Read More: A brief interview with Jacob M. Appel
Arlene’s husband offers her a pair of clay elephants and tells her that he intends to marry another woman. The elephants are quite finely wrought, she thinks, one African, the other Asian, although she can never remember which is which. Their meticulously proportioned features and gracefully curved trunks are a vestige of Benny’s years sculpting human noses and chins to perfection. In contrast, one of the other elderly men in the television lounge has fashioned his wife a dromedary—“It’s sitting down,” he explains—but, to Arlene, the offering looks more like a lumpy, upturned breast. She is fiercely proud of her husband, even as she feeds him a box of grape juice through a miniature straw. She ignores his marriage plans. After thirty-seven years together, she is confident that this too shall pass, that the proposal is another unmoored plank afloat in the ocean of her husband’s psyche. But then Benny swats away the juice box and squeezes the back of Arlene’s hand. She can feel her arm trembling along with his. “I’ve decided to marry Connie,” he says again. “Please don’t let me forget.”
“But you’re already married to me,” Arlene answers patiently. “It’s Arlene.”
Benny blinks his eyes—as though struck by an unwelcome burst of light. He frowns in obvious disappointment. “Am I really?” he asks. He gazes off toward the snow-caked courtyard beyond the bay windows, perplexed, embarrassed. Her husband has cheated on her in the past, Arlene knows—with a charge nurse named Beulah, with the mother of an adolescent patient, with others—but he’s done so discreetly. This is the first time she has seen him openly ashamed of his desires. He drums his fingers on the tabletop and mutters, to nobody in particular, “I thought I was going to marry Connie.”
Arlene scans the lounge. The walls are papered in institutional pastels, punctuated by innocuous prints of sunflowers and migratory ducks; a low winter sun blazes between the slats of the Venetian blinds. It is hard to imagine any room on earth with less personality. All around Arlene sit women who have outlived their husbands, a pathetic sisterhood of fragility and diminished hopes. She is not jealous of Connie, she assures herself. Merely curious. Maybe she also feels a twinge of guilt, because she still teaches during the week and drives out to the Valhalla Home only on weekends. But why is that unreasonable? She’s not even sixty. Isn’t she entitled to maintain an existence of her own? Besides, Benny holds just the vaguest notions of who she is and why she visits. During the first few months, he wept like her kindergarten students each time she hugged him goodbye. But now, steeped in the marrow of his dementia, everything with Benny is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. So does it really matter which of these desiccated, memory-shorn creatures is the darling of her husband’s senile fantasies? Her marriage has survived Beulah the charge nurse, Arlene reminds herself; she has a thirty-seven year advantage and a hundred IQ points over Connie the halfwit.
Benny starts suddenly, regal and wary like a bull elk. “Where’s Arlene?” he demands.
“I’m Arlene,” answers Arlene.
He shakes his head vigorously. “Not you. The other Arlene.”
She can sense he is thinking of Connie, but has already lost the woman’s name.
“I am the other Arlene,” Arlene lies. “I’m right here.”
Her husband responds with a burst of laugher. He laughs, and laughs, until he looks up, suddenly confused, no longer certain of what he has found so funny.
The next day is Purim—the Feast of Esther—and Arlene bakes hamantaschen. She does this every winter—much as she stuffs blintzes on Shavuos and fries matzoh brei on Passover—not because she is religious, or even spiritual, but because she cannot conceive of doing otherwise, anymore than she can imagine not lighting yartzeit candles for her departed parents. It helps that Benny still takes pleasure in food, that he is grateful for a carryout pastrami sandwich from the Riverdale Deli, even as he forgets that he has kept Kosher for sixty-two years. But when Arlene delivers the triangular pastries, an assortment of prune, apricot and poppy seed, she finds her husband talking surgical technique to the other Arlene. Connie is an oval-faced woman with her long gray hair parted down the middle like Olivia de Havilland in Gone with the Wind. She’s older than Benny, somewhere on the far side of seventy. The two of them are sitting side-by-side in the poorly-lit corridor opposite the elevators, their wheelchairs touching obscenely, the companion with a wool blanket sheltering her knees and a bland smile plastered across her lips. Benny is expounding upon competing methods for performing otoplasty. As Arlene approaches, she sees that they are holding hands.
Her pulse quickens and she feels, for a moment, as though she’s falling from a bridge. She’s too sensible to cause a scene—she has always played superego to Benny’s unbridled id—but she drops her jaw in a fraught, voiceless scream.
“They look happy together, don’t they?”
The onlooker is a tall, distinguished gentleman in the last strides of middle age. He sports a plaid cap and a cardigan sweater. His mustache is nearly white, his bushy eyebrows a darker shade of gray.
“They’re not a couple,” protests Arlene. “That’s my husband.”
“I’m Jim Drapkin,” the man answers, extending a hand. “I’m Connie’s husband.”
Arlene appraises Drapkin, dumbfounded. She clings to the tin of pastries like a life buoy.
Drapkin waves to his wife. Connie smiles. “I’m so glad they found each other,” he says.
