Do You Love Me? by Ann Hood
Six months after Delia’s husband Pete died, her sister checked herself into a swanky nut house in the Berkshires.
“I’m losing it,” Jessie told her over the phone late one afternoon. It was autumn, October, and the air smelled of rotting things. “Just losing it.”
Delia looked around her living room, still cluttered with sympathy cards and dead plants. Even though, the casseroles and sticky buns had stopped coming weeks ago, Delia felt like she was just embarking on her life as a widow.
“Mom came with me,” Jessie said. “To check it out? You should see the breakfasts there. Homemade waffles and everything.”
“That sounds…”Delia struggled for the right word. “Healing,” she said finally, even though that was not quite what she meant.
“Exactly,” Jessie said. “Healing.”
Delia frowned, wondering why she wasn’t the one checking into a mental hospital instead of Jessie. Her sister was terrific on the day-to-day things. Not just since Pete died, but always. She happily put wet clothes in the dryer if she happened to pass by the laundry room. She always fed the cats when Delia and Pete went away for the weekend. When Delia’s car wouldn’t start, which was frequently, Jessie could be counted on to drive Delia to and from work, or on her errands. But with the major things, Jessie managed to steal the spotlight, to overtake Delia’s joy or, like now, her sorrow.
Back in high school, when Delia won the coveted role of Golde to Pete’s Tevye in the senior production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Jessie admitted she’d been making herself throw up for the past year and a half and was whisked away to Maine for a ninety-day treatment program for eating disorders. Their parents, tangled up in family therapy sessions and lessons on how to get teenaged girls to eat, missed all of Delia’s shows.
The night before Delia and Pete’s wedding, Jessie’s heel caught on the hem of her skirt and sent her tumbling down the church stairs at the rehearsal. Instead of practicing their walk down the aisle, everyone spent the night in the Emergency Room while Jessie got X rayed and wrapped in Ace bandages. Delia had to pay for all the dal and nan and vegetable biryani she’d ordered for the rehearsal dinner, even though they never ate any of it. The next morning, Jessie winced her way on crutches, step by painful step, down the aisle, all heads watching her and smiling at her bravery and devotion while Delia, the bride, passed by practically unnoticed.
“It’s not like I threw myself down the stairs,” Jessie said when Delia complained.
“I know that,” Delia said guiltily, the purple bruises rising like cumulus clouds around her sister’s marigold, dyed to match shoes.
Then Pete had come over. “Need anything, Jess?” he’d asked.
“More champagne?” she’d said, grinning up at him.
“Me too!” Delia called to his back, her bridal bouquet of brightly colored calla lilies already drooping.
“Exotic flowers,” Jessie had clucked sympathetically. “Out of their natural habitat, they’re just not hearty.”
Was that Jessie herself? Delia had wondered over the years. An exotic flower, fragile and drooping, out of her natural habitat. But what was Jessie’s natural habitat? She, more than Delia, led an interesting life. She worked for the city’s art council, handing out grants to local artists, attending openings and fundraisers, and frequently dating—or at least sleeping with—many of them. Her boyfriends were professional storytellers, klezmer players, glass blowers. Once, on a date, Jessie and her klezmer boyfriend both got their belly buttons pierced. This did not seem like something the frail or weak would do.
Delia, on the other hand, had married Pete, her high school boyfriend. They had fallen in love singing together as Golde and Tevye twenty years earlier and continued down a predictable path of break-ups and reunions until they got married at the Chateau de Ville, a large banquet hall with impossibly heavy chandeliers and lots of deep purple ornamentation—thick piled carpeting, wall trim, and fake leather chairs.
She worked in Human Resources in a toy company; Pete sold life insurance and made a lot of money doing it. At night, he talked about whole life versus term policies, the benefits of first to die guarantees. In high school, he’d had a head of dark curls that had made girls swoon. But at thirty-five, he was mostly bald, his head smooth and shiny in the dim dining room light. Delia listened to him without really listening, his voice a pleasant form of background noise, like those machines they sold at the mall that played the sounds of waves or babbling brooks or cawing gulls.
He had startled her one night over pork loin and mashed potatoes by asking, “Do you still love me?”
