skin in the game
It’s nearly eleven by the time Norma, the night nurse, arrives. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Chatham, Mr. Daynes,” she pants. “270 was just unbelievable—must’ve been eight cars involved—backed up for miles …” She sounds as if she ran the whole way. “Is Tessa still here?”
“No, she left a while ago,” Hunter answers.
“Oh God! I’m so sorry!”
“Don’t worry about it.” Doug tries to sound soothing. “Vera fell asleep around eight-thirty, she’s been out for a while. Tessa did meds before she left.”
“Oh—good.” Norma smiles. She’s a doughy woman—Doug is pretty sure she’s Filipina, but he’s never asked—a little older than Vera. Her age alone makes Doug angry at her—why should she, with her rolls of fat and heavy, nasal breathing, still be perfectly vital, happily up and about, while thin and energetic Vera is drained and almost gone? He prefers Tessa, the day nurse, who’s younger and prettier, almost a caricature of a hospice aide: she would be livelier and more beautiful than they are (Doug and Vera, at least), whatever the circumstances. Norma’s good, though, when Vera wakes up gasping with pain at one in the morning, which neither Doug nor Hunter can handle anymore. They lasted a few weeks after Vera came home, thinking that with two of them they could save the money. But after Doug was woken three nights in a row not by Vera but by sobs that convulsed Hunter’s body so viciously the bed shook, he decided they’d have to deal with the expense, and the interference of two unknown women in their home.
“How are you, Norma?” Hunter asks. Doug’s glad Hunter can do the friendly part, leaving Doug in the more comfortable role of benevolent, distant employer.
“Oh, I’m all right,” Norma says. “Visited the new baby this morning. Want to see?”
“Sure.” Hunter moves to the second sofa to sit beside Norma, and she shows him a picture on her phone that Doug is just as happy not to see. “Oh, how sweet.”
“She’s a beauty,” Norma says. “And Cristian is a very good daddy, takes care of her and her mama too. He makes me proud, Cristian. Just like you make your mama proud.” She pats Hunter’s shoulder. Norma developed early the impression that Hunter was Vera’s son from a previous marriage, and it seems easier not to correct her. But Hunter flinches every time she says something like that, his facial expression, in fact, very reminiscent of Vera’s.
“Thanks,” he says.
“Do you have an advisor yet? You going to ask that lady you told me about?” It spooks Doug a little, Norma rattling questions about things he must know himself, but really can’t remember. That he and Vera and Hunter have ever had lives separate from these rooms feels resonant and false, like myth.
“Yes. I have a meeting with her next week.”
“Fantastic,” says Norma. “Congratulations. Are you—” But there’s a buzz on the intercom, Vera’s call button, and Norma nods a quick, muttered “excuse me” to both men before hurrying upstairs.
“Was she talking about Maureen?” Doug asks. Maureen is the chair of the sociology department, a colleague of Vera’s for the last twenty years.
“Vee says she’s great,” says Doug vaguely; he’s always found Vera’s, and now Hunter’s, academic world shadowy and mysterious. “I hope you do get to work with her.”
“Yeah,” says Hunter. “Me too.”
“How are you?” Doug studies Hunter’s chiseled cheekbones. The young man’s face looks like it has since Vera’s last surgery, somewhere between forlorn and agonized. With little choice in the matter, Doug’s gone to work almost every day for the last eight nightmarish months, shaken hands gamely, made sales and a series of inevitable layoffs. Hunter took last semester off, started school again only two weeks ago at Vera’s insistence. Doug envies Hunter the time with Vera, but he likes having a place to go that doesn’t force him to think of her.
“Tired,” Hunter says. “Everyone’s gossiping in the department.”
“Right.” Doug actually has no idea what that means, what people would be talking about.
“I just want to stay with her.”
“Me too. But she doesn’t want that.” Doug puts his hand over Hunter’s. Everything about Hunter is delicate and pretty, especially his hands; Doug’s look like a yeti’s by comparison.
