Content warning: profanity and terminal illness.
I was really hoping that my wife would die.
Not at first. When she was first diagnosed, I just wanted a speedy recovery. Then I could continue with my plan to leave her. Like the cancer in Debbie’s breast, these feelings had been eating away at me for years.
Twenty-one years into our marriage, Debbie had grown old, obviously. I had too. What made me so mad was that she invited old age into her body with no protest. While I took my supplements and went to the gym four times a week, she was growing fat and slow. She made this annoying animal grunt whenever she bent down or stood up. She didn’t wear makeup anymore. She cut her hair boyishly short because it was “less maintenance,” and she stopped dying it too. Her body was hairy, wrinkly, and flabby. Her teeth were yellow and brittle.
Maybe I could accept the way she looked, but her personality had soured too. She didn’t want to go anywhere with me. She interrupted my stories with “Yeah, you told me already.” She didn’t want to have sex with me and I realized one day that I didn’t want her either. Debbie had dragged us into this lethargic, mute existence, suffocating me so slowly that I hardly noticed.
I know saying all of this makes me an asshole. I made a vow and we relied on each other… but Debbie acted like all of that was just owed to her. The work was over; she had already won her prize. I hadn't expected marriage to be this way. It wasn’t hate that I felt then, more like disappointment. The hate came later.
Hate came when every night I woke up to her loud retching, when I would roll over and notice her side of the bed was stained with sweat and covered in skin flakes. When she lay in that bed all day and let the housework pile up. When after I cleaned my wife’s messes, she shouted at me for hiding her things. When every other day I had to skip work and drive her to an appointment only for the doctors to say nothing had changed. When every moment of my life was focused on someone I didn’t even like anymore, that’s when I realized that I hated her.
So death seemed like the easiest way to end things. There’s no one to blame; maybe God, but not me. It would be better for Debbie too. She could die as an angelic martyr and she wouldn't have to explain why her husband left her. The only part I really worried about was how my family would react to Kimberly.
Kimberly was much younger. I didn't care for her ditsy millennial name, but she was smart and fit and adventurous. I really enjoyed her laugh, the way she threw her head back and flashed a bright smile, her long curls bouncing, unashamed to be happy. She wore bright colors and crop tops and she drove a flashy lime green Volkswagen. People noticed her, but she paid them no mind; she noticed me. And she didn't grumble when I told a story.
She was getting her masters degree in geology, and took several of my classes at the college. My wife always joked that my profession was “dull as a rock,” but Kimberly loved it. She always sat in the front row, her chin resting on the heel of her hand, admiring my PowerPoint slides with wide-eyed wonder. She aced every test and stayed after class to ask questions. She started doing that more and more until we were going out for coffee, strolling through museums, emailing late at night, texting each other throughout the day, sending pictures of our naked bodies, sneaking away to "conferences" out of town.
For eight months, she enjoyed the title of "mistress." She would whisper it over the phone, "It’s me, your mistresssss." But the secrecy eventually lost its sex appeal. She started saying that we should live together and make our relationship public. Women always change their minds as soon as you get comfortable, like when Debbie tried to pressure me into having children after we both agreed we didn’t want any.
I made plans to tell Debbie on a Friday, but her test results came that Tuesday. Kimberly was understanding. It’s one thing to cheat on your wife, but cheating on your dying wife is… despicable. I'm not a complete asshole.
If Debbie died, Kimberly and I could be together within a few months, after I took an appropriate time to "grieve." If she recovered, then I'd leave when she could take care of herself again.
I thought death would be faster, but it dragged on and on. Debbie had three rounds of chemo in total, I think. She was surprisingly stubborn.
One morning after the last round of treatment, in the spring, Debbie met me in the kitchen as I prepared for my morning run.
"Good morning," she said shyly.
I was startled, then annoyed, expecting her to ask for a favor. "Good morning." I replied.
"Would you mind if…" she hesitated. "Could I walk with you this morning? I know you like to run and I can't go very fast, but I thought it would be nice to go outside and keep you company."
"Uh, sure." I said. "Of course."
Debbie changed out of her pajamas and wrapped her head with a scarf. Her fingers were stiff, so I helped her tie her tennis shoes. We headed toward the park at the end of our neighborhood, walking in the street, as there were no cars yet. The sky was pale purple and the lawns were shrouded in mist.
"Looks like a nice day," Debbie remarked.
"Yeah," I said.
Her breathing was heavier and I realized that I was walking a bit fast. I slowed my pace.
"What's new lately?"
I glanced at her with suspicion. "Nothing, really."
There was silence.
"You know that cancer support group that I've been going to?"
Of course I did. Until recently, I had been the one driving her there. "Mhm," I said.
"It's been really helpful. It makes me think about my life, not just my mortality. I realized lately that I've been sad for a long time, way before the cancer. Apathetic, I mean."
The first rays of daylight were climbing over the roofs of the suburbs. I squinted.
"There are other issues in my life that I've never really dealt with," Debbie continued. "I've realized that I should probably see a therapist. I won't make you do couple's counseling, but that's an option too… if you want. If I beat cancer, I don't want to go back to living that way. Apathetic."
"Yeah," I agreed. A therapist would help her cope once we divorced. Maybe it would strengthen her to hear the news too, accepting that our relationship had been unfulfilling for too long.
I was pleased to hear her go on to say, "I'm sorry. I haven't been putting effort into our marriage. I really want to fix it. I might not be here much longer," she inhaled sharply. "And I don't want to leave with this coldness between us."
