Have you ever paid much attention to what your mind focuses on when you're in a stressful situation, when you're sitting in a hospital waiting room eagerly anticipating and silently dreading at the same time the arrival of the doctor to speak with you? As my thoughts raged into the past, I couldn't help but slip into this reflective mood. Strange thoughts for a life and death situation, right?
No sooner had these ideas started to form in my mind when a memory from the past, a moment we had shared, came sweeping over me. Looking back, it might have been the most important memory to our relationship, not in terms of what it meant to us or how special it was, but instead as to how it had changed both of our lives. The fluorescent lights blared into my bloodshot, dark circled eyes, the smell of antiseptic and really bad coffee filled the air, and the oppressive atmosphere seemed to literally press itself into me, reminding me that I was not here for a friendly visit but to watch someone die, well, not someone, the only one.
It was three o'clock in the morning. The streets outside of our bedroom window were silent except for the occasional car passing by in the summer's night, the curtains danced a waltz with the wind, captivating my eye and soothing the raging thoughts in my head, and her music lulled me softly as it drummed out through the TV, but nothing could quell the painful emotions I felt in my heart. Sure, I loved her, I thought, as I rolled over onto my side and watched the woman beside me sleep peacefully, imagining the slight smile curling her lips that was always gracing her painfully beautiful face.
On the outside, we were the perfect couple. In fact, I know that's what people called us. If only they knew…. We had started dating in high school, cliché, I know, but nevertheless, it is the truth, and putting aside the small breaks we took early in our relationship, we've been together for seven years. Seven years! I'm 22 and I've been with the same woman the whole time. It's not as if I don't love her…I do, I think, but I'm not in love with her anymore and sometimes I wonder if I ever was. Sure, there was attraction, we never lacked in that. Hell, we were combustible, but that is not enough to make a relationship last a lifetime, and I know that is what she and everyone else expected from me now, to propose to her and spend the rest of my life with her. I had just graduated from college, we both had, she with a degree in journalism and me with one in business. Our lives had been planed out for us: I would take over the family company and she would become the editor of the magazine my family owned owned. So, not only would we be living together, but we would also be working together, too. Great, more quality time to bond, I thought, NOT!
We didn't even have separate friends; her friends were mine and mine hers. Our parents were friends, did everything together, our lives so entangled it was hard to see where one of us began and the other stopped. Now, at 22, everyone expected for us to make it official. I knew she was ready. Hell, I think she had been ready to spend the rest of her life with me since the moment we met, but not me. She had always loved me more, unconditionally and selflessly, while I had often pushed her away for various reasons, refused to open up to her, and even cheated on her once in high school, but, no matter what, her blind devotion to me never wavered. In all honesty, she's the only person who has loved me that way, that strongly, and although it was something I had wanted all my life, I really did not know what to do with it and I definitely had no idea how to return it.
Watching her shallow breathing as she slept on into the night, I couldn't help but wince at the thought of spending one more night in that bed…our bed…with her, the bed where I was expected to stay the rest of my life, never again sleeping with another woman, never again living the carefree and single life. The house had already been purchased for us, a stately family home, mansion to be exact, just down the street from our parents, a home, they said, where we would have plenty of room to raise our children. Children? Are they crazy? I can't have children right now; I don't want children right now…perhaps ever! Just the thought of it made my heart pound faster, my breathing to become labored and painful, and my forehead to become clammy with beads of sweat. Quickly, I threw the covers aside, not even paying attention to where they landed on her, and climbed out of bed, practically sprinting to the walk in closet we shared to pack a bag. I put in just what I would need to get me by a few days, though I knew this was no short, little vacation, this was for good, just a few pairs of jeans, boxers, socks, and a couple of shirts. I grabbed my toothbrush, the toothpaste, deodorant, razor, shaving cream, aftershave, shampoo, and soap from off the vanity counter we shared in our master bathroom before I zipped the duffel bag closed and went back into the main room of the suite.
