I parked in the shadows behind the hospice center, and waited. I held a box of condoms on my lap, Magnum XLs. It was like being sixteen again, except this time I bought the condoms instead of relying on the boy. This time, the boy was a man I had mistaken for someone I’d gone to junior high with when our paths first crossed two weeks before at the main entrance of the hospice center. I was coming, he was going. I thought he was Daniel McMurray so I stared longer than I should have, and he stared back. Later that evening, I’d run into him again coming out of the room across from my mother’s. His mother had breast cancer, mine ovarian.
I checked my phone. 10:27. I’d timed the Walmart run for the condoms pretty well. Not-Daniel would be down in three minutes. To throw Nurse Irie, the night nurse, off the trail, we never left or returned to the floor at the same time. Her name wasn’t really Irie, but I called her that behind her back because she was Jamaican. She was also mean as a snake. I had complained to the head of the center about her, suggesting that her brusque manner was better suited for the morgue. But Nurse Irie liked Not-Daniel. She didn’t cop an attitude when he asked questions about his mother’s care. He told me she even joked with him late one night as he walked around the floor in his skimpy running shorts: “Boi, you keep walking around here in those itty bitty tings, someone might mess around and give you a sponge bath.”
Nurse Irie was not a stupid woman. Perhaps she would put two and two together and figure out that Not-Daniel and I were . . . what were we? What do you call it when your mothers are hospice neighbors and the nights are endless and sleepless and here’s someone else who spent the day talking to insurance companies and creditors and banks and pastors and relatives and friends, some more well-intentioned than others? Someone else who is the dutiful son to your dutiful daughter, another family’s chief shit handler, bail bondsman, maid, chauffeur, therapist, career advisor, ATM. Here’s someone else who both welcomes and dreads death as it loiters in the wings, an unpredictable actor.
What do you call it when that someone else wears a wedding band but never mentions his wife by name? A wife and two kids back home in the next state over. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
At exactly 10:30, Not-Daniel tapped the passenger side window. For a few moments, we sat in silence the way we always did at first. Sometimes I would cry, sometimes he would too, because we could out here, beyond the reach of our mothers’ Jesus, nurses on auto-pilot, empty platitudes and garbage theology about “God’s will” disguised as comfort. And then eventually, one of us would speak.
But this night . . . how to begin? Pick up where we’d left off the night before? When yet another rambling conversation about funerals and selfish siblings suddenly became kissing, became my t-shirt off, became my nipples in Not-Daniel’s mouth.
This is how we began: Not-Daniel took the box of condoms from me and set it on the dashboard next to my phone. Then he set his phone on the dashboard. I knew his ringer volume, like mine, was on the highest setting, because the call, that call, could come at any moment. Then he took my face in his hands and looked at me. I dropped my eyes.
“No,” he said. “I need you to be . . . here. All of you. Here.”
Lifting my eyes to meet his, I felt like Sisyphus pushing that rock. In his eyes, I saw wifekidsdyingmother. I blinked, and blinked again, until my vision cleared.
In the back seat, Not-Daniel undressed me, undressed himself, and then buried his face between my legs. I reached over my head, clutched the door behind me and cried as I came over and over again.
By the time Not-Daniel pulled me to my knees, my legs were limp and useless. He turned me away from him, pressed his palm against the center of my back and pushed me forward. He draped his body over mine and entered me. He was rough, but not unkind.
I wondered if he was thinking what I was thinking: What if one of our mothers dies while we’re down here rutting around, as my grandmother would say?
But in the cramped space of the backseat and of our grief and our need, there was no room for guilt or fear. Only relief.
And that’s what I told Not-Daniel when we were both spent, our damp backs sticking to the leather seat.
“Relieved?” He frowned and then smiled. “Relieved? Then I failed to deliver the goods.”
“No, no,” I said. “You. . . delivered the goods. The goods were delivered. And received. But I do have a question. . .”
“Were you worried that one of them would die while we were down here?”
“Thought never crossed my mind.”
“Really. Listen, I can either deliver the goods, or I can think about my mama, dying or not. I can’t do both.”
And then I laughed, even though I felt like I shouldn’t have. Even though nothing was as it should be.
Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her fiction and nonfiction writing on race, parenting, sex and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Brevity, Apogee Journal, dead housekeeping, and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Essence, Ebony, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. Deesha is a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a past Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People.