By Jennifer A Swallow
We were in the kitchen when it happened. Mitchell was sautéing some shrimp to put on a salad while I was looking through the wine fridge for the perfect bottle of Viognier. A quick succession of unusual noises, starting with the frying pan clattering against the tile floor, caused me to turn around. From the burn marks on his face, I knew he had first slumped forward onto the hot stovetop and then slid to the floor. He was unresponsive when I tried to get him to focus his eyes on me or say his name, as the 911 operator prompted me to ask while we awaited the ambulance. He would remain unresponsive for the rest of his life, a victim of locked-in syndrome, a repercussion of the hemorrhagic stroke he’d suffered that afternoon.
At first, I’d lain in the guest bed downstairs with him, holding his hand and stroking his hair and face. I’d spoon his immobile body or pull one of his arms around me and hold it in place for a moment before letting it fall limply back to the bedsheet. I kissed him on the cheek. But even if his ventilator hadn’t prohibited me from kissing his unresponsive lips, I wouldn’t have. Such a move would have felt inappropriate, like violating his personal space. Eventually, the lack of responsiveness made my affection too close to necrophilia, so I stopped.
Three years, four months, and five days later, I reached the point where a Robert Redford movie and The Rabbit vibrator weren’t enough for me.
“I hope you climb a mountain tonight,” I whispered into Mitchell’s ear after I pulled up his blanket.
I clicked off his television, lowered the back of the bed, and checked his heart and brain monitors. When I left the room, I closed the door softly but made sure it latched completely. I paused and pressed my ear to the door. Mitchell’s condition hadn’t changed, but if ever I was going to receive a sign from the universe that it would, that had to be the time. Silence.
Upstairs, in the master bedroom, I opened the dating app I’d posted a profile on a few days earlier. The first face had bushy white eyebrows and a bushy white mustache to match. The next had thick black glasses and a double chin. The third was ruddy cheeked with a small scar close to his nose. Face after face stared at me as I scrolled through the men aged sixty to seventy-five in a ten-mile radius. Mitchell’s machines whirred and clicked softly through the little intercom.
A man my age with a square jaw and brown eyes appeared. These features were the opposite of my husband’s oval face and light blue irises. Choosing someone who looked very different from the man with whom I’d spent my entire adulthood felt important. But this fellow held some other, indefinable appeal. The attraction could have been that his status was set to widower, which made me sympathetic, as I understood something about deep loss myself. The draw could have been that his profile included a picture of him riding a motorcycle, something I’d never done but always fantasized about. Or the pull could have been that in his self-description, he included the Seneca quote, When shall we live if not now?
A sound like a little cough came through the monitor. I jumped and dropped my phone into my lap, screen down. Then I listened. Humming, whirring, whooshing, a white noise that gave my husband life, although, what kind of life? The doctors said with proper care and mental stimulation, a locked-in patient can have a fulfilling existence, and I did my best to give him those. But what about me? Doctors never asked about my existence.
I picked my phone back up and sent the widower a simple message: Care to buy a lady a drink?
A few nights later, after two cocktails apiece at the bar in the Westin, we stood several feet from a king-sized hotel comforter so white I was afraid of spoiling it, like a virgin princess on her wedding night in the Middle Ages.
“Do you mind if we turn off the lights?” I asked.
“Of course not.” His voice was deep and soothing.
He flipped the switch by the door, and when he came back over to me, only a soft glow from the streetlights illuminated his face. I imagined that with the light behind me, my face was in shadow, which allowed me to relax a little. I wanted the darkness to obscure my wrinkles, stretch marks, and sagging skin.
Not that I was embarrassed about the way I looked. I have not a single part of my appearance of which I’m ashamed after seven decades on this planet. I’ve lived a fulfilling, productive, and adventurous life, and I’ve earned every story on my body. The problem was intimacy with a total stranger.
My husband seeing me the way I am was one thing. He had seen my body when I was twenty-five and flawless. He was present at the births of our two daughters—events that had changed my hips forever—and at the tumble I’d taken climbing in the Tetons that left me bruised and scarred. His own skin creased and drooped with mine as we turned fifty and then sixty.
We’d giggled and made faces at each other while comparing whose crows feet had the longest talons. We laughed at the puffy, shiny-faced immobility of the faces of people who spent a little too much time under the cosmetic surgeon’s knife, and we rejected that as an option for either of us. True, in moments of weakness, we purchased some fountain-of-youth creams, hoping for a miracle, and joined fad gyms, hoping not to have heart attacks. But on the whole, we were okay with our ages and everything that comes with getting old. Was this man the same?
