In the hospital we are only allowed to see you after we’ve disrobed and we’ve scrubbed ourselves with disinfectant. The disinfectant smells like lemons, which is an interesting touch considering the last crop of lemons fell — rotting — off their trees five years ago. A year or two before now and that realization would’ve stung like citrus in a fresh cut, but now there’s only a slow burn behind my eyes that lessens when I blink.
So on go the plastic undergarments. They are sexless, nude colored, and they squeak modestly as we change with our backs to each other. Then the zippered plastic suits. The gloves that, in another time, would be associated with washing dishes. Now they are what we use to reach out and touch those of us who weren’t so lucky.
You weren’t so lucky, darling.
In through the airlock chamber, we are propelled forward by an orderly who hums under his breath. The sound is echoing and strange through the mask he wears over his mouth. We are propelled forward by routine and a sense of duty. Fridays have been — without fail — visiting days for the last five years. Your daughter is 15 years old now, you know. We got in a fight on the car ride here, because she wanted to go to the movies with her friends. I think she might love a boy. Does she ever tell you anything about that, when she whispers at you through the glass partition? I always stand a little bit off, so she can feel like she can share secrets with you, if she wants to. But truth is? I’d be devastated if she did.
I find it easier to talk to you here, in my head, rather than when I’m sitting next to you. But here we are; we’re rounding the corner and coming up to the glass. I shut my eyes as I walk because I know how many steps I’ll have to take before my gloved hands meet the glass (35), and I know exactly what I’ll see when I get there (you, underneath the blankets, which are pulled up to your chin).
And then I have to look, because I know you expect it. You’re looking at us now. You blink your naked eyelids. We are now used to seeing you without your eyelashes.
Those of us infected by the blight woke up the next day to stiff faces, and dry eyes, and eyelashes that felt brittle like spiders’ legs. I remember you asked if I had any eye drops. “I want to loosen things up,” you’d said. I told you I’d put them on the shopping list. The list stayed stuck to the fridge for months; I never bought the eye drops.
Back to the eyelashes: There was a universal quivering, a spasm that touched those who had been unknowingly infected, and all at once the lashes of those people broke off onto the floor. It was a normal afternoon, before that happened. People were eating in the food court at the mall and riding bicycles on the sidewalks. Suddenly there were spiders’ legs sticking up out of the chicken chow mein. Pedestrians were spattered with eyelashes from the bikers who pedaled by. They were sweeping little black bristles off the streets for a whole day afterwards.
I brought you to the emergency room to get checked out, but the line was already out the door. I had to leave to pick up our daughter from school; the school had called for an early dismissal. Confusion buzzed through the air. When I was walking our daughter to the car I saw a woman cover her mouth, saw her fingers shake and drop something, clinking like ice cubes, to the pavement. When she howled, her open mouth was a gaping black hole, and I knew the things clink-clinking on the pavement were her teeth.
I also knew — the thought made my stomach churn — that by the time we got back to the hospital your teeth would be gone from your mouth. I was hoping you’d have the sense to sweep them up, so as not to scare your daughter. But they were still in a pile in front of you, and you had covered your face with your hands.
I can’t describe what it feels like when you find your husband seated in the same waiting room chair and he opens his mouth to ask “Why?” All I can say is you suddenly know what he will look like if he lives to be very, very old, and the idea is not a comfort.
What I can say now is this: You do not look very, very old. In fact, you look incredibly young. You are constantly molting, shedding your skin. Your daughter says around school they call those who were infected “snakes.” Your face is pink and plump, no longer weathered by the elements. Your eyes are clear. The nurses have to administer eye drops often since your lashes are no longer around to protect your eyes. Your fingernails grow quickly and fall off; they are painful pink pads for a day or two, and then the nails grow back even stronger.
Recently on a talk show a comedian said that she wished she’d been infected by the blight.
“Sure, it’s been hell on the economy, and our agriculture, and our ability to reproduce as a human race, but have you seen what it’s done to their skin?”
I reach my gloved hand through the slot in the glass near your bedside, and you grasp at it with eager fingers. It is a pink pad day, and you wince a little bit, showing your gums. You smile at me with your eyes. It’s easier that way.
I talk at you for a little bit about the softer stories on the local news, and about the movies that are coming out in theaters. Despite all the damage our society has taken, our desire for action movies has only intensified. We want larger-than-life heroes. We want sweat. We want machismo. I try not to think about how I used to compare the cleft in your chin to that movie star’s. Your skin is so soft now; the cleft is nearly gone, anyway.
I try not to think about how we used to cocoon ourselves in our bed on weekend mornings, clutching coffee mugs and each other, shuffling around the Sunday paper. I try not to think about how your lashes used to brush my cheek in an Eskimo kiss that made me giggle like a schoolgirl. I try not to think about the way my hands cupped your face before I’d kiss you on the mouth, or how I’d smile into your teeth. I wonder if we were placed in a dark room — would I know who you were by the feel of your face? Would my fingertips recognize your skin?
I move aside, worn out, to let your daughter speak to you. She is all dramatic sighs and jerky movements, making me relieved that some things — like teenagers — don’t change, even in the face of a worldwide disaster.