The Tech picks and pulls at his nails, peeling stretches of turquoise gel. Last week’s black polish peeks through cracks. Colored dust falls, neon snow or ash, settling in the passenger seat floorboards. He halts his peeling when The Nurse offers him her pink BiC. Click, hiss, inhale, then the silence of ritual. The Tech passes the lighter back and the Nurse lights up, takes a drag, then tucks the lighter and pack under her seat.
The Nurse’s blue Volvo is parked, all alone, on the roof of the parking garage. Winter wind slips from the west skyline into the driver’s side window, passes over the pair, then out the passenger’s side, carrying their smoke into the coming darkness. The car can’t smell like smoke or ash; the Nurse’s son, nine and pious, has the nose and morals of a bloodhound. He’ll repeat his suspicions the moment he sees his father this Thursday. The Nurse can hear it now, his meaty tongue saying smoke like thmoke and his father knowing that she, still, cannot decide between openness or rightness. She still chooses to choke in secret.
“My boy can’t say Volvo right. He says vulva,” the Nurse says, her wheezy laugh laced with haze like a steaming kettle. “Momma’s vulva smells like death.”
“Momma’s vulva is blue,” the Tech offers, but they cut the laugh short. Their break is closing up, time narrowing.
The pair spritz dollar-store lavender. The mist lands cold on gooseflesh. If the Tech goes home reeking of menthol, his mom will have to add one more check to the list, one more reason to believe her son is going nowhere. Her son is “not right.” The Tech made a choice between polish and Pall Malls, knowing he is allotted only so many infractions.
Time will go. The Nurse will reverse, circle the empty roof as twin butts fly from the car. They will park below and make their way back to the hospital, sniffing their sleeves every few strides. The breeze will carry the lavender from them, leaving their scrubs stale and blank. Good. To be scented is to be more than a smile, more than a service. The Nurse and Tech know the perils of being burdened with identity, a past. In the fluorescent light, they are called to be stripped of all but pale blue and a practiced tone—soft but not quite patronizing, confident but not quite sure of anything. Hemming and hawing with conviction because they know, really know, that the Body could do anything. They will go in through glass doors and become the un-anxious presence, the unscented, clean hands, and they will work.
But now they are still sucking on smoke and silence, trading unspoken thoughts of needles in veins, pumping, pulsing with life—yet so close to ceasing. They are thinking of the grandkids in corners, staring, waiting for the rhythmic machines to quiet. A ten-year-old son unraveling his fraying shoelace, hunched over Sketchers as if in prayer, while his mother lies on the stiff bed and keeps lying until she doesn’t because she is no longer here. They think of the husband, who’s been bedside for a week, taking stock of shallow breathing, and the way he leaned closer than usual, inhaling then saying, “Do you—have a spare smoke?” And his shame for asking. And their shame for saying “no.”