Joan moves the teabag around her chipped white teacup in a back and forth motion. Little swirls of gold begin to tint the boiling water, and she drags the string from side to side within the mug, keeps watching the eddys spread through the cup until the liquid is a dark amber color.
It's lunchtime. She's still trying to adjust to the new schedule, although it's been several weeks since Lane was released from the hospital. It feels odd to have more time to herself. Almost wrong, although Joan would be lying if she said it wasn't helpful to have a few moments alone with her own thoughts. That's why they agreed on this routine, after all.
A sudden movement causes Joan to glance up as Myra slides into the adjoining booth. The other woman's not wearing her nurse's uniform today, but a bright blue paisley dress with short sleeves and a peter pan collar. It sets off her olive skin beautifully.
“I'm sorry,” she says to Joan, setting her attache aside, “I thought we said quarter to one?”
Joan shakes her head. “We did. I'm early.”
“Oh,” Myra says, but doesn't comment further, just produces a notebook from her leather satchel. “Well, did you want to eat first? We can go over the update later.” A pause, in which she slants Joan a suspicious look. “You are eating, right?”
“Yes,” Joan says with a sigh, pushing her teacup aside. Myra's too nosy for her own good. She's planning to order a salad, for god's sake. It's fine. “Business first.”
The hospital courtyard is so small it's almost claustrophobic. Six steps forward, to the walnut tree in the center of the square, six steps back toward the double doors. Just as Joan is walking toward the building, a nurse with dark wavy hair and wearing a crisp white uniform pushes open the door. She has a small canvas bag slung over one shoulder, and startles when she sees Joan, hazel eyes flicking over Joan's fraught expression. “I'm sorry. Did you need to get by?”
“No,” Joan snaps, turning away, lighting another cigarette off the last and crushing the butt under the toe of her high heel as she starts pacing again. Her shoe wobbles under her as she turns. Jesus. At this rate, she's going to have to stop by the machine before she goes back to the office. It's the second pack of cigarettes she's gone through in two weeks.
Lane will need someone to make sure he takes his medication. Eats regular meals. Gets out of the house—god, she doesn't know how she'll make the time to do this. She's already getting up at four o'clock, and that's including the time built in to get to work, make a list for the girls—someone's just going to have to take the time cards off her hands, she hasn't checked them in earnest for far too long—oh, damn it, the contractors—Cooper wanted to meet tomorrow to discuss the blueprints—
Someone's got her by the hand. They're moving toward the square white table in the far corner, surrounded by four wooden chairs, but Joan can hardly walk. Why can't she—?
“You're shaking,” a woman's voice says, firm. The nurse from before. “You need to sit down.”
“No, I'm—” Joan protests, but as soon as she sinks into a sitting position, she realizes her hands are trembling so violently she can barely hold her cigarette. She's shivering all over, and her head is spinning. She feels like she's going to throw up, and leans forward in her chair, resting her forearms on her knees, just in case.
The nurse plucks the cigarette from Joan's fingers, puts it out of view, and encircles Joan's wrist with her slender fingers. Checking her pulse. “When's the last time you ate?”
“I—” Joan begins, then realizes she doesn't know. There was a tray of food in the conference room. Yesterday. Did she have any? She's sweating, she can feel it beading on her face. “Um—”
“Do you feel dizzy?”
Joan nods once, closing her eyes to stop the vertigo. They can't focus. Why can't she see?
“And how's your vision? Are you blurry?”
“What's happening?” Joan blurts, her voice cracking over the last word.
“Hey. You're going to be fine,” the nurse replies in a soothing voice. “Your blood sugar is very low. That's all.” She presses something into Joan's hand. A cold soda can, judging by the feel. Joan opens her eyes to see a white straw sticking out of the top. “Sip this if you can. It's apple juice.”
After several minutes, Joan feels like she can move without getting sick. She lets out a deep breath, sits up, and sinks back into her chair, placing the can of juice on the table with a shaky hand.
The nurse watches Joan's movements carefully. “Well, you've got a little color. That's an improvement.” She produces her canvas bag, and pulls two square tupperware containers from it. Orange and green. “Pick one. You need to eat something.”
