Editor’s note from Sudha Balagopal: I’ve enjoyed Lisa Ferranti’s fiction for the gentle intimacy her stories convey. In this tale, too, she draws us inside the lives of her characters with a quiet skill where we learn of their internal fears and uncertainties. She lures us into their relationship and into rooting for them. I love this portrait of a couple dealing with the aftermath of a stroke, trying to find their tentative way back to closeness. The story, Foreign, is painted with both delicacy and warmth.
Megan faces Andy and unbuttons his shirt. She wishes she were being sexy, but it’s as if he’s a toddler and not her husband of thirty years. Since his stroke four months ago, this is their routine. He’s re-learned most things through therapy—to shower, dress, undress—all except for the buttons.
She doesn’t know how long his blood had been thickening, forming the clot that eventually burst like a bullet in his brain.
“Can you help with this, too, love?” Andy gestures to his zipper. His accent startles. It’s not that he hasn’t always called her love, but never in a British accent before the stroke. The doctor says Andy’s lucky his actual speech wasn’t affected. Is he faking it?
She unzips his fly, and he grabs her hand, kisses her palm. They haven’t been intimate since before the stroke because she’s afraid it will hurt him, that’s what she says. What she doesn’t say: she’s terrified it will be different, or that they won’t be able to do it, God forbid.
The first time they made love, they were in his college dorm, next to an aquarium full of neon tetras. She closed her eyes and imagined fish swimming through her, slick and electric. The aquarium moved with them to their first apartment. They got rid of it after their honeymoon, when they’d returned to find a lacy-finned angel fish stuck in the filter tube, the glass algae green.
Andy loops an arm around her waist now, says, “C’mon,” and her stomach clenches. She leans against his leg and monitors his face for signs she missed the first time: face drooping, drooling. She sees none. But there it is, the accent, I want you sounding more like wont. She helps him pull his pants off and removes her clothes, and they lie on the bed, feeling their way back to territory that was charted and now feels foreign.
She turns off the bedside lamp—different for them—but she wants to rely on senses other than sight.
He runs his thumb up her thigh and says in her ear, “You fancy this?”
She stiffens, transported to a time soon after they were married, when Andy was trying to make partner, and she was at a conference in Boston. Her only indiscretion in thirty years—with John from the UK office. They drank too much wine at the hotel bar, and he ended up in her room. She’d almost confessed to Andy, dozens of times.
Does he somehow know? Is this his—or his brain’s—way of calling her on it?
He moans, guides her hand, whispers how he wants her touch. The accent turns her on, her lips are on his chest, and his heart is beating beneath her. It’s taking her back to a younger her, a younger them, long before they realized they couldn’t have children, before their parents died, before her panic attacks, before so much life that didn’t go as planned. She pushes it all away, blocking thoughts of Andy’s blood dangerously pulsing through fragile veins.
Afterward they lie together, and she’s spooning him. In the past, it was the other way around. His back rises and falls. Her forehead rests between his shoulder blades. She listens for a sign that could indicate they’ve set off a tidal wave that could kill him, but she hears nothing. His skin is warm, his body, solid. He disentangles his arm from hers and turns the bedside lamp on low.
He turns to face her, says, “There you are, love.”
He’s right. She is there. And she has not forgotten.
Lisa Ferranti’s fiction has been a finalist in a Glimmer Train contest, shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and a Reflex Fiction contest finalist (BSF 2019 nominated). Her stories have appeared in New Flash Fiction Review, Literary Mama, Lost Balloon, Emerge Literary Journal, Gordon Square Review and elsewhere. She has twice been included on the Wigleaf Top 50 longlist (2019 & 2021). Find her on Twitter @lisaferranti.