“Hungry Souls” by Andrea Gregory

My lover parks the car in the space closest to the garage elevators. He hangs the handicap placard from the rearview mirror and gets out first. We’re on the fourth floor, something we will both likely forget. We have been losing cars together for almost a decade.

Slim’s fumbling with the wheelchair. He gets it out of the back just fine, but putting the wheels on has always been a bit tricky. Is it supposed to click? he asks. No, it’s never clicked, but I don’t answer him this time. He always manages to figure it out.

He curses under his breath. He’s just mad that the wheel doesn’t seem to want to go on right, doesn’t click like he thinks it should. But when he gets it all together he rolls it over to my side of the car. He opens the door and gives me his arm. “Your chariot awaits,” he says.

We met when I could still walk. Slim was an aspiring writer, a regular at the coffee shop where I worked. He liked his coffee with an extra shot of espresso. When he started calling me beautiful—Good morning, beautiful. Thanks, beautiful. This is for you, beautiful, dropping just as much as his coffee costs into the tip jar—I stopped charging him for the extra shot of espresso. I don’t think anyone ever called me beautiful before. He said it like he really meant it. He means most things he says.

Now Slim says things like I got ya and easy as he helps me out of the car. I’m real unsteady. But that’s not new. It’s been a long time since any of this was new and a long time since I worked at the coffee shop. The girl I used to be seems almost imaginary, but Slim has always been real. Always been there. Still here.

Slim’s got a smoker’s cough. He tries to quit each year on his birthday. One time he made it two months before relapsing. I’ve come to like the smell of old Marlboros that linger on him and his things. I like to wear his sweatshirts when it’s cold. A deep inhale of the sleeve is bliss.

The entire hospital grounds went smoke-free two years ago. Slim lights up in the parking lot. There are cigarette butts on the ground, and there is still an ashtray before you go to get on the elevator. Slim wheels me forward, but it’s only a quick stone’s throw before we’re there. He walks over so he’s facing me. Neither of us smile. Are we still happy? I love you, Slim.

I reach for the cigarette.

“Really?” he asks.

I nod and he hands it off. I take several drags in a row really quickly. I’m not even sure I’m giving myself time to inhale. “I don’t want to be here,” I tell him, giving his cigarette back.

“I know,” he says.

Today, is just an MRI. Dr. Lucas says it will give us a better idea of what we are dealing with. What we are dealing with is the progression of multiple sclerosis and what happens when bad things catch up with us. In recent years, I’ve needed the wheelchair when I go out. But I was still walking in the house, sometimes with a walker or just a hand against the wall, sometimes all on my own and even in a pair of “house heels.” Slim bought me a pair of red kitten heels after I finished a bout of physical therapy. My progress was minimal. My time in physical therapy was short and ended when my insurance said I was done and stopped covering it. That’s usually how it works. Slim said he could see the progress even if I couldn’t and maybe all I needed was the right shoes. I still own about 20 pairs of shoes I will never be able to walk in, so the kitten heels were a compromise of sorts. Dr. Lucas called wearing them risky and advised against it. Even in the house, I protested. Against doctor’s orders, I wore them all the time. They were worth the risk, I believe.

Now, I can’t walk at all. I can’t even stand on my own. My balance is gone like it vanished in one of God’s magic tricks and isn’t coming back. Slim has to spot me when I’m on the toilet. I love him for his best efforts to convince us both things are not that bad. And I love him for not saying things could be worse. Falls can break bones and make everything worse, as every medical professional who learned about my house heels has warned. This is already the worst. Slim watched me take a shit this morning. How can he still love me? I wait all the time for him to say he’s had enough.

He gives me back the cigarette. I take a few more quick drags and then throw it down. Slim steps on it and we’re off.

I live in a good city with good hospitals. There are about a half dozen hospitals clustered together in what’s known as the Longwood area. It can be a little tricky to navigate if you don’t know where you’re going. And each hospital can feel like a maze itself with several large buildings with countless wings and skybridge connectors. We know the layout pretty well. I’ve spent many hours here, many weeks here, many months here. It all adds up and what’s left is one sick woman who’s not going to get better.

Slim starts humming a Foo Fighters song. He hums this song a lot, but I don’t think he’s aware of when he’s doing it. I don’t mind. I like this song. I want it to be our song because we don’t have one. I fear we are running out of time. Today is a test to confirm that. Dr. Lucas said he knows a place that’s real nice for when I can’t be at home anymore. I don’t imagine that will matter much. Nothing about it will be nice. I will lie in bed and start to know nurses better than my lover. I hate that there has to be a future. I hate that time didn’t stop when I was a beautiful girl, working in a coffee shop.

