You are wearing a light blue kerchief, a black tank top, and cutoff blue jean shorts. Posed with you is a child, presumably yours, who is, to the best of my estimation, somewhere between nine months to a year old. These must be happy days, since you are smiling. I've never really seen you smile.
Apparently, you have not searched through your Facebook pictures in a while. Or maybe you have. He was alive then, as I can see the shadow of a man standing up, projected against the grass some feet behind you. I knew a woman once who did not remove the pictures of her deceased husband for years, refusing to admit it was really over. I don't get that impression from you. I fear that you've simply been too frail and sick to worry about trivial matters like social networking.
Another picture shows you wearing a solid black onesie. You are heavily pregnant and leaning against the trunk of a medium-sized tree. I've saved both to my hard drive, so that I can look at them periodically throughout the day.
"Talk to Mommy." He says this, I imagine, as you have spread the child out to stand upright, which is not yet a natural motion. The baby is still very much in crawl-mode, but both parents know that eventually first steps will be taken. One takes her first steps, the next is taking his last, but we don't know that yet. He's just a little weak right now.
You've entered my dreams now. Since I was a child, my dreams come with a soundtrack. I always wake up with a song in my head. Much to my chagrin, they now could be featured on AM Gold.
Ev'ry night on my knees I pray
Dear Lord, Hear my plea;
Don't ever let another take her love from me
or I would surely die.
Her love is heavenly, when her arms enfold me,
I hear a tender rhapsody;
but in reality she doesn't even know me.
Just my imagination once again
runnin' way with me.
But in reality, she doesn't even know me.
Yes, it can be said that I don't really know you.
You remind me of many other people I didn't really know, either. Welcome to the modern era. My memory runs back a quarter-century to a time where lonely teenage bronckin' bucks like me filled chat rooms to the gills. It didn't last for long, but for maybe five years or so finding someone else was like shooting fish in a barrel. In those days of screeching modems and frustrated parents, I had five or so virtual lovers at once. Most were girls, but some were boys.
Two of them have kept track of me even today, but most of them disappeared into the ether long ago. Yet, I repeat, I don't really know you any more than I really knew them. It's what has to pass for COVID love these days. I'm enough of an educated snob to know that you have an Australian accent, though not enough to identify city, state, and territory. And I'm enough of a fellow depressive that I understand why you don't smile. I'm glad for the Brady Bunch format of Zoom, because it conceals how completely I look at you for the whole of an hour and a half.
I began to develop these feelings when you mentioned off-handedly that you are a widow. As for myself, I'm four years removed from a bad divorce, and still feeling a little like damaged goods. Someone once told me that a divorce, metaphorically speaking, means that your partner has died. I wonder if you are angry at your late husband. Your usual countenance reminds one of the Sphinx.
We're both messes, but not maliciously so. I've been where you've been in my recent past. I'm trying not to be an overzealous cheerleader. In my fantasies, I wonder whether I could really be a stepfather. As weak and impaired as you are right now, I know it must be a strain to be a parent. I've undertaken rescue missions before, but I'm much more wary now. Honestly, holding myself together is often difficult. My grades were always good in school, but I'm worried I'd flunk Fatherhood 101.
Following a divorce, it's very common to enter a horny stage. The manual I consulted in my divorce support class even used that exact term. It seems to be as true for women as it is for men. For the first three years, I felt sexually deceased, which is also common. I passed it off as a kind of good-guy world weariness that, had I been a woman, would have been called don't-touch-me primness. Now I feel like an adolescent again. Though I would never dare tell you this, it is why I have clandestinely been looking up pornographic pictures of Australian women about your age and trying to link them up with the slightly blurred teleconference square you inhabit.
You rarely leave the house except for grocery shopping and childcare, plus your own self-care. I was mostly at home well before the pandemic descended, and due to some severe phobias and the frank fear of an early demise, I am now stuck here, too. When I take a brief break for lunch, staring out the window, I contemplate the same limitations of mobility and problems I had in the late Nineties. I am an adult now, but the thought of a twelve-hour drive or the risk of an air flight gets in the way. What I'm trying to do is be patient, a virtue that does not come easy to me.
Once I drove from Alabama to Minnesota in one go. Knowing little about cars, I neglected to connect the back brakes to the wheels, meaning I didn't stop with enough force to prevent a rear-end collision in the traffic of downtown Chicago. At the time, I was a hearty cannabis-smoker and had several ounces in a plastic bag concealed in my glove compartment. The man who I struck suffered no damage to his car, but mine was damn near totaled.
