.
The door between the room and the bathroom was made up of a wooden frame surrounding a panel of frosted glass, so when Frank stepped out of the shower, Vera could see his silhouette–a looming shadow on the glass. She busied herself with the unpacking.
Frank came out of the bathroom in only his boxer shorts, and Vera felt the room shrink around him. “I thought you were taking a nap,” he said.
“I slept practically the whole flight,” she said without looking up.
Frank lifted the stack of underwear from her hands, hovering over her so closely she could feel the steam vaporizing from his skin. “Let me do it. You should rest.”
“No, thanks,” Vera said while talking the underwear back. “I’d rather do it myself. Besides, how else could I find out what it is we forgot this time?” She tried to keep the weariness out of her voice. She tried, for Frank’s sake, to look energetic. She didn’t want him to think that she didn’t want to be here in Madrid. She did want to be here, just not in the same way that Frank did. Vera dreamed of sunshine and lazy days. But, for Frank, a financial advisor who defined everything in terms of numbers, fun was measured by a ticker that ran constantly in his head: how many passport stamps accumulated; how many stairs climbed to reach the tops of bell towers, scenic overlooks, and historical stone bridges; how many kilometers racked up on the rental car’s odometer; how many bottles of local wine wrapped in yesterday’s clothes and shoved into the dirty-clothes suitcase. The higher the total, the more successful the trip.
This time, however, Vera knew the stats would revolve around her. He’d be watching her, out of the corner of his eye, counting. He’d be asking himself: How many steps can she take before she gets too tired; how many stairs can she climb before she gets winded; how many times has she smiled? And the ultimate question: How many distractions did they have to pack into this vacation to keep them both from thinking about cancer?
She didn’t want to let him down. He deserved this trip. He needed it.
Vera began lining their shoes up against the wall by the doorway and said, “So, what’s the plan again?” Frank had always relished these moments that proved how organized his brain was, how well he could blueprint every moment of their lives. She gave him this as a gift, this chance to spew the words they both knew by heart. Besides, it gave her time to sort the shoes in the peace of Frank’s droning voice–a silence, really. So, as Frank gave a rundown of the next few days, Vera let his voice fade away into the background. By the time he’d recited a blow-by-blow account of the itinerary, she’d finished unpacking and arranging their things, making the hotel their temporary home.
Once Vera had the room just they way she thought it should be, it was nearly time to dress for dinner. She laid out Frank’s clothes and hers side by side on the bed, the very small–she noted again–double bed. At home they had a king. Everyone, Vera thought, had a king-sized bed these days. When she was sick, really sick, they had moved her from their room on the third floor to the guest room on the main floor. Frank would sit by her bed and read until she fell asleep, and then he’d go upstairs. If he’d felt lonely, sleeping in the their bed alone, two stories above where Vera had slept in a drugged blackness, he’d never said so.
Only a couple months ago, once she almost had the wind to face two flights of stairs, had Vera moved back to their shared bedroom, to their king-sized bed. But after a few nights, spent awake and ridged, teetering on the edge of the mattress, Vera retreated to the guestroom. “Too many stairs, too late at night, too early in the morning,” she’d said. The truth was, she slept better alone. She suspected they both did.
Frank set his phone on the desk and stood up. His boxers gaped open at the crotch, and Vera quickly averted her eyes and stared out the window, wondering why she felt so unnerved. Frank pointed to the bedside table behind Vera and said, “I need to grab my watch.”
Her arms were full of clothes, so she stepped back. The space was so tight; she had to press herself against the armchair to give him enough room.
As Frank set his watch to the local time, he said, “Not exactly spacious, huh? It looked bigger online.”
“Doesn’t it always?” Vera held out his shirt for him.
“I suppose so, yes. But that’s Europe for you. They like small; small cars, small rooms, small apartments.”
“Small dinner portions. Small tips, too. Don’t forget, you just round up. No twenty percent here.”
Frank said, “All true. You know, we have some time yet. We can get dressed quickly and have a drink in the lobby.”
“Oh, well. OK.”
Frank whistled as he buttoned up his shirt.
Vera retreated to the bathroom to take a shower. Even with the door shut she could hear his whistling, invading even the most intimate of places. She wondered how close she’d have to stand to the door for her shadow to been seen. She needed to find a way to get him out of the room, so she peeked her head around the doorframe and said, “Frank, toothbrushes!”
“Toothbrushes. We forgot our toothbrushes.”
“Well, it’s always something. I don’t understand it. I always check and double check, and we still always forget something. I just don’t get it.” After a pause he added, “I guess I’ll get my pants and go on a hunt for toothbrushes while you get yourself ready.”
