Leda is home from the hospital now, not sure what day it is but not really caring. Walt is conscious, so the doctors and Diane convinced her to come home to rest and shower. Relax. She can’t believe they expect her to relax, not after what she’s been through, knowing what is still ahead. Walt may be conscious, but he isn’t tap dancing around the room yet. He isn’t even eating, let alone walking.
She sighs and rubs her eyes with her fingers, willing the burning sensation to dissipate, to leave her alone. She knows this won’t happen until she sleeps, but that seems impossible. Instead, she stands in her kitchen, the one Walt built, and leans against the tiled counter tops. She studies the grout, never noticing before how grainy and brown it is. It is utterly brown. Leda ponders this for a while, as it seems a nice break for her brain, to just ponder grout instead of life and death. It is then that she notices the ant. It has probably crept into her house the last few days, finding a stray crumb she didn’t wipe up before rushing to the hospital.
The ant creeps up and down the valleys of grout, making its way toward the sink. Leda follows it with her eyes, then noticing the mess of dishes. She remembers now that she’d been cooking dinner when Diane had called her, frantic with the news. She turns toward the island and sees congealed spaghetti and sauce next to the stove. She silently thanks her lucky stars that she’d been done cooking. The stove is off, cool to the touch. The no-temperature, slimy food is her only problem—and the smell. Why hadn’t she noticed it before?
The mess is a welcome distraction, something that Leda can do without feeling helpless. She knows she can clean up and restore order, unlike at the hospital, where the mess will remain until the doctors decide. She fills the sink, the hot water coming out slow and steady. She’s always been conscientious about conserving water, as the straw-colored hill she lives on reminds her each day that California is experiencing a drought. She is used to waiting for the sink to fill, and is strict about turning off the faucet while brushing her teeth.
She adds soap to the water, making it sudsy and inviting, then plunges the crusty dishes into it. She scrubs each dish diligently, looking out over the hillside and valley while she works. Her view of the city is something that secretly makes her feel special, although she’s got plenty of neighbors who enjoy it as well. When each dish is semi-clean, she puts it into her dishwasher, realizing she’s done most of the work already, but knowing that a machine wash is a must.
She finishes rinsing and scrubbing, then drains the sink, sending the congealed spaghetti down the disposal. She then scrubs the final dish with the water running, something that makes her cringe, then starts the dishwasher, the familiar hum adding to the calm she is now feeling. She wipes down the counters, realizing that her ant is gone, probably hiding with all the other ants she’ll need to exterminate in the coming days.
She climbs the stairs to the master bedroom, wanting to lay on the bed but knowing she needs a shower. She strips near the closet, then goes into the bathroom, making the shower hot and steamy before getting in. Her skin prickles with goose bumps, then relaxes in the warmth. She begins soaping up, then realizes that she had forgotten about Walt for a moment. This overwhelms her, guilt racks her chest, and she drops the soap. What kind of a wife is she? She can’t believe that for a moment she forgot his pain, her worry. She sinks to the bottom of the shower, where she crouches in the warm water and weeps. Animal-like noises blend with the sound of running water. She weeps without noticing, without caring. It is a relief to live her guilt and sorrow without people to witness, without family or nurses or the doctor, a man she has come to despise for no particular fault of his own.
It seems to her that hours have passed, but when she finishes and enters the bedroom the clock tells her it has only been fifteen minutes. She has never been good at taking long showers. Walt has teased her about this, as he’d spend an easy thirty minutes relaxing in the water before attempting to reach for the soap and shampoo. Sometimes, she’d timidly knock on the bathroom door after forty-five minutes, reminding him to come out, that she needed help with the kids or that they’d be late for church. He was a person who only relaxed in the shower, so she allowed him this luxury, not wanting to take it from him. He worked so hard all the time, hardly resting from his job as a construction worker, then contractor, then owner of his own insulation company. He’d worked his way up, as they say, living the American dream and becoming his own boss. She was proud of him, and still is, but it seems as though those days are so far away.
Leda lays on her bed in her bathrobe, not wanting to dress, for there is nobody to dress for and nowhere to go. Diane and her boys will be stopping by later, probably bringing pizza in the hopes that she’ll eat more than a few bites. She decides to try to sleep until then, as her grandsons will drain a lot of her energy. They are good boys, lots of fun, but also very loud and energetic, something she is not feeling right now.
She lays on top of the comforter, staring at the vaulted ceiling and studying the recessed lighting. Walt had been so meticulous in the building of this house, his final masterpiece for her. He’d built larger and more fantastic houses, including one with a ten-car garage for a man with a passion for collecting antique automobiles and the capital to support his hobby. She’d loved that house, the large bay windows in front letting in sunlight from the surrounding orchard. But, Walt had insisted that they couldn’t keep it. It had already been sold. She didn’t really care for the large garage. She laughs out loud at this, as she realizes below her is a five-car garage, one of the doors tall enough to house their motor home.
They’d bought the motor home right after building this home in the early eighties, when it was fashionable to do so. They’d had dreams of traveling across the country, stopping in Reno, seeing Mount Rushmore, taking in the plains, then scouring the East Coast, learning about their nation’s history and enjoying the New York shopping. Instead, the motor home had only gone on a few short camping trips to Yosemite, then Leda and Walt had taken an airplane to New York. She’d enjoyed the trip and forgotten all about the plan to drive cross-country.
They’d also visited Hong Kong, a favorite vacation of Leda’s. It was there she’d gotten her inspiration for their living room, decorated entirely in Chinese modern. She’d bought a fabulous dining set on the trip and had it shipped home at an extravagant expense. The sleek black of the carved wood table contrasted so brilliantly with the silky whiteness of her couches that Walt hadn’t complained about the cost. She’d also brought home a lot of china, one a set of goblets plated in gold and decorated in hand-painted lotus blooms. The hand-painting also matched the table, which had scenes of Chinese trees and houses painted in whites and pinks all along the edge.
They have seldom used the table. It sits in their formal living/dining room, taking up space and gathering dust, which Leda meticulously wipes away each week. She feels secretly pleased and ashamed that the table has barely held foods, heard conversation flow across its top, felt the kick of a small child against its leg, or experienced the clatter of silverware against plates. She doesn’t want the table ruined, she is so in love with it, that she feels she must protect, disallow anybody from sitting at it, let alone go near it. She knows this is silly, selfish even, but pushes those feelings aside, not caring for them as much as for her role as protector.
She remembers Walt, how he needs her to protect him right now. How medical professionals keep offering their opinions, telling her to make decisions for Walt’s treatment. The task before her is overwhelming, as she’s never been the one to take charge in her married relationship. Walt has always been there to either make the hard decisions or to help her when the decision is hers. He’s been there to protect her, and all she’s ever protected is a table, a piece of wood.
She feels her eyelids burning, like sand is behind them. She closes her eyes, only for a second, she tells herself. Then she’s asleep, remembering.