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To Be Closer


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The trucker was unscathed, but a pool of blood and saliva collected on the car ceiling under Nina’s head. Her lips were numb. She tried lifting her weight off of the seat belt to unbuckle herself, but pieces of windshield poked at her hands. The sound of the right turn signal was annoying. Flashing red lights filled the cabin of the car. Mike told the children, “Slippery roads.” He held his wife’s hand and brought ugly flowers to put next to her hospital bed. She loved them. Nina cried when the doctors told her that her skull was dragged across sixty feet of pavement through an open sunroof. “She has a speech aphasia,” said the doctor. Mike leaned against the railing of Nina’s bed. “She can still comprehend what other people say. But responding would be difficult. She can think of words, but the thing that tells the muscles in her tongue and throat how to make those words is damaged. She might just mumble, or only say approximations of what she really means. Can you say your first name for me, Mrs. Gibbons?” asked the doctor. “Needle,” she said. Mike stroked his wife’s hand. “Will physical therapy help?” he asked. Nina felt like a third party. She shouldn’t be in the room during such an intimate conversation. “No. Her mobility is severely limited as well. She’ll have to sit in a wheelchair. People will have to feed her, and dress her, and put her into bed. That may change with physical therapy, but we can’t repair her ability to speak,” said the doctor. Nina wanted to tell Mike the roads weren’t slippery at all. But then he might stop bringing her flowers.

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“Wow. I don’t even know where to begin,” said Mike. “The Consolation Officers are down the hall. They’ll get you set up. See you soon,” said the doctor. Mike crammed Nina’s wheelchair into the car. He put a blanket between her limp head and the car window. Her stomach tightened each time an eighteen-wheeler passed by. *** It was an important day. It was her third one-month check up at the hospital. The doctors needed to make sure she still couldn’t do anything. She didn’t like their questions or their tubes, or the way that Mike rubbed his hands when they asked if in-house assistance was required. Maybe Mike didn’t remember, but Nina didn’t rub her hands when he had pneumonia for a month. Nina wanted to brush her teeth. Maybe for an hour or so, then she would floss, and then do it again. She didn’t care if it made her gums bleed. The neon pink toothbrush sat in the glass next to the sink. She stared at it. Fucking toothbrush. Mike pushed a puffy, blue strip of paste out of the tube onto the brush. Fucking Mike. He could brush his teeth. He scrubbed the bristles gently against her back molars. Like scratching an itch. She tried to bite down on the brush, but bit him instead. “Ow, Nina.” He lifted her chin and dabbed off the toothpaste. “We go through this every time. Why do you hate this so much?” He let her head drop. She really wanted to brush her own teeth. The hospital provided Mike with pamphlets and support groups to help him “cope”, but gave no suggestions for the daily frustration Nina endured. She missed the private things. Mike

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had only prepared himself for changing the diapers of his children. Progress was slow. Mike gradually discerned the important words in Nina’s jumbled sentences. They created a simple answering system: one blink for yes, two blinks for no. Nina sat in the kitchen, her head drooping to one side. Her arms and legs were thinner than before. She would become a skeletal frame, with only a bit of weak muscle and pale skin draped over her bones. Mike was peeling potatoes for beef stew. He hunched over the sink and slung the shreds of skin into the drain. Nina knew she was a burden. How soon until he divorced her? He would tuck her away in a “home” somewhere, to be fed puréed cafeteria food by largebreasted women in pastel scrubs. When she died of neglect, he might visit her grave dressed in a colorful tie that his new wife insisted he wear, because what was there to mourn? Mike kissed Nina’s hair. He unscrewed the lid on a jar of mashed peas and carrots. It was Nina’s least favorite, but Mike either couldn’t understand, or didn’t care. Nina groaned. “What’s wrong?” he asked. He spooned the green-brown mush into her mouth and she smacked it. The jar was halfempty when Nina decided she’d had enough. She spit the food onto her bib. “Woah. Having trouble today?” said Mike. He wiped her chin and tried to feed her again. She pressed her lips together as tight as she could, though she wasn’t sure how tight they actually were. She hadn’t been able to feel them for months. “C’mon, I need to finish the potatoes. The stew isn’t going to be ready in time for dinner.” Nina squinted at him. “What’s that look for?” he asked.

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“Sewer,” said Nina. “You think my cooking tastes like a sewer?” Nina blinked “no.” “What, this food?” He tapped the jar with the spoon. She blinked “yes.” “Damn it, Nina. I wish you would have told me sooner. I just bought a bunch of it,” said Mike. Nina looked sad. Mike threw the jar away and licked the spoon. He grimaced. “I’m sorry. You’ve probably been trying to tell me for a while, huh? Well, no more of that.” “Apolo. Paz apolo,” said Nina. “Don’t apologize, baby,” he said. *** Three months later, Maxine came to give her condolences. She was the lonely neighbor who borrowed books and fantasized about Mike’s head between her legs. She was not unknown to the other men in the community. Over the years, her preferences remained consistent: middleaged, middle-class, white-bread men with an interest in science and cargo shorts. Mike lounged in his recliner under the white-hot glow of the floor lamp. Maxine leaned forward on the couch and toyed with the locket hanging between her giant breasts. “What did they say happened?” she asked. “Lost control of the car. Flew off an interstate overpass into a truck below,” said Mike. “It must be so hard for you. So hard,” she said.