He utilized the third degree to a skillful degree, peppering me with repetitive questions. At first, he didn't believe me, but panic and fear has a way of producing Oscar-winning actors, especially when they know they have everything to lose. I pleaded with him to not call the cops. After all, I knew I would be arrested for minor possession and likely on my way to jail. God must have been with me that day.
After being satisfied that I was telling the truth (I had fabricated a story that I was rushing to visit a dying grandmother), he provided me a business card to a local body shop. I did not stop in Chicago. Instead, I was hellbent on making it to St. Cloud. I had four hours to go.
An internet friend had claimed that she was in peril. That was the reason for my rescue mission. I'd listened to a tearful message over the phone and decided I would take a seventeen-hour journey to save her. I had the money. I had the time. I did not have the sanity. Sanity would not have led me to believe that I could have liberated her from her dorm room, the chaos and danger, and allowed her to sleep in the safety of the double bed of a motel I had rented for the occasion.
I mention that story to illustrate the way chronic illness has a way of throwing caution to the wind. I didn't care if I lived or died. When I was up, I embraced a Lazarus, life-affirming mode that bordered on hedonism. When I was down, I made handwritten wills that compliant hospital workers three-hole-punched and inserted into my chart.
Are you the same way? I sometimes think I have some minor psychic ability. Surely if you weren't also thinking of me, I wouldn't feel this weird tugging and pulling. It's been really strong the past two days. So, this is what it feels like to have a pleasant little crush. It's been forever. I feel alive again. Or, maybe it's, on your part, the hypersexuality that comes from nothing left to lose. I've guessed wrong. I've guessed right. I'm never all right or all wrong, as much as I want to believe it.
I am going to check for tell-tell signs when we "meet" again, a few days from now. This could be all me, but I feel some very warm, gentle, longing energy this very moment. I had a bizarre dream a few nights ago. I felt this same caressing energy from two women simultaneously, but a very jealous male force tried to push me aside from one of them. You remained, quiet and undisturbed. I wonder if the masculine energy was your late husband, not yet ready to give you up.
Two days have passed. It's the evening once again, and I'm hoping to see your familiar, though slightly pixilated face. You never change positions or venues. A particularly vibrant, but dull yellow light forms the backdrop of your window. It's a kind of light I always associate in my mind with calm and soothing thoughts. It never changes. You lean backward slightly, resting your body heavily on a white couch. When you materialize after a brief five-second introduction of black screen coupled with your name, I involuntarily sit upright in my rocking chair.
I can tell you are still drained. It's an effort for you to talk and, as I've noted before, you don't smile. I want to know more about you. There's no good way in a group of twenty other people to ask you specific questions. In fact, it's against the rules.
I want to know how your husband died. I want to know how many kids you have and how old you are. I want to know how you ended up in this country. But these questions are not appropriate, like I said, as we are all disabled and infused with a chronic illness which might kill us eventually. You'd think our common denominator would draw us closer together, and it does, to some extent, but we really don't know each other.
My knee-jerk desire is to send you communique after communique, but I resist. I'm also wary of seeming like a know-it-all, because this disease has been part of my life for the past twenty-five years and I have a lot of experiential knowledge. I have a private fear that I am going to end up like that poor woman in the movie Fight Club, who solicits anyone in the group for one more final sexual experience before she leaves this world. Though I've done it already, of course, desiring you sexually seems wrong right now. You are far too vulnerable.
Mostly I just want to hold you and assure you that you are going to make it. Even if it's a huge lie. As I think back upon my past marriage, it's the withdrawal of simple affection that I miss most. Our sex life was robust for quite a while. She'd never been raised to have many hang-ups about intercourse, so we were prolific for years. But when she began to withdraw from me in a romantic and passionate sense, somehow sex became perfunctory and stale.
And then years of strong medication robbed my manhood from me. By thirty-eight I could still achieve orgasm, but not erection. Cialis and Viagra were ineffective after a time. A sympathetic urologist produced a penis pump (good for thirty minutes maximum) and a much more effective and long-lasting medication that had to be injected into the base of the penis, no matter how small the needle.
I was told it wasn't extremely painful, but it ruined the element of spontaneity. Its only real purpose was for partnered couples who wanted children of their own, despite the severe inconvenience. It would take a sympathetic partner, man or woman to utilize enough patience.
