This all happened before jihadis made a chimney stack of the New York City skyline; about five years before our televisions lit up with the green thunderclap of night bombardments over Baghdad; two years before the new millennium brought to our screens the sudden paroxysms of suicide attacks, civil war, and summary beheadings.
Then, Nora was living with her family at the ragged edges of the city, in a six storey apartment on a court with several other apartment buildings. All of them were built in an austere Cabrini-Green style. They were many-eyed tenements that sat in a circle, staring obliquely at each other. Abandoned shopping carts obstructed the neighbourhood’s walkways, if kids didn’t ride them up and down the street. Gangs took up on the one patchy, crescent-shaped lawn in the court and yelled obscenities at each other. All around them, trampled litter. Nora’s building was squat and brown; her sisters-in-law lived together in a reddish mid-rise across the weathered asphalt court.
On a Wednesday, at three p.m., something disturbed Nora’s sleep. She’d only managed a few hours’ sleep so far, ahead of another night shift at the mental health facility where she worked as a nurse. In her half-conscious state, Nora guessed that noises from the television down the hall were invading her dreams. A minute later, she realized her phone was ringing. Of course. Her husband wouldn’t be home from work for hours yet.
A girl’s voice was on the other end. Her daughter, Sara. ‘Sara’ pronounced with each flat A loosened with a tongue depressor. Listen. She was trying to communicate something important to Nora. Listen. The convenience store where Sara was currently working had been robbed. She’d been held up. Nora was pitched back into the waking world.
“Shit. My god,” she said. She’d been careful to not let her daughter hear her swear recently. “Did he have a gun? Are you okay?
“Yeah,” Sara said. “The dude just had a knife.”
There was a coolness to her voice, nearing the obstinate tone she almost always took with Nora now. Nothing so bad had happened as to shake it completely.
“OK. Call the police,” she hauled herself upright against the pillows. “And lock the door.”
“Yeah I already did,” the voice on the line answered.
“What did you do?” There was no answer.
“I’m coming,” Nora said to the dial tone.
She dressed quickly in the clothes she’d slung over her bed that morning. On her way out of the two-bedroom apartment, Nora passed her daughter’s room. What seemed like Sara’s entire wardrobe was strewn across the floor. On the dresser was a pile of cheap jewelry Sara was no longer interested in, and next to it a mason jar half-filled with murky water. Weeks ago, Nora’s husband, Najib, had confiscated the rose that sat in it. He’d crushed its petals between his palms in a fit after Sara refused to elaborate on who had given it to her.
“A friend, jeez,” was all she could manage.
From time to time, Najib walked in to Sara’s room and tore down the posters of hip hop and rap singers she put up. But new ones always cropped up to take their place. The truth was that Nora dreaded calls from her daughter. Before she picked up, she hated imagining what scenario necessitated a call. She was starting to think of Sara as the type of person who attracted trouble.
The convenience store where Sara worked was only a few blocks from the apartment. When she arrived there, no more than ten minutes after Sara’s call, there were no police cars in the parking lot and the door was unlocked. Inside, nothing looked out of place: no tossed over shelves, no merchandise displaced in a show of aggression or intimidation. It was as if a peaceful transaction had taken place. Sara was in her usual position behind the cash register, arms crossed. Under her oversized sweater and hoodie, she’d recently lost the last of her baby fat. Her features had undergone the angular revisions of womanhood.
How much damage could the man, and Nora presumed it must have been a man, done with a knife? She had the urge to embrace her daughter. Or go up to her, push up her sleeves, and inspect her limbs for injuries. As if to deter such a show, Sara stepped back when her mother spotted her.
“Don’t worry, Georgie’s here,” the girl said preemptively.
George, the owner and an old acquaintance of Nora’s, lived even further out from the reaches of the city–twenty minutes by car at least.
“You called George first?”
“Is this not his store? Is he not my boss?”
George’s Convenience Plus was the type of place where most of the useful products – tampons, crackers, greeting cards – were covered in several layers of dust. Most customers came in for the lottery tickets, cigarettes, and dirty magazines near the cash. It was a narrow space and its back end was always dim during the day to save on electricity. On display in the front window were, inexplicably, several knit hats on Styrofoam busts and collection of Beanie Babies in a glass case.
