Henry could not remember the exact date he first heard Lydia’s voice. He remembered everything else about that moment, but not the date. No matter how hard he tried to count the days backward, he could never quite capture, with a hundred percent certitude, the day. In fact, Henry wished for very little in life, but he had more than once wished for this knowledge. Henry would have felt better if he could make a factual association to a memory that was anything but factual. Even years later, the mere thought of that moment quickens his pulse. Like everything else about Lydia, the date would forever remain elusive.
When he was just seven, Henry’s parents sat him down in their modest living room and explained to him that his mother had cancer. As his father spoke, Henry’s mother turned deep crimson, uncomfortable with the third person conversation about her body, her future. Henry had now watched variations of this same conversation play out many times as an oncologist. The emotion of powerlessness was not one Henry like reliving, but it provided motivation for his drive and perseverance. Every time Henry wanted to quit, he would remember the shame on his mother’s face when she had to admit that the part of her body that had originally been sexual gratification to his father, nourishment for him, and vanity for her, was now also her death sentence. It was amazing, to Henry, how much havoc a few mutant cells could wreck. As he saw it, cancer was as devastating as it was indiscriminant. Henry made it his life’s ambition to eradicate the terrifying disease.
Night after night, Henry paced the quiet halls of the oncology unit. In the quiet of the wee, small hours Henry did his best thinking. And it was in the wee, small hours, sometime in October, that Henry first heard Lydia’s soft voice coming from one of the rooms at the end of the hall.
The voice was quiet and yet held a calm confidence. It was the voice of slow moving water. As he neared, Henry slowed his gait. Usually so in command of his habits and physical space, Henry did not know why he suddenly felt an intruder in his own hospital. Henry stood outside the door that day listening to the peaceful voice. She was young. The voice had a clear innocence that age often washes away. She was reading a book. He did not recognize it, but the writing was lyrical, a masterpiece. Henry often thought it strange that in their last days, most patients preferred to read cheap, dime store novels from the grocery store checkout line rather than read the great pieces of literature they’d never gotten to before. But maybe life was too hard fought for people to read hard fought literature too. Maybe in our last days, we all needed a happy ending.
Henry did not know how long he had been standing there, listening to the girl softly read. Then just as quietly, she stopped reading and began to cry. The tears were not the tears of anger, nor were they the tears of desperation. To Henry they were gut wrenching. As he blinked away his own tears, he realized they were the tears of acceptance. He had shed those same tears thirty years ago into his own pillow at home. After a few moments, Henry moved away as silently as he had approached.
And that was the date Henry wish he knew.
That was the date Henry wish he knew, cause that was the date he fell in love with the girl, the girl with the beautiful voice at the end of the hall.
A couple of years ago, Henry splurged on the extra-long sofa to fit his lanky frame. Most mornings when he woke, his first thought was usually along the lines of how the comfortable sofa had paid for itself many times over. On that morning though, Henry’s first thought was of the girl at the end of the hall.
Henry stretched as he turned on the coffee pot. As the smell of French roast permeated the stale office air, Henry looked out on the awakening street of the Texas Medical Center. Already cars were backed up at the stoplights. Houston’s traffic was notorious. Henry relished the day when the construction in the Med Center would be complete.
Henry paced around his office. Rarely did he wake up agitated, and never was the source of the agitation a woman when he did. Henry ran his fingers through his dark curly hair. He made an audible sigh of frustration as he grabbed a towel out of the closet. Maybe, he thought, a cold shower would set him straight.
For days afterwards, Henry avoided the room at the end of the hall. The girl with the lonely voice was not his patient, so in theory, this was not hard. Reality, though, was a whole other thing. Henry yearned to see the owner of the voice. Always focused, Henry found himself lost in thought on more than one occasion. Even the nurses were starting to whisper.
Finally, Henry could no longer allow a simple voice to occupy his ever-waking thought. As a rational man, a scientist, Henry determined that he had exaggerated the experience. Too much work and not enough sleep had culminated in an almost hallucinatory occurrence.
On a sunny morning in November, Henry fell into the oncology round that included the girl at the end of the hall.
It was only as he stood looking at her, did Henry realize that if he had expectations of what the girl at the end of the hall would look like, it all vanished as he saw the beauty that was the reality. Henry sighed as he thought of the memory. He knew now, that Lydia was far from a traditional beauty. In fact, most men would probably consider her average. But on that November morning, and every day since, Lydia has been the most beautiful woman that Henry had ever seen.
Lydia sat upright with her arms wrapped around her legs. Her auburn hair fell lightly upon her shoulders. She wore no makeup. This was common in the hospital, but unlike other women, the lack of makeup did not lessen Lydia’s beauty, but highlighted it. As Henry saw it, Lydia’s high cheekbones, jaunty nose, and naturally rosy lips made for an astonishing combination.
From her neck down, Lydia wore a crisp white cotton nightgown. It was the old-fashioned kind of nightwear with a big ruffle around the top and buttons all the way down. Henry knew at one glance that the garment was one of those deceptively simple outfits and that while it may have looked like Aunt Sally sewed it, that the nightgown probably cost the equivalent of a week’s wages from Neiman Marcus. The simplicity was simultaneously innocent and sexy. Henry yearned to slowly tug at the little ribbon at the neckline.
When Henry finally looked up, he caught Lydia’s eye. She had been watching him as he stared at her. Her emerald eyes sparked with satisfaction. She looked at him without a speck of self-consciousness or fear. Normally his gaze had the ability to unsettle some people. Never had someone else’s gaze disarmed him. The combination unnerved him. Inadvertently, Henry took a step back.
Henry shook his head. Never had he had sexual feeling towards a patient. Never. It was unethical. It went against everything he stood for. Disgusted with himself, he turned and walked out.
Henry walked downstairs. He needed air. He needed to escape the confines of the one place he always felt at home. He shook his head as he walked down the sidewalk towards his second favorite home. What was he doing? Never had he been so derailed by a single woman. Even though it was November, Henry was forced to take off his lab coat and roll up his sleeves.
By the time he reached Shipley Do-nuts, sweat was being to form on his brow. Henry ordered a coffee and against all habits, two glazed do-nuts. Although he loved sweets, he tried his best to keep them to a minimum. But this was no normal day. To Henry, problems of this magnitude required two do-nuts.
As he slipped into his regular booth by the window, Henry contemplated his next move. His morals demanded he make an apology for his behavior today, but just having to state aloud what he knew she already knew brought heat to his cheeks. But to not acknowledge the action, to not apologize, seemed reprehensible somehow. Maybe if she had not caught him, he could have buried his desire deep down in the pit of his stomach where hydrochloric acid would have begun the process of decomposition. Alas…
After a few more minutes of people watching and contemplating, Henry pulled himself up from the booth. There was only one thing to do. Confront Lydia. Make an apology. And regain his dignity. With a new determination and a slight smirk twitching at the corner of his mouth, Henry strode back to the hospital.