We rolled through the dark toward the highway. I looked in the rear-view mirror where Anne reclined on the seat, covered with a thick quilt I’d found for four dollars at Goodwill. She watched me in the dim light from oncoming cars.
When I’d returned to the hospital, I found her waiting inside the front entrance, wearing enormous orthopedic boots over her bandaged feet. She’d been waiting for three hours, but her face was still red. She’d been humiliated by the Patient Accounts people. They had forced her to dress, escorted her to the lobby in a wheelchair, and deposited her inside the entrance. They had left her there with a message: Tell your brother to see Patient Accounts as soon as he returned.
I hadn’t bothered, of course. Anne was legally in the clear, having signed nothing. But I had signed responsibility forms using someone else’s name. I had represented myself as her brother, a financially solvent brother to boot. Well, let them try to find Robert Peterson. They’d have to dig around a little – he was resting quietly in Resurrection Cemetery, outside of Chicago.
The car was now full of gas, the oil was checked, and I had a bag of beer, orange juice, and Vienna sausage tins in a bag in the rear seat. I had even remembered to buy a toothbrush and paste. The remaining $340 rested warmly in my wallet.
“I’m too tired to drive all the way to Cleveland tonight,” I said. “We’re going to have to stop somewhere.” It was true. I had not slept well sitting in the chair in Anne’s hospital room last night. I also needed some food other than the bits and pieces the nurses had scrabbled together for me at breakfast and lunch. My last food was nine hours ago.
Anne watched me in the rear-view mirror.
“Anne, I’m talking about a hotel room.”
“That should bother you,” I said.
I made an inquiring face in the mirror.
“I know you want sex with me, Tim, but I also know that you will take ‘no’ for an answer. I’m safe with you.”
I smiled at her. In some of the circles I ran in, if a woman admitted to feeling ‘safe’ with a man, she was impugning his manhood. It was like calling him weak, or gay. But I was surprised at myself. I was proud of having earned her confidence, in spite of the things she had seen me do.
We stopped at a Super-8 on I-70, outside the city. The drowsy desk clerk ran the late Bob’s credit card without batting an eye. For a dead guy, Robert Peterson was having a busy day. The sleepy kid also believed me when I said I had left my driver’s license with a cop on the freeway – too fast for conditions, I said.
Getting her from the car to the room was not easy. Walking was painful, and the only rooms left were on the top floor. Climbing the stairs was out of the question. I had her sit on the luggage cart and wheeled her through the lobby to the elevator, to the clerk’s amusement.
When the door shut behind us, I found a tiny thrill in my stomach at being alone in a warm room with a bag of beer and this amazing woman.
The room was the conventional layout, with two double beds. On the other hand, it had a love seat and an armchair, fixtures not usually found in cheap hotel rooms. I put my jacket on the bed next to the door. It made sense that Anne should be next to the bathroom.
While I explored the TV channels, she sat on the bed and peeled the Velcro closures of the clumsy orthopedic boots until they fell on the floor. I had to help her remove her socks without disturbing the gauze that wrapped her feet. They had discharged her with several rolls of new gauze to replace it when needed. Meanwhile, she took her blood sugar kit from her backpack and clicked a sample from her forearm.
“I guess you are going to need a proper supper,” I said, and she nodded. There was a McDonald’s next door to the hotel, and I brought back a half dozen cheeseburgers and some fries, plus milk for her and a milkshake for myself.
She tottered over to the love seat. With a little trepidation, I sat beside her, and we used the same little wooden chair as a table. I half expected her to suggest I sit in the armchair, but she just ate as if I were not there.
We began watching television, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was alone in a hotel room with a woman that stirred my hormones. Anne’s continuous fidgeting also disturbed me. Finally, she shyly asked, “Tim, can we find a church in the morning?”
“Is that why you’ve been nervous for the past hour?” I said. “Why don’t you just ask? Do you think I’m your boss or something?”
“I didn’t want to inconvenience you.”
“Anne, I’m here by choice. I could go back to Chicago anytime, and you’d be no worse off than before. But I said I’d look after you, didn’t I?” I had put two bottles of Sam Adams in the ice bucket. I took one out and opened it. I offered it and she took it. I opened the other for myself.
“Maybe I shouldn’t drink this,” she said. “I did just get out of the hospital.” When I shrugged, she set it down in my corner of the wooden chair.
I am an inveterate channel surfer, and I had possession of the remote. The moment the program on the screen bored me, I clicked it to something different. Here was ice dancing, but I’d had enough cold for one winter. Here, a surgeon with blood smears on his scrubs was muddling about in someone’s abdomen. I watched intently as the surgeon’s fingers reached into an uncharted sea of blood and throbbing meat. According to the logo in the corner of the screen, this was the Discovery Health channel.
I watched, fascinated. What medical problem was this brave physician battling? The human body was not like a gasoline engine or a television set, with distinct parts, and nuts and bolts to hold it all together. Anyone could reach into the recesses of a gas engine and insert a screw or bolt properly. But living tissue was messy and inconsistent. Internal organs looked pretty much the same, and they were connected to each other in ways that mocked the neat drawings in my medical textbooks.
“What are we watching?” Anne asked.
I continued to watch. In surgery, torn edges of meat had to be sewn together, like an upholsterer trying to sew soggy foam rubber. Nerves had to be protected; they were as delicate as spider web and often didn’t heal when injured. Arteries were more like buttered spaghetti, and had to be sewn end to end without leaking. It all had to be done quickly, while wearing gloves and working under oozing blood.