Vera listened for the door to swing shut and then took the toothbrushes out of the toiletry bag, wrapped them up in toilet paper, and threw them into the wastebasket. Worried the two little bundles looked suspicious, she spun half the roll of paper around her hand, bunched it up, and shoved it in the basket to cover the toothbrushes. For authenticity, she gathered up other small items–pulled-off price tags, old receipts from the bottom of her handbag, and an empty Coke can–and placed them on top of the paper.
Vera stepped out of the shower and pulled the plush robe from the brass hook by the door and wrapped it around herself, tightly, crossing the lapels all the way up against the base of her neck. She folded her arms over her chest and crept to the main room. Just as she had hoped, Frank was still out, likely chatting with the lobby bartender.
Vera grabbed her black shift dress from the bed and dashed back to the bathroom. She turned her back to the mirror, quickly shed the robe, hooked on her bra, and pulled on her dress. She had worn a nearly identical dress twenty-five years earlier, on their honeymoon. Without looking up at the mirror, now dripping with condensation, she grabbed her new breasts from the vanity. They, too, were slick and wet, and the left one squeezed itself out of her hand and fell to the marble floor with a whack. She picked it up, dried both breasts in a hand towel, and slipped them into her bra.
Finally, she let herself look in the mirror. She ran her fingers through her hair, just long enough to go without her wig, which she left behind in Chicago. Vera’s sister had suggested that she should test drive this new hairstyle in the safety of a country full of strangers. She leaned over the sink, inches from the mirror, to apply her lipstick and caught a glimpse of her bra through the narrow gape in the neckline. She craned her neck left and right, and looked, really looked at her own breastbone, and a full, matronly bra stuffed with prosthetic breasts. She’d been wearing the breasts here and there, whenever she left the house, which was rare. Even then, she usually rushed to put them in and tried not to think about them–out of sight, out of mind.
Her hands slid over these breasts. They felt heavy. She squeezed them. Did they feel real? She couldn’t tell. The only breasts she’d ever felt were her own. Her breasts, her real breasts, had been smaller than her cupped hand, but firm. It that respect, these replacements were similar. But the nipples were too pliant, too giving. They didn’t pluck to the touch. Her doctor had told her that she’d get used to them. That they’d feel real. But to whom, she wondered. The idea of letting Frank actually touch them both embarrassed her and horrified her.
She dropped her hands and fussed with her dress. It pulled too tightly across her chest and made her feel exposed. Vera wound a voluminous summer scarf around her neck several times, hiding herself in layers of gauzy cotton.
Vera sank into an armchair and waited for Frank, but the combination of jetlag and her usual exhaustion pulled her down into a deep sleep. When she heard the door open, she sprang to attention and said, “I was just resting my eyes.” Her mother used to say the same thing whenever she’d been caught napping. Vera always thought it was a silly thing to say and was surprised to hear herself say it. “I’m turning into my mother,” she joked.
“Nonsense,” said Frank. He held out his arm for her. “You look marvelous.” She grabbed her handbag and met him at the door. He hugged her, firmly but awkwardly; he bent over too much at the waist so that their bodies made contact only at the shoulders, not the chest. The first time she’d worn the breasts, a few months ago to her sister’s birthday party, she’d worn a chiffon top with a voluminous bow, tied just so, hoping Frank would both not notice them and not not notice them. That entire night, and for weeks afterwards, he had never seemed to glance below her chin, keeping his own face tipped awkwardly upward, like a man standing in water that was just a centimeter too deep. Now, he could look at her, all of her, but looking was as far as they had come.
For dinner they went to El Botin: “The Oldest Restaurant in the World! See El Botin in the Guinness Book of World Records!” A tourist trap. The kind of place that, back home, would make them both turn their noses up. But they were on vacation, and El Botin was where they had eaten on their honeymoon when they were too young and too short of cash to be particular.
They were led upstairs to a tiny dining room, packed so tightly with tourists that every time someone cut into their meat or drank from their glass, elbows came dangerously close to touching other, strange elbows. The room was stuffy and saturated with the scent of charred pigskin. Frank had read online that a ten-euro note, slipped into the palm of the maitre d’, could win a table by the window. When they were seated in the coveted, window-seat spot, Frank shot Vera a gloating smile.
Vera felt overheated. She fluffed her scarf, releasing the air her body had warmed.
Frank scanned the wine list. “Well, according to Yelp, the only dish worth ordering is, of course, the pig. And I think we’ll go with a local Vinos de Madrid.”
