It was a miracle, but we made it back to the hospital without anyone knowing we were gone, except for Leah, of course. As we passed her at the nurses’ station she rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “You get your hair done out on the wheelchair track, Charlotte?”
I ignored her and just continued to wheel Adam into his room. “See, no one cares,” he said as I helped him into bed. I lay beside him in the crook of his right arm. He held me to his body and for a few minutes it felt like everything was normal, even though we were in a crappy hospital room.
Even with the faint sounds of machines beeping and the medicinal smells wafting through the room, I still felt like Adam was my boyfriend, like we were just two people in love, lying together in the afternoon for a lazy nap. When I felt him doze off, I checked the Padres game on my phone. Seth sat on the bench for the second half of the game due to a wrist injury. I was tempted to text him but I held back. I would be seeing him in the next couple of days and I was sure I’d have a lot of explaining to do.
Adam had a rough night. I don’t know if it was because he had overdone it earlier in the day or if it was because he was getting progressively worse. Probably both. He had three seizures throughout the course of the night. After the third, he cried. I held him and rocked him. He wasn’t embarrassed; he was frustrated that he couldn’t control his own body. My heart ached for him. I wanted so badly to be strong but when he broke down and sobbed in my arms, I fell apart, too. I felt robbed, victimized because I wouldn’t have more time with him.
Both of us were exhausted after that night. We had a couple of mellow days inside the hospital, just watching TV and taking short walks. The day before Seth was scheduled to come back, Adam had the worst seizure yet. He was in his wheelchair when it happened. I couldn’t protect him. He fell to the floor and started seizing, his head smacking the tile. I hit the call button before dropping next to him to try and prevent him from injuring himself further. His spasms were so strong that I couldn’t do anything besides try to place my hand between the floor and his thrashing head. I ended up with two bleeding fingers and Adam ended up with a gash from his ear to the crown of his head. He felt so guilty about my fingers that he couldn’t even look at me for the rest of the night.
The nurses bandaged my fingers and wrapped up Adam’s head with white gauze. He was quiet the following day as well, even though I told him over and over not to worry about my hand.
He said sorry at least twelve times an hour until I finally told him that I would break my other fingers by punching him in the face if he didn’t stop apologizing.
Early the following day, he was quiet again and I thought maybe he sensed my anxiety about Seth coming back. I hadn’t heard from Seth yet and I was in no place to contact him, so there was nothing to do, really. I selfishly hoped Helen had explained the situation to him so I wouldn’t have to do it myself, even though I had asked her not to.
Adam sat in his chair and watched me move around the small hospital room, throwing away trash and straightening up. “What are you cleaning for?” he said.
“Just picking up.”
As I walked by him, he grabbed my arm and swung me around to face him. He looked weak. His eyes were hollow and the whites had begun to take on a yellowish tint. I touched my thumb to his bottom lip. “You need ChapStick. Let me get it for you.”
“Wait, Charlotte.” He reached for my arm and gripped it hard. “Let’s get outside. It’s a nice day. I want to leave here and put on normal clothes. Please take me away from this place.”
“Don’t what? This place isn’t extending my life in any way.”
“You don’t know that. I can’t take you out of here anymore. I’m scared.”
He didn’t say anything; he just stared up at me, pleading with his sad eyes.
“Please tell me you understand.” I bent down and kissed him. Just a peck on the cheek, but he kept his eyes closed for a long time afterward.
“Will you take me to the bridge? It’s sunny out. I need to get out of this room.”
He was referring to the long glass-encased footbridge between the north and south towers. Sometimes I would wheel him over there to sit, and he would stare at the cars going by below us. I agreed and took him immediately. When we reached the center of the bridge, I stopped and turned his chair to face the street.
“After we got married . . .” he said, as I stood behind him, gripping the handles of his wheelchair. He was motionless, slumped over and gazing at car after car as they drove by.
“What?” I asked.
“What happened after we got married?”
“Oh, right. We came back and had a bunch of babies.”
