Introduction by Roxana Robinson
Who writes more tellingly, more tenderly about the human connection than Hilma Wolitzer? About the way things work in a marriage, about the small details of daily life that bind you together or fling you apart?
Wolitzer’s new short story, “The Great Escape,” opens with the nearly ninety-year-old Paulette peering at her husband, remembering how she once looked for a promising rise in the covers. “I used to look at Howard first thing in the morning to see if he was awake, too, and if he wanted to get something going before one of the kids crashed into the room…” But now she looks over to see the rise and fall of his chest, to see if he is merely still alive. This poignant shift in expectations reveals the great chronological sweep of the story, as well as Wolitzer’s mastery of the vivid bundle of feelings that make up our emotional lives. These people are deeply connected to each other, in ways that can be created only through decades of changes rung on the bells of their true selves, a carillon composed of trust and contempt, passion and disdain, fury and tenderness, made against the steady beat of forgiveness.
The year of Covid has changed all our lives. All of us watched the numbers and heard the sirens, saw the faces of the medical personnel, the bereaved. But not all of us came to know this terrible disease as intimately as did Wolitzer herself, who shows us in this story how it might affect one partner in a long and trusted marriage, and what that loss might mean.
– Roxana Robinson
Author of Dawson’s Fall
The Last Story in a Long Marriage
“The Great Escape” by Hilma Wolitzer
I used to look at Howard first thing in the morning to see if he was awake, too, and if he wanted to get something going before one of the kids crashed into the room and plopped down between us like an Amish bundling board. Lately, though, with the children long grown and gone to their own marriage beds, I found myself glancing over to see if Howard was still alive, holding my breath while I watched for the shallow rise and fall of his, the way I had once watched for a promising rise in the bedclothes.
Whenever I saw that he was breathing and that the weather waited just behind the blinds to be let in, I felt an irrational surge of happiness. Another day! And then another and another and another. Breakfast, vitamins, bills, argument, blood pressure pills, lunch, doctor, cholesterol medicine, the telephone, supper, TV, sleeping pills, sleep,
waking. It seemed as if it would all go on forever in that exquisitely boring and beautiful way. But of course it wouldn’t; everyone knows that.
There were running death jokes in our family. My father, driving past a cemetery: “Everybody’s dying to get in.” My mother: “Death must be great—nobody ever comes back.” Howard’s mother: “When one of us dies, I’m going to Florida.” That would have been funny except that she actually meant it. Now, none of them was laughing or ever coming back.
Howard’s father, who had no apparent sense of humor, was the first to go, quickly, of a blood clot that stopped his heart like a bullet. This sent Howard right to the precipice without fair warning. Next! He seemed to be summoned as if he’d been waiting his turn at the deli counter. He even told me that his number was up, extending the metaphor.
He wasn’t next, though. His pushy mother cut the line and went second, succumbing to kidney failure after a short, spirited stint as the Merry Widow of Boca Raton. Then my parents sailed off into the abyss, felled in tandem by dementia and a series of strokes. We’d had our own health scares—Howard’s enlarged prostate, a lump in my breast. Several of our friends beat us to it anyway, in a kind of social massacre, while, in what seemed like only a few long afternoons, he and I turned seventy and then eighty and then nearly ninety.
We had been together for such a long time that all of our grievances had been set aside, if not completely forgotten. Every once in a while, out of nowhere, I would remember his infidelities with a startling sting. And he must have still harbored resentment about what he’d called my “martyrdom,” my “too-muchness,” which, in truth, was only my largesse, my gregarious, forgiving nature.
But the business of being old took up most of our time and concentration. A schedule for our various pills and tonics was stuck by a magnet to the refrigerator, where we used to hang the children’s drawings, then the grandchildren’s. And our bodies let us down as we lurched toward oblivion. My statuesque figure had given way to random bulges, as if my curves had been rearranged by an inept or sadistic sculptor. “Good padding against a hip fracture,” Dr. Ginsberg said in dubious consolation. Then there was the matter of my heart. There was nothing really wrong with it, but I was often uncomfortably aware of its beating, like the meter ticking in a taxi stuck in traffic.
