By Annie North Kolle
On the first day of his family leave, Roy locked the knives in the gun safe. He stared at the butter knives for a while, and deciding they were fine, put them on the magnetic strip Jenny hung when they moved in. He took a step back, crossed his arms, and appraised the new setup. It reminded him of a model kitchen he might see in Sears or something from a child’s playhouse. It would have to be enough, he decided; there wasn’t time to dismount the strip before he had to leave. He took the safe key out of his pocket and hung it at the end of the strip. He got in his car and drove to the hospital.
It had been two months since Jenny left Roy. He had always imagined that she would end it, most likely over coffee the morning after a big blowout. She would be calm, staring into her mug instead of at him. She was never good with confrontation, and as Roy merged onto the highway, he realized he shouldn’t have been surprised. She called him on a Wednesday no more than 30 minutes after he got home from work. She told him that she was staying in a hotel, and that she was leaving him. When he asked why, she hung up. He thought about calling her back but knew she wouldn’t want that, so he made himself a stiff drink and went to bed.
Roy didn’t know what to do when he arrived at the hospital. He hadn’t been there since childhood, and had never had to navigate the building alone. But he was relieved to see that the entrance looked exactly how it had then: white tiles and white walls, a small check-in desk surrounded by file cabinets.
The woman sitting there wasn’t fat, but she had the softness of a desk worker or the previously obese. She wore pink scrubs with Debbie embroidered over the left pocket. He walked up to her desk but she didn’t notice him, and he had to clear his throat twice before she looked up.
“Hello, uh, Debbie.” He felt like he was screaming. “Hi.” He lowered his voice. “Um, I’m a visitor, and I don’t know where I’m going. Uh, I’m looking for the mental hospital? I was hoping you could point me in the right direction.”
Roy couldn’t really tell, but he thought something in the nurse’s demeanor changed. She looked even softer.
“Sure I can. But I need your name, and the name of the person you’re visiting.”
“I’m Roy Davis. I’m here to see Jenny Davis.”
“Relation?” she asked. She was writing in the log and didn’t look at him as she spoke.
“Well, technically, I’m her husband.”
She paused, the tip of her pencil perched above the paper. “I’ll just put husband,” she said.
She waited for him to sign the log before giving him directions. “Getting to the psychiatric ward is very specific, so listen close. Go to elevator bank three and take elevator two. It’s the seventh floor. And make sure to take two, honey. It’s a locked floor so that’s the only elevator that will go there.”
Roy tipped his baseball cap at her and, feeling childish, walked away.
He didn’t have any trouble finding the elevator. He thought about stepping into another one, just to see if the button to the seventh floor was missing. But the doors opened and he got in and closed them before anyone else could enter.
The elevator opened. Roy was in a 5 by 5 room, standing across from a heavy looking metal door with no handle. In what he imagined was an effort to look friendly, there was a small window. The glass was the frosted type that reminded him of his high school bathroom.
He pushed the buzzer, stuffed his hands into his pockets, and waited. Then he took his hands back out, smoothed out his t-shirt, and held them behind his back. He tried putting them in his back pockets, but he felt too casual, like he was hitting on a woman at the bar. He held them in front of him, cracking the joints in each finger as slowly as he could, hoping someone would come before he finished.
A nurse opened the door and Roy wondered whether all hospital workers were out of shape. It seemed counterintuitive to him, like a sober bartender. She ushered him into the waiting room beyond the vestibule. She motioned for him to sit down and when he did, she handed him a clipboard for check-in.
She checked her watch before looking up at him. “I’m Dr. Janklow. I assume you’re Roy Davis?”
Roy started to apologize for assuming she was a nurse, but then realized he had never said this to her out loud. He tried to swallow but his mouth was too dry, so he just nodded.
The doctor seemed to notice his discomfort but her expression did not change. “You’re early. It’s nice to finally meet you after hearing your voice on the phone for so long.” She paused, and Roy couldn’t tell if her silence was meant to make a point. “It’s always helpful to put a face to a name.”
The doctor led Jenny into the waiting room, handing her a black Hefty bag. They hugged, and when the doctor walked back into the ward, Jenny stood staring at the door. She hadn’t looked at Roy yet. He stood up but didn’t step toward her.
Jenny walked to the chair across from him, holding the bag in her left hand. With her right, she held up the sweatpants she was wearing. They were her old Kent University ones, but someone had removed the drawstring. They slipped down on the left side as she walked, revealing a large pair of white underwear that Roy had never seen before. She wore her Keds but, with the laces removed, they flapped like clogs. She sat down, reaching into the Hefty bag and pulling out a set of shoelaces, untying them slowly. The eyelets were missing on one.
Roy first noticed her hair when she bent over. She had been dying it blonde since the tenth grade but the roots had grown in a little, the color of a fawn, darker than he remembered. Roy had never known hair could be greasy and dry at the same time, and other than the part closest to her scalp, Jenny’s hair looked like straw. Roy thought it was exactly how a crazy person was supposed to look. This was the first thing that had made sense all day and Roy felt a perverse comfort in the fact that he could see a physical sign of whatever was going on inside of her.
