I was finishing some designs for a stockbroker’s boathouse when my friend Nancy called to tell me my ex-husband had had a heart attack. Apparently he had come into Castle Hospital with chest pains after a tennis game. Nancy said he got "the full treatment": quadruple bypass. "You should come down and see him," Nancy said, like it was the most casual thing in the world.
"What for?" I asked. "Do you want him to have another one right there in the hospital?"
Nancy is the head nurse in the cardiac ward at Castle, and she worked with Joseph way back when he was a resident, before he set up his own practice. Around here, with so many tourists and retirees, cardiologists are like gurus, and Joseph has done pretty well for himself. Nancy used to give me updates on him when he came in to check on patients: how he looked, what sort of car he was driving. She told me that he'd had women here and there, but nothing very serious. I'm pretty sure that Nancy went out with him herself once or twice a couple of years back, but nothing seemed to come of it, so I never pressed her.
"I mean it, Rita," Nancy said. Her tone was more serious now. "He's not doing so well. I think you should come."
I started thinking about his mother. She'd be so disappointed. What I mean by disappointed is this: Joseph’s mother, like a lot of mothers, I guess, thinks that her son is the eighth wonder of the world. No, that’s not right—she’s not as deluded as that. Mothers don’t necessarily think that their sons are so wonderful, but they want good things for them anyway, the very best, and when things don’t work out they take it as a personal insult. This is why Joseph’s mother resented me from the moment I told her that I didn’t want children. How could I keep such a joy from her son’s home? One answer was because I knew I’d ruin my life wanting the best for them.
Things didn’t get better from there, obviously. The last few months of our marriage were like a B western—trite dialogue, showdowns. He even tossed a table through a window once. But eventually we worked things out. I kept the house, and he kept our little Yorkie, Kiester. We made those kinds of compromises. Poor Kiester. Within a year he went blind and jumped from the balcony of Joseph's new apartment. Joseph blamed that on me too. He missed the house.
When I married Steve, I sold it back to him, pretty cheap considering. After that things calmed down, like I suppose they usually do. We've run into each other at the mall a few times, and once at the beach. He doesn't say anything, but he nods when I say hello. When Mother died, he sent a thoughtful note, and I send him Christmas cards.
I was busy with the boathouse—I'm an interior designer, specializing in refurnishing the beach homes that the Japanese are selling. Since their economy collapsed the fear that we’d lose Hawaii to them has fallen off. Now it’s mostly California internet billionaires and some Hong Kong émigrés. For me that means taking down the silk screens and rock gardens and putting in entertainment centers and environmentally-friendly plumbing fixtures. It means more business, too, because the Japanese liked to use Japanese designers. Or at least California designers who could pretend that they knew something about the East because they had experimented with Buddhism. What I mean to say is that business has been good, even if the taste of my clients isn’t always to my liking.
Which is why it was easy to put off going to the hospital, and by the end of the week I figured Joseph was home. Most heart attack patients go home in five days, and there was no way I would visit him there to see what had happened to the house. God knows he could never clean up after himself when we were married, and I couldn’t bear to think of the vintage furniture that he was probably still loafing on—the shag carpet and printed slip covers. In my experience most men are more likely to replace a wife than a carpet.
But two weeks later Nancy called to say that he was still at Castle. Some infection in the scar refused to clear and they had to keep him medicated. Nancy said that he'd asked about me. To me that meant he thought he was going to die.
If you want to know the truth I had the same impulse about a year ago, but instead of calling Joseph I called my father. I had a lump removed—it was benign, but still, it was scary enough to make me try a New Age diet, aromatherapy, ginseng tea, the works. And I called my father to tell him that even though I barely knew him, I supposed I loved him and worshipped him the way most daughters do. He said he was happy to hear it, and I think he meant that, but it could have been a bad connection. Most of the New Me didn't stick long after the lumpectomy, but I like to think I absorbed some of the basic philosophy behind all the patchouli. I feel somehow cleaner, as if I'd shed some spiritual skin with the ten pounds I lost eating bok choi instead of potato chips. And when you've read as much about your psychic core as I have, you find yourself confronting what you thought was in the past and trying to understand it better.