Delia had blinked and chewed the meat in her mouth. She hadn’t thought about loving Pete or not loving him in ages.
“Of course,” she’d said finally. But she couldn’t tell if her answer filled him with relief or disappointment. Three months later he was dead of a heart attack and she found herself wishing she could take back those long seconds of hesitation.
“Of course I still love you!” she had whispered fiercely into his ear at the ICU. “I was chewing, that’s all,” she said. But he did not squeeze her hand or give her any sign that he’d heard.
Delia called her mother and asked if she’d come over and help her put away Pete’s things. Outside, dead leaves covered the sidewalk. Delia knew that Pete would be out there on this bright Saturday morning, sweeping them into large leaf bags and then lining the bags up in an orderly row along the edge of the sidewalk.
“I can’t, sweetie,” her mother said. “I’m going to the Berkshires to visit Jessie.”
Delia sighed. “Well, by all means, go and help Jessie.”
“Don’t be so childish,” her mother said. “I promised her I’d come this weekend.”
“There’s just so much,” Delia said. “The leaves and everything.”
“Forget the leaves,” her mother told her. “I’ll bring you some lasagna when I get back. Sound good?”
No, Delia thought. She had three lasagnas in the freezer already, wrapped in foil and sympathy.
Delia went to the kitchen and got one of the little notepads with the orange covers that Pete kept by the phone and tried to make a list. Closet, she wrote. Leaves. Then her mind got crowded, filled with images of his tools in the garage and the boxes of childhood stuff in the attic and the desk drawers in his study and she couldn’t think of what else to write.
She went upstairs to their bedroom and opened Pete’s side of the closet. She had looked in here since he died, choosing his clothes for the funeral and, early on, burying her face in his jackets and neatly folded sweaters in hopes of catching a whiff of his scent. Now, she just stared at the rows of suits: black, charcoal gray, pinstriped. Pete wore suits to work every day. Once a week, at night, he lay out newspapers on the kitchen floor and shined his black shoes and then his brown ones, rolling the shoe polish across the surfaces and buffing them with a special yellow cloth.
On the inside of the door, hung his ties. He had more ties than anyone Delia knew. People always gave him ties for Christmas. Delia ran her hands along them now. Here were the ones Jessie had given him, designer ties from the Rhode Island School of Design retail store. He didn’t really like them, preferring instead the tacky ones with Snoopy and Woodstock, Tweetie Bird, and The Cat in the Hat. Whenever they went out, people noticed Pete’s ties.
Delia scooped them up in one slippery armful and tossed them on the bed. They looked like a pile of snakes lying there like that. Resisting the urge to push the ties aside and climb into bed, she went into Pete’s office next and began to empty his desk drawers. The last time she’d been in here was to find their own insurance policies and other important papers. Now she noticed that it still smelled of the cigars Pete sometimes smoked, acrid and slightly sour.
The first two drawers emptied of their pens and markers and office supplies, she yanked open the larger, bottom drawer. It opened halfway, then stuck. Peering in, Delia saw that a fat folder of papers had caught. Carefully, she reached her hand in and freed them, the drawer opening easily.
Sitting cross legged on the floor with the folder on her lap, Delia plucked up a few dust kitties from under the desk and rolled them between her fingers before blowing them away, right back where they came from. Then she opened the folder and frowned. The first page was mostly blank except for the words, centered smack in the middle: RAISING THE DEAD, a novel by Peter Caldwell.
Delia turned the page and found exactly what you would find: Chapter One. In college, she had been an English major. She used to tell Pete the intricate plots and metaphors of the books she read and he hadn’t even feigned interest. Instead, he would play with her nipples, or run his fingers down her ribs. In all the years she’d known him, she had never seen him read a novel. Not once. He read books about taxes and, sometimes, wars. But a novel?
She skipped to the last page, number 406. Her husband had written a 406 page novel and somehow he’d never mentioned it to her. She remembered a professor of hers telling the class that it took just as long to write a bad novel as it did to write a good one. Although Delia didn’t know for certain that Pete’s novel was bad, though she assumed it must be, when had he found the time to write it? He must have been working on the thing for years. 406 pages!
