Problem Set

Published in The American Literary Review: Fall 2012 – Spring 2013

JOY NAVIGATED PAST a stream of trucks. She hated highway driving, mistrusted her night vision. Since turning fifty last year, she battled what the ophthalmologist called floaters. In Breezewood the trucks roared onto the Pennsylvania turnpike while she continued on Route 30 toward Bedford.

Bedford, midway between her home in DC. and his in Pittsburgh, served as the usual rendezvous point. They ate the first dinner of their weekends in the Jean Bonnet, an old stone tavern at the junction of what had been two trails and then two post roads centuries before the turnpike. Friday night locals crowded the bar for darts and beer; Joy and Daniel preferred the dining room downstairs. The thick stone walls and heavy beams muffled the din of the juke box above.

Arriving first, Joy settled into their favorite table by the fireplace. The hearth’s warmth relaxed her from the drive and the hectic week at school. A high school physics teacher, Joy had a brief case full of problem sets to grade in the car. Now that she and Daniel met more often, she was falling behind in her work. Teaching required so much prep time and clean up time. She should work until he came. Instead Joy ordered a glass of wine and the artichoke dip.

THEY MET FOUR years before – stranded in an ice storm in the Atlanta airport, respective connections cancelled. Over the course of the delay, over tepid coffee in cardboard cups, he told her about his wife Selma. She’d been healthy-except for one life-threatening episode of eclampsia fifteen years ago at their daughter’s birth. The doctors warned against more chil¬dren; she took up running and kept blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight low. Approaching forty, she trained for her first marathon – a challenge in celebration of the birthday. Every morning Selma ran the steep hills Of their neighborhood. One morning, cooling down from her run, she collapsed in the driveway: a massive cardiac event.

Oblivious, Daniel sat inside over breakfast, reading the paper. A frantic neighbor pounded on the door. Daniel began CPR – learnt years before to qualify as a chaperone on Monica’s scout trips. The paramedics arrived; Selma never regained consciousness. He blamed himself for not finding her sooner. He blamed himself for not taking up running fifteen years ago. He should have been with her.

The doctors suggested disconnecting life support. Daniel deferred, neither he nor Monica were ready to give up hope. Besides, he felt uncertain of Selma’s wishes. To his surprise, she hadn’t listed herself as an organ donor on her driver’s license. They’d never executed advance directives; that sloppiness his fault, too. Dodging the bullet when Monica was born should have warned him.

Insurance for acute hospitalization ended. At this point in recounting the story, he crumpled the empty Starbucks cup in beautiful hands – large, with long fingers, square cut nails. He wore a wedding ring.

Sounding angry, Daniel continued. I caved in and gave permission to pull the plug.

He arrived for the last shift of vigil alone; prepared to lie to Monica, to say her mother had slipped away.

But Selma-blessed or cursed by her runner’s constitution-breathed on, neither waking nor dying. She had hovered in limbo for almost six months by the night Joy met Daniel.

Snow and ice socked in the airport; delays became cancellations. They rode the shuttle bus to the airport hotel and drank snifters of brandy in the bar; the muzak system played a terrible canned version of Norwegian Wood.

They boarded the elevator, each with a key card for a room. At her floor, she picked up his suitcase. “Come with me,” she said, shocking herself. Forty-six years old, a confirmed solitary, Joy lived carefully by scientific method: recognizing a problem, collecting data, testing her hypothesis. All experiments and evidence so far had proved relationships required more heat energy than she could spare. She considered herself deficient in some way, her own name an ironic misnomer.

In the dark, anonymous room, lying beneath the synthetic beige blanket, they warmed the antiseptic sheets. She had almost forgotten, almost forsworn the genuine, reciprocal delight of using another body, and being used-passionately used, tenderly used.

The next morning she awoke disoriented in the suffocating artificial darkness. While Daniel spoke softly on the phone with his daughter, Joy showered-to give him privacy, and reclaim her own.

They embraced in the airport departures lounge. “I don’t know when I can see you again, but I want to,” he said. “It’s not right, to drag you into-my situation. I can’t promise anything, offer anything.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m quite self-sufficient. Famous for it, actually.”

On the flight home she thought about him. She tried to dissect what had prompted her uncharacteristic boldness the night before. Instinct? Perhaps, but something more complicated than simple desire: a yearning to offer solace. Joy held the secret of him like a piece of gold in her pocket as she resumed routine.

He left a message while she was out the following Friday night, at the concert series she attended with a colleague.

“This is a singing telegram,” he said and sang-not badly¬ all the verses of Norwegian Wood. He made her laugh, and want to call him back.

She waited until morning and savored their first long conversation, abed in her light-drenched room……