Night Nurse

by Monique McIntosh

She loves him in a blue white way. Hospital white. She changes his sheets and cuts his toenails, yellowed and hard. Tells him no, she can't take out the breathing tube. He scraps at the plastic with his nails, leaves needle-fine scratches where the tube is taped to his cheeks. She wraps his hands in towels so he cannot hurt himself. His arms lie by his sides, limp terry-cloth mitts.

When she changes the bed pan, she wipes him, touches him under his gown. Across his belly. Between his thighs. A gloved finger through the seam of his ass. Underneath he is hairless and sunless. He looks at her, gurgling around the tube. Adam's apple bobbing. Spit runs down his chin. She daps him clean.

His wife comes early every morning. The nurse brings her tea from the cafeteria and she sits in the armchair, finishing her Styrofoam cup. He cannot speak through the tubing, so she doesn't speak either. Instead the man and his wife watch The Today Show together before the wife leaves for work.

When the wife must go, the sun is coming through the plastic blinds. The nurse stops outside the room and watches the light come over them. The stray hairs on the wife's head. The clear scratches on her patient's face

The nurse asks the wife how long they have known each other. We're high school sweethearts, she says. She squeezes her husband's hands through the terry cloth, kisses his face around the tape. He stares back hard at his wife, waiting for her to answer him. Sickness has given him large, brown cow eyes.

She shakes her head. No, she says. She tells him she loves him. He shuts his eyelids. Sickness has taken his eyelashes.

The nurse does not ask them if they have children. Children are not allowed here. The ICU nurses are told to escort out any who slip by. Hospital policy, the nurse must tell them. The parents always argue, but the children never do. They look at her face and nod. They let themselves be led out, sneakers squeaking on the floor. They smell like bubblegum and hot gravel. They beg for spare mints and lollipops from the nurse's station. Their smell stays in the ICU long after they leave.

When her shift is over the nurse takes care to wash herself. She runs the shower hot until the washroom steams. When her husband is on top of her, the smell is gone. She only smells like latex, which never leaves her, though her husband doesn't notice. They are trying, and when they are done he lies on top of her, face in her hair. She tries to breathe. She tries to find the white, rubbery smell of herself.

They have stopped her patient's physical therapy. Instead he lies there, watching T.V. He can hardly sleep because of the machines. They beep in the middle of the night, an electronic wail that wakes everyone in the ICU. She comes running, unwinding whatever tube has got caught under him. When she lifts his shoulders, the joints of his back poke through her arms.

But sometimes he fights, he plays. Lifts his arms as high as they will go. His terry-clothed hands scrape her jaw. He looks at her. The room is dark. Blue light from late night T.V. falls on them. She touches him under his gown, scratches him inside his thighs. She is gloveless. His eyelids fall shut.

There are pictures posted on the wall across from him. In these pictures her patient has thick hair and a small pot belly. This man lives outside with light on his face. The man in each photo smiles back at the nurse; the man with arms around his wife, blue white sky gleaming behind them. The man with arms wrapped around thick coils of rope, the crisp edge of sails whipping behind him. The man's fingers pinching a child's nose tight, laughing wet.

This laminated man scares her, she thinks. She touches this man through the smooth photo gloss separating them. This man is a stranger.

She can feel her patient watching her, tracking her fingers across the wall. He watches her take the one with the man and the plumb child's face, sliding it into the pocket of her scrubs. Adam's apple rising and falling.

I'm gonna take off one of the towels, she tells him. She peels off the tape. Underneath his fingers are curved into a claw. She holds the letter chart under his fingers, a grid of black letters and a row of bulbous cartoon faces running below. They are primary faces. Black dots for eyes. Parenthetical mouths. They are faces children draw, what they see when they look at their parents.

What do you want? Tell me, she says.

His fingers twitch, runs across the smooth surface, taps the K, taps the I, taps the L but the charts goes sliding out his fingers as she pulls it away. He grabs for the edge. Cow eyes wide, nostrils flared.

She grabs his fingers. Envelopes him with the towel mitt. She cannot look at him.

At night when she fucks her husband, holding the back of his head against her palm, ripples of skin rising along his skull, she thinks about when her patient will die. How she will lift his head, roll over his body so the drawstring sheet can slip under him. How she will have to tighten the chord so they can grab two handles and lift his body off the bed without touching him.

BIO: Monique McIntosh is a short story writer and journalist from Kingston, Jamaica. She received her MFA in fiction from Florida Atlantic University, where she was the Lawrence Saunders fellow. Her stories have or will appear in Kweli Journal and Moko Magazine. She now lives in Fort Lauderdale.