28 comments

Feb 13, 2021

American Contemporary Drama

Shaker Heights, OH, 1968 and Gaithersburg, MD, 2020

 

“Don’t go just yet,” she whispered into his ear. “I’m not ready to be without you.”


Her head rested on his bare chest, still narrow and smooth with youth. She ran her fingers along his stomach, toward the top edge of the blanket, which lay loosely around his waist. She sniffled as a tear fell from her cheek. He gently stroked her thick, wavy brown hair, the nape of her neck, the space between her shoulder blades. A slim slant of light from the hallway made a streak along the ceiling and the far wall in the otherwise dark room. It was quiet except for the faint sounds of the nightly news from the television in the living room downstairs. The distant sounds of artillery and machine guns. On the other side of the world, war was raging. “I have to,” he said, doing his best to put on a brave face, fighting the tightness in his throat.

 

Florescent lights illuminated the room in an all-present glow that made shadows impossible. The sound of the ventilator filled the room, took up every blank space, every in-between moment. The whir of air being forced violently down the trachea, filling his lungs, and then being vacuumed back out. The dry, vacant click as his throat closed and reopened. Through the quarantine windows and privacy curtains, fleeting shadows of doctors and nurses and orderlies appeared briefly in her peripheral vision, rushing back and forth. Machines beeped steadily, measuring his pulse and oxygen levels.

 

They’d known each other forever, it seemed. At least as long as either could remember. Her father was a lawyer. His, a butcher. They lived on opposite ends of town, but they’d always gone to the same schools and church. He was a year older and a grade ahead. She’d looked up to him, admired him, cheered for him when he pitched for his little league team, consoled him when his dog slipped its leash and was hit by a car and whimpered and flailed its legs and then died in the street, chased after him in the fields and woods around Lower Shaker Lake, watched in awe as he and the other boys from his class swung from ropes and launched themselves heads spinning over heels into the cool, dark blue water. Mostly, he let her tag along, but once or twice, because he was trying to look tough or prove himself like boys of a certain age tend to do, he told her to get lost, to go find her own friends. Still, she was undeterred, and he was secretly glad about that.

 

From the hospital bed next to his, she reached across the cold metal frame and took his hand in hers. With her thumb, she rubbed his palm, felt the ridges and distended veins of his fingers and wrist. With great effort, he turned his head toward her. Perspiration wet his brow and soaked his thinning grey hair and stained his hospital gown a salty tinge. The lids of his eyes drooped heavily. His gaze through narrow slits was distant and unfocused.

 

In high school something shifted, and it was suddenly he who chased after her. He started hanging around her locker hoping she would show up between classes to pick up a book or put away her sweater. He walked her home after school, even though it was not on the way to where he was going, and rubbed the back of his neck nervously when he talked to her and looked at his feet and kicked the dirt with his canvas sneakers and stuttered and said, “oh, heck, what I mean to say, Sally, is that, well, I like you, I guess.” And she’d smiled and told him that she’d always liked him too. For as long as she could remember, at least.

 

On the bedside table, next to the beeping and whirring and whooshing machines, sat the computer that they’d used earlier that evening to call their children, their two daughters in New York and northern New Jersey, their son in Washington. The grandchildren had been there too, on the other side of the screen. Ryan, who was nineteen now, whose high school graduation they’d gone to just a year earlier, when family and friends could still gather together and drink wine and dance and embrace, who wanted to become a Marine, just like his grandfather. Madison, their granddaughter, who was thirteen and who played the piano so beautifully and who was already studying pre-calculus and who looked just like her mother. They’d all appeared in little boxes on the computer screen, talking over one another and trying not to cry while a nurse, face obscured by protective plastic shields that revealed only her eyes, held the screen.

 

He took her to see Two for the Road and in the darkness of the theater touched her arm like it was an accident, although they both knew it wasn’t. Behind the football field bleachers they kissed, their lives playing out like the Hollywood romances she insisted they see and that he went along with, even though he’d have preferred something with John Wayne or Marlon Brando. He wore a powder blue tuxedo to prom and she a long, yellow dress with a sash across the middle. They danced so close that a chaperone with a ruler told them to separate, admonishing them to leave some room for Jesus. He told her she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

 

He’d come back from that war in the jungle, his body riddled with shards from North Vietnamese bombs, and spent four months in a VA rehabilitation facility in Cleveland. She’d put off college and ridden the bus every day, forty minutes each way, to be at his side, finally convincing the staff to let her do his sponge bath and help him to the toilet. Slowly, she nursed him back to health. He’d proposed to her there in the facility, surprised her one day when she was rubbing his back with a warm, wet cloth. And she’d said, “of course.”

 

In the dark bedroom, they listened to the sound of the church bells ringing down the street, the last tones of the evening. “It’s getting late,” he said. “I need to report for duty first thing in the morning.” “Just lie here with me a little bit longer,” she said. She moved her hand down his body and caressed his thigh. The blanket below his waist moved perceptibly as his body responded to her touch. He leaned back heavily onto the pillow and exhaled and closed his eyes. “Just a few more minutes,” he said.

