Preston sat in a small room of the clinic surrounded by stark, sterile white walls which he stared at blankly. He had been led there by a nurse after Dr. Waller had escorted him to the neighboring oncology clinic a floor below, introducing him to another doctor who appeared to be of Indian descent whose name Preston could not now recall...something difficult to pronounce and obviously to remember. It didn’t matter anyway, he would most likely not be seeing the man again after today as another would be charged with his care by the military in Nevada. A couple of magazines sat on a small table beside him but he had not even perused them, too preoccupied with his own thoughts, still mentally reeling from all that he had heard in the last two hours, how in the space of only a few seconds, with only a handful of words, one word really...terminal..the trajectory of his life had been completely subverted.
Preston moved his eyes from the wall to the needle in his arm. He had been told the contents of the IV bag were a newer therapy and didn’t cause the typical and most severe side effects most were familiar with from cancer treatments. He may feel a bit tired, which had been dealing with off and on before so it would be nothing new, and might suffer a loss of appetite and mild nausea (for which the nurse had given him a pill to ward off before starting the treatment) over the next twenty four hours but likely nothing more serious than that, for which he was grateful...about the only thing he could find to be grateful for that day.
The sight of the needle brought back to him once again Whitby’s last day, the aftermath. He recalled waking from surgery, feeling a pressure in the area of his right hand, groggily opening his eyes, his vision blurred, his mind sluggish to see Robert there next to his bed gripping his hand, a smile spreading across Robert’s features as Preston’s consciousness returned. He had been drugged with pain killers and still shaking off the effects of the anesthesia. Robert had done most of the talking. He could not now recall the details of the, for the most part, one sided conversation. He mostly remembered the warm and soothing sense of comfort that someone was by his side, someone he was close to, that he cared for and that he knew cared for him, though at the time he had not of course known the extent and true nature of Robert’s feelings. Not that it would have made any difference if he had, especially under the circumstances. He did recall though how before he had left him to return to duty, Robert had given him a quick peck on the forehead in a motherly way. Preston had not thought too much of it at the time, his head still fuzzy from the drugs and merely chalking it up to Robert’s relief at his survival and perhaps fatherly instincts. He had teased Robert, telling him in clearly feigned irritation to sod off and calling him a wanker in response. He recalled nothing more for a time after that, having quickly drifted back into drugged slumber not long after Robert’s departure.
The thought struck him that he should call Robert, inform him of his diagnosis and tell him to have himself checked out. They had been exposed to the same environment, the same things, he could possibly be in danger as well, but then upon further deliberation decided against it. What good would it do even if he did and Robert was found to also be afflicted? There was no cure. Why put him through that kind of anxiety? If he did have it or later would develop it he’d experience the symptoms and find out himself the same way Preston had. He would eventually clue Robert in as he would Anne, but not yet. He couldn’t stand the thought of anyone feeling sorry for him or others mourning him before he was even gone, everyday feeling like he was attending his own funeral. He wanted things to remain as they were for as long as possible. He had spoken truth to Robert when he had told him that he was happy with all aspects of his life and wanted to hold onto that. He also knew how hard it would be for Anne and wished to spare her, to allow her to continue to go on happily for as long as he could. She’d had so little happiness in her life, he couldn’t stand the thought of taking that away from her.
In fact, he wanted nothing more at that moment than to go home and make love to her despite the fatigue he felt creeping up on him he supposed was due to the substance now being fed into his veins, to take her the moment he walked through the door. No, not just make love, he wanted to fuck her and hard, a right good shag, to make her cry out so loudly and as she came, (he had very seldom had any difficulty bringing her to those heights) that Robert back home would hear it and it would dispel any silly notion he may still have of her not being a ‘real’ woman.
Never before Anne with any other woman had he ever truly experienced the old cliche of ‘two becoming one’ but with her for the first time he had. He supposed he had been a virgin in that sense as she had been a physical one their first time together, though he thought there were likely a lot of virgins in the world when it came to that. That sense of more than their bodies melding but also their souls joining, mingling was unlike anything he had ever known before. The sensation had heightened the longer they had been together as the years passed, he instinctively knowing when he had brought her nearly to the summit and timing his own ascent to join her there, both reaching it together. Anne had said that the way Nan had slipped out of the world would be her preference, to go to sleep and not awaken, but he thought he’d far rather leave this life as he experienced that joining with her in that moment, though of course that would be most unpleasant for her.
