He always starts the day having coffee with Lynn and telling her she looks beautiful. Though she hasn’t responded to him in over a decade, he continues to do so without fail, every morning.
He makes himself toast and black coffee, as he always does. Today she smiles at him, and for a moment he dares to hope that she’s coming back to him, but then her eyes wander, following a speck of dust in the air with her smile unwavering, and he knows she is lost to him still. He drinks his coffee as the nurse finishes feeding Lynn her morning gruel. With her chewing questionable nowadays, the best she can do is a nutritious blended mixture. A few dribbles fall from her mouth and the nurse wipes it away roughly. She’s a quiet, burly woman whose presence Joseph has become used to as part of the fixture of his house since Lynn’s stroke. After twelve years they’ve fallen into a rhythm.
“Will you leave her with me a little longer today, Brenda?” he asks.
Brenda grunts acknowledgement and shambles off to do the laundry. Joseph reaches over and takes Lynn’s clammy fingers, laying limply in her lap. Lynn doesn’t react. For all she knew, he might as well be stroking the table or the wheelchair that’s practically a part of her.
It’s almost not fair, he often thinks, that she should retain so much of her beauty after so many years in a waking coma. She’s lost weight, her legs atrophied from lack of movement, and her hair has lost its sheen. But her skin is still as rosy and smooth as it was on the day of their wedding, and her eyes are still deep and green, even though the light behind them grows dimmer each day. When he looks into her eyes, he doesn’t see the chair, or her tongue lolling about, or the stains on her clothes from her latest feeding. He sees his wife, the lively, brilliant woman he married.
“I love you,” he says, almost experimentally.
“I love you, too, sweetie,” she says. He would smile, except it’s her response to everything. She also never called him “sweetie” before the stroke.
He stands, kisses her forehead, and heads to work.
The nurses at the hospital whisper. They’re a gossip-prone bunch. They wonder why he lives with a woman who is all but a corpse rather than ship her off to a nursing home. A year or two is sentimental, but to keep her around all day when she does little more than stare and drool is creepy. The other doctors, at least, have a bit more tact. They ask after her, but their interest wanes as the years go by and he knows that all of them, even his research partner, are beginning to wander the same thing. His friends have stopped visiting. Her friends moved on long ago. Even her parents rarely inquire. She is all but dead to them and they’ve all grieved and moved on.
Except for him. He just can’t let go.
As he enters the hospital several colleagues stop him to congratulate him on his latest awards. A new nurse tosses flirtatious glances his way and he ignores her. The young ones think him a silver fox, but he wishes they wouldn’t. He has no interest in any other partner but the one at home.
The morning rolls by slowly as it always does. He calls home at lunch to speak to Brenda and ask about Lynn, as he always does. Brenda tells him Lynn has had a sponge bath, her hair is brushed, she is wearing a clean robe and is sitting in her favorite spot by the window, looking out at downtown as she always does. He knows Brenda thinks he needs to let go, too. They all do.
After he hangs up with Brenda, he closes the door to his office and eats his packed lunch alone, as he always does. He does not read or play around on the computer as he eats, but rather stares out the window, at the same skyline Lynn is watching, and lets silent tears roll down his cheeks.
As he always does.
The woman who comes to see him in the afternoon is tall and thin, with sharp features and fingernails painted bright red. She raises a few eyebrows as she walks in in her no-nonsense black suit and expensive leather briefcase, and raises a few more when she inquires for his office. He thinks for a moment he should’ve arranged to meet her at a coffee shop or diner like the last few times, but it’s too late for that now.
She shuts the door behind her and sits down in the chair across his desk.
“Hello, Dr. Steinen.”
He nods tiredly. “Hello, Stephanie.”
“How have you been?” She always asks this question, but it’s only a formality. She carries an uncaring air about her.
“Same ol’,” he says simply.
“Shall we review your case?”
Stephanie lays her suitcase on his desk and unlocks it. From inside she retrieves a thin binder, which she opens and flips through.
“It looks like you’ve made some impressive progress as of late,” she says. “Excellence in Medicine Award, several high-end grants for your research, oh, and look at that, potential vaccination for HIV. Now that’s a good one. How’s that coming?”
