10.1 / January & February 2015

The Bad Wife

The Wife says goodbye. She places her hands around the Husband’s neck, kisses him lightly. You’ll be fine, she says. The Husband walks away from her, led from the elbow by a woman dressed in scrubs. The Wife watches him as he lumbers down the corridor, becomes smaller and smaller, tilts under a doorframe and into a whitewashed room that waits for him.

She has thought about the procedure that Husband is about to undergo, but now, she doesn’t want to envision the operating room, the robotic assisted prostatectomy, about which she has read; pictures of which she has seen in a pamphlet. She knows that a million-dollar robot, whose wrists rotate at 540 degrees—like an overlapping circle or a snail shell or more like the spiraling Fibonacci sequence of numbers coded in the automation—will hulk over the Husband in the complicated and delicate operation that will purge the cancerous prostate from the Husband’s body. Though the Surgeon, who she has never met, will command the robot to ensure the numbers work in the Husband’s favor; so she assumes the Husband is in good hands.

The Wife turns to the Mother-in-law, who has already wished her stepson the best. Now, there is nothing for them to do but wait. They gather their belongings from the blue chairs in the reception area, and in the bleached corridors through which they leave the hospital, the Wife, for a moment, conjures reinforcement: a divine eye, some sort of sentinel, a cosmic force, to be near the Husband, to govern the outcome. She can free her mind of any lingering worry for a while, can’t she? She will try. The Husband is in good hands.


The Husband lies prostrate on a gurney, his bladder drained by a jaundiced tube. A long, thin needle through which CO2 will surge is inserted into his belly button and his freshly shaved midsection soon inflates like molten glass to three times its ordinary mass. This is called insufflation of the peritoneal cavity.

Black lines are drawn crisscross along the corporeal mass, preserving only a rectangular swath of skin bordering the umbilicus—an emerging grid plan that looks like Midtown Manhattan, Central Park at its core. The flesh below the Husband’s belly button is punctured several times with sharp-tipped hollow trocars that are drilled by hand through layers of epidermis and fat, like an auger through ice, carving out five clammy burrows.

The collaborative effort of the surgeon-of-steel and the flesh and blood one begins. Sterile instruments, no wider than a keyhole, are fed through the trocars, and a cavernous, pink-walled interior illuminated. The robot, with its single eye, peers into the cavern, magnifying its subject by ten-times, and exposing to the Surgeon smooth muscles that visibly throb and twitch.


Shall we go for a walk, the Mother-in-law asks slyly. The Wife senses that the Mother-in-law is devising small distractions for her benefit, to keep her from fretting about the Husband. But the Wife also knows that the Surgeon is Princeton and Yale educated, and has performed these operations a thousand times over, so she tells the Mother-in-law she is not worried. Or at least she doesn’t believe she is worried. Perhaps the Mother-in-law is more worried as she is the one who recommended the procedure take place at Mass General.

What does concern the Wife, however, are the post-surgical matters: the cleaning, the dressing, the draining. The possible complications: infection, incontinence; impotence. Oozing foreign fluids. Pain.

Outside the hospital, the Wife glances at the Charles—the river along which she and the Husband walked on their first date. They met on Cape Cod (though both were living in Boston) only a few days before the riverside stroll. She had thought him sweet, a little awkward, less experienced.

Yet, she did not want to become involved—he would be moving to Chicago in three days. A job awaited. He called and insisted. She relented, and on the day before he left for the Midwest they met in Copley Square’s stone courtyard, Trinity Church to their east, the Hancock Tower looming over them. The Husband waited for her with white roses and a plan to roam the city. It began with the stroll to the Charles—on a day just like this day, twenty-one years ago, same month, same season—through the Esplanade, past the boathouse and beyond the hatch shell, along the narrow streets of Beacon Hill, where the Husband shared an apartment with his brother, and where he first caught her hand with his. Sometimes the Husband still holds her hand, a small gesture toward intimacy, as if they were still beginning. At other times the Wife wonders if they are coming to an end.


An assistant to the Surgeon inserts a pencil thin cauterizing tool—a flame without flare, that both cuts and burns—into one of the robot’s arms, and directs it to a trocar. The arm is locked into the trocar’s narrow shaft and the tool descends, joining other instruments—clamp, camera, light, suction, telescope—that have been secured in place.

The Surgeon’s eyes are fixed on the monitor that reflects the surgical field. He slides his fingers into slim cups attached to the console of a docking station at which he sits, and gently moves his digits back and forth, sideways, as if his own hands were emerged in the Husband’s innards. He looks, quickly, at the Husband. Says, Let’s begin.


