There's a Word for It
Pamela Rhae Ferguson
from Vol. 45.2 - Adaptation, Winter 2018
They divide the days up into three shifts. Grace takes the night shift because she doesn’t have kids, like Alice, or a regular job, like Scott. She doesn’t let on, but she is happy to stay overnight, even considers herself lucky. The night shift is quiet, just the odd visit from one of the nurses, and there are moments when her mother is completely lucid and pleased to see her. Grace sleeps in the recliner next to the hospital bed, and every morning she wakes in time to see the sun come up.
Whenever she can, Grace takes a ballet class before riding her bike to the hospital. She rarely talks to the other students—they are mostly like her, former dancers who gave it up for whatever reason. Now they are bankers, lawyers, actors, mothers. They nod to one another as they assemble at the barre, stretching and shaking their tired limbs before the teacher leads them through a warm-up. It is the only time each day when Grace stops thinking. Even when she sleeps, her mind continues to race. But when the teacher counts, “And one, and two, and three, and four,” and the music begins, Grace’s muscle memory takes over and she glides from first position to second to fifth as if in a trance.
The first time Grace sees him, she’s sitting on the floor in the hall after class, changing into her sneakers. She watches through the window of the studio next door as he leads a ragtag group of students through some funky hip-hop steps. He isn’t particularly tall, and his hair is sculpted into a fauxhawk. He wears a green hoodie and baggy pants, and while she can’t hear him speaking over the music, he smiles broadly and jokes affectionately with each person in the class—breaking into little cha-chas or box steps or pirouettes of approval—his face a canvas of broad, comic expressions. He uses the exacting gestures of a silent film star each time he stops to patiently go over individual steps. The students laugh and seem to be having a good time, even when the combinations prove too difficult for them to master.
“You should take his class,” a fellow bunhead says to Grace as she drops her ballet slippers into her bag. “It’s fun. You’d like it.”
“What is it?” Grace asks.
“I think it’s called ‘house.’”
When Grace steps up to the window for a better view, the green hoodie looks directly at her and winks.
* * *
In the Palliative Care Unit, families and visitors come and go at all hours—the standard hospital rules don’t apply. There is a full kitchen, where Alice bakes lasagne and Chicken Kiev, and keeps travel-size boxes of Froot Loops and Honeycomb cereal to give to the kids when they start to drive her crazy. Grace makes cups of tea and hot chocolate for herself, and sneaks cans of ginger ale for her mother when she asks for contraband. Alice doesn’t think the sugar is good for her, but given the situation, Grace considers the point moot. Everyone is more relaxed during Grace’s shift, even the nurses. Scott is always grumpy and unsure how things work, a little brusque or unintentionally rude. Alice is like a twister, all questions and demands, snapping at the kids and barking at the staff, ploughing through anything in her path. Grace is easy. She remembers the nurses’ names. She always says thank you. She lets her mother pick her own music, too. No sounds of the ocean or rain sticks. They listen to Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson and Donna Summer and The Beatles. Sometimes even Frank Sinatra. Whatever her mother wants, she gets it for her. When she is alert, they look at old photos that Grace has scanned onto her laptop.
“Why aren’t there any pictures from the summer you dyed your hair?” her mother asks between sips of ginger ale through a bendy straw.
“Alice doesn’t want Cassidy to get any ideas.” Cassidy is ten and wants to be a painter or a pop star. Grace likes her immensely.
“It suited you, your hair,” her mother says, closing her eyes.
“I don’t remember you thinking that at the time,” Grace replies.
“You were happy,” her mother says. “You were always happiest doing your own thing.”
Grace sets the ginger ale on the bedside table and squeezes her mother’s hand. Her skin is soft and smooth and as thin as tissue paper. Almost like a baby. Grace strokes her mother’s arm with a touch as light as a feather duster, and her mother drifts back to sleep.
* * *
In the morning, mother and daughter are blaring KISS FM and singing along to Kelly Clarkson while Grace demonstrates Chaturanga Dandasana. When Scott shows up in a suit, glued to his smartphone, the party is over.
“What the hell are you doing?” he grunts, before turning down the music.
“Sun salutations,” Grace tells him, ignoring his bad mood.
“Good morning, Scotty, darling,” their mother chimes in, oblivious to any discord and fresh off her morning meds. “Come here, my big little man.”
“Hi, Mom.” He kisses her awkwardly but tenderly on the cheek, like a pilot narrowly averting a crash.
“Where’s Alice?” Grace asks, rolling up her yoga mat.
“We switched today. I’ve got a meeting later and I have to drive Lauren to the airport.”
“Is Lauren coming to visit?” their mother asks.