I didn't know what to say at first. I studied her face. She had a tuft of new colorless hair sticking out of the edge of her scarf, like the feathers of a baby bird. In the morning sun, I could see that her skin was less sickly than it had been. Her last appointment had gone well and she was regaining energy. It was looking like she wouldn't die after all, and now I was thinking it might be possible to separate without too much hostility.
After a moment, I thanked her and agreed with her. Debbie smiled weakly as a tear fell from her cheek.
Debbie walked with me again the next day and the day after. For almost two weeks we walked every morning, but then she had a day of fatigue again, back to her old ways. When I came home from work that day, she had cooked a meal and loaded the dishwasher and then I felt a little guilty for chastising her, even in my head. I crept to our bedroom where she was sleeping and whispered a thank you to her. Then I changed clothes and went to Kimberly's apartment.
Over the next month, Debbie started seeing a therapist. I noticed a change in the way she talked right away. She used to be an intellectual like me, and her vocabulary re-expanded from the lazy dismissive language like "yeah" and "whatever." I made a decision to stop talking to her that way too. Finally we could have a conversation without one of us fleeing. She continued to improve, physically and emotionally.
We went out for our anniversary that year; I don't remember the last time we marked the occasion at all. Debbie even wore makeup and a dress. Kimberly argued with me over that, how I shouldn't "get Debbie's hopes up." Then she complained that I was still spending so much time with my wife, who could take care of herself. Just as one woman was becoming more agreeable, the other one was starting to get on my nerves.
One day during a lecture, my phone was vibrating non-stop from Debbie calling me. I excused myself and went into the hallway. I braced for an emergency.
"I'm sorry to bother you," Debbie said when I answered. "I just had to tell you. I couldn't wait."
"Tell me what?" I asked.
"Complete remission!" She squealed. "I just got out of my appointment and the doctor said I'm in complete remission. Can you believe it?!" I could hear her crying and laughing.
I was getting emotional too. I started thinking about our lives up to this point. How we met, when we married, the good and the bad. Now there was some hope on the horizon. Did I still hate her? I don't think I did anymore. I knew that I didn't want her to be dead. How had I let myself wish that?
"Hello?" Debbie called out.
"Sorry," I said quickly. "Honey, that's great news. I'm so happy."
After we hung up, I returned to a room full of concerned faces. I wiped my cheek. "I apologize," I said. "I just got some news. As you know, my wife was diagnosed with cancer last year. She just told me that she's in complete remission."
There was some applause and smiles. I tried to continue the lesson, but I found myself watery-eyed and unable to concentrate. I decided to dismiss everyone early and collect my thoughts. My office hours were next up anyway.
I took the time to answer some emails and calm myself. Then I made a decision.
Kimberly picked up on the fourth ring. "Hi," she said. Her tone was somewhat expectant, sarcastic.
"Hey," I said.
"You decided to stop ignoring me?" She asked.
"I haven't been ignoring you."
"I texted you three times with no response," she said. "And you cancelled on me two weeks ago… never rescheduled. That's ignoring, babe."
I sighed, then her tone turned sweet. "I've been worried about you," she said. "You know? I miss you."
"I wanted to tell you that Debbie is in complete remission," I said. "Her doctor told her today."
"Oh!" She said. "That's great! Is she going back to work?"
"She went back last month."
"You didn't tell me," she said thoughtfully. "Well, that's good. Good for her. I mean it."
"Thanks," I said.
"I guess it's about time to make plans then," Kimberly said.
I knew what she meant. "Actually, that's why I'm calling."
"I don't want to leave her?"
She paused. "You need more time?"
"No," I said. "I mean I don't want to leave her at all. When Debbie called and told me that, I felt some clarity."
"I want to continue my marriage," I declared.
"Oh baby," she said with pity. "Don't do that to yourself. You've spent enough time being miserable with her."
"Things have been getting better between us and I want to focus my energy on that. I'm sorry."
"Well," she huffed. "What about me? What about the future we talked about? What about all the time and energy that I gave you? I can't wait around forever."
"Kimberly," I said firmly. "I don't want to see you anymore."
"What?" She errupted. "Don't want to see me? You're my fucking advisor! Are you kidding me!?"
"I mean outside of school," I said. "Don't contact me anymore. You can request a different advisor, just you know… be discreet."
"You don't even have the balls to say this to me in person?" She shouted. "Or to wait until I graduate next semester??"
"I don't see any point dragging this out," I said. "This wasn't going to work anyway. I'm sorry to end it this way, but I've made up my mind."
"You are such a liar!" She was shouting. The name calling went on for a minute, then I interrupted her.
"I'm sorry, Kimberly," I said. "Goodbye."
When I hung up, my phone immediately rang again. Kimberly called back to back, with insulting text messages in between. When she didn't stop, I blocked her number. Immediately, I felt a huge relief.
On my way home that day, I thought maybe I should kiss my wife. Not the chicken pecks we had been doing the last few years, but a real kiss. She had come a long way and she deserved some real affection. In the passenger seat were a dozen pink roses, pink for breast cancer. I thought Debbie might appreciate the elegance of roses, even though she preferred simpler flowers like daisies and carnations.
Halfway up the street where I lived, I could see that my parking spot was already taken. My stomach sank. There were two vehicles in my driveway: my wife's car and a lime green Volkswagen.