One summer morning over breakfast Arlene, Max’s wife of twenty-five years, announced that she was planning to have an affair.
“Who plans to have an affair and tells the other person?” he asked.
She had only recently decided it, she said. It was not due to lack of love for him. It had nothing whatsoever to do with a crisis, a depression, or desire to relive her youth.
She shook her head in response.
To Max, this sudden invasion of his heart, this bomb dropped on the quiet village of their life together, was uncharacteristic of the woman he had loved for all these years.
Arlene was not the type, he thought, as she left for lunch that day with her friend Gloria. Or was she?
“She just told you she is,” he said, as he stood by the large bay window in the living room, watching her drive away.
He was angry with himself for not knowing how to react. But how do you react in a situation like this? It’s one thing to discover that your spouse is having an affair, quite another when they slap you directly across the face with the promise of it. He wondered about her state of mind. She was impressionable. Maybe the trigger was something she read. Or one of those trashy talk shows. It could be hormonal. At times, trying to read her mood was like attempting to read hieroglyphics.
As he looked out onto the sun-washed street, the large gleaming houses with their manicured lawns, he told himself it would be alright. Later, after she spoke to Gloria, she would realize what she was about to do. She would walk through the front door saying she didn’t mean a word of it. Laughing at herself for thinking such a thing.
Arlene arrived home from lunch slightly tipsy and went straight upstairs to take a nap.
That night, he convinced her to have dinner with him at Lulu’s, their favorite little bistro and the place where they had celebrated many happy occasions. This time it was a fact-finding mission. Max wanted answers.
“Arlene,” he said as he watched her pick up the menu. Had this been a normal dinner together, Max would have suggested broiled fish. Healthy. Low cholesterol. As a doctor, he felt this was his duty. But, even at the best of times, she tried to find the most artery-clogging item on the menu. He wondered why. She had a few minor scares in the past but they didn’t seem to make any difference. He wondered how she could be so careless.
He decided to keep his dietary opinions to himself. No sense in adding fuel, he thought.
“I thought you were happy,” he said.
She placed a ringed finger on the item she was scrutinizing before looking up. He noticed that she had painted her nails deep red instead of her usual coral.
“I am, was. I just. I don’t know. Do you think the cream sauce is real cream? Sometimes they use an imitation.”
And back to the menu again.
This hesitation gave him a moment of hope. He thought the longer he spoke to her the sooner he would be able to find a cure for what ailed her.
“Who is he? I’m assuming it’s a he. I mean, have you picked someone out?” he asked and replayed his words. Have you picked someone out? as if they were having a conversation about shoes.
“I’m still looking,” she replied.
The waiter came and took their orders, then brought two glasses of the house red, a fruity French Merlot. Max lifted his glass and looked across the table while Arlene stared out the window. He thought of all the years whistling by him like an old blues song. When he met Arlene thirty years ago, she was also studying to be a doctor. A year into their relationship she dropped out and took a job as a hostess in a steakhouse.
She didn’t want to study medicine; she said her parents pushed her into it. She told him she liked her job at the restaurant. It was safe; there were people to talk to, and she could have any kind of steak she wanted free, except Filet Mignon.
He was certain she wasn’t telling him the truth. Perhaps she wanted to go back to medical school but lacked the confidence. He told her it wasn’t too late to go back. He was a great believer in ‘never too late’ but Arlene was a great believer in ‘ambivalence’ and because of this, it was too late.
When the main courses arrived she said that, under the circumstances, perhaps divorce was the best idea.
“What circumstances?” he asked.
She looked at him, her brown eyes flitting between his shirt collar and her plate.
“It’s all the stenting,” she said, which to him sounded like a bad excuse for what it really was. The pending other guy.
“But Arlene, I’m a surgeon. Why are you saying this?”
“I know what you do for a living Max,” she said, waving her hand over her plate of steaming Fettuccine Alfredo. “But you haven’t been a husband in years.”
“I haven’t been a husband?”
“It’s me or the stents, Max.”
“It’s me or the other guy, Arlene,” he shot back and immediately regretted saying it.
Max didn’t understand, not entirely. Yes. He could get caught up in his work. Okay, maybe he was a little obsessed with stents, but what was wrong with being passionate about your work? Wasn’t he helping people? Didn’t he take the Hippocratic Oath to do his best to treat the sick?
As he sat looking at his grilled salmon (omegas, good for the heart) he remembered the time he attended the Stent Conference in Westminster. He had gotten so wound up, visiting hospitals to see how the Europeans were doing it, that he missed his flight home. Arlene had driven two hours from their home in Fort Lauderdale to Miami International only to turn back when he didn’t appear.
