by JD Kell
Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Women's · #1588878
The disentegrating friendship between two women and their relationship with food
“Is that all you're having?” Leslie asked after Jessica ordered a dinner salad: no cheese, no croutons, no dressing and a Diet Coke.
“I’m not really that hungry.” Jessica looked down at the napkin on her lap. “I had a huge breakfast.”
Great, Leslie thought, you’re half-starved, already.
The waitress shifted her weight from one sandaled foot to the other, impatient. Leslie saw toenails painted purple, the polish fading and chipped. “Well, I guess I’m the only one who’s eating, so I'll try to eat enough for both of us.” The waitress did not crack a smile. “I'll have the Bacon Cheeseburger with the seasoned fries.”
“To drink?” The waitress stared at the fat on Leslie’s arms.
“A Diet Coke. I'm trying to watch my figure.” Leslie gave a self-deprecating laugh, felt her face grow warm.
The waitress nodded, tucked her pad into her apron and finally smiled. Leslie watched her stop at a booth near the kitchen to flirt with two college guys, streaks of blonde staining their light brown hair. She turned her attention back to Jessica. “So, I haven’t seen you in—what? Ages, or two semesters, at least. What have you been doing with yourself?”
Besides not eating? Thought Leslie.
Leslie studied her friend. Jessica had taken the napkin from her lap and was now twisting a corner into shreds. Bits of white paper floated like ash onto the red table cloth. She appeared malnourished, diluted, empty. Her once plump face had retreated into her skull. The skin stretched tight against it. Her dark brown hair, so thick and unruly 10 months ago, seemed to have thinned right along with the rest of her. It hung limp and lifeless in a tight ponytail. The UCLA sweatshirt engulfed her like a blanket, seemed out of place in the Arizona summer heat.
“Oh, not much, I guess. Glad that school is out.” Jessica gave a half-smile that failed to reach her eyes. Leslie noticed dark circles underneath.
“Yeah, I’ll bet. Me, too. You're lucky, though. You get to go out of state. How's LA? Do you like it? You must. You didn't come home for the holidays, and I guess you were too busy to answer my emails.” Leslie gave her friend a reproachful look. She couldn’t help it. A whole year and only two emails.
She and Jessica were best friends. They had grown up across the street from each other, did everything together: read the same books, liked the same music, and shared crushes on boys. Over the years, they'd eaten hundreds of meals with each other and traded tons of clothes—extra large—until now. Now, Leslie was fat, and Jessica was thin. If they were still in high school, Leslie thought, she would probably be eating lunch alone, because nobody really likes to be seen with the fat, unpopular girl—unless they are fat and unpopular, too.
“Yeah, I guess.” Jessica had stopped playing with her napkin and was now examining a photo on the dessert plaque: two giant brownies piled high with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge, whipped cream and chocolate shavings.
“Yeah, I guess what? Guess that you like it, or guess that you didn’t have time to answer my emails?” For Christ's sake¬—Jessica was still looking at the dessert menu. Leslie tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice. “Do you want to split a dessert?”
“No, I was just looking,” Jessica set the dessert plaque back on the table. “I’m sorry I didn’t email you. Things were just… I don’t know… Different. No—difficult. They were difficult, with classes and all. Overwhelming, actually."
“Well, you sure look good. What did you do? Stop eating?” The words came out sarcastic and cruel. Leslie tried to smooth the jealousy and resentment, unsightly wrinkles, out of her voice. “Aren't you boiling in that sweatshirt? I mean, flaunt it if you got it, right? I know I would.”
Jessica shrugged. “I get cold in the air conditioner. And who'd want to look at this, anyway?” She gestured to her body and stuck out her tongue.
“Please, tell me you're joking. Now, me, on the other hand,” Leslie held her hands away from her hips, “freshman fifteen, baby! And I didn’t have to leave home to get them.” Leslie felt uncomfortable. Isn’t this the type of thing they'd made fun of in high school? The cheerleaders exclaiming over non-existent thighs in the bathroom mirror, ‘Ohhhhh I am soooo fat!’
