When we get to the hospital, the officer sits me down in the waiting room. I’m shaking so hard that the chair shakes with me.
“I need to go back there,” I say to him. “I need to go back there!” I yell louder. I take notice of his name tag. Officer Hernandez.
“I understand. I’m going to find out all of the information that I can. I believe you will have a social worker assigned to you. I’ll be right back.”
I can hear him talking but I can’t make myself react or acknowledge him. I just sit in the chair and stare at the far wall. I can feel my head sway from side to side. I feel myself stand and walk toward the nurses’ station, but I am cut off by Officer Hernandez coming back. He is now with a short, middle-aged man. The man has on a blue shirt with a red tie. I bet this idiot calls it his power tie. I bet he thinks he has a good day when he wears this tie.
“Elsie,” he says. I must have told Officer Hernandez my name. I don’t even remember doing that. He puts out his hand as if I were going to shake it. I see no need for formality in the midst of tragedy. I let it hang there. Before all this, I would never have rejected someone’s handshake. I am a nice person. Sometimes, I’m even a pushover. I’m not someone who is considered “difficult” or “unruly.”
“You are the wife of Ben Ross? Do you have a driver’s license on you?” the man asks me.
“No. I . . . ran right out of the house. I don’t . . . ” I look down at my feet. I don’t even have on shoes and this man thinks I have my driver’s license?
Officer Hernandez leaves. I can see him step away slowly, awkwardly. He feels like his job is done here, I’m sure. I wish I was him. I wish I could walk away from this and go home. I’d go home to my husband and a warm bed. My husband, a warm bed, and a fucking bowl of Fruity Pebbles.
“I’m afraid we cannot let you back there yet, Elsie,” the man in the red tie says.
“The doctors are working.”
“He’s alive?” I scream. How quickly hope can come flying back.
“No, I’m sorry.” He shakes his head. “Your husband died earlier this evening. He was listed as an organ donor.”
I feel like I’m in an elevator that is plummeting to the ground floor. They are taking pieces of him and giving them to other people. They are taking his parts.
I sit back down in the chair, dead inside. Part of me wants to scream at this man to let me back there. To let me see him. I want to run through the twin doors and find him, hold him. What are they doing to him? But I’m frozen. I am dead too.
The man in the red tie leaves briefly and comes back with hot chocolate and slippers. My eyes are dry and tired. I can barely see through them. All of my senses feel muted. I feel trapped in my own body, separated from everyone around me.
“Do you have someone we can call? Your parents?”
I shake my head. “Ana,” I say. “I should call Ana.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Can you write down Ana’s number? I’ll call her.”
I nod and he hands me a piece of paper and a pen. It takes me a minute to remember her number. I write it down wrong a few times before I write it down correctly, but I’m pretty sure, when I hand over the piece of paper, it’s the correct number.
“What about Ben?” I ask. I don’t know what exactly I mean. I just . . . I can’t give up yet. I can’t be at the call-someone-to-take-her-home-and-watch-her phase yet. We have to fight this, right? I have to find him and save him. How can I find him and save him?
“The nurses have called the next of kin.”
“What? I’m his next of kin.”
“Apparently his driver’s license listed an address in Orange County. We had to legally notify his family.”
“So who did you call? Who is coming?” But I already know who’s coming.
“I will see if I can find out. I’m going to go phone Ana. I’ll be back shortly, okay?”
In this lobby, I can see and hear other families waiting. Some look somber but most look okay. There is a mother with her young daughter. They are reading a book. There is a young boy holding an ice pack to his face next to a father who seems annoyed. There is a teenage couple holding hands. I don’t know why they are here, but judging from the smiles on their faces and the way they are flirting, I can only assume it’s not dire and I . . . I want to scream at them. I want to say that emergency rooms are for emergencies and they shouldn’t be here if they are going to look happy and carefree. I want to tell them to go home and be happy somewhere else because I don’t need to
see it. I don’t remember what it feels like to be them. I don’t even remember how it feels to be myself before this happened. All I have is this overwhelming sense of dread. That and my anger toward these two little shitheads who won’t get their smiles out of my fucking face.
I hate them and I hate the goddamn nurses, who just go on with their day like it isn’t the worst one of their lives. They make phone calls and they make photocopies and they drink coffee. I hate them for being able to drink coffee at a time like this. I hate everyone in this entire hospital for not being miserable.