Howard, who had once been so gorgeous and in such hot demand, was grizzled and paunchy and gray. He couldn’t quite believe what had happened to him, and he avoided mirrors and what he perceived as the pitying glances of strangers. I didn’t tell him that I still had images of his younger self in the strongbox of my brain, of both of us at the beginning, when we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. My nostalgia would be cold comfort for his sense of loss. I wondered if he remembered us, too, but I was too afraid, or shy, to ask.
I often said that we were lucky to still be alive, but he had to know I was lying. This hurt and that. “What?” one of us yelled to the other from the next room. “What is it now?” The little flash fires of frustration and anger. We’d both become relief maps of keratoses, skin tags, and suspicious-looking moles. “What’s this thing on my back, Paulie?” Howard would say, yanking up his shirt while I searched for my reading glasses. “It’s nothing,” I’d tell him. “I have a million of those.” Cheerleader and competitor at once. And I finally understood why my father, in his dotage, kept going on about his feet.
The children telephoned, Ann far more regularly than Jason, of course. She was the good, attentive child, the one with keys to our apartment—“just in case”—and with our super’s and Dr. Ginsberg’s numbers on her speed dial. “Mom,” she would say without so much as the preface of a hello. “Are you okay? Is Dad?” As if she had heard we’d been in a terrible car accident, when neither of us even drove anymore.
Then she would relay a spate of news—world news first, in a flurry of headlines: the latest chaos at the White House, a terrorist attack in London or Boston or Beirut, another police shooting of an unarmed Black man, and did I know that someone famous had just died? Howard and I read the Times every day and watched CNN after supper, but Ann seemed to hear about everything first. I think she received bulletins on her watch or somewhere. Personal news usually followed, from the mundane—she thought she was getting a cold, and her brother had asked to borrow money again, for weed probably—to the spectacular: She’d made partner at her law firm! Her daughter Abigail was three months pregnant! Ann and Bradley were going to be grandparents. When I broke this latest to Howard he burst into tears. I put my arms around him and wept, too. And then we laughed together. How joyful we were, and how astounded that we had come to this.
Ann and I conspired on a daily basis about possible baby names, as if we’d have a say on the subject. It was going to be a boy; what would sound euphonious with LeffBernstein, Abigail and her husband, Greg’s, conjoined last names? Jeremy? Dominic? Leo? Howard wondered if the baby might be named for him—after he was dead, that is, in the Jewish tradition. “Shut up,” I told him. Why did he always have to spoil things?
I offered to host a baby shower and Ann agreed, although she insisted, in her amiably bossy way, that it would be held at her spacious SoHo loft instead of my junior four in Washington Heights, and that she would choose the theme and the caterer and cover all of the expenses. Which left me as no more than an honorary hostess, but I didn’t argue with any of it. At a certain point, you have to accept the shift in the balance of power between you and your children. And it was just so good to have something to look forward to.
Then one wintry day Ann called very early in the morning. Howard and I were still eating breakfast. “Listen, Mom,” she said. “There’s something going around, a virus.”
“I read something about that in the Times. I hope it’s not like SARS or that other one…MERS?” When had these dire uppercase acronyms slipped into our vocabulary? With AIDS, I remembered.
“It’s in the same family,” Ann said, “and it may be very contagious. You and Dad should be careful.”
“Well, we’re not kissing anybody.” Not even each other, I didn’t add.
“You should both stay close to home for now,” Ann said.
“We don’t go anywhere,” I said, “beside Safeway and the doctor.” I needed a haircut, though, and my book club was scheduled to meet soon—we were reading Mrs. Bridge—and Howard wanted to get to the podiatrist to have his toenails clipped as soon as Medicare would allow it. Feet.
“Order in for now,” Ann advised. “I can set you up with a good food service. And cancel everything else.”
“Sweetheart,” I said. “Aren’t you being a little extreme?”
“Mother. I have it on good authority.”
She probably did. Ann was on the board of two hospitals, with privileged access to several noted specialists.
“Well, what’s it called? Maybe I’ll ask Ginsberg about it.”
She sighed. “Ginsberg,” she said.
She had never exactly called Dr. Ginsberg a quack, but she’d intimated that he wasn’t up to her high standards. I pointed out that Howard and I had survived almost half a century in his care, and that he always returned phone calls, usually the same day. I didn’t say that I was a little bit in love with him, and that her father might be, too.
“It’s called novel coronavirus,” Ann said.
“Sounds fictional,” I quipped, but she didn’t laugh.
