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I must hate myself. My straw sandals make the softest little pats on the spotless white linoleum tile. In my left hand I am strangling a bunch of closed up white roses. Exactly five. I am choking the life out of them as they hang down by my side, if I were much shorter they would drag over the ground. I wish they would. Every step is excruciating. Every breath hurts. The sterile smell of bleach burns my nose. I can feel the pitying stares. Or the avoidance. As if I exist too much or not at all.
Finally. Finally I am closer. My steps echo in my ears. Making a conscious effort to quiet them, I switch the flowers into my other hand. The door is in front of me now. Pure white. Like the roses. Like the building. Void of any mistakes or passion or feeling. Like me. The knob is a matte silver and it juts out of the smooth door like a broken bone. He won’t even know. I can leave. Move on. But this is ritual. For the couple of minutes I stand outside of the room I let myself think of life and what it would be if I left right now. Let myself believe that I can actually do it. And then I go in. The door glides seamlessly across the floor. Perfect. “Hey you. How are ‘ya? Hungry I bet.” The cheeriness in my own voice sickens me down to my very core.
No one else is here, but I am obviously not the first one to have visited. Cards litter the bed stand. Balloons and flowers. I begin to organize the room, stacking the cards, propping the cutest ones up, “Maybe later, if you’re up to it,” I swallow past the hot compacted lump in my throat, “we can grab some lunch in the cafeteria. Whattya say, James?” For the first time today, I look at him. His light almond hair is growing out a little too much around the neck... It must be bothering him. The strong jaw is tensed just so, the way it always is when he’s thinking. Different than when he’s upset or angry. He meets my gaze with dark blue, confused eyes.
“Who’re you?” He jerks his chin in my direction, how he always does when he doesn’t know the person he is speaking to. When he feels the need to challenge them, “You a nurse?” He tries after a couple moments when I don’t answer. My eyes burn, but I can’t cry. Not again. Not in front of him.
“Tori Woods.” The name is sharp in my mouth, like shattering glass. It shouldn’t be Woods! I want to cry. It should be Bree! Like you! But I bite my tongue and push a lock of red blonde hair behind my ear, tilt my head and smile. A signature Tori Allison Woods move. Nothing. Nothing but his breathing fills the room. He has always been a heavy breather and that has always helped me fall asleep. His breath fills the small hospital dorm, he doesn’t even speak to me. But I am telling myself it’s okay. As long as he’s breathing I should be happy. Or at least content.
I pull a crystal vase from the cupboard, fill it with water from the chrome tap and place the flowers in it. Setting the whole thing on the windowsill and running a finger through the dust that rests there, “Does anyone ever even clean this room?” I mumble unusually irritated.
“Hey Tori. You never answered my question!” I spin around and face him, heart slamming in my chest at my name said in his voice, his tone so familiar, I almost believed that he knew me.
“Are you a nurse?” I roll my eyes at his question, momentarily forgetting everything as I fall into the perfect pattern that I always did when I was with James.
“Do I look like a nurse?” His lips curve into a mischievous grin.
“That doesn’t answer my question though.” His eyes are focused on me, and after trying, I accept that I can’t meet them. I couldn’t yesterday and I can’t today.
“No, no I’m not a nurse.”
“Then what?” I have started to wipe away at the caked on dust with a moist end of my sweater.
“Then....what are you? Besides extremely pretty?” I stay silent, pushing down the impulse to say what I deeply want to say. I’m your girlfriend. The one you love. Your future wife! You said so yourself! You looked me in the eye two months ago and told me me you loved- The door swings open again, heels make popping noises over the floor and there is a rustle of long overcoats and scarves.
Swallowing audibly, I turn and face the familiar and welcome faces of Connor and Melody Bree. His parents put on a brave smile and greet. Mrs. Bree has her long thick hair pulled into a once tight chignon, strands falling out of the many scrunchies and bobby-pins she uses. But it falls perfectly around her olive, heart-shaped face. “Darlin’! Sweetie! How are you?” The question is aimed at James, so is the ‘Sweetie‘ part of her statement. My pet name has always been ‘Darlin’. She said it in a western, cow-girlish, dialect, and engulfed me in a warm but brief hug, kissing both my cheeks lightly. Then she moves onto her son, I want to cry at the look he gives her. It was look he gave me when I walked in, seeing it again is just as hard. Even when it isn’t directed at me.
Turning, I refocus my blurry vision on Connor, who is leaning heavily against the wall, all weight pushed onto his right leg. His eyes meet mine and he gives me only the smallest movement of his head, motioning me out of the door and once I enter the foyer I feel him behind me. Whoosh. The door swings closed.
What I like about Connor is that he can stay silent with you. A large hand wraps around my shoulders, our backs leaning against a bare wall. Waiting in a wordless corridor together.
“Tori...?” Melody’s head pokes out of James‘s room, “Are you going to take him to lunch?” Her voice is wobbly, it always seems to be lately.
“Yeah, I think they’re serving lasagna today.” And, just as I have been doing everyday since the accident, I put on a smile and take my boyfriend to lunch. He won’t remember when tomorrow comes around, but I’ll do it again anyway.
