Paisley Kauffmann’s short story “Delicate Tissue” was originally published in The Talking Stick: Volume 25.
The electronic ring pierces the dark, cozy bedroom. Robert smacks his lips and clears his throat before answering. Penny combats against a sense of dread and refuses to open her eyes.
“Hello?” Robert says. The question in his voice indicates it is an unknown number.
“This is he,” he says and listens. He jerks to a sitting position.
She opens her eyes.
Holding the phone to his ear, Robert gets out of bed. He struggles, awkwardly with one hand, to get both legs threaded into his black pants.
She sits up. Mildly and secretly annoyed, she knows the call has something to do with one of his kids.
“Have you contacted his mother?” He asks, and says, “Okay. I’m on my way.” He tosses the phone onto the bed and walks into the bathroom.
Reluctantly, she peels back the down comforter and stands in the bathroom door with her arms wrapped over her chest. “Robert? What’s going on?”
He splashes water on his face, pats dry with a towel, and says, “It’s Bobby. He’s in the hospital. He dove into a pool and broke his neck.”
“Oh my god,” she says. “I’ll go with you.”
She, anticipating the presence of the ex-wife, washes her face and briefly considers applying a few dabs of make-up. Although Robert and Margaux divorced many years ago, she feels in constant competition with her, a successful lawyer with great skin and long legs. Robert, ready to leave, jingles his keys from hand to hand.
Instead of foundation and mascara, she pulls on her most flattering jeans and slips lipgloss into her back pocket.
In the car, Robert races through the fresh snow, fishtailing and sliding. She grips the armrest and fights the urge to complain.
“What pool?” She asks, contemplating the subzero temperature.
“I don’t know,” he says. “A hotel? Don’t kids still have hotel parties?”
She shrugs. Robert often asks her what kids are up to these days. Their age difference is significant, but she is not privy to the antics of teenagers. She worked two jobs through high school, teenage past times have always been a mystery.
Under florescent lights, she jogs to keep up with Robert’s long strides through the hospital corridors. She regrets not applying any make-up. Florescent lighting reflects in green undertones against her blond hair and washes out her fair skin.
Margaux is standing at the nurses station gesticulating and demanding information in her authoritative, strident voice. Robert places his hand on Margaux’s back and she collapses into his arms. Her face is drained of color, and Penny feels perversely satisfied with the pallor replacing her normally rich, olive tones.
“He’s in bad shape,” Margaux repeats into Robert’s shoulder.
Robert ushers Margaux under his arm and signals for Penny to follow to a row of plastic chairs near the vending machines.
“Sit with her,” Robert instructs and walks away.
Penny hesitates but does as she is told.
Margaux, wrapped in an expensive-looking shawl, smashes a tired tissue to her nose. “They say he may not walk again.”
Shaking her head, Penny considers touching Margaux’s hand or shoulder, but any gesture she attempts seems contrived.
“Boys,” Margaux says, trying to unfold the damp tissue. “They do such careless things.”
Grateful for something to do, Penny stands and says, “I’ll find you some more Kleenex.” She reaches for a box of economy brand tissues behind the empty nurses station. Robert, down the hall with the doctor, is covering his face with his hand and shaking his head. The doctor reaches out and squeezes Robert’s shoulder. As Penny grasps the tissue box, the fluorescent light fires off the facets of her engagement ring, a large diamond flanked with baguettes set in a platinum band. It is the biggest diamond she has ever seen, and she loves the attention it attracts. She returns to the seat next to Margaux and rapidly pulls three stiff tissues from the box.
“Thank you,” Margaux says.
“This changes everything,” Margaux chants. “Everything will be different.”
Penny pulls another tissue from the box and folds it against her knee.
“He is never going to walk. They don’t know if he can even breathe on his own,” Margaux says and chokes on a sob.
Penny squeezes her fingers against the ring and it cuts into her flesh.
“He will have to live at home with one of us. At least until—“
Robert returns and stands over them.
“What have they told you?” Margaux asks.
Robert blinks at her.
“Please, please tell me he’s going to be okay,” Margaux begs.
