Jack's upset about his anniversary, but not because he's forgotten it. Why then?
A short story
(Dedicated to a friend)
Jack heard the muffled closing of a door downstairs: the nanny had left for the night. He stepped into his bedroom quietly, his black-socked feet sliding along the hardwood floor. He and Kaylie had planned to buy a throw rug for this room years ago, but still it hadn’t been done. He made a mental note to purchase one for what seemed like the thousandth time.
Carefully leaning over his nightstand, Jack flipped on a dim yellow light. It originated from an antique lamp, older than he was. It had belonged to his grandparents, dead for years now. Years, he thought. Why, it seemed like only yesterday that they’d still been alive and well, and attending his college graduation with his parents, his sister, and Kaylie.
Yes, Kaylie. He smiled.
Jack gazed down adoringly at his wife, lying there in her customary position on the right side of the bed. A soft radiant glow shone from her face, as always. Jack bent down and kissed her gently, careful not to jostle her. He stood back up, and began to undress, a tear in his eye.
Today had been the fifteenth anniversary of the day they met. And I spent the whole day at work, he thought. I didn't even get the chance to...
He let out a soft sigh.
He crawled into bed beside her, thinking of how he had spent so much of the last five years at his workplace. But he had to, he reasoned – he had no choice. There were the kids to think about, after all. And the expenses. All those expenses. He was still paying them off.
His attempt at self-consolation didn’t help: he had still spent the whole day at work. A lone tear streaked down his cheek, and he burrowed his head into the pillow.
More tears. He couldn’t stop them. Turning, he buried his face completely in the pillow, waiting until his crying had stopped. Minutes passed, and it finally did.
Fifteen years, he thought again. Fifteen years.
He reached tentatively to turn off the lamp, and decided against it. No, he wasn’t ready to fall asleep yet. He was still wound too tightly.
Again, he glanced at Kaylie, her smile still glowing in the room’s dim light. So peaceful, so loving. Kaylie. His treasure. His rock.
She was such a comfort to him. She didn’t need to speak; even now, he could hear her words. “I understand, honey,” she’d say, “We have the kids to think about. Someday, we won’t need the money as badly, and you can spend more time with us. But until then…”
And then she’d stop, shine her sunny grin, and place a kiss on his cheek.
Kaylie. My rock.
Contemplating this, he smiled at the irony: yes, my rock, he thought again. It was a rock that brought us together in the first place.
They had met at Penn State during freshman move-in week. It was August of 1988, before their college lives had even officially begun. Kaylie had been walking around the enormous University Park campus, completely devoid of any sense of direction, searching for the Student Center building. She wore a turquoise blouse, a white skirt, and sandals. Her feathered blonde hair lay just below her shoulders.
She glanced down at her campus map. She had always been lousy at reading them, Jack thought now, smiling.
“You look lost,” he finally said to her over her shoulder.
Kaylie looked up, seeing him for the first time.
What she saw was a skinny freckle-faced boy with a mane of dyed yellowish-green hair wearing baggy blue jeans, liberally stitched with patches featuring the names of heavy metal bands. Above these, he wore a black t-shirt with the word Slayer silk-screened upon it.
So different from the button-down shirt and tie I wear everyday now, Jack thought in the present. He ran a hand through his thinning hair. I used to have a lot more of this, too.
“No, I’m fine,” Kaylie had told him, “I’m just getting my bearings.”
“You headed to the student center?” he asked, “That’s where all the activities are. I’ll go with ya.” It was more a question than a statement.
“Um, okay,” she said. She told him years later that she agreed only because it seemed impolite to refuse. Jack grinned at the recollection.
“Come on, it’s this way,” he had said, motioning across the street.
To this day he still didn’t know how he did it, but as he walked across that street, Jack managed to trip over a rock that couldn’t have been any more than three inches in diameter. I have probably walked over stones that size a thousand times by now and never fallen, he estimated in the present. And yet, somehow, that day, I had fallen over that rock.
It had to be fate, he thought as he glanced over at Kaylie.
He had broken his ankle in several places because of that fall, and had been howling in pain because of it. Hours later, he would be falling in love with her because of it. For on that day, Kaylie displayed to him the same loving, caring, and determined demeanor that would eventually make her a stellar nurse, an unbelievable mother, and an adored wife.
She sprang into action, jumping before a parking car. “Get help!” she screamed to the upperclassman behind the wheel, “This kid is hurt!”
Jack still laughed at that, about how even through all that pain, he was disappointed at that moment to hear her refer to him as “kid.”
Kaylie accompanied him to the hospital that day, and later back to his dorm. For the next few months, she walked with him to class every day, helping to carry his books. Eventually, she began spending time with him away from class, as well. By the time Jack’s ankle had healed altogether, the couple was inseparable.
