The night is immense and awful, Helen, and I am insect
D. H. Lawrence, Repulsed
Kalinda’s jaw aches.
It’s been aching for weeks, all through her hospital stay. The morphine and the codeine and whatever else they’ve had her on hasn’t helped, and for the life of her Kalinda couldn’t figure out the trick. It was only today that she remembered—Leela. Leela used to grind her teeth in her sleep. Kalinda woke up this morning and nearly choked on the remembering, her jaw still fixed and tight.
There have been other slip-ups too. Nail-biting, which Kalinda’s always made a point of avoiding in the past. Fidgeting with her hair. Tapping on the hospital bed’s rolling table. Bad habits, and all of them Leela’s. Leela, who drank milky tea and smoked, one cheap pack after another until her fingertips were yellow. Leela, who allowed herself to become dependent on things. The nurses won’t let Kalinda have coffee and every cup of Earl Grey they’ve brought her has tasted like ashes.
(“Leela,” Nick had said. “Leela Leela Leela.” Like a baptismal chant.)
The teeth grinding—Leela’s oldest, longest-buried habit—is the final straw. Ever since leaving the hospital Kalinda’s skin has felt tight and raw everywhere, her whole body like an open wound. It feels as if Leela is slowly clawing her way back inside, unfurling herself from the bullet hole and stretching out her fingers to clutch at gristle and bone. Soon she’ll pull herself up to look out Kalinda’s eyes, speak with Kalinda’s mouth, and then there will be nothing left.
Kalinda shifts painfully, staring out the car window. She could take another Tylenol 3—the nurses gave her two specifically for the journey, a whole bottleful more stashed away in her suitcase—but then Alicia would look over from driving and worry. Alicia’s worry is like a physical thing. It presses and itches and grabs, a wet wool coat that is three sizes too big, and Kalinda doesn’t want to provoke it any more than necessary. She knows by now she doesn’t like the results:
“So he just—walked in and shot you?” Alicia asked halfway through the second week. The nurses were doing physio on Kalinda by then, helping increase her range of motion. Alicia was always polite enough to wait outside until afterwards.
Kalinda put down the cup of metallic-tasting water that was her reward for bending her knees. “Alicia, I—” She stopped. Alicia’s stare was unblinking, almost aggressive. They still didn’t know how to talk to one another, could barely be considered friends, but for some reason Alicia kept trying doggedly. Kept dropping by, sometimes after work, sometimes on her lunch break, and Kalinda had more or less gotten used to the intrusion. She understood that she’d scared Alicia. It turned out to be almost as big of a betrayal as lying to her.
(And every time Kalinda got impatient, Leela crept up from between her ribs to remind her that fear was a physical thing too. It sat on you, dug its fingers in. "You gave me such a fright," Alicia had sobbed on that first morphine-soaked day; Leela peered out through Kalinda’s eyes at the terror perched on Alicia’s shoulder like a golem and thought, Yes, exactly.)
“Alicia.” Kalinda tried again, breathing deep. She hurt everywhere. “Yeah. Okay. He just walked in and shot me.” He hadn’t, of course, but Alicia didn’t need to know that.
No one needed to know that.
Alicia narrowed her eyes like she was weighing Kalinda’s answer on some golden scale of truthfulness only she could see. Kalinda had seen that look before; I can’t be the only one being forthcoming. In the end, though, she hadn’t said anything.
She’d done something, and that was worse.
She’d done it quietly, so quietly that Kalinda hadn’t seen it coming. The drugs were distracting, and the pain, and she hadn’t read the signs properly. When Alicia swept into the hospital room four days later and presented her Plan, Kalinda had been caught completely off guard.
Alicia had obviously intended it that way. She outlined her idea in front of the nurses with a fixed political smile and a wax-paper face. It was cleared with the supervising physician, she said. She’d already informed Will and Diane, she said. The vacation time was booked. There would be no arguments.
The nurses were delighted, cooing about how it was the best solution, the most sensible idea. Alicia nodded imperiously, smiling, and oh, Kalinda had hated her then. Saint Alicia—yes, now she could see it. But the codeine made her mind slow. Leela pushed inside her mouth and held her tongue. There was no winning.
So now—wedged uncomfortably in the passenger seat of Alicia’s car, the I-65 rolling by outside her window—Kalinda has no one to blame but herself. The seatbelt cuts painfully across her abdomen. Behind her, two weeks’ worth of clothing rattles around in the trunk. It’s almost embarrassing, how easily she’s let herself be played.
The pills are in her pocket. Kalinda clutches them, traces their outline through the little plastic bag.
Her jaw throbs, dully and just once.
Alicia roots around in her purse for toll money. She can feel Kalinda watching her, has the overwhelming urge to turn around and scream WHAT? at the top of her lungs. They’ve barely said two words to each other the whole drive and the silence is starting to wear on her. She even left the radio off, expecting Kalinda to sleep, but it’s been over an hour and Kalinda’s eyes haven’t drooped once. It’s eerie, and not a little bit annoying.
