An Incantation to my Wife, for After I’ve Gone and Left Her
My Penelope’s gonna have so much fun. A year and change, or, knowing inertia collects around her the way a grain of irritation accumulates pearl, considerably longer—some respectful length of time—after I’ve gone and bothered myself doing something else, she’s going to be talking with the most dazzling women. Women with the gift of gab, women who used to work as sommeliers and can pick a bottle to prove it, women fluent in six languages, women who love to dance. Some of them won’t be from around here. Some of them are nothing like me. Any day now, it’ll be any day now.
She’ll drag toward the bookstore with a giftcard I’d given her, having decided it’s ok to use it up, our friends encouraging her ‘that’s why she gave it to you!’ She’ll be feeling kind of half-sleepy, like after a too-long nap in the sun, unsure what she’s looking for, but it’s nice to get out of the house, she’ll suppose. Already read all the books she’s got back at home.
There’s an orange cat there, hefty how the orange ones always are, and if he hasn’t kicked it by the time my Penelly makes it to the bookstore, he’ll greet her physically and vocally, and she’ll absent-mindedly thumb the real soft part between his ears, her long fingers reaching to fondle under his chin. The orange, fat cat—that’s also (if I’m recalling him correctly) pretty greasy and sheds too much for me to have ever given him more than a quick pat of acknowledgment—will turtle-stretch his neck in approval, pulling his skin taut so my Penelope can scratch it better.
Penelope is so good at petting cats they immediately assume she’s had the experience before, which cats don’t generally like, but as I said, they are so relaxed by the way she matches her strokes to their purrs, and she reads their body language so well they don’t mind if they aren’t the first to chubbily roll over under the influence of her gentle hands and smile, exposing their soft bellies.
In spite of itself, the fat, orange, greasy cat melts between Penny’s expert fingers and all over the shelved display of local-ingredient cookbooks. Maybe the cat gets the taste of salmon when it brushes against the book cover. I wouldn’t rule it out; they are very perceptive animals.
She decides to give the cat some space, and so he’s lazily reaching for her, wishing she’d stay. Penny mosies like a doe would over to her favorite area, where there’s books written by people who sat for a long while on top of mountains, or else they sat in caves, and whose bodies were thrown into the river after they’d left them.
She probably hasn’t gotten a haircut in that same year and change she’s been keeping to herself, or however long it is she waits, and so her hair curtains both sides of her face, brown as a chinchilla’s fur and soft like walnuts are.
It’s the other way around? Chinchillas aren’t brown and walnuts aren’t soft? If you say so, friend. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of either of those things, if you know what I mean.
Penelope is reaching toward a shelf, that lovely hair in ribbons down her freckled shoulders, and she’s bending a little at the knee and a little at the waist, and there it is: oh!
It’s daintiest little curtsy of surprise, the sound a hyacinth would make when its bumblebee lands on.
She turns to look. The pinky and ring finger which just touched her own pinky and ring finger have dirty fingernails, and they’re attached to a sunburned arm, which is mounted on a sunburned shoulder. Then my Penelope’s eyes will touch the eyes which own the shoulder, and the arm, and the fingers.
My gentle Penelope’ll then break eye contact, and she’ll make a little sound—not quite speech, and will do a kind of a weird little bow, and leave the section, and leave the bookstore. The orange cat, despite the earnestness of his feeling, will not be the most disappointed being left behind in the bookstore.
Driving home, Penelope will wonder if the dirt was wedged under the bookstore-woman’s fingernails during community garden flower-planting, or disadvantaged-youth-soccer coaching, or cleaning up after and playing with homeless pets, or something like that. My Penelope will return to the bookstore—three times that week, just in the area anyway, you know—but she won’t ever touch the woman with dirty fingernails again, accidentally or deliberately.
What are you thinking? This is not a story about me stalking her, or doing anything weird after a break up. This is not a story with room for heartbreak. This is not even a story. I am casting a spell on behalf of my Penelope. I am letting you in on a fantasy. I love my Penelope! I’m not sure how I could make my love for sweet Penelope any clearer; I’m having a hard enough time talking about her without devolving into babytalk and red-rimmed eyes. When she meets the first, and second, and et cetera women, I may as well have all my hands stuffed into a thousand of those big foam fingers PENELOPE’S #1!
