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An excerpt from
For Faye
a short story

by Elizabeth Sims
©Elizabeth Sims 2003

       She didn't want to suffer, this time around. But how do you die slowly, and too young, and not suffer? How can you not suffer a hell of a lot? I knew what she meant, and I saw to it that she suffered as little as possible. I was willing to do anything, short of finishing her off myself.
       Faye knew suffering. She'd gone through hell the first time—hell and back again—and she beat the goddamned thing. Then, four years later, the other shoe dropped. She turned to me that afternoon in the doctor's office, the nice office with indirect lighting and something Persian underfoot. The doctor waited for her to react to the news that it was inoperable. She'd known it all along, though. And she said simply, "I don't want to suffer."
       Was she a coward? No, not Faye. She could have withstood murder by inches at the hands of a team of gold-medal sadists—and done it gracefully too—if she'd felt it necessary.
       We could have forestalled death for perhaps a year. That's what they said, when I asked. A year is a long time. Enough time for her to have written another book. Enough time for her to have advanced theoretical mathematics by one more fraction. Enough time to have won one more prize, or half a dozen.
       The point for Faye wasn't that she couldn't handle another go-round; it was that she didn't want me to have to handle another go-round. She didn't want me to have to witness it again: the wasting, the vomiting, the peeling skin, the friends coming by bearing soup and ghastly smiles.
       She didn't have to explain any of this to me. Do you see what I'm telling you? She chose a shorter life for my sake. Oh, I could have handled it, you know: You do what you have to. And I would have. She just wasn't sure what would be left of me afterward.
       So I ordered a hospital bed and put it on the second floor so she could see the bare treetops. With the doctor's help I laid in a supply of morphine and learned how to give it to her. And I sent to California for cases of the peppery Cabernet she liked and was able to drink and keep down.
       Unless you're a math geek yourself, you surely don't know anything of Faye. What was Faye? She was brilliant, of course, a crackerjack mathematician, a world-beater, but more than that, she was a theorist, an artist of the gray matter. She wasn't merely inventive. She was nimble in those mysterious regions of imagination the rest of us only poke into, then hastily retreat from, suffering badly from brain-hurt. She came up with new theorems and she didn't leave the proofs to future generations. She proved them herself, by God.
       People—odd, nearsighted people—came from all over the world to see her, to listen to her talk and draw numbers on a board. They came to shake her hand and begin conversations I couldn't follow.
       Fortunately for me, she could make other talk too, and do more things with her hands than draw numbers.
       We were Faye and Dede, Dede and Faye, the painter and the mathematician, and we lived in a pleasant house all our own, with a big garage for our cars, which we loved to distraction, the both of us happy to tinker and send away for parts and exchange greasy kisses while we worked.
       One afternoon about two weeks from the end she came out with something new. There was a fireplace in her room; I'd used some good seasoned apple wood to build a pretty fire in it. I'd just added a chunk and stood watching the flames curl around the gray bark when she said in a clear voice, "You break my heart, you know."
       She wasn't asleep, as I'd thought. I turned.
       When horror unfolds before your eyes, you begin to manage your emotions as though they were unruly children. Fear, come here and settle down now—and you, Despair, I'd like to know why you're not on your mat with the rest of us. Anguish! Please stop that stomping around.
       We looked at each other for a long moment.
       I said, "Would you like some custard?"
       She licked her lips. "Seeing you standing there. Your face."
       "I made some of the maple kind this morning."
       "I can't imagine going away from you."
       "You like the maple kind."
       "Don't cry. Come here."
       I climbed onto the bed, careful not to bounce her. Her body was like a pile of pick-up sticks under the blanket.
       "There are things I haven't done," she said, "things left to do."
       "Tell me." I stroked her sharp shins through the blanket.
       "You should be painting, you know."
       "I—I'll—I'm sketching a little now."
       "Between loads of laundry and running to the store and bathing me." In spite of the morphine, she was pretty lucid.
       "I'll paint."
       "I know you will. And you'll make a lot of people happy."
       "Maybe. That isn't the point, though."
       "Why do you paint?"
       She'd never asked me that question before. I said, "For the sake of painting."
       "For its own sake?"
       "Yes."
       "Has it always been that way for you?"
       "For a long time." There was a frayed spot on the blanket. I circled it with my finger. "I don't think I've ever really had a choice."
       "Dede, why don't you want my money?"
       I shook my head. "It's hard to explain."
       "You'd never have to worry."
       "That's what worries me."
       

[End of excerpt. The full text of "For Faye" is available in the anthology A Woman's Touch, published by Alyson Books]



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