Issue Forty-Four - Summer 2024

The Promise

By Lorna Reese

A month before she died, Joan Lassiter asked her best friend Phyllis McGowan to marry her husband Jerome after she was gone. They had no children and he would need looking after, she told Phyllis. Promise me, she pleaded.

Now at the memorial reception at Phyllis’s house – Jerome said his house down the block still smells of sickness — Phyllis is putting away a plate of cheese and cold cuts when she senses more than hears Jerome’s voice in the living room go quiet. Most guests have already left or are busy gathering their things and she has begun cleaning up. She doesn’t know the remaining visitors but is familiar with Jerome’s unusually sonorous voice. It always carries.

At this moment, though, it dips almost to a whisper. Pursing her lips, Phyllis peeks through the pass-through to the living room where she sees Jerome stretched out on the sofa. Is it him? It is. His voice is low, dark and unmistakable, but she can’t make out his words.

She watches as Jerome leans in to that young woman she doesn’t know, their heads almost touching. Had she known Joan? Perhaps she is a colleague of Jerome’s from the real estate office, though Phyllis thought she knew them all. Now they are both laughing, Jerome with his head thrown back. What white teeth she has! Her hair like a small, black cap. She’s young. Phyllis sniffs and returns to the plate of cheese. Joan just died and now this.

Earlier, Phyllis had been keeping an eye on Jerome’s every move and smile, how he held his tie to his chest with one hand while leaning over the tray of canapés on the table in front of him to pick up his wineglass, all the while lavishing attention on the young dark-haired woman.

Phyllis returns to the dishwasher with such zeal that she breaks a plate. “Shit,” she says and returns to the pass-through just in time to see Jerome lean in to whisper again into the ear of that woman. Is he flirting? As far as she knows, he has never been flirtatious. Even if he had, this is not the proper time or place, his wife of 35 years barely gone. No one else seems to notice. Across the room, she can see the woman – much younger — laughing, but she can’t hear her. Yet here comes Jerome’s booming voice rumbling toward her to where she stands in the kitchen, cleaning up. She is always the one who cleans up.

Her own husband is gone as well, long gone, though she was glad to have been rid of him. And quietly glad there’d been enough money from the divorce for her to retire at 60. As Joan’s best friend, Phyllis had observed up close what a good marriage Jerome had had with Joan, even though it was childless. So what is he doing now, being intimate, in public, with a woman she doesn’t know?

Since Joan’s death, Phyllis has felt bereft. No one else knew the real Phyllis. Knew what she’d suffered growing up and with her ex-husband, that she was allergic to penicillin and strawberries, that she still smoked the occasional cigarette. They had spoken on the phone on the days they didn’t see each other. Now she has no one. Of course, there are the ladies in her church circle and the women she has coffee with at the diner every month. There are the clerks at the supermarket where she shops and at the pharmacy where she picks up her meds and the receptionist at the clinic where she volunteers once a week. They are all nice women. They are cheerful and know her name. They exchange views about the weather. They avoid talking about politics. They are familiar to her. They are familiar to each other. But they don’t know Phyllis. Not really.

A few moments later when Phyllis peeks again, the sofa is vacant. Stealing to the living room, she watches as Jerome walks the dark-haired young woman to the front door. He pulls out a vivid red coat from the crush of wraps in the closet. Naturally, it would be that one, that one spot of color among the blacks and grays, like a spark that won’t go out. Jerome takes the coat by its shoulders and offers it to the young woman, like an invitation. And Phyllis watches as she turns with agile grace and steps backward into it, as though into an embrace. And perhaps it is. Phyllis looks away.

The reception winds down quickly after that and, ten minutes later, everyone else is gone. Phyllis is still cleaning up the kitchen when Jerome pokes his head through the pass through and tells her he’s leaving. He places two empty glasses and some plates on the counter.

“Already?” she says, drying her hands and moving toward him.

“I’ve got to get out of this suit, and I feel worn out,” says Jerome, making his way to the front door.

“Well, of course, you are,” Phyllis purrs, following him. “This has been a tough week for you.”

“A tough year, Phylly. A very tough year.”

“Go on home then, Jerome. Scoot. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Get some rest.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. I’m fine.”

