An Indeterminable Time of Night
There's a stranger sleeping beside him, and the clock on the wall looks funny. For some reason, his midsection feels wet, and he has absolutely no idea where he is.
Last night, Dean went to the ballgame with his brother Virgil and decided to stay with him and his wife rather than driving the 30 miles out of the city to his own house. He called Beatrice to let her know that he would be home in the morning, and, after having a nightcap with Virg and Grace, Dean pulled out the hide-a-bed, said his nightly Hail Mary, and went to sleep.
Now, it's an indeterminable time of night, and Dean is surrounded by the unfamiliar. Unfamiliar wallpaper, unfamiliar dressers, unfamiliar photos. He closes his eyes and pinches himself on the back of the hand. When he opens them again, he senses that the stranger beside him is female, and she is smiling and rubbing his forearm reassuringly.
Nervously, he turns his head toward her and is surprised to see an aging woman of about 60 staring back at him. In the moonlight, her disc-shaped hazel eyes sparkle like the most brilliant constellation in the most alien of skies. Thin laugh lines outline the curvature of her mouth, and flowing, silvering hair rests softly over her delicate cheek. In spite of his terror, he thinks this is the most beautiful person he has ever laid eyes on. Is it his disorienting fear or utter fascination that has left him speechless?
"Who in the world is she, where am I, and what have I done?" Dean wonders to himself silently. Incoherent, disjointed thoughts race through his mind as he struggles to focus.
Surprisingly, she knows his name. "Don't worry, Dean," she says softly, "You're in a safe place, and I love you very much."
Dean opens his mouth to ask how she could possibly know his name, but suddenly can't find the words. His tongue is heavy, his mouth is dry, and his lips remain closed. He considers the very real possibility that he has died and begins to panic.
The woman sees the confusion on his face and wraps her arms around his heaving chest while whispering in his ear, "Dean, darling, I know that you're scared. Don't be. It's me, Beatrice. And we're lying in our bed in the home we've lived in for the last 30 years. I love you, and I'm not going anywhere."
Inside his head, Dean begins to scream silently.
After he's been cleaned and changed, Dean and Bea sit across from one another at a small table in a comfortable living room. Multi-colored afghans hang over the plush couch, and a deeply dented recliner sits on an ornately embroidered rug. A dim lamp shining over his right shoulder provides the only light in the house. Bea's face is illuminated, and Dean is again in awe of the angelic countenance gazing confidently back at him. This woman has known him for 36 years; he's known her for roughly 36 minutes.
Spread before them is a collage of photos strewn about and overlapping. Off to the side of the table, is a frayed shoebox labeled "Dean's Favorites." The pictures - a collection of Polaroids, faded 3x5's, and a few old black and whites - document the story of a man, a woman, and their lives together.
It's all there: Holidays, Tuesdays, birthdays, rainy days, good days, and bad days. Hand in hand, they're laying on a blanket at the company picnic; laughing uncontrollably, they're shoving wedding cake in each other's mouths; surrounded by flowers and balloons, they're sharing a hospital bed with their first child. Dean's mowing the lawn, Beatrice is working in the garden, and the two of them are dancing at a neighborhood block party. It's all there.
Calmer now, but weeping gently, Dean still feels as though he is hijacking someone else's experiences, someone else's life. Bea shows him the bowling trophy they won 17 years ago and their daughter's 9th grade report card. She's even saved the letters he wrote to her while at basic training - anything to restore this man's identity, his masculine sense of pride. He stares at these items, empty and alone. He can feel the palpable love that Bea has for him radiating from across the table, but, in return, he only recognizes a nervous and vaguely remembered sensation, not unlike an elementary school crush. He feels nauseated, and he still can't speak.
From the kitchen, finally, something familiar! The smell of warm peanut butter cookies drifts to his nose and a slight smile creeps into the corners of his mouth. Beatrice breathes an exhausted sigh of relief, gets up, and walks toward the kitchen.
Nearly every waking moment for Dean is a frightening one. Sometimes, he'll stay with her for a while, but he's usually checked out and afraid. When it gets especially bad, he curls up in the fetal position on the floor and bellows wildly whenever she tries to comfort him. The nights are the worst, and, because she's afraid he'll wake while she sleeps, she rarely gets any rest. She's nervous all the time, and the medical bills are starting to pile up. She's lost touch with all of her friends, and the only person she's in regular contact with is her daughter who lives in Washington. It may as well be the Moon.
Only two years ago, he would have been waking up to take Rocky for a walk before he had to get around to go to the same office that he'd worked at for the last 32 years. After work, maybe he would have played 9 holes with Virgil or taken Beatrice for a drive along the beach. Today, though, he's going to be spending most of his time on the couch, contentedly watching Twilight Zone reruns for what he thinks is the first time.
Getting him out of the house is difficult these days, but Bea refuses to listen to their children's rude and insensitive suggestions about nursing homes. Dean had taken care of her all those years, and she feels that now it's her turn to return the favor fully and without reservation. But, God, how she misses him.
Before Dean was diagnosed, she attended Mass like clockwork on Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons. Now, she just felt faithless and abandoned. Dean no longer resembles the strong man she had married. He'd been so full of love and passion, and she thanked God every day for being so blessed. Now, he's little more than a terrified child trapped inside his own mind, and there wasn't anything that anyone would ever be able to do about it. This thought consumed Beatrice, and she couldn't help but resent the same God she used to thank so often.
With two hot pads, she carefully removes Dean's favorite treat from the oven. While the cookies are still warm, she ground his pills into them, and pours him a small glass of milk.
After they share their early-morning snack, Dean and Bea return to the living room and sit next to one another on the couch. Through their front windows, they can see that the sun is coming up, and Bea rests her head on her husband's broad shoulders. Quietly, she begins to hum "Over the Rainbow," and she slips her delicate fingers between his unassuming hands.
He turns to her with an enthusiastic grin. "Hey, Sweetie! Where have you been all this time? I've been thinking about you."