I don’t like it when Luke wins at things because he makes bombs. I know this is absurd, but people who make bombs shouldn’t win things. The ability to blow someone off the planet ought to be enough.
Tonight he beat me at Scrabble. It was a bogus win — he really has no vocabulary whatsoever — but he had come out of nowhere to demolish me with the assembly of the word BOX on a triple word score.
“I win,” he said, snorting.
“Well bless your clever little heart,” I replied. “You can put three whole letters together.”
Luke and I played Scrabble a lot, sometimes with the TV on, sometimes not. It was at these moments in the barren evening hours, that I wondered if we should have a child. We still could — we weren’t technically too old, especially with the things you could do these days — and I imagined it more and more easily; the presence of a thumping, squealing creature stirring up the air, crackling and explosive with pure, unfiltered instinct.
Luke picked up our mugs and walked into the kitchen. I turned out the lights. Through the doorway I could see him lean over the sink and drop them with a metallic clunk, before he disappeared in the direction of the garage. It was Tuesday, so he would be taking out the trash. The door slammed shut behind him.
I folded the board and funneled the avalanche of wooden tiles back into the bag, spilling several across the coffee table and floor. They clattered quietly to their haphazard resting places, some up, some down, their words lost in the shuffle and I bent down to pick them up, frustrated by my consistent failure to get all the letters back in the bag in one go. They always overflowed. Luke came back into the kitchen humming a song of some sort, and he went to the sink where I thought he was going to put the mugs in the dishwasher but he didn’t — he washed his hands instead. While he was doing so, the phone rang and he called over his shoulder, “Are you going to answer that?”
I slipped the letters I had gathered into the bag and was about to reach for the phone on the end table when Luke turned off the water and boomed out my name, “Ellen!” loud enough that I jumped for it, landing chest down on the arm of the couch and nearly knocking the wind out of me in order to catch it before the next ring.
“I’ve got it,” I said, although he had turned around and was watching me now. He could see for himself.
It was my mother.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Luke balled up the dishtowel he had used to dry his hands and tossed it on the counter. Assessing that the phone call was not for him, he disappeared toward the stairs.
“Nothing. Going to bed. It’s late already,” I said into the phone. I got up and went to stand in Luke’s vacated space at the kitchen sink.
My mother’s breath roared across the receiver. She sounded like she’d been rushing, which was her way. She was a worrier, a woman constantly plugging holes in a crumbling dam that honestly would be much better as a waterfall. Typically she called me every day, just to check in, despite my protests that a daily phone call was really unnecessary.
“Is there something you want?” I asked, folding the rumpled dishtowel and putting the mugs in the dishwasher.
“Why does there have to be something?” she replied. “I just wanted to see how your day went.”
“It was fine, mom. Just a regular day.”
“Well, it’s still nice to talk to you. I like to stay in touch with my daughters.”
“And how is Patricia?” I asked because she was clearly baiting me. Patricia works the night shift at the hospital — my old shift from when I worked there — so of course she’d be bright and perky at bedtime.
“She asks about you.”
“She does not.”
“Yes she does — she’s your sister. She’s — I just think it’s time for the two of you to put things in the past.”
“Look, it’s late. Luke’s in bed already. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”
I clicked off the phone. Upstairs I could hear Luke’s footsteps moving across the landing. Then he paused, listening.
“You coming?” he called.
“In a minute,” I replied.
So as I said, Luke makes bombs. I’m not supposed to know about this — these things are top secret, even to spouses — but he’s a physicist and works for the NSA so the math is pretty simple. At the beginning there was something sort of attractive about the top secret, James Bond-in-khakis of it all, but as the years have passed, it has become harder and harder to shake the unspoken realities between us. I think this may be why my mother never stops trying to talk to me. She’s overcompensating for the only overt characteristic of my relationship with Luke — the one thing we can talk about: the necessity for silence. Perhaps this is why I want a baby. A baby can string any bunch of sounds together it wants and make it mean absolutely everything. It has no parameters to what it knows, and yet it knows nothing at all, really, but the darkness of the womb, life beyond life, existence beyond existence. I once heard a story, or maybe I’m just making it up, of a very young child squeezing his eyes tight together in frustration and when his parents asked him what he was doing he said, “I’m trying to remember what God looks like.”
Do they know?