Jack looked over at his wife. Such a pretty, vibrant smile. It hadn't changed at all.
In fifteen years, he thought.
It made him laugh now, and it made him eternally grateful: the thought that this valedictorian suburban academy girl had fallen for him, head-banger Jack, who only went to college because his parents had forced him to.
It didn’t take him long to realize his good fortune, he recalled. And he couldn’t help but be reminded of it by his freshman buddies on an almost daily basis. “How did you get her?” they’d constantly ask, while scheming some method to draw her attention away from Jack, and towards them.
Unfortunately, Kaylie’s friends weren’t much better. “What do you see in him?” they’d ask her incessantly. Kaylie tried her best to keep this from Jack, but he knew – he could tell just by the way they’d look at him that he was being judged. It was an established fact: Jack wasn’t good enough for Kaylie.
He quickly determined that he was going to be. He cleaned up his act, cutting his hair and trading in his death-metal t-shirts and patched-up jeans for golf shirts and khakis. He declared himself a Computer Science major and dedicated himself to studying as diligently as he could. Three years later, it had worked: Jack had graduated Magna Cum Laude, and was offered a lucrative position as a programmer with a prominent aerospace manufacturing company. He was about to get into some big bucks, he thought. Suddenly, Kaylie’s friends didn’t look at him so askance anymore.
Not that Kaylie’s opinion of him had ever wavered. From the moment they’d met, Kaylie was by his side, no matter what he did (or, Jack mused, what he didn’t do). And she hadn’t done so badly herself, either. She graduated from Penn State with a nursing degree, at the top of her class. She was simply wonderful.
She was so wonderful, in fact, that she told Jack she’d follow him wherever he’d go after graduation, despite his protests to the contrary that she pursue whatever course was best for her in life. She countered, reasoning that she could find a nursing job anywhere; she understood that computer programming wasn’t so accommodating. What was best for her in life, she told him, was that they’d be together.
Buoyed by this confidence, and by the love that had developed between them during the past four years, Jack at last proposed to her, at the very spot on campus where he had fallen during move-in week. A year later they were married.
Their wedding day was unbearably hot, the hottest day of the summer in fact, but it didn’t deter their joy in any way: Kaylie and Jack were made for each other. By the time they had announced their vows to one another, no one who knew them could suggest otherwise.
They went to Utah for their honeymoon, simply because they hadn’t enough money yet to afford anything better. The biggest attraction there had been Bryce Canyon. He remembered the car ride to it from their hotel.
“So, how does it feel to be married?” Kaylie had asked him.
“Well,” Jack paused, “Can I get back to you on that?” he said, laughing.
Kaylie humphed dramatically, and folded her arms, making a mock pouting gesture.
“Oh, you know I’m only kidding, honey,” he said. He rubbed her shoulder from across the front of their rented pick-up truck. “You’re perfect for me. You know that. It’s why I married you.”
“I would hope so. Because you know I always do have the option to get a divorce,” she said, attempting to hide her smile.
“Well, yes. Yes, you do,” Jack agreed. “But don’t you think that’s a bit hasty of a decision to make after one day of marriage?”
“Hmm… I suppose so,” Kaylie said, lifting her chin in the air. “I suppose I can give you another day or two before I dump your sorry behind.”
She giggled, and leaned over to give him a peck on the cheek. He laughed too.
“This was a great idea, Jack,” she said, “I can’t wait to see Bryce Canyon. What a perfect place for a honeymoon.”
“Yeah. And I feel so manly driving this big ol’ pickup truck, too. Grrrr!” he grunted, puffing out his shoulders ridiculously to look macho.
“You’re so silly,” laughed Kaylie, shaking her head.
They passed a sign mentioning the distance to the Canyon. “Well, we’re getting there, slowly but surely,” he said.
“So, I shouldn’t repeat ‘Are we there yet?’ every five minutes, then?” she asked.
“No, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t.”
“Oh. Okay. Fine.”
A moment passed.
“Are we there yet?”
Jack laughed at the memory. Typical Kaylie, he thought. Her sense of humor hadn’t changed in all the time he’d known her. Goofy, sweet, and harmless, all at once. His perfect complement, he thought.
His eyes were adjusting to the dimness of the room. Over on the bureau, he could see the soft glimmer reflecting from the frames of their children’s baby pictures.
First, there was Jack, Jr. His birth shouldn’t have been any cause for alarm – the pregnancy had gone without a hitch – but Jack had been a wreck that day just the same. He made a valiant effort, though, vowing to himself beforehand that he would stay by Kaylie’s side during the delivery. He lasted all of five minutes before fainting.
When he came to, a nurse was standing above him. “That was quite a fall,” she said.
“Fall?” he asked, groggy, his eyes still focusing. Then he remembered where he was. “Oh my God! My wife!” he shouted, “The baby!”
