Her bathroom was a wreck. This tiny, ruinous space. The contractor had tiled the walls askew and had to start over. He’d set the tub askew and had to start over. Nothing was level. He drove her nuts. And now this: a love letter. A love email full of emoticons and JPEGs of roses in bloom. Lady Joanna, it said. The more I see you, the more I want to see you. He’d sent the email ten minutes before he was scheduled to show up for the day’s work. Did he expect her to open the door naked? This was absurd. Single woman + contractor = absurd. She blushed so thoroughly the heat of it stormed her arms and legs and shot out her face like dragon breath.
She emailed back immediately. Sternly, because she was often alone in the apartment with him and wanted to shut the door on his interest in lieu of a real door because the layout of her place was open and ostensibly conducive to intimacies she’d yet to experience there.
When he arrived, he bowed his head and fired up the tile saw.
By month five, he’d cracked the mirror on her vanity and had to custom-order a new one. I’m just trying to win your heart, he wrote—texted—from the bathroom while she toddled around the living room in sweatpants and a panda bear T-shirt.
She once saw him shirtless, mopping his forehead with a wad of paper towels. His chest hair was coiled tight and white against the dark palette of his skin. She was so startled she left the apartment for several hours until she’d browsed every aisle of a discount store loaded with tchotchkes and gadgets purported to hack the mainframe of unhappiness into which she was thrust every day.
The contractor’s name was Louie. A good man, she’d been told by the three people who’d recommended him. He was helping to rebuild an elementary school that had burned down, and doing this work for free after he left her place. He had a ten-year-old daughter he spoke about often and animatedly. He called her Pudding, which seemed gross only in the context of his hitting on Joanna. Otherwise, it seemed kind of sweet.
Every day, he’d say the same thing: “The bathroom will be done next week.” And every morning he’d be back to make no progress. Some nights she crept in there with breath held, as if flouting the boundary of someone else’s privacy, and then felt chastened as a result. Except that the mess, the dust and debris—these were gauges of her unmet needs, which were easier to wallow in than repair. She started to visit the bathroom nightly.
Some mornings Louie would ask about her favorite food. Others about what music she liked. He was trying to get to know her. “Pistachios,” she’d say, and return to her work. “Pineapple.” And then he’d show up with green muffins and fruit salad he’d made at home and leave these offerings on her counter without comment.
Whenever she forgot he had feelings for her, she kind of liked him.
On the first day of month seven, her phone rang while she was sitting on the lip of the tub, which had been propped on risers so that Louie could replace the drainpipe he’d nicked. She looked at the number and nearly didn’t answer. It was her father, though when she did answer, it was actually her mother saying her father had gotten pneumonia and was in the ER. And that it was serious.
The bomb of this news landed with a thud somewhere between Joanna’s guilt for not being there—her father had been sick for the past few months—and her relief at not being there. She held the phone as if it were the detonator and she in control of whether it exploded or not.
Her mother said this time could be it.
Louie came back the next morning, this time with a Beatles record he’d picked up at a flea market. He pushed it her way and said, “Thought you might like it.” She’d once told him she loved the Beatles, though in truth she only tolerated them on oldies radio. She flipped the record over to look at the song list. She did not own a record player.
Her flight left in a few hours. She said, “Look, the bathroom has to be done by the time I get back. I need this bathroom to get done.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m trying.”
“I’m serious. You have to get a move on.”
“I know,” he said, and hung his head, and when she was on line at the airport, the text came in: Knowing you want to punch my lights out, all I can think is how I’d love to hold you close. Give me a chance?
At airport security, Joanna opted out of the full-body scan. She always did. She thought the machines gave you cancer. She’d say, “Female assist, please,” and then be made to wait until a TSA officer marched her to a more secluded area and felt her up. Which wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was that as the officer cruised her thighs and breasts with her gloves, Joanna would think, This is the most physical contact I’ve had in six months. Eight months. A year. She’d flinch at the touch just for its novelty and hope the officer didn’t misconstrue the why of it, though she knew this was asking a lot.
“I’m using the back of my hands,” the officer said. “I’m feeling around your waistline.”
Joanna deflated the instant the check was over. She retrieved her phone from her bag and thumbed in the news to Louie: This has to stop.
