Her husband had listened to her once. In their early years, she could only describe his attention to her words as rapt. She was sure she remembered accurately: his dark eyes glazed by a mindless fondness, a half-smile curling his full lips. Then he had never, of this she was certain, stepped on her sentences. Then his hearing was listening. Most unsettling to Aurora now was Hector’s constant need of rebooting, as if he were an aged desktop returning from a sullen hibernation.
Aurora poured cold coffee into a pint jar. “Lola peed in the living room. Next to the piano.”
She added cream to her coffee, forbidden by her nutritionist and all the more flavorful for it. “The mop is hanging on the porch. It’s dry now.”
Hector stepped into the kitchen. He sported a gray T-shirt Aurora distinctly recalled relegating to the Goodwill box in the back of the Subaru, a delivery chore Hector, blaming COVID and social distancing, had neglected for the past month. The collar of the shirt was so worn it resembled a necklace of eyelet. Despite Aurora’s best efforts, Hector was looking more and more like the homeless man in front of the Home Run Café. That he refused to relinquish the T-shirt, whose faded wording read “Reasonable Doubt at a Reasonable Price,” launched Aurora into her counting. She counted to talk herself down. She felt pronouncing the numbers in Spanish rather than English capped her blood pressure.
“Yes?” Hector cocked his head. The natural light in the kitchen revealed the smudges on the lenses of Hector’s glasses. He resembled a demented old bear, bewildered by the reports from his own senses.
“Hector! Lola peed in the living room to the right of the piano. The mop is dry. It’s hanging on the porch, above the shoes.” Aurora hammered Hector’s empty coffee cup on the counter.
“Lola peed? Where?”
When Hector’s reset button had been depressed, that’s how Aurora put it to herself, Hector would question her, his deposition scaffolding Aurora’s necessary repetition: the dog, the pee, the piano, the mop. Eventually Hector moved into action and located the mop, the piano, the pee. Lola was not chastised; neither Hector nor Aurora had the heart, the boxer was so old. But for Hector, Aurora’s patience had long ago distilled into an amber of resolute resentment.
His chore completed, Hector lay on the couch as he was wont to do after the local news at noon had concluded. The faux conviviality of the newscasters’ chit chat irritated Aurora, so inappropriate to the pandemic, the blonde bimbos with their stiletto heels and their oversized breasts and their snowcapped teeth. They were too cheery, too forthcoming about missing their ski weekends and homeschooling their adorable preschoolers. And as her dear friend Ella liked to point out to the enamored Hector, the weather girl regularly displayed her sweat stains during her pirouettes to and from the weather map. For women of Aurora’s age, women who had been trained to conceal bra straps and slip lace, sweat stains were unforgivable. Somehow Aurora attached this breach of taste on the part of the weather girl to Hector, to Hector’s declining adherence to civility, to what was once considered a matter of class. Ella blamed all her husband’s failings on the virus, but Aurora was cleverer than that.
Hector was asleep, or feigning sleep, Lola draped over his legs like fallen prey. Resisting the impulse to raise the volume on DAYS OF OUR LIVES, Aurora muted the television. Lola didn’t care; she could barely hear her clapping when Aurora wanted the old dog’s attention. Hector—naturally Hector could still hear. The audiologist had verified his hearing much to Aurora’s chagrin—but he could sleep through infidelities, arrests, births, and faked deaths without a sigh. How Hector could choose the couch in the darkened living room over a balmy afternoon in their untidy yard dismayed Aurora until she realized she, too, so long housebound by the pandemic, had not spent much time among the roses and trumpet vines reclaiming the patio. Funny, Aurora thought (she was not incapable of self-scrutiny), that instead of intense gardening and DIY home improvement projects, she and Hector had remained bunkered with Lola as though the virus would arrive in the form of fall-out from the blameless sky. Not today. Today she would trim back the trumpet vine, sweep the patio, move the potted plants, read Obama’s autobiography on the cheery cushions of the lawn recliner they’d impulse bought from Costco before the world shrank.