“I can't,” Joan mumbles. After a pause. “Not hungry.”
“You'll eat,” the nurse says crisply, pushing the green plastic dish in Joan's direction. “Unless, in another hour, you want to pass out in front of all your coworkers.”
Joan's eyes widen.
“Try the cookies,” the woman says into the silence. “Chocolate chip.”
“Well, his red blood cell count has improved,” Myra says, flipping over a page of her yellow legal pad, “meaning his brain gets more oxygen. Because of the cognitive behavioral treatments he's doing with the psychiatrist, his recall is better, too. We've also been doing a few exercises on our own.”
Joan raises her eyebrows. “A few?”
The other woman gives a short laugh. “He tries to avoid all of them.” Noticing Joan's unhappy expression. “But we get everything done. Five times a week.”
Myra nods. “Yeah. It is.” She flips another page on her legal pad. “Oh, this is from the beginning of last week. He doesn't move around on his own as much as he should.”
“I keep telling him—” Joan begins helplessly, then stops. “I don't know what else to do.”
“Not your fault,” Myra replies, completely calm. She takes a sip of her cola. “We can tweak the routine if we need to.”
“Tell me about your person,” the nurse says. “How long have they been here?”
Joan gives her a glare that says you must be joking. She's been forced to eat two cookies, and it's been at least ten minutes since the episode. They do not need to strike up conversation.
“Nurse-patient confidentiality,” the other woman says, voice sly, as if they're sharing a joke. “Plus, if you answer, I'll give you my potato chips. You need to eat more.”
“Will I faint if I don't?” Joan asks, a little of her usual sharpness returning to her voice. The other woman raises an eyebrow, immediately matching her tone.
“You want to take that chance?”
Wordlessly, Joan holds out her hand for the bag. There's silence for a moment. Joan takes a chip, chews it briefly, then swallows her bite, mulling over what she can say without giving away too much. “It's—my friend. We work together.”
“What's wrong with him?” A pause. “Or her?”
“Him,” Joan corrects. She struggles for a way to put this delicately, as it's not her secret to tell. “He's—depressed.”
The woman's face remains placid, but there's a glint of understanding in her eyes. “Suicidal?”
Joan blinks, relieved to hear brutal honesty. “Yes.” Just saying the word makes her blink again, rapidly, trying not to cry. “It's awful.”
Fine. She meant to say fine.
“Eat another chip,” the nurse says, not unkindly. Joan does, not even tasting it.
“You don't want to hear about this.”
“I'm not in a hurry, so you might as well talk about it,” the woman answers, with a shrug. With two fingers, she pushes the bag of potato chips closer to Joan. Small gold hoops in her ears glitter with the movement of her arm. “Does he have family here?”
Joan shakes her head no, pursing her mouth. He deserves better than to be alone. After a moment, she exhales a breath, composure still intact. When she speaks, her voice is low.
“I need to go. I'm very busy.”
It's not as if she's asking permission. Joan does not ask for permission to do anything. But in the back of her mind, she pictures herself fainting in the middle of the creative lounge, drawing unwanted attention and proving to the other partners that she's doing too much, that she's completely useless. She just needs confirmation that she won't make a fool of herself if she leaves now. That's all.
The nurse sighs, motioning for Joan to hold out her arm. “Let me check your pulse again. If it's normal, then you can leave.” After another moment. “Get a sandwich on your way out. Nurse's orders.”
Joan nods, so relieved at the woman's cooperation that she doesn't bother to argue. “Okay.”
Myra checks her watch. “Ten after. He should be here within the next few minutes.”
“I thought you said the psychiatrist's office was two blocks that way,” Joan says, glancing out at the busy street with mild concern. Next to their window, two pigeons are fighting over a piece of newspaper. All bypassers are giving the fluttering birds a wide berth, except for a child who tries to toddle into the melee and scares them into flying away. “Their session ended at one.”
“He's still cautious,” the nurse says, with a shrug, and pops a french fry into her mouth. “Especially with that cane. Baby steps.”
Joan sets her jaw, determined not to comment. Myra's heard it all before. If Lane's not pushed hard enough, he won't be able to stick to the schedule. It was difficult enough to convince Cooper for the necessity of a gradual return. This is the same man who compelled Roger back to work and into a second coronary within a month. By comparison, nine weeks of medical leave border on laziness. Lane can't take more than that without seeming weak.
