Fiction by Jennifer Stern
The nurse has forgotten to adjust the bed—its head and foot point up
at angles—and Sam and I are crowded together in the center. I’m letting the
hospital gown cover my weak leg and slide down over my good shoulder.
Our hips touch and I try not to move, but Sam pushes over to give me more
room. I am sick, after all. It’s been seven days since the stroke, and I need
all the space and exercise and hospital food I can get.
Sam leans in to tell me the rumor he’s overheard—that there’s a rock
star in the ICU, under the pseudonym Smith. He’s finally lost that squeamish
look that he’s had since I’ve been here, and I’m playing along.
Of course, I agree, we would be remiss not to take a peek at the guy.
Sam says that the first step is to learn the layout of the hospital. He
unzips his backpack and pushes past wadded papers from his graduate
seminar, finds a hospital brochure with a map on the back. Here, he points—
the ICU is on 3 West. The cafeteria is on the second floor, and if we take
this elevator here—he slides his finger—we can probably cut through the
Our daughter, seven days old, is spending the night in a bassinet in my
mother’s house. The pregnancy—she—had driven up my blood pressure to
the point that the stroke was inevitable. She is robust and healthy, and she
moves her arms and legs with a strength that makes the pediatrician smile.
The second day, the pediatrician asked me if I wanted to have her
brought over from the nursery, and whatever he saw in my face, he didn’t like.
My mother was on the cot near the window where she had spent the night
before. When she saw his lips compress into a frown, she came to sit next to
me and put a hand on my arm, protective, and two of us stared at one of him.
The doctor leaned forward and watched my face, ready to hand me a
Kleenex box if I cried. Had I come up with a name? Not yet. Was I getting
close? If I didn’t think of one, she would have to be sent home with
discharge papers that said Baby Girl Levin.
(I hadn’t been thinking of names—I had been thinking, it didn’t even
hurt; and about how when it happened, I had slumped there blinking and
blinking, as if after one more blink, I would get this figured out.)
“Baby Girl,” I said to the pediatrician. “That’ll do. She is a baby girl.”
The hand on my arm hesitated. I looked over and Mother was looking a
little wan, as if realizing, she may be taking sides against the baby, here. I
almost reminded her that if not for Baby Girl, I’d have two good arms to lift
and reach, and I’d walk without a lurch, like people in their twenties do.
But she cleared her throat, and it sounded wet so instead, I told the
pediatrician that if he’d go get her an apple juice from the pantry, I might
come up with a name by the time he got back. He pushed my nurse call light
Two years ago, when Sam first asked me out, I came close to saying no.
We were in biology lab, and some frat boy had just blown out a thermometer
in the back room; we were all gaping at the mercury and forgetting our
experiments, and when the din in the room picked up, Sam asked me if I like
baba ganoush. He was tall and quiet with a quirky face, and if he hadn’t
noticed me, I doubt that I would have given him much thought. It is funny,
though, how faces come to look different when we know the people behind
them—how when we sat on the quad and smoked Marlboro Lights and tried
to figure out what it means to be human when chimps have opposable thumbs,
the eyes that I hadn’t noticed would soften me with their tease.
I took the pregnancy test the spring of our senior year in college. I’d
skipped a period, and the tests were two-for-one at Jewel. We were living
together by then. I put a hand on my stomach and said, you’ll see—ten years
from now, it will be inconceivable to you that you didn’t want her. He
argued and I argued and the baby grew, until one day, looking at my new
proportions, it must have hit him that his words had no useful purpose,
because after that, he stopped talking much at all. He moved to Hyde Park
for graduate school and put a deposit on a studio (how are we going to fit in
a studio? Oh. Right), never threatening to leave me, never touching me
(look what happened last time), everything a joke to him or else not worth
bringing up at all.
Since I’ve been in the hospital, I have seen him every day.
He is standing near the doorway now, holding Baby Girl to his chest,
one hand cupped behind her head in the awkward stance of a young father.
I am in bed and Mother is in the chair, and between us is the baby carrier
that she blames, in some part, for my stroke. I watch the way Sam holds
the baby close—how it no longer seems to enter his mind that he hadn’t
I say to Mother, “You brought her in the carrier?”
