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The Doctor Stopped Smiling and Looked Profound. "I Must Advise You Any Sexual Activity May Prove Fatal to Ralph"

"The Act of Love"

by Walt Cannon



Vol. 15, No. 9, January, 1959

     Lucille Abernathy watched her husband, looking like a fat, pathetically ludicrous clown in the white hospital gown, shuffle timidly out of the room. When the door closed she turned back to Dr. Jenkins.
     "Now we haven't a thing to worry about, Mrs. Abernathy," the doctor was saying, sounding like a teacher talking to a small child, "just so long as we practice common sense, eh?"
     "I know, doctor." She began to search in her purse for a pack of cigarettes. The doctor's stiff little smile and the thought of Ralph being back in the house with her was beginning to make her nervous.
     "Your husband is still a very sick man," Dr. Jenkins said almost cheerfully, " and his heart attack was quite serious. But as long as we're careful there's no reason why the two of you shouldn't have a long full life ahead of you."
     She looked sharply at the doctor and felt almost like laughing. A long full life. With that fat little bore? A long full life!
     "Now it will be largely up to you to protect Mr. Abernathy against any emotional upset or strain," the doctor went on. "We can't emphasize that enough."
     Lucille looked toward the room where Ralph was dressing. Do you always have to be so slow, she thought. Can't you hurry so we can get out of here?
     "And there is one more thing, Mrs. Abernathy." The doctor had stopped smiling and looked as if he were trying to appear profound. "I would advise you and your husband not to engage in any sexual activity--oh, for the next two months or so, anyway."
     She stared at the doctor. Did he really think she would let Ralph even touch her with those fumbling, pawing hands of his? Just the thought of it sent a shiver of disgust through her.
     "Now I know that may be upsetting," Dr. Jerkins said quickly, "but I'm afraid that right now the strain might be too much for him. And we do want Mr. Abernathy to get well, don't we."
     "Of course, doctor."
     Dr. Jenkins watched her closely. You could never tell how a woman was going to react when you tried to discuss her sex life. But he could detect no embarrassment in this woman. Her cold gray eyes looked directly into his.
     "and after a while, of course, there's no reason why your relationship shouldn't be absolutely normal. But right now we just have to be patient, eh?"
     Lucille said nothing, but twisted her features into a broad smile. You don't have to worry about your patient, doctor, she thought. You don't know the patience it's already taken just to live in the same house with that flabby little mama's boy all these years.
     "It seems ironic, doesn't it?" the doctor interrupted her thoughts.
     "What's that?"
     "Oh," Dr. Jenkins smiled sheepishly, "the fact that the act of love could, at a time like this, bring suffering, perhaps even fatal suffering, to the one you love."
     "Yes. Yes, I suppose it is ironic."
     "Well, I'm not worried," the doctor said jovially. "I know you'll take good care of him. A good wife can do wonders."
     Ralph came out of the inner office then, still looking gray-faced and frightened and slightly out of place in his street clothes. The doctor got up and put his arm around Ralph's shoulder.
     "Well, now," he chuckled, "you look fine. We're not going to have a bit of trouble, I can see." He stood in the door, smiling after them as they walked down the hall.
     They were silent in the taxi, as they were most of the time when they were alone. Lucille had long since lost all interest in her husband and she had made her feelings quite clear to him. She saw no point in adding to her boredom and loathing by talking to him.
     At home the evening passes as all their evenings had for the last twelve years. Lucille thumbed restlessly through some magazines, brushed her hair, and half-listened to the music which Ralph loved so much and which irritated her just as much. Occasionally Ralph looked at her almost pleadingly and tried to talk to her, and she recalled how peaceful and comfortable she had felt while he was in the hospital.
     She remembered again what the doctor has said and smiled. No sexual activity. It was funny. How could any woman want such a fat, clumsy thing as Ralph to make love to her? She had made that plain to him years before, after their marriage had begun to whither. She had wanted a divorce but she knew that was impossible. Ralph still wanted her; even thought he loved her, as if he could know what love was. And he provided for her well financially. As vice-president in his father's firm he made a very good salary and he'd never denied her anything she'd wanted.
     Still smiling at the doctor's joke, Lucille got up abruptly and wen tot her room. She wasn't sleepy but she'd learned it was better to pretend sleep and lie staring at the darkness for hours than to sit with him, listening to his records or his weak attempts to talk to her.
     She stood naked for a moment in front of her mirror, admiring herself. At 36 her body was still firm and full and she prided herself on her attractiveness.
     As she reached for her gown she heard a stir behind her and saw Ralph standing in the doorway. She stared at him in the mirror for a moment, watching his eyes sweep over her almost hungrily. That was so like him, to sneak up behind her and watch her undress. The fool still wanted her!
     She put the gown over her head and let it slide down. She watched Ralph in the mirror for a long, breathless moment and then she smiled.
     She turned quickly and walked toward him, smiling, fighting back the wave of disgust which chilled her. When she reached him she looked at him for a moment, then slowly put her arms around him and kissed him. She saw his look of surprise and heard him sigh and felt his soft, fat body, which she hated, press against her.
     "Let's go to bed," she whispered. "Come to my bed tonight."
     She lay on her bed, her back arched so that her bosom swelled against the gown, and watched him begin to unbutton his shirt, his flabby gray face becoming a soft, warm pink.
     Then she relaxed and closed her eyes and, waiting, smiled.

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