"Maureen?" he asked, his voice a mixture of awe and uncertainty. The light in the room was dim so he couldn't see her very well, but her voice… he'd recognize it anywhere. Another relationship that had gone wrong, one so deeply buried that it had almost slipped his mind. Three failing relationships then… four, counting Gillian. How embarrassing. He couldn't even remember the last time he had seen Maureen. Could it really be so long ago?
Wordlessly, she stepped into the light, and his doubts were gone. It was Maureen, but she looked so different. She wore the generic uniform nurses had often worn, pink and shapeless. Her hair was tied back in a messy yet elaborated braid, which made her eyes look huge. She wasn't wearing any makeup. She looked exhausted – the dark circles beneath her eyes would account to that. There was not a hint of glamour about her, and yet he had never seen her more beautiful than that moment.
"You're staring at me," she said, laughing softly. The sound brought him more than a decade back. But there was something different to it, a nervous edge, almost. She seemed almost embarrassed by the attention.
"Sorry, I just wasn't expecting – of all places – What are you doing here?"
"I work here." Her voice was more toned down, somehow.
His forehead cringed in confusion. He vaguely remembered her saying something about going back to college, shortly after Collins had died, but now it felt as if a whole portion of her life was unknown to him. "When did you…?"
He'd never really uttered the words, but she guessed his question nonetheless. "I think I started nursing school after we lost touch."
"What happened to the stage?"
She knelt to pick up the blanket she'd dropped. Her smile was melancholic as she handed it to him. "I grew up."
His open stares seemed to make her uncomfortable, but he couldn't help it. He feared that if he blinked, she would evaporate, as memories often did, although a part of him refused to believe that. He thought his past had been long buried beneath the burden of routine and work and fatherhood. Seeing her stirred something within him, something he thought had ceased to exist.
Her eyes suddenly left his; he stopped himself from protesting. He watched her as her gaze wandered towards the bed. She watched the sleeping child for a moment before she brought her eyes back to his. She said nothing, but her request was clear, and he nodded his approval. She walked passed him to take a look at the chart by the foot of the bed. Once she'd finished her inspection, she sauntered to Jordan's bedside and looked her over, briefly touching her bandage, brushing a lock of hair away from her forehead. Then she tucked the blankets more tightly around his daughter, nodding to herself.
The way she moved around his daughter's bed fascinated him. The motions were automatic, but not non-caring, just as if they were routine. It was as if she had done it all her life. "So you're a daddy now."
It wasn't a question, and still he found himself nod in reply.
"Is she a lot like you?"
"I don't know. Unfortunately, I don't get to spend as much time with her as I'd like to." He paused, unsure how to continue, or even if he should. He'd never faced the need to talk about it with anyone. But she was facing him now, her eyes imploring him to go on. He couldn't stop the words from coming. "My wife and I are separated. Jordan lives with her. I don't see her as often as I used to." But he didn't want to dwell on his own depression. He wanted to know more about her. "How long have you been living here?"
"I finished nursing school in 1996. I did half my residency in New York, but then I was transferred here. I've live here ever since." There was a chair near the opposite wall, and she brought it closer to Jordan's bedside, next to his chair. "I thought you'd be still living in New York City," she said as they sat down.
"Still in the East Village?"
"No, I have an apartment uptown." He and Gillian had picked it together. It was an easy commute to both their offices, and Jordan's room had a view to a nearby park. Now it felt too big for one person. "I'm here for work. My wife lives here, so I thought I'd spend some quality time with my kid." His eyes wandered to Jordan and he grimaced. "That didn't work quite as I planned."
"She fell when I was out of the room. I should have known better than leave her alone. I don't know what I was thinking."
"Always blaming yourself. It's nice to know one thing about you hasn't changed," she smiled wistfully. There was a pause, and then she started, as if waking from a dream. "I have to go," she apologized. "I only just started my shift and I…"
The pang of disappointment hit him harder than he'd expected. "Could you come back later?"
Her hand slipped into his. He looked up at her; he wasn't expecting her to do that. Her palm was soft and warm. She seemed worried. "You really should get some sleep."
Huh. Right. "I won't be able to sleep," he said, keeping his gaze locked with hers, wordlessly pleading.
She wavered, but then nodded, and slowly pulled her hand away and stood up. "Okay. I will."
As the hours ticked by, and still she didn't show up, he began to fear that it had all been a dream. He opened his eyes a few times and even pinched himself only to assure himself he was still wide awake. He stared at the empty chair beside him, at the blanket on his lap, both proof of the fact she had been there in the room with him.
