My wife’s in a coma, but we’d both be better off if she’d just die already.
It’s been twenty-three weeks since the accident. I was at work when it happened. Might’ve been on my lunch break eating at the Ruby Tuesday buffet, but my exact whereabouts isn’t really that important. What is important is I came home and she was lying on her back next to the china cabinet, a pool of congealed blood on the floor, the whites of her eyes beaming out like spaceships. It was disgusting, but I still rushed to her, cradled her in my arms.
Before I even called 9-1-1 or had time to scream “Why?” with my fists shaking at the heavens, I noticed the spray bottle of orange oil. I set her limp body gently on the floor and investigated the scene. Sure enough, there was fucking orange oil all over the place. Just weeks prior to this I had told her, in these exact words, “Be careful with this shit. Someone’s going to crack their fucking skull.”
I always figured it would’ve been me. But I wasn’t the lucky one here.
Twenty-three weeks of sleepless nights, hospital visits, cash-guzzling healthcare. All because she had to get trigger happy with the damn orange oil. I told her the china cabinet looked good enough. What the hell did it matter anyway? We rarely had guests over, and it’s not like they were inspecting the quality of the wood finish when they did visit.
After the accident, I was the most loyal husband. At least at first. I slept there for eleven days straight. Didn’t leave her side. Wore the same pair of pants to the office every single day. Of course, I could’ve gotten away with anything at work given the circumstances.
The hospital gets old pretty quickly. Soon, I opted to shower and sleep at home. I would still come by every day to check on her, make sure she was still breathing and all that. I started going out for steak dinners, racking up food bills fit for two. You can’t really blame me. I was filling a void.
I stopped wearing my wedding ring after three weeks. The little gold band seemed like a charade by then. At the very least, it was a painful reminder.
Sometime during the fourth week, I brought another woman home. To be honest, I’m not sure if she was a hooker or not, but after hearing the whole sob story about my wife in a coma and me just needing some company, she didn’t bother charging me. She even stayed the whole night and let me hold her. I stroked her strawberry blonde hair and called her Suzie. When she left, she didn’t offer her number. I didn’t ask for it.
The sex with the strawberry blonde had been awkward and passionless, like she felt so bad for me she couldn’t perform. That’s why I think maybe she wasn’t a hooker. A professional would’ve done better. That doesn’t matter though. The point is the sex wasn’t good. I needed something that would satisfy. Hours of porn and self-pleasure certainly wouldn’t get the job done.
Never a man to pay for my sex, I prowled around the clubs, looking for easy prey that wouldn’t go all mushy if I told them about my wife. The first woman was named Charlie, which I felt kind of weird about. What kind of girl has a man’s name? Not that Charlie is overly manly.
I never told Charlie I was married. It never came up, really. She practically assaulted me as soon as we got back to my place, tugging at my belt buckle before I could even ask her if she wanted a drink. It was better that way, not telling her about the whole coma. She must’ve known. There were still photos of Suzie and me in happier times all over the walls. Hell, the house looked like a damn shrine to the once-happy couple. Were we really that conceited?
Charlie left before I woke up, but she had scrawled her phone number on a piece of paper and placed it on my nightstand. She signed her name with a heart above the “i”. I had no way of knowing if this meant something special or if she always did it. I took one look at that note, sitting right by a picture of my wife and me on our honeymoon, and tossed it in the trash. I could do better than Charlie. Hell, I had better than Charlie. Unfortunately, my better option was in the hospital with a rather inconvenient coma that was costing me every penny I had. What the hell good was health insurance if I could still be drained by something as everyday as a coma?
I must’ve felt a little guilty, because the next night I was back at the hospital rather than lurking around some sleazy club. Unfortunately, I ran into this nurse who walked around the coma ward like her only purpose in life was temptation. Only she wasn’t just trying to tempt me. I had always thought those rooms on doctor shows where people were hooking up all the time were just fiction. Nurse Betty–I swear to God that was her name–showed me they were real. It wasn’t the only thing about Betty that was real.
As you can imagine, I was at the hospital again the next night, and the next. It wasn’t until our sixth or seventh tryst in the staff hook-up room that my wife’s condition finally came up.
“What will you do if she wakes up?” Nurse Betty asked while lighting up a cigarette. She always did it right after sex, both of which I assumed were against hospital policy.
“Do you think she’ll wake up?” was the only thing I could think to say. At least the only appropriate thing.
“I dunno. I’ve seen patients wake up. I’ve seen some not wake up. It all depends.” She took a long drag.
“Suzie wouldn’t have wanted this,” I muttered.
“No woman wants her husband with another woman,” Betty said between puffs.
