“No!” Lindsey flails against the drenched sheet tangled around her legs, finally rips it off her, flings it to the floor. “Damn it!” She stomps on the crumpled sheet for good measure.
Then shivers, the sweat gone cold and clammy. Can’t she divorce Nick from her dreams, too? She scrubs at her sticky face, gropes for the alarm clock, squints and blinks at the glowing display. 5:03 am.
“Crap!” Her back hurts, bad knee throbbing. She rips the damp bottom sheet off the bed, too, and fumbles for her robe, all goosebumps in the pre-dawn.
HighJinks and Sombra twine around her ankles, mewing anxiously, tripping her as she stumbles toward the bathroom. She starts to snap at them, gropes for a lamp and switches it on, sees them staring up at her, vaguely accusing. “Oh, god,” she mutters. A prayer? To whom? To what?
She drops to her knees and gathers the cats against her, hugging close. But this only alarms them and they squirm free, running for their bowls in the kitchen, mewing. “Sorry. I’m sorry.” She pulls the robe tighter around herself, gropes her way into the dark kitchen and shakes out some kitty kibbles into their bowls as they skirmish for position. “No fighting, you two. You know—Peace, Love, like that?” She pulls open the back porch cupboard, feeling for the clean set of sheets, maybe she can get another hour of sleep if she doesn’t really wake up, then realizes she didn’t wash them after yesterday’s night sweats. “Damn!”
She gives up, snaps on all the lights in the little bungalow, HighJinks and Sombra blinking in the glare as she stomps back to the bathroom and turns on the shower. Maybe she’ll call in sick today, wash the sheets and go back to bed and see if she can catch up on all the lost sleep. Right.
Steam swirls around her in the shower, and she tries to let the tension dissolve into the hot streams, like all that positive-image advice says you’re supposed to be able to do. But it’s no good. It’s always there, insects buzzing in her ears. She takes a deep breath and slides soapy fingers over her damaged breast. Feels the puckered, irradiated skin and the raised scar of the lumpectomy.
Stepping out, Lindsey tries to recapture that visceral joy of youth and wholeness from the start of the dream. Then wipes the mist from the mirror and faces the middle-aged truth—everything sagging into entropy, face going slack and gaunt despite the best efforts of high cheekbones, the ugly pucker and droop of the cancer breast.
“Get a grip,” she mutters, disgusted with her own self-pity, the sad-sack expression. Four years later, she’s still cancer-free. “And let’s not forget husband-free, too,” she can’t help adding. Fourteen years of her life—prime years—gone with him.
She bangs defiantly around the kitchen. She doesn’t have to tiptoe around the little house any more, paranoid she’ll disturb Nick and somehow set off one of his rages. Two years since the divorce, and she still fights the reflex to duck. She realizes she’s standing stiff, shoulders hunched. She takes a deep breath, sees HighJinks and Sombra backed together against the heat vent, watching her, their glassy eyes a reproachful mirror.
“Hey. Okay.” She eases down beside them, giving them her imitation purr and slowly stroking—HighJinks’s silky Siamese coat, Sombra’s plush ebony pelt. They relax, pressing against her.
Lindsey takes her tea and granola to the table. She switches on the SAD light, wincing in the glare. It’s still black out there behind the curtain, and her counselor has finally talked her into trying this light to lift the heaviness. She’s tried every herbal “midlife” remedy and finally antidepressants, but those just made her feel like she was sealed in a balloon floating outside a numbed, alien body. She wishes she could be a bear and den up through the winter. But reality check means keeping her job and paying the mortgage, so she’s making do. The bright light feels good, and it gives her an excuse to scribble in her journal. Maybe she really can be a writer again. Yeah, right.
Shall we pause to take stock?
The list makes her chuckle despite herself. Until she gets to the “1 and 3/4 breasts.”
“Okay, okay.” Lindsey grimaces, tries pasting on a perky smile.
Months since sex: 27.
She blows out a breath and rakes her hair back off her face, grits her teeth.
So here’s how it goes:
You hunker down with the yelling, the tension and vigilance, locked in a nightmare but thinking you’re going to wake up any day now. And you remember the good parts, all those years and dreams invested in this marriage, in loving him, and could you have been that wrong? It’s not so bad, really. There is chemistry still there, he’s a handsome man, you can’t deny the charisma, and though the sex isn’t tender or really making love, it’s reliable. You’ve become adept at supplying the missing emotional foreplay, taking responsibility like a good girl for your own orgasm. At least he’s there, in bed, even warms it up for your cold feet. And you shudder at the thought of being single—not to mention the horrors of Dating!—in your fifties. You’d be going in one fell swoop from the envied Married Woman to the least-desirable social unit imaginable—crone female, divorced and menopausal.
But finally it gets so bad it’s either die or get free. The relief of a quiet house! You drink in the blessed silence, even the being alone. Except for the cats, of course, who snuggle with you in bed, so it’s not so bad. And you think you finally did it, you showed your backbone, the hard part’s over now.
No. You start to dread coming home to that empty house, to the ongoing internal soundtrack of your arguments and pleas and analysis of why it all went wrong, which by the Nth playback is getting really old but there’s no Off button. You search for distractions. Your conversations with the cats start to feel a little one-sided, and maybe you’d like to try an adult, human give-and-take again. So you join a hiking club, call your girlfriends you didn’t have time for before to see if they want to catch a movie or go to an art show. You sign up for a book discussion group.
Time. Filling time. You’re thirsty—for touch, for intimacy, even though you recoil from questions that get too close, shudder at the thought of some stranger’s hands on you. You wonder if you’ve finally just dried up, shriveled into a prune. Then you dream about your ex and wake up horrified.
Where’s the nearest convent? Will they take me?
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