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Jul/Aug 2003 fiction

The Gesture

by Tim Millas


 

The old bitch is giving him the finger. Her bandaged index finger, true, but the way she pumps her arm up and shoves that finger in his face, it may as well be the middle one.

Doesn't matter. Nobody leaves alone. No exceptions.

But that's ridiculous. My legs are fine. I'm ready to go.

You can go... as soon as someone comes to take you home.

I don't need anybody to take me home.

To accompany you, then. Whitman's proud of his steadfast monotone, his voice bleached of everything. Matching his scrubs, face, and hair. Definitely an OB, he thinks. A bitter, sour cunt. What was the name?

The bottom line, Mrs. McBride, is you can't leave here by yourself.

Is this because of my age? He has to admit this OB isn't shrill—she even half-smiles as she says it—but Whitman can feel stares from some of the other beds, and while his face stays blank, he is thinking, Here we go.

No, ma'am. It's not because of your age.

Sweet Jesus. He says it's not because I'm old, and then he calls me ma'am. Stop patronizing me—

I'm not patronizing you. His voice still flat, but Whitman realizes he has cut her off. Great, now she'll blink and look bullied. Except the OB doesn't blink, she just smiles more broadly, and abruptly she gets off the bed and stands opposite him. Small woman, but she moves quickly, decisively, and though Whitman's neck and arms are twice as thick as hers, he doesn't have an inch in height on her, and maybe an inch less, since he's wearing clogs and she's barefoot. Anyone looking at Whitman, even his longtime coworkers, would swear he hasn't moved, or reacted in any way to her; but Whitman has rocked back a fraction on his heels, surged forward a fraction in his shoulders, and each hand—while the fingers stay loose—is cocked at the wrists, ready... Christ. She's a hundred pounds. She's a hundred years old.

Well. Stop calling me Mrs. McBride, at least. I'm nobody's missus and I'm nobody's wife. I got divorced 36 years ago, thank God, and if you have to call me something call me Kay.

For a discernible moment, Whitman doesn't know what to say. He hears titters, from other patients, from visitors, even from Cavallo and Narang; but then he also hears Cavallo say: Lady, he's not giving you a hard time. Every single person here has to have someone go home with them. We would all get fired if we let you leave alone.

Whitman is relieved. But he'd like to smack Cavallo's face—open and empty, like her legs'll probably be an hour from now for this week's lucky doctor—because she's making it look like he can't handle this.

Really? She seems scornful and genuinely interested. And thrilled by the attention, like every OB.

Sure. Cavallo is no longer looking at her, thinking about her upcoming conquest, and then Mannie, mopping the floor within an inch of the OB's bare foot—where are her goddamn socks?—adds, Some people get out alive, but nobody goes home alone.

Mannie the Janitor Shaman—more titters, a few outright laughs and at least one gasp. But he does give Whitman the opportunity to turn away from the OB, Mrs. McBride, Kay, whatever. Not a retreat, exactly, but a sideways shift. To look at her file. To regroup. Find a way to move on to the next urn. All files are useless except as conductor's stick, teacher's pointer—but he finds himself looking at her age. 66. Funny, he expected older, even as he admits that her voice, smile and eyes are quick and direct as her body in motion, self-dramatizing of course, but free of the rust of age. Abruptly he feels sorry for her—although he knows just how annoying she must be on the outside, being direct, so pleased to announce: I'm very direct—he feels sorry for her and even likes her; he calls it fetish worship but can't help feeling it, the unfailing assurance that every affectation is nothing but pathetic here, and therefore, likeable.

Isn't that dangerous? She says this to Mannie, jerking her head at the wet floor.

Business making business, Mannie says, and she cackles; no, she really doesn't; but her laugh is uninhibited and loud, and Whitman steps in again.

Look Mzzz McBride—Damn! Started to say Mrs. and caught himself in spite of himself, and of course she jumps on it—

Sweet Jesus, now I'm a Ms! Sorry, young man, I left my Ms in the back of a cab on December 31st, 1979. Can't you just call me Kay? There she is, two inches from his face: he reminds himself he turned toward her: but she smiles so insolently at him, and he notices that her eyes are different colors: one brown, one watery green.

