What Jules Imagined

Carbon Culture Review, Fall 2018.

On her way to see her husband at the hospital, Jules faced an unspeakable truth. It was about the past, before his cancer: More than once she had imagined life without him. She had pictured leaving, on a train, a boat, a plane, with no plans to return. She had wished him dead.

Jules pulled up in front of the entrance and parked in the Visitor lot. A dark-haired teenage boy, wearing a hoodie and sweatpants, stood under the canopy, smoking. Jules slammed her car door shut and ran; her raincoat billowed out behind her.

“What are you doing!” Jules glared at the cigarette in his hand. “Do you have any idea of how wrong it is? People inside are dying!”

His face burned red; he looked like he was going to cry. Hand shaking, he stuffed the butt in the cylindrical tube attached to a fat-bottomed tub. Perhaps she had been too hard. Perhaps someone with children would have responded differently. Sometimes she wondered about their decision to remain childless, but they rarely talked about it.

“I’m sorry,” Jules said, touching his arm lightly. “It’s okay.”

He nodded, scuffled his feet, and walked away. Part of her wished she could do the same; that someone would tell her everything was going to be okay too.

The hospital automatic doors whooshed open as she rushed in. She found the elevator bank and waited with people who looked just like her: distraught, pale, red-eyed, disheveled hair, wrinkled clothes, as if sleeplessness and bone-crushing sorrow were an epidemic. Jules did her best to focus on innocuous spaces: walls, floors, signs. Anything but faces. She would have liked to be wearing earplugs too. The hospital sounds, the monotone of the intercom, the squeak of wheelchairs, hum of machinery, and hushed voices increased her anxiousness. She imagined the people were talking about her, wondering why she had come.

Jules got off on the fifth floor. She stood in line briefly to be greeted by the receptionist in the Welcome Room. A woman with white hair and a big green button that said Volunteer sat behind a desk. Her smile was warm but pat. Jules imagined she kept a bunch of them in a cup on her desk and pulled them out as needed. The woman pointed to a big screen hanging from the ceiling.

“The monitor will display your husband’s name when he’s been sent up to his room from recovery. Help yourself to the complimentary coffee, tea, and water.” She smiled again. “Let us know if there is anything we can do for you.”

“Well, I would like to speak to his oncology surgeon,” Jules said.

The greeting lady picked up a ringing phone, cupping the mouthpiece in her hand.

“We are very busy. Take a seat. I’ll see what I can do.”

The waiting room was dim and crowded. Mothers, fathers, children, relatives huddled together with worried faces and concerned voices. Jules found a seat near the reception desk with a good view of the monitor. Next to her was an elegantly dressed woman, wearing heels and pink lipstick. She stood out from everyone else wearing jeans, sweatshirts, baggy shorts, T-shirts, clothes grabbed without giving appearances much thought, like Jules’ own outfit. The well-coifed woman looked up when Jules sat down.

“Did I hear you say you haven’t spoken to the doctor yet?” she asked, perplexed, like she was checking up on someone who hadn’t done their job.

“Oh, no. Yes, I mean. He called right after the surgery, but the doctor was very brief,” Jules explained.

The woman shook her head. “Sorry,” she said ruefully. “They do try to do their best; it’s a hard job. My husband is one. Doctor, I mean. You can’t imagine what it’s like for him to be here.” The woman returned to her magazine, briskly flipping pages.

“You can’t imagine what it’s like for me to be here,” Jules mumbled under her breath. Her stomach hurt; she felt like she was going to throw up. She went to the bathroom, but all she had to do was pee. Throwing cold water on her face helped; she used a paper towel to dry off. Going back in the waiting room, she thought about moving to another seat when Alex’s name appeared on the big blue screen: Room 703. Jules left the Welcome Room and headed down a long, shiny corridor. Men and women in starched white coats marched past her, their heels striking the linoleum like matchsticks.

The seventh floor was U-shaped with a series of nurses stations lined up on one side, patient rooms on the other. She had to travel halfway around to find her husband’s section. The door to room 703 was partially open. She stepped inside. There was a clean, made-up bed but no Alex. Jules went to the closest station, where two female nurses in scrubs sat at desks with blue computer screens, typing. They looked young, like college students, not professional nurses with skills enough to be in charge. One punched her keyboard when Jules asked about her husband.

