Word count, start of day -- 43,600
"I talked to Gwen," he said.
I panicked. "About us?"
He shook his head. "No, about us." I gave him a confused look. What had he just said? "I mean, Gwen and me."
"You talked to her about the two of you?" I thought this was it, but I needed to make sure.
"Right. I didn't say that well, did I?"
"No, I just wanted to know for sure."
I had not asked him about his situation at home. It was really none of my business. Sure, it was sort of my business, but really it was none of my business. I was confused about all of this. "How did she take it?"
"She took it with heavy drinking," he said bitterly.
I shook my head. "You're worried about her."
"Of course, and about Natalie, too."
We were working our through a pot roast that I had made the day before, on Sunday. Brian swung by after work for a "private date," as we had been calling these. Between his schedule and mine and Erin's, we had only been able to do this three times. This made four. The first, was watched 'Saint Elmo's Fire.' The second, we watched 'This Is Spinal Tap,' a hilarious movie that I had seen before. It was on top of his list. The third, like tonight, was a quick weeknight dinner.
"Has Natalie noticed any problems?"
"She asked why her mother has been so sick lately." Brian's eyes were downcast. I hurt for him, hearing him tell the tale. "I told her it was still from the accident."
"What?" he asked.
"We see a lot of people in the health care world who self-medicate. To deal with pain through drinking or illegal drugs or over-the-counter stuff, whatever."
Brian nodded his head and admitted that sounded like Gwen. I talked a little about my situation, how Dennis and I were working our arrangements out.
"Sounds pretty cordial," he said.
"All things considered, I suppose it is," I agreed. The one lawyer I had talked to said I was letting Dennis get off the hook too easy. He talked about Dennis' retirement plan at the chemical company, his wine collection, all of these assets I had a right to. But I was the one who walked out, I told the lawyer. I told him I did not think I had a right to any of these things.
We moved past the serious discussions and chatted about work. He was being very responsible and not spilling the beans to me about high-finance things going on at the Center. "I will tell you in advance," he promised, "but only about an hour in advance." He winked at me.
I threw up my hands. "I give up." I was at the sink, scraping off the dishes and adding to the stack. I had a large pile that needed to go into the washer.
"You give up pretty easily," I heard him whisper into my ear. He had taken me by surprise, wrapping his arms around my waist and nuzzling the back of my neck. "Are you ready to surrender to me?"
I dropped the knife in the sink and grabbed a cloth to dry my hands. "I surrender, Brian." I whispered. I felt him push the hair away from my ear with his mouth, then take my lobe into his mouth. He flicked at it with his tongue, back and forth, a move that sent surprising spasms through my body. I was already reacting.
In one move, he bent me back and swept me off my feet and into his arms. Gracefully, without letting either my head or feet bump the walls, he deposited me on the sofa in the living room. He stood at the end of the couch, looking down on me. He bent down and kissed me, and I felt his hands roam down my chest. Hmmm, I liked this. Be aggressive, Brian. I felt my body respond to his touch. He ran his hands across my top, then down, then back over again. I laughed to myself. I guessed he was trying to get to the edge of my bra. The lack of straps and cups were baffling him. He moved his hands down further, towards the top of my p[ants. I felt him tug my shirt out partway and feel under it. He disconnected from my lips and moved to kneel next to me. "What are you wearing/" he asked in sincere curiosity.
I laughed. "My underwear?"
I sat up enough to untuck the shirt all the way around, then pulled up a few inches up my belly. I pinched the material and pulled it away from my belly an inch, then let it snap back into place. "It's sort of a leotard, a one-piece body suit thing." He was still confused, trying to figure it out. "From Victoria's Secret," I added, trying to be helpful. "I like the way they feel."
He kissed my tummy through the mesh and reached his hands around to arch my back. "I like the way they feel, too." He was getting me so turned on, and I squirmed a little as he lifted me up. I squeezed my legs together and closed my eyes. I wanted him to do what we wanted. He pushed my top up over my breasts, then we both worked together to remove it. He kissed my breasts through the mesh of the body suit, then massaged them gently and raised his lips to meet mine.
"You have an amazing body," he said. I brought my hands up to his waist and pulled him into me. I reached for his belt and fly, but he pushed me away. "Not today," he said softly. I was confused, a little disappointed, but didn't say a thing. He seemed to know what he was doing, and I liked it. I felt the little tug on my jeans and lifted my hips enough off the sofa for him to slide my pants to my ankles.
I closed my eyes and let myself totally relax, so I could receive whatever he wanted to give me, to let him do whatever he wanted to do to me. Okay, bud, you said you enjoyed this, and even said you were good at it. Do your stuff, Brian, do your magic.
"You were as good as you said you would be," I said, twenty minutes later, when he had joined me on the sofa. It was a tight fit, but I liked having him so close.
"Glad you approve," he said. "That is just about my favorite thing to do."
"I liked it, I liked it." I stroked his shoulders. I had come nearly as soon as his tongue touched me, as I let loose months of pent-up emotions. The second time was slower, completely the result of Brian's work. Now I was blissfully relaxed. Mind, body, and soul were at complete rest. I wanted this single moment to last forever. But I knew he had to be leaving soon. Our time was just about up.
"Thanks for having me over," he said, standing.
"It was nice to have you," I said. "Nice to have you over, I mean," I said with a sly smile. Then I kissed him. "I'll see you later."
"I will let you know," he turned, then called out over his shoulder. "Hey, can I use your telephone? I want to check my messages."
I stood and pulled my top back on. "Sure."
I watched him as he phoned. "Oh, no," he muttered. I saw the blood drain from his face. He closed his eyes and looked panicky. "Not again," he said, looking down. "Not again."