The Wife and the Mother-in-law cross Cambridge Street, head up a steep road of cobblestone, and wind their way through Beacon Hill’s tree-lined streets. The hospital is now out of sight. Already the leaves are curling but their autumn shades are still fresh, mimicking the colors of the Wife’s crimson and amber scarf. There is only a slight chill in the air, and they amble down the brick sidewalks of Charles Street like they had been planning their excursion for months. He is in able hands, they repeat to each other. There is nothing else to be done, they say again, poking their noses in the glass fronts of antique and dress and gift shops. The Wife doesn’t need or buy a single thing but stares at silk handbags and ancient maps even as she thinks, though she doesn’t want to, about “organ-confined prostate cancer” (hoping that is the case) and the perils to adjacent lymph nodes.

Somehow, she knows that the Husband’s prognosis will be good. The same brother he had lived with in Boston died six years earlier from a rare cancer, leaving young children and a wife who has since remarried and started another family. It is possible to start over. She considers this—starting over—as if she might be presented with the occasion (the chance) to start over. No, the Husband will be all right. She thinks about Brother-in-law, misses his friendship. The Husband will be all right, and this is just another distracting thought that burdens her, and so she quickly turns her thoughts to something lighter.

Through the window of an antique shop she notices an old multi-tiered mantle clock. Its case is washed in a gold gilt and adorned, up top, with two swans drinking from a goblet. Below, a loincloth-swathed man rests above rippling water; “à Paris” is written in elegant script on its face. She and the Husband spent part of their honeymoon in Paris. Paris, she thinks, they had planned to return on their tenth anniversary, eight years ago, but they never did.

The Wife stares. The depiction on the clock: the water, the man seems to be of the water, a channel, an eddy, torrent and undertow, murky and turbulent. Or is it cleansing and healing? The clock’s hands are not moving. She sees two winding arbors in the lower quadrant of the face, and considers how the timepiece would have to be wound daily. It would take a great deal of care. Would she know when to wind it? Would she have the time to wind it? Who looks at clocks anymore? But it was the intricate interior—wheels, pinions, pallet and screws, the mainspring pressing the gears, time, forward—and the sound, its mechanics clicking and chiming, that would be lovely and tragic. Something rings in her.

She wonders how long it will take to dismantle the Husband’s little red sac. Three hours the Surgeon had said. Three in the OR and three in recovery. The Wife and the Mother-in-law decide they have time and duck into a small café for lunch. It is busy inside but they are swiftly seated at a small, wooden table that has just emptied, and the Wife squeezes into a chair that backs up against the wall. Feeling boxed in, she orders something light. She wants everything to be light—crinkled spinach, bacon, and Parmesan salad—and she will eat the very last, leafy bite. As they talk about family, the Wife conjures the gurney, the Husband on it, the big round light overhead, and she thinks about life insurance and how she would sell the house, if, and move to the city with the kids or to some smaller, less needy house in the burbs, and life would be okay. Would life be okay, really? She keeps her thoughts to herself, because she knows they are disturbing because they are disturbing her, and if she shared she would be known to be disturbed. And anyway, the Husband will be fine.


From the console, the Surgeon maneuvers intuitive robotic appendages which respond to his slightest gesture. It is a knotty procedure that allows for little improvisation, if any at all. One mistake and an important nerve or gland could be severed beyond repair.

The appendages clutch miniature clamps, scalpels and forceps that, with their long beaks and shimmery pins at either side of the head, resemble Silvereye birds searching for seed—only, they are scraping away fat and tissue, paring off sheets of membrane as white as the albedo of an orange, and slicing through layers of pulpy viscera. A gurgle of suction dips in and out of a port that pings when metal meets metal.


After lunch, the Wife and the Mother-in-law stroll through the Public Garden where pumpkin and pomegranate-colored mums remind them that tomorrow is October. Already the Swan Boats have been stored for the winter. Nevertheless, it is a glorious day, and the city’s oasis sings botanic. Entering the park they inhale the fragrant blossoms of the Japanese pagoda tree that have fallen to the ground. The Wife’s body feels looser, more relaxed, and she glides along the park’s familiar paths as she used to when she lived alone in the city, when she was attuned to its timbre—the bellowing wind off the Charles, the rattle of the T—long before it had become to her this gurgling morass of ologies and ectomies.

Near the pond, the Mother-in-law takes a call on her cell phone from an anxious relative, while the Wife sits on a bench under an old oak and locks her eyes on two squirrels stuffing their jowls with acorns. She is reminded of her own two, the Son, the Daughter, whom she drove to school that morning. She and the Husband agreed on this—the kids going to school—to maintain normalcy. She wishes, now, that she had their company.

