The Loved One
I’m curled sleepless in my twin bed on Myrtle Street, in a corner brick box of sleeping elders. Outside, the wind howls, and dogs briefly scrap. This building like a nine-layer cake, where New England mice skitter along the connecting tiers of ceiling and wall. My room’s on the second floor, reserved for people visiting loved ones at Mass General. Minuscule, with a twin bed, wipeable turquoise chair, and utility window shades. Wire clothes hangers, and hospital blankets and towels. The floor is carpeted in industrial low-pile.
Klara is my loved one. She and I have known each other since we were 12. But she is on a respirator and cannot answer my questions. Including my primary one: why she listed me as her emergency contact after experiencing this heart event, before she was ushered into a coma.
Back home in Seattle, it is 6 p.m. I imagine my husband and his girlfriend at their work desks, deciding what to order and who will pick it up.
I have not seen Klara in five years. But to be here, I have torn my life down to the studs. That is not true. The walls of my life were already rubble. The floor of my marriage is littered with clawed-down wallpaper. Summoned by Klara, I flew to Boston.
In this suspended December, I pass my days with solemn and new-minted MDs from Harvard Medical School. With the shy male respiratory therapist, his forearms inked with blowsy crimson roses. The ponytailed nurses with silent shoes and chowder-thick accents from Quincy and Newton and Alewife. I try to win the nurses over. I memorize the schools they attended, the length of their commutes, whether they have kids at home.
Until the army of health-care providers—supervising MDs, attending physicians, RNs, respiratory therapists, phlebotomists, psychiatrists, social workers, and all the rest—is finished, there are medicines to course into Klara’s body and brain; others to flush out. There are tests and monitoring, and investigations into Klara’s past and future. But any information I have is expired and of no use. I show them photos of Klara and me as teens in our high-waisted pants and platform shoes. Picketing Anita Bryant and the Briggs Initiative. Later, it was Reagan’s inhumanity during the AIDS pandemic. Some of these photos are of Klara with girlfriends. She’d moved to Massachusetts by then. Pots of chili and jug wine. Over time, the dishes became more complex, the tipples fancier.
One of the photos is of my own wedding. Me, dressed in white, flanked by Klara and my husband. We called Klara our Best Honor Person. Just before the photo was taken, their hands accidentally touched at the small of my back. I felt them both startle.
Here is the thing. My husband didn’t leave me because he got a girlfriend. She is new. He left me because of my serial entanglements. He called them “emotional affairs.” I wasn’t good at these affairs. I didn’t even have sex in them. I didn’t want to trash my marriage or fall in love. I stayed long enough for a glimpse into the new person’s world. To break it open like a geode, get a good long look at it splayed before me. And then it was over.
Constellations of needle pokes will fade. Scars will heal. Klara may recover. But she might die. I let our friendship evaporate during my marriage. Nights when she called our landline, we’d lie there in bed, listening together as she left long messages on our answering machine in which she spoke of this new girlfriend, that new roommate. We pretended not to know how lonely she must be, to call someone who gave her nothing in return. Our friendship was a flower I allowed to wither.
In my room on Myrtle Street, I begin getting electric shocks any time I touch the metal of the refrigerator door, the bathroom doorknob, or the chain lock to the door to the hall. Every time this happens, I let myself cry a little.
Early mornings, I wait for the edges of the window shades to lighten. The sound of housekeeping’s tea kettle across the hall. The morning lobby voices and the scrapping dogs. The submarine bells of the elevators that glide up and down.
At Mass General, a lot happens every day. There is plenty of information and data. Machine sounds fill the air, punctuated with the scree of curtains swept open and closed. I press my thumb between Klara’s brows like I used to do for her headaches. The nurse smiles generally, tapping at her keyboard.
I often eat lunch at Mass General’s massive basement cafeteria. If I am early enough, there is still soup in the tureens and not just burned residue. I watch the other solo diners as they hunch over their phones. They linger, smiling at the young families with children.
I try to imagine Klara’s home life only a few days ago. Video games in her warm apartment, her decades-younger housemates leaving for a gig. The joyous whoosh of crisp outdoor air. Klara’s aqua-framed glasses steaming as she laughs, pulls a tray of root vegetables from the oven.
