Kevin complains about flies when truly, I promise you, there are no flies to be seen. “Fly,” he calls in the midst of his channel surfing, and I come in from the kitchen with the fly swatter that has become my appendage. I sit beside him on the couch, waiting and hopeful. I am ready to see flies. I am ready to stand and swing with the force of a tennis player. I am ready to kill and kill again with loud, satisfying thwacks.
Kevin has landed on MTV, and while the screen is busy and buzzing, there are no flies. “That’s J. Lo,” I say, “singing in Spanish.”
“Sad,” he says.
“Yes.” I nod. It is sad, a mournful, lost love tune, but that doesn’t keep J. Lo from simmering across the screen in a slow, sultry dance.
“Where?” I stand with swatter raised.
Kevin switches from MTV to FOX News. “Gone,” he says, like he’s given up hope I will ever save him from what only he can see.
After lunch, we walk to Pinewood Park. Kevin is a tall, lean man, a man who looks like he could run a mile and never be winded, and I am short and round with wide hips, muscled calves, and bad knees. Should Kevin decide to run, I wouldn’t catch him.
We walk at least two miles a day, he sniffing the air like a hound and me dosed with arthritis medication. We are rounding the curve by the lake, when Kevin breaks his stride. “Fly, fly, fly.”
I search the ground for dog droppings, for a bird carcass, or a discarded sandwich. Nothing. At this time of day, the park is quiet. Lunchtime joggers are back at work. Mothers with strollers are putting their babies down for naps. On the far side of the lake are three young women, college students, I’m guessing, trotting like colts. Kevin turns to watch them, his eyes as bright as the sky. Then, on the water, I see a shimmer of color, the wispy sensation of flight. “Kevin, did you see a dragonfly? Is that what you mean?”
“No.” His eyes cloud. Then he starts off towards home, his longer stride perfectly transmitting his impatience with me. “No. Fly. Dragon.”
“Is this normal?” I ask Kevin’s doctor. “Are hallucinations typical for Early Onset patients?” I refuse to fully name anything with early onset so casually attached to it. Like Kevin is experiencing puberty. Or menopause.
“Well, Brenda.” Dr. Bogue is slouching on his stool like a teenager, but now he leans towards me like we’re old buddies at a neighborhood bar and launches into a long, rambling response. He throws in a few examples, an odd exception, and a couple medical terms just to dazzle me. He believes he is charming. He believes that using my Christian name instead of Mrs. Gorman will prevent me from asking more questions.
“So seeing things is not unusual?” I am hoping he will argue with me, that he will say, why, yes it is, Mrs. Gorman; perhaps your husband has been misdiagnosed. I want him to tell me that Kevin has something they know how to fix.
“It’s more common for our patients not to recognize what they see.” He measures each word like he is doling out a great reward. “Rather than recognizing things that aren’t there.”
I say, “You don’t really know, do you?” It’s my best parting shot.
We are barely out the office door, when Kevin spins around to peer through the plate glass. “Fly,” he says loudly.
“You saw a fly in Doctor Bogue’s office?”
“No.” He shakes his head, and Yvonne, the lovely receptionist, gives us a friendly wave.
On the way home, Kevin spots flies in front of the public library and across from the Dairy Queen. While we are stopped at the intersection of Lincoln and Cherry, he points excitedly, claiming a fly on the windshield and later, one on the behind of a passing bicyclist. I wonder if I could be going blind.
We have cocktails with the Evening News. I need one by this time of the day, and I figure it can’t hurt Kevin. Too late to worry about losing brain cells now. We sip martinis and watch one piece of bad news after another. The war in Iraq blazes on. Cheney is booed in Ohio, but Kerry and Edwards are gaining no ground in the polls or the hearts of Americans. Experts are expecting a shortage of flu vaccine.
Oh God, Superman has died.
I contemplate switching the channel. But wait. A young couple is arrested for having sex at the Alamo. “Cheers,” I say, raising my glass.
“Fly,” Kevin says, looking right into my eyes. “Fly time.”
