STORYGLOSSIA    Issue 31    November 2008




by D. L. Zahler



Carrie never really appreciated her lungs until they stopped working. Oh, she could still breathe, more or less. But the pneumonia had settled in both sides, and the coughing had kept her up for days now. And the fever—a hundred and two degrees or more every day for over a week—made her brain feel like it had been boiled. Nothing looked quite right; everything was a little wavy, like a view through the air above steaming asphalt, and it had become very hard to concentrate. She couldn't read, even magazines or the newspaper. She couldn't really follow conversations.

When the CAT scan results had been read and her family doctor refused to let her go back home, she burst into helpless tears, though she wasn't sure why. She changed into a hospital gown and shivered under several layers of rough blankets on an ER bed, waiting for her husband. That's where Dr. Winter, the pulmonologist on call, found her. He listened to her crackly lungs and thumped her chest in various spots as she coughed. Carrie observed his actions with little interest. In fact, she forgot she'd met him at all when he next turned up, a few hours later, at her bedside in the room that was now hers. No roommate, because who would be able to sleep with her constant coughing? Andrew had arrived by then, his face creased with worry, his hair sticking straight up the way it did when he'd run his hands through it over and over. He sat down and stood again, sat and stood, too anxious to perch for long. Dr. Winter sat in the second chair, and through her fever haze, Carrie admired the way he sprawled there, ankle crossed over knee, his corduroy pants and hiking boots an insouciant touch for a Connecticut doctor. He spoke to her husband about her, which might have annoyed Carrie if she hadn't been too sick to be annoyed, but she liked what he said.

"Your wife is not going to die," he told Andrew.

Carrie stopped following the conversation immediately. I'm not going to die, she said to herself. Had she thought she was going to die? She tried to recall, but the days—even the hours—before this moment, this hospital bed, this IV line and these starched, scratchy sheets—had slipped away. When she looked up again, Dr. Winter was standing up, looking pleased with himself and professional. He said something about antibiotics, and the nurses, and that he'd be in early in the morning.

"Can I have a shower?" Carrie asked plaintively. The fever made her sweat almost constantly. It was disgusting. She was red and sweaty and splotchy from crying and coughing. And her roots needed work. They always tell you to wear clean underwear in case you have an accident and end up in the hospital, she thought, but they never tell you to keep up your roots because you might get pneumonia and have a cute doctor. She laughed, which brought on a fit of coughing, and the doctor looked at her, smiling in a puzzled way.

"I don't think so," he said. "Maybe tomorrow. Try to get some rest." He shook Andrew's hand and went off. A steady stream of doctors and nurses came and went in Carrie's room. The third doctor Carrie asked let her have a shower, and she staggered into the little bathroom in the corner of her room. When she saw herself in the mirror she was shocked. It was as if she were looking at herself twenty years from now. She was old, old. Her gray hair matched the cement color of her skin; her eyes were red from coughing and swollen from crying. She had jowls. Jowls! That's not my face, she told herself sternly, and turned away.

She felt much better after her shower. In the endless night, though, wracked by coughing, interrupted constantly by nurses taking blood pressure, temperature, adjusting IVs, she was stricken by a headache so intense that she was unable to move or speak or do anything but weep. So when Dr. Winter arrived, rested and jovial, at 7:30, she was a mess and didn't really care.

When he saw her, he said something kind, and his voice, full of concern, soothed her head a little. Nurses were called in, an Advil the size of one of the prenatal vitamins Carrie had choked down when she was pregnant with Abby was offered, and before long, the headache had retreated to a spot behind her eyes where she could endure it. By that time, the doctor had gone off on rounds. Carrie felt oddly disappointed.

The next morning, Carrie was listening to her daughter's Ipod when Dr. Winter walked in.

"What's on?" he asked.

"Green Day," she said, a little embarrassed. She was too old to be listening to Green Day, but there wasn't much else on the Ipod she could bear. "It's my daughter's," she explained. "She gave it to me before I came here to keep me company."

"Wow," Dr. Winter said, and Carrie was pleased. He seemed to get how that was the equivalent of someone who was not a teenager donating a kidney. Abby's Ipod was an appendage, an organ even, something that caused great pain and suffering when separated from her. Carrie had understood why Abby offered it. She could see the question on Abby's face: Is Mom going to die?, and she wished Abby had been there when Dr. Winter had said she was not. It was much more convincing when a doctor said it than when one's parent said it.