The acorns taste of tannin, but squirrels don’t mind; they pounce instinctively on the bitter mast—collecting sustenance for the cold dark months. As they cross back and forth from an old oak tree to their pile of nuts their coats nearly brush, but neither acknowledges the other. They are busy. Too busy for play. They have what they need, muses the Wife. She picks up a green acorn whose brown cap has fallen away and rolls it in her fingers. It drops into her lap and she stuffs it in her sweater pocket.

Across the pond a weeping willow brushes the sky and the Wife shivers. When she was a young girl she thought the tree was called weeping widow, which seemed to suit its heavy, pendulous—in a gust, hysterical—embellishment. In the tree’s foreground she sees the bottoms of buttoned, tailored jackets flapping in the breeze as people move quickly along the path, rushing back to their offices; the more casually dressed stroll more leisurely. She hears echoes of the intimate conversations being held on the bridge, on a bench, by the pond and wonders if any of these passersby have a husband or a wife or a someone seriously ill in the operating room. It occurs to her that she is not merely a pedestrian. She searches faces for signs of distress. Are there visible clues on hers?

It was in this garden that the Husband first showed her his writing—the beginnings of a story. She thought it was smart and lyrical; the words seemed a portal to his heart, and, even though he was reserved, at times taciturn, she sensed something far below the surface. Nine months after he left for Chicago, he returned to Boston for good.


The hospital is where certain words pass coolly: incontinence, erectile dysfunction, nerve damage, bladder neck, seminal vesicle. Monitors beep, the robot hums, and the Surgeon delivers a play-by-play account just as a sports announcer would a baseball game. Beams of yellow light illuminate the temperature-controlled theatre, and the trocar-impaled body, what can be seen of it, is deathly still while the metallic instruments nudge the bladder to the right or left, wherever they can safely tuck it aside as they tunnel. The dorsal vein complex, a pulsing web of penile drains, is exposed and the matter becomes more delicate. A curved frame pulls a thread through the now visible prostate gland, and two silvered birds work together, swinging arcs around the little red sac below the Husband’s bladder, looping the thin cord, one end around the other, as if it were a shoelace they’d swiped to shore up their nest. The anesthesiologist checks his tools.


In the plain air of the city everything seems too pretty for the Wife to think of operations or dreadful outcomes, and she drowns out the voices. “I miss living in town,” she tells the Mother-in-law, and the Mother-in-law, who has an apartment in Boston, says it’s the most wonderful place to be. This evening, while the Husband sleeps on a gurney against a wall of curtains and flashing mechanics, the Wife will sleep in the Mother-in-law’s apartment—a high-ceilinged space decorated with thickly coved molding, expansive windows, furnishings clothed in white cotton duck, and pastoral art in muted pinks and greens. To get there, they will walk through a succession of glassed-in shopping malls and through a secret doorway leading to the apartment building’s interior, which will seem oddly like the maze that is Mass General.

The women make their way through the park and over to a landmark jewelry store. Inside, the baubles are perfectly fastened in glass boxes, and a security guard is fixed at the door. An odd sense of fallowness overcomes the Wife. The space is too clean and sparkly. Overhead lights warm her neck and she peels the scarf from her collar.


Metal nebs of thermal energy burn through fatty tissue and reach the Husband’s bladder head. The vas artery is severed with a paper-thin blade and nerves drop away. An assistant to the Surgeon wipes his head with a cold, damp cloth.

The Surgeon considers the fine strings of nerves he will attempt to spare so as not to extinguish the Husband’s sense of pleasure. A vein slowly bleeds out as elements of the Husband’s reproductive system are reworked and modified. A pathway for propelling the viscid flow of conceivable life has been terminated, and the steel beaks tug sinewy threads, sealing all leaks.


The Wife crimps her lips and suggests that she and the Mother-in-law get something to drink. There is a need to fill, and so they fill with food and drink. Returning to the street, where the air has chilled, and the afternoon light has dimmed, they tighten their sweaters and move swiftly over concrete walkways. The Mother-in-law suggests they go for a massage.

The Wife considers the idea—remarks that it was eighteen years ago this month that she and the Husband were married. “Hard to believe,” she says. But what has her anniversary to do with anything? If the Mother-in-law wonders she doesn’t let on. Hard to believe eighteen years have passed or hard to believe that they are still together—the Wife isn’t sure what her comment means. She grows self-conscious about her small talk; idle chatter is not what she intended. She recalls that her wedding day began with grey morning spit, which did not stop a walk along the ocean and into the church, and everyone said it meant good luck. But luck, she thinks, is hardly a factor except when you’re down on your luck and your spouse enters a hospital looking as pale and uneasy as the day you were married, the day you’re walking through a park and the winds shake acorns from oaks, and you realize that you haven’t stored rations—as the squirrels do—of….

