Loving Annalise

Loving Annalise

Status: Finished

Genre: Romance

Details

Status: Finished

Genre: Romance

Summary

After years of poverty, heartbreak, loss and betrayal, Tomas enters Annalise's world and shatters the iron casing she's erected around her heart. Tomas is kind, intelligent, romantic and handsome, but he's also her husband's brother!

Summary

After years of poverty, heartbreak, loss and betrayal, Tomas enters Annalise's world and shatters the iron casing she's erected around her heart. Tomas is kind, intelligent, romantic and handsome, but he's also her husband's brother!

Chapter1 (v.1) - Loving Annalise

Author Chapter Note

After years of poverty, heartbreak, loss and betrayal, Tomas enters Annalise's world and shatters the iron casing she's erected around her heart. Tomas is kind, intelligent, romantic and handsome, but he's also her husband's brother!

Chapter Content - ver.1

Submitted: September 15, 2015

Reads: 1363

Comments: 2

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Chapter Content - ver.1

Submitted: September 15, 2015

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The morning sun opened our lust-covered eyes.  Tomas pulled me near in my half-asleep state.  The next thing I knew, we were engaged where we'd left off the night before. 

"Damn,” I exclaimed.  “What a wonderful way to start the day!"

As I lingered in our pleasure, he threw on a robe and went into the kitchen to make breakfast.  I stared at the outline of his behind, appreciating his graceful stride as he disappeared from view. 

We'd spent months planning this honeymoon.  The kids were with Mutti and Vater in Chicago for two weeks, and we'd rented the cabin in the beautiful Rockies three months in advance.  It stood above a shimmering clear lake, about an hour and a half outside Boulder.  The closest residence was a quarter-mile away, and we were well-stocked with every necessity.  The most essential item we'd packed with care was our freedom—the freedom to explore our love without guilt or remorse.  Our self-imposed exile was over.

The scents of fresh coffee, toast, and bacon, mixed with the sounds of pans, silverware, and clinking glass, drifted into the bedroom.  I pictured Tomas, with a smile of contentment, squeezing fresh orange juice and setting a tray.  His gentle humming, a rendition of an old English love song, mingled with the sounds and smells of the breakfast. 

The sun's rays shot through the window and reflected off my wedding ring.  It had been Omi's when she'd been married and her mother's—my great-grandmother’s—before that.  It was a small, simple diamond set in a silver band.  The light reflected a thousand colors of the rainbow.  I looked closer and was amazed by its brilliance. 

Jens had been like that ring.  He'd overwhelmed me with his worldliness and intelligence.  But like a fake diamond, he soon lost his luster, and our love faded to a dull gray.

 

***

 

The bike vibrated between my legs as my arms encircled Jens’ waist.  I was scared, but also excited.  The wind blew through my hair as we wound through country roads and back to the city, ending up at a party with Jens’ buddies.  I was in the bathroom for half an hour combing out my snarled hair.  When I emerged, they were drinking, smoking and talking about the World Cup and politics. 

"Germany doesn't have a chance against Brazil.  Their forwards are too fast, and Germany's defense can't keep up,” said Jens’ friend Paul.

Jens shot back, "Speed isn't everything, my friend.  Germany has strength.  They'll wear them down.  You wait and see."

"Yeah, look where strength got them: almost annihilated!" replied Paul.

"Why do you always bring in politics?” questioned Jens.  “World War II has nothing to do with soccer, you idiot.  And even if it did, you'd be wrong there, too.  Germany has rebuilt itself from the ground up and is one of the strongest economic powers in the world.  And mark my word, some day the Wall's going to fall, and they'll be unstoppable."

"You must be drunk,” snorted Paul.  "The Wall's never coming down.  You and I will be dead before that ever happens.  You think Khrushev is going to allow it?  No way!  Never!  The U.S. doesn't really want it to fall either.  They're scared to death of a united Germany.  Who can blame them?  It wasn't that long ago that we were under their thumbs as well."

"Paul, you have not only lost your mind, but your reasoning ability as well,” Jens grinned.  “Who did you say was drunk?" 

They laughed and raised their glasses.  "Mark my words, NATO would love to see The Wall crumble, and by tomorrow night, you'll see the new world champions of soccer celebrating in Berlin."

The night went on.  Everyone grew louder and more adamant about his position.  I didn't dare say a word.  I was too afraid to open my mouth, and I didn't have a clue about half of what they were discussing.  I was happy to just be there and sit by "my man." 