Carrie's fever went down. A weekend came, and Dr. Winter did not appear at morning rounds. Another doctor took his place. Carrie was still unable to concentrate; she couldn't watch the endless "Law and Order"s or "CSI"s that she found on almost every channel of her little overhead television. The plots were far too complex for her to follow. Instead, she watched reality TV—a style show with two frighteningly perky hosts who abused fashion-blind matrons until they wept and agreed that nipped in jackets would accent their hourglass shapes. A cooking competition in which ten contestants backstabbed each other by turning down ovens and hiding eggs and dulling the blades of knives until one of them invariable attacked another, verbally or physically, and was booted off the show.

Carrie's husband spent a lot of time in the room, reading briefs and working on his laptop, and on Sunday, he brought their daughter to visit. Carrie offered her the Ipod back, and Abby took it with relief. She no longer believed her mother would die; Carrie could see it in her eyes and her smile. She watched her daughter flit around the room, like Andrew unable or unwilling to light anywhere for long. Abby was a pretty girl, prettier than Carrie had been at that age, with delicate features and her father's thick, tawny hair. She was fourteen. Boys called her constantly, but she wasn't much interested yet, for which Carrie was grateful. It would happen soon enough, she knew. She looked at her daughter's hands, manipulating the keys on her cell phone, and suddenly she remembered when she had first fallen in love, when her whole being had been centered in the palm of the hand the boy she loved had taken and held. When holding hands was so exciting, so overwhelming—a stronger feeling than any orgasm she had ever experienced. The strongest feeling in the world. You only feel it with the first boy, or maybe a little bit with the second, too. Her daughter would feel it soon, but she, Carrie, would never feel it again. The memory was so intense, the regret so bitter and unexpected, that Carrie gasped, triggering a coughing fit, causing her husband and daughter to turn to her with concerned faces, offering water, a call to the nurse, anything to help.

By Monday morning, Carrie was no longer feverish. She'd teased her hair a little so the gray roots did not show as much, and she was comfortable in her own flannel pajamas from home.

"You look a lot better," Dr. Winter said approvingly. He listened to her lungs, thumped her chest, gazed at her chart as she gazed at him. He'd grown rather large in her mind over the weekend, and she was pleased to see that he was as attractive as her memory had made him. She liked his beard, his quick way of speaking, his sense of humor. She liked that he was Jewish, from the Bronx, where her father had grown up.

"A name like Stephen Winter?" she said. "Did you change it when you moved here?" Here was rural Connecticut, with its manicured village greens, its eighteenth-century mansions surrounded by high stone walls.

He laughed. "It's my real name," he assured her. "In fact, I'd probably do better here if my name were Goldfarb. They like their doctors and their accountants Jewish." She learned that he had two sons, both teenagers, both with Ipods that he claimed they would never lend their father. His wife was a teacher. He loved to hike; thus the hiking boots. He was a liberal Democrat. "That I don't advertise," he said. "They can deal with a Jew here, but not a Democrat."

"Why did I get pneumonia?" she asked him when he came by on rounds the next day.

He shook his head. "It's just one of those things," he said. "You breathed in at the wrong time. Could have happened to anyone."

"That's so . . . arbitrary," she protested. "How can you protect yourself?"

"You can't," he said. "You can get a pneumonia shot, and you should, but it won't protect against this kind of bug. It's not like you're in bad shape, or run down. All you could do for protection is stop breathing, but I wouldn't recommend that."

He smiled at her to show it was a joke, and she smiled back weakly. She wanted to ask him how sick she'd been, if she'd almost died, but she was afraid it would sound needy. Instead, she said, "I dreamed I'd die when I was forty-three."

"What?" he said, interested, looking up from her chart.

"When I was in college. I was eighteen. I had this nightmare, that I died. I was forty-three in the dream."

"Huh," he said wonderingly.

"Ever since then, I've sort of thought that I'd die when I was forty-three. Which I am now." She didn't mind telling him this—he could see it on her chart anyway. "It sounds stupid, I know. I knew it then too. I never told anyone. But it's been in the back of my mind all these years."

He looked sympathetic. "This must have been very scary for you, then."

