“I never want to see you again, Allen,” my wife said over the phone, once we exchanged our greetings. “It’s over. I want a divorce.”
This was odd, for several reasons, namely that we have been separated for six years, and our divorce finalized for five. I was in a state of shock, a weird sense of deja vu, remembering having the same conversation six years prior. “Alright,” I finally said, not knowing what else to say.
“See,” she spat angrily, “this is why I’m leaving you. You don’t give a damn. I’ll be at George’s when you get back from Dubai. Don’t come looking for me.”
She got off the phone, and I sat there in stunned silence. I looked around at the arid landscape of West Texas, watching, but not quite seeing, the crew as they prepared to drill a new oil well about an hour outside of Midland. I needed to sit down to make sense of what had just happened.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Ray, the foreman, said. “Are you alright?”
“Margie just called,” I said hoarsely. “She wants a divorce.”
“I thought you two were already divorced,” Ray replied with a look of confusion that mirrored my own.
I excused myself and headed to the trailer that served as our mobile field office. I picked up my phone and hesitated for a moment, not wanting to make this call, but knowing I really didn’t have a choice. After several rings he answered with a curt, “Stevens.”
“George, this is Allen.”
“I was wondering when this call would come,” he sighed. “What happened?”
I clued my former protegee as to what had happened between me and my ex-wife, his current wife. After several seconds elapsed in an uncomfortable silence, he sighed again. “I think you need to be here. Come see me in my office if you can get away.”
The next morning, I was on the first flight out of Midland, first to Dallas Love Field, then on to Columbus, Ohio. By mid-day I was back in familiar surrounding, sitting in the office of Dr. George Stevens, Head of the Geology Department, my former position at the university. It was strange to find myself on this side of my old desk.
“What the fuck is going on?” I asked preemptively, not wanting to get bogged down in banalities. They could wait.
“Margie is sick,” George said, suddenly looking far older than his fifty years. “An aggressive form of cancer. Most days she’s okay, but every now and again, her memory slips. Yesterday she forgot that you two are already divorced. Last week she was trying to get a hold of Sam, her father.”
“He’s been dead twenty years,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.
“She was inconsolable when I told her,” George said, his eyes welling up. “And last weekend she screamed, waking me up in the process. She demanded to know who I was, and where Nathan was at? I don’t even know who Nathan is!”
“Her college sweetheart,” I informed him. This time it was my turn to sigh. Margie was a studious girl growing up, becoming a professor of literature, earning her Ph.D. a few years before I finally earned mine. She had a sharp wit and a keen intellect. There were few things she didn’t have at least a passing knowledge for, including pop references, something I lacked. For years, I thought Taylor Swift was the name of a merged trucking line.
We sat in George’s office for nearly an hour, and the more he told me, the worse I felt. The once beautiful and bright light of my life had been reduced, her intelligence flickering as the lamp holder fought for her life. Even if she somehow managed to survive this, the Margie I knew was likely gone forever. I think George knew it, too. He had the look of a man mourning for someone not yet dead.
After our meeting, I rode with George to his house, my bag in the truck of his car. I would get a cab to a nearby hotel later. First, I had to get through the hardest meeting of my life. I tried my best to prepare myself, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.
“Uh-oh,” Margie said when she saw me walk in with George. “It’s worse that I thought, isn’t it.”
“It’s good to see you too,” I quipped lightly.
“The least you can do is give me a hug,” she said. I obliged. My arms when around her and all I could feel were her bones. She had wasted away. Margie, while not fat, had been robust figure, plump in a matronly way, a far more healthy figure than these stick models featured in the media. More than once, I caught men looking at her as she walked by. She was that kind of beauty.
And what I saw in front of me was a shadow of her former self. Emaciated and weak, and missing the amber locks that she kept in a ponytail when she was working. At least her eyes were still the same vibrant pale brown. Losing myself in her gaze, I smiled. Therein was the girl I had fallen in love with so many years before, the woman I would ultimately lose to my former protegee, the one standing beside me, an intruder at our sad little reunion.
