Going to Beautiful – Chapter One
Life was good. Until it wasn’t.
We’d had a big party for my fifty-fifth birthday, which led into Christmas and a promising New Year. We had no reason to believe the future would bring anything but good things. A small group of no more than thirty friends, colleagues, acquaintances, a few frenemies, and one or two strangers who’d accompanied the aforementioned, huddled in the centre of our living room that New Year’s Eve. Veuve Clicquot was thrust confidently toward the heavens as we cheered our successes. No one in that golden circle could have predicted the life-shattering day that was on its way. Life was good.
Until it wasn’t.
I caught a cold late-March. Nothing serious, though to hear me tell it I’d been felled by a plague, the severity of which had heretofore been unknown to mankind.
I rarely get sick, so when it happens, my first instinct is to deny, followed by irrational anger directed at the malady and vows to defeat it. Sickness is a battle and, as in life, I always fight to win, showing nary a sign of weakness.
It doesn’t always work out that way.
By mid-morning the snorting, coughing, croaking signs of weakness and my refusal to recognize them as such were driving my senior kitchen staff around the bend. When I caught myself nodding off in the produce cooler, where I’d convinced myself I was assessing inventory but in reality had sought out to relieve my fever, I reluctantly raised the white flag and dragged myself (or was I pushed?) home. With no memory of ever missing a day of work because of illness, this was quite obviously a sign of dark times. Or maybe just the flu, I dunno.
Adequately overmedicated and vibrating with alternating chills and fever, I exchanged my stylish daywear (always fit a little tight) for Saturday sweatpants (in which I never sweat) and a hoodie (with a hood I never use). I retreated to the spare bedroom where I gratefully crawled under a mountain of comforters, blankets and decorative pillows and disappeared into a haze of mindless, recuperative slumber.
Waking up several hours later, I judged myself still alive. Barely. I heard a faint tap-tap-tap on the bedroom door before it inched opened, letting in blazing shafts of cornea-torching hellfire (also known as dim lighting from the hallway). Despite my mentioning the hellfire thing in what was probably an unkind way, Eddie came in anyway. He gently lowered himself onto the edge of the bed and expressed concern. Lulu, our miniature French Bulldog, was markedly less empathetic. Having spent the entire day with Eddie at his atelier, she was vexed as to why I wasn’t greeting her return with the exuberance such a momentous event necessitated, especially after not seeing her all day. Assisted by Eddie onto the bed and grunting with the effort, she made short work of burrowing under the covers in search of an embargoed snausage. According to the vet, Lulu could stand to lose a few, but she knew I could always be counted on to have something special hidden in my pockets to ensure my standing as her favourite. I hated to disappoint her.
Eddie rubbed my arm. I saw his sweet smile and closed my eyes. A while later I felt his hand on my forehead, testing my temperature. I must have passed the test because he leaned in, kissed me where his hand had been, and whispered: “You’re going to be alright, my love.” I don’t remember either Eddie or Lulu leaving the room.
My next memory is of being awakened by the doorbell. How dare Eddie allow someone to use the doorbell when I was on my deathbed? I cursed the ruckus and made a mental note to begin divorce proceedings as soon as I was better. In the throes of another teeth-chattering chill, I scrunched into a fetal position, buried my head beneath the covers, and fell back asleep.
A couple of hours later (could have been months—who could tell?) I awoke knowing I could no longer put off a visit to the bathroom. Cringing at the strain of muscles seized from little use, and the shock of fevered flesh exposed to cool air, I forced myself out of bed, wrapping a protective blanket around me like a chrysalis. With great effort I opened the door to the outside world. I established by bearings, committed the route to the guest bathroom to memory, narrowed my eyes to slits, and set out. A couple of minutes later I was planning my return pilgrimage when I realized that in my end-of-days stupor I’d unwisely left my arsenal of medications in the kitchen. Maybe I’d done it on purpose, leaving the impressive pile of decongestants (oral and nasal), antihistamines, analgesics, antipyretics, cough suppressants, and expectorants on the gleaming granite counter for Eddie to see when he got home. A heap of pills was sure to elicit sympathy and vigilance. They might even inspire him to stock the fridge with mint chocolate ice cream for when I needed life-saving sustenance.
I tightened the blanket around me for the lengthy journey to the kitchen; I wasn’t convinced I’d make it.
It was dark, inside and out, but that didn’t tell me much. In March, the sun rises at 7:30 a.m. and sets at 7:30 p.m. It could be morning or night. Our apartment was on the top floor of a four-story building in a tony downtown Toronto neighbourhood, where top floor living always costs a mint, no matter if it’s the fourth floor or forty-fourth. The place was generously sized, which is swell until you’re sick and the voyage from bedroom to kitchen is tortuously long. If somehow I survive, I swore to myself, we are moving. We’d find a place with bedrooms adjacent to the kitchen, or better yet, with a bed right in the kitchen.