She has fought for him in partners' meetings, and mentioned his name in passing during meetings of her own, to make the upcoming return feel as seamless as possible to all outsiders. But the date looms at the front of Joan's mind. She doesn't know how well this is going to work, or if it will work at all. His recovery has been good but not excellent—not perfect. And the transition has to go perfectly. She does not want to think about going to the office without him on a permanent basis.
Not after how hard they've worked.
“If you want to smoke,” Myra says, interrupting Joan's train of thought, “you should do it now, before he gets here.”
“Did your psychiatrist stop by today?”
Lane shrugs, pulling his hospital blankets up around his hips. The gesture sends Joan's blood pressure through the roof, even before he answers. “Dunno.”
“You—well, did he leave any paperwork? There should be a medical release form—”
“I don't know! ” Lane retorts loudly. Joan gives a growl of frustration, tossing away the pen she's using to take notes and holding out the small stenography pad toward the foot of the bed, arm completely extended, as if he could just reach out and take it from her. She wants to throw it at his head. She's trying not to lose her temper, but her voice is too forceful by half.
“Lane, I can't be here all the time. Will you start writing things down , for god's sake?”
“Stop yelling at me, you're always yelling—”
There's a flash of movement in the doorway, and high heels on the tile. At the noise, Lane stops talking immediately, Joan glances over to see someone familiar standing a few feet away. The nurse from the other afternoon.
“Mind if I interrupt? I need to check his vitals.”
“Go ahead,” Joan huffs, letting out a sigh. The less she has to talk right now, the better.
The nurse walks around the curtain so Lane can see her. “Hi, Lane. I'm Myra.”
Lane grunts out a word that might be hello, barely glancing up at the woman. To an outsider, this would seem rude, but it's more cordial than he's been to Joan over the past few days. Maybe, Joan thinks suddenly, she's been on this rotation before.
“Think you know the drill by now,” Myra says briskly, examining Lane's chart as if his reticence is completely normal, “but I'll remind you anyway. I'll check your heart rate, breath sounds, eye movements, and motor functions.”
With a quick glance back at Joan. “Do you want your friend to step out?”
After a moment, Lane nods. Joan's eyes widen. For god's sake, she's seen him asleep, in acute pain, hooked to all kinds of machines, and all of a sudden he's shy?! It's just some stupid movement tests, nothing indecent. Jesus.
Myra is all business, giving Joan a firm look. “I'll draw the curtain,” she says, inclining her head toward the far bed, to the empty chair beside it. “We should be about fifteen minutes.”
Joan gets up, walks purposefully to the other side of the partition and takes a seat in the indicated chair, crossing her arms over her chest with a huff. After a moment, she realizes she can't take notes on Lane's exam as she'd planned, because she left her stenography pad behind. Damn it.
There's a rustling noise, accompanied by a kind of grunt. Joan glances to her left, trying to glimpse what's happening through the curtain. It looks as if Lane's sitting up in bed. Myra's the only person speaking. “Okay, Lane, deep breath in.”
An inhalation that's promising, but not great. Still very shallow.
The exhale lasts for about a second before it dissolves into a deep cough.
“Not bad. You were worse last time.” The sound of water being poured into a plastic cup. “Here. Can you hold it, or do you need me to?”
Joan winces at the question, frustrated that it could even be asked with a straight face, desperately hoping the answer is yes. Lane's such a prideful man. He's embarrassed to struggle publicly at anything, let alone something as simple as holding a cup of water.
Maybe – the thought pops into her head, unbidden – that's why he didn't want you to stay.
Suddenly, she feels dizzy, a jolt of understanding rushing through her body.
She can't be his nurse.
“Hey,” Myra's voice again, “look what I found on the floor. All your paperwork.” Two steps toward the end of the bed, and more rustling. “Three more days, and you can be at home in your own bed. Know your friend'll be happy to hear that.”
Oh, god. Who's going to look out for him if she can't do it? He doesn't have anyone else. She doesn't want him to be alone, if he's alone he's just going to end up here all over again—
“She hates me,” Lane mumbles, and the admission makes Joan startle. Why the hell does he think that?
