After the tears. After the silence between / the tears. After her pleas that followed the silence / the man craved. After all the fucks and shits / he mumbles under his breath. After he misses the turn / and has to circle back to the ER entrance. After he parks. / After he gathers her admissions paperwork and her overnight bag. / After he leads her to a couch and registers her and recites / her name, birthdate, and SS#. After they wait in the lobby, / that lobby with the clichéd vending machine with its flickering light. / After they wait some more, and then more, and then / a wheelchair is brought for her. After they meander their way / to an elevator. After the night nurse pushes 6. / After their stomachs lurch with the sudden heave / upward. After its door dings open. After they wind back / to the correct unit. After the nurse calls / the front desk from a wall phone. After the man tucks his possessions— / phone, wallet, keys, book—away in a side room’s locker. / After they push her to the nurses’ station. After the man hands over / her bag. After they confiscate mints, some meds, / her shoes, and the drawstring to his pajama pants she wears when she’s sick. / After they wheel her to her room to settle in. After she cries / for something to help her sleep, to make the vomiting ease. / After she throws up twice. After she pleads / for him to stay. After he is reprimanded for being alone / in the room with his wife. After they promise to take / such good care of her. After they ask her what she’d like / to eat. After she looks at them and he swears / he can see What the fuck? rattling around in her head. After / they give him a ten-minute warning, and a five, and then tell him / he must go. After he arrives home and tells her friend / everything. After the friend leaves and he is alone again / to put the boy and the girl to bed. After he wakes the next morning, / and the morning after, and the next and next. After the woman / tells him how that first night really went. After months pass, / and this child is born. After this child’s first birthday, / first day of school, First Communion, first love, / first loss, first child, that child’s first introduction to Grandpa. / After dozens of anniversaries and fights. After every first sign / the woman is not well and then the man isn’t either. After everything, / will he wonder how much she holds this night / against him?
The man picks up, listens, and wonders if it’s worth it to love / a woman whose voice is so small and so flat / he can barely hear her wish to walk into the light / of an oncoming car.
Phone Call #2
The woman waits on her end and wonders if it’s worth it to love / a man whose voice stutters so often and so sharply / it is clear he cannot imagine what it is to walk into the light / of a new day’s suffering, again and again, / who doesn’t think to drive to her and demand her release, / who lays bare to her he doesn’t believe anything she says / could ruin his love for her like this, his inability to act, has.
Would it be so bad to be alone? Would it / change him, their son, their daughter, if the woman decided / this world wasn’t worth the effort anymore? / Would they be happy / for her sacrifice? Would they know this / as love? Would he tell them stories of her will / to bear this pain twice, each of their lives a gift that could have been / given away likethat if she had wanted? Would they feel more / duty to make something of themselves? Would they / find a way for this sickness to never hurt / a family like theirs ever again? Would the man / place two flowers—one for the woman, one for this son or daughter / he’d never see, never touch, never name—on her grave every Sunday morning? / Would he do that? Would he devote himself to their love / for the rest of his life, or would he forget once / and then twice, a third and fifteenth time until he could no longer see / her face in their children? Would it be so bad / for all these thoughts to be the last ones he thinks / before he falls into sleep tonight, and tomorrow, and the midnight after? / Would it be worse if he lied / to himself that he had nothing to worry over, / nothing that had him aching with her / every single word?
The man, though, has lost his place. He cannot / remember what comes next: the part where he kills / time in the ward’s locker room, a few fewer minutes watching her / shuffle from rec room to nurses’ station to plead again / for an on-time Phenergan, not another botched communication / with the pharmacy that has her falling deeper down the well, or how he’s scolded / by the on-duty nurse for standing inside his wife’s doorway because she cannot. / Stand, that is, because it means to be present / in her body, the last thing in the world she could want.
But what does it matter to be certain / of the order of each day’s suffering? What does it help / to string the narrative so neatly when the world falls / around them anyway?
Michael Levan has work in recent or forthcoming issues of The Offing, The Laurel Review, and Waccamaw. He is an associate professor of English at the University of Saint Francis and edits and writes reviews for American Microreviews and Interviews. He lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his wife, Molly, and children, Atticus, Dahlia, and Odette.