Forget Me Not
When he arrived at the hospital she was alone in the pre-op waiting room, dwarfed by the medical equipment that surrounded her bed. Her face was drawn tight with a frightened expression that she struggled to keep hidden.
The bitch of Bowery Lane, who had once boasted she could face down any CEO alive, had been confronted by something she couldn’t bull her way through or over. She had sounded so alone when he’d spoken with her on the phone that morning.
“They want to operate.” She had said, and he had been struck speechless, not by the news itself, but by the tremble in her voice that allowed him a brief glimpse of her vulnerability.
“Cancer,” she had answered to his silent reply, her voice had sounded lost as he waited at the traffic light.
“What’s the prognosis?” He’d asked. They had both seen enough medial dramas on TV to understand the weight of his question. The pause before her reply said more than any carefully worded medical report could ever convey.
“They won’t know for sure until they’re in there.” She said.
They always said. Won’t know for sure until we’re in there. In where? He wondered.
“When?” He’d asked instead.
“An hour.” Was her reply.
It was like her to wait until the last minute to let him know what was happening. Her excuse of course being that she didn’t want to bother him with the mundane details of her daily life. But this wasn’t a mundane detail one would normally overlook in a conversation. This was serious business. If the Doctors felt they had to go in before they could offer odds on her chances of survival, it was serious indeed.
There was no time to exchange anything beyond brief hellos before a cadre of nurses arrived to take her to the operating room. With silent efficiency they disconnected her from the machines gathered around her bed, and wheeled her towards the door. As she passed she reached out and touched his arm, their eyes met, and the years of mistrust, the months of anger and discontent dissolved into the realization that he was still very much in love with his soon to be ex-wife.
The sheaf of papers in the breast pocket of his suit jacket became very heavy. It was the divorce agreement from his lawyer. He had been after her for a month now to sign them. This morning when he got up he had decided it was time to bring it to a head, his intention being to confront her first thing this morning. Only he had never made it, her phone call had come just as he was turning down the street her office was on.
He took her hand into his own, so small and frail and gave it what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. Then she was gone, whisked down the corridor as the ghostly reflection of her bed, mirrored in the polished floor, followed at a respectable distance.
“Watch the screen,” the Nurse had explained as she handed him a small slip of paper that contained all of Cloe’s information, “the progress of her operation will be updated every five minutes. When she enters recovery come see me and I’ll take you back to her.”
Surrounded by total strangers, he had never felt so alone in his entire life. Sure their marriage was on the rocks. They hadn’t spoken a civil word to one another in over six months. A divorce was one thing but this was different. There was a finality to it that exceeded any amount of paper their respective lawyers could throw at them. This was real.
“Is this seat taken?”
Randy looked up at the wizened face of an older gentleman who stood before him. Laugh lines radiated out from his eyes to vanish beneath his white sideburns.
“It’s yours if you want it.” Randy said.
The old man smiled as he turned and lowered himself carefully to the cushioned seat. In one hand he held a stub of paper like Randy’s.
“Gotta be careful with these old bones,” the old man said as he turned to face Randy. His blue eyes sparkled as his smile revealed a row of even white teeth. His gaze dropped to the slip of paper in Randy’s hand.
“It’s a shame isn’t it?” The old man said.
“What’s that?” Randy asked.
The old man held up his slip of paper. It was faded, discolored slightly, as if it had been fondled repeatedly for an extended period of time.
“That which we love the most reduced to a single slip of paper.”
Randy glanced at the paper in his hand with a bemused smile as he tried to recall the last time they’d had a civil discussion that didn’t end in an argument.
When had that been?
A year ago?
For the life of him he couldn’t remember the last time they’d been civil aside from this morning. But given the circumstances today’s lack of hostilities was the exception, not the rule.
“I am so sorry,” the old man said, “where are my manners? My name is George, George Manning.” He extended his hand and Randy took it into his own, surprised by George’s strong grip.
“And this” George said as he held his piece of paper up for Randy to see, “is Rosalie, my wife of,” he paused as a brief cloud of confusion crossed his features. “Oh my how long has it been now?” George looked up at the ceiling as he mentally counted the years.
In that brief moment Randy had seen something else on George’s face. A sense of loss that awakened his own feelings of helplessness. The news of Cloe’s cancer had been like a kick in the gut. Sure he’d called her names one would never repeat to their mother. But that had been between them and as far as he was concerned twenty years as her husband had given him the right to call her anything he wanted.
