At Mercy Memorial, the examination room walls are paper-thin. A man in the next room tells the psych registrar that he will top himself if he doesn’t get the money today, the seventeen-thousand dollars his brother stole from him.
I wrap my hand across my forehead, a reflex, holding a migraine. I rush from the examination room and the security guard at a computer in the hallway calls, “Wait for the doctor!”
I keep going. A nurse stops me as I leave the secure area. She has me sign a form.
“This is at your own risk,” she says. “You can’t leave and say we did anything wrong. That we neglected you.”
I sign on the line and say, “You are blameless.”
In my car, in the Mercy Memorial parking lot, I rest my head on the steering wheel. I whisper-sing The Cars, ask who’s gonna drive me home tonight.
The rapping on the window wakes me. It is day.
“Are you okay?” a woman says.
My head is fused to the wheel. She gestures for me to wind down my window. I turn the ignition and press the window button.
“Is there someone I can call for you?” she says.
My husband’s cell number is ready to trip from my tongue—it has been disconnected for more than a year now. It contained the emergency 999 and I knew that, but now I know it.
“No,” I say. “There is no one.”
“I can’t leave you here,” she says.
I straighten, pressing my spine into the back of the seat. “You can. I’ll be okay.” I point at the rose tattoo on her neck. “Fuck. That must have hurt.”
“Everyone says that. Are you sure you’re okay?”
I give her a thumbs up and she walks away. I slump forward and press my forehead against the wheel. Radiohead plays and Thom Yorke sings, pleads for no alarms and no surprises.
* * *
My husband is dead in my arms. I carry him and he feels the same, his skin and hair, the shape of him. His eyes are closed. I try to find a place to hide him, hide us, and I say to no one, “I don’t want to give him up.”
* * *
It is spoken sharply, as if he has already said it a number of times.
“Please, leave me alone,” I say.
My car door opens.
“Jesus,” I say, grab at the door.
“I’m Chris, a nurse here. I’m going to help you.”
“Why can’t people leave me alone?”
“You’re still on the Mercy Memorial grounds.”
I climb from my car, lean against it, say, “I’m not telling you my name.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything.”
His hands rest on his hips. In his navy scrubs, he looks bossy. I am quick at this now—determining how a person would be in bed. I may as well be a man, meeting a person and within the first three seconds they are naked and I do things to them and they do things to me.
He leans into my car and closes the window. He locks the car and hands me the keys.
“This parking lot is notorious for theft,” he says.
“Seemed peaceful to me.”
He smiles. His hair is dark blonde. Under his clothes, his hair would be smooth, shiny, warm. I used to push my face into my husband’s armpit. He laughed, said, get out of there, but he let me stay.
“Don’t you have a shift to get to?” I say.
“Just finished. You were here when I arrived.”
My brain is hollow, my mouth thick, gluey. I close my eyes against the glare of the sun reflecting off the other cars. I am Thom Yorke in his astronaut helmet as it gradually fills with water until his head is submerged.
“I’ll get you something to drink,” he says. “You need a wheelchair?”
“I don’t need a chair.”
We walk towards the main building. Slow. If he slipped his arm around my shoulders or took my hand, I would not stop him.
“You don’t have to do this,” I say.
We step into the cafeteria and it smells of coffee and overcooked vegetables.
“Let’s have tea,” he says.
There is inordinate comfort in his words and Thom Yorke sings to me that he’ll take a quiet life. The cafeteria is busy. There is a queue for the cashier.
“Have a seat,” Chris says. “I’ll get it.”
It has been so long since someone did that for me. I find a table beside a window and try to fix my hair in my reflection in the glass, but it is hopeless.
Chris joins the queue, and folds his arms high across his chest—bossy bossy bossy—I am ready for him to tell me what to do and there must be something wrong with me.
He speaks to the cashier—she laughs.
Chris plants a cup of tea in front of me along with milk and sugar sachets. I check for a crucifix around his neck, but there isn’t one.
“You’re not going to try and convert me, are you?” I say.
“Convert you to what?”
“Whatever you’re peddling.”
He laughs. “I’ve got nothing to peddle.”
I feel it then, exhaustion, bone-deep. I do not want to have to say it—don’t expect anything from me, honey.