“Oh, he’s not up yet. Sometimes they do that, put it on the monitor down there before they actually bring him up. You can go to the waiting area at the end of the hall, near the elevators. It won’t be long.” The young nurse went back to work.

Jules shifted her purse from one shoulder to the other and slowly walked back down the hall. Visitors carrying takeout food bags, spouses like herself, she assumed, checked door numbers, searching for loved ones. Orderlies in blue scrubs pushed large steel carts stacked with brown plastic trays. There was the unmistakable smell of dinner: Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, over-steamed green beans, candy-sweet Jell-O. Ordinary food, meant to be comforting, served in a place that was neither ordinary nor comforting. She was exhausted; her brain and body a weak link. Thankfully the smaller waiting room was dark and quiet; empty. No TV, just fabric-covered chairs. Distant city lights blurred behind smoky glass windows, separating life out there and life in here, she thought. Neither one touching the other. She was alone, stranded on an island with tormented thoughts for company. She couldn’t unwish her wish. She couldn’t unpicture what she had imagined.

She blamed her father. As a child his anger undid her, jumping out of him, like a cannon going off. He had aimed it at her: a homework question answered incorrectly; or she had displeased him with an apparent show of disrespect, doubting his intelligence in some way. There was the time she had left word for him to pick her up elsewhere, at another friend’s house. There was the sting of his hand on her face, the burn of the stick on her behind as he beat her, silently, but he might as well have been shouting in her ear. Jules learned to swallow her anger, storing it deep inside her like toxic waste in a subterranean vault. It was only a matter of time before it leaked out.

She and Alex had been married for eighteen years, mostly happily though they had issues. He pressed her to be more patient and understanding. He said her manner was often brusque, that she ignored him and was unwilling to listen when he wanted to talk about things. He was right, she didn’t want to talk; she just wanted to be mad.

Like the time he had told her he was going out of town and she, mistakenly, had invited friends over and made a special dinner. The guests were disinvited, and the roast went into the trash. Alex made decisions without consulting her, later stating that he had and she just forgot, and then accused her of doing the same to him. Yes, she had, but if he treated her that way, why couldn’t she treat him the same? The unfairness of it all added to the daily exigencies of life—her job, managing the house, looking after her elderly parents—piled up like an unsurmountable mountain. And she saw him at the top, looking down; his thumb was pressing down on her, erasing her like an unwanted blot. Each time he voiced his disapproval, she heard a distant rumbling of thunder, growing louder and louder.

She thought what it would be like to run away, a harmless enough idea until she started to hate him. She imagined killing him. Jules had seen it clearly. There he was in the kitchen, his back turned to her. She took a knife and stabbed him in the neck. There she was, a bloody knife in her hand, the police dragging her away to life in prison. Later that night, sitting next to him on the couch, the bare spot on his neck stared back at her, accusingly, daring her to have the thought again.                      

Maybe she was being too hard on herself? Of course they loved each other. Couples argue, don’t they? Of course she did not really want Alex to die. She was perfectly normal, wasn’t she?    

Jules grabbed her coat and ran down the hallway, now less crowded. She found Alex in his room, propped up, eyes closed, his face washed in a bluish white light. Equipment beeped.

“Honey?” She approached the bed slowly, putting her things down on a chair.

Alex opened his eyes and smiled. He reached out a hand. She sat down next to him, grabbed it, put it to her lips: a kiss in place of the million things she had to tell him, at least for now.

“So glad you are here,” he murmured. “You just missed the doctor.”

“What did he say? Tell me, everything.” Jules took her other hand and caressed his forehead.

“He spent more time introducing all the residents with him than he did telling me that the surgery was successful.” Alex scowled. “I could have killed him.”

Jules searched his eyes, wondering if Alex had guessed the dark secrets in hers. Was it something she could remove, get rid of like Alex’s cancer? She imagined a scalpel entering Alex’s body, coming out black and oozing; she imagined doing the same to herself. Both of them, clean and shiny on the inside. Brand new.