We did it everywhere when we were young. All the ordinary places and then some, beginning with our Icelandic Air flight to Amsterdam, where we had emergency row seats, good-sized blankets, and darkness working to our advantage. We were both thin then. It wasn’t as tricky as you might imagine. Mostly we did it standing up and after dark. Up against a wall in the Waterloo Station and the far right column at the Jefferson Memorial. On the Metro and the Maid of the Mist. It helped that maxi-coats and granny dresses were in style then. Against a canyon wall in Death Valley and one of the great Sequoias. General Sherman, I believe it was. At a war protest and a George McGovern rally. It helped that we looked ordinary, more conservative than not.
“Hey, baby,” Kevin would say, “let’s fly,” and we’d slip away. Into a doorway, between parked cars, or there on the grass between a boxwood hedge and a banner made of bedsheets and proclaiming “Eighteen Today, Dead Tomorrow.”
I can’t remember when we stopped. Or why, exactly. When you’re married as long as we’ve been, you may have lots of opportunities to be creative, but things change. We had our daughter. I gained weight and lost my dexterity. Kevin took a job funded by taxpayers and lost his nerve. Our entire generation grew up and became stuffy.
Fly. Who have guessed that I, the one claiming to have all her faculties, would be the one to forget? The one to so easily confuse a stellar verb with a commonplace noun? If Kevin and I had to live our lives all over again, I tell myself now, we would be more daring. We would cut classes and start at dawn, out on the dew-slippery quad. We would try out the Coliseum, the Parthenon, the Pyramid, and Stonehenge. This time around, we would leave our daughter home with my mother or Kevin’s father or a pierced, tattooed babysitter. We would travel to unconventional places, places accessible by ferry or donkey or zipline, carrying only what would fit on our backs.
The real disgrace, the real disaster, is never the one you can imagine. If we’d known that tidbit forty years ago, we would have made sex in public places an art form.
“Fly?” Kevin is watching me closely.
“Let’s fly.” I lead the way to the bedroom, so I don’t have to see his disappointment and pretend I don’t know that the last, strong, pulsing coil of Kevin’s brain is set to the time when we were so demented by love the blood rushed from our brains and made us dizzy and aching and disdainful of beds. I shed my clothes as I go and pull Kevin down on top of me, a plump cushion for all his sharp angles and bony edges. “Soon,” I lie as convincingly as I can. “Soon, baby, we’ll fly as high and far as we can go.”
Our daughter, Elizabeth, is planning a destination wedding. She is a beautiful girl who likes nice things, but when it comes to spending her own money, she has her father’s common sense. Brant, her fiancé, does not. Their list of destination sites originally included a castle in Scotland, a beach on the Indian Ocean, and a villa in Venice, but Elizabeth vetoed them all in favor of something more domestic.
She comes to see us every other Sunday, during the time Brant’s Chess Club meets, with a new list of possibilities. She has grown tentative around her father, I notice, like he is too distant or too fragile to hug, and there is that awkward extra beat of time between her “Hey, Daddy” and her embrace. Kevin, who lights up at the sound of her voice and holds her tight, his eyes closed to seal away the essence of her, must notice the change. Despite medical evidence to the contrary, I think it must break his heart.
“So, what do you have for us today?” I say brightly. I’m happy to notice she has chosen to sit beside her father on the sofa, but I suspect it’s to avoid having to face him straight-on. Really, it’s not until you’re up close that you have the sense of a blank slate. Even from across the room, Kevin looks like a fit, rather attractive, older man.
“We’ve narrowed the old list.” Elizabeth takes a notebook out of her leather bag. “And we’ve added a few new ones.”
I hate the use of we. Mostly because I know Elizabeth is the one doing the research on wedding sites. Primarily because we inflates Brant into a larger-than-life version of his rather bland self. It’s not that I don’t like the guy; it’s simply that Elizabeth deserves someone with a little more pizzazz. A take charge, I’ll-do-that-for-you-honey kind of guy, who will put a little more oomph, and a little more of his own money, into these wedding plans. A guy more like her father.
“Right now, we’re thinking someplace Western. We know Hawaii is too far, but there’s a park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s also a lodge overlooking a waterfall in the Rocky Mountains.”
