Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Need To Sleep In One’s Own Bed

Everything in the room was a clever balance of blue and white. Everything had to be white, the internationally recognized color of purity, but also sanitation and sterilization. But in a hospital, people don’t want to be reminded of this, so the powers that be within the hospital assign the maintenance men and women to hang blue curtains and fix blue lights here and there, giving off a warm glow to comfort both the patients and their families who sit waiting for eyes to open or tubes to be removed. This is where Alan sits in an uncomfortable wicker chair. He is sitting upright beside the hospital bed, Leah’s hand in his, trying to keep his eyes open during reruns of M*A*S*H and wishing she would open her own. The flowers that originally brightened the room have mostly been taken back to Alan’s apartment to crowd his bookcase and coffee table, no one being around to water them at Leah’s own apartment. The balloons have all deflated and been thrown away by now. Even after they had lost so much helium that they barely hovered off the ground, Alan kept them, stepping around them as he walked around the room of his comatose fiancée. Now as he sits in the chair that doubles as his bed, Radar and Hawkeye’s voices are matched by the pitch of the steady beeping from behind his chair, a beep that often reminds him of an elevator that is constantly going up, sounding as it passes each floor but never stopping. There is also the sound of coughing from behind the room-dividing curtain. Mr. Baines is coughing in his sleep, his wife having left him to get some rest before his impending hip surgery.
When she was rushed to the hospital, it had only been a month since that January Thursday when she had agreed to marry him, standing on the overlook above the snowy nighttime city. They had taken the incline up, and he surprised her at the top with a ring, though he almost ruined the surprise when he nearly pulled the ring out of his pocket as he reached in to fetch the fare for the ride to the summit.
“I’m ready to do this,” he said from one knee, “if you’ll have me.”
Kneeling to join him, Leah threw her arms around his neck and said yes without a word. They took the next day off of work, allowing them a three-day weekend to celebrate and announce their news to their families. Leah’s mother was overjoyed when she received the news on the phone.
“My baby!” she had said loud enough for Alan to hear, though Leah held the phone, and he watched and listened as she and her mother simultaneously burst into tears. Leah’s mother was on board for the nearly immediate wedding that the couple had decided upon, agreeing with Leah that it was the Lord’s plan for the two to be joined right away. Alan’s father, however, wasn’t so easily convinced.
“The Christian girl?” he asked his son, who was making the call from his own apartment while Leah was out.
“Leah, Dad. Yes,’ he replied, not masking his annoyance.
“Fine. Leah. Hell,” he said, “We’ll be there, ya’ know. I mean I’m happy for ya’, and your Mom’ll be too, but it sure seems rushed. Seeya in March”
They continued to make plans, agreeing that Leah’s older sister, Muriel, would sing at the wedding, at that Alan’s band, Holy Rattlesnakes, could play a short set at the reception. There would still be a DJ, so grandparents and nieces and nephews could dance barefoot to wedding reception standards like “Old Time Rock and Roll.” They had met with photographers and caterers and sampled food and cake. The cake was the last thing they had left to decide when the artery at the top of her spine burst, inundating her head with blood and sending her eyes rolling backwards, as if she were trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening before she hit the carpeted floor outside of her cubicle. Alan had sat with her for the first week before he had to return to work, splitting his time over the next month between the hospital room and his cubicle. Mrs. Baines, whose husband slept on the other side of the room, had started bringing meals for Alan when she brought them for her ailing husband.
“Thank you,” Alan said. “It’s really too much.” He truly appreciated her kindness and didn’t have the heart to tell her that he didn’t eat meat, so he threw away his entrees in private while Mrs. Baines would push her Mr. around the floor in his wheel chair. His plans had obviously been put on hold, but Alan still believed they would get married some day, and he even hoped that Leah would agree to having Mrs. Baines bake the cake for the wedding, having tried several of her desserts during his nights on watch at her side.
On an average day, before the aneurism, he would go to work on the 4th floor of a gray eight-story box. He would nod hello to his coworkers, though he felt no connection to any of them. These people propped up family photos or tacked up newspaper clippings featuring blonde children like cherubs, stumbling over three syllable words, but the scattered gray of his cubicle walls was mostly uninterrupted, save for a few post-it notes here and there; phone numbers or important dates, which came down when they became outdated. When he wasn’t proofreading memos or punching in numbers, he was reading record reviews or looking for free shelving units online. Through headphones, he listened to his favorite records from the 90s, fuzzy indie rock and grunge to drown out the noise of the surrounding cubicles. At first he snuck in his headphones, but after the first few weeks, it became apparent that nobody really cared what went on inside of the cubicles as long as his numbers were punched in. He didn’t even know what most of the other employees did, either for fun or to earn their paychecks.
In the cubicle behind Alan sat Tom, a pudgy man in his 50s, spectacled and pale, and from his square came right-wing talk radio before lunch and sports talk radio after lunch. One day, when Alan had forgotten his headphones, he picked up on a similar right wing agenda from the sports commentators after lunch as they espoused their views on the prospective futures of some local high school basketball players if they failed to impress the scouts from the universities. To Alan’s left was Nancy, and besides the clacking of her keyboard, the only noise he ever heard from her cubicle was bickering and occasional sobbing into the telephone. “Well maybe you should’ve worn a goddamn coat like I told you!” he heard the homely mother yell one day before slamming down her phone and storming towards the elevator. Around the corner to his right sat Leah. He noticed her on his first day. She was kind of plain looking, but he was new, and he was eager to acquaint himself with the only person on the floor younger than himself, but when he passed by her cubicle for the first time, he heard new age gospel music and saw her “Footprints” poster and decided she wasn’t worth the bother.