After seeing him off, Phyllis slams the front door and begins picking up discarded teacups and saucers scattered around the house. When Jerome had asked her to host the reception, he’d offered to help, and she hadn’t expected him to leave before her house was cleaned up. Without helping her at all.

In the days to come, March goes out like a lamb and Jerome calls frequently, asking Phyllis if she knows a good gym, if she’ll go race walking with him, if she’ll help him go clothes shopping, if she wants a ride in his new car. He has, he insists, already done his grieving in the long months of Joan’s illness and decline. He doesn’t need a support group. He’s gone through all of it already. He really has.

This transformation is discomfiting to Phyllis, even incongruous. He had been such a devoted husband. Sweet, too. Very thoughtful. Joan had often said he was too good for her. Steadfast. Yes, that was just the word for him.

Now here’s Jerome on the phone again, this time asking if she’ll make a list of all her widowed friends, potential partners for him, if she’ll introduce him to them. “I’m not interested in divorcees,” he tells her, “only in women who’ve had a good marriage. Like Joan and me.”

“What happened to that little brunette I saw you mooning over at the reception?” Phyllis asks. “That young thing in the red coat? You seemed pretty friendly with her.”

Jerome pauses and she hears his puzzled hesitation over the line. “Oh, you mean Dory. She’s a honey. And she’s got the cutest smile, doesn’t she?” Phyllis can almost hear Jerome’s chest puff up.

“Yes, her,” Phyllis snaps.

“She works at Joan’s old office. I asked her to go out with me but she said I’m too old for her. Can you imagine? Too old!”

Phyllis can very well imagine. It’s exactly what she thought seeing them together on her sofa. “Well, you ARE 69 and she’s what? Thirty?” She is thinking it’s too soon, way too soon, for Jerome to be dating anyone.

“She’s 34!” Jerome belts out. “But anyway, that’s why I want to meet people my age, widows, like I said. Joanie made me promise I’d marry again. She wanted me to be married before I hit 70. That’s next year. I promised.”

Phyllis feels a sudden stab of jealousy. What’s wrong with me is what she thinks.

Leaving the bank in early May, Phyllis sees Jerome driving through the village. He’s wearing the new leather bomber jacket he bought – a black leather jacket at his age — and he is driving the new Miata convertible. Black, at least, and not red, Phyllis is glad to see. The top is down and when he sees Phyllis, Jerome lifts one leather clad arm in an offhanded wave as he motors by.

Driving home, Phyllis is steaming. What nerve Jerome has to lose another 15 pounds on top of what he lost during Joan’s illness. And to start running around in leather jackets and sports cars. What nerve he has to think about finding a new wife when Joanie’s ashes still stand in the urn on his mantle. For a fleeting moment, she wonders where the sweet and funny Jerome she has known for 20 years has gone. She wonders what Joan would think of the new Jerome. Then she decides: she will, under no circumstances, introduce him to any of her friends.

In the next several weeks, Phyllis finds herself, against her will, observing Jerome even more closely whenever they are at the same social event. And she is startled to notice she occasionally plots to cross his path. At the gym. At the club. Even at the grocery and dry cleaner. She notices now how his graying hair curls around his left ear. How he has a penchant for shirts from Lands End. How he strides rather than walks. And she remembers how tenderly Jerome had cared for Joan, gently, gently, gently.

She had only said yes to Joan so that Joan could die in peace. She had never actually thought about marrying Jerome. Now, though, Phyllis has to admit that what had been the farthest thing from her mind is steadily taking up more space in her head. The more she tries to push it away, the more vivid the idea becomes.

They are so different though. And she has enjoyed living alone all these years. Thrilled to it in the beginning, thinking then it might just be for a couple of years after her divorce and gradually finding living alone suits her very well.

But now she is imaging Jerome coming home to her, planting a kiss on her cheek, and telling her about his day, caressing her shoulder when he passes by, massaging her feet while they watch a movie together. Her skin prickles when she thinks of it.