George appeared from the back room, and rushed down one of the long aisles to the counter. He gave Nora two thumbs up.
“We got him. The camera was working, it caught everything.”
“What happened?” she asked George.
“What happened is that a man came in here and took all the money from the till and two cartons of cigarettes,” George said. “But he’s out of luck.”
“Where are the police?”
“I was about to call them.”
“Like the police even give a shit,” Sara piped in. “The cops aren’t your friends.”
To Nora, this seemed like something her daughter might have picked up from her new boyfriend. Nora might have called such a statement ‘street logic’ at an earlier point in her life. Now she couldn’t help but label it garbage; street garbage her daughter had heard out in the court, among the delinquents Najib and his sisters, Mary and Maryam, accused Sara of associating with.
“Stop being absurd,” Nora responded.
Once George got the authorities on the phone, they instructed Sara to come to the police station to give her statement. She and Nora walked back toward their apartment’s underground garage to retrieve her sedan, retracing the way Nora had come, cutting through the back lot of Mary and Maryam’s building. Doing so, Nora felt some dread, as if a pair of eyes peered out of every window. The sisters lived in an eighth floor unit from which they could look directly into Nora’s apartment. Mary and Maryam did piecemeal alterations in their living room so they were home most of the time, surveying the court. Crossing it now, Nora wondered if they were watching her and Sara from their balcony. She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder. Other than her family and her sisters-in-law, there were three other Afghan families in the neighbourhood.
When Nora was a teenager, she changed the spelling of her name from ‘Noorah’ to a more anglicized version. Her parents impelled her to stay in the city, and live with them, throughout college. By the time she was in the third year of her practical nursing degree, most of the women close to her age in her extended family were already married. It seemed that to slip from the infantilizing clutch of family without disrupting everyone’s sense of propriety, marriage was the only option. By then Nora had already met Najib, another Afghan and therefore a suitable candidate for marriage, at college. He was a year younger, recently immigrated, and had plans to become an electrical engineer but gradually stopped attending classes once his and Nora’s engagement was announced.
He took a job in a meat-packing plant, where he still worked as a manager. In those early days of their relationship, Nora had so often heard him rationalize this decision that she had fully absorbed his logic. Now, though, she couldn’t retrace any of those abstract connections. She and Najib had had a shared vision for their future. A small house in the suburbs with green on all sides, and maybe even a library for their children. Their apartment in the court was only meant to be a stopgap on their way out of the city. Soon after graduating, Nora gave birth to Sara.
Once Mary and Maryam moved to the court, their option to move away fell out of the realm of possibilities. There would be a whiff of vulgarity, according to Najib. If they showed they had enough money for a house, then they’d be obligated to help his sisters out more. There was no leaving Mary and Maryam behind, no move for them without a commensurate step up in the world for Najib’s sisters. Nora acquiesced but felt as if they were making serious decisions on a hunch. It was like boarding up all the windows in a house because of one ominous cloud on the horizon.
Nora remembered first meeting her sisters-in-law at the airport. During the first few years of their marriage, she and Najib had been sending the girls, Afghan refugees in Peshawar, money. The money transfers paid for their necessities as well as a desultory schooling at a Pakistani English academy. Nora had expected Mary and Maryam to look as they were captured in a photo Najib had wedged in her vanity mirror: a plain-looking pair in loosely slung head scarves who smiled timidly before the camera. When little Sara was first introduced to her aunts at the arrivals gate, she squealed and told Nora in English that they reminded her of Halloween. The sisters still looked identical to each other but had transformed since the photo was taken. They had teased their short, dark hair up and each put one blonde streak through it. They wore silk scarves tied tight around their necks and bright red lipstick that popped on their dusky, Asian faces. On the drive home from the airport, they commented to each other on the people passing outside the car.
“So much freedom and no one here knows how to dress.”