The officer wished her a safe trip.
Her parents had been married for fifty-two years. Her father had been faithful for all but one—the last one—which satisfied her mother’s long-standing dread of betrayal for being twelve years older. She’d waited a half century to feel old and unwanted, and because age had taken care of the first, the shock of the second was all the worse.
“It’s bad,” she said when Joanna got to the hospital. “Chrissy’s already in there.”
Chris was Joanna’s younger brother.
“Dad’s tough,” Joanna said. “You’ll see.”
Her mother shook her head. “You’re tough,” she said. “I’m tough. But your father? Go in.”
“Mom, your makeup’s a mess,” she said, and tried to wipe the orange paste from her cheekbones.
“Go in,” her mother said. “I used the wrong mirror today.”
Joanna lingered at the door. She had always loved her father, though she’d never managed to know him well. He’d been more like a patron than a parent. Like a man who gives sandwiches to the poor: kind, decent, but still married to a life that had nothing to do with the few minutes he spent being kind to them. As a kid, she’d attempted to compel intimacy by watching all the big sporting events with him. The World Series. The Super Bowl. As a teenager, she’d demanded he share painful things about his own childhood—the loss of his mother, for instance—but when he cried in the telling, she hadn’t felt connected so much as scared at having no idea how to comfort her patron. At the time, she blamed him, but now and then, if she thought about it, which she didn’t, but when she did, she blamed herself.
Nowadays, she spoke to her father every two weeks. She’d tell him about her work; he’d tell her about his Italian lessons and then pass the phone to her mother.
She knocked on the door. Chris was standing over the bed, saying, “Daddy, you have to keep it on. I know it’s horrible, but you have to, okay?”
Daddy. She hadn’t heard that word since they were kids. It was strange and infantilizing and nearly made her laugh, though the impulse was stymied by the sight of her father, whose face was strapped into a plastic mask that forced air into his lungs. It was like a catcher’s mask, pulled over the top and sides of his head so tightly the plastic had grooved new dents into his skin. He’d shed at least twenty pounds. And his eyes, which had always been large and wide set, seemed afloat in their sockets, at least until locking onto her own, which were aghast.
“Daddy, stop,” Chris said, and pushed their father’s hands away from the mask. Joanna’s feet began to walk her back toward the door.
“See that number?” Chris said to her. He held his finger to the monitor. “Eighty-five. Blood oxygen level. He’s gotta wear the mask. Any lower and we’re in trouble.”
She watched Chris put on his jacket, and it was only when he zipped it up that she understood he intended to leave.
“Mom needs a break,” he said. “I’m taking her to the cafeteria.”
Chris had never left the neighborhood—lived just two blocks from their family home—and so he was the one who always had to shoulder their parents’ problems, Joanna living too far away to contribute. So of course she’d contribute now. But she was scared.
“Sure thing,” Joanna said. “I got this.”
Her father was saying something into the mask. She palmed his forehead, which was warm and soft, and said, “It’s going to be okay, Dad.” The machine read 84.
He rolled his head from side to side. He’d always been so meticulous about his hair, slicking it back with a gel whose smell she had come to associate with him over the years. A little minty. Some lemon. Now she tried to tidy his hair, though he obviously did not care.
“Are you in pain?” she said. If he was in pain, she could go find a nurse who could help. “Do you want to read the paper?” she said. He lifted his hand for a moment, then gave up.
So this was her father in the hospital. She’d worried about her mother’s death for years but had never given much thought to her father’s, probably because he was the young one. Maybe, even, the dispensable one, which was okay to think, since he was never going to die anyway.
“Dad, no!” she said, jumping to her feet. He was grabbing the straps of his mask again. She tried to stop him but he resisted, and she could not bring herself to wrestle with her incredibly sick father even though she understood that between him and recovery might well be the mask. Why couldn’t she do this one simple thing?
“Please?” she said.
“You have no idea,” he said once he’d managed to get it off. He rested the mask on his chest and covered it with his palm.
Her phone buzzed. She ripped it from her pocket, praying it was Chris. Instead, a text from Louie: I see the beautiful person that you are, Joanna. I see you every day.
