I stepped out of the curtain space quickly and walked along the semicircle, praying Corabelle was in one of them. A teenage boy. A middle-aged woman. A man in traction.
Then I saw her. She slept, her dark hair tied up in a knot high on her head.
I almost dropped to my knees.
She had a tube going into her mouth, a blue one just like Finn’s. Her heartbeat registered on a monitor, as well as her oxygen levels. I tried to shake the vision of the NICU, but the noises were too similar, the wheeze of a ventilator and periodic beeps.
I stumbled toward her like a dying man. What had happened? My stomach felt lined with rocks. I sat on the bed and brushed back a wisp of hair from her forehead. She slept really hard, not shifting at all with my touch. They must have given her something to knock her out. Even the first two nights when she was sick, she would still shift around, sometimes making little sounds. Now she was so flat to the bed.
Like Finn had been after I’d signed the papers to disconnect him.
Remorse crashed over me like a wave. I had screwed everything up. Walked out on her. Gone to Mexico. Possibly even fathered another child. And here she was, barely holding on.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” I whispered.
I shouldn’t be in her life at all. She’d been doing fine until I came along. Going to school, planning her future.
Now she was here.
The monitors continued their steady sounds.
I heard the nurse talking and panicked. I would not leave her now. The machines were to the left of the bed, so the nurse would probably approach there. I ducked to the opposite side and folded tight into a ball, tugging the curtain in front of me so that I sat between it and the concrete wall.
I couldn’t see anything, but the footsteps grew closer, paused, then faded away again. The maintenance cart began rolling, wheels clattering on the concrete floor.
When the room was quiet again, I peeked out. Corabelle had not moved. Her elbow was bent near the edge of the bed, and I shifted forward to lay my forehead against her cool skin.
I wished we could go back to that first night at the astronomy star party, when Corabelle stretched out beside me on the roof, and we realized the world had pushed us back together after four years. But I’d gotten angry, and taken off. If I could just do that night again, I wouldn’t have left then either. If we’d been better from the beginning, she wouldn’t have walked into that damn ocean.
I just kept leaving. I just kept walking away.
Until I figured all this out, I could not be the man who always stayed the course. I would continue to be the one who wasn’t there when things got tough.
I didn’t want to be that person. I had to figure out how to beat this urge, to kill it. But first I would have to admit where I’d gone wrong, four years ago, that first time I deserted her, on her worst day. The funeral. Those black, black days.
I was pretty sure the whole funeral business was a racket. Corabelle sat in the corner of a room full of coffins, staring blankly at the row of tiny ones in pink and blue and pewter. Who could give a shit about the color? Pointless decisions. All coffins should be black. Or white. Or something.
Her mother leaned over to hug her from behind. I hadn’t been able to touch her myself, not since last night in the room with Finn. She flinched like I’d struck her every time my hand grazed her skin. I didn’t understand it. I just had to wait. I could wait.
A bunch of our friends were sitting out in the waiting area and this pissed me off. They weren’t here to be supportive or helpful. They wanted to cry and be part of the drama. Just picturing them out there with their Kleenex and their mascara streaks made me want to punch something.
In fact, hitting something had become a preoccupation that bothered me quite a lot. It was almost a reflex, the urge to strike. I’d always felt it to some degree, and saw it in my father when his anger hit a certain level — time to get out of the way. I had a sixth sense about it in him, developed over eighteen years. Possibly the biggest relief in moving in with Corabelle the last few months was to relax. I knew he couldn’t show up suddenly to jerk me out of bed.
We couldn’t afford any of this. Six hundred dollars for a coffin. There were funeral fees. Graveside fees. Processional cars. Flowers. Headstones.
Corabelle’s dad had been working insurance angles. She was still on his health insurance — one of several reasons we’d waited to get married. He wanted the baby covered through him too, to spare us the problems of trying to get a policy retroactively since Finn hadn’t lived long enough for us to arrange it. That would get us a little money to cover the funeral.
The man in the suit held out a folder, asking Corabelle once again which coffin she would like to select. Her mother finally said, “The blue one is nice.”
No one looked to me for any opinions. I stood against the wall, feeling strangled in a shirt and tie. The funeral wasn’t for another two days. I wasn’t sure why I had to be dressed up now. But I did what was expected. I didn’t know anything else to do anyway.
I walked up to the blue coffin and looked inside. The metal walls were lined with white satin. The salesman nodded approvingly. I tried to picture Finn lying in it, but the image made me want to knock the little box off the stand. Babies shouldn’t be in boxes, but Finn was just moving from his enclosed crib to this. He’d never smelled anything but controlled spaces, never rolled around in open air.
I had to ball my hands into fists to keep myself from pushing over the whole row of coffins like dominoes falling. I backed up against the wall, arms at my sides. I wondered if this was how my dad always felt. And if, like me, it hadn’t started until he had a kid. Maybe I was the reason he was so angry. Maybe that responsibility — that obligation and demand — activated the chain.