Setting my bag aside quietly, afraid to wake her, knowing that I would never be able to do this with her big, piercing blue eyes staring back at me with that sickening mixture of love, devotion, friendship, and desire meant only for me, I crept to the bedside table and took out a pen and pad of paper, scribbling down a quick note and laying it on my pillow before I grabbed my bag and headed for the door. Turning around, I took one last look at the life I was leaving, the woman and her love I was throwing away with both hands, running away from her like a coward in the night. I was a coward, not only for being afraid of commitment and the future, but also for not being able to make a clean break. Slowly, I moved towards her one last time as if drawn by some invisible force, leant down and kissed her lips for the last time as I caressed her face, her smooth, rose petal, gentle and graceful face with my free hand. Looking around the room, I found what I was seeking. I knew it was not a good idea, but I couldn't leave without it anyway. Grabbing the picture of us, my favorite picture, the one from sophomore year in college where we had been caught sleeping peacefully together in my parents hammock one weekend when we were at home for break, I shoved it in my bag, took one last look around the room, and ran out into the night with only one thought running through my mind, the note and what I wrote on it:
"Someday, you will be loved."
Snapped out of my daydream, the doctor approached me. I had been waiting for him for what seemed like hours; in reality, it had been mere minutes. He was a middle aged man, aging quickly though, probably from the stress of the job, but his eyes were kind and sympathetic, exactly what I did not want to see right now. I did not deserve his condolences or compassion, not after what I had done…to her. When he was within a foot of me, he put his hand out to greet mine and we shook amicably.
"Mr. Atwood, it's a pleasure to meet you. I'm so glad you could make it in time. I've heard a lot about you," the doctor said with a tired, forced smile on his face.
I returned the smile, well, as best as I could under the present circumstances and replied as calmly as I could. "Thank you for getting in touch with me, and please, call me Ryan."
"Very well then, Ryan, but I wish we would have been able to find you a couple of months ago…when there was still time."
Not being able to stand up any longer, I sunk to the closest chair to me and dejectedly slumped down in it. I didn't want to ask my next question, I knew the answer would be too painful for words to describe, but I had to know; I needed to know. "What's wrong with her; what happened?"
He sighed, took off his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose before sitting down beside me and looking off in the distance as he could not meet my eyes any longer. "Listen, I won't lie to you, this is going to hurt, that's why I didn't want to talk to you over the phone, why I wanted to do this in person, but I need you to just let me say it without interrupting me. Despite all the admonitions against doing so and my own hesitance, I have developed a friendship with her…with Marissa, and this is hard for me." His voice cracks slightly but he clears his throat to try to disguise the emotion that he just revealed. With his eyes on the far wall, he once again began to talk to me.
"About a year ago, Marissa started coming in here to volunteer, at first just once or twice a week, but quickly it escalated to the point where I think she was here more than I was. She said that helping others made her want to help herself, that it helped her remain clean."
"Wait, what did you just say? Did you just say that it helped her remain clean? Clean from what," I stumbled over my words, confused and definitely scared now, the worst possible thoughts racing through my mind.
"Mainly heroin at the point she entered rehab, it was the drug of her choice, her poison, her escape, she said, but from what I understand, she would take anything she could get her hands when things got really bad. Anyway, so after her second stint in rehab, she remained clean and came to work her as a volunteer. You and I both know she never needed to work, and, I guess, at that point, journalism did not appeal to her anymore. In fact, she said anything that had to deal with her life…before…did not appeal to her anymore, it was too painful, including sobriety."
"But I don't understand," I incredulously whispered, "I mean, sure, she struggled with alcohol when I first met her, but we got passed that our senior year of high school, and she never touched a drop the whole time we were in college. How could this happen?"
"I guess," he started hesitantly with just a slightly noticeable hint of reproach and anger entering his voice, "she lost her reason for living, for caring, for taking care of herself. Sometimes people love so much that they loose their own identities in their partners and just start living for them. If they loose that person, they loose themselves and their reason for living. It's a shame, too, because no one is worth that." With his last words, his eyes left the wall in front of us and turned to me burning holes into my conscience and letting me know exactly what he thought of me. "Anyway, like I said, about a year ago, she came in and started volunteering. I had the pleasure of working with her often, and we formed a friendship. She was like the daughter I never had and I was someone who would listen to her without judgment or ridicule, something her family seemed incapable of."
"Six months ago, she started not feeling well, but of course, she never said anything and just pushed herself further until the point where I noticed that she was not well and forced her to get checked out. I was right, she was sick, very sick, and the disease progressed quickly, wrecking havoc upon her body and forcing her to become bedridden four months ago. I tried to take care of her myself, she stayed with my wife and I in our home until just a few weeks ago, but she needed more care than we could give her, so we admitted her. Despite my better judgment, I consented to try and find you when she asked me, no, more like begged me, to bring you to her. Even after everything you did to her, she still loves you, perhaps even more than ever. Do you know that she has tracked your career this entire time you were gone. She has every newspaper clipping, every magazine article written about you, every newsreel recorded, everything and anything about you she could find from the last five years, even your engagement announcement."
