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October

 

October

 

The paper was marbled cream, folded in half once. The handwriting spread across the page in flowing black ink. A date, a salutation, three concise emotion-filled paragraphs, a closing. That was all. Just enough to fill the front of the paper. But it sat heavy in her hands and blinded her with the force of a light turning on in the darkened room of her memories.

 Her mother-in-law loved Russian literature. She loved carting around the large volumes of leather-bound books that boasted her ability to plow through depressing and lengthy epics. So she’d named him Leo before the name was trendy. Honestly, who named a son after Leo Tolstoy? Or a daughter after Anna Karenina? It hadn’t mattered, she supposed. She fell in love with him anyway. Got used to being with a man named Leo instead of Zachary or Tyler or Justin. By now, she loved the looks people gave them when they realized that Leo was a forty-something man with thinning hair and thickening waistline, not a slender millennial in skinny-jeans.

 She brought the paper cup to her lips and took a sip of the lukewarm brew. It was terrible. But she wasn’t her mother-in-law or her sister-in-law who would insist that the woman at the desk— who strongly resembled Madam Hooch from the Harry Potter movies— make a new pot or give them directions to the closest coffee shop. No, she would sit unobtrusively, staring at the non-descript painting on the wall until her name was called. 

The unmistakable sound of someone throwing up pulled her gaze away from the print so she could ascertain if she needed to move. Typical of her luck, the culprit was in the row of chairs behind her, so she stood to walk across the room. Finding a seat with nobody nearby, she sat upon a chair of the same blue and brown swirled vinyl as the last one. This time, the view faced the window. In the distance, an area of the parking lot was roped off and men in orange vests and hard hats milled about. She had no idea how construction workers dealt with it. The light was bright with October sun, blurred with heat and humidity that hung in the air. Today didn’t feel like October. Sometimes Mother Nature got confused. Like this past May when it froze overnight and killed her Mother’s Day flowers.

 The most beautifully haunting piano melody echoed down the empty corridor. She stood from her locker and followed it like a child following the pied piper. Drawing her in, drowning everything else. At the doorway of the music room she stood while her brain connected the sound with what her eyes were now seeing. That strange boy from literature class sat at the piano, silhouetted against the window. He was a shadow against the ethereal blaze of orange oak leaves and sunlight, but she could see him perfectly. She didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. He looked at her. Their eyes met and her soul joined his in some distant place. She somehow knew him intimately. She wanted to touch him, feel him, be inside of him and never leave.

 Her insides twisted. Pleasure? Fear? She felt it then and she felt it now. Different reasons, same churning in her middle.

 Her legs stuck to the vinyl, so she shifted her weight, her legs making a squelching sound as she pulled them off the seat. She checked the time on her phone, saw that several texts had come through from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Her nerves were shot. The last five minutes felt like an hour. She dutifully typed back a ‘still in the waiting room’ text which she was sure would be followed with indignant responses about how long they expected her to wait. Wasn’t this an emergency?

Well, she wasn’t going to think about it. How else could she occupy herself, so she wouldn’t worry about what was awaiting her behind those sliding glass doors? Would her future only be altered slightly? A minor inconvenience of a lost few hours in a waiting room or life changing like needing to build a wheelchair ramp and widen doorways?

 Paint. They needed to paint this room. The shade of blue was wrong. It looked faded like the knees of jeans after her son had been crawling around in them at afterschool care all winter long. Blue was supposed to be a soothing color, right? She thought of the pretty blue of her childhood room. That’s what they needed.

 She stretched her legs in front of her, making the squelching sound again as she pried her legs off the seat. Checked her phone and ignoring the barrage of texts from her in-laws; only two minutes had passed. She was just contemplating asking Madame Hooch how much longer when she heard the doors slide open behind her and a voice announce,

“Mrs. Collins.”

 Sounds muffled and her throat constricted. With a breath in she stood, turned, and walked toward the room that might forever change her life.

 A waif of a girl in navy scrubs escorted her through the sliding glass doors, closing out the faded blue waiting room and opening to a bright hallway with fluorescent lights and scuffed off-white walls. Her sandals made a clap-clap sound against the bright white tiles. Wide doors were closed against her on either side. The only color seemed to be the girl in front of her.

 She supposed she should think ‘woman’ instead of ‘girl’. Nursing was an important profession. To be one, a person needed to have presence of mind and even more impressively, deal with really gross stuff. So ‘girl’ wasn’t the correct moniker. She supposed the girl—woman— was used to it. People of small stature probably always got diminished by tall people. At 6’1”, she wouldn’t know, of course, but she assumed.

The nurse stopped in front of a door and waited for her to catch up. Pushing the door open, she held it for her and then closed it softly behind her.

 “The doctor will be in shortly with the results of all the scans.”

 She could barely see and bumped into the side of the bed causing alarms to sound on the monitor. She stepped back in horror and the little nurse—the nurse sedately stepped in front of her, adjusted a plastic piece on Leo’s left forefinger, and reset the monitor.

 “He’s not awake?”

 “No,” was the nurse’s quiet response. “He hasn’t been since he got here. The doctor will be here soon. The TV is controlled with the buttons on the siderail.” She pointed to the symbol of a TV, then to the image of a nurse’s head. “If you need anything, push this button.”

The nurse disappeared behind the door.

 “Yeah, I need to know what’s next,” she mumbled as she collapsed into the chair next to the bed. Aware of his body next to her, she stubbornly focused on the TV hanging high above the bed on the opposite wall. She hated TV; Leo liked to watch the weather channel. Always fascinated by tornados, hurricanes, thunderstorms. Avoiding the form in the bed, she pushed the TV button and fumbled with the arrow buttons looking for it. Perfect. Hurricanes and earthquakes in Puerto Rico, right up his alley.