Sometimes I get lost in my own head.
When I went upstairs, Luke was still in our bathroom. “Are you still in there?” I yelled through the bathroom door.
“What?” Luke turned off the water and yelled back through the door.
I put on a t-shirt and sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for him to finish. Our bathroom had two sinks so technically I could have gone in and brushed my teeth anyway, but I waited. It was one of the absurdities of our marriage, these two sinks. When we moved into the house we had spent a lot of money to have the bathroom expanded to accommodate both of us, but we have never quite been capable of being in it at the same time. Turns out we like our privacy. When he came out I stood up and our eyes locked on each other momentarily, then veered away.
“One of the tires on the Jeep has a big gash in it,” he said as he slipped into bed. “Is it losing air?”
“I hit a curb the other day,” I confessed. “It seems fine, though.”
“You could get a blowout driving around like that. Needs to go in.”
“I can’t take it tomorrow, but maybe later in the week.”
“Going to a meeting?”
“Yes, there’s one at noon.”
“We can switch cars and I can do it on my lunch hour,” he said, rolling onto his side and pulling the blanket up over his shoulder.
“If that works.”
As I brushed my teeth I opened and rifled through the medicine cabinet. I picked out a jar of moisturizer and after I finished brushing I slathered it across my face and down my neck. This felt greasy on my fingers, however, so I washed and dried them, making them look shriveled and worn — the hands of someone much older than I — so I put lotion on them, which struck me as absurd and almost absent-minded. I realized that I had too many people in my head: too many mothers, sisters, husbands, babies, and what I needed to do was get out of the bathroom and get to bed, surely get to a meeting the next day and try to silence the noise before it got out of control, so I rubbed my hands together faster, trying to get the lotion to sink in, but got fed up with the whole process and wiped my hands off on a towel. It was Luke’s fault: for winning with such an obnoxious word, for yelling at me about the phone, for chastising me about the car. He and his great, big secrets, the keys to world fucking domination, and me just trying to keep my mouth shut day after day without purpose, a retiree at 39 years old. What my years at the hospital taught me is that there is no secret, just a series of squares on a calendar that takes you from one end of this life to the other. As I reached for the door with these thoughts in my head, I miscalculated the distance between me and the knob and lost my balance. My feet went out from under me. It’s crazy, I know, but there it is. Like some kind of stupid geriatric, I fell in my own bathroom.
We sat in the ER for almost three hours. Luke dozed in a chair with a copy of The Economist in his lap, his head jerking upright every time a voice came over the hospital intercom. I watched the rise and fall of his chest beneath his windbreaker. I don’t know where he got that ridiculous windbreaker — it had the logo of the local fire department on the back and he claimed to have won it in a raffle at the church but we hardly ever go to church and I don’t remember any such thing ever occurring.
“Don’t you think it’s bad form to go around masquerading as a fireman?” I had asked him at the time.
“What do you mean? It’s just a windbreaker. I like it.”
“Yes, but you’re not a fireman.”
“Of course I’m not a fireman, I’m just a guy in a windbreaker.”
I tried to distract myself with the crossword puzzle in the newspaper and the ever increasing swelling in my wrist, but to no avail. Now that I don’t work in hospitals, I hate them. Actually, maybe I always hated them. Maybe that’s my problem. I don’t know the difference between then and now.
At some point I was taken to be x-rayed, leaving Luke to his nap. Afterwards they moved me to a bed and the waiting resumed. It was very late at this point and I may have dozed off because I don’t remember Luke coming in but when the doctor arrived Luke was in a chair next to me in the exact same pose he’d had in the waiting room, clutching his magazine and snoozing.
The doctor stood too close as he examined my wrist, holding it upright as I cautiously tipped my hand backward and forward on his command. His breath was bitter, like a mixture of black coffee and vinegar and I had to angle my legs away from his body so they wouldn’t touch him. Luke snorted awake and made a grab for his Economist as it slipped off his lap.
“Yes, I can move it, but it hurts all the way up into my shoulder,” I said.
The doctor stepped away and shoved my x-ray under the clamp on the light board.
“Well, it’s not broken. Just a sprain, probably. The nurse will show you how to wrap it and give you something for the pain. Keep it elevated for a couple of days.”
“I can’t take anything narcotic.”