I’ll be rooting for Penelly and the bookstore-woman! Who do you think will quietly, carefully whisper in Penny’s cute little ear, which will be burdened by my grooming fingers no longer, urging her to visit the book store over and over? Hell, who do you think will replace the blanket when nightmares thrash it away from her angelic face? I love my Penelope.
Ah, well, at least she’ll have dipped her toes again into feeling like she’s got to leave the book store immediately, or else she might puke all over herself, and all over the woman, because she’s so suddenly and completely excited. Dipped back into feeling her neck and cheeks get hot, because standing before her is a woman about her age, or maybe a little older, who happens to read the same kind of books and whose fingernails indicate she maybe, just maybe, also appreciates transplanting seedlings and spreading mulch. I’ll be excited she’s dipped back into fleeing, wrecking her chances of asking this woman to meet her for coffee, and then deciding, if she were in exceptionally rare form, to be so incredibly bold as to return to ask this woman to join her for sushi or Indian food. Both places are right there near the book store, anyway.
Of course, other people exist, and while I predict Penny will never see the bookstore-woman again, there will be others. My Penelly’s going to be so excited, it’ll be any day now. The next one will help her find the correct kind of lightbulb, even though she doesn’t work at the hardware store. She’s taller than my Penny, so she reaches up and grabs the bulbs, which makes Penny’s smile ooze out of her and toward the woman, slow like honey. The hardware woman smiles like a man having his picture taken after he’s caught a great, big fish. She asks Penny if she would have a drink, and Penny says ‘yes.’
Penny’s waiting maybe fifteen minutes past the time the hardware-woman said she’d pick her up in her loud-engined, tri-toned Ford truck, bigger and broader than the one I drove, and then the doorbell’s ringing, and then my Penelope’s opening the door. The woman who drives a truck bigger than the one I used to drive assures Penelope she won’t make a habit of keeping her waiting like this; the rusted truck’s gasoline makes a habit of escaping.
The woman hasn’t learned this yet, but Penelope told me she likes things that are “a little bit fucked up:” she couldn’t have been more charmed by the woman’s truck, and my Penelly’s not even into cars. So my darling, on a gouged and scarred vinyl seat, is off to the races.
Like that kind of thing sometimes goes, it will: heart-pounding and vision-blurring and big hands and stick shifts and holes in the knees of men’s-section blue jeans. Then it’s over, and while my delicate Penelope is catching her breath, a flag is thrown somewhere, and the hardware-woman is racing again, again.
Maybe it’s because she only drinks shirley temples and plays with the juke box, but when she’s dragged by friends insisting she should “start getting back out there,” I know my Penelope will be quite successful talking to the women in the pink bars. Maybe the hardware-woman is the type to kiss and tell, or maybe women are perceptive like cats, and they sense what a catch my darling is when they get close enough to chat with her.
Somehow they seem to know—maybe they smell it on her—that my Penell is the kind of person who always, always made me feel beautiful. This was probably easy for her at first, if I do say so myself. It got much harder.
When my hair mostly, but not all, fell out, but before I shaved the sparse remains off, I looked like the Crypt Keeper. My Penelope tucked me into bed and kissed me right on the head same as she had done the previous two years. The skin on my face peeled and sloughed, and my suppressed immune system broke me out in shingles, which blistered in a disgusting half belt around my left hip. Still, I could see my reflection in Penny’s eyes, and I was an image of shining iridescence, glittering in golden wings, and Penny was smiling.
She is the kind of woman who says, “of course I’m still attracted to you” and she’s laughing because she really means it. I’m not nearly as good as her, and though I like to think my attraction is based nearly 100% on being in love with her, I know I’m lucky to have been in the position I was, with her in the position she was.
I’m not some kind of monster, but come on! Before it all starts, it’s easy to imagine “of course” you’ll still be attracted to her. She’s still your wife! So she wears a wig, that’s fun, isn’t it? But it doesn’t stop after a little balding and chapped lips.