The waitress returned with their drinks and told them their order would be out shortly. Jessica looked expectantly towards the kitchen. Leslie found herself staring in the same direction, waiting for her cheeseburger to arrive, so she could eat, make her excuses and leave the hollowed out stranger sitting across from her.
The waitress returned and put their food on the table. Leslie started to pour ketchup on her fries, when she noticed Jessica staring at her salad with a taut expression. “What’s wrong? They couldn’t have screwed up your order. You didn’t order anything.”
“I can’t eat this.” Jessica picked a small piece of shredded cheddar from her salad and held it up for Leslie to see. She looked on the verge of screaming or tears. Leslie couldn’t tell which.
“OK, so pick it out. That’s what they’re going to do, if you send it back. It’s no big deal, really.” Leslie rolled her eyes.
“No, I can’t eat this,” Jessica pushed the plate of salad away from her and watched Leslie take a bite of her cheeseburger.
“Christ, send it back, then. Eat something, for God's sake. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To eat.”
Jessica sunk down into the black, vinyl booth. Her teeth clenched, and she crossed her arms and hugged her sides until she resembled someone in a straitjacket. She looked panicked, like she expected Leslie to jump across the table and force feed her the salad—cheese and all.
“Sorry. Look, we'll send it back. They'll make you a new salad, and everyone will be happy, OK?” Leslie patted her friend’s hand. “OK?”
Jessica’s eyes glistened. She dabbed at them with the remnant of her napkin and nodded like an obedient child. “All right. Thanks.” Uncrossing her arms, she sat up in the booth.
Leslie motioned for the waitress. “Look—there's a piece of cheese on this salad. Could we get another one?”
“But the cheese is off the salad now. It's on the plate.” The waitress put her hands on her hips and appeared annoyed.
"Yes, I know, but we," Leslie tilted her head towards Jessica, "need a new salad."
Jessica, her face the same shade as the table cloth, shrunk back down into the booth.
The waitress sighed and started to remove the salad. Jessica touched her arm and she stopped, clearly exasperated, as Jessica asked hesitantly, “Uhm…Would it be possible for you to leave that one here? I won't eat it. I just want to be sure you don’t bring me the same salad twice.”
The waitress stared at Jessica, searching the baggy sweatshirt for signs of aluminum foil hidden within to block alien transmissions.
I may be fat, but at least I'm not a nut case, Leslie thought.
“If that's what you want.” The waitress sighed, louder this time, and headed back to the kitchen. On her way, she stopped to say something to the two guys in the booth, which made them laugh and sneak glances at Leslie and Jessica's table while the waitress shook her head. Leslie took a bite of her cheeseburger and tried not to notice their amusement, stuffing her annoyance down into her gut. The meat was cooked just right, a little pink in the middle. The juice ran down her chin, and she wiped it away with her napkin. Jessica watched her intently.
“Do you want a bite?” Leslie asked.
“No. It just looks good.”
“It is good.” Leslie smacked her lips and dipped a fry in ketchup. “I'd offer you some, but it might make you fat.”
The waitress returned with the salad: lonely leaves of Romaine, naked and vulnerable on a white porcelain plate that clanked the table when she set it down. Jessica thanked her, but the waitress ignored her.
Leslie watched her friend methodically cut each leaf into shreds of green confetti, then carefully lift a speck to her mouth and chew it slowly. As she watched the uniform rise and fall of Jessica’s jaw, Leslie began to count: 1,2,3,4 .....19, 20, swallow. Leslie’s anger grew. “Are you going to chew every bite twenty times? Because I really don't want to sit here all day.”
“You counted how many times I chewed my food?” Jessica gaped at Leslie.
“Don't look at me that way. It's a little odd, don't you think?” She imitated her friend, “Oh, do you mind, I can't eat this. I already picked the cheese out, but I still need a brand new one. Oh—and, by the way, can you leave the salad here, because I want to make sure that you don't just bring me the old one. Because if you did, I probably couldn't tell the frigging difference!”
