World Enough and Time

By Vivian Lawry

Arthur married Carolyn because it was time to settle down, and because he knew she could never hurt him. When he came home from the Pacific Theater, he left Marie’s Dear John letter behind, but not its lesson: he went to college on the G.I. Bill, worked hard, and dated little. He met Carolyn on a blind date when they both were seniors, though she was three years younger.

Two weeks before the wedding, Arthur’s mother said, “Son, if you don’t love Carolyn, don’t marry her.”

Arthur said, “Carolyn’s a good woman. She’s loyal. She’ll be a good mother. And it’s too late to get cold feet now.” Arthur wore a navy blue suit. Carolyn wore white and carried orange blossoms. Both were virgins. In retrospect, Arthur thought that was probably a big mistake, that things might have been different if he’d known how to please a woman in bed. Carolyn seemed to tolerate sex as part of her marital duty, and as a means of getting children.

But there were no children. After fifteen years trying to conceive, they had to wait four years more to adopt a white male infant. Carolyn cared for their house and son while Arthur built his upscale clothing store into a lucrative business. When need drove him to her, he found release, but the sex act held no intimacy. Friendship settled on them.

* * *

Ruth grew up in a querulous household, the threat of divorce and desertion constant. She met Tom through their work at an accounting firm. She married him for peace and stability. They never quarreled. She called him her rock. When Tom, a CPA, took a job in the business office at the college, their three children were nearly grown.

* * *

Arthur hired Ruth as a bookkeeper, part-time. Soon she was taking care of correspondence, tracking inventory, and dealing with vendors. Occasionally, she worked the floor, covering for saleswomen during illnesses, vacations, or the pre-Christmas rush. Ruth had a good eye for what the women of the town would buy. She always looked for the best in people, in situations. She was exceptionally capable. Arthur admired her.

One day when Arthur leaned over to sign a letter Ruth had just typed, his chest brushed her shoulder. The herbal scent of her hair filled his nostrils. The sound of paper sliding on paper made him hear silk. He shuddered. After that, he found himself listening for Ruth’s voice, watching for her in the grocery store and the post office.

When Arthur asked Ruth to accompany him on a buying trip, he didn’t know they would make love. He just knew he wanted to be with her. He was happy holding doors for her, smiling at her over dinner. Even when she said, “Come, lie with me,” he wasn’t sure that sex would follow.

That first time they made love—when he slid into her—he said it felt like coming home. They made love every morning and every night. Arthur laughed. “When I was young, I didn’t think I’d even want an erection when I was an old man.” Arthur was 68, Ruth 50. “Who would have imagined this?”

They had to be discreet. The size of the town demanded it. Neither wanted to hurt spouse or family. Each buying trip was an oasis that made the daily desert tolerable. Arthur bought presents for Ruth—scarves, silky black lingerie, jewelry—telling the sales clerks that she was his bride. They especially liked New York City. One spring they played on the swings in Central Park, both in business suits, toes reaching for the trees, laughter burbling on the breeze. Once they meandered through F.A.O. Schwartz, looking at fancy dolls and electric trains. Arthur tap-danced “I Want To Be Loved By You” on a giant toy keyboard on the floor while Ruth laughed and blushed. During one trip, they made early Christmas in a hotel room. Arthur bought a little artificial tree. Ruth decorated it with twists of cellophane and bits of ribbon. They tuned the radio to a Christmas concert and took turns opening their presents. Celebrating Arthur’s birthday, they sipped single malt scotch and danced naked. They wrote poetry to each other.

* * *

Arthur sat at the end of the sofa, reading glasses sliding partway down his nose. Ruth lay with her head on the armrest, her bare feet in his lap. He tapped the open book propped against Ruth’s ankles. “I wish I’d written this poem,” he said, and read aloud:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day…

As he read, Arthur stroked the ball of Ruth’s foot, pressed his thumb gently into the instep.

…Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Arthur closed the book and took off his glasses. Ruth smiled mischievously. “I’ve long known you are a romantic. But I didn’t know you were losing touch with reality. Marvell was writing about youth.”

Arthur smiled back. “You make me feel young, Ruthie. That’s just as important. You are the best damn thing that ever happened to me.”

