Ginny, the home nurse, shows up for her third visit at seven a.m. wearing flowery scrubs. Her blond hair down falls on her shoulders in soft curls. It looks natural, not colored gray like other women in their fifties. “Morning, Daryl,” she says, flashing her straight, whitish teeth. “How we doing today?”
I wear an old under-shirt and flannel pants without boxers under. I feel my penis jump as Ginny greets me, and I shift, hoping she won’t notice. I think she must’ve woken at five to have done herself up with that pale pink eyeshadow, black eyeliner and mascara, thin makeup that almost covers a few age spots. She’s done a professional job of it, and I wonder if she’s ever sold Mary Kay or something. She seems like the kind of gal who once sold Mary Kay.
“Come in,” I say, stepping aside.
“Well, today’s the day.”
I nod, once, thinking about the last time I left for work. The college girl I paid like one might a cat sitter—twenty dollars here, ten dollars there—called to say my wife had wandered, shoeless, into the icy street, asking strangers if she had the correct change for toilet paper.
“She might not like it I’m not here,” I say, though Ginny knows this already. I was sure she’d done this before. “Even if she forgets who I am.”
“It’s quite all right,” Ginny says. “It’s all quite all right.”
Ginny glances over my shoulder at Clara sitting in a chair by the window overlooking her old garden. Ginny walks to her and I follow, looking out in the same direction. Snow has sprinkled the ground in the night like powdered sugar on a brownie. It tries to hide splintered, aging wood that boxes in frozen weed stems.
“Honey, remember Ginny?” I say. “She’ll be here today, while I’m gone.”
My wife looks up, over her shoulder, at Ginny. She squints, like she’s supposed to know Ginny but can’t place her. “Where’s Amanda?”
“Ginny’s replaced Amanda.”
“Okay,” Clara says in her usual placid manner. Her face, now turned again toward the window, seems as though life has disappeared from it, and sometimes I think I am the one who doesn’t recognize her, this woman I once called my ‘other half.’
“Is that your garden?” Ginny asks. She places a hand on my wife’s shoulder, who flinches.
“Are we gardening today?” Clara says.
“No, no. Not today,” Ginny says, shaking her head. “Some other time?”
Clara looks over the weed carcasses. “Okay.”
In the shower, I let the warm shower water knead my stiff neck. I’ve grown a messy, gray beard because I don’t take my time in the bathroom. My face itches. In the mirror, I look like a vagrant: my face scruffy and wild, my eyes sunken and dark. I scrub my beard with a washcloth. Later, I think, I will buzz it, lather it up, and shave methodically, looking for my own face.
Out in the main room, Ginny is showing Clara pictures of objects. “What is this used for?” she says. Ginny stops when she sees me, my briefcase in one hand and coat in the other. She lowers the cards and looks up. “You off, then?”
Clara looks at me, too, and beams. “I’ve gotten most of them right,” she says.
“That’s wonderful, honey.” I walk to Clara and kiss her forehead. A sound like a whisper escapes as I place my lips on her skin.
Before I go, I give the apartment room—the open kitchen attached to a small dining area, overlooking the sitting area—a once over, and feel like I’ve forgotten something. “Well, I think I’ve taken care of everything,” I say, shifting my coat over my forearm. I look at Ginny. “As usual, I made lunch, in the refrigerator, all packed up in a plastic bag. Some in there for you, too, if you want it.”
“That’s nice of you,” Ginny says.
“I’ll call at lunch,” I say. Ginny nods. “Oh! And I laid out some extra clothes, in case—.” I stop there, unable to say, she soils herself.
“Please, Daryl, I’ve got it covered,” Ginny says. “You go. Don’t worry about us.” Ginny smiles with those teeth so secure in her head that I can’t help but think all of Ginny is like this: stable, confident, reassuring. I smile and breathe, one big lung-full in and one extra-long one out.
“Okay,” I say and go.
Later, in the lab, I stare through a microscope lens at plant cells, each with a membrane like a medieval stone wall, and wonder how Ginny and Clara are getting on. I think it would be nice for Clara to have company, an acquaintance not searching for intimacy. I sometimes wish my plants could talk back to me, recognize me when I enter the lab. But I don’t expect them to. That’s the difference.
At lunch, I call home. My wife answers.
“Hi, hon,” I say. “It’s me, Daryl.”
I can tell from her voice that it’s one of the bad days. Not long ago were the good days–inadvertently getting drunk on a Thursday night, just because Clara bought wine at the grocery store, cranking up Springsteen on the kitchen Magnavox, eating the leftover potato casserole straight from the Pyrex, and shouting over each other with remember-whens.
Now, we are quiet. Only the buzz of lab lights between us.
“Put Ginny on the phone?” I say.
“The woman in our apartment. Can you put her on the phone, please?”
I hear a bang, like the phone has dropped, and stomping. The room is noiseless for a minute, absent my wife’s or Ginny’s voice. I almost hang up, knowing the cordless is lying on the cream carpet somewhere, behind a chair where Ginny won’t find it until it’s beeping.
After a moment, I hear shuffling. “Hi, Daryl,” Ginny says, her voice familiar, kindly. She sounds both tired and complacent.
