Our lives floated along swimmingly with only an occasional chop in the water. Having it so good, of course I had to generate my own apprehensions, my own phantoms, and I did. I worked myself up into a fit of insecurity shortly after Jean’s departure as to whether Ross would remain faithful, having read an article in a magazine on the large percentage of men who strayed after marriage. A small noise, an insignificant note amongst the general din, but I latched onto it nonetheless; a signal shot sent rising into the air, calling for the never-far-away doubts and fears to come swirling and fluttering down on my happiness. I let them peck at it mercilessly.
I’d prop myself up in bed at night, leaning back against the headboard, and watch Ross as he slept unaware of the prenuptial scrutiny. His face, so sweet in sleep, made me ache. Welcomed in so many beds, he had sampled more than his fair share of lovers, and he did that and could do it again because there were so many eager to give it to him. Women were always throwing themselves at him; they just didn’t stick. Would he get tired of just having me? Would I peel off as well eventually? I was always exasperating him, I was well aware.
Usually after a few minutes of this, Ross’ mouth would drop open and he’d start snoring in unconscious rebuttal. Is that all you have to say for yourself, darling? Nightmares gone for now, demons banished, sleeping like a child. But this was not the entire panorama. It was the dark side of the terrain, the murky bogs and muddy bottom waters that made for uncertain footing. So much frustration, so much anger, his work stoking both daily; the nagging self-doubt, the fatigue of always going his own way, the horrible thoughts and visions that wouldn’t fade; and no place for all this to go but to swirl round and round, no release, no spillway. He’d let it all loose at times, letting himself go just with me—the ugly side of exclusivity—lashing out at me as nastily as he lashed out at himself. I wasn’t panicked by these blowouts, though I dreaded them. I could sink as low, with similar backwaters splashing, the only difference being I let the deluge barrel through, let it knock me about as it surged on through to its destination, while he struggled against the spew. No, what frightened me during these times was the recklessness exposed in the man, his Achilles’ heel; the same recklessness that made him drive too fast, and I was afraid of him screwing around in a black mood simply to slip loose from the tug, simply for the cheap kick of blowing it all out of the water.
Sleep disturbed by anxiety burning at such close quarters, Ross would turn, pulling me back down against him. “Can’t you be still—what’s wrong?” he’d protest in the intimacy, mumbling against the back of my head, our bodies spooning front to back, and I’d press against him, thinking open-eyed about his presence in my life and the terror of his conceivable absence.
Our lives floated along swimmingly until the inevitable phone call started the leak. It was St. Patrick’s Day, I remember, the day Mom called and said Dad needed an operation. An exploratory procedure, not too . . . ah, not life-or-death serious, she said, but I didn’t necessarily believe that; it wasn’t something the doctor felt could be put off. “Now don’t worry, everything is okay,” she insisted, “but we won’t be able to fly out for the wedding. But don’t go and postpone it again; his sister has made all these plans.” The more things frightened her, the more everything had to be normal; she needed to do that. She was also keen for her youngest daughter to at some point stop living in sin.
But I had to postpone it. Ross did not agree. “It’s too bad, but at some point, you just have to forge ahead. You can’t use every problem that comes along as an excuse.”
“It’s not an excuse. I didn’t make this up!” I snapped, near tears. “It’s tempting fate . . .” This new fear, this fear for my father, gave heft and form to a vague uneasiness that had been building of late, hovering just out of view, just beyond the horizon. There and then gone. There again and gone. “I don’t want to get bad news right before . . .”
“I know,” he said gently. “I don’t think that’s gonna happen. But the timing is never going to be exactly right. There’s always going to be something, you know . . . you can’t control the world, and you certainly can’t police it all by yourself, which is what you seem to want to do sometimes. Remember what you said to me . . . ”
“About your mom?”
“Yeah.” Ross looked at me, vexation flittering across his face; he was too indulgent, he thought, too soft-hearted. “Whatever you want, baby,” he said against his better judgment. “Whatever you want to do.”