A Short Story
I slam the car door shut and race toward the apartment lobby, almost tripping over my heels on the uneven concrete. I should have worn flats.
In the entry way, I punch the four-digit code and slam my body into the door—too soon. A second later, the lock clicks and the door swings open. At the elevator, I check my phone compulsively.
Am I too late?
It’s been ten minutes.
The elevator chimes and the doors slide open. Two twenty-something girls and a man with a mustache follow me inside. I punch a button for floor nineteen. The girl in the pink miniskirt mumbles, “Eighteen,” without looking up from her phone. We hum slowly upwards. Then, without warning, my stomach drops out onto the elevator’s gray resinous floor where it flops wildly like a dying fish, but no one seems to notice except me. Because it’s all in my head. Of course it’s all in my head.
The door opens and the man with the mustache exits.
When the doors slide open on eighteen, I bolt before either of the girls have a chance to look up from their phones. I turn immediately into the stairwell glancing back down at the time. Twelve minutes. Twelve minutes since he texted and I called twice but he didn’t answer. The elevator—now empty—chimes again just as I stop in front of apartment door 1925. My hands are shaking and the key refuses to cooperate with the lock. I jiggle it frantically till it twists and the door swings open. I cross the living room and make straight for the open balcony door.
He’s standing there in the dark, two feet from the ledge, staring fixedly down at the parking lot.
My heels click on the patio tile as I step out. I’m trying to choke down the panic that rushes up in my throat.
“Hey there,” I call to him in as calm a voice as I can muster. I made a pact with myself to never to tell him how the panic weighs like lead in my lungs. Admission feels too much like permission.
“You ok?” I already know he’s not.
He stares down as if some magnetic force is dragging him forward.
I’m mentally screaming at the architect for failing to install floor-to-ceiling bars when clearly a balcony on the nineteenth floor is an invitation to suicide.
“Jack,” I say it in a forced monotone, as if talking your husband out of killing himself is a totally normal thing to be doing, “I’ll feel better if you step back.”
He is silent.
“Talk to me about what is happening right now.” My heels click as I step forward again.
I am just close enough to touch him, so I reach out my hand and rest it gently on his shoulder. He pulls away, his toes only inches from the ornamental railing. I glance down. It’s only six o’clock, but it’s already so dark that I can barely make out the crisscrossing pattern of white lines and empty spaces on the tarmac below.
Then, I hear the voices. Their whispers rise from beneath us, white and vaporous like cold breath in winter. There’s something hypnotic about the assault—the way they circle him slowly.
First, there’s the soft chant-like taunting. The snarling accusations break in here and there. And then, sweet and seductive, the promise of escape.
They echo somewhere just beyond his eyes.
“Jack, don’t listen to them. They’re not true,” I’m pleading now—alternately with Jack and with God.
But they’ve cast their spell and I can’t reverse it. A frosty glaze creeps across him, beginning in the eyes. It covers him like ice on my windshield in February till his whole body is frigid and stiff. Dear God, he’s totally unresponsive and we are too close to the ledge.
I lean in to the icy statue. I hold his face in my hands, melting hand-shaped prints into his cheeks. In books, spells break with a kiss, but I know that this is not like books.
“Hey, hey,” I bend down to meet the averted eyes, “don’t go. I want you… You’re so worth it to me. Please. Don’t go.”
I pull my cardigan up over my frost-bitten fingers and rub my sleeves up and down his arms for how long? And then—without warning—the voices recede as if someone somewhere turned down the dial on a giant speaker. I feel his shoulders release and roll back as he breathes.
“It’s ok, El. They’re gone now,” he says.
But I am not ok.
He gently guides me inside through the open balcony door. In the kitchen, he flips the switch on the kettle, and smiles back at me reassuringly.
“Really, I’m ok now,” he says again.
I nod numbly, noting the sustained eye contact, the crinkling eyebrow, the breadth of his step.
“I left the groceries,” I say—first because it’s true, and second to gauge his response.
“Let’s go down and get them together,” he suggests.
“I mean I left them at Target.”
“Oh,” he pauses, comprehending, then recovers. “I’ll warm up leftovers.”
I nod again. He’s right. He’s ok now.
“I don’t really feel like eating,” I hesitate. Maybe that was the wrong thing to say. It might come across like an accusation—like it’s his fault that I’m not hungry—which it is—but I don’t want to contribute to the narrative of fault, so I try to fix it. “I’ll be fine. I think I just need to take a shower and calm down. Do you mind?”
He nods. “Sure.”
I walk into our bedroom where I kick off my heels and collapse on the fluffy white comforter. I can feel my own demons prowling around the room. There’s one that perches on the nightstand. It never says a word but it buzzes like one of those vibration machines at the chiropractic office, and my whole body shakes with it.
There’s another one that climbs up into my hair and spins my brain like an out-of-control merry-go-round inside my skull. If I try to focus on spreadsheets and investment revenues, he shoves pictures of the balcony in my face and wails like a fire alarm.
Am I going crazy?
Answer: take a hot shower. In the bathroom, I peel off my blouse and slacks. The steam slowly relaxes my muscles so I can stop shaking. I feel my adrenaline trickling down the drain with the water. So I stand there and let the warmth flow all around me and think of nothing.