Judging by her tone, Myra seems unfazed. She snorts out an amused noise, as if he's just made some kind of joke. “She's been here every day. Someone who hates you wouldn't bother visiting.” A pause. “Try to put it another way. Different words.”
The resulting pause drives Joan up the wall. She has to clench her fists to stop herself from getting up and pacing, the dizzy feeling still making her temples ache.
“Angry,” Lane says suddenly, after several seconds of silence. “Joan's...angry...at me.”
She's—no, she's not angry —she's just trying to make sure he can go home, for god's sake, she's trying to help him! After everything that's happened, how does he not know that?
Joan clenches her jaw to keep herself quiet. Do not make a sound.
“Hm,” Myra replies, as if considering this pronouncement. There's a clicking noise. “Okay. Look at the light for me. Follow it with your eyes.”
“Is...am I...right?” Lane asks after several seconds, his voice hesitant. Like he's in school, like he's getting graded on the answer.
“I don't know,” Myra says after a moment. There's a scribbling noise. “I'd guess it's probably hard for her to see you in pain. But she's your friend. What do you think it is?”
Another pause. Lane doesn't say anything. Joan can see the nurse's shadow through the thin curtain as she walks around the bed. “Your eyes look good. I'm going to check your reflexes.”
There's another minute's silence, and then—
“Are you angry at her?”
The question chills Joan's blood. God, what if he is angry with her? She doesn't know if she could stand for him to say yes—what if all of this is her fault, what if she said something—
“...I don't know.”
Joan wills herself to believe this answer doesn't matter. He says it to avoid questions all the time. She presses her lips into a thin line, rises from her chair, and steps quietly into the hallway.
Myra emerges from the doorway to Joan's right several minutes later, carrying Lane's chart under one arm. “There you are. I meant to tell you, we borrowed your notepad for a handwriting test. He's still writing out his letters.”
“He can keep it,” Joan says dully, glancing in the opposite direction so Myra doesn't notice the water glistening in her eyes. She's been leaning against the wall for several minutes, watching the movement of people and medical carts and gurneys through the area. “It's fine.”
A pause. “Joan? You all right?”
“I thought I could take care of everything,” Joan interrupts quickly, before she's unable to say the words. It's easier not to look at the other woman; they're practically strangers, for god's sake. “I took over all the work—my mother's watching my son—I assumed it would be—”
She feels her throat constrict in an alarming way, and tries to breathe through the feeling. “I'm too close. That's it.”
“Distance could be a good idea,” Myra says casually, as if she understands what Joan's suggesting. At Joan's dull glare, she holds up a hand, as if in surrender. “You can still be his friend without being his nurse.”
Joan lets out another long breath, glancing over the other woman. “Do you know who I would contact to—hire someone? Privately?”
Myra holds up her pointer finger, reaching into her uniform pocket, and pulling out a small gold compact. She opens it, and removes a single white card, which she hands to Joan for examination.
Myra Hodges, B.S., R.N., L.N.P. Followed by a phone number and mailing address.
“I'm filling in here for a colleague. But I'm free starting Thursday. If you're interested.”
Joan feels almost dizzy with relief. She has to clear her throat in order to speak clearly. “Yes. I think that would be fine.”
By the time Lane arrives at their booth, he's slightly out of breath, and leans heavily on his black walking stick as he sits down. Joan tried to get one that was elegant, one that wasn't meant for some feeble old man, but he doesn't like it. She doesn't know the reason, but he hasn't kept the feeling a secret.
“Damned thing,” he mumbles, as it falls to the floor and rattles loudly on the tile, even among the movement of the diner. When Joan moves to pick it up, he rolls his eyes. “Just—leave it.”
She doesn't, just leans it against her side of the booth.
“Notebook, please,” Myra says into the charged silence, holding out her hand.
Lane fishes inside his suit jacket with an aggrieved noise, pulling out Joan's old stenography pad. It's more battered than it used to be—the once pristine cover now scratched and ink-stained. “Why're you so bloody insistent about it?”
