(I wrote this a few years ago. It has been published in the Healing Muse and a shortened version in Scrubs magazine)
He knows it has been a bad day when he gets home and she is talking to the dog.
He slams the door and sets the grocery bags down on the counter.“I’m home,” he says, unnecessarily. He hears her rise and come out into the kitchen. She has already changed out of her scrubs. She kisses him quickly, and in the fading winter light, she looks older than her age, worn out.
“How was your day?”
She looks at him. “It was fine.”
He takes a deep breath, takes a plunge. “Why don’t you work somewhere else?”
The fine lines furrow, the eyes narrow. “I said it was fine. Why would I want to change jobs?”
“You don’t seem fine. You were talking to the dog.”
“Those damn windows. If we had neighbors, they’d know everything about us.”
“We don’t have neighbors and I like the windows.”
“I know.” She bumps by him and gets the Advil out of the cupboard.
“You could try working out or something to let off steam,” he tells her.
“Are you crazy? Do you know how hard I work already?”
“Or you could quit. I make enough,” he says mildly.
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
“I wasn’t. It was a suggestion.”
“Don’t suggest. It was a terrible idea.”
He puts the groceries away, eggs and milk in the fridge, rice in the pantry. “Should I throw these steaks on?”
“How much did you pay for those?” She is glaring at him. “Never mind. I should know by now not to ask.”
He doesn’t say anything. He wants to be thanked for good meat, for offering to cook, to grill in the cold, for goodness sake, and for getting everything on the list. He isn’t sure what he has done wrong, but he knows by now not to ask.
She pulls a platter out of the cupboard and hands it to him. “How was your day?”
The question hangs, and he sees the office crowded paper and programs. In his mind, above the mess chaos, there are buildings not yet realized. “Lots and lots of drafts,” he says. “One of the drafters is out sick and I have to do his work, and this client is really pushy. They can afford to be, with what they’re paying us” He cracks open a beer. “Stress, but I like it. It doesn’t push me to come home and spill my guts to Lucy.”
He immediately regrets his words, and sees the disdain flash across her face, nearly, but not quite, concealed.
They stand facing each other for a moment, a gulf of unsaid words between them.
Then she says, “Don’t forget the lighter. The grill’s been acting up again.”
During dinner, she says, “Did you take Lucy out with you while you were cooking?”
“Yeah. Didn’t you see?”
“I don’t pay attention to you all the time.” She plays with her food. “It’s undercooked.”
“I forgot you don’t like it that way.”
She is about to say something, but bites her tongue. He waits. Then she says, “It’s not about you, OK?”
For a while, she is silent. He thinks about windows on a sunny day, great sheets of glass that he’ll draw into his draft of his new building tomorrow. Windows that look clear, but when you stood back a little, you could only see reflections. Her eyes are like that. Her whole being is like that and there is something beneath that he can’t touch. If he does, he’ll have to share it, and he feels like he can only offer pity. Is this love?
She mutters something about needing the bathroom, and gets up. She doesn’t return. They have a long standing agreement that one of them cooks and the other cleans up. He puts his plate in the sink and goes to his office.
He works on drafts. He wants to work from home all of the time, but there is a clause in the company’s insurance that won’t allow it. He loves his house with its huge windows, open spaces and all of its good sense. He designed it, created it around himself and his wife. It is on a hill, a half hour from the city, isolating them from the world and sometimes from each other.
Outside the wind blows. The house creaks. He knows exactly what joint it creaking and where it needs to be fixed. If spring ever comes, he’ll fix it. He thinks about taking down the drywall, exposing the faulty joints, setting them right, repainting. The corners would be sharper and cleaner. Actually, that whole side of the house could be set straight. If he gets the next commission, they could have a screen porch on the south side.
His pencil draws straight, clean lines, and in his mind, a building rises.
Suddenly it is eleven pm. He sits up sharply, and stands. She will be in bed already. He feels a sudden need for her, for her physical presence. He can’t plumb her depths, can’t reach her, and he is suddenly afraid that one day their little spats will create a rift that neither of them can bridge.
Or perhaps she’ll wither away, her body, already small, worn down by the nature of her work, will finally crumple under the strain. He’ll be left alone, strong and ropey as he was at twenty, to tend to her empty shell. She should exercise, he thinks, eat right. Stop the diet of chocolate, coffee, lettuce and Advil. She’d feel better.
The dishes are where he left them. He shakes his head.
He brushes his teeth. The bedroom is dark with moonlight and silence. He climbs in bed next to her.
She is curled up facing away from him. He touches her neck gently, reassuring himself that she is indeed still there. She stirs. “Sorry to wake you,” he says.
“I haven’t slept yet.”
She does not move towards him, nor does she move away. Finally, he pulls her closer and kisses her neck. She shudders and he reaches a hand down her leg. Then he realizes she is crying.
He fends of his irritation. What am I, your counselor? He doesn’t know what to say. Who ever does?
“The worst thing about today was that the patient’s sister just kept saying, we were supposed to go to Florida together. And that was the worst thing. I could just see it. When she first got to us, she looked good, like a cancer survivor…..by the time she died she looked terrible.” She sniffs. “The fucking magic of sepsis. It’ll fucking transform you from a human into a fucking corpse in less time than a bullet.”
