That Burning Question
by Morris Marshall
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The woman in bed extended her right hand. “I’m Silvia. What’s your name?”
I was afraid that her hand might break off if I shook it. I grasped it lightly with both hands as if cradling a fragile Greek vase. “I’m Martin, but most people call me Marty. Well... I guess I’d better look for that ball.”
I got back down on my hands and knees and scanned the floor, doing a grid search like a forensic crime investigator looking for evidence. Silvia watched me work.
“Forget it,” the Professor called out. “I don’t feel like playing anymore.”
Twenty minutes had elapsed. I rose from the floor and stood by Silvia’s bed. She was smiling and holding the ping-pong ball in one of her bluish hands.
“You had that all along,” I accused. “What’s the idea?”
“I was enjoying the company,” Silvia said. “Apart from nurses and doctors, I don’t get many visitors here. Why don’t you come and sit down beside my bed? There’s a chair over here.”
“I guess I could for a few minutes.”
“Could you raise my bed up a little, Marty, so I can sit up? There’s a button at the front.”
I found the green button and pressed it firmly. There was a whir as the angle of the headrest increased.
“Thanks. That’s better. So... what’s your story?”
“What’s your label? Everyone in here has something wrong with them. I’m anorexic. I can’t even look at food without puking. I have a bag here right beside me just in case I...” She made a face.
“That’s not good,” I said, grimacing and closing my eyes. “You need to start eating again to gain some weight. There must be something you like. What about ice cream or chocolate?”
“I’ve never really had a good relationship with food... or people. for that matter. My parents put me in here when I stopped eating a month ago. I can’t stand the texture of most foods in my mouth. I used to love burgers when I was a kid, but now just the thought of eating one evokes images of cows being slaughtered, blood spurting and...” She reached for her plastic bag and put it over her mouth, but, thankfully, didn’t throw up.
I sighed. “One thing’s for sure. I don’t have an eating problem.” I gripped my love handles. “I have a different label. I should be wearing a button on my chest everywhere I go. Ms. Anorexic, I’m Mr. Bipolar.”
Silvia laughed. “No way,” she said. “I’ve heard of it. You experience highs and lows, right? Which phase are you in right now?”
“A major low. My dad found me drugged and standing on the train tracks waiting for the 4:35 rush hour Go Train. That’s when he brought me here.”
“Why would you go and do that, Marty, a nice-looking, witty guy like yourself? You’ve got a lot to live for.”
“I know that now,” I replied, staring at Silvia. “My lithium is just beginning to kick in, after two weeks, and I’m starting to feel better. I’m planning to go back to university in January for the winter term. Hopefully, I’ll be discharged soon.”
She reached out and took my hand. “Not too soon, I hope.”
“I won’t leave until you start eating. That’s a promise.”
“You could be stuck here for months.”
One evening two weeks later, Silvia and I were sitting in her room playing Euchre. She’d won the last four games and, in the middle of the fifth one, she suddenly put down her cards and looked up at me. “Marty, I want to get up. I’m tired of lying in bed all day and feeling sorry for myself. Will you help me into my wheelchair?”
“Are you sure that’s safe? I mean, what if you—”
“Don’t worry, it’s all good. Just steady me.” She grabbed my arms and I pulled her up slowly and eased her thin legs over the side of the bed. I rolled her wheelchair over to where she sat, gently lifted her up in my arms and placed her in the chair.
“Thanks,” Silvia said. “I feel a little stronger now. I was wondering if you could do me a favour.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I can’t remember the last time I felt hungry for solid food, but I do now.”
“Why the change?” I asked.
“Good conversation, I think. Marty, you have outpatient privileges, don’t you?”
“Do you think you could go to that Burger Shack down the street and pick me up a double bacon cheeseburger? I want to try eating, but I’m not hungry for the stuff they have in here.”
“If I get caught, I could lose my—”
“You won’t,” Silvia said. “I wouldn’t normally ask you, but I don’t have anyone else. Please... it would mean so much to me.”
“It’s okay,” I said, squeezing her hand. “Even if I get caught, it’s worth it.”
I put on a bulky sweatshirt, took the elevator down to the first floor and walked through the hospital waiting room and coffee shop out to College Street. Rush hour had finished, and the soft drone of reduced traffic was almost peaceful compared to the usual blaring of car horns. An early autumn chill gripped the evening air, and the leaves were just starting to take on hues of red and gold.
After purchasing Silvia’s burger, I carried it back to the hospital in an oily brown paper bag. Before entering the elevator, I slipped it under my shirt and looked at myself in a full-length mirror on the wall. There was a slight bulge around my stomach, but it just looked as though I’d gained a few pounds.
“Did you get it?” Silvia asked when she saw me in the doorway.
I slipped the bag out from under my shirt and placed it on her dinner tray. “Right here.”
She rubbed her hands. “I can’t wait. It smells good.”
“Well, I’ll see you,” I said, heading for the door.
“Where are you going, Marty? I can’t eat this all by myself.”
I sat back down on her bed and looked at the plastic bag sitting on her table. “Do you think it’ll make you sick?”
“No, not this time. I feel better now.”
I rolled Silvia’s dinner tray from her bed over to her wheelchair. With a knife left over from lunch, I cut the burger into two parts. She handed the larger part to me and we dug in. Silvia made funny grunting noises as she chewed and swallowed.
Afterwards, I helped her back into bed, kissed her goodnight and closed the curtains.
* * *
The Awards Ceremony was winding down. There were only a few students and teachers milling around. Wait staff collected empty plates and glasses from the tables and placed them on carts.
“So, where did you two meet?” Tony Morrison, my colleague, asked.
His voice awoke me from my thoughts. “Huh?”
Silvia came to my rescue. Her eyes narrowed and she smiled the same way she did that day I first met her in hospital. “That’s a guarded secret, Tony. If I tell you, I’m going to have to kill you. I can say that I first fell in love with Marty over an extravagant dinner. It was the best meal I ever had.”
“She’s right,” I concurred. “It really was extravagant.”
Copyright © 2016 by Morris Marshall