I shook my head. “No, I mean she wouldn’t want to be in this coma. She always said she was opposed to being kept artificially alive. If a machine needed to do the work, then she was dead.”
“Why didn’t she have a living will then?”
“I told her it was a waste of money. Comas happen to other people, not to us.”
Betty laughed. “So true.” She kissed me hard, her ashen nicotine tongue sliding through my mouth.
“So, do you think she’ll wake up?” I asked again when the kiss finally ended and she took her final puff.
“It’s impossible for me to say.” She stamped the cigarette out and buried it in the nearby biohazard container.
“Do you think you can ask around?”
“Anything the doctors can tell me they’ve already told you.” She pulled on her scrubs.
“I’m sure they don’t tell the loved ones everything.”
“Sweetie, they have no reason to hide anything from you.” She gave me one final kiss and ushered me out of the room. She always sent me out first, which I found a bit odd. Shouldn’t she check to see if the coast was clear?
Betty was off the next night, so I didn’t go to the hospital at all. I stayed away from the clubs too. I wasn’t sure if she’d be pissed if I slept with other people, but I figured there was no sense in rushing it. I didn’t have her number or I probably would’ve called her. It got kind of lonely sitting around the house by myself. The hospital was even lonelier though.
I made it back to the hospital on Betty’s next scheduled night, but she wasn’t there.
“Where’s Nurse Betty?” I asked at the nurse’s station.
“She quit. Wanted to spend more time at home with her family.” The nurse was harsh with her response, like she knew I was involved with Betty and had been screwing up her outside relationships.
“Oh. I didn’t know she was married.”
“Yup, she is. And so are you.”
“Do you think she’ll wake up?” I asked.
“That shouldn’t matter right now.”
“You don’t have to preach, ya know. This is awfully hard for me.”
“Sir, this is a Catholic hospital. And it’s harder for your wife.”
I wanted to tell her bullshit but didn’t want to make a scene, so I just walked away. I went into my wife’s room and stared at her comatose body. It was like looking at a mannequin. Her beauty had been sucked away. That wasn’t my wife there. It was just a body. A body that was costing me every penny I owned.
The next day, I called up a lawyer friend.
“Hey, I heard about your wife. Sorry man. That’s a real bummer. Do you think she’ll wake up?” Sam asked, like he’d been waiting to contact me but didn’t think the timing was right.
“Yeah, it’s a bummer. The doctors don’t know if she’ll wake up. She seems so lifeless. It’s not like the movies where it really feels like your wife is in there. That body just feels empty.”
“That sucks. I’m so sorry to hear that. Let me know if you need anything. Anything at all.”
“Well, there is one thing,” I said. “Can you create a living will?”
“Yeah, I can do that. I know that’s a tough thing to do, but I’m sure Suzie’s condition has you thinking about your own future.”
I laughed. “No, not for me. For her. Can you make a living will for her and date it a year before the accident?”
There was a brief pause. I could tell he was thinking about it.
“I can’t do that,” he finally whispered. I’m not sure why he was whispering if the answer was no.
“Sure you can.”
“No, I really can’t. Forging legal documents is a surefire way to lose my license. Besides, you don’t need that. You have the authority to pull the plug if you want.”
“Yeah, I know that. But I can’t bring myself to do it.”
“I know what you mean. I don’t think I could cut off Amber if I were in your shoes.”
I wanted to tell him that wasn’t it, that I was afraid of the backlash. I could handle the guilt. But the finger pointing and the evil look from the doctors and nurses, those were things I couldn’t do.
“Do they pull the plug right in front of you?”
“I don’t know, man. That’s some morbid shit. Look, I gotta go. Again, I’m sorry. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you.”
“Not right now. But call me back if you change your mind.”
After a week, Sam didn’t call me back, so I figured that was a lost cause. Time for the next plan. Maybe I would just man up and pull the damn plug myself. Well, not literally. I’d tell the doctors to do it. I imagined the scene. I walked in, all somber. Probably wearing black.
“Be honest, doc,” I would say. “Does she have a chance?”
“It doesn’t look good, Jacob.” He would put his hand on my shoulder and shake his head while looking down.
“You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do,” he would interrupt, not even making me say those awful words.
I would fall into his burly white-coated shoulders and cry.
But none of the doctors at the hospitals were burly, and I doubted any of them would let me cry in their arms. They would tell me I was a sick bastard, that they were doing everything they could, and that someday, with their help and the help of God, Suzie would once again walk the earth.
“Yeah, as a fucking ghost,” I would want to say.
During the seventh week, I started seeing a woman from my office building. We met at the coffee cart in the lobby. Liz was a knockout. It was her first day at a new job, so she had no idea who I was–which meant no idea I had a wife in a coma.