He knew it was childish of him to be frustrated with her absence, but he couldn't help it. So much had been left unsaid. Suddenly he wanted to hear everything: how she got to Boston and how she did in college. Nursing school seemed like a random choice, even for Maureen. It was miles away from what he'd always thought she'd end up doing, and far less glamorous. Maybe if he paid closer attention back then it wouldn't have come as such a shock for him now.
He almost envied her for what he had found in her eyes. She looked… weary yet content, a sentiment he remembered from a long time ago, when he had still had his art. This was the future he'd planned for himself, but something went wrong along the way.
He didn't know what time it was when she returned. His frenzied slumber was disrupted by the sound of creaking door. She meant to turn back and leave, but he insisted she'd come in; he'd just closed his eyes for a minute, he said. She was reluctant at first, but then came to sit beside him again. Apology still lingered in her eyes, as if she felt bad for waking him. He shook his head, dismissing her concern. Sleeping felt like such a waste of time.
They talked of nothing of importance at first, random small talk two friends would make after years of not seeing one another. He learned that she had lived alone in an apartment close to the hospital. She had a cat that disappeared about three months ago. She wasn't married. She wasn't seeing anyone at the moment. He told her a bit about Gillian and his job, and quite a lot about Jordan. Most of her questions were about his daughter, and he answered them all. He knew what he wanted to ask her, but kept quiet. He didn't want to force her into telling him things she didn't feel comfortable speaking about. But then, a few moments later, the conversation died a little. Suddenly she looked distracted.
"Tell me." The words left his lips before he managed to hold them back. She met his eyes; she looked almost scared. "It's okay," he whispered, but instantly scolded himself. He didn't mean to press her. If she walked away, it would be your fault, he told himself. Yet another failure.
The silence in the room was so complete that when she started speaking, her voice, although low, startled him. "I spent a lot of time with Collins towards the end," she said. Her stare was fixed on the opposite wall. "It pissed Joanne off. She didn't say anything at first, but I knew she didn't like it. I didn't confront her because I couldn't see what her problem was. She used to spend nights in her office while she was working on an important case. Collins was my best friend and he was dying. I had these nightmares where I'd come to see him in the morning and he would be gone, so I stayed with him. I didn't want to risk not being there if he…"
Her wounded expression was heartbreaking. He knew exactly how she felt. He'd been there.
"Then one night I was exhausted. Collins insisted I'd go home. He had another friend with him, and they said I should go home and get some rest. I only agreed because I couldn't see straight. I hardly slept at all for two days. When I got home, Joanne was up waiting for me. I'm not sure how she knew I'd be home that night. I was barely coherent enough to defend myself, but she didn't really want to fight. Like the lawyer that she was, she had all her arguments already laid out. She said that me being with Collins was coming in the way of our relationship. She asked me to make a choice."
She looked up at him. The memory lingered, deep and painful, but her eyes remained dry. He figured she'd spent many tears on it already.
"I chose Collins, and he died the week afterwards," she said quietly. Now when she'd said it, he suddenly remembered wondering where Joanne was during the funeral. Maureen was a wreck that day so he didn't dare to approach her about it, but it kept him and Roger speculating. When Roger met her at the Life Café a few weeks later, she told him she was going back to college. They figured she must have broken up with Joanne at some point along the way, but they'd never got to learn the particulars.
"I had prepared myself for weeks for Collins' death, but you can never be fully prepared. I took it bad. I couldn't stop crying. I barely got out of bed for a week after the funeral. But it also kind of helped me because I got a chance to think things through, reconsider my choices. It changed my perspective entirely. I went back to college. I applied to nursing school. You know the rest.
"Something happened to me when I saw you at Collins' funeral. I realized that Joanne's ultimatum was no different than the way I made you choose between me and Roger back then."
He tensed. Back then. He remembered that fight. It was shortly after April died, and he spent all his time tending Roger and, according to her, neglecting her.
"You chose Roger, and I resented you for that, because I couldn't see how anything was more important than being with me." A bitter chuckle escaped her, as if the absurdity of it had just occurred to her. "I didn't get it until I was in the same position. Roger was your best friend; of course you'd stand for him." She grimaced, as if the memory hurt too much. "I planned to come over and tell you all that. I wanted to apologize for acting so selfish. I'm not sure why I didn't. I guess I thought it was ancient history as far as you were concerned. I knew you were over it because you were finally seeing other people. So I stayed out of your way."
"What would you have said if you got the chance?"
"That I'm sorry I made you make that choice in the first place. That I was wrong, expecting you to be able to choose. That resenting you for it was one of the stupidest things I've ever done."