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She wrinkled her heavily made-up face in affected concern. Maxine’s best friends were a can of hair spray and a sturdy diaphragm. Only the ticking of an old clock filled the space. Nina listened from another room. “It is, but we’re managing. I can only imagine what Nina is going through,” said Mike. “It can’t be that bad for her. She gets to sit around all day.” Maxine forced an ugly laugh. Mike wanted her to leave. He wanted Nina to laugh. “If there’s anything I can do to help poor Nina, don’t you hesitate to ask, Mr. Gibbons.” Maxine straightened her shirt and pulled the peach-colored fabric tight over her breasts. Her hand slid its way onto Mike’s knee and she rubbed it. “You must be so busy with Nina, you hardly have time to take care of yourself. But we don’t have to tell her. I wouldn’t want her to feel bad.” Mike patted Maxine’s hand and set it back on her knee. “I think we’re ok. The hospital has plenty of professionals if I need help. But thanks.” Maxine stood and straightened her skirt. “Well, Mike, there’s all kinds of professionals,” she said. The clatter of her flowered heels grew distant. Mike shut the front door behind her. Nina was relieved. She figured a body like Maxine’s was enough incentive for Mike to stray from his crippled wife. She assumed years ago that he already had. It wasn’t that he was cruel or came home late. But he had stopped squeezing her ass in the baking aisle of the grocery store only two years into their marriage. Later that night, Mike sat on the toilet and read the newspaper. Nina lay in bed and thought about her loneliness, and his. “Paz,” she called.

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It was the only name she was able to repeat since the crash, so she gave it to Mike. “Be right out, Nina,” he called back. “Paz. Paz paz paz paz,” called Nina. She was trying to tell him he could take his time. “In a minute, honey. Man can’t even take a shit in his own damn house,” he said quietly. Mike emerged from the bathroom shirtless. Nina liked his evenly distributed chest hair. “Paz paz paz paz paz,” Nina said. She grunted. It was not what she wanted to say. “Slow down. You know you can’t try to talk too fast.” “Backyard deer sex. White peach,” she said. Mike pulled at his goatee. “There are deer. In the backyard. Having sex. With a white peach?” he asked. Nina blinked “no.” “Backyard? Deer? Sex?” he asked. She blinked “yes” as sex. “Sex. You want deer sex? No. You want sex?” he asked. Nina jutted her chin toward Mike. “Me? You want to have sex with me?” Nina blinked “no.” Mike looked hurt. “Well, honey, I figured that, but you didn’t have to tell me,” he said. Nina blinked “no” several times. “Paz deer sex,” she said. “No, Nina, I don’t want to have sex with a deer,” said Mike.

Margaret Cogswell

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Nina groaned. Mike dropped his weight on the bed and put his hands over his face. “You think I want sex?” asked Mike. Nina blinked “yes.” “With you?” he asked. Nina blinked “no.” “Someone else?” “Peach bush. Peach lick,” said Nina. “I don’t know who Peach is,” said Mike. “Bib boogs.” “Big boobs?” Mike thought. “Maxine?” he asked. Nina blinked “yes.” “My dick would rot and fall off!” Nina laughed. Mike smiled and kissed her. “Nina, if I wanted to do that, it wouldn’t be with her. And I don’t want to do that. I haven’t for the eight years we’ve been married, and I won’t now. In sickness and in health. That’s what they say, right?” He leaned in and kissed her gently. Nina supposed that if he wanted to now, he would just tell her. It’s not like she could stop him or tell anyone what he was doing. And it would be hard for her to blame him, as long as he didn’t sleep with people like Maxine. “No, Nina. It’s only you. You’re still in there,” he said.

Margaret Cogswell

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In that moment, she’d rather believe she was wrong the whole time. If it was a lie, it was the sweetest yet. Mike was affectionate and Nina felt the awkwardness of her body. She willed it to return her tenderness. “Nina, would you—I mean can I—” said Mike. Nina blinked “yes.” “It won’t hurt you, will it?” he asked. She blinked “no.” Mike struggled for some time to position Nina appropriately. He seemed unperturbed though, even when her legs kept slipping off of his shoulders and he had to stop mid-thrust to move them back. Saliva collected in Nina’s mouth and started seeping down her chin while they made love. When he was finished, Nina couldn’t help but feel guilty that she hadn’t climaxed. It never matter much to her before, but Mike seemed concerned. “Was it ok for you? I tried. I’m just not sure how much you can feel,” he said. Nina pursed her lips to ask for a kiss. They fell asleep quickly, entangled in each other’s limbs. Nina woke early and watched her husband’s back rise and fall in the grey light. She hoped he would never find out the roads weren’t slippery. She would never try to tell, and it was unlikely Mike would read the entry in her journal. He wasn’t the prying type. She knew she ought to thank that truck driver. This was the closest she’d felt to her husband in years.

Margaret Cogswell

margaretcogswell.com

843.830.1233

To Be Closer  

A crippling car wreck saves the marriage of an unusual couple.

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