“I don’t think you’ll need to. Some Tylenol should do the trick.”
The doctor looked at his chart again. “Okay, Mrs. Oppenheimer. Ellen Oppenheimer,” he repeated, musing. “Do I know that name?”
When he looked at me his eyes were like large, dark buttons on his face, things I imagined I could tip backwards and slip into his head, making him come completely undone.
“No,” I said. “We’re spies.”
“She used to work here,” Luke offered, coming to stand beside me. He put a hand on my shoulder.
I couldn’t tell if something had snapped together in the doctor’s head or whether he was trying to double check my pupils, but I felt several hard heartbeats in my chest before he looked down at the chart and scribbled something else.
“The nurse will bring discharge instructions,” he said, adding, “I think you’ll feel fine in a couple of days,” but his eyes stayed on me again, moving back and forth, coloring between the lines and filling in gaps. I wondered how long he was going to stand there, this doctor who must have better things to do than contemplate an unbroken wrist and I was about to say something to this effect but then he asked, “Do you have any other questions?” and I said “No,” so he left.
Luke tucked his Economist under his arm and patted my knee. “Well, I’ll go get the car.”
“It will be a while still,” I said. “They’re not the speediest in here.”
“That’s okay,” he replied. “I’ll wait for you out front.” As he walked away I watched the blue sheen of his windbreaker taunt me, sh, sh, sh, across his shoulders. When he was out of sight, I headed for the elevator bank. I was almost surprised that no one stopped me as I rode up to the fourth floor and approached the nurses’ station.
When Patricia saw me, her face twisted like a cloth being wrung out.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, standing up as if to stop me. The chair behind her rolled to a ghostly halt on the linoleum.
Even standing, Patricia was petite enough to be dwarfed behind the counter, which contributed to her persistent prepubescent appearance even though she was just over thirty. She wore her hair back in a neat ponytail with a loose yellow bow and had a light dusting of blush across her pale, freckled cheeks. By and large, she appeared very much as she had always been, my pretty little sister who held my hand at the crosswalks on the way home from elementary school and painted picture frames for me as birthday gifts. Her lips, however, punctuated her question with a heavy, angry blotch.
“I sprained my wrist.”
“Well, you can’t be here. I’ll get fired if somebody sees you.”
“There’s no one here. Who’s going to see me?”
Patricia crossed her arms in front of her chest and looked down at her desk. I’ll admit it; it was good to see her and although she couldn’t look at me I found it difficult to look away. It suddenly seemed like such a long time.
“They give you something for that downstairs?” she asked, pressing a key on her computer.
“No, I don’t need anything.”
“Well then. You don’t need me, either.”
She was still the good nurse, the one who followed the rules, whose only weakness had been to provide a little relief in my time of need. It wasn’t her fault that things had gone wrong. Nevertheless, my tragic fall had not left her entirely unscathed. As put together as she seemed, could she really be more than a mismatched mosaic of human forms and decorative touches? Was it possible not to crack under the weight of our chosen calling? Perhaps she had learned the same things I had: that our true addictions were far too numerous to count, not just to drugs but also to compassion, to secrets, and to the lurking shapes of hopes that had never come to pass.
The man had been on this floor, just down the hall and to the right. I had watched his heartbeat on the monitors from this very desk. Day after day I had walked down this hall to record the numbers of his existence. His pressures. His breaths. His temperatures. But he asked me for numbers as well. How many more days? How many more hours? How many more breaths would he have to endure? His holy trinity of past, present and future was a ghostly amputee, hopelessly paralyzed and swathed in hospital laundry. Even now I could feel his hand on me, see his open mouth, and meet his eyes as they sagged under the weight of gravity into his skull, tucked under the blankets of his prayerful eyebrows.
“Please,” he had said.
Was it inevitable? His death surely was. But was my banishment, my ejection from the life I had created? Sometimes I felt they were one and the same. What I had put in that needle, what ignited that small bomb, was my soul, and it had burned to ash in the process. Afterward, when I had begged Patricia for the drugs to scrub the memory away and she had caved to me, was she any different? Her eyes had eroded into flat grey stones just like mine.
“You should go,” Patricia said.
“Of course,” I replied, long chains of “I’m sorry,” echoing in my head as I turned away and left, because Luke would have fallen asleep in the car by now.