The man in the red tie comes back and says that Ana is on her way. He offers to sit down and wait with me. I shrug. He can do whatever he wants. His presence brings me no solace, but it does prevent me from running up to someone and screaming at them for eating a candy bar at a time like this. My mind flashes back to the Fruity Pebbles all over the road, and I know they will be there when I get home. I know that no one will have cleaned them up because no one could possibly know how horrifying they would be to look at again. Then I think of what a stupid reason that is for Ben to die. He died over Fruity Pebbles. It would be funny if it wasn’t so . . . It will never be funny. Nothing about this is funny. Even the fact that I lost my husband because I had a craving for a children’s cereal based on the Flintstones cartoon. I hate myself for this. That’s who I hate the most.
Ana shows up in a flurry of panic. I don’t know what the man in the red tie has told her. He stands to greet her as she runs toward me. I can see them talking but I can’t hear them. They speak only for a second before she runs to my side, puts her arms around me. I let her arms fall where she puts them, but I have no
energy to hug back. This is the dead fish of hugs. She whispers, “I’m sorry,” into my ear, and I crumble into her arms.
I have no will to hold myself up, no desire to hide my pain. I wail in the waiting room. I sob and heave into her breasts. Any other moment of my life, I’d move my head away from that part of her body. I’d feel uncomfortable with my eyes and lips being that close to a sexual body part, but right now, sex feels trivial and stupid. It feels like something idiots do out of boredom. Those happy teenagers probably do it for sport.
Her arms around me don’t comfort me. The water springs from my eyes as if I’m forcing it out but I’m not. It’s just falling on its own. I don’t even feel sad. This level of devastation is so far beyond tears, that mine feel paltry and silly.
“Have you seen him, Elsie? I’m so sorry.”
I don’t answer. We sit on the floor of the waiting room for what seems like hours. Sometimes I wail, sometimes I feel nothing. Most of the time, I lie in Ana’s arms, not because I need to but because I don’t want to look at her. Eventually, Ana gets up and rests me against the wall, and then she walks up to the nurses’ station and starts yelling.
“How much longer until we can see Ben Ross?” she screams at the young Latina nurse sitting at her computer.
“Ma’am,” the nurse says, standing up, but Ana moves away from her.
“No. Don’t ma’am me. Tell me where he is. Let us through.” The man in the red tie makes his way over to her and tries to calm her down.
He and Ana speak for a few minutes. I can see him try to touch Ana, to console her, and she jerks her shoulder out of his reach. He is just doing his job. Everyone here is just doing their job. What a bunch of assholes.
I see an older woman fly through the front doors. She looks about sixty with long, reddish brown hair in waves around her face. She has mascara running down her cheeks, a brown purse over her shoulder, a blackish brown shawl across her chest. She has tissues in her hands. I wish my grief were composed enough to have tissues. I’ve been wiping snot on my sleeves and neckline. I’ve been letting tears fall into puddles on the floor.
She runs up to the front desk and then resigns herself to sit. When she turns to face me briefly, I know exactly who she is. I stare at her. I can’t take my eyes off of her. She is my mother-in-law, a stranger by all accounts. I saw her picture a few times in a photo album, but she has never seen my face.
I remove myself and head into the bathroom. I do not know how to introduce myself to her. I do not know how to tell her that we are both here for the same man. That we are both grieving over the same loss. I stand in front of the mirror and I look at myself. My face is red and blotchy. My eyes are bloodshot. I look at my face and I think that I had someone who loved this face. And now he’s gone. And now no one loves my face anymore.
I step back out of the bathroom and she is gone. I turn to find Ana grabbing my arm. “You can go in,” she says and leads me to the man in the red tie, who leads me through the double doors.
The man in the red tie stops outside a room and asks me if I want him to go in with me. Why would I want him to go in with me? I just met this man. This man means nothing to me. The man inside this room means everything to me. Nothing isn’t going to help losing everything. I open the door and there are other people in the room, but all I can see is Ben’s body.
“Excuse me!” my mother-in-law says through her tears. It is meek but terrifying. I ignore it.