“They’re quite fine. And congratulations, Mr. Warner,” she said, “You are the father of a healthy baby boy.”
Jack could still recall the mixture of pride and wonder (and a bit of lightheadedness) that he felt upon hearing that announcement. As he continued to regain his senses, he asked, “How’s Kaylie?”
“She’s fine. She’s with the baby right now.”
The rest of the memory was hazy to him, between the day’s excitement and his throbbing headache. But it had been the happiest day of his life.
He fixated on his son’s picture, smiling. His gaze shifted to the next picture, of his daughter Emily, born nearly four years ago.
Emily’s, he recalled, was an unbelievably tense pregnancy. On three different occasions when Kaylie had “spotted”, she and Jack had been told by her gynecologist that they were likely going to lose the baby. Each time, however, Emily pulled through. It was nothing short of a miracle.
The anticipated day for Emily’s delivery came and went. A week passed. Another. She was now more than two weeks overdue. The doctor determined it was time for a C-section.
C-section. The word made Jack cringe now.
They drove quickly to the hospital. When they arrived there, the doctor began by frantically checking Kaylie’s stomach, unable to find a pulse for their child. It was possible it just wasn’t registering, he said – stranger things had happened. What Jack and Kaylie worried about, of course, were the normal things that happened.
The doctor began the Caesarean delivery. Kaylie was unconscious now. Jack couldn’t stand it any longer; he had to leave. He didn’t want to faint again and distract the doctor from his purpose. He left the room without saying a word.
He paced restlessly back and forth in the waiting room for what seemed like hours. He finally sat down, manically twiddling his thumbs.
“First time father?” an elderly man beside him asked.
“And you’re this nervous? You’d think it’d be old hat by now,” said the man, laughing.
“Yeah, but you don’t know what this pregnancy has been like,” answered Jack, “It’s been nothing but one long, tense…” He began to hyperventilate.
“Shhh… calm down,” said the old man softly, “Breathe in. Breathe.”
Jack obeyed. He breathed. The hyperventilating stopped.
“Thanks,” he said.
“No problem,” replied the old man, “I’ve been here enough times myself. I understand.”
A thought occurred to Jack. “Oh? Are you waiting right now?”
The old man laughed. “No, no, this one’s not mine. I’m far too old for that. My daughter’s the one in there giving birth. Her husband's away on business in Hong Kong, so someone had to be here for her.”
“I see. That’s really nice of you.”
“It’s the least I could do,” said the old man, “We gotta carry each other. It’s what we’re here for.”
“Yeah. I guess it…”
A nurse interrupted them.
“Mr. Warner?” she called.
Jack turned to face her.
“I- I’m Mr. Warner.”
“Mr. Warner, could you please come here, sir?” she said, urgent.
He looked at the old man.
“Go on,” he said, “I’m sure everything’s fine.”
Jack nodded. He approached the nurse, preparing for the worst.
Jack recalled now the old man’s statement in that waiting room, four years before: "We gotta carry each other," he told him, "It's what we're here for." It kept replaying in his mind.
Amazingly, Emily had turned out fine, despite all the problems. She wasn’t stillborn – she didn’t even have any defects. She was a perfectly healthy baby girl. God had decided in His infinite wisdom to grant Jack a flawless baby girl.
He smiled. The smile slowly waned. Soon it was gone.
Yes, he thought, God had decided in His infinite wisdom to grant me a baby girl.
And to take away my wife.
She had lost too much blood, the doctor told him. It was a rare complication. She likely never felt a thing, he said – it had all occurred while she was unconscious.
And I was never able to say goodbye, thought Jack.
Again he began to sob. He glanced over at his wife.
“Goodbye, Kaylie,” he said, his voice cracking. He bent down to kiss the photograph on the bed beside him, a single tear landing upon his wife’s face. He reached over, turned off the light, and nestled into his pillow, still weeping.
Fifteen years, he thought.
Later that night, Jack still lay in darkness, tossing and turning. I spent the whole day at work, he thought again. I didn't even get the chance to visit her grave.
He heard a knock upon his bedroom door.
He sat up quickly. “What is it, honey? Come in.”
A little girl opened the door. She was the spitting image of her mother.
“I can’t get to sleep,” she said.
“I know, honey. It’s okay.”
He motioned beside him. “Come here, Emily. You can sleep next to me tonight.”
As she approached the bed, Jack reached out and tucked Kaylie’s picture beneath his pillow. Emily burrowed in beside him.
“Thanks, Daddy,” she said.
“You’re welcome, honey,” he answered. He bent over and placed a kiss upon her forehead. She soon fell asleep.
Jack took hold of the photo underneath his pillow. Gripping it tightly, he smiled through tears.
"We gotta carry each other," he whispered, "It's what we're here for."
He finally fell to sleep.