Anyway, it was some of my psychic cleansing that made me clear an afternoon and drive over to the other side of the city where the hospital is. It was one of those rainy days that remind me why we moved to Hawaii in the first place, and why I stayed after the divorce, even though I still have friends, and could have found work, back on the mainland. Joseph had been stationed here after medical school, and we fell in love with how lush the trees and soil are, how even at the airport there's a ripe smell of hibiscus and succulents that seems to make the air luxurious. When it's sunny, Honolulu can be just as brash and obnoxious as Miami, but when in rains, it's like the volume gets turned down, and something quieter, older, and more restful comes out to relax on the lanai.
When I parked in the hospital lot near the cardiac ward some of the old feelings came back: the nights early on when I would bring Joseph take-out Chinese if he was on an overnight shift. One time I came unannounced to see if what I’d heard about him and one of his nurses was true, and instead walked in on him trying to perform CPR on some hapless tourist who was dead except for the tapioca pudding he kept spitting up onto Joseph’s shirt. Joseph was full of those kinds of things: infuriating and pathetic and then heroic and then again pathetic.
When I got to his room Joseph’s bed was empty, but his mother was there, adjusting the tv.
Rose had aged since I'd last seen her, but as far as I could tell she was still as healthy as a root vegetable, and just as blunt and ugly. She had an old Woolworth's bag at her feet along with her crochet purse, circa 1974.
The first thing she said to me was, "What's the channel for the public station here?" It wasn't that she didn't recognize me. More like, First things first. Then she set about adjusting the volume while the toilet flushed and we both waited for Joseph to reappear.
Now, I want to make this clear: I always liked Joseph’s mother. She'd deny it to my face, of course, and it's true we never got along. She's one of those mothers who reads an article about grapefruit, cuts it out of the paper for you to look at, and promptly buys a crate of them until they stink up your house and attract fruit flies by the hordes. And she'd always thought I was a bit, well, persnickety. But I had—have—a real respect for her. She keeps active. When Joseph’s father died she didn’t make herself into a burden on him.
Truth is she was the one who got him to propose to me in the first place: we'd been dating for a year and I got a job offer in New Orleans. I thought, If he won't make the move, I will. I heard later on that she said to him, "You know, Joseph, a lot of nice boys live in New Orleans." He took the hint. We got married that spring. In those days you chose a man over a job. It’s thinking back on those kinds of decisions that make me feel like I’m getting older. Steve, though, bless him, is happy with whatever I do. I keep my evenings free.
She'd probably come to help him around the house once he got out. To cook for him, to nurse him, to escape the New York winter. But with the delay in getting him home, she had to hang around with nothing to do but watch tv and nag the nurses. If I knew her she’d already cleaned the house, weeded the garden, and cooked and frozen enough food to last them both a few months.
Joseph appeared, limping out of the bathroom and easing himself back into bed. He looked like someone from a movie I’d seen a long time ago, not a man I'd lived with, eaten with, and loved, for fifteen years. His face was more like his father's—quadruple bypass does that to a man, I guess. The gown was flimsy and his chest looked thinner than I’d remembered. When he finally settled down and worked the levers to sit himself up, I couldn’t help shuddering. I hadn't seen him lying down in twenty years.
“Rita’s here,” his mother said. She had that New York accent that I sometimes forget isn’t extinct. Her “Rita” sounded like “Reader.”
“I see that,” Joseph said, wincing while trying to adjust his position. I didn’t say anything at first. I just stood there while he struggled and tried to think of something I had in common with this sick old man who was once my husband.
"Who's treating you?" I finally managed to ask. When we were married we used to socialize with the other cardiologists.
"A young guy," he said, curtly. "You don't know him."
But the question seemed to loosen something in him anyway. “He was the one that screwed up the close,” he said, and with a little encouragement he went on to talk about his treatment, about the infection that had kept him in the hospital. I didn't say a lot. I didn’t need to. He wanted to talk. He must not have had a lot of visitors, besides his mother, and I soon realized from the volume of the tv that his mother’s hearing had deteriorated past the point where casual conversation is very productive.
"They want me to stop eating everything, and become a rabbit," he said.
I smiled a bit at that. "You’ve been hearing that line from your patients for years, haven’t you? You never could listen to your own advice."
“I listen,” he said, grumpily, like a boy who’s broken his balloon.
