His & Hers by C.M. Pratt

Jasper and Sarah meet on alternate Thursday nights in a florist’s shop.  Sarah has the key and lets them both in. The store is closed and the hum of the air conditioner crowds out street noises.  She locks the door after Jasper is inside, leaves the chain of keys hanging from the lock.  He gently lowers the blinds on all of the plate glass windows, before pulling down a shade that covers the glass door. 

     “I’m going to start set-up.”   She says, moving quickly, sensitive to their limited time. She heads to the back of the store, past dozens of bouquets and disappears behind a blue metal door that clicks shut behind her.  Jasper puts his briefcase on the counter, just next to the cash register.  He glances at his watch, clearing his throat as his eyes linger on varicolored roses.  A sign above them reads “Love on Display.”   

      It is ten minutes before the hour when there is a knock at the front door. Jasper bends the blinds on the window just a bit and sees two figures huddled outside.  He lets them in, locking the door. He tells them to wait in the shop.  Jasper then picks up his briefcase and makes his way past the flowers to the blue door at the back of the room.  It’s locked.

      He raps gently.

     Sarah opens the door slowly, making sure it’s him.

     “Everything is disinfected.”  She says.  “The table is set up and the IV too.”  She glances towards the IV, a bulging bag of saline hangs limply from the top of a metal pole.   Jasper nods, places his brief case on the steel counter and unfastens the latches to reveal an array of medical equipment; shiny stainless steel wrapped in plastic.  The equipment is sterilized for surgery.

     Sarah holds an empty 20 oz. mason jar in her hand. It is the palest shade of green with a screw-on top and the word ‘Ball’ embossed on the front.  She hands it to Jasper, who puts it on the counter next to the brief case.  As Sarah leaves, the door whooshes shut behind her.

       Jasper lays out his instruments.

      A moment later Sarah is back, followed by a girl wearing a paper johnny and requisite paper shoes.  The girl is nineteen years old.  She is tall with long, dark hair, her face tan.

     Sarah speaks to the girl.  “It’s nice that he came with you. Usually they don’t.”

     The girl doesn’t acknowledge that she hears. Her eyes are shiny and dart around the room, noting the bed and Jasper, who is now in a white cotton hat and surgical mask.  He pulls his mask down around his neck and is about to say something when, from behind the girl, an old man appears. His hair is white and disheveled. He wears a band-aid colored sweater, festooned with stains. The old man’s eyes are blue and striking, the skin around them creased by years of concentration.  He stops at the entrance to the room and points a tanned finger at the girl.

     “You cannot come into this room.” Sarah moves quickly towards him, standing between him and the girl. 

     The old man ignores Sarah.  “Don’t think of this as an operation; it’s just a pit stop. Tomorrow you’ll be sitting next to me at the book signing. You’ll have forgotten it.” He puts his hands on his hips, nodding to no one in particular, before he leaves the room.

     The girl turns to Sarah. “He’s usually nicer.” 

     Sarah understands that the girl does not mean he’s usually nicer, because Sarah has recognized the old coot; he is a once famous writer, known as much for his drinking and bouts of temper as his work. Sarah knows that what the girl means is that sleeping with this old man, getting to meet the old actors and authors that are his friends, the dinners in expensive restaurants are enough. Sarah instructs the girl to sit on the bed, which she does. The girl’s chin trembles and she gives an audible sob. 

          Sarah moves closer and speaks in reassuring whispers. With a gloved had she pats the girl’s wrist and then adjusts the saline, within it a fine cocktail of chemicals that will relax.  Sarah smiles from behind her mask. “This has a drug that will help you forget.”

     The girl returns a tight grin. “Is that supposed to be my consolation or his?”

     Sarah is quiet now. She is no longer smiling behind her mask. She takes the girl’s hand and delicately turns it over, running an index finger over the soft white skin just above the girl’s palm. Blue veins, like highways, run up and down. 

     Sarah strokes the wrist with a delicate finger, the way a lover might. She gently taps the wrist. The veins are bouncy, like pressing on a worm. Sarah grips the needle between thumb and forefinger. One forceful movement is usually enough, but the girl’s veins are small and tight. Resistant. There are a few drops of blood and some tears from the girl.  Then there is more jabbing for placement before Sarah finally finds it. The needle slides into the vein, and the drugs, too. 

    The girl is lying down, now; her shoulders slump, eyes glaze.    

    Sarah says to the girl, “We’ll start soon.”

    The girl shakes her head from side to side as if to say no, but that doesn’t matter because she has made the payment. 