“That’s fine,” Vera said. She’d retired from participating in those sorts of decisions years ago and honestly didn’t miss it.
Frank ordered in broken Spanish, padded with lots of facial expressions and hand gestures, even though, Vera was sure, a waiter in a restaurant full of tourists spoke English. When the waiter left, they looked at each other for a moment in a silence that would have been uncomfortable if not for the fact that they’d been sharing a walking-on-eggshells silence for nearly two years.
But this trip was supposed to change all that, reverse the last twenty-two or so months, and bring them back to the people, and couple, they used to be. As if the combination of a warmer temperature and views of charming, old-world streets was the secret elixir to remedy growing old, growing bored, and growing apart. Vera searched her brain for something innocuous to say, something that wouldn’t lead either of them down an association path that could possibly lead to the topic of cancer. Finally, she came up with: “I don’t think this is the same room we sat in on our honeymoon.”
Frank had to turn his chair to scan the restaurant. “No. We were in the basement. It was even stuffier there, if I recall correctly.”
Vera nodded. She could barely remember the room or the food. What she did remember was the excitement of being abroad for the first time, and being newlyweds. They had been so intensely together then in that way young married couples tend to be. Their conversations were at one moment lively and animated, and in the next quiet and comfortable. How foolish of them to think that life would always be that way.
The passion had faded over the years and mellowed into a warmth–a kindred feeling of experiencing life and parenthood together. But illness had slashed a gaping hole in that shared togetherness. Suddenly, they weren’t experiencing the same life anymore. She was sick and he wasn’t. And it wasn’t fair. Not to her and not to him, either.
The waiter returned with the wine, spoke quickly in Spanish, and poured a taste into Frank’s glass. Frank held the wine up to the dusty light, gave it a swirl, and took a sip. “Bueno, bueno.” He nodded and smiled. The waiter spoke again, and again Vera understood nothing. Frank smiled and said, “Bueno.” She didn’t think he understood, either. He was just better at faking it.
Halfway through dinner, they were still making polite conversation. Frank poured himself another glass of wine. “Not the best wine I’ve ever had, I’ll tell you that much.”
“It’s all right.” Vera smiled and had another sip. Her tolerance wasn’t what it used to be. When they were young, on a night like this, a celebration night, they’d pour glasses upon glasses of red and maybe even some grappa afterwards. She’d luxuriate in her drunkenness; let the calm seep into her muscles and grease up her mind and joints. Now the wine just made her feel tired.
Frank raised his glass and said, “Are you having a good time, dear?”
She brought her glass up to meet his. “Bueno, bueno.”
Frank said, “May the next twenty-five years be bueno, bueno.”
Vera, suddenly too weary to uphold her slapped-on, sunny disposition, took a swig and said, “And if they’re not? What if they’re not bueno, bueno?”
“But,” Frank said, “but they will be. I’m sure of it.”
“How, Frank? How can you be sure of it? Because you’ve got it all figured out on your iPhone calendar?” Vera set down her glass and leaned over the table, closer to Frank. She wanted eye contact, real conversation, intensity, heat–any way she could get it–a fight.
“I just know it,” he said.
“Because it’s not part of your plan? What if the cancer comes back?” She could hear her voice sliding up pitch, becoming too shrill for a public conversation, but she was too agitated to tamp it down. “It can come back, you know. It can be hiding out somewhere, anywhere: liver, bowels.”
“Stop, Vera. Stop saying such things.” Frank looked bewildered.
“Like what, Frank? Cancer? You can’t even say it can you?” She could feel the blood swishing around her eardrums. “Say it Frank. Say, it. I dare you.” She was leaning in so hard that the edge of the table jammed in between two of her ribs. Vera pressed harder.
“Vera? What are you saying?” He looked out the window.
“The truth. One of us has to.”
Frank took a sip of his wine and tipped his glass toward Vera as a mock salute, a way-to-ruin-the-evening gesture. He held the glass out, gracelessly between them, like a shield. Vera swatted it away, and wine sloshed around and out the glass. Frank, startled, cradled the base and stem with both hands as the wine splattered the white cloth, dividing the table in half with a seeping, maroon line that widened as they stared. Vera pressed her palms flat against the table and said, “I’m just saying that we can’t always pretend that we know for sure that everything is going to be OK. I’m tired of pretending. And basically, I’m just plain tired.” She put her head in her hand and muttered, “I’m just so damn tired.”