“The word ‘novel’ refers to the fact that it’s new, unknown,” she said, “which is what makes it so worrisome.”
Later, I reported what Ann had told me about the virus to Howard, and he said, “I think she’s becoming a bit of a hypochondriac.”
“Gee, I wonder where she got that,” I said. How many times had I caught him surreptitiously taking his pulse or his temperature?
“Ha ha,” he said without a trace of mirth.
“Maybe we should listen to her. She’s always up on everything, and she’s so well-connected.”
“Whatever,” Howard said. “But I’m making an appointment with Perez. I can hang from a tree by my toenails.”
I’ll remember that exchange forever, although I barely registered it at the time. How strange the human mind is.
When my mother began to lose hers, she tried not to acknowledge it and I was her willing accomplice. “Everyone forgets a few words,” she said after such a long mid-sentence pause on the phone I thought we’d been disconnected. It wasn’t an unreasonable claim. Howard and I already suffered from an occasional folie-à-deux forgetfulness—unable to come up with Ida Lupino’s name while we were watching one of her movies, or what the brussel sprouts on our dinner plates were called. But my mother’s harmless “senior moments” devolved into some bizarre behavior. Either that or my father was the one losing it when he called to report that she’d been chewing on Kleenex or that she’d tipped the handyman in their building a hundred dollars for changing a ceiling lightbulb.
So I found myself sitting in her Elmhurst living room, with its battling floral patterns of wallpaper and upholstery, smiling falsely while sneaking glances at the Kleenex box on the end table closest to her. Two brazen cockroaches skittered across the middle of the floor in plain view. Usually, she’d be screaming at my father to take off his shoe and kill them, although he invariably missed his target and knocked over a lamp or stubbed his toe in the process. But this time she didn’t seem to notice, and I think he pretended he didn’t, either.
Yet she looked all right—her housedress was clean and buttoned correctly, and her conversation was ordinary enough. She offered me the requisite repulsive snacks of canned peaches and lime Jell-O. She asked after Howard and the kids, getting everyone’s name right without hesitation. She said, “Your father is driving me crazy”—a familiar refrain—before ticking off a list of his latest crimes: he dropped crumbs everywhere, he loaded the dishwasher with the knives facing up, he added salt to his food without even tasting it. Your father, as if I was the one who had brought him into the family. Then, “Do you like your hair like that, Paulette?” Her customary, sly way of criticizing me, of telling the truth slant. But all of those maddening old habits of hers only elicited a whoosh of relief and even a ripple of affection. I was beginning to relax when she reached over and pulled a Kleenex from the box near her elbow and popped it into her mouth.
“Stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer,” Ann advised. “Fill up your freezer.”
By then, the virus had spread a little. “Annie,” I said, “It’s not here. Some guy went to China, and now it’s in Seattle. It’s in a nursing home there.” Where there were other, more decrepit and less fortunate old people, thousands of miles away. It was in the paper, and on the nightly news. Anderson Cooper seemed calmer than my daughter.
“Do you want to die, Mom?” she asked.
“Hmm. Good question.”
“Stop it,” she said. Then, “Don’t you remember when you promised me that you would never die?”
She was three or four at the time, and had just had her first intimations of mortality after the death of her goldfish. It was an easy leap from Goldie to me, and she was inconsolable; what else could I say? “I never said that,” I told her, blithely erasing her memory. “I said that I wouldn’t die until you were ready for me to.”
“I don’t remember that,” she said. “But anyway, I’m not ready. So don’t.” Her voice had thickened a little.
My poor girl. I didn’t remind her of the message I’d once found scribbled with a marker inside the cover of the board game Sorry. I hope Mommy dies. At first I suspected Jason, who was given to that kind of sentiment in some of his adolescent outbursts, but it was clearly Ann’s writing, down to the incongruous little heart dotting the i. She’d probably written it after a contentious family round of the game; she was never a gracious loser.
“Okay,” I agreed. “I won’t die yet.”
Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess, famously made a pact to try and establish contact after one of them died. They came up with secret code words and other private signals and signs. He died first, and she held regular séances on his birthday for a decade, attempting to coax Harry’s spirit into communicating. She failed, of course. My mother got that right—death is great; nobody ever comes back, or sends messages from the other side.
One night, in bed, just after Howard and I had taken our Ambien and turned off our lamps, I said, “If we made a deathbed pact, like the Houdinis’, what would our secret code be?”
