The border to New Mexico meant we were only a few hours from Matt and Barbara. There was no question. We would stay with them for a day or two.
The road to Sante Fe seemed endless, when we would actually arrive shortly after lunch. Rather than taking a more scenic route, we followed I 25, opting to arrive sooner to Matt’s house. We broke our own rule and grabbed a quick burger and fry lunch before jumping back into the Cayenne. Both of us were very eager to see Matt and Barbara.
Chris and I visited a few times since our marriage and the house looked very much the same as I remembered–a sand colored stucco house with a bright blue door and blue window frames. Matt had rocks for his yard and flowers growing in huge clay pots. The walkway up to the front door was glazed ceramic tiles of blue and white.
Matt opened the door for us before we got out of the car and met us in the driveway. He pulled me into a tight bear hug and kissed my hair. He hugged Chris, who endured the torture for a few moments.
Matt and Chris were cut from the same mould. Both had blue eyes, a narrow nose and firm chin. However, Matt’s hair was totally gray and Chris only had a few wisps of gray at the temple.
“It is so good to see you,” I said, then, “How is Barbara? Is she inside?”
“Yep. She is waiting for you,” Matt said. “You go. I’ll help Chris with the luggage.”
I left Chris and Matt to catch up and I went inside to find Barbara with Snow at my heels.
Barbara lounged on chaise in her living room right off the tiled foyer.
Snow ran past me and jumped onto the chaise with Barbara.
“Snow!” I called sharply. She turned her head and looked at me, but didn’t come to me.
Barbara laughed and said, “She is welcome! What a beauty she is. Snow, don’t you listen to Anne. You just have a seat and you and I will become good friends.” Snow licked her hand and settled onto the chaise beside Barbara.
My sister-in-law looked frail and drawn. She had lost at least forty pounds since I saw her last and she was never a huge woman to begin with. Her head was covered in a colorful scarf and I suspected she was bald underneath. Even with the sickness that pervaded her body, she gave me a huge smile.
“Anne, you look well, considering all you have endured the past couple of months.”
I sat in the chair beside her, feeling the tears sliding down my cheeks.
“Now, what’s all this?” she asked me. “You are not crying for me.”
“Not at all,” I told her. “I am crying for me and for Lillian.”
“How about making us some tea. You know where the kitchen is. The tea is in the cabinet beside the refrigerator and the kettle is on the stove. Cups in the cabinet on the right side of the sink. I want Earl Gray.”
I nodded and rose to me feet. I gave her a gentle hug and said, “I am so happy to be here. Can we stay for a day or two?”
“Only if you let Snow stay with me. I get so cold and she is incredibly warm.”
The day was far from chilly and Matt had the windows open. I bit my lower lip and nodded. I went to the kitchen before I started crying in earnest. The sight of Barbara in her infirmity was shocking so I cried for her along with crying for Lillian, and myself.
Matt found me in the kitchen. “The lady of the house sent you off to make tea for her? Such a cruel taskmaster she is.”
“Tea for you?” I asked.
“Hell, no. Tea is nothing but slightly flavored water. I drink coffee. Black and thick.” He paused and assessed me with an up and down look. “None the worse for wear, I see. And the punk is still alive. Progress, I would say.”
Matt looked fifteen years older than the last time I had seen him. His hair was longer than I remembered and his face a lacework of wrinkles. The stress of caring for Barbara had not gone well for him.
“Do you have help with her?” I asked quietly.
“Yes. A nurse comes in every day for about four hours.”
“Good. She looks… sick.”
“I think she will weather this storm. Only one more treatment and then she is done. She will get better after that.”
Matt reached up with gentle fingers and wiped the tears from my cheeks, then busied himself with making a fresh pot of coffee.
Chris came into the kitchen before the brew cycle was done. “I put our bags in the spare room,” he announced.
I looked at Matt. “Only one spare room?”
“Yes. Charlotte is here until she gets married and Julia is here on weekends when she comes home from college. You two get Ann’s room because she is away at Northwestern for Med School and won’t be back until her winter break. Julia will be here tomorrow morning.”