Around one or two in the morning, we swerved back and forth to the hospital.  Jens dropped me off by the maintenance entrance.  I took off my shoes and snuck in like a burglar.  Kristan was wide awake and insisted I tell her "everything." 

"There's not much to tell," I said.  "We just drove around for awhile and went to see a friend of his." 

Annoyed with my reluctance, Kristan exclaimed, "Not much to tell!  Didn't you even kiss him?" 

"No, why would I?” I asked naively.  “We just met." 

She rolled her eyes.  "You're impossible." 

I told her I was tired and went to bed.  I could tell she was annoyed with my answer and knew I’d kept a lot to myself.  I pulled the cover up to my neck, felt my legs still vibrating from the bike, and thought about Jens.  He must be the most wonderful creature on earth!  He's so smart and handsome!  I'd die for him here and now.

Jens and I continued to escape the watchful eyes of my benefactors at least four to five times a month.  We went to movies, concerts and parties and took long walks.  Jens did most of the talking and usually decided where we'd go, but I was happier than I'd ever been.  Part of me enjoyed being told what to do and being taken care of.  As the oldest at home, I'd always been the responsible one.  Now I was the youngest.  Jens was seven years my senior.  I didn't need to make any decisions—he was my mentor.  His presence in my life opened new vistas and possibilities.

Three months later, the inevitable question arose.  When he asks me to sleep with him, will I?  It wasn't a difficult decision.  I was sure he was the love of my life, and I had no reason to hold back.  He'd suggested I start taking the pill a month earlier, when I'd turned eighteen.  He'd obviously decided already.  And since I’d taken him up on his suggestion, it wasn't a matter of if, but when.

“When” happened on a cold, windy, Friday night, after we'd gone to see the movie Easy Rider starring Peter Fonda.  Jens loved biker movies. I didn't understand all the drug references or American slang, but the need to let loose and be carefree spoke to all cultures and languages. 

After the movie, we went to Paul's home and discovered that no one was there.  I learned later that they had it all planned. 

Jens was very sweet and restrained himself from attacking me the instant we walked in the door.  I could see in his eyes that he was holding himself in check, waiting for me to "give in" and "let go." 

He kissed me hard, took off my sweater and shirt, but had trouble getting my pants down.  I stopped him and did it myself.  He took off his clothes.  I'd never seen a grown man naked, let alone one this excited.  I stifled a giggle, and we continued our play into the bedroom. 

Kristan was right: it was awkward.  All the sensations were new.  It felt strange to have another person inside of me.  But this wasn't just anyone—it was Jens!  I wanted to show him I was a real woman.  I'd never felt so close to another human being.

That night I went home and didn't whisper a word to Kristan; it was too personal.  I associated sex with love and was sure we were moving down the yellow brick road to eternal wedded bliss, with adorable children following in rapid succession.  My head hit the pillow with a contented sigh.

Two days later, Jens took me to a ritzy downtown eatery known as Pole-Nord.  I entered with a waltz in my step and a glow in my heart.  I'd borrowed a silver, shimmering, low-cut dress from Kristan and spent hours on my hair and makeup.  My expectations and exuberance filled the room to capacity.  I felt like Jacqueline Onassis; I could have dazzled kings and queens with my brilliance. 

As we sat waiting to order, Jens asked how I was doing.

"Great.  How do you think?" I winked.

"You look gorgeous,” he said, but without any spark.

"Thought you'd never notice."  I smiled coyly.

After a few more moments of my intoxicated admiration and fawning, he began to unravel.

"I've got to tell you something,” he hinted.

"Yes…,” I stated with intimate glee.

"I'm not sure how,” he hesitated. 

Here it comes, I thought.  It must be hard to propose.  I couldn't wait much longer or I'd burst.

He moved his napkin on and off his lap several times, took a deep breath, and continued.  "Well, there's no easy way to do this."

"What is it, Jens?" I asked with a shy grin, knowing all the while.

"It's tearing me up."  He lowered his gaze and his voice.

A flicker of doubt crossed my mind.  "What's tearing you up?" 

How could asking me to marry him be tearing him up?

"She doesn't mean a thing,” he blurted.

I physically recoiled like a gun. 

"What?” I mumbled.  “She?"

"I was only eighteen,” he whispered.  “Her father made us."