Later that summer, Phyllis is invited to join some friends from the club to attend an art opening at a new gallery in town. She hasn’t been getting out enough since Joan’s death, they tell her. It’ll do her good. When they get to the exhibit, Phyllis is pleasantly surprised to see Jerome is there, too. She is also stunned to see so much vitality and verve in the paintings. The largest hangs at the far end of the gallery and she slowly wanders toward it until she is standing before it alone. Everyone else is gathered together in small knots near the entrance or around the wine and hors d’oeuvres table. No on watches as she steps closer to examine the almost violent splashing on of paint in hues of purple, fuchsia, crimson. The subject is tulip fields but the rendering is dark, shadowy, a tiny bit sinister. She is surprised to find the painting speaks to her. Sneaking a furtive peek behind her, she sees everyone still caught up in useless chatter and feels emboldened enough to reach out a finger and softly dab at the eggplant-colored blossom in the corner. Surprisingly smooth and dry. She loves how the paint seems slathered on, almost recklessly. It’s very nearly voluptuous. And that intense, swirling sky. Would Jerome like this painting? Does she, really? Or is it simply thrilling that all that feeling is right out there in public for everyone to see. Perhaps that’s it. Idly, she fingers her pearls and turns away, a slight flush warming her cheeks. Has anyone else seen? No. That’s good.

Now, another month later, here’s Jerome on the phone again. “Phyllis, can you meet me for dinner at the Harborside on Friday?”

“Of course,” she says, “what time?”

Always punctual, Phyllis arrives first and settles into a booth to wait, wondering if it might have been better to arrive late. But Jerome is on time, too, and is striding toward her holding hands with a woman about her own age. “Barbara, this is Phyllis. Phylly, Barbara.”

After shaking Phyllis’s hand, Barbara slides into the other side of the booth and Jerome follows her. “Call me, Barbie,” she says. Barbie smoothes her fine, obviously colored page boy away from her face. She’s wearing Eileen Fisher, Phyllis notices. And here’s the waiter passing out laminated menus and asking for their drinks order before anyone has a chance to say anything. They are just sitting here together. Except they are not together. Jerome peers at Barbie’s face.

“White wine, Hon?” he asks. Barbara nods and says “yes, please,” correcting her hair again. “Phyllis?” Jerome tips his head her way.

“I’ll have a seven seven, please.” Where did that come from, she thinks. The waiter writes it down. Jerome is having a martini. “Celebrating,” he says. “I finally got the three of us together.”

A bus boy delivers a basket of bread and butter and Phyllis reaches for it. So does Barbie while pulling her hair back with her right hand. Already their intimacy is making Phyllis crazy. But Jerome doesn’t seem to notice. Is he blind?

Phyllis suddenly becomes aware that the bench seat is wood and there’s no cushion at the back either. She can’t get comfortable because everything is hard. Being here in this dark cave of a room, other patrons all happy. Their dialogue is inaudible but they are clearly enjoying themselves. Why did she wear this suit? It’s been too small for months. She gained weight taking care of Joan, always eating what people brought over. She should actually have worked out at the gym Jerome belongs to. Why hasn’t she thought of that before? All those opportunities wasted.

The pendant lamp over the table throws a circle of light on their drinks but leaves their faces in shadow. The candle in the red glass is no help. Phyllis feels stranded on her side of the booth, adrift. She watches as Jerome casually drapes one arm over Barbara’s shoulder and looks at the laminated menu with the other. Then Phyllis feels hot. Another power surge. She reaches for the sweating goblet of water. The ice cubes tinkle against the side but they sound louder, like glass breaking.

Phyllis takes another fat slice of bread, quickly butters and bites into it. She wants to be doing something with her mouth and her hands, her feelings, her anger, her disappointment. Everything is way too hard. There’s no way she can stay here for this. She gathers her things together and stands up.

“I’ve had a headache all day and shouldn’t have come out tonight, Jerome. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

“Phylly, you look pale. Are you all right to drive? Barbie and I can take you.”

He grabs her hand and looks into her eyes, then glances back at Barbara. “Can’t we, Hon?”

“No, I’m ok. I’ll call you tomorrow, Jerome. I’m fine.”

Before he can say anything else, Phyllis sweeps away. That’s how she thinks of it later. She has swept away although, really, she has been swept away by this man she didn’t even want. And now she does.

A few days later, Phyllis invites Jerome to stop by for a glass of wine on his way home from the golf club. She feels much better, she tells him. He’s late but eventually she sees his sleek sports car pull into the drive. She watches from the window as he strolls to the front door and lets himself in.

