Old men live in shadow; it’s old ladies who pull up shades and open windows. But Bill Doyle likes the light. When I enter he’s where he’s at: on the couch and laying aside a book he’s reading. The sun diffuses him, makes him translucent. When he looks at me, I think of aquarium fish floating up along the glass. But he’s nowhere near decrepit. In fact, he’s proud of his physique, and even though exercising can’t hide the beer pouch, it can help with aching joints. Tall, long-legged, broad-shouldered, slab-handed. Bumps into things, even though he wears the kind of glasses that happen to be in style again. Not that he’d give a shit.
The place is Section 8, but the way the burbs do it: the MacIntosh Regency Senior Citizens Apartments in Tullytown, Bucks County. The living room, kitchen and bedroom are sparsely decorated (no sign of a woman), but clean and there’s space. Not bad. I could be content here.
I am 22 going on 83, and suddenly I am interested in how someone leads a life of solitude. This, because of recent events, true, but I have always been an old soul.
“Haven’t seen you in while,” he says even before I round the kitchen corner into his view.
“Been busy, Mr. D.”
Bill’s particulars: Seventy-two years old. Vietnam vet. Served from ’67 to ’69. Marines. Married in 1971. Divorced 12 years later. No children.
“How’s the boyfriend, Splenda?” Bill asks. My name is actually Brenda, but Bill’s being cute.
“Dylan’s with his family.” That’s somewhere north of Scranton, and Dylan’s my ex-boyfriend now. “I’m just studying.”
“But it’s Christmas break! Damn shame!”
“Isn’t it, Bill?” I say, smiling as I lay the packaged hot meal on his coffee table. “A damn shame!”
He tugs at the sides of the container. I lean in to help, but he shoos me.
“And you’re taking next semester off?” he asks, as he pulls his dinner out. Turkey, mashed potatoes, asparagus, roll, butter, chocolate pudding, juicy-juice. It’s a little after 3. He’ll have something light around 7 and then turn in. He’ll awake at 4 tomorrow.
I say, “I am changing my major and I want to get it right this time before I spend more of the bank’s money.”
I’m a lousy liar. I blush, tic out, twirl hair, bite fingernails, yawn because suddenly my breathing is shallow. Bill was a construction worker in life. Bricklayer, I believe. If he’d been a cop or reporter, he’d read my body language, know something’s up. I’m here for my church group, Food for Friends. I give them every Wednesday. Mom says: Do it.
“Helping others means having to put down your own baggage,” Mom told me when I disclosed my situation.
“Really?” I screamed. “That’s the fucking advice you give your daughter in hell?”
You’ve seen me. I am that stunner who gets plenty of attention on the street or at a party. Sinewy, blonde, blue eyes. Done some modeling. I look like Reese Witherspoon, right? But younger. Or sometimes I get January Jones, but younger, and I’ll tell the tailgaters I’m her little sister, February. I love to laugh, hang with friends, live for the Eagles, need my morning coffee, can party till all hours. Go Penn State! Check me out on Facebook.
So I’m not going to die alone and men will always be interested. Mom tells me, and I know that’s true. I also know that it might be months before I date again.
There’s life after herpes. That’s what all the websites and chat rooms say, anyway. They say it, and scream it, and demand it, and pound it home again, and again, and again. “It’s just a rash!” Or, “What’s with the stigma? Nearly 1 in 6 adults 18 to 50 have it!” Or, “Someone can live with somebody who has herpes and never catch it!” There’s advice about how to give “the talk” to a new partner; how if a guy really cares he’ll hang in.
I find no comfort. Not yet, at least.
Dylan went down on me. That’s how I got it, or that’s what I suspect because with herpes, you can never be sure. My boyfriend before Dylan, Mickey, told me that he had it and we were careful. But condoms are not foolproof with herpes, and they’re not always handy, either. It can lay dormant for years, too. And before Mickey and Dylan there were other boyfriends, other sex. So, I really don’t know. Mine is HSV-1. The cold soar one, supposedly the easier of the two, except it didn’t only fester in my mouth.
Hell begins with a couple of blisters down south. This was two weeks after Dylan did me. (That’s why I think it’s him, not Mickey.) I freaked, told myself it was an allergy. Three days later, sores everywhere. I couldn’t pee, sleep or walk. It felt like someone was stabbing me in the crotch, while scrubbing with Brillo and acid. We’re talking a world of pain.
Went to the doc. I could barely open my legs, but he had to insert a speculum to swab. I screamed and cried on the table. Begged him to stop. He couldn’t finish because I was hurting so bad. He then had to scrape one of the sores to get cells for testing. I looked deep into the examination light as if it was the sun. I wanted to go blind, black out. The doc started me on Valtrex right away. And know what the second definition of speculum is?—a beautiful bright patch on the wings of certain birds.
Dylan is that beautiful bright patch. We met about a month before at a frat party. Lots of guys hit on me. It’s flattering when it’s not annoying. I was with my friends and Mickey and I had just ended and I didn’t even want to be bothered. Then this tall, dark-haired gorgy comes up and, though a bit overwhelmed, I have my “no thanks” ready. But he sings, and that’s it. Beautiful. It was that line from the Abbey Road suite.
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
During hell-day, I’d texted him a couple times that something was wrong, but didn’t get into details. When he came over that night, he rubbed my shoulders as I wept. Then he knelt before me, as if he might produce a ring.
“Babe, whatever it is, we can get through this.”
And that’s when I told him. He blinked. Slowly. He’s processing, I thought. This is heavy. He needs time. Dylan had a study group, but he’d be back and we’d have a long talk about not just surviving, mind you, but thriving. He loved me. “Don’t you forget that,” he said.
I waited, paced, cried, and finally fell asleep hours later. Yep, he ghosted. Texts not answered. Calls ignored. His friends had no idea where he was.
“Please tell him I asked for him. Brenda.”
I left Penn State a few days later, right during finals. Most of my professors understood— I told them my appendix burst—and dropped the last exams from my average (which is good because I was so emotionally fucked up I couldn’t take them anyway). One prof wants me to write a term paper for a grade. I am working on it, but it’s hard even reading a sentence, let alone writing one.
“You’re distracted,” Bill Doyle now says.
I am. The shrink calls them racing thoughts. How can you “be here now” when there’s an incredible 3-D television show playing non-stop in your head? There are scenes: the sex, the discovery, the exam, the betrayal. At night, sometimes, I dream of happy endings: no herpes, just an allergic reaction and a warning that I really need to be careful next time. But my life’s still normal! I am normal! Then I wake.
“Want me to clean this mess?” I ask Bill. There are clippings from newspapers and magazines on the corner of the coffee table. Some official looking documents, too. Also some photos, a few trinkets.
Bill says, “Believe it or not, I have a system. I have been putting this off for….” I don’t hear the rest because I see a quote cut from a magazine, large white block letters against a black background.
“Bill, can I use your bathroom?”
“You have to ask?”
I am there in three strides, close the door, bend over the sink. I cry, and I’m hoping that the old overhead fan rat-a-tat-tat’s me cover.
I think, “Fucking right sex is dangerous. OK. Breathe. It’s not cancer. It’s not something that’s going to kill you. You didn’t lose a limb. You have a life ahead of you that’s going to be beautiful and you will be loved.”
But those fucking testimonials. Or, I should say, those testimonials about fucking. So many women say it hurts to have sex even years after the first outbreak. And so many guys will pull a Dylan. Girls, it seems, are more likely to hang in there for a boy with the virus. Surprise! Surprise!
“I don’t want to live like this.”
I was stupid enough to say that to Mom.
“Yes, and Uncle Jack didn’t want to die of pancreatic cancer. And my friend Anne didn’t want to get beheaded in a car accident. And your buddy Judy’s father didn’t want to drop dead of a heart attack at 45.”
“Stop! Stop! Stop!”
A sharp knock.
Breathe. Easy. Breathe.
“Splenda? You OK?”
“I’ll be out in a second, Bill.”
Weight shifts from one foot to the other. He’s considering.
“I’m going to the living room,” he says.
He backs off.
Part of the Food for Friends program involves sitting and talking to the lonely old people. I wonder just who Bill Doyle is organizing his nicknacks for? He has a sister and the sister has grandchildren.
When he goes, Bill Doyle’s life will be stuffed in a big plastic container you buy at Lowe’s and shipped to one of those grandchildren. A cursory rummage on the first day in which some things might be set aside. But going through it systematically will be a project somebody’s always meaning to get to. Eventually, the container will be taken out with the trash, and that will truly be the end of Bill Doyle.
Is that my life? Herpes is the STD joke that never gets old because it stays forever. In Bill’s bathroom, I sit on the toilet seat and bury my head in my hands. I want to get the hell back to my bed and curl. Mom will let me for a day or two. I did it for the whole week I got home. The shrink says it’s a process, and the urge to fetal will return for the first few years.
“Well, it’s back,” I think. “I want to go.”
When I come out, though, I change my mind. Just seeing Bill with his platter on his lap: There’s something weirdly Norman Rockwellish about it and the flight urge sputters like a car thrown into neutral. I feel safe, like I never felt in church, when they talk about basking in God’s love or the spirit moving you. I don’t know if I believe any of that any more. Maybe I never really did. I only know that while I need Mom and Dad and my sister, I also need someone like Bill. Someone who isn’t aware of my situation, but who has seen a lot: war, divorce, the ups and downs of working. I take a seat in the barcalounger.
Turns out Bill is subtle. He doesn’t look at me, just lets me be for a few seconds. He’s focusing on his food and I can’t tell whether that’s real or a pose or a bit of both.
“Me and my boyfriend broke up,” I say.
“Is he gay?”
“No, Bill. Not gay. Me and Dylan, it just fizzled.”
“As these things will.”
I cry again, not as intense as in the bathroom but still, this is getting old. I can tell he wants to walk over, pat me on the shoulder but he can’t. Maybe he’s frightened that I’d run, or he’s read too many stories about sexual harassment lawsuits. Finally, Bill sighs and leans back, and I see the photograph he’s holding. It looks 1990s. Red-headed woman with an athlete’s smile.
“Your ex?” I ask.
Tick, toc. Tick, toc. Tick, toc. Goes the clock. I notice that sound in so many old people’s houses. An insistent frittering. Bill looks at the photo, his lips move.
I say: “If it bothers you….”
“It troubles me. It troubles me night and day, and every minute of every day. It will trouble me until the big dirt nap. It’s the fog that won’t scatter, it’s the cloud forever hiding moonlight.”
I shudder. Damn, this is Bill Doyle talking like a poet. Outside afternoon begins to cede to winter dusk, layering the apartment in shade. I pull a chain, turn on a lamp. Bill does the same.
“Don’t tell then, Mr. D,” I say, lifting myself out of it. What the hell could it be?
“No, maybe I will, Splenda. Been years since I told anyone. Who knows if I’ll ever tell it again?”
I step into the kitchen, put the pot on. Fix two cups. I’m getting my caffeine. Then I lean against the archway, arms folded, telling Bill about some of the other parishioners, not that there’s much to tell and not that I even know that much. The whistle sounds and I fix our teas. I put Bill’s on the coffee table (it’s a good sized table, can’t you tell?) and cozy on the barco with my cup. Tell me a bedtime story. Quiet that lasts for maybe a basketball minute that doesn’t want to run out.
Bill Doyle leans over, places the empty plate on the table. Appetite—good, I’ll report. He sits back with a groan.
“Let’s see, in 1999 I was 55-years-old. Year 2000 closing in. Big moment in history. I’d moved into the area and wanted to do something with my life besides work and watch TV. Just getting through a not-so-good relationship. Told myself that’s fine with me. I can get used to living alone.”
He gestures to the surroundings, photo still in hand. Then, he lays the picture on his lap in a way that reminds me of someone about to do magic.
“I met Rachel when we were organizing a Night at the Races, proceeds to go to cancer research. Rachel was always involved in some charity. Always doing for others, that one. I started working other charities, as well. Clothing drives, food drives,” he motions to his plate. “She was also big on saving animals. Loved her two Irish setters: Pepper and Ben. They were her babies. You know how some women can get about their pets.”
Mr. D didn’t participate in every charity that Rachel was in, but their paths crossed often. It started as friendship. Just two people who enjoyed each other’s company and besides, Rachel was married. They shared interests. Turns out that Bill was also outdoorsy: kayaking, skiing, hiking, and biking. Always on the go, the two of them. Just friends. Nothing was happening. Nothing. And nothing was ever going to happen, until something happened. Why? Why always, with these things? Rachel’s marriage? Meh. Rachel and her husband had grown too accustomed to one another. They’d become roommates. I can imagine a younger Bill, tall, dark and a little dangerous. He’d get the ladies’ attention.
“We finally admitted our feelings,” Bill said.
This was over hot chocolate at an ice skating rink. A few flakes dusted the late afternoon, and holiday melodies floated unevenly above the scene, the sound of slashing blades taking over during pauses in the Muzak. They held hands, looking out at the showoffs and rail-huggers. Just that. Hands. But they knew.
“It wasn’t physical!” Bill insists. “We agreed that it wouldn’t be physical until she separated from her husband. That was the moral way. We wanted to be moral. She was unhappy. Don’t two people have a right to happiness?”
He spreads his hands, appealing to growing shadows.
“It must have been hard,” I say. For the first time since the diagnosis the racing thoughts slow, thrashing lazily in eddies of my mind. They’ll be back, I’m sure, but I am thankful for the reprieve. I wasn’t thinking about Dylan, or herpes, or that fucking term paper.
“That part wasn’t hard,” Bill says. “I mean, I’d just about given up on finding someone. My divorce and latest breakup were brutal. Love cuts deep. I learned how to live on my own. I had friends, but they really can’t fill that hole.”
“So Rachel decides to leave her husband?”
“The marriage is dead, Splenda. Even Rick admitted it a few times. That was hard, those talks she had with him. We thought it might be easier on him that we weren’t physical. At first he said he really didn’t give a shit. Even he agreed that they’d flamed out years ago.”
“Did you two ever meet?”
“Me and Rick? No. That would be throwing gasoline on it.”
“And he was OK with it.”
“Well, no. He got less OK as things progressed,” Bill said.
“As me and Rachel started making plans. To move in together. To share our lives. We really fit. We knew we had a good thing, and a last chance for happiness.”
Bill had been staring ahead like a trauma patient, but now looks at me as if he’s getting up from a nap.
“Strange that you say it that way, Splenda.”
“Like you’re my age, instead of a young beauty with her whole life ahead of her.”
“You’re making me blush, Mr. D.”
“That’ll be the day.”
He looked at Rachel’s photograph again, shook his head.
“That day,” he repeated. “That day. That. Day.”
It was my turn to stay quiet, and I did, except for the sound made by crossing my feet at the ankles. His forehead drooped a bit to rendezvous with the tips of his thumbs.
“Only a few people knew about us,” he said, on a long exhale. “Rachel’s friend called me. That’s how I found out. I was driving home from church. ‘Is this Bill?’ ‘Who’s this?’ ‘Sally….’ Whatever her name was. I forget. She just tells me. ‘I have horrible news.’ I put my blinkers on, pulled over. Rick went crazy. Bought a gun. Killed Rachel, Pepper and Ben. Then, himself. The neighbors heard, but it was too late, of course.”
He hides his face. His big shoulders shake, but he makes no sound. He’d cried himself out over this years ago. He looks at me, a glance really, and then reproachfully at his big bricklayer hands, as if they’d somehow let him down. I go over, rub his back.
“Mr. D,” I say. “Bill, I am so sorry.”
“If it wasn’t for me….”
“You can’t think like that,” I say, going back to the barco. But, actually, I am thinking like that. Rachel could be alive even now if the two of them hadn’t made that decision. Bill had crossed a line.
He says: “‘You can’t think like that.’ So people have said that all these years. Shrinks. Friends. Ministers. Yet, I do think like that. How can I not think like that? That wasn’t like me, anyway. Going after a married woman. Call me corny, but I do believe in the sanctity of marriage.”
“You fell in love.”
“The marriage was dead, but it wasn’t buried.”
“You fell in love.”
“I take no comfort.”
I feel my age again. I am 22. What wisdom do I have for this old man? I sure as hell am not going to tell him what I’ve been through.
“Oh, look!” I say, pointing out the window. Snow. “I didn’t know this was going to happen.”
I smile, look over at Bill. The corner of the old man’s mouth move as if straining to lift the crumbs that had settled there, and a smile is molded. We watch the cotton candy float by. I expect Bill to say what he always says: “Those weather gals don’t know shit.” But the scene enraptures him; he’s struck silent.
So am I.
The flakes are too big for it to last long, but let’s see the show. I jump up, go over and pull the shades even higher. Behind the falling white the future lurks like unspent memory. I imagine myself, many, many years from now, living in this apartment. Waiting. Am I waiting for death? Hell, no. I’ve got more important things to do, like make hot chocolate for the grandkids. My son called an hour ago and they’ll be here any minute.