At the age of thirty four, Preston had not expected to ever again be bedding a virgin. After an evening at the theater and a romantic dinner he had prepared himself in his apartment, he having learned to cook at a very young age, probably too young, he had led her willingly to the bedroom. It had been quite some time for him as well. His studies had kept him out of the social scene for the most part the previous few years. He had been on a handful of dates with different women he had been set up with but none of them had led to a second or to anything else. He had long ago left behind the notion of sex for the sake of sex.
He recalled how she had trembled as if she were standing in a freezer as he unbuttoned her blouse, sliding it from her shoulders to fall to the floor as she fumblingly unbuttoned his shirt, doing the same, Her body continued to quiver as he had moved her down onto the bed after unhooking her bra and removing it, moving her skirt and panties down over her hips and sliding them past her ankles onto the floor.
“Are you sure?” he’d ask her after he had kissed and caressed what seemed every inch of her pleasingly plump yet by no means fat or disgusting body and moved her hands to his own, instructing her as to what he found most pleasurable. It was strange but her inexperience, her nervous fumbling, had aroused him more than he could recall ever being before. He’d feared perhaps the whole thing would end up being a replay of his experience long ago with Molly Hart, yet the encounter had already lasted far longer than that travesty.
“Yes...please…” she had pleaded breathlessly. She cried out as he took her though he had attempted to be as gentle as possible, but he found himself relishing it and the sense of initiating someone into a secret, knowing that never again even with her would it ever be quite the same, that feeling of mystery and revelation. As he continued, though the sounds emanating from her were ones of pleasure, he noticed tears cascading from under her closed eyelids.
“Am I hurting you?” he asked, stopping, concerned, kissing the tears away, tasting their saltiness.
“No...no….don’t stop….please….I want you to…” she’d breathed, desperation in her voice.
“Your wish is my command...” he’d replied. He’d barely been able to hold himself back as he fulfilled her desire. He felt her arch her back and thrust herself against him, her body writhing as her vocalizations of pleasure filled the room, he then allowed himself release, their moans mingling, he expecting any moment to hear his neighbors in the apartment next door or above banging on the walls in irritation...or more likely jealousy, he thought, though that didn’t happen.
Preston decided he’d best put all that from his mind for the moment as the monitor attached to the IV pole beeped indicating the end of the session or else he might risk the nurse he knew would soon be returning mistaking his difficulty in standing as a reaction to the medication. The thought brought a slight smile to his face, the first since he’d left his office earlier that day.
The knowledge one’s life is to come to its conclusion in the near to somewhat near future often leads one to take inventory of many aspects of that life and to revisit those moments of one’s past that had made the biggest impression, that were mile markers over the course of the journey. As he awaited the return of the nurse attending to him, he mentally drifted back to the day he and Anne had met.
It had been the first faculty social occasion of the new academic year, Preston’s first, only a couple of weeks into the semester. He had hardly had the opportunity to meet many of his fellow faculty members with the whirlwind of activity surrounding his move to a new country, moving into a new apartment and procuring all the necessities for it, planning for his classes and all the rest. He had not even initially planned to attend as he had so much still on his plate but had been cajoled into doing so by the chair of the psychology department, Kristine Markley, who had made a special visit to his office to ensure he would be going. Of course someone in her discipline would know the importance of settling comfortably into a new environment and that establishing relationships with others was necessary to the transition.
Quite a number of people had gathered about him at one point or another during the evening, people naturally, instinctively, drawn to those who are visibly pleasing to the eye, even those of the same sex when neither have any sexual inclinations, and also to the ear it seemed, many of the females who had conversed with that evening commenting on his accent and the soothing nature of his voice. As he had been talking to a faculty member from the communications department, a mature woman looking to be in her mid 50′s, other women of various ages having joined his table, obviously enamored with the new member of the club with his handsome face, svelte body and alluring accent, his eyes caught a glimpse of her, Anne, as she walked past, a drink in her hand, before she crossed the large ballroom to sit alone at another table.
