The Waiting Room

by Bryan Harmon

                    The Waiting Room

Brad felt cold in the waiting room; the central air-conditioning was too efficient. The entire hospital was as frigid as it was antiseptic. "Maybe that's it", he mused, "Maybe they keep it cold to kill germs", but he knew that wasn't the case. He was just one of the out-of-touch few, who didn't appreciate an air-conditioned environment. Almost all public places were too cold for his liking and this room was no exception. He noticed as he shifted his position on the vinyl upholstery that the back of his shirt was dry now. It was an extremely hot and humid mid-September day and by the time he had suffered through the early stages of rush hour traffic to get to the hospital, the back of his shirt had been plastered to his skin with perspiration. On first entering this room he had to be very careful not to allow the wet material, which quickly chilled in the refrigerated environment, to come into contact with his back. So that was one less thing to worry about.

Actually, this never entered his mind, as he was only concerned about one thing right now: Crystal. She had to be OK. How bad could it be? It couldn't have been that much of a fall. Still, she was here, in this place, and he hadn't been able to see her yet... He fought against the fear that was trying to take over. "I've just got to wait and see, but she's going to be fine", he mentally tried to convince himself.

Brad looked up at his wife, Anita, sitting in an identical blue vinyl and stainless steel chair across from him. For just a second he could see the exact same parental concern and anguish in her eyes, which he realized must be showing in his. Then she noticed him looking at her and the coolness came back, the total lack of emotion that she always seemed to exhibit toward him these days. They had been separated now for over six months, but he still felt the loss of the warmth that used to emanate from those eyes.

Anita had received a call from the school, informing her that their daughter, Crystal, had fallen from the top of the slide at recess. She had relayed the bad news to Brad, prompting his frantic drive to meet her here at the hospital. So now they were both sitting helplessly, waiting for some word on the condition of their only child.

"She couldn't have fallen more than 6 or 7 feet. How bad could it be?", he tried to reassure his wife and himself, but he was not as calm inside as he was trying to project.

"I warned her about playing around too much", she said, as if she hadn't heard him. "Especially on high places, she just isn't as careful as she should be."

Brad started to say something about kids being kids and didn't she remember what it was like to be eight years old, but then he caught himself. He didn't want to get into another argument with her and that's how they always seemed to start. She would make a statement and he would strongly disagree, or vice versa. He realized that their life together would have been a lot smoother if he had consistently been able to avoid controversy by not responding every time he had a different opinion. Still, it was difficult. They were both very strong-minded and outspoken. If he thought about it, he could see that he was probably a little more so, but just barely.

He began to respond, "Yeah, she definitely needs to be more careful", but he was interrupted by the entrance of the emergency room doctor. "Are you Mr. and Mrs. Howard?"

"Yeah, for a little while longer we are", the waiting father almost replied, but instead answered, "Yes, doctor. How is she?"

"She'll be OK. She has suffered a mild concussion, but the x-rays didn't show any other trauma. We'll want to keep her here for a while for observation, but she's a very strong little girl. I don't foresee any complications."

"When can we see her?" Her mother spoke up.

"She'll be in a room soon. My guess is another 15 or 20 minutes", the doctor replied. "Well, if you don't have any more questions I'd better get going. We're pretty busy in here today." He left by the same door through which he had entered. Both parents felt a great weight lifted, as the anxiety of not knowing faded from their minds.

"She's going to be OK! It's only a mild concussion"; Mr. Howard stood up and said, as if his wife hadn't just heard the doctor say the same thing.

Anita started to remind him of this, but realizing that his outburst was prompted by relief and not by a lack of confidence in her intelligence, she simply smiled. Crystal was alright! She basked in the warmth of that thought.

Brad sat back down and gazed at his wife again, realizing that he hadn't seen her happy for a very long time. Then they sat in silence, not looking at each other for a few minutes, as they relaxed from the tension that they had been feeling since learning of their daughter's accident.

Finally, he turned to her and remarked, "I couldn't help noticing earlier that your smile is as beautiful as ever. It's been a long time since I've seen it and I can't tell you how much I've missed that."

Caught off guard, she responded, "Thank you, but there hasn't been a lot to smile about lately."

"You can say that again! I've been forcing smiles for so long that I've almost forgotten how easy it is to do it for real. When you're as lonely as I've been you don't have much cause to smile."

"How can you say that? I would think you'd be happy. After all, now you can finally do all those things you've been wanting to do, without feeling guilty about neglecting me. I've always felt I was a burden to you. Besides, from what you've told me, you can't have been all that lonely since we broke up."

"Wait a minute!" He could hardly wait for her to finish before he interjected, "I've always told you that you weren't a burden on me and that I needed you to be around before I could enjoy doing other things. And as for what I told you about other women, well, I have to admit that I exaggerated greatly."

"Exaggerated! You stood right in my living room and rattled off the names of half a dozen women that you've been seeing. Remember when I told you that some lady called me at work and thanked me for leaving you because of how good you are in bed. You ran down a list of names to try and figure out who it could have been!"

"Exactly! Most of the women I mentioned were merely acquaintances. I certainly knew that they wouldn't have made a call like that, and the ones I've actually talked to are just that, people I've talked to. I haven't met anyone that could come close to making me feel the way I feel for you! I'm spoiled. No one can ever appeal to me unless they're just like you and I don't think there are any women like that out there. I went through that whole sham of mentioning those names because I wanted to make you feel jealous. I know it was childish and moronic, but I wanted you to feel that others could want to be with me. Didn't work though. In fact, I guess it backfired. Seems like you're further from me now than ever."

