There was the matter of the orgasm. Years later he suddenly remembered. She hadn’t been the first, but she was the first on a regular basis. She wanted him, and he wanted her, and they did it almost every day. He was thirty-one and his sexual self-esteem had crashed harder than the Leafs in the playoffs. Woody Allen had called masturbation “sex with someone you love,” and Barry had long lost any shame associated with being alone. Then he met Sherry, and she would unzip him almost before he’d closed the door to her apartment. She would fondle his penis when they went to the movies. One time he was watching the news and she told him to relax. Unzip. Ping. She went down on him as Peter Mansbridge went out of focus. But she almost never came.
That was a long time ago now. Thirteen years ago. He was with Sherry two years, and their second Christmas together he knew she was angling for a proposition. Knew it very late. He thinks now the thought crystallized on Christmas Eve at her sister’s house. Sherry had made mashed potatoes and fretted over them. She had told him how the dinner would go. Everyone was making a different dish. A certain standard had to be upheld. The potatoes had to be creamy without being milky, spiced with a hint of garlic but not rot full. The food would be served, places taken, minor words of religiously neutral thankfulness spoken. Dig in. Dished out. That’s nice, oh, that’s nice, oh, that’s nice. And that’s exactly how it happened.
You learn something in every relationship, and what he learned from Sherry is that two years isn’t long enough to get to know anybody, but then again maybe they were just at that age when they were still changing. They were in their thirties and unmarried, childless, living out an extended youth. He knew she wanted four children. He’d said he was okay with that. He’d thought about marrying her, but he wasn’t going to propose over Christmas, and he wasn’t going to do it at New Year’s either. Then he suddenly caught the hint that she was expecting it. Who had given her that idea? Certainly not him. Her mother, probably, or her sister, or some girlfriend. Some girly conspiracy had indicted him in a test case. They were watching. He would fail.
Getting through Christmas, having fun, sharing laughs about the silly family stuff, these were his tests. In the first week of January, would they still be friends? Could he imagine himself with these people, her people, twenty years hence? Would they show any interest in him? Any empathy? Any common cause? Sherry had already warned him repeatedly about her father. Mid-way through dinner he would go off. “Just duck,” she said. “Let him blow it off.” And he did, J. Edgar Hoover style. Barry was good at nodding. Listening, noncommittal. Something similar had happened at Thanksgiving. This was 2001. The American’s hadn’t yet attacked Afghanistan. The towers were still smoking. “It’s terrible how they treat women,” Sherry’s mother had said. She was prepared to go to war for that.
He remembered walking home through the park after that October dinner, Sherry raging at her parents’ stupidity. She had a Master’s degree in Public Administration. They weren’t interested in her opinion on any subject. She worked for a major polling firm as a senior manager. Her title was Vice President. In her spare time, she painted. She wanted to paint more. She was tired of statistics and politics, but she knew she was good at statistics and politics, and it paid the bills. Barry was the antithesis of her parents. He encouraged her art. He affirmed her social analysis. He got hard for her every night, but he couldn’t make her come. Sometimes she came close. She would squeeze tight and the friction on the head of his penis would make him explode.
He didn’t propose, and she got mad at him, and on New Year’s Eve she didn’t want to touch him. “I want to be alone,” she said, so he went back to his place. Two days later she called him. “I want to see you.” They were all over each other in the hallway. Her roommate was away. They went into the roommate’s bedroom, and she came, the best ever. “Why can’t we do that every time?” He didn’t know. He hadn’t done anything different. When he thinks of her now, he remembers her easy smile and her soft tongue, the struggle of her personality to find peace in the world. She was tall and beautiful. Sweet and large-breasted. Smart and confused. Talented and lost.
Weeks turned into months, the new year progressed, her unhappiness worsened. “So quit your job if you want to,” he said. “Let’s move in together.” It wasn’t marriage, but it was something. He still needed to know they could be happy together, not just compatible. She quit her job and became more unhappy. Barry became more concerned and suggested that she see her doctor. “I think you’re depressed,” he said. He went to work and came home and she said she hadn’t done anything all day except watch TV. “Don’t tell my parents, okay?” She hadn’t told them she’d quit her job or that they were moving in together. They practically lived together anyway, just he still had his place, which he was giving up. He’d given notice.
Then one morning she woke up with a dead zone look in her eyes. “I don’t feel well,” she said, “and we didn’t even have sex last night.” Barry said, “Yes, we did.” He straightened up and touched her face. Whatever this was, it wasn’t depression. This was a separation from reality. He told her to lay down and went to fetch a glass of water. What else? What to do? Buy time. She sipped the water and laughed. “I feel strange,” she said. “Strange how?” he asked. She said, “Just strange.” He considered calling his mother. No, this was his to deal with. He couldn’t leave her like this. Something had to be done. “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” he asked. “Do you want me to call your sister?” Sherry indicated she wasn’t sure, then she was. “Sister. Call my sister.”
Her sister came, and by then Sherry’s confusion had multiplied. She asked the same questions every ten minutes, not remembering she’d asked them before. The sister decided to take her to her shrink, the one Sherry had ridiculed for the weak marriage counseling the sister and brother-in-law had sleep walked through. “She told them they don’t have any issues! They just need to talk more!” Well, that day she spent an hour with Sherry and then told everyone that they needed to back off. Everyone was putting too much pressure on Sherry, and she needed to be able to make her own decisions in her own time. Then she sent Sherry home with Barry, but this time they went to his place.