The theme of the soiree had been the 1930s though few had dressed in the clothing of the time period, Anne being one of those few that had as she knew how to sew and had fashioned her blue frock over the previous couple of weeks using patterns she’d found online. He watched her looking over the proceedings with a bit of a melancholy expression of longing as music of the period played, couples dancing. Several people walked past her, stopping momentarily and exchanging what appeared to be polite greetings with her, yet none remained long enough to engage in a proper conversation or joined her at the table. She was obviously one of those people that disappear into the background.
Though he was an empathetic man due to various experiences in his life including his brush with death many years earlier, that was not what led him to excuse himself from the table and his conversation with the communications professor and cross the room. As he had been watching her, it seemed to him that something like a glow emanated from her. Perhaps it was only the lighting from the ballroom’s crystal chandeliers above reflecting off the white tablecloth onto her and her fair skin but it struck Preston as being more than that, as if a spotlight had been put on her that only he could see.
She had turned her head from watching the couples dancing as she caught sight of him in his suit from the corner of her eye crossing the room towards her. As he neared, she exhibited an expression of surprise, having expected him to soon veer off towards another destination.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Preston had asked. Appearing shocked, Anne had silently nodded before finally finding her voice.
“Yes….I mean no, I don’t mind...please.” Anne said awkwardly. After introducing themselves they continued to converse, Anne finding it easy to speak with him, the words flowing freely, unlike with most others. Preston found himself impressed with the depth of knowledge she had for many different subjects, including his own specialty. The feeling grew within Preston with each passing minute that this was something special...she was special, unlike any woman he had known. He couldn’t think of a single woman he had been acquainted with in the entirety of his life that she reminded him of even in a superficial way. Their commonalities piled up as their conversation went on. A light had come into Anne’s eyes, one that had not initially been there when Preston had first taken his place at the table, as if like the oil lamps of old, the flame had been turned up. A silence fell over the two for a moment as the subject of their conversation was about to shift, Preston noticing Anne’s eyes glancing away from him in that moment towards those on the dance floor.
As the next song began to play, a familiar one to Preston as he recalled that Nan had it in her record collection, ‘The Very Thought of You’ featuring Al Bowlly and Ray Noble’s Orchestra, Preston decided to stow the subject he had been about to introduce into the conversation.
“Would you like to dance?” Preston asked. He rose from his seat, extending his hand to Anne.
“I’ve never danced with anyone before…” Anne said meekly. Preston looked down at her as she looked up at him, conflicted. It was obvious that she wanted to but at the same time was uncertain. He could hardly believe what she had told him. How could anyone have reached their age and never once have danced with anyone? This was the U.S...he was familiar with many of the ‘rituals’ of growing up from American movies and television programs. There were various dances held throughout the typical school year...homecoming...prom…people danced at weddings, went out to clubs as they did in the UK.
“Then would you do me the honor of allowing me to be the first?” Preston said, not aware at that time that he would later be another first for her. Anne smiled yet still looked somewhat anxious as she took his hand, rising from her seat, Preston leading her onto the dance floor. As Anne attempted to mimic what she saw others doing, Preston putting a hand lightly on her waist and taking her other, she putting her free hand on his shoulder, she glanced around the ballroom, suddenly noticing the many eyes that were now looking in their direction, more than a few with a questioning gaze or one of disbelief. She was not disliked by her colleagues but nor was she someone they paid much attention to as had been the case everywhere else she had been over the course of her life. She was certainly not one they had expected a man like Preston to take an interest in. She looked away from them back to Preston, into his eyes, feeling her muscles which had tensed up as she had noticed the others’ stares, relaxing as they danced.
“I’m afraid I can’t stay much longer. I’m still putting things together, but I’d like to spend more time with you, continue our conversation.” Preston said as the song and their dance neared its end.
“I’d like that.” Anne said, unable to think of more to say, shocked to near speechlessness by his words that were so unfamiliar to her. As the last note of the song played, Preston taking her hand as she lowered her’s from his shoulder, lifted it to his lips, Anne unable to help blushing at the gesture. Anne had remained for a short while after Preston’s departure but left as she looked about the room from her seat at the table, noticing the many eyes that still fell on her and not, it seemed to her, in a pleasant way.
