AMBIVALENCE: A LOVE STORY
by Claudia Piepenburg
October 20, 2016
“Mrs. Williams? Alice Williams?” The doctor resists the urge to click his fingers an inch in front of the half-shut eyes of the woman sitting by the door. He’s seen this reaction before, too many times; and even though he knows that she needs to be shocked into the reality of this moment, he can’t. Doing so would be too callous, too cruel, too much like a cringe-worthy scene from a mediocre movie where the villain slaps the hero in the face and screams: “Snap out of it!”
“Mrs. Williams?” Sometimes, he’s learned, raising your voice by even half an octave makes all the difference.
“Yes? That’s me.” She’s small, probably not much taller than five feet and less than one hundred pounds, so frail that despite the fact she’s sitting he fears she might topple over. Black eyeglasses perch just at the top of her forehead, looking like they’ll slide down her face at any moment. Her hair is cropped close; it looks blonde, sun-bleached white but he knows it must be gray. When her lids pop open, as if he had struck her in the face, he sees that the eyes hiding beneath them are the color of still blue water.
What a beauty she once was—still is. I wonder what he thought, the first time he saw her.
“Mrs. Williams, I’m doctor Robertson. Mel’s primary care doctor has filled me in on your husband’s case. He couldn’t be here today; he has an emergency surgery. I’m sorry.”
Sorry because I have to tell you what you already know but don’t want to be told and sorry because what could be more heartless, cold and final than your doctor not being available to deliver the news because he’s moved on to care for someone who’ll be alive tomorrow.
She closes her eyes, all the way this time, so it looks like she’s shielding them from blinding sunlight or a probing laser or perhaps a white-hot explosion. They remain shut while her mouth opens.
“Mel, short for Melvin of course. I always hated the name Melvin. But it was his father’s name so…”
“Oh, I understand Alice. I so understand. You know what my first name is? Reginald. Can you imagine? A name like that for a guy born and raised in Brooklyn? But my mom loved an English actor named Reginald Denny who made some movies with Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, so she and my dad named me after him, although I’m pretty sure that dad wasn’t all that hot on the idea. I use my middle name, John, as my first name. Only my wife—and well, now you—know that my real name is Reginald.”
Please open your eyes, please. Please. I’m rambling and I’m trying to connect with you and I want you to open your eyes and look at me and you need to listen to me and not make me stand here anymore because I really want this to be over because even after all these years, I’m not good at this.
“Reginald is a rather old-fashioned name, isn’t it?” He realizes he was wrong—her pupils are icy blue. “Our children won’t be here when you…when you turn everything off. You need to know that so you don’t have to worry about the time, about waiting I mean. We aren’t waiting for anyone.”
Am I sorry?
“How many children do you have?”
“Two. Our daughter is off traveling around out west somewhere. Maybe Colorado now, I’m not sure. Last time we heard from her she was in Oregon. She’s looking for herself, that’s what she says, anyway. Mel told her that saying she was looking for herself was just an excuse to keep her from having to look for a real job—something other than working in bakeries and making artisanal chocolates.”
Her voice is hard and chilly, as cold and penetrating as the eyes that bore through him.
So I’m not sorry, I guess.
“Your other child…”
“A son. A son, daughter-in-law and one grandson. They live in Berlin. He’s in banking, finance—that sort of thing. They’ve been there for six years. Our grandson is four, we saw him once when they came for a visit not long after he was born. He wouldn’t know us from Adam.”
Knowing all this makes it easier and so much harder.
“Well, then since they can’t make it to say goodbye,” (God, I sound so sloppily sentimental. I wish I hadn’t said that) “we can proceed, but first I need to explain a few things to you. Your husband…”
“Is essentially brain-dead because he suffered a massive stroke, his second by the way but I’m sure you know that, you’ve read his chart. We used to talk about this Mel and I, about something like this happening.”
That’s a good sign, she’s prepared. She knows what to expect.
“So you understand then that…”
“There were times when we talked about it and we’d both decided that he’d be the one who’d end up like this unless I got in a car accident or something—we’d talk about it and I’d think, depending on how angry I was with him, what year it was…you know…early in our marriage we never talked about death, about being brain-dead and feeding tubes and all, but we did later, after the kids were born—and there were times in those days when I felt like I was the only one doing all the work, the only one working at bringing up our children, the only one working on our marriage, the only one working on our lives—there were times in those days that I would think that it would be such an easy thing to do, something I’d almost look forward to…the doctor coming to me and saying ‘Mrs. Williams, he’s gone and we have to pull the plug.’”
Her eyes look as if they might shatter at any second.
“That you weren’t standing here right now? That you aren’t hearing me saying these things? That you didn’t have to be here? That you knew what to say? I understand, doctor, I wouldn’t know what to say to me, either.”
