Having stumbled upon a tone suggesting something between an end-of-consultation good luck and a post-lovemaking goodnight, my darling, Nita tells the long-lost classmate to hang in there, okay? Now she’s ready to hang up already. She’s done enough. She’s been sympathetic and helpful. She’s given him the name of a specialist and explained that the nameless radiation physicist will be more important to the outcome. She’s told him to be sure to use her name when making an appointment.
She’s been pretty great. After all, she could have let his landline call go to voicemail like a solicitation.
But instead of hanging up, Spider says, “Just one more thing—” And Nita wants to scream: Whatever it is, ask your regular doctor! But the one more thing turns out not to be chest pains or athlete’s foot, but an invitation. Murals by their old painting teacher, Erich Grüen, will be displayed in a solo show at a gallery in Chelsea—in October. It’s January. The exhibit is ten months away. Spider says it will be something for him to look forward to after the treatments.
Nita can hardly refuse; after all, the two of them had originally bonded over their interest in Grüen—his art and his history.
She tells Spider to call her in the fall and they’ll make a plan. She doesn’t ask for follow-ups on his impending medical ordeal. She thinks she should, but she doesn’t. She tells herself he should be okay. But in the echo of his heartbreaking thank you, she knocks on a cabinet door, grateful that it’s wood. They hang up and she shudders, twirls around, stops and wonders, in the middle of the kitchen she once loved: is it a sign that Alan Wildstern, aka Spider, called out of the blue with a health question she could actually answer on the exact same day she’d been asked out by Yuri Blauovitch? Had, in fact, caught her in the midst of trying to decide whether to do the right thing and say no or the not-that-wrong thing and say Yes, I would like to join you for dinner.
Yuri Blauovitch is, after all, a major donor.
Her smart-ass son, who rents a room in her brain, mutters, “Don’t you mean ‘major married donor’?”
“He’s separated,” she snaps back, suddenly determined to accept Yuri’s invitation. It’s time already. Almost a year of promiscuous JDate dating has gotten her no closer to feeling less widowed.
"She’s been pretty great. After all, she could have let his landline call go to voicemail like a solicitation."
Come Saturday night, Yuri leads her to a quiet table just the right distance from the fireplace, and makes sure she has a perfect view of the flames. She’s always wanted to see The Russian Tea Room. When it closed she thought she’d lost her chance, but it has reopened, and she takes special delight in the over-the-top-ness of the baubles and the ornate Slavic carvings. Yuri smears caviar over brown bread with a delight, a relish, she finds surprisingly sexy. He isn’t handsome. He isn’t young. But he compliments her curls and complexion. He is interested in how his foundation could help her clinic. He taps her ringless fingers and raises an eyebrow.
She tells him: “Widowed. I was married for twenty years.”
This is where her JDate dates—educated, opinioned professionals—either turned dinner into a therapy session featuring bipolar parent/sibling/ roommate/child or hold forth on what Nita should have done or be doing. Yuri tells her he’s been procrastinating about going forward with his divorce. “It’s a business matter at this point.” He shrugs. “You know how it is.”
Nita considers being offended by his assumption that she understands and sanctions his financial shenanigans, but he asks what she’d like for dessert, a very sweet distraction. Five dinners and desserts later, he gets her into bed, where she retrieves the long-buried details of her naked weekend with Spider, the two of them young and sad and wowed, again and again, by the consolation of sex.
The next time Spider calls her landline, Grüen’s murals are up and it’s as if Nita and Spider have been secretly seeing one another for exactly as long as she’s been sleeping with Yuri.
Two days later, crossing 23rd Street on a deliciously cool October morning, she feels young, or how young is rumored to feel: sexy, openhearted, unencumbered. In her actual youth, she’d done a lot of brooding—until a powerful yet cheerful pragmatism kicked in when she was 28 and pregnant and the unflappable biologist she’d married started having panic attacks. Maybe he’d never stopped. Maybe all those years, even during their good times, he’d lived in agony. Maybe she’d never known him. God, no.
Onward: she’s almost 51 and it’s her Wednesday afternoon off and she looks pretty good. She’s wearing a funky black dress and a gorgeous sweater made of tiny silver beads. She’s meeting a respected professor of history. Spider’s recently completed a book on the history of war posters and come up for tenure at Williams. She’s googled him. There wasn’t much. Only this: In his thorough study of the iconography of American xenophobia from 1890 to 1920, Wildstern traces the images and forces that became the fodder of WWI recruiting posters.
Nita wishes now that she’d taken the time to order the book—available for fifty cents on Amazon. It would have been something to talk about besides the illness and the past. But too late for that now. She checks the gallery address, checks her watch, and sighs, looking up at the cloudless sky.
