“What are you thinking?” her husband asked her.
In their twenty years of marriage he had never asked her that.
She was still recovering from today’s bad news when the doctors admitted that every treatment they tried for her husband had failed; tonight would turn out to be their last night together.
They had gone to bed silently—considerate of blankets, gracious about space. Their reading lights bestowed on them two separate hellish haloes, though she could tell by the tilt of their books they were both unable to read. The cliché “each in their own thoughts” made her acutely aware of just how separate they were and soon would be forever. All that he had observed, read, and felt would be taken from her. His architect’s eye, his impish laugh, his long fingers, his closet full of silly ties he thought no one suspected were clip-ons. His life taken from him.
Before his question, her gaze had wandered to his bedroom closet—repository of those silly ties. Slightly larger, her own closet was halfway down the hall outside their bedroom door. His closet would soon be hers. It was as plain as that.
“What are you thinking,” he asked again.
It was the worst moment of her life, except the moment of his death. Stricken she turned to him, to his thin face against the white pillow, his tattered hair, and without considering for a second telling him the truth, she lied.
But he knew exactly what she was thinking. He had followed her gaze, and read her mind. So why had he asked? Maybe he wanted her to know that outliving him was simply the way she would be in this world.
She can’t remember what she told him, but she recalls her immense relief at how generously he accepted it and reached for her hand. Clearly he had already imagined her skirts and sweaters and scarves drifting from the hall to his bedroom closet, her shoes and boots meandering their way to the closet’s floor, her blue silk bathrobe hanging where his once hung—on the door’s high, brass hook.
Pamela Painter is the author of 3 story collections, Wouldn’t You Like to Know?, Getting to Know the Weather and The Long and Short of It, and is co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in New World Writing, Five Points, Matter Press, Narrative, SmokeLong Quarterly, among others, and have been reprinted in Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, and Microfiction. She has won three Pushcart Prizes, and teaches in the MFA Program at Emerson College in Boston.