Understanding

short story #1

I wrote this story a decade ago. It’s been a finalist in a contest, and I’ve gone back and forth on it with two magazine editors, but neither ultimately decided to publish it. Today, I’m dedicating it to my sisters, both nurses, who worked night shifts for many years, and also to healthcare workers who, despite their own griefs, continue to care for others during the pandemic. I hope you enjoy.


Understanding

The day Patrick left the clinic he asked Laura for her phone number. Laura shook her head and walked out of the room. While she changed out of her scrubs, her shoulders relaxed for the first time that shift. She didn’t know how to cure her depression, but it wasn’t to continue her involvement with Patrick.

Outside Laura walked down Twenty-Third to Johnson and hung a left. A fall morning haze enclosed the streets. Rain-mist fell, plastering yellow leaves to pavement. At Twenty-First, she crossed the street and opened the door to Coffee Time. The scent of coffee and baked goods replaced the scent of wet trees.

            She ordered an Americano and huddled in a far corner of an empty booth. Spilled coffee blotted the table. Placing her fingers in it, she tossed the liquid upward, like she’d kicked puddle water as a child, like she’d imagined her daughter would. It was all she could see, this scene in front of her, and she was surprised when the dreadlocked barista set down a mug. She cupped her hands around it. While he wiped the spilled coffee, she scanned the room. At the counter stood two teenage girls who stopped every day on their way to high school. Across the shop sat an old man who met another old man here to play chess.

            The first time she came here was in June, before her first night back to her job as a nurse. For the six weeks prior she’d been on maternity leave. Her baby had died at full-term. Some days stains on clothes or overcooked food startled and upset her. Other days she could have watched her apartment burn down without feeling anything. Often the coming of night felt like a premature death.

             Laura set her half-empty mug on the counter and walked out into the now bright morning. The familiar scent of sunlight and rain mixed together on pavement. She decided to walk home instead of ride the bus. There was nothing at home she wanted to do, not even sleep.

            She walked down tree-lined neighborhood streets, thinking about Patrick, his trips to Europe, how he’d avoided a bank account until he was twenty-four. She became upset that she’d think about him every time she was in that clinic room. Soon she was underneath Portland State University’s footbridge, passing the bookstore, the brick post office, a green-shuttered bar. Blurry-eyed students in sweatshirts and jeans traipsed toward nine o’clock classes, their steps eager, light. She couldn’t believe she was that young when she’d met her husband, Ben.

            They’d lived in the same dorm their freshman year. Maybe they met at some university-sponsored freshmen gathering, maybe she saw him in someone else’s dorm room, maybe they had an intro class together. He just seemed always there. They became good friends, often eating meals together, and on winter break of their sophomore year they recognized their attraction. They were hanging out downtown before Laura’s waitressing shift. She grabbed Ben’s arm while crossing Naito Parkway. They walked arm and arm on Waterfront Park’s cement paths, along the boardwalk lined with shops, and down the ramp to the dock where the Newport Bay restaurant floated on the water. When she went to pull her arm away, he wouldn’t let her go. When she turned to face him, they kissed. At the moment it surprised them both. Late that night, he picked her up from work, kissed her cheek, and spit out the window because her skin smelled like fish. They laughed for five blocks.

            They fell into dating with the casualness and intensity of people who have been good friends beforehand. After Laura’s Saturday morning studying, Ben dragged her to a practice room to play cello and piano duets together. On Friday afternoons, she waited for him outside the cadaver lab, and they went to listen to an a cappella group by the student union. He was the only person she knew who talked as knowledgeably about human physiology as Chopin’s etudes. By their senior year they’d moved in together. After her long days of clinicals, they drank wine while she recounted the jealousies of fellow nursing students or the apathy of nurses who were supposed to be training them. He sat on the footrest while she sat in the armchair, leaned toward her while she complained or took her feet and massaged them. She knew he didn’t want to be bothered while he studied with earbuds in but that if he was scrounging around in the kitchen for nothing in particular he wanted to talk. One night, while celebrating his acceptance into OHSU’s medical school, they decided to get married. At the time, it seemed right that love had come gradually and awed her in small ways.

