Slumped into his desk chair, Max has precious minutes to get on the road for one of his many doctor’s visits this month, but I can’t tell if he’s sleeping or braking for pain. “Hope to Gosh you’re feeling better,” I say, to test him. I don’t normally use such flaccid language as “gosh,” but it’s one of our spontaneous word games; this one’s inspired by reality TV censors who insist on that three-word, squeezed teabag of excitement, “Oh my Gosh.”
He plumps an eyebrow; he’s awake. He replies, “Gosh moves in mysterious ways.” Yes, very mysterious. The big mystery to me is, Max rarely lies down to sleep and, to distract himself, spends hours online reading everything from The Huffington Post to Harry Potter slash about first Mud-Blood kisses and the magic of love over He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. He swears these stories are written better than Rowling’s, but I like that there’s a character whose very name the reader must be spared out of political correctness. “We gotta go—go with Gosh,” I say.
“Yes, in Gosh we trust,” he says.
These languid, last-minute sick scenarios are not at all new. Even on that Wednesday afternoon in July, he neatly pressed his piqued body into Sunday clothes and I rushed him downtown. In the court house elevator, he straightened my jacket collar and suddenly sparkled—handsome, older, familiar as a favorite fountain pen. After eighteen years, we were marrying. On a bench, a young Marine in his dress uniform nervously gripped a clipboard, scribbling whatever his pregnant bride murmured, and while Max and I filled out those same forms, I pretended marriage to be as prosaic as a correction on our electric bill. But, as the judge ceremoniously spoke, I saw our life measured in years of mundane sickness and health: we’d play our word games unmaking the bed; worry about blindness and diabetes; good roughage; lob obscenities at the news when another gay kid is killed; watch Say Yes To the Dress on The Learning Channel; yes, we learned—we learned to grow old, and then much older, enough to lose our smug certainty it’ll all work out. We learn to grow ill gracefully. I heard Max say, “I do,” and I felt at once celebrated and forgotten, as though the only people who would ever see what was so extraordinary in the ordinariness of this moment were right there in the room with us, and they would clear their heads of us by the two-thirty nuptials.
Max pivots his chair and powers up the oscillating fan. “We gotta leave,” I urge. “For the love of Gosh, move it out. Out!”
But we don’t leave. Instead, he fiddles the top buttons of his short-sleeved shirt, stippled with sweat, and says, “I give up. I’ll have to take some of my drugs.” He doesn’t even have to hear it to know a puff of exasperation has crossed my lips. “Sorry. Not much I can do,” he says. “Gosh grant me the serenity.”
He despises that saying but, having played this game since Monday, we’ve already taken our easiest turns, so our versions of “Gosh” have grown—well, eccentric. He speaks German, and I want to say to him, “Mein Gosch in Himmel!” but I’m not really sure if that actually translates into something, so instead I punt with a risky Elizabethan phrase, “‘Osh’s bodkins!”
Max becomes visibly nettled, then bests me with “‘Shwounds!” He’s read all of Shakespeare and studied Anglo-Saxon in his classical education, a lifetime ago, before we met.
“What about In Gosh we trust?” I ask.
“Bzzzzzt,” comes a reply. “Said that one. Penalty point: you have to fix me a cocktail.” He means his medicine. I was a licensed bartender when I was eighteen—a watered down, Greenfield, Wisconsin, shopping mall version of one. In an era of long hair, the barbers from next door—where my father also worked part-time—would come every night to dull their pain over a fancy-pants bratwurst and one of my shitty martinis. Clearly, for Max, this mixology isn’t about that kind of pain, but the recipes do favor: mix one part cranberry juice, two parts black cherry Kool-Aid; drizzle a heady amount of liquid narcotic; ice; sip lugubriously. He presses the chilled glass to his forehead first, and then to his lips.
We feel the particulars of pain differently, he and I. Doctors glibly call mine the “suicide” headache. Direct sunlight is its muse, and when the gash of it clears, I sometimes discover myself tearing up into a dark room’s darker corner. A routine histamine response, sure, but pain, vile and insipid as warm cantaloupe, is sad as well, even as it corners you. Misia, a terrier who, in her declining years, we passed from one family member to the next like an urn of ashes, spent her final days under my father’s watch; she would languish in a restful patch of afternoon light, moving, like a sundial, with its warm hours across his parlor rug. When she instead began to stare into a dark corner beneath a desk and bleed into her stools, my father took her in for the injection. “She wanted to take that one last step and couldn’t,” he explained.
