Dad and I had driven for five hours, and we’d barely done more than smile at my aunt and kissed Grandmother’s hollow cheek when a doctor appeared in the door of her hospital room to herd us back out. My aunt put aside her knitting and led the way down the hall, hands stuffed in the pockets of her black down vest.
“It’ll be about ten minutes,” she said over her shoulder, not slowing for us to catch up. Dad moved stiffly after her, trying to stretch his back while he walked. I glanced back at the closed door of Grandmother’s room, down the now-empty hallway, and slipped my feet out of my winter boots. I stuffed the socks Mom knit me in the mouths of my boots, leaving them neatly lined up next to the door, then set off after my relatives, walking slowly so no one would notice my bare feet.
I paused at the bank of elevators, then followed my father’s laugh down one of the two halls that stretched identically away from me. At the end was a kind of waiting room, an abrupt end to the hallway with a couple chairs and a little table next to a huge window. The hallway, carpet, and chair upholstery were all different shades of beige. I joined my aunt and Dad at the end of the hall, but stayed standing, kneading my bare feet against the nubby carpet like a cat, trying to shift my weight without moving my toes outside of the little ecru squares. The fluorescent lights turned my skin a sickly shade of greenish-pale, like linoleum in a diner bathroom.
“Shouldn’t you have shoes on?” said Dad, in one of the oatmeal-and-biscuitchecker- boarded chairs. The corner felt close, too warm, the three of us taking up all the breathable air.
I shrugged. No nurses were in sight, and the carpet gave under my feet like moss. I felt I’d been wearing my boots for the past four months straight. Recordsetting snowfalls called for wool socks twenty-four hours a day and boots wherever I went, but the weight of them dragged on my feet. The inside of the hospital was seasonless—clean and quiet, the decor unobtrusive, the lighting removing any sense of time. The induced peace and serenity made me want to scream.
My aunt gazed out the window at the flat grey sky, almost a match for the concrete roof that stretched between our window and the next section of the building, a slim railing running along the edge, ending at a door. Her shoulders squared deliberately, stiff even in this moment of rest. Her whole body carried the same waiting look that Grandmother had in her eyes, except that my aunt was braced for impact, braced to survive. Grandmother was waiting for the blow she couldn’t duck—a flash of fear had lit up behind her glasses when the doctor entered her room.
Waiting in silence felt wrong, but so did talking about what we were waiting for. My aunt was a dedicated cook, and I thought about mentioning the biscotti I had recently made from scratch, but Mom and I had eaten them all—I hadn’t brought Dad any. I wracked my mind for a topic of conversation that didn’t have anything to do with illness, my life with Mom, Dad’s horrible financial situation, or politics, and came up blank. These were exceptional circumstances, but every visit with my aunt felt like an essay question on a test I hadn’t studied for.
Dad leafed though a nondenominational book of prayer someone had left on the miniature coffee table, looking up at the paintings to mutter, “Whoever decorated this place had no imagination.” His red suspenders, green plaid shirt, and paint-spattered jeans seemed unnaturally bright in the sea of beige.
My aunt glanced at her watch, the streaks of grey in her hair mirroring the lines on her face. “We can head back now.” She turned on her heel, tucked her hands into the pockets of her puffy vest like a hawk folding its wings, and headed down the hall, her feet landing firmly on the carpet again and again, a dependable heartbeat. Dad tossed the book back on the coffee table, heaved himself to his feet, and set off after her, favoring his bad hip.
I kneaded the carpet once more, enjoying the moment with no one near me, then started as a figure appeared outside the window and across the roof. A guy wearing scrubs, but just a few years older than me, propped open his door to the roof with one of his shoes. He leaned on the railing, bare foot resting on the other shoe, and lit a cigarette. Glancing up, he noticed me and quirked an eyebrow.
Tentatively, I lifted a hand. He raised his empty hand slowly in response. I could feel his eyes on me all the way down the silent hallway.
Slipping unnoticed into Grandmother’s room, I took a seat by the far wall, jammed between the tiny closet and the machine that told us her heart rate. I settled my computer on my lap. The oxygen tank on the other side of the bed wheezed as Grandmother’s chest rose and fell, her breathing separated from the sound. Occasionally, Grandmother took a tiny sip of water through a straw, then coughed as if she had an ocean swirling through her lungs, drowning her even as she sat propped up against a mountain of pillows.
I stared at the screen of my computer. In his essay “Circles,” Emerson shows that we are all connected, that every seemingly separate part of the world is really intertwined, and therefore we exist in a state of cohesion…
Oh, shut up, Emerson.
My aunt’s knitting needles clicked away on a hideous hat for her future daughter-in-law. “She’s fine, her family is just very different from ours. Catholic. They’re not Republican, but they’re definitely conservative.”
“I don’t like that she was in a sorority,” said Grandmother, turning her large head on her tiny neck like a baby bird waiting for food to be dropped in its mouth. “And she said that she only joined so she could attend parties and have alcohol. As though that made it better.”
