I entered this in a short story contest in 2015 and won first place in the Romance category. I recently went to the contest website and discovered that the site was no longer there? I don’t want to lose track of the piece so I thought I’d post it. Would enjoy hearing your thoughts / feedback if you happen upon it here. I’m still fairly new to the world of fiction writing and eager to improve.
She rested her chin in her hand and gazed at him across the table. As usual, he was eating wheat toast and a banana with a cup of black coffee. Her own coffee was untouched. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and watched him eat. There was a tiny crumb near the corner of his mouth and he chewed slowly as he looked blankly back at her. She had been looking at him looking at her for 39 years.
They had married young. Too young, everyone said, but they had done alright. Both their boys were grown now; coming ’round for Sunday dinners and special occasions with their own families in tow. They had once talked of unhurried road trips, winding this way and that across the country once the boys had flown the coop. But those visions had gone up in smoke, disappearing into the haze of all the things that were now no longer possible.
She didn’t mind. Not really. He had always been the one who sat up at night with the boys when they were sick and he was the one who had fixed the roof when it leaked a few years ago. He was the one who had rebuilt the shed when it collapsed that winter and the one who cared for her while she had cared for her dying mother. Part of her relished the thought of caring for him now. It was her turn. Her boys thought she should get some help; that she couldn’t keep doing this on her own. She knew they were probably right but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to do it. She felt it a betrayal to foist her responsibility onto somebody else. She would feel noble if she weren’t so tired.
It was a disease of undoing; his cognition slowly fading, evanescent. He was at first merely forgetful of their daily doings and conversations, failing to remember what she had told him they’d be eating for dinner and taking too long to sort through the mail.
“Oh, nothing to worry about, just part and parcel of the aging process,” dismissed the doctor, unconcerned and unafraid, and so they pressed on, pretending it was just that. Part and parcel of the aging process. Part of the inevitable pushing onward in the slow march toward calcification and incontinence. Nothing to be overly concerned about, all things considered. So said the doctor.
In the span of only a few years it began to take on a different quality; the edges more rough and spiny; the tenterhooks of incomprehension clamping on and relentlessly working themselves into the far reaches of his mind, steadily unmaking him from the inside. Some days she found it an unbearably slow process while on others she felt as though they were hurtling headlong through a swelling of space both dark and nameless. She marveled at how he appeared on the outside entirely unchanged; his black hair thick as ever; his eyes still an immutable cerulean blue.
Her sister had referred to him last week as a shell. “Just a shell of a man,” spoken in the hushed tone of a parent shielding a child from a burden too heavy. She knew that their friends and maybe even their boys were beginning to see him that way as well; a hard exterior enclosing a hollowed out expanse of air and emptiness.
When she looked at him, though, she didn’t see a shell. Not yet. When she looked at him she could still see him at 20 with a freshly shaven face, his eyes locked with hers, fit to burst as she made her way slowly to the front of the church. She could still see him standing before her, the commingling of their nerves, electrifying and arousing, as they undressed each other that night and he beheld for the first time her smooth skin and bare breasts with an unbridled delight. She thought of how he had transformed over the years from tentative boy to confident man; a strong and attentive lover.
When she looked at him across the kitchen table she could see all the years at once. She could see his face hovering above her own, lanced with anxiety and adrenaline and the joyful anticipation of impending fatherhood. She could see him falling to his knees in the kitchen when he learned that his own father had died of a heart attack. She thought of him jogging down the birch-lined street as he let go of their oldest son’s bike for the first time. She could see him standing on the front stoop fully dressed and soaking wet after a sudden downpour during one of his Saturday morning walks.
Years, decades, had passed now but she could still recall his face as he looked at his younger sister with an anguish and a tenderness untold as he bent and scooped her up off the floor and beseeched her, again, to stop drinking. She remembered him building forts with the boys on rainy weekend afternoons and making milkshakes in the summer months. She could even hear him laughing his uproarious, unfettered, can’t-get-enough-air, big belly laugh while on their doomed vacation; the one when they found bugs in their bed and ants in the bathroom.
She could see him sitting in the prickly silence that followed one of their fights. She saw him in the backyard, doubled over, weeping, as he dug the hole to bury his beloved Golden Retriever. She saw him flipping pancakes on Sunday mornings, holding their first grandchild at the hospital, stringing up the Christmas lights and reading in bed as he had every night for as long as she had known him.
This morning as she sat down across from him at the kitchen table, he had looked up from his toast, clearly startled. “Oh, hello,” he said, surprised to see her there. “Hello,” she said softly. He smiled at her kindly and looked at her for a long moment, studying her. Then he said, “You remind me of my wife.”
Staring back at him she felt within herself a profound and irreversible rupturing as a stillness settled over her. She looked at him sitting across the table and a dull ache spidered its way through her as the weak morning light struggled in through the window, her coffee cold in her cup.