"Made you what?" I asked, hoping against hope.

He looked up.  "Get married, you idiot.  What do you think I'm trying to tell you?"

Ashamed at my own ignorance, I continued to react like a schoolgirl who'd been attacked by the class bully.  "Get married," I stuttered.  "You . . . you were married?"

Impatient and red-faced, he glared, "Not was married.  I AM married.  Why are you making this so difficult?!"

"Difficult?!" I exclaimed. 

I couldn't believe my ears were being defiled with such obscene hypocrisy.  My outrage embedded itself in his floundering gills.  "You're married!  You're telling me you're already married?!”  He nodded.  “You were married when we first went out . . . when you took me to see your friends . . . when you made love to me?!”He looked away and nodded again.“And I'm being difficult?!" I shouted. 

I'm not sure why I didn't stand up, kick him in the balls, and leave right then and there.  I was paralyzed with shock; I simply froze and watched the crap pour from his lips.

"Yeah, I'm married,” he confessed, “but she doesn't mean a thing.  I've never loved her, and she knows it.  It's no big secret."

They have no secrets, I thought.  How nice.

"We'd have never have married if her father hadn't threatened me,” he reiterated.  “Hell, we'd only known each other for four months."

"What's her name?" a voice asked, as if it hadn't come from my own throat.

"Julia,” he said with a hint of appropriate distaste.

"Julia," I repeated.  It felt sharp on my tongue.

"Yes, Julia,” he echoed.“I've told her again and again that we're through, but she doesn't get it.  She and Franz will do fine on their own.  He'll be much happier without us fighting all the time."

Reluctantly, I asked, "Who’s Franz?"

"Our son,” he stated, as if everyone on earth knew.

My skin began to crawl.  I felt the blood drain from my face.  "Your son?" the mystery voice continued.  "You have a son?” I asked, as the aftershocks continued to rock my world.“How old?"

"He'll be seven this March,” he said with a hint of pride.

My voice left me, and I sat in stony silence.

He whined on and on.  "They mean nothing to me.  Do you hear me?  You're the only one who matters.  You've got to believe me!  Don’t ever think of leaving.  I couldn't live without you!" 

Grabbing my hands tightly, he continued, "You've got to understand!"

"A son.  You have a son?"  I thought my head would shatter.  "Why didn't you tell me?"  My insides were screaming.  My mind refused to believe the obvious, and I whispered with one last hope, "You're joking, aren't you?" 

"I wish I was,” he said.“I didn't want to hurt you.Can you ever forgive me?"

"No,” I said resolutely.  “Never!” 

"It didn’t seem like the right time,” he blundered.  “I tried, but whenever you'd look at me with those beautiful blue eyes, I couldn't do it.  I couldn't stand to make you cry."

"And now's a good time?" I replied rigidly.  "After all we've been through?!"

"I understand,” he said gloomily.  “I'm sorry.  I'm really sorry."

Understand? I silently intoned, continuing to stare with a porcelain face at the blue velvet wall across the room.He doesn't understand squat!

"Don't shut me out!" he implored, squeezing my hands tighter.  "Annalise.  Annalise!"  He shook my shoulders, and I returned to the pain of the moment.  "Say something.  Don't just sit there; it's driving me mad."

"What do you want from me?" I asked flatly.

"Your love,” he lamented.  “Don't let a past mistake cut us down."

All my insecurities rushed to the surface, as my need for affection and direction overpowered any reason left in my hollow shell of a body. 

An unknown force removed the adrenaline from my muscles and mind; I calmly looked Jens in the eye and said, mysteriously, "I could never leave you.”  I smiled unconsciously.“We'll work it out." 

I heard a sigh of relief exhale from his lungs like a gust of wind, as he suffocated me with kisses, hugs and reassurance.  "I knew you'd understand.  You're one in a million, I tell ya . . . one in a million."

I retained a semblance of misplaced dignity and insisted he divorce immediately.  "If not, we're history!" I exclaimed, thinking I was being assertive and strong. 

I had a rabid case of snow blindness, and I kept crawling up Mt. Illusion, ignoring all signs of the impending avalanche. 

The rest of the evening was a drunken blur.  I doused the bonfire of my betrayed trust with an ocean of booze, demanding "one more" until I had to be carried home.  Throwing up on the floor of his precious BMW was the only inkling of justice I could manage.