She has, I see, a fair bit of chin hair going. Lines beside her eyes and bracketing her mouth. There is no music emitting from the plastic media changer, although yesterday there was. Christmas tunes that Klara would have loathed.
I leave the hospital after dark. At the Charles River Plaza Whole Foods, I buy small amounts of food from the hot bar. Travel-size dish soap, deodorant, and marked-down holiday chocolate at CVS. I climb Joy Street to my room. Beacon Hill is brick brick brick, everywhere you look. I walk carefully to avoid slipping on the icy ground.
The Congolese night concierge slouches at his battered desk. A made-up-beyond-recognition lady sits erect in a velvet lobby chair, her walker beside her. She hugs herself gaily and cries, “Brrr!” The elevator is here, its doors about to close. I wave my arm to open the doors. “Dammit!” cries the skeletal young person inside. I have seen her a few times in the basement computer room, but she never returns my greeting.
“Going up?” I ask. The building’s nine floors of halls wrap around the genteel lobby. I plan to take the elevator to the top, to see the ground floor from a new angle.
"Trying to!" she snaps, turning her back on me. When we reach her floor, she explodes out of the tiny space.
I arrive at the ninth floor. Someone is there: a young man looking over the edge, red-eyed. We glance at each other, then away. I peer down, too, but don’t take any pictures.
It’s almost Christmas. The weather grows severe. There is much taking off and putting on of layers. I hurry through Boston Common with my metal eyeglass frames stinging my face. I am downtown for gloves and a hat. All the businesses and apartment buildings here, I have noticed, have two sets of entry doors. One is to get in and out of the elements. Then you are standing in a glass box, until you shoulder open the second set.
Beginning my third week in Boston, I purchase a bottle of gin. “Oh, limes!” I say. There’s a bowl of them beside the register. The sullen cashier does not respond. I lay down three quarters and push the bottle, a lime, into my shoulder bag.
I tour the King’s Chapel, its sanctuary filled with low boxes instead of pews. A small sign informs me that, in pre-Revolutionary times, these boxes were reserved for well-to-do parishioners. At the top of a rickety staircase, there is the enormous church bell, which another sign says was cast by the Revere Foundry. The last bell cast during Paul Revere’s lifetime. I press my mouth to the cold iron.
Down in the basement, crypts line the walls, strange bedfellows with old boilers, low-slung pipes, and office furniture from the 1970s. The crypts are for rich families from Boston’s early days. But one is called the Stranger’s Tomb, in which pine boxes containing friendless bodies were jammed.
Outside at the burial grounds, brittle-looking headstones poke from the snowy dirt. Crooked like teeth, adorned with those sinister-looking Puritan hearts with wings. Memento mori.
On Christmas day, the cafeteria is open but nearly deserted. There is little to eat. The tables and chairs, usually packed, are empty and askew. I am one of those lonely diners. Upstairs, the ICU nurse wears a necklace of Christmas lights. I replace Klara’s hospital socks with treaded red slipper-socks, snowflakes embroidered on them. I hold her feet in my hands.
I remember a much-older woman I worked with years ago. I admired her cropped black hair. She lived alone, surrounded by books. She talked about attending lecture series after work, and how she took herself on solo artist dates. Finally, she invited me to her place. The books were paperback bestsellers. All of the pictures on the walls were religious. What a letdown. We painted one another’s toenails, as was our plan. But the fact was, I couldn’t wait to leave her. Then I began the nonsexual affair with the doorman at my office building. Then the old Sikh cashier from my corner store. My neighbor, grieving the loss of her husband.
I was no better than that rich boyfriend of mine from college. He told me about visiting northern Thailand. In a Karen tribe village, he’d scorned the beautiful silver they sold, insisting on exchanging his Yankee dollars for the low woven stools the sellers sat on. More authentic that way, he’d explained.
I’d been a tourist in the lives of others. Peeking in from the safety of my marriage.
I am just … here. There is no fresh life for me to crack open and spy into. Any image of Klara’s life I can summon is based on a call from her, five years back. Her girlish voice issuing from our old answering machine. She spoke of young housemates who were in a band. Her new turquoise-framed glasses. Her job at Holyoke Community College. How she missed Seattle. The water. The green of it. Me.
