At 2:15 I left my husband and went to the dentist to have my teeth whitened. Michael was sleeping when I left. He had been suffering for days from a chronic headache, and I thought it best not to wake him. I expected to be home in about an hour.
I swept back into our apartment at 3:45, teeth gleaming. The first thing I noticed was a wicked smell, like rubber burning on a hot sidewalk. Michael had gone to the acupuncturist the day before, seeking relief from his headache and, from past experience with such remedies, I assumed he must have brewed her special tea. I bypassed the living room and walked down the hall to our bedroom, where I’d left Micheal sleeping an hour and a half before.
Our blue and white paisley duvet lay crumpled on the bed, but Michael was no longer under it. The air conditioner beckoned me with a loud rumble, and I stood in front of it for a moment, letting the stale breeze cool my skin. Sufficiently chilled, I turned and walked back down the hall into the heavier air of our living room. It was then that I saw him, lying at the foot of the green overstuffed chair, a few inches away from his favorite perch on the well-worn, beige linen sofa. Except for the small pool of blood that had formed on the rug beside his head, he looked as if he might still be sleeping.
I ran past Michael to the far end of the room, my heart beating hard in my throat. I rummaged through the papers and notebooks that covered my desk in search of the portable phone. Finding it, I dialed 911. After what felt like enough time to grow old in, a dispassionate voice finally came on to the line.
“I think my husband is dead,” I said, shaking. There was no thought. Just words and sweat and panic. “What should I do?”
“Why do you think he’s dead?” asked the woman, sounding slightly bored. I looked at Michael, shirtless on the floor. His skin, always fair and freckled, had turned an unnatural shade of lavender. And he was quiet. I had slept beside Michael for a dozen years, and he always snored like a water buffalo. Now, except for the crazy pounding in my chest, the silence was deafening. And finally, Michael was normally such a light sleeper. If he weren’t dead, surely in all this commotion he would have woken up by now.
“I’m pretty sure he’s dead,” I replied, digging my nails into my palms in an effort to keep from screaming. “Tell me what to do.”
The woman gave me instructions as if speaking to a ten-year-old. And like any good child, I did as I was told. I performed mouth-to-mouth and thought fleetingly that Michael’s lips still felt warm against mine. I lifted his callused hand and touched his wrist, feeling for a pulse.
He was still.
I felt numb.
“There’s no change,” I told the 911 operator. And then, clearly running out of options, I called on God for a miracle—a sudden gasp for breath, a fluttering of the eyelids. The woman instructed me to push on Michael’s chest, and I inadvertently hung up the phone to do so.
How did this happen? Just a few days ago I was telling my best friend Phoebe how unexpectedly well my life was going. She was right, I thought dejectedly. I should have spit. Because in the time it took to get my teeth a whiter shade of white, it was all gone, my guts in a knot as I knelt beside my motionless husband.
I needed further instructions. As long as I was doing something, I thought, there was still room for hope. I reached for the phone just as it began to ring. Could it be the 911 operator calling me?
“Hello?” I answered hopefully.
“Hi, Isabel!” said my upstairs neighbor Ivana in her heavy Serbian accent. “What are you doing?”
On most days my response would have been “Nothing, much . . . what about you?” But today was not most days. “Actually,” I said, “I’m sitting on the floor next to Michael. I think he’s dead.”
And I was, to put it simply, a mess.
“You open your eyes. It’s dark. Your knees, which are pressed against your chest, begin to throb. The air is thick and your back hurts. But it isn’t until you try to raise an arm to scratch your nose that you realize you’re folded up in a tiny little box like a cheap piece of goods from Wal-Mart.”
It was three o’clock on a warm August afternoon, and my best friend Phoebe and I were sitting in a bar drinking frozen margaritas. Phoebe was reading a quiz from a recent issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, which proposed to determine our Sexuality Index.
“Then what happens?” I asked, leaning over, trying to get a glimpse of the page.
“Then you wake up. If you’re me,” she added, “there’s probably a little drool on the pillow.”
“That’s disgusting.” I reached for a corn chip. “What do you think it means?”
“No, Phoebe. The dream.”
From a strictly aesthetic point of view, Phoebe drew eyes like a tall, blonde magnet, so strikingly beautiful it was impossible to look away. She shrugged her slender shoulders.
“Damned if I know,” she replied. “But, lucky us. We get to choose from the following: (a) You’ve just had a great night of sex. (b) You need to have a great night of sex. (c) You’re afraid to have a great night of sex.”
Phoebe looked at me expectantly.
“Jeez,” I replied. “What’s sex?”
“Been that long, huh?” she asked. pen waving, “I’m going for ‘my apartment’s too small.’ ”
“Is that one of the choices?”
“No,” Phoebe answered. “But it should be. How about you?”
“I dunno. It sounds to me a lot like my childhood.”
“The drool?” Phoebe asked.
I shook my head. “The metaphor. Tiny box. Small spaces. Confining to the point of suffocation.”
She ran her finger down the page of the magazine. “Those don’t seem to be listed either.”
“OK. Try this. Invasion of the Body Snatchers with an all-Jewish, all- white-bread-eating, all-middle-class cast.”
“And people say I’m dramatic,” said Phoebe, tossing her head dramatically. “Sounds boring to me.”
“Hmmm,” I replied. “More like claustrophobic.”
In actuality, I had spent most of my childhood living outside the Wal- Mart box. My friend’s parents were married. Mine were divorced after a period of dissatisfaction best described as operatic.