“Phylly? I’m here. Sorry I’m late. There was an accident on Route 117. But I brought some of those cookies you like from Kowalski’s.”

He enters the kitchen where she is setting out some cheeses and crackers on a tray.

“Beer or wine?” she asks.

He carries their drinks to the living room and she follows with the snacks. Jerome takes a long pull on his beer and drags his hand across his mouth.

“What’s up?” he wants to know.

She tells him. “Remember the time when Joan was alive and you came home and found her crying? I was there with her?”

“That’s a rhetorical question, right?”

A big breath. “Well, that last afternoon Joan asked me to do her a favor, a huge favor. A gigantic favor. She made me promise.” Phyllis can feel her face flush. Then her whole body seems to catch fire, as usual, when she feels stressed. Her heart is racing, too. Mopping her face with a napkin, she tries to catch her breath.

“Joan made me promise I’d marry you after she died. She didn’t want you to be alone.”

There! She has said it.

Jerome’s eyebrows arc upward and his eyes grow large. He opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again. Then opens it again but nothing comes out.

Phyllis hurries on. “I told her I couldn’t make a promise like that but she kept on crying and crying and crying and finally, I just said I would. Marry you. And she stopped. Crying.”

The words all come out in a rush while Phyllis focuses intently on the plate of cheese in her lap. She cannot look Jerome in the face. Though she wants to. She wants to see his face turn tender; she wants him to lean in and take her hand. He doesn’t.

“But there’s no spark,” he says. “No spark. And there’s Barbie.” His words hang in the thick air for a long moment. Now what?

Now she has really done it. What possessed her to think this, to imagine that he would want her, that he might see her as a partner, that they might have a life together. What has gotten into her? Will she have to move?

“No, of course not, of course not,” Phyllis finally breathes. “I didn’t mean… It’s not that I want… absolutely no, Jerome.” She must look like a crazy woman, she thinks. “No, I just wanted to tell you because I’ve been holding it in for so long. I just wanted you to know.” She sneaks a look at him.

“Oh,” Jerome says, his brow still furrowed. “So you don’t mean… You don’t want…”

“No, Jerome.” Emphatically. Somehow she gets through this scene, too.

In shame and desperation, Phyllis books the first group trip she can find on the internet, to Italy, to show Jerome she does not really want what she did. She needs to get away fast, and the tour leaves the next week. Everyone says September is the perfect time to see Italy. She’s gone for three weeks, periodically posting photos on Facebook where friends ooh and ahh but there’s not one comment from Jerome. When an opportunity arises to extend her trip a week, to join a tour to some of the Greek islands, she puts it on her credit card without thinking about it more than a minute. She does not want to go home.

It’s in a small hotel on Santorini Phyllis realizes she doesn’t mind being alone. For years, she and Joan had been the dynamic duo in their small circle. Jerome almost an afterthought. Or more like married to them both but sleeping with Joan. The two women had been in and out of each other’s houses for years. Even now, Phyllis knows exactly where Joan kept the garlic press and the guest towels, not to mention the Slippery Stuff. Her tour is mostly couples, true enough, but she bought the single supplement and actually enjoys being able to spend the odd afternoon and every night alone. There is plenty of camaraderie during the day to satisfy her need for company but an odd new feeling begins to fill her inner spaces: she is enough. She becomes aware that other women’s husbands seem eager to help with her bag or offer their jokes.

She even meets an interesting unattached Swiss man at breakfast one day on Hydra and accepts his invitation to take a boat trip to the other side of the island and hike back. He likes her; she can tell. And she likes him. This is new. This feeling. Maybe she is still alive. Inside.

When Phyllis gets home, her house looks different. Is it her or because she had it cleaned before returning? All the surfaces are clear and gleaming. Everything is where it should be and there are no piles of books and magazines, except for a discrete hill of mail her neighbor brought in and stacked on the hall table. The house seems new. And peaceful. As though all those tangled feelings she had before have been vacuumed up along with the dust. As though it’s ready for a different Phyllis. As though it is a place she can start again. Be someone else.

