I didn’t expect this. Her, standing there just under the lip of my roof, dress soaked and tights ripped bloody at one knee. It wasn’t raining, not anymore, but her hair clung to her skull like she’d been out there in the thick of it, when the storm beat down so hard the ground seemed to rumble in protest. I’d been sipping a cup of warm water, trying to focus on the sound and not the pain up and down my back.
I hadn’t expected company. I hadn’t dealt in kindness and pity in much too long. Going to work every day was different; I was paid to stitch skin together, not broken hearts. But the skin around her lips looked chapped, and the plastic bag she clutched so tightly still dripped rain. I remembered an echo of what used to be my heart, thumping painfully at the sight, and it was more in memory of such a long ago feeling than anything else which had me opening the door a little wider, nodding my head in welcome.
I never would have expected her to knock on the door in the first place.
“Haven’t seen you in a few months,” I said once we’d settled, handing her some warm instant tea in my living room, and she quickly nodded her head in agreement. “What’s it been like?” I asked finally, when she would do no more.
“Where’s Alex?” she asked instead, and I blinked a few time before remembering.
“The dog? Gave him away,” I shrugged, “Hospital has been too busy for me.” Not a lie, though not the entirety of the truth.
The mug stopped halfway to her lips and her eyes met mine a moment, wide with an innocent kind of sadness. The kind I used to feel. Then she lowered her head, and I watched in slight interest as her fingers started up their regular habit. Pick, pick, picking away at the skin of her cuticles with sharp nails, savagely tearing pieces off to flick at the ground.
“You didn’t have to drop by,” I told her quite frankly, wondering how long she would stay for this time. How long I’d be able to stand it. “I know you and him were out of the country for the past while - “
“I did have to,” she rushed to interrupt, and her eyes widened large enough to keep me from asking the next inevitable question. “I came to see you, because after that I’m running.”
The plastic bag should have given it away. So like her, to leave in a flurry of some party, by judge of her clothes, with nothing but a soaked coat on her back and spare trinkets in a plastic bag to call her own.
Till she gave in and went back, like she always did.
This time there was no abrasions I could spot, no hastily bandaged wrist or black eye. But the bloody state of her tights and the pitiful state of her cuticles left little else to be understood.
I opened my mouth, probably to say something, but ended up closing it and instead took our untouched mugs back to the kitchen. By the time I returned she was stripping off her tights, barely pausing when she noticed me enter.
“Throw these away, would you?” She balled them into a fist and threw the sodden lump at my chest.
“Do you want to take a shower?” I asked, sitting down as quickly as my aching joints would allow. She stared at me strange a moment. Then her expression relaxed.
“Would you join me?” she asked, not as hesitantly as she used to.
A dull ache in my stomach answered for me. I bit back a harsh rejection and shook my head quickly, gesturing towards the guest bathroom door. It was all too easy to ignore the way her eyes quickly looked down, in embarrassment and shame, a shame I never felt when asking for such a thing. But then it always took so much out of her, to trust. I’d always understood that. Especially as in every visit, time after time when she’d come to me broken in need of fixing, I her doctor and eventually her comfort, I had trusted her to finally stay.
While the water ran, now, I made sure to take care of a different kind of shame. The last of 14 pills slid between my teeth and I sighed, lying back on the bed for a moment to let the drugs hit before concealing it from her. The pill bottles scattered around me on the bed like bright, orange leaves, and I stared up at the ceiling listening to her shower from my open door. It was cathartic, in a way, bringing back memories of feeling anxious with her out of my sight, even if it was only a few doors away.
She’d tiptoe in through the door the way she did, self-trained to make as little notice of herself as possible, and be in my home for nearly an hour before I’d realize it. Till I saw a drop of blood on the carpet or heard a stifled cry of pain. She never knocked, not like today; she’d always kept a spare key from me till the last time she left.
Then I’d find her only to see the next injury; a broken elbow, could I help her? She’d tripped while hiking; a gash on her head, could I stitch it up? She’d fallen on a rock; hand-shaped bruises on her arms, did I have any ice? She’d bumped into a few sharp objects.
The bathroom door creaked open, cutting short my mental list of every injury I’d ever treated her for, and I scrambled to sit up, head swimming and stomach rolling. I quickly stuffed all the containers in my bedside drawer, slamming the latter shut on my pinky just as she hesitantly peeked in.
“OW!” I shouted, mostly to cover up my surprise, and banged a fist on the closed drawer in over-dramatized anger.
A smile graced her face, just for a moment. I’d forgotten what it looked like.
“You never change,” she shook her head fondly, and for a moment I saw what I used to: a warm, clever, charismatic woman, the slightest bit cracked at the hand of others. Never through fault of her own.
“Don’t try to,” I shrugged, but she must have heard something in my voice. The smile disappeared as quickly as it came.
“Should I sleep on the couch then?” she asked quietly, direct. No longer assuming, it seemed, that we would share it like old times. One hand quickly began pulling at the other’s cuticles again.
And a twinge of guilt went up my spine. “No, I will,” I decided, and heaved myself up from the side of the bed. She didn’t seem to take notice how slowly I managed.
Her hand grabbed me by the arm as I passed, however, holding me still in an insistent grip. “I’m not with him any longer, I swear,” she said, with widened eyes again.
I swallowed down the bitter, tried for something, anything to give those eyes.
“I’m glad,” I said eventually, with all the honesty I could muster. And only hoped that would appease her. I touched the arm that clutched mine, ignoring how her gaze made that familiar trail up and down my eyes and mouth. “Good night,” I said with finality, obviously surprising her, and pulled away. Not tonight, I decided. Not ever again.
