My wife was already a week late on the day Eddie Holt was admitted to the Neuro-ICU. Wanda, the day shift nurse, filled me in on Mr. Holt as soon as I got to work that afternoon. He was fifty-four and recovering from a ruptured Inter-Cranial Artery Aneurysm. The neuro-surgeon who’d opened him up and clipped the aneurysm said his prognosis was iffy at best. Wanda also said, rolling her eyes, that Mr. Holt’s wife was a bit needy and tended to ask a ton of questions.
Fifteen minutes into my shift, Mrs. Holt introduced herself to me. I was sitting at the nurse’s station reading over her husband’s chart. Maybe Wanda had mentioned his night shift nurse would be a man, so it wasn’t too hard for her to figure out I was his nurse.
Mrs. Holt was in her mid-fifties with black hair and green eyes. She was an attractive enough lady, in that artsy way, wearing a black turtleneck with black pants, a pink scarf. She told me that her husband was a psycho-therapist and was in the middle of a session when the aneurysm burst. The client he was with said Mr. Holt grabbed his forehead and fell to the ground without saying anything. Mrs. Holt said all this with a look of surprise and wonder, as if things like this didn’t happen to decent people. I wanted to tell her that if she spent a month working with me here in the ICU she’d see all variety of shitty things that can happen to decent people: GSW’s, MVA’s, strokes, blunt head trauma, and yes, even ruptured aneurysms.
“We’re supposed to go to England this summer,” she said.
I nodded, thinking, forget it lady. I’d seen enough of these patients to know he wasn’t going on a trip anytime soon. If he was lucky he’d stabilize and get out of ICU, go to rehab for a few weeks and eventually return home.
“Eddie has wanted to go for years. He went once as a child. He was five or six, and he showed me pictures from the trip, said he hated how he couldn’t remember any of it. His mother was born in England but her family moved here when she was a baby.”
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say.
She nodded, reached over and rested her hand on my shoulder. “Is he going to be okay?”
“We’re doing all we can. Dr. Clark is a good doctor. He should be able to tell you more.”
She leaned down and hugged me right there at the nurse’s station, said thank you as quiet as a whisper. I tired not to flinch, to show my discomfort. But maybe it was how she responded to everyone. Some people are huggers and others are not. Still, I hadn’t hugged my wife, Tracy, in at least two weeks. And the physical contact from this stranger sent a quick jolt through my body.
Later that evening, when I went in to check on Mr. Holt, his wife sat up and said, “The doctor came in. He said while there may be some long-term damage, or deficits, Eddie was going to live and should be able to function pretty well. He might not be able to work again but he wasn’t going to be a vegetable, lying in a bed.”
I nodded. “That’s great.”
“We met in college,” she said. “At a party, over thirty years ago now. He was tall and blonde and walked around like he was nervous. He’d walk to one corner of the room and then to another. Later, I realized he was just shy. But that night I watched him, drawn, I guess, by his height. He was the tallest person at the party. Eventually, I couldn’t stand it anymore and went over and introduced myself to him.
“We exchanged numbers and started talking on the phone and the next thing you know we were a couple, got married a year later. It always struck me as odd, how he could be such a talker, so comfortable one-on-one, but just clam up at social gatherings. I guess that’s why he was a good therapist, that one-on-one communication.”
Some patient’s family members never said a word to me and others liked, or needed, to talk. It was obvious Sarah Holt needed to talk.
“What’s your wife’s name, Eric?” She reached over and touched my wedding ring.
“Tracy,” I said.
“How long have you been married?”
She smiled. “Still a puppy.” She stared at me, her eyelids raised just a fraction, as if saying well come on, let me have some more since I’ve given you part of my life. It’s only fair you return this favor. Thankfully, at that moment, Don, the unit secretary, called me over the room’s intercom: “Eric, you have a phone call, line 4.”
Mrs. Holt smiled as if she could tell I was relieved to get the hell out of there.
