The Naïfs

Someone, for sure, would say she was dying peacefully. A heinous platitude. I do not call a skeleton shrink-wrapped in sallow skin peaceful, nor grinding teeth—crusted with saliva dried out from mouth-breathing—peaceful. Samantha’s was not a beautiful body on a glass dais. Although she had been beautiful once.

I asked her death angel, whom I could barely see that day, why. Why the savagery. She had been, on balance, a good person. Selfish at times, deceptive even. But on balance, I mean. The indistinct angel might have shrugged, I couldn’t be sure.

I tucked the sheet up close around her neck, leaving only the head and the urine bag exposed.

“Anything you want?” I said.

Her eyes flickered open, and the head turned away. It looked like a gesture of incredulity: how could you ask such a thing?

Three years after we married, ten years ago, our infant boy died. A cough, a fever, a vaccine not given because Samantha feared autism, or some such falsehood, and our boy was dead. He had become my reason for living, had brought out a depth of love previously unknown to me. How could you do such a thing, I had said then in the storm of sorting out rations of blame. The pediatrician’s “I’m sorry” had been tinged with indictment, his eyes hard, as if he too had lost something. I loved him and hated him at that moment. It wasn’t me, I wanted to say, so fuck you for not contacting me directly. Samantha didn’t answer him.

“I feel like I killed him,” she said a few days later, the house empty of mourners, her parents and my father back to their homes.

I agreed with her. But I said, “You did what you thought best,” and she cried again. I didn’t console her.

I denied Samantha my sperm after that. I engaged sexually with her only near her period, when fertility is lowest, despite her needling. My grief for our lost boy was vast and fueled my anger.

“I’m pregnant,” she announced in the bedroom, holding up the test strip.

Is it mine, I wanted to ask.

“I thought you’d be happy,” she said.

“Bad memories.” I turned out my lamp and got into bed, my back to her.

Two in the morning I awoke, as alert as at midday. In the bathroom, I found the test strip in the trash. We had ancient plumbing, and never flushed anything not essential down the toilet. The marking on the strip was distinctly negative, confirmed by the instructions on the package in the medicine cabinet.

I understood: Now I was supposed to accept having sex with her in the middle of her cycle, and she would get her second baby.

 My refusals almost brought us a divorce. The anger pushed her out of our bedroom and into the guestroom. We remained married in a cool cordiality, roommates who had their meals separately. Friends stopped asking us out to dinner, movies.

And then, after congealed years, the diagnosis. The doctor used the word “fulminating” to describe the leukemia, an ill-advised term to use with a vulnerable patient and next of kin, such as I was. It was a warning that chemo would be futile, and it was.

“Sleep in our bedroom,” I said when she began to weaken and I felt the ghost of compassion. Although my anger had by now faded, in its place there was nothing like affection.

“No. It’s okay. I’ll sleep better alone.”

We sat together for dinners. I cut my hours at the law firm, and she stopped working at the school, our income slashed in half. We made do. My father had money.

“You should eat something,” I said when she didn’t touch the yogurt I left out for her in the mornings and then refused dinner.

“Not today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel better.”

That’s when I saw her angel of death for the first time, an image made of fumes, laughing in the corner of the kitchen. The terror made me scrape her plate into the garbage so violently I chipped the edge with her fork.

“Don’t be like that. I can’t help it,” she said.

The illness progressed quickly, as promised. Her doctor arranged for hospice, which took care of most of the mechanical chores: bathing, changing sheets, inserting a catheter when she couldn’t go on her own.

“Six weeks,” the nurse whispered.

I went to the funeral home with her parents to make the arrangements. They insisted on paying for everything, a wedding in reverse. But they would not choose her trousseau. They left it to me to select the coffin with the director. A miasma of resentment surrounded me again, and I could think of nothing but my lost son. The plainest, least expensive box was what I chose, and her parents looked at each other. They might have said something, I don’t remember.

On the way out, escorted by a staff member, we passed an open parlor. At the far end, a child’s casket, a man sitting in a chair the only mourner. The name on the placard meant nothing: Edward Louis, maybe. I stopped and looked at the employee. Samantha’s father said we should go on, or words to that effect, but I moved towards the parlor entrance and said to our escort, “Can I go in?”

The man went in ahead of me and spoke to the mourner, who looked my way and nodded. My parents-in-law didn’t move.

“Did you know him?” the mourner asked when I stood near the coffin.

“The name is familiar. Something about the name.”

Edward had been eleven, the man said when I asked. His son. He had committed suicide. My head snapped back in recoil. This information seemed excessive, inappropriate to give to a stranger.

“No warning. He seemed happy. I don’t know,” the man said.

An angel of death, a different one, appeared behind the coffin, doubled over with laughter, slapping his thigh in a burlesque of hilarity.

“Did he have many friends?” I asked.

“Not many. But he seemed happy. I don’t know why he did it.”

“I had a boy once. He was killed by his mother. Killed by his mother. Accidental, completely accidental.”

The father looked up at me now. For an instant the grief in his eyes turned into alarm before he dropped his chin again.

“He would have been Edward’s age now. Who knows, they might have become friends. Who’s to say, Edward might still be alive.”

The man’s head jerked up, his mouth a furious slash. “Please leave,” he said.

At home, the hospice nurse was at the bedside, taking Samantha’s blood pressure, trying again and again.

“It’s very low,” she said. “It may be soon.”

I wanted to kiss Samantha’s cheek, maybe a so-long. Because who knew if one day I’d forgive her? But I was afraid of getting my mouth too close to her face, because all around the parted lips and cheeks, despite the nurse’s efforts, was a reddish-brown crust, like dried saliva mixed with blood. I touched my lips to her forehead instead, and it felt as if I had slashed them, as if I had kissed shards of glass.

Later, just before evening, Samantha gasped, and a resonant, echoing gurgle came from her ribcage. She was still after that, no more rising of the chest under the sheet, no tensing of the neck with each breath. I kissed her forehead again, and this time the skin sank under my lips, as if there was no skull underneath, like a child’s soft pillow. I saw the death angel again, looking at me over his shoulder as he evanesced. He might have waved.

JOSÉ SOTOLONGO was born in Cuba. His prose and poetry have appeared or will soon be seen in Atticus Review, Litro, Third Coast, and Blue Fifth Review. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction of 2019, and a novel will be out in June. He lives with his husband in the Catskills of New York, where he is working on a short story collection.