She pressed the phone to her forehead. Her life was ridiculous without the benefit of this fact modulating its also being hard and sad and, at the moment, blown up with a parent she did not know how to help.
She wrote, I’m at the hospital with my father. He might be dying. Please make progress today.
His blood oxygen had dipped to 82. She hunched her shoulders and crouched behind a bulwark of hope that said, 82 isn’t so bad.
Her father asked for water—his lips were dry—though she’d seen a sign taped to his door that said no liquids.
She reached in her purse for some ChapStick but found none.
His neck and shoulders hurt—knots—but she could not get to the right spots and couldn’t sit him up on her own.
“Just help me,” he said, his anger pronouncing itself with an urgency that only made her feel all the more helpless. She rang for a nurse, who came in and said, “Mr. F-E-N-T-O-N.”
“My father is not deaf,” Joanna said.
“You need to wear the mask.”
“It’s torture,” he said.
“Good things often are,” the nurse said, and strapped it back to his face.
She texted: What’s happening with the baseboards?
I am so sorry about your father. I’m sending you good thoughts.
Wrong size. I’ll get more tomorrow.
You are unbelievable.
You’re unbelievable. I’ve never met anyone like you.
Just finish, okay?
“Really with the phone?” Chris said.
She put it away. They were eating Mexican food in a seating area outside the hospital cafeteria.
“How do you find Dad?” her mom said.
“He’ll get through this,” she said.
“Of course,” Chris said.
Their mother put her elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Do you know why he’s been taking Italian classes?”
Joanna reached for her. She had mismatched the buttons on her shirt so that the collar rose up her neck on one side.
“His girlfriend’s from Parma,” she said, and swatted Joanna’s hand away.
“How do you even know that?” Joanna said, though it was clear from her brother’s expression that she was supposed to have changed the subject.
“Because I know. He doodles in his lesson books like a schoolboy.”
“Oh, Mom,” Joanna said. “This will pass. You’ll see.”
“Why’s he so confused about everything?” Chris asked.
“Low oxygen,” their mother said.
Their father wanted to go home. He did not care if he suffocated on the way to the parking lot, he wanted out of there. But of course no one would let him leave.
Chris said, “You can still get better, Daddy.”
Joanna nodded. She’d been there for only a few hours, but already it seemed all over. One of his lungs had partially collapsed, but he had insisted no measures be taken to prolong his life under these circumstances. He wanted to live well or not live at all.
The doctor came in to ask perfunctory questions about everyone’s well-being.
“Tell him,” her father said.
“I will. I’ll tell him later,” she said.
“Tell him now.”
The doctor was looking at her, which had her self-conscious to the point of feeling ashamed and finally just appalled. “My father is ready to die,” she said. “He wants you to do whatever you can to end what’s happening to him now.”
Chris’s mouth fell open, less from the shock of their father’s wishes—he’d been repeating them for hours—than, presumably, from the spectacle of his sister saying them out loud.
The doctor raised his voice, patted their father on the knee, and said, “Okay, Mr. Fenton. You just hang in there. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Their father looked incredulous, as if the doctor’s job were to end lives, not save them.
Chris picked up the TV remote. “The game’s on,” he said. “Quarterfinals. Brazil, Colombia.”
Joanna pulled her chair close to the bed. She’d actually been watching the World Cup obsessively this year. Rooting for Greece out of allegiance to the country whose economy was in the worst shape, but her interest had not waned now that they’d been eliminated.
They watched the game. Periodically, she or Chris or the two of them together would ask their father if he’d consider wearing the mask, but he always said no. His numbers were up and they were down. He dozed, on and off. But mostly he asked to go home.
By the time Brazil won, grief seemed to have settled on them like a fine dust.
She wrote Louie: What is happening?
How is your father? I’m here for you.
Can you stop? Just be a professional.
I can’t help how I feel.
You can keep it to yourself.
But I like it.
What’s to like?
Chris was by the window. “Do I need to confiscate that thing? Your priorities are remarkable.”
Their father started weeping. Joanna took his hand and said, “Please don’t cry.” The crying had dipped his O2 numbers to 81.
“Die?” he said.
“Cry,” she said. “No one’s dying.”
“How much time do I have left?” he said.
