“Did you know,” she says, “that when they turn off life support, it can take a while?


The phone rings while I’m contemplating the inside of my microwave.  My oatmeal has escaped the confines of its bowl and plastered itself to the walls, the ceiling, the turning tray.  This is what happens when you don’t do dishes, I’m thinking to myself, because I used a too-small bowl and crossed my fingers, but the phone interrupts my thoughts, so shrill I jump and bite my tongue.

“Hello,” I say, wiping my hands on my shirt.

“Ava?”  It’s Mrs. Jacobs, Robbie’s mother, and my voice catches in my throat.  There is only one reason for her to call this early.

“Yes,” I whisper.

“Ava, you need to come now,” she says.  There’s a pause and I can hear her sniff in through her nose.  I press the phone tightly against my ear, afraid to hear what she’ll say next, yet not wanting to miss it.  I stare across the kitchen at my exploded microwave.  If I don’t clean it soon, the oatmeal will harden and stick.  Mrs. Jacobs clears her throat and says again, “You need to come.  We’re turning it off.”

I sit down slowly, my back against the refrigerator as my knees give way.  My stomach is cold and knotted, the way it was when her husband first told me about the accident, and the picture that flashes into my head is, oddly enough, myself at age nine, caught cheating on my spelling test, sitting in the principal’s office waiting for my mother to come pick me up.  Dread.  “I’m coming,” I say into the phone, still whispering.  “Wait for me.  I’m coming.”


I back the car out of the driveway slowly.  It’s Friday, trash day, and the bins are set up at the end of the driveway so that I have to turn extra wide to avoid hitting them.  I’m still wearing the t-shirt I sleep in, some jeans I threw on, socks, shoes, hat, coat, gloves.  I forgot a scarf.  The roads are covered in new snow, still powdery, that sprays up onto the windshield from the hood.  I loaned my scraper to Robbie and I haven’t gotten a new one yet, so I used the sleeve of my coat to clear the windows, and now am letting the wipers do the rest.

My mother taught me to be afraid of the snow, a fear that is even worse now, so I drive slowly the entire way to the hospital, in second gear, my foot beginning to press the brake half a block before the stop signs.  A school bus passes me going the other direction, the yellow brighter than usual against the white backdrop.  A man is skiing on the sidewalk, and he falls as I pass him, his skis slipping up, and then off, and in the rearview mirror I can see him crawling on his hands and knees as he tries to reattach them.

The visitor’s parking lot is familiar now, so it doesn’t matter that the yellow lines between the spaces are covered up.  I always park in the same place, next to the sign that reminds patrons that these hospital grounds are now smoke-free, thank you.  I turn off the lights, the car, open the door, press down the lock button, manual, not automatic, all the familiar motions.  My fingers are cold and I pull them into the center of my gloves so that I can curve my hands into balls as I make my way toward the entrance.  I don’t run.

The hospital is warm, the heat turned up too high so that it shocks me when I walk in.  I remove my hat and gloves, hold them in one hand while I fumble with the zipper of my coat, but I’m still sweating, and my stomach is churning like it did when I’d get carsick as a child.  I take a sharp right into the bathroom and gag over the first toilet.  My stomach pulses, bile rising in my throat, sharp and sour, but there is nothing in it to throw up, so my body just shudders, and I swallow the bile.  I lower my pants and sit on the toilet, wipe my mouth with the sleeve of my jacket.  I hold my breath, counting to ten, then breathe out slowly.  The plastic of the toilet seat warms my sticky skin and I let myself lean forward, rest my head on my knees.

The door creaks open.  Footsteps enter, black heels followed by tennis shoes that I can see from under the stall door.

“I forgot flowers,” a voice says, high-pitched, and I imagine its owner: blonde, primping in front of the mirror, makeup in her purse, a whole salon.

“I think they sell them at the gift shop,” the set of tennis shoes answers from the stall next to me.  Are they friends?  Sisters?

“God, they’re probably so expensive,” the blonde responds and when I stand up, the toilet flushes, automatic, and I pull my pants back up and leave the stall.


Mrs. Jacobs is standing outside Robbie’s room on the third floor and when she sees me, she smiles, then looks away.  “Ava,” she says.  She doesn’t hug me and I wonder if I’m the one who should make that gesture, but when I start to step forward, she takes a step back.  She smells faintly of hairspray, and I realize that I didn’t brush my hair before coming over, that it’s probably tangled, sticking up.

“I came as soon as I could,” I say, and flush, knowing how cliché, how obvious the phrase is.

“You understand,” she says softly, still looking past me.  “We hope – that is, Mr. Jacobs and I hope – that you understand.  We just thought you might like – to be here.”  Her eyes are red and she holds a Kleenex clenched tightly in one hand.

I nod, not knowing what else to say, how to comfort her.  She didn’t have to call me, I know that.  I tuck my hair behind one ear, dig my nails into the palm of my hand.  I want to leave marks, those almost-perfect crescents, skewed only by the unevenness where I’ve chipped them, picked at them, every day since Robbie left my house, my house, used my scraper to clear his windshield, threw it casually on the passenger seat, said, “Mind if I just keep this until tomorrow?  You’re not going anywhere, are you?” and pulled away while I went back inside, upstairs to return to my dreams of ice cream trucks that sold black market copies of Cliff Notes while he was thrown, crushed, battered, strapped to a stretcher and brought here.