Okay: what really matters is that by this point Spider has a very good prognosis. She knocks on her head, which stands for wood in a pinch, turns onto 21st Street, and lo and behold: he’s there. Still homely. Still short. Still big-eared. He’s balding but not chemo-bald. Thank God.
They hug in honor of this lovely morning. Then they look at one another, in no hurry, as if, having had nearly thirty years to get together, the moment on the sidewalk deserves some time. No rush to stand in front of Grüen’s paintings. Nita’s thinking they might even get some coffee first. But then without warning, Spider breaks the friendly mood by getting grateful-patient on her: “You saved me, Dr. Meyers,” he says.
Nope. None of that. She presses the gallery’s intercom button, gets buzzed in as Spider takes it upon himself to beat her to the knob, and within seconds the two of them spill into the hushed gallery. Behind a sleek desk, a girl with dramatically asymmetrical hair smiles carefully. Otherwise, the place seems empty, emptiness with murals all around. Spider whispers in her ear, “Let’s pretend we’re in the market.”
She murmurs, “I might be.”
He moves back and raises his voice, asking, “Really? You’re still in love with Grüen?”
“No. God, no. I have a Russian boyfriend with serious money.” Yuri has an apartment that could actually handle one of these paintings. It has the wall space, and light. But Yuri’s apartment isn’t hers to decorate—even if he does claim it’s their home. “Just a silly thought.” She goes to the guest book and inexplicably signs with her husband’s last name, which she’d never taken: Nita Chao.
"she feels young, or how young is rumored to feel: sexy, openhearted, unencumbered."
Then she’s drawn in by the colors of the enormous vibrant canvases: oceans, deserts, moonscapes. Luscious fuchsias and aquas and blues flow through her veins. In night skies, burning angels that swoop like bats. Bearded gods in robes play some kind of Alice in Wonderland-ish board game. An Arab trader with enormous muscles in his arms and chest sells jewels to a blond Hollywood starlet with a live boa, its jaws open, curling up from her back like a tattoo come to life.
Spider mutters: “Chagall meets Star Trek meets the Old Testament meets Fox News.”
Nita definitely doesn’t want to get into politics; Yuri’s are distinctly Fox News-ish. A problem, yes, but for another day.
And her affection for Grüen’s work seems immune to dissection. In a way that she doesn’t want to defend, the exhibit moves her. The nonbiblical paintings seem to be legitimate depictions of a survivor’s sustaining visions: Grüen’s mysterious underwater creatures almost match the tranquil beauty of Monet’s water lilies ($12,000, and the one she will—maybe, depending—mention to Yuri). But Grüen’s little fish seem to be recalling struggles. There’s depth in their little fish faces, as if they’re holding the secret of where they were hidden, as baby fish, while Nazi sharks were circling.
When Erich Grüen arrived on the Vermont campus during the winter of senior year, he told Nita she was the most beautiful girl there, which was absurd. The college was alive with lithe dancers and skinny artists in black leather, and thanks to their generosity, Grüen never lacked for free cigarettes. But Nita, Grüen insisted, was a woman to worship in her roundness and her soft pastel sweaters. He looked charmed when she talked about her plan to become a first-rate medical illustrator. He saw what he called “Wirklichkeit,” realness, in her depictions of anklebones in various positions, or mice in traps.
He probably knew medical illustration was a career that would disappear with new technology. If he didn’t, he should have. And he probably knew she’d adapt; she was already acing organic chemistry. But she didn’t want to know those things he probably knew. She wanted him to rescue her from her fate, to take her with him when he went back to Vienna, a city that Spider, an undergraduate who’d never been to Europe, had made come alive with dead artists and geniuses. She had believed Spider completely when he said his biography of Grüen would be great.
Now he’s holding forth on Viennese Fantastic Realism, how when the movement began, critics were vicious. “But Grüen didn’t give a damn about critics. He was going to be rich and nothing was stopping him. There were Americans with money who would pay for his paintings. They didn't buy into abstraction—Grüen knew this.” Spider rants on about the lack of irony, of any attempt at complexity.
Then he wanders off to the back rooms and Nita sits down. It’s hit her the way it does sometimes that the years since her husband’s death have been exhausting: their son’s scary anger, her pathetic run of JDates, and now the long wait for Yuri’s divorce. It’s strange that no one knows what she’s been through. How has she appeared to adapt so well to widowhood that friends and colleagues assume she and her Chinese husband must have been estranged all along?