She shook her head. "Not really. It was sort of like—well, like I knew it would happen. It just seemed natural."

"But you didn't die," Dr. Winter pointed out. "You were very, very sick, but you're going to be fine. So it was just a dream, not a premonition." He smiled at her again, and she was suddenly and for the first time very relieved that she hadn't died.

On Wednesday, Dr. Winter pronounced her well enough to go home. He gave her prescriptions for antibiotics and cough medicine, and a breathing device that she was to blow into to make a little ball rise upward. "Your lung capacity is diminished,' he told her. "This will help you expand the lungs and build it up again. Do this as much as you can bear to. Call my office for an x-ray and a visit in two weeks."

He put out his hand to shake hers, and she placed hers into it. His hand was softer than she would have expected, the fingers long and tapered. His fingernails were very clean and neatly trimmed. His sleeves were rolled up, and she stared at the brown-gold hairs on his arm, at his expensive-looking watch. He had beautiful hands.

Home felt foreign but very comfortable. She lay on the sofa and watched television, lay in bed and read. Her daughter brought her an orange Popsicle when she first got home, and the taste of it was incredible. Sweet, cold, heavenly—the ur-Popsicle. It was hard for her to eat because the antibiotics had wreaked havoc on her stomach, but when she did, food tasted sharper than usual, the spices hotter or more intense, the flavors strange and somehow new.

Other than food, she noticed very little about her surroundings. Instead, she moved into her head to live with Dr. Winter. In there, he was Stephen—not Steve, never Steve. He was Stephen, and he was in love with her. No, not in love exactly. He wanted her. She couldn't stop thinking about his hands, imagining his hands on her. The touch of them, like silk on her skin, heating the cold places, cooling the places that were too warm. She imagined them making love—no, not making love. Fucking. In unusual positions, in strange places. Behind a restaurant near the hospital, out by the dumpsters. In his car, which she imagined was a BMW, because all the doctors she knew drove BMWs. In the back seat, in the front seat. In her walk-in closet while her daughter did her homework two rooms away. The fantasies overwhelmed her, made her close her eyes and sometimes moan very softly to herself. They took over much of her waking life, and she fell asleep to them every night.

She went back to work at the historical society where she designed, wrote, and produced the catalogs and brochures for eight area historic sites. For a while she worked half days, and then she was back to full-time. There wasn't much going on in February and March—no special exhibits, not many school trips -- so she had plenty of time to daydream. She had a birthday; her husband made her a sweet, lopsided cake, and he and her daughter sang to her over the flickering candles. She grew strong enough to drive Abby to school in the mornings, though she still woke up two or three times each night gasping for breath. In the car, down the long winding parkway, with her daughter beside her plugged in to her Ipod, she thought of Dr. Winter. He held her wrists in his beautiful hands and kissed her. He bent her over a high bed in a remote country inn. He left his wife and sons for her.

It was ridiculous. She knew it was ridiculous. A midlife crisis, early menopause. She was an absurd middle-aged woman with a crush on her doctor. But knowing that didn't stop it. Her family seemed not to notice, and she wondered why. Had she been missing even before this? When had she stopped being a presence in their lives?

The time for her appointment with Dr. Winter approached. She prepared for it anxiously, as if getting ready for a prom. She used scented lotion and shaved her legs. She put on mascara and her best bra, black lace with just a little padding. In his waiting room, she tried to read People, but she couldn't concentrate. She looked around at the others waiting, realizing slowly just what kind of patients a pulmonologist has. There was a pale, sickly boy who breathed heavily. An elderly man with a walker, also panting, wheezing; an overweight woman who seemed to be gasping for air. Tuberculosis, asthma, lung cancer, she thought. That's what these people have. I don't belong here.

By the time the receptionist called her in, her palms were damp, and her cashmere sweater stuck to her. Dr. Winter didn't seem to notice, though. He greeted her cheerily, saying "Hey, you look great! I'm not used to seeing someone this healthy in my office." Immediately Carrie regretted the blush she'd put on that morning.

Dr. Winter pulled up her sweater in the back and listened to her lungs. She thought about the black band of her bra across her back, almost imagining that she could feel his fingers on it, unclasping it. Her breath grew a little ragged, but the doctor did not seem to notice.

"You seem fine. Feeling all right?" he asked. She nodded.