Jessica seemed to shrink deep inside herself. “Sorry. Look if you want the salad that I'm not eating...” Her voice quivered and then trailed off. Leslie threw her cheeseburger onto the plate. It landed in a pile of ketchup, which splattered onto the front of her blouse.
“You, actually think, this is about me wanting to eat more food? Christ, you would think that. Why should I be so surprised? You think that I want to eat your stupid salad!” Leslie's voice was rising. The guys sitting in the booth by the kitchen stared. She glared at them. “We've been best friends our whole lives. Then, you decide to go away to college. And you stop responding to my emails, stop returning my calls. Blow me off like I'm some chick you hardly know, don't want to know! What—were you too busy learning not to eat to remember that I wanted to hear from you, to talk to you? And then, you don't even tell me you're back—my mom tells me." Leslie shook her head. "I don't know why the hell I asked you to lunch.”
Jessica stared at her salad. Leslie continued, “It's like your personality disappeared along with the rest of you.” She looked across the table—daring Jessica to say something, to do something. Jessica kept her eyes on her plate, her shoulders hunched, her jaw set, her face expressionless.
The waitress reappeared. “Everything all right?”
“Yes, fine.” Leslie said tightly. Jessica didn't look up. The waitress put their check on the table and made a hasty retreat.
Leslie looked down at her cheeseburger. She had taken only a few bites, yet, there was barely half left. Christ, you really are a pig, she thought, disgusted. The waitress was now leaning against the booth where the guys Leslie had glared at just a moment ago were seated. All three of them were looking her way. Leslie felt like an irate mother loudly chastising a cowering child down an aisle in a crowded supermarket. She was embarrassed. Embarrassed to be making a scene. Embarrassed to be the fat woman who downed a cheeseburger while her super skinny friend ate threads of lettuce off a salad plate. “You know what. Just forget it. Lunch is on me.” Leslie grabbed the check and slid out of the booth. “Enjoy your salad.”
The trio next to the kitchen watched Leslie walk to the register. She kept her eyes fixed on the red and black circles covering the carpet like intersecting hoola hoops. When she handed her check to the smiling woman behind the register, Leslie realized the waitress had charged her for both salads. Go figure, she thought, but paid anyway.
Outside the restaurant, she examined her reflection in the plate glass window. Her blonde hair was short. Too short. It barely covered her ears. Her mother said it brought out her blue eyes, but all Leslie saw was a double chin. Her blue blouse—the nicest thing she owned—was too tight. The material strained at her armpits, and she felt it digging into her back whenever she moved. Her pants had wedged their way up her butt crack, again. She bought them thinking their black color would be slimming. Now she walked around with a permanent wedgie and a roll of fat peeking over an elastic waistband.
Leslie cupped her hands around her eyes and placed them on the window, searching for Jessica. She found her estranged friend still hunched over her barren salad at the table. Leslie had hoped, even expected, to see Jessica upset: her head on the table or in her hands, tears moistening her face, dampening her eyes. But Jessica appeared relieved. She was lifting shreds of lettuce to her mouth and digesting desserts off the cheap, plastic restaurant plaque with her eyes—brownies with hot fudge and vanilla ice cream, cherry cheesecake, boysenberry pie. Leslie knew them all by heart. The offending salad lay, untouched, across from Jessica.
She was pretty, Leslie realized. Even with the thinning ponytail and baggy sweatshirt, she made a striking figure—exotic, like a Russian ballet dancer. Leslie thought about going back into the restaurant to apologize, but shoved the impulse down, where it mingled uncomfortably with jealousy and shame, anger and resentment. Maybe she would call Jessica tomorrow. She felt her stomach gurgle. She wished she had the remaining half of her cheeseburger. She was still hungry.
Leslie stepped off the elevator and walked slowly down the corridor. It smelled faintly of disinfectant and citrus; the fluorescent light—harsh and artificial—bathed the corridor in grey. A young man in green hospital scrubs pushing a cart of covered meal trays walked in front of her. The aroma reminded Leslie of the gelatinous substance that had passed for gravy in her high school cafeteria.