She glances up from the binder and he sees amusement in her eyes, which annoys him greatly. “Man of few words, you are,” she says, twirling a pen in her right hand.
“Do I have enough?”
She taps the pen on her binder and for a moment appears to be thinking. He waits.
“Here’s the thing,” she says, slamming the binder shut and pointing at him with the pen. “What you’re asking for is a tall order—to fix a health issue is one thing, but to maintain your life together is something else. We don’t usually take responsibility for ripple effects. We cannot guarantee things like the lifespan of a marriage or romance. There are too many factors.”
His hand shakes and he quickly pulls it under the desk to hide it. “Is there no way?”
“No easy way at least.”
“I’ll pay more. Anything you want.”
“It’s not about what we want to take, but what you want to give and the consequences you’re willing to accept.”
His hand is shaking worse now. He holds it tightly against his leg to stop the tremors. “I just want to spend the rest of my life with her.”
“I know that.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
Stephanie taps her pen and says nothing.
“Her health and a marriage that lasts. Please. Is there any way?”
Stephanie looks him up and down. “Well,” she says after a long moment. “What exactly are you willing to give?”
The psychiatric hospital smells like smoke. Dirty sunlight sifts in through windows covered in wire mesh. The waxed marble floor is uncleaned, smudged with cigarette butts and bodily fluids. Lynn Steinen wrinkles her nose as she enters. She will be quick with this visit, as she always is. Her name-brand heels click against the floor and a few patients shuffling along in slippers or sneakers without laces gawk at her as she passes by, her waterfall of red hair tumbling behind her. She is tall and beautiful and sticks out like a sore thumb among the blank, scared faces.
The hospital is too hot, as it always is, and the waiting room chairs are sticky, as usual. Lynn swore she would visit weekly, way back when, but now it’s really more of a monthly visit if she can get around to it. But monthly is enough. Monthly lets the people know that she still cares and isn’t giving up, like a good partner. Monthly is evidence that the wife of the good doctor, a once brilliant and respected man in his field brought down by an ill-timed stroke, hasn’t given up on him.
She finds her husband in the common room in his wheelchair. The chair looks almost like a bed on wheels. Joseph is bent across it, his shoulders wedged one way and his feet, in unmatching slippers, another. He is staring through a flickering television. She pulls up a chair next to him and puts a hand on his arm.
“Hello, dear. How are you today?”
He does not respond. He has not responded in twelve years. He smells like urine and rotten vegetables and his gown is stained. His hair needs to be washed and his skin has an unhealthy gray tint to it. Being next to him makes her gag, but she keeps her composure. People are watching. She holds her breath, closes her eyes, and kisses him on the forehead.
She feeds him spaghetti that she had brought—takeout dumped into Tupperware to look homemade, mashing the pieces small patiently as she does once a month. When he’s finished, she wipes his face clean and sits with him, holding his hand and watching the flickering television, as she does once a month. The staff who pass by would murmur and comment on what a wonderfully devoted wife she is, as they do, once a month.
She stays an hour. She used to stay two but these days an hour is enough. He does not know she is there, after all, and an hour is enough for everyone to have seen and taken note of her. She tucks the Tupperware into her Gucci purse, forces herself to give her husband another kiss, and leaves.
Outside, she gets into her Lexus and drives toward her downtown apartment. Her phone rings half way.
“I just visited him,” she tells the person on the other end, and laughs. “Well, yes, it’s a hassle, but I must give him credit, to have croaked like this right as I was about to leave him. I must say this is the most convenient marriage a woman could hope for—total freedom plus access to his savings and pension, all just for keeping his last name.” She pauses. “Alright. I’ll see you tonight, sweetie.”
In the dim common room, an orderly comes by and rolls the former Doctor Joseph Steinen back to his room for his afternoon nap, ignoring the tears that roll down the old man’s cheek, as he always does. The television flickers with the afternoon news, the female anchor droning, “. . . and with the HIV epidemic still on the rise, experts are baffled and scrambling in their search for a solution . . .”