by James Magruder
“How soon can you be out of here?”
Asked Louis, my husband of two years. I had come home to Philadelphia from a conference in Milwaukee and remarked, as we were prepping for bed, that I felt as if it didn’t seem to matter to him which city I was in. That tripped off a monologue that began with the statement that he was feeling “hopeless about the marriage.”
The third floor was frigid that January night in 1997. From a metal folding chair, its seat covered with dried paint drips, I listened to Louis say crushing things a few feet away from me. He was a psychiatrist, an initial blessing that had become, over time, an unfair advantage, because it led me to receive every negative thing he said about me as gospel.
I leaned against the flank of an armoire I had bought for us in less hopeless times. The unstained floor was scribbled with grooves too deep to be sanded smooth. Parts of the floor looked as if a child had mounted a circular saw and had been riding it like a tricycle. Replacing the wood was far down on Louis’s list of projects. His ability to wire, plumb, lay sheetrock, tile, and brick, hang wallpaper, garden, cook, and can, was one of the things that had drawn me to him. He’d dug a goldfish pond, built a grape trellis in the backyard, installed a shower. I’d been his helper, grunt, and assistant de chef. With guests, I was as house-proud as he was.
Behind Louis was a nightstand painted black, its mouth packed tight with old bills, theater programs, patient notes, and, occasionally, a pornographic magazine, which was an issue for me. When we’d first been dating, I’d had this notion that Louis wouldn’t need porn if he had me in the picture, a losing position I’d inherited from my mother, who had endured forty years of my stepfather’s Hustlers and Penthouses and Ouis. I hated having to look for Louis’ porn as much as I hated finding it. When feeling particularly insecure, I’d search with the fury of Carrie Nation until I’d found a stash under his car seat, or in the magazine basket in our bathroom, or under a pile of grocery bags in the pantry. We had stopped discussing how I felt they demeaned me, so I’d simply stack them on his side of the bed and wait for them to disappear.
I didn’t have a nightstand. When nodding off, I would reach over to my left to place my glasses and my book directly into the deep window embrasure framed by those built-in folding shutters common to Philadelphia houses.
I didn’t interrupt Louis to advocate for our union when he had decided, unilaterally, it was over. The Supreme Court wouldn’t grant the right to same-sex marriage for decades, so we had wed ourselves to one another in the spring of 1995, in a ceremony of our own devising, in front of eighty-seven guests in the garden of a friend’s house in Society Hill. At the time I had been living with HIV for ten years. My T-cell count was thirty-five. Current statistics predicted another two years before my inevitable decline and death. Yet when I had said, “I do” to Louis, and moved into his house, I was not ill, or weak, or depressed, or anxious about anything beyond whether the food would hold out and our guests would dance to the swing band we’d hired for the reception.
Late in 1996, after five months on the then-new anti-retroviral combination therapy, I learned that my viral load was undetectable and my T cells had begun to climb. I drove Louis’s car back from the doctor’s office and ate a Greek salad parked in the driveway. When the magnitude of my medical news hit, an oily ring of dropped green pepper stained my tie and trousers. If I was going to live—and Dr. Butson had suggested that this was the case—then I decided that I needed to work on my marriage.
I kept this vow from Louis, but it was on my mind when, the week after Christmas, I found a trove of pornographic VHS tapes in the Stickley cabinet in his office on the first floor where he saw his paying patients. Bad Black Daddies is the title that sticks most in my mind, because the red ball jammed in the hog-tied submissive’s mouth on the cover looked especially obscene. Magazines were awful enough, but movies? We didn’t own a television, so where did he watch them? He said there was a VHS deck in his group practice office on Locust Street.
Now, some weeks later, frozen against the armoire, I had no choice but to accept his ruling. He said he had never been happy with me; he couldn’t breathe; he had to work too fucking hard to get so little air; I didn’t recognize him as a complete and separate person; I completely invalidated him. I believe he had spoken for twenty minutes before I managed to say, in a tiny voice: “What would have happened if I had gotten sick?”
And he said, “I would have stayed with you.”
In sickness, but not in health. I said, in an even tinier voice, “Lucky for you I got better, huh?”
And that’s when he had asked me how soon I could be out of there.
Our sleigh bed, Mission-style as well, was still made. I took a pillow from my side and, mulling his parting shot—“The person I am becoming can’t be with the person you are”—went to sleep in the guest room. I hadn’t disagreed whenever Louis called me a righteous, perfectionist control freak, but stealing the very air from him? I had thought that exchanging vows in front of eighty-seven people meant that when a couple hit a wall, they would at least attempt to unbrick it together. Stay together, fly apart, but try. Louis’s life’s work was based on the conviction that people could change, but he had denied that possibility in me, and for us.
When I came down the next morning, the pocket door to the back parlor was closed, which meant Louis was with a patient. I set my weekender at the foot of the staircase. We had spent weeks stripping and sanding all three flights to his specifications, but had yet to paint them. There were one hundred and seventy-four spokes waiting for the brush. Also an unfinished dining room on the second floor whose balcony door opened onto a thirty-foot drop into the fishpond. The toilet on the third floor still wasn’t hooked up.
For my final act as household help, I went to the magazine stand in the front parlor and carefully placed well-thumbed copies of Honcho, Inches, Bound & Gagged, and Freshman magazines under Louis’s latest issues of Town & Country, Harper’s, and National Geographic. I thought his patients should have a clearer picture of who was treating them. I went outside and flagged a cab. The police siren that went off a couple of blocks over just then sounded like church bells.
James Magruder has published three books of fiction, Sugarless, Let Me See It, and Love Slaves of Helen Hall, and written the books for two Broadway musicals, Triumph of Love and the recently opened Head Over Heels. He lives in Baltimore. “Nightstand” received first runner-up honors in A&U’s 2018 Chris Hewitt Awards literary contest.