It’s getting so cold in the mornings, even with the space heaters in the house, that Emma doesn’t even want to go outside. The chill no longer creeps in. Instead, it saunters past her fleece-lined mittens and in through her pores, so that it takes half a day to free her fingers from an unaccustomed stiffness.
She flexes her fingers at stoplights—this gives her an incentive to actually stop at them— as Carmen presses her hands stoically against the Taurus’ old heaters. Her daughter balances yesterday’s Times and a ballpoint pen in her lap, scanning the headlines for clues to the crossword puzzle. Periodically, she snatches her hands back from the heaters and scribbles a few furiously slanted letters in the margins of the paper. Emma sneaks a few furtive glances over at the puzzle. From what she can tell, it has something to do with Christopher Nolan films. Just before they turn into the hospital parking garage, Carmen throws the whole paper down, places the pen lovingly behind her ear, and asks, “Did you get today’s from Aunt Libby?”
“Rescue it, you mean?” Emma laughs. “She tears them to shreds, the way she picks at the edges. Yeah, it’s in my purse. In the backseat.” Carmen stretches an arm back to grab the rolled up newspaper, and Emma catches a glimpse of the one she’s been working on. Her daughter’s handwriting is easy to distinguish from her father’s orderly letters, which slant slightly to the left and fill boxes neatly with one letter per each box. Carmen scribbles multiple letters per square and crosses out the ones that don’t fit, making the page a lively and nearly indecipherable jumble.
It seems to Emma that seconds practically turn into days in the waiting room. At ten o’clock they still haven’t seen Dr. Wilcox. Emma thanks her lucky stars that she has a child who can entertain herself with the Dear Abby section and thinks about getting up to talk to the nurse who promised them they’d be called soon. She ultimately decides against it. It’s much more satisfying to watch the people in the waiting room, anyway.
Emma made a game out of it after the first month or so, after she noticed that she was seeing the same people every time, sometimes almost every day. She keeps track of the number of times the young woman with a box-dyed pink streak running through her hair shapes her mouth into a pancake-perfect O – always on the phone with her mother. She wonders, maybe a little meanly, if she dyed her hair because of a bad breakup. There’s the wife of a former forest ranger from one of the smaller towns out east. He’s convalescing after back and knee surgery; she makes it a point to go on a hike every week and bring her husband photos of the forests she finds herself in. Point-of-view, always looking up at the bright burst of sun encompassing the trunks. She chats with Emma in a bubbly, comforting soprano. There’s the teacher who grades in the waiting room and writes in her lesson book while she’s waiting her turn to speak to the nurses, looking up worriedly at the clock every so often. Emma wonders what she does when she goes home; she feels like she should offer her a smoke. Maybe help grade some of the multiplication tests.
The most interesting part is the way the room divides itself. After this long, she can separate out the people she won’t see again from the long-term, established tenants like herself. They’re fresh and, more often than not, shell-shocked. Their eyes dart around wildly because they haven’t gotten used to the regular rhythms at the hospital. They alternately pick at their nails and tap their phones, experiencing a sudden yet reversible crisis that can be forgotten between bouts of anxiety. Unlike Emma- she feels like her face is permanently twisted into a grimace. The doctors flit between where she and Carmen sit, facing the windows, and the novelty people, as she’s come to call them.
Carmen makes a face at the neurology resident’s back as he leans against the desk and attempts to flirt unsuccessfully with Alexis, their favorite nurse, who sometimes brings Carmen hot cocoa on late nights. “Stop that!” Emma says, maybe a little more loudly than she intended.
Dr. Wilcox, the attending physician, strides into her view. He greets her with a booming “Ms. Lysaker!” then lowers his voice. “Would you two accompany me?”
Emma’s father is in room 202, on the second floor facing east. Carmen runs ahead and barrels towards his room, stopping abruptly at the door to tie the requisite paper mask around her ears and plastic apron around her waist. She rubs cold disinfectant into her hands and looks back at Dr. Wilcox, who nods his head to signal an okay. She disappears into the room. Emma and Dr. Wilcox walk gingerly down the hall.
