Cedric had just received biopsy results from his dermatologist, and now he must tell his wife of 43 years something she would not want to hear.
Beatrice (named by her scholarly parents after the woman who shows up near the tail-end of Dante's Divine Comedy) would see right through him if he lied to her, or equivocated, or sugar-coated. He knew that from the last time he told her she was beautiful.
He drove home as slowly as possible, doing everything in his power to catch every red light. He set SiriusXM to Channel 17, "Love Songs," and fought back tears when he heard Whitney Houston singing "The Greatest Love of All." For some reason, he had always loved the line, "I believe children are our future."
Because it was true, in a very real and original and profound sense, true. Wasn't it?
What else could be our future? Somehow, just hearing Whitney sing that lifted his spirits.
He had to do what he had to do, and he would do that very thing.
When he arrived at his home, Beatrice was watching "The Steve Harvey Show," with special guest Ricki Lake.
"Beatrice," Cedric said. "We need to talk."
"Oh no, oh God no, no. It can't be! The results! What is it? What did they find? Is it what you thought?"
Beatrice fell into his arms. After 43 years, she was learning to love the old guy. The storied history of their union now flashed through her consciousness like a deranged PowerPoint:
The usual romantic flame kindled by an increase in oxytocin and dopamine that typically lasts for roughly 18 months kept their marriage warm for exactly that long (Beatrice vividly recalled the truncation of that hormonal surge: It was a Tuesday, at 4:15 p.m., right after Dr. Oz).
This thermal stage was followed immediately by the peaceful days of custom, routine and habit, then by years of stultification, then what marriage counselors label the "Zen-Stoic It Is What It Is" stage, the stage couples typically ride, with a bit more acceptance than resentment, all the way up to their hospice days.
And in a split second, she recalled the 20 years it took to translate Cedric's annoying habits into eccentricities, then the 10 additional years to see them as endearments.
Now, finally, she could smile at his fascination with vintage chrome flashlights of the 1950s, and the combination snorting-hawking sound he made after each cough (he had smoked unfiltered Luckies for 37 years of their marriage), his screwing the toothpaste lid on so tightly she had to use pliers to remove it, and his huge collection of Natural Light beer cans (16 oz. only) he found along the highway during their annual summer vacations to Dubuque.
She saw that Cedric was struggling to speak. "Just sit, honey, and tell me," she said. "You know I'll be here for you. What did you find out?"
"After getting my results, I found out that we should take some time apart. In fact, it's over. Not many people can stay married as long as we have. Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett couldn't hang on this long, even with all the therapy they endured. Sometimes, it's just not meant to be."
"But . . . what . . . Cedric? Is this about your biopsy? You don't need to run away. I will be here, just as I was when you had that one carbuncle!"
"No, dear." Here Cedric took in a deep breath, remembering the old saying on the streets, "Just yank the band-aid off at once!"
"This relationship is going nowhere. In fact, it's a sham of a relationship, bound together by legalities neither of us understand and by a nebulous boundary separating what's yours from what's mine. This isn't love, Beatrice, for God's sake! We're not soulmates! You don't even know my raison d'etre! I don't think you've ever asked!"
"No! Let me finish. Today I learned what real love is. When I was in that little room at the dermatologist, waiting for the news, be it or good bad, my nurse talked to me with love and care. She looked into my eyes in a way you never have. I mattered to her.
"She looked into my soul, Beatrice. She couldn't have been any more than 25 years old, but she glowed with wisdom, my God, a kind of Mediterranean, somewhat dark-skinned Sophia, with large dark eyes, and the physique of either Venus or Serena Williams, I can't remember which. I knew then she was my life partner, and she knew it, too.
"Then another young lady came in with the results, and she touched my shoulder gently, asked me how my day was going, and smiled the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. As I answered her probing question, she softly rubbed her arm in the tricep area, just grazing her elbow in the process, obviously trying to attenuate an emotion that was threatening to escape from her otherwise placid, Mediterranean facade.
"Then again, when I inserted my credit card into the chip slot, the accountant lady or whatever was immediately taken by me. She looked up at me with awe and reverence as if I were Charles Foster Kane and she was Susan Alexander before I started making her sing in a opera house I built for her. That's when I knew: It is time for rejuvenation, time to start over. Beatrice, I have to go."
"Go where? Surely, you don't mean to one of those girls at the dermatologist?"
"No, Beatrice. I mean all of them. I don't know how we'll do this, but the four of us will live out our lives together. I have never felt so much love from three stunning young women in the space of 30 feet and 25 minutes. I am going Home, Beatrice, Home with a capital H, and I know in my heart those three angels long to accompany me. I don't know how, and I don't know where we'll go, but we'll work it out. I'll run it past'em when I get there. That's what true lovers do."
Cedric headed for his room, then stopped. "Beatrice, I understand that life is flux, that everything changes, that tides ebb and flow, the moon waxes and wanes, but even in a fluctuating universe, love can be born, grow, and lodge itself in the human heart forever, even if you're 74!"
"But, Cedric, . . . the biopsy . . . "
"Oh, it was nothing. Some sort of rash. I forget the name of it. Two long words, one of them with double consonants. Anyway, let me get my stuff."
While her husband of 43 years dragged bags of vintage flashlights and empty Natural Light beer cans out to the Taurus, Beatrice stood gazing out the window at the endless row of tract housing, a shamefully blatant symbol of conformity and stagnation.
Clouds hovered on the horizon, of course, but something suddenly dawned on Beatrice that let the light come through:
She had DVR'd the Steve Harvey show she was watching when Cedric came in, mainly to see the segment on "Livening up Your Fat-Free Gravy," so she had missed nothing at all!