He often said, “You are the wife of my heart.” For their third anniversary, he gave her a plain gold wedding band, which she wore from that night onward. Tom never noticed.

When Ruth had appendicitis, Arthur took chocolates and an enormous bouquet to the hospital. Carolyn said, “Are you in love with Ruth?”

Arthur said, “There’s nothing between Ruth and me that you need to worry about.”

In his early 70s, Arthur turned the business over to his son. He bought a condo in Punta Gorda, Florida, with a view of Charlotte Harbor. “I bought it for us,” he told Ruth. “Why don’t we just get married?”

Ruth said, “Now, Arthur, we settled all that years ago. We have obligations. Divorce is not an option.”

When Arthur and Carolyn celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, their son threw a big party. The local papers carried pictures. When Arthur and Ruth celebrated the 10th anniversary of their joining, no one knew. Arthur said, “I want to marry you. I want to take care of you, Ruthie. Always. I’ll build your dream house, fix the leaky faucets, plant the gardens…and every night you’ll fall asleep with words of love in your ear.”

Ruth said, “How could we, knowing what we’d done to Carolyn and Tom? They depend on us, Arthur. Our children would never forgive us.”

Arthur said, “My son would want me to be happy.”

After Arthur retired, finding reasons to be out of the house was difficult. Even a private telephone conversation was problematic. When Tom had retired as well, Arthur and Ruth struggled to find times and ways to be together.

As Carolyn’s health declined, Arthur drove her to doctors’ appointments. He nursed her after her knee surgery, her hysterectomy. They moved into a graduated assisted-living community. Arthur started feeling old. He’d already lived to a greater age than anyone else in his family. Carolyn died a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Arthur moved to the condo in Punta Gorda.

Now, Ruth could call Arthur anytime, day or night. They laughed together long distance. When she could get away, he met her. Sometimes, he flew back so they could spend an afternoon together—just an afternoon—at the airport motel, their fingers and lips and tongues dancing here, there, and everywhere. Arthur said, “I never knew sex could be like this. Before you, I sometimes wanted relief. Now I crave lovemaking. And it turns out to be better—more sensuous—than I ever imagined. I never imagined doing these things—wanting to do these things—before you. I’m an old man, Ruth. But it just gets better and better. I’m free with you. I can do anything—tell you anything—share anything. Ruth, I need to be with you.”

Ruth said, “Tom has Parkinson’s. I can’t leave him now.”

* * *

When Tom couldn’t handle tableware anymore, Ruth gave him finger foods. She shaved him, cut his toenails, dressed him. He developed Alzheimer’s, and mistook Ruth for his oldest sister. The doctors found pancreatic cancer. Still he lived, growing gaunt, so emaciated that his joints pushed sharply against papery skin. Ruth tended him night and day. Purple smudged her eyes. She lost weight. Arthur lived for her phone calls and letters, the occasional hour together.

When Tom died, Ruth started looking youthful again, much younger than her 70 years. She told Arthur she would sell the house and move to the condo in Florida. He said, “Why not come down here for awhile and we’ll talk about it?”

For the best years of his life, Arthur had dreamed of taking care of Ruth. Now he signed everything over to her—stocks, bonds, real estate—everything he hadn’t already transferred to his son. He made her the beneficiary on his life insurance policies. He said, “It’s easier if I do this now.”

She said, “Why don’t we just get married?”

He said, “I’m eighty-seven, Ruth. I’ve started losing control of my bladder. I don’t want our years together to end with you changing my diapers. One failing husband was enough. Tom was enough.”

Ruth said, “If you die before me, I’ll be ripped in half—whether we are married or not.”

They slept cupped together like spoons. Arthur got up in the night to use the toilet. When he eased back into bed, a few drops of urine leaked onto the back of Ruth’s thigh. Tears stung his closed eyes.

 

——————–

Vivian Lawry is an award winning fiction writer whose short stories have appeared in more than three dozen journals and anthologies. She is coauthor of the Chesapeake Bay Mysteries, Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart. She collects everything from dictionaries to vintage mah jongg sets. Visit her website at vivianlawry.com and become a fan on Facebook.


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