The Caregiver

Jeff- Caregiver

“I’m done resting Ethan, how ‘bout you?” I whisper.

We both feel soft after practicing yoga and our hour-long, turning-within meditation technique. We’re still resting on the large mat that covers half the floor of our studio apartment. Two years ago while learning this technique, we met and three months later we moved-in, meditating together ever since.

“Yes, Zach. I’ll get dinner ready.”

Ethan is a six-foot, man-bear with black hair everywhere.  His well-cushioned torso straddled high on strong hips and hairy legs. His dark eyes twinkle with insights from the deep meditation. He rolls on his side, plants both hands on the mat and slowly props himself into a standing position, like molasses moving up the side of a jar.

“Hungry?” his raspy voice asking, and also telling about his own state.

Ethan prepares our regular meal of frozen wonton soup, a salad of lettuce and tomatoes and pasta with garlic oil. To make it healthier, we drink tall glasses of grapefruit juice. I prefer to do the dishes.

When we’re home together, high up in this St. Louis pre-war building, our cocoon seems remote from the rigors of our graduate schools. Staying out of the small kitchen as he prepares our meal, I hear the muted sounds of the freezer door opening and closing, water pouring, the pot plopping on the stove, the snapping of lettuce stalks, and two plates banging hello as they hit the counter. With its vacuum broken, the fridge door reluctantly yields its contents, when suddenly, the sharp sound of shattering glass is followed with a loud “yeow”. I run into the kitchen to see Ethan grasping his bloody wrist. Shiny red shards of the large grapefruit jar are scattered in the sink.  I’m yanked into a strange universe, leaving the calm and orderly, for violence and chaos.

I hurl a towel at him and shout: “Tightly around your wrist”.

Reaching up and grabbing his armpit, I say, ”Let’s go, we’re going to the emergency room, NOW.”

He doesn’t say a word, we both lurch towards the door, twist our feet into our shoes and make our way to the car downstairs. I open the door for him and off we go. At the emergency room, only ten blocks away, I yell to Ethan, “Check in, I’ll park the car. See you in the waiting area.”

He manages to open the car door and plunge out. At the waiting room, I see Ethan drooping over, mumbling. I run to the desk and tell the clerk that my friend is passing out from blood loss. Two large men appear, hoist him by his arms and walk him through the double doors.

I’m running behind until one of them looks back, “Oh, you can’t come back here. Are you his guardian?”

I rapidly nod yes as they close the doors on me.

After a long wait, Ethan saunters out, right arm in a sling, face in a grimace, and eyes with no sparkle.

“Hi Zach. They stitched my wrist up for now. I’ve got to return for surgery to connect the nerves. I don’t know if I’ll ever play the piano again. You’ll be my right hand for a while,” he says in one breath.

I actually hear “You will be my personal slave for a while.”

I love this man but I don’t have any inclination for serving him, or anyone. I can barely address my own needs. He can’t use his right hand? He can’t play piano? Ethan’s music career highlighted in a solo with the Cleveland Philharmonic and then, pleasing his parents, he went to law school for a real career. But he still plays, um, played, for various events around town.

“I’m here for you, Ethan,” I say.

I’m proud that I sound caring. His chest fills with air and then deflates as his eyes rest in mine, as if to say… thank you.

I can’t believe our life changed so quickly. We had such a comforting routine: He gets back from law school, I from the engineering lab and then we meditate, eat, get some ice cream, and then study. Now I’ve got an invalid, I’ve got to do the cooking and I shudder to think of the other personal chores.

We finally return to our cocoon-slash-crime scene.

“I have to pee,” Ethan says sheepishly.

“And…,” I reply.

“You bastard, I can’t unzip and zip. I assure you that you won’t have to hold it.”

“Of course,” I reply as my eyeballs roll into my head, searching for a different reality.

We both step to the toilet with its peaceful pool peering back at us. His eyes move to mine, to his crotch, and back to me. I grab his pant flap to reveal its zipper. I pinch the zipper’s tab and pull the slider downward. Hearing every catch release, I slowly reveal his white underwear. I feel the tentativeness of an adolescent about to engage for the first time.

“Can you pull it out yourself?” I whisper.

“Ugh, unbuckle my pants,” he says.

I take a deep breath and perform the task, revealing black algae reaching for his naval.

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” I say curtly and walk away.

After a long silence, his pee is unleashed, gleefully slicing the water. A few minutes later, Ethan emerges.

“Will you please pull up my pants and zip them?”, Ethan says.

Resisting would be more painful for us both.

“Of course,” I reply

I stand behind him, with my stomach against his butt, I reach around him with both hands, pull his pants, snatch it, and close the zipper. I then grab my wrist and hug this bear-man, resting my head against his back. He breaths in deeply, holds and sighs relaxation. We are both still for eternity, experiencing each other’s warmth. I’m his guardian angel with no corporal needs. Then I lurch my hands apart and walk away, quickly.