Howard groaned. “Jesus,” he said. “Let’s just go to sleep.” Death was his least favorite topic, in any context, and especially at bedtime. So I didn’t share my conviction that there was only one mystery left after a lengthy marriage: Which partner would die first? And I had stopped reminding him to check those blank boxes on his living will about heroic measures, about the withholding of food and water. He wasn’t amused when I’d threatened him with an Incomplete.
The bed creaked now with his restless displeasure. “Why do you always have to talk about everything?” he said. A fair, if rhetorical, question. Why, indeed? Why did I feel compelled, as a small child, during a lull in the chanting at a family seder, to announce loudly that I had a vagina? Why did I tell Howard that I loved him before he had a chance to say it to me first? Did I think that “I love you,” and “I love fucking you” were the same thing?
“To sleep, perchance to dream,” I said, relentlessly. Hamlet’s take on dying. “Remember when that idiot hotel in LA put those cards with the quote on our pillows?”
I could sense Howard smiling in the darkness. “Next to the mints,” he said. Then, after a moment or two, “They called Houdini the Handcuff King.”
“Sounds kinky,” I said. But I felt sad. Harry and Bess—like the Trumans, like someone’s old uncle and aunt in the Bronx, longing for each other from the grave. “So what would our secret code be?”
Howard didn’t answer and I thought he’d fallen asleep. He sometimes did that in the middle of a conversation, a gift I believed was exclusively granted to men. But then he pulled me to him and kissed me deeply. I kissed him back—so hard our teeth collided—and his hand grazed one of my breasts and then the other. How lonely I had been for his touch, for his mouth. We did whatever we could still do to satisfy our resurgent desire, and we stayed in each other’s arms afterward. I was just dozing off when Howard said, “Paulie.”
“That’s my code word,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”
By early March there were a few cases in New York City. I didn’t need Ann to tell me about them, although she’d already sent us a care package of surgical masks and vinyl gloves. Howard put on a mask and growled, “I’ve got a gun. Give me all your dough.”
Then, in the middle of a weekday, there was a surprise visit from our son, Jason. He was between jobs—he’d been a bartender, an appliance salesman, and a greeter at a Walmart until they phased the position out. Decades ago, Howard had taken him on as an apprentice at his music studio, but Jason was often late getting in, and he kept screwing up. “I’m sorry, Dad,” he said, finally. “It’s just not my bag.”
“He’ll find himself, Howie,” I predicted, I promised.
“I don’t think he’s even looking,” Howard said.
Now Jason might be between marriages, too. I loved his current, second wife, Honey, the antithesis of the evil stepmother to his daughter, Summer. They’d separated before, and I kept hoping they would resolve things and become a couple again. For the time being he was couch surfing with friends on the Lower East Side.
“Just checking up on you guys,” he said, handing me a bunch of bright green carnations. Was it St. Patrick’s Day already, without a parade?
“You look like a bum,” Howard told him after they’d hugged. Such a handsome bum, I thought, even in his sixties—we’d all be on Medicare together soon—with his father’s dark eyes, and that stubble. He had been a mere comma under my ribs at our shotgun wedding, and now he filled the doorway. Like a mother in a sitcom, I tousled his hair and made him lunch. Before he left, Howard slipped him a twenty.
“And you let that moron into the apartment?” Ann shrieked over the phone. “I’ll bet he took the subway there!” No, he took a limousine, a chariot, a flying carpet.
“Did you wear your masks, at least? Did you wash your hands?”
“Yes,” I lied. I was getting better and better at it. “Of course we did.”
It was my friend Ruth’s turn to host our book group, but on the advice of her son Jeffrey, a radiologist, she called everyone to cancel, or at least to change the venue. We were going to have a Zoom meeting, whatever that was, instead of convening at her place. There was much nervous back and forth among the members of the group about this latest development. Everyone had a computer or an iPad, but there was a wide range of technical expertise. It sounded easy enough, though. We’d all receive a link and, at the specified time, we would simply open it and go from there.
Ours was strictly a women’s group, and the few husbands still around were usually banned from our meetings. Whenever it was my turn, I took my laptop into the living room, where the refreshments were laid out, and Howard skulked off to the bedroom like a grounded teenager, closing the door behind him.
