Burton stepped onto the train, clutching his folder from St. Stanislaus. The train was half full and he didn't feel like dealing with strangers, not after the news he'd gotten. Thankfully the little area at the end of the train, facing the driver's compartment with its locked metal door, was empty; he could have it to himself, to think. There was no seat but there was a raised surface and he set his folder down on it, staring at it glumly.
At the next stop Bonnie got on. The seats were too small for her, but there was a place to stand at the end. She squeezed her large behind around the passengers standing in the way and took up the space at the entrance to the driver's compartment.
Burton barely looked up but in a moment it registered, half-consciously, from Bonnie's blue top and polka dot pants that there was a nurse there. He'd seen plenty of nurses today at St. Stanislaus, he didn't really feel like seeing any more just now.
Bonnie caught something out of her eye— a folder that she had seen given out to many patients. Understanding Your Medical Condition, it said, with the St. Stanislaus logo on it. No doubt he had just come from one of the doctors offices, most of which were closer to the first of the two stops near the medical center.
But it wasn't only the brochure she recognized. From the man's glum, distracted look, she knew the kind of news that had to be contained in the folder. It wasn't good. It usually wasn't, if they gave you that brochure.
Burton idly flipped open the folder. Not that he didn't already know what was in there.
Bonnie saw the insert he was looking at. It had some scribbles on it she couldn't read. But she knew what it said at the top. Resources For Terminally Ill Patients. Her heart sank. The man wasn't young but he was far from old. He looked fit, reasonably, if a bit careworn. Like he had been taking reasonable care of himself for a ripe old age which he would never reach now. Sandy straight hair, tall and a bit lanky, even with a touch of middle-age spread. Like every woman, she checked the ring finger. Nothing there.
Suddenly he looked up and caught her eyes. She must have leaned too far forward to see it or something, but there was no pretending she hadn't been looking. Someone like this man deserved more than easy deception. She looked into his eyes, sympathetically, she thought. He stared back at her—offended, mystified, it was hard to read his blank, mute response. Impulsively she reached out her hand and put it on his, and poured all the sympathy and connection she could into the touch of her warm, soft hand on his cold, bony one.
Burton looked back at this woman who had suddenly, without a word, sought to express sympathy to him. His instinctive first thought, inevitably, was that she was crazy, and went around touching people on the subway randomly. But she was employed— by the very hospital he had just been in; her keycard identified her as Bonnie Lukowski, R.N.— and with the reassurance of some level of normalcy he had to admit that her gesture, on a bad day, was welcome. It was human, and he needed that. He made a smile, or something like half a smile mixed with eight other hapless and equivocal things, back at her.
Had he seen her there? He couldn't remember. She was a short, round, boxy woman, but he didn't mind that. What struck him more was that she had big, sympathetic eyes, and a kind of fleshiness that reminded him of a woman he had once known, who liked to have sex in front of a big picture window. That was how they'd met, in fact— apartments side by side, and she had begun putting on shows in front of his window. A strange way to meet someone, but it made sense in the city, where no one ever met anyone except in strange ways, he'd come to feel.
Bonnie looked back at him. The kind of crooked smile he made at her was heartbreakingly brave— a poor excuse for a smile, but reflective of a spirit that hadn't given up the fight yet. Having watched so many slip away, leaving life as if they were sorry to have been a bother, she felt boundless admiration for this man's efforts to stay vital in the face of what must have been his fears come true.
An idea came to her. It was absurd, obscene even. But really, what other way was there to cheat death and hold onto life? It was really the only tool we were given for that.
Cautiously, deliberately, she closed the folder and took the man's hands in hers. "I have given this brochure out too many times," she said. He started to speak and she pressed a finger to her lips. "Say nothing about it. Just come with me. You don't have to be alone today. I won't let you be alone with it today."
He looked at her quizzically. Was she really suggesting ... but again, Burton thought, it is no crazier than how he'd met Andie, once upon a time. He was excited by the erotic side, to be sure ... but also, yes, she was right. He could use a friend. A human connection. She took both his hands in hers, and they got off at the next station.
They were both silent as she opened the door to her townhouse and led him inside. He still didn't quite believe it was happening, but then she turned around to face him and it was unmistakable what she wanted. They kissed, awkwardly, since Burton was a good foot taller and they were in a narrow hallway.
They went further inside. Nothing about the simply furnished living room suggested that this was a common occurrence— a couple of framed and lightly faded art posters, a cat lolling with supreme indifference on a wicker chair.
.... There is more of this story ...