She adjusted the nasal cannula in his nostrils. She couldn’t hear the oxygen moving through the tubing.
“Is that better?”
He nodded, saving his breath for breathing.
“The flight of stairs was a lot.” She hoped she didn’t sound condescending.
“One flight—pretty fucking tragic.” He had more wind by the time he finished the sentence. “Let me just suck some of this for a few minutes and then I’ll be good.”
“I’m going to unpack your stuff and open some windows.”
She pushed herself off the bed that had been their bed and was now his sick bed. She unpacked his bag from the hospital, putting clothes and toiletries and books back where they belonged. She slid effortlessly through the three rooms, cracked a window open in the back room, and returned to the bedroom in the front. She raised the blinds on the windows, sneaking glances at him while he tried to get to a good place in his breathing. The branches on the trees along the street had lost their leaves weeks before, right before he went back into the hospital this last time. She didn’t like the way nature was showing them the future.
“I think we can turn it off now. I’m good.”
She turned close the knob on the canister and gently removed the tube from his nose.
“Is it dry? Do you want some moisturizer?”
“That’s nurse stuff, okay? We said we’d let the nurse do that kind of thing when she’s here.”
“Right. She’ll be here soon.” She stared at him, wondering if it would be okay if she checked her email.
“Don’t you have something better to do?” He smiled up at her.
“Okay if I hang out with you?” She said it, meant it and regretted it.
She crawled onto the bed and lay beside him on top of the blankets while he lay beneath. It was difficult finding a position that didn’t make one or the other of them feel awkward, but soon they settled in. She stared at the flesh of his right upper arm, still toned where the bicep emerged from the short sleeve of his favorite U2 shirt. She watched the tendons move in his neck as he turned his face from her. She pressed her thighs together and furtively urged a gentle pulse of want from that deep place. She hoped he wouldn’t turn and see her flushing face.
They were silent for a long time.
“Are you going back to work tomorrow?”
“No, why? I’m not—I took a leave.” She hadn’t wanted to talk about this. “They have a kind of leave you can take.”
“When someone’s dying?”
“We said we wouldn’t say the word or any variation of it.”
“So you get paid? You’re getting paid to be here with me?”
“Full salary and benefits.” She spun the words like the punch line of a joke.
“As long as I need. That’s why I have assistant creative directors working for me.”
“Three to six months.”
“Funny, they said the same thing to me.”
She didn’t want to say anything now.
“There’ll be some things I’ll want to do. I made a list on my phone.”
“Things like what?”
“Food, seeing the guys. Music, definitely. And sex—of some kind. Maybe not in that order.” He paused, but she was listening intently and didn’t smile. “And Harrock said I would able to take a walk around the block, maybe even go down the bar or out to eat.”
“Sounds good. Just tell me what you want or tell the nurse when she’s here and you got it.”
“I won’t ask the nurse for sex.”
She laughed. “You can if you want, but maybe you want to see her before you decide. And I don’t think she wears a uniform. So no ‘it’s time for your sponge bath’ fantasies.”
“I think I only have the energy for porn at this point.”
She couldn’t help but want to make contact at this moment and she put her hand on his belly just above where he had pushed down the blankets. He breathed in sharply and she worried she had hurt him.
“I cannot describe to you how good that feels. Makes me feel human again. The hospital took my soul.” His voice disintegrated by the time he finished speaking.
She took him in her arms, enveloping him as much as she could with her own body, hoping to touch him everywhere he needed and as deeply as he needed. She wished she could swallow him whole, consuming him with human contact until he was healed. They dozed for a while like this, lying within each other’s heat, breathing together.
When he woke he felt hollow, sapped of energy. He sensed the loss of physical desire keenly. Before, every random leg, lip, and breast had stirred some bodily response in him. Now, he had the occasional thought or vision, but rarely felt anything. It made him feel unlike himself, as if he was just imagining that he was still living. The joking about getting some nurse action made him feel stupid and tired, but he appreciated her efforts to treat him like a man who could still respond. He kissed her skin where it was easy to reach, but the act felt mechanical and cold to him.
“Is it porn time?” She asked, keeping her eyes closed, smiling a little. He missed her suddenly, as if she was the one going away.
“Just seeing if I can get the engine going.”
He watched as she lazily lifted her lids and parted her lips a little, anticipating another kiss. He wanted to oblige, but suddenly felt stale from the hospital and didn’t want to touch her until he was clean. He changed the mood: “How about some soup?”
He watched her face as she converted the disappointment to something else. He didn’t like asking her to make food for him. He was the cook, making hearty soups, spicy smoky chili and grilled steaks for them and their friends. She preferred to wash the dishes.
While he listened to her bang around in the kitchen, he made little projects for himself. He figured out the individual moves it would take to prop up the pillows and sit up against them without having to gasp for air or use the oxygen. He stepped it out in his head over and over, converting it to muscle memory before he even attempted the moves. He widened his eyes, tensed his stomach and pulled off the maneuver perfectly. He wasn’t even winded as he settled back against the pillows.
