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Who am I to tell her story? I'm only Maddie, the next-door neighbor. Well, best friend and next-door neighbor. The Wife's best friend, not The Husband’s. The Husband who siphoned off the life energy of The Wife. Not meaning to, of course. They adored each other. It was plain when you saw them smiling at each other, touching each other, brushing flies away from each other's eyes.
       The Husband was chock-full of life energy. A tall black man with a huge grin, he had these adorable stubby little dreads that pointed to his face like they were saying Look at this guy. The Wife was a tiny white woman who looked like a rag doll that rough girls had been playing too hard with. She had leukemia and was hanging on by a thread.
       He never shut up. She listened patiently, smiled constantly at him. He'd tell long ghost stories about places they'd lived in.
       “Now I don't know if I believe in ghosts. But every morning, I'd get up very early to go to work and tiptoe to the door with my shoes in my hands so I didn't wake up my Wife. And every morning, behind my back, I heard footsteps following me right down the stairs. This went on for months. Until one day, I turned around and said, ‘Get OUT of here,’ and I never heard those footsteps again. Then there was the time the front door kept opening all by itself, even after I locked the deadbolt. So I piled bricks in front of it, a whole pile of heavy bricks. I stacked up those bricks so there was no possible way that door could open in the night. But it did. The next morning, those bricks were carefully moved aside and the door was wide open. Explain that. I can't.”
       He'd tell jokes that would bring a whole crowd around him laughing. Maybe he had to become a storyteller, a funny guy, to ensure his survival as a black man in America. Maybe he was naturally talkative and funny and couldn't hold it in. I don't know. Here's how he did it. He sucked you into a joke like he was telling you a true story.
       “Did we tell you we finally went to see a magic show? We've been wanting to. There was this Mexican magician. He counted out Uno, Dos, and then he disappeared without a Tres.”
       If you laughed, he'd continue.
       “Did I tell you I met this Irish second cousin of my Wife? Fellow by the name of Paddy O'Furniture?”
       If you kept giving him an audience, he'd keep going . . .
       “Did I tell you about the time we were in New York City, waiting in line to buy hot dogs? This Zen master was in front of us. He says, ‘Make me one with everything.’”
       And going . . .
       “Then the Zen master says to the hot dog vendor, ‘Where's my change?’ and the vendor says, ‘Change comes from within.’”

Can one person in a couple really suck the life out of the other? He wasn't a vampire, after all. He was an affable lighting salesman, selling lamps and light fixtures to stores along the Eastern Seaboard. They didn't even have children so it wasn't like he planted nine kids in her and left her to all their bathing, feeding, and shepherding.
       I wasn't in a relationship. Poor single Maddie, that's me, still to this day. So for years, I got called next door to fill out their dinner party tables and make them feel good about their holiday spirit by including me. I was often the beneficiary of wonderful leftovers from their cooking sprees. I was the other body at the end of the couch watching movies and TV with them, drinking wine and carrying on.
       Until I became convinced that he was stealing her life force. I needed to warn her. It's not that she was stupid. She was no dope. She was a sharp cookie. He came across as all amiable, good-hearted, kind, thoughtful, and generous. But somehow someway, he was coming out on top in this deal. She was slowly being suffocated by his wonderfulness, diminished by his buoyant good cheer.
       I needed to help her, save her. I wanted to pull her out of this loving quicksand of a marriage. But how?
       She seemed perfectly happy. Women know each other that way. If it's sham happy, if it's an under-the-surface troubled marriage, sooner or later, we talk to each other, we tell all. I know so much about my other friends' husbands. I know who is obsessed with porn. I remember insults hurled in a fight twenty years ago. I know about the mean drunken shove in an elevator one night. I know who tried to pressure his wife to have a three-way. I never forgot anything the husbands did or said. The wives seemed to forget but I didn't.
       ─Do you think your Husband is stealing your life force?
       ─He does have relentless energy, I’ll give you that.
       ─He makes me tired. The endless talking.
       ─I love that. It's like being surrounded by the ocean. The waves never stop. I grew up in a very quiet house. That was death.
       ─Does being around him drain you? Or pump you up?
       ─He definitely drains me.
       ─That doesn't bother you?
       ─Maybe I need draining. Did you ever think of that?
       ─Shouldn't we be with people who pump us up?
       ─Whooeeee, that's a big blanket statement.
       ─I'm your best friend. I have to ask.
       ─And we're your best friends.
       ─You crazy kids.
       ─We're easy for you. Right next door. We know when you order pizza. We know when you leave for work. We know when you get a package delivered. We know when you put your trash out. We know when you go to bed.
       ─Stop spying on me, you wench. Back to your hubby. What's his deal?
       ─Honestly, he is who he is. That's the exact same guy I met in college. Instead of a being a business major with a minor in theatre arts, he sells lights now. That's it. Not much else has changed. He always talked my ear off. He always gathered a crowd around him wherever he was. He's always on. And he has the best heart and the sweetest smile and he's my wonderful guy.
       ─You're sickening. You should be less dazzled by him by now.
       ─I hate those women who bad-talk their husbands. I instantly drop them when I hear that.
       ─I know.
       ─Which is why you love me. And us. Right? We are nice to each other. We like each other. I accept him exactly as he is and he accepts me exactly as I am.
       ─Meanwhile the life force is being sucked out of you. He sucks up all the air in the room.
       ─Maybe. Maybe that's my path. Maybe that's my fate.
       ─Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
       ─You're a tad morbid, aintcha?