He drew me close and put a hand under my chin to tilt my face up to meet his. I inhaled sharply and turned my head to the side as he leaned forward to kiss me. He seemed to understand what I couldn’t express and touched his lips to my neck instead. He lingered, his warm breath spreading over down my shoulder. Then I felt the light scratch of the scruff on his cheek against mine and the sensation of his hands around my waist. A longing overtook me, and I turned my face into his. Our lips met, and everything in the world vanished except the soft, dewy pressure.
He undressed me and I felt fingertips traveling from my throat, down my breastbone, dipping for a moment into my navel, and then cresting my rounded abdomen. He laid me down on the bed, and I felt the weight of his torso on top of mine, pushing it into sheets, lightly at first, and later forcefully. He began to sweat, the scent mingling with fabric softener and vaginal fluid. He whispered my name.
I hadn’t heard my name said in that way for so long.
I couldn’t focus on him, couldn’t think about what he might enjoy from me other than the most fundamental component of what we were doing. My brain carried me back to my youth when I was loved, while my body was immobile and unresponsive. The eerie irony of this occurred to me only sometime later. He climaxed. I didn’t, but we each got what we needed.
When it was over, he nestled me into the hollow of his shoulder, but lying there in stillness, the sense of urgent desire gone, reality tumbled back into my brain. Mitchell was home alone, with no one to help if he went into some state of emergency. How could I have left him unattended for…how many hours had passed already?
“I’m so sorry,” I said, standing up and clutching the defiled comforter to my naked body. “I have to go.”
He immediately stood as well, but without bothering to cover himself. “Oh, I…is something wrong?”
“No, not at all.” I scrambled around the room, trying not to trip on my oversized robe substitute as I gathered my clothes. “It’s just later than I realized.”
“You’re welcome to stay the night. The room is paid for.”
The thought made me want to vomit. “I have a dog at home waiting for me,” I lied.
“I understand.” Thankfully, he sat back down on the bed with his back to me while I dressed.
With my clothes on, I leaned down to kiss him on the cheek, careful not to touch his bare body with my hands. “Thank you.”
“I’ll message you,” I heard him say as I strode out the door, letting it shut on its own behind me.
I drove home faster than I should have and ran from the driveway to the door. But once in the front hall, I paused. Familiar silence greeted me. I left my shoes on the mat and peeked into the first-floor guest room. My husband was sleeping peacefully, just as he had been when I left him earlier that night. I watched him, my eyes traveling from the rise and fall of his chest, to his gaunt cheeks that bore several days’ stubble. Instantly, the sensation of the stranger’s cheek was palpable. I backed out of the room quickly, shut the door, went upstairs to the master suite, and shut that door too.
In the bathroom, I stripped and threw all my clothes into the hamper. I stared at myself in the full-length mirror for a long time. Then I took a scalding shower and scrubbed every inch of my skin raw with the loofah.
My longstanding friend, Diane, and I lunched the next day at a bright, sunny, local foods café downtown.
“Has Mitchell made any progress?”
She asked this every time we met, week after week, month after month, year after year. The question was more hopeful, more optimistic, than simply asking how he was doing. But I always had to answer no, instead of he’s doing fine. He was doing fine, for the condition he was in, but he never improved. No finger wiggles, no twitch of an itchy nose, no toe curls. No signs of life other than reflexive eye blinks.
After my standard reply, she asked, “And how have you treated yourself this week?”
I dropped the forkful of salad I had just made, and lettuce went all over my lap and the floor.
“Oh, gosh,” I said, brushing off my lap. “I don’t know what happened there.” I continued swiping at imaginary shreds of cheese long after they were gone while I tried to think of something to say.
“It’s okay, Marcy.” Diane smiled at me kindly. “Maybe you aren’t taking care of yourself enough. Maybe you need little a break, a diversion.”
“Well, I’m so grateful for Frank,” I said, displeased with the waver in my voice. Frank was the full-time nurse I’d hired to help out with Mitchell’s care. “At least I can get out of the house and not have to worry about—” My voice broke completely, and I squeezed my eyes shut.
I shook my head back and forth and waved a dismissive hand in front of my face.
“Oh, honey.” Diane got up and gave me a tight side hug. “It’s okay to be upset. I know Mitchell is your whole world.”
Two tears escaped down my cheeks and my shoulders shook with the effort of trying to stem the tide. “But I’m so lonely.”
Diane pressed my head to her shoulder and smoothed my hair with one hand. “You have me and your kids. You’re an amazing person, and we all love you and are here for you.”
I lowered my voice until it was barely audible. “I know, but I need more. I need to be touched.”
Diane’s body tensed next to mine. After a beat, she said, “I know Mitchell still loves you very much.”
