Chapter 1 -- or with possible change in ending, a stand-alone short story.
Joy was late for the memorial service. Not that anyone would care, since she was an intruder. She followed the sign that said “Services for Jennifer Peters” and sat in the back of the crowded room.
Of course she knew none of the people.
She searched the front of the church for Paul. He must have finished his eulogy, because a tall, thin, 20-something young man in jeans was speaking. It had to be Travis, the son she had never seen before, talking about the woman she had never met.
“Everybody loved my Mom – her friends, her students, and most of all my Dad and me.
My whole life she was a wonderful mother. She always put us first. Even when she got sick, even when she felt like…like ..like ..crap ….she never wanted us to feel sorry for her.”
Joy frowned. That wasn’t what Paul had said about Jenny.
Travis went on. “I couldn’t face that I was losing my Mom.” His voice broke. “I wish I had talked to her more toward the end, but I just couldn’t. But she always knew how much I loved her. And last week when I said goodbye to her for the last time, I told her I.. And I know she always, always loved me.”
People were wiping their eyes and blowing their noses. Joy had a lump in her throat, thinking about her son Jeff. What would he say at her memorial service? Did he know how much she loved him? Probably not, because she had never shown it enough. She hadn’t been a very nurturing mother. Or grandmother. God no, she had to stop thinking about that. She would think about Paul, instead.
Finally she saw the back of Paul’s head. Would he be surprised to see her? Would he be glad?
Now a woman was talking about what a wonderful teacher Jenny had been. .” She touched so many lives at our school. She loved being with the kids. She didn’t just teach history, she opened their eyes to the whole world.”.
Okay, so she walked on water, Joy thought. Maybe I should stand up and say she might have been a great mother and a great teacher but she wasn’t so great in the wife department. Maybe I should say I never knew her, but her husband sure was good in bed.
Her mind drifted to how the affair with Paul began. They met a year ago when they were
both in a support group for families of cancer patients, Paul because Jenny had non-Hodgkins lymphoma and Joy because her 4-year old granddaughter, Melinda, had leukemia.
Paul and Joy soon found themselves talking across the group to each other instead of to the others in the group. Then they started going out for a drink after the meetings. She told him about her unhappiness with Max. He told her about his unhappiness with Jenny. They laughed. They kissed. They went to a motel and made love.
Joy wasn’t in love, but she was definitely irrationally exuberant. When she came home to Max she.didn’t feel the usual smoldering resentment. Instead she withdrew into thoughts of Paul. And because Melinda was getting better, Joy could stop worrying about her and enjoy this exciting new adventure.
But while Melinda was getting better, Jenny was getting sicker. Gradually Paul had to spend more and more time with her, first at the hospital, then at home. There were fewer ardent e-mail messages, no more motel visits. His last message to Joy simply said “The pain is getting bad.The hospice nurse is coming every day now.”
Joy’s reverie stopped abruptly as the next speaker said, “One of the most wonderful things about Jenny and Paul was the example they set of what a marriage should be. They were devoted to each other. Just seeing their love for each other helped make all our lives so rich….”.
Joy felt a jolt of dismay. Was that just the kind of thing you have to say at a memorial service, or could she have been wrong about Paul’s marriage? She assumed that Paul’s marriage, like hers, may have looked okay on the outside, but was empty on the inside. She assumed Paul had been unhappy for years before Jenny got sick. Hadn’t he said there was not sex, no communication about important things, no real fun?
Suddenly the service was over and people were milling around, surrounding Paul and Travis. Joy sat still, waiting, while the room began to empty. Finally she saw Paul walking down the aisle toward the back of the room.
She got up and walked toward him until he noticed her.
“Joy….. It’s so.nice of you to come.”
Her heart quickening, she embraced him.
His eyes darted around the room as he gently pulled away.
“Hi, Paul,” she said. “Of course I came. How are you holding up?”
“Oh, it’s been a rough few weeks, but I’m fine now.”
“How’s Travis doing? He seems pretty broken up.”
“He’ll be OK Don’t worry, he’s a lot more resilient than he seems.”
“Do you think I could meet him?” She hoped she wasn’t being too pushy.
“Oh no, that’s not a good idea…. He’s just lost his mother… it would be really hard to explain…..you know ..”
Joy hid her disappointment. “Of course…. Well,,.. maybe some other time.”
“So how are you, Joy? How’s Max?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “Holding the course.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, laughing.
She smiled, pleased that he remembered how they used to make fun of Max’s pro-war views.
“Thank God the chemotherapy is working. Her kind of leukemia is a lot more curable than what Jenny had.”
“That’s for sure.”
There was a pause
Time to get to the point, she decided. “So…. what are your plans now that you’re…on your own?”
“Well, I’m not exactly sure yet. First I’ve got to take care of cleaning up legal things, go through Jenny’s things, get the house….”.
She interrupted: “If you need any help….”
He went on. “I know it sounds weird, but even though taking care of Jenny was really hard for me, it’s like there’s this huge empty void where all that work was…like this big hole in my life where Jenny used to be.”
Could those be tears in his eyes? No, it couldn’t be possible. “You’ve been so tied down, it’s got to be kind of a relief to know that finally you’re really free,” Joy said.
Paul blinked a few times. “Yeah, I’ve got to get used to that idea. It’s beginning to dawn on me that I have a whole new chapter of my life in front of me. I don’t know….maybe I’ll go on a cruise or something.”
In her imagination Joy could see him on a cruise ship, a handsome 50-year old widower surrounded by eager women.
An awkward pause.
Joy took a breath and forced a smile. “Paul, do you want to get together sometime?”
He looked uncomfortable.
“ Just for lunch or something, I mean..”
“ Oh sure, lunch sometime ” he said.
She tried to think of something lighthearted and witty to say.
“Well Joy,” he said. “I want you to know that this has been…”.
Please don’t say it’s been special, she silently prayed.
“ This has been special,” Paul said. “I hope we’ll always be friends.” Then he turned away to join Travis.
She left the church and sat in her car, her head pressed against the steering wheel, furious at herself. What was I thinking? Of course Paul doesn’t want to get together again, and of course I don’t want to either. I’m very lucky, she told herself. I have a live husband, difficult as he is, and a wonderful, happy son.... a good job......and best of all my darling Melinda is recovering from that awful leukemia.
Then why did her life seem so empty and meaningless? She envied Paul. She wanted a whole new chapter in her life, too.
Her thoughts stopped abruptly when her cell phone rang. “Mom?” It was Jeff. “Something’s really wrong with Melinda. Her skin is turning yellow and she’s acting strange. We’re taking her to the emergency room right now.”