Slim knows both the Longwood area and the maze of the hospital. He pushes me fast down long corridors and doesn’t slow down on the turns. It’s too fast and feels like a carnival ride, but I don’t say anything. I close my eyes and make silent wishes or prayers. It’s become easy to confuse the two. And I don’t even know what I’m after, but in my head I think the loudest please I can.

We’re early enough to stop for coffee. Slim makes the stop without asking. Was I wishing for a latte?

“Just leave me here,” I say at the entrance.

“Okay,” he says from behind me.

I have a thing about coffee shops now. It’s weird to watch people do something you used to do so easily when you can’t do it anymore. Slim gets this. He parks me out of the way. He’s only gone a little while. He returns with two lattes and hands me the one made with low-fat milk. That’s how I’ve always liked it. There are little things that haven’t changed much. I often forget them until they are warm in my hand.

The MRI machine is in the basement. It feels colder down here than the rest of the hospital. There are no windows and no one else is in the waiting room. The reception desk is unmanned, but a sign says to ring a buzzer. When Slim does, a large man wearing scrubs and a name tag that says Matthew shows up. He’s new, I think. I don’t remember him.

“You must be Jessica,” he says.

“Jess,” I say.

“Matthew,” he says. “But I like to go by Matty C.”

I wonder if there is another Matty. Why else would he need the C.? And with no one else around, couldn’t he at least for now drop the C.? But I also know that sometimes we fall into habits we don’t realize.

Matty C. has me fill out a form. I’ve filled out this same form and ones like it so many times. He sits behind the desk and waits for me. Then it’s into the changing room. Everything off including the bra, he says and hands me two gowns—one open in the back and one open in the front. Slim’s going to help me. Slim’s going to come in the room with the MRI and hold my hand. Matty C. says that’s all fine. He asks a few standard questions just to make sure there’s no metal on him or anything like that. But it’s pretty clear we all know how these things go. None of us are new to this. Well, maybe Matty C.

I don’t know if he’s a nurse or technician or both. He does a good job putting in the IV. Little pinch, he says. But it doesn’t hurt at all.

Slim has to turn his head. He hates the sight of blood, and needles freak him out. He’s holding both our coffees and takes a sip of the wrong one.

Matty C. tells us he’s a stand-up comedian on the side. It’s just open mic nights for now. He’s only just started chasing this dream.

“You’ve always got to want something,” he says. “It feeds the soul.”

The IV is in. Matty C. secures it with a piece of gauze and tapes it down.

“Ever hear the one about the girl who didn’t want anything?” I ask him.

“Her soul must have been very hungry,” he says.

Slim laughs. His soul gets hungry. But then he feeds it with desires he thinks I don’t know about. It’s good that he wants things outside of this. Outside of us.

Her name is Kathleen. She’s got a local address and a bad reputation. Slim says she’s not even pretty, but I’ve seen her Facebook page. In her profile picture she’s drinking a scorpion bowl by herself. The other straws are unattended, but it’s clear she’s not drinking alone. It could have been her birthday or some other celebration. Slim could have been there off camera. He used to say they were just friends. Now, he rolls his eyes if I bring her up. Why don’t I believe him that Kathleen means nothing to him? Never did, he’s said enough times. “Easy sex,” he blurted out in anger one night. “That’s all she was. I fucked up. Can we let this go?” Maybe I could if she didn’t linger like a backup plan.

Matty C. goes on about the thrill of the stage as he hands me a blindfold and ear plugs. I think the idea is to make it feel like you’re less trapped in a box if you can’t see it and everything is muffled. He closes a metal contraption over my face and hands me the panic button.

“Invigorating,” he says. “And you know what? It doesn’t even matter if I’m funny or not. I’m alive and for that people applauded.”

Okay, we get it how this works. Yada yada yada… Matty C. splurts out the medical jargon. People in the medical world have stopped pretending with me. I look like a regular. I look like I know how these things go.

The room is all white and has a sterile familiarity to it. This is where they figure out just how bad the news will be. Dr. Lucas said he’s not going to lie and this isn’t good. He called it an ugly disease, and when he looked like he felt sorry for me he didn’t really look like a doctor anymore. There are a few options left, but none of them are ideal. And there are things to consider. Care and what comes next. Those sort of things are options too, but it doesn’t seem there are any good ones left there either.

Slim likes to say he’s not going anywhere, but I see the relief that comes when I tell him he’s off the hook. There are places that would be better for me, I tell him. And he understands, he tells me back.

