Some of you know I contributed a short story to the anthology Pink Shades of Words. I was proud to be part of that. I and sixteen other authors donated to this project to help raise funds for breast cancer research in the name of the Fifty Shades of Pink Avon Breast Cancer Team. It was on sale from February through May 2014, and now the rights to the story have reverted back to me. I might throw it in a collection someday but, for now, for those of you who missed picking up the anthology, here is the story that was my contribution to the cause.
Ruth Manning had always tried to live her life by following all the rules. She had been, for the most part, a dutiful wife, mother, daughter, and employee. Save for a few minor slip-ups along the way, she had succeeded, which is why her boss found her behavior so unorthodox that Friday afternoon in October.
Ruth tapped on the big wooden door just enough to get Mr. Potter’s attention. She heard his baritone voice answer, “Come in,” and she turned the doorknob, entering one slow step at a time.
Mr. Potter was working on some papers at his desk. His hand, still holding the pen, rested on the side of his head where his hair was starting to thin and his scalp had started peeking through. Ruth cleared her throat, being as quiet as she could. Mr. Potter raised his eyebrows, impatiently urging Ruth to speak.
“Mr. Potter, I’d like to take next week off.”
His eyebrows slowly furrowed. “Ruth, you know company policy states that you must give me one week’s notice before requesting more than a day off.”
“I’m aware of that, sir. But I really need to take some time…for myself.”
Mr. Potter looked down at his report. In the twenty years he had known Ruth, she had never made outrageous requests for time off. He took a deep breath and asked, “Is there something going on that you’d like to talk about?” He suspected that maybe she was getting a divorce or visiting her daughter out of state who desperately needed her mother.
She pursed her lips. She knew she should give him a reason, but she wasn’t ready to talk about it. “I just need some time, sir.”
Mr. Potter knew Ruth had more than two weeks of vacation time saved up. He sighed. “All right. Take the week.”
“Thank you,” she said, handing him the piece of paper recording her request for leave.
Mr. Potter signed the appropriate place on the form and handed it back to Ruth. “Just be sure to give me more notice next time, and don’t tell anyone else about this. If it gets out that you receive special favors, then everyone else will expect them.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Potter.” She knew there would be no next time. She left work at the end of the day, still looking sharp in her professional suit, a slate gray jacket and skirt that she wore with a white blouse and sensible low-heeled shoes. Today felt like a normal day, but it was not. Ruth felt grateful that Mr. Potter hadn’t remembered she’d been gone yesterday afternoon for a doctor’s appointment or he might have asked more questions that she wasn’t ready to answer.
At home that weekend, she pretended everything was normal. It wasn’t difficult because Jim was absorbed in football—both pro and college—constantly flipping channels from one game to the next, occasionally getting up to grab a sandwich, a soda, or go to the bathroom. She spent most of her time in the sunroom, tending to her plants and trying not to remember.
“Ruth, you have Inflammatory Breast Cancer.”
The words she tried to ignore echoed in her ears. Other words like “metastasized” and “stage four” kept the rhythm going, and finally she went for a long walk, hoping to clear her head. The walk around the neighborhood didn’t help, though, and when she walked in the front door, she simply stared at herself in the mirror near the front door in the entryway. She looked healthy. Her blue eyes were still clear and bright; her skin, though it had more lines every year, still looked vibrant and smooth with only a few spots that were easily hidden under her pale foundation; her hair, though gray and wiry, still appeared bright and shiny. Her mouth drew down into a frown, her nose red from the cool air of the walk.
She turned away from the mirror, unable to look at herself anymore. She couldn’t believe the doctor knew what he was talking about. Surely he had confused her results with someone else’s and his office would call next week, his nurse laughing sheepishly that they had made such a stupid mistake.
* * *
On Monday morning she got out of bed and got ready, even though she wasn’t going to work. She hadn’t told Jim that she’d taken the week off. She didn’t want to tell him what the doctor had said. She wasn’t ready yet.
Their morning routine went just like any other morning. She arose before he did and took her shower. By the time he got up, she was already in the kitchen. They exchanged good morninggreetings and he poured a cup of coffee, then sat at the table, glancing through the newspaper. She sat next to him, jotting down her regular “to do” list, but her “to dos” today were just for show. She didn’t really intend to buy milk on the way home or return the shoes she’d bought two weeks ago that didn’t fit properly. “Hmm,” he muttered. “Looks like City Council finally authorized the downtown road repair. You might have to take a different route to work starting next month.”