We are doing this, Alicia tells her silently. I got you shot. You are letting me do this, dammit.
The problem with the silence is it extends past the car ride. The last few weeks Kalinda has been in the hospital, the last few months when they weren’t talking—all of it has been swallowed up by a giant hush Alicia can’t seem to fight her way free of. She doesn’t even really know what it is she wants Kalinda to let her do, since so far all she’s managed are clumsy, empty gestures. Every new magazine and book and plant she’d brought to the hospital had done nothing but leave Kalinda looking increasingly nonplussed.
“You know I can’t walk over and water that, right?” she’d asked when Alicia set the little basket of pansies by the window.
Alicia fluffed the arrangement, caught between embarrassment and wild, irrational anger. She’d always liked pansies; their sweet little faces reminded her of spring. “The nurses will do it,” she said shortly.
Kalinda licked her lips. They had her on a liquid diet but she always looked parched, bare mouth cracked like she’d been months in the desert. The one time Alicia had dared to touch her—to clutch her hand in those first few minutes of bone-deep relief—her skin had been animal-hot. “I’m sure they’ll love that chore,” she said evenly, rolling her eyes. All of a sudden Alicia wanted to slap her, make those pale lips bloom with blood.
She hadn’t brought flowers again.
What she really wants to do: demand explanations. The questions stack up inside each other like Matryoshka dolls, each one opening onto the next—who is your husband what did he do to you why did you let him do it why did you marry him did you love him was it my fault was it my fault that he found you are you angry are you afraid can you forgive me please forgive me—but Alicia’s too scared to ask them. In these past few months Kalinda has become unfamiliar, and Alicia doesn’t know how to read her expressions anymore.
(The smallest Matryoshka question, the one inside all the others: why didn’t you run?
Alicia doesn’t know what’s inside that.)
Still, disagreements over flowers aside, Alicia can admit Kalinda’s been much more aquiescent than she anticipated—her presence in the car is evidence enough. And only this morning she'd let Alicia follow her into her apartment without comment, both of them stepping gingerly over the police tape. Alicia noticed the emptiness first, the bloodstain on the floor second. She hadn’t mentioned either. Kalinda took her into the bedroom where there was a hole in the drywall and a half-packed bag.
I think she’s planning on leaving, Will had said, the third day Kalinda hadn’t shown up to work. Yes. Alicia could see that.
“There was more,” Kalinda said quietly as she started to sort through the bag. “The police must’ve taken it.” Alicia swallowed her tongue.
More or not, it probably wouldn’t have helped—most of Kalinda’s clothing turned out to be too tight across the waist, skirts or cinched dresses, and nearly all of it office attire. What do you wear around the house? Alicia had thought as Kalinda rifled through the fabric. But she only sat in a white armchair beside the bed and watched, silent.
In the end they’d mostly packed the things Alicia had purchased during Kalinda’s hospital stay, a collection of loose cotton sleep shirts and bathrobes Kalinda had practically lived in. It hadn’t been Alicia’s idea—a nurse had taken her aside the second day she’d visited and mentioned that she might go by Kalinda’s home and pick up some essentials. Toothpaste, underwear, that kind of thing.
Alicia had felt the full weight of responsibility then. Kalinda was still bleary with the morphine, asleep as often as she was awake. And alone. Very, very alone.
Alicia had known better than to ask for a key.
Instead she’d gone to a Sears and bought everything she could possibly think of, from deodorant to t-shirts. The only hiccup had been the intimate apparel section, where she’d paused for a truly ridiculous amount of time before picking up three packs of underwear (plain black, size small) and a couple of soft pull-on bras with no underwire (size: everything she thought might fit). She’d practically thrown them at the cashier, blushing for no reason at all.
Once they started packing, though, it became clear that ‘everything Alicia could think of’ was still not very much: “We’ll just buy more when we get there,” she told Kalinda as they closed up the mostly-empty suitcase. Kalinda didn’t say anything.
There is Alicia’s mother’s summer house off of Lake James; Alicia pays the toll and tries to remember which exit to take. It's been years since she's visited, not since Grace was in diapers—Peter had started being able to afford more exotic vacations and they simply hadn't looked back (although years later Alicia had wondered; was that when it started? Was that when we stopped being a family?). The house is empty now, what with her mother back in New York for the winter, and probably cold, but it was the best place Alicia could think of. She hadn't wanted to stay in the city. Kalinda insisted her husband wouldn’t be coming back, but when Alicia had asked her why she’d hedged.
“He shot me, Alicia,” she said, picking at the stiff hospital sheets. “He’s smart. He isn’t going to stick around for the conviction.”
“He came to your apartment to shoot you,” Alicia pointed out. “Obviously he had a plan.” Kalinda said nothing. The bruise on her temple was fading, purple-yellow against her skin.
So, two weeks. Two weeks and Kalinda will be able to drive again, and eat solids, and live alone. Alicia pulls off the I-65 towards Indianapolis and takes a deep breath.