He tried to feed her, but she wasn’t interested in eating, and a day later they hopped in a cab back to the shrink because Sherry felt crazy sick again. Then they went back to her place, and she called her parents. “I need to go home with them,” she said. “I need them to look after me.” Okay, he’d said, but he should have taken her to the hospital. Fuck your parents, he should have said. You’re coming with me. But he wasn’t that kind of a person, not then. He wasn’t that kind of a hero. A month later, though, he knew what he should have done, but then maybe she wouldn’t have let him. When her parents finally did take her to the hospital, it didn’t take the doctors long. Her brain was ringed with lesions. Her sister told him Sherry had a brain of a 70-year-old. Multiple Sclerosis, significantly progressed.
When he visited her in the hospital, she was happy. What she had had a name! She wasn’t going crazy! Holy shit! When he visited her in the hospital, her father was sitting in her room and he wouldn’t leave. They made small talk until he got the hint. She had an IV on a poll, and she took him on a stroll around the ward. The woman across the hall was a couple of years older. She had a six-year-old and a husband, and she came to the hospital about once a year for treatment. Steroids. To calm the inflammation. It was a quick, brutal and effective intervention, best administered as soon as possible. Barry thought about that month-long wait and knew he would never forgive himself.
They went into a room full of exercise equipment and closed the door behind them. He leaned in for a kiss and put his hand under her shirt. “I missed you,” he said. “I missed you, too,” she said. They wandered back into the corridor and around a corner where they came to a dead end and encountered a man with half a face. “Oh,” she said, “I thought this went somewhere.” She looked at the half-face man and asked, “How are you?” He smiled at her and went back into his room. Barry loved her then, more than at any moment before or since, her uncomplicated compassion on magnificent display.
He was concealing on that visit the encounter he’d had with her father shortly after her parents had spirited her away a month earlier. “If I find out you’ve given her drugs,” her father had confronted him, “I’ll fucking kill you.” “I haven’t given her anything.” “We’ll see.” It was unbelievable! Him! A drug pusher! Of all people, no, no, never! And what a crime noir fantasy anyway. A ludicrous cliché. But Sherry had warned him, hadn’t she? Those were her parents, ludicrous clichés. Her father a hardened GM executive, her mother a neurotic housewife turned late-life real estate agent. They had separate bedrooms and would never divorce, Sherry had told him. Her father couldn’t get it up.
“How do you know this?”
“My mother told me.”
He went to visit his own doctor, who advised him to break off the relationship and prescribed him anti-anxiety pills to help him sleep. Oh, what crazy stress. He started smoking. He stopped eating. He had to move out of his apartment because he’d given notice. There was no way he was going to move into her apartment, so he had to scramble to find a new place. One weekend he came home from work on Friday and went to bed at 6:00 pm. He got up the next day at noon, then went back to bed at 6:00 pm. Then did that again on Sunday. No, he thought now. I was never going to marry into that family.
He didn’t follow his doctors orders immediately. He tried to stay friends with Sherry, who moved back in with her parents after leaving the hospital. He spoke to her on the phone and she was getting bored. She wanted to get away. He suggested he book a hotel and take her away for a night. Dinner and dancing. He picked her up, and she was in a foul mood. “I don’t want to talk about it.” They drove in silence. He tried to make small talk. Finally she said, “My father said something that made me mad at him. I don’t want to tell you what.” Barry said, “Okay.” By this point, he didn’t want to talk about it either. He just wanted to forget about it, forget about her father, forget about everything that had happened and try to pretend that they were together like they had been before. They had had good times. They had been happy. Was that all they were going to get? Was there more?
The dinner was okay, the hotel room standard. They were tentative with each other as they undressed, washed, brushed, slipped between the sheets. He reached for her, but she was unresponsive. She rolled towards him and kissed him, but she was cold.
He said, “I know what he said.”
“What did he say.”
“He said, ‘Barry only wants sex.'”
She nodded. “How did you know?”
“I can’t believe it,” Barry said. “I can’t believe he actually said that. Like we were teenagers. Like you weren’t thirty-one. Like we need his permission.”
“I didn’t want to tell you,” she said. But you did, he didn’t say.
And then they had sex, but it was dry and uncomfortable, and very, very bad.
A month later, she visited his apartment for the last time, and they fucked every which way, but she didn’t come, and then she said, “We probably shouldn’t see each other any more,” and he said, “You’re probably right.” A week later, she called him, she wanted to see him, and he said he would see her, but he had to say this first. “I’m not going to sleep with you. That’s over.” So they got together and talked, and she said she guessed she would never have children, but he said she shouldn’t think like that. “You would be a great mom,” he said, and she cried, and he kept smoking nine months after that. Four years later, he met Jessie and her two kids and proposed inside six months. Three years after the wedding, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Twenty-one months later, she was dead.
Michael Bryson tweets @buzithecat. He is interested in how things fall apart and what’s left after that. In 1999, he founded the online literary journal, The Danforth Review, http://www.danforthreview.com/