“Five? Really? I always thought I would have two.”
“We couldn’t keep our hands off each other, obviously,” I said.
His body jerked with laughter and it was a relief. His spirits had been down since the night after we went to the hotel.
“What are their names?”
“You chose the names, remember?” It was becoming harder and harder for me to talk as I felt a lump growing in my throat.
“Five, hmm. Three boys and two girls.”
“Yep, but they’re all grown now. They have their own families, their own lives, but we still have each other.”
“Life went by fast,” Adam said. His voice seemed distant. I bent and kissed the top of his head. Without looking, he reached back and held my hand on his shoulder. “That’s what happens when you live it well, right? When you have someone to love? It goes by fast. You blink and it’s over.”
“You’re making love sound tragic,” I said.
“No”—he shook his head—“I wouldn’t want it any other way. Tell me about us. What do we like to do?”
“Paint and sail and eat and drink. Just simple things.”
“Don’t forget about sex,” he said.
“Yeah, lots of sex. Before the children were born we were practically naked every second of the day.”
“I like that.”
“When they got older, we’d sneak away for weekends and leave them at my mom’s.”
“What are they like? Our children.”
“Happy. That’s all we wished for. We put our love first and it just spilled over into them and now they’re happy.”
Tears sprang from my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Isn’t that what we all hope for when it comes to our children?
His tone suddenly changed. “That’s beautiful, Charlotte.” It was like he was waking up from the dream. I didn’t want to go back to reality yet, but I knew these fantasies were just to help Adam get his mind off the cancer.
“I can imagine a long life with you,” he said. “I can imagine what a great wife you’d be. You’re going to make someone a very happy husband.”
I pulled my hand out of his. “The story is about you and me.” He didn’t say anything; he just nodded and then continued to stare out the window. I bent and kissed the top of his head again, and whispered, “It’s about us. Don’t take that away from me.”
From the corner of my eye, I caught a figure walking near the end of the footbridge at the entrance of the south tower where we had come from. I turned and froze when I spotted Seth standing perfectly still, staring at us. He had stopped about twenty feet away.
I straightened my body and turned in his direction like I was going to walk toward him, but I couldn’t move. My feet wouldn’t work. I mouthed the word Hi.
He didn’t say anything. He looked upset.
I finally took a step toward him, but he stuck his hand out, stopping me. His lips were turned up very slightly. His gaze moved to Adam, sunken in his chair, and then his eyes were back on mine. Adam wasn’t aware of anything going on behind him.
He was still facing out the window, silent. Seth’s right wrist was wrapped in a bandage. I wanted to ask him about everything, I wanted to go to him, but before I had the chance, he turned and walked away. He knew.
As I stood there, cemented to the ground, I realized I had thrown it all away with Seth. Did it matter?
“Charlotte?” Adam’s voice was urgent. My stomach churned with anxiety.
I ran around and bent over near the front of his chair. His eyes were wide. By that point Adam could sense when he was going to have a seizure, so I was certain he was going to warn me that he wasn’t feeling well. But, instead, he smiled.
I scowled. “You scared me. Why’d you shout?”
He reached for my hand. “You have to take me somewhere. You have to take me now.” He seemed stronger in that moment, more alert.
“Please, Adam, I told you I’m too scared. What’s gotten into you?”
When I stood up next to the arm of his chair, he reached for my hand and yanked me onto his lap. “Oh my god, Adam, what are you doing?”
He pressed his hands to my cheeks and kissed me. “Promise me something, Charlotte?”
“What is it?”
His eyes were still wide, searching mine. “Promise me this is the last moment in your life that you will let fear stop you from doing what you want.”
“Will you do that for me? Stop giving a fuck and take me somewhere right now and promise me you will not be scared of your own shadow anymore. I need a legacy, Charlotte, and I can’t make one sitting here in this fucking chair.”
“Adam, are you insane?”
“Yes, maybe, who cares? You were all-in that night. Just take me somewhere because I need to do something besides sit here and die, please!”