But the Zoom meeting changed all of that. Enough aloneness! We had to stick together. Ruth, long a widow, would have Jeffrey right beside her to help facilitate things, and I invited Howard to sit next to me on the bed, with the laptop between us. I hit the link and we waited, the way our ancestors must have waited for the flickering Magic Lantern to do its thing. After what seemed like a long time, the screen filled with a notice that our meeting would begin soon. “Well, this is exciting,” I said.
Mrs. Bridge was my favorite novel, with its brief, brilliant paragraphs like vaudeville blackouts, and characters I would think about wistfully, as if they were old friends with whom I’d lost touch. I loved Mrs. Bridge, even when she exasperated me. She was the product of her circumstances, of her time and place, but I still wanted her to have more insight and more courage, and to make better choices, the way I had once wished for a happier outcome for Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. When I was very young, I’d read a beloved book over and over again with the stupid hope that it would end differently this time. A few critics had said, when Mrs. Bridge and its sequel, Mr. Bridge, were first published, that they were unkind, even brutal portraits of the author’s parents, whose upper middle class lives in Kansas City bore a strong resemblance to his protagonists. But I saw both novels as candid observation, leavened by the charity of humor and the imagination. I was gripping my dog-eared, underlined book and looking forward to saying some of all that when our meeting began, if it ever did.
Suddenly, Ruth’s and Jeffrey’s faces loomed before us, almost as big as life. They were both wearing the kind of masks Ann said you couldn’t buy anymore for love or money. Then one of them seemed to bark, piercingly, and Jeffrey shouted “Mute, Evelyn, mute!” Evelyn Lasky and Mildred, her ancient, incontinent, and yappy Maltese.
“How?” Evelyn cried. “Oh! Oh! What do I do?” while Mildred barked in frantic unison.
“Just hit your damn mute button!” Jeffrey commanded through his mask, as muffled and menacing as Darth Vader. “And shut that dog up!” So much for his bedside manner, I thought, but didn’t say. What if I wasn’t muted, either?
Then, the faces of all the other women in our book group popped up, each in a separate little frame, like the celebrities on Hollywood Squares. Some of the women’s mouths were moving soundlessly. Only Evelyn’s frame was empty until she whizzed by, calling “Mildred! Stay! Come!”
“Everyone else, unmute!” Jeffrey ordered, and soon there was a cacophony of voices, a chorus of confusion and dismay. And someone’s cell phone chirped and chirped.
“So this is what I’ve been missing all these years,” Howard said.
Then Ruth was in the center of the screen again, sans Jeffrey, holding up her copy of Mrs. Bridge and wiggling it. “Settle down, people,” she said, like the middle school teacher she had once been. “Now, who would like to begin?”
I raised my hand and leaned eagerly forward—the way I had in AP English—just as the connection was broken and everyone grew silent and disappeared.
The sirens woke me again from a disturbing dream. Out of the frying pan…Howard was still asleep next to me, still breathing. Everything had changed in just a couple of weeks. There were so many new cases in the city and not only in nursing homes. I remembered telling Ann that I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those places.
Novel coronavirus, Covid-19—like the devil, it had alternate names. A neighbor informed me, through her barely cracked door, that someone on the floor below us had it, and there were rumors about the super’s wife. Howard stayed home most of the time, pacing the apartment for exercise like a hamster on a wheel. I only ventured out for a few essentials at a small bodega rather than the more treacherously populated supermarket, and to pick up the mail and empty our trash. I wore a mask and gloves like almost everyone else I saw in the street. We all looked like aliens, like expressionless robots. One afternoon, I saw a barefaced young man coming toward me and I said, “Excuse me, but don’t you have a mask?”
“Cunt!” he shouted, and he lunged at me with a raised fist before sauntering off. Why do you always have to talk about everything? My heart rioted for minutes afterward.
Upstairs, the phone rang and rang. An automated voice offered a terrific deal on automobile insurance. I just had to press “one” to reach an agent. Another told me that my Amazon account had been hacked and that I owed $1,046. A sweet-sounding boy pretended to be my grandson who needed Target gift cards sent immediately to bail him out of jail. I guess they all figured we were trapped at home and had nothing else to do, which was largely true.
But there also were legitimate, welcome calls, from both children, a couple of the grandkids, and our daughter-in-law, Honey. She was taking Jason back in, for the duration, anyway; she didn’t want him to be among strangers in a plague.
“Darling,” I said. “That sounds almost biblical.”