Grandmother’s hands were twitching on the blanket, empty without her cigarette. She hadn’t had one in nearly 48 hours. The hospital didn’t allow smoking, and anyway, she was on oxygen. My aunt had stayed at the hospital every night since Grandmother checked in, monitored all of Grandmother’s medication, and dealt with all the doctors. Under normal circumstances, neither of them would ever have said these things. Not about the sweet, kind basketball player my tough-as-nails cousin was head-over-heels in love with, was going to marry and raise adorable blonde children with. The woman my aunt and Grandmother welcomed with open arms at the last family event. They wouldn’t really talk about her with that edge in their voices, their words as swift and pointed as my aunt’s needles.
Or maybe I hadn’t been listening, before. I glanced down at my hands on the keyboard, the little gold signet ring on my pinky, the initial of my first name pierced by the larger letter of my family.
“What are you working on, sweetheart?” Dad glanced up from his crossword.
“A response to an Emerson essay.”
“Ah, Emerson.” Grandmother smiled. “Are you enjoying his work?” I hesitated.
“I remember reading Emerson,” said Dad, putting down his crossword and twirling the pencil between his fingers like a baton. “Or maybe Thoreau? Do you remember the teacher I had my first year of high school, who gave me all that reading that it took me two semesters to slog through?”
Grandmother furrowed what was left of her eyebrows. “When we lived in Pennsylvania?”
“The house on Williams Street,” said my aunt, not looking up from her knitting.
“Ah,” said Grandmother, nodding. “Yes. The year your sister decided to stop being vegan because she didn’t like the synthetic paintbrush bristles.”
“Dad never stopped giving her a hard time for that.” My aunt raised her eyes from her knitting to grin at Grandmother, the corners of her mouth tightening as she took in the knobby hands shaking on the covers, each time as alarming as the first.
Grandmother laughed, the rest of her body shaking nearly as much as her hands. “No, he never would let her forget it.”
“Have you talked to her today?” asked my dad, raising his eyebrows at my aunt.
“Well,” said my aunt, diving back into her knitting as she began to recount the anxieties of their artistic sister.
I tried to tune out and focus on Emerson. We had had nearly the same conversation when we arrived. Circles, circles, circles…
When the essay had finally emerged, I stood up, left my computer on my chair, and retreated into the beige hallway. Padding through the puddles of florescent light, I glanced at my reflection in the dark windows, the outline of my face soft, my body insubstantial. I took a few random turns, moving into what felt like the depths of the hospital. Quiet carpet, soft coughs from the wheels of trolleys and wheelchairs driving along in hallways just out of sight, murmurs at the nurses’ station, no one looking up from their charts and computer screens to notice my bare feet. Following a little corridor with tiles instead of carpet, I came to a door ajar, propped open with a shoe and letting in a stream of air that didn’t smell like disinfectant. Nudging it further open, I stepped over the shoe and onto the concrete roof.
“Careful.” A hand holding a cigarette reached past me to catch the door before it closed, and the nurse stepped into my view, leaning down to replace his shoe in the crack of the door. “Don’t want to get locked out.”
He leaned against the railing, gazing out over the hospital’s half-full parking lot to the highway beyond, and I moved over to stand next to him. Close up, he looked a little older than I had first guessed, but not much—still under thirty. A tattoo peeked out from under the sleeve of his teal scrubs, text that slid around his arm. I tilted my head, trying to read it.
“Visiting?” he asked, blowing out a thin stream of smoke.
I looked quickly away from his arm, but he didn’t seem to have noticed me staring. “Yeah.” There were deep shadows under his eyes and along his jaw. “Long shift?”
“This is hour twenty-nine. One more, and I can go home.” He glanced down. “Aren’t your feet cold?”
I followed his gaze to my bare feet with their chipped red toenail polish. His feet were just inches away, one shoe off and one shoe on, like the nursery rhyme. “Aren’t yours?”
He grinned. “Just the one.”
I smiled, leaning against the railing next to him, the sun already set somewhere behind the clouds. Visiting hours would end soon, and Dad and I would go to Grandmother’s empty house, still thick with the scent of cigarette smoke. Dad would sleep in his parents’ bedroom, which Grandmother hadn’t slept in since Grampa died, preferring her padded chair in the kitchen. My aunt would sleep in the chair next to Grandmother’s hospital bed, and would wake up stiff and sore, Grandmother’s shaky hand clasped in hers.
The nurse stretched his arm along the scuffed expanse of railing between us, offering me his half-smoked cigarette. I had never smoked in my life, but I took it between my fingers, cradling it as Grandmother always did, Grandmother who couldn’t swallow now, who choked on a single drop of water. The filter was soft and wet, still warm from his mouth. I inhaled and held the strange warmth in my lungs. When I passed the cigarette back to him, our fingers met—smoke rose from between my lips and faded into the grey sky, covered rim to rim with clouds that, before the night was through, would release a fresh blanket of snow and cover the rough edges of the world in purest white.