“I know,” Hunter says.
Not wanting to look at Hunter’s downcast eyes, Doug leans over and kisses him. Hunter tilts his head up just a little, still passive. As Doug lifts his hand to the back of the younger man’s neck, a cough interrupts them.
“Excuse me,” Norma says, failing to conceal shock and fury. “But she’s asking for you, Mr. Chatham.”
Doug nods, one hand still on Hunter’s. “Thanks, Norma,” he says, rising from the kitchen table, relieved to be the one reprieved.
He hates their bedroom, Vera ghoulish in the middle of the king-size, cannula and tubes and grayish skin and eyes as big as taillights. Doug searches, every time he goes in, for his imperious mistress, but he thinks she’s gone. (“We just have to keep her comfortable,” said Dr. Schwartz, who never asked about Hunter’s presence at their appointments. “It could be any time, and the last thing I want is for her to suffer now.”) Even her coherence, her crispness, is on the verge of disappearing completely. She only emerges from the fog for an hour or two every day, at random times that bear little relationship to her medication.
“Norma thinks she just learned something scandalous,” Doug says, perching gingerly at the foot of the bed.
He waits for Vera to ask more questions, but she puts it together immediately. Clearly, this is one of her sharp hours. “Oh god,” she says.
“Yeah. Don’t know how we’re going to explain it.”
Vera glares. “Not outside your room. Never again.”
Doug sits up straighter. “Yes,” he says immediately, firmly.
“It’s not fair. To ask that of her.” Vera leans back, whether from exhaustion or because the moment is over Doug can’t tell. “How’s Hunter doing?”
“We’re okay,” Doug says, wishing she had asked about him.
“I hate that he sees me like this.”
“Natalie left a message,” says Doug. “She gets in Saturday. I’ll pick her up.”
Vera nods, decisively. “Good to see my baby.” Then she says, “Molly?”
“Don’t know.” Through a complex chain of communication that included Natalie and some of Molly’s old friends, Doug finally reached their elder daughter two months ago, to tell her Vera was terminal. She was in Colorado somewhere and that was pretty much all he could get out of her.
“I’d like to see her.”
“I don’t know where she is.”
“Could we hire someone? To find her?”
“Is that what you want?” At this point, Doug would just as soon wait. He doesn’t see what they’ll gain from having Molly here if she doesn’t want to be here, and heaven knows she’ll show up for the funeral, the reading of the will.
“I don’t know. Yes. Maybe. I would like to see her. Before.” Vera sighs. The way she sighs is not like she used to, like she’d lost patience with Doug and all that he represented. Now it sounds like she actually doesn’t know what she wants. “Are you taking care of Hunter?” she asks.
“Is he taking care of you?”
“All right. Then it’s all right.”
Hunter had answered their Craigslist ad six years ago, when Doug had still thought he simply had a cuckolding fetish, that the trouble was their previous lotharios hadn’t been young or attractive enough for him to believe the scene. Since Hunter went by a handle in his response—it was some “PrettyBoy” type of name, though Doug no longer remembers its specifics—and none of their FetLife profile pictures depicted faces, neither Hunter nor Vera realized that he was a student in one of her seminars. Therefore the first thing the boy at their door said was, “Oh, shit,” which was not at all what they’d agreed on.
“Oh,” said Vera.
“What?” said Doug.
All three of them stood for a moment, staring at each other. The young man was as beautiful as Doug could have hoped for, with fine pen-and-ink features, chin-length blond hair in a shaggy, asymmetrical cut, and sinewy arms dangling gracefully from a sleeveless blue T-shirt.
“I’ll go,” Hunter finally said. “Don’t worry, Dr. Colantoni, I’ll go. If you could just—um, not mention this to—”
“No,” Vera said slowly, the word unfolding from her tongue like a kiss. Excitement was rising in her face, though you might not have been able to see it if you didn’t know her, the color creeping up her cheeks like tiny footprints and the glitter in her eyes. Doug watched her lips as they formed the next sentence. “You stay.”
