She looks up at me. “His penis is small,” she says. “Seriously, like a golf pencil.” And then she starts laughing. “Oh, it feels good to admit that. I don’t have to keep pretending his penis isn’t small.”
I start laughing with her. “That wasn’t exactly where I thought you were going to go with this, but OK! That’s a good one.”
Gabby laughs. It’s a deep belly laugh. “Oh, God, Hannah,” she says. “The first time I saw it, I thought, Where’s the rest of it?”
I laugh so hard when she says this that I have to struggle to breathe. “You are making this up,” I say.
“Nope,” she says, her hands up in the air as if she’s swearing to God. “He just has a terrible penis.”
Both of us are laughing so hard that tears are coming out of our eyes. And then, abruptly, it is time to stop. I can see the mood change much the same way you can feel summer turn to fall. One day, everything’s sunny, and then, suddenly, it’s not.
“Oh, Hannah,” she says, burying herself into my chest. Charlemagne sits at our feet.
“Shhh,” I say, rubbing her back. “It’s OK. It’s going to be OK.”
“I’m not sure that’s true,” she says into my chest.
“It is,” I say. “It is true.”
She looks up at me, her eyes now bloodshot and glassy. Her face is splotchy. She looks desperate and sick. I’ve never seen her like this. She’s seen me like this. But I’ve never seen her like this.
“I know it’s going to be OK, because you are Gabrielle Jannette Hudson. You are unstoppable. You are the strongest woman I’ve ever known.”
“Strongest person,” she says.
“Hm?” I’m not sure I quite heard her.
“I’m the strongest person you know,” she says, wiping her eyes. “Gender is irrelevant.”
She’s absolutely right. She is the strongest person I know. Her gender is irrelevant. “You’re right,” I say. “Just one more reason I know you are going to get through this.”
She starts heaving tears. She’s hyperventilating. “Maybe he had a good reason. Or there is something I misunderstood.”
I want to tell her that she could be right, that maybe there is some piece of information that makes all of this better. I want to tell her that because I want her to be happy. But I also know it’s not true. And part of loving someone, part of being the recipient of trust, is telling the truth even when it’s awful.
“He was cheating on you for almost a year,” I tell her. “He didn’t make a one-time mistake or get confused.”
She looks up at me and starts crying again. “So my marriage is over?”
“That’s up to you,” I say. “You have to decide what you will tolerate and what you can live with. Why don’t you try to relax and I’ll get you some dinner?”
“No,” she says. “I can’t eat.”
“Well, what can I do for you?”
“Just sit here,” she says. “Just sit next to me.”
“You got it,” I tell her.
“Charlemagne, too,” she says. I get up and pick up Charlemagne. The three of us sit here on the couch.
“My husband is cheating on me, and you’re pregnant by a married man,” Gabby says.
I close my eyes, taking it in.
“Life sucks,” she says.
“Sometimes, yeah,” I tell her.
We are both quiet.
“It hurts,” she says. She starts crying again. “It hurts so bad. Deep in my gut, it hurts.”
“I know,” I tell her. “You and I are a team, right? Whatever you face in life, I’ll face it with you. Everything that you were prepared to do for me last night, I’m prepared to do for you today. So count on me, OK? Let’s get through this together. Lean on me. Squeeze my hand.”
She looks at me and smiles.
“When it hurts so bad you don’t think you can stand it,” I say, “squeeze my hand.” I put my hand out for her, and she takes it.
She starts crying again, and she squeezes.
And I think to myself that if, by being here, I have taken away one one-hundredth of the pain that Gabby feels, then maybe I have more of a life’s purpose than I ever thought.
“Divide the pain in two,” I tell her. “And give half of it to me.”
Gabby comes in on Saturday morning, and before she can even get into the room, I tell her to stop. Deanna is standing by my bed.
“Wait,” I say to Gabby. “Wait right there.”
Deanna smiles and puts out her hand. “You ready?” she says. I nod. Deanna helps me get my feet on the ground. I push my weight onto Deanna’s hands, and she helps me put weight on my feet. I’m standing up. Actually standing up. Not without resting on another human being, but still. I’m standing up. She and I have been practicing all morning.
“OK,” I say, “I gotta sit down.” Deanna helps rest me back on the bed. The relief is immense.
“Oh, my God!” Gabby says, clapping for me as if I’m a child. “Look what you did! This is nuts!”
I smile and laugh. My energy and Gabby’s excitement must be infectious, because Deanna is laughing and smiling with us.
“It’s crazy, right?” I say. “I’ve been practicing as much as possible. This morning, Dr. Winters was giving me some tips on how to steady myself. I can’t move just yet, really. But I can stand.”
“Wow,” Gabby says, putting down her purse.
She moves toward us. Deanna helps me get back into bed.
“I am so impressed,” Gabby says. “You’re ahead of schedule.”
“I’ll come by to check on you soon,” Deanna says. “Good job today.”
“Thank you,” I tell her as she leaves.
When she’s gone, I tell Gabby about last night.
“Henry took me outside,” I say.
“You walked outside?”
“No,” I say. “In a wheelchair. He took me out on the smoking patio.”
“Oh,” she says.
This is not sounding nearly as romantic as it felt.
“Oh, never mind,” I say. “You had to be there.”
She laughs. “Well, I’m proud of you that you stood up today.”
“I know! Before you know it, I’ll be crawling and eating solid foods.”
“Well, don’t do it when I’m not here!” she says. “You know I like to get that stuff on videotape.”
I laugh. “Just be glad you don’t have to change my diaper,” I tell her. I’m just making a joke, but it hits a little too close to home. I still can’t get to the bathroom on my own. “How are you?” I ask, inviting her to sit down. “How is Mark?”
“He’s good,” she says. “Yeah.”
Something seems off. “What’s on your mind?” I ask her.
“No, nothing,” she says. “He seems very . . . I don’t know. I think the accident, all of this craziness, maybe it jolted something in him. He’s been very sweet, very attentive. Bringing me flowers. He bought me a necklace the other day.” She starts playing with the one around her neck. It’s a string of gold with a diamond at the center.
“That one?” I say, leaning forward. I take the diamond in my hand. “Wow, is that a real diamond?”
“I know,” she says. “I made a joke when he gave it to me, like ‘OK, what did you do wrong?’ ”
I laugh. “On TV, it’s always that a man comes home with flowers and jewelry when he invites his boss over for Thanksgiving dinner without asking you first or something.”
“Right,” she says, laughing. “Maybe he’s cheating on me. I’ll have to go home and look at all of his shirt collars for lipstick stains, right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “If soap operas are any indication, you will find bright red lipstick stains on his collar if he’s cheating.”
For a moment, I know we are both thinking of the fact that I was once the woman wives watch out for. That I lost a married man’s baby. Sometimes I wonder if this accident wasn’t a clean slate. If it wasn’t permission to start again, to do better.
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