This story is by Erika Hopkins and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Her husband, Dan, throws open the door, harsh light from the hallway falling across their bed and onto Anna’s pale face. She raises up on her elbows and forces both eyes open wide, trying to look more awake than she is. Her chin lifts in anticipation, ready to smile if he smiles. Dan strides past and pulls open “his” of their “his-and-hers” closets. Anna’s eyes fall. She lets her head sink back onto the pillow and tries to relax her jaw.
He is showered and dressed in nice jeans and a work shirt. She knows he’s been up for hours tending their three young boys. He does so every morning.
From across the room, Anna admires how the broad muscles ripple beneath his cotton shirt as Dan reaches for a ball cap on the shelf above. His height makes it an easy reach, and he places the hat over his combed hair. He’s on his way to do something helpful, no doubt.
As he turns to leave, his eyes meet hers. She searches them for understanding but finds only disappointment. His lips draw tight in more of a line than a smile. Without a word, the man she loves walks away and closes the bedroom door behind him.
A sinking sensation weighs Anna into the mattress. Her body aches. She doesn’t bother to remove the earplugs she uses to sleep so long. There is no one to hear, and no one to hear her. Atop of the nightstand rests the obtrusive red folder just inches away from her head. Anna squeezes her eyes shut in protest.
An audible murmur rises up from her stomach. She should eat something. But what? She leans into the imminent wave of nausea that always accompanies thoughts about food. Dan can eat anything he wants without feeling sick.
Pulling covers around her head, Anna rolls to face the wall and lies there willing herself back into unconsciousness.
Sleep, like death, she imagines, is a great equalizer.
At first, Dan took on the household responsibilities with gusto in addition to working his full time job. Every morning he got the boys up and off to school. Every evening he cooked and cleaned, too. But these days he’s tired of her being tired all the time, and he’s ready for life to get back to “normal”.
He doesn’t have a red folder.
Red. Like traffic signs that make everything come to a dead stop. Like pen marks on an assignment circling ways in which your best efforts are inadequate. Like blood in tubes and vials instead of human vessels where it belongs.
Her cell phone vibrates beneath the bed. Automatic, she turns and reaches down for it. Her loose wedding ring spins and is barely stopped from falling off by a bony knuckle. She slides the diamond back into place with such force that it pinches the thin flap of skin between her fingers. She wonders if Dan regrets giving it to her. Her mouth fills with warm saliva.
Anna sits up against the upholstered headboard even though Dan is no longer present to observe her effort. Cradling her phone, she tries not to hate her own hands for their knobiness. They are the hands of a woman much older than her short thirty years. Dan’s hands are young and strong, but cannot fill her need to be held; they are too busy. He carries the laundry and frying pan, the broom and the briefcase. She carries her red folder. Both carry the weight of the world.
Tangled hair in need of a wash and trim hangs down over her shoulders, which rise and fall as she sighs. She wipes dried tears from the corners of her eyes, rolling crusties between her fingers until they fall in tiny pieces of dust onto her lap.
Anna unlocks the phone and opens her email. She thumbs through new messages, halting at a message from “Team Inspired,” an online forum for people with gastrointestinal disorders.
“It is progressive,” the doctor had said when they first found out she has eosinophilic esophagitis, EoE. She jotted down phrases as he rehearsed with monotony the speech he gives to new patients. Anna’s mind whirled to comprehend the implications of this information. There is no known cure. We’re not sure what causes it. Medication has risks, but you have to weigh that against the risks of not treating it at all. Without treatment your esophagus may close off to the point that you can no longer swallow. She scribbled in blue pen, wept in her car after the appointment, and ultimately filed the words away in her red folder along with the doctor’s notes and lab results.
That evening, Anna had searched the internet for hours. Somehow she found “Team Inspired.” She signed up for an email list, intending to participate in online discussions.
“Please help,” she had begun, “I was just diagnosed with EoE, and I don’t know what to do..” Shaking her head in disgust, she had deleted it, then started again.
“Please help. I was just diagnosed…” She had thought of the other diagnoses, both her own and those of her kids, that she was trying to manage. Adding another was too much.
She backspaced until her plea was just two words.
She had stared at those words for a long, long time. Then she exited the web page without posting anything at all. Now here she sits, months later, reading an email from the same forum. Perhaps, she decides, it is time to reach out.
Holding her breath, Anna clicks a blue link which directs her to the message board. Her eyes skim the posts of complete strangers who understand her challenges better than loved ones in her own home. There’s KC in Australia, Murray in the UK, and Vanessa in California. Anna exhales as she reads their messages filled with all-too-familiar words: “inflammation”, “white blood cells”, “biopsy” and “scope”. They use other words, too, like “frustrating”, “alone”, and less occasionally, “hope”.
Anna removes her earplugs and holds them in her hand.
She reads a message from Sam in California, “I was recently diagnosed with EoE. It was devastating. My partner doesn’t take it seriously.”
Anna gasps a sharp inhale. She reads the last sentence again. Chills ripple up her arms. Her eyes sting.
“They think this is a minor issue,” Sam continues. “It is not. It’s a tough disease where diet and medication might work for years and then stop working and you have to switch things up again just to feel ok. I rarely have energy to do things I want and need to do. Sometimes I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m thankful for finding this group, because I feel like ‘normal’ people don’t understand what I’m going through.”
Anna’s shoulders heave in release. Tears stream down her cheeks and leap from her chin to the covers below as she weeps.
Sam has a folder, too…
Quieting, Anna feels a swelling in her chest. The beginning of a smile parts her lips. Anna straightens her posture. She prepares to introduce herself in this newfound space where someone might hear her.
Anna presses “Reply” and begins to write, her heart going out to Sam and the rest.
“I just want to let you know that you aren’t alone,” her fingers swipe, conviction growing stronger. I am not alone, she repeats, smearing the back of a hand across her wet face. “I hope your partner supports you once they understand this disease. I hope mine continues to support me, too. I have found a lot of people online that are very understanding. It will get easier.”
Anna breathes out with satisfaction and scrolls to the bottom of the text field. Before she can press send, blackness swallows the screen. Anna gapes at her reflection within the dark face of her dead phone.
A lump builds in Anna’s already narrow throat. She drops the phone to her side and stares hard at her feet. The white duvet is warm and beckons her to a private self burial. She struggles in this moment of contemplation.
Then Anna elevates her gaze to the window. Mid morning sun is filtering through the slats of the blinds, warming the air and dancing with the dust. It is enough. Anna breathes in slow and deep. Setting her earplugs down on the nightstand, she picks up the red folder and, cradling it under one arm, Anna gets out of bed.