“You remember that case a few years back,” Mrs. Jacobs says, and her voice is stronger now.  “That woman on life support, whose family fought so much over it.”  I wonder how she can talk about this without even a waver, the slightest hesitation, in her voice.  “We all sat down at the kitchen table and wrote living wills after that.  Ed notarized them and put them in the safe at the bank.”  Her husband – a lawyer, and, apparently, a notary.  He’d been the one to call me from the hospital that first day, said he didn’t think we had met, but he was going through Robbie’s cell phone, telling everyone the news.  “Girlfriend,” I’d burst out, interrupting him.  “I’m his girlfriend,” and then I’d felt that knot in my stomach and I’d started sobbing.

Mrs. Jacobs is looking at me, waiting, I realize, for me to respond.  I nod, yes, and that must be enough for her, because she takes a deep breath and says, “Well, come in.”  I have to steel myself – clench my jaw, tense my shoulders, a soldier going into battle – before I follow her into the room.

I do remember the case she mentioned.  It had been in the papers, on the radio, TV.  Living wills became almost a fad, something you suddenly took the time to do, then bragged about how you’d written one, what you’d written.  “If I am in a persistent vegetative state, kept alive solely through the aid of technology, with no foreseeable recovery,” they said.  Turn it off.  Keep it on.  Do what I want, so that my family doesn’t have to go to court over my life.

Once inside, I deliberately don’t look at Robbie first.  His whole family is there: Ed sitting in a chair by the bed, his younger sister Kate standing behind him, beautiful in her high-school highlighted hair, the inch of stomach that peers out between her jeans and her shirt.  She waves at me with her fingers, tries to smile, and I see that her eyes are red.  Ed’s are too, he glances up, nods to acknowledge my presence.  His grandparents, both sets, huddle in a mass behind Kate, heads of gray, thick eyeglasses, and I’ve got them all mixed up, I don’t know who belongs to who, though I know Mrs. Jacobs introduced me once, several weeks ago.

Ed gets up, offers me his chair.  “Ava,” he says.  I remember his reaction on the phone as I sobbed, his frantic apologizing, his explaining that they’d had no idea, Robbie hadn’t said – and he’d fallen silent, realizing, perhaps, the implication.  It was okay, I’d gasped out, it’d only been two weeks, we were going slow – and then we were both silent, because what was either of us supposed to say next?

“Thanks,” I say and sit down, and then I look at Robbie.  He’s on his back, which is good, because they shift him so he doesn’t develop sores, and when he’s on his stomach I have to look at the small hump his ass makes under the blanket, his face held up by a pillow, the nape of his neck and the veins that cross under his skin.  But he’s on his back, and I let out a small breath that I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding.  His eyes are closed, his head shaved, his beautiful thick hair that I grabbed onto that last night, the first night he’d slept over, gone, so they could attach electrodes to his head for the scans, the scans that all said the same thing: nothing.  No response.  His hand is lying on the bed in front of me, and I know that I’m supposed to hold it, know that everyone else in this room has already sat in this chair, leaned forward, taken his hand, and said goodbye, like he can hear them, like their words register somewhere in his brain.  He can’t hear them.  Once, a couple weeks ago, when Mrs. Jacobs stepped out reluctantly to go to the bathroom, leaving me alone with him, I leaned close and looked at his eyes.   No twitching, no REM-cycle fluttering of the eyeballs behind the closed lids.  That’s when I knew that he was gone.

“Robbie,” I say, in a voice just above a whisper, but it still feels too loud.  I wish they would leave, but I can’t ask them to, what right do I have to ask that of them, his family, who knew him for twenty-five years, instead of just three weeks?  My throat is dry, and I swallow, trying to unstick my tongue.

“Let’s leave her alone,” Kate says suddenly from behind me.  Her voice is hoarse, like mine.  “Mom.  We need to give Ava some privacy.”  I look at her as she herds them all out the door, the grandparents looking around like they can’t figure out where they are, Ed with his arm around Mrs. Jacobs’ shaking shoulders.  Kate looks back at me and I open my mouth to thank her, but she shrugs and closes the door, leaving me alone with Robbie.

My mind is blank.  No, that’s not true.  My mind is not at all blank, it is my tongue that is blank, that can’t figure out how to move, how to form sounds, how to press itself against the back of my teeth, the roof of my mouth, how to curl and lift and give voice to all that is in my mind.  My stomach growls and I am mortified that I can feel such a reminder to live while I’m in the process of saying goodbye.  In the midst of life we are in death, isn’t that how it goes?  But in the midst of death we are in life, really, because here I am, just minutes after trying to throw up, hungry all over again, my body yearning for sustenance.

