The walls are yellow and green. He aches all over. Hospital sheets scratch against his skin. And the doctors are always asking him questions.
“Do you know why you're here?”
“What year is it?”
“Do you know who the President is?”
“When did you begin to have suicidal thoughts?”
What's-their-names. Swots. Campbells.
They're smiling wide, teeth and everything, but the man can barely look at him. His narrowed eyes dart around the room as he rubs at the back of his neck, while the wife's smile turns to wide-eyed pity, red lipsticked mouth forming an O before she smiles again, not as wide as before.
“My goodness. Your color is...very high. I'm...sure that's a good sign.”
Lane sees the look she gives her husband. Doesn't want to be here. Both pretending.
She sets a square foil-covered dish on his empty bedside table. “Now, just so you know, I've made you a broccoli casserole, and I'm going to put it right here. You can enjoy it whenever you like. I won't need that dish back for several weeks.”
Her voice is so loud.
“Lovely,” Campbell ushers her to one of the two wooden chairs facing the bed, and sits down beside her. “I'm sure he knows we only wanted to stop by and give him our very best. Lane, I hope your doctors are treating you well? Bert tells me this is an excellent hospital.”
Lane turns his head to stare out the window, not wanting to answer.
There is a very long silence.
The wife speaks again, voice quieter than before. “Lane, h—has Peter told you our latest story about Tammy? It's absolutely adorable. You've just got to hear it.”
Seated in a wooden chair, the old man steeples his hands over his stomach, watching Lane with sharp eyes. “You'll have medical leave, of course. Whatever you feel you require.”
“Trust me, you ought to take four weeks. Or six.” Roger's at the window, one hand opening the blinds so he can peer through them. “Two is bad. That's experience talking.”
A pause. “Least you can eat whatever you want.”
There's a sharp, screeching noise, and suddenly the plastic comes apart from the window. Roger jerks back as the blinds crash down onto the sill and floor. Lane wrenches his head away, to the left. The sun's so bright, but it's the sound that's worse—tearing at his ears, driving into his skull. Throbbing. Throbbing. He squeezes his eyes shut.
“Shit. Was that my fault?”
“For god's sake, Roger. Get the nurse.”
“Do you know why you're here?”
“Do you know what year it is?”
“Do you know who the President is?”
“When did you begin to have suicidal thoughts?”
“I don't know.”
“Are you in pain?” Don's hand twitches on the wooden arm of the chair as he talks.
Head hasn't stopped throbbing. Chest tight. Even with the medicine, he can feel it. He coughs all the time. Sometimes it makes him sick. Sometimes it doesn't.
Lane swallows. “It's fine.”
Don sits forward in his chair, balancing his forearms on his knees and meeting Lane's eyes with a serious, unblinking expression. The intensity on his face is odd. Lane doesn't want to look at it, so he stares at an oily spot just above the other man's eyebrow.
“Listen to me.” Don clears his throat. “I understand things seem bleak. But this moment you're experiencing—this is the hardest part. You can start over. You can put it behind you.”
Everyone talks to him, but no one likes his answers.
“If you think so.”
Nineteen sixty eight.
What does it matter.
“.....so that was on Thursday. I remember it was Thursday because I met with Maxine—she's next door—about our weekly bridge club. The girls play in the summer. We're...drawing up a...league. Peter, stop poking me; what is the matter?”
A long pause. Whispering.
“No. Not yet.”
Loud throat-clearing. More silence.
“Lane, shall I tell you how Tammy greeted me when I got home the next night? What time was that, Lovely? Around seven?”
“Dear, you know it's always eight, with the train.”
“Oh—yes, it must have been. I don't know how I could forget.”
“Don't be silly. I'm sure Lane doesn't mind one bit.” A pause. “Peter. Go on.”
“Well...on Friday, Tammy got into Trudy's makeup box—”
Joan's high heels click loudly on the tile floor of the hospital hallway. Around her, doctors and nurses and employees are in motion. They frown over patient charts and exam results, and push gurneys toward surgery with practiced efficiency. The rhythm of a hospital still feels both familiar and strange to her. When she and Greg were first dating, she'd go by St. Luke's after work, visit him in the evenings some weekdays. He liked that. In those first few weeks, she spent quite a bit of time with him in the cafeteria – or in the on-call room – in order to sneak a few minutes alone together. She even made friends with a few of the surgical nurses. It feels strange to be in another hospital.
A round, middle-aged woman with dark hair set into a stiff bob is the only person at the circular nurse's desk. Her uniform is crisp, as if she's just come on duty. Joan approaches her, catches her eye.
“I'm here to see Lane Pryce. Can you tell me his room number?”
The woman shuffles a stack of papers, glances over a long list on a clipboard, then waves a hand toward the hallway to Joan's left.
“449. Just through those double-doors.”
Joan strides briskly down the indicated hallway, pausing only to read the red-lettered white sign posted on the closed double doors. No smoking. Oxygen in use.
She switches her purse to her left arm, and pushes the metal door open with a black-gloved hand. There are two rooms directly past this set of doors, one to the left – 450 – and one to the right. 449. The wooden door to room four forty nine is partially open, and after taking a deep breath, Joan walks inside, stopping just after the doorway.
It's like any other hospital room. A high steel bed, featuring two side railings and made up with coarse white linens, is pushed up against the right wall, which is painted a garish yellow. There is a telephone mounted on the wall next to the bed, and empty mounts placed several feet above where a headboard might normally be. Probably for monitors, or some kind of specialized equipment.