*

Their apartment was one of six in a renovated house-turned-apartments in the lower West Hills. You entered from a hallway into a high-ceilinged room, which held a couch, a piano and cello, a bookcase, a small TV on a stool in the corner. You walked from there through the edge of a narrow kitchen to the bedroom, where their queen-size bed and Ben’s desk took over the room.

            On the way to the bedroom Laura stopped in the kitchen and ate half of a bagel while standing at the counter. She thought about how Ben hadn’t played his cello much in the three years since he’d started medical school. He compared the amount of information he had to learn to trying to drink water out of a hose without getting his shirt wet. She remembered, while on maternity leave, when she’d worked on a Bach prelude while he studied in the bedroom. The counterpoint she could play hands separately but fumbled when playing hands together. One afternoon Ben requested that she work on her new pieces when he wasn’t at home, that he couldn’t study to dissonant music.

            In the bedroom Laura looked at herself in the full-length mirror, a young woman with dark pockets under her small brown eyes, full lips, ratty dirty-blond ponytailed hair. She held one breast in her hand, then the other. Were they back to normal size? Taking off her blouse and bra, she repeated this procedure and then shrugged at her nakedness. Who knew. She’d never weighed her breasts before she’d gotten pregnant. She took off her slacks, slipped on a loose white T-shirt, and lay on top of the unmade bed.

            Her stomach was almost flat again. There were stretch marks between her butt and thigh and on her lower stomach. The pregnancy had been unplanned, but both she and Ben had become accustomed to and then excited about the idea of having a child. While in bed together Ben would run his finger along her hipbone and up onto her stomach and leave his palm there, waiting for the baby to kick. He’d place his ear against her belly button. “Alice,” he said at eight months. “She sounds like an Alice.” They hadn’t brainstormed this name, but Laura agreed. The name seemed elegant and simple, not common but not foreign, either. They’d felt Alice alive but only seen her dead. A fully formed baby. Ben’s wide forehead and dark hair, her own tiny eyes and nose.

            Laura rolled from one side to the other with the ease of a nonpregnant, vital young woman. She and Ben had started making love regularly again, though not as often as prior to her pregnancy. She loved Ben, and the sex was lovely, but something was lacking. Long after he fell asleep, she lay awake, twisting his loose curls in her fingers. Maybe her body had prepared itself to be a mother, and simply being Ben’s partner no longer satiated it.

            After the stillbirth, for the first time in her life she didn’t make herself have practical reasons for why she did things. She spent mornings making cookies for Ben or neighbor children. She spent afternoons listening to classical music and evenings watching TV episodes alone. She was patient with herself, because something in her said it would be worse if she were not. Her maternity leave up, she went back to work. Her relaxed and confident poise lasted exactly a week, to when she found herself crying alone one morning on her bed from grief and insomnia. Looking back, that initial dip seemed a small one in the roller coaster that had become her life.

            In the mornings after work, because she couldn’t sleep she surfed the internet. Because her current place seemed claustrophobic, she looked up different cities. Growing up, the only cities she’d visited were Seattle and San Francisco. She vaguely remembered the Puget Sound that seemed as large as the ocean and a red trolley she and her parents rode up a steep hill. In July she was looking online at the museums in Chicago. Instead of paying August rent, she bought a round-trip ticket there. She used more of the money to book a hotel overlooking Lake Michigan. Ben might be working the entire three days she was gone and, if not, it would be easy—she’d tell him she was staying at a girlfriend’s house.

            It was easy. So easy she’d gone to San Francisco in late August and Santa Fe in September. Their landlord had called after the first nonpayment and threatened eviction after the other two. Laura cared but not enough to stop. She went to concerts and museums in Chicago, talked to Chinese and Mexican restaurant owners in San Francisco, and in New Mexico browsed a new-age sculpture gallery and a Mormon bookstore on the same street.

             Despite the pleasure of the new sights and people, travel took her more inside herself than to a different place. She’d never noticed this before. Or maybe it had not been like this, because before she’d only traveled with her parents and then on short road trips with girlfriends or with Ben, never alone and never so far. Or maybe she was in such a low state that no matter where she went or who she was with, she couldn’t get out of her own head. At the end of each evening, she sat on the hotel bed, staring at whatever view she’d chosen, drinking just enough wine to put herself to sleep and give her a headache in the morning.

