Paul, a slim man, in his fifties, not much of a talker, is sitting in a chair beside a hospital bed in a cramped bedroom in a mid-priced condo on the east coast of Florida. The room seems dark to him. The chair is utilitarian and uncomfortable. Cold-chromed steel tubing with a flat fake-wood seat and a straight back. No place for a person’s arms to come to rest. Not a chair meant for sitting in for long.
His shoulders are slumped forward. He is looking at the bone-frail woman in the bed.
The television set is on. Tennis. Wimbledon. The sound is off or just turned down. The set is on a low dresser opposite the bed, blocking a large mirror.
The play on the screen draws his attention away. Distracting him from the woman in the bed. Like a screen in a doctor’s waiting room or a sports bar. There is no clock in the room. The shades are drawn. Her breaths are shallow. Uneven.
He turns back to look at her. His wife. His ex-wife, rather; the woman lying in the bed. The head of the bed is angled upwards; a pillow propped behind her. He wonders if she is uncomfortable. Of course she is, he thinks.
‘Nadal has won the first set’, he says to her. The air conditioner clicks on and whirs.
Her eyelids are near-closed, though he can see she is watching the set. Her eyes follow the ball. Her dark brown eyes move from side to side. Her face is immobile.
‘Rafa,’ she says
What she is feeling he cannot know. How could he? She is dying. Enduring more than he can ever imagine. He thinks of a person sinking in quicksand. Her lungs are filled with fluid. Her kidneys struggling.
Before Wimbledon began, she said she would stop eating. She would take water and the pain meds. No more. She would watch the matches; wanting to see Rafa win. That would make her happy and then, and then…
They had never gotten along well. Never talked much. And now she can speak only a word or two, and those only with faint breath. The muscles in her chest are weak. Failing. Her left arm is all she can move.
The doorbell rings and the front door is opened. Paper bags rustling, being passed from one hand to another. Voices he does not recognize.
How can he know her suffering? He tries, but he’s not the one suffering. Only shouldering the tattered weight of the baggage they’d long carried together. The guilt for a life neither of them had wanted. The never being able to talk about it with her. He wished now that he could have done that. Just to make things right between them. Settle things. But, maybe she didn’t even care. And now is not the time, even if he could think of what to say.
They’d split years ago. And both were relieved. The relief had been good. Aside from the kids, the relief was the best part.
A woman in the kitchen, an aide, Jamaican, is cooking something, answering the phone, cleaning up. Other people are in the kitchen, and in the living room. Their three children are there too, drawn here to her, as he is.
Before the illness, before the weakness began, before the diagnosis, she had been a tennis player herself. Played every day in the sun and the heat. Tough and tireless; win or lose. She had loving friends who played with her up north; friends who missed her when she moved south. Then she found new friends to play with. Friends who loved her just as much.
Before they split they’d go to the U.S. Open each August. Watching the early rounds. Twenty years they did that together. Sitting in the grandstand on the sunny side. Eating Swiss cheese and sliced tomato sandwiches in waxed paper wraps, drinking warm diet cokes they brought in a bag from home. Dressed in shorts and Adidas sneakers. Pulling on sweaters in the evening on cooling benches beside the outside courts, close enough to hear the players’ groans and see the sweat drip in their eyes. Driving home vibrating from the day, stopping for pizza, thinking their separate thoughts. Those were good days, he thought.
Nadal was her favorite. It was he she wanted to see.
A woman in a brightly colored dress and tightly curled blond hair asks him if he would like some water. Anything? ‘No,’ he tells her.
Another woman, behind the blond one, peers in at him. He looks away, back toward the bed. An IV line taped to her puckered forearm. The fan oscillating in the corner. The uneven rhythm of her breaths. The TV set again.
Nadal is bouncing on his toes, swaying his hips from side to side. Brushing his black hair back behind his ears. Touching his nose. Wiping the sweat from his brow.
There is the stale smell of bedding. Bloodied alcohol swabs in the wastebasket.
Those years they’d spent together. All those years, he thought.
In all those years he had never once seen her give up. Quit. No, he was the complainer, the one to quit. She would have gone on. But he could not. He is embarrassed now for any thought of quitting. What she is doing now, he knows, is not quitting. It is her resoluteness, her mettle.
He watches her ragged breathing. Her thin arms, still tanned from the beach. Her hollowed cheeks. Her lips dry and whitened. Her nose like Sophia Loren, just like her mother’s.
He stands to go and touches her hand. She shifts her eyes toward him. He says a few words to her. Words she might or might not have heard. Words, which, in two days time, he will not be able to remember he had said.