 As the voices droned and music swelled, she took timid peeks at him. The sheet was tucked in under his feet, just the way he liked it. He hated it when her messy sleeping habits pulled the covers off the bed. His toes stuck up, making a little peak in the white sheet before it coursed over the rest of his body, right up to his chest. His arms on either side were on top of the sheets, the hospital gown only covered one shoulder. Trying not to look at him, she stood to straighten it. She sat down and took in a breath.

 “I don’t want to,” she whimpered. Would it even look like him?

 He’d been so brave when she broke her wrist on the ice and the bone stuck awkwardly the wrong direction and when he’d seen the scar after her first c-section.

 Her marred, imperfect body.

 If he could do it, so could she.

Another breath in and she let her eyes rise from the hospital gown, up his neck, and then his face. With a gasp and a cry, she turned away sharply, rested her head against the wall, and shut her eyes but she still saw the new him. Bruised, swollen, broken. How would they ever put him back together? Would he even wake up for it to matter?

 They’d loved each other from that very first encounter in the piano room. Neither of them knew it back then. How could they? They were only gawky teenagers for goodness sake.

But he grew up tall and bronze and beautiful. A musician, a vintage motorcycle enthusiast, a lover of autumn evenings and cozy winter days. She reveled in sunny lavender summers, decorating, beach volleyball, and hiking forested trails. Hair the color of honey and freckles dotting her shoulders.

 “Mrs. Collins.”

 A woman in a white coat entered without knocking and introduced herself as Doctor somebody and began to speak gibberish. Orbital fractures, maxillofacial fractures, intracranial hematoma, hydrocephalus. She didn’t know those words, so she smiled, nodded, reached for Leo’s hand which set off the alarms again.

 He proposed to her at a U2 concert while Bono crooned Elvis’ Can’t Help Falling in Love. Leo’s eyes swathed her in the warmth of chocolate velvet. Theirs was a love like none other. The color and texture of their love would dip and swirl in the winds of time forever.

 More gibberish. Surgery. Stent. Living will. Organ donor. Anyone she could call?

His father died suddenly of an aneurysm. Her sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia in college. The basement flooded. Their second born came a month too early. She crashed the car. He lost his job. Through it all, they’d held each other, made each other laugh, made passionate love in crazy places.

 But this. This she would do alone. Surgery and false hopes. Recoveries and setbacks. And finally, he went away for good on a late October morning. A crisp Sunday morning with a pale sky and dull crunching cottonwood leaves.

 

Empty.

Dreary.

Brown.

 

Winter wasn’t cozy.

 Summer wasn’t lavender and sunny.

 Life was devoid of color or feeling or change.

 And now, here she sat on a lonely kitchen chair, at the kitchen table sticky with the remnants of lonely meals, still bleeding from being cut in half.

She folded the creamy page at its crease and pressed it between her thumb and forefinger. She brought the cup of yesterday’s cold coffee to her lips and let the liquid pass over her tongue and down her throat. It was swill. Nothing like the cappuccinos he used to make her on Saturday mornings while they talked about where to hike or which farmer’s market to attend.

 The jumble of words began to arrange themselves in her mind. Words of happiness. Thanksgiving. Gratitude. Somewhere his heart still beat. She wondered if it still thumped uncontrollably at horror movies or skipped a beat at the scent of lemongrass lotion or beat peaceably at rest during a good night’s sleep.

 This letter didn’t mention any of that. Just winning trivia night at the bar and holding a new grandchild and an upcoming ski trip.

 She dropped the letter on the table and then drug herself to the music room. She hardly ever came in here anymore. Opening the blinds, she looked around. They had spent their last evening together in this room. He’d played the piano for her while they ate apples and cheese and drank the new wine, they’d picked up at the winery that afternoon. They’d watched the sunset from the window.

 The blinds were thick with dust and creaked as she turned them open. The day sparkled with sunshine. The leaves fairly glowed in its warm bath of light. The sky was a bright cloudless blue. With a thickening in her chest, she turned to face the piano. It too was covered in a film of dust, dulling the rich cherry wood. She plinked at the keys.

 Leo’s hands. He had long, beautiful fingers. Strong yet tender. They crossed atop his chest with a Rosary intertwined and a picture of the kids tucked underneath. They lay warm and lifeless in the hospital bed. They were covered with leather gloves as he gripped the handles of his motorcycle. Backwards in time, her mind continued to travel. His hands had put Band-Aids on skinned knees and tenderly held babies until they fell asleep. Had tucked her hair behind her ear and opened car doors for her.

 She bolted from the piano bench, she needed air. The cold sting of the October morning burned her nose and startled her senses. His heart beat somewhere else. Somewhere far away from her. She looked up at the fiery orange leaves. She needed to feel him, needed to not be without him anymore. Please, God, she begged for the hundred millionth time.

The leaves rustled. Warmth wrapped itself around her, hugged her close until she didn’t feel the cold anymore. Or the emptiness. Salty tears streamed down her cold skin. It was like that long-ago day back in middle school. Her soul swam in a place far away, he was there with her and she never wanted to leave.

  

Cathy Carroll-Moriarty

  

Cathy is a social worker and mother. In between working full-time and being an Uber-Mom, she employs herself as a bibliophile and dabbles in creative writing. 


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3 Comments

  1. Audrey Smith-LandersNovember 6, 2020 at 7:22 PM

    i rather enjoyed this short work of fiction. we need more of its kind in the literary world.

    ReplyDelete
  2. a solid effort to make comment on the human condition. I agree. We need more.

    ReplyDelete
  3. An enthralling read. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete