It’s Saturday afternoon, and G. is napping on the couch while the same two CDs play soft salsa over and over. She’s got her teddy-bear blanket pulled up around her face, her bare feet sticking out; they don’t get cold, though, because she’s got no sensation in them. It astonishes me how soundly she sleeps. I can stand right next to her, looking down at her with so much love that I’m sure its headlamp beam will wake her, but — nothing.
I wanted our lovemaking to remain sacred, untouchable. I wanted G.’s illness never to intrude in that one place. Of course, I didn’t get my wish.
After twenty-two years of diabetes, she’s got every complication in the book. She’s down to 20 percent kidney function, which means she’s tired all the time. Cataracts have thickened over the scars from the laser treatments that kept her from going blind six years ago. She’s on medication for angina, so she no longer has the pain in her arm, the gasping for breath; but she no longer walks much either, and avoids stairs and hills. The nerve damage gives her terrible leg and hand cramps, especially at night. When she gets a cold, it turns into bronchitis or pneumonia, keeps her down for months. At thirty-eight, she’s got less energy than my grandmother.
For a long time I thought: I can live without the walks on the beach, without skiing, hiking, camping. But I wanted our lovemaking to remain sacred, untouchable. I wanted G.’s illness never to intrude in that one place. Of course, I didn’t get my wish.
When we met, G. danced naked for me, her big, ungainly body transformed by the rhythms it knew; she sang to me, serenaded me with flamenco, her gaze stripping my clothes off from across the room. That was three years ago. Mornings now, I wake up wanting her; I press my body against hers, stroke her arm, kiss her neck, hoping for some sign that she feels me, that she doesn’t mind. She’s grown so passive, I don’t know anymore whether she wants me to stop or is waiting for me to continue. I swing my body on top of hers, trying to be gentle, noncommittal, just in case. But I can’t help it; her body under mine excites me. I move my breasts against hers and my nipples take on lives of their own, begging, hardening. Then G. shifts uncomfortably — her lower back aches — so I roll off, and she turns onto her side. I kiss my way down her neck and chest to her breasts, beautifully lopsided, with their huge nipples and their sagging weight. I love to burrow underneath them and kiss the slightly sour sweat that lingers there, their weight resting heavy on my face. Then I move upward, take just the tip of a nipple in my mouth.
When we were first together, G. liked me to devour her breasts, to bite her nipples so hard it frightened me. But then I grew to love the red, fierce, erotic force of it; how they puckered, darkening; how her body stopped holding back and just moved the way it had to; how she crooned to me, Tuya, tuya, telling me she was mine. Now her breasts are tender most of the time — some hormonal shift caused by the kidney failure, or else something to do with the nerves, or maybe it’s one of her medications. We don’t know what it is. But her nipples are sore, and I have to approach them gradually, diffidently, to lick them soft and slow till they’re not frightened anymore, till I feel her body beginning to roll beneath me with the old tide. In the middle of it, she starts coughing and can’t stop. I pull myself from the bed to grab a tissue for her so she can spit out the green phlegm that builds up in her chest with every cold. She jerks her legs around like she’s shooing away flies: they’re cramping again.
Sometimes I’ve tried to make love to her standing up — her blood flows better that way — but then it’s hard to part her legs enough to reach her with my tongue, so we sink back onto the bed. Desire still propelling me, I kiss her belly and the deep indentation between belly and groin — what I call la linea del deseo, “the line of desire” — running my tongue back and forth in its groove until we can’t stand it anymore, and G. pushes my head farther down. My eyes are closed, my tongue and fingers moving on their own, her thighs pulling me in until it’s not me making love to her anymore, only the movements she calls out of me, both of us writhing, tumbling, and enveloping.
Later she tells me, “When I was making love to you this morning, my hand went numb, and for a minute I couldn’t feel anything.” Or she might say, “While you were making love to me, I was having shooting pains in my legs.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” I protest.
“I didn’t want to stop. And there was nothing you could do about it anyway.”
I know both of these statements are true.
“It’s just the nerve damage, that’s all.” She shrugs. “I just try to put it out of my mind.”
“It takes courage to love someone who’s sick,” says E., who is fifty and recovering, she hopes, from stage-three colon cancer. Ruefully she adds, “I think it would take courage for someone to love me.”
“It isn’t courage,” I tell her, my eyes unexpectedly watering, and it’s only later I realize what I wanted to say:
It isn’t courage, but something else, something I don’t know how to name, something I too often feel I don’t have. It’s patience, endurance, the willingness to settle for “delayed gratification” — even when your raucous crow of an ego taunts snidely, “Delayed until when?” It’s wanting to go out Friday night, to dance, to move, to drink and breathe in other people’s smoke and heat and laughter, when you know that all your lover wants to do — or has the strength to do — is collapse. It’s being so impatiently full of life and desire, feeling the little monkey who wants everything clamoring away inside you, and seeing her haloed by silence and exhaustion, her eyes cloudy with cataracts, their lids swollen with the strain. It’s nights when you put her to bed and go off to read or write or masturbate or bake bread or cry, and she looks up at you with those dark, damaged, gypsy eyes and says, “I wish I could keep up with you.” And you wish so, too, but that’s the wrong thing to say, so you kiss her face from one side to the other, wanting to devour her, so weary of her illness, her limitations, yet loving her so absurdly much that even the Vicks VapoRub she dabs on her nose at night becomes an aphrodisiac to you because it’s one of her smells, her bedtime scent. And, hours later, when you finally lift the covers to climb into bed beside her, it’s that wordless shock you feel at your own tenderness, the hard knot in your breastbone that dissolves as you kiss her broad, sleeping back, fitting your body to hers, your life to her sleeping life.
So on Saturday night, we end up in a half-empty piano bar down by the water — about all the excitement G. can handle. There’s an anemic-looking, pockmarked guy hunched over the piano keys; a pale, concave, balding hippie on bass; a forty-something dyed blonde on vocals with a voice that’s just too sticky-sweet. On the second song, a well-dressed, older black couple start to dance, and somehow their slow, courtly steps transform the scene. The man leads, tender and elegant, and the woman molds her movements to his, the music of all their years together singing out from them until, for an instant, I glimpse compassion like a generous light cast over the room.
At the table next to us sits an oldish white man with his hair combed over as if it could hide his bare scalp. He’s holding hands with a middle-aged black woman done up in so much black and glitter she looks like a movie-set witch, big hat and all. G. nudges me and says the woman must be with the guy por interes, “for an interest,” one most likely having to do with money. The man and woman are nodding and swaying, eyes closed, dreamy as clams. It’s too frightening, I think: the idea of extending that glint of compassion to everyone I see, to the terrible, redeeming truth of each person’s story.