What? Patience? Empathy? Love?

How is it that one in every two marriages survive?

The Wife and the Mother-in-law are now standing in front of a massage parlor where the Mother-in-law has a membership. “Light massage only,” the Wife says dubiously. “I don’t like deep massage…” her voice trails off as she grasps the inanity of the moment. What she doesn’t like then, even as she allows herself to do it, is opening the door to the parlor. What she doesn’t like then is her fluctuating feelings; her self.

The women are each assigned their own masseuse and go off to their private changing rooms. The Wife undresses, wraps herself in a fluffy white robe, and sets her phone’s ringer to vibrate. In another room, a jasmine scented chamber of soothing sounds—rippling water, soft music—she places the phone on a chair and climbs on to a leather-wrapped table. She lets her face drop into the hole that’s been cutout to receive it and stares into the forest-green carpeting, below. She has not yet heard from the Surgeon. He has her number, said he would call. What time of day is it? Maybe two or three in the afternoon?


Mid afternoon, the Husband lies inert under bright lights on a steel table, his tainted gland and surrounding lymph nodes cut free. A sharp-nibbed tool stashes waste in a clear plastic pouch that looks like a miniature shower cap. There is only a slight pause before the Surgeon begins reconstructing a thin terminal that will be the Husband’s workable urinary tract.

The Husband’s bladder, through which a catheter winds, is cinched to the urethral stump by a long stretch of sutures, forging a watertight seal. The Surgeon checks for bleeding, and a closed suction drain is thrust into the Husband’s pelvis. All the tools are pulled from their ports, and the clammy prostate is lifted through the belly button trocar. A switch is hit and the robot ceases to hum. Threads close off the ports.


The masseuse drips warmed oil on the Wife’s legs, rubs her thighs and calves. The Wife becomes self-conscious, why is she doing this? She thinks of the Husband, where is he now? She peers into the carpet and sighs. She is uninformed, knows him less with each passing year. (Does he know her less, too?) True—one cannot know another’s inner life. Or can one? Maybe the Husband cannot articulate his internal concerns, preoccupations, burdens; refuses to. And those confidences cannot be forced or coaxed. She feels time folding into an accordion—as if it can be contained—bellows contracting, expanding. Her lungs fill with anxiety. A slight groan escapes her, a shimmer of rage draining. Where is she? She feels her thoughts are perfunctory, a useless loop of questions, desires. A vast gap: the Wife——the Husband. Distance. Detachment. Did she sense his fear when he first held her hand in his? Did she consider how their lives would change? Or would not? Had she thought that the Husband’s disposition (or is it predisposition?)—his brooding disengagement—and her reactive inward chafing, was something that would not endure? and she would, by now, fully understand? Should she not, by now—she questions herself—understand?

Now her chest is batten, a dense board of frustration. She admonishes herself, Why am I even thinking of this now? Her eyes squeeze. Dammit, stop thinking! She scans the green forest, which seems to change color, and attempts to bury in it any anger she feels. It is making her ill. She wants to like him. She wants to like him again. She loathes him. She loves him. The green carpet becomes blue, or red, or brown, and she tries to differentiate one shade from the other when its grain shifts, back, forward, as a gust of something—not possibly her own faint breath—seems to color it black, and a little ripple of fear disperses through her. She questions whether or not the acorn might still be in her sweater pocket. Warmed oil races along her back, and she closes her eyes.


The Husband is wrapped in heated blankets and shipped to a private recovery room. Later, when the Husband is barely lucid, the Surgeon will recite to him a list of accomplishments, after which he will leave the Husband alone to rest.


The masseuse works her sleek fingers along the Wife’s scalp, gently rubs her shoulders and back, and, in a hushed tone, tells her to take her time leaving the room. The Wife rises slowly from her cushioned table. She is alone now in a haze of green that obscures whatever detail is within when it clicks: it’s late, she must leave quickly.

In the changing room, the Wife reverses the vibrate mode from her phone and within seconds it rings. It is the Surgeon, who says he had called her earlier, had looked for her in the waiting area, expecting her to be there. She runs the back of her hand across a warm forehead, pinches her chin, swallows her guilt. She is confused; she thought her phone was on vibrate. Had she silenced it? Why hadn’t she heard its pulse? Had it been ringing in her bag? How on earth had she missed the call? What is wrong with the phone! “I’m around the corner,” she says quickly, without hearing the words.