It quickly became evident to Nora that Mary and Maryam were under the impression that Najib was an engineer. He had misled his sisters about his work. And yet it was Nora who had to field questions about their shabby living situation and Najib’s decisions. And then, suddenly, she felt responsible for all of it. Her sisters-in-law were baffled over how she could have let their brother squander his future. They asked point blank why she hadn’t convinced him to stay in school, why she hadn’t demanded that he earn more than she did. As if she were missing some crucial wifely cunning. Had Najib left her, Nora would have been to blame because of this deficiency. Yet leaving her marriage would have been morally insupportable to both her and Najib’s families.
A month before the robbery, the sisters informed Nora that from their balcony, they’d seen Sara bring a boy into the apartment. To be more precise, they’d seen Sara moving about with a black boy—he was impossible to miss, they claimed, even from that distance. Nora hadn’t reported any of this to Najib. And, as if sensing she hadn’t, a few days later when they were over for tea, Mary and Maryam told Najib themselves. They’d waited for Sara to retreat to her bedroom, but didn’t acknowledge Nora at any time in the conversation. As she offered the sisters crème rolls and baklava, refilled their tea cups, Nora felt singled out. It was she, not her sisters-in-law, who was the foreigner—the English speaking wife who hadn’t instilled in Sara their shared sense of virtue. This incident with the black boy must have seemed—in Mary and Maryam’s minds—of a piece with their brother’s general and disgraceful downward progression. They must have wondered what could have pressed their once talented brother to take on such a timid and faltering person as Nora. Despite these uncomfortable thoughts, Nora walked her sisters-in-law down to the lobby and gave them each two kisses on the cheek to see them off.
Something else Nora hadn’t divulged to Najib: coming home mid-shift she’d found Sara and the boy scurrying out of Sara’s bedroom. They must have been listening for the door, they were fumbling to straighten their clothes in the hallway. Sara hastily introduced the boy as DeVawn, while Nora stood in stunned silence, waiting for him to leave. Afterward, mother and daughter struck a deal: Sara would stop seeing DeVawn and Nora would keep the whole episode from Najib. Still, she had registered another sign of trouble in the intervening weeks. Sara’s grandmother’s locket was missing, and though she denied it, Nora still suspected Sara had pawned it off for her boyfriend.
Sara had also denied letting a boy into the apartment when Najib confronted her later the same night of Mary and Maryam’s visit.
“Uh, of course I wouldn’t.”
“Both your aunts say they saw a boy moving around in here.”
“How could they, through the curtains?”
“Are you calling your aunts liars?”
“No, of course not. Maybe—maybe they were looking at the wrong apartment.”
After that, Najib started a routine of chaperoning Sara to and from work. Nora pictured her husband seeing her daughter through the court: Najib walking ahead at his clipped pace, each thud on the ground reminding Sara to walk in line or get left behind. Sometimes he called Nora at work and asked her to check in on Sara. That was the extent of their conversations on the matter. In the evenings, Najib would drive by Convenience Plus on his way home from work—his headlights flooding the glass front of the store while Sara worked.
Sara didn’t want Nora to come with her into the police interview, but the officer told her it was policy to have her guardian present. George turned the security tape over, the police just needed to take an official statement from the person at the scene.
The perp’s details were as follows: a black male, maybe in his twenties, wearing a bandana over half his face. Either it was already on, or he pulled it over his nose soon after entering the store. The video would show it. It was the cheap kind, red with a blurry paisley print.
The register was close to the entrance at Convenience Plus. The man had a knife out over the counter, it seemed, seconds after the bell over the door chimed.
“Did he have an accent?” the police officer asked. “Like a Jamaican or African accent? Something that distinguishes him slightly from others?”
“He said, like, two words to me,” Sara answered.
The details were hazy. Sara could say for sure he had on a black bomber jacket and the red bandana. He might have had short dreads. She was too frightened to get a good look at the getaway car. Maybe a black sedan.
“You did the right thing not resisting,” the officer told her, “giving him the money.”
Afterwards, during their drive home, Nora asked her daughter, “Was that all right? Did you feel comfortable talking to the police? You didn’t seem nervous.”