“If this is about your legacy, you have one. The art world is calling you a genius. When they find out who you are, your paintings will be worth millions.”
“I don’t care about any of that. Please get me out of here.”
I hadn’t agreed to anything yet. I wheeled him back to his room, where Leah gave him a dose of medication and his lunch of broth and Jell-O. He slurped it up with a smile and then did a wheelie in his chair and said, “Let’s hit it.”
“Fine, Adam, but this whole thing freaks me out.”
“Just calm down. We don’t have much time; we need to go. We need to hit the art supply store first.”
“I thought you couldn’t paint?”
He smirked, “I’m a genius, remember? I’ll figure it out. Let’s go.”
We hit a Michaels nearby. Adam threw brushes and paints into a basket on his lap as I pushed him through the aisles. Back in the car, he directed me through downtown, until we hit a street near my apartment. “Park here.” He pointed.
Directly across from us was the mural of the winged man. “You painted that,” I said.
“Oh, I know. That’s why we’re here. I need to finish it.”
I hadn’t realized it was incomplete. “But Adam, it’s the middle of the day. Someone will see you. If anyone recognizes you, you’ll make the news.”
“At least let me take you to my apartment to get some of Chucky’s clothes.”
“Fine, but we have to go fast.” We went to my empty apartment and grabbed a sweatshirt, jeans, and some slippers from Chucky’s closet. Adam was so skinny that his jeans barely stayed up, so I quickly found a belt and then helped him back down the stairs. He was weak but lighter, so I was able to help him easily.
I pushed him over to the mural. In his lap, he carried paints and brushes on a cookie sheet. “I need to sit on the ground. I need to finish the bottom part.”
“It’s gross on the ground, Adam.”
“Jesus, Charlotte, will you just help me?” I helped him to sit on the ground in front of the mural. “You keep watch,” he said. I sat in the wheelchair in front of him and tried as best as I could to block his hunched figure, sitting near the wall.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“It’s tough,” he said. “But it’s going to work.”
Half an hour went by. I checked my watch. “You okay?”
“I’m done. You can look now.”
I stood, turned around, and helped him back into the seat. When my eyes finally registered what I was seeing, I stumbled back and steadied myself against the arm of Adam’s chair. He placed his hand over mine. “What do you think?” he asked.
“It’s . . . Adam, it’s . . .” I couldn’t speak.
Before, it seemed like the winged man was looking down at the ground as he levitated from it. Now you could see what he was gazing down at. Adam had painted a little rendering of my apartment building, complete with the frolicking wolves. The winged man was watching over me.
He took my hand in his and said, “No more fear.” He kissed my knuckles. “Promise me. Promise me that you’ll go on and take everything you want, take what you deserve.”
“I promise.” My throat tightened and tears fell from my eyes.
I looked down at Adam, who arched his eyebrows and then gestured toward the winged man and said, “I’ll have my eye on you.”
I sniffled. “Yeah, you gonna keep watch?”
“I’ll be very angry with you if you dwell on me, young lady. All the things I said in that letter, I meant. Okay? But I was talking about my life, not yours, and it wasn’t some dying man’s poetic nonsense. I wanted you to know that I am grateful to you. I’m grateful to you now. I got to experience it in this life, and I don’t think it’s measured with time.”
“You don’t think what’s measured with time, Adam?” My voice was strained.
“Love, Charlotte. Just like we won’t be judged by the brevity of our lives, no one will ever be able to take this away from me. Not the cancer, not my death, not your new boyfriend, not your future husband or your future kids . . .”
“No, I mean it. I’m not saying it the way you think I am. I’m saying it doesn’t matter what happens next. Today everyone is looking for the perfect future and the perfect partner who has it all together so they can feel like the life they dream of is possible, but when you’re dying, all you want is a person to love right now. You were my perfect right now that night in the loft, but then I realized something after you left.”
By that point I was crying full, quiet sobs. “What did you realize?”