Again, my thoughts turn to you. I could be totally wrong, but I get the feeling that you'd either be too passive and acquiesce totally to whatever I suggested or shrink from my touch completely. I'd end up frustrated in both scenarios. This has been a common thread in my love life.
I always sought the balance between lovelorn devotion and sexual peccadillos. The closest I ever came was a supremely sweet but highly damaged woman who was sexually abused by her sociopath father for much of her childhood. We slept together frequently and de facto dated, but she told me up front that she'd never be able to be anyone's girlfriend. Not really.
I never demanded it.
A perverse part of me wants this pandemic to continue indefinitely. The moment a vaccine reaches the masses, I'll likely never talk to you again. There are a million things I want to tell you that would be of great assistance, assuming you wanted to listen, but time is limited. Once again, my internal radio switches on. And all I want is to save you, honey/or the strength to walk away.
The truth is, I don't trust myself anymore. And you tell us all that you don't trust anyone, either, but for different reasons. Out of boredom, I've begun to peruse the contents of my e-mail account, which in sixteen years of use now comprises ten thousand written exchanges. It's been quite revealing.
I thought the first two or three years of my marriage were solid, but I found out this morning that I took another lover nine months after the wedding. That instance was simply a fantasy that through force of will I managed to bring to life. I'd always wanted to seduce a much older woman, and though she resisted me for a month or two, she eventually gave in.
She'd been living in a largely loveless marriage for years, and though she resisted at first, I was too much of a temptation. And she was a fellow musician. Before long, she began showing up at my apartment every day. We'd play music together and then fall into bed. When I almost got caught red-handed a month or so into my indiscretions, I cut her off abruptly, cruelly. It speaks highly to her moral character that she chose to forgive me, though I did have to call the police to get her to leave me alone.
But this is all my past. Assuming you'd want to have anything to do with me, it's debatable how much of this you would even want to know. I haven't noted your name yet, that is until now, Rebecca, because doing so would make it too real for me. And yet, somehow, I think I could be very happy with you. You are not a gorgeous woman, but you are certainly cute. I fancy your self-fashioned haircut.
Your Aussie accent only accentuates this. I am falling into an old trope. In my early dating life, I sought women like you. Low self-esteem, highly passive, insecure, overwhelmed by life. And each always pushed away eventually, feeling themselves too frail to be with me anymore. But you are something different, indescribably.
If experience and time have any validity, I fear a futile outcome. But maybe not. As I've noted, this is all conjecture. None of this is real. Maybe you would fall in love with me and stick around. I suppose anything's possible these days, or at least this year of all years. If ever was the epoch of rash behavior, nothing like months of quarantine could send the mostly sane over the edge.
Rebecca, I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out a way I can surreptitiously correspond with you. I'm going to have to be clever and find an innocuous excuse that is somehow related to our shared serious medical condition. And even then, there's no guarantee that you will reach back. Nor can I do this too soon. I have to obscure my real motives until you're comfortable conversing beyond medical jargon and medication regimens, which up until now have been your modus operandi.
It's Wednesday afternoon. I log into Zoom ten minutes early as is my wont, and small-talk with the moderators, as per usual. I have my father's dread—fear of being late for anything, for any reason. You always arrive bang on time, and for some weird quirk of computer programming, end up in the box directly to my left.
Once again, you are bathed in yellow light on the white couch. As usual, I can't take my eyes off of you. I wish for magical powers, or failing that, your phone number. Our session begins. Unusually, you indicate to the group that you'd like to share first. You're contemplating some new treatment I've tried before. You've obviously realized by now that I'm a walking medical encyclopedia so far as this shit is concerned, so you address me directly with a related question, one that I am all too eager to answer.
As we conclude for the evening, one of the moderators mentions that there will be a talent show in two weeks. Though this is probably the most stereotypical method that men have used, since time immemorial, to attract the attention of women, I immediately know that I'll play the guitar, sing, and cast my net wide. If only you'll attend, too.
You do not appear.
A day to go now. One week we have four sessions. The next we have three. You're present for almost all of them. I hope you're in attendance tomorrow. I dreamed about you last night, but the meds make my nighttime visions muted, half-starved, gazing through a glass darkly. If I dream, they are usually faint and short-lasting. The auditory hit parade continues, and I hum a tune until noon. This is not really; this is not really happening. You bet your life it is.
An ex-girlfriend I have for some reason retained as a friend on Facebook displays her recent flu vaccine band-aid on top of tattoo ink that she's obviously gotten since we were together. She taught me a good bit about Judaism and betrayal, in that order. The two kind of fit together in a weird but understandable way. We carried on a long-distance relationship for most of a year, but I found out later that she continued to date local men in my absence. I don't particularly feel like going into the particulars, except that she had a mean streak a mile wide and I am much better without her in my life.
