Excerpt from Perfection
It happened like this: Henry's footsteps on the old wooden floorboards. The toilet flushing. More footsteps, perhaps on the stairs. Silence. Then the thud.
I was working downstairs in my office on a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon. My workspace was an enclosed sunporch off our living room, the small-paned windows on three sides framing a view of the snowy hills across the road. Wrapped in a shawl, wearing fuzzy socks on my chilled feet, I continued studying the project on my computer screen. I had been a graphic designer for nearly twenty years, a freelancer, specializing in cover designs for book publishers. Today's project was a novel about hard-luck cowboys, due yesterday, as always. I stopped fiddling with type design possibilities as I glanced at the computer clock—in an hour I would have to make a dash out to the car to pick up our six-and a half-year-old daughter Liza just before school let out at 3:10. Henry had been sick in bed all morning. There would be the freezing cold wait and the daily social milling with the other mothers on the school playground, then the quick drive home to finish my work. I'd wear my new sheepskin coat today and feel guilty about its expense on a warmer day. On second thought, the distressed sans serif type worked better with the moody image of a cowboy leaning against a split rail fence.
Suddenly my brain rewound sharply.
It wasn't a package dropped outside by the UPS guy.
My office phone rang. Instinctively, I answered. The photographer on the line asked me how I liked the images he had emailed.
It wasn't the cats knocking groceries off the kitchen counter.
"I can't talk now—something bad is happening." I ended the call abruptly.
I found Henry on his back, spread-eagled on the kitchen floor, his head a few inches from the oven broiler. He was still breathing. His body was silhouetted against the sea blue of the painted floorboards. I imagined the outline of a police chalk drawing of the victim at a crime scene. I was overcome with the feeling that I was in the scene and watching a scene on television—an opening sequence of an episode of Six Feet Under, our favorite show that year. Usually some minor character dies in the first five minutes.
He inhaled with a shallow breath; small dribbles of saliva on his curved lips, the skin on his face now sallow and ashen. He exhaled with a feeble sigh. His eyes flickered half open. I spoke to him to let him know that I was there with him, but for once in our life together he could not speak back.
A long elastic minute stretched out and snapped: Is this when people call 911? Or is Henry going to sit up and tell me to stop fussing, like he did yesterday after he passed out? This must be the same thing. He came in after taking out the garbage and fell down flat on the floor. The doctor said all the tests were normal—
I called 911. I sat down on the floor next to him stroking his forehead, watching him breathe. A hissing sound as spittle pulsed between his lips.
I wish I had a notepad and pencil. Henry would want me to take notes. The EMS guys will come. They'll check him out. He'll be fine. He'll be telling people about his near death at our next dinner party. "The report of my death was an exaggeration," is what he'll say. Everyone will laugh and I'll feel pathetic for having worried so much.
I called 911 again, just to be sure. I called Emily who lived five minutes away and was usually home at two in the afternoon. Anna was more reliable—I knew she wouldn't freak out, no matter what happened today—but she lived twelve minutes away. Then I called Matthew, Henry's best friend, who lived with his wife in a nearby town.
Every minute will make a difference. The EMS guys will come; they will bring oxygen tanks, defibrillators, and IV bags. All will be well. Emily will help me find a babysitter for Liza, then she will go with me to the hospital, and we'll get there and Henry will be awake, smiling and joking as usual.
I sat back down next to him on the blue floor stroking the familiar wrinkles, the scar over one eyelid, the small mole at the crest of one cheek.
Inhale. Exhale. A blue gauze curtain passed over him. His skin turned to wax.
"Breathe!" I screamed at him. "Start breathing now!" I pounded him on the chest.
He wasn't listening to me. I placed my mouth on his and blew my breath into him; the blue briefly faded into rose like a watercolor wash. But the flush faded back to blue. He was still. The man who for sixteen years had loved me, driven me crazy, fought with me, fed me, made love with me, made a baby with me, exhaled one last breath, the air I had blown into his lungs.
I looked up, distracted by the sound of the sliding porch door, followed by a blast of cold air. The EMS guys had arrived with a gurney and gear and gently hustled me out of the kitchen. Emily followed right after them.
Everything moved in slow motion as I processed his words. This couldn't be right. Whenever we'd watched Six Feet Under together, the main characters made it safely to the next episode. I slid off my chair to the floor and screamed.
"You can lie next to him if you want," Emily offered. She was calm, amazingly, looking at Henry's lifeless body on the gurney. "Go ahead, it won't bother me at all."
I climbed up onto the narrow gurney and lay down next to him. He would have wanted me to note every detail for him—the way his chest was still warm, while his arms were already stiff and cold and his fingers were curled and blue. He had a bruise on the left side of his face. It was comforting to rest there with my arm around him, touching him in a familiar way, relieved still to have a companion, even a quiet one.
Two nurses came in. "You should go home now and get some rest," one said. She put her hand on my shoulder, squeezed me gently.
Emily took my arm and we walked down the fluorescent-lit corridors and stepped out into the twilight, a remarkable sky of inky blue with low hanging clouds. A flock of black birds rushed up into the sky, their wings moved in unison, a tragic banner.