Picking Up Where We Left Off | By Amie Heasley
I lifted a woman off the bathroom floor in an Italian restaurant. The twenty-something hostess didn’t know what to do, or maybe she just didn’t want to do what clearly had to be done. I’m no EMT. I’ve run almost twenty half marathons, but I have a bad back and wouldn’t say I’m particularly fit or strong. I am definitely not heroic.
The door was locked. I shimmied under the stall, my middle-aged hands and knees pressed to the dirty tile, my face up close and personal with (fill in blank with bodily fluid). The woman used a walker, but had misjudged the distance between her ass and the toilet. Happens to the best of us after a couple, I thought.
I avoided direct eye contact; yes, because I’m shy, but also to protect this woman’s dignity. Her pants were crumpled around her calves. She had on a sagging Depends. Her pale and papery skin reminded me of my late grandmother, who my mother and I helped care for those last months in the nursing home. “Helped” meant putting on Grandma’s bra when the CNAs had too much on their plates. Or placing another pillow behind her head. Or telling her it was time to throw out the leftover fried chicken my mother often brought her. (Grandma liked to stash it in the drawer next to her bed.) Or loading her and her oxygen tank into the car so she could attend my dad’s—her youngest son’s—funeral.
And yes, lifting her.
We lifted my grandmother a lot. Sometimes from the bathroom floor and onto the toilet, like this woman in the restaurant. By some miracle I managed to get her on the John without breaking her hip or mine. She thanked me. Then I left her to take care of her business and headed back to the dining area to rejoin my husband and daughter for family-style lasagna or pizza or whatever non-authentic Italian dish we’d ordered. My husband wondered why I’d been gone so long, but not enough to come after me. We’d been together since we were teens, and until a few months earlier, I had fully expected to grow old beside him. For better and for worse, in continence and in incontinence.
Whatever awaited us, I’d likely have to be the one to pick up the pieces. I’d already had to pick myself up and dust myself off from his midlife-crisis floor.
I’ve lifted him. Years ago when my husband had thrown out his back and had to recline in agony on a wooden booth in this place with fantastic pizza and terrible service. We shared a love affair with this specific pizza joint. Our passion reached all the way back to our freewheeling twenties.
At forty-seven, I hoisted him out of a hospital bed. This time following his surgery for L4-L5 disc trouble, mere months after he’d enlightened me about his trouble with us. He was unhappy and squarely pinned his unhappiness on our marriage. Maybe we weren’t compatible, he suggested. He wasn’t invested in my humor, he said. I wasn’t comfortable enough in my own skin. He loved me, but wasn’t in love with me.
During his recovery from back surgery, I picked up his socks, phone, irritations, underwear, wet towels, eyeglasses, grievances, keys, prescriptions, frustrations, receipts. He wasn’t supposed to bend or twist or lift anything over ten pounds for several weeks. He’d dropped the worst kind of bomb on me, and here I was, bending, stooping and twisting to collect and give him whatever his heart desired.
A lot of people swear they’ll never own a minivan. For me, it’s a pickup (no matter the color, make or model).
I wouldn’t have the first clue how to pick up anybody in a bar, or elsewhere really. My husband has spent a lot of time in bars, alone on barstools, drinking whiskeys and cokes and chatting with people. He’s a breezy chatter. He likes chatting up women better than men, I think. But could or would he fuck another woman given the right opportunity? I’m pretty sure I know the answer. What I don’t know is if that’s what it would take for me to wave the white flag.
I’ve picked up plenty of bad habits in my lifetime. Most recently I’ve begun to smoke with my neighbor. I’ve never been addicted, but I used to smoke in college, especially at the bars and when writing term papers. I gave up even the occasional cigarette when we were trying to have kids in earnest. Besides the prospect of conceiving, mixing nicotine and tar and God knows what with the fertility shots and medications could prove harmful to me, even deadly. I should probably care more about my mortality now. Yet sometimes all I give a shit about is the headrush brought on by that first American Spirit.
My self-esteem required a little pick-me-up. My husband bought another house across the street from a lake, his goal of residing near water at last realized. He bought a new couch, a new bed, a new refrigerator, a new metal roof, a new garage door, a new air fryer. He held the prospect and the promise of a new and separate life, wherever that new and separate life led him.
Tit for tat, I bought a new knockoff version of Invisalign. I bought new jeans and new boots and new dresses. I bought a new hair color. New glasses and new eyeshadow. New earrings. New perfume. New vitamins reportedly good for my old skin.
I’ve never been a big spender. I waited for my breadwinner of a husband to challenge my spending—he who’s never been one to tighten the purse strings—knowing full well he wouldn’t. Who was I trying to attract, impress, piss off, placate? Why was I focusing all of my energy on my appearance in order to feel better about myself?
That void though. Who was it that said, “The surest cure for vanity is loneliness?”
My husband is no stranger to picking up the tab. I’m no longer certain this gesture is only about altruism.
It was oppressive that morning, or at least I remember how the heat made me queasy. Or maybe it was the anti-depressant I’d been taking since my husband informed me he no longer wanted to be married, a couple days before the government shutdown over a global pandemic. Whatever the reason for my nausea, I’d forced myself out for a jog.
Was it June? July? COVID-19 had at least blessed us sheltering-at-home Michiganders with fair summer weather. I rounded the corner into our neighborhood and that’s when I heard her.
“Excuse me,” the postal worker said. “Could you give me a hand?”