Back at the hotel, Frank neatly folded his pants and draped his shirt over the back of the armchair. He slipped into bed in only his boxers. Vera took her nightgown to the bathroom and brushed her teeth until her gums bled, which had become so common over the last two years, she relied on it as her indicator to stop.
She couldn’t decide if she should wear her bra and new breasts to bed, or just go without. That bed was so small, she was afraid his arm would bump into her in the night. And if it did, would he pull away? Would she? She spat and rinsed the blood and used-up toothpaste down the drain.
Vera double checked the lock on the frosted-glass door. If she undressed, would he see her peel her prosthetics off? She stepped back, hoping she was out of the danger zone. She zipped herself out of her dress and unhooked her bra, holding the bra and breasts up to her chest with her left forearm. A dizziness took over and she lost her footing. She eased herself down on the toilet seat.
Why was this so damn hard? Twenty-five years of marriage and she was hiding out in the bathroom, afraid to go to bed with her own husband. She couldn’t decide which body would feel more natural to him, to her: Vera with the silicone, detached breasts and a bra in bed, or Vera, partial and scarred, violently scarred. Which one was she less afraid of? She rehooked her bra– surrendering to the fact that it would be an uncomfortable night–and pulled her nightgown over her head.
Frank was lying on his side with his back to her side of the bed. She knew he was pretending to sleep. After so many years together, she could tell by the cadence of his breath. Vera sat on the bed. Frank had her pills and a glass of water all lined up on the side table. She took them one at a time, swallowing them whole and gulping them down along with the guilt from losing her temper, and then slid into bed.
For a few long minutes neither of them moved. Vera said, “I’m sorry Frank. I shouldn’t have gone at you like that. I just sort of snapped.” Frank stayed still and quiet. “Frank, I can tell you’re not sleeping.” She reached out for his hand, missed it, and rested her hand on his forearm.
Without turning to face her, he said, “No need to apologize. You just said what you’re thinking.”
“No, but I am sorry. Really, I am. I didn’t mean it. I love that you’re so positive. I love that you plan everything. We would’ve drowned by now if not for you.” She rubbed his shoulder and he finally rolled over to face her. “So, remind me again, what’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”
“The Prado.” Vera could see, in the pulsing, green, neon light from the alarm clock, relief easing across Frank’s face. “But don’t worry about it. We’ll just take it easy, relax. We don’t have to go anywhere if you’re not up to it.”
“I assure you, I’m up to it. I want to go to The Prado, really.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek softly, and he kissed back. He ran his fingers through her spiky hair and gave her scalp a little scratch. “I like your hair like this. It’s plucky.” The sensation made Vera shudder.
“Honestly, honestly.” He kissed her again and lightly grasped the side of her face, his fingers stroking the back of her neck. She leaned into his touch, as his fingertip traced the dip in her collarbone, around her shoulder and down her arm. His thumb grazed over the top of her bra, pulling the cup slightly outward, and dipped, just barely, into the fabric. He jerked back–stunned. They froze, wide-eyed and shocked, and neither moved until, finally, Vera eased herself down, further into bed, pulled the sheets up to her neck, and turned away.
Frank stood up and yanked his trousers on. “I’m sorry, Vera. I’m so sorry. God dammit.” Vera stayed silent.”I’m going to the lobby for a drink.” Vera listened for the bang, the slam of the door, but it hardly made a sound, just a sad, muffled click.
The line to enter The Prado wrapped around the immense stone building and seemed not to move at all. As they got out of the cab and walked to the entrance, Frank took Vera by the elbow. She knew exactly what he expected her to say, so she said it: “Look at that line! My goodness, you were right. Good thing you reserved our tickets online.” Frank pulled the printout from the back pocket of his jeans and waved it triumphantly.
They headed straight for the entrance, which wasn’t in the front, as Frank expected, but all the way around the corner. By the time they got to the lobby, Vera was winded and had to sit to catch her breath. Frank went to the gift shop and returned with a bottle of water and a museum guide as big as a Russian novel. He studied the pages and came up with “a plan of attack,” while Vera sipped the water and watched the lobby fill with people.
The plan was to begin at the traveling exhibition of Spanish drawings, on loan from the British Museum. Frank consulted the guidebook and led the way. The gallery, however, was full of several large groups of students, scattered about, sitting on the floor, listening to their instructors, and drawing their own sketches of the artworks on the wall. Frank wanted to stick with the plan and stay in the room anyway–tiptoe around the students. But Vera argued that they should go to the surrounding galleries and enjoy them until the students had finished.