"Go over to the hospital and get an x-ray," he told her, giving her a form. "I'll take a look at it and give you a call. I think it'll be fine. Your lungs sound clear. You shouldn't have any complications from this at all. Are you exercising?"

"Walking," she managed. "A mile or two a day."

"Excellent," he said. "Keep it up. Barring . . . well, whatever, I shouldn't have to see you again."

"Oh," she said faintly. "Good."

"Hey!" he said, looking at her chart. "You had a birthday. You survived forty-three—congratulations!"

She was pleased and embarrassed that he had remembered about her dream, and she laughed, blushing. "Now I don't have to worry about anything at all, do I?"

They chatted for a few more minutes, about politics, him complaining that he couldn't voice his beliefs to his neighbors, all of whom were socially at least as liberal as he was but conservative financially. "They're all the CEOs you read about who make ten-million dollar bonuses at the end of the year," he said. "And they vote against universal health care every chance they get." Carrie shook her head. It was terrible.

"It's great talking to someone who feels the same way," he told her, and she instructed herself, That doesn't mean anything. Not really. He's just being nice. She was pretty sure she wouldn't do anything crazy, but she thought she'd better leave, just in case. They shook hands, and all at once Carrie's palm held every nerve in her body, just as if she were fourteen again. She did not want to let go, but she did, and she felt the same stab of regret that she had felt that day in the hospital when watching her daughter. Never again, she thought, though she could not have said what she meant by never again.

She waited for his call after she had the x-ray, but days passed without it. Every time she got home from work, from the store, she checked the answering machine; every time the phone rang while she was at home, her heart leapt into her throat and she answered with trembling hands. But it wasn't him. I am such a cliché, she told herself, not caring. She drove past his office, trying to pick out his BMW from the several in the parking lot, hoping to see him emerging on his way to lunch or to rounds at the hospital. But she never did.

At a dinner party one evening, she told her friend Mara that she still woke up gasping for breath at night. Mara was a physical therapist, and she enjoyed hearing about problems like this. She thought of them as mysteries, and herself, the sleuth. "It comes from reading too many Nancy Drews as a child," she'd once said to Carrie, laughing.

"It's your diaphragm, probably," she told Carrie. "All that coughing screwed up the muscles. I've seen it in old guys who keep getting pneumonia over and over again. You need your diaphragm to take a deep breath, and when it's not working right, you can only breathe shallowly. Here, feel this," and she took Carrie's hand and pressed it into the space between Mara's ribs, below her stomach. She breathed in deeply, and Carrie could feel the muscles there expanding, moving outward. "Now try yours." Carrie pressed her hand into her own diaphragm and tried to breathe deep. Nothing.

"Practice breathing really deeply while you're lying down," Mara advised her. "Press your fingers into your diaphragm, and try to move them up and down. You need to get those muscles working again."

Carrie did practice, that night and every night, but the muscles stubbornly refused to cooperate. It didn't bother her that she couldn't breathe deeply except at night, when her body woke her up because of it, and in yoga class, where her attempts to follow the instructor's breathing directions left her light-headed and panting.

A few days later, she came home from work to find Dr. Winter's voice on her answering machine. "Hi, Carrie," it said. "Sorry for the delay—I just found this message I wrote myself days ago to call you. Got your x-rays; they look fine. All clear. So you're good to go! Take care. Bye." She played it again. Hi, Carrie, he said. Her name sounded great in his voice. Hi, Carrie. She didn't erase the message; she played it several times a day. Hi, Carrie. Take care. Take care. Take care.

On Saturday night, Andrew turned to her in bed. They hadn't made love since before she got sick, the longest they'd gone since they got married nineteen years before. It was time; she knew it was time. As his hands began their familiar movements, Carrie closed her eyes and imagined Dr. Winter's hands. It was easy to do. Yes, Stephen, she thought. Yes, yes, there. There. Hard. Now! Now! She came fast and loud and incredibly hard, her body exploding in a series of spasms that were so intense it almost frightened her. Suddenly overcome with remorse, she opened her eyes to see Andrew looking at her thoughtfully.

"Hey," he said.

"Your turn!" she said cheerily, flushing under his scrutiny. She reached for him, but he removed her hand and held it with his own.