“I guess I’m just a sucker, like you,” she said, which felt absurdly like a compliment.
Rosa, who had been our weekly housecleaner for years, phoned to say she wouldn’t be coming in for a while, or working for any of her other regulars. She was afraid of bringing something bad home to her disabled husband and his elderly mother, who lived with them. How would they get by without Rosa’s income? I put some money in an envelope and mailed it to her, the way my mother used to send a crisp ten-dollar bill to Jason and Ann on each of their birthdays. I dragged the vacuum cleaner out of the hall closet. It seemed to draw back, like an obstinate leashed dog. I was embarrassed to realize I’d forgotten how to turn it on.
Houdini—that escape artist, the Handcuff King—was a great magician, but also a pragmatist. He knew that his tricks were just that, not anything mystical or otherworldly. So why did he and Bess ever devise that ridiculous pact? Maybe terror makes believers of us all.
Howard hated wearing a mask. He claimed that it impeded his breathing and, perversely, his vision. At the same time, he’d become more of a germaphobe, not touching the mail or the newspaper until they’d lain around the apartment for hours, and then washing his hands raw. Every few days he developed a new imaginary symptom, usually shortly after he’d first heard about it. One evening I found him sniffing an almost full bag of garbage—coffee grounds and onion peels—as if he were inhaling the scent of roses. “I think I’ve lost my sense of smell,” he said. I opened an old jar of Vicks VapoRub and held it under his nose, and he recoiled, relieving us both.
I’d taken to reading aloud again, which used to annoy him, especially if he was trying to read at the same time. Now, he seemed to find it soothing, maybe because I chose poems by Lucille Clifton and Billy Collins that tended to remind us of ourselves.
I didn’t get my hair cut and it grew at what seemed to be an accelerated pace. There was nothing more unattractive, I thought, than an old woman with long, scraggly gray hair. I found a purple scrunchie that Abigail or Summer had left at our place and pulled my hair into a makeshift ponytail that made my ears stick out. Howard said he liked the way I looked. I wasn’t the only liar in the family. He put on a CD of Sidney Bechet standards and we slow-danced around the living room for a few laps before collapsing together on the sofa. We’ll get through this, I thought.
Then Howard told me that he had an ingrown toenail—it was killing him—and he’d made an appointment to see Dr. Perez.
“Let me see it,” I said. “Maybe I can fix it.” I had been filing my own toenails with a coarse emery board.
“You’re not a podiatrist,” he said.
“No,” I said. “But I play one on TV.”
He was not in a playful mood. His toe wasn’t killing him, exactly—he was given to hyperbole—but it hurt a lot. “Howie, you can’t go,” I said. “The bus will be a hotbed of germs.”
“I’ll take a cab.”
“But there may be other patients in the waiting room.” I remembered it as being closet-sized, with a few hard chairs jammed up against one another. “And who knows about Perez himself?” I enlisted Ann’s help in trying to deter him, but all of her wheedling and warnings didn’t work, either.
I don’t know if he took a cab or the bus. I don’t know if the waiting room was empty, as he insisted later, or if he and Dr. Perez both wore masks for the entire visit. All I know is that a little more than a week later, Howard began coughing, and it wasn’t one of his extravagant imaginary symptoms. He even tried to suppress it. By the next morning, he was running a fever—not that high, really, but steady. He said he didn’t feel terrible and that his toe was much better. And his sense of smell was intact. “You smell pretty good,” he said, when I was probably rank with fear.
Dr. Ginsberg had been exposed to an infected patient at his office and was quarantining at home. A television droned in the background. “It doesn’t sound too bad,” he said. “He’s in pretty good shape, and it could just be a run-of-the-mill flu.” He paused. “But there’s his age, and this other thing seems to turn on a dime. Tylenol and some Robitussin for now, but watch him, especially his breathing, and let me know.”
I was a seasoned breath-watcher, so I could see and hear that Howard’s had become labored even before he began to complain about it. And then his fever spiked.
“Call 911,” Ginsberg said, just as I knew he would.
When the paramedics came, they put an oxygen mask over Howard’s face as soon as they had him on the gurney, so that all I could see were his wide, frightened eyes. “Get his insurance cards,” I was instructed. “Get his cell phone and a charger. Get him some pajamas.”
“My glasses,” Howard said through the mask.