"Oh, no," I said. It may have happened again. I tried to get Annie's attention. She was moving my direction with a look a concern on her face. I pantomimed a pencil and pad. She got it nor me by the time the second message had started. This one was from the school after-care program. Natalie was still there. I checked my watch It was half past seven, and the call had come at seven. Natalie must be worried sick. The thought made me shudder. Hadn't that kid been through enough of her mom's drama already?
I had to finish the second message, then wait for the tape to cue back up again to listen again. I had about a minute. I eyed Annie. "It's Gwen again."
"Another accident?" She put a hand up to her mouth.
I shook my head. "No, she had some sort of episode at work. She passed out or something." I held up my hand. The message was reset. I listened again, jotting down the info. They had found her unconscious at her desk near closing time and called 9-1-1. She was still unconscious when they took her to Holy Cross.
I was able to get the school and promised that I would be there by eight. The woman who ran the program and stayed with Natalie was a real heroine. I thanked her profusely and hung up.
I eyed Annie and shook my head. It was grim news and I know I was not keeping it out of my face. "Do you need help?" she asked. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"What?" I said, but then it clicked. "No, I'm fine. Thank you, though. I have to go." She may have said something else, but I don't really remember. My mind was already clicking into autopilot mode. I knew what to do automatically, what to feel, what to think. I had just gone through this same routine three months ago.
I picked Natalie up, who was in a pretty good mood all things considered. It was a blessing to have an even-tempered child. I slipped the woman who stayed a twenty for her time. I called our neighbors from the school and was able to drop her off there. I called the hospital from there, but they were tight-lipped. I would not get any news until I showed up.
I felt sheepish pulling in to the Starbucks on the way to the hospital. I felt horrible doing it, but I needed the caffeine to make it through another long night at the hospital. As long as nobody I knew saw me there I would not come off looking like such a cruel loser.
The hospital process was just the same as before. An admitting nurse with paperwork, a call to a nameless doctor, a hard seat in a crowded waiting room. I scanned the area and found no uniformed police officers waiting for me. That was a change for the better.
When I was finally approached, it was by a portly man in a white coat and a young trim man in a suit. A doctor and a, what? I couldn't tell what.
They pulled up chairs to me, making an informal circle. The man in the white coat introduced himself as Dr. Kirobay. His eyes had a practiced downcast look. "I assure you we did everything we could."
He let me digest this. I had seen enough episodes of 'E.R.' to know what that sentence meant. "She never woke up," I said, just knowing that this was true.
Dr. Kirobay nodded. She blacked out some time after four, from what we could tell. The Emergency Medical Techs were not able to revive her, and we were not able to either, even with the advanced equipment we have here. Her brain function just stopped, completely stopped. It was overloaded, it just shut itself down."
I nodded, feeling angry tears well up in me.
The doctor went on. "We don't know whether she cracked her head when she passed our or what exactly happened. There were a lot of bruises on her." He eyed me with what I could only judge to be suspicion. But I got it, I knew what he was saying. He was screening for possible spousal abuse. A woman shows up dead with bruises and they suspect the husband. God, with that many bruises, he must have thought I was a monster.
"She was in an accident a few months ago. It was pretty bad. They fixed her up over at Saint Leo's. The records should be there. There was even a police report.
That got the doctor's attention. "The police were called?"
I shook my head. "No, no, no. She was drinking. There was a court record of all of this."
"She had a history of drinking?" he asked.
"A long history," I said, frustrated. "A long history of very heavy drinking." A silence fell over the three of us. "I assume drinking was involved in her death?" No one had said it, but it seemed a safe assumption.
"You could smell it," the doctor confirmed, "but we are running tests on her blood, of course." He had obviously said more than he intended, and he stood and turned.
My eyes fell on the other man, the man in the suit, the man who said nothing. Probably a plain clothes detective. But no, he introduced himself as a hospital chaplain named Woody McKay. "Are you Catholic, Mr. Norton?" He asked me.
I shook my head. We were nothing, really. I always considered myself a Christian, and whenever I did go to church I did so as a Presbyterian. "No, I'm Protestant," I said.
"I am the Protestant on staff here at Holy Cross. Is thee anything I can do for you, Mr. Norton?"
We chatted for a few minutes. McKay was an earnest and kind man. He seemed suited very well for his chosen profession. The chaplain gave me some words of encouragement and even helped me put things in a different perspective. I asked him if I was allowed to see Gwen. McKay cleared my request with the authorities and then joined me for the grisly task.
Together, Natalie and I walked to the hole in the ground. Together, we threw soil on the coffin. Together, we walked away from the grave slowly. It was so tough on her, but she seemed so strong. I know it was early, but how she held it together I will never know. She did not get such strength from me. And as harsh as it was to think, she did not get such strength from Gwen. My wife had drunk herself to death. "Blood alcohol poisoning" was the official word from the hospital. "Blood poisoning" was the official word within the family. There was no need for Natalie to ever find out that her mother committed suicide by bottle.
The firm was very understanding, giving me the rest of the week off. My job situation was unusual, in that all of my work was on a single client. This enabled me to catch up on Canterbury by working long hours for the first few weeks after Gwen's death. I brought work home in the evening, which I had never done before. But Natalie had to come first. Above all, I had to be. We were all each other had.
Canterbury had sent a wreath to the funeral home and a very sweet card to the office. I looked for Annie's name among the signatures, but it just was not there. In the corner, I saw what appeared to be a heart. It was small, it was tucked in the corner, but it certainly looked like a heart. I wondered if that was she. It seemed comforting to think it was, so I just assumed it was so.