The Morning After
My head feels heavy, like I drank too much last night. I’m sore all over, and I think I’m shaking. I don’t remember drinking last night. I don’t remember much about yesterday, actually. Must’ve been quite the party. It’s not every day you turn 40.
I squint one eye open, the other wet and watery against the pillow. I move to wipe it but my arm shakes against my skin. It’s cold, clammy. I wonder if I’m sick. Quite possibly. My head pounds, rhythmically, the beat of silent music.
The walls startle me: they’re covered in pink wallpaper. I wanted wallpaper but John said it was for old women, why didn’t I get a purse dog and slather on perfume while I was at it. We painted the room a masculine beige and I got roses on my bedspread.
The bedspread around me is blue. Where are we?
“John?” I call. But he’d be at work by now. I can see the sun pulsating against the blinds, threatening to burst through.
I sit up, stiff and achy, taking in the room. A table, nondescript chairs, a window with black blinds that can’t contain the summer sun. A hotel? John must have surprised me for my birthday. That explains it, I’m hungover.
I smile, gently laying my tired body back onto the bed, stretching the stiffness in my joints. I wish I could remember yesterday, recall what we did that left me with a headache and shakes and soreness to my bones. I curse the champagne, know I’ll have more.
But John should be here if we’re on holiday. Maybe he went for coffee.
“John?” I call again. At first nothing, then the door opens. It’s a shock of purple against the beige walls. A housekeeper enters, blue uniform, black hair tied into a bun.
“Good morning Mrs. Mueller, how are we today?” she asks. She sets a tray with water, orange juice, toast and eggs on the table by the clock. There’s a plastic cup of vitamins on the tray.
“John ordered breakfast?” She’s room service, not a maid then.
“Yes, he’ll be back soon. He said to eat up, take your vitamins.”
“Thank you. I’m not feeling well. Can you find my husband? Tell him to come back to the room?” I’m not sure why I’m asking room service for help finding John, but she seems to know him.
“He’ll be back soon. You eat up.” She keeps saying the same thing, it’s strange.
I sit and she moves the tray to my lap. I pick at the eggs, flaccid and cold. I should talk to the manager. The woman doesn’t leave, but I’m in bed and my purse isn’t nearby. I have no way to tip her until John comes back.
“Please Miss –“
“Miss Kaya could you please go get my husband? I don’t have money, but we appreciate breakfast and he’ll be sure you get a good tip.”
“Oh, Mr. John, he’ll be back soon.”
This is getting irritating. “If you can’t help me find my husband, you can go, Kaya.”
She doesn’t move, instead stands beside the bed looking down at me expectantly. I can’t imagine what this woman could possibly want, until she pokes the little cup with my vitamins with her finger. “Not until you take your meds, Miss Lila.”
I freeze, my blood stinging as it flows from my heart to my hands, a trail of ice under my skin. Meds? She smiles again.
I look at her more closely now – she has a nametag, “Kaya Gonzalez, R.N.” It’s not a uniform, she’s wearing scrubs. A hospital?
What did we do yesterday? I remember waking up with John. Feeding the dog. But they aren’t solid, yesterday memories. They’re fragments – taking Emily to school, making hamburgers, rushing to ballet practice, they’re separate puzzle pieces with edges that don’t match. There is no coherent sequence of this, that, then now.
Kaya is still smiling, looking from the cup of “meds” on my plate, to me.
“Was I in an accident?” I touch my head. It continues to throb lightly like the base of music. My hair feels too light, feathery. Cropped too close to my head. My hand freezes in mid stroke as I realize the question I’ve been asking all morning is the only one that matters.
“Oh my god – where is John?” I’m becoming frantic. I see our blue Mazda veering off I-5 into a river; our house burning with John inside; us crossing the street into the path of a bus as he pushes me aside.
“Just calm down Miss Lila, take your meds, he’ll be here soon.”
“Stop saying that! Where is my husband? Oh my god what happened to us?”
The woman’s composure cracks only a bit, enough for me to see irritation behind her patient façade. “I should get Dr. Ross.”
What is this place? “Just go. Get John. Please.”
She shuts the purple door behind her and I irritably knock the tray to the floor. Immediately I feel guilty, I don’t want to create more work for housekeeping during our holiday. I should clean it up.
Gingerly I step out of the warm bed, my feet dodging the remnants of eggs on the floor. The cup of vitamins spilled, revealing a pastel rainbow of pills. There’s a sink near the door, paper towels and little cups. I shake as I make my way over, too slowly, my joints popping and muscles sore. The door opens before I make it.
The woman with Kaya is my age, sandy blond hair with just a touch of grey at the roots. She’s wearing a white jacket, a stethoscope, and the same benign smile as the housekeeper.
Nurse. Kaya is the nurse. You are in the hospital. There’s been an accident. Remember John.
It seems incredibly important that I remember John, like he’ll slip from my mind if I let him. Ridiculous. How could I forget my husband?
“Good Morning Mrs. Mueller. I’m Dr. Ross.”
I nod. “I’ve been in an accident? Where’s John?”
“John’s the same as always. Let’s do some tests, alright?”
I nod, sensing authority. She leads me to a chair and helps me sit, like I’m an invalid.
“Now, I’m going to tell you six words. I want you to repeat them back to me. Bowl, duck, bubble, cow, vase, train?”
“Train, cow, chair… I’m not sure. My head hurts and I can’t think straight. I want to see my husband.”
She ignores me, instead asking me to follow her finger with my eyes and touch my nose. When she asks me to shut my eyes and stand on one foot, I fall to the side, she catches me before I hit the ground.
“I think you should rest today, Mrs. Mueller.”
“Did I hit my head?” I ask.
She turns away, ignoring the question. A question? There was something very important I was supposed to ask. It’s there, just beyond my sight like a lost word. Bubble. That was a word I lost. But that’s not it. It’s John.
“Where’s John?” I ask. Dr. Ross turns and smiles. “He’ll be here soon.”
As she turns away, I glimpse the painting on the wall behind her. It’s an old woman in a nightgown in front of a window. She’s bewildered, her age-spotted face pale and wrinkled. Her eyelids are heavy, almost obscuring her eyes, which are blue like mine. Her wispy hair angles feathery and wild in every direction.
I move to examine the painting, and the woman moves with me.
I scream. The old woman screams too. A hoarse, mournful sound emerges from us both. I bring my hands to my face and she does too. I start to scratch my cheeks, like I’m wearing a mask and just need to get the damn thing off.
Kaya reaches to pull my hands away. I strike out and scratch her across the arm, drawing blood. Dr. Ross pulls a syringe out of nowhere. I feel a sting.
“What did you do to me?” I ask. I don’t mean the shot. I turned 40 yesterday. I woke up with my husband and walked the dog and took Emily to ballet. I drank too much and woke up with a hangover.
“Where’s my husband?”
Dr. Ross smiles sadly. “It’s 2019 Mrs. Mueller. John died in 2006. I’m sorry. But you need to rest now.”
“But I turned 40 yesterday.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Mueller, but that was a long time ago.”
She lowers me to the bed. As I slip beneath the veil, I hear her snap at Kaya.
“I told you to get rid of that mirror.”
I wake up gradually. I open my eyes but can’t lift my head, it feels heavy, like I drank too much last night. I don’t remember drinking last night. I don’t remember much about yesterday, actually. Must’ve been quite the party. It’s not every day you turn 40.
“John?” I call. But that’s silly. He’s probably been at work for hours. I can see the sun, pulsating against the blinds.