Henry looked around his office. Little had changed over the years. The hospital had offered him a newer, more spacious office suite up on one of the higher floors, but Henry had politely turned them down. Despite being from Texas, bigger and better was not ingrained in his personality. What the administration couldn’t understand was that Henry’s office was the place of dreams realized. Henry could look around and see Lydia’s young, beautiful face beaming with pride as it had been the first time she saw his office. The chair Henry was sitting in now was the same chair he was sitting in the night he got the phone call that Lydia was in labor. He could remember the night he sat bolt upright from a dream with the answer to the question that had plagued his research team for months and that subsequently got him the cover of Texas Monthly.
Henry rubbed the corner of the desk as he always did when he was in deep thought. Once sharp, the edges had become smooth and glossy over time. He knew Lydia’s drinking had increased over the years. Increased, yes, but when, he wondered, did it get this bad? Henry thought back to all the nights he stayed at the hospital. Now with the kids gone… how long had it been? Had she been drinking like this for the last eight years? No, Henry shook his head. It was impossible. Or was it? The woman he saw last night…
“Excuse me, Doctor.” Henry looked up and into the fretful countenance of one of his research assistants.
“Not right now, Sarah.”
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Dr. Harrison sighed. “Yes, please.” Hospitals are notorious when it comes to gossip. Dr. Harrison had long supposed it is the death that lingers in the hallways that causes people to pass time with the frivolities of life. Handsome and successful, Henry had long ago stopped worrying about being the subject of such intrigues and suppositions. But from the worried look on Sarah’s face, Henry knew he was once again in the spotlight.
Henry knocked on the Girl at the End of the Hall’s door. It was late, but from his usual sojourns around the hospital, the doctor suspected Lydia would still be awake. “Excuse me. I’m Dr. Harrison.” Lydia looked up at the earnest face. “Umm… How are you feeling tonight?” Dr. Harrison walked over to the end of the bed and mildly perused Lydia’s chart. Truth is, Henry had long read the chart when first he became intrigued with The Girl at the End of the Hall, but at that moment, he felt at a loss for how to start the conversation. Fidgeting seemed the natural response.
The Girl sidestepped his question and instead replied curtly, “You are not one of my doctors.”
Doctor Harrison looked up, startled at the forthrightness of Lydia’s tone. “No, no I’m not,” He said. “I umm…” in that moment, Henry realized the truth was his best option. “I heard you reading aloud to yourself one night. I was wondering what you were reading.”
Lydia stared at the young doctor with his sincere face and bright eyes. After a few moments, she softened. “Robinson Crusoe.”
And that’s how it began. From that evening on, Henry’s routine changed. Every night, after wandering the halls for a few minutes, Henry would stop by Lydia’s room nonchalantly inquire after her health. If he felt brave, Henry would take her hand in his and check her pulse, quietly counting her heartbeats as the second hand swept a single revolution of the clock. Then Henry would sit at the edge of her bed as Lydia read aloud. After a while, they would inevitably lapse into conversation, maybe about the book, maybe about life.
Henry knew from her chart that Lydia had been in a terrible car accident. The boy who had been driving died at the scene. Lydia had been life flighted to the hospital with serious internal bleeding and broken bones.
Henry had learned what great and lasting loss was when his mother died. He could still remember the memorial service. He had sat quietly in an oversized chesterfield with his hands in his lap, staring at the patent leather shoes bought special for the occasion. Every once and a while, someone would come by and pat his head, offering platitudes and condescending consolation. Henry did not want the shallow pity of strangers. He wanted to yell and scream and curse God for the farce God had made of life. And on some level, Henry knew that Lydia needed that too: to yell and scream and hit and cry and mourn. And when that time finally came, Henry would be there for her. For her pain was his pain.
Until then, he would not ask. Lydia would only share what she wanted to and nothing more. And so Henry never asked Lydia. And so Lydia never told.
Maybe, he thought, as he leaned back in his desk chair, that had been a mistake.