True to his word, Jens divorced Julia within the month and maintained contact with his son by buying him expensive gifts, which he delivered with his usual warmth and personal touch . . . by way of the Postal Service.

 

***

When I turned eighteen and finished nursing school, I jumped off the mountain's ledge into the fiery pit: I irrationally moved in with Jens and his seventy-four-year-old grandmother, Rochelle.  We inhabited the top floor, she the lowlands. 

Rochelle was a little senile and talked as if we'd been married for years.  With her failing eyesight and wandering mind, she often called me Netti, as if I were her niece.  Honesty isn't as meritorious as it’s always cracked up to be.  There are times when fudging the truth a little—or outright lying—is the most compassionate course.If I'd attempted to tell Rochelle the truth about her grandson and me “living in sin,” I would have drained her pious Catholic heart of all her saintly blood.  She would have turned over in her grave—before she'd even died.

I never met Jens’ wife or son.  Apparently, Julia had more wits than I'd expected and skillfully kept her distance. 

The only persistent threat to our fragile happiness, other than the relationship itself, was my family.  The thought of them discovering my living arrangement loomed over me like Godzilla about to attack Tokyo.  They had to know sooner or later.  And if the news didn't come from me first, they'd hit the roof . . . and the floor . . . the walls . . . and then me.  So Jens and I arranged a little visit.  I told my family I was bringing my boyfriend, period. 

The little visit went from disaster to disastrous.

 

***

 

Mutti, Vater and Omi answered the door in unison, all with the straight faces of a deliberating jury.

Vater awkwardly shook hands and made the precursory introductions.

"This is Annalise's mother."  They shook hands and smiled.  "This is her grandmother."  Jens started to put his hand forward but withdrew when Omi didn't respond in kind.  She nodded her head indifferently, with obvious constraint.

Dieter and Gerti shoved their way in front.

"Oh, yes,” Vater said, “and this is her oldest brother Dieter and sister Gerti.  Everyone else is out playing, working, or lost,” he kidded loudly.

"Hello,” Jens replied.  “It's a pleasure to meet you all."  Silence reigned as he continued.  "I've heard a lot about you.  Annalise speaks highly of you all." 

Gerti and Dieter giggled.  I nudged them slightly and gave them my older-sister death stare that says, don't embarrass me, or you’re cooked liver!

"Come on in,” Vater finally said, leading us to the living room with the jury in tow.  "Please, sit down,” he motioned.  Jens sat down before Mutti or Omi.  I noticed their etiquette antenna rising in unison.

Jens tried to break the ice.  "It was a nice drive out here.  This is beautiful country."

"We like to think so," Vater replied.  "Of course, it's not as exciting as the city."  He glanced my way, but Jens didn't pick up on Vater’s remark. 

"Well, probably not,” he admitted, “but I'm sure it has its good points.  It must be easy to get to sleep . . . being so quiet and all." 

Dieter and Gerti fidgeted in their seats.  Jens turned to them for redemption.  "What grade are you kids in?"

"I'm in tenth,” replied Gerti proudly.  "He's still in middle school,” she said defiantly, nodding at Dieter.  Dieter grabbed her knee and squeezed.  She punched him in the shoulder. 

"Why don't you two go set the table?" Mutti insisted.  Gerti looked at Dieter angrily as they left.

Mutti turned towards Jens.  "Yes, it’s quiet—but not boring."

"I didn't mean it like that,” Jens quickly stated.

"I'm sure you didn't," Vater replied. 

"When Annalise talks about home, she always speaks with great love,” he said honestly.  “She misses you a lot."

"She's knows she can come home anytime,” Mutti interjected hopefully.

"You know I can't come home, Mom.  I'm just getting used to being on my own, and Jens and I have lots of plans."  Mutti looked hurt.  I put my hand on her knee.  "You understand?"

"Of course,” Mutti replied with unconvincing sincerity.

"What kind of plans?" Vater astutely inquired.

"Well . . . ," I started to say.

"Big plans!" Jens interrupted and eagerly leaned forward to explain.  "I've been working on a business deal with a new garage, and I just sold another bike.  I'm pretty good at making money,” he boasted.  "It won't be long until your daughter has everything she's ever dreamed of.  I know she didn't have much growing up and all."  My parents stiffened, and Omi glared.  "I'll give her the moon, if it makes her happy."  He winked at me with pompous self-satisfaction.