By the time I took her home a few days later, I had already put away signs of Suzie. I bolted her closet door shut and put all of her toiletries and makeup in a box in the attic. If Suzie ever woke up, I’d have a few days to put her stuff back in order. I didn’t want Liz finding out about my baggage until I was ready to tell her on my own terms. Besides, it was kind of a relief not having to look at reminders of Suzie everywhere I went.
“This is an awfully big place for a single guy,” Liz said after we had sex on the couch during an episode of Breaking Bad we had both seen already.
“Yeah, do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s nice. Most single guys just have apartments. Doesn’t a place like this get lonely?” She tickled my flaccid penis, trying to get another round out of me.
“Yes, it does get lonely.” I thought of Suzie as Liz massaged the tip of my dick, which probably explained why it took so long to get hard.
“But I’m not lonely now,” I added, putting Suzie out of my mind and climbing on top of Liz for the second time that night. And I wasn’t lonely, at least until she left the house somewhere after midnight.
“Stay the night?”
“I have to get home,” was all she said.
I couldn’t help but think she either knew my secret or she had a secret of her own.
When she came back again the next night, I ruled out that she knew my secret. We hadn’t made any plans until we just happened to be walking out of the office building at the same time.
“What are you doing tonight?” she asked.
“Hopefully something with you,” I answered as cool as anyone ever could.
It was on the second night she noticed my wife’s closet bolted shut. I had managed to keep her out of the bedroom on the first night, but I figured a second date meant it was time to move into a more comfortable spot.
“Why is your closet bolted shut? Are you keeping dead bodies in there or something?”
We both laughed uncomfortably. It wasn’t far from the truth.
“So can I see what’s in it?”
I smiled. “If we’re still together in two months.”
I knew it was just mysterious enough to keep her around. Women can’t abandon something they haven’t figured out. Luckily for women, most men can be figured out in a matter of seconds.
“You aren’t really going to make me wait for two months, are you?” she asked on our third consecutive night together.
“We’re already three days into it,” I said.
“True. Isn’t that like half of two months?”
“In dating years, I think it is.”
Not sure what it was about my comment, but Liz pulled me inside her in response. I didn’t remember ever having such playful banter with Suzie.
For the next few weeks, Liz and I got together almost every night. She slept at my place on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I stayed at her place the other nights, except we always took Sunday off. I wasn’t sure what was so sacred about Sunday, and I didn’t ask. I figured we could use at least a little break from each other. On most work days, we met for coffee twice and ended up having sex in the women’s fitness locker room at least once a day.
She always wanted to have lunch together, put I told her that wasn’t an option for me. Like a good girlfriend, she never pressed the issue. Most days, I rushed to the hospital during lunch to see if Suzie had stirred. Every day, she was in the same motionless position.
The routine was always the same. I told Suzie’s body she looked nice even though it didn’t. She didn’t say anything. I sat in the chair for three or four minutes and then looked for a nurse who told me conditions hadn’t changed. I was always in a panic the whole time, and I couldn’t tell if they thought it was sweet or disgusting.
At the beginning of the thirteenth week of my wife’s coma, Liz told me she could see herself falling in love with me.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means you’re a good guy. Someone I wouldn’t mind being with for the long haul.”
If only she knew. I clearly wasn’t a long haul kind of guy.
The things that transpired during the next few weeks were the same things that transpire for every couple falling in love. Liz and I did the same things that Suzie and I had done several years before, the same things that every couple in the history of the world has done. They were magical weeks during which I realized I was in love with Liz and not with Suzie.
But I still hadn’t shown Liz the contents of the closet. It had been just over two months now, but Liz hadn’t asked. She had stopped asking two weeks before. She’d reached a point where it just didn’t matter what the hell I kept in there.
During the twenty-second week of my wife’s coma, I did something beyond stupid, beyond reprehensible. I asked Liz to marry me. Down on one knee and all that stuff. It gets worse. I proposed with the same ring I had given Suzie years before.
And Liz was dumb enough to say yes. She even commented on how beautiful the ring was. Said something cliché like “Oh, it even fits. This was meant to be.”
If there’s anything I’ve learned through all this, it’s that nothing is meant to be. Everything is what we make of it.
Once Liz was wearing my wife’s ring, I couldn’t bear to visit the hospital anymore. Seeing Suzie’s empty finger where Liz’s new ring should’ve been was just too much. If only Suzie knew how good she had it.
I expected Suzie to wake up any day now and put an end to the wedding preparations before they had even begun. Secretly, I think I hoped she would. I loved Liz and all, but was I really ready to go down that road again–especially given how complicated it would be with another wife waiting in the wings?
