The Last Time
September. Saturday. Time? Frikkin’ early.
“Now? Really?” I said. “But, I’m so tired . . .” I pulled the covers over my head.
“I just want to sleep in,” I said, my voice muffled. Work had been brutal this week. My producing partner-in-crime, Jay Oleson, and I had shot a reality show pilot in five days, watched helplessly as our director stormed off, were at the root of a possible lawsuit from a competing production company, and had been fired and rehired twice in three hours by the network head.
But who was I kidding? My acting chops are on par with Snooki’s.
“That’s what all the girls say at six in the morning,” John, my husband, said, in his hoarse morning voice as he tried to slide my pajama bottoms off without untying them. Well, guess what, my hips are actually bigger than my waist. This is where we consistently run into trouble.
“I hate you,” I said, as I frantically slipped the pants to my ankles. I was already wet. My hands grabbed the headboard and held steady.
“I hate you, too,” John said, his unshaven cheek against mine, his breathing heavy. He was already inside me. Our routine had been going on for a good . . . how old was Ellie? Our daughter, our curly-haired, chubby, nearsighted daughter. Born Valentine’s Day three years ago. So, over four years.
“Ouch,” I said, shifting my hips. Pain and pleasure brought me back to the bed, which hadn’t known a quiet moment since John moved in. My hands were still holding on to that headboard. We’d cracked it long ago. There was no plan to fix it. What would be the point?
John wrapped his arm around me, squeezing me tight and grinding his hips against my rump, the one he encouraged to grow by throwing things like linguini with duck sausage and truffles at it.
“You could gain a few,” he’d say, slapping my bottom. There are no sexier words in the English language. “You could gain a few.” And to me, not a small person. Not a person who looked like she missed a meal. Ever.
“No,” I said, “no, no, no . . .” I liked to protest, though I wouldn’t go so far as a painted sign or a bullhorn. Just enough so he wouldn’t think I was easy. I mean, even though we were married and all.
On Saturday mornings, John liked to be at the Farmer’s Market on the Third Street Promenade early--before the regular customers, the crowds, the crazies--to show off Ellie to his old chef buddies, smell the fresh produce, bag some grapes, pears, figs, haggle over the price of bison, down oysters perfumed by the Pacific, and grab an espresso.
We’d be eating something amazing tonight. Something with figs. Figs, a brown sauce, a roast guinea hen? Of course, we usually ate something amazing for dinner--even if it were a simple, perfect omelet. John had been a chef until he retired to stay home, raise our daughter, and write his cookbooks. I encouraged him. He’d mesmerized me from the get-go, using his powers of mind control, his slight pooch, his manly forearms, and his penis-wand.
Goddamn, my husband’s hot. I bit his shoulder. Like biting into a ham.
You’ve probably heard of them--John’s books, I mean--the Cooking for Bachelors series. He’d been a busboy, waiter, sous chef, head chef, then private chef for various celebrities before Mexican for Bachelors, Italian for Bachelors, and French for Bachelors took off. No, no. John’s not a bachelor. If he were a bachelor, I’d know about it. But he had spent a long time--forty years--being a bachelor . . . so he’d done his research. That is, before I pinned him down one sunny afternoon in my front yard at Casa Sugar.
Back to the marital bed . . . I came, a small shudder and release, then again, a deeper orgasm. Not like when I’m on top, rubbing my body against the arc of his belly. Those orgasms go back centuries. They’re my favorite, even though I complain that I’m doing all the work. I’m gyrating, rocking, whipping my hair like Tina Turner. It’s a whole show. You’d think I was getting paid.
God, I love a belly on a man. I didn’t know how much until I met John. Not a huge Budweiser gut, but not one of those manorexic 18,000-packs atop android legs running on San Vicente. That nice, warm tummy on my man tells me a couple important things:
a. That he’s enjoyed food and wine.
b. That he’s not in an unhealthy relationship with a Bowflex.
John came inside me, with my leg over his shoulder. How it got there, I have no idea. I loved watching him. His bright hazel eyes glazed over, like he was in a dream state. And me, Hannah Marsh Bernal, I was making it happen for him. We were still trying for the next baby. We’d probably still be trying well into our nineties. I had read a study that stated women who used condoms with their longtime mates were more depressed than women who didn’t. Sperm, apparently, was human Prozac. Good news for me. We’d gotten a baby and years of me walking around in a drugged stupor out of it. I truly believed there was something stored up in his body that settled me. If we hadn’t had sex in a few days, I would tell him people’s lives were at stake.