Aurora could no longer squat, so she stood over the jade and tugged the clay pot inch by inch to the shady corner on the slate patio. She felt the strap of muscle across her lower back tighten. Her heart tightened too, against Hector and all that he had become. Several broken branches from the jade plant caught the tennis shoes recommended by the physical therapist: a pair of teal boats wide enough to allow the inserts meant to relieve the arthritic stiffness haunting her. She kicked at the jade pieces when, on another day in another mood, she might have placed them in water and then planted them on the sill of the kitchen’s bay window. More and more she found herself stymied by the limitations of age. If she could have, though she knew it to be supremely unreasonable, she would have blamed the infirmities of age on Hector too. It wasn’t age itself; Aurora appreciated claiming the dubious wisdom of her seventy-two years. It was all the echoes that came with the stacked years she resented.
The jade’s position did not satisfy her, so she bent over the pot, anchored her hands its heavy lip, and took a step back. Lola had slipped through the slider and posed behind her. As Aurora channeled her anger toward Hector, the stylish heel of the boat on her left food landed on Lola’s front paw.
Even before the backward fall, Aurora recognized the impending injury as if it were a distant relative who had finally found her after a sustained search: the backward plunge, the right hand thrown out to break the fall, the intake of breath, the snap of bone. And the accident did match the script played out in Aurora’s mind. She fell backward onto the soft dog, whose thick chest cushioned Aurora’s hip.
Because she had foreseen it so clearly, Aurora was not stunned. She lay on her back on the stones. Lola was accommodating enough, but Aurora rolled to her side and released the dog, who stood over her snuffling, pasting Aurora’s cheek with spit. Aurora was not a stoic, not like Hector who had gimped around last year for three weeks with a broken metatarsal. “It’s getting better,” Hector had insisted every day for three weeks. Aurora was sure gangrene was setting in and had stopped cooking meals until Hector acquiesced and made his way to their GP, Covid or no.
Aurora was not a stoic, but lying on the patio, Lola stretched beside her, the blue sky capping her world. She felt peace instead of pain. She had not had an opportunity to study the summer sky for decades, the halcyon days of picnic blanket postures long behind her and Hector. Who cared if the laundry sat damp in the washer? Or if Lola’s shed fur collected like soft tumbleweeds in corners of the living room? Hector could feed himself I he had to. But would Hector remember to feed and water Lola and the feral half-grown calico who blew in and out of their lives like a waif?
She couldn’t recline forever, even though the warm slate beneath her was comforting. She hugged her limp arm against her breast and rolled over, wincing but determined to reach the slider. Lola, excited by what seemed to be a floor game, woofed and scampered from Aurora to the living room, where Hector began to stir.
“Hector.” Lola rolled. Her hip ached. The pain in her arm sharpened.
Hector stood in the frame of the slider, looking curiously bewildered. From Aurora’s perspective, prone at Hector’s bare feet, her husband resembled a cartoon Jehovah in a Witness pamphlet, his uncut white hair standing out like the wings of a soaring bird, the furrow of worry on his brow sitting in judgment of Aurora’s pose.
“Rora?” Hector bent over Aurora. Lola tried to help, but Hector pulled the dog back.
“Why are you lying on the ground?”
“I didn’t choose to lie on the ground.” Aurora lowered her head and rested her cheek against the slate. “You need to call someone. My arm is broken.”
“My arm is broken.”
“Your arm is broken?”
“My arm is broken.”
“I’ll get the phone.”
Hector had remembered the face coverings. That is what Aurora realized when she awoke in the curtained cell of the emergency room, her cast arm bracketed across her stomach, her dreamcatcher face mask on her stomach. Hector stood over her, wearing one of the darling cloth coverings Ella had sewn for them, its bright pattern upside down because Hector could never be bothered by the direction of the pleats, never mind that his dreams spilled from the nets of the dreamcatchers. The hospital required they exchange the pretty fabric for paper masks the color of pee, imbued with the scent of chemicals and despair acquired in the container on the long ocean voyage from China. Beneath Hector’s dreamcatcher peeked the pee-colored mask. Double-masking, the news bimbos called it, what Hector had done.
