He didn’t understand, he was right about that, she thought. To him it had to be glamorous with jewels as the commodities of her trade, all that gadding about with fancy people, seeing sights he’d not see now. There was truth to this but it was the only part he wanted to believe.
The rest of it he tried to hold at bay any way he could, sometimes blaming her. And there was good reason for that. Admitting he was not going to walk again, at least not right–never mind play his horn, dance at one a.m. with the last customer, drive like crazy along some back country road–was like admittance to hell. Well, that had already begun when he had the stroke. Forty-one, relentlessly alive and just like that, cut down by a vagrant piece of circulatory trash that got stuck in an artery. Now his legs were mostly useless for the best things. His left hand couldn’t hold his trumpet mouthpiece to lips for more than a moment if he tied it there and dictated those beautiful, once-muscle-memories of movements required for sound.
But Mirabel kept on. Of course she did, what else was she to do, watch the seconds of their lives tick on as the pantry was emptied? She’d been a jeweler by trade when they’d met–he’d been browsing for someone who became irrelevant that snowy day–and remained so. He was a musician, he had some regular gigs and even when he hit it bigger there were more bills than income at first. Her work tided them over and she kept at it. She got good, then better, and then she was managing the finest jewelry store in Detroit metro as well doing the best work around, as she’d often been told.
Now she traveled more. Okay, a lot, every month or more. She had trade shows to attend and consultations to carry out, gems with just finished settings (or the final designs to deliberate) to hand deliver so an out-of-town customer could see up close exactly what big money was paying for. A personal touch was how Mirabel preferred to do business. It cost a bit but it was worth it for connections and subsequent referrals. Success had arrived. If she had to go out of her way to keep things well oiled, she’d do it despite Hal being held hostage to the damnable wheelchair.
He understood this much: they now lived in a beautiful spacious condo with a fine river view and he had good help. Alma came to care for him every day, and she had a fair for it. She had expansive congenial feelings for him which she could dispense lavishly; she went home each night to a good humored, healthy husband.
Mirabel meanwhile speculated what a warm bed would feel like as someone sidled up close, held her all night. Those days felt over for her, to her sorrow. Not that Hal yet believed it but he was more a dreamer, not so accepting of gritty details.
“You must stay at nice places. And stay occupied,” he said. “Don’t tell me ‘no’.”
“Right, occupied by my usual historical novel or a sitcom on T.V. It’s a blast. I do find most people I meet are interesting, you know that, and thank goodness. It’s not all diamonds and rubies and money.”
“Oh, come on, there are many men in this business who’d be happy to hold your hand, your waist, then–”
“Right, those men are older by far than you and gassy and balding, or baby-faced and ambitious, or very married with two kids. And what do I care? The others circle like hawks, I know how to put them off. How many times do I have to remind you? I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I’m more likely to meet up with business women for a late dinner. But none of us love travelling. We’re flat out whipped at the end of the day so it’s no party. It’s not a great way to see the country, either. No, it’s not great fun…”
Hal grunted. “Yeah, it’s so hard to be free, on your own out there.” He turned up the music, checked out.
The anger never quite quit, it just went underground. It abated if there was something good, like his musician friends coming by for dinner and talk. Then Hal was all affable bluster as ever he’d been. He applauded his friends’ recording contracts or tours or the latest band they’d put together. Never moaned on and on that he wasn’t with them. He wouldn’t consider doing that to them or himself. They missed him. They also saw him as man of steel despite extraordinary ways with his instrument. Well, once extraordinary, once on the high road. He was a guy who could take punches over and over and still come up chirping about this surprising and wild life. How thankful he was he wasn’t a Benny who’d died of an overdose at the apex of his career, or a Margo who literally went over the edge from too many bad breaks. He’d had it pretty good since he was nineteen, overall. Now he could again read some (the stroke rattled that piece of his brain), listen to music all day, compose in his head all he wanted. Sit the terrace and breathe pungent city air without worrying, planning the next big gig. Maybe he’d take up electronic music in the end. He was working on bettering hand strength and dexterity.