She stares at his hands. They’re touching, just below his belt, making a pyramid shape, his elbows jutting out on either side of his torso; the pose makes him look awkward and uncomfortable.
“Are you married doctor Robertson? I don’t see a wedding ring.”
“I am, been married for almost fifteen years now. I don’t wear my ring when I’m working. I was in surgery this morning, for four hours. I don’t wear any jewelry including my wedding ring when I’m in the OR. There aren’t restrictions against wedding rings per se but I’d rather be safe than sorry. Germs you know. We scrub up well but one never knows.”
When she stands and walks toward the bed she seems not quite as old on her feet, not quite as fragile. Her back’s to him now but he hears her clearly.
“Mel didn’t have to worry about germs, about infecting anyone. He was a comptroller. A guy who worked with numbers, just a glorified accountant, that’s all. But he quit wearing his ring about ten years after we were married. Told me that he lost it, said he must have taken it off to mow the lawn or when he painted the shutters and couldn’t find it after that. I didn’t bother him about getting another one; didn’t nag him. Afterwards I figured it had been easier for him to meet women when he was wearing his ring anyway. Precious metals are an attraction, never a distraction.”
She strokes her husband’s head, knobby fingers moving through his hair, parting it, then patting the thin gray strands into place.
“Of course I didn’t know that he already had a girlfriend by that time. Seven-year itch, that’s what it was. What happens after seven years? And why seven? Why not five or ten? You know, they made a movie about that…the seven-year itch. You’re too young to remember. It starred Marilyn Monroe. There’s that famous scene of her in the movie, standing over a subway grate and the train comes by and blows her dress up around her and you can see her white panties. Mel loved that movie. He loved Marilyn Monroe. Mel loved women. Women loved Mel.”
If I leave the room now she won’t even know that I’m gone. Maybe I should leave her for a while, I don’t need to be here anymore. She knows what’s going to happen.
“Alice, would you like me to leave you alone with Mel for a bit? Is that something that you need?”
Turning to face him, he sees that the ice has melted; remnants pool in the creases that form a halo around her mouth.
“It’s too late now. Too late for me to say some things I should have said long ago. I waited too long. All of us do, don’t we? We all wait too long because we don’t know how long we have.”
“Yes, Alice that’s true. It’s human nature.”
She turns back, resumes the stroking, parting, lifting, patting. He’s watching a ritual.
Her face is softening, the lines and creases dissolving, disappearing as if they were ripples on water. And when she speaks he knows the words aren’t meant for him. This is a private one-sided conversation.
“I could have had an affair, I could have. That’s what I’d tell him. He was a nice man. Not a handsome man, not handsome like Mel but a nice man. He was a widower, his name was Paul. Paul Jackson…or maybe it was Johnson…was it Johansen? I don’t remember after all those years. I met him at PTA conference. Mel was away on a business trip and Paul was there because his wife had died two months before. He talked to me Paul did, for a while after we’d met with the teacher. Stopped me in the hallway and started talking about silly things, things he thought a woman would want to hear I guess. He mentioned a movie that I knew he never would go see by himself and then he brought up gardening, talked about tulips for quite a long time. He was very nervous. I looked at his shirt once and thought I could see movement, up and down just a little, right where his heart was. Funny…I remember the conversation so clearly but I can’t recall his last name.”
She’s bent over at the waist, her right cheek touching the side of her husband’s face, just below his left eye.
“I didn’t though…have an affair. That was the first and last time I talked to Paul. I never saw him again. I used to think about him now and again but I haven’t in years…not until just now.”
During the two or three seconds that he glances at his watch he’s become visible to her again, and the guilt jabs his stomach, hard. As if her ear has become an eye, she speaks, this time to him.
“I guess you’d like to get this over with, right doctor?”
“Now, I’m ready now, doctor.”
And Alice leans in, closer than before, and whispers in Mel’s ear.
October 20, 1955
“Alice, look who’s standing over there. It’s Mel Williams. He’s standing by the wall all alone and he’s looking over here.”
The girl in the blue poodle skirt and white bobby socks discreetly pokes Alice in the ribs and not so discreetly tilts her head to the right.
“Mel Williams? Hah! That louse, that cheater, that heart breaker. He can look all he wants. Let him look. He’s probably looking at you anyway, Hannah.”
“One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock, five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock…” Bill Haley’s vocals drown out Hannah’s reply. Alice shakes her head, grabs Hannah’s hand and pulls her outside the gymnasium door where the 1949 state football championship team stares down at them from inside their glass-fronted box.
“What did you say? The music’s so loud, I couldn’t hear you.” Usually soft-spoken, Alice brings her right index finger to her lips, laughs and her sunflower blonde ponytail whips from one ear to another as she shakes her head from side-to-side. “Gosh. It’s so loud in there that I’m still screaming.”