One evening somewhere between sex and discussing invitations, the hospital called. Apparently it was policy to check in on the spouses of coma patients when they hadn’t visited in over a week.
“I need to take this call,” I told Liz while holding my hand over the phone.
“Go ahead,” she whispered. “I’ll be here when you’re done.” She pretended to slap her ass.
Such a good woman.
I went down to the basement before I gave the doctor the go-ahead to talk.
“Your wife’s condition hasn’t improved.”
“Not at all?” I tried to sound concerned.
“No. It hasn’t changed at all.”
“What does this mean?”
“Not much, honestly.”
“So what can we do now?”
“We’ve done everything we can. It’s really in your hands now.”
Something about his tone told me they wanted to clear out the room for someone else. Maybe someone with a fighting chance.
“What do you think I should do?”
“I can’t advise you on that. I can only tell you about her medical condition. At this time, we have no prognosis. If you would like, I can put you in touch with one of the hospital’s psychiatrists. Dr. Wolff specializes in long-term care planning. Would you like that?”
I didn’t want to talk to Dr. Wolff. I just wanted Suzie’s coma to go away. I wanted to go upstairs and have sex with Liz and not worry about wives who couldn’t move.
“Do you think we should just pull the plug?” I didn’t mean to say it. The words just vomited right out of my mouth.
“I can’t advise you on that.”
“Then give me Dr. Wolff’s number.”
“She’ll contact you within the next few days to schedule an appointment.”
“Okay, thanks.” I hung up without waiting for any additional orders.
When I came up stairs, there were women’s clothes strewn all over the floor. I found Liz sobbing in the middle of a bin of sweaters in Suzie’s closet.
I wanted to yell at her. For invading my privacy. For not trusting me. But I knew she would’ve found out eventually.
“I can explain,” I said in typical romantic-comedy fashion, even though I knew there was no explanation that could resolve anything she felt at the moment.
“I never thought I would be the other woman,” she said without looking up.
I knelt at her side and rubbed my hand down her spine. “You’re not. She is. But she’s not even really a woman right now.”
I told her everything. About the sleepless nights, the judgmental nurses, the psychiatrist, even the fucking orange oil. Everything except the origin of the ring. She didn’t need to know that. She would’ve thought I was just using her to fill a void left by Suzie.
“So where does this leave us?” I asked when I was finished explaining the whole twisted story.
“I think it leaves you with a wife in a coma.”
She handed me the ring and walked out. I didn’t try to stop her. I sat down and inspected the ring, then stood and threw it into the sweater bin. It didn’t belong to my wife anymore. None of it did. But none of it belonged to me either.
I changed clothes and headed to the hospital, hoping Suzie’s room would be empty and the doctors would take me down to the morgue for one final look. Instead, Suzie was there, her body still motionless. But something looked different about her. Her head was slightly tilted, and there was a faint smile on her face.
Maybe she would wake up after all. Maybe she had been awake all along. Or maybe she just somehow knew she would always have control over me even if she couldn’t move a muscle.
“Good to see you again, Jacob,” a voice said from the doorway.
I turned and saw Nurse Betty.
“I thought you quit.”
“No. Just took a break. Needed some time to think about it.”
She put her hand on my arm. “Shall we?”
“Do you think she’ll get better?”
“I’m not supposed to say this, but no, I think this is how she’ll always be.”
“Yeah, me too.”
She tugged on my arm.
“I need a minute alone with her.” I gently wrestled free from Nurse Betty’s grasp.
“Well, don’t be too long. I do have work to do, you know.”
“So do I,” I said.
When Nurse Betty left, I walked to Suzie’s bed. I placed my hand on hers, the first time I’d touched her in months.
“I told you to be careful with that damn orange oil. You never listened to me.”
I waited for her smile to change, for her hand to grip mine back, but nothing happened. Just the beep beep beep of that eternal machine. I thought about yanking the plug out of the wall, of throwing the machine through the glass in some ultimate act of defiance against the world. Instead, I placed a kiss on her forehead and told her I loved her.
“I’ll be back in a little bit. I have some business to attend to.”
I didn’t look back as I headed to find Nurse Betty. I knew Suzie would still be there when I was ready.
© 2014 Nathaniel Tower
Image “Hill-Rom Bed” © Flickr user A. Currell
Nathaniel Tower is a former English teacher who now spends his days at a computer. When not at work, he writes fiction and manages the online literary magazine Bartleby Snopes. If he's not writing or editing, he's either spending time with his wife and daughter, listening to records, or going for long runs while juggling. His short fiction has appeared in over 200 online and print magazines and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Million Writers Award. His first collection of short fiction, "Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands," was released in 2014 by Martian Lit. Visit him at nathanieltower.wordpress.com