Watching them together had been glorious, but also somehow unsettling. It wasn’t that Doug was jealous exactly—he and Vera had talked through that possibility so thoroughly that Doug was pretty sure he was immune to it—but that he’d sensed a shift in the room: he was now dealing with something that mattered. He couldn’t put it into words when he and Vera talked the next day, and therefore assented immediately when she suggested inviting the boy again, so eager was he to see those pearly pink lips on Vera’s nipples, the olive of Vera’s hands looping around the straight, clean pink dick.
It took Doug three more of Hunter’s visits before he could put words to his desires, and two more before Vera gave him permission to make a move. Doug put his hands on Hunter’s shoulders in the vestibule—his exit had always been the most awkward part of their evenings—and kissed him, feeling, as he always would, dry and scratchy against the boy’s expansive smoothness. (Even at his hairiest points, Hunter is merely downy.) The wave that overtook them made him push Hunter against the wall, Hunter’s hands claw at his back, and Vera, caught in the moment, ordered them back upstairs, had Doug suck Hunter off while she watched, then had them both converge upon her. They spent the night with the young man between them, warmer and happier than Doug thought was even possible.
“I’m worried,” Vera said when those nights had piled up and they were discussing the prospect of Hunter moving in.
“Yeah,” Doug said. “Me too.” Worried wasn’t exactly what he felt, though. It was again a lack of control, like a hand far stronger and clumsier than his own had started guiding his movements.
Vera looked at him, confused. “He’s really promising,” she said, “and he’s applied to the doctoral program. If this gets out …”
“Shouldn’t you be more worried about you then?”
“I have tenure.” Doug thought what she really meant was We’re rich, possibly even you’re rich. Vera loved her job, but it wasn’t as if she’d lose everything if she were fired. She’d always had that confusingly callous attitude about their escapades and her reputation. “But Hunter should be looking at …”
They’d learned fairly early on that Hunter’s was a standard-fare sordid story, an accidental only child with a long-disappeared father and a mother so negligent, so sunk into depression, that Hunter was surprised how fast she evicted him from their bleak brown apartment when he was sixteen and she discovered his stash of queer and kinky porn. (Doug and Vera had been almost comically careful in hiding their own DVDs and cuffs and neon wands from their daughters, and yet sometimes Doug could not help wondering if Molly had managed to come across them, if that incited her downward spiral somehow.) Hunter had handled himself on the streets for a year before being accepted to college—he was vague about that part, though clear on the fact that he engaged in a fair amount of vanilla sex work to make up the difference between his scholarship and his expenses. He lived with four decidedly straight, bro-ish boys (he had avoided Doug’s eyes when he shared this description) and could not have been more eager to leave the cigarette-stuffed beer cans and second-tier frat parties.
“He’s an adult,” Doug said; if Vera could be dismissive of significant concerns, so could he. “He knows what he wants.”
“The way Molly’s an adult?”
The reminder was uncomfortable for both of them—both of their lost and hopeless daughter and of their lover’s age—and Doug watched the curtains shift in the breeze. The last night Hunter had stayed over, they’d wrapped a sheet tight around his body, leaving him only his mouth to use on them both. He let Vera’s question dangle in the air.
“And Natalie?” Vera continued. “What will we say to Natalie?”
Doug would just as soon tell their younger daughter the truth, but Vera had always thought their desires were too difficult to explain. “We say a student’s renting a room,” he said. “Molly’s room. It’s not a big deal.”
“You don’t think anything’s a big deal.”
“Then he won’t move in,” Doug said. “It’s fine, Vee. I don’t care.” He was frustrated. While he’d never understood 24/7 master-slave relationships, had always avoided such couples when they attended the Flea, he was starting to wonder if he’d prefer it. He hated Vera’s whine, hated this unstable uncertainty. He wanted an order, something he could obey or refuse.