No way he'll ever call her Kay, or fall for any trick of intimacy that hundreds of urns before her have tried on him. Green eye, smart mouth. OK, fight humor with humor. I'm not so young, he says, although I appreciate the flattery. And you're not so old either—

I'm 67, as I'm sure you can see from that piece of paper. Or maybe it says 66 but a month from now I'm 67, and I've got every original gray and white hair in plain sight which I'm sure you also could see if you took the trouble to really look at me and not just mark me off as another silly old pain in the ass. Oh, good, Whitman thinks, because this is more predictable, I-May-Be-Old-But-I'm-Not-Stupid-Or-Senile. Anything he says she will label Bigotry—which, he knows, can get ugly but never works, not with Cyborg Whitman. He notes her hair is white and gray, but there are some black remnants, tiny shards, on one side of her head. She wears it fairly short, not dyke- or who-cares-anymore-short, but not stylish either. Even though she's just come out of tendon surgery, in Whitman's experience women, OBs especially, do themselves up extra when they have a potential appointment in Samarra.

Well, at least you got some gray. Wish I could say that.

Please, looking him up and down, you're a baby. Not a day over 40. 38.

Now Whitman is truly surprised: people always assume he's older than he is. Everybody thinks he's at least 47, some even say 53, thanks to his utter whiteness: full head of white hair, thick white eyebrows, swirls of white hair on his forearms. He's been white since the day he was born. His parents tried telling him he was an "ice blonde"—and once a girl asked him where he got it frosted—but of course the other kids said, correctly, albino. White matches his mental reflex of permanent recognition, of mundane déjà vu: when you're the color of ashes you accept you're an urn from day one. He's never tried to hide it, in fact he even bleached his name (Wietzkowski, which nobody could pronounce anyway) to Whitman, and at work he heightens it by wearing nothing but white while Cavallo and Narang and others wear those stupid blues and greens. It gives him a visual gravity, a pure authority, balanced perfectly between Angel and Death, which serves him well here. Yet she got it exactly right: he is 38, although, like her, in less than a month he'll have a birthday. Of course he'll never let her—

I'm right, aren't I, she says, already claiming and savoring it, touching her chin with a pride that Whitman knows he can never dent. Not that he ever tries to separate people from their pride. The breakdown, in public, of their own bodies does it for him... .How did she know he's 38? Is she a witch? And now he looks at her ears with an urgency that embarrasses but doesn't deflect him. At some early point in his life Whitman realized that ears are a secret message. People make up or make over or disguise everything else, but the ears remain... detached. When in doubt, he looks at the ears. No matter who they pretend to be, the ears reveal them. Flat ears reveal certain humans to be amphibians. Tall, long-lobed ears reveal certain women to be men. Wide ears jutting out from the head expose hot shots as morons. And all ears, of course, make perfect handles for an urn.

But Mrs. McBride's ears are perfect. No, he thinks angrily, there's nothing perfect about them... they just don't flap apart from the rest of her head, don't make fun of her face. They—he has to go back to her face to describe them, the face which, now that he looks at it again, has cheeks, lips, nose, eyes which are all small in scale, almost plain, and yet so animated they make you look at her, and make her look fleetingly young. The skin is fair, not heavily lined but thickly freckled, especially over the bridge of her nose. The ears are simply a continuation of the face, small, modest whorl, nicely curved but not mouse-round, the lobes in perfect (he has to admit the word) proportion to the rest, unmarred by earrings or vacant piercings. Whitman keeps staring at them—which usually disconcerts people but seems to please Mrs. McBride—and finally thinks he sees more freckles on them, or at least a flush, a floridness that says... Irish ears.

Now Mrs. McBride, he adopts an awful blarney voice and raises his white brows theatrically, flattery will get you everywhere... except out of this room. Rules must be obeyed, and obedience is a virtue—didn't the nuns teach you that?

Recovery is packed with Catholic patients today. Cavallo is Catholic and so is Mannie. Even Narang is a Catholic (although she still speaks Hindu to the Hindus). He figures the whole room will be with him. But instantly she says: What makes you think I'm Irish?

Well, let's see. Your name?

Look again. It's a Scottish name.

Whitman's eyes flick down, and now he sees the name not phonetically but literally: MacBride. Sorry. I should have used a burr instead of a brogue.

I'm not Scottish either. That was my ex-husband. I'm Lithuanian.