The bed closest to the hallway – the one Joan's been staring at for at least a minute – is empty, but the divider curtain between the beds is partially drawn. The blanket-covered form of a man's legs and feet are just visible in the second bed. At the foot of this bed are two wooden framed chairs with lumpy vinyl upholstery.
She walks closer, comes to stand just beside the green curtain. Lane's bedside table is empty except for a large plastic water pitcher, a small drinking cup, and a square ceramic dish, olive green with a large white scroll on one side. There are no flowers. Not even a card. The only personal object on that table is his black pair of glasses. Also broken, and taped together at the bridge. She looks away, and makes a mental note to place an order with the florist.
Lane is awake, sitting up slightly in bed. The white blankets are pulled up to his abdomen, his arms are crossed over them, and he's staring out the window with a resigned expression. Even from this angle, his eyes look bloodshot, like several of the vessels have burst. Fading purple bruises dot his face, and his cheeks and forehead have several stitched-up lacerations. Joan wonders if this is a result of being pulled from the car.
He's also got a clear tube in his nose. Probably leading to an oxygen tank. Color is high – face, neck, and arms are bright red, like he's feverish, or like he's been sprinting for hours in ten degree weather. His breathing has a wheezing quality, maybe because of the tube in his nose, or in spite of it. Barring the injuries, what's strange is seeing how vulnerable Lane looks in his hospital gown. No suit pieces to hide behind, no papers to busy his hands. His red-blond hair is oily, as well. Very disheveled. Stupidly, Joan wonders if he's had a chance to wash it since the attempt.
A lump forms in her throat, and she attempts to swallow it. She also forces herself to smile – it's tremulous, it slides from her face almost immediately – and raises a hand to get his attention.
“May I come in?”
Her eyes well as he turns to look at her and shrugs. Joan decides to take this reaction as a qualified yes, and takes a seat in the upholstered chair, dabbing quickly at her eyes and trying not to look at him as she does this, as if breaking eye contact will magically keep him from seeing that she's upset. She tosses her purse into the empty chair next to her, along with her gloves. Keep it together, for god's sake. You're not the one in the hospital.
After a moment, she forces herself to look at him. His eyes are fixed on her, but he isn't speaking. Maybe he doesn't know what to say. Not that she does, either. Joan expels a deep breath, and decides to start with the truth. “You tried to kill yourself.”
He blinks, as if he didn't quite expect her to say it out loud, but his flat, exhausted expression doesn't change, or register surprise.
“I don't know why you did it,” Joan continues, twisting her hands in her lap, “or if the reason even matters now, but I think about it all the time. And I can't stop.”
“You're crying.” Lane's voice is raspy, quiet, and strangely devoid of reassurance. Like he's just noticed. Like he's discussing the weather.
“Of course I am. It—seeing you here upsets me.” She swipes at her damp eyes, bites her lip to keep from being overly sharp with him. “I—” she stops herself from saying I wish, mentally hearing her mother's voice taunting her. If wishes were fishes, we'd be mermaids, for god's sake.
She steels herself to admit a difficult truth. “You were unhappy. And I was too busy being ugly to you to notice.”
Joan's not dense enough to think she caused his melancholy by herself, but she does know that consciously antagonizing him was unnecessary, and that her behavior added to his existing stress. She was childish. She was petty. “I—wanted to tell you—I'm sorry I did that. I...was wrong.”
Admitting this is a bitter pill. It feels like asking forgiveness, which she hates doing, and which he's not in the position to accept or deny. But it has to be said. It's important for him to hear that she regrets her bad behavior, even if he's not in the right frame of mind to accept an apology. She just has to tell him. He's her friend, for god's sake. He needs to know.
He's still looking at her. Suddenly, Joan feels uncomfortable, glances down at her hands.
This is not about you. Stop talking. Right now. What is wrong with you?
“I'm sorry,” she says again, somewhat at a loss. What she's apologizing for this time is unclear.
There is a very long silence. It stretches out into several minutes, so heavy and oppressive that it causes her to check her watch twice, to dig her fingernails into her palms and stare out the window like an uncomfortable child. Joan debates whether she should stay, whether she should ask Lane what he would like for her to do, or whether it would be equally helpful to bring in the paper and sit in silence. At least then she'd have something to do with her hands.
Before she can formulate a plan of action, Lane clears his throat. She glances over to see his cheeks are shining with tears. He's staring out the window. He doesn't seem to have noticed he's crying. When he speaks, it's so quiet it's as if he expects to be talking to himself.
“She left me.”
Joan closes her eyes, feeling them well again. So it is true. When she re-opens them, she reaches for her purse, clicks the latch open, and pulls out her primly folded handkerchief. Its scalloped edges are done in light blue thread, with a little cluster of purple and red flowers in the bottom right corner. With one fluid motion, she stands up, crosses closer to the bed, and presses the cotton into the top of his folded hands.
He turns to look at her, brow slightly furrowed, as if he doesn't quite understand why she'd do this. She doesn't speak, just wipes a few stray tears from her own eyes, and waves her free hand in an indication for him to take the handkerchief. After a moment, he puts a hesitant palm to his own face. When his fingers come away damp, he seems to understand.
Joan puts a hand to his free arm, and purses her mouth to keep from losing it completely, giving him a jerky nod in an attempt to show she heard what he said. After a moment, she draws back, and returns to her seat, glancing out the window as she sits down.
The sun is setting. She'll have to go home soon.