Hector stood aside, not six feet distant but far enough to let the stick-thin nurse close in to fuss with the position of Aurora’s cast.
“We’ve only just begun letting family in to Emergency,” the nurse clucked, as if she were laying a golden egg especially for Aurora. “Your husband can wait here with you.” She patted a chair back next to the stiff cot on which Aurora reclined. “So you’re not all by your lonesome until discharge?”
How often Aurora had longed to be all by her lonesome the nurse could not begin to guess. In the years after Antonio’s death, the years after their only child had jumped from the balcony of the dorm room at his photogenic Ivy League campus, Hector had maintained their son died in an accident, a dare undertaken in sobriety but poor judgment. Aurora knew differently. It was then the blame seeded itself in her merciless heart. It was then she began to fantasize about escaping to a bare-walled, one-room condo filled with white wicker furniture and sunflowers in blue ceramic vases. Sans Hector. Sans memory. Sans pain.
Hector sat in the bedside chair and reached for the hand on Aurora’s uncast arm. Groggy, she let him massage hers in his warm hands and fell promptly back to sleep.
Aurora had yearned to be by herself when she’d failed to earn tenure at the college where she’d studied for her doctorate. Not a prestigious school, but even so. Antonio was five and entering kindergarten. The timing would have been perfect: Her boy in school, she would have been free to work without the guilty burden of daycare. But Hector, Hector had offered palliatives and consolations she wanted to burn on a funeral pyre. She imagined then a cabin in the mountains, a place to be still, a home with a trundle bed for the son who would visit when his mother chose.
And then there was Deirdre, the paralegal interning at the public defender’s office. The affair was neither torrid nor long lived. Aurora had the internal fortitude to see that, had only she had been warmer, more wifely and forgiving, Hector would not have chosen to dabble in adultery. But the roots of blame dug themselves deeper, stitched into her heart like a hemlock. Her vision of escape became a commune with prayers at mealtime, a brightly flagged yurt under a cedar tree, a joint now and then. Anywhere but where she was, joined by old age to her husband of half a century.
Aurora awoke in a private room alone, her mouth cottony. Why she wasn’t at home in her own bed, Lola snoring in sleep beside her, Aurora couldn’t figure, but the IV dripping into the catheter on her good forearm hinted at a more serious condition than a broken arm. The water jug was beyond reach. It too was a nasty mustard color, as if the madman who designed hospital gear took his cues from bodily emissions instead of interior desecrators.
For a moment, Aurora refused to press the call button. Then she relented. The gloaming altered the mustardy colors of the room to gold. Aurora felt suspended in the twilight, as if she were cradled in a gossamer web of peace. When the nurse didn’t come—Aurora had heard from Ella the nurses were worked beyond exhaustion—she let the call button fall to her side and lowered the head of the bed. Her arm was numb. Surely the exhaustion overcoming her was from shock or surprise or the refusal to succumb to fate, a refusal Aurora had practiced her entire adult life.
And where was Hector when she was so parched? Why wasn’t Hector present to explain to her the IV drip and the private hospital room? Aurora shut her eyes and sank her head down to the pillow. So unusual in her, this desire for her husband’s company. She could remember a time—more than one—when the attraction of an isolated room would have mesmerized her: the silence, the still, the absence of another living creature. Even Lola she would, in times past, have sacrificed for the isolation room.
But now, lying in the dark, lit only by the dance of digital lights on the machines, standing at attention to either side of her bed, Aurora wanted her husband. Dog-eared as Hector had become, irritatingly oblivious as only Hector could be, Aurora wanted his strong hands to take hold of hers. She wanted his smell. She wanted his voice, his maddening habit of speaking in fragments, to promise her that everything would turn out fine, just you wait and see.
And because she could not reach the box of Kleenex, she pressed her dreamcatcher mask against her mouth so that if the nurses were ever to respond to the call light, it would catch the sob escaping her.
Anna Villegas’s published work includes many short stories, essays, poems, newspaper columns, and three novels (Synergistic Press, William Morrow, St. Martin's Press). She is a retired college English professor living in Nevada City, California, where the ghosts of her Gold Rush forebears inspire her writing.