The only people in the room not laughing at him are the heel spur they've just wheeled in, still too groggy to laugh at anything, and Mrs. Mc, no, MacBride. She smiles at him not in triumph but almost kindly, privately.

Get her back on that fucking bed.

You're keeping me from other people who truly need attention. Please lay down. And put your socks back on.

I never wear socks. And I'm ready to go home.

Mrs. MacBride, you're not even dressed, and you've been here 35 minutes, and you really should get back in bed. Drink your juice, eat your sandwich. And think of someone to call to take you home.

She bends down—for a moment allowing Whitman to hope that she will get back in bed—only to straighten up again, a small Gristedes shopping bag in her bandaged hand. She takes out a plain white bra and pants. She steps into the pants and pulls them up under her gown. She sucks both arms into the gown sleeves, and with the gown now hanging from her like a loose, half-open tent (her slender neck the pole) she places her breasts into the bra cups and draws up the straps and hooks the back, all the while still smiling at him. She crouches and a hand creeps out from under the hem of her gown and pulls a yellow sundress from the Gristedes bag and she steps into that too, not stumbling but with a bit more effort that tugs and loosens the bows of her gown strings. So that the gown sags, and then drops to the floor at her feet—but at the precise moment she stands and slips her left arm into the short sleeve of the dress. The dress is faded, and nothing of interest has been exposed, but the rasp of her pulling up the back zipper is loud enough.

What, never seen a woman get dressed before? Come on, Nurse Whitman, at least here you must have.

Whitman is used to women flirting with him, nurses, patients, the colder he acts the more avidly they do it, and sadly the OBs are the worst, unaware or not caring how grotesque lewdness looks at their age. Women project all kinds of things onto his bleached surface—he's huge, he's the devil, he's submissive, he needs tenderness, he might kill them, he's bisexual—but the typical assumption is that he's gay. OK, Whitman is unmarried, never been married. He never dates anyone on staff or even flirts back. He's a nurse. He's barely five feet three inches tall, and always immaculate and neat, and he wears white clogs from a nursing supply catalog. His voice is deep enough and he has no mannerisms, effeminate or otherwise, but his very lack of affect, along with his iron adherence to procedure, leads women to stereotype him... and want to be the one to lead him back to the straight path.

He is straight, and in the past he has not been above proving it, allowing his weird appearance to lure women into his pants. Now he's older (Whitman really thinks of himself as 103) and he no longer cares. Sometimes, like this morning, his glance will happen to slip below his chin while he shaves, and he is startled at the bare skin, surprised that he is still, after all, a body.

Mrs. MacBride, you can make any insinuation you want, and you can go on embarrassing yourself all day long. But it won't get you out of here. Then he turns his back and walks away.

For a while he focuses on his other patients. The infected toe, the reset wrist, the benign shoulder cyst, the lanced but still swollen tongue, the colonoscopy and the biopsy: of course he knows and addresses them by their names, but this is what they are, damages, conditions, different distances from the urn. He is a capable, attentive, friendly Cyborg; he finds their pathetic particularities likeable; and they, as they almost always do, like him. He forgets Mrs. MacBride and so forgets to avoid looking at her, and notices that she is still not lying down but has found a metal folding chair from someplace and dragged it not beside but to the foot of her bed, putting her in the way just by sitting there. She chats with everyone, within 40 seconds bringing up the topic of her finger, it's fine now, she's fine, why can't she just leave? Cavallo ignores her, Narang smiles at the top of her head, and Mannie becomes monolingual and goes to mop a distant hallway. Other patients and visitors commiserate, but nobody rises up to overthrow the recovery room on her behalf. Gaps appear between her bursts of conversation. Gradually she realizes she's nothing special, she really won't be allowed to leave alone, and she falls silent.

Let her know it, Whitman thinks, let it sink in; everyone knows it here, if not on the first trip then the second or third. It's why he loves medical care, loves coming every day to a hospital, where everyone comes together and confronts their frailty in the open, beyond embarrassment, stripped clean. Every day Whitman watches them lose hold of their money and titles, their looks, brains, strength, or lust, and understand that they will get sick, they will break down, they will die, they will end up as urns, and, therefore, nothing in their lives matters at all. Everyone here gets it, even if just for a second. Whitman's equanimity is to get it continually.