Vater arose suddenly and exclaimed, "Let me show you around.  It's not much, but it's ours."  Jens stood without saying "excuse me" or acknowledging anyone’s presence. 

As they left the room, I heard him begin to ingratiate himself with Vater.  "How'd you like to make some extra cash?" he asked.

Vater replied with widened eyes, "Sure—who wouldn't?"

"I've got this great idea . . .” They moved out of earshot, walking towards the barn.

Mutti looked as if she'd seen a ghost and went to the kitchen without a word.  Omi turned up her nose and asked accusingly, "What does he do?"

"He's the manager of an auto repair shop and works part time in construction," I explained.

"Where's his family from?" Omi demanded.

"They live in the States, Omi,” I said, with some restraint.  “I told you that on the phone."

"Where does he live?" Omi asked, relentlessly.

My hands began to sweat, and my face felt hot and prickly. 

"Downtown,” I replied, standing up quickly.  "We should go help Mutti in the kitchen."

"Sit down!" she demanded, and I returned to the edge of my seat, trying to think of some magical Houdini trick to escape her cross-examination.  "Where downtown?" she asked again.

"Close; close to my place,” I said softly.

Her eyes peered out from that familiar wrinkled face.  She could tell something wasn't right.  Her lips froze in a straight line to her cheeks, and her eyebrows furrowed deeper.  That look meant she knew I was lying—and I knew that she knew.

Her gaze didn't waver as she cut to the chase.  "Do you love him?"

A fake smile of reassurance plastered itself on my see-through face.  "Of course, Omi.  I wouldn't live with a man I didn't love." 

Oh, my God!  What did I say?!  I tried to suck the words back into my mouth, but the damage was done.  In Omi's world, living with a man out of wedlock was like living in Dante's Inferno. 

"Live with him!” she gasped.  “You live with this . . .  this car mechanic?!"

The facade came crashing down.  "Yes, Omi, that's what we came to tell you.  We’re going to get married.  You'll like him, if you give him half a chance!"

"Annalise."  I could see her fighting internally, trying to gain some semblance of control.  "I'll always love you, you know that."  I did.  "But I could never pretend to care about a man who shows you such disrespect!"

"It was my decision as much as his!” I pleaded.

"No,” she concluded, “never!"

Standing abruptly, she turned as quickly as her old bones could manage and shuffled off into the kitchen.  She refused to talk to Jens or me the rest of the visit.  In fact, she never acknowledged his presence from that day forth.  Mutti's response was almost a carbon copy of her mother’s. 

We were setting the table for supper when Mutti exploded, "You love this man?!"  By then, Omi had told her and Vater about our "living arrangement." 

"Yeah.  Totally.  Can't you see his goodness, his keen mind, his drive?"  I modestly extrapolated what I wanted to see myself.

"I see, all right!" she countered.  "I see a self-centered intellectual who cares more about money and himself then he does you!"

I stopped folding the napkins and sat down without realizing I did so.  "You're wrong, Mutti.  You're only seeing a small part of him.  He knows so much.  He's opened my eyes to the world."

"Whose world—his or yours?" she jabbed.

Undaunted, I weakly continued, "He shows his love all the time."

She sat next to me, trying to bridge my gap of denial.  "Hon, I'm sure he buys things, but they aren't for you.  He's buying you."

"How can you judge him like that?” I whined.  “You hardly know him."

"I know him well enough,” she insisted.  "I know men.  They do what they do for themselves.  They may pretend it's for you, but . . ."

"Are you saying Vater only thinks of himself?  After all he's done for you . . .  for us!"  I bristled.

"No.  Not all men are selfish, just most,” she stated.  “They know how to give things, but not their heart and soul.  Jens thinks he's in love with you, too, but I'm afraid it won't be long until he gets tired of his new toy and starts looking around for another."

I jumped up, screaming, "You're one to talk!  You've never loved Vater, yet you've stayed married to him all this time!"

"You're right,” she calmly replied.  "Please, sit down."

After I pulled out the chair and sat huffing and puffing on its edge, she continued.  "You're right.  He's a good man.  He protected and cared for me.  But I've never been in love with him, and I've always known it.  We have a comfortable arrangement, but it stems not out of love, but from gratitude.  That's why I know what real love is.  And you and Jens don't have it."