But I will indulge briefly, for gossip's sake. All she found were boring engineers on dating websites until she finally married a whipped cur with one divorce and two kids from it. He was a veteran. One of my sisters married a similarly kicked dog who was intimidated by the world and flagellated by life. I was too sick to make their wedding and glad I didn't go. I didn't approve of the union and I still don't.
As evidenced above, I was more than glad to let the Jewish girl go. Surely you won't be unfaithful, Rebecca. I can't see you being duplicitous the way she was. You might yet fold out on me, but I already see that you turn your anger inward rather than outward. This, of course, leaves me with even more questions. Do you still struggle with your own imagined persecution by doctors? This has been a particular theme of yours, one echoed by a woman who is rushing against the clock, off her meds, hoping her child is born before she dies.
Do you think this is all God's great plan? It's not lost on me that you have one of those good Old Testament names. Are you even atheist? Did your dead husband grant you a child at an advanced age? Have you succumbed to the rationalizations of the chronically ill, the open-ended questions that are rarely ever answered? Does pain produce enlightenment? I know I've asked many of the same myself.
I could be wrong, but I don't think you have. As I said, I want you to be present tomorrow afternoon and tomorrow night. This whole weekend I've devised a killer plan to win your hand. Slyly, I will send you an encouraging private text message at some point during the session. You are eligible for federal disability. Your meager monthly check will be boosted by the two dependents you call your children. You will be granted Medicare. And after that, the ball's in your court.
If my feelings of longing become too extreme and too painful, I will distract myself with my phalanx of needy former lovers and near lovers. They always come back to me, and as I comfort their frayed nerves, I pretend I can seduce them once again. One of my former lovers is a virtual loner, whip-smart, with an accidental husband too sick himself with chronic asthma to know how easily I push boundaries with her. But then again, as she always says, we have a history.
As for my former partner, I may not have her body, but I'll always have a piece of her affections. And no one's going to take that from me. She is slight of build and frail, alabaster pale. Freckles only accentuate the effect. She's always reminded me of the stereotypical notion of Victorian womanhood, far too emotionally wrecked and hysterical to be trusted with much agency. And yet, in her writings she is strong and perceptive. She even claims the label of feminist. I am attracted to both in equal proportions, because I see the same contradictions in myself. I am strong and I am also weak.
I'm disappointed. We have no chance together. I can barely sustain myself. What makes me think I can take on a new partner with two small kids from a previous marriage? Not only that, I'd be thrust into a role as co-parent whether I wanted to be or not. You and I are both emotionally needy individuals, but we'd have to live to support two dependents who, as the designation goes, would be highly dependent on the two of us for so much. I tried this once before and it didn't work.
It's the next day. You are in the same room with the same lonely yellow light, facing me, seeming to levitate almost, your eyes staring directly at the ceiling, not at the camera. After confessing that you have been known to be panicked in your worst times, you've often kept your camera off during most of the hour-long sessions. But I've recognized something important to me at the times where your nine-year-old and six-year-old enter the window. Some of my questions have been answered. I'm surprised I didn't notice it before.
They're mulattos. I can tell by the tint of their skin and the texture of their hair. Their father was black. And immediately I'm a bit unsettled. My white ex-wife married a black man a year following our divorce. But I need to get over that. When I lived in a larger city, I saw interracial couples all the time. For God's sake, some of my first cousins are half-Hispanic.
Not out of my grandfather's casual racism, who felt that whites and blacks ought to stay with their same kind, but because I know what a white woman and a black man often connote. Though this isn't an irrefutable truth, I have known many white women who marry black men because they think they can do no better with someone of their own racial makeup.
And with that uneasiness arrives an immediate drop off in how attractive I think you are, Rebecca. My infatuation with you is waning. But I can't be too selfish. You've confessed this session that you're living off of the life insurance left over from your husband's death.
Like me, you can't work. Also like me you've managed a few volunteer jobs here and there, but they were never imperative like a paid position would be. I worked for four months in politics as an intern, a position ideal for a person with a chronic disease. I closed the door to my office, spoke to absolutely no one, completed my assignments, e-mailed them to my bosses, and went home for the day. Perfect.