“I feel very tired. I think those pain pills are making me sleepy,” Ethan says. He puts the child proof vial of pills in the center of the kitchen table.

“Why don’t you just lie on your bed, with your clothes on for now? I’ll finish making dinner for us. Are you hungry?”

“Not really,” He utters as he makes his way to his bed.

From the kitchen, I say, “Well, I am very hungry so if you’re awake when it’s ready, I’ll help you to the table. Otherwise, I’ll save some pasta for breakfast. OK?”

After a moment of silence, I repeat louder, “OK?”.

Glancing back to his bed, I see Ethan’s eyes closed and twitching. Sweet.

I go back to the kitchen and put on the purple dish-washing gloves. I clear the sink of glass shards painted the bright color of Ethan’s insides. As I remove each, I’m seeing pieces of nerve that once expressed the poetic grandeur of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto. Eventually, I eat my meal alone and accept that I won’t get any work done tonight.

The next morning, still in yesterday’s clothes, Ethan plunks himself at the kitchen table. I’d rather serve him breakfast than help him undress and dress. I wince at the inevitability.

“Zach, my hand’s throbbing with pain. I can’t open the vial with my pain pills. I need two pills, now.”

I half-fill a glass of water, push and twist open the vial, and hand him his dose.

I warm up the pasta and watch him crudely eat with his left hand as I smoothly consume my cereal. Neither of us talk but we look into the other’s eyes. His ask whether I can believe what happened. He must see the fear in mine.

“Well, Ethan, I’m going to the lab this morning and then onto Melody’s house this afternoon for her birthday party. I won’t stay for dinner, I’ll be back here for that. OK?”

“I’ve got to change my clothes before you leave Zach.”

I stare at him, feeling my stomach tighten.

“I’m late for meeting someone at the lab, how about I just remove your pants now and at lunch time, I’ll be back to care for you.”

“OK, remember, the nurse said my pain pills last only three hours during the day, so remember to be back at noon, Zach. Noon.”

“No problem, Ethan.”

“Also…”

He mumbles something but I couldn’t hear amongst the ruffling of my jacket, my opening the apartment door and leaving.

At the lab, I finish the section I’ve been working on for days. But the hours passed so quickly that I am astonished it’s now 2 o’clock. If I go back to Ethan, I’ll miss the start of the party. I’m sure Ethan can figure out what to do. Just as I enter Melody’s house, she says, “You better call Ethan at home.”

“Is he ok?” I ask.

“Just call him. Use the upstairs hall phone.”

“Hi Ethan, Are you ok?”

“Zach, I can’t open my vial. Get over here NOW!”

I hang up the phone and tell Melody I’ve got to go. Guilt has kicked in and I race home. Forgoing the wait for the elevator, I dash up the five flights and down the hall. Easing myself into the apartment, I am greeted by a roar.

“You were s’posed to be here at noon when my painkillers wore off! It’s 2:30 now.”

“I lost track of time. Sorry,” I say in a hushed voice.

I didn’t see the pain killers on the table. “Where’s the vial Ethan?”

Ethan lunges toward me with his left arm extended and its shaking fingers outstretched ready to choke me. I duck and immediately grab our wooden chair by the door, and, with both hands, lift it up and jab its four legs at him. But he keeps coming towards me. I thrust the chair at his torso, just like a lion-tamer. Then I back out of the apartment into the hall, the chair is my shield. He yanks the door wide open but just stands in the door frame.

He says, “Ok. Ok Zach. I’m not going to hurt you. Put the chair down. I need your help.”

“I’ll help you if you forgive me, Ethan. Do you?”

“Fine.”

“What’s not fine?” I ask.

“I tried to open the vial myself but just couldn’t. I just had to wait in pain for your help. Do you know how betrayed I felt?” He’s calming.

We both went inside, I put the chair back and he points to the vial on the floor. I open it, hand him two pills and gesture to follow me to the sink. Half-filling a glass of water and handing it to him, I see him swallow the pills and crack a smile.

“Hungry?” I ask.

“Yes”

“I’ll order pizza delivery for you and then I’m back to Melody’s.”

After I make the order, I head to the door.

“See you,” I say.

“Zach, be home by suh bwah bah…”

He mumbles something but I couldn’t hear amongst the ruffling of my jacket, my opening the apartment door and leaving.

 

 

One thought on “The Caregiver”

  1. I love the description of Ethan, “a six foot man- bear with black hair everywhere.” And “…like molasses moving up the side of a jar.” Fantastic. But I also enjoyed the peek into the lives of these two men, amiable housemates-meditation partners!- faced with a medical emergency and forced to act. It explores their relationship & touches upon the lengths that people will or won’t go when needs arise, as well as the unspoken boundaries of what is comfortable. Even among friends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *