“Please, Britt,” she called out to him. “Do you mind slowing down? I’m feeling short of breath.”
Britt made a face, shook his head, and stopped until she caught up with him. Catherine felt a thin line of sweat running down from her wig.
“Is it straight?” she asked her husband.
He looked at it critically, with squinting eyes. “Yeah, it looks okay. A little more to the right.”
He made the adjustment himself. They started walking again, side by side.
“Feel better?” he asked out of the corner of his mouth, almost mumbling.
Britt was rarely affectionate, even toward their daughter, Sarah, a junior in high school. Though an excellent student, Sarah seemed abnormally desperate to attract boys. Catherine had caught her using Britt’s duct tape to prop up her breasts. When Catherine told him, all he could say was: “Tell her to stop stealing things out of my toolbox.”
Catherine knew that somewhere there was compassion in Britt. It hadn’t helped that he’d seen his mother, a staid Presbyterian, completely dominate his weak-willed, jovial father. Catherine had loved that old man. How many stilted family cookouts he’d saved with his jokes and tall tales, at least until his wife would shut him up. At an early age, Britt had sworn never to be like his henpecked father. At his funeral, Catherine saw Britt biting his trembling lips to keep from crying.
Catherine forced her arm through Britt’s. She could feel his discomfort but kept it there. A pair of sea mews wailed above them. Catherine looked up, saw them hover then pivot back out toward the twilit waves. She thought of those odd times when she really was thankful to Britt. He’d procured marijuana for her recently from the Jamaican handyman at Hardware World, where he purchased most of his supplies. Pot eased the nausea caused by the doxorubicin, among the most aggressive drugs in her chemo cocktail. And during that otherwise awful trip to Aruba, Britt had actually saved her from drowning, swimming toward her with his powerful body at great risk to himself.
“I didn’t know you cared, Britt,” she’d said after they reached the beach safely.
“You’re the mother of my child!” he’d said indignantly, looking at her in disbelief.
Still, she couldn’t forget how, whenever Britt accompanied her to chemo, he was always grumpy and seemed inconvenienced. He gave few, if any, words of comfort or sympathy. As for her home office duties, Britt was unforgiving there too. For years, Catherine had taken care of booking Britt’s appointments after her day job at the community college. He was awkward and short on the phone, she a model of pleasant customer service. One evening, after chemo, she asked him if he minded making the calls himself, just once.
“That’s your job,” he replied, “so hurry up and make those calls before you start throwing up.”
After all, she thought, another man would have divorced her after finding those letters.
But for Sarah, Catherine would have left her husband right there and then and run to Horacio’s studio.
Horacio was Cuban but had come to the United States as part of Operation Peter Pan. He never saw his family again, going from foster home to foster home. He was four years younger than Britt but short and pudgy, with a pronounced belly and a graying prickly beard that Catherine hated. He ate all the wrong foods—pork rinds, greasy hamburgers, and that repulsive brown, jiggling guava paste. He never exercised. (How was it that he never got cancer, Catherine thought bitterly one day when they’d had a spat.) His hair was always uncombed and scruffy, his old-fashioned paisley shirts none too clean, his breath garlicky. He taught painting at the same community college where Catherine worked in Admissions. Though she’d found him disgusting, the bold, raw way he had asked her to model for him in the nude had excited her.
Catherine had never met anyone like Horacio. She still lived in the small, close-knit central New Jersey suburb where she had been born. All of her best friends had grown up in the same town. She rarely even ventured to nearby Manhattan, and she had never been to Europe despite having a British mother, a cold, frugal Catholic widow. The cruise to Aruba was the extent of her foreign travel. Catherine’s father had died when she was barely six months old. At twenty Catherine had dreamed of moving to Manhattan and working as a waitress to support a freelance career in journalism. All of her English teachers had praised her talent for writing. Instead, she settled for a sensible job at the local FedEx office, where Britt worked as a delivery driver. They started dating and were married a year later.
While Catherine never did consent to be Horacio’s model, let alone sleep with him, their friendship developed into daily lunches at the college snack bar, walks around the pond behind the library, and visits to a nearby petting zoo, where he charmed her by talking to the animals in Spanish. “My own Saint Francis,” she called him. They began to e-mail each other at night. At first, the e-mails were mostly comparing memories of growing up in the ’60s. Gradually they became amorous, then erotic, acting out in words what Catherine would never consent to in “real” life. One day, Britt confronted her with reams of e-mails he’d discovered by using spyware. Catherine shuddered to remember how he had read aloud, with a twisted, mocking mouth, from one of her letters to Horacio:
“It is exciting to think of using butter as a lubricant. I get turned on just by the word, lubrication.”
Britt crumpled the printout in his huge fist.
Catherine swore that she had never acted upon any of these fantasies. She and Horacio were close friends, soul mates, but nothing more. (“Soul mates,” Britt had murmured, and she could tell he was withering inside.) She agreed to end the e-mails but not the friendship.
“Now you listen to me, Cath. You’ve got a daughter, a nice house, two dogs, a BMW, and a hot tub out on the deck. Are you going to give it all up? If I find any more e-mails, you’ll lose it all, and I’ll beat the shit out of that Spic, right in front of you.”
“You leave him alone. It’s more my fault than his. I promise: no more e-mails.” And she had kept to that. She knew that to this day Britt continued to monitor all of her e-mail activity. But she accepted it. After all, she thought, another man would have divorced her after finding those letters.