“Oh,” she nodded, knowing he would need no more response than that. She finished her coffee and rinsed the cup, placing it in the dishwasher as Jim folded his paper and left it beside his cup on the table.
He rose and kissed her on the cheek. “See you tonight,” he said and walked out the door.
She took his cup and plate from the table, rinsed and put them in the dishwasher, and sighed. She turned off the light, grabbed her purse, and walked out the door, locking it as she left. She watched Jim’s black sedan drive down the street as she got into her blue one and backed out of the driveway.
She started driving her regular route to work, realizing that it would be pretty stupid to eat up a week of vacation; she’d been saving up her time, hoping to talk Jim into taking a Caribbean cruise next summer. She’d always wanted to be on a big ship in the ocean—she loved the smell of the salty air, the warm breeze, the sun shining brightly without a shadow to cast down on her. She imagined a week spent doing nothing—traveling to various ports, maybe catching a show, swimming in the afternoon, gambling a little, eating well. Now, though, she might never have the chance.
It was stupid—she had the maximum amount of sick leave she could accrue—one hundred and fifty days and not an hour more. But taking sick leave would mean she was sick, and she refused to believe she was.
Instead of turning off the highway and heading toward the drab brick county building as she would have any other workday, she kept driving north, finally taking a turnoff five exits down the road.
“Call me on Monday so we can schedule your chemotherapy and set a potential date for your surgery.”
Surgery? She’d never had surgery before—not for gall bladder problems (like her mother had), not for appendix problems (like her daughter Mary Anne), not for hernia problems (like Jim); not for a hysterectomy (like her sister); she’d never even had a c-section when her children were born. But this surgery was just the beginning.
“Ruth, what you have is rare. It’s treatable, but we’re looking at surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. You’re still young enough and healthy enough to withstand with rigors of…”
Chemotherapy and radiation would mean it was real. She wasn’t ready for it to be real.
She’d never gone to the mall during the week, so she wasn’t sure what time the doors opened. She sat in her car waiting, leaving the engine running with the heater on. The warmth on her toes helped her relax some, but she gripped the wheel, her face turning down in a grimace. “How can I be dying when it feels like I haven’t even lived?” She shook her head and rested it on the steering wheel.
* * *
She and Jim lay quietly in bed. His larger hand was holding her smaller, seemingly fragile one, and her soft brown hair spread out over his firm chest, her head resting in the crook of his arm. His voice was soft and gentle.
“Where should we live when we get married?” he asked.
She interlaced her fingers through his and batted her eyelashes, trying to stay awake. “I thought we would live here, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know. There aren’t many job opportunities here. Not much chance of being a stable breadwinner for our family.”
She sighed, stirring under the warm covers but reluctant to sit up. “Where do you want to live?”
He cleared his throat, and she heard a seriousness in his voice that she hadn’t heard before. “I was thinking of enlisting in the army.”
Her eyes widened and she sat up, holding the sheet to her chest. “The army? Do you want to get yourself killed?”
“People are talking draft, Ruth. Would you rather I enlist freely or be drafted and sent to Vietnam?”
She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, not wanting to look at him. She loved him so much; she didn’t want to think that he could fly overseas and die. She felt his warm hands on her shoulders, and she looked over and met his brown eyes. “I don’t want you to get killed.”
His full lips turned slightly up, almost into a smile. “I’m not going to have a choice. And I’ve done my research. The army will help me care for you and our family.”
She knew she couldn’t argue. She loved Jim and would marry him, follow him anywhere he took her.
She bent over and picked up her dress off the floor. Her parents would be expecting her soon. She hurriedly dressed and let him kiss her sweetly before wrapping up tightly in her wool coat. “Let me drive you home.”
“Jim, you’d better not. Then they’d know.”
“They’re going to find out soon enough.” He grinned, his brown eyes flashing. “Or would you rather elope?”
She playfully slapped his arm. “I guess I’d better talk to them.” She slipped her feet in her shoes. “You can drop me off a block away from home, okay?”
But she hadn’t noticed until they got outside that the snow had started coming down heavily; her breath flew out of her mouth like smoke, and she realized the temperature had dropped at least ten degrees since she’d come over. The snow quickly accumulated on her shoulders as she waited for Jim to unlock the car door. She stepped in, shuddering the whole mile to her house. Jim had turned the heater on, but it was blowing cold air on her feet.