I lowered my eyes, ashamed. Obviously, he knew our story, knew exactly what I had done to her, knew that I could not propose to Marissa but then turned around and was engaged less than year later to someone else. "I never married."
"I know, she knows…now, but that didn't stop the damage from being done." I looked up at him, begging him with my eyes to explain his last comment. "Did you ever wonder what exactly made her start taking drugs, well there you go, your engagement. Before she saw the announcement, she still believed that you would be coming back to her, that you did really love her, but after that she lost all hope."
"And now," I asked, curious as to how she felt about me and why she would even consent let alone ask for me to see her.
"She believes that you don't love her, and she's accepted that, but she is still very much in love with you, always has been, always will be, she says."
"Can I see her, please," I begged timidly.
"Don't you think you're forgetting something? You don't even know why she's here." I just stared at him, telling him with my eyes to proceed. "She has AIDS, Ryan."
I opened the door tentatively to her room, creeping in and smiling through the tears I couldn't believe were coursing their way down my face. I never cry; it is not allowed. She was emaciated, shriveled away to almost nothing, pale as ivory except for the bruise like dark circles under her eyes, her lips her almost translucent, but her California sun-kissed, honey blonde hair tumbled gracefully onto her shoulders, wavy and smelling faintly of roses I noticed as I sat down beside her and laid my head on her shoulder gently. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. As I remained there just taking in her presence, I took her hand in mine and kissed it tenderly, never wanting to let it go again, but knowing that was impossible.
The Doctor, Dr. Jacobson I learned, her friend, her confidant, had just told me that she was in a comma and had been for the past 18 hours. As soon as she had found out that I had been found, she slipped into it, he said, as if she could finally give in and let go. Of course that's exactly what I didn't want her to do. I wanted her to fight, to try and stay with me as long as she could. It was selfish, but I had always been selfish, especially when it concerned her. Ironic, isn't it, that I wanted her to stay when I had been the one to leave in the first place.
I sat there with her for hours, remembering all of my favorite moments with her, our first date, first kiss, first time we made love, prom, graduation, moving in together in college, moving in together after college, all of our secret rendezvous, shared laughs, treasured smiles, private, intimate moments. I thought of what our life would have been like if I had stayed, if I had not been afraid of her love for me, how strong and unwavering it was, if I had not been scared of loving her the same way. I saw our wedding day, our honeymoon, our first anniversary, the birth of our first child, second, third. She had always wanted a big family. I literally saw our lives played out in front of my eyes, like a movie, happy, in love, how it was supposed to be. Then it all fell apart, my dream ended when all of a sudden the machines started going off, making noises I knew meant nothing good and signaling the end. No one came in; she had requested no life support, so I had to sit there, by myself, and watch her die, literally, and there was not a damn thing I could do. Leaning down, I kissed her lips and caressed her face just as I had the night I had left and whispered into her ear:
"You have been loved."
Suddenly I heard the door open behind me and I whipped around eagerly and ignorantly hoping they had somehow decided to ignore her wishes and revive her, but it was not her doctor, not any doctor, not any nurse. Instead it was a middle aged woman who was trying her hardest not to cry and she was holding a little girl by the hand leading her into the room. She looked to be four years old. She was a gorgeous little girl and so familiar to me, like I knew her from somewhere. I watched her closely, unable to take my eyes off of her. She was tall and slender, graceful and elegantly proportioned, like someone else I had known. She had honey blonde hair, rose petal skin with freckles gingerly sprinkled over the bridge of her nose, and a little set of plump lips, like someone else's I had known. But those eyes, I knew those eyes better than my own; they were Marissa's eyes. Mesmerized I watched the little girl clamber up onto the bed and lay herself in Marissa's lifeless arm, hugging her closely to her body, and crying softly as she whispered in her melodic, sweet voice.
"Please don't die, Mommy. I need you. Please, Mommy, please, who's going to love me if you're not here? Mommy….I love you, so much, please don't go, don't leave me. Daddy left; you can't leave, too."
I fell to my knees as the realization of the situation sunk in and I felt two pairs of eyes burning into me, Dr. Jacobson's and the woman who had come in with the little girl, his wife, I presumed. Their eyes were so accusing, so full of hate and animosity, bitter and slightly menacing. Grudgingly, they moved towards the door.
"We'll leave you alone with them now," Dr. Jacobson spit out bitingly. "Oh, and by the way, her name is Ryan…after her father.