Pam was lying facedown and fully clothed on the guest bed, a large bag of frozen brussels sprouts draped across her lower back.
Earlier, they’d halfheartedly joined the gang for their ritual football toss on the beach. At this age, no one really ran or jumped anymore. It was more like slow-motion tai chi than touch football, but without any synchronized rhythm. Pam refused to accept their aging fates, and had leaped up for the ball and yanked something in her back. She continued to play, but quietly, a tip-off to Paul that something was wrong.
“Why didn’t you just stop playing?” he asked now. “It must have hurt like crazy.” She minimally shrugged a shoulder, causing the bag to slip slightly. She jiggled her hips and maneuvered to right it.
“I blame the Kennedys. From childhood. All that heartiness and ball tossing, in the face of…whatever.”
“All those teeth,” said Paul.
“Did you see in the paper another one got married again?” asked Pam. “What kind of woman marries a Kennedy and thinks that’s going to turn out well?” Her voice was muffled against the bedspread.
Pam could have married anyone. Paul still wasn’t sure why she’d married him. But he was still glad she had.
“Aren’t you supposed to use frozen peas for this?” he asked.
“Yeah, but Molly only has the brussels sprouts. They work fine.” Molly and Tim never played any sports and were proud of it. Paul supposed they were oblivious to the universally accepted healing properties of frozen peas for sports injuries.
Pam gingerly shifted. “Remember when she made them for us? That snowy New Year’s Eve?”
They’d come in as usual for the annual holiday party held at a mutual friend’s house on the beach. They’d been doing it for years: staying at Molly and Tim’s, heading over to the party as a foursome together, Tim at the wheel. But with the snowstorm, Molly suggested she cook and they stay in.
“Those noodles she made were delicious. And for once I liked brussels sprouts,” Pam said. “I can’t remember what else we had, but that was fun.” They had sat contentedly by the fire in the cozy den, eating off a card table.
“Fish?” asked Paul.
“Probably. Tim hates fish. And football.”
“He puts up with a lot when we come,” said Paul. Pam always forced everyone to wear those tacky New Year’s Eve glasses at midnight, the cheap sparkles shedding all over their spruced-up party clothes.
“It must be awful to have a home near a beach and houseguests all the time.” Pam squirmed. “Maybe we’re lucky we live in the city and have no spare square footage for guests.”
“Maybe.” Paul thought they were lucky about pretty much everything.
“I hope our hosts are savoring this brief respite alone. Without us. While I’m icing,” said Pam.
“They’re fine,” said Paul. They really weren’t fine, but they were all pretending. It upset Pam to think of Molly not happy. They were grammar-school buddies.
“Sorry to be a drag.”
“You are hardly that, my dear.” Paul wasn’t used to Pam being laid low. She got up every day with energy that was off the charts.
“And why,” Pam asked, “do I keep thinking of that Dalí painting with the melting clocks oozing over everything? Like fried eggs? I don’t even like Dalí. Or eggs.”
Paul stood by the window rather than sit on the bed and disturb Pam. The guest room had no chair.
“Maybe all of this is a metaphor? Time marches on. I’m stuck. I can’t move. I can’t ooze,” said Pam.
“What’s that mean?” asked Paul.
“Is this it? I’ve never had back pain before. Am I becoming my mother? I can’t seem to straighten up. Remember how her bent-over head and shoulders came into a room long before her caboose did?”
“You are not your mother.” Paul knew it was his job to say this repeatedly and with conviction. “For one thing, you’re not drunk.”
“True. Although maybe that would help in this situation.”
“You know, actually those Dalí clocks were pretty slinky. And, under normal circumstances, so are you,” said Paul.
* * *
Earlier, before the tai chi touch football with the extended crowd, the four of them had gone to an upscale diner for lunch. Molly and Pam had kept the conversation lively while Tim mainly stared out the window and Paul struggled to find a topic they could discuss. In addition to sports, Tim refused to watch TV, so Paul couldn’t dissect any cable-series plotlines. Politics were taboo, or they would all end up screaming. Tim seemed to be making an effort not to snipe at Molly, which at least was a relief.
After lunch, as they leisurely strolled out to the parking lot, Pam had stopped to admire a shiny maroon Harley, its matching helmet strapped to the steering wheel. The bike was taking up multiple parking spaces and seemed ready to be shown in a motorcycle museum. It was colossal. It gave off bolts of sunshine. While Molly and Tim continued walking toward their SUV, Paul paused and stared back at Pam. Behind her sunglasses she was casing the bike, slowly walking around it. What was she thinking?
He hadn’t known her when she used to ride. He couldn’t imagine it. She liked taxis, pearls, and air-conditioning. She once made it clear to him that she had never actually driven one; she’d only held on to the backs of a series of boyfriends who’d taken her for a ride.
The diner door opened and the bike’s owner headed toward Pam.
He was their age, looked more corporate than cool, more Michael Bublé than “Born to Be Wild.”
He smiled at Pam. Checked her out.
“Hop on,” he said. He made a sweeping gesture with his arm.
Pam stopped and looked at the bike. Then at its owner. She didn’t respond right away. She was usually a quick responder. But this was a long pregnant pause.
Paul started to move toward them. Pam looked at the owner and gave him her most dazzling smile.
“It’s a beautiful bike. Thanks very much for the offer.” She gave a quiet laugh. “Have a great day. Be safe.”
She walked toward Paul, still smiling. Paul smiled back, with territorial relief.
* * *
After icing, Pam rolled over slowly and gently sat on the edge of the bed. Her eyes, usually filled with charm and cheer, had the anxious stare that arrived when unsettling and sometimes trivial things rocked her.
“I’m injured. Do I have to change?” she asked.
Paul had put on a clean shirt for dinner. “No. We love you just the way you are.”
She stood at half-mast and applied a lipstick. “Promise to kill me when I can no longer put on my lipstick.”
“Deal. It’s in the living will.”
“Are you OK?”
“Are we OK?”
“I think so,” she said.
“Not a ringing endorsement.” Paul looked at her.
“I love it when you whimper.” She combed her hair briefly. “Let’s go listen to our dearest friends talk about their dogs and devices. Can you carry the bag of melting sprouts?”
“I can and I will. Although what’s the etiquette here? Do we just return it to the freezer? Or are they damaged? Should we buy them a new bag?”
“They’re old friends. Just toss them back in the freezer and move on.”
In one hand, Paul grabbed the slippery bag, which was now at room temperature and soggily crunchy; with the other, he took Pam’s elbow and steered her into the hall. She was not moving with her typical speed or grace. He could tell she was uncomfortable moving at all. She tilted.
They stopped at the top of the stairs.
“Can you make it?” he asked.
“Sure. But let’s take it slow.”
He formally held out his sprout-free arm to her.
“Hop on,” said Paul.
She took his arm.
Then, with care and attention, Paul balanced Pam and the brussels sprouts down the staircase, hoping to safely arrive at the landing before either one, or the evening, could slip through his grasp or entirely melt away.