A surge of anger shot through my guilt. I broke free of her embrace and rushed to the ladies room. Mercifully, Diane didn’t follow me. Safely inside a stall, I balled one hand into a fist, bit down on it, and screamed silently until I was out of breath.
When I returned to the table, I planned to insist that we change the subject, but Diane already had several innocuous topics prepared. She chatted about her volunteer work, a book she was reading, and other things I couldn’t comprehend because of the nausea that had taken over my entire being.
I stayed offline for four months following that first incident, but not a day went by that I didn’t think about it, even as I read novels to my beloved husband or soliloquized about world affairs. I wrestled with disgust and embarrassment. Knowing that inside his physical prison his mind could think about me as clearly as before the stroke—that he probably still loved me as Diane had said—made me feel remorseful.
What if, somehow, he suspected what I’d done? Worse, what if he felt angry and depressed and longed to die, but there I was worrying about not being able to have sex? My selfishness was almost unbearable. But every so often, an uncomfortable feeling crept into my brain, a feeling that I deserved that bit of pleasure, a few moments in an alternate reality where my own body was the focus, not Mitchell’s.
One day while checking my elder daughter’s social media page, I saw some pictures she had posted of a weekend getaway she and her husband had taken to a cabin in the Adirondacks. In every picture, they were making physical contact in one way or another, holding hands, legs intertwined, arms pulling each other close, and, of course, kissing. The need to be touched overwhelmed me.
I went into the guest room and looked at Mitchell. I assumed that he could see my frame in the doorway through his peripheral vision, even though he couldn’t move his eyes. I had cued up a few of his favorite podcasts that morning and when I stepped into the room, This American Life was playing. I sat on the edge of the bed and listened while I carefully flexed and massaged Mitchell’s legs.
The podcast episode was about people searching for belonging. People who had nothing and no one, and how they found a community to belong to. Mitchell and I had always belonged to each other, for almost as long as I could remember. We still did, yet we didn’t. The people in the episode might have been completely alone, but I couldn’t decide if that was worse than having someone and still being alone.
I continued massaging, moving from Mitchell’s calves to his thighs. Frank did this for him regularly, to distribute oxygen and nutrients. I’d been afraid to at first, concerned about hurting Mitchell, and then later, after previous nurses had taught me safe techniques, I still hadn’t wanted to do it often. Touching my husband’s depleted body made me feel equally squeamish and embarrassed for my squeamishness. But that day, I needed to touch him.
My hands sensed how atrophied his legs were, but with his body hidden beneath a light sheet, I could imagine he was his former, mountain-climbing, road-cycling self. My brain conjured up images of his broad, smooth chest and tanned, muscular shoulders.
The podcast host reached the point of the story where the subject felt for the first time that he had discovered people who understood and accepted him. I moved back further onto the bed, pulling my legs in, then lay back. I cuddled up next to Mitchell, the way I used to, sticking my face into his neck and slipping one hand under the sheet and up his shirt to caress his chest, skin on skin. I closed my eyes.
I must have dozed off because the next sound I heard was that of a very loud man hawking his podcast sponsor’s services. The strident voice snapped the rest of the room into focus, the beige hospital machines, the feeding tubes, the smell of ointment, and Mitchell. His concave chest expanded and contracted at the behest of the ventilator and his open eyes stared involuntarily at the ceiling.
I sat up quickly, wondering if he was aware of my movement even though those eyes couldn’t focus on me. They couldn’t then and never would again. He would never say I love you or touch me. I suddenly felt like a teenage version of myself, unbuttoning my blouse too far at a party so that Tommy Richter, center forward on the school soccer team, would pay attention to me instead of pounding can after can of cheap beer with his friends while deliberately ignoring me. The lack of reciprocation made the desire burn stronger.
I left the guest room, shutting the door behind me, grabbed my cell phone, went out to the porch, and opened the dating app. The first thing I saw was a notification of nine messages waiting for me. They were all from him Mr. Westin. I deleted them without reading them. I couldn’t be with him again. That felt wrong and humiliating, though I wasn’t sure why.
I messaged a man who had a slightly crooked smile and a dimple in his left cheek. He responded quickly and was amenable to the arrangement, so we made plans to meet the next night.
The second time was much less stressful. I insisted on the lights being off again, but I was more acutely attuned to the experience. I noticed the light oil of his face as it slid against my breasts, the dampness left on my neck and arms and stomach after he kissed me. The shape of his biceps as he held himself above me. The way my own body responded to him, tickling here, twinging there, softening, moistening. I came.