“Nah,” Sara said. “It’s not going to help anything, though. Did you see they didn’t even look around or dust for fingerprints or anything? I knew they wouldn’t.”
“Is there anything you couldn’t say in there that you want to tell me?”
“Nope,” Sara said, popping the P in nope. “And that camera isn’t going to help either. That shit is so old–”
“They’ll be lucky if they can make out anybody on there.
The following Friday, Nora left the hospital early, which meant it was one of those rare occasions when the family sat down together for dinner. During the meal, conversation revolved around the robbery. Sara had avoided her father for two nights by going to bed early because of a stomach ache, so it was Najib’s first opportunity to speak to her about it. Sara offered up the same hazy morsels of information that Nora had heard at the police station, mostly in the form of truncated responses to Najib’s questions. Answering seemed to pain the girl. She would push food around on her plate, and then swallow hard not having taken a bite.
In the space of a year, this was the second time Nora was confronted with such a stricken mask. The first time was with her friend Debbie, a woman who once lived down the hall. Debbie didn’t work so Nora often took refuge at her neighbour’s house if she happened to spot Mary or Maryam making their way across the street toward her apartment. Afterwards, she could tell Najib she’d been at Debbie’s house and had missed Mary and Maryam’s call.
For a while, Najib had approved of Nora’s friendship with Debbie because she had recently married a Muslim man. His name was Omar and he was Jordanian by extraction, but he’d grown up near the neighbourhood. Alone in Debbie’s living room, she and Nora would sit for hours around a jaundiced-colored dining table and gossip about their husbands. Even as a newlywed, Debbie was full of complaints about Omar’s drinking, his lack of ambition, his double standards. They rehashed the same conversation again and again.
What Nora complained about the most was Najib’s simultaneous dislike of and loyalty to the neighbourhood. Was being close to his sisters important enough to keep Nora and Sara tethered to the hoodlums he was always complaining about?
“Oh they’re all like that. Comfortable with so little,” Debbie would say, disregarding the fact that Nora herself was technically Muslim. Debbie had a theory that all Muslim men suffered from a particular type of impotence. A dissatisfaction with their station coupled with crippling indecision. It was more natural for a Muslim man to stay in limbo, in a state of inertia.
Nora and Debbie’s meetings came to sudden halt when Omar was arrested in the dead heat of summer. According to the neighbours who had seen Omar dragged out of his apartment, there had been a raid and police seized drugs from inside his and Debbie’s apartment. Najib forbade Nora from visiting Debbie ever again, and she was stunned enough by Omar’s crime to stay away for a while. One afternoon, Nora was moved to check in on Debbie, and snuck over for one final visit. The whole tremulous walk down the hallway, all she could think of was how much the floor smelled perpetually of smoke and burning onions. She tried not to focus on the fact that her one remaining friendship was coming to an end.
Nora had to knock for a couple of minutes before Debbie answered. She cried on sight of her friend. Her apartment remained disorganized from the search, and Debbie, still in her nightgown, was disheveled. She looked how you might imagine a person on television might portray a ‘wreck,’ hunched in an armchair with her chin resting in her hands.
“How could he do this to me? I swear I had no idea,” she told Nora several times.
Nora nodded and rubbed Debbie’s back each time, but doubt had already settled in. Looking around Debbie and Omar’s tiny one-bedroom apartment, Nora wondered how two lives could be lived out in such close proximity and remain closed off to each other. How could someone be so unaware of what was going on in her own house? Debbie must have suspected and chosen to ignore Omar’s nefarious business. Complicit, either way.
Now, at dinner with her family, Nora sensed with alarm that her husband might be willing to disturb their collective inertia. The more Sara obfuscated, the more Najib pressed her.
“And you’re sure you’ve never seen this man in our neighbourhood before?” he asked Sara.
“I don’t think so,” Sara said. “No. I wouldn’t recognize him if he had a bandana on, anyways.”
“You haven’t seen anyone suspicious watching the store? Maybe someone standing around in the parking lot.”
“I never saw him before. Like I said.”
