“You seem tired. You don’t have anything this morning, You should go back to bed. Get some rest.”
The words bounced off the nothingness that surrounded Rhonda Norris. She lay, seemingly suspended, in the darkest dark she had ever known. Despite the dark, she felt comfortable. At peace…unafraid. It was strange, because usually, Rhonda was a little afraid of the dark. However, this dark did not seem to be an enemy.
Unlike being alone in a dark room, her eyes did not pick up on shades of objects around her. It was as if she were blind, had been born that way, and had never known anything else.
“You seem tired….”
The voice was so familiar. So rich and resonant. A voice made to give important speeches or to recite great quotes. The voice of a politician, or an actor….or…
As Rhonda realized whose voice she heard, she also felt something sticking into her hand. She picked it up, using her fingers to identify it. Prickly, rough…a pine comb like the one her young son, Jason carried around for good luck.
It shouldn’t be here…wherever ‘here’ was.
But where was she?
“Get some rest….”
The voice traveled fluidly in a time that seemed to be elastic. The words could have been said a minute ago or eons before.
Perhaps, they were yet to be said.
Though she wanted to know, Rhonda felt no urgency. She had a hungry mind and loved to soak up information, however, now, she felt sleepy, calm, oddly in a procrastinating mood. She’d figure it out when she did.
There seemed to be amazing latitude. Everything seemed to flow. But curiosity was heightening as she lay there. Yes, she was lying down. In a comfortable place. Something soft and warm beneath her.
Warm really an odd word to use, because there seemed to be no temperature. Rhonda was a diabetic and she was very sensitive to heat or cold. Her husband, Ian, often called her his ‘little thermometer.’
Here, there was no temperature to measure. Warm, for her, meant that she was comfortable, peaceful, wasn’t hungry, or thirsty.
And lately, sadly, it had meant that Ian wasn’t home.
Images flowed in front of her eyes. She realized that she was remembering her life. Odd to see it displayed as if on a movie screen.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, the only child of Marge and Harmon Phillips. She had been cherished and over-protected. She went to college on a full scholarship, which was where she met Ian Norris.
Ian was a doctoral student at the small, private university. She hadn’t really known him at first. He’d gotten his Ph.D, and was offered a job in the English department. Rhonda was an English major. She took his class in Elizabethan literature, and fell promptly in love with Ian.
Ian was already something of a legend on campus, as much for his scholarship as his roving eye. He wasn’t really the type that one would consider a ladies man. He was of medium height, with closely cropped brownish-red hair.
He was something of a dandy, preferring Ralph Lauren and Hilfiger items right down to his socks. He had a passion for hats. His one great feature was his piercing blue eyes, made even brighter, at times by contacts of a brighter blue. Sometimes he wore a goatee, which gave him a bit of pirate look.
In a university of up and coming young professors, you could have turned a building on its side, and seen four or five men that looked just like Ian, or at least similar. The difference was that Ian had a charisma that drew women like flies, and made men all desire to be his friend. He had a charm and gracefulness that seemed to highlight his every move. He seemed to have no enemies, even in what could be a cut-throat university political arena. He got brilliant evaluations, and within two years of his graduation, had published his first book, about the origin of English fables and poems.
Rhonda, who dreamed someday of becoming a writer, and who had a passion for the English culture, had never been in love before. She was a shy, somewhat socially awkward young woman. She had been awed by the love and commitment of her parents, and secretly believed that she would never be able to duplicate it. She was also a devout Catholic, graduate of a strict, all girls school, and at 19, when she met Ian, was a virgin, determined to remain that way until she married.
Her sorority sisters made fun of her desire to remain virtuous and called her “Saint Rhonda.” Ian, once they began dating, tried seducing her– using everything that had worked with countless other women. Rhonda firmly resisted him.
Ian then tried pouting, dating other women, doing things that he was sure would made Rhonda fear that she had lost him. Yet, she was made of stronger stuff, and Ian soon saw that no matter his attempts to manipulate her into bed, it would not happen without a wedding ring. He had to grudgingly admire her faith, and her commitment to it, although he did not in any way share it.