“It’s on the stove.” She came back into the room. “Hey, you’re sitting up. Nice.”
“Remember when Dan climbed Kilimanjaro without oxygen?”
“Yeah?” He could see she didn’t get the connection he wanted to make.
“He was so intent on being one of the guys who did it without oxygen—without an asterisk, he said, remember? He had to do it the hard way and Stef was so pissed when he got home and was showing his pictures and telling the story about how he almost died and Stef said, it’s fucking oxygen, you idiot, it’s not like it’s a luxury. Remember that?”
He looked down at the blanket across his legs because he knew she was just staring at him, face widened in horror, mind blank, unable to move or decide what to say.
“I was just thinking about that, about Dan’s trip to Kilimanjaro, with those morons he works with.”
“You said the word again.” She could finally speak although she didn’t move.
“It’s my rule. I can break it.”
He looked up at her and the eye contact seemed to shatter her paralysis. “I should check the soup.”
As she retreated back to the kitchen, he flung himself out from under the blankets, got out of the bed and moved after her through the rooms. He didn’t think, he just moved, moved swiftly in his bare feet until he got to the small dining table they had placed outside the kitchen. He sat down in one of the chairs and looked up as she came out with the steaming bowl.
“It’s okay, I’m good. Harrock said my breath would come and go. Some days good, some days not so much.”
She smiled in a way he thought was fake. “I put some curry powder in it. Tell me if it’s enough.” She placed the bowl in front of him.
“Can we have some tunes?”
“We need to hear the bell when the nurse comes.”
He raised his eyebrows at her and her shoulders dropped in response.
“Achtung Baby?” She moved toward the laptop they had left on the bookshelf.
“All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
He saw her pause for a split second, as he knew she would, as she opened up iTunes and made the selection. Before the music emerged from the speakers she turned back to him. He liked the way she looked just then and as the high electric strums filled the air he felt like himself.
She sat next to him on the couch as he skimmed the magazines that had piled up during his hospital stay. She paid bills with the laptop balanced on her thighs. Bono crooned in the background. It was Sunday.
“Let’s not renew The Economist when it comes up.” He turned a glossy page.
“There’s good stuff, but there’s too much I could care less about. Do I really need to know about Sweden and the Euro or Maoists in India? And who is Emeka Ojukwu?” He sailed an issue across the room and it flapped and fluttered quickly to the floor.
“I don’t know. Who is he?”
“Well, he died.”
She tried to keep breathing regularly.
“Something to do with Biafra.”
“That was a thing when we were kids, right? Starving babies with big bellies in Biafra.”
“And don’t forget Jello Biafra.”
“Lead singer for the—Cramps?”
She assumed he was now doing this on purpose. Saying it over and over. Putting it in their conversation, in her face. Fine, if that was what he wanted, she could deal.
She moved into the small kitchen where she could only sort of hear him when he talked. She turned on the water to block him out more and washed the lunch dishes. The music in the apartment got louder and she wondered if he had used the remote or had gotten up himself. She didn’t turn to see.
When she returned to the couch she found him stretched out, staring up at the ceiling. His feet flexed in time to the music. He looked thicker and stronger than when he had been in the hospital. His pajama bottoms fit him instead of dangling from his hipbones threatening to drop off completely. His T-shirt stretched across his chest the way it had when they first met, when she had worried if someone with such impressive pecs could really be that well-read.
He reached out his hand to her and she let him pull her on top of him. They both stretched out awkwardly along the couch, trying to find places for their flesh and their bones. She tried not to think, just smile and say silly Sunday things.
“Are you even close to comfortable?” She was confused about what he wanted from her and thought maybe the answer would clarify.
“No. But it feels good. When’s that nurse coming?”
“Any minute. Four to midnight shift. We can change it.” Her head was filled with practical plans—schedules, services, and things he would need, things she needed to hire people to give him.
“I just don’t want to be starting something I can’t finish.”
She heard his attempt at seduction somewhere under the words, but mostly she heard a desperate insistence. Why couldn’t the horrible Doctor Harrock have been wrong—wrong about just one thing?
She pressed her face into his neck, moving her lips, giving only breath and no throat to her words. She repeated her whisper, over and over, mouthing the breathy words onto his warm skin. Don’t go. Don’t go.
She could hear the outer door of the building open and close one flight below.
In the narrow entryway, the squat pale nurse leaned against the wall of mailboxes, winded from climbing the stoop. Her green patent leather purse creaked as she searched for the printout from the agency. She peered over her eyeglasses as she matched the names on the paper with the label under one of the apartment buzzers. As she extended her arm, the green bag slipped from her shoulder to her elbow.
She rang the bell.
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