He felt horrible and tried to make it up to her with a cruise. He swore it would never happen again (a promise he stuck to) but he was a surgeon, a cardiac specialist. What did she expect? He would have emergencies. There would be times when he would be away from home.
It wasn’t like they didn’t spend time together. When he wasn’t working, they did everything together. They went to the beach. Arlene loved the beach and he knew that, with the correct number sun-block, a little sun was okay and made him look healthy. This was important because long hours spent in the hospital could make you look so ill.
He never looked at another woman although they certainly looked at him. The tall dark handsome cliché. The doctor whose tanned smooth hands saved lives. The darling of Ward A. Also B and sometimes C and most certainly ICU.
Because of his striking good looks, his extensive knowledge and experience, the hospital had him do all of its educational videos. In them, he was referred to as Dr. Stent. He explained the use of stents in procedures. He spoke enthusiastically about guide wires, catheters, and the exact mechanics of how the balloon inflated. He answered the question, what is a stent, with such verbal dexterity, such a boyish glint in his eye, that viewers thought they were listening to a movie star.
He told patients what to expect in urinary procedures, much to the irritation of the urologists who argued that they should be doing those videos. He explained in a kind fatherly tone, outlining the cleaning and preparation of the groin area. Although anyone watching the videos knew that Dr. Stent was actually telling them their privacy was about to be taken away with an electric razor, it didn’t matter. He made it all sound so relaxing. So pleasant. If only Arlene could see him this way.
They left Lulu’s that night with nothing resolved and little else to say to each other. Max told himself the situation needed time. Arlene needed time. Time was the cure and then everything would return to normal.
A few weeks later, she told Max she needed space. Ha, he thought. Space.
What she wanted, he was sure, was time to plan her trip to the shopping mall of adultery. The situation hadn’t changed.
They were sleeping in separate rooms so Max grudgingly moved out of their house with the beautiful marble-floored reception area and glass doors looking out onto the lake and 18-hole golf course. He would miss the cool relief of that floor on his bare feet on a hot day. He wouldn’t miss the golf course because he didn’t play. People found this unbelievable: “A doctor who doesn’t play golf. Do you have a screw loose?” Max didn’t need a game of walking around hitting balls into holes to unwind. Being a heart man was never stressful to him.
If only he could understand Arlene’s heart now, he thought, as he placed the last of three boxes into the back of his car. If only there was something he could do or say. But even though his heart carried the burden of her promise, somewhere in the back of his mind he felt certain that somehow, she would change her mind. As she said, she still hadn’t chosen someone.
Max could have gotten an apartment, a condo, a house, but felt committing to another address meant giving in to the situation. Instead, he moved to the third-floor of the hospital, an area reserved for residents and those working long shifts. The administrator, Samuel Ekhats, a burly bearded man who always wore sandals and hummed Bob Dylan songs, arranged for Max to stay over the operating rooms.
On the first day in his new home, Max cleaned thoroughly. He was very familiar with Legionnaires’ Disease, with outbreaks of winter vomiting flu and the many new strains of contagious disease the public didn’t know about; he didn’t want to take any chances.
He scrubbed the shower, the toilet and sink. He washed the floor and cleaned the windows. From his window, he could look down onto the small Japanese-style garden courtyard; the wooden benches, the ground covered with smooth white stones, the circular pattern meant to remind one of ripples on the water. Samuel had hired a designer from Morikami to create it. He described it as “an island of tranquillity in this sea of trauma and sickness”.
The weeks passed with Max working himself to sleep. He didn’t know if it was his imagination but it seemed that lately there was a huge influx of heart patients. He thought it was because of his own situation, something recognized. Like when you buy a car and everyone seems to be driving that car.
He welcomed the heavy workload; it gave him less time to dwell on Arlene. Exhaustion became his lifeline. He worked with precision. Perfectly and intently. Max could stent with his eyes closed.
During this time Arlene swung back and forth about the divorce. Max’s lawyer, Lou Berkmann, phoned him with constant updates.
“Max, listen. One minute she wants a divorce, the next she’s not sure.”
“What minute is she on now?”
“But she’s the one planning the affair. I’m just a poor overworked schmuck living above an operating room. Where’s the justice in that?”
“Who said divorce is about justice?”
Max found out from Lenny Salt, husband of Arlene’s friend Gloria, that she still wasn’t having an affair. Apparently, she was stuck in the decision-making stage. Max thought this was nuts. If it wasn’t going to happen surely they could work something out.
But, a few days later, when he met Lou in his office, Lou told him that she wanted the house. The house!
He advised Max that maybe it was time to work out some kind of settlement with Arlene. Max was convinced she had not only lost her mind but her heart as well. Maybe she sold it for top dollar to buy a new beauty regime.