“Well, then, why don’t you take care of yourself? You’re not young any more, Joseph. You can’t get away on just charm and metabolism.” I could hear that shrill tone coming out of me and I know that Joseph hated it—he’d always hated it—but I couldn’t help it.
"I exercise more than most," he said. “You wouldn’t know how much I exercise.” I felt my stomach tighten with the old anger coming back.
"You always exercised," I said, trying to pull back, but getting a strange rush from the adrenaline. Was that why I loved Joseph? Because he made me mad? Steve never makes me mad. That’s what I love about him. "In binges. Just like you binge on drink, women, television, Woody Allen movies. Even those sesame candies, do you remember those?! It's the classic scenario for a heart attack, and you know it. It's like you almost wanted it to happen."
Instead of blowing up at me like he used to, like I expected him to, like I half wanted him to, he gave a little grimace and said, "But once it did, it didn't seem like such a good idea."
"Kind of like our marriage," I said, glorious.
He said, "Or maybe our divorce."
A nurse came in to change Joseph's dressing, so his mother and I went out into the hall. He hadn't told her much about my life since it had stopped being a part of his, so I gave her the quick synopsis: married to a retired Navy man, no kids, successful interior design business.
“What sort of material do you use?” she asked me.
“What sort of material?” For a minute I thought she was talking about the television.
"Material. Carpet. Drapery. Material."
“Oh,” I said. Why would she care what kind of material I used? Was she trying to see if I was a high-end designer or if I was just making macramé wall hangings? “I use all sorts of material. Whatever the client wants. Just this week one of my jobs requested some silk jabots.” I was hoping a word like “jabot” would fend her off. She couldn’t know what a jabot is.
She squinted a bit, but didn’t pause for a moment. Her breath smelled like coffee and onions. “You have extra?”
“Extra jabots?” I asked, back on my heels.
“Extra material,” she said, talking to me like I was the one who couldn’t hear anything. What was she driving at? All the energy I had felt from the argument with Joseph had drained out of me, and my neck was straining from having to talk so loudly.
“I keep all sorts of samples and things in my office to show clients. People like to see what colors and textures they’re working with.”
“But do you have extra?” It suddenly occurred to me that she was asking me for something.
“I’ve been making quilts. It helps me use the time while I’m sitting with him.”
“Quilts?” I said. It seemed like such a grandmotherly thing to do.
“Sure. Come see,” she said, dragging me back into the room. The nurse wasn’t finished with Joseph yet: his chest was bare and she was cleaning the incision with some kind of orange disinfectant swab. The hair there—Joseph had had a good full head of hair on his chest, even if he didn’t have one on his head—was growing back and looked stubbly and uncomfortable.
“Look,” she said, rummaging behind her chair. “This one is for my niece’s baby. Do you remember my sister Audrey? She’s a great-grandmother twice over now.”
She seemed genuinely proud and pleased for her sister, not jealous, the way I would have guessed. She’d had some kind of kidney problem after Joseph was born and didn’t have any more children. Joseph grew up the only only child in his neighborhood. When we first got married she used to drop hints so regularly we used to count them during conversations. The most we’d ever tallied on a phone call was eleven. But I never wanted children, Joseph knew it from the beginning, and he stood by me with his mother then, even though it was eventually one of the things we fought about.
The quilt, it must be said, was hideous. It was put together from a mishmash of old t-shirts, hand-towels, and bedsheets, and was sewn so unevenly that there were gaps like little mouths all around, and other places where she had pulled cinches into the stitching. When she spread the quilt out on the floor it didn’t make a rectangle. It was shaped more like a thermos.
“I’m still learning the tricks,” she said, not quite embarrassed. “You know it takes a while to learn how to make the different designs.” Her tone was one I never heard from her when I was her daughter-in-law. It was something resembling professional respect. I realized that she was talking to me as if being an interior designer might mean that I might know something about sewing. I couldn’t help playing along.
“It’s harder than it looks,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, turning to me with relief. I was half afraid she’d ask me to teach her a stitch, but she returned to brass tacks instead. “So you have some things for me? I could make much prettier things if I had better material.”