            She was at the lowest dip in the roller coaster, and it had broken, and she had no energy to push it up the next incline or call for help or just get off. No, she thought. Today she’d gotten off. Tomorrow she’d pay the October rent. She scooted her body, suddenly heavy, under the twisted sheet and down comforter. A hazy image of herself sat at Ben’s desk, writing on one of her rose-covered checks.

*

After she woke up she met Ben for an early dinner at a Thai restaurant in the Pearl. It was a hole-in-the-wall delicious place. They’d eaten there so many times that the owners gave them free dessert. Laura had resisted eating at this restaurant for months, always insisting they should try someplace new. But when Ben texted that he had a craving for this place, she texted back yes, that’s fine. She didn’t feel like arguing, and nowhere else was as good anyway.

            They sat at a table by a window on the second story, a lit candle between them. The waiter brought a pot of tea before they asked. Ben poured a cup for her and then for himself. She closed her eyes and allowed the steam to warm her eyelids before she took a sip.

            “You able to sleep today?” he asked.

            “Yes. After a while.”

            “Good.” Ben looked down at his menu and then back up. He asked if she were up for going out for drinks with friends later on.

            “I think so. If I’m not, you should still go.”

            He nodded and closed his menu. They ordered pad Thai and red curry. They sipped their tea and watched people, recently off work, who flooded the sidewalks below. The few ties or suit-jackets stood out among khakis and polos, skirts and blouses, jeans and fleeces. A little boy wearing a yellow backpack pulled away from his dad toward a red leaf on the sidewalk. The clouds were high and fluffy. Laura didn’t think it would rain again that day.

            “How was work?” she asked.

            “Really good. I assisted with an ACL surgery.” He described the procedures in smooth, methodical gestures, named the implements the surgeon had demanded from him. She had always loved his precision, the energy it gave him.

            A few months ago, during her initial depression, Ben suggested antidepressants. She refused. Too many of her relatives had been on pills for too many years. She said she would change her diet, she said she would see a psychologist. Ultimately, it was easier to hide. Earlier in their relationship, he would have caught her. But he, too, had been preoccupied.

            “Would you like to practice a duet soon?” she asked.

            “A duet? Yeah, sure. I’ve just been so busy . . .”

            “Your next rotation is psych, right? You’ll have shorter hours then?”

            “Yeah. I will.”

            Their food came. She twirled the noodles around her fork, and he dug into the curry, now and then accidentally slurping.

            “A patient I liked left today,” she said. She’d told Ben nothing about Patrick.

            “Yeah?”

            “He was interesting. A modern-day hippie. Resourceful. A bit of a mooch, too.” She remembered how Patrick said he’d memorized bakeries that would give away day-old bread. “He’s hitchhiked back and forth across the United States five times.”

            Ben nodded, listening. But she didn’t know what else to say; she couldn’t say she’d wanted to sleep with him. She sipped her tea. She wondered whether she wanted to go out tonight.

            Ben dished up a second helping of rice. “I’ve decided on a specialty,” he said. “Surgery. Not sure what type.”

            He smiled. His thin, serious face looked boyish and his eyebrows raised in tandem with the corners of his lips. Many times they’d discussed what specialty he might choose. He’d pointed out that some kinds of doctors demanded a lifestyle less conducive to family life than others. She said he’d come this far and should choose whatever he’d enjoy most. She tried to smile back but could tell he sensed her hesitation.

            “It’ll be long hours,” he said. “I know.”

            “That’s great. Really. I was just thinking about all the details . . .”

            They ate and looked out the window. Pedestrian traffic had thinned. Cars clogged the street. Ben sat his chin on his palm, his pointer finger resting alongside his nose. A unique gesture he assumed when deep in thought. He set down his hand and met her gaze.

            “Next time we try for a kid,” he said, “we’ll have money to support it.”

            She set down her fork. “I could work extra shifts.”

            Ben took her hand. “You’re already so tired.”

            “Maybe I could find a day shift.” She leaned toward him. “If I find a day shift, would you consider it?”

