The first time he’d spent the night at the hospital had been blunt. It had been unrelenting, with crust running down his chest and cheek. You hadn’t known what to make of it. You forgave him only because he was a weak man. Now it was at least the seventh time. He laid there, his grotesque form pulling beneath the white sheets. Only his feet stuck out, and you observe them, their yellow and gray tinge, wrinkled, his shapeless hooked nails breaking into the cracks of his skin.
The rooms in the hospital are spilling with sterile sickness, and your boyfriend smells like piss and liquor. People are groaning in the other curtained cells. The scene itself is generic in the way only a hospital can be. Your vision slips aimlessly between vapid colors and rectilinear furniture. Everything is an anomaly. The voice of the hospital lacks inflection. It murmurs in a slithering, undecipherable language, a thread of contamination. You wonder if that is what hopelessness sounds like.
A teenage girl passes, walking at a rapid tripping step, with silvery precision as her exasperated mother trails behind her. She tries to look away but finds that she can’t, that her eyes are drawn to the form, to the inhumanity that must be lurking beneath the sheets. You try to make eye contact with her, but she’s frightened of it, and scurries away to the curtained cell next to your own.
A nurse appears, clad in crisp mint scrubs, with a clipboard at hand. You look at her name tag: Lily Diaz.
“What do you want us to do with the money?” Lily asks; her voice is crisp like an automated recording.
“Just keep it in his coat pocket.”
“Nurses are required to put large sums of money in the inventory, unless he signs for it.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” you say with a wave of your hand, dismissing the idea. He couldn’t have been carrying more than a few dollars.
“We found $1,800 from his wallet, his passport, and several of credit cards. We are going to put it in the inventory until he gets better,” the nurse speaks with arid precision.
Eighteen hundred dollars. Eighteen hundred dollars. Where could he find that kind of money? He’d been depending on you for the last eight months since you met. “There must be some mistake.”
The nurse takes out his I.D., and reads out his name, slightly irritated. “Is his name Jack Bowie?”
“Then we found $1,800 in his wallet.”
You hesitate. As a rule, you ignore his questionable hours, habits, so on and so forth, but $1,800 was pushing the limit. For a moment a memory of his Chicago days flit through your mind. You drum your fingers against the flat fading surface of the pull-out table.
“What do you mean, you’re going to put it in the inventory? How will he know how to get it?” you demand. You take pride in the fact that your voice is firm.
“He will go to the front desk and request it.”
“What’s he going to think when he wakes up–?” You don’t know why you’re defending him. “Listen. Can you do anything about this smell? It smells in here. It stinks. He wet himself and–It stinks. It’s disgusting.”
“Are you his girlfriend?” the nurse asks.
You wince. “Yes.”
“We’ve already sprayed air freshener. There’s nothing else we could do,” she turns around to walk away but you stop her. You don’t want to be in the room alone.
“How about a detox? Can you detox him?” Your voice, it withheld its ironic nasal quality, its rigidity.
“Are you his wife?”
“I already said no.” You spit a little when you speak. Disgusting.
“You could only request a detox for him if you’re his wife. Otherwise, he has to do it himself,” the nurse explains with exaggerated patience. Is she mocking you? You avert your eyes. The teenage girl in the next cubicle is peering between a slit in the curtains curiously, innocently. She has large eyes, you notice. Short bobbed hair. She looks a lot like her mother, who is holding her with one hand. You pretend to ignore her.
“Tell me if you need anything,” the nurse said, turning on her heel and slipping out. She walks out before you can respond.
You look at his body, beneath the sheet. At first you sit awkwardly, unsure of what to do with yourself. “Wake up. Wake up, you filthy schmuck.” You kick him a little. He doesn’t respond. You kick him a little more violently, but still gingerly because you don’t really want to touch him more than necessary. He doesn’t say anything at first, and he probably can’t even hear you because he’s passed out cold. But you see a movement flit across his face, the recognition, the disappointment.
At first you don’t understand him because his voice is so slurred. He’s still in his drunken haze. “Tutu…I want to see the tutu girls…”
Of course, the tutu girls. The ballerinas. Obviously he would be thinking about the tutu girls. Your face distorts into a snarl. It was almost half past midnight, you were here tending after him, and all he could thing about was the dancers. Of course. Your New York accent comes off strong when you’re mad at him. “Don’t talk to me about those tutu girls. Those anorexic assholes. They’re only using you. If I were to cut you off my credit card lines, all the $5 strippers in New York would go hungry.”
He doesn’t even hear you, but continues to mumble incoherent fragments, bits and pieces of his liquor-induced euphoria. Every once in a while, you hear the word, “tutu,” again.
Just when he looks like he’s about to start falling asleep again, you bark again at him. “You know I think you died a little when you found out you were partially Jewish. You always hated that. That I’m Jewish. You couldn’t stand it.” The language in your mouth is calloused, scaly, bitten with perennial irony, like a drill.
Suddenly you satisfy the urge to pull yourself very close to him, where a slit in the sheets reveal the side of his face. It wasn’t affectionate; you didn’t know how to be affectionate, and now wasn’t the time to learn. You wanted to close in on him.
“Where did you get that money?” you whisper to him, hissing, hoarsely. “Tell me where you got that money.”
“It’s mine…It belongs to me.”
“Don’t lie to me. What are you going to do with it?” You inhale the overwhelming scent of urine and alcohol and hand sanitizer.
“I’m going to London.”
“I’m going to make things right with him.”