Halfway there, I fell against a floor-to-ceiling window, luxuriating in the coolness of the glass against my sizzling cheek. I considered stripping down and plastering my naked body against the pane, but just the thought set my teeth to chattering. If I was going to make it back to bed before daybreak, I had to keep moving.
In the kitchen, I found my stash of meds, swallowed some, downed two glasses of water and checked the freezer for mint chocolate. Disappointed, I set out on my return death march, propelled only by the promise of a warm bed. That was when I noticed it. A flickering light. It was coming from the other side of the sliding glass door that separates the living room from our expansive outdoor terrace, the feature that had clinched the deal when we first toured the place.
I glanced at the microwave. 10:15 p.m. Now I knew. It was night. I took a shaky step towards the light.
Wait a second, I thought, seized by fear, isn’t this what happens when you’re dying?
Was I dying? Did I feel compelled to step into the light? Had I taken too many drugs?
I checked for a pulse. Seemed strong enough.
It was too early for Eddie to have gone to bed, yet there was no sign of him or Lulu in the apartment. Could he be out there? On the balcony? At night? In March? The weather had been unseasonably warm that week. Sometimes when that happened, we’d bundle up in the matching hand-knit Aran sweaters we’d brought back from Ireland, prepare brandy-spiked hot chocolates, crank up the space heaters and make good use of that goddamned balcony which had led us into temptation, and a ridiculous mortgage. With fragrant steam wafting off our boozy drinks, our noses reddening, our breath dancing in the air, we’d cuddle up on the couch, giggle and laugh and pretend we were two burly fishermen who’d found love on the Irish moors, or some such nonsense.
They had to be out there. Satisfied with the explanation for the flickering light and convinced I wasn’t dying (just yet) I turned and headed for bed before the Nyquil kicked in. I was halfway down the hallway when that itty bit of rationality still lurking in my congested head told me to stop. Eddie would be worried about me. He was sweet that way. As a good husband, I should poke my head outside and announce my status as still breathing. I owed him that much. Even if he hadn’t bought me ice cream.
With the blanket wound tightly about me, I did the geisha-walk from hallway to balcony door. The first thing I noticed through the glass was Lulu frantically pawing at it. She wanted inside. That was unusual. She loved Eddie and was always content in his company. Was she out there alone? Had he somehow forgotten her out there and gone to bed after all? Weird. Lulu was not an outside dog, even when outside meant a recently remodeled “fresh air living space” (a term coined by our interior designer who detested the term balcony, which she thought sounded too basic).
I strained to see out but saw no sign of Eddie.
I slid open the door. Lulu rushed inside, shooting me a belittling look as she passed by on her way for parts unknown. From this vantage point, most of my view was blocked by a wall of preserved reindeer moss. I stepped onto the balcony, grimacing as my bare feet made contact with the cold floor. Aggressive night air searched for ways to infiltrate my blanket wrap. It was quiet. Too quiet. I’d recently curated a fresh air living space playlist that Eddie seemed to enjoy. We rarely spent time out there without it.
I stepped past the reindeer moss. The light I’d seen from the kitchen was coming from a statuesque liquid lava lamp which, according to the same designer, we could not live without. It used smoke and laser beams and probably some sort of artificial intelligence to create abstract lighting that could be adjusted for intensity and motion to suit whatever ambiance you were going for. Much to Eddie’s chagrin, I regularly made fun of the ridiculous thing in front of guests. Secretly I loved it. Judging by the undulating dark greens and blues washing over the balcony, Eddie had chosen something apt for fretting about my well-being. But where was he? Despite protective layers of quilting, I felt a chill. Not the fever-induced kind.
I moved forward and called out, “Hello?”
There he was. Eddie was standing in heavy shadow, wearing something I’d never seen before, which is not unusual when your husband is a fashion designer. His wardrobe was as changeable as a chameleon.
For several seconds we stared at one another.
“How are you?” he finally asked.
Did the pile of drugs in the kitchen tell him nothing? Hadn’t he looked in on me earlier and found me comatose in the guest bedroom? Or had I hallucinated that?
“You should go back to bed,” he said.
Go back to bed? Was I disturbing his evening? It may have been the fever, but his apathetic suggestion ticked me off. Where was the caring? Where was the worry? Where was the goddamned mint chocolate ice cream?
Thankfully, before I said what was really on my mind, I remembered the sage advice of our neighbour and good friend, Baz: if you don’t have anything nice to say, mumble it under your breath and walk away. I did just that.
It was the last time I saw my husband.