"Do you feel better now, saying it?"
She smiled sadly. "Just… sort of relieved it's finally off my chest, but that's about it." She shook her head. Her eyes were serious now, boring into his. "I've put you through hell. I wish I knew how to make up for that time."
For a moment, he was speechless. The change was so overwhelming; it took him completely off-guard. Maureen Johnson he knew had no faults, as far as she was concerned. He'd never dreamt he'd witness her admitting her mistakes, let alone apologizing for them. And yet there they were. "You're wrong, you know."
She seemed puzzled. "I didn't put you through hell?"
"No, not about that part." That part was pretty damn accurate. "I've never truly gotten over you," he said, slowly putting thoughts into words. "I don't think I've done anything right ever since you left."
"Wasn't she right?" she asked, nodding towards Jordan.
"I guess so, but at what cost? What sort of a role model am I for her if her mother and I can't be in the same room together without arguing?"
"Is this why you won't divorce her?"
He had only mentioned he was separated before. He wondered how she figured it out. "If I divorce her, it will be a final seal on my list of failures," he found himself admitting. "That, and I don't want to ruin Jordan's life."
"Don't you think you're ruining her life by staying married to someone you don't love?"
"Custody battles are nasty, and I don't want to put Jordan in the middle of something like this."
"It doesn't have to be like that if you get yourself together and try to work things out with your wife first. Maybe if you give her what she wants, she'll give you what you want."
"Why am I getting relationship advice from you?" he asked, shaking his head incredulously.
Her eyes glimmered in the faint light. "Because you're delirious and can't think straight."
She stood up and crossed the room. She stopped by the window and turned her back on him. She stood there fumbling with the curtains. He wanted to go over to her, but he found himself unable to. He was transfixed. Every now and again, lights from a passing car would illuminate her features with a silver glow. He wished he could tell what was on her mind, as a distraction of his own thoughts, at least. They were whirling uncontrollably, getting into a seriously dangerous path.
He tried to push those thoughts away. He was lonely, that's all; lonely and vulnerable. Under no circumstances this had been a good combination. He shouldn't fall for her so easily after all this time just because she seemed so changed, because she apologized for something that had happened years ago.
But it must mean something. What were the odds of him running into her here, miles away from home? To have their paths cross as they had tonight? He wanted so badly to believe that it wasn't coincidental, that somehow, he was granted the second chance he had been yearning for. But it was ridiculous. He hadn't seen her for over a decade. Those past feelings shouldn't rush back in so swiftly, surely not with such intensity. It would be silly to believe that all this time, he had been unconsciously waiting for her; silly and improbable. Besides, nothing she had said indicated she had shared those feelings. As far as he knew, Joanne was the first in a series of female lovers.
He could try, at least. He had absolutely nothing to lose, except for his dignity, and given the goings-on of the previous night, he didn't have much of that left, either. He stood up slowly and approached her. If she'd heard him, she didn't show any inclination of it. She kept staring at nothing ahead, engrossed with the images in her mind. There was a sharp intake of breath as he laid a hand against her waist. He froze at the sound, but she didn't try to push him away. Nor did she look back at him. Standing at such close proximity to her, he could feel her heart racing.
"Hypothetically, if I divorced Gillian, will you consider giving you and me another chance?" he whispered the question in her ear.
It felt as though forever had passed before she turned to face him. She leaned back, so that she was cornered between him and the window. Soft pink tinted her cheeks. The sight caught him off-guard at first; he thought it must have been a trick of the light. He had never seen her blush before. Her air was guarded, her smile tight and careful. "Hypothetically, I think I might."
"Have dinner with me tomorrow night. I mean… if you want," he added, stumbling over his words. It dawned on him that he might be coming on too strong, and his confidence waned somewhat.
Nonetheless, her smile seemed more certain now. "I'd love to," she replied. He returned her smile, now relieved. "It may sound crazy... but in a way I think I've never gotten over you, too."
Her confession remained hanging there, and he wondered what she really meant. He figured there were a few mysteries about her he was yet to unravel. Her eyes were timid, gleaming in the dim light. It was all so familiar, yet so brand new. He had never seen her so… tamed. He reached out to touch her bottom lip with his thumb, half expecting her to fade away, like apparitions did.
She stood there frozen beneath his touch, her gaze locked with his. Her eyes spoke what her lips wouldn't, providing him with the confirmation he'd sought. "If you don't mind the four hour drive," he pointed out, leaning closer to her. A mild setback, but he wouldn't let it deter him.