Even with the blindfold on, I squint my eyes shut as hard as I can. If I press the panic button, Matty C. will come back in the room and tell a joke, or maybe somewhere at some open mic this will be part of a joke. Slim reaches up the machine for my hand and our fingertips dance. I know all his moves. He’s got a lot of good ones.

Slim took me to see a meteor shower once. His parents own a pot farm in western Massachusetts. They got in early. Ground floor. Made a smart business decision. Slim says his father always thought the land was worth holding on to for something. It’s where they grow the good stuff for people like me and cancer patients. No, I don’t know what you mean. Slim held me close with a blanket wrapped around us. We passed a joint, and back then it didn’t seem so silly to wish upon shooting stars.

“You know how this goes,” says Matty C. into a microphone from the next room. “It’s going to be loud and I need you to stay real still. Now, I know you say you don’t want anything, but I want you to really think about that for the next five minutes.”

“I don’t want anything,” I yell out. My arm hits the inside of the machine and I realize how little space there is around me.

“Shh… I need you to not move. Just think.”

Slim’s no longer holding my hand. The noise is a throbbing series of booms and swooshes. I don’t know how I lost his hand, and it’s too late to find it now. I want Slim’s hand. It’s the only thing I want right now. No, I want it more than that. I want to be able to hold onto this a little longer. My grip is loosening. We’re letting each other become different versions of ourselves. And I’ve lost his hand. And this feels like the longest five minutes of my life.

When the booming stops, Matty C. tells me I did a good job. I press the panic button and tell him I want to get out.

“Okay, Jess. I can have you out in a second, but you’re just going to have to go back in,” says Matty C.

“I’m right here,” says Slim. Our fingers weave into a tangle.

“I’m okay. Let’s just do this,” I yell.

Matty C. tells me again I’m doing great. He said he bets there’s not a lot I can’t handle.

The stupidest thing I have ever heard is that God never gives you more than you could handle. I had more than one friend use it to justify why I was sick and they weren’t and how this sort of thing would never happen to them. I left the church. They called it a cult and I moved safehouse to safehouse until I made it to Massachusetts. That’s when I started working in a coffee shop where Slim spent a good year writing a novel that was never published.

Matty C. says break up the durations by picturing what’s in my way and zapping it, eliminate the obstacles until they’re gone. Then picture what I want. There has to be something, he says. He acts like some things are not impossible. Maybe the impossible things don’t count and that’s why my soul’s hungry. Picture having it, he says when I say nothing back and just stay quiet. Really try it on for size, he says. Then he tells me to be still. When he comes back on the microphone, he tells me that it’s okay to really want something. It’s important, he says. I think he’s actually worried about my soul, and I stay really still.

I forget Matty C. tells jokes or tries to be funny. I forget all I have is Slims hand right now. I forget wanting and not wanting. I forget Kathleen. I forget all the times I’ve been wrong about love and wrong about other things. I forget that I have to be sick. I can almost let go of my grudge against all that is unfair. I forget I am only the conductor of this life and don’t actually know how to play any of the instruments. In my head I hum the Foo Fighters.

“You’re doing great,” says Matty C.

Slim was writing a novel about a cult. I told him it was more of a religion than a cult. But, yeah, they wouldn’t let me see a doctor. Prayers replace medicine and the herd gets thinned out. His book wasn’t about me, but our stories always tell something true and something about us. I love him for the things he calls fiction and the things he calls true.

No one wanted his book. He had to start teaching high school English. But it’s good. He’s got all summer off.

Slim writes sometimes in bed. He feverishly types on a laptop like it could somehow prevent him from returning to school in the fall. I wonder if he’ll do more writing without me around. I picture him coming to a visiting day with a bouquet of peonies. Only it’s not visiting day. It’s just home. And I put the flowers in a vase and walk them over to the kitchen table wearing a pair of red kitten heels. Slim kisses me and there are things about each other we just don’t know. Is that what we want?

Matty C. comes back in the room to inject contrast into my arm. I think he tells a joke, but I’m not really listening. Yeah, I’m okay. I don’t say more than that. We’re all quiet now.

The last one’s a long stretch, but Matty C. tells us we’re almost done. Slim gives my hand a squeeze and I squeeze his back.

“Just listen to the applause,” says Matt C. back in the other room. “Here they come.” And he turns on the machine.

Andrea Gregory’s fiction has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Consequence Magazine, and North Dakota Quarterly. She also writes a column for Arrowsmith Press bout living with multiple sclerosis while drawing on larger social issues and a love of literature. She holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Boston.


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