Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Seven
The fifth floor of St. Mary’s hospital was indistinguishable from the fourth or the sixth. All of them had the same aqua and “seafoam green” colored walls, recessed lighting and the smell of disinfectant.
Using the hint offered by the helpful nurse in the Emergency Room, Marlee learned that Luco had been moved from “post-op” to room 534. With her heart in her throat Marlee took the large and spotless elevator up to the fifth floor.
Forcing herself not to run madly down the corridor Marlee walked along the painted line on the floor, gazing into each room as she passed the open doors. It was a slide show of semi-private tragedy. She was ashamed of herself for peeking into other people’s lives. Looking ahead she saw several empty gurneys parked along the walls and a large laundry cart filling up half of the hallway.
A man came out of the room just beyond the cart, and as he walked past her, Marlee could see that he was a priest. Doing some quick counting, she guessed that he had come from room 534. She picked up her pace. To Hell with decorum.
“Oh, dear God. Oh, dear God. Please, not Luco, not Luco.”
Another flicker of shame burned her cheeks as she realized that she was wishing the Last Rites onto someone else.
The door to 534 was partially closed. From inside Marlee could hear the sound of someone crying. Slowly, she opened the door, fighting back tears, and entered into the room. All of the lights were off, putting the room into shadowy darkness. The curtain was drawn around bed. Behind the thin green fabric there was sobbing and praying in Spanish. Marlee felt her knees buckle and she had to grab the back of a chair to keep from falling to the floor. A nurse, wearing a stethoscope, pushed the curtain back and saw the reeling Marlee. Over the nurse’s shoulder Marlee saw a gray-haired man on the bed, his eyes and mouth open in death. Gently stroking his papery cheek was the sobbing woman, a look of despair and unbelieving sorrow on her face.
The nurse pulled the curtain closed behind her and looked at Marlee.
“Can I help you? Are you all right?”
“Luco Reyes? I was told he was in this room. I’m his wife.” Marlee moved her left hand behind her back.
“Let’s go out in the hall for a moment,” she said and, taking Marlee by the elbow, led her into the corridor. Once there, she told Marlee the details of what had happened and about the treatment he had received so far. Marlee blanched, hearing how they had cut Luco open to repair his torn lung. His condition was still listed as “Serious”, but barring unforeseen complications, he would survive. Marlee shed tears of joy at this news and asked if she could see him.
“Of course, Mrs. Reyes.”
Silently the nurse took Marlee by the arm again and led her to a second bed sitting by the far window.
There was Luco. Marlee stood and looked at him. He was unconscious with a sheet pulled up high on his chest. He had an intravenous drip line going into his right arm. “He looks so small,” was her first thought.
Marlee took a side chair and sat down next to the bed. The rails were up and he looked like he was sleeping in an aluminum crib.
For the next ten minutes she just sat and looked at Luco. His face was scraped and there were small bandages on his chin and forehead. He was still under the lingering effects of the anesthesia. Lowering the rail, Marlee reached out and smoothed his hair.
“Oh, Luco. My poor, sweet Luco.”
Thoughts of their talk at Martin Macks the previous evening went through her head. “Was that only last night?” She remembered how they had both cried as they told each other the stories of their lives. She recalled the feel of his hand in hers as they walked down Haight Street and how very much she wanted to hold him, but didn’t.
Marlee looked at him and wondered about “unforeseen complications.” Was she going to lose this man from her life? Unconsciously she took his hand. His skin was warm and soft, just like last night.
She looked at his battered face. His eyes were slits. “Luco.” Her voice leapt from her throat. She lifted his hand and kissed it.
“Where am I? What happened?” His voice was hoarse. He struggled to focus his eyes, with only marginal success.
Even though his vision was blurred, he could feel her hand on his and turned his palm up, closing his fingers around hers. “Where am I?” She squeezed his hand gently and he squeezed back with a strength that surprised her.
“You’re in the hospital, Luco. You were hit by a car.”
“It must have been a tank.”
“You had surgery last night to fix some damage to your lungs, but you’re going to be fine.” Luco just nodded as he began to lose consciousness again. As the anesthesia wore off the pain medication mixed into his glucose drip would smooth the rough edges, but he would sleep for most of the day.
Marlee got up to lower the blind to keep the glare off of Luco’s serene and regal face. He looked like a king in Marlee’s eyes. Somewhere lost in his lineage, generations ago, there must have been royalty in his family. Even now the bearing and grace shone through.