In Rhonda’s senior year of college, Ian had asked her to marry him. Rhonda accepted. Soon after their wedding, right after she graduated, they found out that she was pregnant. Within two months, however, she miscarried. She grieved her loss, and started working on a graduate degree in education.
Ian didn’t like the time that her courses took away from him, and complained bitterly. He wanted her to be available to travel with him, be his hostess at parties, to go to all the university events that would further advance his career. He had somewhat of an overbearing personality, that tended to dominate Rhonda’s somewhat timid one, and within a few semesters, she had dropped out of graduate school. It was easier to do what he wanted, than to deal with his anger when she didn’t.
Three years into their marriage, she’d gotten pregnant again. Ian was thrilled. He saw all of his peers with growing families, and often complained bitterly about not having children. During the pregnancy, gestational diabetes was diagnosed. The last four months of the pregnancy, Rhonda was confined to strict bedrest.
During this time, although Ian was unhappy about her not being able to attend activities with him, he seemed supportive, and most times, loving. If something seemed missing in the way that he treated her, Rhonda didn’t often let herself think of it. They had a wonderful house in a great neighborhood, and they were going to have a baby. Things would surely get better once their child was born.
Jason was born a few weeks early, weak, and sickly. At first, he was not expected to survive. However, by prayer and by miracle, he not only overcame his early issues, but became a healthy and thriving young boy by the time he reached toddler years.
The gestational diabetes turned to an ongoing problem for Rhonda. She was put on insulin, and Ian learned along with her to monitor her blood sugars, eat more healthy, and administer insulin.
It was just after Jason was a year old that Rhonda noted anything unusual. At first there were hang-up calls. It was always in the evenings when Ian was home, and Rhonda got to the phone first. Then, she thought she smelled perfume on his shirts when she was laundering them. She told herself she was imagining things. Ian was perfectly happy. They were the family he had wanted. Picture postcard perfect, photogenic, happy, smiling. People envied them their life. Why would he be dissatisfied?
Then, she’d found him with a freshman, Stacey Elliott, in his office. She’d opened the door without knocking, and seen them, clothing disheveled, in an embrace. She’d turned and walked the three blocks home, her heart full of a icy feeling, feeling as if someone had punched her in the stomach. Before Ian had time to get home, she’d packed up Jason and herself and was heading in her station wagon, to Pennsylvania.
She and Jason stayed with her parents for nearly a year. Her father had fixed up a storage room over their garage into an apartment for the two of them, to give them privacy. Rhonda found a job as a secretary, and considered what to do next. For the first few months, she ignored Ian’s phone calls, and refused to read his letters or emails.
Finally, she agreed to meet him for a meal. Ian was deeply repentant, or so it seemed. He told her that the relationship had been a one-time thing, and that he would never do it again. He told her he loved her and Jason. He begged them to come home. His passion had impressed her, and Rhonda, thinking of her parent’s many decades of marriage, relented. She returned home.
In the years to come, the promise not to stray was broken so many times that Rhonda lost count. Gradually, she’d lost love and respect for her husband, but she didn’t know what to do. Jason was growing up, and had started elementary school. She didn’t want to uproot him again. She didn’t want him to be a child of divorce, with all the baggage that was supposed to contain. She watched the years go by as if watching a stranger’s life.
She told herself that she could handle Ian’s affairs as long as he didn’t let Jason find out. However, when Jason was 7, and home sick from school, Rhonda came home to find Jason in bed asleep, and Ian and another student in his and Rhonda’s bedroom. They were definitely NOT asleep. Once again, the car was packed, and once again, they returned to Pennsylvania. This time, Rhonda filed for a divorce.
The divorce was nearly final when Ian again came to visit. Finally, after many weeks of such visits, he wore her down. It would be better for Jason to have two parents at home. He, Ian, had realized he had a problem. He would get counseling, go to church, whatever she wanted. He told her he loved her, and wanted her back. And because something in Rhonda still wanted to believe, she and her son returned. That had been………six months before.
Rhonda again considered this odd place where she lay, and wondered where she was. It was such a strange place. There was no sound, no smell….no, there was a smell. A musty smell…something like dried herbs. Just then, she moved her other hand and found the source. Leaves, crinkly leaves.
It reminded her of Regell.