I knew the step he meant. There was a woman buried just below the permafrost of his memory; he’d tell her story only on the coldest days, when steam from Sunday’s cabbage froze inside our kitchen windows. He was sixteen leaving occupied Poland with his family on a train destined for a forced labor camp in the Arctic Circle, and she boarded it with him, at the point of a Russian soldier’s bayonet. When the train nodded to rest on the tundra, she hobbled out of view to loosen her bowels, collapsed in a clearing of snow, and was soon surrounded by guards. She pleaded, she could walk no further. They gave her this choice: go back to the train, or remain and die. My father saw her totter to her feet then seize one trembling, deliberate step—in the opposite direction of the train. A bayoneted rifle fired, and the train inched forward.
And now, the gritty particulars of my husband’s condition: Max grew up in the Michigan Assemblies of God, became an honor roll student, and looked after his younger blind brother whose enucleated stares would embarrass his parents when they were in public; and, when Max turned seventeen, a church member told them she’d seen him enter the iniquitous Hosh’s Grill, where men in silk dress shirts met for an evening of coffee and cigarillos. The next afternoon, after his mother lured him to lunch, Max’s father, secretly parked outside, prodded him into an idling car and delivered him into the roughshod hands of two orderlies at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
His father instructed them, do whatever; make him straight. And straight away, treatment began, with rounds of humiliation, pictures of slippery-breasted porn stars, and the starvation that brainwashing craves. When Max didn’t respond, they restrained him, choked him on a corrosive brew, then blistered his brain with electroconvulsive therapy. None could explain why he’d awaken from the clear period far sooner than they wanted, and staff members were becoming unglued by his involuntary screams, so they buckled him to a gurney and suffocated him on Indoklon gas, not to quiet his mind, but to paralyze his vocal chords, then ramped up the electricity. He remembers clearly that voiceless torture, his brain and body pulsing with brimstone; he remembers pleading when they pushed down the mask, pinched the hypodermic, then tripped the toggle switch—every two days, for the next three months, right up until his eighteenth birthday.
I used to think a life like his, one of such hardship, could be ennobling, sprung from the mind of a God with a fine and secret purpose. It is not.
Years later, he would wear the imprimatur of those wounds: ulcers would burgeon and devour his stomach so savagely, most of it would be removed, leaving a chute where a gut once was, and his flagging pancreas would turn days of rampant diabetes into moments connected by dull lancets and Humulin injections. For their part, I daily visit upon his parents a living death wish. I know the darkness of such wishes are like a vacant corner that can seduce you, hypnagogic and certain all you’d need is one more step to pass through it. I wish them anyway. I used to think a life like his, one of such hardship, could be ennobling, sprung from the mind of a God with a fine and secret purpose. It is not. Suffering is rancorously mundane and godless; it bores us while it violates us, like the memory of an ex-boyfriend’s lovemaking. A hard life is so jealous of anything you enjoy, the only way to outwit it lies in the contradiction of cherishing what you don’t.
So, I say, “Gosh never closes one door without…”
“Stop,” he says, now buttoning his shirt. “It’s a trap. They’re all closets under the stairs.” He rises. He’s The Boy Who Lived.
I go, “Then what about, ‘There but for the grace of Gosh…?’”
“…go I,” he says. And with a little grace, I winnow out one of my canes and we go. Max decides to do without. There was a time I felt a craven embarrassment about both of us using canes in public. In the beginning, I cleaved perhaps to an image of us slowly poking away at our short-waisted summer shadows, like two proper gentlemen in a Sommerset Maugham novel. However, it took little more than a disapproving squint from a stranger to make what was elegant feel foppish and shamefully pretentious, even though I couldn’t lift my right leg high enough to clear the curbstone.
In the car, the ignition turns like a cleared throat, and I produce our wedding rings from a vest pocket. We don’t ever leave the house together without them. We had designs for a January ceremony at home, brimming with friends. But there was Proposition 8, and I felt such a dullard for having been hopeful. That morning, after I cast my ballot, a grey sheet cake of clouds drizzled down its misery, and a freight truck thrashed out spinnerets of mist on the freeway, kicking up a chip of stone at my windshield, and a small, fractured iris of glass opened its unblinking eye at me. I felt this one inexorably: we were going to lose. Why? How could I meet anyone’s eye not knowing which of them silenced us, again? The wipers flinched and—I couldn’t help it—a scream opened from my mouth and held and held until it crazed the back of my throat. I stopped; I tried to shout again: my voice was already gone.
Our garage door thrumbles open and, even though undraped windows stare down on us from across the alley, I don’t wait to find out who, if anyone, is watching; I just let the car smolder in its own exhaust. We have this one absolute sacrament: I ask him to hold out his hand.
“Are you sure you want to do this now?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, “Absolutely. I do.” He waits. I kiss his ring and carefully slip it over the cracked skin of his finger; he kisses mine, and sidles it past my scarred knuckle. I let him take whatever time he needs now. We’re already so late. Then I kiss his hand; I kiss his mouth. I inch us forward, together, into whatever sunlight remains.