“Do you remember the first time we came here?” Martha asked as
she picked another rose, this one freshly petaled, and inhaled its soft
scent. Then she offered it to him, and he buried his nose in the flower
before kissing her hand.
“It was seventh grade, after you played Juliet, opposite, what was his
“Bennie Garza,” she smiled. “Bennie, Bennie, where for art thou,
Bennie? He was always trying to tongue me when we kissed. But I had
braces, and he’d jam his tongue against them. I almost laughed in the
She threw an arm across her breasts. “I pointed at you in the front
row when I said, ‘Where for art thou, Romeo.’”
“I remember. I felt there wasn’t anyone else in that auditorium but
you and me.”
He leaned over to kiss her but stopped and pulled down her lower lip.
“Nope. No braces.”
She smiled and bit his finger. “And then you were mad at me the
entire time we were here because you had just wanted to make out in
the bushes and all I had wanted to do was recite Shakespeare, I loved
the language so much,” she laughed, then rolled sideways to kiss him. “I
was still high from the performance. Even with Bennie Garza as Romeo,
it was such fun.”
She held up the rose.
“What is this rose, dear one, what are its charms…”
“Oh, here we go.”
Martha just smiled, and then comically cleared her throat.
“Does it not blush, as do I, at the mention of your name, at the touch
of your hand?” She brushed the flower across his cheek and he smiled
deeply at her performance. “Does it not pulse with life when brushed
with pollen, drink in the dew?” She pulled off a petal. “And is it not
so frail?” She pulled off another petal and let it drop gently from her
fingers to Nagler’s chest. Her voice softened and trembled. “Its time is
so brief, its beauty so rare.” She jerked off the remaining petals, leaving
a bald stalk. Her voice harsh and firm. “It is time that I want, time with
you, sweet rose, before the petals fade; time I do not have. Time no one
can give me.”
She threw the rose stalk away and rolled into Nagler’s arms, closed
her eyes and signed deeply.
“How was that?” she whispered. “I liked acting a lot. I wish I hadn’t
gotten sick when I did. I would have loved the chance to act in college.”
Nagler lay down on his back beside her. That had been the shock
and the great test, he knew. Leukemia at nineteen. And two years of
treatment, then two more of recovering her strength and watching her
parents’ worried faces sag, the voices crack, the distant stares.
“I would have been a better Juliet in college, you know, in case you
were wondering,” Martha said to the sky after she had rolled onto her
back. “By then it was more than words. I knew about the loss, the pain,
facing death and had already experienced the great love” —she touched
his face— “and felt the poetry flow through me, the words of a soul’s
awakening coursing in my blood, bursting through the brain’s barrier,
throwing open the world.” A soft, teasing laugh.
She rolled to her side and faced Nagler, gently touching his face with
a single finger and kissing his eyes, cheeks, and mouth.
“That’s what that…that damned disease nearly took from me, Frank,”
her voice now hard. “That chance. You were my Romeo, dear Frank.
And for a moment I thought I would lose you.”
“No.” Words were trapped in his throat, unable to move. “Never,” he
coughed. “Maybe that chance comes again.”
She kissed him, holding his damp face in both hands.
“Could be,” she said, her voice distant. “I had already lived that death
scene. Had already known the poison in my veins, felt the dragging pain
of disease and how it felt to fade away. I knew how it felt to have limbs
stiffen, breath slow, colors fade, to see a descending haze and have no
way to cry out. To see the hovering outline of a dark companion.” She
covered her mouth with her hands and stared at the ground, eyes moist.
“I knew the loss,” her voice soft and shallow. “It would have been easy
to act it out on a stage, when I had already lived it. To die and then
recover. The hope of finding my love at my side. The tears on my face
at that moment would have been real.” She paused and caught a breath.
“Then my eyes opened, and it was Bennie Garza. Oh, why Lord?”