“I said that Mel’s looking at you, right at you Alice. Isn’t he dreamy? Those eyes, that smile, the dimples and his big broad shoulders. And he’s looking at you. You gotta go back in there.”
Alice presses the palms of her hands flat into the wall, right shoe-less foot against it, left leg jiggling, just from the knee down.
“Are you kidding me? Mel Williams? Didn’t Betty Mitchell just break up with him last month? I heard that she caught him making-out under the bleachers during halftime with that slutty redheaded cheerleader from Wilson High. Right there under the bleachers. Our bleachers, at our school while poor Betty was buying a soda pop. Heard that Mel gave Betty the money to buy the soda, told her that he wasn’t thirsty, he’d just hang around and listen to the band until she got back. Listen to the band…right. Mel Williams? Nuh-uh!”
Arms folded in front of her now, pushed tightly against her blue angora sweater, her hands buried under her armpits, Alice shakes her head “no, no, no” and stares at the clock on the wall behind Hannah’s head.
“Let’s go get a milkshake.” The words don’t come out nearly as sure as they’d sounded inside her head.
“A milkshake? You just told me last week that you want to lose two pounds and besides we just got here. Come on, Alice. Let’s go back in. What I heard is that Betty wasn’t very nice to Mel. Thought she was too good for him. You know, Mel’s mom died last year, he’s still gotta be feeling so sad. Come on. Let’s go back in.”
“Ain’t that a shame? My tears fell like rain. Ain’t that a shame? You’re the one to blame…”
Neither one’s surprised to see Mel walk through the open gymnasium door.
“Hey, girls. Whatcha doin’ out here? All the fun’s inside.”
Alice raises her hands and hugs her shoulders, pulling them in like she’s folding wings around her body.
“We’re…we’re thinking about leaving. I’m not feeling…”
“Well, I’m going back inside. You two stay out here.” Hannah’s skirt swirls around her calves when she leaves, as if she’s already dancing.
“That true? You not feeling well? ‘Cause if you’re getting sick, I can drive you home. Your name’s Alice, right? Alice Ryzner? We were in the same English Comp class last semester. I remember you Alice. Maybe…maybe you remember me? Nah. Probably not.”
His brown eyes remind her of a fawn she saw once in the backyard. She was ten. Her mom called her to come and look at the creature nuzzling around the roots of the maple tree. When Alice stepped to the window, the deer had lifted its head and before it scampered away, it looked right at her, its eyes big and sad and scared.
“I remember you. You told funny jokes, you made me laugh.”
“I did? Wow! My jokes made you laugh. I didn’t think girls like you thought guys like me are funny.”
She lets her fingers brush against his forearm, only the slightest touch, barely perceptible.
“I thought your jokes were very funny Mel.” And this time saying his name out loud feels personal and real and intimate.
“Well then maybe I’ll tell you some more. And if you’re not feeling too sick, could we have a dance. Just one? And then I’ll drive you home if you want.”
Alice’s fingers tighten around his arm, the way you’d hold onto a crystal goblet—tight enough to keep it in your grasp, to keep it from falling but not tight enough to break it.
“I’m feeling so much better. My headache’s gone. I’d love to dance with you.”
Mel takes her elbow, leads her to the door, opens it and as they walk into the gym he leans in, very close to her ear and whispers, so she can hear what he’s saying over Presley’s boisterous vocals:
“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen Alice Ryzner. And I’m going to fall in love with you.”
About the Author:
Claudia Piepenburg spent the majority of her career as a copywriter, editor and journalist. Her articles have been published in Runner’s World and Running Times. Since 1992 she’s been a contributing writer to Road Race Management, a monthly running industry publication. From late 2015 through early 2017 she wrote for Carlsbad Lifestyle, a monthly digital and print magazine and the website yournorthcounty.com. She was a freelance reporter for The Coast News Group from April to September 2018.While employed as senior copywriter and managing editor at Road Runner Sports from 1999-2004, she wrote seven books, one titled Running for the Soul is still available on Amazon. In early 2017 she completed her first novel and is currently looking for representation. Also in 2017 she began writing her second novel and wrote twelve short stories and several poems. Her short story Where Do We Go From Here was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train May/June 2018 Short Story Award for New Writers. Although her short story Breathing Lessons was not published in the New Yorker, the editors sent her an email thanking her for her submission, told her that they regretted that they weren’t able to publish it and thanked her for giving them the opportunity to read her work. She’s a member of Publishers and Writers San Diego; the National Writer’s Union; a co-founder of North County Writer’s Community, a group of both published and un-published writers who meet weekly to write, critique their work and discuss their craft; and a member of the Oceanside Mission Writers’ Critique group.