Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Toby Tucker Hecht

Descent

Peter had ignored his wife Nella when she first began to complain about her symptoms. There had been earlier periods like that in their marriage, times when Nella wanted more attention, more gratitude, and more affection. At those times, she’d had headaches and indigestion, and had been given to emitting long pensive sighs, especially at the dinner table or while Peter was trying to enjoy thirty minutes of television before he began his preparations for the next work day. Peter had always responded the same way, by doing exactly the opposite of what was being asked. Giving in was a bad thing—for him and for Nella. It changed the rules of the game and created ambiguity. Once he’d refrained from love-making for an entire month until she got the whining out of her system. It was the tactic his brother had used with his wife, and it had worked for them; they’d just celebrated their fifteenth wedding anniversary.
Nella had wanted children. Peter knew this. He hadn’t exactly said no, but relentlessly postponed the possibility with her. He felt proud that he hadn’t hurt her feelings outright about it; he just did what he had to do.
Nella kept a journal. He imagined she wrote about her girlfriends, the gossip they never seemed to tire of, and complaints about their husbands. She wrote in it every night before going to sleep. He had no interest in looking at the journal. It was left unlocked on the night table beside the bed. She trusted him. They had a good marriage.

When she began to bruise—big purple and yellow splotches on her extremities, he asked her if she’d been walking into things. She stared at him and said that she thought she ought to see a doctor. Something was wrong. Very wrong. She felt so horribly tired and her gums bled when she brushed her teeth. Peter told her that she needed to floss her teeth more often. And of course she was tired. If she’d only get more exercise she’d be in better shape. He was happy that she accepted his suggestions without a fuss. He hated women who became defensive about everything.
A month later, Nella began to run a fever. Peter gave her Tylenol and said, “See how I take care of you. How many other husbands do that?” She could hardly hold up her head, but she smiled at him. She stopped writing in her journal.
Peter had been preparing a presentation that, if successful, would mean a great deal of money for his company. He stayed late at the office for days at a time, which was just as well since Nella had stopped cooking dinner. He often found her in her pajamas lying on the sofa under a quilt—even on warm days—when he returned at night. He wondered when Nella would snap out of her self-absorption. She’d become rather demanding, asking him to take off from work to accompany her to the doctor. He was a professional, not an hourly wage earner. Couldn’t she get one of her gossipy do-nothing friends to take her if she wasn’t up to going herself?

Then, he arrived home one day and couldn’t arouse her. He called 911. A whirlwind of ambulance sirens, IV tubes, and radio transmissions to the emergency room, was followed by blood tests, scans, physical examinations, and an admission to the Intensive Care Unit of the University Hospital. Peter waited for hours, sitting, pacing, and then he stood on the other side of the thin curtain listening to the doctors speak about her grave condition. Was she really not pulling a stunt this time?
And then they were talking to him. Nella was terribly far-gone. They told him the name of the syndrome. He’d never heard of it before. If they’d seen her earlier in the disease process, they said, they might have been able to save her, or at least prolong her life, but now, well, they were very, very sorry. It was a matter of weeks, at best.
“She must have been very good at covering up her illness to you,” one of the doctors said. “She must have had her reasons,” another added, fixing her gaze directly at Peter. “Go home and get some rest.”
He called a taxi and returned to the house. It was then he detected the penetrating smell of sickness in the bedroom among the still damp, crumpled sheets. How had he failed to notice it before? He sat down on the bed and put his head in his hands. That was when he saw Nella’s journal. He turned to the last page, an entry of over a month before. There was a date written in a shaky handwriting, next to which was a long letter, to him.
He didn’t read it then, although in the days and weeks and even years after Nella’s death—whenever he felt the need to do penance—he would.

© Toby Tucker Hecht 2011

Toby Tucker Hecht is a scientist and short story writer. Her fiction has been published in The MacGuffin, The Baltimore Review, THEMA, The Foundling Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Epiphany, and other print and online literary journals. She is working on a series of short stories with singing or dancing somewhere in the plot. When not writing, she can be found at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland where she is passionate about translational research, that is, taking promising concepts developed in the laboratory and testing them in the clinic for the benefit of cancer patients. Toby blogs at the Six Sentence Social Network http://sixsentences.ning.com/profile/TobyTuckerHecht

7 comments:

  1. All-too-familiar tale of familiarity breeding not only contempt but blindness too.

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  2. Toby, this is the best piece you've written. I wanted to scream "You son of a bitch!!!" Why is there so much of this type of behavior repeated throughout the history of marriage?

    Jeanette Cheezum

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  3. What a fantastic story. You had me from the first word. Great writing.

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  4. There is not enough coal in the fires of hell for that man. What a good job you did to make me so angry!! Well written, no, painted.

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  5. I'm sad for both of them, at the moment but mostly i was angry at him. And maybe them. People have to communicate, and people in a relationship, you'd think they could tell each other everything but the lowest things they need to say, the most important, are stuck in a journal. This was an emotional story and well done. kes

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  6. Oh, Toby. This is so finely crafted. I slid through it effortlessly, each word in its place. The theme of negligence is one I seldom encounter in my reading, so this was fresh and the message was important, too. Very well done, and I hope to read more of your longer work.

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  7. I don't visit her often enough. Talk about needing to do penance! You held me with every word and sadly, this is the truth of too many marriages. I'm so very impressed.

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