“Can he go home soon?” she asks the doctor as soon as Carmen is out of sight.
He runs a hand through his hair. “I suppose so, yes. I’d like to keep him for observation a little bit longer since he’s only just recovered from the pneumonia. He’s doing quite well, considering he’s over sixty. After he’s discharged, though, he may need blood, or platelet transfusions, certainly a regularly scheduled blood test— don’t be worried, that’s part of regular post-remission therapy…”
Emma does her best to follow along after that. She’s learned that once Dr. Wilcox gets deep enough into his explanation, he has the habit of going through lots of uncontextualized phrases, which she sticks into the sentences wherever they actually belong.
“…we might even do a bone marrow biopsy from time to time. He may need more chemotherapy, though at significantly lower doses. We’ll go over this later too, so I can write it all down for you. It’s a lot of information.” She wants to ask when exactly he’ll be allowed to leave, but once she’s done rubbing the cold disinfectant into her skin, he’s already gone.
Inside, Rennie’s awake, if a little drowsy. He grins at her; Carmen’s made her way through the maze of wires and tubes attached to him to perch on the visitor’s chair next to the far side of the bed. She makes sure to avoid the IV and the oxygen tube that snakes gently around his ears to rest under his nose. They’re already opening the paper up to today’s crossword.
He puts his arm around Carmen. “Let’s see.” His voice comes out a little weary. “One down. Read that out to me won’t you? I seem to have misplaced my damn glasses again.”
“They’re on the nightstand, Dad,” Emma says. “I’ll get them for you.”
“Ah, there. I’ll get them myself. I can still do that.” Emma shrinks, though the words aren’t unkind. She sits back in the other hard-backed visitor’s chair, facing the foot of the bed and the patient chart. She catches the words oxycodone and acute written on it. The script loops comically, out of place. She squints, but she can’t read anything after leukocyte.
“One down, child of Homer.” Carmen says. “Who’s that?”
“Oh, I know this one. Your mom used to bring home these dusty old epics to read when she was in high school. I do believe that once she told me that Homer was a poet.”
“You remember,” Emma says softly.
“Of course I do!” Rennie says. A mischievous grin lifts the corner of his mouth. “Actually, I was watching Cash Cab last week. Not much else to do, you know. There was a question about the Odyssey.”
“I should have known!”
“I did remember those books you used to bring home after that,” Rennie says. “I still have an excellent memory.” Emma hears the touch of pride in his voice.
“So who’s the child?” Carmen asks.
“Forgive me, I’m a little easily distracted,” he says. “Alright. Child of Homer.” He taps on the paper, counts the squares again, and thinks. Emma studies the entrenched creases in his forehead.
Carmen stares expectantly at him until he speaks again. “You know what? I think it means Homer from The Simpsons,” He coughs, discreetly, into his shoulder.
“Yup. Pencil that one in and we’ll see how it goes.”
“Not just yet. We need to test it.”
“Uh…let’s do one across, then. ‘Getting back to the simple things in life.’” Carmen pauses. “I don’t know!”
“How many letters?”
Rennie pretends to think, though Emma suspects he already knows the answer. He used to do this when she was young, and she’s never quite figured out whether he’s bluffing- pretending he knows all the answers like she does now- or whether he always knew everything. She hopes fervently that her daughter believes she knows it all, but deep down she thinks Carmen is smart enough to have gotten past that misconception.
“Hmmm…Let’s try ‘back to basics’? That might do it.”
Carmen pencils the letters in carefully. “Yes!” She punches the air. Emma thinks Rennie would too, if he wasn’t attached to everything in the world.
