Beep. Beep. Beep.
The heart rate monitor chirped out a persistent, annoying, rise-at-dawn bird that needed David’s missile to the head. Smash, thud. One less giant nuisance of a noise.
Why was I thinking this way? I don’t hate birds.
But I do hate hospitals. And yet here I am. Uncalled-for but present. Inhaling ammonia and old people smell. And the perfume of someone I used to love.
Tucked under crisp, uniformly square sheets she rests and has rested for five years. Her best friends: a ventilator, a feeding tube, a heart rate monitor, and me. Her job, her car, her casual acquaintances she called friends–all had disappeared by now. And she was left, mercifully insured and there. All that she was was there.
I told myself that my heart still skipped a beat when I knew she was near. That I became aroused at the smell of her perfume or the caress of her hair. But there wasn’t any mystery anymore. I wasn’t going to stumble upon her painting her toenails on the edge of the bed, or walk into the kitchen and know she was just there. And her hair… from kimono silk to desiccated corn husks.
The doctors didn’t expect her to last the night after the accident. I told her to salt the damn walkway but–ah, no sense going there. I never mowed the lawn when I told her I would. She hated seeing the neighbors seeing our overgrown lawn. I could’ve just as easily salted the walk. But like me, she was stubborn. And because I asked, she didn’t do. And now we’re mostly here.
In her stubbornness, she survived the night. I held daily vigil for the first week, waiting for her to open her eyes, to look at me and crack a weak smile and say, “What are you doing over there looking so ugly?” But she never even blinked. Her heart rate never faltered and the ventilator kept whirring and hissing.
My daily visits turned into weekly turned into monthly. A beer or two had turned into a pint of vodka had turned into a handle of Old Crow. A welcome distraction from her in the morning vomit and afternoon headaches. It was my fault. I couldn’t let her go. Her parents had passed away long ago. No siblings, no family. I controlled her destiny. And I was too weak to sign the damn papers, the papers that would unplug the ventilator and yank the feeding tube. Yank is such an unpleasant word.
The flask in my pocket felt heavy. The nurse at the sign-in desk had to have smelled the whiskey, even with all the disinfectant on the floors. I couldn’t keep this up, could I?
Two swigs. A slightly lighter burden in my pocket.
“Sweetheart, why are you so scared of going to sleep?” I nodded off in the chair.
I woke up to the stagnant chill of the air and the faraway settling of debris in the once overflowing medical center. The bed before me sat rusted and askew, a victim of a persistent leak and encroaching vines of Mother Nature. All that was left of the mattress was a set of springs and a scrap of dirtied brown cloth. Dried flowers sat in a chipped vase on the particle-board end table.
I drifted out the door and floated through the crumbling corridor of concrete and grey. What happened? The speckled ceiling tiles were as if they never existed. What wiring was once there was now scrapped, being reformed in a distant refinery. Emptiness is only emptiness if nothing was there before. And I still had the memory of her, as clear as the ceiling was empty. I wasn’t afraid of sleep.
Three more steps and the wall to my right buckled and straightened. The threat of collapse. I continued forward.
The cafeteria opened before me. No doors. A million tables without chairs all arranged in a giant grid, waiting to be reclaimed. I couldn’t see the other end of the room. Two steps.
The ceiling fell down on me. The missing tiles found me after all.
I woke up to a nurse shaking my shoulders. “Sir. Sir, you need to wake up. Have you been drinking?”
It must have been a dream. “Get the doctor–I’ll sign the papers.”