Mother gets a slight, embarrassed smile. “It’s the only one you had.”
“I thought it was bad luck,” I say. This is why: I had bought it in
October, with Baby Girl still growing inside me—I had bought it as if
boasting: my fetus who is not yet fully formed will be born a robust and
healthy baby, and will have use for this. Being Jewish, I knew you don’t do
that. But it caught my eye at the Farmer’s Market in Lakeview, and the air
held a general feeling of harvest; there were apples and pears and
persimmons and chestnuts, and it put me in a mood to start thinking about
Mother says, “At this point—”
I glare at her.
Sam comes toward us with the baby and asks me if he is holding her
I shrug and look at Mother. “Is he holding her right?”
Mother says to me, “Almost.”
Sam tries to catch Mother’s eye but gives up after a minute. He pats
the baby’s back.
The baby’s mouth opens and she smacks her lips together and her
head roots around for a nipple. Mother takes her from Sam and pulls a
bottle from her bag, rubbing it against her leg to warm it. She holds the
baby as close as Sam does, and I try to see Baby Girl the way they must.
She moves like infants do—instinctive, like the way ducks roll their eggs or
cats lick their paws. Before, when I had pressed my hand against my
stomach to feel for a kick, I had thought there would be something
profound, something immediate, that would hit me before the afterbirth
was even out.
At the time, of course, I had two good arms and legs.
Mother holds the bottle near the baby’s mouth but not close enough.
She leans toward me, keeping her voice low. “We could leave,” she says,
looking toward my chest. The baby lets out a tiny grunt and then a cry.
Needing. Needing. Her face flushes red.
Mother is saying, “If you want to try—”
I pull the blanket up to my neck. “I don’t.”
Mother frowns and puts the bottle in the baby’s mouth and the baby
takes hardy gulps at it. Sam watches her, and looks at Mother, and says
he has to go—he has a final exam to make up and an experiment he has
been neglecting, and if one of us can tell him where to buy Similac, he’ll
bring a case at his next visit.
Sam says, tonight’s the night. He fingers the hospital map in his
pocket and checks his watch. The doctor has just been in on his midday
rounds, trailed by a small group in white coats—I am stable now, and if my
left arm is paralyzed, my left leg weak, I should be assured that they won’t
get worse. Sam is sitting on my bed chewing sunflower seeds and I am up
in the chair, and all this somberness has made us punchy.
Sam says Smith is the guitarist from the Purple Flames.
“Him?” I gape.
“It was on the news.”
“He doesn’t look like a Smith,” I say. “Maybe a Kaplan—"
“Car wreck on the Eisenhower.”
“You’re going to hound him for an autograph, aren’t you? While
he’s trying to heal?”
Sam fights a smile. “If he offers,” he says, “I won’t stop him.” There
are dark circles under his eyes—he hasn’t been sleeping well. “We’ll get
you a wheelchair,” he says.
I blink. I stare at Sam, who balances his backpack on his knee and
crumples the bag of sunflower seeds inside, oblivious to the fact that he can
hold and zip and balance. “You don’t like the way I walk?”
Sam looks at me, surprised, and his face turns red.
Attentive now, he comes over and reaches under my arms and helps
me stand, and we turn and pivot and take a step toward the door, like
awkward ballroom dancers. I tell him to let go. He lets go. He hovers a
few steps away, ready to grab me if I start to fall. Since the third day here,
when I climbed back onto my feet, he’s had a fixation with keeping me
We walk out in the hallway and take a left, down past the nursing
station, the resident lounge. My foot drags. The air changes in patches—
some sharp with Betadine, and some powder-sweet, and some fetid with
things that I try not to think about.
We make our way to the end of the hallway, and as we turn back,
I see Mother. She is glancing inside my room, uncertain, holding a bulging
plastic bag from Dominick’s. Her eyes meet mine and she smiles, and
then she sees Sam, and the hand around the bag tightens.
At the doorway Sam looks at Mother and forces a smile. “Nice
outside,” he says.
Mother nods her head.