“Would that be too cold?” The wedding is scheduled for late September.
“Well, there’s a ranch in the Arizona desert that might be warmer.”
“What about snakes?”
“Mom, why do you have to be so negative?” The notebook is closed and back in her bag. “Where do you want me to go? A beach in Florida like everyone else?”
“No, not all. September is hurricane season.” I can’t bring myself to tell her that my negativity is really her father’s. In some bizarre husband-wife telepathy, all of Kevin’s practical concerns are transferred to me and I dutifully give them voice.
To make amends, we leave Kevin to channel surf and go into the kitchen where I feed her carrot cake and spiced tea and ask safe questions about bridesmaids and flowers.
“It will be simple, Mom. Annalee holding wildflowers or maybe a single rose.” Elizabeth is absorbed with smushing cake crumbs between her fork tines. “So, you think Daddy will be okay by September?”
“Okay in what way?”
“You know. Will he be able to manage a trip out West? Will he be able to fly?”
“Your father,” I say with a perfectly straight face, “loves to fly.”
“He won’t change?”
Finally the bulb lights. Elizabeth is worried about how Kevin will look. She pictures him bent and drooling, rolling down the aisle or the beach or the mountain path in a wheelchair, and while I understand this might be a good time for a lecture on shallowness, on judging people by appearance, I also remember how I worried that my own father would act the fool at my wedding. “Your father will look great in a tux, honey. He could be a father-of-the-bride model.”
“The wedding’s almost a year away.”
“He might be a tad more gray, but that’s very distinguished, don’t you think?”
“Don’t b.s. me, Mom.”
“Your father,” I begin, and then I weave together an epic that is part history, part romance, part adventure. Not bullshit, which is outright exaggeration, but more like voodoo. A spell I want to cast. I tell her Kevin is strong and athletic and likely to stay that way for a good many years. I tell her he is more docile than aggressive, not apt to rant and rave and shower her wedding guests with spittle. I tell her no matter what sort of wedding processional she has in mind, she can take hold of his arm with pride. “If worse comes to worst,” I say. “I can prop him up right beside you.”
That, too, is voodoo, because some days I feel too weak to carry on, but it doesn’t matter now because Elizabeth is mopping at her eyes, which means I have said too much. “This is just so hard,” she says. “So stressful.”
“Well then, having your father at your wedding is one less thing for you to stress over,” I say with calm assurance. “He’ll be there.” Another of my magical incantations. “In fact, I’m thinking maybe we’ll take a few trips between now and the wedding, a few practice runs, so he’ll be comfortable with traveling off to the destination of your choice.” If I had pixie dust, I would sprinkle it now.
“Brant’s and my choice.” She corrects me.
“That’s what I meant.” Pure bullshit.
It turns cold early in November, but Kevin and I don’t vary our routine. Routine is good, according to Dr. Bogue, the whiz kid. He also has dispensed a new drug he calls “promising.” Promising has increased Kevin’s appetite and added muscle to his wiry frame, so that he now looks like one of those men who go to the gym to prowl for a trophy wife. “Not so fast,” I call when he darts ahead of me in the park. “You’re turning into a damn jock.”
Whether from the effects of the drug or because he has forgotten, Kevin no longer talks about flies, and I miss it. I rather liked his conviction that we could have sex wherever and whenever we wanted. Our present nighttime routine consists of cocktails, followed by dinner and television. Then, after Letterman’s opening monologue, we sit for a few moments of silence before we heave ourselves off the sofa and get ready for bed. It’s a tradition, really. In the old days, we had a nightcap and sat in the sunroom while Kevin went on about his job and I went on about Elizabeth’s playgroup or her Brownie Troop or her AP classes. But once we wound down, we still had that moment of quiet, holding hands and staring out at the night. It makes it easier now, don’t you see, to pretend we’ve already had our talking time and this silence is a mere continuation of our old pattern.