My mom, younger sister, and I lived in a garden apartment—a
step below the relative luxury of everyone else’s identical three- bedroom row house. And, in what constituted the deepest cut of all, in contrast to my taller, slimmer, straighter-haired classmates, my hair frizzed at the slightest hint of humidity and my body was too curvy to jam into the era’s de rigueur tube tops and hip-hugger jeans.
I had vague aspirations of finding validation in the guise of success, a goal that usually lent itself to an individual possessing a certain amount of stature. But netting out at a meager five-feet nothing, I had little of the inborn force and magnetism native to those of more impressive heights.
By the time I reached college, I realized that even if I had possessed the brains of a giant and the wisdom of the ages, they’d have had to be squeezed down and vacuum-packed to fit the dimensions of my tiny storage space. It was hard enough in a man’s world to be a woman of authority. As a petite woman with big boobs and a total inability to walk in heels, I feared I might never have a chance.
Three years after moving to New York City with my bachelor of arts degree, I was still unable to find my niche. Stints in retail and clothing design revealed a lack of talent and a shortage of patience (I had the drive, but I just couldn’t figure out the direction). They also paid barely enough to cover my meager expenses. At an age when most of my peers were sprinting down the fast track, I was metaphorically curled up in a fetal position, still unsure of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had found, to my dismay, that life was still about adjusting—trying to make jobs, jeans, and boyfriends fit.
At least, I told myself—sucking thoughtfully on a lime—I had some company. Phoebe had dreams of becoming an actress, but she didn’t hesitate to concede that she’d be happy to settle for a rich, handsome doctor, should one become available to her. In order to pay the bills, we had indentured ourselves to a trendy dining establishment on the Upper East Side, where we earned our keep serving chopped salad and cheesecake to scotch-drinking, blue-haired socialites.
“Well,” Phoebe said, adding up her final score with resignation. “It looks like my Sexuality Index is lower than my income.”
“I very much doubt it.”
As if on cue, the bartender came over to ogle Phoebe and check our progress with the drinks. She feigned interest; his eyes left her face only long enough to salt the glasses.
“Why don’t you go after him?” Phoebe suggested, waving her lip-gloss wand in Kevin’s direction as he retreated to the tequila.
“As if,” I told her, reaching for another chip. It was not lost on me that if my vice were tobacco rather than salty snacks, I might have less trouble getting Kevin’s attention. But I had grown used to being overlooked—by bartenders, sales clerks, and taxi drivers—especially while in the company of taller, prettier companions. “Besides,” I added philosophically to my friend, “I have bigger things planned.”
Phoebe arched her perfectly shaped brows. “I dunno . . .
from what I hear there ain’t too many bigger than Kevin’s.”
We left the bar a couple of hours later, pleasantly buzzed and blinking in the late afternoon sun. Hungry, we decided to pick up dinner at Michael’s, a kosher-style, take-out chicken joint down the street from my apartment. The place, no larger than a walk-in closet, was buzzing with activity and redolent with the smells of grandma’s cooking. Display cases on the right side were jammed with trays of raisin-studded noodle pudding, stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce, chopped liver, and cherry-red Jell-O. The left side of the store was at least ten degrees warmer and featured three large rotisserie machines filled with roasted chicken and crispy duck, their juices dripping rhythmically into the pans below. Customers at the front of the line shouted out their orders while, pressed close behind, a sea of tired and hungry people, mouths watering, stood waiting to be served.
“Maybe we should just get a pizza,” I said loudly, eyeing the masses.
“Check . . . behind . . . counter,” Phoebe mouthed, looking over in said direction.
“What?” I hollered back above the din.
“The guy behind the counter. Check out the guy behind the counter.”
“Cute, but isn’t he about seventy?” I followed her gaze to the elderly gentleman quartering what looked to be a capon.
“Not that guy! The one with the pierced ear standing next to him.”
He was about 5¢8¢¢, strong arms, beautiful hands, eyes the color of a cloudless blue sky. I had noticed him during my regular chicken run the week before. As he answered to the name Michael, I assumed he was the owner of the establishment.
“Well, he is handling a knife,” I told her, watching as he cut up a chicken, “but I doubt he makes as much money as an orthopedic surgeon.”
We waited our turn, the crowd parted, and we stood—Phoebe a head and a half taller than me—at the front of the line.
“What’ll it be, ladies?” Michael asked. His eyes took in Phoebe and then fell onto mine. And, surprisingly, they stayed there. And then he smiled. A sweet smile.
His sudden attention made my skin burn.
“A rich husband,” answered Phoebe, smiling mischievously.
“Come again?” he asked, confused.
“Half a chicken, please,” I said, shooting Phoebe what I hoped was a threatening look. It slid off her impossibly high cheekbones and landed on the dirty linoleum floor like a pile of creamed spinach.
When Michael turned his back to retrieve our chicken from the grease- splattered machine, Phoebe—perhaps due to her elevated alcohol levels— couldn’t hold back. “He likes you!” she blurted. “Ask him out!”
“I told you . . .” I said, turning to face her. Phoebe was about 5¢8¢ ¢ in heels, and my eyes landed somewhere in the vicinity of her collarbone.
“I know,” she said with exasperation. “You have bigger things planned. But he is cute, you’re not dating anyone, you can’t cook, and I think you’d look adorable together.” And before I could stop her, she asked him if he would deliver.
“I can do that,” said Michael, nodding in my direction. “But I need your phone number in order to arrange it.”
He took a pen from behind his ear and offered it to me, along with a menu and the plastic bag that contained my order. Cornered, I took the bag and the pen and scribbled my number on the menu, even though we all knew that I was already holding half a chicken and a quarter pound of cucumber salad in my sweaty little hands.