It’s funny how people come running to your side when you’re injured and slung up in the hospital, being fed through a tube they have inserted into your stomach. It’s sad how people come running to your room in the hospital to visit, to catch your final breaths, to make themselves feel better before you die.
I was there when it happened, the first snowfall of October. You wondered if the neighbourhood kids would have to find Halloween costumes at the last minute that would fit over their snowsuits like we had to when we were young enough to go door to door for candy. The sun was setting and there was a thin sheet of snow on the roads that looked like sprinkled flour on a baking sheet. The curling smoke from my cigarette slipped out of the cracked window, and the ashes flew back in. I kicked around empty coffee cups and cellophane cigarette wrappers under my feet, which I promised to collect and throw out when we filled up for gas three tanks ago. You turned left and I looked up.
The bruises are still fresh on my arms and back when I meet your mother at the hospital. She is immersed in a trashy magazine when I get off the elevator. Licking her forefinger slowly, she flips the page as I sit down. She says you were sleeping when she left your room, or something like sleeping. They’re keeping you on a steady diet of morphine since I saw you on Friday night. She talks about your surgery as if she was taking out the trash—in passing and with little alarm. Her movements are slow and smooth, calm and confident, but her eyeliner and her lipstick are thrown against her face with haste. I suppose when things like this happen, you have to act calm above everything else, even if all your clothes are thrown on backwards and inside out. I have never gone through a pack of cigarettes as fast as I did that Saturday morning.
You work at a record store close to our house, and I work at the small red-bricked bookstore down the street. I get off an hour before you do, except on Fridays. I like how you stalk through the shelves of books, cocking your head to read the spines. How you finger the books, taking them out, flipping through the pages, waiting for something to jump out at you. How you flip through the book fast in front of your face and smell the pages. You like books published by Penguin the best, you say they smell like a kindergarten class, like crayons and finger paints. You bring me coffee at work, with two creams and too much sugar, but I would never tell you that. That Friday, you forgot the coffee. You said I needed a break in my routine; a little change would be good for me. I closed the store early so we could pick up something. Those four extra minutes drove that truck straight into us.
I drink four coffees in less than two hours. The hospital lighting is burning into my brain and I have to blink twice as fast to keep focus on what your father is saying. He says it can just happen, “you go in to get your tonsils taken out, and that’s the last time anyone sees you alive.” Your mother laughs uncomfortably. I clear my throat and finish the last couple of cold drops in my coffee cup. Your brother is supposed to stop by so all of us can loom over your bed and startle you out of your post-surgery cloud. Your father can quietly tell you that you didn’t shovel their walk on Wednesday like you promised. Your mother can tell you that she wants to round up the entire extended family, to include their dysfunction into your recovery. I stand in the background. I can’t understand what you are saying with the respirator in your mouth.
The way you’d play with the battery cover on the back of the remote. How you sleep with your arm above your head, smushed underneath all those pillows you say are necessary. Your obsession with listening to eighties British pop music at ear-bleeding levels. How you refuse to turn the heat on in your car, even on the coldest days. Your fake English accent that always makes me laugh. How you warm my feet in your lap. Your hands on my body at night sneaking underneath the blankets. Your breath on the back of my neck. The way I pushed you away on Friday morning telling you I didn’t get any sleep because of your fucking snoring, no matter how many times I jabbed you in the ribs. How every day since that morning I can’t bare to think I could have had you one last time.
You pull up the blanket with your good arm so I can see. I call you a pervert but you shake your head. You point in the direction of your thighs: YES written in black letters on the left, NO written on the right. The doctors made you decide which leg they would operate on. You smile at me and laugh a little, or that could be the balloon inserted in your lung, hissing in air to expand. The bandage goes from above your left knee past the end of your toes. Suddenly, you grab my hand so tight it startles a lump in my throat. I look down at my hand in yours, your fingers over the rubber gloves the nurses made me put on. I want to feel your skin against mine so bad. My chest tightens and heaves with panicked short gasps. My face frozen in pain, staring at my blue-gloved hand in yours as my eyes well up. A barbed pain in my head piercing the thought of—don’t even fucking think it—watching your outstretched finger tracing hearts in my palm. We didn’t know that your brain had begun to bleed and swell as you squeezed my hand, one last time before I left and you mouthed, “I love you” around the protruding tube in your throat.
The sun peeks in through the blinds and I have already admitted my defeat to the day. They can find someone to cover for me, because I am not crawling out of this bed. For the last two weeks, I have carefully crawled in and out of our red and black sheets, so I don’t disturb your side of the bed. Your covers are still thrown over revealing the creases you made in the sheets. I sleep with the worn-out couch pillow with the ugly orange stripes because I can’t move the pillows you slept with. I can’t bring myself to wash your coffee cup sitting in the middle of the table, or the shoe you kicked off in anger that landed in the middle of the hallway. Your brother says I need to clean up and move on. I told him it’s none of his business where you kick off your shoes, and I’ll make my bed when I’m good and fucking ready.
They moved you at 1:34 in the morning, back to the room you arrived in before the operation, the one with only two televisions and not enough chairs. They said you were stabilized for two hours before they moved you. They said they checked your vitals twice and they said you were cracking lewd jokes all the way back to your room. They said you flatlined at 4:55 in the morning, during a shift change, which is why they responded to the distress call so late. They said the minutes they wasted chatting about their weekend wouldn’t have made a difference anyways; you would have been dying from the pressure on your brain.
The air stung my lungs as I locked up the door after two minutes of jiggling and sweet-talking the lock. We had to stop by the pharmacy for a minute, I told you, grinning through my chapped lips. You looked at me without turning your head and asked me how many days. I said I counted nine, but I was always bad at remembering what day it was supposed to come. You smiled at me as I walked back to the car. The test wrapped neatly in a plastic bag at the bottom of my purse. You squeezed my leg with your free hand as we turned out of the parking lot and headed home. You took a short cut to get us home quicker. I watched the nervousness take over your face the closer we got. You told me you loved me and then you turned left.