Pleasure Palace

We’re not going anywhere, Jordan said. Not in 2 years, or 20. We’re just going to hang around forever enjoying our pleasure palace.

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It took me a while to realize it, but the quality of the construction job in my fabulous new bathroom began to deteriorate as soon as the contractor broke up with his lover, who happened to be my hairdresser. Stuart had been doing my hair ever since Jordan and I moved to Long Island, and he was the one who set me up with Ron when he heard that I was in the market for a contractor. I’d been putting off the construction for months, though originally Jordan and I had planned on a starting date of July 1. On April 13, Jordan died of a cerebral hemorrhage that had left him brain-dead, lingering in a coma for six days. The hemorrhage was caused by the cancer that had tormented him for a year and a half, but it came as a complete surprise to everyone, including the squad of doctors on the case. The truth was that, from the start, none of them had been particularly optimistic, but I never did tell Jordan, thinking the knowledge wouldn’t have been the least bit helpful to him.

He was 34 years old when he died; we’d been married for 12 years and had been in love for even longer than that, since high school.

The last time I saw him conscious, only hours before he disappeared into the coma, he was sitting up in his hospital bed enjoying smoked turkey and Dijon mustard on a croissant. Crumbs littered the bedclothes, and if we’d been home, I would have gone after them with the Dustbuster. But since he was in the hospital (recuperating from a low white count that resulted from his chemo treatments), I just let them stay where they’d fallen.

Jordan was looking pretty good: his bald head was wrapped in a dark-blue-and-white bandanna, and the little gold earring in his left ear (I’d pierced it myself with a cork and a sewing needle) gleamed beautifully. He looked like a person who led an exciting life — a rock star or a pirate, maybe. (In fact, he was a lecturer in the art history department of a local college and would have been an assistant professor if only he’d finished his dissertation.) After the second cycle of chemo, he lost every bit of his thick, unruly dirty-blond hair. It fell out in handfuls in the shower over a period of about two weeks, and one day there was nothing left. Jordan was depressed, but not too depressed, because he’d been told it would all grow back — maybe even thicker and more beautiful than before, maybe even a different color, but in any event, it would grow back. At least that’s what they told him. What they didn’t know, of course, was that he wouldn’t live long enough for any of it.

That last night, as he sat up in bed with his smoked turkey sandwich, his fingers occasionally went to his temples, which he rubbed in an absent way.

“Headache?” I said after the third or fourth time I saw him do this.

“Umm.”

“Want to ask the nurse for some Tylenol?”

“Nope. I can live with it.”

We gossiped for several minutes about some friends of ours and the problems they were having with their severely dyslexic son, and then the talk turned to the new bathroom. It was going to be a pleasure palace — large as a generous-sized master bedroom, with a skylight, a Jacuzzi, a new toilet that flushed silently, track lighting, a small bookcase loaded with favorite paperbacks. All the fixtures were going to be black and the floor an imported black-and-white tile that cost a small fortune. The new bathroom would transform our home from a three-bedroom to a two-bedroom, and everyone said that just wasn’t good business sense. What if we decided to sell in a couple of years? Who’d want to buy a two-bedroom house?

What if, what if, what if? I said.

We’re not going anywhere, Jordan said. Not in 2 years, or 20. We’re just going to hang around forever enjoying our pleasure palace.

“I want heat lamps in the dressing area outside the shower,” he told me that last night. “I hate standing there shivering in a towel.”

“Me too,” I said.

His fingers flew to his temples again and again and I went out and got one of the nurses. Jordan swallowed down the two Tylenol caplets and lay back against the pillows. I sat by the bed in a salmon-colored plastic chair, holding his warm hand. As soon as he fell asleep, I left, though often, during his countless hospital stays, I’d remain awhile longer, sometimes breaking down and weeping with frustration, self-pity, hopelessness, studying the beloved planes of his face. That night, though, I walked away from him without having done any of that, dropping a kiss on his cheekbone and hurrying out, as if I had something better to do than watch over him. I did, in fact, have a headache of my own, which was probably why I wasn’t particularly troubled by his.

In the elevator, a husky little kid of about 5 or 6 and his mother — the only other passengers on board — gave me the once-over. The kid was holding a black plastic box about the size of a small camera, ornamented with a row of neon-green plastic buttons. He pressed one of them and there was the electronic sound of a phone ringing.