A twinge of fear. “With who?”
You used to know nothing about desperation. The way it could drive you, like an itch you couldn’t scratch; the way it stung and burned until you wanted to drive your dull nails into your skin, draw cool blood. “Your son,” you repeat skeptically. Undoubtedly from his second wife.
“I’m going to take him to the movies…I’m going to London to meet him…”
“Oh, shut up. Shut up. You’re not allowed to speak. Please spare me an illustration of your storybook father-son relationship.” He remains stoic.
You swallow, hard. You used to be a pretty girl, once. Or at least you think you might have been. Now your face is like a candle’s melting wax. The loose skin is about to swallow your features, your bulbous nose and squinting brown eyes melting into flesh. The lines of your face are disappearing, slight, vague formless beneath the strain of flaps of skin. Formless. Shapeless. Lost in sags and layers. You are a caricature in progress, in motion. In a couple years, you will only resemble yourself at a distance. He begins standing up fifteen minutes later, shakily.
“What are you doing?” you say, panicked. “Where are you going?” Louder, this time. It takes a while for him to answer. He’s wearing his hospital robe. He’s a frail wisp of a man. Like vapor fading. You are thick, present, like rugged meat compared to his cloud form. He’s short, but still taller then you, and a little chubby. You watch him stumble, catch himself. Defeated.
“London,” he mumbles. “I’m buying the ticket to London…first plane tonight.”
In the corner of your eyes, the girl is still creeping between curtains, trying hard to be inconspicuous and failing. It excites you, to have an audience.
He’s taking off his gown, but is having a hard time, swaying this way and that, like a flag wavering in the wind. “They won’t let you get on the plane, like that. You’re a menace. You’re a hazard. I should have broken up with you before. I’m out of your life. I’m gone. I’m not coming back.” You wait for him to protest, to fight for you. Something hot and acidic is rising in your mouth, something sickish, like sweat and baby powder. “You could pack your things. You’re moving out. I’m not paying for any more of your frivolities. It’s over.” You want to flaunt your independence in his face. He is too busy unbuttoning his robe to notice.
More long ago than you care to remember, you were assaulted by a man, shrouded in baggy clothing and with eyes like chips of broken glass. You took him to court, planned to send him straight jail. Now he was your boyfriend. But you weren’t even married. Maybe you could leave him – but no, who else would take you? No one else would want you, a mangy old lady, already half-rotten. You swallow the acid, the bile, shaking a little because your heart is pounding too hard for your chest.
“Does your son know his father is an alcoholic? That he lies.” The hospital gown is off. You look at his naked body. It disgusts you to know that you made love to a man like that. “Did you forget to mention that you used to be part of a gang, back in Chicago. Your criminal record. I bet that slipped your mind. I’m out of your life… ”
You’re a smart woman, but you never understood the nature of poison. He was your leech. Your parasite. He drained you; he wasted you away, made you shrivel and made you empty, like a shell. Remnants, carcass. When you are dead, there will be nothing left for the maggots.
“Your son is doomed, by the way.” Now he is trading you in for something not mutilated, intact. “Your son is going to be drinking from a vodka bottle by the time he’s twelve.” You want a response. You want him to hurt the same way you do. “Did you hear that? He’s going to spend his entire life hung-over. Alcoholism is in his blood, he’s drawn to it.”
You realize that the surface of your body is quivering. The quiver starts from the inside, you feel it on the inside, emanating from the core in your chest, vibrating in a violent spasm. Erupting, like vomit. Inside you are convulsing. An internal epilepsy. You try to suppress it, your nails digging into your skin, trying to stop it all from permeating through.
He was fully dressed now, and calling the nurse. She arrives imminently, and they proceed to discuss his discharge from the hospital. He claims he’s sober now, a statement at complete odd with the drunken euphoria he’s entranced in, and that he could leave. She smiles at the seemingly harmless man, the passive man, as he stumbles, slightly comical, and holds himself against the wall. Of course he can go, she says to your surprise, as long as he could walk in a straight line without falling. That was the clinical procedure to determine if someone was sober enough to be discharged, in these situations. He walks, ludicrously, in a straight line. He’s like smoke, you observe, dirty, gray, and tinged, like smoke, toxic like smoke.
“You can’t let him go. He’s stumbling. He’s pathetic. You can’t just let him get out this way without a detox. He has to get a detox. How could he board a plane without a detox. He’s a hazard, I shouldn’t even be here, I’m not your wife…This smell, I hate this smell. Nurse, fix this smell…” Delirium.
You wonder what the girl sees when she looks at your face. Does she see the sags and the lines, the thick roughness of your flesh, like the bark of a tree soaked in water, the excess skin hanging from your chin and neck, does she see the integrity of all your wrinkles, the result of a very long and difficult life that had been so unfair to you. Does she pity you, does she notice that you need him, and you’re rotting, and you’re wasting away, that you have nothing left when you’re not being drained and sucked. Does she think you’re a bitch. You hope she thinks you’re a bitch.
“Life is very long…” he slurs, quietly, kissing you on the cheek. He is worthless, and you love him.
You hear the soft pads of the soles of his feet against the shiny hospital pavement, echoing again and again in the white vacancy, a million times in the long corridor, before he finally leaves. You will never come to terms with the fact that you are a masochist. You succumb to the voice of the hospital, you soak what it says in, and in the same way some people stick their fingers in fire. You know what to do. You knew it all along, and so did he. You take a cab home and wait for him to come back.