I was so mad. I wanted my friend to be healthy and happy more than I wanted her marriage to endure. After all, we're all alone in the end. If my friend could get her life force back, it would be worth anything.
       So this was the dilemma. Should I knock off the affable Husband? Nah. Put a voodoo spell on him? Nah. Disconnect her from him? Maybe. What if I took her away on a long vacation far away from him and saw if the roses came back in her cheeks?
       ─Hey, suddenly I have a bunch of extra money. An inheritance from my great-aunt. Want to help me spend it?
       ─Let's go to Tasmania for a month.
       ─A month? I don't know if he can get off work for a whole month. I'm only part-time, I probably can.
       ─He's not invited. Girls' month away.
       ─Intriguing. But why?
       ─I want to see if you plump up away from him. If you get color back in your cheeks.
       ─But what about my doctors? I don't think they'll okay such a long trip to such a remote place.
       ─See what you can work out. With your doctors and with him.
       ─I'll have to tell him the truth. That you think he's sucking the life force the hell out of me.
       ─He'll say he's saving your life. He'll say he takes tender care of you.
       ─He does.
       ─Still the fact remains that when he's in the room, all the air is sucked into his lungs for the constant talking. Is he ever quiet? When you're in bed getting ready to drift off to sleep? When you're just waking up?
       ─God, no. He never shuts up.
       ─That settles it. I'm taking you far away from him for one solid month. I'm shutting off that oxygen suck. I'm going to help you. At least see if it works.
       ─This is the funniest conversation I've ever had in my life. You're a bit crazy.
       ─A lot crazy. I have many notions. This is just one of them. But when a notion persists, I act on it.
       ─There's a certain loyalty to a marriage, you know. I am loyal to him. I am loyal to being his Wife. I really love him. I adore the constant stream of words coming at me. I adore him taking up all the emotional space. I like standing behind him. It's my marriage and I’m happy.
       ─But you're dying, at the same time.
       ─Not because of him.
       ─Oh really? It's a test. Let's see if your marriage passes a simple one-month test in the absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder category.
       ─It will. It's strong. It's redwood-tree strong.
       ─Then just think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. A girls' weekend away times four.
       ─I love the thought of exotic and remote, I confess. I'm not the Cabos or Las Vegas kind of vacation girl.
       ─In fact, you're not a girl at all. You're a full blown forty-one-year-old woman with a fatal disease. If you don't go on a remote vacation now, when will you?

So we went off to Tasmania. Who the hell goes there? No one but us. Me and my best friend. First we had to fly to Australia and then we made our way to the island on a ship called The Spirit of Tasmania. That was the more romantic, adventurous way to get there and we'd had enough of flying by then, after 23 hours in the air.
       The Wife had a hard first week detaching from The Husband. She kept trying to call and email and Skype him. She talked about him all the time. She took pictures, not for herself to remember, but so she could show him every detail later. She was being a good wife.
       But something magical happened during the second week. He was soooooo far away by then. And the time difference was extreme. She was 14 hours ahead of him. Their contact lessened dramatically. The Wife straightened up, started to propose daily excursions, told her own jokes and stories, talked a lot actually.
       ─You're different apart from him. You talk more. You think for yourself more. And guess what, your skin looks very different already. You're pink.
       ─I still have a fatal disease.
       ─But you're gaining strength. I can see it. Maybe you can't see it in yourself. But I'm your mirror.
       ─You're being silly. I look different and act different because I'm on vacation. Everyone does that. You too. You're more relaxed.

I was more relaxed on vacation with her. I wasn't always on my guard against getting pulled into his long stories and bon vivant conversations. I wasn't always watching her get small, pale, and quiet next to him.
       But it was also true that she was gaining strength and waking up her own voice, her opinions, and her sense of fun. During Week Two we went on a birdwatching tour and she fell in love with birding. She wouldn't shut up about the Macaroni Penguin, the Shy Albatross, the Fairy Prion, the White-Faced Heron, and the Brown Booby. She imitated the cries of the Laughing Gull and the Fan-Tailed Cuckoo. She cried over the list of birds who were vanishing and extinct.
       ─I'm a birder now. Who knew that my whole life I was searching for a passion that would make me so happy and it took me till the end of my life to find it. I want the khaki hat and the funny pants with all the pockets and the powerful binoculars and most of all, I desperately want the notebook. I want to start capturing my life list of birds. I want to sit in bird blinds up way high and listen to bird songs. I want to spy on them with my binoculars and write their names down in my very own special notebook. I want to take long hikes up mountains and stop to listen for mountain birds. I want to take river boats deep into forests to see the birds that live there.
       ─Are you going to keep talking about birds all night? It's time to go to sleep.
       ─I have a lot more to say. I've fallen in love with birding. I even love the word. Birding.
       ─You're boring, birder.
       ─That's because you aren't in love.
       ─I'm not even in like. It was fun to do once or twice but come on.
       ─You come on. Come on the river birding tour with me tomorrow. I don't want to go alone.
       ─No. I'm sitting this one out. You go. The guide will take care of you.
       She went alone—well, with the guide. And she came back with the biggest grin you ever saw in your life and red roses on her cheeks. She emailed off her best photos to The Husband with cheeky little captions and she went to bed without trying to call him to talk in person. They were detaching and she was gaining strength. My plan was working.
       ─Do you miss him?
       ─Every minute. Of course.
       ─Do you miss him like you thought you would?
       ─I thought it would be worse. I thought it would be no fun without him. But trust me, he wouldn't think this birding stuff was fun. He could never sit there so still. He'd be chatting up the guide. He'd be jumping out of the boat to talk to locals. He'd be so loud on the hike tromping along that we'd never see a bird or even hear one. He'd scare them all away.
       ─My work here is done.
       ─I never really know what you're talking about. This is a wonderful vacation, that's all. I'm going to be so happy when I go back home, when I get back to where I belong.
       ─Okay. We'll see.
       ─You don't want me to have a happy marriage?
       ─I want you to have a happy life. That's all. I want to see color in your cheeks. I want to see you breathe in all the air you need.
       ─You're a funny friend. You'll never break up my marriage, you know. It's unbreakable.
       ─For the millionth time, if he didn't suck the life out of you, I'd be fine with your marriage.
       ─That's just a crazy notion you have. It's not real.
       ─I'm recording everything. I'm documenting your health and your smiles and your color. I'm measuring how much space you take up now. I'm enjoying the fullness of you by yourself.
       ─I'm not by myself, I’m with you.
       ─I'm like the bird guide. Your silent companion.
       ─Yeah, you are kind of like that. We go our separate ways all day.
       ─And at night we have quiet dinners together. Thinking our own thoughts.

By Week Four, she looked and acted like a different woman than the one who left home with me to go to Tasmania. I was so happy. She was vibrantly alive, full of light. When she entered a room, heads turned. When she joined a group, everyone stopped to listen to her because they could feel the swirling robust energy she brought and they wanted to be part of it. Everyone wanted to see her encircled by quiet adoring friends who enjoyed her taking center stage. We all wanted to hear her talk and laugh. We all wanted to hear her imitate birds.
       Then we flew home. He picked us up at the airport. Instantly, he created a kind of mob scene. He brought an accordion band to play in the baggage claim area. People clapped and gathered around. Is this a proposal? Are these famous people? He presented her with the biggest bunch of flowers you ever saw in your life. He held onto her like his life depended on it. He talked non-stop to everyone, telling them how his Wife had been gone for a month and how he was only half alive without her, he missed her so much. He told a long joke about the Tasmanian Devil and he looked right at me when he said that, like I was the Devil for taking his Wife away. But he was smiling as always, his beautiful huge infectious smile.
       He shouted to the crowd that he was buying drinks for all of them, he was so happy she was home. The crowd roared, poured into the airport hotel bar, making an instant party. She laughed out loud, clung to his side.   They didn't even notice that I went home by myself while they celebrated with total strangers in the bar. The next day they didn't notice when the realtor came to my house because they were still wrapped up in their big reunion. When the For Sale sign went up, it took another whole day for her to knock on my door.
       We lost touch after I moved. I don't know for sure if our trip gave her a longer life or a different life. When I went to her memorial service, a year after she died, he was there with a brand-new girlfriend who gazed at him with adoring eyes, smiling constantly. The service was quite lengthy but no one left. They were still listening to his long stories about his beloved Wife and their happy life together.
       All that was left of my best friend were large photos of her, leaning on rickety easels. She was a perfectly flat cardboard version of herself, one with every bit of air sucked out of her. I kissed her goodbye and I left.   

© 2020 Kathy Anderson

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