“You don’t believe me,” she said to my back, and it was no question. I did not answer. “You think this is another one of those times, when I go back to him. Like I’ve always ended up doing.”
The words somehow sounded accusatory, offensive, as if I were in the wrong. I turned back to look at her brazen face sharply, making no attempt to conceal my anger.
“And why shouldn’t I?” I shot back, eyes boring into hers. They were still so wide, even now.
“Because you love me,” she answered just as harshly, as if to wound me with the fact. “Because this place is empty without me, and you know it.”
She dared a step closer, then, as if to entreat. “Please, I never lied. But I was too afraid, all those times before. Not any longer.”
And suddenly it was as if I were the heathen, for doubting her. I could feel the hostility, each gathering pocket of resentment nudging up my spine, reminding me of what I’d done for her and lost in her sake. Past my brain stem, leaking into every thought and memory in which her wide eyes were contained.
Not any longer had been much too long. A year I’d wasted on her, waiting on her, only for her to come when it was much, much too late.
I turned my back to their gaze now and headed towards the couch. Ignoring how they trailed after me and rested heavy on my neck long after.
That night I dreamt uneasy. Flashes of memory more than imaginations of the subconscious, the worst of it all and none of the good. The pity, concern and worry I’d felt at first swirled in my dreams, from the beginning when she’d waved off the sprained wrist on a motorcycle accident and her unwillingness to go to the hospital on laziness. We were old friends, her husband was busy, she knew me from university.
Uncontrollable anger, possessive care, and utter helplessness followed, from months drawn out and promises taken back till I had the divorce papers ready on the table, my very own lawyer at my right, and a pen put in her hand.
The last time I saw her before she left her key and ran back to him, again.
I woke now to her leaning over me, kneeling beside the couch with a hand slowly stroking the stubble on my cheeks. I kept my eyes firmly shut, feeling and hearing only her palm and the ins and outs of her breathing. It was numbing, calming me. But then I peeked, trying to find her face. It was still night. Only the whites of her eyes were visible in this dark.
“Please,” she whispered upon seeing I was awake, as if I should know the rest of the pleading.
I could guess. “You’re running,” I reminded her frankly, and her eyes watched me so intently, mouth firmly shut in defiance of an answer. So I stared back, slowly coming to grasps with what was meant but unspoken.
“You want me to stop you,” I realized aloud, sitting up on the couch, and her expression flickered for barely an instant. But it was enough. When her hand reached out for my cheek again I ensnared it, ground the bony appendages together in my grip and shook my head.
“I don’t believe you,” she answered immediately, and shook her hand from my grip to pull harshly at the hem of my shirt. I swallowed and looked down at her, only seeing everything she’d cost me. The hopeless fear in her eyes that used to tug at my heart, drag it this way and that across the rocky ground, had lost its string. “I need you,” she reminded, and then unexpectedly her eyes drifted down in that ashamed way. Slowly her other hand, which had remained out of sight for me till now, came into view. It held 3 of the pill bottles I had so hastily hidden away.
“And . . . you need me.”
I laughed harshly at the display, startling her. “What is this, intervention?” I rose an eyebrow, sneering when her mouth opened and closed soundlessly. “You think this is you, paying me back, your chance to do the right thing for me like I did you? Become my nurse, fix me?” I seized the containers from her outstretched hand, standing up to more properly look down at her. “You poor, pitiful child - stunted, retarded girl, who never grew up. You stayed in the shadow of big, scary men, thinking it would keep you safe. Look where it got you.”
She raised her chin up at me, defiant. “Go ahead, try to scare me away. You’re just afraid.”
“That I’ll never get rid of you,” I clarified, and took a step closer to better loom over her. She didn’t retreat back. “That you’ll never stop ruining me.”
“Ruining you?” she asked in anger, glaring icily at me and then the containers in my hand. “You’re an addict - you’re ruining yourself!”
I laughed, laughed hard enough tears sprung up in my eyes and quaked in my ribs so forcefully they were in stitches. I laughed till my stomach ached too much and my head was light with something akin to helium, high and slap-silly. Nothing would ground me, not from this stupid, stupid girl who jumped from medication to addiction instead of death, not till I felt feather-light touches signifying she was putting hands on my shaking shoulders.
“What is it, what is it,” she whispered, again and again, as if comforting a mental patient, and finally red streaked across my vision.
“It’s YOU,” I shouted hoarsely, pushing her away hard enough she nearly fell back to the ground. She recovered quickly, back to gripping my shoulders like a good nurse, asking, “What about me, huh, let me help you, please, calm down, what is it,” till I could no longer take it.
I shoved her to the floor, drew all my force into the action so much so that the doctor in me knew there’d be bruises. Her face winced down below me, but all too quickly calmed. As if this was normal, expected, part of life. Wide eyes stared up into mine. The rapid, silent intake and outtake of her lungs fluttered her chest up and down.
I couldn’t stand that gaze.
“GET OUT!” I cried, and when she made no move finally I threw my foot against her ribs, feeling the crack more than hearing her scream. “Get OUT,” I screamed back, and grabbed an arm to pull her out from her shaking, fetal position and drag her towards the door.
The second it slammed shut behind her pitifully crying, hunched figure I paced about the room, trying to calm the tremor in my hands. Pain ricocheted back and forth through my entire body at such exertion, and the dull furniture swam through my vision.
A warm cup of water. It helped some, not the pain, but neutralized the animal toward the doctor in me. The doctor with death hanging over his shoulder, stage four, the doctor who should’ve known sooner. Would’ve known sooner, I’d swear to my early grave. Maybe even in time, if I hadn’t been caught up in such wide eyes.
Eventually I sat back in my chair with my cup and wept, for her and for me; for the useless way we tried to save each other.