It wasn’t long before hospital protocol geared up and a tall man in a crisp white linen coat escorted the new widow from her station at her husband’s bedside. As soon as she left the room two muscular men tenderly, respectfully, moved the lifeless body onto a gurney. They covered him with a fresh white sheet and took him away. Marlee could hear the squeaking wheels on the gurney as it rolled slowly down the hallway.
While Luco slept Marlee stayed by his side, watching him, willing him protection from “unseen complications.” Occasionally Luco would stir or moan softly and she would sit up straight and take his hand until he quieted again.
Seeing Luco so helpless and seemingly small in that large metal bed, with tubes running into and out of his limp and injured body, sent her back in time. Back to the night when she cradled the body of her husband in her arms, feeling his life escape, a modern Pieta.
Marlee wanted to crawl into the hospital bed next to Luco and hold him, to come between him and any harm. In her heart she had failed to save Phillip, but she would not fail again. Not this time, not today. Not with this beautiful, scarred soul.
The night before they had laid bare their deepest wounds to each other. It was then that she learned about the real Luco Reyes. It didn’t matter if no one else ever saw past the facade of the flirting, glib barista who traded unanswered invitations with the women who drank in his special brews. Marlee Owens would know the real Luco.
She saw that that cavalier behavior was Luco’s way of staying alive. Get close enough to smell the perfume, but not so close as to inhale the explosive aroma of the woman herself. That he would not, could not, allow himself to do.
Luco was stopped by the idea that to caress too gently, to hold too closely, to care too deeply, would be a betrayal to a Love who was gone and beyond return. All that he had left was the memory and if he let that go he would be lost. That memory was his anchor and he was afraid to search for another.
Marlee knew that she was battling a similar enemy. Despite her dreams of Phillip releasing her, she still held a tangible guilt about her feelings for Luco. In the years since Phillip there had been no one else in her mind or her heart. Now, however, this frail looking man the hospital bed had gently invaded both.
Luco moved his head and Marlee leaned forward. “Luco?” His eyes fluttered and opened. He looked into Marlee’s eyes.
“Te amo,” he whispered. Marlee understood the phrase and searched for the right words with which to answer. She found them deep in her heart. “I love you too, Luco.” She laid her cheek on his hand. He reached over and stroked her hair.
“Te amo, Alicia. Te amo.”
Marlee couldn’t move. Luco continued to run his fingers across her pale blond hair as he spoke in slurred Spanish to his deceased wife. Marlee’s knowledge of Spanish did not allow her to follow all of his words, but he said Alicia’s name several times. As he spoke silent tears spilled from her eyes. Each touch of his hand tore at her heart. How could she ever hope to find love with a man so married to a memory?
When Luco fell silent, Marlee moved his hand and sat back in the chair, looking at him as he slept once again.
Marlee wondered about what was going to happen now. In her mind it was clear that Luco was not ready to love her, or anyone. But she had spoken out loud the words “I love you” to him, even though he had not heard them, she had.
Deep within the hemispheres and ridges of his brain, Luco Reyes was moving from dreamless unconsciousness into a dream-hungry sleep. A mad projector in his brain was flashing images, sounds and people before his mind’s eye. Events raced by at an incoherent rate. Nothing made sense, but he understood that he was subconsciously reviewing and evaluating his life, judging himself in preparation for…for what he did not know.
He was seeing every moment of his marriage and as, in his haunting memory, he sat again at the horrible funerals in the chapel at Mission Dolores. He heard someone call his name.
He knew the voice.
“I love you too, Luco.”
“Te amo, Alicia. Te amo.”
Not knowing how long he would have, he poured out his thoughts to his wife.
“Alicia, I need to tell you that I realize you told me the truth. I have been wrong to cling to you the way I have. It’s been unhealthy and unfair to your memory.
“Alicia, I have met a woman, a beautiful and good woman. She makes me feel like I did when I first saw you. We have talked and she has suffered a great loss in her life too. She understands even though I can’t explain it all to her.
“Alicia, I love this woman. I need this woman. I hunger for this woman.
“Know that I will always love you and Regalito, but this woman makes me want to live again.”
An unheard voice spoke to Luco from the depths of his life.
“Go to her, Luco. Love her.”
In the silence and dim light of the hospital room Marlee sat with her head in her hands, feeling lost in her California exile and thinking that she had lost again to Death. First it was Phillip’s life and now it was her own, to the memory of a dead woman.
She had come almost 3000 miles to get away from a lost love only to have it happen again, but this time it was far more cruel. The man with whom she loved and could not have, was in love with a ghost.
Her thoughts drifted to her cello and she wondered if it was to be her only source of loving sounds in her ear, responsive and giving in her arms and solid and sinuous against her skin.