And then Mirabel was one of a kind, she stepped in, took care of things, they knew how steady she’d always been. She never once hinted she’d leave him. Besides, there was now Alma with the short blonde bob and so-so jokes–she was such a cheerleader and they got on well. Maybe he would be okay.
Hal was a braver person than any of them but it was so sad to witness his demise that they couldn’t speak of it later. They put on his recordings now and then and raised a bottle.
Hal’s anger spilled over after they returned to making music and he to useless days and nights. Mirabel gave him enveloping hugs and good words then stepped aside, worked longer hours. Loneliness might bash him any time. He’d feel it burrow into his sleep and his waking when she left for a three day trip or worse, a long week. He’d think himself into exhaustion wondering what she was doing, who she was doing it with, even though nothing telegraphed that she was disloyal. It was his humiliation, the teeth-gnashing depression that ran his mind in circles like a mad dog. But she was a person others gravitated to, that was the thing, eyes sparking with intelligence, a listening ear that put you center stage, a soft laugh that rolled into body and mind. She was attuned to life’s nuances as he was to music’s dynamics. He’d also seen her operate in a competitive, male-dominated trade that centered on obdurate, cool, magnificent gemstones with people to match. Mirabel had the right touch for so much.
But now more than ever there were things they did not know about each other.
When she went on work trips, after she was done for another day or evening, Mirabel wandered. If she had been successful or not, it was the same. After she window shopped and consumed a juicy steak, fish and chips or street burrito, she walked as if she was going somewhere, stride confident, footfall secure. But she was just moving fast from corner to corner, street to street, waiting for lights to change, people to pass without making eye contact, feeling breathless. Waiting for her life to stop blurring, as if she was on a runaway train and had to hang on for life.
Sometimes she ended up in a bar. The first times is was a shock, she was not a bar person, but they weren’t fancy or suspect, just any neighborhood place when regulars swiveled their heads as she slipped onto a stool. They knew she was passing through, she had the look of a visitor, hair neatly swept up at the sides neatly, her good leather bag full of things like scarves and elegant sunglasses, glossy pamphlets and who knows what else that made it bulge. She kept it close to her body.
The women who tended bar wondered if she was looking over their men but saw the plain gold band (her right hand wore a large single contemporary-set topaz) and her distant look. (Mirabel never wore her wedding diamond with two sapphires on either side when on trips, it was vintage and worth a good figure.) So they got her the simple mixed drink to get her started, minded their own business unless she stayed late for one too many. Which happened too often on trips, never at home since she rarely drank otherwise.
They’d pause at her spot, one hand on hip, brushing back unruly wisps of hair with the other. Tired out but always curious.
“BBQ sandwich? Pretzels? We’ve got a pile of garlic fries.”
“No, thank you very much.” She jiggled the ice in her glass full of rum and coke. “I suppose I need my husband… but he’s home and I’m–” she looked around as if surprised–“here.”
“Visiting someone then, huh?”
She shook her thick brown hair with white gleaming at the part and leaned into her glass. “Work only, I’m a jeweler. I’m on business.” She slurped the last of that drink.
Then they’d talk about jewelry and the bartender would show off shiny earrings or a dainty necklace from a boyfriend and ask if they were worth anything. One thing would lead to another until Mirabel would put an end to the questions with another drink, then a third and she’d start to slump. She was an amateur, they noted.
“I do miss the guy…”
“Have you called tonight to let him know you’re thinking of him?”
“Oh, no, he’s surely asleep. Alma the Nurse usually puts him to bed before she’s done for the day.”
“Oh?” Both hands on hips. Quizzical looks shared with those who’d been listening in.
“Hal’s paralyzed. Stroke.” She’d press fingers to lips–she hadn’t meant to tell these strangers, never anyone—would get up, hurry out the door unsteadily, hail a cab.