By the time I climb out, he’s already lying in bed. I use the flashlight on my phone to find a t-shirt and yoga pants in the dark. He’s breathing slowly, steadily.
I slip out into the kitchen and scan the counter for his white plastic pill bottle. There it is, just next to the to the coffee maker. I dump the pills in a pile on the counter and count them. There’s five—he took the right dose today.
I’m afraid to ask for another medication, but this one isn’t working, so I flip open my laptop and send a quick email to his physician’s office.
Then I remember that I promised my boss I would finish the McClure-Davidson spreadsheet before I come in tomorrow morning. Sigh. I locate the file in the cloud. While it loads, I click open a new tab and google How to find the right antidepressant. It’s not the first time. But googling makes me feel—I don’t know—productive? Empowered? Like maybe there’s an answer out there and if I could just find it this nightmare would be over?
When I finally make it back to the bedroom, I pull back the bedspread and climb quietly under the sheets. I pull my knees up to my chest and the tears suddenly well up in my eyes.
“Tea for you on the nightstand,” he murmurs.
Then a few moments later, “Hey, hey.” He pulls himself up and leans over my silently convulsing body. “Darling, what’s wrong?”
I’m so choked up that I can’t speak, so he runs his hand up and down my back.
“Darling, you’re shaking again.”
I wake up screaming at 2:16 a.m.
Every night in my dreams, I see him standing there at the edge of the balcony. The icy demons rise up from their parking lot lair. I can see their leering faces as they cast their incantations. They grasp at his feet with long emaciated claws, dragging him toward the ledge. The railing is transparent like a ghost. In my dream, there is always a string tied to his waist. It’s thin—almost a thread—and I am clutching the end of it. As the demons pull him farther and farther away, the string goes taut. I’m praying that it won’t snap and I’m screaming at the demons.
I’m vaguely aware of my alarm buzzing somewhere to my left, just out of reach. I feel his arm draped across my torso—then yesterday evening careens across my consciousness. I want to stay here with him, and know that he will get up. He’s running out of sick days. But one of us had better keep going to work, so I untangle myself and slide out of bed, glancing down at the cold cup of tea on my nightstand.
After a twenty-minute meditation session—i.e. I sit cross legged on the bedroom floor and desperately repeat the Lord’s prayer because it’s all I can think—I pull myself together for work and emerge from the bathroom wearing an altered version of yesterday’s outfit: a light blue button down, a navy cardigan and gray slacks. To my surprise, he’s up too: the bed is neatly made and my cold tea has been replaced by a fresh cup of coffee in my favorite blue mug— an apology.
I sip the coffee and bend down to gather up the trail of items I dropped on the floor in last night’s panic—my purse, my heels, my cardigan—before stepping out into the kitchen. He’s there, sitting by the window sketching something in his little black notebook. It means he’s thinking about a design for a project, so I know he’ll go into the office. When I sit down across from him at the table, he reaches over and hooks his pinky in mine the way he used to do when we were dating.
“Want to go out to dinner tonight?” he asks.
I know this cycle: he crashes, I crash, and he plays the hopeless romantic in an attempt to make up for everything.
At least we made it back to the part where he’s ok. I wonder how long it will last.
An hour and a half later, I’m swiveling back and forth in my office chair like an 8-year-old. I stop abruptly and face the spreadsheet.
Focus. All you have to do is type.
1 – 2 – 5 – 6
The numbers wobble as if performing gymnastics. Six summersaults into nine and changes places with five. I blink, and the numbers freeze. I might as well be staring at a Chinese newspaper. I blink again, trying to bring back their meanings. I don’t need help. Jack does.
Calm down. I mechanically sweep my (already greasy) bangs back away from my eyes and start the pep talk again. You’ve got this. It’s only numbers. Our Father, who art in heaven…
But I’m quickly distracted. My eyes roam around my 5×5 cubicle eventually resting on that picture from our wedding day two years ago. I’m smiling naively at the photographer; he’s kissing my forehead.
Next to it, my mom and I pose together at my college graduation.
And then there’s my dad and I. I’m only eight in the photograph. It was taken just a week before he left us. He took me “on a date” to a ritzy Italian restaurant called Vitali’s. I ordered grilled cheese, but didn’t eat it because the cheese was white not yellow. I think it was his way of saying goodbye.
I brush my bangs back again and stare at my screen. Slowly, the numbers come back into focus. I start typing again.
3 – . – 5 – 7.
My phone is buzzing. It’s Jack. At the head of the conference table, my boss points to line B on the cash flow calculation worksheet. I look from my phone to the powerpoint and back to my phone. I can feel that choking panic rise up in my throat: relax, he’s probably fine.
But maybe he’s not. Dear God, maybe he’s not. I yield, mouth the word “Emergency” and stumble out of the room.
“Are you ok?” I say it even before I’ve finished shutting the door behind me.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m ok,” he brushes it off with complete nonchalance “Early lunch break so I ran to the bank. Do we still need checks?”
“Jack, I’m in a meeting right now.”
“Well,” —he’s upset by my irritation— “why did you pick up?”