"You don't know what you're saying,” I pleaded.  “We love each other.  He even got a divorce so we could be together."  Mutti flinched.Grasping for straws, I chaotically concluded, "Wait and see!  We don't need you to tell us how to live or what love is.  I'm eighteen!  I can make my own decisions!"  I stormed out of the room.

Mutti's wisdom fell on deaf ears.  I was fixated on my illusion of love, and I refused to question or doubt our relationship.  To do so would have placed me in the unbearable position of leaving the security I'd found and stepping back out into the mystery of the unknown. 

My family never invited Jens to any family function, and they only responded to his feeble attempts to please them with withering silence or the minimal socially-acceptable behavior.  Vater and Mutti barely tolerated our living together, and Omi held Jens in complete contempt. 

"Just don't get pregnant,” was my mother's repeated warning as I slowly reconnected our bond through the phone line the next day. 

"Don't worry, Mutti,” I assured her.  “That's the last thing on my mind."I knew I wanted kids—some day.  No matter how screwed up my perceptions of romance remained, my internal clock somehow kept the baby desire in check.  I'd seen how having children had affected Mom, and I was in no hurry to take that plunge.

 

***

My relationship with Jens survived, incongruent but generally intact, for two years—and we even had the gall to enjoy one another’s company on occasion. Against his nature, Jens made an effort and showed slight interest in my work, my life, and my world.  I took the crumbs he threw and turned them into a grandiose cake of affirmation and love.  I still preferred acting “as if,” rather than acting “as is.”

After graduating from the nursing academy in the middle of my class, it was my fortune to repay the good sisters for their investment in my training and keep working at the hospital—or, as we preferred to call it, their slave camp.  I owed them two years of hard labor and was given a position in the oncology—cancer—department.  Suffering and pain soon followed me to sleep; dreams of the afflicted cascaded through my mind’s receptors without invitation. 

The radiation and poisons we gave to slow down or kill the cancers were often worse than the disease itself.  Our motto could have been, "To save the forest, we had to destroy it."  We were given little choice.  No one spoke of dying peacefully in those days.  It was “Hail, hail, the conquering hero!” to the bitter end.  Dignity was measured by how little one complained, not by how they died.

When patients first arrived on our unit for chemotherapy, they were usually anxious, hopeful and talkative.  By the time they went home—if they got that far—they looked like death warmed over.  They could barely move; they walked in a daze, lost weight and hair, and were often nauseated and in pain.  Some did well in spite of the pitiful process, but many returned again and again to be put through the wringer.  One woman called her time in treatment a "working, masochistic vacation" 

There were remissions, and some patients did recover.  The majority, however, died helplessly, some receiving chemo up to their last breath.  They were the ones who couldn't "give up" or "let go."  As long as the doctor promised the slightest chance of a “good response” to a particular treatment, they'd give it a shot.  They associated hope and health with drugs, medicine and intervention, refusing to accept reality or choose quality over quantity in life. 

Of course, it's easy for me to talk—I've never had to face such a dilemma.  If the time ever comes, I pray I can make the switch from hope to faith and live without needless pain and suffering from "treatments" or "cures."  It can be done.  I've seen some live more fully within two weeks than others have in a lifetime.

Kathleen was one of the fortunate ones.  Not in length of life, but in the way she lived it.  She was forty-six, married, with two grown children and one grandchild.I met her on her second visit to the hospital for a three day "holiday."  We'd just finished reports from the previous shift, and I was meeting with each patient.  Just before entering Kathleen’s room, I heard her infectious laugh vibrating through the wall.  I knocked, opened the door, and saw this beautiful bald-headed woman grinning from ear to ear.  A young man stood stiffly at her side, and an older gentleman sat casually in the corner.

"Hi, hon, come in to death's parlor,” she smiled.

"Hello,” I said somewhat seriously, not getting her joke.  "My name is Annalise."

"What a beautiful name,” she exclaimed.

"Thank you,” I said shyly."I'll be your nurse today."

"Where are you from, dear?  Your accent is divine."

Again I blushed.  "My mother's from Denmark.  Is it that obvious?"

"No.  No!” she assured.  “I just have an ear for these things.  I love the beauty of the spoken word, don't you?"

"I guess so.”  I reverted to my familiar, safe role as nurse.  "How are you doing?"

"I'm doing fine, hon.  It's these poor bastards that I'm worried about."  She glanced at the two men, who laughed.  "This is my son Bender and husband Jerzy."  Bender reached out and shook my hand, while Jerzy nodded and smiled.