Tonight Kevin is agitated. He fidgets with the needlepoint pillows at our backs. He shuffles through insurance papers on the end table. He picks up Elizabeth’s travel brochures from the coffee table and turns them over and over in his hands as if he is counting photos of waterfalls and rock formations and flowering cacti. We could do this, Brenda, he says, flapping the pages back and forth. We’re not so old that we couldn’t travel, couldn’t have a few more adventures.
No, of course Kevin doesn’t actually speak, but I hear his voice in my head, and I know these are his thoughts. Not thoughts as they must be now, all piecemeal and scattershot, but thoughts of the real Kevin speaking out from wherever it is his brain is being held captive these days. “I don’t know about that, honey,” I say. “I’m not as sturdy and quick on my feet as I used to be.” I watch those faraway places flutter between his fingers and try to remember what I’ve read about the importance of sensory stimulation. In spite of all Dr. Bogue’s blather about routine, wouldn’t a change of scenery, the enticement of new sights, sounds, and smells activate the brain? Maybe tap into some little-used mental closet just waiting to store up new memories? “I’m not ruling it out,” I say, “but let me think about it.”
It rains solidly for the next ten days and we are stuck inside. So much for a daily routine. Kevin follows me around the house with the ever-present travel brochures and surprises me with an odd slice of memory at every turn. Do you remember the woman we met on the train to Marseilles? The one with the see-through dress and no underwear?
“I certainly do. A woman after your own heart.”
More likely my wallet. Like the Gypsies in Rome.
“Honey, those kids were so little they could barely reach into your pocket.”
It would be good for us to get away, Brenda. Soak up a little sun before winter settles in
“Where do you want to go, Kevin?’
This question usually slows him down, but his response time is improving.
Anywhere warm, babe. Anywhere with you.
Ah, always the charmer. “And how would we pay for this little vacation, dear husband?”
Call Mike Button.
Mike Button is Kevin’s financial advisor, the man I’m depending on to keep us out of the County Home for the Aged, so I can already guess his reaction to my request for frivolous funds.
“Maybe in the spring,” I say.
You’ll be busy with wedding plans by springtime.
Personally, I doubt that Elizabeth will share any more of her wedding plans with me, but we are seeing more of her now that Brant has advanced to the local Amateur Chess Finals.
“Brant doesn’t want you to go and cheer him on?” I ask as I hang up her raincoat.
“He says I distract him.”
That could be a compliment, but somehow I doubt it. “His loss is our gain,” I say. “Come out to the sunroom for a glass of wine. Your Dad has a nice fire going in the fireplace.”
“I know, I know. How can a man who can no longer write his name build an absolutely perfect fire? I figure it’s some primeval instinct that all men must possess. Fire-building, eating, and sex; they’ll be the last to go.”
“Too much information.” Elizabeth waves her hands alongside her ears as if to deflect news that her father and I might be still somewhat normal. Too little or too much, that’s always been a problem for Elizabeth.
Kevin is keeping a close watch on his fire, but he stands and opens his arms when he sees his daughter.
“Hey, Daddy,” she says, “you’re looking good.” For once she sounds like herself, and for a short while we could be mistaken for a television family, most likely one from a Lifetime drama. Kevin pokes at his fire, nodding sympathetically as Elizabeth relates the highs and lows of her week. I pass around pumpkin bread and smile graciously.
Eventually, of course, she runs out of things to say and they both turn to me. Elizabeth is counting on me to fill in the silence, but Kevin begins to pester so steadily, I cannot think straight. See if she’ll look after the house while we’re gone, Brenda. Tell her we need a week or two away and nothing much can go wrong in so short a time.
“Elizabeth, your father is anxious to take a trip and I wondered if you have any suggestions for us.”
Geez, Brenda. I said tell, not ask. You’re opening a whole can of worms now.
“A trip where?” Elizabeth nervously watches Kevin flip embers like flapjacks and send sparks shooting up the chimney.
See? What did I tell you? She’ll want us to go on some Senior Citizen Mentally Challenged Physically Impaired bus trip, for godsakes.
Then quit acting like a pyromaniac. I touch his sleeve, and he puts down the poker, settles back into his chair, and manages to look serene. “Somewhere warm,” I tell Elizabeth. “Anyplace he can get out and move. You know being inside all these days has been hard on him. On both of us.”