She didn't like hospitals—but then, who did? Leslie bitterly recalled visiting her grandfather. Just one of a thousand other patients, he would stare up at the ceiling from a hospital bed in the final stages of his lymphoma, incoherent from the drugs they had given him for pain. She had hated those visits. Hated the parchment feel of her grandfather’s skin. The stale sourness of his breath. The small stream of spittle that clung to his chin. The oxygen tubes shoved like foreign objects up his nose. The disinfectant and air freshener that only partially succeeded in masking the smells of disease, old age and dying from her grandfather's room. Most of all, she hated herself for hating it. For her relief at his death—not because it ended his suffering, but because it ended those dreaded weekly visits.
The only bright spot, Leslie thought wryly, had been the vending machine down the hall from the nurse's station. As they finally made their way out of the hospital, her father would give her two quarters for her favorite candy bar. C9—Snickers. It stuck to the roof of her mouth. Made her teeth hurt. But it kept the visits bearable in her eight year-old mind. She wanted one now: wanted the familiar comfort sticking to the roof of her mouth, turning her saliva dark brown from its sweetness.
Leslie was looking for room 406. The corridor veered off to the left, and she side-stepped a balding janitor in a gray jumpsuit who was hunched over a mop that he moved back and forth over the bone color tile. She passed a middle aged nurse wearing cutesy hospital scrubs—Snoopy and Woodstock somersaulting down the front—that were supposed to remind you of a happier place, a healthier place.
A menu was posted on the outside of the door to room 402. Leslie stopped to read it: protein—meatloaf; starch—mashed potatoes; vegetable—peas; dessert—carrot cake. A box checked below told Leslie there were 'No Diet Restrictions'. She stood there a moment, working up her courage, before continuing past the open door to Room 404. The white curtain around the bed was drawn, but Leslie could hear Oprah's familiar voice floating out to the hallway.
The door to room 406 was closed. A clear plastic sheath, just below the number, held a pink slip of paper with the name, “Jessica Lentz”, printed in black ink. A menu had been taped to the outside of the door: protein—beef enchilada; starch—refried beans; vegetable—salad; dessert—pineapple upside down cake. The words 'High Calorie' were scrawled in pencil across the bottom. Leslie took a deep breath and knocked.
“Come in.” The voice was quiet with hardness just beneath the surface, like a vain of iron under the earth.
Leslie opened the door and was met with the austereness of a hospital room: egg shell walls and bedding; an oversize chair with a table beside it, bereft of any cards, flowers or balloons, save for a squat wicker basket which held an African violet, dying from lack of water and sun. The white curtains to the only window on the far wall were closed: a sliver of sunlight fell onto the floor, making it the most cheerful spot in the room. There was a small, flat screen TV, turned off and mounted onto the wall across from the bed, where Jessica sat upright, wearing a light blue gown tied at the back, her legs covered by a white blanket, a tray table over her lap. A meal tray, still covered, sat upon the table along with a stack of Glamour magazines: a litany of airbrushed perfection between each page. Leslie could smell enchilada sauce. The sensor for a heart monitor was attached to Jessica's left index finger. The red line of her pulse moved up and down to a silent rhythm on the green screen of the machine to the right of her bed.
“You came. I didn't think you would.” Jessica's cheekbones protruded out to the point of grotesquerie, a freakish caricature of the dancer Leslie had watched through the plate glass window of the restaurant three months earlier. Deep hollows were sunk into the flesh below them. Her green eyes appeared dull and lackluster, with dark circles underneath. Her once thick hair, pulled back into an untidy ponytail, had thinned to the point of baldness. Leslie could see patches of scalp peeking out from the sides of Jessica's head, too large for the rest of her body and perched precariously upon a neck that reminded Leslie of a pipe cleaner. Her arms were blanketed in soft, dark hair with wrists that stuck out like knobby knees. Jessica had become a skeleton: a set of elbows and shoulder blades, a collar bone, a chest cavity, a rib cage, a skull.
“You've lost weight.” It was all Leslie could think of to say.
