She hesitated, she couldn’t say why. There was something horrifying in the way he grasped at his throat and she felt her own breath stall in her chest and she froze with her hand on her glass and a trickle of something like relief melting in her brain. And for a moment the brume that clung to her like Spandex or a coat of metallic paint rusting in the humidity of a godless place lifted. It was curious, the fear in his eyes where she’d never seen fear. And for a moment she imagined something different and bright but specifics were vague and it was really only a feeling. And then the waiter came and the urgency in his voice brought her to now and panic.
Are you all right? The waiter paused at the table with a bottle of wine and two glasses for another table, and he shook his head and his face was reddening. The waiter found a free hand and tapped his shoulder, then passed off the bottle and stemware and executed a perfect Heimlich, dislodging what had blocked his airway. He gasped with his hand still at his throat and the waiter waited and she reached her hand to him.
I’m all right. Thank you, he said to the waiter and his voice was hoarse. The waiter recomposed and nodded then slipped away. He grasped Fern’s hand and the two sat silent, having bypassed a crossroads to some place foreign and the silence was time and distance from that exit. He regained his color and his breathing evened out. He pulled his hand back and took hold of the stem of his own glass and held it up.
I couldn’t breath, he said, and she nodded and her eyes welled up.
I know she said. They both drank and they were again silent and they were often but this was a silence of shadows, and they imagined endings, and he saw his wake with sobbing women and the men were shocked and still admiring. And she imagined different endings. And then the sounds of the room gathered at the edge of their saturnity and breached their quiet and their imaginings faded slowly like a tide.
The waiter took their plates and poured the rest of their bottle into their glasses.
How’s your mother? He asked because he was feeling generous for his extra days, because at that precise moment every day felt like an extra.
She’s doing all right, considering. Some days she remembers and some days, not so good. It’s the nature of the disease. . . . The nurse seems to be really good. Thank you for that, by the way. I don’t know what she’d do. . . .
Of course. Family. Anything for family. There was a tenderness in his eyes.
Is Josh happy with the restructuring? She asked about another executive.
He should be. He’s going to make a fortune, and he has his own team.
Good for him. He’s earned it.
I don’t know if he’s earned it, Kyle snorted. But he’s kissed every ass there is to kiss. And he’s a ruthless son of a bitch. He’ll do all right.
Just what they need. There was only a touch of sarcasm in her voice, but it felt familiar. Comforting. Well, she retracted. At least he’ll fit right in.
He always fit in. . . . At least the stock prices are up. Kyle’s smile was cool and he finished off his wine.
For now. I can’t imagine they’ll stay up.
Always the optimist, aren’t you.
I’m a realist. Always have been. It’s a global problem. So you guys rearranged the furniture, got a facelift. You look nice for the short term, but the gold rush is over.
Wait until we unleash the magic. He leaned back in his chair and motioned for the waiter, his eyes sticking to the hostess with hair dark and shiny as an oil slick. Fern watched his smile when the hostess turned, the winking without winking, an opportunity to exercise his boyish charm, she supposed he had it though he was growing puffy with age. The hostess glanced from him to her and her smile was for Fern, apologetic, and Fern was grateful for the wine and drained her glass as if donning a veil.
We should go, she said and he nodded without looking, scrolling on his phone.
Just waiting for the check.
They stood outside the restaurant in a circle of light waiting for the car, an opportunity to answer email. The breeze that blew off the nearby river was cool and smelled like fish.
Later than night he watched her undress as he lay in bed.
Is that a new dress? He asked, closing his laptop. She hung her dress up over the back of the door and smoothed it along the shoulders.
It’s the one bought for the company dinner last fall.
That’s right. . . . It’s pretty.
It needs a cleaning, she said.
He watched in the bathroom as she carefully dotted her face with cream, a ritual that seemed to require excessive concentration given the small area. He supposed she had aged relatively well, but it’s futile, he concluded, and for a moment he felt his throat tighten and a flash of panic.
I almost died tonight, he said into the open door of the bathroom. He could see her searching through drawers. The pill she slipped into her mouth was a sleeping pill, he knew, she’d always been an insomniac. And he was impatient and she was taking too long.
I know she said and she came into the bedroom and stood in front of the open bathroom door and she was framed by light, and the distance to where she stood seemed enormous.
But you didn’t she said when she crawled into bed. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tight as if to draw the heat and light of her to the deepest parts of him. And she felt the ancient rhythm of his heart beat between the blades of her shoulder. And eventually, they slept.