The idea that someone has ‘found’ her husband, like a lost sock or an unclaimed island, leaves Arlene without words. She waits for Drapkin to explain himself further—to explain that she has misunderstood him!—but he merely nods approvingly at the demented couple, his hands tucked into the pockets of his trousers. A lanky workman carries a paint-splattered ladder out of the elevator and sets about changing one of the ceiling bulbs above the nurses’ workstation. In the television lounge, a female voice shouts, “Bingo! I’ve got bingo!” Seconds later, another female voice answers, “Goddam bullshit. That’s what you’ve got.”
Arlene takes a deep breath. “How long has this been going on?” she demands.
“Connie’s been here three weeks. She was in a day program before this, and then she spent a month at Presbyterian Hospital with a broken hip.” Drapkin’s tone is placid and benevolent, but detached—as though he’s discussing a character in a film. “The first morning I came to visit her out here, your husband was already telling Connie his surgery stories. He makes her laugh, especially the way he talks with his hands.” Drapkin leans forward and adds, in a hushed tone, “But to tell you the God’s honest truth: I’m not so sure how much she understands anymore.”
“I can’t believe this,” says Arlene. She feels her composure slipping between her fingers like sand. “Your wife’s trying to seduce my husband—and you don’t care!”
Drapkin flashes her a sharp look. “That’s not fair. I’m out here every day, rain or shine, seven days a week.” He pauses, collecting himself. “I love my wife as much as life itself. More than life itself. But I’m also a realist. Fifteen years sitting on the family court bench does that to a man. So trust me when I tell you that the two of them are lucky to have one another. Facilities like these are lonely places. A close friend can make all the difference.”
The difference between what and what? Arlene wants to know. And since when do friends hold hands in public like teenage lovers? But she is also taken by the sincerity in the retired judge’s deep, resonant voice. This is a man who sounds fair.
“I try to be forward-looking,” he adds. “To keep my eyes on the future.”
She glances from Judge Drapkin to the pair seated opposite the elevators. Her husband’s over-shirt is buttoned incorrectly and the folds of his neck are poorly shaved. Often he forgets to ask the nursing staff to change his diaper. Yet this is the same man who returned from his stint in the navy’s medical corps with her name inked across his biceps, who has made love to her on countless nights in luxury hotel suites, and opera house restrooms, and the backseats of rental cars across six continents. She watches him talking to his new companion, and is almost touched as he tucks a strand of steely hair behind the senile woman’s ear. Benny looks contented, serene. But Arlene has been though too much—fought too many battles—to share her prize.
“This has to stop,” she announces. She walks briskly across the corridor, takes hold of Benny’s wheelchair, and steers her stunned husband into the television lounge. Then she storms back into the busy hallway. She is prepared to lay into Jim Drapkin—to warn him to keep his dopey wife away from her husband. But she catches sight of the nursing director, Annie Serspinski, playing dominos with one of the residents—a blind woman who reads the tiles like Braille—and Arlene decides that the times call for more desperate measures. Annie is a big tub of a woman in her thirties. She’s efficient, devoted. Her entire life is the Valhalla Home, and she has a knack for anticipating trouble, as she does now, struggling onto her tree-trunk legs and approaching Arlene. “How is Dr. Steinhoff today?”
Arlene points her index finger at Connie Drapkin.
“I don’t want that woman in the same room with my husband.”
Annie nods and demands no further explanation. She clearly knows already. Everybody knows already, except Arlene, because she’s been occupied teaching shapes to five year olds.
“I’ll see what I can do,” says the nursing director. “Are you sure about this?”
Arlene glares at Jim Drapkin. “I’m one hundred percent certain.”
When she returns home to the Bronx that evening, Arlene tries to block the entire episode from her thoughts. She passes the next three nights preparing floor-to-ceiling calendars for her classroom walls, each date printed on its own construction paper cutout: scarves for March, umbrellas for April, daffodils for May. She usually fashions these displays one month in advance, maybe two, but now she works her way though June’s flags and then the multicolored maple leaves for the following September. What else is there to do? She and Benny used to socialize as a couple: dinners out, contract bridge, doubles tennis in summer at the public courts. Beyond a certain age, the world isn’t designed for solo travelers. Yet in the two years since Benny’s diagnosis—multi-infarct dementia, not Alzheimer’s, a distinction that matters only to pathologists—she has suddenly become one of those aging, ethnic widows who wander New York City’s outer boroughs as their neighborhoods change over or die. She has pitied these forlorn creatures through the years, the elderly Irishwomen of Woodlawn, and the perpetually-mourning Italian grandmothers of Belmont, and those babushka-shrouded Polish ladies one passes outside funeral parlors in Greenpoint. Yet here she is living in Riverdale, alone, childless, an increasingly lax Jew now that Benny is away, surrounded by Orthodox starter couples, young mothers pushing an eternal phalanx of strollers. It doesn’t help any that she is trapped in this peculiar limbo between marriage and widowhood—that well-meaning people have the gall to ask her whether she is “dating” again, as though her husband’s life has been reduced to a sideshow. Arlene is tracing October’s jack-o-lanterns, wondering if she should take early retirement, when Drapkin’s phone call pierces the stuffy silence of their apartment. Her apartment.
“My wife hasn’t eaten in four days,” says Drapkin. “You’re killing her.”
“How did you get my number?” demands Arlene. […]
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Jacob M. Appel is the author o
“The Bigamist’s Accomplice” originally appeared in Greensboro Review and was runner-up in the 2019 Editor’s Reprint Award (fiction/nonfiction).