“No, Mom,” he tells her, turning his back to Grace. “She’s going to Las Vegas with her girlfriends.”
Grace says nothing, suspecting that Alice has already voiced more than her share of opinions on the matter of Lauren’s notable absence. Instead, Grace slips into her sneakers and collects her belongings.
“I’ll see you tonight, okay, Mom?” Grace kisses their mother on the forehead. “Any requests?”
“Carole King,” her mother sighs.
“Done.” Grace looks at her brother, standing stiffly between them, and drops her things into the nearest chair to give him an unexpected hug. Scott doesn’t move to hug her back, but his body collapses just enough for her to believe that he is grateful.
* * *
Grace is unlocking her bike when she sees him for the second time. He has traded in his hoodie and cargo pants for jeans, a blazer, and an orange, button-down shirt. He walks in her direction, a guitar strapped on his back. He is smiling before he notices her.
“Hi,” he says as he passes her, before disappearing through the main doors of the hospital.
Grace doesn’t know whether he recognizes her from the other night, or if he’s just the kind of guy who says hello to strangers.
* * *
The day seems endless, and when Grace boards the streetcar after a client meeting in the east end, she is glad she decided not to ride her bike all the way to the Beaches. Her graphic designer buddy, Bill, offered to give her a ride home, which would have been faster, but she couldn’t bear the thought of another conversation about work or the weather or the Blue Jays. She sits at the back of the streetcar, eyes closed, as the tram inches its way through a mass of construction.
Grace opens her eyes as they approach the Don Valley. She’s in such need of sleep it’s as if her eyelids have been glued together, and when everything comes into focus, and she sees him sitting across from her, she wonders if she is still dreaming.
He looks up from his book, and smiles. “Hey!”
“You again,” she says, feeling slightly disoriented. She looks down to see that her messenger bag is still clutched tightly to her chest. She takes a deep breath, and sinks into her seat.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” he tells her. He speaks with just a hint of an accent, which she can’t quite recognize.
She shakes her head and stifles a yawn. She is so tired, she feels like she’s caught in thick space, moving through air as heavy as lava. “What are you reading?” she finally asks.
He holds up his book so Grace can see the cover. The title is in French and she doesn’t recognize the author.
“What were you dreaming about?” he asks.
She thinks for a moment. He is playful, not put off by her lack of social graces. “I was dreaming about a road trip I took with my mom.” She doesn’t elaborate, just sighs, but he leans forward just the same.
“And?” he asks with a grin.
“Um … it was a long time ago.” Grace runs her fingers through her hair, disarmed. “We were driving along the west coast, on 17-Mile Drive, heading towards the Ghost Tree. She hates the way I drive in the rain, so she was always driving.”
He nods, and shifts towards her, apparent permission to continue.
“In the dream I pushed my seat all the way back, and put my feet up on the dash. I was wearing red sneakers and these striped Christmas socks, even though it was summer. And it was raining so hard that everything through the windows looked kind of turquoise. Or aquamarine. Do you know what I mean?”
“We kept playing this one Enya song over and over again. Singing along. Because we were almost sailing away. And I just … I kept watching her fingers drum against the steering wheel. She always wore bright-red polish on her nails.”
He doesn’t say anything, just bobs his head, like he’s picturing her mother and the car and the rain. He closes his book and puts it away.
“What do you do at the hospital?” Grace asks.
“I’m a music therapist,” he tells her.
Grace doesn’t say anything, not entirely sure what the job entails.
“I’m a troubadour for sick people,” he offers.
“I’m sure they like it. Your music, I mean.”
“What do you do at the hospital?” he asks.
“The night shift,” Grace says. “I take care of my mom.”
He is quiet, but clearly thinking. Finally, he speaks. “Do you ever buy groceries and it feels fine in the store, but the longer you walk with them, the more difficult they are to carry?”
Grace nods. “Like books on vacation. Or laundry.”
“Exactly!” he says. “In Czech, we have a word. It means ‘to have gotten heavy in the process of having been carried’.”
Grace blinks in thick space, and time slows down for just a moment. Red nail polish. Rain on a window. Aquamarine. She blinks again and he is still there, with rapt attention, across the aisle.
They look at one another, but the streetcar fills up, and soon there are several passengers blocking the space between them and loud conversations expanding into every corner of the car. Once in a while they catch a glimpse of one another between arms and shopping bags and iPhones, but otherwise they are back in their own worlds.
At the stop across from the dance studio, they both get off. They walk in silence, side by side. He reaches the door first and holds it open for her.
“I’m Dragon,” he says, as she moves past him, her hand brushing against his.
“Grace,” she says in turn, but she doesn’t look back.