“Answer the phone,” he said to me. When I didn’t respond, he said, “Answer it!”

“Hello,” I said. “Wrong number.”

The kid smiled and pressed another button. The sound of bombs dropping filled the elevator, and my headache worsened. Then the phone rang again and the kid said, “It’s for you.”

“She has a headache and can’t come to the phone right now,” I said. I stared at his mother, a weary-looking, overweight woman in a lavender sweatsuit and matching basketball sneakers. I wondered if it was her husband she’d been visiting and if, like me, she routinely wept every night before going to sleep.

“Really,” I said. “I really do have a headache.”

“Turn it off, Michael Isaac Markowitz,” the boy’s mother said. “Now.”

“You suck,” he said amiably enough, and I understood it might have been me he was talking to.

 

When Jordan had been in a coma for three days, the sweetest of the handful of doctors assigned to his case took me aside in an empty waiting room and told me that my husband could be taken off the respirator and allowed to die peacefully just as soon as he passed a couple of tests.

“The EEG shows a bit of residual brain activity,” he said, his voice whispery. “But that’s normal after a massive brain hemorrhage like this one. As far as I’m concerned, he’s brain-dead, but we’ve got to have a completely flat EEG on two consecutive readings before we can let him go. If you want to let him go, of course.”

“I do,” I said, because I knew that was what Jordan wanted. He was already gone anyway — every time I went into his room to hold his swollen, waxy-looking fingers, to watch the slow rise and fall of his chest, to murmur into his deaf ears, I could see that he’d left me for good.

“But of course I have to talk with his mother first,” I said. “Simply out of courtesy. You know.”

“Absolutely,” said the doctor. We both looked down at our shoes, as if they were objects of great fascination, and then I began to weep, but very quietly. The doctor, who was about my age, opened his arms to me, and I leaned into them without hesitation. He had a good thick head of dark-brown hair, and more than anything I wanted to thread my fingers through it, to savor the feel of a man who wasn’t dying. Slowly my hands rose up from his shoulders, but I caught myself in time.

“God, I’m going to hate being single,” I heard myself say as I drew back from him. It seemed astonishing that I was capable of saying such a thing and yet there was the doctor nodding his head in agreement and sympathy.

“Your husband was an extremely cool guy,” he said. “Very intelligent and funny and …” His voice lost energy and trailed off. He looked away from me at a stack of outdated news magazines arranged haphazardly on an end table, at squashed soda cans, and Styrofoam coffee cups marked with lipstick stains left behind by somebody’s distracted family.

“And what?”

“And life is shitty.”

“Thank you,” I said, because it was, at that moment, utterly gratifying to hear the simple mean truth.

 

The bathroom now has two entrances: one leading from my bedroom, the other out in the hallway. I walk unannounced from the bedroom and find the contractor staring up at the skylight, at the snow that is drifting down so lightly upon it. The room reeks of a recently smoked joint, and a portable tape player is blasting the lyrics “I sell sex and can-dy.” Stepping over a ladder resting on its side, I turn down the music and frown in Ron’s direction.

“What’s up, Ron?” I say.

“Oh, stuff and junk,” he tells me. He’s tall and pale and a little too skinny; he’s wearing cream-colored overalls and a black cap with “Beastie Boys” emblazoned across the visor. “It’s snowing,” he says in amazement.

“I wish you wouldn’t smoke pot on the job. It just strikes me as kind of ­irresponsible.”

“Well, we all need to mellow out now and then, you know?” Ron says lamely.

I take his hand and lead him to the drop cloth spread out in the center of the room. “Let’s sit down and talk.”

“We are talking.”

“Sit,” I say, and give him a little push. “I had my hair permed a couple of weeks ago and while I was there I—”

“Oh yeah? It looks good. Makes you look kind of relaxed and freaky.”

“And while I was there,” I continue, “I heard from Stuart that the two of you had decided to go your separate ways.”

Ron’s head droops, and with his fingertips he draws swirling shapes on the drop cloth, one after the other. “You heard wrong — he decided, not me. He met some lawyer at a Smashing Pumpkins concert in the city, and now it turns out he wants to marry her.”

“He what?”

“I know,” Ron says. “It’s incredible, isn’t it. And who could believe in these dangerous times that a woman would even take a chance with someone like him. But he was married once before, years ago. He even has a kid who’s a teenager now and living with his mother somewhere on the West Coast.”

I can feel Stuart’s capable fingers neatly rolling my hair onto thin plastic rods, can hear the confident, satisfying click of the scissors as he thins my bangs into something feathery. He came to Jordan’s funeral in a beautiful dark suit, his hair moussed back proudly. When he kissed me, I inhaled the scents of his cologne and mousse and face moisturizer, and nearly swooned.

It’s beyond belief to me that there could be a wife in his past, and one in his future.

“I’m so sorry,” I tell Ron. But really I’m not; frankly, I don’t give a shit one way or the other. Because my grief is purer, sharper, more deeply felt. After all, I’m the widow here; the love of my life has been transformed into ash and chips of bone while Ron’s heartthrob is alive and kicking and heading back to the altar for another shot at it. Call me crazy, but the sympathy vote goes straight to me. And furthermore, I win by a landslide. So cry me a river, Ron, baby, I tell him silently.

Sighing, he lights a cigarette with trembly hands. “I’m the enemy,” he says. “He’s the guilty one, dumping me without even an apology, but I’m the enemy for making him feel guilty. He told me he won’t forgive me for that, and that now he isn’t sure he ever loved me at all.”

“No way.”

Ron lets out a thin trail of white smoke and begins to cough; tears leak from his eyes. “We were so happy together. You can’t imagine how happy we were.”

Wanna bet? The loss of my nearly perfect jewel of a marriage pierces me cruelly now. I’ve lost too much — love, friendship, romance, passion, sex. The sight of Jordan’s long narrow almost-pretty feet hanging over the edge of the bed in early morning. The feel of his mouth against the side of my neck. The sound of his voice over the phone. The sloppy heap of his pajamas and bath towel waiting outside the shower door. It seems no credit to me, but merely a fluke that I’ve survived these losses. Just a few days ago, going through the top drawer of Jordan’s dresser, determined to throw out everything that was still left, I found myself holding his contact lenses in my palm. Weightless, nearly invisible, entirely worthless. Tenderly, I replaced them in their plastic case, as if they were heirlooms.

Raising my head now, I look around in my pleasure palace, at the graceful black sink and matching toilet, at the deep-set Jacuzzi, its chrome hardware dazzling, at the well-placed window that overlooks my snow-covered lawn. Cartons of tile stand in disorder against one wall, and Ron’s tools litter the floor. I get up to examine the shelving he made for towels and supplies of soap and shampoo. The boards are unevenly cut and haven’t been planed to a smooth finish. The track lighting has been installed carelessly, at a peculiar angle. And the door that leads out into the hallway, I notice, falls about an inch and a half too short of the floor.

“What’s going on, Ron?” I say, as if it’s all a mystery to me.

“What?”

“Your work was so professional at the beginning,” I tell him. “But it’s clear your heart’s not in it anymore.”

“Look, I’m doing the best I can,” he says irritably.

“You’re coasting,” I say. “Just getting by.”

“Just getting by,” he agrees, surprising me. “I wake up in the morning and I think, ‘I can’t do this.’ I can barely brush my teeth. I stand there in front of the mirror with the toothbrush in my hand and I can hear Stuart telling me in a stranger’s voice that it’s possible that in the three years we were together he never loved me at all. And just like that he’s gone from my life and I’m nowhere. I’m not even in this room with you,” Ron informs me. “I don’t know where the hell I am.”

I’m so angry now, I want to shake Ron until he goes limp. Do you realize who you’re talking to, you miserable little self-pitying sad sack? I want to tell him. Go cry on someone else’s shoulder, buddy. But then it hits me that maybe by a wild stretch of the imagination I’m the lucky one here, that although there’s an excruciating absence of love in my life, a deep hollow I’m almost always aware of, at least I know for sure that Jordan was mine until that very last moment before he slipped away in his hospital bed littered with sandwich crumbs.

 

Keeping watch at Jordan’s bedside an hour or so before they took him off the respirator, his mother and I could only make small talk. When we ran out of that, we fell into a miserable silence.

I fixed my gaze on Natalie as she touched her brightly powdered cheek against Jordan’s ashy one. Sixtyish, her hair dyed white-blond, she was overdressed for the occasion in a pink silk suit and pearls, which she fingered incessantly. Her lashes were mascaraed, and her mouth was ­polished with lipstick that matched her suit. For whose benefit, I wondered. Hers? Mine? Her comatose son’s?