The first thing I did every night after working the 2:30-11 shift was take a shower. I was constantly leaning over patients, getting blood or some other bodily fluids on me. I wore long sleeve shirts under my scrubs to protect my forearms, but still most nights after work I’d take my shirt off and discover some mystery stain on one of the sleeves.
Before stepping into the shower, I checked the bathroom garbage can for any sign of Tracy’s panty-liner wrappers. They were small and pink and a monthly sign that her period had started. I knew she was due a week ago because she always marked the day her period was supposed to start with a little P on her Monet calendar. And once the period actually began, she would circle the P.
If I hadn’t noticed she was late because of the calendar, I could have told you something was wrong. Over the weekend, she’d been distant, didn’t say much to me at all. When I’d asked her Saturday night if she wanted to go to a movie, she’d said she didn’t feel like it. Instead, she went grocery shopping, something I couldn’t remember her ever doing on a Saturday night.
Sunday wasn’t much better. She’d gone for a two-hour walk in the morning and was short with me the rest of the day. Of course, I knew what the problem was but there didn’t seem to be any reason to push her into saying what I already knew.
After my shower, I slid into bed. Tracy didn’t move or respond in any way to my presence. I wasn’t tired and considered getting up, maybe watching a little TV but didn’t. In the dark, unable to sleep, I remembered the night it happened. It was nothing special really, a Saturday night. We’d split a bottle of wine over dinner. In bed, I gave her a back rub and eventually pulled her pajama bottoms down and we moved like that with me behind her. When I felt myself about to come, I didn’t pull out like usual. The fact that I’d been drinking was the only excuse I could come up with at the time.
Tracy rolled away from me and jumped out of bed. “You didn’t?”
“Goddamitt, Eric. I’m ovulating.” The room was dark. I studied the outline of her naked form, her hands on her hips. I wanted to make love to her again.
“Shit.” Then she walked into the bathroom. I was amazed at how quickly you could slide from the heights of pleasure to this, whatever this was.
When she came back to bed, she said, “I don’t want kids, not right now.”
A couple months earlier, when Sonya, one of our closest friends, announced she was pregnant, Tracy told me not to get any crazy ideas because she wasn’t ready yet. She said she wanted to travel first and save enough money so she could take time off after the baby.
When I woke the next morning, Tracy had already left for work. I decided to go for a jog. Out on our street, in the cool late February morning, I started thinking about names. Maybe Trevor if it was a boy, Isabelle if it was a girl. I knew I was getting ahead of myself. She was only a few days late, nothing serious. But it seemed possible this was something that might actually happen. I couldn’t say for sure that I was ready for children myself, but the idea didn’t scare me.
And again I wondered why I didn’t pull out that night. Part of it was the drinking, sure, but I had only come inside of her twice during our six years together. Both of those times she was on her period. We never used condoms because she was allergic to latex and she didn’t like being on the pill, so we used the pull-out method, which had worked fine. But maybe I’d done it on purpose because I did want kids. Maybe I wanted to force the relationship, push it to the next step. While these are not things I was consciously thinking at the time, it doesn’t mean they might not have been turning around somewhere in the back of my mind. Or maybe it just felt too damn good to stop.
A block from our house, up against the curb, I spotted what was left of a raccoon. It must have been hit by a car. Its head was crushed, but its tail was perfectly intact, fluffy even, pointing straight into the air. I was glad it wasn’t in front of my house. I didn’t want to have to get rid of that nasty-looking thing.
I passed Mr. Holt’s room, and could see the back of Sarah Holt’s head through the blinds. Her husband was still intubated. One good thing about being an ICU nurse was that you only had two patients as opposed to the five or six you might have working as a floor nurse. The bad thing is that your patients could go to shit and die on you at any moment.
My other patient was a grizzly old man named Frank Fisher. Apparently, while he was up on a ladder, painting his house, he’d had a stroke and fallen. So along with his stroke he also broke his right hip. But he was pretty hemo-dynamically stable and didn’t require much work on my part.
As Wanda gave me report, Sarah Holt walked out of her husband’s room and stood at the door. I was afraid something was wrong, but she only smiled at me and then walked back inside. It was as if she was checking to see if I’d made it in to work yet.