 

Her hand moved to his chest, the old familiar place. Through his skin, she felt the contours and edges of a piece of shrapnel with hands that knew every inch, every bump and groove and nook of his body. The surgeons had left it in, the shrapnel. It was too close to his heart, they'd said. They didn’t want to risk it. His chest was rough now, covered with thick, tightly curled grey hair, soaked through and heavy with sweat. His body relaxed and his breathing eased slightly, responding to her touch. He had grown smaller with age and illness, ravaged by the virus that started like a cold but had quickly become much worse, that had left him coughing so hard that she feared he would crack a rib, that caused him to lose consciousness and be whisked away in an ambulance by men and women wearing plastic suits and masks over their faces.

 

They made love quietly, with the door to her bedroom cracked part way open because that was the rule that her father had set for them – that the door couldn’t be closed – even though he knew, her father did, what they were up to. Her father adored him and respected like hell what he was doing and recognized what was in store for him. He’d had his own war. He’d marched through fields and villages in France and Belgium and Germany and seen young men’s bodies destroyed, ripped to shreds by land mines and bullets fired from bolt action sniper rifles, and he knew how much solace it could be to have a sweetheart back home waiting.

 

The children and the grandchildren all told him how much they loved him and how much they wished they could be there, at the hospital, to take care of him, and how unfair and cruel the whole situation was. She told them that her case was relatively mild, that the doctors were optimistic, but that his situation was serious. He would pull through this, they said. They would talk again soon. He was so strong. He’d faced down Vietcong way tougher than this virus. He managed a little grin at the edges of the ventilator tube and a brief thumbs up, his hands and arms shaking from exhaustion. And then the call ended, the screen went black, and they were alone again, their beds pushed together by the same kind nurse who had held the computer, separated only by the thin metal bedframe.

 

For a few minutes afterwards, they lay together, still flush with exertion and bliss and not a little bit of surprise and pride at what their bodies were capable of. And then he got up and dressed. He ran his fingers through his hair, smoothing it across his brow, making himself look presentable for her parents, who were still in the living room at the bottom of the stairs. Her father would want to shake his hand and wish him luck, tell him he was doing God’s work fighting the communists.

 

She awoke to the blaring of alarms from the monitors. He gasped for breath and his body convulsed, his eyes suddenly wide open and frantic. Soon the room would be filled with doctors, she knew. There would be movement and commotion and shouting. Once that happened, she would not be able to reach him. With all her strength, she pulled herself over the metal divider and lay next to him. She undid the tie on his hospital gown and pulled it down, letting it drape loosely around his waist. She put her head on his bare chest. She squeezed his hand.

 

He bent over the bed, where she was still wrapped in the sheets, and kissed her. Then he turned and without another word walked out of her bedroom, closing the door behind him. The slant of the light on the back wall disappeared and the sounds of machine gun blasts from the television went silent. And then he was gone.

 

“Don’t go just yet,” she whispered into his ear one last time. “I’m not ready to be without you.” 


You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

28 comments

Zilla Babbitt
23:42 Feb 14, 2021

David! Beautiful as always. I read this a day or so ago and loved it all. I was about to say you could mix and match the present with the past in this story -- but you've already done that. Really well done. Maybe yet another shortlist?

Reply

David Gottfried
03:17 Feb 15, 2021

Thank you, Zilla. As I've said before, I really respect your opinion. And your vote of confidence is meaningful. By the way, I'm reading your new stuff, and really enjoying it. I appreciate how you're using this platform. The contest is sort of fun (although I find that the Friday morning suspense is bad for my health), but the much more important thing is that we're growing as writers.

Reply

Zilla Babbitt
23:04 Feb 16, 2021

Thank you! I'm glad you like them. I agree, that Friday morning anticipation is pretty taxing ;)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Christina Marie
22:32 Feb 13, 2021

Really poignant. The full circle narrative is a nice touch. Thank you for sharing.

Reply

David Gottfried
12:40 Feb 14, 2021

Thank you for reading, Christina. And congratulations on your recent win! I'm a fan of yours.

Reply

Christina Marie
00:43 Feb 15, 2021

Thanks David :) And right back attcha!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Heather Mc Quaid
22:00 Feb 13, 2021

This was so beautiful and sad, I'm at a loss for words. I'll come back later, to see I can read the sentences without the sentiment taking over.

Reply

David Gottfried
12:40 Feb 14, 2021

Thank you, Heather. I went back to an earlier version with the two bed scenes shuffled together. I think I like it better, even if nobody else will understand it now.

Reply

Heather Mc Quaid
13:28 Feb 15, 2021

It's still beautiful--maybe it takes a bit more effort on the reader's part to remember what the italics mean (past or present), but that's okay. I only noticed one sentence that maybe could be reworked. "Florescent lights illuminated the room in an all-present glow that made shadows impossible." It's fine grammatically, but just wondering if the style could be tweaked (...illuminated the room in an all-present glow, making shadows impossible). And this made me smile: "They danced so close that a chaperone with a ruler told them to separ...

