Guestroom

 

 

Libby crashed the family’s minivan on her way to ShopRite. It was a light blue Honda Odyssey and when they found Libby, her hand had slipped itself into the pocket of her winter coat to clutch the coupon for $4 off a family-size pork tenderloin. In addition to the lacerations on her face, neck, and knuckles from the broken windshield, the reddish band of a bruise across her chest from the halting force of her seatbelt, and the concussion, there were four small bloody crescents across her right palm, inflicted by her own self-manicured nails after the accident while she waited for someone to open the driver door of her car. These were the most minor of her injuries, but they were the slowest to heal, and the ones that made Steve’s skin crawl when he thought of them.

 

By the time he got to the hospital that afternoon, Libby had already spoken with the doctor and been told she should stay overnight. “For the concussion,” she said, looking up at him from the pastel bed.

 

“I thought they didn’t need to wake you up for those anymore?” he said.

 

“The doctor said they want to be safe,” she said. He sat by the bed and put his hand on top of hers, which had a white bandage wrapped around the palm. She didn’t speak, but Steve was used to that. They spent a lot of time together in silence.

 

After a few minutes there was a knock on the door and a tall, black haired doctor came in. He walked all the way to the foot of the bed before looking up from his clipboard.

 

“Hi, folks, I’m Dr. Nissim. Just wanted to come by and see how you’re doing, see if you have any questions. You’re Libby Mackenzie?” She nodded, her mouth a little tighter than before. Steve knew she disliked the name she had taken. “I sound like a child,” she had told him.

 

“Okay, Libby, it says you’ll be staying the night…”

 

“Yes,” she said. He looked like he was about to say something, but thought better of it and closed his mouth.

 

“Is she okay?” Steve asked.

 

“I’m fine,” Libby said.

 

“This is a straightforward mild head trauma,” Dr. Nissim said. “Everything we usually test for— vision problems, headache, vomiting— came back saying Libby will just need some rest for her concussion. The bumps and scrapes will be gone in no time. Now, do you folks have any questions?”

 

“No, we’re all set,” Libby said.

 

“Excellent. I’ll be around to check on you tomorrow morning, and in the meantime just call the nurse if you have a problem.” He flipped the page on his clipboard and was already studying the next sheet as he left the room.

 

“I thought you said you already spoke to the doctor?” Steve said. “Didn’t he tell you to stay the night?”

 

“A different one,” she said, not looking at him.

 

“Okay,” he said. “Well, do you want me to stay here with you? I’ll call Tabitha to babysit longer— I’m sure she would agree to put the girls to bed and sleep in the guestroom.”

 

“That’s ridiculous— she’s too young. And it would be so expensive. The copay is going to be hard and I’ll be fine here by myself,” she said.

 

“Libby, we can afford a babysitter for the night. I just want you to be comfortable.”

 

“I just want— I’ll be— I would be more comfortable knowing that Sidney and Becca have you at home,” she said.

 

“Okay,” he said.

 

 

 

 

He left the hospital at six. Twenty minutes later he pulled into the driveway alongside Tabitha’s car, took his briefcase from the passenger seat and walked up the back steps to the kitchen. His daughters had seen him pull up, and were waiting for him by the kitchen door while Tabitha sat at the table.

 

“Tabitha told us what happened!” Sidney said. “We’ve been waiting for you to get back.” She stamped her foot in six-year-old impatience.

 

“Is Mommy going to have a cast?” Becca asked, holding his pants leg. She was four, still tow-headed and tiny. She liked to be picked up and carried around, set on his hip so she could cling to him like a monkey while he walked around the house. She held his leg with one hand and reached the other up, opening and closing her fist in the universal sign for “uppy.”

 

“No cast, but she has a concussion. Like a bad headache, so we’ll have to be quiet and help her,” he said, swinging her up. “Hi, Tabitha, how are you?”

 

“Good thanks how are you?” she said. He was never prepared for her good manners. They were immediate and consistent and made Steve feel that he knew the kind of person her mother was, although he had never met her.

 

“Doing okay,” he said. “Have you eaten dinner?”

 

“Yes,” Tabitha said. “We had pasta and carrots, and apples for dessert.”

 

“Great,” he said. Balanced, as always. He set Becca on the kitchen counter and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. “Forty?” he said, handing it to her.