Jenny finished tying the first shoe. She picked up the frayed lace, holding it with both hands. She had picked up a baby bird like that once. Ray told her the most humane thing they could do was to kill it. “It can’t survive on its own like that, Jen. Keeping it will only make its life hard.”
She made him cup his hands before taking it from her, like a kid at communion. She left before he dropped it. When he went back inside, she had already fixed them both a drink. He hated seeing her so despondent, and promised he would make a donation to the Audubon Society in her name. He never followed through.
Jenny picked the lace up with two fingers by the frayed end. She looked at it for a moment before sticking it in her mouth and sucking. When the end was soaked, she twisted in into a point and put it through the first eyelet.
Roy scooted his chair forward, stopping when their knees were touching. Jenny froze but he couldn’t tell if it was because he was so close, or because she couldn’t see her shoe anymore. He wanted to grab her but knew she wouldn’t want it.
She looked up at him for the first time. She bent back over and kissed him on the knee, her mouth lingering. “Hi, Roy.” Her lips brushed against him as she talked. “Just give me one moment to tie this shoe before the lace dries back up. Then we can get out of here.”
When they got home, Jenny grabbed two beers from the fridge. Roy wasn’t sure she was allowed to drink with the medications the hospital had given her, but he didn’t know what they were called and didn’t know how to ask. He kept quiet, sitting across from her and cracking open his can. She took a long sip and he watched the muscles in her throat contract with each swallow.
She put the can down, sighed, and looked up at him. “I think this has been the longest I’ve gone without drinking since high school. I wonder if that says something bad about me.” The smile that followed felt forced.
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Two months is a long time to not drink. I don’t know if I’ve gone that long.”
The conversation died after that. They both drank their beers; she traced the grain of the wood with her pinky finger. When she finished, she reached down into the garbage bag she had kept by her side since leaving the hospital. She pulled out a black folder, one of the cheap paper ones he knew she hated. She licked her finger before flipping through the pages.
She took three papers out and passed them to Roy. “I was told to give these to you as soon as we got home. You can read them if you want, but I’d like to talk through them first.” Her words sounded practiced, and he wondered if she had lay in bed the night before, rehearsing the speech she planned to give him.
“I’m all ears.”
“So.” She clasped her hands and put them on the table. “You have three things in front of you. The first is the address and information for the Partial Hospitalization Program I start tomorrow.” She unclasped her hands and continued tracing the knots in the wood. “I’m institutionalized from nine to five, doing like, group therapy stuff.”
The doctor had told him about this over the phone. He nodded at Jenny to go on.
“The next is a care plan I had to fill out. It just says that if you see any cuts on my body, or if I refuse to eat or anything, you’ll take me back to the hospital. I need you to sign it for my first day tomorrow.”
Roy picked up the paper and squinted, as if he wasn’t reading it right. He had expected her to come home more or less fully healed, not realizing they would let her out if she were still crazy. He had heard that people who tried to kill themselves sometimes tried a second time, but he never considered that with Jenny. He didn’t understand what they could have done with her for two months. If he were in the hospital for that long and wasn’t cured, he would be tempted to sue. Stays that long, he thought, should automatically include recovery time.
His mouth was dry again, so he just kept nodding: it felt like the only thing he could do.
“I mean, don’t worry about it, really. Those weren’t things I ever did before, so I don’t know why they think they’re things I’d do now. A girl there told me attempts usually have a pattern.” She paused and looked up at him. “I don’t mean that it would again happen with no warning. I’m really fine.”
He reached for her. “I know. I’m not worried.”
She looked at his hand but kept hers tightly clasped. “That last one has my ADLs, and they want you to help me stay on top of them.”
He flipped to the last page. “I don’t know what those are.”
“Activities of Daily Living.” She leaned over and pointed to the title. “It should explain the big ones there on the top.”
He scanned the sheet. He didn’t want to sit there and read while she looked at him. He had always been slower, and he couldn’t help thinking she was judging the pace at which his eyes flitted back and forth.
“So,” he said. “It’s just like normal stuff? You want me to make sure you wash your face and brush your teeth?”
“Yeah, like just daily things. They think I’m too depressed to do them, or something. They don’t know how paranoid I am about my bad breath.”
When she laughed it felt like air had returned to the room. He laughed along with her, more relieved than amused.
Roy wanted to stay home, but Jenny insisted they get pizza, as it was the thing she missed most in the hospital. “Sometimes they brought us this awful cardboard tasting stuff,” she said. “But I don’t count it.”
She told him she was too tired to go, and suggested that he should pick the food up by himself. He didn’t want to leave her. He didn’t want to patronize her, either. She was an adult, older than him by six months, even—something she had teased him about since high school. He wasn’t sure he had the right to tell her she wasn’t safe alone.
Jenny wanted to be the one to call the order in. She stood up and paced as the phone rang, like she always did. When he heard someone answer on the other end, she walked into the living room, shutting the swinging door behind her. He followed her into the room but she had already hung up the phone.
“I want you to come with me,” he said. “I don’t want to leave you here.”
Her eyes were steady as she spoke, and she faced him head on. Roy realized how bloated her face had become. It reminded him of a drunk.