Natalie let go of her pearls and went after a thread on her skirt.

“I bet that suit spends half its life in the dry cleaners,” I said. I jammed my hands into the back pockets of my jeans and came up with two sticks of gum. “Would you like a piece?” I offered.

“What’s that, wintergreen?” said Natalie suspiciously. “I hate wintergreen.”

“It’s Winterfresh,” I said. “It has nothing to do with wintergreen.”

“That’s what you think.”

“Well, at least it’s not spearmint.”

“Actually, I like spearmint,” said Natalie. “But every time I chew gum I get a headache, so what’s the point?”

I slipped the gum back into my pocket.

Sighing, Natalie put out a manicured hand. “You might as well give me a piece anyway. I’ll get rid of it as soon as I feel a headache coming on.”

“Well, you can never be too careful,” I said.

We chewed our Winterfresh discreetly. “Jordan’s in ­Acapulco,” my mother-in-law announced after a moment, already loony with grief, her voice oddly animated, enthusiastic, even.

“Pardon me?”

“Oh, he’s not here. He’s in Acapulco, lying on the beach with the sun in his eyes.”

“Acapulco,” I said. “Of course.” Leading her away from the bed, I laced my arms around her soft fleshy back and felt her face tip clumsily against my shoulder. “Acapulco,” I murmured. Jordan and I had been there several times over the years, enjoying the sharp blue water beautifully surrounded by mountains, the ferocious sun that appeared without fail every morning, the wild, bumpy rides in speedboats, the unhurried trips in glass-bottomed ones, the wet, pebbly sand under our feet at the water’s edge. It was true that we’d taken pleasure in those things. That our life together had been filled with many pleasures.

“Don’t you just feel a hundred percent better knowing he’s in Acapulco?” Natalie persisted. “Don’t you?”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what she wanted to hear. Jordan was Natalie’s only son, her only child, in fact; her husband was long gone. The loss she was about to endure might very well prove too much for her, I thought, sending her over the edge and into some hellish place that I didn’t even want to contemplate. She and I had recently become pretty good buddies in the way that soldiers in a foxhole together might, but I was unnerved at the prospect of the two of us clinging fast to each other in the weeks and months to come; I could see us fixed in a weepy embrace forever, our lives stagnant as the air in a parked car on a sweltering afternoon. What I felt there in the hospital room just before Jordan’s death was an extraordinary, overpowering selfishness. And so when the nurse squeaked into the room in her Nikes to tell us she was ready to start the procedure, I backed away from Natalie and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” she said, sounding terrified.

“I can’t stay here,” I told her. “It’s like I’d be witnessing an execution.”

I could hear Natalie sucking in her breath at the word execution; perhaps she understood exactly what I meant. But a moment later she said, “That’s crazy. How can you even think of ­leaving him alone?”

Marla, our favorite of all the nurses, years younger than I was and very pregnant with her first child, squeezed my shoulder. “Some family members prefer it that way,” she told Natalie. “But I’m sorry, you can’t stay in the room while I’m … working in here.”

Impulsively, I reached out a hand and placed it on Marla’s hard, taut stomach. I felt a couple of good swift kicks and Marla’s smile upon me. For years Jordan and I had been ambivalent about having children; when at last we decided to go ahead and give it a try, we learned that I had all sorts of problems that would have required surgery and more surgery, and so we’d agreed to forget it. Now, of course, I wished I’d been braver, wiser, more resolute. If we’d had children, there would have been something left for Natalie to hold on to as well.

Examining her stricken face, I apologized out loud for having failed in the grandchildren department.

“Oh, Lizzy,” she said, and I caught her in my arms as she fell hard against me.

“Take a ride with me,” I told her. “We’ll drive down to the water and … ” And what? I was going to make my escape, but the truth was, I had no plans at all.

“I couldn’t,” Natalie said. “I have to stay here till it’s over. But you go. I’ll see you back at the house, I guess.”

“Would you like me to call and let you know the time of death?” Marla asked me. “It may take a few hours. Or less. Everyone’s different.”

I’ve got a better idea. Would you like to trade lives with me? You give me your husband and your baby and I’ll give you nada. Zip. Zippo. Zilch. Deal?

Marla looks horrified.

Can’t say that I blame her.