When I returned home, I stared at myself in the mirror again. Was I really a cheater? Were my actions morally objectionable? Would Mitchell understand? Guilt tugged at the edges of my soul, but at the core, deep within, I felt invigorated. I felt human. In the shower, I washed my body slowly, caressing my skin with the pouf and reliving the sensation of touch, the power of that touch.
In the morning, thoughts of the dimpled man still danced in my mind. His hands had been firm along my back, pulling me into him. His skin had been unexpectedly soft. A welcome heat emanated from his chest as he exerted himself above me.
“Catch a mouse this morning?” Frank asked when I joined him in Mitchell’s room.
“You look really pleased with yourself. Something good must have happened.” He smiled at me as he started maneuvering the dirty bedsheets from beneath my husband.
I returned the smile briefly, then turned toward the wall and straightened an already straight family photo. Did women my age still get an after-sex glow? “My daughter won a large account at work. I just got off the phone with her.”
Mitchell would never know if this was true. He’d never be able to ask about it when she came to visit. The lie wouldn’t affect his life, but I still was unhappy with myself for telling it. When I turned back around, he looked terrifyingly frail, lying there exposed while Frank shook out a new fitted sheet.
“Good for her! She’s in tech sales, right?” The smile remained on his face, and I analyzed it. It looked friendly. It wasn’t a sly grin or a knowing smirk. The expression was genuine and compassionate.
“That’s right, she books enterprise accounts for a threat research service…” I continued, my mouth forming words my daughter had repeated to me many times about her what she did for a living. I wasn’t paying attention to them. My attention was on Frank as he worked.
He didn’t jostle Mitchell. He carefully picked up one leg to slide the sheet under and then the next, taking a moment each time to massage his calves. He deftly lifted what was left of Mitchell’s torso to pull the sheet to the top of the bed, again taking a moment to massage his shoulders. Frank touched him, intentionally as part of his care. When I’d gotten into Mitchell’s bed yesterday for the first time in a long time, had he been craving my touch? I had no way of knowing. The uncertainty, the inability to obtain simple answers to simple questions, frustrated me.
When Frank had stretched the last corner of the fitted sheet over the mattress, he picked Mitchell up to take him to the bath.
“Can I—” I paused for a second. “Can I help?”
That sympathetic smile reappeared with the slightest hint of surprise. “Of course. Come on.”
The bathwater was already drawn. Frank kneeled down slowly, careful not to bump my husband’s head on the side of the tub. With one hand, he tested the water temperature. It must have been right because he stood back up, not appearing to strain at all from the weight of Mitchell’s limp body, and slid my husband into the custom bath chair. I watched as he buckled the rubber head and torso straps. Then Frank grabbed the oversized body sponge from the side of the tub, handed it to me, and backed out of the way.
Once the sponge was mine, I didn’t know what to do. Mitchell’s gaze focused somewhere near the showerhead, but he had to have sensed my hesitation. Frank put his hand on the small of my back and gently nudged me toward the tub. I knelt down and felt the water temperature, even though I already knew it was appropriate. A large bottle of shower gel sat on a recessed shelf in the bath. I wet the sponge, squeezed the gel on to it, and scrunched it a few times to work up a good lather. The sandalwood scent filled my nostrils and I inhaled more deeply.
An image of Mitchell from several years before came clearly into view. He was stepping out of the shower after we returned from a hike and wrapping a towel around his waist. That sandalwood smell permeated the humid air and I couldn’t resist taking him into my arms and kissing him, even though I was still sweaty.
The gel was his favorite and I would buy it for him the rest of his life. What a relief it must have been for him when Frank bathed him to be enveloped in a familiar scent, to wash away the antiseptics and lotions that prevented him from sores and other ailments of the permanently bedridden.
I began to soap his chest. I moved to his arms, lifting each one to access the undersides. I loosened his head strap and leaned him forward, holding him tightly with one arm and washing his neck and back with the other. Soap and water from his body saturated my blouse and I held him tighter. While I washed his legs, I looked up at his face, looking for signs of recognition, satisfaction, or happiness that I was there. I saw nothing, but he must have felt it. Knowing how the touch of the unknown man last night had made me feel, how the pleasure lingered through my shower, past my dreams, and into the morning, I thought Mitchell had to enjoy my touch.
When Frank was ready to leave that day, I followed him out to the porch. “Do you think Mitchell was embarrassed for me to see him nude the way, well, the way he is?”
Frank slowly shook his head from side to side. “I’ve never had a single patient with restricted mobility tell me they wished their loved ones touched them less. They become accustomed to their reality much faster than their family and friends do and crave the same affection and treatment they had before.”
I nodded but couldn’t speak. A huge lump sat in my throat.
