TW: includes mentions of war, death, and the pandemic
“How was your day, honey?”
She means well. She asks every day, to be kind, but I never know what to tell her. She washes her hands, leaves her car keys by the door along with her boots and coat. Her hair falls down as she takes out her hair tie, brown hair touched by the sun flowing over her shoulders.
She’s beautiful. She’s always been. So why is it so hard to be honest to her?
“It was fine. Not much to do.”
It’s true. I cleaned the kitchen, scrubbed the dishwasher door until I could see myself in the surface again. I took out the mail, then skipped to the back of the newspaper, to the crosswords. The letters left in the prize puzzle spelled out the word epiphany.
No appointment with my doctor today, so I had lots of time to myself. Spent some of it building a miniature of a 1927 La Licorne. Didn’t get very far, but at least it kept my hands busy.
“Hold on. I’ll take a shower and then I’ll be back in a minute, okay?” she says. She smiles at me, so I give her my love folded into the curve of my lips. As she disappears, she’s already unbuttoning her shirt.
The door closes with a bang. I left the windows open. That’s what happened. She isn’t angry, the wind just has more force today.
The bang echoes in my head, and with it come floods of images. A battlefield like a tainted beach without an ocean in sight. People clad in green and brown crawling the sand.
Sir, my own voice is more memory than sound, I think he’s bleeding out.
My hands are pressed to fabric and uniform, wetness seeping in between my fingers. The bullet went in, and there’s no exit wound. A good thing, maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I can’t tell. All I know is that this is Ramon – my friend, the one who always slipped an extra omelet onto my plate when I was in line in the kitchens.
And now I’m standing over him, watching his eyes close and open, close and open, never quite focusing.
“Sir? Sir, please.”
“There’s no time.” A heavy hand on my shoulder – I swear I can feel it landing there, solid and real. “It’s too late.”
I look down at the body. Watch him breathe in, watch him breath out. My hands are still in place, still pressing down. I stay there for what feels like ages but can’t be more than a few minutes. A few minutes until the breaths even out and his eyes fall closed.
My training never prepared me for any of this.
“Soldier, get your helmet.” When my sergeant pulls me away and two others come to collect the body, my hands are stained red.
Five years later, they still are. In my living room, with the shower running upstairs, my hands are dripping in it, coated with a layer of loss and incompetence I haven’t been able to shake.
With you I serve. With you I fall down. Long ago, back in training, those words were meant to be about a country. They came to be about a friend instead.
I stare at the pictures on the mantelpiece. There she is, smiling familiarly, keeping me steady as always. She looked so gorgeous in her wedding dress. I thought that would be the start of something new, something better. It was, but I didn’t realise quite how much old baggage I’d have to carry with me on that new road.
I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to let it go.
“How was your day, honey?”
I ask him first, so he can’t ask me. This is how it goes every day, hoping to keep him engaged, but it never really seems to work. I unlace my boots, take off my coat and leave everything by the door, my keys on the hook besides the coatrack.
When I pull the hair tie from my ponytail, I see him staring at me. There are dark circles under his eyes – eyes I fell in love with years ago and still hold so dear.
He’s so handsome. He’s always been. So why is it so hard to talk to him?
“It was fine. Not much to do.”
I nod. If life were normal, I’d tell him about the countless steps I gathered on my Fitbit today. I’d tell him about the colleague who always complains about the coffee and about the way my car lock seems to be malfunctioning again. But life isn’t normal.
“Hold on,” I tell him. “I’ll take a shower and then I’ll be back in a minute, okay?” I hope my love shines through in the way I smile at him. I can’t be sure, but at least he gives me that familiar crooked smile in return. Quickly, I hurry up the stairs, eager to wash the day’s stress away.
I turn on the shower and put my clothes straight in the laundry machine. The many washings are starting to show. Just yesterday one of my favourite blouses ripped in two when I tried to put it on. Still, I don’t stop. This is the only way. Keep it clean. Keep everything clean.
The water runs over my bare back and down my legs. Every day, I think I might be able to really feel cleansed this time. It never quite works. I still see the hospital hallways covered in arrow signs whenever I close my eyes.
Doc, I said just hours ago, I think she’s crashing out.
We all wore masks constantly. This wasn’t exactly new for us, but when everything around us changed, wearing the masks became a strange and intrusive restriction. No more smiling at patients. Using Google’s speech recognition to talk to patients who’re hard of hearing. Holding out on lunch because taking off your outfit is just too much of a hassle and you might be called back to the IC at any moment.