And Mrs. MacBride is getting it, he's sure. What he can't figure out is why someone so outgoing, with such an excess of personality, has no one to come for her. No child, niece, friend? No lawyer? No 80-year-old fool trying to court her? Or maybe she refuses to get it, for all her directness she can't admit she's an OB, she's one of those that hiss at you or jerk their chins away rudely if you hold a door or offer your seat on the subway. Or maybe she's just obstinate, hates all authority... .

She sits there, the faded yellow of her dress still shining through the white, blue, and green. She watches everybody. She goes to help colonoscopy's father help colonoscopy sit up, then taps Cavallo on the shoulder to draw her attention to the lesion biopsy, that wants water. She asks Narang to explain a piece of equipment (and Narang does, with that same bright, meaningless smile with which she does everything). She smoothes the sheet on her bed, centers the pillow, steps into black pumps with 4 inch heels, fastens a chunky metal bracelet halfway between her wrist and her elbow, and using the fingers of her unbandaged hand, combs her hair behind her perfect ears.

And here comes Romper, as usual, from the other end of the room. So she can pass all the beds and give them her simulacrum of concern. And the fearful, the whiners, and outright rebels like Mrs. MacBride can now feel like the white knight's riding in. (Actually Romper is a rider—owns horses in Connecticut—and her scrubs and foot wrappings are tan like the color of those flared riding pants.) It helps that Romper is so tall, easily 6'2", and that her hands and fingers are large enough to hold basketballs as if they're oranges. Instant authority, shrinking Whitman's to the midget level of Whitman himself.

I need a break, she says to Whitman by way of greeting. They've been coming in the windows all day. Everything OK?

Almost everything, he says, and though Romper smiles gamely, he knows her well enough to detect her true response, a faint ripple in the whites of her eyes announcing that she is appalled by the thing she's just heard. Plus her expectation that the thing should instantly cease being appalling and resume being appropriate. This expectation is enough to snap most patients and staff into line, but Whitman, knowing that it's simply her reluctance to actually do something—because, despite being a competent hand surgeon, Romper never does one thing more than she has to—Whitman doesn't say, Just kidding, everything's OK, or even tell her immediately what is not OK. Instead he gives her a clinical rundown on everybody, and shows her every folder. Romper looks quickly but sufficiently at all of them. She gives instructions that are clear, to the point, correct. She doesn't seem at all distracted or concerned. And then, after about 10 minutes, she turns to him: Why almost?

The ruptured tendon, the index finger, wants to go home.

Oh. Romper doesn't look in Mrs. MacBride's direction. She smiles at Whitman. Well, Doctor Whitman, do you think he's ready?

She—

Right. Is she?

She smiles, waiting. He doesn't smile back. He knows she calls him Doctor as a compliment, and he also knows she's patronizing him. He despises the tendency—among medical and non-medical people alike—to see being a doctor as the acme of everyone's ambition, and all other functions as sad compromises with limited ability. He never wanted to be a doctor. More money, sure, but also more responsibility; more posturing and bullshit; more Cavallos trying to jump your bones; and more killing yourself to do nothing except delay the urn.

She seems fine. But she doesn't have anyone to take her home. And she keeps insisting that she go home alone.

Oh. Romper glances without really looking past his shoulder. Which one is she again? They're all a blur today.

She's— Whitman turns to point and there she is, right on top of them. She doesn't look angry but her eyes and mouth and ears are inescapable. Her heels now make her slightly taller than Whitman. Holding her Gristedes bag—with the hand Romper just operated on—she looks like she just came off the street to pick up someone here; she certainly looks capable of escorting herself home.

Dr. Romper! Her expression doesn't change but she shifts her feet, setting them wider apart like a Sumo wrestler. She looks up at Romper, putting her left hand above her eyes like a visor, at once mocking Romper's height and rendering it useless for intimidation. Whitman snorts.

How are you?

How do you think I am?

Well... you look wonderful. Romper smiles weakly at Whitman, as if to say: What else can I tell her?

Thank you. I agree.

But... I just got here. She laughs, and Mrs. MacBride laughs, not with her. With that same lame smile, Romper scolds, Come on now, we just finished with you a little while ago! What's your hurry?

I haven't been in a hurry since my divorce. But I thought you hospitals wanted to get us out as fast as possible. Slam bam, thank you ma'am.