            Ben’s brow furrowed. “Maybe.”

            Laura pulled her hand away. Maybe meant no. “We didn’t try last time.”

            “You know what I mean.”

            “I know. ‘It’s better to be financially responsible and prepared for life changes.’”

            “Laura—”

            “You’re glad we don’t have a child right now.”

            “You know that’s not true.”

            She stood. Pulling her baggy red purse off the table, she knocked over his teacup. The liquid darkened the cream tablecloth and dripped onto the carpet. She ran down the stairs and onto the sidewalk. She weaved in and out of laid-back window shoppers. Her purse bounced against her side. A couple blocks away, she halted, heaving. She smelled Thai food on her breath. She crossed the street at an angle, oblivious to honks of cars and the yell of a biker. She didn’t know where she was going.

*

Three years ago, right after she and Ben got married, Laura began working nights on the general-medicine floor at Good Samaritan Hospital in Northwest Portland. As part of her job she was required to give basic care to sleep-study inpatients, healthy citizens who received money to sign away their freedom for a few weeks of isolation and testing. Laura had empathized with these patients because she herself felt as though she were participating in some kind of sleep study. Working twelve hour shifts three and sometimes four nights a week, her body never settled into a regular routine. She tried to sleep when she came home, but if Ben, a friend, or her parents asked her out for breakfast or lunch, she couldn’t refuse. She wanted to sleep next to Ben on her nights off, but she ended up staring at the ceiling half the time or watching TV more out of insomnia than interest. Black bags lingered under her eyes. Many patients, assuming she was close to thirty, were surprised when she said she was twenty-three.

            During that same year she and Ben made a point to go to the food carts once a week. They liked to walk hand in hand down the grassy park blocks. Once, she was humming and he said, “Mozart. Sonata V. Second Movement.” She hummed a new tune, and he said, “Sonatine. Hermann Gotz.” He whistled a Beethoven Scherzando and she guessed it on her first try. They played this game back and forth and swung their arms to the songs’ rhythms. Near the end of the greenway aisles of food carts filled a whole city block. Vendors painted their trailers in stripes or solid colors or left them white. Year round they could buy Mongolian, Polish, Ecuadorian, or Ethiopian food. At the time the number and variety of carts seemed plentiful, exciting, and apt. If they ate there once a week for a year there would still be food they hadn’t tried.

            For their second anniversary Ben surprised her with a piano that had belonged to his great-aunt. Because they no longer had access to the college practice rooms, she hadn’t had a place to play. They paid a piano tuner one hundred dollars to tell them that they had an untunable piano. Laura didn’t mind. Her hands could still move lithely on the loose keys. How her hands felt on the keys was almost as important as how the music sounded. She wasn’t as much of a perfectionist as Ben.

            She wasn’t as much of an optimist as he was, either. After a fifteen-hour med-school study day he would talk pointedly and enthusiastically. He reminded her, when tired, that most nurses did a stint on night shift before they received the more coveted daytime shifts. She viewed her growing discontent as a lack in herself and tried not to complain. But last year, soon before she got pregnant, he started to go out without her and she formed a grudge. Not because he went out without her, but because he didn’t understand why she wanted to stay in. In college it made sense to go socialize after a day of studying but after two years of being around patients and coworkers almost every other night, she wanted to spend free nights alone or with Ben. She explained this to him, but he insisted it would cheer her up to hang out with friends.

            Small distances between them had compounded since Alice’s death. One morning in July, when he was dressing for some rotation and she was undressing for bed, he asked her to add white wine to the slow cooker in the afternoon. “It’s chicken cacciatore.”

            She said she would. Working nights seemed even harder since she’d had her leave. She was thinking about the tests they performed on sleep-deprived sleep-studies patients. How, like drunks, they couldn’t walk in a straight line. After he left she laid a belt on the floor and tried to walk heel-to-toe alongside it. She staggered.

            She smelled the chicken when she woke up but forgot about the wine until she heard Ben come in. He caught her pouring it in, steam in her face.

            “I forgot,” she said. “Sorry.”