“I haven’t been by myself in months.”
He wanted to grab her and force her into the car. He thought about reminding her that the last time she was alone she had cut herself from wrist to elbow. But he didn’t. He didn’t know if he was still her husband, or only her caretaker. Before he left, he made sure to take the key off of the knife strip.
She was still there when he got back. She had showered and was curled up on the couch. Her towel sagged down, showing her back, the vertebrae jutting out like ridges on a breadknife. He brought the pizza to the couch and they watched television while they ate. She finished a second beer and only had half a slice. When he asked her why she wasn’t hungry, she told him the carbonation had filled her up. He reached over to finish her food.
She had pulled at the cheese until it slid off, and it now sat loose and unconnected on top of the pizza. He held it in place with one hand as he used the other to bring the slice to his mouth. He took a bite. He didn’t chew, but instead watched her watch the television. The blue tones reflected on her face, her pale skin absorbing them, making her ghostlike.
She didn’t notice him looking until he spat out his bite. “Fuck, Jenny,” he said. “You need to fucking eat.”
She stared at the chewed up crust that had landed on his knee. He moved it to his plate, but when she still didn’t look up at him, he picked it up, brushed it off, and put it back in his mouth. She shook her head in small jerks, as if waking up from a dream.
“It’s too rich. I’m not used to rich food anymore.”
“Jen, it was first on that—”
“Plus, I filled up on carbonation.”
“We both know that’s total—”
“The list is just a guide.”
Roy went to stand up—to go find the paper—but Jenny wrapped her cold hands around his bicep. She lifted his plate from his lap, put it on the ground, and rested her head in its place. Roy didn’t move. He stayed silent.
He heard her exhale and waited for her to speak. “I’m not going to be myself for a while, you know. Daily living, or whatever we want to call it, is going to take time.” She inhaled, paused, and exhaled slowly. “I think returning is going to take some time.”
Roy rubbed her back, his hands running over her baby bird bones. He repeated what she said to him in his head, whispering the last sentence out loud. He didn’t understand where she was supposedly returning from.
He kissed her head, pressing his lips against her roots. “You’re only skipping dinner this once, Jen.”
She nodded and her head scratched his jeans against his legs. “Ok. But I’m not your ward, you know. I don’t want you to feel like I am.”
He didn’t know what ward meant in that context, but he thought he understood. He just nodded and kissed her again.
Jenny told him she was tired as soon as the show ended. Roy followed her into their room and watched her get in bed. He brought over her mouth guard. “You must have ground your teeth down to stubs in the hospital.”
She opened her mouth as wide as she could, inviting him to inspect them.
He smiled at her; he felt like he had manually lifted the corners of his mouth. He grabbed the pillows from his side of the bed and went to the closet, pulling a blanket from the top shelf. When he turned around, Jenny was sitting up in bed, her hands planted into the mattress.
“What are you doing?” She asked.
His face itched. He thought about throwing the blanket back in the closet. “I guess I thought you wouldn’t want me to sleep with you.”
“Why?” She didn’t blink as she stared and he realized it was the longest she had looked at him since coming home.
“You left me,” he said. “You called me from the hotel that night and told me you didn’t want me. Point blank.”
Jenny looked away, collapsing into her pillows. “I didn’t leave you.” She stared at the ceiling. “You know I left everyone, don’t you?”
Roy felt lighter, somehow, more sure than he had been in months. Still her husband, he dropped his pillows and walked to the bed, crawling from his side to hers. She stiffened when he got on top of her, but he cupped his hands around her bloated cheeks, leaning closer. He felt her body relax under him, and when he kissed her, she clutched to him with both hands. She felt dry when he first entered her, but he moved in her slowly, coaxing out the wetness he needed. She whispered his name and he buried his head into her neck. For a while, he didn’t think at all.
Jenny wasn’t in bed when Roy woke up. He walked into a still living room and he wondered if he had dreamt his wife’s return. Then he remembered the last night. She had said she loved him and he had spooned her until he fell asleep. He laughed. He knew she would be Jenny again soon, if she weren’t already.
Their kitchen was empty, too. Jenny didn’t need to be at her program until 9:00, and Roy figured that she had gone out to get coffee; she had always liked the shop on their corner more than the Folgers he drank. He didn’t know if she would think to get him a cup, and brewed his own in case. He had woken up hard and he was excited for her to get back.
By 8:30, Roy’s coffee was cold. They would need to leave in five minutes if Jenny was going to be on time. He tried to imagine she had gotten lost, but the coffee shop was only a quarter mile away. He decided he would drive there, and then if he had to, to the closest Days Inn.
He returned to the bedroom and threw the door open. He kept his pants in the smaller of the two dressers and he put on the top pair, struggling with the button. He tried to pull on his socks standing up but he lost his balance, falling onto the edge of the bed. Roy slowed down; he tried to breathe, to think about the last night only. He kept his shoes in the closet, and to ease his nausea, he counted to ten before standing up and walking over.
The first thing he noticed was the way her right foot dangled just a little closer to the ground.
Copyright 2019 Kolle