The effects of treatment were repulsive. Six months of puking on myself, pissing myself in public—not to mention the unfathomable, ungodly diarrhea. Squelching, singeing, squeaking diarrhea. She endured six months of the choking putridity which unmistakably hisses “sickness” into the nostrils of those nearby. After an episode, when I could stand again, there she’d be on the other side of the bathroom door, hoping I might feel good enough to take the oncologist-recommended daily walk around the block, and if not, maybe I’d at least feel good enough to tolerate her holding me and kissing my face.
The devotion Penelope offers is the light offered to Earth by the Sun: a natural, life-giving side effect of the processes that make up her very being.
She wasn’t committed to supporting me in this way because she “knew she was all that was keeping me going” or anything corn-syrupy-tragic like that, either. She didn’t think she “had to,” is what I’m saying. She just wanted to.
Even before I got sick, she would always immediately lap my writing up, but when she began working full-time because I couldn’t at all, it became all the more impressive. She became indefatigable.
When my mouth was pulsing with sores and became so sensitive even smashed avocado felt like chewing sand and shards of glass, she changed the way she kissed me. She became a butterfly, landing so gently.
Even if she were already wearing the black basketball shorts indicating she planned to stay in for the evening, when my tastebuds warped flavors, and told my brain everything tasted like a handful of nickels, my Penelope went on grocery trips: baby, why don’t you try this…
We kept my prescriptions together with their leaflets and I marked it ‘BOX O MEDS.’ I was prescribed more creams, more syringes, more pills—til it didn’t close right. I felt like throwing up every time I looked for the peak of the mountain my doctors made of medicine bottles, but my Penelope held my hand and guided me.
She hoisted my body over ridges of warning labels and restrictions and other phrases whittling away the control I had thus far managed to hang onto, fingernails cleaving and brittle, but digging in all the same. They said things like TAKE WITH FOOD, USE CARE WHEN OPERATING A VESSEL OR VEHICLE, and TAKE BY MOUTH FIVE TIMES DAILY. Lisinopril took my breath away, and metoprolol made it so I was more or less constantly an inch from passing out. Of course the infusions made me feel like I was going to throw up, but in actuality just produced the gnarliest diarrhea I’d ever heard of. I think I gave you a taste earlier.
Side effects collected over me in layers. Granix injections made me feel as if all of my bones were being stretched out like taffy, and lupron injections gave me hot flashes and put me into a state of shit-slinging insanity. I didn’t know what I wanted, I just wanted!
This weight piling, all of this, collapsed and made me pressure-sick. I cried and snarled and screamed.
Impenetrable, inviolable Penelope held me close through all of it. She stroked my hair until I fell asleep, and then again when I woke sweatily in the night. She let me choose the pizza toppings once I could eat pizza again. She did the dishes, fed the cat and cleaned her litter, she let me sleep on whichever side I wanted, she let me hold the controller, prepared little snacks, worked when I couldn’t, and she budgeted so I could buy something for myself once in a while.
I never felt the bristling of hidden resentment, and honest to god, I don’t think it was ever there. She loved me, and I needed her. To Penelope, it was simple as that.
This is why I’m so excited. Once she waits a little while, some respectful length of time, she’s gonna wade back out There, and these women are gonna be falling all over themselves to buy the next song on the jukebox, and fighting over getting to dance with her. She’ll have a few dinners with a younger woman, a few drinks with a softball player, maybe she’ll temporarily become the kind of person who goes skiing and hiking. Maybe she’ll even look twice at a man before thinking better of it.
She’s going to get hurt, but she’s going to have so much fun, too. And then she’s going to fall in love, and it’ll be the real thing, and it’ll last this time. She deserves to get to keep it.
Beaumont Sugar is an essayist, poet, and painter living in Anchorage, AK with Penelope and Waffle, their wife and cat. They hope you try punching above your weight class. More of their work can be found in HASH Journal, The Whorticulturalist, Ruminate Magazine, Appalachia Journal, and on instagram: @beaumontsugar.