It was an elderly woman this time. In her seventies, quarantined in a hospital bed. Her breathing sounds weak and uneven. The coughs have come and gone. Slowly, the virus is eating away at everything, until even the smallest inconvenience becomes a death threat.
“Doctor? Doctor, please.”
The doctor walks in, her clothes looking more like an astronaut’s suit than a medical uniform. “We need to call in her family. Does she have any family?”
I stared at the patient, the monitors connected to her acting up. She was more than a patient. She was someone’s daughter. A mother, perhaps. A wife, for sure. “Just her husband,” I said meekly.
The doctor took a syringe, injected it, but the beeping didn’t stop. “Call him in.”
My lips pressed together underneath my mask. These things get so hot so quickly. I’ve heard people complain. Online. In the streets. In the waiting room. They’re right. They’re all right, but that doesn’t mean we should take them off. “Because,” I told the doctor, “her husband is in room 119.”
“Oh.” Realisation downed on the doctor’s face. “Him, too?”
I nodded. The glance we exchanged said enough. Most care-workers know how to say the unthinkable without saying it. Some things you just can’t speak about.
“No other family?” the doctor asked.
I told her no. Then she had to leave, her expertise needed elsewhere.
I looked down at the hospital bed. Watched the woman breathe in, watched her breath out. I placed one hand by the bed and grabbed hers. Plastic over plastic. I stayed there for what felt like ages but can’t have been more than a few minutes. A few minutes until the breaths evened out and the body stilled.
This was something med school didn’t cover. I’m used to fighting for a patient’s life until the very end. Sitting around and doing nothing felt wrong in every way. Everything about this feels wrong.
“Time of death, 14:34,” a different doctor announced. When I let go of the woman’s hand and walked out of the room, I didn’t feel my feet landing on the white floors. For a moment, I wasn’t quite there.
The water’s still falling, beating against my skin. I’m staring at a fogged up mirror, the toilet seat down and my shampoo bottle empty on the bathroom floor. I wash out my hair, the white foam mixing with the water.
I think of that woman, dying all alone without her husband. Dying without having felt human skin in days.
The towel feels rough as I scrub myself dry. Then I put on a new set of clothes freshly taking from our wardrobe and prepare to go back downstairs. Put on a smile, I tell myself. This is your private time, your recharging time, the time you get to spend with the man you love more than anything in this world. Make the most out of it.
I take the steps one by one, a heavy weight settling in my chest.
The light in the bedroom is off, the window open at a smidge. A gentle wind moves the curtains, but the breeze isn’t strong enough to reach the bed.
They lie there together, but apart. Each has their own side. She on the left, he on the right. This is how it’s always been. Years before, they’d gather in the middle every night, always touching. Not anymore. Each has their own thoughts that work like bricks, building a wall between the two of them.
The quiet goes on for a long time – but then he speaks. “How was your day?” he asks. “I never asked.”
He fears she might have drifted off, but she hasn’t. She’s wide awake, staring up at the ceiling. “It was hectic.”
He chews his lip for a moment. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Okay.” It stings, but he won’t show her. Meanwhile, she’s close to crying but doesn’t dare to let the tears out. The wall between them is still there, but see-through, so thin that they could almost touch.
She decides to smash the last pieces.
“Hold me?” she asks.
“Always,” he says. Then he reaches for her, arms fitting around each other like puzzle pieces that were missing for too long. It’s a glimpse of relief for both of them.
“I know I can’t understand,” he says, “but I’m here if you ever want to talk about any of it.” He hopes he can learn to be a better listener.
She smiles, a hiccup escaping her as she wipes her eyes. “Thank you. I think I’d really appreciate that.”
“But not now?”
The silence returns, and it’s good. Neither of them can remember the last time they didn’t speak to each other like this, with understanding and love instead of fear and loneliness.
“Epiphany,” he tells her. When she looks up at him, he clarifies. “The word of the prize puzzle today. It was epiphany.”
She nods. “That’s a good word. We could use an epiphany.” She lets out a chuckle, even though nothing about this is funny.
“An epiphany for every war we fight,” he says. He’s shivering, she realises, and she pulls the blankets closer around them, rolls closer to him, her ear to his chest. She listens to his heartbeat. He feels her breathe in, breath out.
Twenty minutes. That’s the time it takes for them to fall asleep. It’ll take them much, much longer to make sense of what they’ve seen, but at least they might do so together.
The short story epiphany // some things you just can’t speak about was strongly inspired by and uses lyrics originally found in the song “epiphany” by Taylor Swift.