Jim didn’t stop a block away but pulled right in front of her two-story white house. All the lights were on. She knew that meant that everyone else was home from various activities and ready to sit down to dinner. Jim leaned over toward her in the seat. “You sure you don’t want me to come in? No better time than the present to ask your parents…”
Ruth sighed. He was right. She’d put it off long enough. She was a senior in high school and would turn eighteen right before graduating; she would soon be an adult. Her parents knew she and Jim went out to the movies every weekend. They just didn’t know she spent a couple of hours with him every afternoon. “How about on Saturday? They’ll be expecting you then.”
He nodded and smiled. “Okay.”
She kissed him one last time before rushing up the sidewalk, sliding, almost skating, so that she wouldn’t slip and fall. She heard his car slowly pull back onto the street as she walked in the front door. She hurried to the dining room where her parents, sister, and three brothers sat already eating. Her mother stood. “Ruth, I’m glad you’re here. Why don’t you help me with dessert?”
Ruth, flushed and barely warming up, met downcast eyes from the family except from her father, whose eyes seemed cold but communicated nothing. Her mother clipped to the kitchen, and Ruth hustled around the table to catch up. Her mother got some strawberries and whipped topping out of the refrigerator; Ruth grabbed dessert plates out of the cabinet. She said nothing.
Her mother placed shortcakes on each plate before finally saying, “Ruth, have you been over at Jimmy Manning’s house every day after school this whole year?”
Ruth’s pupils widened. “Um, yes.”
Her mother cleared her throat, grabbing several spoons from the silverware drawer. “And what exactly have you been doing for two or three hours every afternoon after school?”
Ruth drew in a deep breath. She paused, then finally said, “Talking.”
Her mother began spooning the dripping strawberries carefully onto each cake. “Talking. About what?”
Ruth felt the muscles in her shoulders tense. “Marriage.”
Her mother gently laid the spoon back in the strawberry mixture. She looked at Ruth and inhaled deeply. “Ruth, you haven’t finished school yet. What makes you think you’re ready for marriage?”
“I love him, mom.”
Her mother picked up the spoon again. “How can you be so sure?”
“I just know.”
Her mother finished putting the strawberries on the cakes and reached for the whipped topping. Ruth saw her jaw clench. She didn’t look at Ruth as she dropped a large dollop of topping over each cake oozing with strawberries. She said, “I certainly hope the two of you have not fornicated. You know what the Good Book says about that.” Ruth remained silent. “A sin is a sin, Ruth.” Her mother set the spoon down and began placing the lids back on the strawberries and topping. “I suppose if you have, then you’d better marry that boy. Better than burning in a lake of fire.”
Ruth could barely sleep that night, but she knew she’d made the right decision about marrying Jim. She would wear white, and no one would know any better….
* * *
The foot traffic in the mall was light and quiet. Only a few shoppers roamed around, and Ruth walked quietly, listening to the soft clicks of women in heels and jazzy music lilting in the echoing cavern of the mall. She smelled the faint sweet odor of caramel popcorn and thought of finding the shop peddling it, but she didn’t look very hard. She wandered in and out of clothing stores, halfheartedly pushing blouses aside but buying nothing. Finally, she sat on a large carved wooden bench in the middle of the walkway, surrounded by rubber plants. She looked up at the bright skylight above her as her thoughts drifted back, a tear slowly falling down her cheek.
She remembered raising babies as an army wife while she and Jim slowly drifted apart. Jim had told her he loved her, but he didn’t seem to like her very much. He spent a lot of time away, and when Jimmy Jr. and Mary Anne went to high school, Ruth found herself wondering what to do. She’d never gone to college, never pursued a career. She felt fairly useless. Her children no longer needed her help with homework or rides to school; they rarely sought her advice anymore. Her house could only get so clean. She felt trapped by her home. Should she go to school? Should she find a job? Should she leave and begin life over? She shook her head; even though her family had little use for her, she felt obliged to stay. Her parents would not approve, and how could she live with herself if her children felt abandoned? She needed something, though, and spent several weeks at the library and Job Service, putting together the first resume of her life.
Eventually, she obtained an entry-level position with the county clerk. The job was simple enough; other workers filled out forms, and she typed them into the computer. She’d never seen a computer before, and she loved watching the blinking yellow box respond to her fingers hitting the keys, filling the black screen with the words she typed. The blanks on the forms corresponded to the blanks in the computer, so the job was easy for her. She also answered the phones and helped customers on occasion, but her main duty was typing.