I grab his face in my hands and it’s cold to the touch. His eyelids are shut. I’ll never see his eyes again. It occurs to me they might be gone. I can’t look. I don’t want to figure it out. His face is bruised and I don’t know what that means. Does that mean he was hurt before he died? Did he die there alone and lonely on the street? Oh my God, did he suffer? I feel faint. There’s a sheet over his chest and legs. I’m scared to move the sheet. I’m scared that there is too much of Ben exposed, too much of him to see. Or that there is too much of him that is gone.
“Security!” she calls out into the air.
As I hold on to Ben’s hand and a security guard shows up at the door, I look at my mother-in-law. She has no reason to know who I am. She has no reason to understand what I am doing here, but she has to know I love her son. That much has to be obvious by now.
“Please,” I beg her. “Please, Susan, don’t do this.”
Susan looks at me curiously, confused. By the sheer fact that I know her name, she knows she must be missing something. She very subtly nods and looks at the security guard. “I’m sorry. Give us a moment?” He leaves the room, and Susan looks at the nurse. “You too. Thank you.” The nurse leaves the room, shutting the door.
Susan looks tortured, terrified, and yet composed, as if she has only enough poise to get through the next five seconds and then she will fall apart.
“His hand has a wedding ring on it,” she says to me. I stare at her and try to keep breathing. I meekly lift up my own left hand to match.
“We were married a week and a half ago,” I say through tears. I can feel the corners of my lips pulling down. They feel so heavy.
“What is your name?” she asks me, now shaking.
“Elsie,” I say. I am terrified of her. She looks angry and vulnerable, like a teenage runaway.
“Elsie what?” she chokes.
That’s when she breaks. She breaks just like I have. Soon, she’s on the floor. There are no more tissues in sight to save the linoleum from her tears.
It was New Year’s Eve and Ana and I had this great plan. We were going to go to this party to see this guy she had been flirting with at the gym, and then we were going to leave at 11:30 p.m. We wanted to drive to the beach, open a bottle of champagne together, and ring in the new year tipsy and drenched in sea spray.
Instead, Ana got too drunk at the party, started making out with the guy from the gym, and disappeared for a few hours. This was fairly typical of Ana and something that I had come to love about her, namely that nothing ever went as planned. Something always happened. She was a nice reprieve from my own personality. A personality for whom everything went as planned and nothing ever happened. So when I was stranded at the party waiting for Ana to pop out of wherever she’d been hiding, I wasn’t angry or surprised. I had assumed things might take this turn. I was only slightly annoyed as I rang in the new year with a group of strangers. I stood there awkwardly, as friends kissed each other, and I just stared into my champagne glass. I didn’t let it ruin my evening. I talked to some cool people that night. I made the best of it.
I met a guy named Fabian, who was just finishing med school but said his real passion was “fine wine, fine food, and fine women.” He winked at me as he said this, and as I gracefully removed myself from the conversation shortly
thereafter, Fabian asked for my number. I gave it to him, and although he was cute, I knew that if he did call, I wouldn’t answer. Fabian seemed like the kind of guy who would take me to an expensive bar on our first date; the kind of guy who would check out other girls while I was in the bathroom. That was the kind of guy who found victory in sleeping with you. It was a game to him and I . . . just never knew how to play it well.
Ana, on the other hand, knew how to have fun. She met people. She flirted with them. She had whatever that thing is that makes men fawn over women and lose their own self-respect in the process. Ana had all the power in her romances, and while I could see the point in living like that, from an outside view it never seemed very full of passion. It was calculated. I was waiting for someone that would sweep me off my feet and would be swept up by me in equal parts. I wanted someone who wouldn’t want to play games because doing so meant less time being together. I wasn’t sure if this person existed, but I was too young to give up on the idea.
I finally found Ana asleep in the master bathroom. I picked her up and cabbed her home. By the time I reached my own apartment, it was about 2:00 a.m. and I was tired. The bottle of champagne intended for our beach rendezvous went unopened and I got in bed.
As I fell asleep that night, eyeliner not fully cleaned off my face, black sequined dress on the floor, I thought about what this year could bring and my mind raced with all of the possibilities, however unlikely. But out of all the possibilities, I didn’t think about being married by the end of May.