The adjacent rooms were full of religious Renaissance art. Vera thought all religious art looked the same, and was always disappointed to be reminded that Europe was full of art museums that were full of the same sort of paintings. Frank, on the other hand, loved Renaissance art. She never understood how he could enjoy looking at religious paintings, each and every damn one of them. Vera felt judged standing in front of them, though she could never tell for sure if they were judging her for her lack of faith or her lack of artistic knowledge.
Frank lingered over a painting of a woman reading by the fire. Vera’s only impression of the piece was that it looked dangerous to be sitting in front of an open fireplace, in a backless chair and wearing a full-length dress. Frank, however, gushed over the vibrant greens and reds. “Amazing,” he said, “like they were painted yesterday, but this piece is nearly five hundred years old.” He remarked on the light, how natural the shadows and highlights were in tune with the dual source of light, window and fireplace. He then read from the book and shared bits of trivia about the painting with her. To Vera’s surprise, instead of grumbling under her breath and checking her watch like she used to, she found herself enjoying the moment—not the piece itself, but listening to the enthusiasm in Frank’s voice, seeing the lines in his forehead arch with interest and excitement. She saw something new in Frank, something she’d never bothered to slow down and notice before.
They continued on to the Flemish Renaissance gallery. Frank paused at the first painting and studied it. Vera stood a foot or so to his side and watched him concentrate. She hardly glanced at the work–another Christian something-or-other–because she was just watching her husband. Clearly, he recognized things in art that her eyes couldn’t see. This, she realized, impressed her. She slipped her hand in his. He paused for a moment and then squeezed her hand, gently.
Frank pulled her along to the next painting, and then quickly again to the next. “Let’s go,” he said. “We don’t need to see these.” He dragged her along faster.
“But, Frank,” she said, “slow down. We haven’t finished with this section yet.”
“Let’s just go back to the exhibition. I’m sure the students are gone.”
“But they’re not. I can still hear them.”
He didn’t answer; he pulled her along, too quickly for Vera to get her footing. She stumbled in tow. They weaved in and out of tourists and guards and benches. And then, in the passing blur of paintings, she caught sight of an exposed pink nipple, and then of a bold round breast. All around them, on every wall, were paintings of the Madonna and Child: Mary’s breasts, beautiful and alive, and Baby Jesuses sucking on them. In some, he was even squeezing his mother’s nipple, claiming it for himself as she looked proudly down on him.
Vera’s breath wheezed out of her and she sunk down onto a cold, hard marble bench in the middle of the room. The paintings surrounded her on all sides. Frank put his hand on her shoulder, protectively. “Are you OK? Vera? Vera?” She leaned forward, suddenly overheated–and no wonder–she’d lost not only her breasts, but also her sweat glands to surgery. Vera unwrapped the scarf from around her neck and let it slide to the floor. How ridiculous, this big scarf, and the scarves she wore every day, a parade of shrouds that she’d been hiding under for over a year.
Frank knelt down in front of her, scooped up her scarf and piled it in her lap. “Are you OK? Do you feel faint? Do you need water?” He grabbed her by the shoulders and hoisted her up so that she sat upright, looking down on him.
Her mouth was stretched wide open, but no sound was coming out.
Frank said, “Vera, oh my God, say something.”
The delayed laughter burst from her gut and over her lips. She laughed and it felt good. She laughed so hard she choked on her own cackling–gasping and coughing. This alarmed Frank even more; he darted up to his feet, searching the crowd for help. The look on his face struck Vera with a double punch of pity and adoration, so much so that she laughed even harder. For a moment she thought she was going to cry. But she composed herself enough to say, “Don’t you mean, oh my suckling baby Jesus?”
Frank’s brow wrinkled with confusion. He crouched down in front of her.
“Wait, wait,” she held her hand out to signal a pause. “Or how about, oh my topless mother of God?” She crumpled into another bout of laughter.
Frank sighed and lowered his head. Vera’s laughter tapered off. She ran her fingers through his hair and scratched his scalp. She looked over his head at the painting in front of her. Madonna was outside in the sun, with her naked breast in her hand, and baby Jesus calmly kneeling in her lap. It seemed to Vera that Madonna was looking down at her, kindly.
Vera took a good hold of Frank’s hair and tipped his face back to hers.
He looked at her, eye to eye. “I’m so sorry,” he said. His eyes dropped. “I just didn’t think about it.”
“See?” She said, “You can’t plan everything.” She twisted down, lining her face up with his. “You just can’t plan everything.”
About the Author:
Michelle Kouzmine graduated from Lesley University with an MFA in Creative Writing. She is currently an English professor at Miami Dade College, teaching both composition and literature.