“Come in,” I say to them both. My roommate’s IV stand lets out a
series of beeps—she is bending her elbow again. We stop at the divider
curtain, looking, realizing that my half of the room is really meant for one;
I clear my throat and Sam shuffles his foot and waves his hand toward the
chair, offering it to Mother.
When I step forward and sit on the bed, Mother sits next to me,
I turn on the television and we crane our faces toward the screen.
At the commercial, when Sam steps outside to see whether there is still
apple juice in the patient pantry, Mother turns to me. “This should be
I let out a breath. “Sam’s not family?”
She looks at my ring finger—admittedly bare. “Family,” she says.
And after a minute: “I can think of other words.”
“This again.” I frown.
“Like deadbeat,” Mother says.
Later, after she leaves, Sam is quiet. He pulls the hospital map out of
his backpack and opens it, looking down at the rectangle of the ICU.
“What?” I ask.
Sam’s lips form a wry smile—I can tell that he wants to look amused,
but he can’t quite control his eyes. “Your mother has a loud voice,” he
says. He watches me a minute and then looks back down and gives the
map all of his focus.
“Shit,” I say. “Sorry.”
Sam waves it off and says that we’ll need to sign me out so I can
leave the floor.
On the way downstairs to the ICU, we decide we are hungry. It’s
six days before Christmas and the cafeteria is all tinsel and light. I’m leaning
on Sam, but when he pulls two trays off of the rack, I reach forward and
take one out of his hands. He looks at me, uncertain. I glance around the
room. Salad bar. Little Jell-O molds lined up on the dessert tray, each with
its obligatory dollop of whipped cream. Reds and greens strung above the
lines and throngs of people. It looks a little like Christkindlmarket where we
spent an afternoon last year, when we still lived together in that apartment
above the flower shop, before he said he wasn’t ready to be a father.
Sam teases me with one of the sausages from the deli counter. He
knows how much I hate them. I shudder and tell him, can’t do it—I’m
keeping Kosher now, and he says bullshit, your mom brought you shrimp
last night. I eye the bottles of orange juice and grip my tray and it’s hitting
me that I can’t hold and reach at the same time. Sam sees me looking and
his face changes, and after that, I point and he reaches for me.
We take the food to a small table near the winter village display in the
corner. Strings of white lights glow from the trees outside the window, and
inside, the air is apple and clove and cinnamon. A woman walks by us
pushing her IV pole, her hospital gown falling over one shoulder. She stops
at the miniature village and stares down at the twinkling lights, the tiny
houses, the small train as it glides past and ducks into a tunnel.
“Anorexia?” I guess to Sam in a whisper.
I eye the woman in quick glances; she is eyeing me right back.
Sam coughs. I look down.
After we eat, Sam looks at his watch and says that it is a bad time to
sneak up to the ICU—the doctors are probably doing their evening rounds.
He has put thought into this. It still surprises me, given his squeamishness
for hospitals, his absolute belief that every lump or callus is just a lump or
callus before a doctor opens his mouth and turns it into a tumor. It took him
four days to even look at me.
To kill time, we decide to go up to the VIP floor where the windows
frame the city.
At the bank of elevators, a man in a hospital gown clutches a pack of
Marlboro Reds. He taps the box against his other hand and the urine bag
taped to his leg sloshes. We take the elevator up and follow the hallway
to the east bank of sofas by the windows. Sam puts his hands under my
arms and helps me ease down, careful that his hands don’t graze my chest.
When he doesn’t think I’m looking, his face goes slack. He’s tired.
The lake is frozen near the shore, and further out, partly covered with
ice floes, white on indigo with the dusk.
Sam says, “What about the name Wendy?”
“We can’t name her after your mother.”
He looks surprised.
“She’s still alive,” I say. “It’s bad luck.”
I can tell he wants to say, whatever you are doing for luck, it’s not
working. But he doesn’t. This is the game we play now. If we still talked
like we used to, I’d ask him if we’re still together. Since we never really
broke up. I’d ask him if he’s planning to have us move in with him; I’d
threaten to find a place further north, up near Loyola maybe, one of those
big old flats that have enough room for a playpen and stuffed rabbits and
a couple of cats.
Sam says, “Kelly? Monica? Charlie?”