Oh, now, you make us sound heartless, said Romper. Things went very well, by the way. Aren't you interested in hearing about it? Do you feel any pain? She takes Mrs. MacBride's bandaged hand (the bag still hanging from it) between her two big ones, not to examine it, Whitman knows, but to divert MacBride's attention.

No, says Mrs. MacBride, still smiling, taking her hand back and looking at it herself. It feels fine.

Well, we need to talk about next steps. Romper looks down at the folder. Why don't you take a seat and I'll come over in a few minutes.

Mrs. MacBride's smile fades and she gives one tiny shake of her head—not so much in refusal, as in disappointment at Romper's tactic for putting her off. She then looks at Whitman, and he looks right back, first unable to evade her, then unwilling, because he feels exactly what she feels about Romper. He knows that, like him, although she addresses her as Doctor she only thinks of her as Romper. He notices that the freckles under her green eye seem darker than the freckles under her brown eye, but maybe this is just a contrast effect. She has two small moles just off the cleft between her breasts, brown-black accents above the neckline of her yellow dress.

Doctor, putting aside when and where you do your consultation, this patient really wants to leave. In my opinion... she is physically and mentally capable of leaving. The only issue is that she has no one to escort her.

There's that tremor in the white of her eyeball, the gasp of her assumption that all things are her servant and should serve her; and Whitman realizes that he as much as MacBride is the cause, the object, and this goads him. I've tried to explain to Mrs. MacBride that for her safety we simply can't bend this rule. Perhaps you can explain this better than I have. Or perhaps you know a family member she can call.

Now that's below the belt, since the Romper who can't even remember what sex Mrs. MacBride is sure as hell doesn't have the slightest inkling of whether she has family. After a while, still staring unseeing at her chart, Romper says feebly: But don't you want to know about the physical therapy you'll be doing?

I'm sure I won't be doing it today, Mrs. MacBride says, merciless, and Whitman snorts again. Why don't I just come to your office for that? I've really had enough hospital for one day. And poor Nurse Whitman has had enough of me.

Can't someone just walk her to the front door... ?

No. Someone has to make sure she gets home.

Put her in a cab—?

Not unless they ride with her and see her to her door.

And there's no one you can call... Kay?

I honestly had no idea I should plan for this. I won't call anyone now and make them leave their job or their family just to walk next to me when I'm perfectly capable of walking by myself.

Now here's where Romper should say, No, you will call someone and make them leave their job or their family; that's exactly what you will do, because you have to. But to assert her authority would violate her assumption that it's universally understood. Where do you live, again?

Four blocks from here. 91st and First.

That's so close! Romper looks with fading hope at Whitman. Huh. That's near where I live. Romper looks at her watch, a man's Patek Philippe. She lives with her pediatric heart surgeon husband on Park Avenue, near 84th Street, not really close at all; Whitman knows this because three or four years ago she had asked him where he lived, and at the time he was still in his 89th Street Second Avenue apartment—basically the same shitty neighborhood as Mrs. MacBride—and Romper exclaimed, We're both Upper East Siders! She finds equally ridiculous things in common with other nurses. As if such false and never-again-referred-to connections will make interactions smoother for her. He had assumed, after his aunt died and left him her ugly, paid-off condo, that he could defeat Romper with his move to Queens; but she had instantly said, Are you near Flushing? Maybe I'll see you at the Open.

Whitman says, loudly: Hey, if you or someone else on staff wants to walk her, fine with me. But it has to be that person's own decision.

At once Cavallo and Narang become very attentive to their patients. Romper's eyes rove around the room, and find no purchase.

Well. Romper suddenly grins, a real grin. I do have to put my check in the bank. You know what, I'll do it. I need a break anyway. I'll walk you, Kay, as long as you don't mind me wearing this on the street— She gestures at her scrubs and wrapped feet.

This is New York. You look normal compared to what else is out there.

Now Romper and MacBride laugh as one. And Whitman knows what Romper will do: walk MacBride to the front door, claim to have left her check upstairs, hail MacBride a cab, wait five more minutes, and then amble back. She'll go at once to one of Cavallo's patients, making it impossible for Whitman to ask how Romper managed to walk her home and get back so fast.

And now it's Whitman's turn to laugh. Dr. Romper, I think the infected toe—Mr. Zimmerman—really needs you right now. It's all right. I can switch my break with Cavallo. I will walk you home, Mrs. MacBride.