I kissed Jordan on the mouth, my lips unintentionally brushing against the plastic tubing of the respirator that snaked from his mouth and behind his shoulder. “Who knows if I can live without you,” I murmured. “Or even if I want to give it a try.” My hands lingered along the bones of his skull that lay under the bandanna; lifting my fingertips from him for the very last time seemed the most terrible thing I had ever had to bear. There was a crushing pain in my chest, and it occurred to me that I was having a heart attack and would die right there on the floor beside his bed. This seemed a good thing, maybe even something I had willed. But then there I was walking from the room, down a long, waxed, linoleum aisle, past nurses at their stations monitoring the vital signs of the living and the dying and sipping from cans of Diet Coke and joking around with their lovers and husbands on the phone.

Driving home in a trance, I stopped instinctively at red lights, accelerating when they turned green, but seeing and hearing nothing. The pain in my chest subsided and I realized the obvious, that it was only that my heart had turned to glass and shattered soundlessly against the solid wall of my grief.

I walked up two flights of steps to the attic, which we’d redone as a den of sorts before Jordan got sick. The hardwood floor was pickled white and there was a pair of chrome and leather Breuer chairs positioned across the room from a top-of-the-line CD player and a large-screen TV. A triangular window overlooked the Long Island Sound below, and I stood by it and watched the sun set, watched as spectacular bands of crimson and deep blue marked the sky. A cluster of anchored boats remained visible as a full glittery moon and a luminous spray of stars appeared. The phone rang on a little table behind me, instantly raising goosebumps all along the path from my wrists to my shoulders. I should have been prepared, but of course I wasn’t. Something bitter rose in my throat and I began to choke on it, coughing uncontrollably as the phone went on ringing. After a while the answering machine in my bedroom picked up and I imagined the sound of Marla’s voice carefully announcing the precise moment at which Jordan had taken leave of this earth.

There were friends I could call, and my sister in New Orleans, my father in Fort Lauderdale. And of course there was Natalie, who would be putting in an appearance at any moment, a woman deprived of absolutely everything, including hope. But I preferred to be here alone in the darkness of my attic.

 

“Will you get a grip, please,” I advise Ron now. My voice rises unpleasantly. “Tell your sob story somewhere else. How about a chat room on the internet?”

Ron looks at me in astonishment. “You of all people,” he scolds. “You—”

“That’s right,” I say, and then I clam up, saving my breath. But he already knows the worst of it, that I’m running on empty; there’s nothing left for anyone but me.

“Listen, I swear to God, I don’t know which end is up anymore,” Ron confesses.

“Go home,” I tell him. “Come back to work when you’re feeling up to it and not a minute sooner.”

 

In the evening, after a hot, leisurely bath, I gaze out through my skylight. Loony as my mother-in-law, I watch the sky for signs that Jordan has, at last, arrived at some distant place, perhaps settling himself comfortably on a star as small as the Earth, or one infinitely larger, as great as the earth’s orbit.

 

From the Book Pleasure Palace: New and Selected Stories. Copyright © 2021 by Marian Thurm.
Reprinted by permission of Delphinium Books, Inc., Encino, California. All Rights Reserved.

Marian Thurm is the author of eight novels — most recently The Blackmailer’s Guide to Love — and five short story collections, including Today Is Not Your Day, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Narrative Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many other magazines and in numerous anthollogies, including  The Best American Short Stories.

This article appears in the September/October 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. I really liked this story, Ms. Thurm! At its core it’s about a wife losing her husband to cancer, yes, but it is so much more. People that you didn’t have to include, but did, giving it the kind of layers and richness I love. They also help the reader understand the wife’s sadness, anger and frustration with not only her husband dying, but the whole situation with these other people she’s also dealing with at the worst possible time.

    I love the honesty that at first she suppresses, but then takes a ‘to hell with it’ attitude, and says how she really feels. We go through that thought process with her, and understand (hopefully agreeing) with her decisions of what she said to her mother-in-law, and her construction worker Ron with his tale of lost love. Though sad and too bad, could hardly be compared to hers. In addition, his work for her had been slipping in quality lately.

    “Listen, I swear to God, I don’t know which end is up anymore,” Ron confesses. “Go home,” I tell him. “Come back to work when you’re feeling up to it. and not a minute sooner.” The writing here is real, and even during an argument, all is not lost when the parties involved get past their differences. Something very rare in these divided times of no agreement and forgiveness. The story has dark humor too, but it’s lightly done here. Highly recommend reading it. Thank you.

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