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.”