I woke up New Year’s Day alone in my apartment, just like I woke up every other day, and there was nothing in particular
that seemed special about it. I read in bed for two hours, I took a shower, I got dressed. I met Ana for breakfast.
I’d been up for about three and a half hours by the time I saw her. She looked like she hadn’t been up for five minutes. Ana is tall and lanky with long brown hair that falls far beyond her shoulders and perfectly matches her golden brown eyes. She was born in Brazil and lived there until she was thirteen, and it’s still noticeable every once in a while in some of her words, mostly her exclamations.
That particular morning, she was wearing big sweatpants and she had her hair pulled up into a ponytail, a zip-up sweatshirt covering her torso. You could barely tell she wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath her sweatshirt, and it occurred to me that this is how Ana does it. This is how she drives men crazy. She looks naked while being entirely covered. And you would have absolutely no indication she does this on purpose.
“Nice shirt,” I said, as I pulled my sunglasses off and sat down across from her. Sometimes I worried that my own average body looked oversize compared to hers, that my own plain features only served to highlight how beautiful she was. When I made jokes about it, she would remind me that I am a blond woman in the United States. She’d say blond trumps everything. I’ve always thought of my hair as dirty blond, almost mousy, but I saw her point.
Even with how gorgeous Ana is, I’ve never heard her express
satisfaction with her own looks. When I would say I didn’t like my small boobs, she’d remind me that I have long legs and a butt she’d kill for. She’d always confess how much she hated her short eyelashes and knees, that her feet looked like “troll feet.” So maybe we’re all in the same boat. Maybe all women feel like “before” photos.
Ana had already made herself comfortable on the patio, having a muffin and an iced tea. She pretended like she was about to get up when I sat down, but just reached for a half hug.
“Are you ready to kill me for last night?”
“What?” I said as I pulled out the menu. I don’t know why I even bothered to look at the menu. I ate eggs Benedict every Saturday morning.
“I don’t even remember what happened, honestly. I just remember parts of the cab ride home and then you taking my shoes off before you pulled the covers over me.”
I nodded. “That sounds about right. I lost you for about three hours and found you in the upstairs bathroom, so I can’t speak to how far you and that guy from the gym got, but I would imagine . . . ”
“No! I hooked up with Jim?”
I put the menu down. “What? No, the guy from the gym.”
“Yeah, his name is Jim.”
“You met a guy at the gym named Jim?” Technically, this wasn’t his fault. People named Jim should be allowed to go to gyms, but I couldn’t shake the feeling this somehow made him ridiculous. “Is that a bran muffin?”
She nodded, so I took some of it.
“You and I might be the only two people on the planet that like the taste of bran muffins,” she said to me, and she might have been right. Ana and I often found striking similarities in
each other in meaningless places, the clearest one being food. It doesn’t matter if you and another person both like tzatziki. It has no bearing on your ability to get along, but somehow, in these overlaps of taste, there was a bond between Ana and me. I knew she was about to order the eggs Benedict too.
“Anyway, I saw you making out with Jim from the gym, but I don’t know what happened after that.”
“Oh, well I’m going to assume that it didn’t get much further because he’s already texted me this morning.”
“It’s eleven a.m.”
“I know. I thought it was a bit quick. But it is flattering,” she said.
“What can I get for you two?” The waitress who came up to us wasn’t our usual waitress. She was older, had been through more.
“Oh, hi! I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Ana.”
“Daphne.” This waitress wasn’t nearly as interested in being friends with us as Ana might have hoped.
“What happened to Kimberly?” Ana asked.
“Oh, not sure. Just filling in for the day.”
“Ah. Okay, well, we’ll make this easy on you. Two eggs Benedict and I’ll have an iced tea like she has,” I said.
“You got it.”
Once she left, Ana and I resumed our earlier discussion.
“I’ve been thinking about resolutions,” Ana said, offering me some of her iced tea while I waited for mine to get there. I declined because I knew if I had some of hers, she’d take that as license to drink some of mine when it arrived and she’d drink my whole damn glass. I’d known her long enough to know where to draw my boundaries and how to draw them so she wouldn’t notice.
“I’m thinking something radical.”
“Radical? This should be good.”
“Celibacy. Not having sex.”
“No, I know what it means. I’m just wondering why.”
