When we check Katie into the hospital for the surgery at 7am and she is already hungry. ‘Fuck not eating for twelve hours’ she sits grumpily in the wheelchair, her long brown hair still rumpled and wet from her shower. We’re not nervous, this surgery is going to fix everything. All the weakness she’s been feeling; we joke that she’ll probably start putting on weight right after it too. Recently I’ve noticed that her wrists feel like a child’s. She shows off her hospital gown with the hole in the back. She grimaces ‘it’s cold’ and I can see the angles of her back bones as she turns to sit on the bed. I promise her we’ll go straight to Ikram’s afterwards. Our favourite shawarma place. ‘Just think about that, I’ll buy you a whole one’, not that I’ve ever seen her finish a full wrap, even before she’d gotten sick. She smiles when I kiss her pale forehead and waves as she’s wheeled away, she cranes her neck and smiles ‘see you soon Guppy’ wiggling her fingers above the stiff hospital sheet until she disappears behind a swinging door.
I’m sitting in a red plastic seat in the waiting area when a nurse comes to get me. I stretch and smile at her, not registering that it’s too early for the surgery to be over. One look at her face set my stomach lurching. ‘Mr. Carradon, please come this way. The doctor needs to see you.’
The doctor is an attractive woman, it registers somewhere in my brain. Still in her scrubs, there is blood on her front. Her face mask hangs from one ear. She waits until I sit down before she speaks. ‘I’m very sorry Mr. Carradon, but your partner has passed away’. Her voice is kind as she keeps talking but everything after that is just white noise.
‘Wife’. I interrupt her. ‘She’s my wife’. The doctor stops talking and looks at me, her eyes narrowing as though she is making an assessment. ‘Technically she’s my girlfriend but we call each other husband and wife’. My voice is very loud in the small room. Behind her I can see a chart of the human body and plastic boxes of medical supplies.
She speaks slowly and puts a hand on my arm, her blonde hair has streaks of grey in it. She isn’t wearing gloves, which means between seeing Katie and speaking to me she had time to take them off. I wonder how many minutes that was. Katie’s internal organs had been weakened. The stress of the operation on her body had been too much. They hadn’t been aware of just how much damage there had been to Katie’s liver and internal organs. Had Katie struggled with addiction in the past? ‘Yes’, I said, ‘but not for long. We were always just friends when she was on stuff, and she hated it, so she would always get clean again’. I was furious that they still thought she was an addict. An addict, a junkie.
I tell the doctor I wouldn’t enable it. She nods, her eyes sad. I tell her Katie kicked the habit for good a year ago, joined the church. The way the doctor talks, the addiction is a recent thing. ‘No, no.’ I tell her again, just to be sure. ‘She’s not like that. She promised me. Katie doesn’t do that stuff anymore.’ The doctor asks if Katie had been taking anything else recently. Something she might not have mentioned to her other doctors, something that wasn’t on her record.
I mention some pills she’d been prescribed for pain. The doctor looks at me with her eyebrows raised and writes in her notepad, I feel the familiar discomfort about the little white pills Katie had started using in the last year. If she didn’t get them from a doctor, where had they come from? ‘She’s Mormon now’ I tell the doctor, but I don’t know why.
They let me see her, but Katie is gone. A pale body with dark hair lies on the hospital bed. There’s a sheet up to her chin but her hand hangs over the bed. I touch it, but I feel nothing. Afterwards, I vomit in the waste paper basket next to a door in another room. My arms are red with marks from where I keep pinching myself. It can’t be true. A nurse talks to me about insurance and calls my brother, passing me the phone. My voice feels strange, even to me. Meet me at Ikram’s place, I keep saying. I hear Dave’s voice as I pass back the receiver to the nurse. He wants me to stay where I am, he wants to come to the hospital, but there is nothing left to do. We haven’t eaten for hours. Katie wanted shawarma.