            As usual, he stepped into the bedroom to put his backpack away. Back in the kitchen he put a hand on her back as she put the lid back on the slow cooker. “You OK?”

            “I don’t know,” she said honestly. She wrapped her arms around him and leaned her head on his shoulder. He put his arms around her and kissed her ear. “I feel sad in the evenings, when I’m on the bus to work.”

            “You don’t like work?”

            “When the light is fading, I get this feeling. Like I don’t have much time.”

            “Time for what?”

            “Just time. Like something is ending.”

            He stepped away, opened the cupboard, and took out two green plates. “We’re only twenty-five.”

            He put the plates on their two-person table next to the window. She loved the long-limbed way he moved. He got out two clear glasses, poured himself milk and her Coke. She continued to stand by the slow cooker.

            “It’s this vague sense,” she said. “I want to know the future but am scared, too.”

            “Things are only going to get better from here,” he said. He added two spoons and forks to the table. “I understand your sadness,” he said, not unkindly. He handed her porcelain bowls and a ladle and nodded at the slow cooker.

            She took off the lid. He didn’t understand. Because he was the father or because of his cheerier temperament, she didn’t know. She’d learned not to equate love with complete understanding but in this she wanted his unqualified sympathy.

            “What else do we have to complain about?” he asked.

            She ladled in one large spoonful, then another. She felt done trying to explain herself to him.

            “Really,” he asked. “What else?”

            She shrugged and ladled a spoonful into the second bowl. Drops of tomato broth splattered onto her arm.

            “It’s gonna taste like wine,” Ben said. “It hasn’t had time to cook in.”

            The broth burned into her skin. She wanted to cry out but didn’t.

*

As Laura distanced herself from the Thai restaurant she walked more slowly. She was headed, out of habit or intent, toward the hospital. She’d never been there on a night off. A boy in a baseball cap grabbed a tree branch and let go. Rainwater flung onto Laura’s face and hands. The boy didn’t look back as he ran past. The water felt refreshing even as she shivered. Laura hugged her sweatshirted body. She remembered in July, days after the slow-cooker incident, when she’d guardedly shared her despondent thoughts with her high-school friend, Rose. They were drinking at a dark, high-ceilinged pub. “I feel like I’m in purgatory or something,” she said.

            “What do you mean?” Rose asked.

            “Stale. Stuck.”

             “Well, you could get out and do more.”

            Laura ran her finger around the rim of the beer glass. “I don’t feel like it.” This not-feeling-like-it scared her. She’d always had had desires, if only for a cup of cold water before bed. Now she forgot to eat or sleep at the right times—or couldn’t feel what the right times were.

            “Make yourself anyway.”

            “You sound like Ben.”

            “You guys not getting along?”

            “I don’t know.” A thin blond-haired girl carrying a violin case passed their table. A short guy with thick plastic glasses and a guitar case followed her. In between the band’s songs, she and Rose gossiped about a classmate who had been married at twenty and divorced by twenty-four. “She laughs about it,” Rose said. “As though he was a bad boyfriend or a fling. ‘A twenties slip up’ she calls him. She said she’ll have forgotten his name by the time she’s thirty.”

            Laura laughed and glanced at the band, hiding how much their classmate’s indifference bothered her. She and Ben loved each other; something like that wouldn’t happen. Yet a year ago their present state had been unimaginable, too. Back home she went into the bedroom and leaned on the end of the bed. Ben sat studying a foot away. She reached forward and took out one of his earbuds. Surprised, he turned his head. “Do you have to study right now?” she said, slightly drunk.

            He took the earbud back. “I have a test tomorrow. You know that.”

            “We should try for another baby.”

            “We’ve talked about this. In a year.”

            “I want one now.”

            He shook his head, annoyed, and put back in his earbud. She let her body fall back on the bed. Her torso bounced and lay still. Her legs hung off the bed’s edge, not touching the floor. Even to herself her voice sounded childish and silly. A year wasn’t that long. She remembered a summer in college, when she and a Newport Bay coworker dipped their legs in the Willamette River while they lay back against the dock, looking up at the blue sky and talking. “You can’t avoid your own problems by escaping,” Laura had told the troubled coworker. “Into a pregnancy or anything else.” So much for following your own advice. Two weeks after her and Rose’s conversation, Laura used the August rent money to buy a ticket to Chicago.

*

Now, Laura leaned one shoulder against a square brick apartment building, crossed her arms, and squinted across the street at the sun-tinted windows of Coffee Time. She admitted that her outburst at the Thai place had come more from guilt at her deceptions than from any legitimate anger toward Ben. Yet he had been insensitive toward her this summer; he did not understand her deep, irreplaceable connection with Alice. Yellow leaves, tinged orange and red, hung on three thin trees to the side of her. The muted evening light added to their sad charm. She crossed the street and entered Coffee Time.

            A red-haired girl she didn’t know stood behind the counter. The dread-locked barista played chess on the other side of the shop. Across from him sat Patrick. His shoulders rested against the back of a chair, arms crossed, legs relaxed and crossed at the ankles. He shook his overgrown hair from his eyes while he studied the board. Laura put her hand over her mouth and retreated into the booth closest to the door.

            She remembered, less than a month ago, when she’d felt so low she didn’t have the energy to practice new songs. Home alone, she played Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith” over and over. The score called for a variance of volume and tempo, from pianissimo and andante to forte and allegro. Ignoring the instructions, she banged against the keys, playing the whole song fortissimo and prestissimo. At work her fingers ached. One day, when Patrick saw her shaking out her hands for the umpteenth time, he asked if he could massage them. It was dark in the sleep-clinic room; he was supposed to be sleeping. She pulled a chair up to his bed and leaned her knees against it. While he kneaded her fingers and palm, she bit her lower lip from pain and pleasure. He continued to massage her lower arms and then her upper arms. She slid into bed with him, and he held her for a minute, as long as they dared. She went home and played the “Harmonious Blacksmith” correctly, with all its precision and variety. During her next shift he’d again held her with a tenderness and receptivity she hadn’t known she needed until he’d given it. But when he slid his hand along her stomach, over her thigh, and into her underwear, she’d pulled it out, stood up, and turned away.

Now, she imagined herself walking across the coffee shop and saying hi, maybe suggesting a game of chess. Chess was a game she and Ben had played in college, sitting on the floor of his dorm room like children. Neither of them was good; the joy was in the learning. She hadn’t told Patrick she played chess. What had she told him about herself? That she grew up in Portland, that she came to Coffee Time every evening before work and sometimes in the morning, too. This was all he knew about her; their relationship was confined to four walls and a month. She remembered how Ben had crouched by the chessboard, elbow on knee, chin on palm, looking like The Thinker. Whenever a friend popped a head in, Ben lifted his eyebrows, was courteous but firm. “I’ll hang out later. We’re in the middle of a game here.” She remembered the look they’d exchanged before their eyes rested back on the board. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d shared such a look. She wanted them to go back to that kind of nonverbal understanding without the messiness of argument or disclosure, but they could not; they were not children anymore.

            She jumped up from the booth, pushed open Coffee Time’s outer door, and headed for the closest bus stop. Onboard she looked at nothing but her reflection in the window. By the time she got off shadows had lengthened. A red-gold tint of evening sunlight caressed the street, trees, and houses. The steep incline increased her breathing frequency. She was walking so intently that she almost passed Ben, who was sitting at the far end of the house’s front steps. When she went to him, he thrust a piece of paper up at her. She read it, standing over him. It was an eviction notice. When she looked up, he snatched it back. “I called him,” he said. “What the fuck.” His eyes scanned the notice, his mouth open.

            A sudden relief flooded her. She could no longer hide this from him. Still breathing heavily, she took his hand and led him up the steps, down the carpeted hall, into their apartment. He followed her, not returning her hand’s pressure. She sat him down on their couch and sat next to him, their knees touching. If she leaned forward, she could touch the cello and piano bench. His hand clutched the notice so hard it crinkled. It didn’t matter. He knew about the money. She would tell him her desperation. She took his fisted hand and pulled out the fingers, one by one.


Thanks for reading. Next time, I’ll post an interview with Pat Matsueda, who has been the managing editor of MĀNOA: A Pacific Journal of International Writing for almost thirty years.

Be well,

Rachel