Not Florida. Kevin’s fingers begin to drum a discordant tune on the arm of his chair. I refuse to go to Florida.
Elizabeth gives me one of her stern, calculating looks, a look I’m certain has a direct link to Kevin’s no nonsense gene. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, Mom. Maybe it would work if I could go with you? Once Brant and I’ve picked our own wedding location?”
Absolutely not. Kevin’s foot taps against the hearth.
“You’ve got too much to do, honey.” I watch Kevin over my reading glasses, willing him back into submission. “Your father is so strong, so vital, so cooperative right now.” The old voodoo is back at work. “This would be an excellent time. We’ll be fine, honestly.”
Sometimes you have to ask for help. Sometimes you have to admit you have no clue what to do next and be willing to take on faith what others tell you to do. Women like me learned this lesson as soon as we gave birth; men like Kevin are still holding out, refusing to surrender any outward show of control. Which is why I am completely honest with Marie, Elizabeth’s travel agent, and why Kevin is not totally ecstatic when I replace his tattered travel brochures with a pristine cruise line booklet. He holds it unopened, resting atop his palms like a sacrificial offering, for a long time.
“Well? Whaddya think?” I finally ask.
Given our circumstances, he finally answers. I guess this is good.
“It will be great.” I fire up the old magic spell. “We can eat good food and lie in the sun and watch the world go by.”
He doesn’t look convinced.
“What were you hoping for?” I ask.
Something edgy and new. A singular place where we’d be totally on our own.
I don’t remind him that we’re already in that place.
It has been years since Kevin and I took a cruise, and I have to admit I’m overwhelmed by the grand scale of everything now: the sheer size of The Kingdom of the Sea herself, the number of guests and crew, and the many, many lounges and bars and places to eat. I worry Kevin will wander off and never be found again, although Marie has assured me otherwise. “First of all, you’re in a limited space, Mrs. Gorman, and the security is terrific. They know when you leave and re-board the ship, when you enter your cabin. There are cameras in all the public areas. It would be very difficult to simply disappear. Much harder than wandering off from a beachside resort, I’d say.”
At the moment, at least, Kevin is calm and sticking to my side and looking every bit the model tourist. Elizabeth would be proud to witness his polite nods to effusive staff members and his smiles to the ship photographer, his ease in navigating the luncheon buffet and his patience during the lifeboat drill. Although his silence bothers me. Is the clamor of the ship too loud for me to hear? Or have I lost my sense of his voice?
When the ship sets sail, we stand on the highest deck and wave to the folks along shore like everybody else. Kevin, I notice, is looking down, rather than off in the distance, and I take his arm and steer him away from the railing. “I bet you’re tired. Do you want to go to our cabin?”
He shakes his head and plops down in a deck chair where we can listen to the steel drum band and watch a conga line dance around the pool on deck below us. Ole, ole! They sing, raising their arms skyward. Despite the music and the dancing and the children splashing in the pool and the loud conversations all around, I fall sound asleep and awake in a panic.
Oh, dear God. Kevin.
But Kevin is right here, watching me. “Did you nap?” I ask, looking around. The crowds have dwindled to a few couples, dressed for dinner and strolling along the deck. Below us, the pool has emptied and the hot tub has filled with tanned, silver-haired women, old friends, judging by their easy laughter. I check my watch. “Shall we shower and dress for dinner and then go for a drink?”
We have cocktails in the Nautilus Lounge, where a bald, goateed pianist plays music from our parents’ heyday: Gershwin and Carmicheal and Irving Berlin. “Bon Voyage,” I say, clinking my glass against Kevin’s to the strains of “Goodnight, Irene.” He takes a sip, holding the liquid behind his cheeks before swallowing. Sitting here on our rounded leather banquette, I imagine we look pretty damn good. Not old and feeble, not young and overly chatty, but reasonably appealing and naturally comfortable in our silence. People pass by and smile like they, too, get our vibe and find it acceptable. The server has no trouble taking drink orders from me rather than Kevin. No problem with me signing the charge to our cabin.