We were never estranged. We were in love. Always. She wants to run down to the river and shout this truth to their old house in New Jersey. Yes, they had problems with money: the treatments that seemed to save him got them deep into debt. But they remained kind to one another. They spoke a secret language. They coined their own silly words for private parts and odors and demons, words based on bastardized English and Mandarin. And they found joy in being parents. And no matter the side effects of Liang’s medications, they found a way to make love.
“Nita, get over here!” Spider sounds rattled.
Now what? Her first thought is that Grüen had painted her nude. But she’d never posed for him nude. Still, she can already hear Yuri asking, Can you get me a deal on the naked picture?
She stands up and braces herself for whatever’s rattled Spider. When she sees what he has summoned her to see she’s relieved, amused even, to see herself, younger, and dressed in an evening gown, all glitter and shimmer: she’s wrapping a bandage around the hand of a younger Spider, who’s wearing a monocle and Tarzan costume. They’re in a wood of white birch trees and swirling spirits. Nita certainly looks good, even holy, focused on the task—his hand. $8500.
Spider rolls his eyes. “What’s with the ridiculous Tarzan getup?”
“Must be a comment on your inner ape-man, your primal anger.”
Which Spider, his face reddening, is apparently not over. “He betrayed me, Nita.”
“Well, he hurt us both. But it’s history.”
“History that matters. I was entitled to that apprenticeship. My proposal for his biography was first-rate. He knew it was good. He strung me along for weeks.”
“And me. But I wouldn’t have lasted a week.” Nita can hardly believe she was desperate to go to Vienna and wash the great Grüen’s paintbrushes.
Spider sneers, “Grüen just wanted a yes-man.”
“Right. We should have seen that.”
Spider mutters: “He called me a parasite.”
“Come on. Get over it. You’re a professor with an excellent prognosis.”
Spider shrugs, closes his eyes and shakes his head, opens his eyes and gives Nita a wink. She winks back. She has no idea what’s up, but Gallery Gal is approaching. Spider sighs a sigh she doesn’t recognize and says, “I know we were just going to look, Nittie. But we’re in this painting, and I can see how much you want it. You look stunning. Doesn’t she?” he asks Gallery Gal, who’s comparing the painting and the two potential buyers.
Nita boasts—why not? “We studied with the artist.”
Gallery Gal asks, “In Vienna?”
Spider sighs again, more like himself. “That was the dream. He was looking for an apprentice. My wife here thought the Maestro would save her from a life of usefulness. I was prepared to write his authorized biography. But life—”
“I know what you mean,” Gallery Gal whispers, with sincerity, from atop ridiculously high red pumps. Nita wants to tell her to take them off, to feel the nice cool floor through her stockings. Gallery Gal asks, “Did you really dress like that for Erich Grüen?”
“I think we were wearing jeans and sweaters,” Nita recalls. “But there really was a white bandage.” She really did wrap the whiteness around Spider’s scraped, raw fist, for he really had punched a canvas, and Nita really had screamed, You’re bleeding!
Spider asks, “Didn’t Grüen break your sweet young suburban heart immediately after betraying me?”
Nita hisses: “Shhh.” They sound married all right.
Gallery Gal blurts, “I can talk to his agent about getting you a special markdown. After all, you’re the inspiration!” She takes out her phone and starts typing, and Spider whispers to Nita: “I didn’t get tenure. I can’t afford a thing in this place. Let’s get out now!”
"They’re in a wood of white birch trees and swirling spirits. Nita certainly looks good, even holy, focused on the task—his hand. $8500."
Nita thrusts a card at Gallery Gal and follows Spider out the door and down the sidewalk and along Seventh Avenue so fast she can barely keep up without crashing into strangers. “What’s your rush?” she calls out.
“I have to piss!”
He charges into a crosswalk. A cab blares its horn. Spider goes silent and broody. Nita muses on the list of bathroom-related symptoms he could be keeping from her. A grim litany indeed. And the restaurant he’s been so keen to get to isn’t exactly cheery, either: a couple of gray-haired diners, black and white tiled floor, black and white photos of old-time actors on black and white tiled walls.
They take a booth and Spider orders the scrambled eggs with matzos. “I’ll have the same,” Nita tells the craggy waiter, who cracks a smile. Nita suddenly wants to tell the old guy that he must have once been unspeakably handsome. But he makes his slow way to the kitchen as Spider takes off for the men’s room. Alone, she feels uneasy. For one thing, she has to start worrying about Spider’s health insurance status. For another, he’s started growing on her, in spite of his arrogance and indignation. She remembers how on weekend mornings in college he used to make delicious French toast with warmed real Vermont maple syrup. She gets an email from Gallery Gal and doesn’t delete it. You never know.
Spider returns, sits, and looks at Nita with sheepish fondness. He says, “Hey there.”
“Hey, Spider.” She smiles sadly. He napkins his lap and takes a pumpernickel roll from the basket with anticipatory delight. She remembers his hands, remembers with nostalgia, not with the actual longing she’s summoned so often lately. He says, “So Nita, long story, I’m not a professor anymore.”
She tries to look merely curious, but she’s nervous. “What are you, then?” Not the most tactful question, but he laughs. Thank God he can laugh. And it isn’t a bitter laugh.
“I teach at something called a learning center. Basically, it’s a Korean cram school, just outside Washington, DC. I have my eye on a Korean mom. Divorced. Her daughters are setting us up.”
In Nita’s head, Yuri’s voice mutters, “Good luck with that.” She tells the voice to shut up.
Spider explains that a short-term position at George Mason University had taken him to Northern Virginia. He didn’t fit in: the GMU faculty thought he was a snob because he’d been at Williams. “I did my best. I was so humble it was all I could do not to be smug about my humility.” For a brief flash there, he looks the opposite of smug. But the sadness passes as their lunch arrives: fluffy eggs, milk-soaked matzos. Nita knew Spider would know what to order and she tells him and he notes that excellent matzo brei is hard to find, even in New York. Then, as if realizing he’s sitting in the City across from a grown-up widow he would like to know better, he says, “Tell me about your husband.”
“You would have liked him.” She talked about how he’d held onto his passion for research, though he hated Big Pharma and university labs wouldn’t hire him. “He was considered too risky: he had a history of bipolar disorder. The kind that requires residential treatments. The expensive kind.”
“It was hard, but it was okay.” Even at his worst, Liang Chao was the gentlest of madmen: depressed, he kept the pain to himself. Manic, he hoarded obscure ingredients from Asian markets—strange frozen fish, mysterious jars of marinating weird stuff, creepy roots. At night he filled fragile airmail stationery with manifestos addressed to Beijing officials, demanding justice. “He found projects. The world is full of little mom-and-pop companies that specialize in orphan diseases.”
“Diseases that only about twelve people have ever had?”
“Right. Orphan disease labs welcomed him onto their quirky teams. Then one day a colleague offered him a course of free skydiving lessons.”
“Uh-oh, indeed. He’d been healthy for almost three years straight, Spider. A record. I mean, I was worried about the skydiving, but almost the way a normal wife of a normal thrill-seeker would worry. Mostly I was focused on getting my son into a good college without going deeper into debt.”
“He’s a junior at Duke on a merit scholarship.”
“Nice.” They high-five. His hand is sweaty.
“I watched the jump. I wasn’t supposed to. Liang didn’t know I was there. I had a meeting that day, but it was canceled. I thought I’d surprise him.”
Nita swallows once and proceeds to eat: the eggs and toast and butter and jam. The quiet between her and Spider is neither awkward nor particularly grim. They both clear their plates. Then she wipes her mouth, puts down her napkin, and says: “So let me get this straight: you’re not a smart-ass academic.”
He shrugs. “I got tenure support from my department, but not the humanities committee. Just bad timing all around. My illness. The economy. And yet here I am, and you deigned to eat with me.”
“Why not? You’re still a genius.”
“I should hope so.”
“And you seem okay without the academic scene.”
“Yeah. It’s weird. I’m actually writing essays about tenses. Consider the perfect tense. I actually love the perfect present: We have been friends. It seamlessly encompasses the present and the past: we were friends and we are friends. Then there’s the present continuous: We are being friends.” Spider puts down his fork and tilts his head. “Notice there is no simple future tense in English: no single word comparable to was or were. I was sick.”
Then he blindsides her: “By the time you read this, I will have jumped from an airplane. That would be the future perfect tense.”
“He left a little drawing of himself in the sky with his arms straight out to the side. No parachute.”
Spider knows enough not to say more, God bless him. Nita closes her eyes and sees her husband in the sky, as if in a Grüen mural. She can’t make out his expression; the painter seems to have deliberately smudged it. Spider, she remembers now, once told her that when she drew faces, they were empty. She opens and closes her eyes. This time she sees MRI screens, images she understands better than Spider. She tells him, “Grüen is not just a hack.”
“I know. You’re right. Those colors.” This acknowledgement fills her with joy or something else, something destabilizing. He asks, “Do you still paint?”
“A little. Mostly internal anatomy. Organs. Bones. I’ve hung pictures in the waiting room at my office.” She signals the waiter. If they want to get out of there before anyone cries, it seems prudent to get moving. “Spider, lunch is on me.”