Najib watched the girl and she pretended to eat, eyes cast down at her plate. Suddenly the sound of their flatware scraping against the ceramic, of their forearms sticking to and coming unstuck from the plastic table cover seemed too loud to Nora. She willed her husband not to confront Sara, as much as she wished her daughter had just obeyed him and stayed out of trouble the past few months.
“I don’t have an appetite,” Sara finally said. She placed her fork and spoon in the center of her plate.
“You don’t have an appetite?” Najib leaned in.
“I’m full is all I mean.”
“You’re not finished.”
Without forethought, Nora shot up and began to collect some of the empty serving dishes from the table to take to the sink. They had a galley kitchen that opened onto the dining room. Sara followed after Nora to drop off her own plate. When they’d emerged and Nora was quickly gathering more things from the dining table, Najib balled up his napkin and tossed it on the floor.
“Pick that up,” he said to Sara. Then looking at Nora, “Not you.”
Sara stopped dead, turning red. Her father repeated, “Pick it up.”
Hands full, Nora went back into the kitchen, shutting herself off from the scene. She faced a sink full of dirty dishes, waiting for what Sara would do. The longer the silence from the living room stretched, the faster Nora’s heart beat. There was a show down. Pick it up, pick it up, she prayed silently. She looked down at the dishes and considered washing them, as if that would will Sara into action. Nora held her breath, willing, willing, until she heard a rustling. She sensed someone walk into the kitchen behind her and heard the yawn of the garbage can opening. She heaved a sigh of relief but stayed in the kitchen long after she heard Sara’s bedroom door close and Najib left the table.
At work, a week later, Nora received a call from Convenience Plus. George told her that he didn’t want Sara to come to the store anymore. He was fumbling his words over the phone, so Nora made him promise to meet her at the store when she was done work.
In person, George tried to elaborate, “You know, I wish this hadn’t happened, just because I’d never want Sara to be in a scary situation. You know I would never wish that on her. It’s just, in a way, the robbery had me all excited, too. To get a chance to play detective, if you know what I mean. So I start going through some of these tapes I use in rotation, maybe to pick up on some clues, and I’ve gotta say I don’t like what I’ve found.”
“Okay,” Nora said. “What have you found? What are you talking about?”
“I gave your daughter a chance,” George said. “But there’s some things on those tapes I don’t think you’d like.”
“Like what, George?”
He shook his head, not able to bring himself to say what Sara had done. Nora had known George from the time Sara was a baby. She must have made hundreds of visits to the neighbourhood store. In all that time, he’d never been anything but direct.
“If I say anything, it’ll probably make you real defensive. And I’m not trying to criticize your family,” George said after a minute. “Don’t take my word for it.”
He let Nora alone in the back room, where he’d been doing his investigating on his off time, with a tape to watch. Nora had never been back there. A chair faced a VHS player hooked up to a 24 inch television in one corner; opposite to this set up was an exposed toilet with a stack of magazines resting on the tank. Piles of boxes lined the walls. Nora took a seat and fed the tape into the VCR.
The video was recorded in black and white, which made the scene opening before Nora feel eerie. On the screen, for an impossibly long time, Sara sat in her little chair behind the counter, the catatonic state Nora had so often witnessed walking in on her. Right now, though, seeing her daughter so unaware and disarmed, so vulnerable to the camera, she wanted to reach out and protect her. To warn her. Against what? About what? That there was someone watching? Despite Sara’s being in charge of Convenience Plus, she realized her daughter’s time at the store must have been the few occasions where she had some privacy.
Nora sped up the tape until she recognized herself pushing into the frame. She knew she was watching herself, but in a way she felt alien to herself. She was a less vibrant person on the monitor than how she imagined she looked, older and more slobbishly put together. Her hand extended across the counter to give Sara some money. Nora now wished she could remember the exact moment of this exchange captured on video, but she’d repeated the gesture too many times—so many times that it had become an automatic response to seeing her daughter in the store. She must have been saying, “Get yourself something to eat.” Then, she disappeared from the past again.
