“Pillow Talk”

Fiction by Al Burrelli

Her nurse had brought in a tray of hot broth and crackers, but the critically ailing woman lying in bed angrily waved her away, feebly yelling at her to leave instantly and not to disturb them again.
    The nurse, in total panic, turned and headed for the door, nearly dropping the service tray and everything on it. For several minutes, there was total silence in that baronial bedroom.
    The room in its opulence, the entire house in its grandeur, spanned five generations of family history. And now, in that chamber, confronting each other, were the last two members of two royal lineages, one of whose ancestors were the original occupants of this magnificent palazzo.
     Propped up by pillows, the woman who had just harshly dismissed the nurse stared at the man, her husband, Paul, who stood at the foot of the bed.
    She wanted to speak, but shame and disgust forced her to turn her face away from him. After a short while, the words she wanted to say came to her lips. Still looking away from him, her voice barely audible, she managed to weakly utter the words: “Paul, my husband, I shall be direct. I have been given information that you are having an affair.”
    She paused. “If this is true, you bring disgrace to yourself, to me, and to both our families. Paul, I have no strength to argue with you. Simply tell me. Is it true? Are you involved with another woman? If so, have you slept with her?” And then she said, in a tone of total despair, “Do you love her?” The questions were short, but on their answers would rest the fate of their 30-year marriage.
     Her questions exploded in his mind like cannon shots. The first, regarding infidelity, required a simple factual answer. Without raising his eyes, he said, “Yes, we are lovers.” He did not see her body stiffen under the bed covers when he made the admission. But it was the next question that completely unnerved him. Did he love this other woman? Answering that would require his looking into the deepest recesses of his heart. Why had she asked such a question? Wasn’t it enough that he had confessed his adultery? What more was he expected to do? How could he answer her? Where would he start? In the end, he knew he would always wind up in the same place, unable to explain to her what he could not explain to himself.
     Also, even if he did try talking to her, he knew that her fierce intellect would inevitably lead them into a verbal clash over whether extramarital love was ever justifiable, or even possible.
    Their questions and answers would be knife cuts inflicted each on the other — “If caught up in an extramarital affair, when would you follow its dictates? When not? How binding are one’s marital vows? What is duty?” etc., etc.
     But these arguments, all heavy with analysis and rational explanation would, in the end, be nothing but dry intellectual exercises, producing nothing but dry, intellectual answers.
     Missing would be recognition of the entire nonrational side of life, the passions, the mysteries of self-knowledge, the thrill of meeting a soul flawlessly mated to one’s own. No words can explain such emotional and spiritual resonances. There are no instructions to guide your way through such an encounter.
    For himself, he had concluded that such a love was a kind of emotional hurricane, even a temporary insanity, a force that sweeps through one’s life, challenging and shattering the very structure of that life.
     And, as a final irony, he found that, in his lifetime, he had been caught up by that torrential force not once, but twice, each time totally convinced that he was “in love” with the women who made up the emotional triangle in which he had found himself. In love with both of them! Wife and mistress. Both. Equally. Totally. Completely in love!
     After a few moments, he shook himself out of his tortured mental gyrations and walked to the side of the bed. He looked down at his invalid wife. He saw that her eyes were closed and her cheeks were wet from what were surely tears. He was startled to see that despite her dire condition, she still retained the radiant beauty that had originally drawn him to her. Though now much transmuted, her beauty was still striking enough to make one wish for its eternal imperishability.
     He leaned over and said, “Ann, are you awake?” She could not, or would not, answer. Again, “Ann, Ann, can you hear me?” She did not move.
    She had heard his first response, “Yes, we are lovers,” and his words had cut into her heart like a dagger. But it was the answer to the second question, “Do you love her?” that threatened her very sanity. So far, on that question, there was only silence. She knew he was there, standing by the bed. Why didn’t he answer? She kept her eyes closed, unwilling to look at him. The silence was unbearable.
     Finally, feeling totally helpless, she fell back on the only thing she knew to do in such a moment. She lay back and forced herself into an inner place in her consciousness, a place into which she had always retreated when she felt herself in a situation that was dangerous or which she could not control. But this time, she was unable to reach that sanctuary. She screamed inwardly to herself: “Please, God, don’t let him answer!  One more blow to my heart, and my eyes will close forever!”