    Sarah checks on Jasper. He’s in green surgical scrubs.  She scans his face; everything seems to be in order.  He catches her worried stare.

    “You don’t have to do that every goddamned time.” 

     He is positioned between the girl’s feet, guiding them into the cold metal of the stirrups and telling her to scoot down toward the end of the table. He takes a moment to adjust the goose neck lamp. 

     Jasper should not being doing this surgery. He should be doing bread-and-butter general surgery at Mercy General where the OR is sterile and the nurses myriad.  Not here, in the back of a flower shop. 

     The florist shop belongs to Sarah’s mother, who believes that her daughter uses the back room for book club meetings.  Long into her dotage neither she nor the young woman who runs the shop during the day are going to show up unannounced at night.  It is only for a while, Sarah has warned him.  When she gets a call from someone in her network, their work here will stop.  If he is lucky he will be asked to continue his service at a new location.

    Jasper holds the speculum in his hands. He is ready to begin.

    From behind her mask, Sarah bites her lip. If he has another seizure during surgery, she assures herself  that she can proceed. But really, she knows that’s only true if he seizes at the very beginning or very end of the procedure.  If he seizes at the wrong moment the procedure could be left undone or half done.  Then what?  The pressure of this possibility keeps Sarah rigid and tense.  She considers the plight of the young women they serve and reminds herself that he hasn’t seized in over six months. 

     Jasper picks up the cervical dilator and begins. The girl sucks in her breath then cries out. Sarah gives her a rubber ball to squeeze. “I need more drugs! I can feel this!” Her body is shaking.

     They ignore her. His silver tools are positioned against the pink and red and blue vessels that are her body. Internal passages give way. The girl is young and the passages small and tight. She yells. He keeps moving. She throws her head back and her hips move. He pauses. 

    “I can nick an artery that way.”  He looks up over the johnny that runs from her left to right knee.  “If that happens you could bleed out.”  He shakes his head.  “We’ll all get in trouble.  So keep still.”

     The girl whimpers.

     Jasper grunts. “Almost…” He says. His gloved hand holds a pair of forceps which are inside the girl now.  Beyond her vagina and cervix he carefully navigates.  This is not standard operating procedure, but not much is SOP in a makeshift OR. The girl cries out. A bit of frank blood and a yellow liquid run from the girl’s body onto the paper that covers the operating table. 

     He hands the mason jar to Sarah, his jaw is rigid and tense behind the mask; his work is largely done, but Sarah’s work has just started. Jasper doesn’t believe in the mixing of morality and medicine, but he does believe in his paycheck.

     Sarah moves to the counter to add liquid to the jar. She doesn’t believe that morality is measured like height and weight. She screws the lid of the jar tightly and walks out, taking her mask off before she enters the shop.  She composes her face, puts on a polite smile. 

     The old man is on a stool behind the cash register, reading a book.

     Sarah wrinkles her nose. “Are you drinking alcohol?”

     “No.” He frowns. “Pitt stop done? I’d like to get this behind us.”

      Sarah’s eyes scan the counter. There is only the book. “She’ll be ready soon. She needs bed rest, not book signings. Recovery takes time.”  Sarah produces the jar with a kidney-shaped shadow that jostles and bumps gently against the lid.

      At the sight of the jar the old man gets up, moves back two steps.

     “The eyes are blue. Like yours.”

     The old man is moving away from the jar.

     “It’s yours.” Sarah says.

     The old man turns away.

    “I don’t want it!”

     She shrugs. “Disposal is not a service we provide. We’re not a medical facility.” She places the jar on the counter and walks away, towards the back room; she will sit with the girl while Jasper rinses his instruments and tucks them then into his case.

     The old man stands with his mouth agape. He pats down the hair on his head and stares at the jar. He looks around, but the nurse is gone.  The old man cringes and approaches the jar, bends down that he may see better. As he moves closer, his eyes focus. The old man’s mouth again drops open. “They’re probably just two veins! Veins are blue and everyone knows they all have blue eyes.” He yells toward Sarah, but she is not there. With one hand on his hip, he runs the other through his thinning hair.  He stares at the mason jar, not speaking, but his lips move.  He counts to ten. Twice. With a sigh, he rubs his nose, and from the floor, lifts his large black manuscript bag. The bag has always smelled of the old man, of books and papers, tobacco and booze. He thrusts the jar, just a little too forcefully, deep into the bag. The stench of old man wafts up, but now there is something else; an undercurrent of formaldehyde that nothing, neither the books nor the manuscripts, not even the booze can completely obliterate.

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C.M. Pratt

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