Ten minutes later, I went in to check on Mr. Holt. “Hi, Eric,” she said.
“Hello, Mrs. Holt.”
“Please call me Sarah.”
I nodded and checked his lines, made sure his ET tube was secured, but Eddie Holt didn’t move the entire time. He’d been stable since he’d arrived on the floor, and we’d been trying to wean him off the ventilator, so he’d probably only be in ICU for another day or two. He seemed in good shape except for the damage to his brain.
“How’s he been today?” I asked, feeling her eyes on me.
“He seems fine. Except he hasn’t woken up yet.”
“His body needs to rest. I’ll check back in an hour,” I said.
As I sat at the nurse’s station, I kept glancing up toward Mr. Holt’s room, and every second or third time she would be looking at me. Was she hitting on me? Did I remind her of their son? Did they even have kids? I checked his chart but there was no mention of children.
I wondered about Tracy, about whether or not she’d keep the baby. She’d had an abortion once, when she was seventeen. We’d discussed it one night and never again. She told me she was not proud of what she’d done, but knew it was the right decision. The father had already gone off and joined the Marines after graduation and she never told him. While our situation was certainly different, it did seem possible she might be willing to have another abortion. If she did, I wasn’t sure what that might mean for us.
By nine PM, the floor had quieted down and there were only a few family members left. Sarah Holt was one of them. I’d checked on her husband five times and we hadn’t said much on those occasions, but this time she had a large photo album on her lap.
After I checked his lines and charted his vitals, she said, “Can I show you something?”
“Sure,” I said. It wasn’t uncommon for families to bring in photo albums. Some even taped pictures all around the room. These pictures displaying younger, healthier versions of my patients were always strange to me because they rarely looked anything at all like the person in that hospital bed, stuffed full of tubes and lines.
But when she opened the first page, it wasn’t a photo of a young healthier Eddie, or pictures from their wedding, as I was expecting, but a Calvin & Hobbs comic strip cut out of a newspaper. In the comic, Calvin was showing Hobbs how to climb a tree.
Sarah turned the pages slowly, each one revealing another comic strip behind a plastic sheet. There were more Calvin & Hobbs, some Dilberts, a few Charlie Browns and Zits, plus a dozen or so I didn’t even recognize. She didn’t say anything as she flipped through the pages. There were literally hundreds of them but no real pattern that I could see. One was about the proper way to communicate, another about cleaning your room with both hands tied behind your back. Some looked old, some new—they were organized by month and started with March 1980 and the last section was dated August 2006.
“I’m an accountant and I’ve always carried a lunch box to work. And every day Eddie would put a comic strip in my lunch box. Some days it would kill me to wait until my break to see what new one he’d put in there.”
She smiled. “Never missed a day. Even when he was sick with the flu or the time he broke his leg, times when I didn’t expect it, somehow he still managed to get one in there. I can’t wait until he can do that again.”
“He will,” I said.
“Some of my co-workers thought the comics were stupid or corny, but they always asked to see the one he put in there that day.”
She shut the photo album and looked up at me, sighed. “Are you and your wife having trouble?”
I shook my head. “Why do you ask?”
“When I asked you about her yesterday you seemed, I don’t know, like you’d rather not talk about her.”
I considered telling her the whole damn thing, how the anticipation of Tracy’s period was becoming something more with each day, how this whole thing might determine the course of our marriage.
Sarah Holt may have been an accountant but she seemed to understand people because she could see me struggling with what to tell her. “So how did you and your wife meet?” she asked.
“I was a nursing student and she had already been an ultrasound tech for a couple years. We were in the hospital cafeteria. I didn’t know her, but was in line behind her. A patient’s family didn’t have cash, only a credit card, to pay for their meal. At the time, the cafeteria didn’t take credit cards. Tracy didn’t hesitate, just handed the cashier a ten dollar bill and put her own food back. Two days later, I saw her in the gift shop and told her that was a nice thing she’d done for those people. She shrugged and said, ‘that’s why we’re here. To help people.’ And I asked her out right there standing in line with a pack of gum in my hands.”
