Jennifer Dunn grew up in Washington, DC, but has recently relocated to Saint Louis after a five-year stint in Southern California. Her work appears in Monkeybicycle, Eclectica, The Los Angeles Review, and Night Train Magazine. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Brown University, and has been honored in storySouth’s Million Writers Award and Best of the Net. She is currently seeking publication for her debut novel, “What If It’s Empty.” You can find her at jenniferdunnstewart.com.
Michaela and I sit on the air conditioning unit smoking Parliaments out the hotel window and eating sour gummies like teenagers, not that we ever would have attempted to spend any time together back then. We’re on the thirtieth floor and below us the illuminated walking bridge extends from the Marriott to the Clinic like some super futuristic thing imagined for a seventies sci-fi movie. It’s three in the morning but here in Rochester night never really exists, only darkness punctured by thousands of fluorescent window squares. The illnesses—the cancers and clogged up hearts and tilting blood sugars—pay no attention to the clock.
I had called her because I knew no one else would.
“So how long?” Michaela asks.
“It could take a few days.” I blow smoke out the window but it drifts back in on a shift in the breeze. I cough. “I don’t really smoke anymore.” I say this though it isn’t entirely true.
“And Edie is with him now?”
“And her little posse.”
Since the day before yesterday when we decided not to plug him in, my mother and a bunch of her friends from her insight meditation group have been camping out in our father’s room playing Gregorian chants on an old boom box and covering and uncovering him with batik tapestries and Nepalese prayer flags. I’ve been here for six weeks and I’m waiting for Michaela to ask why I didn’t call her before now, but she doesn’t. Instead she says, “You know I follow you on Twitter?”
This surprises me, as no one besides other obscure political pundits really tend to follow me. Michaela is an ex-model now bartending at La Descarga, where she likely makes considerably more money than I do. We haven’t seen each other in five years, not since that Thanksgiving when our father decided it was time to go kumbaya and include Michaela in the big family dinner. That was right after he was first diagnosed.
Michaela and I are half-sisters and only one week apart in age. Our father left Michaela and her mother shortly after she was born and ran off to Santa Cruz with me and my mother, a student in his Intro to Econ 110 class. Michaela didn’t meet him until she was seventeen and he saw her in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
“Are you still modeling?” I ask, though I already know the answer. I’m not willing to admit that I have been keeping tabs on her, too. Plus, she’s thirty-two now.
She takes a single sour gummy from the package and rolls it between her fingers. Everything about Michaela is unendurably long—her fingers, her legs, her hair, her pauses. Instead of answering, she says, “Don’t you want to know when I saw him last?”
While I don’t know exactly, I do know that they have been seeing quite a lot of one another since he got sick, though no one likes to talk about it. “Do you want to go see him now?”
I don’t know how long we can carry on not answering one another’s questions.
Michaela drops her Parliament into her Diet Coke can and eats the sour gummy. She presses her forehead to the glass and peers across to the Clinic as if she might be able to actually see him from the window. I remember how I used to cut out all of her modeling spreads and paste them into the X,Y,Z section of my dictionary. Even in the wan light of the Marriott issue wall-mounted bedside lamp at three in the morning, she still looks like she could be in a magazine.
She turns her head and looks at me, and I think this may be the first time we have ever endeavored to really see one another, though I don’t think we succeed. “What about Edie,” she says finally. And I have this little feeling of elation because I think we may have found something we can collaborate on, and this might save us from trying to talk to one another. “I can handle Edie,” I say. I reach for my phone to send my mother a text.
can u clear room? need alone time w dad
I know I will only be able to make this request to my mother once. I’m forfeiting it to Michaela, and I resist the urge to tell her so in the way you might resist telling someone how much their amazing birthday present cost.
We descend in the elevator to the tenth floor and cross the illuminated walking bridge. She says, “You never have to fucking go outside to get anywhere in Rochester,” which is true. It’s August and she wears a short vintage sundress printed with tiny olives. The AC is giving her goosebumps.
I leave Michaela in the vending room so that I can check that the coast is clear. My mother has left the Gregorian chants playing, but the volume is so low that for a minute I mistake them for that surround-sound, electrical hum that seems to forever permeate big hospitals. A tapestry emblazoned with an emerald green tree of life covers the polyester blanket, and only his neck and head stick out. The nurses have covered his eyes with patches of gauze.
“What’s wrong with his eyes?” Michaela whispers from the doorway. She must have followed me. I don’t turn around.
“Otherwise his eyes would just be open.”
I’m whispering, too.
She moves to stand beside me, her black gladiator sandals clicking on the linoleum. Her long, perfect toenails are painted bright orange. “You mean not blinking?”
“I guess they just stop after a while. Near the end.”
We both sound like children talking about something grown-up and utterly secret, like painkiller addiction or porn. “How awful,” she murmurs. And I don’t know whether she means the fact that he isn’t blinking anymore or the fact that they decided it would be best to cover it up.