As they work their way slowly through the clues (“superheroine in a school uniform”, “scissor sound”, and “logical beginning”) in rapid succession, Emma lets her attention wander to the window. Her father has a nice view; across the street, there’s a park filled with cottonwoods, red alders, and vine maples. When Emma and Carmen first drove up here to take care of her dad- a four-week stay for chemo, the doctors had promised them then- the maple leaves had shrouded everything in a brilliant verdant green, hiding most of the park from view. They’ve long since shed, but Emma loves the evolution from emerald canopy to rust-red carpet over the sidewalks to the white snow blanketing everything. She can see the whole park through the twisting branches now.
On the far side, the pond has become an ice skating rink. Little kids dart around with a flexibility that Emma, despite having grown up ice skating every winter, never managed to attain. People stroll leisurely around the sidewalks on the days when the groundskeepers shovel the fresh snow away. As Emma watches, a couple holding hands through thick mittens walks toward the hospital, then disappears around the corner; the park stretches to cover almost two blocks, far around the side of the hospital Emma can’t see. A peaceful acre surrounded by concrete, steel, and brick.
Two rounds of chemotherapy and a pneumonia scare later, her father has a permanently wan complexion and the swelling doesn’t seem to go away.
She thought it would only be four weeks, an easy recovery—a summer they’d have forgotten already by Thanksgiving. But then Rennie’s white blood cell count went into freefall, and he slept half the time to kill the pain, and then there was that terrible week where he contracted pneumonia and she and Carmen couldn’t see him. Dr. Wilcox had tried to explain that it was only procedure, but they still feared they were the ones who’d somehow passed it onto him.
They’d done everything right, hadn’t they? They’d made an advance medical directive, years ago, after Emma’s mother passed away. Talked over Rennie’s wishes, consulted with his physician.
“Mom!” Emma snaps her head back from the window, feeling a muscle twist in the process.
“What?” Carmen is peeking over the top of the paper.
“Do you know a word for ‘Iranian bread’?”
“How many letters is it?”
“That fits! Thanks Mom!” Carmen’s head disappears below the paper again to work on the next phrase.
“No problem. Hey, Dad, has Dr. Wilcox mentioned when exactly-”
“Shhhh!” Rennie chides her. “We’re not done yet!”
When they trudge in through the door at 3:00, Emma can tell Libby’s been simmering all afternoon. She braces herself.
“Go finish your homework, okay?” Emma tells Carmen.
“Why do I have to do it now? I’d rather talk to Aunt Libby.”
“Because you told me you have to turn in your artist report tomorrow and it’s Sunday.” Carmen’s eyebrows draw together. “I have a couple things to discuss with Aunt Libby. If you can finish it before six, I just might make us that special blend of hot chocolate you like.”
Carmen’s pained expression melts into a look of resignation. She plods down the hallway.
Libby waits until Carmen closes her bedroom door. “What did the doctor say?” she asks, though Emma knows it’s not the question she’s really craving the answer to. With Libby, conversation builds like a slow burn.
“They say they can discharge him in a week or two.”
“So, what’s the prognosis?” Libby asks. Emma follows her as she floats into the kitchen, and flips the electric kettle on for tea.
“Mostly what Dr. Wilcox has already told me, or keeps telling me. He’ll be tired and weak for a while. He might get sick easily, and we’ll have to go straight back to the hospital if that happens.” She’s just parroting the doctor now. “He’ll need a lot of help though; I might have to start staying over at his apartment, rather than here.” She bites her tongue. “Can Carmen stay here while I take care of him?”
Libby hands her a steaming cup of chamomile. “Sure, but speaking of Carmen…” Emma senses that Libby’s getting to her point. She’s right; Libby takes a pack of Newports out of her pocket, sets them on the kitchen counter, and says, “Why were these sitting on your end table?”
Emma’s a little surprised Libby didn’t figure it out months ago, though she’s gotten a little sloppier about it lately.
“I thought you’d stopped long ago. Does Carmen know?” Libby says accusingly.
“Of course not! I’m careful.”
“Emma, careful isn’t good enough. Kids are good at ferreting these things out. And she won’t just leave them alone either!” Libby draws a breath. “They’re always curious- she’ll try it herself, just to find out.”