And as if reading his thoughts, Vera placed her hand over his. Quietly, she said, “I want him to move in. Anyway. I think we …”
“Yes,” Doug said. The relief was enormous, rose up through him. “Yes. I think so too.”
The next several days are filled with visitors. Most of them come while Doug is at work, leaving Hunter to pretend, as usual, that he just happened to stop by at the exact same time. Hunter reports these events to Doug stiffly; they kiss halfheartedly when they go to bed at night (the girls’ bedrooms adjoin through the bathroom, so they’ve long made Norma think that Doug was sleeping in Natalie’s room and Hunter in Molly’s), but neither is really in the mood. Some of the visitors do arrive after work hours, around when Tessa and Norma are changing shifts; Norma’s openness to Vera’s female colleagues infuriates Doug. If he tried to enter the room as soon as he came home, he’d find Norma blocking him immediately and forcefully, like a safety blitz. But these girls and women just waltz in.
Natalie calls on Thursday, while Vera’s most recent advisee—Doug can’t remember his name—is in the bedroom. She tells Doug her flight information again, and tells him about the connection she made with a thirteen-year-old patient, how adolescent medicine is currently topping her list. (She changes her mind about specialties every three weeks or so.)
“How are you, Dad?” she adds, her voice weighted with adult-daughter concern. “How’s, um, Hunter?”
“We’re getting through it,” Doug says. “I mean, we don’t have a choice.”
“I miss you,” Natalie says.
Doug’s looking through old photo albums while he talks. Their honeymoon in Australia, Vera a little heavier, a little more voluptuous, than she was in her fifties. A laughing, vital Vera, just after she cut her hair short, at an academic picnic; a subdued Vera at Doug’s former boss’s retirement party. (His favorite album, of course, is in a safe in the back of their closet—along with most of their toys, the children’s birth certificates, Doug’s gun, and several other valuables—but now is certainly not the time to look at it.) Soon Vera will be no more than these photographs, no more than stories Doug and Hunter tell each other. Less than memory.
“Dad?” Natalie says.
Doug jumps a little. “Sorry, honey,” he says, and then processes the last question he barely heard. “Just don’t expect Mom, do you know what I mean?”
“I guess so.” Natalie finished a rotation in oncology about ten months ago and has some experience of terminal patients; the stories she’s told come back to Doug at inconvenient times when he’s sitting with Vera. “Will she know me?”
“Most of the time,” Doug says. “But it’s day to day. You have to be ready for anything.”
He comes downstairs on Friday to see Norma and Hunter chatting at the kitchen table, Norma almost relaxed. He watches them for a second or two, then steps over the threshold. Norma’s spine snaps to attention. She mutters something pretend about checking on Vera and rushes out of the room.
Doug stares a question at Hunter.
Hunter says, “I told her.”
“Told her what?”
“What else was I going to do?” Hunter asks. “At least this way she knows it’s not incest.”
“It wouldn’t be,” Doug says. “Even if you were my stepson.”
Hunter says, “You didn’t actually need to argue that point.”
“You didn’t actually need to tell her,” Doug snaps. “It’s not her business.”
“She told me her husband left her for another man, Doug. She thinks—I mean, she thought—the same thing was happening here. In a way, it’s love for Vee. She—”
Doug hates that Hunter says “Vee.” “So her husband left her,” he says. “Poor Norma. That’s also none of our business. She’s here to do a job. She works for us.”
“And she’ll do her job better if she respects us.”
Hunter is too damn calm. “You need to keep this separate from work, Hunter. I am the only one in this household who actually knows what that’s like. Norma does her job, or it is not her job anymore. It is that simple.”
“It’s not that simple. You’ve never bothered to know anything about her, about her life.”
“Why would I have to?” Doug says.
“Because it’s right, and it’s kind, and anyway, Vee needs her. We don’t want to have to hire someone else at—”
Hunter chokes on the rest of the sentence. Doug waits to feel something, pity or love, but it doesn’t show up, just a boiling sensation inside his throat, as if he’s about to vomit fire. “It is not your decision what Vee needs. You’ve known her for what, six years? You’re a fucking child. You think private lives are everyone’s business. You don’t get to decide these things. You have no right to reveal—just because you waltzed into our home—Do you have any idea how fucking selfish you are?”