Regell had moved next door to them the week after she and Jason had returned home. At first, Ian seemed to like her, then he didn’t. Regell was, for lack of a better word, a modern ‘hippie.’ She had written books about herbs and herbal remedies. She grew a huge herb garden and sold her plants. She taught a class at the community college about the medicinal properties of the plants she nurtured and grew. She wore kimonos everywhere, although she was not Asian.
When gardening, she wore Jeans, with big holes torn out of them. She reminded Rhonda of a young Grace Slick. She had the same flowing, black hair. The same exotic blue eyes. The same larger than life personality. She drove a antique MG midget, with ‘Deadhead” and “Co-exist” stickers plastered on the back. Her personalized licensed plate was an abbreviation of her favorite Doors song, “L.A. Woman.”
Regell was friendly to all….except Ian. When she looked his way, Rhonda saw what she thought was a kind of contempt on her face. Despite his charms, Regell seemed immune. And Ian couldn’t stand it.
“I’d really like it if you wouldn’t talk to that woman so much, Babe.” Ian commented one night over supper.
“That woman? Oh…Regell?” Rhonda said. “I really don’t that much. She shares some of her herbs with me. In fact that salad you liked so much just now. Several of her herbs were in it. Makes it delicious.”
Ian raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised she isn’t raising weed over there. I wonder what the cops would find if someone tipped them.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t!” Rhonda had protested. “Why don’t you like her, Ian? She’s nice to me. She adores Jason. She just made him cookies the other day…….”
“I don’t want my son near her!” Ian had said, sharply, his voice nearly a shout. “You keep him away from her, you hear?”
“Ian, I…..don’t understand…..”
“Just hear me on that. You keep him away.”
Years before, such a tone would have intimidated her. Two separations and a growing gulf between them had given her strength.
“No, Ian.” She said firmly.
“What do you mean, no?” He challenged.
“Just that. No. He’s my son too. I see no harm in him going over there. She’s my friend. Until I see reason to change that, he can go.”
Ian stood up abruptly, causing the table to tip then fall heavily. “She will cause trouble in this marriage! I’ve known her kind before. Men-hating wretches!”
“Why do you think she’s a woman hater, Ian?” Rhonda asked gently. “Has she turned you down?” The two stared at each other for a time, and then Ian slammed out of the house, not coming back until the next afternoon. When he came back, it was as if nothing had happened.
Again, Rhonda let the sleepy feeling overcome her. It would be so easy to completely give into it, to just rest here, languidly, forever. Yet, the smell of the leaves kept pricking the sleepy state, bringing her back to wakefulness.
It could have been two days ago….maybe two years. She didn’t know. All she knew was the next thing came after the fight about Regell. She’d been sitting in the garden with her, drinking tea flavored with mint jeulip and watching Jason play with Regell’s persian cat, Terry. She had confided Ian’s unfaithfulness to her, and Regell had listened, yet never offered advice. This day, she finally did.
“He’s not going to change, you know.” She said, gently. “For him to change would take something to totally rock his world. Something to show him how selfish he is. Something to make him hate his behavior so much that he’d be willing to do anything to change it.”
“Right now, he’s got everything his way. He’s got you as his wife, willing to put up with his games, ready to be his party host at any moment, and he’s got this cute little boy who adores him, but is afraid to talk to him. Have you noticed? They never play ball out in the yard. What do they do together?”
“Well,” Rhonda said uncomfortably. “They, ah talk about things. Ian tells him about the classes he teaches. Tells him about literary events that shaped…..”
Regell stopped her by laughing harshly. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Jason is 9 years old. Does he even understand that? Who gets down on the floor and plays with legos with him? Who reads him stories?”
“I do,” Rhonda said. “But Jason tries to understand. He will sit still for hours and listen to Ian talk.”
“Because that’s the only time he has with him. Children take what they can get.”
Just then, Jason came up, arms full of the ever patient Terry, who let him lug her around the yard without a protest. He put her down, and pointed at some dried leaves in a box on the table where his mother and Regell were sitting. “Those look weird. What are they?”
Regell laughed. “That, little love, is Phyfoxia. An interesting little herb. The ancients said that it is good for curing bad dreams, and that it is strong enough to call forth the dead from their graves.”
“Wow!” Jason exclaimed. “Would they be all gross and nasty like in movies?”