"Don't try to deny it now! It was sickening, watching you, with that smirk on your face, while you pretended to try and figure out who it could have been. Crystal was standing there, too, listening to everything. Then, when she asked why you were involved with so many women, you said, "Because I'm good." It was all I could do not to slap that smug expression off your face!"

Heads were starting to turn in their direction as the other people in the room began to pay attention to the real life drama going on in their presence. The emotional couple's conversation was more interesting than the soap opera on the waiting room TV screen.

Brad was oblivious to this, as he responded, "I never said that! In the first place, it's not something I would say and in the second place, even if it was, I wouldn't say it in front of Crystal."

"Well, you did! I heard you very clearly. Now you're calling me a liar again."

"I'm not calling you a liar. If you say you heard me say that, then I think you really believe you did, but I know I didn't. Especially not with Crystal there. You must have misunderstood me. I don't remember exactly what I said, but I know it wasn't that."

"There you go again! Your convenient memory lapses drive me up the wall! Nobody could really fail to remember as often as you claim to do. Anytime you want to get out of something, you just say you don't remember."

"When I say I don't remember, I mean I don't remember my exact words, but I know what I was feeling and what I meant to say. Maybe I used the wrong words or maybe you misunderstood, but I know I wouldn't have said, 'Because I'm good.' That would be totally out of character for me. I think I was responding to Crystal's question, about why I liked so many women, by saying that actually they liked me. That was for your benefit, I was trying to make you jealous. Remember?"

"Saying something like that would be totally in character for you, I know what I heard. And I wish you would stop yelling, you're giving me a headache."

"I'm not yelling", he answered, trying to remain calm. "I am very emotional and intense about what I'm saying. If my volume goes up, it's out of frustration, I guess. I can't ever seem to get through to you. Besides, you know how much I hate it when you try to tell me I said something that I know I not only didn't, but wouldn't say. That drives me crazy!"

"Look, this isn't getting us anywhere. I don't want to talk to you anymore. Let's just sit here and wait for them to let us see Crystal. It's during times like this that I'm most glad I'm not with you anymore."

Brad started to reply, but caught himself. He knew from experience that to continue trying to talk to her now would only make her angrier. But there were so many things he wanted to say! He always felt that if he could just put his thoughts into the correct words, she would finally comprehend. He knew that she hadn't understood him in a long time. Maybe she never had, but he always felt that it could happen. It must be his fault; he just hadn't found the right words.

As they sat there, the silence seemed even deeper in contrast to the loud exchange that had just ended. Suddenly, he turned to her again. "I know you don't want to talk anymore, so you don't have to answer, but please hear me out. I'll do my best to keep my voice down."

Anita refused to look at him and her face was emotionless as she stared out the window.

Her response wasn't encouraging, but he continued, "You are partially right about something you said earlier. I do feel more freedom to play golf or stay up late playing video games, since you've been gone. But what you don't seem to understand, is that I hardly ever feel like it. Without you in my life, I just don't feel up to doing anything. I've never been able to get you to understand just what it is about you that I need, but when you are not around, nothing is the same. Even the things that I would normally be doing away from you anyway seem meaningless. I don't really understand it either. All I know is I feel cold and empty inside and that keeps me from truly experiencing anything except depression."

Unexpectedly, she turned to him and answered, "You just miss the sex. You can get someone else to do that with and you'll be fine. In fact, I'm sure you already have. Remember, I got that phone call. I know you're not the type to do without something you really want."

"That's not true! I haven't been with anyone else and I don't just miss making love to you. You're right; I do miss you that way very much. Our sex life was probably the most compatible part of our relationship and, if you would just admit it to yourself, I'm sure you miss it, too. But the warmth that I got, just from being around you, was the most important thing."

Brad stopped, frustrated. This wasn't getting anywhere. He just couldn't think of the right way to convey his feelings, words just didn't seem to do it.

Anita started speaking, quietly at first and then with more and more emotion. "Yes, I do miss making love to you. I miss having you rub my back. I miss having you sleeping next to me on cold nights. I even miss greeting you when you came in from work, but it's worth it. Over the years the frustration of knowing what our relationship could be, compared to how it was in reality, ate away at my feelings for you. You let me down! When we were first together, you were so different from my first husband. You treated me exactly the way I needed to be treated. Our minds seemed to work in unison. You really listened to my ideas, you were very supportive and you never made me feel unimportant. But all that changed. You just didn't provide those things for me anymore!"

Everyone else in the room was listening now. This was much better than the artificial emotion on the TV show.

Caught up in her diatribe, Anita didn't notice this as she continued, "I tried to go on feeling the same way toward you, but I finally reached a point where I couldn't. You gradually killed all those beautiful dreams I once had of what life with you would be like. I almost hate you for that! If I hadn't loved you so much, if I hadn't dared to hope for happiness, if I hadn't invested all my emotions in you - only to see them die, maybe I could have continued living with you. Maybe you didn't lie to me intentionally, but you promised me happiness and you never delivered. I don't think I can ever forgive you for that or for destroying my dreams!" At this point she broke down, sobbing.

Brad sat there impotently. Wanting to ease her pain, but knowing that anything he could do would just make it worse. What could he say? That he had never stopped loving her? True, but she couldn't believe that. That she had made him a happy man? Yeah, right! He finally realized that they were never meant to be, but it was too late for him. He had invested in her every ideal of what the perfect woman should be and he knew that no one else would ever measure up. So that ruled out his ever being truly happy with another woman. They had both sank all their hopes and dreams into the beginning of their relationship and the reality was that two imperfect human beings could never live up to those impossibly high standards. The waiting room suddenly felt even colder.

"Mr. and Mrs. Howard, you can see your daughter now", a nurse called from the doorway. "Just follow me."

The waiting mother dried her tears as she rose to go see her child and her husband fell in behind, as they walked down to the children's ward.

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