"I keep telling them that dying is easy; it’s living that should scare them to death." 

"Mom, don't be silly,” Bender corrected.  “You aren't going to die . . . at least not any time soon." 

"You're right, son, if by soon you mean within the next hour or two.  But death still happens to ten out of ten of us, and I have a feeling my time's coming sooner than you think."

"Mom!" Bender chided.

"He hates it when I talk like this,” Kathleen filled me in.  “But it's the truth!  He can't deny it, and neither can you,” she said as she looked me straight in the eye.

"You're right.  You will die, and so will I and everyone else who's alive,” I defended.

She laughed out loud.  "Good try, hon, but you know what I mean.  It's not going to happen to someone else we don't know, sometime in the future; it's going to happen to me in the here and now."

"How do you know for sure?" I asked curiously.

Again she laughed.  "Who’s in this body: you, them or me?"  She motioned towards the men.  "I've been in this shell we call the human body for forty-six years.  I know when its life force is starting to ebb."

"What about the treatments you're getting?” I replied.  "Don't you think they're going to help?"

"Sure,” she said, surprised.  "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think they would help.  But it's only a matter of months.  I want to use the extra month or two these doses give me to finish up some business and get these blockheads prepared,” she said, nodding at her husband and son.

Her husband retorted, "And she'll do it.  I've never known someone so alive.  That's why this is so hard to take.  She'll get more living done in the next few months than you or I could ever dream of."  He came over and sat on the side of the bed.  "She's already planned to go on a ski trip next week and have a family reunion next month."

"You bet your life!" she exclaimed clearly.  "You promised!"

"Hey, I've already made the arrangements,” he quickly replied, holding her hands and gesturing for her to calm down. 

"Even though she felt lousy last week, she insisted on taking us to the theater.  She's amazing . . . a real trooper.  We couldn't stop her if we tried."  His eyes watered as he leaned over and hugged her.  "That's why I'll miss her so much."

Kathleen, Bender and I were all tears.

She suddenly sat up, grabbed a tissue, and blew her nose.  "Hey, what's all the water doing in here?  We've got work to do, right?"  I nodded and smiled.  "Where's that first dose?  Come on, I'm ready!"  She put up her hands, as if to box.

"In about an hour or two,” I laughed.  "They still need to bring it up from the pharmacy."

"You mean the poison with the skull and crossbones, right?" she questioned.

"No, the med . . ,"  I started to say.

She laughed.  "Just joking, hon.  I can see I'm going to have to work on your sense of humor."

"Yeah, I'm a little slow,” I grinned.

"Then we'll need to work overtime,” she replied.  “Life's too much fun to take seriously.  It can kill you, you know?"

"What can . . . life?”  I asked.

"Yeah, life,” she smirked.  “It's a sexually-transmitted terminal illness that you're infected with at birth."

Her husband and son snickered, and I couldn't help but giggle.

"See you in awhile, Kathleen,” I said as I backed away to go.

"Just call me Kojak,” she coached.  “That's what my friends call me since I've lost my hair.  You know that guy on the American detective show?"

"Okay, Kojak,” I replied, “see you later."

"Here's looking at you, kid,” she said as I turned and left.

Kathleen lived seventy-five more precious days, going to a local hospice home program after her last treatment.  Months later, her son stopped by to thank us for the care we'd given.  He told me she'd gone skiing the week after I'd met her, then had a "Splendid!  Fantastic!" family reunion with over two hundred friends and relatives filling her soul with love while she kept them all in stitches.  He missed her deeply and said he wouldn't have changed one minute of her laughing-at-death life. 

"Not even the end?"  I inquired. 

"Especially not the end,” he replied.  "She lived and died full throttle!  She wouldn't have had it any other way."

Yeah, Kathleen was dealt a dirty deck.  She was young, only forty-six, with a loving husband and son and an insatiable zest for life.  But she played her cards with gusto.  She didn't wallow in self-pity, anger or resentment.  Somehow, she'd discovered how to live in the moment, using death as a reminder rather than a threat.  If I could find her secret, I'd keep a permanent supply in the fridge and bottle it for prosperity. 