On New Year’s Day, I sit across the street from the Old North Church (of “one if by land, two if by sea” fame), sipping espresso in a tiny cafe of steel and wood. Across from me is a hand-lettered sign advertising “ho-made cannoli.” The matrons at the next table, with their New England accents and sparse hair, remind me of my mother. One casts her hooded gaze at me. Appraises. Dismisses.
In the weeks since I arrived, my compassion has grown for my widowed mother. When I visit her in Phoenix, the screams of the “live studio audience” on daytime TV trigger my impulse to fight or flee. She refers to the chat show ladies by their first names and fills me in on what they have been up to.
Days, I sit with Klara in the ICU. Nights, in my room on Myrtle Street, I aim the space heater’s beam at the back of my aching neck, and drink. I don’t know when I’ll board a plane or what will happen after I do. All night long, I refresh the podcasts that soothe me: Heavyweight. Revisionist History. Sleep With Me. Once, I awake in orgasm’s doppler, dreaming of the mild-mannered podcaster’s head between my thighs, his voice a comforting drone. The refrigerator's motor switches on. Off. On. Off. I doze, rewind. Adjust the rolled towel under my neck.
Barefoot, I use the bathroom, bracing myself for a static shock, which does not come. I understand at last it is my rubber-soled shoes that are the issue. Now it feels wrong to touch a metal doorknob without a jolt.
I dress. Wash my face. Pack a protein bar, a pear. Assess again that I have unplugged my cords. Navigate Joy Street’s slippery bricks downhill before the snow starts to fall.
Along the sidewalks stream fit New England elders walking their dogs. And the solemn-mouthed students from Harvard Medical School, always dressed in dark-blue coats. The service workers with their tassel-topped Patriots hats.
I pass the corner where the just-released destitute patients congregate, their belongings in a single plastic bag. That is where I slip on the greasy black ice. I land hard on my hip and wrist. The pain is intense. The couple of the corner denizens rise to help. Hands cup my elbows until my feet are beneath me again. “Go slow,” a lanky woman with straw-like hair mutters. The stale alcohol smell could come from either or both of us.
And then those synthetic shrieks—like a cross between a bat’s cry and the call of a howler monkey—that emanate from the hospital parking garage. I never do learn or even try to learn their meaning. They are no stranger than anything else. They simply mean I am still here.
And then I am in Mass General’s enormous lobby, with the emergency room on the left. On my right is the coffee kiosk, the aroma of toast and lifegiving cup. Then the elevator to Blake 11 and the gift store with half-off holiday swag, where I smear overpriced lotion on my chapped hands.
“Be strong!” my mother texts me now. She sprinkles emojis of unicorns and muscled arms. I am strong. I want someone who will let me break. I want to be like the stately New England lady in the ICU elevator today, her back against the paneled wall. Her husband stood directly in front of her so she could close her eyes during the descent.
In Klara’s room, the shy respiratory therapist is here to do his monitoring. He touches Klara so gently.
“I like your ink,” I say.
“Oh, nice. Thank you,” he says. In his halting voice, I hear the more-successful siblings, the vulnerability to sweets, the pretty ones who call him their best friend. I want to touch his rose-swirled arms.
“I will get a tattoo when Klara recovers,” I tell him. “She loves dahlias,” I add. But he is focused on his work and only nods.
I wish Klara would open her eyes and tell why she listed me as her loved one. At the same time, my heart swells to have been claimed. My old friend, comatose in the ICU, has brought me here. I am gratefully caught. I can’t let her down. I don’t want Klara to be a friendless Stranger. I don’t want to be one, either.
I take her hand. It is puffy and warm. I lay my head on her pelvis. I imagine myself approving the rendition of the dahlia tattoo. Getting settled in the artist’s chair. Rolling my top up, my trousers down so he can begin the work of adding the ink to my hip. The needles’ buzz and sting as they push color into my skin. Behind Klara’s head is the tall window with its view of the Charles River. It is 5 o’clock and already dark.
On Myrtle Street, the baleful concierge buzzes me in. I wrestle the two sets of wood and glass doors. He does not look up from his phone as I approach. I stop before his desk. I remove my hat and gloves and unzip my jacket. At least for now, I live here in this slipstream of hot and cold. Modern and Puritan. He does not look at me. I pause, let his game’s tinny manic tune enter me, as its magentas and purples swirl.