The kitchen lightbulb shatters above our heads. The filament burns red and fizzles to nothing. It is an explosion from light to black. We breathe hard in the aftermath, check each other for broken glass and he says to me, I can’t be here anymore.
Chicago-Read is still another five minutes away. I drive. In the passenger seat, his eyes are closed. The orange lit streets dissolve into the November night.
The radio plays, “With Or Without You”, his secret favorite song. It pulses in my fingertips. He says, don’t turn it off, and Bono sings that he can’t live.
I close my hand on his thigh and squeeze. Even through his jeans, he sears me.
The polished hospital floor reflects the fluorescent tubes and my headache throbs. It smells here of antiseptic and humanness.
At the front counter, I give his name, date of birth, psychiatrist. He stands beside me, carries his overnight bag. We could be checking into a hotel.
“I know it’s late,” I say to the nurse.
“Makes no difference here,” she says.
“24/7 service, right ma’am?” he says.
The nurse eyes him. “Right.”
A vent above us gushes arctic, stale air. He shivers inside his coat.
He is Every Man. His voice used for radio and television ads about male impotence, alcoholism, testicular cancer, bankruptcy, depression, suicide. He told his agent he needed two weeks off and had to battle for the time.
In his hospital ward, I kiss his lips and they are dry. He is already a patient. He says, go now please go, and shuffles to the bathroom, decades older.
In the parking lot, I cannot find our car. If he were here, he’d remember where we left it. The top level is empty. I move to the edge and before me the city shimmers and fizzes golden, silver, endless. The metal balustrade is perfectly scalable. I whisper-sing “Amazing Grace” and snag on wretch.
A plane roars overhead, low. It approaches O’Hare, certain, with calculated speed and angle of descent. Landing lights shine bright white. Wheels unfold from its belly.
Sunday morning. The tulips he bought are now overblown. Their violet petals fade, wilt and fall to our kitchen table, until only the gold-black stamens remain. Violet is the color of remembering him years after he’s gone. A petal drops and it is loud.
From the hospital, he phones, says, there is too much light here.
I say, it’s alright it’s alright it’s alright.
And it isn’t, I know.
Sunday afternoon, four p.m. The bleak-desperate-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life hour. I visit Barnes & Noble, sip full sugar Coke. My footsteps sound the word, dis-con-so-late. My high school students walk like this, weighed, shackled. Ir-re-deem-a-ble.
I spin the display of postcards and here is, “The Threatened Swan”, dated 1650, by Jan Asselijn. The swan’s wings are outstretched, luminous. It defends its nest of eggs against a stealthy black dog. The swan’s neck is arched, its beak open on a hiss. Feathers fly from its wings.
I buy the postcard, pin it to our fridge.
He calls me, says, I cannot hear my voice.
I say, I can hear you, honey.
Over radio and television, he tells me where to find help. He provides phone numbers, websites, tells me I am not alone.
We swim in green water in my dream, inside a deep cold pond. Gray wavy shadows fall on us. We are wholly submerged, suspended.
I wake and decide we were not underwater, instead we float on the surface. We are buoyant! We cannot sink!
For the first time since he was admitted, he agrees to see me. I bring him many of everything—Snickers, Twix, Doritos, Rolling Stone, underwear, socks, T-shirts—they could be things for a teenage boy.
I bring him the red blanket from our bed. His fingers trace the wide-white stitching around the edge.
He barely looks at me.
I regret it as I say it: “I traveled for miles in an aggressive Uber and the traffic is abysmal.”
Now he looks at me and I see the boy.
We watch television, slumped in his hospital bed. Our heads rest on his pillow, the red blanket pulled to our chins. I press my face into his neck, say, I should have brought you flowers. His skin is chilled, chemicals leach. I need to take him home, to a near-scalding bath, scrub us clean, make us taste of lavender, oranges, of Italy in the sun.
I want him to give me a show, his show. The slow one. I don’t care which way it goes, whether he starts clothed or naked.
A swan in Ireland stopped traffic as it hugged warm car hoods, mourning the loss of its mate.
He says, “Why are you telling me this?”
“Okay. No more fucking stories about swans.”
“Jesus. We’re not swans.”
I take his hand. “Why do you get to choose the metaphor?”
Here is his first smile in three weeks.
Here is my apology for this life—two million germs on the bathroom floor under my knees. His fingertips touch my hair and I don’t know whether he wants more or wants me to stop.
The television scientists have nothing good to say about the world’s population or the planet.
He says, “We’re all fucked.”
“It will get better.”
He drops his heavy head to my shoulder. His living brain right here, cerebral circulation delivering oxygen and nutrients.
He sleeps beside me. The nurses have not yet kicked me out. The television plays a black and white movie—The Philadelphia Story. Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart dance together in the dark garden, drunk. He holds her close, his hand spread across her shoulder blades. Their steps are nimble, graceful, as they dance slowly around the rim of the pond and they do not fall in.
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