 

***

Jens kept moving from one job to another until he finagled his own repair shop from a retiring Frenchmen and turned it into a profit-making machine.  He worked long hours and occasionally had to go out of town to get parts.  His pleasure was not in the work, but in the money.  Cash was his god.  His book of life believed one’s self-worth was measured by income, status, and the business savvy required to acquire them.

I worked from seven AM until four in the afternoon, did the shopping, cooked dinner, cleaned, and helped Granny Rochelle downstairs.  When I asked for a little help from Jens, he acted like I was from another planet.  He'd never seen a man lift a finger in the house, and he wasn't planning on altering such a convenient tradition.  Whether he arrived home at six or at ten, he expected a sumptuous meal awaiting his ravenous appetite and "his woman" attending to his needs like a handmaiden.  One night, I couldn't stand it anymore, and I put my foot down, figuratively speaking.  As any half-witted person could have predicted, my diatribe of feeble demands fell on deaf ears.

"Where have you been?!" I demanded, standing in the kitchen doorway with a stirring spoon in my hand.

He threw his jacket on the floor, put his greasy shoes on the sofa, and said, "I'm beat.”

"I said, where have you been?"

Staring at the ceiling, he replied, "Working.  Where do you think?"

"You said you'd be home at six.  It's nine o'clock.  I called the garage, and they said you'd left two hours ago.  Dinner is cold.  You can get it yourself!" I huffed.

"Six, nine, what's the difference?  I had to get a carburetor for a customer, and I was looking all over town for the right one."  He sat up and growled, "Don't make such a big deal out of it, okay?"

Walking towards him, I said, "The least you could have done is call.  It doesn't take much to do that, does it?"  I bent down to give him a kiss, but he stood up and walked right past me. 

"If I want a mother, I'll move back home!” he shouted.  “I don't need to tell you where I am every minute of the day!" 

Storming into the kitchen, he avoided my gaze and began to make a sandwich.  Following his footsteps, I went to the counter and threw the spoon in the sink.  "You selfish pig!  You're right; I'm not your mother!  Don't treat me like one!"

He shrugged his shoulders, went back to the living room, and plopped down on the sofa to read his car magazines.

I followed.  "Jens.  Jens!"

"What?" he asked without looking up.

"Did you hear me?!" I persisted

"Yeah, sure,” he muttered.

"Well?"  I stood waiting.

"Well, what?" he said, not bothering to look my way. 

I retreated to our bedroom, licking my wounds, and threw myself into a savage murder mystery novel.  Someday he's going to get what's coming to him, I thought.  Neither of us said a word the rest of the night.  He came to bed after I'd fallen asleep, and in the morning, he acted as if nothing had happened.  His indifference was insulting and my capitulation unpalatable.

Such "scenes" increased in regularity and intensity.  He had no interest in talking about our relationship, and I didn't know how to.  I was stuck in a ravine and couldn't crawl out.  Dreams of medical school vanished as my waking hours were consumed with work, home chores, and not "upsetting" Jens with my complaints—or, as he called it, "radical feminism." 

Two more years of working, bickering and unconscious dependency passed, then Jens informed me of his decision to visit his parents in Chicago.  It was like a burst of fresh air.  I'd always wanted to visit the States and would have gone on my own sooner or later.  I kept my excitement under the surface, not wanting him to have the pleasure of my anticipation.

Maybe this will help, I thought.  It could improve our relationship.  We could start over, I hoped against hope.  Not unlike some cancer patients grasping for straws.

 

***

 

A month later, we arrived, after two flight changes, at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.  Jens’ parents met us at the airport, where I first stepped onto American soil—or, I should say, concrete.  We turned onto a maze of freeways until my sense of direction was obliterated, and we drove into their driveway a short time later.  Their driveway was so long that I thought it was another highway.

Their home engulfed me.  It was large, actually huge, by European standards.  I'd never seen or been related to such affluence.  But they weren't rich.  They were "upper middle-class," Jens retorted to my insinuation of their wealth.  They had a spare bedroom, for God's sake!  I couldn't believe it!  Having lived in a two-bedroom cottage with my many brothers and sisters, then at the hospital dorms, and lastly in a one-bedroom upstairs flat with Jens and his grandmother, well, their home seemed like a mansion in comparison! 

His parents matched the spaciousness of their home with grand and sincere hospitality.  I felt immediately welcomed into their fold and have ever since. 

Jens’ brother arrived the next day.

 


© Copyright 2017 Gabriel Constans. All rights reserved.

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