She wasn’t wearing a mask and neither was I, but the comingling of our respiratory droplets wasn’t why I considered running by her. Despite any outward appearances, I was a physical and mental train wreck and, on a good day, I have a hard time interacting with people I don’t know. (A “social burden” my husband had said in our first couples’ therapy session.)
The postal worker held the bony arm of a man who’d propped himself on a rickety white-picket fence. She’d seen him fall in his driveway during her delivery route. The man had recently undergone a spinal procedure and said he wasn’t supposed to leave the house: a rule enforced by a woman upstairs fast asleep.
Mercifully, I had my phone. The postal worker and I didn’t think we could carry or navigate this frail older gentleman back inside. I dialed my husband. The call went to voicemail. He was probably on another Zoom or Google Meet or Go-To. COVID-19 had heightened the fear of losing his job, fear of his employees losing their jobs, and worst of all, fear of losing the one thing he had control over—his beloved career. For months he’d been immersing himself deeper and deeper away from our life and closer to his work life. I texted and told him the address.
Thank God he’d replied. Lately he blew off, unintentionally missed or delayed responding to my texts. Not very long ago I wouldn’t have read anything into this lack of or slow response. Flash forward to the present day and the threat of separation and divorce made me pine for my husband’s attention. No emoji was too pathetic or sentimental. (How I longed for him to send me the winky-face blowing a kiss in the shape of a heart.)
I didn’t have a clue who I was supposed to be anymore, and yet, I was still that woman who picked up people—those I loved and those I’d never even met.
Another neighbor arrived with a portable wheelchair in her trunk, followed by my husband and the doctor who lived across the street from us. I insisted the postal worker carry on with her mail route. The men managed to guide the man into the chair and wheel him into the house, but not before bending the already bent and battered screen door.
Once inside, I tried not to fixate on the surroundings. The ripped-up carpet revealed stained floorboards. The kitchen was dark and dank. The smell danced between cat piss and spoiled milk. I worried for this man and this woman (now awake) standing before us, and after she discovered her ruined door, I worried for myself, too.
My husband and the doctor had already left. The neighbor with the wheelchair and I discussed calling 911. Was it safe for this man to keep living here? Could this woman take care of him? Were they related? Husband and wife? Was any of this our concern or business? The decision became clearer when the woman started screaming, not about the state of the man’s health, but about the door. “Who the fuck broke my door? Fuck, shit! Goddamn it! My fucking door!”
I slipped outside, dialed 911, went through the standard list of questions and waited with the neighbor from up the street. We listened to a continued stream of obscenities and insults. The sun beat down on us from a sky of hopeful blue. Funny how we women sat tight for the ambulance and the firetruck to arrive while the men bolted as soon as they wheeled the old man over the threshold. Funnier still, my husband and the doctor were likely at fault for causing further damage to the screen door.
After exchanging a few solemn words with the paramedics, I made my way back home. Home, the shelter that contained and confined our family: me, the brokenhearted, my husband, the heartbreaker, and our daughter, the one we’d both die for in a heartbeat.
Once upon a time we hiked up a mountain in Squaw Valley. We peeked over the lip of the Cliffs of Moher, faraway specks of white birds dotting and floating around the rocks. We attended every single home football game at Spartan Stadium, and the home team won every single football game that season. We drove from Seattle to San Francisco in a green Mustang convertible. We rode to the top of the CN Tower in a narrow glass elevator, despite my husband’s fear of tight spaces and heights. We tattooed our skin with the monogram from our wedding, his on his arm, mine on my back. We sat on barstools drinking syrupy pink martinis and won eight-hundred dollars playing Keno the day before we found out we would finally become parents: a baby girl born in Southfield, Michigan. This is a brushstroke. A first blush. A kaleidoscope glance.
Does he remember any of the good times spanning our relationship of three decades? Why can’t we seem to pick up where we left off?
Of course, there was the daily lifting of our daughter from age zero to about three, sometimes off the floor and out of the grocery store while she punched and kicked and wailed.
When tidying up around the house, I’ve rolled my eyes at my husband. Tidying has included gathering and redistributing toys, throw pillows, Yahtzee dice, half-completed crossword puzzles, hairballs, Christmas ornaments destroyed and discarded by our new puppy.
In our third and final couples’ therapy session, my husband called out this eye rolling. He said it made him feel like I couldn’t stomach his very existence. While this was far from the truth, I admit I should’ve been more direct about asking him to help me pick up.
Did you know they have genders for bolts and screws? This should be the beginning of a bar room pick-up line.
My husband has picked up a lot of his belongings and moved them into his new house. I guess you’d call this a trial separation. If we don’t make it, I don’t know what he or I will do with the rest of his stuff. His fingerprints are all over the home we shared together, the one that’s in my name only now. Yesterday, on our twenty-third wedding anniversary, he invited me over to help him with a home improvement project, a guard rail he hoped to build for his loft space.
Our daughter can’t wait to occupy that space. She’s nine and the last thing my husband or I want to do is pick her up from a great fall.
About the Author:
Amie Heasley received an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University. You can find some of her recent work online or in the pages of Fleas on the Dog, The Boiler Journal, Juked, Fiction Southeast, Stoneboat Literary Journal, Monkeybicycle and Literary Orphans. When she isn’t writing fiction and creative nonfiction, she’s a freelance marketing and advertising writer, and blogs lovingly but not often enough at chopperchronicles.blogspot.com. Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo—it’s the place where Amie was born and still proudly calls home.