“Oh, well, I came up with it this morning. I’m twenty-six years old and last night I got drunk and can’t be entirely sure if I slept with someone or not. Maybe time to slow it down.”
“You could just stop drinking.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, stop getting drunk.”
“Stop it. I’m not saying something preposterous here. There are plenty of people that just don’t drink.”
“Yeah, Elsie, they’re called alcoholics.”
I laughed. “Fair enough, drinking isn’t the problem. It’s the sleeping around.”
“Right. So I’m just going to stop sleeping around.”
“And what happens when you meet someone you really want to be with?”
“Well, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I didn’t meet anyone last year worth my time. I can’t say I expect that to change this year.”
Daphne showed up with two eggs Benedicts and my iced tea. She put them down in front of us, and I didn’t realize how hungry I’d been until the food was staring me in the face. I dug right in.
Ana nodded, chewing. When it started to look like she could speak without spitting food, she added, “I mean, if I meet someone and fall in love, sure. But until then, nobody’s getting in here.” She made an x in the air with her utensils.
“Fair enough.” The best part about this place was they put spinach in the eggs Benedict, kind of an eggs Benedict Florentine. “This doesn’t mean I can’t sleep around though, right?” I said to her.
“No, you still can. You won’t. But you still can.”
Ana was soon on her way back to the other side of town. She was living in Santa Monica in a condo that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. I’d’ve been jealous enough to resent her if she hadn’t offered on a regular basis for me to move in. I always declined, knowing that living with Ana might be the only thing that could teach me to dislike her. I never did understand how Ana could live the way she did on the salary of a part-time yoga teacher, but she always seemed to have enough money for the things she wanted and needed when she wanted and needed them.
After she left, I walked back to my apartment. I knew exactly how I’d be spending my afternoon. It was a new year and I always felt like a new year didn’t feel new without rearranging the furniture. The problem was that I had rearranged my apartment so many times in the two years I’d lived there that I’d exhausted all rational possibilities. I loved my apartment and worked hard to afford it and decorate it. So as I moved the couch from wall to wall, ultimately realizing that it really
looked best where it was originally, I was still satisfied. I moved the bookcase from one wall to another, switched my end tables, and decided this was enough of a change for me to commemorate the year. I sat down on the couch, turned on the television, and fell asleep.
It was 5:00 p.m. when I woke up, and while it was technically a Saturday night and single people on Saturday nights are supposed to go out to bars or clubs and find a date, I opted to watch television, read a book, and order a pizza. Maybe this year was going to be the year I did whatever the hell I wanted, regardless of social norms. Maybe.
When it started raining, I knew I’d been right to stay inside. Ana called a few hours later asking what I was doing.
“I wanted to make sure you’re not sitting on the couch watching television.”
“What? Why can’t I watch television?”
“It’s a Saturday night, Elsie. Get up! Go out! I’d say you should come out with me but I’m going on a date with Jim.”
“So much for celibacy.”
“What? I’m not sleeping with him. I’m eating dinner with him.”
I laughed. “Okay, well, I’m spending the night on my couch. I’m tired and sleepy and . . . ”
“Tired and sleepy are the same thing. Stop making excuses.”
“Fine. I’m lazy and I like being alone sometimes.”
“Good. At least you admitted it. I’ll call you tomorrow. Wish me luck keeping it in my pants.”
“You’ll need it.”
“Hey!” I said back.
“Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
With the phone in my hand, I ordered a pizza. When I called Georgie’s Pizza to order it, the woman on the phone told me it would be an hour and a half before it was delivered. When I asked why, all she said was “Rain.” I told her I’d be there in a half hour to pick it up.
Walking into Georgie’s Pizza, I felt nothing. No part of my brain or my body knew what was about to happen. I felt no premonition. I was wearing bright yellow galoshes and what can only be described as fat jeans. The rain had matted my hair to my face and I’d given up pushing it away.
I didn’t even notice Ben sitting there. I was far too involved with the minutiae of trying to buy a pizza. Once the cashier told me it would be another ten minutes, I retired to the small bench in the front of the store, and it was then that I noticed there was another person in the same predicament.
My heart didn’t skip a beat. I had no idea he was “it”; it was “he.” He was the man I’d dreamed about as a child, wondering what my husband would look like. I was seeing this face I had wondered about my whole life and it was right here in front of me and I didn’t recognize it. All I thought was, He’ll probably get his pizza before I get mine.
