I feel a knot start to form in my throat. It gathers strength as it moves up to the surface. I excuse myself. I go out into the hall.
I put my back against the wall. I slide down to the floor. I imagine Ryan sitting next to me. I imagine him rubbing my back, the way he did when my grandfather died. I imagine him saying, She’s going to better place. She’s OK. I imagine the way my grandfather might have done this for my grandmother when she lost her own mom or her own grandmother. I imagine my grandmother sitting where I am now, my grandfather kneeling beside her, telling her all the things I want to be told. Holding her the way that only someone in particular can hold you. When I’m her age, when I’m lying in a hospital bed, ready to die, whom will I be thinking of ?
It’s Ryan. It’s always been Ryan. Just because I can live without him doesn’t mean I want to.
And I don’t. I don’t want to.
I want to hear his voice. The way it is rough but sometimes smooth and almost soulful. I want to see his face, with his stubble from never shaving down to the skin. I want to smell him again. I want to hold the roughness of his hands. I want to feel the way they envelop mine, dwarfing them, making me feel small.
I need my husband.
I’m going to call him. I don’t care about the pact we made. I don’t care about the messiness of it. I just need to hear his voice. I need to know that he’s OK. I stand up and pull my phone out of my pocket. I don’t have any service. So I walk around the floor, trying to get a bar or two. Nothing.
“Excuse me?” I ask at the nurses’ station. “Where can I get cell service?”
“You’ll have to go outside,” she says. “Once you get out the front doors, you should be OK.”
“Thanks,” I say, and I walk to the elevators. I hit the button. It lights up, but the elevator doesn’t come. I hit it again and again. I’ve waited this long to call Ryan, and now, suddenly, I must talk to him this second. The urge has overtaken me. I need to ask him to move back home. I need to tell him I love him. He has to know right now.
Finally, the elevator dings. I get in. I press the ground floor. The elevator drops quickly. It’s so quick that my stomach doesn’t fall at the same pace as my feet. I’m relieved when I touch ground. The doors open. I walk through the lobby. I walk through the front glass doors and step outside. It’s a hot, balmy day. It seems so cloudy in the hospital that I’ve forgotten that it’s actually very sunny and bright. I look at my phone. Full service.
It’s loud out here in the front of the hospital. Cars are zooming by. Ambulances are pulling in and out. It occurs to me that I am not the only one losing someone right now. Natalie isn’t the only one about to have a baby, either. Charlie’s not the only man about to become a father. My mother isn’t the only one about to lose her last parent. We are a family of people going through all the things people go through every day. We are not special. This hospital doesn’t exist for us. I’m not the only woman about to call her husband and ask him to come home. I don’t know why it feels good to know that. But it does. I’m not alone. There are millions of me.
A cab pulls up to the sidewalk, and a man gets out. He has a backpack. He shuts the cab door and turns to face me.
He looks exactly the same as when I left him at our house ten months ago. His hair is the same length. His body looks the same. It’s so familiar. Everything about him is familiar. The way he walks. The way he shuffles the backpack onto his shoulders.
I stand still, staring right at him. I can barely move. I’m not sure when it happened, but I have dropped my phone.
He walks toward the sliding doors and then stops once he sees me. His eyes go wide. I know him so well that I know what he’s thinking. I know what he’s going to do next.
He runs toward me and picks me up, grabbing me, clutching me.
“I love you,” he says. He has started to cry. “I love you, Lauren, I love you so much. I’ve missed you. God, I’ve missed you.”
My face hasn’t changed. I’m still stunned. My arms are wrapped around him. My legs are wrapped around him. He puts me down and kisses me. When his lips touch mine, my heart burns. It’s like someone lit a match in my chest.
How did he know I needed him? How did he know to find me?
He wipes my tears away. Tears I didn’t even know were on my face. He’s so gentle about it, so loving, that I wonder how I was able to wipe away my own tears all these past months. In an instant, I have forgotten how to live without him, now that he is here.
“How did you know?” I say. “How did you know?”
He looks me in the eye, preparing me. “Don’t be mad,” he says. His tone is playful, but the underlying message is serious.
“OK,” I say. “I won’t.” I mean it. Whatever brought him here is a blessing. Whatever brought him here was right to do it.
“I’ve been reading your e-mail drafts.”
I drop to the ground.
I laugh so hard that I lose control of myself. I laugh past the point where my abdomen aches and my back hurts. And because I’m laughing, Ryan starts laughing. And now we’re both on the sidewalk laughing. His laugh makes mine seem funnier. And now I’m laughing simply because I’m laughing. I can’t stop. And I don’t want to stop. And then I see my phone, busted up and broken, from when I dropped it. And that seems hilarious. It’s all so perfectly, wonderfully, amazingly, beautifully hilarious, isn’t it? When did life get so f**king funny?
“Why are we laughing?” Ryan says, in between breaths.
So it turns out this is how I confess. This is how I tell him what I’ve done. “Because I’ve been reading yours, too,” I say.
He cackles wildly. He’s laughing at me and with me and for me. People are walking by and looking at us, and for the first time in my life, I really don’t care what they think. This moment is too intoxicating. It has such a strong hold on me that nothing can bring me back to earth until I’m ready.
When we finally do get control of ourselves, our eyes are wet, our heads are light. I start to sigh loudly, the way people do when they are recovering from fits of laughter. I try to get control of myself, like a pilot landing a plane, slow and steady, readying to hit solid ground. Except instead of feeling the world under my feet, I take off again at the last minute. My sighs turn into tears. Laughing and crying are so intrinsically tied together, spun of the same material, that it’s hard to tell one from the other sometimes. And it’s easier than you think to go from being so happy you could cry to so devastated you could laugh.
The weeping becomes sobbing, and Ryan puts his arms around me. He holds me tight, right here on the sidewalk. He rubs my back, and when I start to wail, he says, “It’s OK. It’s OK.”
I look at his left hand as it holds mine. He has his wedding ring on.
Ryan and I get up off the sidewalk slowly. He grabs his bag. He picks up the pieces of my dropped cell phone and puts it back together.
“We might need to get you a new phone,” he says. “This one appears to have taken a beating.”
He grabs my hand as we walk into the hospital. We join the group of people waiting at the bank of elevators. When an elevator finally arrives, all of us cram into it, pushing against one another, spreading out against the three walls. Ryan never lets go of my hand. He squeezes it tight. He holds on for dear life. Both of our hands are sweating into each other. But he never lets go.
When we get to the eighth floor, I lead us off the elevator, and standing in front of us, ostensibly waiting for a down elevator, is Rachel.
“Where have you been?” Rachel asks. “I’ve been looking all over for you. I called you four times.”
I start to answer, but Ryan answers for me. “Her phone is broken,” he says, showing Rachel the pieces.
Rachel stares at him, her eyes fixated on him, trying to piece together why seeing him in front of her feels as if it makes perfect sense and yet doesn’t make any sense at all. “Um . . .” she says. “Hi, Ryan.”
He moves toward her and hugs her. “Hey, Rach. I’ve missed you. I came as soon as I heard.”