I ran around looking for everything. His charger was under the bed. The only clean pajamas I could find didn’t match. I hardly had a chance to think until after we’d raced down the hall and they were in the elevator and the door had slid shut between us. “Good-bye! I love you!” I called, after the fact.
The person who answered the phone in the emergency room took Howard’s name and after long minutes a doctor got on. She said that he’d tested negative for Covid-19 but had pneumonia. They were going to keep him overnight for observation, but I should know that he’d been exposed to the virus there and would have to be quarantined once he got home. “Yes, yes, of course,” I said. “Thank you.” He didn’t have it! I was manic with gratitude. I wanted to tell her she was a saint and a genius, and that I worshipped at the shrine of medicine.
Ann said, “But, Mother, how can they send him home—he has pneumonia.” They called it the old man’s friend. That was before antibiotics, though, wasn’t it, before we were old? I began to deflate as Ann went on. How could he quarantine in our tiny apartment? Where would I sleep? I would need hired help, and that would be hard to come by in a pandemic. By the time we hung up, I was trembling.
That night Howard called on his cell phone. He was still in the emergency room; I could hear other voices behind his, like a discordant backup group, and beeping heart monitors. He said he felt like crap, but he’d eaten some of the cardboard chicken they’d given him. “Did you have dessert?” I asked—his favorite part of any meal.
“Yeah, Jell-O, he said. “Your mother could have been the cook here.”
I couldn’t believe we were discussing food. At suppertime, I’d stood at the sink eating a sandwich, something my mother would do during a quarrel with my father, a spin-off of her famous silent treatment. Once, she didn’t speak to him for an entire month, and I was enlisted to go back and forth between them with messages, like a carrier pigeon. Was that why I always talked so much? My throat ached with contained language. When I could, I said, “Hospital food, what do you expect?”
The next morning I woke up coughing. “Howie,” I said, forgetting for a moment that he wasn’t there. I ran my hand along his side of the bed just to be sure. The sheet was cool and smooth, but I continued speaking to him anyway, like an imbecile, like Bess Houdini. “I don’t feel well,” I whimpered. “What’s going on?” Of course I knew the answer to that even before I sipped some tasteless coffee and tried to smell the odorless jar of Vicks.
At Dr. Ginsberg’s request, they retested Howard; this time the results were positive, and his oxygen level had worsened. They were going to admit him, although there weren’t any available beds yet on a medical floor. I was advised to stay home, despite the cough and the fever I now had, as long as my breathing was all right; the hospital was a madhouse and there was nothing they could do for me there anyway. I was no longer kneeling at the shrine of medicine.
Wearing a mask and gloves, I put tied trash bags just outside our apartment door. A masked and gloved stranger picked them up and left mail and the groceries my children had ordered. Sometimes I looked through the peephole just to see the back of another human being receding down the hallway. I dropped my underwear and T-shirts on the bathroom and bedroom floors and let my dirty dishes accumulate in the sink, infractions the sixties hausfrau I had been wouldn’t have abided from her preteen children. I’d had to air out Jason’s reeking room every day, and Ann’s bed had always looked as if she were still in it.
Howard and I didn’t talk about food anymore. We seemed to have entered a dual delirium. I fretted about losing my keys in the street, although I hadn’t left the apartment for days. When I asked him how he felt, he said, “With my hands,” and I could tell by his flat tone that he wasn’t trying to make a weak joke. Maybe he believed it was a kind of cognitive test: I feel with my hands, I see with my eyes, etc., etc. He handed his phone to a doctor who introduced himself as David Chin. “I’m taking care of your husband,” he said. His voice was young, yet weary. He explained that his main concern was Howard’s oxygen levels, which hadn’t improved. Still, he was hopeful that things would turn around. They had a malaria drug they were going to try. He took my number and promised to keep me informed.
Dr. Chin called every day at the end of his shift—things were always the same or only a little worse. “He’s holding his own,” was the way he put it, and then Howard would get on to say hello. He sounded like those creepy men who used to pant into the phone and then hang up. “I’m still here,” he said one day. I wasn’t sure if he meant in the hospital or in the world. “Me, too,” I said. Dr. Chin took the phone again to ask if Howard had a living will. I wanted to come to Howard’s defense for not checking off those boxes about final measures. He must have been thinking about the aroma of simmering soup, of quenching his thirst with lemonade on a summer’s day. How could he renounce those simple pleasures with the stroke of a pen? Dr. Chin said, “Don’t be alarmed. It’s just routine.”