“Marcy.” Frank faced me straight on and grasped my shoulders. In a low voice, he said, “Everyone needs to be touched. Everyone.”
I nodded again.
“You take care of yourself, Marcy. See you tomorrow.”
A few days later, Diane and I went for lunch again. When she asked me that time if Mitchell was progressing, I responded, “No, but I am.”
Her hand froze, wine glass halfway between the table and her lips. “Did something happen to you?”
“My husband can’t talk to me. He can’t laugh at my jokes or eat the dinners I want to make him. He can’t go to the symphony with me or book a vacation at the lake. He can’t touch me.”
Diane broke eye contact with me at that last statement. “Didn’t you go to therapy for a while?” She spoke to the tablecloth.
“Yes, but Mitchell’s condition is still something I have to live with every day. He’s never going to come back to me.”
“It’s very fortunate that you can afford help.” She raised her eyebrows in a look of concern.
“Diane, you’re not listening. What if something happened to Remy, and suddenly he couldn’t talk or walk?”
Remy was her husband.
“Well, God forbid. Poor Remy. He would rather die.” She passed the sign of the cross over her chest and kissed her fingertips.
I flinched involuntarily at the strength of her reaction, how horrified she was at the idea of living my reality. Mitchell’s reality.
She seemed unaware of the effect her words had. “I can’t even think about something like that.” She dismissed the thought with a hand wave and then picked up a fork to break into her cavatelli.
“Wouldn’t you miss him? Romantically?”
A flush crept into her cheeks. “I’d be glad to be relieved of that particular marital duty. I give in every few months just to get him off my case.”
I mirrored her in taking a bite of food to have time to decide on a response. Empathy for a circumstance as unusual as mine would be difficult. To most of the population, my day-to-day stressors and desires and sorrows were unique and unrelatable. I knew that. And if Diane no longer had an interest in sex, I doubted she could view me as anything other than an adulteress, though she would never make such an accusation out loud. She simply wouldn’t be able to comprehend that life isn’t so black and white.
“Well, like I said, I’m progressing. I feel positive about the direction my life is heading. The direction my life with Mitchell is heading, even if his condition hasn’t changed.”
“That’s so good to hear, Marcy. I want you to be happy.” She tilted her head to one side and pulled the corners of her mouth down in a sympathetic frown. Then she straightened herself. “Now, tell me, are you going to see your grandchildren over the summer?”
I continued to meet with men whenever the mood struck, always someone new. Messages from previous companions piled up in my inbox but I don’t know what they said; I deleted them all. I didn’t want to form any kind of attachment with these men aside from an instantaneous physical one. For a while, I still looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror when I got home, seeking acknowledgement that what I was doing was acceptable, that it wasn’t the same as infidelity. My reflection never told me anything.
Only Mitchell could tell me what I needed to know. I crawled into his bed and lay pressed against him while we watched movies or listened to audio books. I massaged him regularly and no longer felt uneasy with his lack of muscle and the harsh bone beneath my hands. I tended to his biological care and felt a strange, new intimacy in the act. And the more comfortable I grew with giving Mitchell affection, the more comfortable I grew receiving it myself.
Eventually, I ceased the post-coital looking-glass sessions. I had no guilt anymore to talk myself through. What I did on occasional evenings did not reflect on my devotion. It was a source of power fueling my continued love of the man I had chosen as my lifelong companion.
One night during my habitual hasty departure, this time from a man with thick, curly hair and a slight hunch, he said, barely audibly, “I have to confess something.”
A sense of anxiety I thought I had rid myself of floated up from my stomach. I turned around and looked at him critically. “Yes?”
“I’m married. My wife, she’s in a home, a nursing facility. She has advanced Alzheimer’s and doesn’t know who I am anymore.” He put his head in his hands and started to cry.
“We’ve been married thirty-nine years. Thirty-nine years.”
I went over to the bed and sat down next to him. I put a hand on his shoulder and pressed gently, encouraging him to look up at me. When he did, our eyes locked. “What we did doesn’t mean you love her any less.”
“She doesn’t even know I love her. She doesn’t know anything. I visit her every day. She’s here but she’s gone, and I miss her so badly.”
“Is this the first time you slept with someone else?”
“Yes, and—” his voice choked.
I waited silently.
“And I liked it.”
“Good, you deserve to.” Then I squeezed his knee, stood up, and left.
Jennifer A Swallow is known more for writing test preparation questions and technical manuals than fiction, but that doesn’t stop her from filling notebook after notebook with creative ideas. Originally from Buffalo, NY, she now resides in Colorado where she runs up very steep mountains at very high altitudes to clear her brain and get ready to write.