Over the next couple of months, she and Preston had found themselves spending more time together, meeting for lunch, sitting together at different functions. She began receiving harassing and insulting letters and notes pushed under the door of her office, placed under the windshield wiper of her car. They were obviously not all from the same person as the handwriting differed between many of them. She had left her office one night after staying late grading tests and upon reaching her vehicle found that it had been keyed, one of the tires slashed, “Bitch” written in what appeared to be soap in large letters across the windshield. Preston had come to her rescue, the only person she could think to call and at that hour, one of the few numbers in her phone. It had been after he had removed the flattened tire and installed the spare, taking his shirt off and removing his undershirt to wipe away the vulgarity on her windshield that he heard her weeping from behind him. It was then she had confessed to him all that she had been enduring. Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he had given it to her and she had dried her eyes with it as her sobs subsided. As she went to hand it back to him he had taken her in his arms and kissed her for the first time.
The next morning he had accompanied her to report the incident and the harassing letters having convinced her to do so. Of course there wasn’t much evidence to go on and the investigation had quickly hit a dead end, no one ever being found culpable, but the worst of the harassment abated.
Though the harassment stopped, many of her female colleagues, even those who were married or attached, that had been at least cordial with her in the past completely ignored her, walking past her without even a polite greeting or giving her looks of disdain. The only one that didn’t change her demeanor towards her was Kristine Markley, who she had been seeing as an informal therapist, discussing episodes of her childhood and teenage years along with her psychologically and verbally abusive mother. It was behavior she would have expected from high school students, not college faculty members with PhDs. It was if they all felt she had stolen something from them or that they were reacting as one would towards another that had been given an award that they felt was not deserved.
Preston had suggested that they begin to search for a new employer together but after further consideration they had both decided it was better to remain where they were. There was no guarantee they’d both be able to find a job at the same university, in fact it was extremely unlikely. As more time passed, they had put the incidents behind them for the most part and moved on. It seemed that all now accepted that they were together and were not going to be so easily swayed from each other, yet Anne still noticed even now the looks she was given by others whenever they were together at different functions or walking hand and hand across campus to their offices or classrooms. She still occasionally overheard conversations that abruptly ended when her presence or approach was noticed, the themes always that a man like Alan Preston could do better than her, that they couldn’t understand what he saw in her.
A nurse entered the room and with a press of a button on the IV monitor the beeping ceased.
“That’s enough of that.” she said, smiling at Preston. He attempted to return a smile but what he managed was only halfhearted. It was far from the first time the nurse had worked with a new patient who had just received the same type of devastating blow that Preston had that day.
“How do you feel?” she asked as she carefully removed the surgical tape holding the needle securely in his vein and slid it from his arm, placing a cotton ball where it had been and putting a band aid over over it to hold it in place.
“A bit knackered….tired..” he corrected himself. Even after five years in the states it was difficult to change a lifetime’s speech patterns.
“I knew what you meant. My grandfather was British, I spent a lot of time with him growing up. I’ve been there a few times myself. In fact I was there last summer. I went to see a lot of the sites from Henry VIII’s time...Hampton Court, the Tower of London, I know….all the tourist traps, but I love that period of history. I went to the Anne of Cleves house too, though she just owned it, she never really lived there. She’s my favorite of the six, the smartest of them too. Gave that prat what he wanted and ended up a very rich woman and kept her head. Ended up being the last one standing. I don’t know why he thought she was ugly. I thought she was very pretty in her portrait, prettier than Jane. Of course Holbein could have flattered her, but he didn’t seem to do that with others and risked losing his head if he did so I think it was likely pretty accurate. She sounded like she was a wonderful person too. Leave it to a man to reject the good one and go for the floozy….no offense.
“Anyway, I also went to France and Germany. I’d been saving for it for a couple years. I’m planning to go to Italy and Greece next. One thing I’ve learned at this job is if you want to do something, do it. Make the most out of every day. You’re all done. You can rest here as long as you need to and then you can be on your way. Your other meds have been called in, they’re probably ready to pick up by now. If you have any problems or questions give us a call, you have the number on the card. There’s a number for the nurse’s desk at the hospital for after hours.”