The nurse says I shouldn’t drive. That I should wait for my brother to get there. I drive anyway. Weaving through traffic is the only thing that feels normal, from Newport to Long Beach, its a long way in traffic – it takes longer from the hospital. Forty-five minutes is worth it for Ikram’s Katie and I always joke, and it’s true. They have pickled beets and yellow peppers, you can help yourself and heap as many as you like into small plastic cups. The hummus is orgasmic Katie says. My favourite part of the meal is always watching her lick it from her fingers. I drive without turning my head, if I just keep driving I can feel her in the seat beside me. Bouncing up and down, tossing her head in the breeze from the open window. ‘A perfect California day’ the reporter said this morning, as we listened to the radio on the drive to the hospital. Katie had pulled her dark glasses over her eyes and growled about how hungry she was. It’s 3.40pm now and sun streams in through the windscreen. I can’t think straight and my mouth feels furry, I run my tongue over my teeth and still taste sick. It’s only been a few fucking hours. I waver on the edge of the abyss and come back into my body again, clenching the wheel, breathing deep.
I pull into the parking lot and am greeted by the familiar green sign. Ikram’s. I was here the week after 9/11 when there was a motorcycle cop standing outside the front door. He wasn’t doing anything, just standing there. Watching who went in and went out. One of the women working there whispered at me when she handed me my wrap ‘but we’re Christian’ she asked it as a question, but I couldn’t answer it for her. Today there is no cop, and the smell of cooked meat and onion fills the air as soon as I push the door open.
I order two wraps with beef and extra tahini. As I fill the little plastic cups with pickled beets and peppers, I juggle the wraps and the small containers. Pickle juice goes on the floor. I wait for one of the women behind the counter to recognise me. No one does. I imagine one of them asking me where my wife is. Ask me, I want to shout. My hands shake and I spill more juice all over the floor. I slide into one of the red booths at the back still shaking. Three seats away a family is eating. They’re in the booth Katie usually chooses. I stare at them and wonder if I can ask them to move. The small boy munches pita bread with his mouth open and I decide against it.
I hold the warm bread in my hand and close my eyes, it’s so soft. I smell the fatty meat and the onions and I can see Katie’s smile behind my eyelids. I hold it there, elbows on the table. I look like I’m praying but what I’m doing is feeling the warmth and wishing it would warm me. I am freezing. I don’t know what I’m doing here but I can’t move. I don’t want to eat right now. Katie was hungry. I rest my head on the table and Dave finds me like that, the bread cold in my hands. He slides into the seat next to me, not opposite as he would have usually. I can’t speak and he understands. He takes the wrap out of my hands and puts it on the plastic tray. Tahini and meat juice has run down my arms and stained my sleeves. Dave and I know the language of grief. When we lost our older brother two years ago, I comforted him as he raged drunkenly in the garage. Back then, I wondered if I could ever feel as sad as Dave did, but my anger at Len’s death came eventually too. Then it had been a creeping sadness, a fog. Like he did at Len’s funeral, Dave wraps his arms around my shoulders and I feel the familiar emptiness. I didn’t think it could be, but his time it’s worse. This time I am carved from wood. He speaks and I feel the tears come. ‘I’m so sorry’ he says, his voice is muffled in my shirt.
As soon as I can speak, I tell him to eat. The wraps are cold but I don’t want Katie to be hungry when she gets to heaven. I don’t tell Dave that. We don’t believe in those things. Even when she became a Mormon, the three of us would smoke cigarettes in the garage and laugh about God being the only way to fix a junkie. Junkie – she hated that word. She described the feeling once, when we had laid together on our bed. The memory of our bodies so close makes me reel with the sharp pain of it. She said wanting a hit was like a terrible hunger. A bottomless need for the high. Even talking about it made you crave it. I wonder if I’m ever going to be able to stop wanting Katie and I know I won’t. Not ever. The pain is deep and darkness flutter at the corners of my vision. It sits between my guts, settling there like a cat as I force the food down. Bite after bite. Dave’s face is wet as he eats. Katie meant something to him too. We eat in silence, our tears mixing with the hummus, the pickled beets and the lurid yellow peppers. We eat and eat until there is nothing left between us.