“I just wanted to be sure everything was ok.” I hang up. I know it’s not fair of me to be irritated. I’m the one who picked up the phone, right? I breathe out a long, slow breath and hold out my hand flat like a table to check how badly I’m shaking. It’s not so bad.
I walk back into the conference room.
At five, I leave the office and drive straight home. I am definitely speeding. Once inside, I race from the elevator to our apartment and throw open the door. He’s sitting there on the couch wearing a suit and bow tie, smiling penitently at me as I kick off my heels.
“You look upset.” He’s disappointed. I see it there in the eyebrow-twitch.
“I’m fine,” I lie.
“Dinner at Alina?” he asks.
I try to look pleased. “Give me a minute to change.”
In the bathroom, I touch up my makeup and plug in the curling iron. Am I imagining things, or is my hair turning a premature gray?
I rummage around the vanity looking for his favorite earrings: tiny opals mounted on silver backs: a one-year anniversary gift. Ah—there. I slip into a red evening gown with a scooping neckline and hurriedly place a few curls. If I were prettier, would he still want to die?
His lips twitch in approval and admiration when I emerge from the bedroom.
“My wife,” he says kissing me on the cheek, “is a beautiful woman.”
At Alina he orders a salmon fillet and I order the butternut squash ravioli. But when I take the first bite, I remember how I left my stomach flopping around in the elevator yesterday evening and the food has no place to go. So I pretend to eat by carefully dividing a single ravioli into ten tiny sections with my fork.
“You’re not very hungry,” he observes.
I’m afraid of crying suddenly, so I just nod. How can I eat? If things had gone differently yesterday, I would be making funeral arrangements now. But I’m not. I should feel relieved.
“I’m sorry, honey. We can take it home. It’s fine.” But I can see he’s disappointed. Again.
He orders me a glass of chardonnay. Somehow, the wine finds a place where the food didn’t, flowing up to my head instead of down to my gut.
When the waiter returns, I ask for a box.
After dinner, we get in the car and drive like we used to when we were dating. I roll down the windows, he turns on the music and reaches for my hand in the dark. We drive for a long time, away from the city, away from the restaurant where I couldn’t eat, away from the balcony. He tells me enthusiastically about this website he’s working on for a client.
It’s late when we finally arrive back at the apartment. I tuck my leftovers into the back corner of the fridge while he undoes his tie and throws his suit jacket over the back of the couch. He sits down in the easy chair and picks up his laptop from its place on the coffee table. His back is to me, and I can see him opening the mockups for the website.
I’m tired, so I curl up on the couch across from him and watch him sitting there—alive. I’ve love the way his lips twitch when he concentrates.
He looks up, “Darling?”
He smiles back absently then looks down at his work. He’s entering the creative zone, but I’m not quite ready to let go.
“Jack,” it’s almost a whisper, “tell me the story of how we met.”
I can tell by his lips he’s not listening. There is a long pause before he looks back up, “What was that, El?”
I sit up, “The story of how we met. Can you tell it to me?”
He smiles indulgently.
“Let’s see—” his eyes search the ceiling “—you were wearing a white dress,” he pauses, “your hair was pulled back in a French braid, and you were standing on a bench in the quad just outside the science building.”
“Wait,” I interrupt him, “come sit by me.”
He hesitates, shuts the laptop, takes his keys out of his pocket and sits down on the couch across from me.
“Where was I?” he asks.
“I was standing on the bench,” I remind him. We’ve rehearsed the story before.
“Right. You looked like a little fairy standing there in the shadows. Your hand was stretched out delicately like this,” he lifts his arm, “and your eyes were closed. You were singing—Lascia ch’io pianga—” he hums the tune for a moment, “—and as soon as you finished the aria, you opened your eyes and laughed.”
“And you fell madly in love with me?” I prompt him.
“Madly.” He wiggles his eyebrows.
“Do you remember when you first asked me to date you, and I said no?” I ask.
Of course he does. “You told me that you only date your friends.”
“And you gave me that cheeky smile and said you wanted to be my friend.”
We are both silent in the memory.
“I was waiting to see if you would walk away.” I say.
“I didn’t though.” He looks serious.
“Nope.” I squeeze his hand.
“Jack, don’t ever leave me.” The sob comes from nowhere like an ambush and this time, I don’t even attempt to hide it.
“Hey,” he pulls me in and I rest my face against his chest, my tears dripping wet puddles on his shirt.
When I am still, he speaks again. “Darling, I know that yesterday was scary, but listen to me—” he pulls away and holds my face in his hands. “I promise you, I’m not going to leave.”
I don’t believe him.
The first four drafts of this story lived under the working title Hospital Flowers after the song by Owl City. When I wrote it, I was two years out of a traumatic relationship. My boyfriend had come frighteningly close to suicide and I was still having panic attacks when I walked through the tunnel under the tracks while the train rushed over my head. The Owl City song represented my healing journey after the relationship ended. I wanted to write a piece that condensed and encapsulated everything I felt during that frightening season. Giving my emotions to El helped me normalize my experience. I hope this story can help other helpers to know that they are not alone when they feel like they are going crazy.