Comfort, No Joy
T he patio door slid closed with a click, soft enough not to be heard, but firm enough to seal her outside. Anna’s breath clouded around her, and she regretted grabbing Jim’s cardigan off the back of a kitchen chair instead of sneaking into the closet for a coat. Inside the house were fourteen people, all loved and welcome, but she couldn’t stand there one more minute in her Christmas Eve hostess uniform: ankle-length black skirt; ruffle-trimmed white blouse; red suede flats embroidered in gold metallic thread. She’d made the roast, mashed the sweet potatoes, filled the soup taurine, toasted the almonds to top the fresh green beans; old favorites so familiar, she didn’t have to glance at the recipes any more. Not even for the homemade tiramisu.
When did she become this woman? Anna asked herself. Not that she wasn’t happy—she was, most of the time. She and Jim were good. Their kids were good. Her brother and sister and their families—all good. Rare for an adult child over the age of fifty, she could boast that both of her parents were alive and active. She had a nice house, a secure job, and a twenty-four-year marriage that rolled with the ups and downs, most of them minor. Her life was, by all counts, comfortable.
That word hit her like a stubbed toe.
Not so long ago, she’d been a college graduate with no immediate plans, who joined the Peace Corps and worked on a public health project in Ghana. She remembered being so uncomfortable—overwhelmed with homesickness and the futility of good intentions stacked up against the enormity of deeply entrenched problems. But she’d soldiered on, pushing her limits toward small progress. She’d stayed even when she’d come down with a tropical fever.
Now she had a no-chip manicure in a neutral color.
The patio door rolled back and Jim stepped out. “You taking up smoking?”
Anna gave her husband a smirk. “Just checking on the—” She pointed in the general direction of the cooler on the back deck filled with extra white wine and sparking water, because there was no room in the refrigerator, then gave up the pretense.
Jim crossed his arms. “You took my sweater.”
“My escape plan didn’t include a wardrobe change.”
In the dim light, he still looked like the lanky, good-looking guy who’d been sleeping on her friend Darla’s sofa twenty-five years ago. She’d been back from Ghana about a month, and was visiting Darla for the first time since college. Jim was a childhood friend, Darla told her, and needed a place to stay.
Anna can still remember Jim opening his eyes and squinting at her because of his myopia until he found his glasses. She’d been tall, a little too thin from Ghana and the fever, her blond hair long and worn in a braid. “Wow,” he’d said. “I thought I was dreaming.”
Now they lived near Cambridge in a brick house with twin dormers and a pair of columns flanking the front steps. Jim worked for a tech startup—the only team member north of fifty—and she did community relations for a hospital in Boston.
“You ever think of what we used to be? Who we used to be?” Anna asked. The question made her throat tighten.
“Poor, unemployed, thin—in my case, that is.” Jim patted a slight paunch, almost affectionately. “You still look the same.”
“Hardly. But you know what I mean. We used to care about things—discuss things.”
“We still care about things.”
Anna knew what would come next, and there it was—Jim drawing her into a hug, then keeping one arm around her shoulder as he opened the door and drew her back inside.
She’d been gone about 10 minutes; no one seemed to notice. Anna’s sister, Beth, who lived an hour away, cleared the table with the help of her husband, Gary. Jim’s brother, Josh, in from Delaware with his family, flipped through the channels while Charlotte, Anna’s mother, kept saying she wanted to see hear the Vienna Boys Choir. Josh’s wife, Joelle, popped K-cups in the Keurig.
Anna rejoined the women in the kitchen. “Hot flash,” she said, explaining her absence.
“Tell me about.” Joelle launched into a list of homeopathic remedies—sage tea, peppermint oil—all tried with minimal amounts of success. “Caffeine doesn’t help.” She pointed to a stream of coffee coming out of the Keurig into a mug.
“It’s sugar.” Beth raised her wineglass. “Two sips of this, and I’ll put off more BTUs than an industrial boiler.”
First world problems, Anna wanted to say, rolling the sour thoughts around like a mint in her mouth. She helped clear the rest of the table. Then dessert was brought into the living room on trays. The tiramisu dazzled everyone, just like every year.