Minutes later, on screen, the small figure behind the counter rose up from her seat. Nora pressed play in time to see Sara move out from behind the counter and out of the shot momentarily. She rushed back to her seat with a magazine in hand. This all must have occurred months ago, Sara’s fall coat was slung over the back of her chair. Nora could make out, once Sara opened up the magazine’s pages, that the images were pornographic. The girl leafed through it for some time, then stuffed it away under a pile of papers behind the counter.
Then, Sara covered her lap with her coat and reached under the makeshift blanket with one hand. Nora watched as the exposed part of Sara’s arm, her elbow, jounced. Sara shifted slightly under the coat. It was clear to Nora that her daughter was touching herself. In a public place. Eyes closed, Sara threw her head back slightly in the video. The sight of it made Nora queasy. She hit pause as soon as Sara shook the coat off and sat upright.
Nora sat in the backroom of Convenience Plus, staring at the monitor, panicking. She had no way of communicating any of what she’d seen to Najib. Maybe she could explain to him that they’d curtailed Sara’s freedom too much, that all these restrictions were inflicting stress, causing Sara to act out. Nora played out a conversation in her head, knowing full well Najib would never understand any of it.
A minute later, resolve took the place of panic. It would mean too much upheaval in Nora’s family life to be on Sara’s side. Nora would find a way to see Sara through the last couple of years of high school without disturbing the order of things. Either she’d beg George for the girl’s job back or tell Najib she had forced Sara to quit out of concern for the girl’s safety.
While all of the trouble with Sara was unravelling, Nora was spending a lot of time at work. More time than ever. She worked extra shifts on the weekends and covered for some of the other nurses in the Depression and Anxiety unit at the hospital. It was only after the coldest shortest days of the year had passed, once the heavy veil of winter was starting to lift, that the ward filled up with the most patients. Nora used this fact to explain her general absence to her family.
That season, the hospital was instituting something called the JUMP program, which was not so much an acronym for any policy but a call to patients to actually leap into life. The campaign reminded Nora of the times she used to crawl into Sara’s bed when she was a child. Times when the little girl had trouble waking, and Nora would whisper into Sara’s ear, “Go on, jump out of bed, like the tigress you are.” All around the ward, there were posters of smiling people suspended in the air with their arms raised.
Those posters were up when the hospital admitted a minor TV celebrity, the actor David Sterling. David was known for a short-lived cable show where he played a straight-laced police officer disciple to a Kung Fu master. Nora was off duty when he was admitted but the celebrity name and the role were well-known to her. Her recollection of him on television felt so immediate, while her memories of rousing her daughter from sleep seemed so tenuous.
For the first few days of his stay in the ward, David was heavily sedated and lay in his room. The orderlies were told he was recovering from suicidal ideations and a mild psychotic break, so they kept a careful watch on him. During a night shift, when the unit was down to a third of its staff, Nora couldn’t resist creeping into David’s room to take a closer look at him.
She was careful to turn the door handle slowly, though he was probably knocked out. David didn’t stir as the latch clicked back into place. Nora discovered that David hadn’t aged much in the decade since his procedural had last been on the air. He still had a boyish, albeit greying, mushroom cut and a muscular frame. But David’s head was wedged between two pillows, tilted in what looked to be a painful angle. He slept with his mouth open slightly, and left a dark splotch on the pillow supporting the right side of his face. He reminded Nora of a fallen baby chick. The fact that he was left twisted in the sheets, defenseless to Nora’s invasion, rendered him vulnerable in her eyes. Standing over him, Nora thought what a pity it was that a once capable man could be reduced to such a state—but of course, she was only thinking of the character David had played on television when she thought ‘capable.’ Automatically, David had taken on more value than any of the other patients under Nora’s care.
David Sterling was not instantly recognizable to all of the staff. Some of the people in Depression and Anxiety had been too young to watch his show when it was on television. On the first Friday of David’s stay, while Nora was the charge nurse on duty and just hours before David would be discharged for the weekend, a young orderly approached Nora about having David restrained.
“He has bad manners. He cussed at me and tossed his food tray at me,” Imrani told Nora.