Reply

David Gottfried
14:56 Feb 16, 2021

Thank you, Heather! It's a good suggestion, but I think I'm going to keep that sentence as is. I'm glad you liked the line about leaving room for Jesus. I got a kick out of that one as well. Is is supposed to be the Holy Spirit, though, that needs room on the dance floor? Now I can't remember!

Reply

Heather Mc Quaid
15:39 Feb 16, 2021

yeah, no worries, that sentence works fine as is. I don't know what the quote is supposed to be, it just tickled me. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Rachel Smith
14:21 Feb 15, 2021

This brought tears to my eyes. What else is there to say? Beautifully written. You should win.

Reply

David Gottfried
22:00 Feb 15, 2021

Thank you, Rachel. I appreciate the vote of confidence. And thanks for reading!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
K. Antonio
11:42 Feb 15, 2021

Oh, I wouldn't be surprised if this won. I got emotionally invested very quickly and that ending was great! The structure of the story is well organized, the story is easy to follow and their was some great use of "showing". I don't really think I can say anything negative about this piece. At most, I guess since it's still early in the week you still have days to look back and work on what you feel / want for the story. But I loved it! I had an emotional ride on this story and everything was so crystal clear.

Reply

David Gottfried
22:01 Feb 15, 2021

Thank you, K. That means a lot to me! I’m glad you connected with the story!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Tom .
23:22 Feb 14, 2021

Well you are in with a shout, the judges are loving the emotional rollercoaster at the moment. All joking aside, I hope you are well, this was beautiful and had that power for people to recall their own parallel situations. As it did to me. No critique. It was a clever intelligent piece. Well done.

Reply

David Gottfried
03:19 Feb 15, 2021

Thank you, Tom. This one was not easy to write, but I think it's the best work I've done. I almost cried as I was writing the last line. You not having a critique is meaningful. I appreciate the vote of confidence. Work's been busy lately, so I haven't had as much time as I would like to read and critique other people's work, but I hope to read your latest this week!

Reply

Tom .
10:07 Feb 15, 2021

Take your time it is not going anywhere....

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Cathryn V
04:49 Feb 21, 2021

Hi David, beautiful story! I like that you’ve made it current. And the couple are an example of true love. I really want this story to win. I suggest adding more specificity wherever you can. For example, they went to the movies...pick one and name it; give the dog some particular description, etc. I always look for your new stories and love all of them. If my suggestions aren’t useful, just ignore, thanks for writing!

Reply

David Gottfried
20:39 Feb 21, 2021

Good thought! I put in a name of a 1967 romance movie. I tried not to choose the most obvious ones (Valley of The Dolls, Doctor Zhivago, etc.). Thanks for reading, Cathryn. I'm really pleased you're enjoying my stuff!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
A.Dot Ram
20:47 Feb 20, 2021

The way you wove this story together was so resonant. It reminds me of your perfect circle story. I always thought there was something very meta in that one--something about writing a story and going with your gut. Well, you have good instincts if that's true. This story closed like a perfect circle. You just keep getting better every week. Seriously, what are you doing in the background that your stories and style evolve like this? I want in on your secret.

Reply

David Gottfried
03:51 Feb 21, 2021

Thank you, Anne. That’s very kind of you. I feels like my confidence diminishes each week. Being on this site is a bit of an emotional roller coaster. I’m enjoying your latest stuff as well! If you’re interested, it would be great to chat about writing sometime. No pressure, though, and I certainly don’t want to break any virtual/real life barriers if it’s not wanted. -David

Reply

A.Dot Ram
04:50 Feb 21, 2021

No worries about barriers. Let's talk writing. We can start our own Bloomsbury Group. I've been starting to think big picture about my writing and it would probably be helpful to get out of my own head. Let me know if you have any problems finding me irl. There's a map to me in my bio.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Asha Pillay
19:38 Feb 18, 2021

You have written this story with lot of emotions and it shows.

Reply

David Gottfried
02:32 Feb 20, 2021

Thank you, Asha. I’m glad you connected with it. Thank you for taking the time to read it!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Kate
09:31 Feb 14, 2021

Great story as always! Sad and of course very relevant with the COVID. Just a thought- with the Gaithersburg, MD, 2020 would it read better if it is put just before the italics start (rather than at the top)? :-)

Reply

David Gottfried
12:42 Feb 14, 2021

Thank you, Mary Kate. I'd initially drafted it with the two scenes cut together, which required the italics so that it wouldn't be completely incomprehensible. Then I grouped it so that the two scenes were separate. Now I've gone back to my original concept. I don't know if anyone will understand it now, but I think I prefer it!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Holly Fister
15:51 Feb 22, 2021

Loved the back and forth, very good.

Reply

Show 0 replies