Margie offered me the seat in front of her and then asked me if I wanted anything to drink. She tried to get up a few times before surrendering herself unwillingly to her own weakness. George left to get me a glass of white wine.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” Margie said the moment we were alone. “My memory is starting to go. I can’t remember half the things I used to. I don’t remember Shakespeare or Beowulf, or which Bronte sister wrote what. I’m losing my mind piecemeal and I’m powerless. I’ve never been very good about being powerless.”
“I know,” I smiled, recalling the bright, vivacious woman that made an otherwise awkward guy fall head over heels in love. “You always seemed to exude strength.”
“And now?” She asked, curious as to how I would describe her.
“And now,” I sighed, wishing I knew what to say, “I see that strength failing. You’re still you,” I added hastily, not wanting to be unkind, “and by the fire in your eyes I can see that you’re still a formidable woman, but your body is betraying you. It’s not fair.”
She laughed. “It’s not fair,” she mused over the words for a few moment. “What’s not fair is the reason I left you. You remember?”
“I do,” I nodded grimly. “You wanted children and I couldn’t give that to you. I was left sterile after that accident in Japan. I’m sorry, by the way.”
“No,” she shook her head angrily. “No, you have nothing to be sorry for. I’m the one who should be sorry. Karma found me. Not a year after our divorce, doctors discovered a tumor on my uterus. Great, they found it, and I made a miraculous recovery, but I was left unable to bare children. George was sympathetic, of course, he had his children from Valarie, but I was left without my own brood.
“And you? You went off, found another woman, got married, and adopted, how many kids?”
“Four,” I smiled. “Four beautiful children, two from Laos, one from Nigeria, and one from here. Along with her own two children, we have a houseful.”
“I’m happy for you,” she declared, sounding genuinely happy for me. Then her demeanor changed. “I’m dying.”
“I’ve never been overly-religious, but I find myself praying nonetheless, praying for a miracle to save me from this ignoble death. I picked up a rosary for the first time in decades. I started going to church, trying to find meaning for an otherwise meaningless life.”
“What have you discovered?”
“Nothing,” she laughed bitterly. “There’s no inherent meaning to it all. We live, we die, and that’s that. Still, I’m clinging on to the hope of some afterlife. You’re still a believer, aren’t you?”
“More or less,” I agreed. “I struggle with it, but yes, I still go to church when I’m able to. My wife is devoted to the church and goes every Sunday with the kids. I wish I knew what to tell you to ease this doubt you seem to be having.”
She shrugged then glanced around. “I think we need to talk about this.”
“I don’t see why we should,” I replied, knowing what she was referring to.
“You promised to do this in the event I was dying. You promised me and I expect you to keep your promise.”
“You promised to be faithful to me, in sickness and in health, and all that crap. You didn’t keep your promise. It’s hypocritical to expect more from me.”
“I get it,” she nodded, “but I really need you to do this. George doesn’t know, and even if he did, he wouldn’t understand. He wasn’t there.”
I sighed. There was no fight in me for this. I could never say no to her. Maybe I hadn’t spoken to her in five years, but I had never fallen out of love with her. My love for Susan was a pale imitation of what I had with Margie. Reluctantly, I nodded my assent.
“Thank you,” Margie said quietly, fully aware of what she was asking, and the position it put me in. “You were always too good to me. You treated me better than I deserved.”
“Don’t say that,” I said, my voice trembling with emotion.
“Help me up. I want to see my garden.”
I got up and helped her into her wheelchair. Tears began to run freely as I wheeled her outside. She looked up and beamed as the sun shone on her face, bathing her with a beatific glow. We went over to a bench and I helped her to take a seat on the bench, she sighed.
“I always loved my gardens. My dad was a landscaper and gardener you know.”
“I know,” I replied, pulling the gun I had concealed in my jacket and aimed it at the back of her head.
“I don’t want to go out like him,” she nodded, more to herself than to me. “I don’t want to be a babbling mess, shitting myself, unable to take care of myself, and too stupid to know better.”
“I love you, Margie.”
She smiled, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I love you, too, Allen.”