They were sure to watch her climb in okay, then regulars shook their heads, regulars frowned at their beers, muttered about fate and its misfortunes. The bartender slapped her rag hard once on the counter and got busy. Lots of pain in this place.
Back at her small, too bright room, the cheapest one available that didn’t cause worry about bedbugs or neighbors shouting all night. Why spend money where it didn’t help business, after all?
Mirabel somehow got off her clothes. Sat on the edge of her bed awhile, listening to the traffic below, the night a meaningless void. Where would she find some comfort for the night if she didn’t collapse under the influence of alcohol? Her five hundred page book or the same shows again? She stood motionless in the inadequate shower, shivering even in the hot spray. Then came the ache of longing, the gaping depths so empty where rich love had flourished. Her music man, crackling wit and loyal partner. Struck down. She wanted to hold his hands in hers, feel him squeeze hers three times like a young man: “I”, “love”, “you.” She wanted to hear that music had not been the one and only love of his life. That he still had room for her. For them. If his heart might still pull out the old joy–she could help if he’d let her–one day. She didn’t need him to be this strong. Or this sorrowful. It would end, wouldn’t it?
The steam billowed, suffocating her. Mirabel opened her eyes, turned off the water and slid back the curtain. Grabbed a towel, readied body and mind for one more vast, chilly bed in the drone of the dark.
Hal watched Alma clean up the living room, her muscular arms and square hands moving with efficiency as she picked up things, dusted a little, took the tray with his dinner leftovers to the kitchen. She hummed to herself much of the time. He’d never commented despite his flinching; she was always off key and it pleased her. She spent all day taking care of him except when Mirabel could be there so he tried to be generous. To encourage her when she had trouble getting him moved, to laugh at her silly jokes, to not make more of a mess than possible.
She’d lasted ten months now. The others lasted two or four months. The stroke had terrorized him into submission close to two years ago. It was hard work to help him; he was not a short man, no longer toned, lithe, quick to respond. Alma was possessed of broad hips and shoulders and moved with such grace that he marveled at it. She had good muscle in those biceps. Mirabel though lovely, sleek, inhabited her body as if she had to command her limbs to act natural. She was confident while working, her hands so deft, but otherwise she might stumble, ram into corners, drop glasses–about which he used to tease her. Not now; he envied she could rise up, move alone.
Alma’s dishwater blond hair was spiky and bright. She wore black stretch pants and a long, loose pink shirt. Hal found her attractive if he was honest but made sure she didn’t know it. Her company was priceless, she had to know that by now. She hummed and chatted as she labored, and never lost her patience. He guessed that’s why they paid her a hefty wage. Well, mostly Mirabel’s health insurance did but Alma got bonuses. For such aid and company he’d give up other things if needed. She read murder mysteries to him. She cooked well enough. And never made a face when he needed more help in the bathroom, unlike Mirabel, whose dismay could not be hidden, nor deep frustration over her limitations.
Alma was interesting to contemplate. She’d be one of those women who stood right up in a nightclub and swayed to the jazz, arms raised, ample form mimicking the beat, high on his acrobatic trumpet. Livening up the crowd. This imagined scenario as she worked dovetailed with his sadness, shaping it into a lighter, prettier thing. She’d glance at him as if feeling his gaze, eyebrows flitting above cheery eyes as she hummed louder to make him chortle–surely she knew she couldn’t carry a tune but just didn’t care. She stirred things up a little as she watched over him. Perhaps that was her best way to help people. Distracting them from any self pity.
“Mirabel back tomorrow?” she asked since her work was done. She took off her pinafore type apron with its big bright flowers. Old fashioned, pretty, a fun touch.
“I suppose, wasn’t sure about this tran–trans–I mean, deal. I thought she’d call tonight.” His language use had returned bit by bit a year after the stroke but he still spoke with care, had to simplify some days. He gestured to the table. “Phone charged yet? She call or text?”