I began to feel better, in small increments. The cough was still deep and wrenching, but less frequent, and my sense of taste and smell had returned, if not my appetite. I turned on the television news and saw the rising numbers of coronavirus cases everywhere, heard the president’s cruel and cloying voice, and then the stock market report, the weather, and even a bit of entertainment news, as if things were normal.
I went into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. There was that dusty bottle of citrusy cologne, years after I’d decided to simply smell like myself. Nail polish in a palette from the palest pink to the bloodiest red, and Howard’s near empty can of shaving cream, his redundant bottles of antacid tablets. I dumped most of it into the wastebasket. Then I attacked the drawer in the kitchen—the crazy drawer—that was jammed with corroded batteries and takeout menus, with expired coupons and the manuals for appliances we no longer owned. Out, out!
Why had we lived this way, burdened by so much domestic clutter? I had been halfway through a literature major at Brooklyn College when I met Howard, and he had been that sexy thing, a jazz musician, his golden saxophone an extension of his golden body. We might have settled in Paris to pursue our artistic dreams instead of setting up house in Queens and then Washington Heights. We might have married other people or no one at all. What a radical idea—obliterating our long, tumultuous history, our indelible children and their children.
Howard needed the maximum oxygen flow, and Dr. Chin admitted that things looked grim. Ann, who had anguished over not being allowed to visit, told me that she’d been speaking to Dr. Chin, too—behind my back, I thought—and that on the brink of being attached to a ventilator Howard had declined and signed a DNR. “He’d never do that!” I cried. It was a mistake; maybe he didn’t understand what he was doing. But Ann assured me that he’d been fully aware, that his dread of suffering must have overwhelmed his dread of nothingness. “Daddy is being brave,” she said, and we wailed to each other until one of us hung up.
Like the book club meeting and a bar mitzvah I had recently attended, the baby shower was conducted via Zoom. All of the gifts had been selected from a registry, and when Abigail opened them, she and the guests in their little frames exclaimed over them in counterfeit surprise. She had told me the baby would be named for her grandfather, whom she’d adored, but that no one called a child Howard anymore. Would I mind if she just used his initial? She was thinking of Hunter or Hugo.
Dr. Chin had left word with Ann that he would be happy to speak with me whenever I was ready. I couldn’t bring myself to call him. I didn’t want to hear about last words or last breaths, and I let the weeks go by. Ann said that if I waited much longer, Dr. Chin might not remember Howard or me. There were so many other patients and their families, those dense pages of obituaries in the Times every Sunday.
I kept thinking I was beside myself. I knew it was only a figure of speech; Howard would say I was being melodramatic. In reality, I was beside no one—in our bed, on the sofa, or at the kitchen table. And Howard had died without anyone who loved him nearby, had been cremated with no one there to see him off. I hadn’t witnessed any of it and my imagination failed me for once—I couldn’t picture it. His clothes were hanging in the closet, his frayed
blue toothbrush was in its holder. It was as if he had merely vanished, like a magician’s assistant falling through a secret trapdoor.
I wouldn’t let the children into the apartment yet, although I had scrubbed almost every surface with a disinfectant, and I needed their help disposing of Howard’s things. We all met in the street in front of my building, wearing our disguises, and keeping the recommended distance between us—waving and blowing kisses until Jason leapt across the chasm like a caped superhero and clutched me to his heaving chest.
I left a message for Dr. Chin with his answering service, and he called me back a few hours later. “I don’t know if you’ll remember us—” I began, and he interrupted me. “How could I forget?” he said. “Your husband was my favorite patient.” Did he tell that to all the new widows? Then he said, “Howard was such a sweet guy. He told me all about you, your whole love story, in daily installments.” It didn’t matter whether or not it was true. I had been shown mercy.
It’s still going on—I mean the pandemic and all the rest of life. I haven’t had a FaceTime visit with a psychic, and I didn’t hold a Zoom séance on Howard’s birthday in October. But I often speak to him. I was hesitant and self-conscious at first, trying out a few possible code words, like his name and my own. Over time, I’ve become my usual garrulous self again, talking and talking about anything and everything, as if I’m goading him into answering me, if only to tell me to be quiet. So far, he hasn’t.