Her fragrance lingered between them. It was different than he had remembered, softer, more suited to the new her. Her lips curled slightly, as if with a grin. "Oh, but I know something you don't," she said.
Her eyes were leering at him. He knew he was meant to question her enigmatic remark, but with her face just inches apart from his, so close that their noses were almost touching, his priorities sort of shifted. Things were moving way too fast, fast beyond reason, but for this one moment, he couldn't care less.
Holding his breath, he closed the remaining distance between them and let his lips graze hers with the slightest touch.
He flinched back, as if bitten by a snake. Casting an apologetic glance at Maureen, he rushed to Jordan's bedside. She was half awake, still groggy-looking, but her eyes seemed alert as they focused on his. "Hey, sweetheart. Are you feeling better?" She nodded, and he smiled at her and tucked the blankets more tightly around her. "Are you in any pain? Do you need anything?"
She shook her head no, and looked at him earnestly. "You're staying, aren't you, Daddy?"
"Of course I'm staying. I'll be right here when you wake up, okay? I promise. Now close your eyes and go back to sleep."
There was a hand against his shoulder. He turned to face Maureen, who shook her head apologetically. "I should go," she said.
Although there was reluctance in her tone, he didn't try to protest or convince her to stay. She had work to do and he had kept her long enough. He made sure Jordan was asleep before he walked Maureen to the door. She put her hand against the doorknob; he put his hand on hers to stop her. "When are you off?"
"At six," she replied somewhat shyly as she leaned against the door. "I go back at noon."
No wonder she looked so shattered. "Do you always work around the clock like that?"
"It's worse this week. We have two sick nurses, so a few of us are doing their shifts."
"Maybe dinner is not a good idea."
She cocked an eyebrow. "You're not chickening out, are you?"
"You look so tired," he said, gently taking her hand.
She shook her head dismissively. He noticed that she didn't try to pull her hand away. "I'm fine. I'm used to it." She smiled at him again. He could get used to that new, tender smile. He found himself returning it.
"I'll try to come find you before you leave."
"Don't. She'll want you to stay with her."
He glanced at Jordan, and guilt washed over him. She was right; she would.
"She's not staying with you tonight?"
He cracked a smile. "Are you chickening out?" He shook his head. "As soon as Gillian gets here, she probably won't let me near her until my next visit, if I'm lucky." He was determined not to think about it for the time being. "How can I contact you? Do you want me to pick you up from here at the end of your shift?"
"I'll get your number at the desk and give you a call later."
He wished he had one of his cards on him so he could save her the trouble, but they were in his laptop case back at the hotel. He nodded, and slowly let go of her hand. A bit too late, it dawned on him he could just text her if she had her phone on her, but she was already a considerable distance away and shouting after her at the deserted hallway seemed rude. And he had no intention leaving Jordan, whatever the reason and no matter for how brief a time.
A yawn escaped him, almost despite himself. He was so tired it literally ached. He made it back to the chair and sat down. He could feel his eyes close without him willing them too. Just for a few minutes, he told himself, giving in. As he drifted, he thought he was hearing the distant sound of a guitar playing a familiar tune… a waltz, Musetta's Waltz –
A soft sound disrupted the silence all of a sudden, a shuffle of feet. He jolted awake, and a young nurse raised an arm, as if with apology as soon as their eyes met.
"I'm so sorry, Mr. Cohen," he whispered, eyes slightly wide as though he'd been startled too.
He shook his head at the younger man who was leaning over his daughter's chart. He stretched, joints creaking. It felt he'd been sleeping for hours. He had completely lost all sense of time. Indeed, the room was not as dark as before; soft light filtered through the half open curtains. He didn't realize just how deeply he had slept.
Feeling slightly disoriented still, he got up and joined the nurse by his daughter's bedside. "How is she?"
"It's looking good," said the nurse; his name tag read Jonathan. "The doctor will probably want to rerun some tests just to be on the safe side, but you can probably leave in a few hours." He observed the young man as he spoke. There was still this glimmer in his eyes, as though he hadn't been burnt out yet, maintaining the resilience of youth still.
"Thank you." It wasn't until nurse Jonathan was at the door that a memory jolted, making him clear his throat. She still owed him an answer. "Hey, do you happen to you if Maureen has left yet?"
"Maureen?" echoed nurse Jonathan, his brow furrowing in confusion.
"The nurse who worked the night shift... Maureen Johnson? She's an old friend... I'd like to say goodbye before we..." His voice trailed off at the expression on the nurse's face.
"Mr. Cohen, I've been working here for six months, there's no Maureen Johnson on the nursing staff."