He looked handsome in a way that suggested he didn’t realize just how handsome he was. There was no effort involved, no self-awareness. He was tall and lean with broad shoulders and strong arms. His jeans were just the right shade of blue; his shirt brought out the gray in his green eyes. They looked stark against his brown hair. I sat down next to him and swatted my hair away from my forehead again. I picked up my phone to check my e-mail and otherwise distract myself from the waiting.
“Hi,” he said. It took me a second to confirm he was, in fact, speaking to me. That easily, my interest was piqued.
“Hi,” I said back. I tried to let it hang there, but I was bad with silence. I had to fill it. “I should have just had it delivered.”
“And miss all this?” he said, referencing the tacky faux-Italian decor with his hands. I laughed. “You have a nice laugh,” he said.
“Oh, stop it,” I said. I swear, my mother taught me how to take a compliment, and yet each time I was given one, I shooed it away like it was on fire. “I mean, thank you. That’s what you’re supposed to say. Thank you.”
I noticed that I had subconsciously shifted my entire body toward him. I’d read all of these articles about body language and pupil dilation when people are attracted to each other, but whenever I got into a situation where it was actually useful (Are his pupils dilated? Does he like me?), I was always far too unfocused to take advantage.
“No, what you’re supposed to do is compliment me back,” he said, smiling. “That way I know where I stand.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well, it doesn’t really tell you much if I compliment you now, does it? I mean, you know that I’m complimenting you because you’ve asked . . . ”
“Trust me, I can still tell.”
“All right,” I said, while I looked him up and down. As I made a show of studying him, he stretched out his legs and lengthened his neck. He pulled his shoulders back and puffed out his chest. I admired the stubble on his cheeks, the way it made him look effortlessly handsome. My eyes felt drawn to the strength of his arms. What I wanted to say was “You have great arms,” and yet, I didn’t have it in me. I played it safe.
“So?” he said.
“I like your shirt,” I said to him. It was a heathered gray shirt with a bird on it.
“Oh,” he said, and I could hear honest to God disappointment in his voice. “I see how it is.”
“What?” I smiled, defensively. “That’s a nice compliment.”
He laughed. He wasn’t overly interested or desperate. He wasn’t aloof or cool either, he just . . . was. I don’t know whether he was this way with all women, whether he was able to talk to any woman as if he’d known her for years, or whether it was just me. But it didn’t matter. It was working. “Oh, it’s fine,” he said. “But I’m not even going to try for your number. Girl compliments your eyes, your hair, your beard, your arms, your name, that means she’s open to a date. Girl compliments your shirt? You’re getting shot down.”
“Wait—that’s not—” I started, but I was interrupted.
“Ben Ross!” the cashier called out, and he jumped up. He looked right at me and said, “Hold that thought.”
He paid for his pizza, thanked the cashier genuinely, and then came and sat right back down next to me on the bench.
“Anyway, I’m thinking if I ask you out, I’m going to be shot down. Am I going to be shot down?”
No, he was absolutely not going to be shot down. But I was now embarrassed and trying hard not to seem eager. I smiled wide at him, unable to keep the canary feathers in my mouth. “Your pizza is going to get cold,” I told him.
He waved me off. “I’m over this pizza. Give it to me straight. Can I have your number?”
There it was. Do-or-die time. How to say it without screaming it with all of the nervous energy in my body? “You can have my number. It’s only fair.”
“Elsie Porter!” the cashier yelled. Apparently, she had been
calling it for quite a while, but Ben and I were too distracted to hear much of anything.
“Oh! Sorry, that’s me. Uh . . . just wait here.”
He laughed, and I walked up to pay for my pizza. When I came back, he had his phone out. I gave him my number and I took his.
“I’m going to call you soon, if that’s okay. Or should I do the wait-three-days thing? Is that more your style?”
“No, go for it,” I said, smiling. “The sooner the better.”
He put out his hand to shake and I took it.
“Elsie,” I said, and for the first time, I thought the name Ben sounded like the finest name I’d ever heard. I smiled at him. I couldn’t help it. He smiled back and tapped his pizza. “Well, until then.”
I nodded. “Until then,” I said, and I walked back to my car. Giddy.