How the hell did they do it? Could I do it?
“Tim, if you don’t mind, can we watch something else?” said Anne. “This makes me squeamish.”
I turned to face her, full of enthusiasm. “Anne, that’s a human body you’re seeing. It’s absolutely amazing! It’s so messy, and looks completely disorganized. Yet it grows itself from a single egg, runs on chicken and potatoes and spinach, and fixes itself. It fights off the germs and viruses, and cranks on for nearly a century.”
“You forgot to mention that it also falls in love, gets goosebumps when it hears music, and seeks out God,” she admonished, “but Tim, I’m going to throw up if I have to look at that any more.”
I grumbled and changed the channel to a rerun of Seinfeld, which she did like. I least I thought she did, but after just a few minutes, her eyes fluttered and eventually stayed closed. Her head slipped sideways onto my arm, jerked upright, and finally returned to my shoulder as she settled into real sleep.
I felt the warmth of her through my shirt, and I could smell her hair. Her nearness distracted me from the television. I slowly clicked down the volume until I could barely hear it. I lost myself in the rhythm of her breathing and the barely perceptable beating of her heart.
I could have stayed there for hours, but soon, she roused herself. “I’ve still got to take my insulin,” she said.
“We can’t forget that, can we?”
“I hate it. You never, ever get used to sticking a needle in your own skin.”
“Um, I give needles all the time.”
She smiled prettily, and her green eyes made me shiver. “Would you, Tim?”
She wearily stood up and extracted the kit from her backpack. She asked me to click the blood from her arm, and she dabbed it onto the test strip. She studied the result for a minute, and drew the insulin carefully into the syringe. She handed me the syringe and pulled her sweater high up on her shoulder.
“Not your hip?” I said. “How disappointing!” I gave her my mock-injured look.
“The shoulder will do just fine, Tim.” She smiled prettily, seeming pleased by my mild flirtation.
I rubbed the skin with the alcohol swab. I pinched the skin lightly, and the needle slipped in and out without resistance.
“Thanks, Tim,” she smiled. “It’s like taking a holiday from it.”
She pulled her nightgown from her backpack and took it into the bathroom, tottering on her sore feet.
I was resigned to another wakeful night. When she shuffled from the bathroom, her nightgown reached down to her ankles. She slipped under the covers of her own bed, with her back to me. I turned off all but the TV, for its dim light, and brushed my teeth. Since I had no pajamas with me, all I could do was lift the blanket on the side of the bed, and slip my clothes off, except my briefs. I’d have to remember to buy some pajamas and spare underwear tomorrow.
I zapped off the TV and the room was dark, except for slivers of light around the window curtains. I stared into the darkness for some indeterminate time.
Sometime later, I saw the red numbers on the alarm clock, reading 2:20 am. I must have slept.
I felt weight on the mattress close beside me. Near to my ear, I heard soft breathing. What the Hell? Anne was in my bed! I lay rigid, not knowing what to do, or why she was there. I moved slightly, and my knee touched the soft flannel of her nightgown. She was under the covers with me, too!
I didn’t dare move. She couldn’t be coming on to me. For one thing, she was clearly asleep. She wasn’t lying awake, hoping I’d wake up, too.
I was still tense, when suddenly Anne turned over and tucked herself against me. Her face was snug against my bare shoulder, and her breath warmed the skin of my chest. Her arm flopped across my waist.
Finally coming to my senses, I put my arm around her shoulders, and she moved her head up onto my chest. A warm, happy glow diffused through my whole body. Yet she was still sound asleep. I enjoyed the closeness, not wanting to disturb her in any way that would make her move away. I was too excited to sleep.
It shouldn’t have happened, but I did fall asleep. When I awoke, bright sunshine was streaming around the curtains. When I moved, Anne had her back to me, and she suddenly stirred.
“Still here,” I said. “There must have been a lump in your mattress, right?”
“I was cold. I couldn’t get warm at all. I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t mind, Anne.”
“I didn’t want to give you the wrong idea, but I stood the cold as long as I could. I thought ‘Would he be offended?’ and decided that no, you wouldn’t.”
“It scared the wits out of me,” I said, “but then you put your head on my shoulder. It felt pretty good. But it was hardly expected.”
“I won’t do it again.”
“Anne, you nearly froze to death just two nights ago. Maybe you have a right to get warm when you can. You’ve got a standing invitation to use my shoulder whenever.”
Only her head showed above the covers. Her eyes glowed green, as if they made their own light in the dim room.
“Um, Anne, I’ve got to get out of bed and go to the bathroom.”
“And…?” she said mischievously.
“I’d like you to face the other way. I’m only wearing my underwear.”
She giggled, and turned away. I snatched up my pants and made my way into the bathroom. I was a little surprised at my own prudery. I think I was being careful of the relationship that was budding between us. It was as delicate as a flower, and could so easily be harmed.
Conserving cash was the first concern. Anne couldn’t walk easily, so I went and loaded up a tray with juice, milk, coffee, and toast from the free breakfast. I made two return trips, ignoring the glare of the service lady on the third trip. I wrapped a few extras in a napkin to take along. Anne had to wait a half-hour to let her blood sugar stabilize, and then I gave her the next dose of insulin. Lastly, I located a Roman Catholic church for her, and called for the hours. Only then could we check out and visit the church before hitting the road.