Jim’s broad back rounded the covers into a mound on his side of the bed. Still sleepless, Anna put another pillow under her head and stared into the cottony darkness of the ceiling. Maybe she shouldn’t have stayed up another hour after Jim, but she hadn’t felt tired and wanted to put away the holly-trimmed serving dishes only used once a year, and the wineglass charms that looked like miniature bells with tiny clappers inside. In the silent house, she heard the distant hum of the washing machine churning the table linens through the rinse cycle.
Lying awake in this house, wishing for sleep but knowing it was still a long way off, Anna tried to keep her mind occupied with grateful thoughts. The house felt full, with Laurie and Jon both home from college, and sleeping in their old rooms. To think Laurie was twenty-one already and Jon turning twenty in March. She was just two years older than they were now when she’d headed to West Africa for a three-year stint. She couldn’t see Laurie doing something like that—she was too focused on going to law school; maybe Jon, given his unsureness of what would come next.
Had uncertainty taken her into the Peace Corps? Was it all a desire to put off the grownup life of getting a job and navigating through the hierarchy? She didn’t think so, not then and not now. She’d wanted something that made a difference—that made her different. But it hadn’t lasted. In the end, she wanted the same things everyone else did; pursued the same goals as the rest.
Anxiety flopped like a fish inside her chest.
Two hours later, the phone rang. Jim grabbed the receiver, his voice croaking. “When?” he asked.
Anna got out of bed before hearing the answer to that question, knowing it could only be bad news.
Jim repeated everything he’d heard from Beth, who’d gotten the call from Don, Anna’s father. Charlotte had awakened a little before four with chest pains and Don called 911. Paramedics were taking her to the hospital. Anna dressed in the first clothes she could grab—jeans and turtleneck—and shoved her sockless feet into the Christmas pumps left by the closet door. She thought of waking Jon and Laurie, but they hadn’t heard the phone and were still so tired from the end-of-term rush, plus the plunge into the holidays. She left a note on the kitchen table and promised to call later.
Jim’s hair stood on end as he backed the car out of the garage. Anna sat silently beside him, telling herself that Charlotte probably had gas pains—the late night, the big meal, the excitement. They’d check her over and release her by noon. But when they got to the hospital and saw Charlotte, frail and small in the pastel gown, with monitors on her chest, Anna suspected the worse: her mother had a heart attack.
It was her fault, Anna shrieked silently—her thoughts about being too comfortable. She’d tempted fate, and fate slapped back with something real to worry about, and not just her mother, but also her father, looking lost and confused.
“Mom’s in good hands,” Anna told him.
“She had a heart attack,” Don said, his voice shaky. “How is that possible?”
Anna patted her father’s hand. “We’ll see what the doctors say.”
They sat in the waiting area while Charlotte was taken for more tests. Gary dosed in a chair, while Beth paced and stopped frequently at the nurses’ station. Josh and Joelle came a little while later with a tray of lattes and some muffins. By nine, Laurie and Jon arrived, sullen with their phones, fingers flying over text messages. Laurie had been furious at not being awakened as soon as they got the call about Charlotte. Anna had tried her best to soothe her children with explanations—it was so early, they needed their sleep, it wasn’t that serious.
Looking over at her daughter now, Anna knew that Laurie would warm up to Jim first, then to her. At some point, they’d take a walk together, going the long way down the hallways to find a bathroom or get something to eat.
Charlotte stayed in the hospital until December twenty-eighth with a diagnosis of unstable angina. She came home with a new diet, a regime of baby aspirin, and follow-up visits that would likely lead to having a stent. Full recovery was likely, the doctors assured them. New Year’s came and went with a small, quiet dinner at Charlotte and Don’s house, which Beth and Anna cooked. Leftovers were packaged for easy reheating. They lounged in the living room, watching yet another college bowl game. Charlotte sat in the recliner, her feet and legs elevated, and clucked in protest over being fussed over like this. Don clasped and loosened his hands, over and over, as if he were afraid he’d fumble them like a football.
The first week of January, Charlotte received a stent implant. Everything went well—better than expected. Anna relaxed, unclenched her jaw, slept through the night, and used the massage gift certificate she’d received as a Christmas gift.