I shift. My bad hand is down between the pillows of the couch. I
lift it with my good hand, set it on my lap. My face, warm now. “She
doesn’t need a name this second.”
Sam smiles and scratches his head and says he doesn’t much care
for the name Wendy either, and it occurs to me that the mouth can do
one thing and the eyes, something else entirely.
In the ladies’ room, I look down and see two wet spots on the front
of my gown. Something hits me then. I examine the flaccid arm, the
crooked foot, the spots of milk—parts of me giving life, parts of me
closing up shop—and I stand against the sink and lose it. After awhile I
check the mirror—my eyes are still red—and I wait and check again.
Finally, when my eyes are white, I hit the power switch on the hand dryer
and hold my gown out below it and then I walk back out to where Sam is
sitting and tell him there was a twenty-minute line.
We go back to my room for provisions. It is prime time and the
hallway rumbles with laugh track. I stand in the doorframe of my room
and put my hand to my forehead and say, “Oh shit. Shit.”
I have stood Mother up. I look at her, guilty. She is sitting on my
bed, one hand folded in the other. Having sat through traffic on the Edens
with an infant in the back, she is tired now and ready to go home. I pat
her on the shoulder. “I screwed up,” I say. “I forgot my watch.”
She says, “You need a mother.”
I consider this.
Baby Girl shifts in a new carrier (the tags are still on). Her eyes are
open and her stomach rises and falls evenly, fully fed. Her hand is near
her mouth but she doesn’t seem to make much of it. She gives a slight
twitch and her face pulls up, and then she settles back.
I try to hate her for my arm and leg. It doesn’t come.
Sam gapes. “She’s trying to suck her thumb.”
“I don’t think she knows it’s there,” I say.
Mother packs up the diaper bag and lifts it onto her shoulder. She
picks up the baby carrier. “I have zero clue how you think you’re going
to take a baby home in a week.” Her voice sounds sincere.
Sam and I huddle together like awkward teenagers.
After she and Baby Girl leave, Sam leans his head back against the
wall. I touch his hand and he wraps his thumb around mine, and for a
minute, we just stand. Then Sam straightens and says that when we get
to the ICU, we should try the flanks first and draw up to the middle. He
demonstrates with a finger in the air: the ICU is three fourths of a rectangle,
two short sides and one long. If the nurse’s station is right in the center—
he’s guessing that it is—this would leave the rooms off to the sides
We take the elevator down to the third floor and step off into the
lobby, taking quick glances out of the sides of our eyes, looking for
evidence of Smith’s family—a frazzled wife, a hefty grandmother.
In the ICU, Sam takes my arm and we inch forward. Sterile white
walls, sterile floor. The patient rooms along the side have big sliding glass
doors—some have a curtain pulled, some don’t. The charts sit on small
countertops along the side of each room. We sneak ahead, glancing,
until just outside the fifth room, there it is: the chart says Smith. Sam
and I hover at the doorway.
After a minute, I scratch my head.
Sam’s mouth is half open.
We hadn’t considered this. From the inside of the room, the hum
of the ventilator joins the beeping of the heart rhythm monitors and the
harmonics that come vaguely from down the hallway. Smith lies in a lump.
His face looks molded around the breathing tube, generic in its bloat; it
occurs to me that this could be anyone’s face. There is Vaseline around
I fidget and whisper to Sam, “Maybe this is the wrong room.”
I can tell by the look on Sam’s face that it’s not.
Then I see the hand. It is as swollen as the face, one finger barely
discernible from the next, and it hits me that these are the fingers that
cajoled guitar strings into music that millions of people hum absently as
they pump gas for their car or stand in lines at Dominick’s. My face
reddens. I look away from Smith, and instead let my eyes follow the
tubes and IV wires and saline bags and foot pumps. I am a creep, I
think. A goddamn voyeur. I tug at Sam’s arm and tell him I’m sure the
nurse will be in soon.
Sam has that squeamish look on his face again. That look he had
on my first day here, examining my new proportions—the lips puffed,
that wrinkle between the eyes.
We back out, leaving Smith to this interlude between what was and
whatever will be. In the hallway, we take quiet steps. Sam is watching
his feet as they move. I’m thinking about how people on ventilators all
look the same.