He sees that for the first time he has startled her. Meanwhile Romper doesn't miss a beat. Great, I owe you one, and then to MacBride, Call my office for an appointment. She takes Zimmerman's folder out of Whitman's hands and goes, leaving the two of them together.

Are you sure you don't just want to call me a cab?

I'm seeing you home. We can ride, that's your choice, but you're paying.

Sweet Jesus. Mrs. MacBride's smile expands this to: You really are an uptight Napoleonic faggot, aren't you, with a stick up your ass instead of a dick. Well, I'm walking! I'm not wasting three dollars to take a cab four blocks. Come on!

She doesn't run or even seem to be hurrying, yet Whitman instantly finds himself several paces behind her. He catches up, and resists the urge to give her a kick in the ass, which he can see, swishing from side to side under her yellow dress. He now realizes Romper played him from the start, and perfectly. Romper's the one he should be furious with, but the sympathy he felt for Mrs. MacBride when Romper tried to play her, that spurt of fellow-feeling, is gone.

Oh! There you are.

Here I am, Mrs. MacBride.

You know, she says in that kindly, almost pitying way, meeting his eyes for the first time since they left recovery, you don't have to call me anything, but if you are going to call me something make it Kay.

You said this already.

I know. But you didn't listen, Nurse Whitman.

Whitman will never tell her his name. But he can't resist asking the question that, he realizes, has been tickling him for the past half hour: How do you get a name like Kay if you're Lithuanian?

My real name is Katrina. Katrina Chervokas. My moron of a husband could never say it right. Katarina. Katrinka. You wouldn't believe it. Man was hung like a horse but didn't have a horse's brains. Since he could recite the alphabet, I told him, call me K, he made it Kay, and look, 36 years later, that's what I call myself. Besides, I danced for a living—chorus line—and Kay MacBride was easier for my agent and for casting directors and everybody.

Oh, great. Now will he think of her as K, a Kafka female? See her leading a high-kicking line of geriatric hoofers, all in faded yellow dresses? He presses his eyes shut and opens them and sees black specks in the clear air. She's not a K, or a Kay, or a Mick or a Mac. She doesn't look that old, or young. She's not Irish, she doesn't look Lithuanian, and damned if he knows what a Lithuanian looks like anyway. She can draw conversation out of a tree stump and yet refused to ask anyone to make this walk with her.

At least you got outside. She turns the corner at first, heading north. Looks like a lovely day!

It is a lovely day—the light softening but not turning pink yet. Whitman says nothing.

Or maybe the sun doesn't agree with you.

Agree with me?

Well, you are very fair—

The term is albino. And my skin is really none of your business.

I'm sorry. But she laughs and then giggles. Actually, you've got a lot of color now. I've pissed you off again. You know, I'm really not trying to...

Whitman doesn't speak. Is his face hot?

She fills the silence by saying, in a friendly way, I have the same problem, you know—fair skin. And I love the sun! For years I denied myself because I wanted to keep my skin perfect for work. Then when I stopped getting work I just went crazy—five years ago, I'd've been on the roof in the buff on a day like this, soaking in every ray. But I freckle. All over. Men tell me I have freckles in places you would not believe. So I wear sunblock now, SPF 60.

She really is in pathological denial. 67 and still sunbathing. In the nude. What for? The words are very clear—he can even see their punctuation—and he knows that he hasn't thought this, he's composed it and read it aloud in his head. How much farther? he says loudly.

Oh, we're close. You'll be rid of me soon. Do you live around here?

Bitch must sense something in the way he walks.

No.

Where do you live?

Queens.

Oh... Like everybody in Manhattan, she can't fathom Queens. Probably thinks he's living with his mother. Where? Kew Gardens?

It's really none of your business.

Forest Hills?

He is silent.

Do you have Korean groceries in your neighborhood?

Well. Sure. He can't even regret answering, the question is so bizarre. Why?

I love Korean grocery stores. I love their fresh vegetables and I love their salad bars and their health foods and I love the way they never close. If I can't sleep I'll go shopping at three AM!

She raises her bandaged hand like a wand and he sees that they are standing outside a Korean grocery. A woman, who has just finished putting a new batch of oranges among the tightly packed fruit cases outside, greets Mrs. MacBride, rips a fresh plastic bag from the heavy hanging roll and hands it to her. Thank you, Mrs. MacBride says, and to Whitman: Do you shop at these? Whitman remembers once buying plums and yogurt at this grocery—and being given a plastic bag by this same woman for his plums—but all he says is: What are you doing?