When Delia thought of Pete, she thought of him moving, doing things: shoveling snow, shining his shoes, raking and bagging dead leaves. She could not picture him sitting at his computer writing a novel. Even when they rented movies, he moved around, fussing with this or that. But somehow he sat still and alone long enough to write all of these pages.
The rest of the drawer held other, more Pete-like folders. Newspaper clippings about new tax laws, articles about the best vacuum cleaners and station wagons and DVD players. All of the folders were neatly labeled, the headings written in a black marker in Pete’s small precise handwriting. Even so, Delia opened each one, as if it too might hold a surprise. A sonnet or a diary or some other unexpected piece of her husband. But they were all exactly what they claimed to be.
She pulled herself up and went back into their bedroom. She climbed into bed with her clothes on, sending ties to the floor, turned on the light and began to read.
Nancy, Delia’s friend from work, told her that at her church there was a Tuesday night meeting every week for people who had lost their spouses. She said this in the company cafeteria while Delia drank hot tea with lemon and the wind whistled eerily outside, rattling the windows.
“It would be good to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through,” Nancy had said.
Delia wondered if any of those people had found entire novels written in secret by their now dead husbands. She wondered if any of them had sisters in swanky nut houses, eating waffles and smoking cigarettes. She would have said these things to Nancy, but something had happened to Delia’s voice. It sounded like someone had put a pin in her larynx and deflated it. She woke up on Monday morning with a small breathy voice, and no matter how many times she cleared her throat or coughed, it did not get better. She sipped her tea and nodded.
“I saw the notice on the bulletin board when I was leaving church and thought: Delia needs to do this.”
Delia nodded again. She cleared her throat and said, “Thanks.”
Nancy frowned. “What? Pants?”
“Thanks,” Delia tried again. Her voice wasn’t hoarse. It was small and creaky.
“Why are you talking like that?” Nancy said, as if Delia was doing it on purpose.
Delia shrugged and concentrated on her tea, thinking about Pete’s novel. She had read the whole thing in one sitting, surrounded by his ties. To her surprise, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t awful. The story was about an insurance salesman, and there was a murder and an affair and funny secondary characters who Pete had borrowed from real life, like the klezmer player who was the prime suspect in the murder.
“Are you okay?” Nancy asked Delia, her voice all tender and full of sympathy.
“Pete wrote a novel,” Delia said. “A whole novel.”
“I know,” Nancy said, patting her hand.
Delia wondered what it was that Nancy thought she had said.
The thing about this problem with her voice was that people could hear her, but they couldn’t understand her. At the Coffee Exchange on Wednesday morning, the girl with the pierced lip who was always working there, got mad at Delia when she ordered a skim latte.
“What is it?” the girl demanded. “Some kind of special drink?”
“Skim latte,” Delia repeated.
“Go to Starbuck’s if you want stuff like that,” the girl said too loudly. “We, like, roast our own beans and everything here, you know?”
People stared at Delia. They gave away bumper stickers here that said: Friends don’t let friends go to Starbuck’s. Now everyone thought she was an interloper, someone who liked Starbuck’s instead of a small local place that roasted their own beans.
“I just want a skim latte,” she said to the man with the shaved head who was glaring at her.
“Oh!” he said. “She wants a hot chocolate,” he told the girl.
“Why didn’t she just say so?” the girl muttered.
The funny thing was that Delia could never understand the girl with the pierced lip. The piercing had made her bottom lip swell, and the silver earring got in the way whenever she formed certain letters, like M and B. Wasn’t it ironic that now the girl couldn’t understand her? This was something Delia would have shared with Pete, if he wasn’t dead. He wouldn’t really understand her fascination with it. Instead, he would wonder why the girl had pierced her lip in the first place. He would tell Delia to clear her throat.
Delia took the hot chocolate the girl offered her. It was piled high with whipped cream. She hated whipped cream. Pete always ate it off her desserts at restaurants. Sighing, she paid for it.
“Bye,” the girl said unexpectedly.
It sounded like something other than bye, and maybe it was something else. Still, Delia said, “Bye,” wondering what the girl thought she had just said. She stuck her tongue in the whipped cream, surprised that it tasted good.