 

She nodded. “Thanks very much, Mr. Mackenzie!”

 

“Thank you, Tabitha. Have a good night,” he said, and thanked God that she could drive now and he did not have to spend fifteen minutes chatting and sweating in the car with this 12th grader, while she combed through her mop of curly hair with her fingers and he thought of lawsuits and wondered if she was the kind of girl who would lie for attention.

 

“When will Mommy be home?” Becca asked, inching towards the edge of the counter so that he had to pick her up again.

 

“Do we get to be her nurses?” Sidney asked.

 

“Mommy will be home tomorrow. I don’t know if she’ll need nurses— let’s ask her tomorrow if she needs help.”

 

“I’m a great nurse,” Sidney pouted.

 

“I know,” he said, putting a hand on her head. “What do you want to do until bath time? We can do drawings, or play, or build with blocks?”

 

They decided to draw at the kitchen table, and after a few minutes Steve swapped his drawing of a brown bear for a proposal he had to read for work. He worked in property management consulting at a small firm called Atlas— he had tried to explain this to Sidney when she interviewed him for a first grade project, and sighed at the prospect that she would probably be in college before she actually understood what his job was.

 

At 7:30 they went upstairs for bath and bed. Steve read to both of them in Sidney’s room, until Sidney struggled to keep her eyes open and Becca was soundly sleeping. He kissed Sidney goodnight, then picked Becca up, marveling as always at her small light bones, like a bird’s. In his arms, freckled and weathered by forty-odd years of living, she was next to nothing. He laid her gently in her bed and pulled the covers up over her, kissed her softly on the forehead and left the door ajar behind him.

 

It was not even nine. Steve went downstairs to the kitchen, thought about calling Libby. He didn’t want to wake her if she was resting, and what would he tell her anyway? Their daughters were unfrightened, in general, and Libby wouldn’t be worried that they were not okay. He made a gin and tonic and stood against the counter to drink it.

 

Should he call just to say he missed her? To ask how she was doing? To ask what had happened? Libby didn’t like that kind of thing, at least from him. She didn’t like to be touched in public, or “made to feel helpless.” She, more than any person he had ever met, liked to be alone and unquestioned. He hadn’t had the courage to ask her about the crash while he was at the hospital, because he knew she wouldn’t want him to and there was a part of him that did not want to know.

 

Eventually he picked up his phone. “Hi Jill, it’s Steve. Just wanted to let you know that Libby’s in the hospital—nothing serious, don’t worry—but I’ll have to take the day off tomorrow. Well, today, I guess, when you listen to this. Anyway, I’ll be in touch about the Goldman proposal, and you can let Allen know I’ve reviewed it. Thanks, and bye.”

 

He poured another gin and tonic and took it into the living room, where he put his slippered feet up and stared at the TV until his head began to nod onto his chest. Then he switched off the TV and the downstairs lights, and headed upstairs to put on his pajamas.

 

The bed was too big. He lay on the left side, felt distinctly cold without another body beside him. He got up after several minutes to raise the thermostat, but even then slept restlessly.

 

 

 

 

The next morning, a Friday, Steve went back to the hospital after dropping Sidney and Becca at school. He and Libby waited in her room for Dr. Nissim to come give final instructions before Libby was allowed to go.

 

After several minutes, Dr. Nissim strolled in. “So sorry to have kept you waiting, folks,” he said, without looking up from his clipboard. He rattled off several questions about Libby’s head, vision, and overall feeling.

 

Her answers accepted, Dr. Nissim said, “Come back for a follow-up appointment in two weeks just to check that everything has healed the way we want it to. Any questions?” He paused for a moment, waiting with his mouth slightly open. Neither of them answered. “Libby, I see you’ve already been cleared with Dr. Santoro. Alright then, folks, have a great day,” he said, and exited.

 

Steve looked at Libby, and again could not find it in himself to ask her. She had already changed into the clothes he had brought her, so they left the hospital directly.

 

“How do you feel?” Steve asked, once he had helped her into his car.

 

“Fine,” she said, rubbing absently at her right palm with her left hand. “How are the girls?”

 

“They missed you last night,” he said, “but they seemed okay when I dropped them off this morning. Don’t worry.”