I would tell him the angels would cry if we didn’t make love.
Close to two hundred pounds of masculinity slowly rolled off my body. And there I remained, breathless. I closed my eyes. “Let that be a lesson to you,” I said, barely above a whisper.
John kissed my cheek and nuzzled my neck. I felt him swing his legs over the bed, humming all the way to the bathroom. He was still humming when he came out of the shower. Good God, it was ABBA.
“I’m fucking starving!” he yelled, giddy. He stood over the bed with a towel wrapped around his waist. He would stay there, staring at me, until I opened my eyes. Finally, I looked up, and thanked the gods for his chest hair. L.A. was full of men who looked like giant-sized infants with the advent of the hairless package.
Ellie hadn’t awakened.
“I love you, Hannah Banana,” he said, his eyes wide, as though making a discovery. I knew exactly what he was thinking. I thought the same thing. “How did I wind up here? How did I wind up with this person who makes me so happy? How did I get this beautiful life? This beautiful daughter?” And I would add: “How am I the best fed woman on the planet?” Sometimes, I thought, just sometimes . . . good things happen to good people, or at least people who don’t engage in road rage.
“You’re staring,” I said, as I opened my eyes.
“I want to remember you, just like this,” he said.
“You see me like this every single day,” I said, closing my eyes again. “I love you . . . but we have to do something about our sex life.”
“Remember,” John said, “listen for the doorbell. We’re supposed to get our new patio chairs today. Remember, baby, okay? Tell Ellie I didn’t want to wake her up--I love you!”
And he was off. The Farmer’s Market beckoned.
I woke with a start. I reached for John’s pillow, and breathed in his scent. On the side table was a cappuccino, with blocks of brown sugar on the side. And a note.
I am one lucky bastard.
The doorbell rang. The chairs. Our dog, Spice, barking at the front door.
Then, the phone rang.
Bad News Has Its Own Ring
Doorbell ringing. The delivery of the patio chairs. Disoriented. The phone next to our bed ringing. I grab it, hoping it doesn’t wake Ellie.
“Hello?” I say. Things go through my head, a work issue, talent gone mad, a deal falling apart, network boss having an early morning “best idea since Viagra” moment, John discovering the first organic persimmons at the Farmer’s Market.
The doorbell is still ringing. I am naked. I can’t open the door naked. Where’re my pajama bottoms? I find my top and slip my arms through.
“Am I speaking to Hannah Marsh Bernal?” a woman asks. She sounded serious.
“Who is this?” I respond. What was this phone call?
“I’m sorry, but I need to speak to Hannah Bernal.” Pajama bottoms, floor, angled at 10 o’clock.
Doorbell ringing. Pajama bottoms on. Check.
“Who is this?” I respond. “This is Hannah, who is this?” Why did my stomach feel weird all of a sudden?
“My name is Dr. Rogan,” she says, “I’m calling from Santa Monica Hospital.”
My fingers go cold. My knees start to shake. I wait, and listen. What did my body know that I didn’t?
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I say. Just like me to apologize for not understanding. It’s something I’ve been doing since first grade.
“Hannah, your husband, John Bernal. He’s been in an accident.”
My heart freezes.
“Hannah, is someone there with you?”
“No? Where’s John? Where is he?”
“Hannah, Mrs. Bernal--”
“Where is my husband? I need to speak to him! Please! His . . . his chairs are here!”
“Hannah, please,” Dr. Rogan says. She’s so calm. I hate her. “You need to come down here. You need someone to bring you to the hospital. John was hit by a car. I’m afraid he’s--”
“I can’t! No!”
“Mrs. Bernal,” Dr. Rogan says, “I’m so sorry. I’m afraid John didn’t make it--”
“Where is he? I need to see him!” I beg. “He’s alive. Ellie’s here, he can’t--”
“Your husband died in the ambulance. He wasn’t alone. I’m sorry . . .”
“Mommy!” Ellie appears, somehow, in front of me. Her huge, round eyes stare up at me. John’s huge, round hazel eyes.
The phone rolls out of my hands. I grab Ellie. I look into her eyes, those eyes, John’s eyes. Grab her to my chest and hold her tight. I sink my face in her hair. John had washed her hair last night, in the bath. For the last time. John did everything Ellie. John was Ellie, and Ellie, John. She was his shadow. Were they ever apart?