“How are you?”
The question is met with longer-than-appropriate silence. “Are you asking me?” she says, finally.
“This can’t be easy,” I say.
That makes me think about my marriage—not how it’s grown or withered, but how it was in the beginning, the sapling of it, when I was a poor grad student and Clara married me anyway. I remember one football Saturday, several of us standing in a bar, waiting for a table. My back was turned toward a television, trying to watch a touchdown run, when one of Clara’s friends asked her how we were getting along. “He’s very tidy,” Clara said, smiling.
“Listen, Daryl—” Ginny starts. I know she’s going to say my wife is busy working a puzzle, or that she’s in the bathroom, something to take away the guilt I feel being away. It isn’t easy worrying all day, feeling powerless to help.
In the background, my wife’s voice—“Is that Daryl?”—warm now, almost purring, like a thirty-five millimeter reel of home movies.
“Clara!” I yell, though I know the receiver is still up against Ginny’s ear. She remembers me, I think and, just like that, I’m eating cold potato casserole again.
It’s quiet, save Ginny’s breathing, a feint stomping in the background.
“I’m sorry, Daryl,” Ginny says. “She’s gone again.”
I’m alone again in the lab, with my silent plants. I need to water them, I think. And measure. There’s a theory that human brains grow like plants, the densest growth near their stems. I wonder how much tending to my wife I have done these several decades. Whether our core is strong enough to push us out and up, toward growth, or if all that remains is a quick reserve in our fingertips, one flash of life with which to wave goodbye.
At home, I find my wife sitting in her window chair, this time looking over her shoulder at Ginny who’s chopping an onion. “Hon?” I say, bending at the waste to meet Clara’s eyes. She stares through me. I stand and squeeze her shoulder, but she doesn’t move.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” Ginny says.
“Oh, wow. You’re cooking.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Ginny says with a hint of energizing playfulness. “Clara was hungry. And I saw you’d bought stuff for beef stroganoff.” I didn’t buy anything for beef stroganoff, but I don’t say so.
“I haven’t had it since I was a kid,” I say, thinking of my mother standing in our kitchen full of dented metal cabinets, counters, pans, and a girl I’d once crushed on, coming over for dinner, all of us playing cards, the smell of hot onions filling the house.
“Comfort food,” Ginny says.
The apartment is light and airy, almost jovial with sounds of sizzling, cutting, the refrigerator door sealing shut, and I realize Ginny is the reason. I don’t want her to leave. “Join us for dinner?” I say.
“No, no, just getting you started,” Ginny says, holding up a wooden spoon. She smiles and makes eye contact, and for a moment I feel like all we must in life do is cook dinner and clean up after. It’s nice to think I have only that. I imagine having a cocktail with dinner, maybe a glass of wine. I fantasize about Ginny sharing one with me.
“You know,” I say, approaching the cooktop island, standing on its other side from Ginny. The smell of beef on the griddle tickles my nose, and I realize suddenly how hungry I am. “I really appreciate what you do.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, really,” she says, looking up from the beef browning on either side but still bloody in the middle, the pink juice running from it into the pan.
“I bet everyone loves you.”
I think it’s so sad, what Ginny does. The coming and going into people’s lives, her patients never really knowing her, the families pretending she isn’t there. I want to tell her this. I want to whisper in her ear that I see her, that I couldn’t un-see her if I tried. “Probably no one even asks you how you’re doing,” I say.
Ginny shakes her head and turns the fire down on the stove. She’s holding mushrooms in her hand above the pan. She lets them drop. They sizzle and steam.
“Daryl!” my wife yells from the chair facing the window. I jump. Ginny jumps. I look back and strain to see around a lamp at my wife, who’s head is cranked, staring in our direction. Her face is hard, and I can’t tell if she’s mad or frustrated or as distant as summer.
“Daryl,” she says again, her hands folded in her lap, suddenly an old lady who might feed pigeons in the park. “I’d like a bath.”
It occurs to me that if I wait a beat, Clara might forget she asked. But she stares, expectantly.
“Of course,” I say.
Behind me, I hear Ginny stirring the mixture then banging the wooden spoon against the pan’s side. “I should get going,” she says.
I don’t want Ginny to go. I want Ginny to stay and drink my wine. I also want to give my wife a bath—the version of her who’d rest her chin on her shoulder and look up at me as I poured warm water down her back. I wonder if I might have both. I probably don’t deserve either.
Ginny steps away from the counter, wipes her hands on a dish towel, and stands for a moment, between us—my wife and me. I’m not sure she’ll go. The three of us are still, waiting for something. I don’t know what.
Ginny is the first to move, gesturing to the bowls on the counter near us with a swirl of her wrist. “If you just add the sour cream and all this stuff measured out here.”
“Thanks,” I say.
Ginny walks to the door and stands at it, her hand on the knob, her eyes lingering on the room like maybe she’s the one forgetting something this time. “Tomorrow, then?” she says.
“Yep, tomorrow,” I say, having no idea what day that will be.
Jody Gerbig is a Midwestern woman raising young triplets and a writing career. Her recent work appears in VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Columbus Monthly, Blue Mountain Review, and Loud Zoo/Bedlam Publishing.