Robert drops into the chair, and Margaux envelops him in her shawl.
Penny, an invisible, superfluous observer, stands and walks away. Outside, the night is brittle with unquestionable clarity. A group of nurses are gathered in a susurrant smoking circle. Penny approaches and asks no one in particular for a cigarette. There is a long, uncomfortable pause before a young nurse, younger than herself, holds out a white, papery cigarette. Without having to ask, she is handed a lighter.
Penny walks around the hospital and resists articulating the one question bubbling to the surface. It is an unforgivable and obstinate question, Why is this happening to me? A bus pulls up to the curb with a hydraulic squeal. The fumes sting her nose. She walks towards the bus and the doors fold open like a magic portal to another dimension.
“You getting on?” The bus driver asks.
Penny drops her cigarette in the snow, considers the question, and says, ”No.”
“Are you sure?”
She steps back. “I’m sure.”
The doors snap shut and the bus bounces away from her.
Her feet, wet and cold, begin to ache. She pulls the rough tissue from her coat pocket and wipes her running nose.The streets leading away from the hospital invite her to escape down their unmarked, snow-covered sidewalks illuminated by the moon. Mirages of fairy-tale endings pixelate at the end of each city block. Her fingers are numb, and she checks for her ring. It is still there noosed around her finger. Slipping it off, she stuffs it into the pocket of her jeans.
At the hospital entrance, three yellow taxi cabs pump exuberant exhaust into the frigid air. Penny searches her coat pockets for money. She has seventeen dollars and forty-two cents. It may be enough to get her to the airport. She decides to buy a ticket to wherever the next available flight is headed. Climbing into the first cab, she rouses the driver from a nap, and says, “Airport, please.”
The cab driver sits up in his seat. “Luggage?”
He shifts the car into drive, and they lurch forward.
“Going somewhere warm?” The cab driver asks, glancing at her in the rearview mirror.
“I don’t know, maybe,” she answers his reflection. “Where are you from?”
“Iraq,” he says, accelerating and merging onto the freeway, “but you don’t want to go there.”
“I suppose not.”
“It’s nice here,” he says. “Too cold in the winter, but the other seasons are good.”
The street lights flash by in regular beats.
“Are you traveling alone?” He asks.
“No,” she answers. “I’m engaged. My fiancé is meeting me in…”
She starts to cry. Reaching for the tissue, she recalls her mother handing her two tissues and instructing her to cry until they were both used up. After that, it was time to deal with the problem and move on with life.
The cab driver clicks on the blinker towards the airport exit.
“You can take me back to the hospital.”
The driver nods and turns off the blinker.
Shoulders heaving, she cries until the tissue crumbles apart.
The driver rolls up to the exact location they departed from, shifts into park, and says, “You can sit in here for a while longer. It’s a slow night.”
“Do you mind if I turn on some music?”
She shakes her head.
Arabic music fills the space. Quick tempos, sliding scales, and unfamiliar soft words punctuated with glottal utterances.
Closing her eyes, she escapes.
“Miss?” The driver wakes her.
She startles back into her reality.
“I’m sorry, but my shift is over.”
She wraps her coat around her and reaches into her pocket for the seventeen dollars. “I only have, well, less than twenty dollars.”
He waves it away.
Penny gets out of the warm, fragrant cab and squints at the white and red lights of the hospital entrance. She pulls the ring from her pocket and slips it on. Gazing at her hand, the ring encircles her finger like a constrictor.
Under the scrutiny of florescent lights, she returns to find Robert sitting with his elbows on his knees and his face buried in his palms.
Standing in front of him, she places her hands on his shoulders.
He wraps his arms around her waist, and says, “You’re here.”
“I’m here,” she says.
Paisley Kauffmann is a registered nurse and writer. Her work has appeared in The Talking Stick, The Birds We Piled Loosely, The Writing Disorder, Corvus Review, The Indiana Voice Journal, and Grey Wolfe Storybook. Believing in the art of practice, she is working on her fourth novel. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and two pugs.
Image: Flickr / Alex Proimos