Hunter looks at him like he’s been scalded.
For a while they don’t speak at all. Doug looks around the kitchen. The surfaces gleam with red Spanish tile, a print from Molly’s high school dalliance with photography still hanging on the wall above them.
“Norma’s here,” Hunter finally says, his voice thinner than usual. He’s not looking at Doug, he’s looking out the kitchen window, into the darkness that is their front lawn. It used to be Hunter’s thing to tend it, so thrilled was he to have access to an actual garden and flowers, but in the light, Doug knows, tall stalks bend and flatten, weeds are dragged down by their own weight. “We have to live with her, work with her. So I thought—whether we want it or not, she’s in our lives.”
“And our deaths,” Doug says stiffly.
Doug had no part in selecting the nurses. The hospice had sent three other pairs of women, none of whom had been “right,” according to Vera’s stringent and elusive definition. Doug remembers an attractive one, a slender but busty black girl with long eyelashes over compassionate eyes, but he can’t call her name to mind, and anyway Vera found her “insufferable.” (Even when she can only say a few words at a go, she spits them out like that, one precise syllable at a time.) Hunter had opened the front door to a Laurel and Hardy pair, one short and wide where the other was tall and thin; as with the others, he’d just said, “I’m Hunter Daynes,” and let them make of it what they would. Doug had edged into the bedroom after they went downstairs to wait, and rather than snorting or rolling her eyes, as she’d done with the previous pairs, Vera had said simply, “They can handle it.” Thus they were the first women Doug had bothered to introduce himself to formally, and immediately Norma had taken his hand in her sweaty one and said, “It’s an honor to work with you, Mr. Chatham,” as if those words meant anything at all.
“I thought you lived in paradise or something,” Hunter says, apropos of nothing. He’s still gazing out the window, away from Doug. “The first time I came here.”
“How’d you get here anyway?” Doug has wondered about that for a while. “You didn’t even have a car then, did you?”
“I’d take the 57 all the way out and then walk.”
Doug didn’t know buses went anywhere near Ladue. “Long walk.”
Hunter shrugs. “It was pretty.”
“What if you hadn’t come?” Doug says. “Or what if you’d left when you saw it was Vera?”
Hunter shrugs again, shifting the lines of his delicate shoulders. “Then you’d be alone right now. Maybe both of us would.”
“You would’ve found someone else,” Doug says. Someone as good-looking as Hunter would always find somewhere to land. It’s himself Doug is worried about.
“Sure. If that were what I wanted.”
Norma is standing in the doorway suddenly, backlit so that she’s little more than a silhouette. “Mr. Chatham?” she says. “Mr. Daynes?”
“Yes, Norma?” Hunter says when Doug doesn’t.
“She’s asking to see you both.”
The two of them stand and Hunter smiles and nods at Vera before plunging past her and towards the staircase. Doug’s about to follow when Norma says, “Mr. Chatham?”
“Yes?” Doug’s tone betrays his impatience, not that he really cares.
“It’s not easy,” she says. “For me … to watch a man treating a woman like that.”
“I’m not treating Vera any way she hasn’t chosen to be treated.”
“A lot of men say that.”
Doug sighs; he realized how wrong that phrase sounded as soon as it came out, but he is in no way ready to have this conversation, nor is he really interested in it. “I’m not a lot of men.”
“Oh, no,” says Norma. “No, you are not a lot of men, Mr. Chatham.”
They stare at each other for a few moments. Again she reminds Doug of a tackle, prepared to block his every move. Doug finally breaks the silence: “You can’t keep me from seeing my wife.”
Norma looks shocked. She says, “Not if she wants to see you.”
“Okay,” Doug says.