“Oh, well,” says the Surgeon, “he’s going to be fine.”

But the Wife needs further confirmation, and repeats, “He’s going to be fine?” He will, the Surgeon tells her, and she is welcome to see him now. Out in the foyer, she slips past the Mother-in-law, hiding her tears.

On Charles Street, where the Wife quickens her pace and feels ashamed that she ever disliked or, worse, hated the Husband, she and the Mother-in-law come to a halt in front of a cupcake shop. They stare at the large confections—small cakes topped with mounds of vanilla frosting—stacked on silver stands. Stupefied by her own delay she nonetheless cannot simply pass by. It would be a shame not to bring something home to the children. She always brings something home to the children, doesn’t she? She reckons she has time; he will likely be sleeping. She purchases four large cupcakes, which are boxed in a pink carton with handles and a window, and the women return to the hospital’s waiting room. The attendant at the desk looks at the Wife and the box, and says the Surgeon was looking for her. “He seemed disappointed,” she says.

The Wife nods her head and thinks, I’m the bad wife.

The attendant lets her run up to Ellison, the floor on which the Husband is recovering. “Only on Ellison do they allow that,” she says, as though the Wife should feel guilty for the privilege, as if she had done something terribly wrong.

The Wife quietly enters the Husband’s room while the Mother-in-law waits in the hall. She sees him, motionless, on a gurney, and braces herself. His head is wrapped in a cream colored blanket and he looks like an old babushka, more vulnerable than she has ever seen him, than he would ever let her know. He is bloated and wired with input and output, tubes and drains and Foley catheter, his lower limbs wrapped in pneumatic compression boots. His eyes float toward her as she approaches him. A smidge of drool trickles from the corner of his mouth, and his cleft chin, faintly raised, shines. His lips tremble, and he murmurs that he’s happy to see her. Now she has forgotten her anger, it has melted like salt on ice, a ream of little crevices giving way to a stream, a pool into which her tears slip.

She smiles, kisses his forehead, tells him she’s happy, too, and as she says this she senses a surge of joy and something that feels like hope. Yes, their future might be different; these kinds of things bring people closer, she thinks. She feels closer to him at this moment, though not certain if he is aware she is even there. And she quickly becomes concerned that he may know she left the hospital and was not there. “The Surgeon says you won’t remember anything in recovery. You remember the Surgeon seeing you in recovery?”

“Yuh,” he whispers, “I member. Member him say it went well.” He glances up at the Wife, curling his lips weakly; he is half asleep, and as his lids drop he faintly moans, voices, again, how good it is to see her, and the Wife is comforted by the tenderness of this moment.

She realizes that her hair is greasy with healing oils, and she rubs the top of her head with her palms, hoping he doesn’t notice. There were moments, days, months, she thinks, when they loathed one another—year two, year five, year twelve—though was this the right word? Or was it, rather, a terrible resentfulness? She is not sure he had felt either way. Nor is she certain of her own feelings; it seemed, now, that, more than anything else, she had been caught in an extended state of hurt and confusion. And she assumed that they had both felt ambivalent, resentful; they must have—they had been caught in a loop for too long—coming in, moving away from one another like the opposing currents of a great whirlpool, a cold, slow drowning where light above the surface bends and recedes, distorting perception—and how to determine the way out, or back?

Yet they were at this juncture: babushka man, repentant woman—by what, the grace of God?—and while she believes she could, she knows she would not let go, would not go under; she has been holding on to something more. The Husband drifts into a slumber and she leaves him, again, to rest. There is nothing else to be done.


That evening, in the Mother-in-law’s high-rise residence, the Wife looks out of the big picture window into the twinkling Prudential Center courtyard below. She sees people shuffling through the glass-walled galleries, little, dark figures like an illuminated colony of ants on an ant farm. Where are they going? They appear to be walking in circles, following an outline, the triangular courtyard. A woman with a big hat topped by some kind of plume bobbing from side to side, looks to be the queen. Isn’t she something, the Wife thinks.

There is a free shuttle that comes by each morning, says the Mother-in-law, as she helps the Wife turn the couch into a bed. The Wife, who will dream restlessly of insects and empty corridors through the night, will take the shuttle to the hospital soon after sunrise, a sage-lacquered acorn tucked in her pocket, a box of cupcakes in her hands.

Jayne Guertin is a Rhode Island writer/photographer, and January 2015 MFA graduate of Bennington College. Her photography is featured on the cover of the anthology, Seeking It’s Own Level, an anthology of writings about water. She has essays forthcoming in literary journals. PANK is the first to publish her work!
10.1 / January & February 2015