 

They didn’t speak for several minutes, and soon passed the place on Route 22 where Libby had crashed the day before, which Steve had not thought to avoid until they were almost there. He wondered what the crash had been like, what would happen if he let his tires follow the wobbling skid marks off the road. His eyes followed the streak of light blue paint along several feet of guardrail to the pile of black plastic debris at the base of a telephone pole, remnants of a crunched bumper.

 

“Lib?” he said quietly. She didn’t respond. “What happened?”

 

“Nothing happened,” she said, looking straight ahead.

 

 

 

 

He made sandwiches for lunch when they got home, and the two of them sat at the kitchen table to eat. Steve was filled with questions for her, but he was not the sort of man to try again, having been put off already. Libby finished her sandwich and rubbed absentmindedly at the part of her palm that could be reached without moving the bandage. He began to clear their plates, but she stood up.

 

“No, let me. Thanks for lunch,” she said, taking their plates off the table.

 

“Are you sure? If you’re tired or anything just let me do it,” he said.

 

“Really, I feel totally fine,” she said.

 

“No headache or anything? They kept you overnight so I thought it must be awful,” he said. She stood with her back to sink and looked at him. When she answered her voice was much softer than he expected.

 

“I feel much better today, I guess.”

 

She washed the dishes and he got his laptop out to do some work at the kitchen table. There was a message on his phone from Jill, wishing Libby a speedy recovery, and an email from Allen, wishing for his speedy return to work. With a sigh Steve began composing an email in reply. Libby went upstairs to call their insurance company.

 

Steve found after a few minutes that he had been staring at the same half sentence for some time, watching the cursor appear and disappear. He shook his head to clear it of the thought that had been nagging at him all morning. Even so, a minute later he had only added a comma to the sentence.

 

He looked over his shoulder, opened an Internet browser and quickly typed “santoro chester county hospital.” Dr. Leanne Santoro was the first result, psychotherapist at Chester County. This was the doctor who had told Libby to stay overnight? Steve felt his skin flash hot and then clammy. She had not told him, even when he had asked directly, and he had little doubt that she would continue not to tell him. He cleared his search history and closed the browser, then finished his email mechanically. He could hear her walking around upstairs, and her muffled voice still on the phone.

 

 

 

 

That afternoon, he and Libby both went to pick their daughters up from the bus. The girls ran to Libby and she crouched to gather them to her. When she stood up again, Becca reached to be picked up and before Steve could say, “Mommy is tired,” Libby had lifted Becca onto her hip. Sidney took her other hand, and the four of them walked back up the street to their house.

 

It was November, but still not too cold to be outside. Steve still had work to finish but Libby went outside with Sidney and Becca, to build fairy houses at the base of a half-dead pear tree at the edge of their backyard. They were happy at this for over an hour before coming inside. Libby went upstairs to lie down and Steve let the girls watch The Jungle Book while he worked and then made dinner.

 

Libby came down to eat with them, and after dinner she gave the girls their bath and put them to bed while Steve cleaned the kitchen. After he had started the dishwasher he settled down in front of the television with a gin and tonic. His back hurt from sitting in a kitchen chair for most of the day. Several months ago Atlas Property Management had spent thousands of dollars to get an ergonomic desk chair for each of its employees, and although Steve had thought the investment unnecessary, it seemed he could not go back.

 

When Libby came downstairs he muted the TV. “I’ll make you a drink if you want one,” he said. She rarely accepted his favors or help, and he was not surprised when she said, “No, I’ll do it,” and headed into the kitchen.

 

They watched a movie but had missed the first ten minutes and Steve found his mind wandering the whole time. After a while she said, “I really liked that,” and he realized that it had ended. He got up to make another gin and tonic, and then they sat on the couch in the living room and read, which was how they spent most evenings at home.

 

As midnight approached, they went up to bed. He was already in bed when she came in from the bathroom. She climbed into bed and he said, “I missed you last night.” She smiled and kissed him quickly, then moved to her side of the bed.

 

“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m just going to turn out the light, if that’s okay with you.”

 

“Of course,” he said. “Goodnight.”

 

"Goodnight.”

 

 

 

 

“Steve, stop.”

 

“What,” he said, eyes still closed, his throat thick and dry with sleep.