It is quiet. In the long dark silence between words, the clock ticks and time moves on.
“I’ve been thinking that all day. And I could see them in a hotel or on some post-card beach down there. She would be bald and not care. And they would do all the stupid things tourists do sometimes, like do the YMCA when it plays in a restaurant or Kareoke to horrible songs and wear funny shirts and fat sandals, but to them…..it would mean more. The whole time….they’d be thinking, we survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma. They probably fucking already had their plane tickets. And here she was, with pneumonia.”
She stops talking and starts crying, big dirty sobs, like a little kid, he thinks. He still says nothing just holds her. He is trying to think of the last time he’s heard her say fuck. Two years? Three years ago?
“She was only on levo when we got her, but we maxed on neo pretty fast and gave her five boluses. And of course we couldn’t ventilate her, and her pressure still sucked even after the vaso went up, and they would want to run bicarb. Why? By the time you start bicarb, its too late. It never works. It’s sort of like admitting that you’re desperate.” She is crying, sobbing between her words. He doesn’t know really, what she is talking about, but like Lucy, he listens.
She sits up, and he watches her get out of bed. “I need some tissues,” she says. She goes into the bathroom in the dark. “If I turn on the light,” she says, “I won’t be able to tell you any more. It will be like…I don’t know.” She fumbles around, and when she comes back, he can see by the dim light of the clock and the moon that she has a roll of toilet paper. Her eyes are black holes in her pale face. “I’m sorry I’m such a wreck. I shouldn’t dump on you like this. You don’t deserve it.” She slouches on the side of the bed, back facing him.
He says something then, something quiet and stumbling, pulling her back towards him, wiping her tears, cradling her, and she is quiet for a while.
Then she begins to speak in that language nurses have, a language of abbreviations, diseases and curses. She tells him, or maybe she is not telling him at all, she is just reliving her day.
“And the resident wouldn’t call his fellow. And I think that’s…that’s because he realized before I did that this woman was just going to die.” She shudders silently. “And she did die.”
“People die there all the time, right?”
She makes a funny noise.“People die all the fucking time in the ICU, but this woman was supposed to live. She was in rehab when she got sick. She was in remission. And her dad was there, sitting in the corner, and he just looked so lost, and her sister was walking up and down in the hallway muttering fuck fuck fuck fuck. And then I realized what Wasim realized. Everything we were doing was pointless. And I said, Wasim, we need to talk to the family. And he just kept looking at the monitor and at the patient and didn’t answer me. I had to say it like five times. So we went and talked to the family, and at that point, he decided a chest tube might help her, and we were playing that game, you know, where there is an elephant in the room that no one will say anything about it. The elephant’s name is death.”
She laughs, a terrible sound. “Wasim and I both knew she would die, but we couldn’t say that to the ‘ family. Why? Why couldn’t we say, we know she is going to die no matter what we do? She laughs again, but he can hear that she is not smiling.
“Don’t answer that question. No one knows the answer. So they decided to put in a chest tube, but the surgeon that comes just dicks around for the longest time, she can’t decide whether it will hurt or harm the patient. And I sort of took the sister out of the room, explained what was happening, and if she knew what she wanted to do if the patient coded, and she finally started crying and said, ‘We were supposed to go to Florida together.’ ”
In his mind’s eye, he sees a 40-something woman sitting on the beach. The sun is bright and hollow. The chair next to her is empty. Below it is a pair of unworn flip-flops. She couldn’t leave them at home.
“I just wonder how we bear it. All this death. It has to happen. With some people, it’s almost a blessing that they die and with others it is a tragedy. And we code them or let them go, but they all die in the end. And we send the family home and bag up the body and strip the room for the next patient. And usually I don’t take it home. But this one was bad.”
“I think…I usually don’t get like this with families. I usually see a patient in the bed, disconnected from everything, and that is OK….But we were working so hard, and we knew it was pointless and when I looked at her sister….and I saw that unbelief…”
There was silence. He holds her tighter, thinking of what he could lose. Outside, the wind blows through empty branches and the moon watches the world silently, dispassionately. Outside of the room, there are dirty dishes and unpaid bills. There is a snow blower that needs to be serviced and a mother-in-law who hasn’t been visited in weeks. There are drafts unfinished, unhappy clients and traffic jams waiting to happen. There are wars and famines and plagues and droughts, but in here, in this room, in this bed, there is her, alive and sobbing.
“I love you,” he says, and realizing that he means it, kisses her hair. She cries some more, her body wracked, and he lets her, thinking about non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After a few minutes, she quiets. “Do you feel better now?”
“Kind of snotty, but better.” She sniffs. “If you let that stuff build up inside, you rot, I think. It just sits there, and you rot.” She gets up again and goes into the bathroom. This time, she turns on the light.” I’m a freaking mess.” The door shuts and he hears water running and after a small eternity, she comes out again.
“Sorry I had to put you through all that,” she says. He is temporarily blinded and also rendered mute by her outpouring. But to her, it must be in the past. She is crawling across the bed, to kiss him, to lay her body, beneath the blankets, on his.
Emily A Weston