Her death was the practice run, I think, a preparation for his. The injustice of it makes me press my forehead, hard, against the door.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” my father says.
I notice how bony his shoulders look despite the double layer of flannel shirts. “Wednesday,” I tell him. “I brought you some takeout. Are you hungry?”
He doesn’t answer. On the screen in front of him, a woman in high-heeled black boots clicks up a driveway toward a darkened house while glancing fearfully over her shoulder.
“That looks kind of sleazy.” I head for the kitchen, but I can still see the TV. “Is it a movie or what?”
Tethered to his oxygen, he shrugs. “A little sex, a little violence. It’s a mixed grill.”
I put our take-out food on two plates and set the plates on the coffee table in front of the couch, which is cluttered with badly embroidered pillows—my mother’s final, misguided hobby.
“Did you take your meds?” I ask, sitting down.
He barely nods.
Still wearing her heels, the TV actress tac-tacs noisily through a series of rooms and ends up trying to hide in a bathroom—probably the only place in the house without a window or a working phone.
“Idiot,” I say, my mouth full of rice. “She left the front door open.” The camera lingers on the woman’s breasts. I point toward the TV with my chopsticks. “She’s standing there waiting to be strangled.”
“It might not be strangling,” my father says.
The music swells as the woman, cleavage glistening, steps into the tub and draws the curtain. Despite the movie’s predictability, fear rises in me like a wave of nausea. Is there nowhere to go but toward the future? I find myself clutching my father’s sleeve.
Two minutes later the woman is dead. The station cuts to a commercial.
“You aren’t eating, Dad,” I say. I’m still holding his sleeve. When my father and I screamed at each other and fought—I used to wish he would drop dead—my mother invariably would tell me that he loved me. I swore that I hated him, that he didn’t love me at all; she said his feelings were complicated.
“She should have, locked the door,” my father says, nodding toward the TV. He speaks in small phrases, catching his breath. “Next time she goes out, she’ll know better.”
Next time, I think, is what I am waiting and practicing for. Next time my mother and I will be sitting here on the couch and she will be embroidering another unfortunate pillow, and because my mother has always loved me—and because her love is uncomplicated—I will let my father sit on the couch with us as well. In this alternate life, in this improved version, I make the decision for the three of us: I let him live.
I’m late to work the next Wednesday because the hospital parking lot is occupied by religious protesters. I park on the street a few blocks away, then elbow my way through the fervent throng, whose members chant and sway and gnash their teeth in prayer. One woman grabs my arm and insists that I save my baby.