She loved the job at first. She felt fulfilled by having a place to go during the day and earning extra money that she could spend on whatever she felt like. But most evenings at home she still felt alone—the kids were participating in school activities, and if Jim was home, he was parked in front of the television. She redecorated the house with her money, but even that didn’t take much time or energy. She went to church every Sunday but felt like she was just putting in time. She soon found herself in another unfulfilling rut.
Around that time, Pete Johnson started working in the office. Pete was about eight years her junior. Ruth had taken on further job duties and received a promotion, and Mr. Potter hired Pete to take over her old job. Ruth was in charge of training Pete. He had light brown hair and green eyes, with a smile that lit up his entire face. He had a sarcastic sense of humor and managed to make Ruth laugh easily.
Because Ruth and Pete still managed the data-entry part of the job, they spent more time with each other than with any other employees in the office. They began going to lunch every day, enjoying each other’s company. One Tuesday afternoon, Pete said, “Hey, Ruthie, there’s a new French restaurant a few blocks away I’ve been wanting to check out. How’s that sound for lunch?”
They’d usually gone to fast-food places or delis, somewhere they knew they’d be fed in an hour or less, but lunch at a real restaurant sounded pleasant. “Why not?”
Ruth had never had French food, so she wasn’t sure what to order. Pete recommended the Coq au Vin, and they sat sipping iced tea while waiting for their order. “So, Ruth, tell me more about you. I mean…I’ve heard all about the kids and your husband, but tell me about you.”
She blushed. “Like what?”
“What are your dreams? What do you really want to do with your life?” Ruth felt as though Pete had been looking in her head. She didn’t know what she wanted to do; she only knew she didn’t feel fully satisfied. Unlike her husband, Pete seemed to care about Ruth on the inside, what she wanted for herself, rather than what he wanted from her.
“I don’t really know. I almost feel like I’m starting fresh.” She took a sip of her tea. Before a frown formed on her brow, she asked, “What about you?”
He grinned. “I told you I was saving up for law school, and I’m definitely going to do it. I think in about a year, I should have enough.”
“Why don’t you take out student loans?”
“Are you kidding? I just finished paying off the ones from my Bachelor’s degree. I don’t want to do that again.”
“But wouldn’t you make enough money as a lawyer to pay them off quickly?”
He smiled again, his dimples carving large arcs in his cheeks. “I guess so. But then I wouldn’t be sitting here talking with you.”
She blushed again. If she didn’t know better, Pete was hitting on her. But she must be imagining it; she was too old for him. And she was married. He was young and good-looking and could find any woman he wanted. She sipped more tea and finally allowed her eyes to meet his again. They were open and honest. She was imagining it. Still, her right finger gently pulled back a lock of her brown hair as she wondered if her new moisturizer was really hiding the fine lines she’d started noticing around her eyes. She smiled and Pete smiled back. His eyes drifted to her lips and back to her eyes. She wasn’t imagining it. She forced herself to swallow. “I guess you’re right.”
His smile faded. “What are you doing after work?”
She felt her smile disappear as goosebumps formed all over her body. “I was planning to go shopping.” She inhaled deeply. “Why?”
“Because I think I’d like to spend more time with you.”
That afternoon at work, she felt young and desirable. Pete never said what he had in mind, but her imagination ran wild. She felt guilty, having done nothing, but she decided she would do whatever he suggested. Thoughts of eternal fire slowly dissolved in her mind as she thought instead of the fire that burned within her, wishing it to be quenched by Pete’s lips. Jim had had plenty of affairs during their marriage—this much she knew. So one little indiscretion she could justify in her mind.
Pete came by her desk about an hour before it was time to leave work. He asked, “Do you trust me?”
After work, he drove her to a hotel just a few blocks from work and made her feel like she was twenty again. She could feel what he must have seen.
They continued seeing each other this way for about three months. After the first week, they started going to Pete’s apartment. He had a roommate who was never there in the afternoon, and they had the place to themselves. One afternoon as she lay in his arms, she thought seriously about leaving Jim. Jimmy Jr. was a senior in high school, Mary Anne had left for college, and she and Jim hardly ever spoke anymore. She knew she’d be able to carve out a happy niche with Pete. He made her feel happy and alive. She rested her head on her arm, ready to tell him what she was thinking.
Before she could speak, though, he lifted his hand and pushed her hair to the side. “I want to tell you something,” he said. She took a deep breath, not liking the sound of his voice. “I was accepted into law school. I’ll be leaving next month.”
