He sits by the bed, holding her hand. Wrinkled and soft. And to think that he once thought her long fingers so sexy. That he used to suck them one by one and then move his mouth to her palm before kissing his way up her arm, brushing her shoulders, and finally reaching her neck.
She lies there, yellowed with jaundice, breathing through a tube that keeps her alive, as if she’s being inflated from the inside. There’s a hole in her neck where they inserted the tube, held in place by fraying surgical tape.
For months, as he sat in the hospice, hearing the staff whisper to themselves that he was such a good man, and when the nurses came in and suggested that he leave while they cleaned her up, he told himself that he wanted her to recover. That’s when he believed there was a chance she could open her eyes, blink through her strange white-blonde lashes, and say, “Bubs, what are you doing here?”
Even if she had been simply paralyzed, if only he could just talk to her, feel the sense of her seeing him alive. That’s what had always attracted him, he had to admit (besides many years of satisfying lovemaking). Not her intellect or her character: she was a disorganized woman who could barely run an errand. Inevitably, she forgot the essential point. She wandered around supermarkets, leaving with port-soaked cheese but forgetting the eggs she had gone to buy. At the hardware store, she marveled over a felt mop (“As seen on TV”) but didn’t pass by the varnish aisle to grab what he’d needed to cure the kitchen cabinets. And she was prone to telling long stories, say, about the cashier at the dry cleaner who had a glass eye. That was the only thrust: as if a single detail (considering its strangeness, wondering about pain, speculating about the accident that caused such a grievous injury) could encompass an entire evening. In her company, he found his mind wandering to other, more understandable subjects. A woman of gasps and sighs and shouts of alarm.
Her breath rises and falls in perfect rhythm.
How would she react, if their roles were reversed? That was easy. She would have already befriended the entire floor; something that drove him crazy. “Pay attention to me,” he often said, when they were on vacation. And by the second day she was deep in conversation with the pool attendant about some trifling event, like his kid’s allergies or the new puppy that was driving the guy’s family crazy.
They once boarded a whale watching boat on Cape Cod, where she spent the entire trip chatting about pelvic floor surgery to the woman who took their tickets, ignoring the blow of spray from the whale, the awe of its huge body shuddering against the boat. She turned, irritated, when the spray hit her, but she told the story in later years as if she had seen everything, as if she had been rapt. “Even the ticket taker said it was the most amazing sight of her life!” She even sent gifts to these strangers, years later. He fought with her about this outlay, because he felt it wasn’t kindness that prompted her, but curiosity. She wanted to know how the story ended. (“She left you?” she once wailed, on the phone to a waiter they had met in Florida five years earlier, a man who had brought them morning coffee, a man he didn’t remember. She did: she was still entranced. )
Sometimes now, her mouth moves, as if she’s speaking. The nurses tell him that it’s involuntary, that he should no longer assign meaning to her body’s random urges.
Yet being with her for the last thirty years made him know he was alive, as if she fixed him to the earth. She gazed at him when he returned in the evening, almost checking to see how he had changed during the hours they’d spent apart. As if there were an alternate dimension where his other self—that casual, morning person—might have escaped, as if she needed to restrain the errant man who might discard those parts of his character that she loved.
There is no one else who looks at him in ways that matter. Not their daughter—now married and a pharmacist in Orange County. (Who has only come twice to gaze upon her mother, saying how much it upsets her. “She was always so beautiful. That’s how I want to remember her”). Not anyone at work, as he ekes out the last years before retiring. People look through him. Maybe they spot a detail, like a grease-spotted tie, and wonder what tragedy lets him walk through the world in such disgrace.
He takes her hand again, holds her wrist, presses her hand to his face one more time, before he leans forward, and yanks out the breathing tube.