COVID transformed many jobs into similar circumstances, and assuming my flimsy resume holds up, I might be able to secure similar employment. But probably not. It's hard to explain a ten-year gap in gainful work and only a handful of other jobs dating back sooner, none of which lasted more than a few months at a time.
I'm calming down now. I just watched the newest Sofia Coppola film, where a white upper-class woman married a black entrepreneur. Elisabeth Moss' character has a black husband in The Handmaid's Tale. How many years has it been since Loving v. Virginia. So what? Rebecca and her late husband had biological kids together. It shouldn't offend me that much.
Over time, I've learned pertinent details about you, Rebecca, the very same I clamored for at the outset. You left Australia to escape a dysfunctional family. COVID at its outset was so intense that you even considered returning home, with all its slings and arrows. I assume yet again that the late husband was an American and my compassion returns some when I recognize that you're probably not over the grieving process.
In case you were wondering, this story ends here. It has nowhere to go. There will be no great romantic interlude. Likewise, there will be no shattering rejection. There will be no clever plot twist or grand summation. Instead, you will be left with slowly building truth as we spin out our suffering and most of us wait to die.
The perceptive reader will have noticed that I haven't mentioned much about the nature of our shared similarity at the group. There's a reason for this, and it's because the reality is pretty grim. Speaking for myself, the chemo has damaged my kidneys, meaning I meet with a nephrologist for regular testing. COVID fails to scare me. I have bigger fish to fry. Some days I stay in bed for hours, but I attend a house of worship who knows about my condition and makes a point of checking in on me periodically.
I know I really ought to be fixated on more than one person in the group. I'm one of the few men who participate and end up feeling a compulsion to shore up the others and validate their perspectives. Otherwise, the women do all the talking. It's hardly surprising, and sometimes it bothers me more than it does on other days. We collectively worry about the people who drop off the face of the earth and on occasion the sad news of a death ripples through the community.
Maybe that's why, as I noted, COVID doesn't really scare us the way it does so-called healthy people. You'd be surprised how little most of us talk about lab results and more about our frayed nerves. That's why I've been embarrassingly pining away after a woman who may soon follow her late husband. When I was sixteen, I first got sick and since then, it's been a slow decline. You might say I'm floundering, but that's a touch too melodramatic even for me.
I can't read the way I used to. When I was a child, I used to devour books from cover to cover. Now I force myself, paragraph to paragraph, to make it chapter by chapter. I do most of my reading online and scour medical journals in search of hope. My condition is chronic. It is beaten back momentarily, descends into remission, then resurfaces. Everyone's got a similar story. And no one knows for sure when the Grim Reaper will make his appearance. We receive estimates, not certainty.
If I am to be honest, I don't know how people like Rebecca do it. It must take a tremendous amount of willpower. And for those of us with milder cases, the women especially, they hold out hope that they'll someday be able to have children of their own. Medications have recently been developed that are less of a strain on the pregnant body, but if I am to be honest, I worry about the components, genetic, or otherwise poorly understood, that could be easily passed down from mother to child.
While it is true that genetic information and brain function are still a great mystery, women who choose to listen to their biological clocks are nevertheless running a risk. They may not survive childbirth. They may spread the condition to their presumptive offspring. It's a crapshoot, and it's one that I would not take if I were a mother. And it's the reason why I will not have children of my own.
Now you, as the reader, can understand why I am no longer choosing to play a guessing game with you. Would you have honestly wanted to read another doom-laden tale of twenty chronically sick people thrown together? Yes, marvel if you wish at the futility of this story, the way that even immunocompromised people try their best to mimic the well, the so-called normal citizens, the ones who never have to lobby for space and concessions when it comes down to disability rights.
Why does what I think, or say, or believe, or yearn for really matter, anyway? This country grants some modest concessions that ultimately only make us even more dependent than we should be. We live at the poverty level and are granted the same health insurance that government want us all to have. And, I might add, we are expected to say thank you for the scraps off the table. Conversely, if we lived in Nazi Germany, the theory of eugenics would have even less regard for our lives. I'd fully expect a bullet to the back of the head, or a space jammed into a gas chamber.
So, forgive my harmless infatuation, forgive my delusional thinking. I'm mostly just a broken man reaching out to a broken woman. It's the closest metric toward normality I can muster. And when someday I leave this earth, I only hope I go first. I've always believed in God and find it incomprehensible that there is no meaning and no higher power to this life. This little tribe of sufferers to which I belong must have some purpose. Maybe we exist for your behalf. And I hope you learn well from our example.
Title image "Boxed" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.