I don't know what got into me. I said a perfunctory goodbye to Joseph, told his mother that I’d return in the morning, and went straight home to rummage through my closets—old marble prints, rug samples, swags, jabots, corn silk drapery, faux granite wall hangings, cheesy plaids, flower prints left over from a job I did in Waileia, upholstery. Everything I could think of and even a few things I'll probably miss. And I crammed it all together in a big plastic garbage bag for her—for my ex-mother.
I know it was some sort of transfer thing. I was thinking about how well my life had turned out, and how Joseph was a lonely man, a cardiologist with a heart condition, and man whose only visitors were his mother and his ex-wife. He’s a failure, I thought, a pathetic excuse for a man. Sure he made a name for himself as a doctor, but what does he have to show for it now? I didn’t feel bad for him, though. I remembered him well enough to know how much of it all is his fault. Instead I felt bad for his mother. Hadn’t she done as well as anyone had done to raise a son? Wasn’t she devoted in her strange and awkward way? Hadn’t she flown out from New York to sit with him? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? With him in his fifties and her almost eighty, shouldn’t he be doting on her now?
Steve came home while I was still sitting in a pile on the basement floor, trimming sections off of samples that I really needed to keep.
“Can you see?” he asked. The sun had set while I was working and the window light I’d been using was dim. Steve turned on the overhead and the flash was so startling I almost flinched.
Steve had just come back from a game of golf—a whiff of mown grass came to me from his shirt. I could tell by his posture that he’d done well that day, and wanted to tell me. There’s still a pretty serious degree of competition between retired military men, so that when Steve does well—especially if he does well against men of higher rank—he feels a special prowess. He’d probably open a bottle of wine at dinner and make a pass at me in front of the television. Meanwhile, he would ask me about my day, and then wait through the answer, because he knows I’ll eventually get the subject back to him. This is my definition of a sensitive man. At least he looks at me while he’s waiting.
“Joseph’s mother makes quilts,” I said.
“I visited him in the hospital today.”
Steve squinted. “And his mother?”
“His mother was there. She makes quilts. They’re horrible.”
“Yes, I see. Horrible quilts.”
I waited. He didn’t ask anything. He’d already expressed about as much curiosity he had about my activities when he asked me if I could see. Joseph would have gone into a fit of jealous rage over the time I’d spent on an ex’s mother. But for Steve, I might as well have been gathering the materials for donation to the YMCA. It wasn’t just lack of interest. It’s lack of jealousy. Steve couldn’t imagine what ever attracted me to Joseph, and couldn’t perceive any threat there. Of course there was no threat. But still, I would have liked a tinge, maybe. Something to let me know he knew I was doing something strange.
“I’ll be done in a minute, honey,” I said, sing-song. “Then you can tell me about your game.”
The next morning first thing I drove out to the hospital again, and lugged that bag of trimmings up to the room. When I arrived, I'd half forgotten Joseph was still there himself, I was so anxious to bring the things to his mother.
“Did you bring me something?” he asked, cheerfully, with an effort. Typical. I hadn’t thought about how he might interpret me coming to his room twice in two days.
His mother laughed, a one-note cackle. "Not for you, Joseph, unless you’re planning on taking up sewing!"
I plunked down the bag and wiped my neck. "There's plenty more where that came from," I said. Rose spent a few minutes just reaching into the bag and pulling out her new treasures. Then she pulled out her needle and went straight to work attaching my beautiful sample to a worn old piece of canvas that I could swear was once a tent. She didn't say another word to me the whole visit, but she gave me a look that said it was the best gift I ever gave her.
Joseph and I talked for a little while longer—he was curious about my business, and wondered how I made connections. And he conspicuously refused to ask me about Steve. Even when I casually told him about a gala we went to at Pearl Harbor, he managed to avoid any use of the male singular pronoun. At one point he turned and asked his mother if she could fetch him some coffee from the cafeteria, but she had taken out her hearing aid and couldn’t hear him.
Before he could ask me I got up to go. I walked over to Rose and put my hand on her hand—she was holding the needle like a pencil, and her fingers were thin and stiff, like chopsticks. “Goodbye, Rose,” I said.
She smiled at me warmly. “The next time you see me I’ll be dead,” she said.
“Probably,” I said. What I was thinking, though, was that she would outlive Joseph and I’d see her at his funeral. “Take good care of him.
“Someone has to,” she said. She might have just been referring to the nurses, but I took it as a jab, and let it sting.