Sarah smiled. There was something about her smile that made me feel uncomfortable.
“I better go check on my other patient,” I said.
Climbing out of my car, in my driveway, I heard a rustling by my garbage cans. I walked over and spotted two raccoons, tearing open a bag. “Hey,” I said.
They both turned toward me but didn’t jump off the garbage. I looked around for a stick, but didn’t see anything, so I headed to my door. The last thing I needed was to end up in the ER, asking for a rabies shot. Later, when I went in to take my shower, there was no pink wrapper in the bathroom garbage can.
The next afternoon, Sarah Holt was sitting in her husband’s room, reading a hardback novel. Mr. Holt had been extubated. He looked like he was sleeping comfortable. Wanda told me they’d decided to pull the ET tube out around lunch time and he’d been doing fine. Still sleeping but breathing on his own.
Sarah looked up and smiled when I walked in his room. “Hi, Eric.”
“That’s great he’s off the ventilator.”
She nodded. “He seems to be doing okay. But he hasn’t really woken up yet.”
“He will. He’s still on a lot of medication. I’ll check back in a little bit.”
“Thanks,” she said.
It was a pretty quiet night and while I had checked on her husband three times, Sarah hadn’t said much except a quick hello. But when I went in around seven, she shut her book and stood up. “Can I buy you dinner?”
“I don’t know,” I said. And to be honest, I didn’t know. I’d never before, or since, been asked by a family member if I wanted to go to dinner.
“Come on. Fifteen minutes. I’ve got to get out of this room.”
“Let me see if I can get someone to watch Eddie and my other patient.”
Five minutes later we were sitting in the hospital cafeteria. I hadn’t been down here in a year or so. I usually brought a sandwich or a microwave dinner and ate it in the break room. Some days, in the ICU, we were lucky if we got to eat at all.
She ordered lasagna and a salad. I went with rotisserie chicken and broccoli. I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen over dinner. I guess I was hoping she would tell me another story about her husband, something about what a great marriage they had, but she didn’t. When I couldn’t stand the silence anymore, I said, “You asked about my wife and me. We’re sort of going through something right now.”
I told her about Tracy being late for her period, about how it was my fault, but that the way she was acting had thrown me for a loop. I hadn’t told anyone else about this, not even my closest friends, and while I could say it was because I hadn’t had a chance to talk to anyone in the last couple days I knew it was really because Sarah Holt was a safe confidant. I’d probably never see her again after tonight. Her husband would most likely be moved to another floor in the morning.
She listened to the whole story and nodded. “All couples go through something,” she said. “Eddie and I never had kids. I couldn’t, female problems. But he cheated on me once with his secretary. I guess we’d been together about ten years or so. He just came home one night and told me that it had been a mistake. It had gone on for a couple weeks but he couldn’t keep it to himself any longer.”
“Of course, I went berserk, threw a bunch of plates at him and moved out for three months. But eventually I came back and we never discussed it again. I don’t love him any less today. It happened. We moved on. You’ll get through this too. You’ll see. She’ll either be pregnant or she won’t. In twenty years you’ll be telling this story to some stranger, telling him or her how it only made the marriage stronger.”
“How do you know?”
She shrugged. “Trust me. I know.”
An hour later, I was in the break room getting something to drink when I spotted the newspaper. On the back of the Life section, there was a page of comic strips. I tore out a Pickles and slid it into my back pocket.
Later that night, when I saw Sarah enter the bathroom, I hurried into the room. Her novel was on the end table. I opened it and slid the comic strip into the center of the book, leaving before she emerged from the bathroom.
Driving in to work on Friday, I wondered if Eddie Holt was already off the floor and if I’d ever see Sarah Holt again. I wanted to tell her thanks for the story, that I hoped she was right about Tracy and I making it through this.
Neither Mr. Holt nor his wife was in room 3002. Janice, one of our cleaning ladies, was wiping down the rails of the bed and mopping the floor, erasing any signs that the Holt’s had been there at all. Wanda told me he’d woken up in the morning and his first words were, “Sarah, my sweet Sarah.” She said he’d been transferred to the fourth floor rehab unit.