He sat heavily into the brown leather chair watching cars passing each other outside Lou’s first-floor window.
“How could this happen?” he asked.
He felt dismantled.
“She has no emotion. No humanity,” he said to Lou.
“Yeah,” replied Lou, a look of pity on his round face. “But she’s going to get the house.”
In all his working life, Max had never dreamt of stents. But now, he was dreaming about them all the time. He dreamt of wire mesh tubes and bright balloons filling and opening, the arteries giving themselves up, yielding like a lover. Romance in the body’s cavities. Grafts anchored, safe ships in the harbor. Vessels and angioscopes, IVs like gas pumps.
He would wake in a sticky sweat, the room’s dirty light rolling across the walls like storm clouds. He would bolt from the bed to the bathroom mirror and stare at his once-tanned face, which he thought lately was beginning to resemble a partially peeled potato. His dark uncut hair was matted and misshapen, a helmet of neglect. He would try to pull himself together, smoothing his hair down flat, and then walk the halls in his scrubs, a green apparition. A stalk of celery left too long in the fridge.
He would wander into the empty cafeteria and sit by the window at the same table drinking a cup of strong tea, eating whatever limp, leftover sandwich he could find.
Then he would look out onto the illuminated rock garden, its neat wooden benches casting boxy shadows across the glowing stones on the ground and wonder how long Arlene would continue to keep him in the dark.
“Arlene wants you to move the rest of your stuff out,” Lou said, rolling his eyes on the day he met Max at the hospital to sign divorce papers. They sat at Max’s desk in his room. Lou was eating a glazed cheese Danish. Max drank strong coffee from a paper cup.
“What?” Max said.
His secret hopes for reconciliation looked as faded as his once beautifully bronzed skin.
“Give me a minute to get all this organized.”
Lou put his head down, trying Max knew, to avoid eye contact. He sifted through the file.
“Whose lawyer are you anyway,” Max snorted.
He got up and looked out the window to the garden which he thought didn’t look as beautiful in broad daylight as it did at night when the criss-cross of spotlights made the stones appear to ripple and flow. Max stared at the center circle, the place where it all began, the watery domino-effect and its ceaseless movement. He wondered if they worked. Did they calm people down? Did they make them happy? Or were they just rocks. Stupid white rocks like hundreds of kidney stones scattered on the ground.
“I’m your lawyer. But what can I do Max?” Lou asked.
Max sipped from his cup while Lou flipped pages and ate his Danish; his smooth, thick lips opening, closing, opening, bits of waxy white filling falling onto the table.
Down in the garden, two children shuffled through the stones. As Max watched them, he remembered the childhood game ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’. He hadn’t thought of it since he was a kid. He used to play all the time and took it seriously. He became quite skilled at recognizing other kid’s weaknesses, their inability to sense what was coming, and his own ability to psyche-out his opponents.
“Max,” Lou said, jolting him back to the room.
“Look, I know this isn’t easy but I need you to read through and sign.”
Max left the window and sat down as Lou placed a slim silver pen on top of the file then slid it across the desk towards him. Max touched the pen and remembered the dream he had last night.
In it, he carried a box of stents down a darkened corridor. At the end was a doorway. He was about to walk through it when Arlene appeared holding out a sheet of paper and pen. Her eyes were dark and she was dressed in something long and slinky. In the dream he thought, Arlene doesn’t do long and slinky.
“Your autograph Dr. Stent?” she said. Words scrawled in red. A pact to sell his heart. He tore the paper and scattered it at her feet.
Max looked across at his thirty-pounds overweight lawyer as he wiped his mouth with a napkin. He felt caught between the rocks, Lou’s papers, and all he had left in the world, his gift for stenting. He felt cold. He thought about going outside. He would take his shoes and socks off to warm his feet on the rocks. He would sit on the bench and pretend to be someone else. Then, when he was ready, he would return to face the pen and the papers and Lou’s cheesy face.
And why did he feel this way? All because Arlene was thinking of having an affair. Not even having one. This wasn’t like him. When was he ever known to give up?
He stayed in his seat. He stared at Lou’s bulky fingers tapping the dull desktop, then down at the pen resting on the stack of papers.
“Ever play Rock, Paper, Scissors Lou?”
“I, uh. Sure,” Lou stammered.
Max looked down into his coffee cup at the brown filmy slick thinking no wonder arteries block. Look at this crap.
“So you signing or what?” Lou asked.
“Let’s play,” Max said, standing up, his hands balled into fists behind his back.
‘Rock. Paper. Scissors.’ (c) 2022 Deborah McMenamy
All Rights Reserved