 

“You’re snoring,” she said. “I can’t fall asleep.”

 

He turned over without opening his eyes, swallowed and closed his mouth, and was aware of her unsleeping breathing for a few minutes before he drifted off again.

 

In the morning her side of the bed was made, sheets tucked away from him and the memory of a sleeping head shaken out of her pillow. He went downstairs in his dressing gown and found her sitting at the kitchen table, weak blocks of November light streaming on her back and through the glass of water beside her.

 

“Lib? You’re up early? What are you doing down here?”

 

“It’s the bruises on my leg,” she said. “Every time you pulled the sheet it hurt and I woke up.”

 

They set her up in the downstairs guest bedroom, right off the living room where Sidney and Becca sat together on the floor in another small world, dolls set up all around them.

 

“This seems more restful,” Libby said, standing in the guestroom to contemplate the bed, which looked large and luxurious but was actually two hard twin beds pushed together and blanketed as one. She opened the curtains, which had remained almost entirely closed since Steve’s father had died and vacated the room a year before. “A couple of days, just until these bruises heal.” She looked at him, rubbing the half-moon scabs on her right palm. “Just until the follow-up appointment.”

 

He stood in the doorway and flicked the light switch. The overhead did not respond and he turned from the room to get a light bulb.

 

 

 

 

He said goodnight to her at their bathroom sink before she went downstairs. He lay down to go to sleep but could think only of Leanne Santoro, and was awake for so long he began to wonder if he might have fallen asleep and reawakened.

 

Much later he sat on the edge of his bed, still in the restless suspension of sleeplessness and trying to convince himself that getting up and walking around would bring sleep.

 

He put his slippers on and padded quietly to the door, then down the hallway past Sidney’s open door and then Becca’s. At each he peered in to make out the shape of a small curled body under the covers before continuing to the stairs. He kept his body against the stair wall so there was no creak.

 

There was no light coming from under the guestroom door. He turned off the dim light by the stairs so that he stood in near total darkness, not wishing to wake her with light from outside the guestroom. His eyes began to adjust and he crossed to the guestroom door. He put his hand on the doorknob and turned it carefully, feeling the mechanism disengage from the doorframe before he pushed slowly. The whirring of the dishwasher in the next room had stopped, and the only sound was the rustling of nearly leafless trees outside. He closed his eyes and listened for other, quieter layers of the silence to emerge, until he could hear her quiet exhalations, steady and unmonitored. In the distance, he heard a car door slam. Goosebumps rose along his arms and neck, and he pushed the door farther and slipped into the room. He let the handle un-turn and then let go of it, feeling quite distinctly the loss of its support, as if he might fall in the dark with nothing but the sound of her breathing with which to locate himself.

 

He stood there in the dark, an intruder. Her breathing was soft and strong and unconscious, like that of a child waiting to be carried from the backseat up to bed. As he stood there listening he felt tears prick in his eyes and anger make his mouth turn because he had never heard her sleep so well before. The longer he stood still the more he felt he was reeling. He gave a cough and she didn’t stir. He wanted to say her name, call it out and slam the door and show that he could wake her, but his throat and his hand refused to comply. He would never wake her, never test the depth of her sleep tonight, never leave her even though she lay there sleeping better in their guestroom than she ever had next to him. He would never leave her.

 

He stood there a minute more, then shut the door carefully once more and walked back up the stairs, along the wall, back past Becca’s open door and then Sidney’s, back to his bed where he lay on his back on the left side of the bed, not moving, for a long time before falling asleep.

 

 

 

 

When he woke up in the morning, it was to the immediate memory of his venture downstairs, and the feeling that he had only just fallen asleep. With a groan he lifted himself from the bed, put on his dressing gown and made his way downstairs. She was in the kitchen, sitting fully dressed at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the paper in front of her.

 

“How did you sleep?” he asked.

 

“I feel so rested,” she said, with a smile he had not seen in a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ABOUT THE ARTIST

 

Eva Sibinga loves to make things, from new recipes and wooden furniture to linoleum cut prints and assorted pieces of writing. Her latest projects include a cherry wood desk and a family history centered on her grandfather's violin, which she has taken care of and played for the last decade since it was passed down to her. Eva lives and works in New York.

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