* * *
Grace wakes in the middle of the night with a pain in her belly, too tired to be up, but too hungry to drift back to sleep. Tapestry is playing on repeat in the background, the volume just loud enough for her to make out the words to “It’s Too Late.” Grace feels around for her fuzzy slippers, and wraps herself in the big sweater slung on the back of the chair before padding down the hall to forage for snacks. The lights are dimmed everywhere but the nursing station, the patient rooms mostly dark, but the sounds of laboured breathing and rattling coughs rise above the beeps and dings of oxygen concentrators and EKGs. The woman across the hall takes high doses of Dilaudid for pain, and moans continually, like a ghost haunting the hospital wing.
In the family lounge, Grace boils water for tea and opens a box of Frosted Flakes. There’s no milk, so she uses some half-and-half, and plops herself down on the big couch in front of the TV. She flips through the channels until she finally lands on an old movie with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The dancing is hypnotic, and she crunches away at her cereal, barely noticing when the kettle has come to a boil.
Her mom used to show her all the old song-and-dance films: Singin’ in the Rain and The Red Shoes and An American in Paris. Grace was her only kid who took an interest in dance and music and theatre. Scott was focused on baseball, his paper route, and hanging out with his friends. Alice was the perfect student, a born leader, who wrote for the paper and ran the debate team—she was always babysitting and saving for something big. It took Grace a little longer to do everything. She dawdled on the way home from school. She could never decide on a flavour of ice cream. She didn’t really know what she would do with her life. And the foxtrot wasn’t a viable option.
Grace wakes to the sound of the lounge door swinging open and closed as the maintenance staff empties the trash. The sun is just coming up. She peels herself off the couch to clean up her dishes and head back to check on her mother.
* * *
After class that night, Grace takes her time changing her shoes and buttoning up her coat. She waits until the rest of her class has filtered down the stairs, and then she sits on the floor outside the other studio, watching through the window as Dragon dares his students to freestyle. During each solo, he shouts encouragement and keeps the energy up, getting everyone to clap and cheer before they all jump back into a basic combination together. At the end of the class, all the students high five and fist bump, leaving as though they’re walking on air. Dragon sees Grace sitting in the corner, and gives her a little wave as several students clamour for one last bit of his attention. When he finally emerges, a towel wrapped around his neck, Grace stands up, suddenly aware that it might be strange for her to be waiting for him. She feels a squeeze in her chest.
“Let’s get a drink, shall we?” he says.
* * *
In the bar down the street, Grace and Dragon share a plate of fish tacos, and clink bottles of Mexican beer. The music is a little too loud for easy conversation, and they’d have to lean into one another to hear and be heard, so they sip their Dos Equis and listen to the band in the corner. When the band takes five, Grace leans over and speaks low into Dragon’s ear.
“Do you have keys to the studio?”
He shoots her a movie-calibre smile.
* * *
The halls are unusually still when Grace sneaks into her mother’s room, skirting around the nursing station to avoid interrogation. She tiptoes like a cat burglar, sliding silently out of her coat and lowering her bag soundlessly to the floor. But still her mother stirs and coughs.
“Grace?” she wheezes, just above a gravelly whisper.
“Don’t wake up. Everything’s fine.”
“Were you on a date?”
“Go back to sleep, nosy.”
“Come lie next to me.”
“Yes, mama,” Grace sighs. She eases the guardrail down and climbs into the hospital bed beside her mother. She takes her mother’s hand, the one all taped up with the IV, and bruised almost black from poking and prodding, and holds it in her own.
“Good,” her mother rattles.
“You smell like beer and old ballet shoes. That’s how it should be.”
“I feel like you might be projecting, mother.”
“You need more in your life than hospital food and entertaining this old gal.”
“Shh. Go to sleep.”
“I’m not sleepy.”
“Well, I am!” Grace teases, resting her head on her mother’s pillow. She feels the faint tickle of her mother’s wispy hair on her cheek, so fine and almost white now that you can practically see her scalp. Grace reaches into her pocket and pulls out her phone. “I have something for you, but then you have to rest.”
“Don’t boss me,” her mother warns.
“Can you see? Do you need glasses?”
“I’m dying, not blind,” she snaps back.
Grace pulls up a video on her phone and holds the screen up in front of them. She hits play and the sounds of Cuban-style dance music streams along with the video clip.
“Is that you?”
“I loved watching you dance. You’ve always had the purest lines.”
“Who is this fellow?”
Grace doesn’t answer, just watches the screen closely. She feels her heart beating its way up to the surface of her chest, like a porpoise rising from the ocean depths. Her mother squeezes her hand.