“And you've gained weight.” Jessica gave a wry smile. Her dry lips cracked apart, revealing teeth, once white, now a transparent shade of grey.
Leslie shrugged. “I see you got your personality back.”
“Somewhat, or so they tell me. It was my shrink's idea, your visiting, that is. He said it would be beneficial for me to see some of my friends.” Jessica adjusted her blanket and looked hard at Leslie. “I told him I didn't have any.”
“Your mom called me. I assumed you were back in LA.” Leslie noticed she was still standing in the open doorway. She'd been so shocked by Jessica's wasted appearance that she had simply stopped there.
Jessica motioned to the chair by the window. “You can come in. I don't bite.” She laughed, as though she was letting Leslie in on some private joke.
Leslie crossed the room and sat down. The oversize chair was cold and uncomfortable. It went with the rest of the room. She noticed a white grid-chart taped to the right of Jessica's bed. It was divided into weeks, divided into days, and further divided into meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and was sparsely decorated with a handful of gold stars. “What's that?” Leslie pointed to the chart.
“It's my, Good Girl! You Cleaned Your Plate! chart. I get a gold star every time I finish a meal.”
Leslie counted the stars. Five. Jessica had five stars. Five stars sprinkled here and there over a three week period.
“I'm supposed to get something if I get three stars in a day.”
“What do you get?”
“I don't know—I can't remember. It hasn't happened yet.”
“Oh.” Leslie continued looking at the chart. There was a star for breakfast on a Friday in the first week. A star for breakfast on a Tuesday and a Thursday in the second week. A star for breakfast on a Wednesday and a Friday in the third week. "Why only breakfast?"
“Lightest meal of the day.”
“Oh.” Leslie motioned to the plant on the table. “Your plant needs water.”
“Let it die. At least I'll have some company.” Leslie didn't say anything. Jessica toyed with the edge of her blanket. “I didn't think you'd come,” she said again.
Leslie thought of her grandfather, felt ashamed. “I almost didn't.”
“I know. I almost didn't go to lunch with you that day.”
“Why did you?” Leslie remembered her tirade. Felt more shame.
“Why did you come here?” Jessica stopped playing with the blanket and looked at Leslie.
“I don't know. To show you I care.” It was a lame answer, Leslie thought. She should have cared back then. She should have cared three months ago.
“That's why I came to lunch.” Jessica uncovered her meal tray. She picked up a fork and played with her refried beans. “I don't judge you, you know. I never did.” She pointed the fork at Leslie. “You judge yourself.” Bits of bean and cheese stuck to the tines. “You judged me.”
“I'm sorry.” Leslie couldn't look Jessica in the eye. She pictured herself, a chubby eight year-old bending over her grandfather to give him a kiss at her father's behest: holding her breath so she wouldn't inhale the stink of his skin. Wishing he would die, so she would never have to kiss him again.
“I know. Everybody's sorry—except me.” Jessica stabbed her fork into the center of her enchilada. It stayed there, sticking up like a flag of surrender.
The middle-aged nurse, with the Snoopy hospital scrubs, knocked on Jessica's partially open door and then bustled in without waiting for a response. Upon seeing Leslie, she smiled broadly. “Well, someone has finally got a visitor. How are you? I'm glad to see that this little thing doesn't have to sit here all day with nothing but some stupid old women's magazines to keep her company. My name's Janie. And now, Miss ‘I don't have any friends’, would you care to introduce me?”
“This is Leslie. We were neighbors once. We went to school together.” Jessica folded her arms and pursed her lips.
Leslie could see Nurse Janie wanted more in the way of an introduction, so she stood up and held out her hand. “I'm an old friend of Jessica's. Nice to meet you.”
Jessica shook her head and rolled her eyes. Nurse Janie ignored her. “It's a pleasure.” She shook Leslie's hand and then turned to face Jessica. “OK, Miss Jessica, are we eating or playing today? Don't make me call Doctor Martin on you. I really don't think those little twigs you call arms can take any more IV's. Do you?”
Leslie saw that the insides of Jessica's arms were bruised yellow and blue. She sat back down, feeling foolish.