It’s still pretty early, at least by James‘ standard, but that’s why I’m here. I want to see him sleeping, because he looks the same as he did two months ago, and I’m afraid of his wakeful self. Maybe things will be different if mine is the first face he sees when wakes up at twelve-thirty in the afternoon. Different. Better. Fixed.
The automatic doors fly open about an inch from my nose and slam closed behind me, almost catching the heel of my boots. As I glide through the spotless hallway I receive looks from the nurses; I receive ‘Good mornings.‘ and ‘How are you’s?‘ and ‘Here so early?‘. I never though that Saint Mark’s Hospital would become a normal piece of my day. I see it as more than a place for my torn ligaments from basketball, and I don’t like what I see.
The bustle of people thin out even more as I get closer to James‘ room, it wasn’t busy to begin with, but I am relieved anyway. There seem to be too many people in the world and I start to contemplate how I was able to stand the noise before. Before James did something stupid. Before he decided his life wasn’t worth it. My steps slow, my heart drops south in my chest. dense and frozen. Like a rock. All the air is sucked from the building and a layer of cold sweat covers my skin.
The walls fly by me as I race toward his room. The little golden plates next to the rooms fly by me, screaming their numbers. Behind the walls on either side of me are patients, some will be sleeping, others watching T.V., maybe a couple are in pain, and some are lonely. But I don’t care, nothing matters right now except reaching his room as fast as I can. A stray thought reaches my mind, I’m not breathing... I should be breathing. But I don’t need air. My lungs aren’t begging for oxygen and I am unable to draw a breath even if they were.
And even though two-twenty-five seems to be searching farther and farther away from my charging body I pushed forward and reached his room. The door moves in waves before my blurry vision and the knob escapes me twice before I capture it. I am holding it, savoring it’s solid coldness, so immovable. And now I turn it and enter....
Immediately the overpowering smell of over cleanliness and Clorox Bleach slam into me. Mixed with something else, I can only think that it’s some sort of antibiotics, though I’m not even sure that has a smell. James lies on the bed, his face is shiny with sweat and his mouth so tightly clenched seems very possible that his teeth will shatter. A man in a white lab coat stands over him, only the back of his head if visible, the mouse brown hair thinning and gray streaking his unsuccessful combover.
“Doctor Austin?” My unsteady voice barely travels the short distance from me to him. My brain, releasing all control on my body, lets my legs collapse under me as I slump into a gray chair.
“Tori...” His thick set eyebrows shoot into his hair, but his sunken and wrinkle-lined eyes are soft, “Maybe you should leave. You don’t have to see this.”
“He’s dying, isn’t he?” I feel detached, all my limbs floating away from me, my mind fading in and out, vision trapped. No matter how I turn, his dying figure dominates. The white starch of his skin, the wet hair line; His labored breath.
“I am afraid so,” Doctor Austin’s voice is like a surgical knife as it slices through my pain, cleanly, sharply, “Tori, I am so sorry.. But there is nothing we can or could have done. He knew his brain tumor was there and he chose...” The breath he takes is long and decisive, “He chose to take the cocaine. That is what shot his immune system. That is why he is here. No amount of love in the world can change what he has done to himself.” His large, steady hands lead me into the hall, and the imagery of my world falls away. Splices of memories attack me. “Tori... I won’t live past my early forties... A brain tumor...” His breath shook out of fear, “...It won’t affect me now... But-”
“Tori, I love you.” “Tori, I’ll never leave you, never forget you.” “Happy birthday, Tori.” “Tori.” “Tori.”
White powder litters the ground around him. Cocaine. Again, as if living just a little bit longer didn’t matter to him in the least. His body still. Light pouring through lace curtains.
“Who are you?” “My name is Tori, James. Don’t you remember me?”
James. “I love you James. Don’t leave me... please!”
“I’m sorry Mom, Dad. I know you.. love me....I just can’t remember...” His words are choked and fade out, and he looks as perfect as ever. I am wearing his favorite outfit. I have out photo album in our hands. But he won’t-- doesn’t-- know me. Know us. Even though I have practically lived in his room. By his bed. With him. For the past two months since his tumor began killing him as fast as seemingly possible. I have poured over our memories. vacation pictures, texts... emails..with him. And at times I believed he was beginning to remember. But he never did. All three of us are here: Melody, Connor... Me. All secretly hoping for an impossible miracle.
“I love you.” I rasped after a time.
“I can tell...but...I...Tori-” He breaks into coughs, “Tori, I remember.” Tears fall down my cheeks, I am flinging myself on him, wanting, needing, this to last.
I am being gently pushed away, eyes hovering just above his, and then I see it. There is no recognition and never was, “I’m sorry... I wanted...wanted to pretend. But I can’t. You deserve to know, know that I don’t know you...” Nodding, I stand up, all of me has been torn apart.
I don’t know how long it’s been, but the clock tells that two hours have passed, but he is dead. No bravado or famous or last words or meaningful insight on life. He’s just dead, simple and easy. I am dead too. But my body won’t believe it. My heart keeps pumping blood through my body and I keep breathing, I can only wait for the time when my body catches up with my soul and dies along with me. Love you James...
Five dead white roses are gripped in my hand as I walk the opposite way down the hall. If I were any shorter they would drag on the ground. So I drop them in the black trash can and walk into the cold autumn air.