There was a certain love she had for him. It was strong: stinging at times, flowy and uplifting during others. But that’s just how love is, isn’t it? Lorraine was a firm believer that love was an effort, rewarded only to those who worked for it, earned it. That’s why she loved Bill Mitchells so much. They met at a roller-skating rink in 1972. Lorraine, having just finished sophomore finals for college, was out celebrating with some girlfriends. Bill, a high school senior, was working the cash register at the ticket counter. Something so mundane as fingers touching while exchanging money for a ticket sparked their relationship. They were almost inseparable after that. “The honeymoon phase,” their friends remarked, eyeing the pair. Bill and Lorraine had a tendency to hold hands. Bill would scoff at the observation, brushing wispy brown hairs above his ear away with his free hand. He didn’t like to get caught showing affection in public. Lorraine would smile, confident their deep feelings would never wane.
Togetherness. They learned about each other, Bill hated the color red and loved watching baseball. Lorraine adored the scent of fresh lavender and watercolor paintings. They settled into a routine, only being able to see each other on weekend nights. Bill would spend his entire paycheck on Lorraine. Once, he gave her a small handcrafted birdhouse. Caught up with excitement during a 1974 road trip to Vegas, after Lorraine’s college graduation, they decided to elope. Later that night, Bill won a few thousand dollars at the craps tables, promising to buy Lorraine “the world.” She convinced him to keep most of the money for their future together.
Everything was new again, the town they moved to, the rings on their fingers which flashed in the sunlight, and their white ranch style house. They wanted to bring new life into the world. So they tried. Lorraine couldn’t conceive. After another visit to the doctor’s office, they bickered during the car ride home. Even after they returned home, they blamed each other. As the fighting intensified in the kitchen, he hit her. His hand, which delivered searing pain to Lorraine’s face, felt foreign to her. Bill had never hit someone like that before. She could tell. Bill, in shock, stared at the reddening mark on Lorraine’s face. After uneasy silence, she finally looked up at him. Then they cried together, sprawled on the kitchen tiles. Taking her hand, Bill assured her that they already were a family, “just the two of them.” They focused on creating different forms of life instead. Eventually, the backyard was filled with exotic plants. The scent of red amaryllises and lavender perfumed the air. Their lush garden, one tree away from a forest, became the envy of the neighborhood.
There were moments where Lorraine questioned marrying a man who was younger and less educated than her. His immaturity and inexperience in life showed. Until he met Lorraine, Bill didn’t know what a savings account was. Sometimes, Lorraine caught herself feeling more motherly than wifely. “No dear, that’s not how you write a check,” she would say calmly, hiding her frustrations. Even though Lorraine was the main breadwinner of the household, as a secretary at the local bank, she was in charge of cooking all the meals. Bill would try to help by cleaning the house, but his efforts were never up to par with Lorraine’s standards. Instead, Bill contributed through long hours at work, but he moved erratically between jobs. For a year, he was a bricklayer. Then he poured cement and worked in a slaughterhouse. After a long day, he would tell Lorraine that he liked to “keep his options open.” In actuality, he had a tendency to run his mouth and fall into disgrace with his employers.
A few nights a year, Bill would barge in through the front door claiming that “It’s all bullshit, Lorraine. Those shitheads don’t know a fuckin’ thing about anything!” Lorraine would keep quiet and listen, not wanting to anger him further. She would wait for him to tire and climb into bed with her. Throughout the night, she would soothe his anger by agreeing with him, “You’re right, Bill. You’re always right.” All Lorraine wanted to do was agree with the employers. But she and Bill were a team, they had to support each other, no matter what. In the dark bedroom, Bill couldn’t see Lorraine’s troubled expression. Her fear of Bill’s unsteadiness would settle into her gaze as she stared the ceiling. Lorraine would gather one of Bill’s calloused hands into her own and hold it to her cheek, uncertain about the future. They would fall asleep like that.
Almost nightly, Lorraine would dream about everyday normalcy: Bill would come home from his nine-to-five job and be greeted by their two children at the front door. After dinner, Bill and Lorraine would retire into the living room while the children did the dishes. The buzz of her alarm clock each morning would force her back to reality. This cycle would continue for years.
After he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, Bill tried to be a better man. Before he was forced to retire from the tomato canning factory due to his failing condition, Bill would bring fresh coffee and cookies to work each morning, for his coworkers. Gorgeous blooms would be delivered to Lorraine at their home of forty-nine years from a “Mystery man at the Franklin Cancer Clinic.” When she wasn’t taking care of the household, Lorraine spent most of her time with Bill. It was like they were young again. Bill, when he wasn’t resting from the draining effects of chemo, would gossip about the other patients with Lorraine. She assumed he was in denial about his condition; Bill looked a lot worse than most of the other patients. His skin greyed to the color of ash as he kept losing weight. Too weak to hold himself up, Bill would lean on Lorraine as they slowly slumped through the corridors of the hospital together. Lorraine struggled under his weight, but she never showed it. They would loop each hallway until they returned to his room. Their knuckles gleamed white as they gripped each other’s hands.
Seemingly overnight, he worsened and withered away right under Lorraine’s eyes. It wasn’t Bill anymore. It was a corpse that was breathing heavily. Lorraine had to force herself to be around him. As heartless as it was, she didn’t want to be around someone so close to the end. Lorraine had the unfounded fear that proximity to death is contagious. She had to push those thoughts to the back of her head and focus on Bill; she needed to be there for him. It was her duty, as a wife, even though he wasn’t there anymore.
He looked crumpled as he snored under the moonlight. After leisurely brushing her fingers against his chilled cheek, Lorraine smoothed out the blankets and adjusted the pillows to make him more comfortable. Bill woke up, silent. He gazed at her face until it settled onto her hazel eyes. Lorraine could see death flint behind his stare. The once clear blue of his eyes seemed to drain, leaving only dullness. Then he nodded, breaking their eye contact. They both knew it was time. Lorraine caught her breath.
Lorraine griped Bill’s cold and bony fingers and gave them a light squeeze. She wanted him to feel her warmth. He told her that he was “sorry.” His voice was gruff but quiet. Lorraine barely made out the apology. Raising his hand to her lips, Lorraine reminded him that she loved him. Her lips brushed against his wedding band. Some red lipstick smudged onto the metal. Bill smiled, it was toothy and lovely. For that moment, he looked like the teenager in the roller rink. Bill gently took in one large last breath. He never looked older.
A few years after his funeral, snowfall fell in gathered bunches onto the ground. Lorraine, bundled in a long black coat, visited Bill’s grave. The warm and dark material covered how frail she had become. Her left hand, devoid of a wedding band, staked a small wreath of white flowers in front of the grave. She questioned the years they spent together. Was it a life well spent or one wasted? Lorraine eyed the gravestone then turned to leave. Etched onto the black marble was an image of two hands clasped, and the inscription: “Together.”
Story by Emma Bozenda
Art by Christopher Woods