Around five that night, I looked up from Mr. Fisher’s chart and saw Sarah walking toward me. I felt something jump in my chest. I stood up. “Hi, Eric,” she said.
“I’m glad he’s doing better.”
“Me too,” she said. “I think I left something in his room. Can you help me look for it?”
I knew the room was empty and she hadn’t left anything, but I could tell she’d been crying. “Sure, sure.”
We walked inside and she shut the door and closed the blinds. She reached out and hugged me. I could feel her shaking. I didn’t want to let go of her but eventually she raised her head off my shoulder and kissed me. It was a long, hard kiss and I didn’t resist at all. I held on, squeezing Sarah Holt tight against my body. When it was over, she hugged me one more time and whispered, “Thank you.”
Then she turned and walked out of the room. I sat down in the chair, trying to catch my breath. I didn’t know what the kiss had meant but was grateful for it, sure it was something we both needed.
A few minutes later, Don called me over the room’s intercom and told me that my next patient, a seventy-one year old lady who’d had a stroke, was on her way up from the ER.
Tracy was watching TV, drinking a glass of wine when I got home that night. She usually waited up for me on Friday nights, although she hadn’t last week. “Hey handsome,” she said.
She seemed in a pretty good mood and when I went in the bathroom I saw why: a couple of her pink panty-liner wrappers were in the bathroom garbage can. Her period had started. I was relieved and disappointed.
While I showered, I thought again of what happened with Mrs. Holt, of how I didn’t try to stop her, how I’d enjoyed the kiss in some way I wasn’t proud of. And I remembered how her mouth tasted like cinnamon and sugar, as if she had been eating a cinnamon roll.
“Work all right?” Tracy asked when I came back out into the living room, dressed in sweat pants and a T-shirt.
She told me that she had done an ultrasound on a man with three kidneys, that she couldn’t believe it at first and had called in the radiologist to confirm what she’d seen. I hated the fact she was so happy and relieved by the arrival of her period. She could say she was not ready, that it was about money or timing or whatever, but it all added up to the same thing as far as I was concerned: she did not want to have a child with me.
“Let’s take a ride over to the beach this weekend,” she said.
“Maybe we can even stay the night.”
“We’ll see what the weather’s like in the morning,” I said.
As we climbed into bed, she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “That was close, Eric. You’re a lucky man.”
“Tell me about it.”
Around three, I got up to use the bathroom. Tracy had been up before me and there was a clot of blood, like a rusty quarter, at the bottom of the toilet, taunting me. I flushed the toilet and walked out the sliding glass door and stood on our back porch, pissing a strong stream into the backyard.
After grabbing a beer and my jacket, I came back out and sat on one of the hard, plastic chairs. The night was loud with frogs and cicadas competing for space. Maybe they were talking to each other, maybe it wasn’t just noise for the sake of noise. Who the hell knows?
I thought about the Holts and what kind of life they had in front of them. How Eddie Holt would never be the same. I hoped Sarah would be able to accept this. And I hoped that one day soon, he would be able to find the strength to cut a comic strip out of the newspaper and slide it into her lunch box again.
Then I heard it, a quick grunting, followed by the rustles of leaves in the far corner of the backyard. I stood up and peered out into the darkness. When I couldn’t make out anything, I walked inside and grabbed a flashlight. Shining it into the backyard, I saw the two raccoons fucking. The female was up against the fence and the male was behind her, grunting, making some sort of squealing noises.
I watched them for a minute, unable to look away, expecting them to respond to my flashlight. But then I turned it off, leaned back in the chair and let them finish their business. Eventually, the grunts subsided.
When I flashed the light out there again, the raccoons had slipped away. There was no sign that I could see that they had been there at all. I finished my beer and considered going back inside, sleeping beside Tracy, but I didn’t, not on that night. It felt good out there, a cool breeze, the scent of something ripe and alive in the air around me.