Over the next week, Phyllis sinks into the welcoming space and quiet. She finds herself “off” somewhere more than usual. She’s never been a dreamy person but now she catches herself gazing out the kitchen window watching the golden alder branches stirring in the breeze, almost beckoning to her. One day she finds herself sitting on the sofa, a magazine in her lap, her face lifted to the late autumn light falling on the trees. As she sits there, the light slides further up the tree instead of down and she is startled, eventually, to realize she’s been sitting there long enough for the light to fade. Like my life, she thinks. The sun is going down on my life. Yet she feels tranquil, almost serene, surprisingly content. And she likes it.

She signs up for an introductory painting class and thrills at the vibrant colors of paints: viridian, cerulean, lemon yellow, cadmium red, cobalt blue. She starts walking through the nearby arboretum each morning after breakfast. She notices she is even eating better, more fruits and vegetable, less starch. Still, she avoids Jerome and all the places where he might be. It’s best, she thinks.

Doing her marketing one day at Whole Foods, Phyllis glimpses Jerome turning down the frozen foods aisle. He never used to shop there so she thought this store was safe. His shoulders look slumped and her heart does one of its funny turns, the first in ages. After six weeks, she is still not ready to face Jerome or confront him in public. But here he is now coming the opposite way up her aisle. Quickly, she turns to pick up whatever is in front of her. Bread and butter pickles.

“Phylly!” Jerome’s booming hello will not be denied. “Phylly. There you are!”

She replaces the pickles and turns. “Hello, Jerome.”

He looks different. Empty somehow. As thought the light inside him has been switched off.

“Phylly, I haven’t seen you for so long. Have you got time for coffee?” He takes her by the elbow and steers her toward the café. “I’ve missed you. Wherever have you been?”

“To Italy,” pulling away. “And then to Greece. Didn’t you see my pictures on Facebook? I posted a ton of them.”

“I haven’t been online very much,” he confesses. “I haven’t been doing much of anything, to tell the truth.”

With Jerome at her shoulder, they push their carts to the café and order lattes. Phyllis lets him pay while she finds a table, then busies herself settling into a chair. She is still arranging her jacket when Jerome brings the coffees and then she tackles adding sugar to her beverage. She’s not ready to look too long into Jerome’s face yet. Neither of them speaks. Sneaking a sideways look, though, she notices his shirt is wrinkled and there’s dandruff on his collar. His face is haggard and badly-shaven.

“How’s Barbie?” she asks.

“Oh, she broke up with me a week after that dinner. I’m still not sure why.” He twists in his seat to look straight at her. “You know, I can’t stop thinking about that afternoon. You know?”

Phyllis looks down and her face begins to grow hot. This is absolutely the last thing she expected. Now what? Peeking up, she sees him glance out the window before he continues. “I just started thinking about everything we have in common and how much fun we’ve always had – you and me and Joan – and how you already know me so well and… Well, you know. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Like I said.”

Finally, he stops and turns a wistful face toward her. “What?” he says, seeing her face. Quickly, she pulls herself together, smoothes out her cheeks with her hands and looks down again. Oh, God, is what she thinks. To be here in this public place with all these feelings – his as well as hers – splashed all over for anyone who looks to see. She has won him and now she doesn’t want him. Well, this is just too much. She feels herself getting smaller, like Alice in Wonderland.

Without planning to, she reaches for his hand, lying there open and vulnerable on the table top. “Jerome,” she says. Surprisingly, now she feels her power returning, the spaces inside her expanding with it. She can do this.

“Jerome,” she starts again. “Stop thinking about it. Please. It was a mistake. We both wanted to please Joan.” She smiles without effort. She is hitting her stride. “But she’s dead and we’re alive. It’s not what we want.”

“But, Phylly, I think I do.”

“I don’t want it, Jerome. And you don’t either. Not really.”

Her heart aches for him. He is like a big puppy, loveable and faithful and fun. But this is not for her.

Finally, Phyllis reaches for a napkin and into her purse for a pen. She starts scribbling. “What are you doing?” Jerome asks. She keeps writing. At last she stops, caps the pen and returns it to her purse. She reaches again for Jerome and curls his fingers around the paper. “Here,” she says. “My friends who are widows.”

She gets up, gathers her things, grabs her cart and walks away. It doesn’t seem that hard to do at all.

Copyright 2024 Reese