Robbie.  I wonder, if it weren’t for the accident, how long we would have lasted, and am ashamed at the thought, as I am every time it pops into my head.  It feels like thinking ill of the dead, even though he’s technically not yet.  In ten years, I will remember him because of this, I think: remember that I dated someone, that he left my house, driving away with my ice scraper and his car was smashed and so I had to sit in the hospital and say goodbye.

“Play any basketball?”  The first words he said to me.  Startled, I’d looked up from where I was stretching on one of the mats at the gym.  I looked around, behind me, certain he was talking to someone else.  Thick hair, shorts that were a little too short, displaying the smallest inch of too-white thighs, tossing a basketball lightly in the air with his hands.  Confident.  “Yes, you,” he’d said and grinned, so I shrugged, said okay, and played three-on-three with a group he’d assembled, most of whom, he told me later, he hadn’t known, had recruited from various parts of the gym as he had me.  We met the next day to work on my lay-up, then he took me out to dinner, still sweaty.  The last night, the first night he came over, slept over, I couldn’t at first, I had plans with a friend, but then she cancelled so I called him.  “Still free?” I said.  “Come over.”  I’m crying again, and I didn’t even mean to, but did I really think I wouldn’t?”

He’s so still in the bed, and I think about taking his hand, but I’m afraid of what I would feel: hardened wax, cold, dead skin.  I look at his face again, think I should kiss him, but don’t.  There is still no movement behind his eyes.

“Bye, Robbie.  Bye,” I say, and my voice echoes in the empty room, bounces off the machines and wires, so I don’t say it again.  I stand, shakily, and open the door for his family.  They enter in the same order they left, Mrs. Jacobs and Ed in front, and after Kate, I slip out the door and drag one finger along the wall so that I feel the rhythmic bumps of the paint as I walk away.


Kate finds me, I don’t know how.  “What are you doing here?” I ask her.  I feel her shrug; we don’t look at each other.

“Isn’t this where people go when someone dies?” she asks.  “Where else would someone go?”

It’s my turn to shrug, so I do, and neither of us says anything for a few minutes, our noses so close to the glass we leave circles of fog when we breathe.  We watch as a mother is wheeled into the room, a father pushing her.  She’s wearing a hospital gown with what looks like red trains on it, and I wonder if they use the same gowns everywhere in the hospital.  They stop and though we can’t hear their happiness through the glass, we can sense it as they lift their baby.  It’s red-faced, screaming, and a little hand clasps at nothing in the air.

“It’s kind of ugly, isn’t it,” Kate says, and I nod.

“Did you know,” she says, “that when they turn off life support, it can take a while?”  I nod again, but I didn’t know that.  Didn’t want to know that.  I shake my head.  “I wanted to see the babies,” she says, and I turn my head to look at her now.  She’s only an inch or so shorter than me, and her arms are crossed, her hands rubbing her forearms like she’s cold.  Like she knows I’ve turned, she looks at me too.  She’s not crying, but she’s close.  “I wanted to see something happy,” she says.

“Me, too,” I say, and I tentatively reach out an arm, brush my thumb against her shoulder softly, feeling the cotton of her shirt beneath it, before I left it fall down to my side.  “I didn’t say anything,” I confess.

She smiles a little bit.  “I didn’t either,” she says, “when it was my turn.”

I watch the parents on the other side of the window crying, tears of joy, the father bent over the mother as she holds the infant.  Their smiles split their faces.  “Is it over?” I ask Kate.

She bites her bottom lip, and I tense, waiting.  “Yes,” she says.

“Okay,” I say.

“That wasn’t him,” she says.

“No,” I say, “it wasn’t.”  We look at each other.

“Do you think the two of you would have gotten serious?” she asks.

I fight the urge to look down, to break her gaze.  “I don’t know,” I say softly.  She looks at me for a second longer, then nods.

“It’s okay,” she says.  “I probably would’ve liked you, if it had,” she adds, and I nod now, because I probably would’ve liked her too.

At home the kitchen is the way I left it, the lights on and the dishes sitting in the sink, the cups and bowls soaking in water.  The microwave door stands open, the splattered oatmeal still coating its insides.  I lay my hat and gloves on the countertop and, with my coat still on, wet a sponge.  The water is hot, and I jerk my fingers away from it, shake them in the air to cool them off, before turning on more of the cold water.  My breath comes out evenly but my hands are shaking.  I clench them into fists, release them, and clench them again.

The oatmeal has dried and now grips the walls, as I knew it would, so that I have to press the sponge down hard as I scrub, wetting the chunks of the cereal as I go so that they are more willing to release their hold on the microwave.  My elbow knocks against the door, the sharp, sudden pain bringing tears to my eyes.  I wipe them away with the back of my hand, and keep scrubbing, but I’m crying now, my nose filling with snot that catches in my throat as I breathe, my shoulders shaking as I attack my microwave again and again until all the oatmeal is wiped away.


Emma Riehle Bohmann’s fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the anthology Amsterdamned if You Do and The Writing Disorder.  She was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  She studied psychology at Earlham College and is currently an MFA candidate at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where she is on the editorial board of The Hollins Critic.


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