“That’s not fair, Libby. It’s just a coping mechanism, all right? I’ve got way too much on my mind these days. This is a much longer recovery than I expected.”
“And Carmen doesn’t?” Seating herself on a barstool, Libby twirls to face Emma dramatically. “Think about it.”
A hot flush steals over Emma’s face. Libby’s parenting advice is mostly anecdotal; she flits in and out of others’ lives, doting on Carmen and her friends’ children when it suits her. She leaves as soon as the sugar rush from the rock candy she brings takes hold, or disappears around naptime. Not that Emma truly blames her- it’s not like she’s Carmen’s mother, after all—but you can’t claim you know what’s best when you aren’t around for the tantrums.
“My daughter can think for herself, and I should know. I’m her mother, after all.”
Fury emanates off of Libby. Emma presses a little further. “I may be a guest here, and I’m very grateful for that. Incredibly so. But it’s not up to you to tell me what to do. Or to patronize my daughter.”
“Fine! Just don’t let me catch you smoking here.” Libby marches out of the kitchen and up the stairs. Her shoes clap soundly on the hardwood floorboards.
Emma feels a cut of guilt, mixed with grief and something else she can’t quite put her finger on. They had been getting along fairly well before. Libby is a hard woman to deal with until you know how to get around her dramatic outbursts and the silence that follows. Sometimes, Emma thinks Libby lets her and Carmen stay here out of a need for company she won’t articulate.
Emma used to feel shipwrecked in Libby’s silence, until she realized that Libby simply filled space with things the way that others fill them with words. She arranges porcelain unicorns in a delicate dance across the edge of the toilet, her linen closet has actual linens that spill to the ground and make closing the door impossible. Her library spans five bookcases (and feeds Carmen’s ravenously hungry curiosity). It’s a type of incantation for Libby, Emma supposes. The same as her repeating the fact that her father will be better soon.
On Wednesday, classes are cancelled at the community college she teaches at, so she drops Carmen off at school and watches icy bushes shake off a torpor of frost in her daughter’s wake. It’s only 7:50, so she can meander through some semblance of a morning routine if she promises herself she’ll keep her eyes off the time while she waits for the doctor to call.
She parks in the monstrous steel and concrete structure on West Holly Street and walks down to street level with her scarf wrapped round the lower half of her face. She passes by the Mount Baker Theatre. It’s her favorite building in town- the whitewashed spires and red letters burst against the day’s blue sky. Inside, it boasts a magnificent art-deco dome, lit in an unobtrusive blue and decorated with a dizzying amount of plastered bronze filigree. The first time Emma and Carmen walked inside it, Emma booked them tickets for the following night’s show of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Three tickets—that was before her father got sick. The second night had been even better. She felt like she’d stepped back into the 30s. It reminds her of Los Angeles, home; she hopes the glittery daydreams rub off on her.
Lee’s Coffee is next door; their macchiato is a little stale because they don’t roast the beans every day, but Emma likes being able to disappear into it for a while. Or at least she hopes to disappear, and come back with something new. She’s been trying to come up with new menu items for Vittorio and the Pacific Palisades set for weeks now. Usually she’s brilliant at this. She gets compliments from even the hardest-to-impress producers. She pulls combinations of peach and prosciutto out of midair and layers it over pizza, stuffs dates with bacon and pepperjack cheese, but they’re insatiable for novelty.
She watches thin, bare tree branches sway outside, swirling a spoon absentmindedly in her coffee. Lately, she stares at blank pages of notebooks more often than not, feeling let down by whatever mechanisms used to piece those plates together. She misses the feel of the kitchen, her apron strings biting into her hips, the buttery luster of a well-done remoulade. All the wild flavors that can burst out of a well-ordered kitchen. She’s long since decided that is the thing about cooking. You can govern the science of it, but the art arises in startling, delightful ways.
She jots down a couple of ingredients for a nebulous appetizer: roasted miniature red peppers, goat chevre. Picks at a loose hangnail on her thumb. Wonders what Carmen is doing in class today, whether she’s liking it at all. Thinks about having another cigarette, but remembers that there are no more of those trash cans with ashtrays attached to the top; they removed them all for the sake of revitalizing the downtown.