Alma picked it up, brought it to him. “No, Hal, nothing the last hour.” She handed it to him and then sat in the armchair across from him.”I was thinking lately. You ever consider going with her on a short trip? I know it’d be tiring but just for a change of pace.”
“No, no, that’d never work! She couldn’t help me. Even the airport would be a nightmare–can you imagine it? Everyone staring, too.”
She leaned forward, hands on knees. “They have wheelchairs there and those electric carts that whisk people about–they’re many places. You might get a portable wheelchair or find a hotel where they have extra aids.”
“Naw, not a plan of mine.”
“What if I came? I mean, a little trip, one that wouldn’t cost too much.”
Hal shook his head, glared at her. “What are you getting at?”
Puzzled, she took her time answering. “I was just thinking, if it was me, I’d want you to come along some times. See a couple of sights. Be there when I got back to the room. Share a nice dinner with me.”
“But you’re you, not Mirabel. She’s a busy pro with people to see, things to do. I doubt she thinks much about me when she’s out there. She calls out of duty. I mean, she escapes!”
“I’m busy, too. You’re not my only patient, I work at night sometimes. But if I could–”
“You work at night?” The idea seemed absurd, no one could do this another eight hours. “When do you sleep or see your husband?”
“That’s neither here or there but yes, on week-ends I do overnight work.” She sat up straight and sighed. “Hal, you are starting to look at me like your best friend or your mother or something… it’s time to get you out more, not just to the park. You should ask if you can go with her.”
His face flushed as he turned wheelchair away. “I see. So, are you done here?”
“Yep, all done. Your chili is in the frig if you want to microwave more. Let’s get you to the bathroom.”
“I can do the necessary things better now, thanks.”
“I know, but I’m here.”
“You can go, thanks, Alma.”
She came around to face him. “It was just a suggestion, Hal! It might make you both happier.”
He looked into her eyes, saw compassion. Her soft face was so close, her skin radiating a scent slightly sour but even more sweet. He looked down at his knobby knees, the near-useless hand. His wife was so far away. It almost lured him, this closeness that wasn’t even Mirabel’s.
“Maybe so.” He managed a wan smile. “I’m alright, never mind.”
Here was a woman who knew all his needs, frailties, moods. He tried to think of himself in a bland room with Mirabel in a strange place, greeting a morning together, sipping a cup of coffee, chatting softly and then he’d realize they weren’t even home with some comforts. Did he even want that? But maybe it could happen; likely not. And she’d have to leave him once more. Of course, he’d also been gone every night when she came home, for years and years. Did she feel abandoned? No, she had had two legs and arms working, a resolute mind.
He felt confused by all this, saw Alma study him.
His phone rang. Alma got her sweater, opened the front door. She almost waited to see who it was then waved at him and glided outside.
Hal looked at the caller ID, answered. “Mirabel. It’s late in Boston. All okay?”
“I miss you,” Mirabel’s voice wafted to him, weary.
She missed him. “That’s nice to hear…tell me about your day.”
“Hal, I drank too much at a corner bar and feel so lonely. When I got to my room I desperately wanted to just hold your hand. To press forehead to forehead like we used to do, remember?”
A crummy Boston dive of all things, his wife alone! But the timbre of her voice reached in. His body–all parts that still could be swept up in feelings, so many places–tingled, and his mind’s usual fog lifted just enough that he knew this was real, his wife was speaking truth.
“Are you there, Hal?”
His good hand holding the phone shook a little. “Baby, when you come home, let’s figure out how to take me with you next time, okay? I want to be with you more, hear me? I need you.”
There came the ease of relief, then he heard her snuffling. She hadn’t cried around him since the first days after his stroke. He had become the weeper too often. He put the phone to his chest, his heart as she caught her breath. Because she would. She always regained footing even when he had no purchase, himself. But he saw it was possible she could use help, too. Hal felt her head against his shoulder, her warmth melding with his, soul opening a little like a flower to the light.