“Come here.” He pulled me to sit on his lap. I wrapped my arms around him, curling into a ball. I kissed his neck and then rested my head on his shoulder. “I realized that right now is all that matters for everyone. Even if I had my whole life in front of me the way you do, I wouldn’t change a thing.” He wheeled us toward the car. “I learned something that night with you. I had spent the years before I got sick trying to build a career that would make me rich because I thought I would find happiness in that. Just like I looked for women I could use as trophies. All of that crap left me feeling empty. I was unfulfilled and I was betraying myself. I only started living once I knew I was dying. That’s the reason for all the paintings. The world came to life around me. I could see people for who they were, not what they had. And when I was with you, I felt more alive than ever before.” When we reached the car, he wiped tears from my face. “Because you are good, Charlotte. You’re a good person and you see the good in other people. You care. You brightened the darkest time of my life.”
“No one has ever said anything like that about me. I’m a mess, Adam. I’ve had five jobs in five years and twice as many boyfriends.”
“None of that matters. Why don’t you start believing in yourself? I overheard you talking to your mom last night and I knew your boyfriend came to the hospital today. I saw him in the reflection of the window on the footbridge. I saw your reaction and knew it must have been him.”
“Oh?” My heart started thumping. “He’s not really my boyfri—”
He gestured toward the car. “Let’s get going. I need to make some plans.” He suddenly seemed more resolute.
I helped him into the passenger seat, put the wheelchair in the trunk, and then slipped into the driver’s side. I spent the next few minutes gathering myself. Adam handed me a Kleenex from the glove box. “I better get you back,” I said. He reached over and squeezed my hand. I turned to look him in the eye. “What did you overhear?”
“I overheard you telling your mom about Seth and how he probably wouldn’t want to have anything to do with you after this was all over. I felt guilty, like it was all my fault. I wanted to call him and tell you to go to him, but at the same time I felt like if he wanted nothing to do with you because of how good and sweet and amazing you are for spending time with me, then he’s a damn fool and he doesn’t deserve you. Then he came to the hospital and it occurred to me that the doubts had nothing to do with him. It’s you. You still don’t know what you’re worth.” He wiped a tear from my cheek and smiled. “So I’m dedicating the rest of my life to proving that to you.”
“Adam . . .”
“Don’t argue with me. Just drive, lady.”
When we got back to the hospital, I pushed Adam past the nurses’ station quickly. Leah shook her head and then came into his room a moment later. “You better hurry up and get out of those clothes and back into the gown, Adam.”
“Leah,” he stated assertively. “I need a pen and some paper as soon as possible.” Leah chuckled to herself and then left the room, still shaking her head as Adam stripped away Chucky’s clothes.
“But you can’t write,” I said to him.
“Charlotte, I need you to go home and stay there.”
Standing near his bed, completely naked, he pointed to the shelf where a gown was folded. “Can you hand me that and then go home and wait until you receive instructions?”
“Receive instructions? Adam,” I started to say. I was fully worried now.
“Charlotte, look at me. A human does not get more desperate and vulnerable than this. I’m naked and skinny, my bald head is wrapped in gauze, I can barely stand up, and I’m dying. I’m begging you, please, just do as I say.”
“Okay, okay.” I handed him the gown and helped him into bed.
“Now go. I have your number. I’ll call you. Don’t call me.”
“This is crazy.”
“Just go.” He shooed me away, but he was smiling while he did it.
I couldn’t laugh even though he was trying to be funny. “What if . . .”
“What if there is a 9.0 earthquake right below us in the next minute? What if the sun explodes tomorrow? What if heaven is real? What if God is a woman? What if the moon landing was a hoax? What if Donald Trump is an alien?”
“No one really questions that last one,” I said.
“You promised me there would be no more fear and no more what-ifs. If something happens, then it is exactly what is supposed to happen. Have you learned nothing from me? Now go before grumpy Adam shows up.”
I kissed him and left the room without another word. I felt strange walking out to my car alone. It felt even stranger to know that I was leaving Adam in his hospital room alone, and that at any moment he could die and I would never see him again.