Alan wasn’t unfriendly, and he would answer questions or talk to his co-workers when necessary, but mostly he kept to himself at work, taking his lunch break later than most, avoiding the lines at the few restaurants in the complex. Occasionally he would bump into Leah if she had postponed her break to finish up some work. On one casual Friday, when Leah had traded in her denim jumper for a bright red sundress, Alan decided to ask if he could sit with her at Subway.
“Leah, hey” he said, setting down his tray and pointing at the empty seat across from her. She covered her mouth with one hand and nodded as Alan pulled out the chair.
“Please,” she said once she finished chewing, and she set her fountain drink on her own tray to accommodate Alan’s. The two made small talk about work. Where Alan was generally indifferent to his work, Leah seemed to be excited about every detail of her projects, though what exactly she did for the cable company was mostly lost on Alan.
“Right now, I’m working directly with Marianne on a new demographic plan,” she said, smiling brightly before pushing a plastic straw through her full lips.
“And Marianne is…?” Alan asked, his index fingers tapping out each syllable on the table top.
Leah started to laugh but held it in when she realized that Alan wasn’t making a joke. “The company president,” she told him in a way that was very matter-of-fact, but not at all condescending.
Alan appreciated Leah’s disposition, in spite of or possibly because of the fact that it was so unlike his own, and he asked her if she wouldn’t like to have lunch with him again. She agreed, and the two began eating together several days a week. This continued for several weeks, over which the two discussed their families and their experiences with college and the work force.
Alan had taken a year off after high school before starting at a community college, whereas Leah had spent the second half of her senior year visiting four-year schools and seeking letters of recommendation wherever she could get them. They had both been raised by their parents, Alan’s being liberal blue-collar folks, encouraging their son’s interest in music and leaving him alone at night to pound on his drums when they worked night shifts at their respective jobs. Leah had been raised in the church, her mother and father active Wesleyans who insisted upon diligence, prudence, and preparation for her future.
At first, Alan was put off by Leah’s religious affiliations. At their second meal together, she chided Alan for eating meat, and he almost wrote her off entirely.
“No, don’t get upset,” she apologized. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do or anything, but maybe just think about it, okay?”
He said that he would, but he didn’t mean it, and that night he made himself a huge cheeseburger, dripping with, topped with crisp bacon and mayonnaise with more bacon on the side. Eventually, though, lunch gave way to dinner, and Alan began to feel more attached to Leah and he became embarrassed about eating meat in front of her, so he stopped ordering meat dishes for their meals together and eventually gave it up all together. Shortly after, dinner gave way to movies, which for Alan would have normally given way to a slew of other things, but Leah’s beliefs stood in the way of that.
“What do you mean, ‘wait’?” he asked one Saturday on the way home from the movie theatre. “We’ve been out almost every night this month.”
“I know, Alan, but I…” He didn’t let her finish.
“What are we doing this for, then? I like you a lot, you know?”
“I know,” she assured him. “But I shouldn’t have to sleep with you to prove I feel the same.”
When he dropped her off at her house, they sat in the car not talking for a few minutes. He wanted to talk her into it, but he didn’t know what to say.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you at work on Monday,” he said, trying to sound indifferent.”
“Don’t be like that,” she replied. “Come to church with me in the morning.”
“Church?” he asked.
“Yeah. Just come, and then we’ll get lunch and spend the day together.”
“We’ll see,” he said. “I’ll call you in the morning.” He leaned across the car and kissed her coldly on the mouth as she fumbled to open the door.
He went home and considered getting drunk. When he opened his fridge, he saw that he had no beer, only juice and vegetables. He had already made a lot of changes for her, but church was pushing it. Before he went to bed, he rifled through the dress pants hanging in his closet. Alan was tired but stayed awake in bed for an hour thinking about what he wanted to do. Frustrated, he reached down beneath the sheets and worked himself to sleep. In the morning, he called Leah.
“Hey, I’ll come,” he said, “but can I wear jeans? I don’t want to feel like I’m going to work.” His father couldn’t believe it when Alan told him he had started going to church.
“You’re outta yer mind for this girl, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah, I like her, dad. It’s not that bad, either. I just sit there for an hour, and then I’m out. We get lunch, and then we fool around for a while,” he lied. “It’s worth it.”
He continued going to church with her occasionally, and since the engagement, he had been there every Sunday. For the past month, though, he hadn’t been. He wondered how Leah could put her faith in a God that would leave her like this, and whether it would be shaken when she came out of her coma. Alan half wished that when she came to, she’d abandon her faith. He was certainly finished with church now, and he thought maybe now they’d be able to spend their Sunday afternoons in bed instead of in wooden pews that defied posture. It was the thought of these afternoons that Alan imagined as he worked himself to sleep again, shutting off the TV mounted above the bed and staring at Leah as he drifted off in the wicker chair.

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