Native Prose – The Way Home
Sam and Helen were driving home from dinner at a restaurant in Methuen when Helen brought the subject up. An old friend of hers, Melissa, was at the end of a long battle with cancer, and wasn’t expected to hold on more than a few weeks. Her friend’s situation had become so hopeless that she seldom broached the topic any longer, but when he lit a cigarette — a habit that Helen had come to despise in the year since she herself had quit smoking — she spoke out.
“God,” she said. “I can’t believe you’re still smoking those things after seeing what Melissa is going through.”
Here we go, Sam thought. He cracked his window to let the smoke drift out of the car, then glanced at Helen. “Well, I am,” he said, annoyed that she had tried to link his smoking to Melissa’s illness. She seemed to be implying that Sam’s not quitting, as she had, meant that he was weak — a judgment that she now expressed often in various subtle ways. Sometimes it was a little comment she’d make, and sometimes it was just a look. In a way, the looks were worse — they made Sam feel that he was being dispassionately assessed, and in the assessment found lacking.
“So tell me,” Helen went on, “what would it take to make you actually quit?”
“God,” Sam said, “I can’t believe you actually want to fight about this.”
“We aren’t fighting. It’s just that you keep promising you’re going to quit, but you don’t. I’d like to know what it would take to make you finally stop.”
Sam stared straight ahead at the road. He decided that if he didn’t let himself be drawn into this argument, Helen would get tired of it and give up. It was a ploy he sometimes used that had served him well in the past.
“Would you do it to save someone’s life?” she suddenly asked.
“What?” Sam said. “What are you talking about?”
“What I mean is, since you won’t quit smoking to save your own life, would you do it to save someone else’s? Hypothetically, I mean.”
Outside the car, mile markers passed in an endless punctuation of the ride.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sam tossed his cigarette out the open window. “Whose life?”
“Anyone’s. Melissa’s, for example.”
“This is crazy,” Sam said. “For one thing, Melissa didn’t get cancer from cigarettes. For another, how would my quitting smoking save her life?”
“Let’s just say. Say a deal had been made with God.”
Oh boy, Sam thought. He had a feeling that he was being lured into deep and dangerous waters, and while he knew that the best thing to do was to say nothing, he couldn’t help himself. “Since when do you believe in God?”
“That’s not the point. The point is whether or not you’d quit.”
“Look, I’m sorry about Melissa. But let’s leave her out of this.” He turned and gave Helen what he hoped was a significant look. “Please.”
Helen fell silent, and then, just as Sam was beginning to think that she’d abandoned the subject, she said, “OK, then. If not Melissa, what about me? Would you quit to save my life?”
“What?” Sam said. “This is crazy.”
“Just answer me. I’d really like to know.”
Sam was beside himself now. “OK! Fine! To save your life I’d quit smoking. There. Satisfied?”
“Maybe,” Helen said. “If you’re really sure you’d quit.”
He slapped the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. “Yes!” he shouted. “I’d quit forever! Now let’s talk about something more cheerful, like Armageddon!”
Helen let out a small sigh. “You wouldn’t actually have to quit forever, OK? I’ll make it easy for you. Just quit for 24 hours.”
Sam felt a tightness in his chest, the way he did whenever he got worked up over something he couldn’t do anything about. “Starting when?”
There was a brief pause. “Now.”
“What? Right now?”
“Right this minute.” Helen looked at him. “To save my life.”
“Listen,” Sam said. “I didn’t even feel like going out to dinner, but I did because you wanted to. And now we’re in the car, on our way home, and out of the blue you suddenly decide to put me on the spot.”
“How are you on the spot? I only asked you what was more important to you: your cigarettes or me. Is that really such a tough decision?”
Sam hesitated a second, to demonstrate that he took the question seriously.
“No,” he said, “of course not.”
“Then prove it to me. Prove to me that you’d quit smoking for a day to save my life.” Helen reached over and put a hand on his knee — a gesture so unexpected that Sam didn’t see where he had any choice in the matter.
“All right,” he said helplessly. “I’ll quit.”
Up ahead, caught in Sam’s headlights, a pedestrian started across the road, then thought better of chancing it and froze by the shoulder. “Yes,” he said glumly, “starting now.”
By the time they pulled into their driveway Helen had fallen silent. When they got inside, she went upstairs and Sam stood alone in the dim light of their kitchen, feeling a little lost. He still wasn’t sure what had just happened in the car, but he had the feeling of having been served with a kind of ultimatum. Maybe they really were fighting, he thought.
He turned on the TV, where an overly cheerful weatherman was waving his arms and pointing to a large map of the state. Sam listened to the telltale creaking of the ceiling as Helen moved from one room to another, followed by the sound of water running in the bathroom sink. What was this nonsense about saving her life really about? What did she hope to gain? The more he thought about it, the more aggrieved he felt.
He deliberated for a moment, then grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and went onto the back deck. Helen always spent at least 15 minutes in the bathroom while she was getting ready for bed; he had more than enough time. He put the beer bottle down on the railing of the deck, then lit what he told himself would be his last cigarette. Looking up at the stars, small, staggered ellipses in the sky, he abruptly remembered something that had happened years before, shortly after he and Helen were married. The wife in another couple they knew called them to say that she and her husband were getting divorced, and both Sam and Helen were stunned by the news. That night they talked at length about their friends’ foundered marriage, and both agreed that nothing like that would ever happen to them. They were open and honest with each other, and when you were open and honest about things, you were safe from danger. The memory of this newlywed innocence touched Sam now, and made him feel a pang of loss for this simple belief they’d once shared — a loss palpable enough for him to understand that the gulf that had grown between him and Helen over the years had become a fissure in their marriage, and one that needed to be addressed before it was too late.
He took one last rueful puff on his cigarette, feeling foolish for having lit it in the first place, and tossed it over the deck and onto the lawn. Then he turned around and saw Helen on the other side of the sliding glass door, staring out at him. From the expression on her face, Sam knew that she had been standing there more than long enough. He had no explanation ready, but he said her name anyway, not knowing what he would say next.
But in a sense it didn’t matter. The look on Helen’s face told Sam there was nothing he could say to mitigate the betrayal he’d just committed. It was as if she had been afforded a vision of the precariousness of their own marriage, like that of their friends’ years before, and was now assessing what steps might be undertaken in order to save her own life.