Her heart felt as though he had taken it into his hand and crushed it. “Oh.” But maybe… “Where is it?”
“It’s in New York.”
Ruth looked down at his sparsely hairy chest. “Would you want some company?”
Pete smiled. “My nose will be buried in books.” He saw something in her eyes, and his smiled faded. “Ruthie, you can’t leave your family. You and I both know that.”
She didn’t know that, but she knew she was being rejected. “I guess I can’t.” She slowly slid out of bed and quietly got dressed.
“We’ve had fun, haven’t we?”
She nodded, not wanting him to know that tears were streaming down her face. She took a deep breath and whispered, “Yes.” But now she was wondering why she had done it in the first place. The thought of going back to Jim’s cold bed made her shudder.
* * *
Later, she sat on a picnic bench, eating a chocolate ice cream cone and watching the crisp brown leaves drift past her feet, hearing an occasional one scrape across the sidewalk as though it was reluctant to leave the park. The sun still shone high over the treetops; it was cool outside but pleasant enough that her sweater kept her warm. She barely tasted or even felt the creamy glide of the ice cream as it slid down her throat. After a while, she grew irritated with the breeze. The leaves started blowing into her lap, her hair. She threw the bottom part of the soggy cone into the trash and felt warm tears streaming down her face.
“Ruth, I don’t want you to give up hope. This cancer does have a high mortality rate, but you have a chance. You’ll have to undergo chemotherapy first. We have to kill the cancer before we go in surgically…”
She reached into her purse and found the picture of her grandson, a fine young man who would be going to high school himself in about a year. Time had simply refused to stop, and she looked at the picture of him when he was three years old, the one she’d had in her wallet for more than a decade. The colors had faded slightly, but nothing could remove the feeling she got every time she looked at Charlie’s picture. He had a bit of the devil in his eyes just like his daddy, Jim Jr. But Charlie touched a spot in Ruth’s heart that her children never did. Her own children, though she’d loved them and through no fault of their own, made her feel anxious and inadequate. Charlie made Ruth feel loved simply because of who she was, made her feel appreciated. She saw in his eyes the unconditional love of a child she’d expected but been unable to find as a young mother. She felt relaxed and happy with Charlie. Charlie, though young, seemed to understand her more than anyone else on the planet.
* * *
“Grandma, how come your cookies taste so good?”
Ruth looked down at little Charlie. She sat in the chair and stroked his cheek. “Didn’t you know it’s because I made them with all the love in the world?”
Charlie grinned. “But mom makes cookies with love, too.”
She smiled back. “Yes, but grandma’s love is always extra special.” She couldn’t explain it to him but knew she didn’t need to when he wrapped his small stick-like arms around her waist. She hugged him tightly, breathing in the smell of his hair. She kissed him on the forehead. “Do you want another?”
He nodded. “And then let’s go watch cartoons.”
She stood up, reaching for another cookie. “It’s a deal.”
* * *
She walked to the car and reached for a tissue, rubbing it under her eyes. She realized that Charlie wasn’t the only person who had ever loved her completely in her life. Ruth had simply been at a point in her life, when Charlie had come along, where she could accept that sort of love, could recognize that it was love. She’d felt, as a mother, that her children’s love was based on a fulfillment of needs like food and shelter. She hadn’t realized that children are so dependent upon their mother that they tell her they love her when she’s giving them a baloney sandwich or tucking them in bed at night. It’s not that they loved her because of those acts, but because those acts had defined her as that person not only in the children’s minds, but in her own as well. Looking back, Ruth realized that Charlie was merely her realization of letting go, of finally accepting herself, good and bad.
And maybe she needed to forgive Jim, too. He had spent the last several decades trying to be a good husband, to earn a solid living, to give her what she needed. He’d just forgotten that she needed him most. And maybe she needed to tell him rather than feel alone. He would be home from work soon. She would tell him now—first, that she loved him, that she needed him; second, that she needed him especially now.
She turned the key in the ignition and slowly eased the car into the dimly lit street back toward the freeway. She was going to call the family together for a large dinner this weekend. She had a lot to share with them. But first she wanted to hug her husband and mend what she could—then she’d do the same with her children.
She pulled in the driveway and parked next to Jim’s car. She felt her heart swell as she stepped out and walked toward the front door. The doctor had said she might die, but for the first time in a long time, Ruth Manning believed that she might really live.