“You’re in from out of town.”
“Come on. Let me pay. I can pretend I’m your flashy boyfriend.”
“Fine. I’ll put the money toward the fish mural.”
“Not the one with the two of us?”
“Hmm. Yuri would prefer that one. I don’t know.”
“It shows your kindness.”
“No, it doesn’t, Spider.” Don’t start thanking me again. “I was posing. Grüen was watching us. I wanted him to get off on my goodness.”
Spider whispers, “I wish…”
And Nita, though she has seen many naked men, has seen almost no one the way she sees Spider: Spider across a booth wiping away a tear and Spider the cocky college boy and Spider in the future, the geriatric patient. She sees his skull behind the knowing eyes, and she imagines how a better artist than she could draw a map of the lines in his forehead and label them anger, discernment, wonder, fear. She hopes he never again calls her desperately seeking medical advice and comfort she won’t be able to offer and the thought makes her ashamed and in her shame she thinks about kissing him and imagines tasting egg and the residue of his chemotherapy and tasting the mixture again and again whenever she remembers him in bed, and instead of a kiss she offers him advice: he should make French toast for the Korean mom and her daughters.
“I intend to,” he chirps. “From challah.” Ah yes. That was the secret of his special breakfast, or so he’d claimed, long ago—homemade challah, sweetish Jewish braided bread. She stands up and he stands up and they hug goodbye and she promises him she’ll think long and hard before buying a Grüen.
"I actually love the perfect present: We have been friends. It seamlessly encompasses the present and the past: we were friends and we are friends. Then there’s the present continuous: We are being friends."
For the rest of the fall, Nita sees more colors and contrasts, even on screens or with her eyes closed. Gallery Gal sends her notices about Grüen’s exhibits and sales. Nita thinks about sending Gallery Gal a Christmas card. Yuri’s divorce moves ahead, and is delayed, again. Two steps forward, one step back. Nita tries to remember who first said that. Spider, now renting a lecture hall in her brain, says: Vladimir Lenin, defending purges.
She thanks him. He shrugs as if to say No worries. She misses him in bed: he has excused himself from her sex life with Yuri.
Liang never speaks to her, though she searches for him when she wakes up sweating and has trouble falling back to sleep. He’s nowhere in her head. Instead, she stumbles upon abandoned martial arts weapons—sticks, daggers, swords: every time Liang returned from another hospitalization, their son would try out another ancient-fighting studio. No practice of self-defense ever interested him for long.
On Thanksgiving, Yuri devours a piece of pie covered with homemade whipped cream, wipes his mouth, gives Nita an emerald ring, and tells her they’re engaged—though he’s still technically only separated. He also makes another large donation to the charity fund at her office. They invite their children to his apartment for the first night of Chanukah. While Nita’s in the kitchen between courses, he and his sons and her son share men’s jokes. She tries not to think about Donald Trump, whom the jokey men don’t fear as much as they should. She returns to the dining room to find them laughing. She tries not to look at their mouths—a mix of bad Eastern European teeth and American uber-orthodontured teeth. The walls seem to be crying out for Grüen’s colors. But as she sets down a platter of potato pancakes, Yuri runs his fingers behind her knees, discreetly, and she likes that.
The next afternoon she stays late at the clinic, finishing up some MRI reports and waiting out a sloppy snowfall. When the sky has cleared and she’s turned out the lights, her iPhone signals an email from the specialist to whom she’d referred Spider—nearly a year ago. Subject heading: Sad news about Alan Wildstern. Nita sinks into a chair in the waiting room. Her hand cramps, squeezing the phone. In the glow of the exit signs, she reads: Dead. A heart attack.
She should have reminded him to get his blood pressure checked. Just that. It would have been so easy. And cost nothing.
On the walls around her, the paintings of organs and bones become more distinct and seem to glow, and she wishes—a very small wish—that Spider had seen them. She closes her eyes and tries to find him at his lectern in her brain, but instead she discovers jars of fish heads and tentacles, and she mumbles or prays: I was widowed; I have been widowed; I am being widowed.
Author's Note: In 2009, my husband and I lived in Vienna for three wonderful months. One evening I met a well-known Viennese artist. He became the art professor in my story, though we only spoke for a couple of minutes, and I never saw him again. That much is true.
Susan Land has published many short stories. You can read one from 2012, “Three Wives and a Daughter,” in the archives of The Roanoke Review. Her fiction has won awards from the Maryland and New Jersey State Arts Councils, a Writers At Work prize, and a Stegner Award. She teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda and for SpiderSmart Learning Center in Rockville