“Sixty five years,” George said intruding upon Randy’s thoughts. “I can still remember it as if it was yesterday. We’d finished with that nasty piece of business in Europe. Hitler was dead, and Roosevelt had dropped the big one on the Japs. I had survived, and was coming home to my Rosalie. We had our whole lives ahead of us. And I swore on the day I came home I would never leave her side again. And I’ve kept that promise until now.” George shook his head as his eyes grew misty and his lip trembled.
Randy didn’t really want to ask, preferring to keep to himself, but before he could stop himself he asked the one question that promised to open the floodgates.
“Why is she here?”
George shook his head again. “Cancer.” He said, the word dropping between them like a heavy stone that lay on the floor waiting for one or the other to shoulder its burden.
“Same here,” Randy said as he raised his slip of paper.
“It’s not fair,” George said, “it should be me in there. She always took care of herself. Watched what she ate. Never smoked, nor drank more than a few beers at a time.”
Randy could relate. Cloe had always kept a close eye on her weight, watched what she ate, and had only ever smoked as a teenager. He felt the same way. If anyone belonged on that operating table, he was the prime candidate. Drinking, smoking, eating whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Yet he had remained active and slim, always on the go, never stopping for even a moment to consider what lay ahead of them. Until now.
Even though they had lived apart since he’d taken the small apartment over his office, they kept in touch, and he wanted her to remain a part of his life.
A muted ding signaled an update and both men looked at the screen upon which a list of numbers appeared. Randy noted that the number assigned to Cloe was now listed as in the operating room. He imagined how frightening it must be for her. Surrounded by strangers, not even sure if she would awaken, as she was wheeled into the sterile room.
From the corner of his eye he saw George fondling his slip of paper. The silence between them grew. Randy focused on the text messages filling his phone. He’d only told his secretary he had to go to the hospital. He didn’t offer any further explanation. She was messaging him now, wanting to know if everything was all right. He replied, skirting the issue of Cloe’s cancer, not ready yet to acknowledge it. As if to do so would only serve to confirm its existence.
“We had some good times together.” George said, interrupting the silence that had grown too long between them. “But we had our share of bad times as well. You can’t have the good without the bad.”
“Did you argue?” Randy asked.
“Oh yeah, we had some dust ups. My Rosalie was once a real firecracker. When I was overseas she worked in a munitions factory and became very independent. It was like she didn’t really need me anymore. She didn’t take anything from anyone. Not even me. Don’t get me wrong, we had a good life together, but we had our differences.”
“I know the feeling, sometimes I just don’t know what to do, Cloe can be so demanding. It’s almost like she goes out of her way to get into a fight with me.”
George was nodding his head. “Rosalie is the same way. But I learned a long time ago to just go with the flow. Most of the stuff we’d argue over was insignificant anyway. If she wanted something a certain way, who was I to disagree?”
“Did you ever think of leaving her? Getting a divorce?” The weight of the papers in Randy’s breast pocket had gained weight.
“Once or twice, but once I reflected on my reasons I realized they weren’t valid. She never cheated on me, at least not that I know of. And I never cheated on her. She was my one and only, and I came to understand that to have the good that was my best friend, my love, my wife, I had to take the bad as well. It’s a give and take. There’s no two ways about it.”
The television dinged again and Randy saw that Cloe was being transferred to recovery. He glanced at his watch and realized that he and George had been talking for the better part of an hour. He stole another glance at the slip of paper in George’s hand, trying to make out the number so he could check on Rosie’s progress as well, but George’s thumb was in the way.
“I better get going, they’ve moved Cloe to recovery.” He stuck out his hand and George grabbed it with a firm grip that belied his age.
“It was a real pleasure to meet you,” George said, “I hope everything works out between you and your wife.”
“I’m sure it will now. No word on Rosalie?”
George shrugged. “She was always a stubborn one, probably in the operating room telling the doctors exactly how to do their job.”
“And to you young man.”
Randy nodded as he made his way to the nurses station. He’d already come to a decision and as he reached the desk he slipped the papers from his breast pocket, and dropped them in the waste can. Cloe was the love of his life. To keep her he would learn to let her have her way.
The nurse met him at the desk. “All ready to go back?”
“Yeah, but what about Rosalie?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Randy pointed at George sitting in the waiting room watching the television screen intently, comparing the information on his slip with what was on the screen.
“That is so sad,” the nurse said as she shook her head and a single tear traced a wet path down her cheek, “he lost his wife a month ago. Every day he comes in to check the screen. Waiting for her to come back” She turned away as she brushed aside the tears and motioned for Randy to follow.
THE ENDHe’d already
Forget Me Not was originally published in the 2014 Backbone Mountain Review.
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