“Thanks,” she said to the man with the shaved head.
He looked at her funny.
Outside, Delia could smell the earth, the way you could in autumn. Just this morning she had watched one of her cats sniff and sniff the yard, everywhere. Autumn always made her think of death, and now here she was, eating whipped cream, her husband dead, her voice ruined. The trees were practically bare, their sad naked branches like the stickmen you drew when you played Hangman.
She got in her car, turned the key, and it wouldn’t start. Nothing. Her cell phone battery was dead too, so she couldn’t call triple A, not that they would understand her if she could. Her sister was in the nut house and couldn’t come rescue her. She was, Delia realized, completely alone.
The church basement smelled like diner coffee and Pine Sol. Delia stood in the doorway, wanting to flee, studying all of the other people whose spouses had died. Some of them looked too young to have been married, and some of them looked like they were with their spouses.
A man appeared beside her and offered her a paper cup of coffee. The cup had happy orange jack o’lanterns on it, smiling gap toothed grins. It seemed inappropriate and the coffee looked weak, but she took it anyway.
“Come on in,” he said. He had on a polo shirt that was too snug across his gut. “Don’t be shy. What’s your name?”
He pointed a finger at her. “Wow,” he said, “you sound like that actress. What was her name? She went out with that Michael Douglas? Way back, when he was on the TV show.” He waved his hand at her. “Ah,” he laughed, “you’re too young to remember.”
He seemed too jovial, like this group was a heck of a lot of fun.
“Hey,” he called to another man. “Who was that actress with the raspy kind of voice? She went out with Michael Douglas when he was on that cop show?”
“Brenda Vaccaro,” the man said.
“That’s it! He knows every trivia question you can think of, Elly. You’ll see.”
“Delia,” Delia said, but he wasn’t listening. She walked up to an older woman with pink circles of rouge on each cheek who was unfolding folding chairs.
“This is the meeting for people who have lost their spouses, right?” Delia said.
“Yes, it is,” the woman said. She smiled sympathetically at Delia. “It’s hard, isn’t it?” the woman asked.
Tears sprang to Delia’s eyes, surprising her.
“I know,” the woman said, nodding. “I know.”
The man who knew the answer to every trivia question you could think of started the meeting by saying, “This is Elly,” and pointing to Delia.
“Hello, Elly,” everyone said.
Delia waved. Who cared if they called her Elly? She would probably never see them again.
Almost immediately, a young woman stood up and said, “I hate my father. Really, I do.”
Everyone nodded at her, as if she had told them this before.
“Do you know what he did on Sunday? He got drunk and fell down the stairs and broke his foot, right before the ceremony for Employee of the Month, which PS, was me. So everybody was fawning over him, and I went to the banquet alone and came home with my plaque and no one even said congratulations.”
Delia frowned. If she could speak, she would jump up and tell this girl about Jessie falling at the rehearsal. She would tell her about Jessie going to a mental institution when she should have been helping Delia. She would tell her that she understood exactly how she felt. Delia’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed, like a baby bird waiting for dinner. But already a grandmother type woman was crying about her grandson robbing her and smashing her car. Delia tried to listen, but she could only look at the young woman, the Employee of the Month, pulling apart a used tissue and dropping the pieces onto the basement floor like snow.
“Hmmmm,” her doctor said.
“Cancer?” Delia asked him. Years ago, she had been a smoker until Pete convinced her to quit so that she could get better rates on her life insurance.
“Nah,” he said, clicking off the light on the instrument that he’d used to peer down her throat. “Maybe a virus. Nothing out of the ordinary in there.”
Her doctor had blow dried hair, silver and pouffy. He wore a fake tan and too much cologne. Still, Delia trusted him.
“So I’m fine?” she began.
“No problemo. Ever take zinc? That usually helps.” He grinned, showing all of his capped teeth. “Joyce will get you some on the way out.”
“That’s it?” Delia asked, both disappointed and relieved. She’d imagined people rushing to her bedside, taking care of her again, sleeping the deep sleep that only painkillers can bring. True, she didn’t want to lose her voice box and have to talk through a microphone held to her neck like the kitchen lady at the employee cafeteria at work. She just wanted all those concerned people who’d appeared when Pete first died to re-appear.