She’s a couple seconds from pulling out her phone to check the time when it rings, at exactly 12:03pm.
Dr. Wilcox is on the other side. “Ms. Lysaker, how soon can you come in?”
Libby hasn’t talked to Emma in a week. Carmen sits alone in the living room, splayed out on the couch with one leg draped over the armrest, doodling spirals on the paper. She’s stuck a piece of cardboard under, to make sure the pen doesn’t bleed through and stain the light gray fabric of the couch. Emma watches her from the other side of the kitchen counter.
“It’s too hard!”
“This one. Something about an Egyptian princess. How would I know? I need Grandpa to help me.”
“I can try it. I’m not too bad at these things, you know!” She tries to keep her voice lighthearted, but Carmen snatches the paper away and folds it up. “No, Grandpa has to help me. Or else what is he going to do in the hospital?”
Sleep, hopefully. Get rid of whatever weird allergic reaction to the antibiotics he’s having. They haven’t been allowed to see him in days.
“Just this one.” She makes her voice wheedling and plops down on the sofa next to her daughter. Slowly, Carmen releases her clutch on the paper. Emma gently pulls it from her. She scoots up on the couch and leans against the pillows, holding the folded paper in one hand and her reluctant daughter in the other.
“Don’t pout at me! You can save this one for when we go to see your grandpa.”
Carmen sits up, so Emma doesn’t have to fight gravity to get her daughter to sit next to her. “Okay. Fine.” She sneaks a sidelong look at Emma. “I guess that’s gonna have to work.”
Ignoring her attitude, Emma presses on. “Okay. I’ve got to be good for something, right?” Carmen muffles a laugh.
Emma skims the edge of the paper with the pen and draws a thin line over the boxes. “Four letters. Egyptian princess from a famous opera? Well, the only one I know is Aida. And that fits with “ ‘I’ in twenty-four down, so that must be it!”
“How did you know that?”
“Oh, it was easy!” Emma smiles slyly, as she writes the letters in.
Sean had dragged her to see a performance when they were first dating. She remembers sitting in the darkened LA Opera for the first time. She’d seated herself forcefully and released a cloud of dust from the velvet chair lining and coughed for a solid five minutes while Sean chuckled and held her hand with a sweaty palm.
After that, she’d determined that this was the way the night was going to go- that musty old-theatre smell creeping into her nose, she having to pretend that she liked unintelligible high-pitched arias.
To her surprise, though, she loved it. Not the opera part. The absurdity of it. Anything could happen. People went mad and roamed the countryside with their pet goats in tow, and priests disguised themselves as singing tutors and then revealed they were really neither in the first place. After that she had loved it. Couldn’t get enough of the strange plot twists, the colorful and twisted ways they spoke and sang and used words to their advantage. She had even named Carmen after one of the most famous opera characters of all time.
Emma tells Carmen the story (leaving out that Sean had not liked this interpretation, or the proposed name, or eventually anything at all having to do with Emma or the things he once liked about her).
“Sounds kind of boring,” Carmen says, yawning and dangling one arm over the edge of the sofa.
“Fine, then!” Emma says. “Guess I’ll have to go see one without you. Maybe I’ll take Grandpa, too.”
“No, no, I want to see it!”
“All right then. Next time I can find a performance. Let’s finish this puzzle, shall we? I bet Grandpa will be proud of you for finishing it.”
They work their way through the puzzle slowly and methodically, taking on “sweet cake”, “ole partner”, and “busy one”. The sun lowers and finally disappears, and all of a sudden Emma notices she’s squinting at letters she can no longer see. She sends Carmen up to bed and lies on the couch, thinking about Sean, Libby’s implicit kindness, the simplicity beneath the silliness in opera, the menu she still hasn’t finished, until she falls asleep.
