The Waiting Room
by Phyllis Melhado
There were several of us in the Intensive Care waiting room that afternoon, as disparate
a group as only New York City could assemble, separated by custom and ethnicity, but united by anxiety and fear. Fear of loss. Fear of death. Fear of a future deprived
of someone we love.
The gaggle of women in jewel toned saris, their men in khakis or jeans but nodding
to tradition with brown leather sandals...a middle-aged African-American couple, quiet, dignified, very tender with one another, an enviable unity in any environment but most especially in this one...a tall Korean teenager, captive under a state-of-the-art headset, eyes deep in concentration and body strangely still...an old Hassidic man, rocking back and forth, a small black prayer book in his ancient, gnarled hands - people who, under normal circumstances, would have been somewhat guarded with one another, if not totally distrustful, but in the cauldron of that less than welcoming space, we were all defending against palpable fear and the room's faint antiseptic smell, bonded in endless hours of waiting and hoping, if not praying for the recovery of a loved one barely clinging to life.
Notably missing were children, but such a place is not for young souls. Hushed conversations. Several days and nights of tears and hand wrenching and an occasional nervous laugh. Sad, anxious people walking in and out. Polite conversation in little pockets. Occasional pleasantries between us. Small, knowing smiles. Heartfelt condolences when their someone had lost the final battle. And constantly the same intense gaze from an attractive man in the far corner, forty or so, with abundant dark hair and a medium build. I could not ascertain his height because I never saw him standing. It seemed that he just sat, hour after hour and each time I glanced his way, he was more than glancing back at me.
As I unlocked clenched hands and wiped the tears of worry and exhaustion from my face, I could feel his eyes burrowing beneath my skin, uncomfortable, unwanted and unexpected attention under such circumstances, but I looked up, nonetheless, and found myself riveted to his gaze, hard pressed to turn away and unable to quell the response in my body that had been building with each glance and finally leaving me drenched with guilt.
My body had no right to react that way. Just yards away, my father lay tethered to drips and monitors, his body giving in to the cancer that had staked its claim several months before. It was just a matter of time - hours if not days - that I would lose him, the man who had sacrificed so much to make sure that I, his only child, would have every advantage in life.
Shame. I should have felt shame at my body’s response at such a time, but amidst the sadness, what I felt was forbidden excitement and unimagined possibilities.
I had seen the man yesterday and the few days before that, and he had kept his distance, but every time my eyes met his, I felt him moving closer and closer. It was an odd game of cat and mouse, with neither creature moving but both keenly aware of the chase. I knew nothing about him...his name, his age, the person for whom he was waiting and hoping. I knew only that just watching him and being in the same room for several days with him were running riot over the conscious caring of my dying father just yards away.
I went in and out of my father's room, hoping I would see a halt to the inevitable slide. But there was none. Just the relentless slow journey to the inevitable conclusion. And each time I was by my father's side, I chastised myself for my eagerness to go back out to the glance that would be waiting for me. The heartbeat of life - precious, glorious life. It was the only thing that enabled me to continue, and that evening when the man finally gestured toward me to follow him, there was little question that I would.
Night had stolen the afternoon light and the room was dim and quiet. Most of the others, save one or two newcomers, had gone. The man and I walked wordlessly down the endless hallway, anticipation igniting the space between us. When we finally reached the exit, we pushed through the doors and our faces were hit with cold, wet air, blessedly cleansing the smell of death from our nostrils. Finally, we looked at each other full on. He was taller than I had expected, and it was less awkward than I thought it would be, but I did not risk a smile and neither did he.
It was well past midnight, and the dark, empty parking lot loomed ahead like the deserted playing field it was, filled to capacity during the day with the vehicles of ancillary players in the recurring drama of life and death.
He led me to the far end of the lot where a lone car stood. It was deep red, low and sleek, probably some sort of European sports car, but never having been one to notice either the make or lineage of an automobile, it mattered little.
He opened the door and I slid in, barely able to capture the hem of my coat before he closed the door. Made brave by the barrier of glass, I looked up at him, my eyes reaching shamelessly for his. He held my gaze for a moment, then was gone, re-appearing in seconds on the seat beside me.
My pulse began to race.
Savior and executioner, he reached for me.
“No, not here,” I tried to whisper, but the words couldn’t come.
We had yet to speak, and I couldn’t allow these mundane words to be the first between us.
I quickly raised my hand instead, and he leaned away.
I heard the key enter the ignition and my heart jolted, and as the car eased into motion,
I put my hand down on the seat to brace myself, not so much against the movement of the car, but for what was sure to come. I stared straight ahead, but I could feel his fingers sweep briefly across the tops of mine. Fire ignited in my hand and swept through every part of my body.
And still there were no words between us, only the unbearable closeness of him, his faint, musky smell, and the currents of desire coursing through my body with such intensity that I could not let my brain take hold of them lest they would burrow so deeply into my consciousness they would find no way out.
He drove slowly, navigating the dark, wet, leaf-littered streets. Bright yellow bulbs flashed a message at the approach of a deserted
“Caution!” the signed warned. “Slippery road ahead.”
“Caution,” I read out loud, my first spoken word to him
“Slippery road ahead,” he read with a smile in his voice, his first words to me, as he pulled the car over to the side of the road and barely stopped before reaching for me.
I don’t know how we got there that night, how we made the leap from solitary angst
to something so polar opposite that it would have seemed entirely impossible to even contemplate. We clung together to seize the light in a sea of darkness, to affirm life in
the face of impending death.
His mother died in the early hours of that morning and my father, just hours later.
I never did learn his name, nor he, mine, and we never saw each other again.