Me and Her (Ghosts of Nagasaki Novel Excerpt)

For the short period of time after she’s discharged, Chuck insists on changing her diaper. And it’s as if all the time they had spent together, the pageantry that had gone into being husband and wife, the plans they had made, the sweetness whispered into each other’s ears, had all evaporated. Nothing in the way he moves shows that he is still married; no, this is charity.

He changes her diaper, spoon feeds her, and then somehow, fifteen or twenty minutes later, finds himself in front of me or another person, blaming Debra for what’s happening. If only she’d taken more time to take care of herself. . . If only she had gone to the doctor earlier and gotten herself checked out. . . If only she’d been more on top of her medical coverage . . .

I can’t prove it, but I believe he’s having an affair. It would explain things: why he wants her to stay in the hospital; why he hadn’t come by so often when she was in the hospital; it would explain why he projects so much guilt onto her.

It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I’m having a hard enough time trying not to let my own life fall apart. When I think about it now, though, I get pissed. Because there was a time in my life when I had a lot less to lose and would have slugged a guy like Chuck in a second. Though he changed her diaper, he never saw how he was partially responsible for the cycle of shit. He judged me by his own rigorous, divinely ordained standards that left the world exactly the same and amounted to nothing better than a night in bed with the temp that he would so nobly marry several months later, saying, “We all have to move on sometime.”

I wanted to thrust a big glob of shit in his face, because the truth is in the shit. I wanted to idolize Debra with her shit-filled diaper, and say to the world: this is my goddess. I couldn’t say this to him; he was a moralist, I was an ethicist; it was about party and politics. Money? Kind of. Power? Yes. But it was also about the angles. Him, the angles of privilege and charity; me, the angle of: if I don’t play the game, I’ll never make it out of poverty.

And there she was, Debra. She was in the shadows and I could feel her there. Put down your fists, she says. Lay down those fighting words. Let the anger pass, because your anger can’t help you here. Justice is in rehab, and the Lord will take care of the rest. Trust in the Lord. Trust in the Lord and the Lord will trust in you.

As Debra coughed up slime and the ambulance drivers bickered about whether to put her in a wheelchair or whether to leave her on a stretcher, I could see in Debra’s half-conscious eyes that she was tired of it all. Wherever we looked, the impulse to help had been replaced by cold, cruel process. It was routine that made everything so terrible and cartoon-like. At almost any time and every point I wanted to shake them and make them realize: This is a human; she is more than a human.

When Debra finally passed, when she let out that last gasp of breath and then lay still―the first thing I wanted to do was laugh.

That’s it? I wanted to say. That’s how the exalted of the earth die? I wanted to rush out of the room and burst into laughter. I wanted to stop the next person I saw and explain it to them in a way that made them get the joke. But in the end, it was just me and her. Chuck was there, but in the end, it was just me and her.

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