“Thank you.” Preston said, the nurse giving him another smile before she left the room. Preston rose from the chair stretching his legs. As he’d informed the nurse, he was a bit tired, but overall he felt pretty good physically. He removed the band aid and cotton ball from his arm wanting to be sure he didn’t forget to do so before he got home to avoid Anne asking any questions, tossing it into the trash can nearby before exiting.
Leaving the clinic’s parking lot, Preston drove towards home as he came across the entrance to the city park. Turning into it, he drove until he reached the section of the park where sat a fountain amid different varieties of flowers. Pulling into a parking spot, he shut off the ignition and sat in silence for a moment. He felt a strange sensation, akin to the warning the brain gives one’s body before their stomach begins to heave and they vomit, though he was not nauseous. He knew it was not his stomach contents that were about to be released. Overcome by the emotions he had been holding back for hours, they welled up out of him. He found himself sobbing, struggling for breath as he did so sounding like a drowning man surfacing and gasping for air. Wrapping his arms around the steering wheel, he rested his forehead against it as wave after wave of sobs wracked him, his body shaking with them.
Growing quiet after the release, he took a few deep, even breaths, composing himself, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket as he had the day of the incident with Anne’s car, wiping the tears from his eyes and face. He heard his phone ring and looked down at it where it sat in its cradle in the console. It was Anne. He should have known she would be wondering where he was. He answered it, doing his best to keep his voice steady and to sound normal, as if it were any other day.
“Where are you? I thought you’d be home by now. What did he say?” Anne asked. She was aware of his meeting with Dr. Waller and had been waiting expectantly to hear from him as to what he’d had to tell him.
“I meant to call you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you. It’s just a minor infection. He said I’m slightly anemic so he prescribed a supplement. The meeting didn’t take long so I decided to bum around town for a bit while I wait for the meds to be filled instead of going back out. You know how slow they always are.” Preston said.
“Oh good. I’m glad it’s nothing serious. I’ll look up what foods are high in iron. It’s always better to get it from food than a pill.” Anne said, relief evident in her voice. “When will you be home?”
“I’m not sure. Don’t worry about dinner. We can go out when I get home.”
“Alright. I’ll let you go then. I love you.”
“I love you too,...I do...I really do...truly...” Preston said, a touch of emotion coming through in his voice, Anne picking up on it.
“Is something wrong?”
“No….no, everything’s fine. It’s just...it’s been a long day. There is something I want to run by you, but it can wait until I get there.”
“Ok. I’ll see you then.” Anne said. Preston hung up the phone, replacing it into its cradle before starting the car and backing out of the parking space, circling the park to the exit.
Preston walked to the pharmacy counter, giving his name, the pharmacy tech retrieving his prescriptions from the bin and ringing him up. Thankfully insurance had covered a large percentage of the cost. He thought about how people who were far less well off and didn’t have good insurance like he did through the university possibly could afford it if they were to find themselves in the same boat as he was or with another condition that necessitated expensive medications and treatment. It was different back in the UK. Nan had been on quite a few medications in the last few years and she never had to worry about choosing between them or putting food on her table unlike so many in the U.S. Obviously if they were offering him the sort of payout they’d spoken of, the government could afford to do more and better, he thought.
Leaving the pharmacy, Preston was walking to the car when his eyes fell on the row of brick buildings across the street. One business in particular caught his eye, displays of bracelets, rings and necklaces in the window, the gemstones adorning them glistening. Reaching his car, he opened the door, tossing the bag of pills into the passenger seat. Pulling his phone from his pocket, he closed the car door and scrolled through his contacts before finding the number he was searching for.
Kristine Markley, the chair of the psychology department, held her phone to her ear with one hand as she tipped a watering can over a row of potted plants sitting in front of the window with the other.
“You are?! Really? That’s wonderful!” she paused as she listened. “Of course I will! I’ll meet you there in ten minutes. See you soon.” ending the call, she sat the watering can down on the table next to the plants and turned, walking quickly across the room, past a coffee table reaching down and grabbing a set of keys from atop it.