    Paul, unaware of her inner distress, knelt and spoke. “Ann, there’s something I must tell you!” Her eyes were still shut and her head was turned away from him. “I love you, Ann!” With those words, her eyes slowly opened and a faint smile graced her lips.
    As if speaking in a dream, she said to herself, “He has chosen, and he has chosen me!” She turned to happily respond to him, but when she tried to speak, she found she couldn’t. She had not realized that in her weakened condition, she had retreated too deeply into herself! He continued speaking, but his words only became fainter and fainter and soon she could not hear them at all. 
     Paul stopped talking, and then said, strangely, “Ann, let me adjust your pillow.” He lifted the pillow out from under her head. Then, placing it over her face, he pressed down on it, first softly and then with increasing force. He wasn’t sure whether she could hear him or not. It didn’t matter. He pressed as hard as he could.
     “I love you, Ann. I have always loved you. I will always love you, but may you and God forgive me, I love Madelaine, also, with all my heart and soul, just as I love you now, Ann, now and always! It is beyond human understanding, but I love you both!”
     Then he was quiet. He relaxed his hold on the pillow and placed it back gently under Ann’s head. Her lifeless eyes were staring at the ceiling. He knew she was gone. They were alone in that room where they were first joined body and soul so long ago.
    Ann never heard the words that revealed the depth of his marital duplicity. But Paul had heard them and feared that they might echo in that bedchamber forever. He turned quickly and left.
* * *
    It had been a long and tiring wedding day celebration and, as a result, Paul and Madelaine’s wedding-night intimacy was intense but brief. Madelaine was now asleep. But Paul lay awake, acutely remembering that he was lying there now with Madelaine on the same bed that he had shared with Ann for their more than 30 years of married life.
     In the year since Ann’s death, Paul had played and replayed in his mind the scene that had occurred between him and Ann on that fateful night. He never failed to remember the words he had so cruelly inflicted on her, nor could he erase from his mind the image of the pillow over Ann’s face.   
     But his less than joyous wedding night with Madelaine had made him uneasy. He lay there next to her, staring at a candle that had been left burning for the night. Suddenly, he sat bolt upright in bed. Someone was speaking!
     His eyes swept the room. There was no one else in the chamber, but he could swear he had heard someone speak. He waited. The voice began speaking again. Paul was terrified. Echoing around the room were the actual words that he had spoken to Ann on that final night. His head was now pounding. Was he awake or was all this a nightmarish dream?
    When he found himself unable to make the distinction, he had the horrifying thought that someone or something was tearing his mind in two. The words started again. They were now louder than before, but worse, they seemed to be coming directly out of the stone walls that lined the chamber.
     With a strange irrational clarity, he heard the scattered bits and pieces of the self-serving oration he had made to Ann on that long-ago night: “I love you, Ann, but I love Madelaine, too! May God forgive me! I love you both! I love you both! “ And then, “Ann, your pillow. Let me adjust your pillow. I just want to adjust your pillow.”
     Madelaine, startled, awoke and listened to the words that were filling the room. “Paul, Paul, what is happening? Why are you uttering these horrible words?”
    Then, suddenly, without warning, Paul’s lucidity returned, and he knew that it was he, himself, who was speaking the words that were echoing off the bedchamber walls.
     Paul’s terror increased. He had promised Madelaine that he would never disgrace her by revealing that she was the mistress in that infamous love affair.
     He began to wonder what meaning she would attach to the constant reference to the pillow. It didn’t matter whether the words were being voiced by him or whether, as he now psychotically believed, they were actually emanating from the stone walls, and were echoing on their own throughout that ancient chamber.
     Either way, Madelaine would know everything and in her fury would expose him to the world. He would be ruined. That could not be allowed to happen!
    His hand reached for the pillow near Madelaine’s head. She understood immediately and pulled away from him in horror. But his disturbed mind filled his body with maniacal strength, and it was over in minutes.

    Al Burrelli, a retired English teacher, has finally found the time to write his own short stories, several of which have been published here. He lives with his wife in East Moriches.