“I'm working on another star, Nurse Janie, working on another star. But you have to be patient, because everybody knows that you can't rush perfection.” Jessica plucked her fork out of the enchilada and started to mash her refried beans some more. She made a criss cross pattern over them. Turning to Leslie, she asked “Remember when we used to make peanut butter cookies with your mom?”
Leslie nodded. When she and Jessica had gotten older, her mother no longer felt it necessary to supervise, and they made the cookies by themselves. Without Leslie’s mother there to dole each cookie out with an admonishment about widening waistlines, Leslie and Jessica would eat the whole batch.
“Humph. I'll be back in another hour, Miss Jessica. Don't make me call the doctor, you hear?” The nurse looked at Leslie. "Try to get her to eat."
Leslie nodded at the woman in the Snoopy scrubs and glanced over at Jessica, who was giving them the middle finger. The nurse didn't notice. Leslie tried to keep her face solemn. “I will.” Nurse Janie left, closing the door behind her with a soft thud, leaving the two of them alone with each other once more.
“Are you going to eat your enchilada?” Leslie asked.
“Of course not. Do you want it—Ooops, sorry. I forgot. Sensitive subject.”
Leslie ignored the dig. “How long will you be in here?”
“Till I get better or die—whichever comes first.” Jessica laughed dryly. “I'm not in here by choice, you know. I'm an involuntary patient. A danger to myself and no one else. My body is not my own. At least, not anymore.” She sighed. “I've lost all control of it. I've lost all control.”
“You know you're thin, don't you?”
“That's a stupid question.” Jessica stabbed her enchilada once more. “Of course I know I'm thin. Why the hell else would I be in here? The real question is, do I know for sure I won't get fat if I let myself eat? The answer to that question—MY DEAR FAT FRIEND—is a resounding NO. No, I don't know for sure. And the doctors—I have a shitload of doctors, here: specialists, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, nutritionists, behaviorists, Freudianists, cardiologists—But I'm getting off topic. The doctors ask me, ‘Why are you so scared of gaining weight, Jessica?’ ‘What, exactly, does fat mean to you?’” Jessica pushed the tray table away from the bed. She kicked the blanket onto the floor and wrapped her skeletal arms around her knees, pulling them up to her chin and rocking back and forth with her eyes squeezed shut. She emitted a long, low groan from deep inside.
“Everything OK?” Nurse Janie peeked in.
“Yes. Fine. Go away. I'm just visiting with my friend.” Jessica opened her eyes again. “We're fine. Aren't we Leslie? We're just fine.”
The nurse looked at Leslie. Leslie nodded her head. “Everything's all right. Thanks.” Janie retreated back into the corridor, but this time, she left the door open.
Jessica tucked her knees farther under her chin. Bones jutted out from her body in perpendicular angles. “You think you can control things. You think you have everything under control. You think you are in control. Then poof—” She made a disappearing motion with her hands. “Everything controls you. Until it doesn't matter anymore. The only thing that matters is how much food you get to eat today. If you can just stick to the plan, then everything will be OK. But then you worry that you're eating too much. Maybe it's still too much. So you start to take it away. Piece by piece. Ounce by ounce. Calorie by calorie. Meal by meal. 'Til there's nothing left. And you can't go back, because you don't really know how the hell you got here in the first place. Am I making sense?”
Leslie stayed silent.
“When I was fat, I think I was happy. I don't remember not being happy. I remember laughing when I was with you. Then, you weren't there to hold me ba—Hold my hand. And I'm in California losing weight, reinventing myself. And it was so easy. Losing weight is the easiest thing I've ever done. But from the way people treated me, you'd have thought I'd won the Pulitzer. Suddenly, I existed. I mattered. Guys who’d looked right through me at 140 pounds, started asking me out when I hit 110. I was even asked to pledge for a sorority. And it just kept getting easier. It was so easy that I started getting scared I would disappear, again. That I would cease to exist. How can I ever let that happen? I mean—Christ!—my own parents. They see me at 110 on their only visit to LA, and it's the proudest I've ever seen them. They were so proud that their fat daughter had finally gotten thin.”