March creeps in before they realize it. The encroaching snow by Libby’s stoop melts into grey and brown slush. The treetops still hold a still, maudlin bareness, though Emma expects to look up and see the billowing white feathers of geese returning after their winter migration south.
Today is supposed to be Rennie’s discharge day. Her fingers shake so much she can hardly put on her blouse. She keeps expecting her pocket to vibrate with bad news, but no, he’s struggled through it all and Dr. Wilcox has pronounced him strong enough to leave the hospital. The tight clench she’s held in her chest is slowly beginning to unspool.
Carmen is ecstatic. Emma parks the car in the hospital parking garage, and Carmen skips out, her red boots zigzagging along the path. Emma’s waterproof boots are getting holes in them, so she picks her way along as fast as she can, careful not to step in any wayward snow drifts that will soak her feet.
She can see the pavement now, the neat tan lines bridging the snow on either side. It’s lost its slick, icy edge and gained traction. A couple daring teenagers ride their bikes along the path and around the park, veering over the wet patches of grass and laughing when they slide through the thinning snow. Emma watches two or three lanky boys barrage their way around the edges of the pond. They’re quite graceful, she thinks. They tilt their bikes by insane degrees, and just when they start to feel themselves drifting past the point of no return, they tumble and almost glide off, emerging out of the fall laughing. All the same though, she tries to catch up to Carmen just to make sure she’s not watching them.
There’s a light pink over them, painting the sky the color of cotton candy. Emma thinks how fun it would be to take Carmen to the state fair in July. Because of course, they’ll still have some recovery ahead of them. Rennie will need help at first; Emma will drive him to get his prescriptions and stick around in case he needs another bone marrow transplant. Soon enough he’ll be strong, or she’ll hire a home aide. She and Carmen will stick around for as long as they need to.
And the fair! She might be a seasoned cook, but her mouth waters with the imagined doughy taste of a funnel cake. She closes her eyes.
It only takes a second; suddenly, she’s on the ground and there’s a searing pain at the back of her head.
“Mom!” Carmen runs toward her.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry! Do you need help?” One of the teenage boys is wheeling his bicycle around and coming back toward her.
Dimly, she reaches a hand up to the back of her head, which flashes with a deep, dull pain as she touches it. She brings it slowly, much too slowly, to hold it in front of her eyes. No blood. That’s good, she thinks. But her plans are shattered. Now she probably has a concussion, no, she knows it, from the way that her eyes start to throb. Fuck. She feels tears. What about Rennie? Now she’ll have to go to the ER instead of checking her father out. This was supposed to be a happy day, and now what?
Carmen reaches her and drops down onto her knees. “Mom, are you okay? I saw what happened.” She points an accusing finger at someone Emma can’t see. “That guy. He knocked you over.” Something in her voice has turned hard.
There’s a wheedling voice over to her left. “I’m really sorry, Ma’am. I didn’t mean to…I was trying to go around you and I just lost control, I’m sorry. I can help you up? I can help you over to the hospital, it’s over there…you might have like, a concussion or something and anyway I’m really sorry…”
Emma tries to prop herself up with her elbow but falls back to the ground. She waits a minute to speak, to see if her teeth can stop chattering as the cold has snuck into her boots and soaked her socks, and looks up at the branches, stark against the pink sky.
A poem floats into her mind. She turned to the sunlight and shook her yellow head/ and whispered to her neighbor, “winter is dead”.
She can’t remember the name of the poet, but she pulls a sudden and present strand out of a buried memory. It’s called When We Were Young.
“It’s okay,” she says to her daughter. “Winter is dead.”
Carmen sets her jaw while she tries to figure the riddle out, and Emma manages to prop herself up on her elbows, then set her hands firmly on the ground. She feels the teenager hovering behind her, trying to lend a helping hand, but she waves him away with a frantic mitten, insisting that she’s fine.
Her father’s going home today.
She’ll deal with the concussion when they reach the hospital.
Soon it will be summer. They’ll go to the fair.
Carmen puts an arm around her waist, and they continue toward the hospital.
Winter is dead.