Norma looks like she wants to say something more, but Vera asked for Doug a while ago now. He nods, and after a second Norma does too; then he pulls away from the conversation and up the stairs.
“Vee, you all right?” he asks. There’s no answer as he opens the door.
Hunter’s standing directly in front of Vera, and she’s got him fixed with her gaze in a way Doug hasn’t seen in he doesn’t even know how long. It fills him with longing and makes him sick.
Vera turns to Doug, and he stands at attention almost immediately, propelled by training so thorough it’s turned into instinct. Then she says, quietly, “Make Hunter come.”
“Now?” Doug says. He thinks of Norma, sitting downstairs like a vigilante, listening for any signs of transgression.
“I want to … watch it,” she says, struggling to inhale. Doug fights the urge to adjust her cannula, increase the oxygen flow; she’ll ask if she needs it. “I want to watch it … now. That’s what I want to … remember if I get to remember … anything.”
Doug stands at attention, his mouth moving silently. He glances at Hunter, beside him in an identical position.
“Don’t look at him,” Vera says. Her voice is softer and hoarser, and yet somehow it still has the same strength. “You’re talking to me … right now. Do you have something … you want to say to me?”
Doug shakes his head.
“Then the next word out of your … mouth is going to be … ‘yes.’”
They know that his obedience is ludicrous. Vera lacks the strength to punish him in any way that matters, and in the last several months Doug’s libido has grown weaker than Vera’s arms. But he is going to do it anyway, because it has been years since he has disobeyed his mistress, and he cannot think of a logical reason to stop.
“Kiss me first,” Vera says. “Both … of you.” Doug hates the taste of her mouth, but most days she’s in so much pain she doesn’t even want to be touched; he might not have another chance. He sits down on the bed, near Vera’s knees, and leans in. Something about it reminds him of those very first exploratory kisses, when they were Natalie’s age and hadn’t yet admitted what they wanted from each other.
Doug knows, as he begins to kiss Hunter, tentatively at first and then, when he feels Hunter’s lips against his neck, Hunter’s hands fumbling at the hem of his shirt, with more force, that this will be the memory he carries. He knows that in a few days, when they lose her, when Norma’s voice crackles over the intercom and they march upstairs with each footfall on the carpet thudding in Doug’s head and he and Natalie and Hunter stand at the foot of the bed in a receiving line, he will be thinking of this. The room will throb with the inevitable, and Doug will be imagining the weird, satisfied murmur coming from drugged Vera as he unzips Hunter’s fly and begins to stroke him, the movement familiar and yet foreign in this horrible room. Doug knows he will not be able to remember the days that follow Vera’s death, that her eyes, glazed with a gray film, will blur his own, and he will not remember what he says to Hunter, will not remember the young man holding him as his sobs come in jagged bursts, will not remember the nights he’ll spend lodged against Hunter’s chest like a tumor. Instead, he will be thinking of this moment, when Vera’s mouth is open like it will be in the second before she dies, when Doug has taken Hunter, their young, beautiful lover, into his own mouth and Vera’s hand is underneath her nightgown while she moans in something that could be pain or pleasure, when Hunter is saying “yes” in the same voice he will use to say “It’s okay” to Vera on Monday when both of them can see that she wants to go, then when they are here alone and she has left them. He will be thinking of the last words Vera spoke to them before the pain demanded an increase in medication so potent that it obscured her words completely. Those words will have been, “Yes. Oh, god, come on, honey. Show me. Show me more.”
Gemma Cooper-Novack’s debut poetry collection We Might As Well Be Underwater, a finalist for the Central New York Book Award, was published by Unsolicited Press in 2017. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in more than twenty journals and been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net Awards. Her plays have been produced in Chicago, Boston, and New York. Gemma was a runner-up for the 2016 James Jones First Novel Fellowship; she has been awarded artist’s residencies from Catalonia to Virginia and a grant from the Barbara Deming Fund. She diablogs on sinnerscreek.com. Gemma is a doctoral student in Literacy Education at Syracuse University.