Nora didn’t take down a report. She went to David’s room to see if he was in fact agitated. In the doorway, she suddenly felt self-conscious about her beige stockings and orthotics. Also, her roots were growing in. If it wasn’t for the robbery two days earlier, she would have called Sara and asked her to bring home a box of auburn dye and payed George back later.
There was an overturned tray on the floor near David’s bed. A splatter of tomato soup that looked like a paw print crept out from under it. The tray could hardly have been hurled, it was no more than two feet from the side of the bed. David was perched on the further edge of the bed, his back turned to the door.
“What is it now?” he said without turning to face her.
“David? It’s me, Nurse Nora.”
When he looked up at her, Nora saw that his eyes were rimmed in red. Soft wrinkles formed under them as he squinted at her. Nora made her voice as soft as possible and asked him what the problem was.
“I just wanted to go outside, but he told me I wasn’t allowed to. When I asked him why not, he just kept telling me we’d talk about it after lunch.” David used air quotes when he said the words after lunch. “I’m just tired of being treated like a child. How do you people not understand that?”
Nora stepped into the room, over a half-eaten cheese sandwich and walked past the foot of David’s bed to the window.
“I can understand how frustrated you must feel,” she said, looking out on the hospital grounds. It was the first bright day in a long while. “We generally revoke outside privileges on Fridays if the patient is going home in the afternoon. That way the nurses and orderlies can spend more time with the patients who have to stay here all weekend.”
“Can’t you just take me?” David said.
“It is such a nice day,” Nora said. “Maybe for a quick visit. I’m sure they won’t miss me at the nurse’s station if it’s just a quick visit.”
On their way out of the unit, Imrani shot Nora an incredulous look. She responded by asking him to clean up the mess in David’s room.
Outside, the sudden warmth had cut into the snow, leaving the walkways slicked with water and crescents of blue salt. Nora and David walked half the perimeter of the hospital’s property and then settled on a park bench on its lawn. David slouched a little in his seat and lifted his head to the sky.
“Thank you,” he told Nora, and stretched his legs.
Nora crossed her arms and legs near the end of the bench and stared off in his direction. She imagined the warm orange light dancing under his lids, a balm to his irritated eyes. Then she imagined David handing her a card before he was discharged for good. In it, he declared eternal gratitude for Nora’s care. He would tell her that his recovery would not have been possible without her.
Then, a progression of images unrolled behind Nora’s eyes: being invited to David’s home in the upscale urban neighbourhood where she guessed he lived. It would be spacious and secluded but close to all the things—concert halls, bars, museums—everyone but Nora’s family seemed to enjoy frequenting. There would be a garden she could tend. And if the house didn’t feel serene or secluded enough, David must’ve had a cottage retreat and he’d need her care there when life became too hectic or unbearable for him in the city. She pictured him reclined as he was now, only in a lounge chair, near a dock, neck craned to a summer sky. He would take this pose only because he could be sure Nora would shield him from his most stress-inducing, practical concerns.
Minutes passed. To rouse David, Nora placed a hand on his shoulder. David acknowledged it by patting her hand and together they walked back inside. At four thirty, David’s brother fetched him from the hospital.
During the weekend, while David was away, Nora’s shifts stretched interminably. Leaning on the desk at the nurse’s station, she’d will time to pass by inviting fantasies that spanned decades, only to emerge from her reverie surprised that a mere few minutes had gone by. Thoughts she warded off: David’s life as he lived it now, and Sara’s embroilment in the robbery.
Once David returned, Nora began to look after him personally. It was easy to exchange patients with the other nurses who regarded each of the convalescents with equal contempt. Nora encouraged David to attend Thai Chi and occupational therapy sessions, where they sat elbow to elbow molding little flowers from clay or beading little dream catchers. She checked his progress from time to time out of the corner of her eye. David was lucid in these moments, his dosages had been ramped down since his first days in the ward, but his hands shook trying to tie small feathers to the yarn of his dream catcher. He took deep breaths and Nora resisted the urge to pat him on the back for encouragement. When he finished decorating his craft project, David sat back and held it up for the both of them.