“I don’t know.” Regell said, smiling indulgently. “Its just an ancient story. I wouldn’t think so, though. Phyfoxia is such a beautiful herb. I think it could only bring forth beauty.”
Jason looked confused. She smiled and touseled his hair. “Its also good for tummy aches and colds. I can see that you’re getting a bit of a cold. Put it in your pocket and tell me if it helps.”
Jason was pocketing the herb when Ian drove up. He got out of his Lexus, and seeing the trio on Regell’s patio, seemed to become immediately incensed. He marched over, and yanked Rhonda out of the chair, his grip so hard that it felt like his fingers were cutting into her flesh.
“Get my son away from that witch!” He snarled. “What did I tell you?”
“Jason, go in the house. Now.” Rhonda said, her voice trembling with anger. Jason, looking frightened, quickly obeyed.
“Get your hands off her,” Regell said, her voice steely. “Or I will call the police.”
“You can’t do that, you crazy hippie, she’s my wife!” Ian insisted.
“I can do what I like, in my own yard, Ian. From the way you just grabbed her, she’ll likely have a bruise. In this state, that’s assault. How would that look to the university?”
Foul language began to spew out of Ian’s mouth, but he let go of his hold on Rhonda’s arm. “Your kind disgust me!” He snarled.
“No more than your kind disgust me.” Regell said.
Rhonda watched the exchange in shock and anger. She had known Ian didn’t like Regell, but had never known it to be this virulent.
“You think you can fill my wife with your lesbian, man-hating ways?” Ian charged, “Well, you won’t. She knows better.”
Again, Regell laughed. “She knows…..enough.” Her eyes fell upon Rhonda, and the gaze was not contemptuous, but kind. “Don’t you, my dear?” Then the gaze hardened as it returned to Ian, who looked more than irate, furiously angry. Angry enough to kill.
“And now, you little man, are on my property, and even the soil protests it. Take your hypocrisy elsewhere.”
“Hypocrisy? I don’t grow weed and God knows what else for my drugged-out friends….” Ian started.
“No, but you did, in the first two months I lived here, pester me constantly to have sex with you. Oh, has your memory failed? I don’t hate men, Ian. I just hate men like you.”
“Rhonda! Now!” Ian roared.
Rhonda shook her head. “Ian…….did you? My God, she’s our neighbor……..How could you?”
“Don’t tell me you believe her!” Ian’s face was bright red, any handsome or charming part of it mottled by his fury.
“Yes,” Rhonda said, her heart feeling dull and dead. “Yes, Ian. I do.”
Three days later, they hadn’t spoken except for the most necessary comments. She’d gone to the guest bedroom. The silence was cutting. She’d gone out to the library to get some books for herself and Jason. She’d found nothing she liked and decided against shopping for school clothes for him. She’d told Ian she’d be back at five that evening. She got home at 3. She wasn’t surprised, really, to find him at home. In his study, with his latest mistress, a sophomore from the university.
He didn’t look surprised when she saw them. He looked defiant. The girl got hurriedly dressed and left the house. Rhonda waited until she was gone and told him that she and Jason would be leaving as soon as school got out. One week. And this time, it would be permanent.
The sleepiness again threatened to overwhelm her, the dark like an old friend. Rhonda started to give into it. But then, she heard a voice. Someone calling her.
She tried to speak but no words with come out. She struggled to call back to him, and tried to sit up. Her head bumped the top of the place where she was, and she lay back down. She reached out to the sides of the place, and wasn’t surprised when her hands touched the sides. Then, she knew. This wasn’t a room. Not even a place. She was in a casket. Somehow, she was in a casket. Had she been buried alive?
One last memory flowed in front of her. It was the last one she’d had. This morning, or some morning. Recently. She’d been sitting at the table, drinking out of one of a pair of matching mugs that she and Ian had gotten for a wedding gift. They liked to drink hot tea out of them, because the mugs kept the tea’s temperature well. In 12 years of marriage, it was the only thing that they still shared.
Ian was coming into the kitchen. Rhonda watched. He’d brought his mug to the table. Sat across from her. She heard him speak. “”You seem tired. You don’t have anything this morning, You should go back to bed. Get some rest.”