"Look at me," he said, and kissed her, eyes open. She tried to close hers, but he said, "No, look." It was a little weird, keeping her eyes open, but her guilt made her pleased to do it. It was atonement. They looked at each other as he entered her, and they kept looking as he came and she came again.

They were quiet afterward, as they lay with her head on his chest. Then Andrew said, "I've missed you."

What did he mean by that? She raised her head, searched his face for clues. Did he know about her and Dr. Winter? No, there was nothing to know. But really, when she thought about it she knew what he meant. She'd been gone a long time. Years, maybe. Of course he'd known that. And he'd missed her—that was nice. She rested her head again, and he rubbed his hand up and down her hip. She could feel the rough calluses on it from gardening and raking and playing squash. They felt familiar. They felt good.

Later, when Andrew had fallen asleep, Carrie got up to go to the bathroom. She detoured into the kitchen and pressed delete on the answering machine, holding down the button for the requisite second or two. "Messages deleted," the machine announced in its nasal voice, and she told it, "Shhh!"

It was the following Monday that it happened. She was driving Abby to school, listening to the news on the radio, on the hilly, winding parkway. One minute the roadway was empty; the next minute, there was a deer, a buck, with a big rack of antlers, standing right in front of her car. She slammed on the brakes. For an instant she was outside herself again, saying to the driver of the Subaru who was her, but not her, "Don't swerve; even if you hit it, don't swerve." She didn't swerve, but the deer did, and she grazed its flank with a ton of metal.

Then she was back in herself, and everything seemed to become very slow. She could see the deer's antlers clearly, and its flared nostrils, and the deep, deep brown of its mournful eyes that appeared to accuse and forgive at once. She tried to send a message back with her own eyes—I'm so sorry; I didn't mean to—as the car's tires lost traction and it began to spin in a long, lazy circle. The trees of the parkway whirled by, but slowly, and she saw them in such wonderful detail: here was a pine tree with all its little sharp needles, and here was an oak, and its leaves hadn't quite opened out yet. There was a maple, and she marveled at the way its pale, new leaves were shaped like hands. She could see the veins that ran through the leaf nearest her, like the veins in the back of her own hand, where the IV had run when she was in the hospital. So beautiful, she thought as the car jumped the parkway curb with a jarring thump and came to rest on the grassy berm.

The silence was complete for just a moment. The Subaru's engine had cut out; no other cars were passing yet. Abby had not yet begun to cry. In the sudden quiet, Carrie realized that she couldn't breathe. The spin of the car had thrown her against the seatbelt, which had compressed her lungs and forced all the air out of her. It was a feeling so familiar, from long ago—having the breath knocked out of you. Carrie had done it when she was eight by falling out of a treehouse. She had lain on the ground, stunned and terrified, completely unable to draw a breath, convinced she would never breathe again. It had seemed like hours before the air came back to her with a whoosh.

Now she turned to Abby, seeing the panic on her daughter's face, and held up a hand as she silently struggled for breath. She noted gratefully that Abby seemed all right, and she saw the deer stagger off into the underbrush, limping badly. She flapped her hand, trying to indicate to Abby that she just needed a moment, as her lungs battled for air, and then, just as suddenly as when she was eight, they filled. They filled completely, her diaphragm at last letting go, expanding, letting the air into all the parts of her that had been desperate for it for so long. She could feel the cool spring dampness as it passed into her mouth and nose. It was like lemonade, or some drink even sweeter, and more sour.

"Mom!" Abby cried out at last. "Oh my god, Mom, that deer—are you all right? Are you all right?" The sheer volume of her wail was enough to tell Carrie that she wasn't hurt.

Carrie breathed and breathed, taking in her daughter's sweet vanilla smell, the scent of car exhaust, a faint musky odor that she realized must have been the deer. When she finally had enough breath to speak, she put her trembling hand on Abby's trembling hand, and in a calm, firm voice, she said, "It's okay. Nobody's hurt—even the deer is all right. Please don't worry. I'm fine, sweetheart. Really, I'm just fine."



Copyright©2008 D. L. Zahler


D.L. Zahler is the author of several books for children, including The Black Death (Fall 2009) and Than Shwe's Burma (Spring 2010). She has also written, for adults, The Twenty-first Century Guide to Improving Your Writing and is the co-author with Kathy Zahler of Test Your Cultural Literacy.