The Breathable Air: Part 2
Lawrence Kelman’s reading voice slowly trailed away to silence and he gently closed the book of poems he had been reading to his wife. He looked at Elsabeth where she lay sleeping—perhaps dreaming, but of what he had no way to know. Setting the thick book down on her night table, he folded his hands across his stomach and watched her. The blankets rose and fell and, with her eyes closed in sleep, he could see the faint traces of the girl’s face, the woman’s that he had once known. He felt his own eyes grow heavy and liquid as they tracked the passage of her years in care-lines carved about her mouth, about her eyes. Since the stroke, her lips had become so thin and bloodless they seemed an afterthought to her face, and he realized that it had been more than five months since he had heard her speak. Lawrence knew, suddenly and with absolute surety, that if he heard her voice now in some other setting, standing in line at the supermarket for instance, he would not recognize it, and he was ashamed of himself.
And, as he always did after reading to her every night, he wondered could she hear him at all. Or did she know his own voice, or the careful touch of the back of his hand against her cheek, the brush of his lips against her forehead? Her eyes, when they were open, gave him no sign, explained nothing of the inner workings of her mind or body. Hard and dark as split shells, they stared passively at whatever he might turn her face toward, and only rarely did he see her blink. It was as though the stroke had dried to straw some essential fiber deep within her. When he bathed her with a soft, moist towel while she lay limp, pale upon the bed—the covers turned back neatly, smoothed with careful precision under the flat of his palm, the water in the basin warmed and tested by the back of his wrist like with a baby’s bottle—her skin seemed to drink the water, quenching some deep impossible thirst through every pore.
And now she slept and Lawrence watched her, as he always did, before going to his own bed. In her sleep, Elsabeth’s neck became once more a supple, elegant curve of white flesh that rose from a collarbone standing from her breast like a pair of stiff wings. Sleep worked small miracles about her person and for it he was grateful.
He listened to the sound of her breath, contrapuntal to the sound of the rain drumming the roof, running in the gutters, and falling through the downspouts of their small home. He reached out and switched off the lamp at bedside and watched rain-glazed patterns of light and shadow form and disperse and collect again in little archipelagic shapes that drifted slowly down the walls, as cars on the street swept headlights through the room. In those patterns he imagined other worlds entire—seas of warm yellow light, reefs of shadow, islands of darkness—and he imagined the two of them, he and Elsabeth, living in those worlds. Merely the two of them—whole and healthy and farm from the rest of this world. After a time, when he knew that she was deep in her sleep, Lawrence leaned over his wife to kiss her forehead before making his way across the hall to his own room.
In the morning, Lawrence rose with the sun’s first light, as was his custom. He began to cough. He coughed for a very long time, and when it was over he went to the bathroom to rinse his mouth out. He looked into the sink and made a face, then heaved a great sigh and swirled the waste down the drain. He went into the kitchen to sip at a cup of coffee while he watched through the window. Monday morning, and motorists on their way to work passed on the street with their coffee mugs balanced on their dashboards and grim expressions fixed on their faces. A few joggers went by, their shoulders glazed with sweat under the late spring’s sun. The light of that sun angled down through the kitchen window and lay upon the table like honey spread thick on bread. Lawrence put his hands on the table and let the sun warm them until he noticed a subtle change in the atmosphere of the house. As though the air that had sat heavy and dull and warm throughout the night had suddenly quickened and begun to move again, and Lawrence knew that Elsabeth was awake.
He went into the front room where shelves of books adorned every available wall space. Elsabeth’s books on Renaissance Italy had a shelf to themselves, and Lawrence reached out and let his fingertips trail across their spines, her name in gilt beside each title. He had taken off the dustjackets after she had been confined to her bed, because he found himself staring at her pictures on each paper cover and trying to remember what it had been like while was still able to write. He touched as well the dog-eared manuscript pages of the novel she had never finished, and sighed heavily.
Through the window he could see the hanging fuchsia baskets on the front porch still wet with rainwater from the night just passed. The sun sparkled on the slick, glistening leaves and the funneled corollas trembled in the small breezes tossed up against the side of the house by passing cars. A dog came down the sidewalk and Lawrence paused to watch it. It was a mixed breed and white in its coloring. He saw that it limped, holding its right foreleg cocked against its chest, and it was painfully thin. It stopped just opposite where he stood within the house watching, and raised its head, as though it did not know which way to go next and so must ponder in its own way the course to take. Lawrence watched it scent the air, its wet mouth open. For a moment the dog looked in his direction, and its eyes were brown and large and soft there in the sun. Then it looked back down and went slowly on with its abbreviate three-footed gait.
He went to Elsabeth and told her good morning and set her coffee on the night table. She had not drunk coffee for months now, but he brought her cup anyway, as though some morning she might reach for it. She stared at the ceiling where her face was pointed, and breathed. He talked to her of little things as he drew back the covers carefully and prepared to change her soiled diaper. He recomposed for her his dreams from his last night’s sleeping and asked after her own, and she was silent, and he fell silent too while cleaning her, and together they were quiet in the morning’s coolness.
When the phone rang he scowled and waited for the machine to pick it up. He sat his wife up in her bed and eased her arms through the sleeves of a clean blouse and heard from the kitchen the sound of his own voice on the message-tape, curt and rough and weary, and then the doctor’s nurse. Lawrence lay Elsabeth back down and held her hand as he listened to the woman remind him of tomorrow morning. What time the car would come for her, what things he should have ready, how he could visit her the next day. “After we get her settled in her new environment,” said the nurse. “After that, you can visit her there every day . . . during posted hours of course.” Her voice was soft, apologetic.
When she had finished speaking and hung up, Lawrence walked into the kitchen and lifted up the smoked plastic lid of the answering machine. He took the cassette out, stood over the garbage can in the laundry room, and very methodically unspooled the tape into the garbage. When he was done, he looked at the nest of destroyed tape atop the morning’s coffee grounds and shook his head. “Goddamn it anyway,” he said.
It took Lawrence ten minutes of rooting around in the back of a drawer to find the replacement tape for the answering machine. He snapped it into place and closed the lid, then, before he could record a new message, remembered Elsabeth and how he had left her sitting up. He went back to the bedroom and saw she had fallen asleep that way. He watched her for a very long time, willing himself to remember always the sound of her sleeping breath, then turned to go to the kitchen to hunt up some scraps for the dog he’d seen.
To be concluded…