The same is true at our table for two in the dining room. Kevin appears attentive while our waiter makes his recommendations, but when I do the ordering for both of us, Sanjay respectfully defers to me. “Thank you, madam,” he says, taking our menus and bowing away from the table.
Kevin’s fine motor skills have not slipped away from him yet and he loves to eat, so dinner is a good time. Even the slow pace of serving one course after another does little to disturb him. “What now?” I ask as we finish our crème brulees. “A bit of dancing? A walk on the deck? Or would you like to go to the musical show?”
No response. No telepathy tonight.
“See you tomorrow.” Sanjay pulls out my chair for me. “Tomorrow is formal. Dress up.” His lively manner is lost on Kevin, who is drifting away from the table.
My knees have grown stiff from too much sitting. “Tomorrow.” I repeat before hobbling into Kevin’s wake.
Bad knees or not, I have decided I will walk as long and as late as Kevin wants to walk, because once we are sealed into our cabin, I worry claustrophobia may overcome us. We cruise through the casino, but the jangle of slot machines and clatter of coins makes us jittery. We pass through lounges where the music ranges from jazz to karaoke and eventually find ourselves outside the disco, where music from the Sixties, our music, calls to us like Sirens. We step into the room where floor to ceiling windows curve around the back of the ship like the panes of a lighthouse. Here folks of all ages are gyrating through a medley of old dance songs: The Twist, The Locomotion, The Pony, The Mashed Potatoes. The dancers look both ridiculous and amazingly beautiful, and I could easily stay here and watch them all night, but Kevin takes my hand and tugs me out into the corridor. “Loud,” he says when we reach the elevators. “Too loud.”
On the deck below the disco, the ship seems to be standing still, but the wind beats at our clothes and whips our hair back from our faces. The water below us is so black it can only be seen in the rise and fall of its white-tipped crests. “Alone at last,” I shout to Kevin, who once again is staring straight down.
In that moment of facing an endless dark sky and sea, I feel myself shrink. I grow small and insignificant and frightened, and I use my last bit of self-control to urge Kevin away from the edge and around the corner where the rock-climbing wall serves as a windbreak. Above us the music has softened and slowed. “Blue Moon,” always the last song at our high school dances, falls down around us, and now, as then, I want to be held. “Let’s dance,” I say.
Kevin’s arms wrap around me, his chin rests against my temple, and we move together in our old familiar rhythm. Who would have guessed that dancing, like riding a bike and raising a child and finishing each other’s thoughts, one of those acts average people perform with no professional training, would be the last to leave us? So when Kevin lowers his mouth to my ear and clearly says, “fly,” I’m not the least bit surprised.
The rock-climbing wall is open only a short time each day. At night, it is decidedly off limits. We slip past the chain, past the warning sign, and position ourselves out of view of the wraparound disco windows. I slide off my new expensive, bought-especially-for-the-cruise panties, shove them into Kevin’s pocket, and go to work on his belt. If there are security cameras, as Marie has promised, I can’t find them. I am more concerned about a rock bruising my kidney as I nestle my back against the wall and pull Kevin into me. The footing is tricky, but after a bit of scrambling, I step out of my shoes and onto a low rocky projection, and we are ready for business.
“Remember the Alamo,” I say, and from somewhere I hear Kevin laughing.
I’m with you, baby, he says. It doesn’t matter what happens next.
He’s right, of course.
If we are swept overboard or thrown off the ship for indecent behavior, if Kevin fades like a flower and never says another word, it will all come down to this: he will never leave me. As we move towards eternity, Kevin will be in my head, telling me which lawn guy to hire or when to move money from one fund to another or that I look mighty fine for an old broad. His steady presence will urge me on, echoing the rush of my blood, my breath, my heart.
It will be, I promise myself, like flying.
Sara Kay Rupnik lives on Jekyll Island, Georgia, where she teaches creative writing for the Jekyll Island Art Association. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and is co-founder of Around The Block Writers Collaborative. Her collection of short stories, Women Longing to Fly, was published by Mayapple Press in 2015.