“There’s a man who’ll kill himself if he doesn’t get the seventeen-thousand his brother stole from him,” I say. “I heard him tell the psych registrar last night.”
Chris is quiet so long that I think he will not speak.
“I hate this place sometimes,” he says.
I fumble in my bag for my pills and swallow a couple with my heavily-sugared tea. The tea scalds the roof of my mouth and burns my palm through the paper cup.
Chris seizes the foil from me, reads it, hands it back.
“Privacy breach,” I say.
“Is there a doctor helping you manage?”
“Yeah, you can’t buy this shit without a script.”
The kindness in his voice cuts me, levels me. I have read the need for human connection is regulated by the hypothalamus, the same part of the brain as thirst and hunger. (Related Google search: Can you die from not being touched?)
I reached out to my husband, so many times, across a table, walking down a street, driving our car, or in a pool, in our shower, in our bed. I stretched my hand to him and he was there.
I extend my hand to Chris over the table, say, “Jacinta.”
He shakes my hand and it is electric, a jolt, our fingers and palms pressed together.
Nearby, a woman cries silently into her coffee. She trembles and coffee slops onto the table.
“How can you work here?” I say to Chris. “And don’t say it’s an honor, a privilege or a fucking vocation.”
“I don’t know anymore.”
“Is your heart stone-cold?”
He smiles. “That helps.” He pushes the grilled cheese sandwich closer to me. “Here. Eat.”
The sandwich is warm. Salt and fat flood my mouth and I suppress a moan.
His body is right here, under his scrubs. The hair on his legs would be silken-heat against my bare legs. I feel it, a memory—my husband’s legs wrapped around mine and I stroked his thigh, over and over, down and down. His hair, his skin, I can feel him under my hands still, if I close my eyes, if I concentrate.
The woman crying into her coffee will not stop crying and I want to scream at her—for the love of God shut the fuck up—even though she doesn’t make a sound.
Chris sips his tea, waves to a person who has stepped into the cafeteria. He turns back to me.
“You can talk to me, Jacinta,” he says.
I shake my head, almost laugh.
“What?” he says.
“Is this a habit of yours? Rescuing women from the parking lot?”
His smile disappears. “You’re a one-off.”
“I’m not. I’m a dime a dozen,” I say, clammy, burning, feverish, and how will anyone ever love me again?
I crush my empty paper cup and rise to my feet.
“Don’t go,” he says.
“What? You’re what?”
Highly affection-deprived—I don’t say it. Instead, I say, “Vulnerable. I am vulnerable. And I don’t believe in Good Samaritans. Everyone has an agenda.”
I leave and half expect him to follow me, pull on my arm, say, hey, wait, drag me to a stop. He doesn’t and I feel it as loss.
* * *
I am close to the exit when a hospital porter pushes a patient on a bed, pushes him past me towards the elevator. The patient has the same short dark hair, the same sharp profile, as my husband. I lean heavily against a wall. Thom Yorke in his water-filled astronaut helmet stares and blinks. I could walk to the patient, I could say, hi, take his hand, say, it’s not a good day, is it? But I cannot move.
The patient is wheeled backwards into the elevator, his eyes are soaked, red-rimmed and I-am-so-sorry-baby-I-miss-you-where-are-they-taking-you? He opens his mouth and would he have the same low voice? Would he say that silly made-up name no one else will ever call me? No. My husband’s voice is gone and so is the name, my name, and his body has vanished, his body that heated me all the way through.
The elevator doors close between us. I turn into the wall as if it were a person with arms closing around me.
* * *
I head back towards the cafeteria and I don’t know whether Chris will still be there, at the same table, sipping his cup of tea. I start to walk and then I run and it could happen, if I say yes, and, please, if I beg—he drives me home and pulls my knees apart and runs his fingers around the edges of my underwear and drags them away and kisses the inside of my thigh and holds me down and slides his tongue over me in one long slow hot line and I push my head back to the headboard and the water recedes inside the astronaut helmet and Thom Yorke tips his face back further back bringing his mouth above the meniscus and he gasps and gasps like there will never be enough air.
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in The Penn Review, CutBank, CRAFT Literary, Paper Darts, New South, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She lives in Australia. You can find her here: www.melissagoode.com and at twitter.com/melgoodewriter