She saw herself getting up. Walking down the hallway. Saw Ian go to the refrigerator. Take out her insulin. Poor the entire amount into her cup. “Here!” He called. “You forgot your tea. I’ll bring it to you. Have your tea, and then get some rest.”
His voice seemed totally casual and friendly.
“Mommy! Can you hear me?”
Outside the casket, outside the darkness, Jason was calling to her.
“Jason?” Her voice, seeming rusty and long unused, finally was working. “Jason?” She called again.
The smell again filled her nostrils. It seemed even stronger. It was the Phyfoxia. She remembered the smell of it. She remembered the conversation. Phyfoxia. Good to chase away bad dreams. Good for a upset stomach….
Good for the calling forth of the dead……..
“Jason!!” She called again. This time, her voice was stronger. Would he hear her?
There was no answer. Her heart began to sink. How long had she been here? How long had she been dead? Who had put her here?
She recalled the memory of the kitchen. Ian, unseen by anyone, pouring insulin in her tea cup. Bringing it to her like any considerate husband would do.
Or a husband who no longer wanted to have a wife.
It occurred to her then, that the separations had hurt Ian’s career at the college. They had raised eyebrows. The place was too conservative. People who had been divorced were shown the door, even if they had tenure. Ian hoped someday to be president of the university. He could never be divorced.
But…….he could be widowed.
As a divorcee, the stench of scandal would attach itself to him forever. The college would shun him. But as a widower, they would embrace him. They would enfold him in grace.
Ian had killed her.
“Jesus, help me” She said, as she put her hands to the rosary that was about her throat. “Help me.”
She was in her kitchen. The light was the most gorgeous thing she’d ever seen. She had her steaming tea in one of the matching mugs in front of her. Ian came in, ignoring her at first. Then, pouring hot water in the other mug. Putting a tea bag in. Then liberally dosing it with sugar and honey. He came and sat across from her.
“”You seem tired. You don’t have anything this morning, You should go back to bed. Get some rest.” He was saying.
No! Was it happening again? Or this time, could she change it? She got up, taking her mug with her. Ian stopped her. “Let me bring it to you. We have some fresh honey. I’ll make it just the way you like it.”
Rhonda’s blood went cold. He seemed so casual. What could she do? How could she change it?
She went down the hall, and then, suddenly turned. She put her hands in her robe pockets. She was not surprised to find crinkly dried leaves there. Phyfoxia.
It hadn’t been a dream.
She nearly bumped into Ian coming down the hall. He looked frustrated to see her. Good, be frustrated, she thought.
“I’d really rather sit up for a while. Here, let me take that.” She said.
“Please yourself.” He said, his voice taking on a grumpy tone.
She sat down, and so did he. She didn’t drink her tea. Neither did he. “It’s going to get cold.” He said, a smile quivering at his lips.
“You know, I feel really weak, and I don’t trust my feet.” She said, suddenly inspired. “Would you get my testing stuff from the bedroom? Its on the table by the bed.” She put everything she had into looking innocent as she said it. She knew her life depended on it.
He shrugged, got up, and went down the hall. Quickly, she changed the mugs.
He came in, handed her the supplies, watched without expression as she took her blood reading. “Just a bit low.” She said.
“Well, the honey in the tea should help you.” He said.
She took a sip. It was too sweet, and likely to raise her blood sugar, but at the moment, it seemed very satisfying.
He took a long drink of his own. Looked at her intently. “You know, it doesn’t have to end this way.”
“Excuse me?” She said, allowing some shock to be shown.
“A divorce. We could try again. I really would go to therapy this time. Maybe both of us could. Maybe we could work things out.” He took another deep drink of his tea.
Already, she could see his intense blue eyes growing….a bit…dull? Would it work that quickly?
Maybe. Just maybe.
“I’m willing to consider it.” She said, placidly. “I really don’t want a divorce, either, Ian. Not anymore. I want what you want.”
“Really?” Ian’s eyes briefly lit up. “Then, I think we should make a toast.” He lifted his mug containing the remainder of the tea meant for Rhonda in mid-air. “To us,” He said, his voice dragging a bit.
Rhonda smiled at her sleepy husband and let her mug tap against his.
“To us.” She said.