Anna and Beth both checked in on Charlotte and Don, although Beth, who lived closer to their parents, was there more frequently. Occasionally, the two sisters came to the house at the same time. They were friendly, but never close—even as children. In marrying Gary, Anna thought, her sister had found her real family—the Rybersens. They all had matching sweaters, she used to joke to Jim; then she saw the Rybersen family reunion pictures on Facebook and her sister smiling with Gary’s clan in her t-shirt festooned with an “R.” There it was.
Now, working side by side with her sister in their mother’s kitchen, seeing the crumbs in the drawers that, even a year ago, would have been pristine, Anna listened to the stories of vacationing with Gary’s parents, going on a cruise with Gary’s siblings and their families. “Sounds nice,” she said.
Anna studied her sister’s profile, seeing their father’s face but not her own. She didn’t look like any of them, Anna thought, although a picture taken when her maternal grandmother was young looked like it could have been her in vintage clothing. Maybe that was the divide between her and Beth, Anna thought: not enough overlapping DNA.
The cupboard below revealed a jumble of pans and mismatched lids. “Did you ever wonder what you might have done differently—you know, the road less traveled sort of thing?”
“You mean do I have regrets?” Beth’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “None. And neither should you.”
Anna knew better than to try explaining herself, especially not to Beth. She didn’t have regrets, but the feeling lingered that as she and Jim built a life together—good jobs, nice house, kids on the right track—they’d left something out.
Lining the pans on the counter, Anna matched them up with their lids. Two metal covers were left over. Why had her mother kept the lids after the pots were scorched or the non-stick coating was scratched away? Anna put them in the recycling bin, imagining the metal being melted, reshaped, and remade into something useful.
Later that night, Jim put his arms around her in bed and wouldn’t let go until she told him what was wrong. She tried to explain, but her words knotted and tangled into a litany of complaints over small things that really had nothing to do with it at all. “Are you tired of me?” he asked quietly. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“No, I love you!” Anna buried her face against his neck. “I’ve lost me—somewhere along the line. I don’t know where I went or how to get me back.”
On a Sunday in early February, Anna put on a suit and a pair of sensible shoes and accompanied Jim to a church three suburbs over, where the infant daughter of one of his direct reports was being baptized. They sat toward the back, leaving the prime spots for family and closer friends. The church was modern, filled with rows of chairs with thick blue seat cushions instead of pews. The windows were colored blocks without any scenes.
As the minister preached briefly, Anna out of boredom picked up a soft-sided prayer book and leafed through it. A paper fell out from the pages in back – a bright yellow half sheet printed with the words “Helping Hands, Joyful Hearts.” It was an announcement, from before Christmas, about volunteers needed for the township food pantry, collecting and sorting donations, and delivering meals baskets to shut-ins.
Anna elbowed Jim and showed him the paper. His eyebrows drew together in question.
“I’m doing this.” She stabbed the paper with her finger.
On their first weekend as pantry volunteers, Jim helped unload cases of dented canned goods donated by a local food distributor, while Anna joined the team sorting and shelving them. They came back on four of the next six weekends. Then Jim’s company funded the purchase of 250 canned meats. Anna read the labels, wishing the sodium content wasn’t so high, but the long shelf-life and no need of refrigeration made this product a godsend for recipients, some of whom were transient. The following weekend, they packed care packages and loaded them into a borrowed church van.
Anna and Jim rode in the back through a neighborhood reputed to be unsafe. But their driver knew it well, and assured them the church van was recognized on these streets. Out the window, she saw windows boarded up and kids played on the broken sidewalk. An elderly woman leaned on a grocery cart as if it were a walker.
Did they resent the help that parachuted in every month or so and then disappeared, Anna wondered. Or did a sincere desire to help and the greatness of the need form a bridge across the divide?
The van hit a pothole that pitched Anna into Jim, sitting beside her. “You okay?” he asked.
She laughed as she righted herself. “Never better.”
Image Credit: © Dymax | Dreamstime.com – Nice Crimson Female Shoes Isloated On White Closeup Photo