By Scott Gould, friend and peer
The heart monitor, which Malcom Shaw had by now learned was called an electrocardiograph machine, beeped and whistled with its usual monotonous authority, measuring the seconds of his wife’s life. Such a cold and calculating machine, he had often thought in the days since Theresa had been carted into this room and hooked up like Dr. Frankenstein’s latest experiment. She looked like she could be Frankenstein’s experiment, too, especially with the scars crisscrossing her face. Her emaciated arms hung loosely by her side like dead garden snakes, culminating in hands covered with grayish, translucent skin, as if someone had wrapped the bones in wax paper. Veins traced the skin like rivers on a road map. She had lost a tooth. Bruises masked her eyes.
Mal sat back in the uncomfortable hospital chair and sighed. How long had he stared into those eyes in the month since the accident? he wondered. How much had he searched them for some trace of life or understanding? Theresa’s eyes used to be deep blue pools that he wanted to dive into and swim around in. Now they were still and unmoving, as though the pools had iced over and would never allow him access again. Did those eyes see him? Did they recognize him? Could they identify this man whom Theresa had first met in a freshman survey class (biology, which had bored them both so much that they couldn’t help looking around the room and seeing each other) and had married five years later? Could they look back in time at those first days and months together and all the milestones that followed – the first date, the first kiss, the first time they shared a bed, the first fight, or that dreamlike evening under a twilight-purple sky when they had, like ridiculous and impetuous children, carved the words “Together forever” on the old oak tree by the creek and he dropped to one knee and held up the ring and didn’t even have a chance to say a single word before she said, “Yes”?
Perhaps now those eyes only saw the car roaring towards her, screeching out of control as the drunk driver tried and failed to avoid her. That car was the last thing she would ever see, its headlights washing over her, its nose bearing down, its tires glistening from the residue of the afternoon rain. Could she see the driver? If she ever awoke, would she be able to identify whether it was a man or a woman, young or old, black or white?
“Your eyes don’t see anything now, do they?” he said softly, more to himself than to her.
“What did you say?”
A woman’s voice startled him out of his trance. He looked up and saw Amy in the doorway. Amy Donovan, the evening nurse. Was it that time already? He glanced out the small hospital window, saw the sun’s dying light spread like golden fire across the horizon. Yes, it was that time already.
“Oh…sorry,” he said. “Just talking to myself.”
She smiled politely. He wondered whether she thought he was crazy. It wasn’t the first time he had wondered this in the days since he’d been here. Amy was always kind and understanding – so kind and understanding, in fact, that seeing her when her shift started every evening at seven was the only part of the day he looked forward to. He would never admit that, to Theresa or anyone else, but it was true. He didn’t look forward to seeing his wife anymore, because he had resigned himself to the sickening knowledge that she was lost; he came here out of obligation, not hope. He didn’t look forward to seeing his family or hers, because he was weary of the well wishes, the hollow commiserations, the outright lies: “She’ll be better soon” and “She already looks better.” He didn’t look forward to food, and had shed over twenty pounds. He didn’t even look forward to a drink at the end of the day, the way he used to, because no amount of liquor aborted the grief.
No, seeing Amy was the only time of day he liked. It was the only time of day he smiled, and he did so now. “How’s Felix?”
Felix, her cat with the oh-so-original name. He’d been sick the day before, and they had chatted for several minutes about animals and their ailments.
“He’s better, thanks,” she said. “I gave him extra water like you said, and it seems to be working.”
Amy walked towards Theresa’s monitor and pushed some buttons. She was in her early thirties, with shoulder-length auburn hair that framed an oval face with pixie-like features: large green eyes, a small mouth with Cupid’s bow lips, a spattering of freckles across a button nose. It was a face he liked looking at. Mal liked looking at the rest of her, too, even though it felt like a betrayal to Theresa.
Betrayal. An interesting word, he thought, especially considering that he had spent the last months before Theresa’s accident convinced that she was having an affair. But he didn’t care. Whatever his wife’s sins, he didn’t care. He would forgive her anything. He just wanted her here, awake, alive, sitting next to him and smelling of the pear perfume that she wore so often that he’d told her to buy stock in it.
Amy walked towards his wife and gazed down at her. There was kindness in her gaze, Mal thought, which was another reason he liked her so much. Everyone else who came into the room looked at Theresa with either clinical detachment or pity, but Amy looked at her as though she were merely helping out a lifelong friend.
“How does she look?” Mal said.
It was an unnecessary question and an obvious answer. In truth, he couldn’t think of anything else to say, but he wanted to hear her voice. It was sweet sounding, and he had come to find comfort in it.
Turning to face him, she asked, “How are you doing?”
She asked him this often. Mal could tell that it was a genuine question, not just a meaningless phrase to fill the silence. She cared about how he was doing. But he still never knew how to respond.
“Holding up,” he would say every time, and it’s what he said now. It was true enough, he supposed, although he wasn’t always sure.
Amy walked over and sat in the chair next to him. It was another part of their routine: they would start the evening by chatting for about ten minutes. At first they covered the surface topics like books, music, and movies. They talked about vacations that they had taken and wanted to take, and Mal told her all about the log cabin on Pine Lake that he and Theresa owned and spent every summer weekend. Eventually they moved on to dream and fears, childhood memories and adulthood regrets, love gained and lost. They both knew about loss. “I lost my husband, too,” Amy had said, but she didn’t expound on the subject, and Mal didn’t push. She would tell him if she was ready, he decided.
Amy said, “You know, I realized on my ride in tonight that I never even asked you how long you’ve been married.”
“Really? Sixteen years. We got married the year after college.”
“Where did you go to college?”
Mal waved his hand dismissively. “It’s a small school. You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
He paused. “Yale.”
She stared at him as though trying to gauge the truth of his statement. Looking closely at her now, he wondered whether she ever wore makeup. He didn’t know much about it, but he didn’t think she needed any. “Seriously?” she asked.
In a small voice: “Yeah.”
She laughed. God, he loved that laugh. “Why didn’t you want to tell me?”
“There’s a certain…stigma associated with Ivy League grads.”
“That they’re entitled rich douche bags?”
Another laugh. “Well, I don’t know if you’re rich, but you don’t seem entitled and you’re not a douche bag.”
He grinned. “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
She elbowed him in the side and stood. “I’ll be back in a bit,” she said.
“You know I look forward to it.”
Her smile was sweet and kind – and maybe something more? Was it inviting? What did she want from him? For that matter, what did he want from her?
Mal watched her turn and walk away, watched the blue scrubs hug her curves, watched her ass as she moved. He felt himself flush and, with a pang of shame, felt himself getting hard.
When she was gone and he was alone again with only his silent wife to keep him company, he picked up the newspaper and flipped through it absently. He turned to the horoscopes. It had become an inane daily ritual, something he’d never done before in his life, but lately the words found within it gave him a strange sort of consolation. The caption beneath his birth month, Pisces, read: “Do not shut yourself off from the prospect of new love. Your guardian angel may be lurking close by.”
The words struck him, and he swallowed audibly.
He thought of Amy, the way she made him feel, the way his breath caught when he saw her, the way she comforted him without even meaning to. Could she be his guardian angel? Of course not. Melodramatic nonsense, he thought, the stuff of Harlequin romance novels. He shook his head as though ridding it of cobwebs. He was acting like a precocious adolescent, prone to getting a crush on the first girl who flashed him a smile. He chuckled at his own foolishness.
But the words still remained in his mind long after he put the paper down, lingering like smoke from a stubble fire.