“My daughter used to love little trinkets like this. Wind chimes and bracelets and things.” he told her with a shaky smile.
“Maybe you can give your dream catcher to your daughter as a gift, the next time you see her.”
David didn’t respond, but Nora was hesitant to ask him any personal questions. She knew from experience how easy it was to overstep the bounds of caring into intrusiveness. She had to be patient.
Mostly the two of them sat in silence, engrossed, like two coworkers attending a seminar. Nora, though, was gleeful at the quiet comfort between them. David had managed to rattle the monotony of these activities; disrupted the monotony, even, of looking after others, something she thought she’d gotten used to. She noted David’s ‘relative ease’ and ‘growing engagement’ in his chart.
The next week, what was meant to be David’s last in the hospital, Nora took a day off work for the wedding of one of Najib’s distant relatives. She’d thought a family outing might help disarm some of the mounting tension between Najib and Sara since Sara had been fired. But her daughter had sulked at one of the banquet hall’s corner tables all night.
“Why are we even here?” she kept asking Nora.
“We’re here because this is our family,” Nora responded. Najib had moved to sit with a group of his male relatives and stayed there until the early morning hours.
Nora arrived at the hospital groggy the next day. Because of this, she reasoned that she was being remiss the first few times she failed to locate David’s chart at the nurse’s station. She searched every nook of the boomerang shaped desk before admitting it was missing. Her heart sinking, she rushed to David’s room. She found that it had been cleared out; all of David’s possessions, clothing, the flowers that studded his hospital room, were gone. The possibilities of what might have happened clamored in her mind. Had something terrible transpired? Was David hurt—had he hurt himself? What if he’d been discharged early? Nora hadn’t gotten the chance to say goodbye properly. She’s been robbed of her last day with him because of her family.
Nora made sure to reapproach the main desk at a normal pace. She asked the charge nurse if David had gone home.
“He’s been moved to Acute Care,” the nurse told him. “He’s under close observation by Dr. Hoskin.”
“What happened?” Nora asked.
“I think he went on a bit of a rampage. Attacked staff members,” the nurse said. “He had to be restrained. They gave him Loxapine.”
Nora’s shoulders tensed; anger filled her. Why was she the only one equipped to meet the needs of others? She almost told the nurse that David wouldn’t have gone into crisis if she’d been around to look after him.
At her first break, Nora went over to the Acute Care unit and sought out David’s room. Like the first time she’d entered his room, David didn’t stir. She guessed he’d been prescribed more benzoids and was knocked out again. His body was propped up in an awkward position. When Nora touched his shin, he didn’t wake.
Standing next to the foot of his bed, she let her hand trail up his leg to his hip. He looked so uncomfortable, sweat matted his hair to his forehead. Still, Nora was relieved he hadn’t left. Without considering it for a few moments, Nora gave into her urge to be closer to him, to comfort him. She lay down in the exposed margin of the bed next to David. She rested her head in his shoulder and placed one thigh over David’s leg without disturbing the sheets. For a second her arm hung in the air, before she draped it across his shoulder. It was his shield and hers. Then, warmth rippled through her body, finally loosening her joints.
She’d never seen the patient’s rooms from the perspective of the bed before. The place seemed dingier to her, looking up at the ceiling. The room was not that different from the ones in Anxiety and Depression. Pale pink walls, drop tiles, a massive bulkhead along the wall adjacent to the windows. She noticed brown stains in the perforated ceiling tiles. She knew it was just rust but she liked imagining that they were coffee stains, as if things splattered upwards. The world’s gravity reversed. She noticed a cobweb hanging from the wall opposite the bed. Then, when her eyes followed the edges of the room to place above her and David’s head, Nora saw something that distinguished the rooms in Acute Care. The obsidian hemisphere of a camera, a black half-globe, hung from the ceiling.
Khalida Venus Hassan is a Toronto-based writer and MFA candidate in the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing program. She has just completed her first collection of stories. Her work explores surveillance culture and the effects of digital media/communication on our potential to form meaningful social connections.