‘A perfect California day’ the announcer says over the radio as we drive to the hospital. Outside, the sun is lemonade -yellow. Katie has her dark glasses on and growls about how hungry she is. ‘Fuck not eating for twelve hours’ she says. Later, she sits grumpily on the hospital bed. “I’d kill for a shwarma’ she says and I promise her she won’t have to. She looks so sweet. Her long brown hair is still rumpled and damp from the shower. I kiss her mouth, on both corners, where her frown line is and it makes her smile.
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 as soon as she’s discharged.
I help her get undressed and once the gown is over her head, she shows off the hole in the back. ‘Easy access’ she grins. I ease her back onto the bed and she grimaces as her sheets meet her bare skin. ‘It’s cold’ she says and fidgets with her wristband. Her wrists look tiny, like a child’s. I wish I could ignore the sharpness of her bones when she moves. That morning, I promised her we’d go straight to Ikram’s after the surgery. It’s the best shawarma in Long Beach. The place I took her on our first date.
‘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. The shwarma are huge. Fluffy bread wrapped around steaming, succulent meat. They’re bigger than my head (and Katie’s always telling me how big my head is). She smiles when I kiss her pale forehead and waves as she’s wheeled away. I stay where she can see me and wave, big comical waves like a cartoon person. As the nurse rounds the corner with the bed, Katie cranes her neck, ‘see you soon Guppy’ she says, 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 my arms over my head and smile at her, but straight away my heart starts going. It’s too early for the surgery to be over. The look on her face sets my stomach lurching. ‘Are you Mr. Carradon? Who admitted Katie Freedman?’ I nod, the nurse is holding a clipboard. She asks me to follow her and I do.
The doctor is an attractive woman, it registers somewhere in my brain. She’s still in her scrubs, but she has a doctors coat over the top. She waits until I sit down before she speaks. ‘I’m very sorry Mr. Carradon, but there has been a complication during surgery. Katie, 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 narrow slightly 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. It is not a doctors office. The walls are pale yellow. There is a painting of Van Gough’s Starry Night on the wall. There are tissues on the table.
She speaks slowly and leans forward to put her 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 passed between that moment and this one. She’s speaking slowly, as if to a stupid person. Katie’s internal organs were weak. The stress of the surgery on her body had been too much. She mentions that the doctors hadn’t been aware of just how much damage there had been to Katie’s liver. ‘Her internal organs were shutting down even before she arrived.’ She asks if Katie struggled with addiction. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘but not for long.’ She knew I wasn’t okay with it. We couldn’t be more than friends when she was on stuff. The words keep coming ‘she’s been clean for years now’. Katie hated that I couldn’t be with her when she was high, it’s why she always got clean again. There’s a look on the doctors face, it passes like a shadow. That’s the ‘another junkie’ look.
An addict, a junkie.
I tell the doctor I didn’t enable it. She nods but her eyes are sad. 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. My hands shake as I reach out to touch it. Afterwards, I vomit in a bin next to a door in another room. My arms are red with marks, I can’t stop pinching myself. It can’t be true. A nurse asks me to contact Katie’s next of kin. I say dumbly, ‘that’s me’. She talks to me about insurance and calls my brother, passing me the phone. My voice sounds strange, even to me. ‘Meet me at Ikram’s place’, it’s the only thing I can say. 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. The nurse asks if I need a priest, but for all Katie’s talks about the church, I can’t think of what Mormon’s do when someone dies. We haven’t eaten for hours. Katie wanted shawarma.
The nurse says that I should wait for my brother to get there. I leave anyway. Weaving through traffic is the only thing that feels normal, from Newport to Long Beach, it’s a long way in traffic – longer from the hospital. Forty-five minutes bumper to bumper 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. Katie says the hummus is orgasmic. My favourite part of the meal is 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. There’s salt on the breeze, onshore. My mouth feels furry, I run my tongue over my teeth and still taste sick. I grip the driving wheel so hard my knuckles are white. My vision swims. I waver on the edge of the abyss and remember to breathe out. Back into my body again, I clench the wheel.
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’ her voice went up at the end, like she was asking a question. I nodded and lowered my eyes. 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 drips onto 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 on the floor. I slide into one of the red booths at the back. My hands 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. A small boy with eyes so dark they look like deep pools munches pita bread with his mouth open. 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 from the food and wishing it would warm me. I am freezing. And I don’t want to eat. It was Katie who 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. 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 my head finds his shoulder. 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.
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 were together in 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. 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.