I refused to let my chest get tight or for my breathing to be labored. “I am.”
“Okay, here we go.” She pulled on the handle and walked in first.
Gavin followed her, but I found my shoes were rooted to the floor. I had all these images of this woman in my mind. Spangly shirt, tight skirts, stripper shoes. I wasn’t sure how to manage the real thing, an actual flesh-and-blood woman who knew Gavin as intimately as I did.
Gavin sensed my hesitation and held open the door. “I love you,” he said, loud enough for anyone to hear it, and this was enough to force my legs to move again.
There was no mistaking who she was, because the line of chairs was empty save for one woman and a little boy. My throat tightened as my gaze moved between them. She had on a simple flowered dress covered in a teal coat that clashed with the print. Her shoes were worn and flat. Her hair, though, was lustrous, long, and black. I couldn’t miss the similarity of it to mine, and somehow this comforted me rather than make my indignation rise up.
She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t plain either. Just a girl, a little soft in the middle, like I had been at first after Finn, extra weight quickly lost in the pain and misery that followed.
My eyes went to the boy, but this was so much harder that pain shot through my chest. He was small with such big eyes. He held a truck in one hand, bulky and plastic. The other clutched his mother. His hair was unruly and dark, covering the tops of his ears and touching the upturned collar of his puffy brown coat, a couple sizes too large for him.
I knew Tina and Gavin were at the counter, and my art therapy image was playing out. But it was all so different, Gavin at the desk and me facing this woman and her child.
She had not greeted Gavin but just sat in her chair. “It’s just a cotton swab,” I said, not even sure why I was saying it. “It won’t hurt.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“I thought it would be a blood test,” I went on, knowing I was rambling. “And I knew that would be hard, watching him cry. But it’s not. It won’t be.”
Tina turned to us and squeezed my arm. “You okay?”
“Yes.” I turned to her. “I’m fine.”
“Rosa?” Tina said. “You want to bring Manuel back for the swab?” She moved toward the corridor past the desk.
When Rosa stood, the boy seemed to panic. “No no no no!” he cried. She leaned down and picked him up, letting his knees settle on either side of her hips, a movement so natural for other mothers that it made my stomach quiver. I’d only held my son once. Just once. Long enough to watch him breathe a few last times. She had been holding her boy his whole life.
I felt my control falling away. I wasn’t going to be able to keep my emotions reined in. The tears behind my eyes triggered all the other sinuses to leak. My throat was gooey. I needed to cough. There might be gunk. I felt overwhelmed.
Gavin turned from the counter. “Hey, little buddy. Remember me? You’re going to be fine.”
Manual quieted, his head buried in Rosa’s hair. If Gavin went up to him, if he touched him, I knew I would pass out. I shouldn’t have come. I could not witness this.
Tina saw me and hurried back over. She glanced at the woman behind the desk. “Kelly, go ahead and take them back,” she said. “I’m going to sit out here.”
“Don’t you have a class?” I asked. “Won’t Clementine and Albert be waiting?” I felt like I was in a daze, and I just needed to keep talking.
“You’re not looking good,” Tina said. “Rosa, you go on back with Kelly.”
Manuel began to whimper, but Gavin stepped away without touching him.
“Let’s sit,” Tina said again, and this time she pulled me down on the chair. “I don’t want to wreck your recovery.”
“The nurses don’t know I’m out,” I said absently.
“Okay,” Tina said. “That’s fine. We’ll get you back up.”
Rosa and the boy disappeared down the hall. Only when they were gone did Gavin turn around.
“Shit, Corabelle, you okay?” He rushed over.
“I think it’s a lot for her,” Tina said.
I shook her hand away. “I’m FINE. This is HARD. I’ll be fine.”
Gavin sat back in the chair and expelled a rush of air. “Yeah. This is tough.”
“This will end,” Tina said. “Waiting will not be easy either. You two should be together.”
I leaned my head back against the wall. “If I could get out of this hospital.”
“They didn’t put you on my roster for tomorrow,” Tina said. “So it’s looking good that this is your last day, or tomorrow morning. Did the doctor say?”
“The last X-ray was fine. Nobody’s signed off on anything, though.”
“You still taking antibiotics?” she asked.
“Nasty oral ones. I think they are what make me dizzy.”
“Well, hopefully soon.” She stood up as Kelly reappeared in the waiting room.
The boy came out next, a lollipop in his mouth. Then Rosa, holding the truck, looking relieved. “It not so hard,” she said to Gavin.
He stood up, and then it happened. Rosa glanced up at him, shyly, with a small smile. I knew the look, the emotion behind it. For a moment I was her, and I could feel all the things she felt, relief that the hard part was behind her, pleasure that he stood up out of respect for her, and yes, there it was, that rush of unmitigated love.