“That’s it,” the doctor said. His watch was silver and shiny, his nails buffed. He was clean, like newly fallen snow.
Delia stared at him. She could see his contact lenses floating dreamily around his eyes.
The doctor pointed to the door. “Joyce will take it from here.”
“No problemo,” she said.
Later, as she drove back to work, she realized she had wanted him to ask her out. She had almost believed he would. Even now, his cologne burned in her throat, spicy and deep. He was so unlike Pete, with his cartoon ties and shiny head. The doctor looked like a TV doctor instead f a real person. But he had understood her. He had understood every word she said. Didn’t that mean something?
Every night before she went to sleep, Delia re-read some of Pete’s novel. She would open it to a random page, and read until she fell asleep. The character of the wife was beginning to bother her. She was distant, distracted. When the protagonist spoke to her, she often looked at him blankly. She blinked a lot. Of course, some of this was bad writing, but Delia couldn’t blame the guy for falling in love with the other woman. That woman was an hysteric and melodramatic, but at least she was passionate. At least she listened to him. And they had good sex. He and the wife had been together for a long time and had satisfying but routine sex. The mistress was playful. She bit and licked and moaned. She was also the murderer, but Delia only knew this because she’d read the ending.
Sleepy, she put the manuscript down and closed her eyes, imagining Pete writing these sex scenes, sitting at his desk in his suit and tie. The image made her laugh out loud. Pete and his secret life as a writer, she thought. And the thought sat in her gut like a rock.
At the next meeting for people who had lost partners, Delia arrived late. Her car hadn’t started and she’d stood in the parking lot at work until she found someone with jumper cables. By the time Delia finally slid into one of the cold gray folding chairs, the same girl, the Employee of the Month, was already talking. The man in the Polo shirt wiggled his fingers at her and mouthed hello. Delia looked away from his pink face ad at the girl’s tear stained one.
“So I’m crying to Debbie, you know, my roommate,” she said.
Delia nodded as if she did know Debbie.
“And she says, ‘I can’t listen to this,’ and she walks out and what do you think I find out? She’s having an affair with him. With my father.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” the grandmother blurted.
“I saw them. She got into his car and they drove off and I followed them to a motel! All this time and they’re both betraying me.”
Delia swallowed hard. She could almost feel those polyps clogging her throat. Her hand went up to her neck and pressed on it. She wanted her voice back. She wanted someone to hear her.
“That son of a bitch,” the Polo shirt guy said.
Delia stood, noisily, and still clutching her throat walked out. That’s when she saw it, a black sign on an easel with white letters: AL-ANON MEETING.
In the distance, surrounded by rolling hills and evergreens, Jessie’s mental hospital looked almost idyllic. It had started to snow as soon as Delia left the Mass Pike, and the back roads were slippery and hard to navigate. The road was full of sharp curves and bends so that the hospital disappeared and then showed itself again, over and over.
Gripping the wheel, Delia tried to imagine what she would say to her sister. Would she simply tell her she knew what had been going on? Or would she ask for details: when had it started? Was Pete planning on leaving her for Jessie? Would she tell her sister that she never wanted to speak to her again? Would she mean it?
Delia skidded into a parking space facing the bright red front doors. She rolled down her window. The air was sharp and clean and Delia let it fill the car, sending goosebumps up her arms and back. Fumbling through her purse, she pulled out the pack of cigarettes she’d bought at the gas station and lit one. She had always missed smoking, the way you miss a friend who has moved away and lost touch.
Inhaling, she relished the taste of tobacco, the wispy curl of smoke, the cigarette pressed between her fingers. The snow fell harder. Delia narrowed her eyes, taking in the gray sky and fat snowflakes, staring hard at what lay ahead of her, as if she could see through the white outer walls to the darker interior. She sat like that until her cigarette was smoked and her shivering stopped. Then she walked slowly to the front door, opened it and stepped inside.
Her sister was right there, playing backgammon with another woman, both wrapped in expensive colorful shawls. Delia took a step toward her sister.
“Jessie,” she said, loud enough and clear enough to be heard.Jessie turned at the sound of her name, and Delia began to speak.