John always took Ellie to the Farmer’s Market on these crisp Saturday mornings. He hadn’t taken her today. Today was different; Ellie wasn’t awake when he left.
“I . . . I hate God, Ellie,” I say. I start to wail.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” she asks. “What did God do? Why are you crying?”
“I love you, Ellie. Mommy loves you so much.”
Now, Ellie was starting to cry.
“Mommy has to call Uncle Jay and, and Auntie Chloe and Auntie Aimee, okay? I’m okay, really, Ellie. I’m okay . . .”
I start dialing Jay. The numbers dance as my fingers fumble.
“Can Daddy make me pancakes?”
My heart stops beating.
“Mommy will make pancakes,” I say.
“Mommy doesn’t know how to. Daddy knows how to!”
“I’ll learn. I promise. I’ll learn everything,” then, into the phone, “I’ll learn everything. Jay. Come here. Come here. I know it’s early. Come. Now. It’s John . . . please.”
Externally, now I am calm. I keep hysteria at bay, away from my voice. To this day, I don’t know how.
First five minutes post-worst-case scenario phone call:
Ellie followed me as I checked our bed. I checked it and rechecked it. Spice, our dog. John’s dog, circling me, watching.
“Mommy, what are you looking for?”
I threw off the covers, then threw them back on, and looked under the mattress. Then, I went through our closet. Ellie stood there in the doorway.
“Mommy, where’s Daddy?”
I ran and checked the kitchen, Ellie’s bathroom. I looked in the backyard. The garage.
I scooped Ellie up and squeezed her so tight she started crying again, and then I took her, still in her pajamas, to my neighbor’s house, Home-of-The-Extremely-Loud-Comfortable-Using-Swear-Words Children. Four patio chairs, wrapped in plastic, were sitting on her porch.
“Can you . . . feed Ellie?” I asked the tall, sturdy mother-of-thugs, dressed in sweatpants, as she opened the door.
“Oh, Hannah, I signed for your chairs--”
“Can you feed Ellie, please?” I asked. “I’m sorry--”
I heard the familiar, comforting SpongeBob theme song. Proof that the world is normal, and that the phone call was wrong. All wrong. Kids were settling down with cereal bowls in their laps in the living room.
“Are you okay?”
We didn’t know each other well. I’m ashamed of this fact. She was friendly with John. I was the third wheel in the neighbor equation.
“I’ll be back,” I said. I put Ellie down. Hugged her again. She’s my everything in last year’s Christmas pajamas. The neighbor took Ellie’s hand; both stood watching me. The chairs would wait. I ran back to my empty house.
I pulled John’s jeans, T‑shirts, jockey shorts, socks out of our laundry basket and put them all in a garbage bag. Preserve his smell. Right Guard and aftershave. The dent in his pillow. Don’t touch the dent. His notepad. His note to me. The bedcover had ink stains from where he fell asleep, his pen still in his hand. His slippers where I could trip on them. Yesterday’s sports section tossed on the rug. I picked it up. John was still alive. Evidence was everywhere! He had to be alive.
I slid back under the covers. And screamed. Spice put his paws on the bed and barked.
A car screeched to a halt on the street, a door slam, another door slam, a voice calling my name. Best Friend Chloe rushed in, breathless. “Hannah, oh Hannah . . . I came as soon as Jay called--what happened, where’s John?”
She went down on her knees and kissed my head, then crawled into bed and wrapped her arms around me while I clutched John’s pillow. The dent, gone now. Just like that. Chloe smells like motherhood. John’s pillow smells like him.
“Accident,” my voice is saying.
Next Best Friend Aimee rushed in, click-click-click, boot heels and keys and big jangly purse. “Motherfuck, baby--motherfuck--”
She climbs into my bed, too. She smells like an exotic bird.
My Third (and last--I promise) Best Friend Jay is lifting me out of bed. He hasn’t bothered shaving. Jay hasn’t appeared unshaven since as long ago Halloween, where he dressed as a scruffy Al Pacino. He holds me, basically carries me to the car. Somehow, we make our way to Santa Monica Hospital. Somehow, we find the room, below ground level, where John lies, waiting. But he’s not waiting. He’ll never wait for me again. Somehow, I manage to identify his body. He is still warm. He looks . . . perfect. Perfect. His brain, inside his skull, broken.
Excerpted from The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer. Copyright © 2012 by Gigi Levangie Grazer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.