“Daddy, I don’t know.”
She couldn’t tell if he was lucid, but what did it matter? Just last week he’d told her, proudly, that he’d mastered the Italian conditional. Sarebbe così bello. It would be so nice.
She asked Chris if they should give him a sedative. The doctors had said no, but Chris said he’d sneak him an Ambien later, though they could not know that in just an hour he’d be unable to breathe without the mask for even the ten seconds it would take to swallow a pill.
And then this: “Knock, knock,” a woman said, standing at the door with a bouquet of flowers. “Is it okay?”
Their father looked her way and smiled as if he’d never smiled before. “Ciao, tesoro,” he said in the loudest voice he’d mustered all day. “Come in,” and he reached his arms to her, which disrupted the action of his IVs and set off alarms, as if his health were being burgled right then.
Joanna went a little pale.
“Sei tutto per me,” he said, and the woman nodded and pressed her hands to her heart as if to say, Me, too. Then she pressed her lips to his one cheek and then the other.
Joanna had seen her share of movies. She’d wept at the end of Cinema Paradiso. All that passion. The great loves. The feelings to which she’d never had access though God knows she’d dreamed about them all through her teens and twenties and thirties. The girlfriend was pretty. Dark hair, dark eyes.
Chris sprang from his chair. “You can’t be here,” he said to the woman. “You need to leave.” He took her by the elbow and tried to push her out the door.
Their father kept his arms outstretched. “But I want to see her,” he said, petulant and wounded, but not half as aggrieved as the look on his face, which seemed to communicate all his desolation and all the love he’d ever felt in his life.
Joanna looked from him to the girlfriend, knowing their mother would be there any minute. She opened her mouth to say something. But by then, Chris was deporting the girlfriend with force. Joanna could hear her yelling all the way down the hall.
And then it was quiet. And the words came. “Daddy, I’m sorry,” she said.
But he just kept looking at the door, wide-eyed and waiting.
“Daddy, please,” she said. “I am so incredibly sorry.”
There was no funeral, just a viewing. The family stood around him in a semicircle, though no one approached the table.
Joanna stared at his body. It did not seem to her that he was dead, except that she was in the kind of pain that storms your house and kicks everyone else out. She backed out of the room and waited in the car.
Later, her mother cried because she’d lost her husband. And because her husband had betrayed her, which laced her grief with rage. She felt guilty about the rage now that he was gone, but also cheated because it was his fault her grief could not be pure.
Joanna stayed with her in bed until she fell asleep.
In the kitchen, she found Chris with his cheek pressed to the tabletop.
“Did you tell Mom about the girlfriend?” she said.
“Are you nuts?”
“I can’t believe we did that,” she said.
“What were we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know. But was that the right thing? What we did do?”
“We did it for Mom,” he said.
“Right,” she said. “Right.”
She texted Louie.
I’ll be home tomorrow. What will I find?
Someone waiting for you.
You don’t give up, do you?
Is it working?
The bathroom was beautiful. The tiles were glass, mint-green. The floors were white. Everything was clean and gleaming.
She’d dozed off and woke up on her bath mat. An alarm clock was going off in the apartment next door. It was still dark out. She sat up and leaned against the tub. The porcelain was cool against the back of her arms. The walls still smelled of paint.
“Ciao, tesoro,” she said, and listened to the words roll off her tongue. “Sei tutto per me,” she said. You are everything to me. Two nights before, her mother had suggested that Joanna go to her father’s room and choose something—a keepsake—to take home. It did not take long to find his Italian lesson books and, in the back of one of them, in his careful scrawl, a list of a hundred ways to say “I love you” in Italian. Without you I am nothing. Day and night I dream only of you. I am drunk with you.
Now she tore the page out of the workbook and taped it to the vanity mirror. She brushed her teeth. Brushed her hair. And stared at the page in place of where her face should have been.
Louie had wanted to know how she liked the bathroom. She decided to tell him. She liked it very much.
She wrote: Ask me more questions. She had answers to share.
Her favorite food was carrot cake. Her favorite drink was lemonade. Paul over John, though what did it matter now that the Beatles were dead and gone. As for sports, she liked soccer the best because how often did you get to see people so in thrall to their joy?