I turned away from the two brothers and made myself busy with the tea. I took the two mugs back into the living room and gave one to Barbara. She sipped and said, “This is wonderful. Very warming.”
“I have an afghan I crocheted for you in my luggage. It is made from alpaca and is very soft.”
“Thank you, so much,” Barbara said. “I just can’t seem to get warm, even in 90 degree heat.”
“I’ll get it for you. First, I need to walk Snow.”
“Take her out the back door. Nothing in the backyard but sand.”
I called to Snow and she jumped down from the chaise to follow me outside. A huge glass door opened to a covered patio and a sand trap beyond. The air was comparatively cool under the ceiling fan right outside the door, but it felt like a blast furnace when I stepped onto the sand. Even through the soles of my shoes, I could feel the heat.
Snow squatted, peed quickly, and trotted back to the door to be let back in. Chris had put her water bowl and her her bowl of food by the back door, so Snow paused long enough to slurp several mouthfuls of water. She trotted back to the chaise and hopped up with Barbara once again. She lay her head on Barbara’s thigh.
I asked Barbara where my room was and she gave me brief directions. My bedroom had a queen sized bed covered in a brightly colored Native American blanket. The plastered walls gleamed with white-wash and the red tiles had two fuzzy rugs covering part.
A girl’s room. My niece, Ann, gave us her space without ever knowing it. I opened an empty closet and saw the suitcases in there. I pulled mine out and put it on the bed. The afghan was kept carefully clean by a plastic bag. I removed it and put the suitcase back into the closet.
Out of the window I looked at the mountains in the distance and the swathe of scrub between them and me. The scene was shockingly peaceful and beautiful. Such a contrast to my life.
Moments wasted while I considered what it would mean for Chris and me to be trapped in the same bedroom. If I had to, I would slip out and sleep on the couch in the living room. I sighed, picked up the afghan and returned to Barbara.
I crocheted the afghan from lightweight alpaca wool in earth tone shades I remembered from times I visited Matt and Barbara. Rows of taupe, sand, blush pink, beige and white were interspersed with sky blue. The blanket was soft and lightweight enough to ward of the chill of sickness without being too heavy for the desert summers.
I handed the blanket to her and she buried her face in the soft folds. “It is just gorgeous. Thank you, so much, Anne.”
“Where are Matt and Chris?” I asked her.
“They went to gas up the car and Matt told me that he and Chris are going to Starbucks for coffee and a stern talking to.”
“Maybe it will help. He still texts her and talks to her on the phone whenever he thinks I cannot hear. He talks to me a little bit, but…” I let the sentence trail away. Barbara had enough to worry about without me burdening her with my troubles.
“Do you think you can reconcile your differences?” Barbara asked.
“I just don’t know. I am so angry at him. I feel completely betrayed and completely alone. Worse, I keep thinking this is all my fault. You know, if I had been a better wife, a better housekeeper, a better cook, was 60 pounds lighter, 20 years younger.”
“Stop that, right now,” she admonished, her voice suddenly stronger. “Chris is the one who is having an affair. Not you. Blaming yourself for this is pointless and debilitating. Blaming him is proper.”
“I get the feeling that I can’t get over this, ever.”
“Maybe you can’t. You two may end up separating. Then, you may end up together, forever. I understand what you feeling. I did, too, when Matt had an affair years ago. Betrayal. Breach of trust. Breach of promise. All of that. Plus, like you, I felt like it was my fault. Finally, one night, I was so angry, I hit him in the head with a wooden spoon and told him to get out of my house. He only made it to the front door before he came back and apologized. He promised to never to have an affair, again. I asked him, “How can I believe you?” He said, “Only time will tell.” That was twenty years ago, and sometimes I still feel the hurt and the betrayal. Sometimes, I wonder if he is seeing someone, especially, if he is late coming home or has to go out of town for a medical conference.”
I felt the tears, again. First, I never knew Matt had an affair. Second, I never knew Barbara had to deal with the same things I am dealing with.
“So, you are saying, this will never go away?” I asked around a sob.
“It may not. You have to decide if you can live with the pain and the doubt or you have to cut your losses.”