I have to have dinner, don't I? Restaurants serve you garbage and take-out is worse. I need my food fresh. I'm just picking up a few things.

...Can't you do this later?

I don't want to. I'm hungry. I didn't have breakfast, remember? And I wasn't going to eat that processed turkey roll you brought me. So I'll have dinner a little earlier today... Do you like cheese and olives?

I'm not hungry.

Oh... because I'll treat you to a glass of wine and some terrific Greek cheese when we get to my apartment. She smiles slowly at him, at all of him. Least I can do for torturing you.

Mrs. MacBride...

Listen—you can go now, you know that. Isn't it obvious I'm all right?

Mrs. MacBride, just do it. Your shopping. Just do it and be done with it!

She goes inside with a shrug. At first he waits on the pavement, but then wonders if she's going to... what, sneak out some secret back entrance? Give him the slip? Still, he follows her inside and watches her as she picks out an eggplant, a squash, a zucchini, some cherry tomatoes, a bouquet of broccoli, a big wedge of smooth white cheese (not feta, he thinks), a generous helping of unpitted olives, two sourdough rolls, garlic, bean curd... and then he stops watching what she is getting: he watches the way her eyes fix rapidly on each thing she wants, and the way her bandaged hand without hesitation deftly picks it up and drops it into the plastic bag that's balanced on the wrist of her other hand along with the Gristedes bag. Let me hold that, he says with a sigh, and she laughs but lets him. He follows her around and she continues to fill it.

When finished and paid up and back on the street, she says, I can't wait to eat all this. I love to eat. Eating, dancing, and fucking—excuse me for being blunt—but those are the top three pleasures of life, usually in that order. She watches him. He looks back but doesn't answer. You're not married, are you?

Definitely none of your business...

Never married. Am I right?

I said it's none of your business.

Are you gay or something?

He says nothing, just shakes his head disgustedly.

Because if you are, hey, that's fine, we all have to live. You just seem so... uncomfortable in your own skin.

Whitman stops right there, and he is pleased to see that he has made her stop, too. He says, very deliberately: Now I understand why you had no one to come for you. Seeing how you behave with people I can understand why you're alone.

Mrs. MacBride looks hurt, but then shrugs. I get from people what I want to get from them. I live alone, I wouldn't have it any other way. My apartment is a studio because it suits me. When I want people I go out for a drink, or I sit in the park, or I go dancing.

After a moment they both start walking again. Abruptly she turns toward a plain black door, tucked to the side of a hardware store at the base of a gray brick tenement. Past her, through the small dirty pane of glass near the top of the door, he can see a narrow, grimy-looking hallway with mail slots against one wall and a stairway at the end.

She unlocks it, turns back to him. Well, we're here. Why don't you come up for some cheese and wine?

I really can't. I'm already late, and I can't drink alcohol anyway.

Well... why don't you come up anyway. She smiles at him in her kindly way and says easily, I'll bet you're a good man somewhere in there. Let me help you find him. I'm so good you'll never think about boys again... or young girls. I still have a dancer's body. I've got freckles everywhere. Don't you want to see?

At the end of all this he finds it's just as easy to look at her as before. In fact he likes her again. But she seems no more provocative than the grimy hallway behind her.

I'm not what you think I am. And I'm not trying to offend you or anything. But no... the answer is no.

OK. No offense taken. She holds out her hand and after a moment he hands over the heavy plastic bag. Want to come up anyway? For some real mint iced tea?

No, thank you. This is where I get off.

Poor choice of words, Mrs. MacBride says, laughing.

Whitman stares at her, not smiling and not laughing, and it costs him no effort. And then he does smile slightly. Goodbye then—

Hey. Thanks. This was totally unnecessary, but it was nice of you to bend your rules and take me home. Thanks, and with her bandaged hand she pats the edge of his jaw, just below his ear.

You're welcome. Goodbye. Whitman watches her turn and go inside, watches himself not follow her, watches himself go back toward the hospital, and knows that, like all things, what he does doesn't matter anyway. He feels the faint press of finger and bandage below his ear, and he realizes, for the second time today, that he is still, after all, a body.

 

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