Myra bobs her hand in the air in front of him, as if to say I'm not waiting forever, and Lane finally pushes the notebook into her hand. She makes a quick scrawl of the date, place, and time, and gives it back to him. He begins to write something underneath her heading.
His handwriting is slower and messier than it used to be. Joan's going to have a harder time deciphering it once he comes back to work.
All the feelings aren't going to come back at once, if ever, Myra told her, two weeks ago. Right now, he's perking up, showing visible emotion, and that's good. But it might not be tempered, and it might not be positive. We won't know until we get there.
“I hate this notebook,” he says suddenly, in a petulant voice, like he's a spoiled child. Some of the ink has smeared under his palm. “Paper's too coarse.”
“So don't use it,” Joan retorts quietly. Her fingers itch for another cigarette, but she's trying not to smoke in front of him. Myra gives her a disappointed look at the barb—Joan's supposed to be more patient. She sighs. It is not easy to be patient with him when all he can express is negativity. It comes back in stages, she mentally repeats, it comes back in stages.
Lane ignores her. “And I don't like that doctor, either.”
“Last week you told me he was competent enough, you suppose,” Myra points out, with a wry look at Joan. “Did you get a look at the menu?”
“No,” Lane snaps, not looking up from his writing. “I'm just getting an egg. Is that all right?”
“It is if you don't bite my head off,” the nurse replies sharply.
Under his breath, Lane mumbles something that sounds like sorry. Joan glances away, toward the paper bag at her side. She's been trying to think of ways she can be supportive without becoming overbearing, which is....difficult. Harder than it should be. But she is trying.
Yesterday, she had to duck into a stationery store after work to buy a set of occasion cards, and while she was browsing, a wall of notebooks caught her eye. Lately, Lane's developed something close to hypergraphia, scribbling about everything from daily activities to his therapy sessions, and he's complained about her steno pad so often she felt a replacement journal might be in order.
“Lane, I saw something in the paperie I thought you'd appreciate,” she begins lightly, trying not to look at Myra as she takes the soft-cover leather notebook out of the bag, and slides it across the table toward him. “The store clerk said this brand is popular with writers. It's even got a pocket.”
He blinks at the cover, frowning at it as if he can't understand why it's so special. “It's black.”
“It's French,” Joan replies, with an awkward shrug.
“Oh,” Lane says, glancing at it with uncertainty. His fingers rest on the open pages of Joan's stenography pad, as if he's debating whether to reach out for the new notebook or continue writing in the hated one. Joan does not allow herself to take this hesitance personally. It's better than a negative reaction.
“That was a nice gesture. Don't you think you should thank her?” Myra prompts. Joan waves away the nurse's words, indicating it isn't necessary. She doesn't want to be thanked if he doesn't mean it. Stupid to think she could bribe him into positivity.
“It's fine,” she says, clearing her throat, and attempting to make conversation, as if everything is normal. “If it helps, I heard Picasso used these as sketchbooks.”
“He's complete shit,” Lane says with a scoff. “So it's worse, actually.”
Myra blinks, clearly surprised by the sentiment. Joan snorts out an amused noise, biting her tongue to keep from bursting into inappropriate laughter. “You have opinions about art?”
He has never—not even once—mentioned that he has studied, casually considered, or made snap judgments about the subject. He has that painting of naval ships hanging in his office, along with the hideous coat of arms, and until now, Joan assumed his wife had bought both of those things. He never seemed to care about artistry one way or the other.
“Well, most of it's awful,” Lane says tartly, beginning to write again. His head is bowed over his notebook. “Is that opinion enough?”
“Sure,” Joan says quickly, taking another sip of her tea to shield her smile, in case he looks up and thinks she's laughing at him. “Cubism is garbage. I don't care.”
Maybe he liked the ships. Maybe he picked that out himself in some market, years ago. It makes her curious. She'll have to ask him about it.
He stops writing for a moment, shakes his ballpoint pen from side to side. She got him to switch from fountain pens on a temporary basis to keep him from dripping ink everywhere. “Damn it. Won't write.”
“You know, I always liked the impressionists,” she can't resist saying, innocently, in case it's an avenue of conversation he feels like pursuing.
“This pen is out of ink,” he complains, louder this time. “Have you got another?”