We are quiet on the elevator. I try to catch Sam’s eye—to tell him
to say something funny, maybe. Sam stares at a spot on the wall. I give
up and watch the light jump from number to number along the strip above
At the doorway to my room, Sam sets his backpack on his knee,
fishing his hand inside. He pulls out his car key.
I get that thing in my stomach. “Want some cookies?”
“I should get to the lab.” Sam says. He avoids my eyes. “Fifteen-
hour time point. The cells need—”
“I have Double Stufs.” There is a certain pleading in my voice.
Sam runs his thumb over the serrations of his car key. His eyes
meet mine for just a flicker, and he offers a smile. “Rain check?”
I take a step forward into his line of vision, and his line of vision
retreats, and I stand back and clear my throat. I’m spooked. He’s
spooked. He scratches his head and fidgets his hand in his pocket. I
realize we’re on opposite sides of something.
“Well,” I say. And because I’m not positive he’s coming back:
“What about the name Anna?”
Sam blinks, and there is something guilty in his face.
We stand under a string of Christmas lights and consider it. Sam
shuffles his foot and finally says, “It’s nice.” I rub my thumb against my
fingernail and think, Anna. This name is going to become as familiar as
milk. It makes me quiet to think about how she didn’t exist until one day
she did; how my arm wasn’t weak until one day it was; how in five and
ten and thirty years, what has become real will still be.
Sam fidgets until I say, “Go do your experiment.”
He looks grateful. He swings his backpack over one shoulder and
says that he’ll bring hamburgers from Super Dawg tomorrow, the kind
with the layer of bright green pickle relish, and I tell him that I’m trying to
lay off the food dyes.
Anna. It has a ring to it, but as soon as it is out there, something is
gone. I can’t quite put my finger on what—the limbo, maybe. The
interlude. I tell Sam that the name is musical and his face tightens into a
smile, and I notice how tiny lines are just starting on either side of his eyes.
They will become wrinkles, with time.
I am holding her. It’s awkward—I’m sitting on the bed and her
head is in the crook of my arm, and Mother has a hand underneath, to
support her. Her eyes are open, and her gaze is somewhere in front of
my face. Sam watches Anna from the chair by the window, his forehead
resting on his hand; he follows the awkward flail of her arms with more in
his eyes than I’ve seen before. He and I are quiet—with the hospital map
put away, the baby named, there is not much more to say. But when the
nurse walks into the room and hesitates, she seems to think that she is
interrupting a family.
I am thinking of cycles. How we start kindergarten and fifth grade
and high school, and then we do it again with our kids. And how in a
few years, Anna will see ten different colors in the canopies of trees and
I’ll get it, even though I know they’re all shades of green. I can picture
this—late spring, at that park near Touhy with the tube slides; she’s
fighting to take off her outer sweater; the grass is still beige and soppy
in parts. It hasn’t occurred to her yet that other mothers don’t walk
with a limp. I am about to say, let’s go, your dad’s coming to pick you
up for the weekend, but something grabs me—the way she hums under
her breath maybe, or the way her hair looks almost translucent in the sun,
so instead I take her to find a phone booth so I can ask Sam if it’s okay
if we’re late. We pass the bus stop and the Russian bakery and the fruit
markets with rhubarb and basil in the bins out front; she is three steps
ahead and walking backward, but I am picking up a good clip.
Jennifer Stern is pursuing an MFA in the MFA Program for Writers at
Warren Wilson College and serves on the editorial staff of The Iowa
Review. She has been selected for two Graduate Fiction Workshops at the
University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Stern’s short stories have recently
appeared in Grist: The Journal for Writers, Foliate Oak, Foundling
Review, 42 Magazine, and Straylight Magazine.
On “In Pause”:
In my earliest conception of this story, a character discovered that
“people on ventilators all look the same.” From this came the
couple’s trip through the wards of a hospital on a search for a
rumored celebrity. I wanted to explore the idea of illness as a shared
human experience. “In Pause” is one in an in-progress collection of
stories that focus on life and the body in the context of disability.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 9, Number 1
Copyright © 2014
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