Jessica was crying, now. Tears streamed down her sallow face and into the hollows of her cheeks. She sniffled. Leslie looked for a box of tissue, found none, and tried to open what looked like the bathroom door to get some toilet paper. The door wouldn't open.
“It's locked. You have to get the nurse to open it.” Jessica grimaced and wiped her face with the sleeve of her hospital gown. “I kept flushing my food. In fact, I think I got three of my stars that way.” Leslie sat back down. Jessica exhaled slowly and looked at her. “You know, maybe I'm just trying to get even with all the bastards who didn't give a damn about me until I was thin—”
“That'll show 'em,” Leslie interrupted, sarcastic, but without cruelty.
Leslie checked her friend's reaction. Jessica was looking at her, the hint of a smile upon her lips which spread like water to the rest of her features in a ripple of animation, easing her skin and brightening her eyes, her rib cage and shoulder blades convulsing in waves. Jessica was laughing. A real laugh. Not sardonic, with an undercurrent of anger and sadness, like before. And then, Leslie was laughing, too. It was a relief to know they still had the ability to laugh, to glimpse a piece of the old Jessica, her best friend.
“Well, that is music to my ears. Let me tell you.” Nurse Janie stood in the open doorway. She was smiling, eager to join them in their merriment. Her gaze fluttered to the tray table shoved to the side of the bed where Jessica's meal lay—desecrated, cold and uneaten. The smile disappeared and she grew serious, a nurse waiting to attend to unpleasant business. She sighed audibly. Leslie stopped laughing. Jessica sat back in her hospital bed and hugged her shoulders. Janie continued, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, ladies, but it looks like I'm going to have to call Dr. Martin after all. Unfortunately, visiting hours are over.” The nurse gave Leslie a disappointed glance. Jessica's face hardened.
Leslie got up to leave and noticed the plant on the table, a Blue African violet, slowly dying as it waited patiently for water and sun. “Could I have some water for the plant?” she asked the nurse. “There's probably a cup in the bathroom, but it's locked.”
“My parents brought me that. I'm letting it die,” Jessica's arms were still crossed, her face defiant.
“I want to water it.” Leslie waited.
“Do what you want, but I'm not touching the thing once you leave.”
Nurse Janie had already unlocked the bathroom door and was holding a small plastic pitcher of water. Leslie took the pitcher and poured it over the plant. Its blue petals shimmered with moisture. She caressed a dark, green velvet leaf with her fingertips. Once water started to pool in the tray beneath, Leslie stopped pouring. The pitcher was almost empty. Taking the wicker basket off the table, she carefully placed it under the rectangular patch of sun on the floor by the window. “There.” Leslie stood up and smiled. “I think your plant is happier.”
Jessica smirked. “Are you trying to be subtle?”
Leslie shrugged her shoulders. “No.”
The nurse was looking at the two of them. “I'll make sure it gets sun and water.” She winked at Leslie. Although, Leslie as a rule didn’t like being winked at, this time it seemed appropriate.
Leslie went to hug Jessica goodbye and stopped. “I'll see you in a couple of days.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“To take care of your plant.” Leslie patted Jessica's shoulder and felt bone under skin. “Maybe we'll do lunch.”
Jessica smiled, ever so slightly. Leslie smiled back.
Leslie stepped off the elevator onto the ground floor. Sunshine flooded the lobby through the skylight. Off to her right, the crowded gift store displayed vases with various flower arrangements among cute stuffed animals and floating Mylar balloons: New Baby Girl...Baby Boy...Get Well Soon. A vending machine stood next to the automatic double doors which led outside to the visitor's parking lot. She walked over to it.
Leslie saw the Snickers behind the glass, F-10, and remembered her anticipation as a young girl, sitting between her parents in the cramped hospital room waiting for the hour to end: for the two quarters—round and flat, clinking together in her palm—for the familiar glob of sweetness—for her grandfather's death. Then she thought of her friend, Jessica. Leslie turned away and slowly walked out the double doors into the sun.