This is a short story I had published when I was in college, but I’m still quite proud of it.
This was the dinner he finally realized he wanted a divorce. She hadn’t done anything any differently, but that was exactly the problem. But maybe he should have tried something; maybe it was his fault.
It was the little things that annoyed him. The way she separated her bites by size so that she could eat the smallest ones last. The way she sniffed every drink before bringing it to her lips like it were wine, even if it was water. It was as if she mistrusted everyone, as if she thought someone was trying to poison her.
It was the way she offered to pay for the meal after the server had already taken his card. The way she got up from the table to use the bathroom without telling him where she was going, just assuming he would figure it out when he saw which direction she went. He sometimes secretly wished she wouldn’t come back.
But she had come back. Like she always did.
He turned the car onto the highway toward home. She sat silently in the passenger seat watching the wiper blades clear the slight drizzle from the windshield. She was always useless in the rain, completely distracted by the sight and the sound. She could sit, mesmerized, for hours at a time. He understood up to a point, but eventually he would get bored. He would try to talk to her, or to kiss her, but she would remain in a sort of trance, unresponsive and motionless.
“Sarah, put your seat belt on,” he told her when he noticed the red light on the dashboard. As he expected, she ignored him. Why couldn’t she just listen this once, when it was actually important to him?
Frustrated, he began to merge onto the highway. He hadn’t, however, noticed the semi truck coming from behind him. As soon as he merged, the truck hit the back of his car. The back end swung out, gliding across the damp pavement. The front of his car skidded to the right and the rest of the car followed. Still moving forward, the vehicle tumbled off the road. It crashed into a ditch and came to a crushing halt.
He took a moment to realize what had happened; to examine himself to see if he was okay. He couldn’t find any serious injuries; he just seemed a little shaken up. He turned to look at his wife.
She hadn’t been so lucky. She was bleeding, knocked out on the dashboard. There was a crack in the windshield where her head had struck, and an open wound on her scalp.
He didn’t think about the divorce again until they got to the hospital. He was sitting in an uncomfortable blue chair when the doctor came to tell him how she was.
“Are you Henry Salinger?” he asked.
“Is your wife Sarah Salinger?”
“Yes, that’s my wife,” Henry said.
The question had immediately reminded Henry of Sarah’s initial complaint that her last name would begin with the same letter as her first. He should have known then.
The doctor’s next statement snapped Henry back to the present. His wife had been paralyzed from the neck down. She would remain this way for the rest of her life.
Henry was numb. He couldn’t tell her about the divorce now, it wouldn’t be fair. To leave her at the worst possible moment—how could he explain that to people? His parents, his friends, their friends… It would seem like he was only leaving because of the accident. There was no way he could possibly make them understand.
When they finally let him see her, she was crying. Henry sat at her bedside and held her hand, but he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like she could feel it. Henry acknowledged that that was a strange thought to have. The gesture seemed right, though, and he didn’t know what else he could do.
She looked out the window in her room. It was still raining. He thought that meant the conversation would be over, as she would go into another one of her trances, but instead she turned back to him. There were tears in her eyes, but she wasn’t making a sound.
“If you want to leave, I understand,” she said.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
And he didn’t. He stayed in the hospital with her all weekend. When he was sure she was okay, he went back to work, but still returned to the hospital every night to be with her. He slept there most nights.
He began to bring in her favorite things from their house, her favorite blankets, her favorite pillow, the giant stuffed bear he had won her at the state fair the year before.
Her parents came to visit. At first they weren’t sure what to say, but Sarah assured them that Henry had been driving safely and had told her to put on her seatbelt, she had just failed to comply.
They told Henry that he was wonderful, great, amazing. They said he was the best person they had ever known, that their daughter was lucky to have a man as great as him in her life.
“She really needs you right now,” Sarah’s mother had told him. “We’re so glad you’re here.”
Henry had simply said thank you, it wasn’t anything, he loved her.
That seemed to appease her parents, and the other visitors. Henry became popular amongst the hospital staff. The nurses all adored him, said he was the best possible husband. If they were ever in an accident, they could only hope they had somebody as wonderful as Henry Salinger.
Henry couldn’t take any more of their talk. He began to close the door to Sarah’s room when he came to visit. That way it was just the two of them, and he didn’t have anybody else to fool.
When they were together, she didn’t talk a lot. Henry would tell her about work, and she would listen and laugh or cry, depending on the story. Then he would kiss her and tell her he loved her.
He noticed that the nurses didn’t feed her correctly. They just put any bit of food in her mouth, regardless of size. He began to relieve them of their duties so that he could do it the way she liked. He organized each bite in order and gave them to her how she wanted.
He allowed her to take a sniff of any liquid beverage before pouring it into her mouth, trying everything to make her feel like her old self, trying to get her to show any reason to make him leave.
And she began, slowly, to act like her old self. After a year had passed, she was talking again like she had before the accident. She would laugh joyously, tell stories about people she knew at the hospital. And Henry would listen.
And then it would rain. Sarah would stare out the window, quietly taking in the beauty of the storm. She would observe each drop of rain against the window, and each flash of lightning would illuminate her smile, or her tears.
When these times came, Henry would lie on the bed next to her and take her hand in his. They sat like this for hours, never saying a word.