by Emily Zas
Dana Schwartz reminisces with her husband Harold at the hospital every Thursday. As his memories fade, he realizes she’s not the same Dana from their first date—and he’s no longer the same Harold.
The machine beeped loudly every so often, confirming that yes, his heart was still beating, even if he couldn’t feel it. He couldn’t feel much at all, only the numb vibrations of his blood pumping, a sensation that made his stomach churn. His body could have walked away in his sleep (at 87, he spent most of his time sleeping) and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell.
He wasn’t certain where he was. With each breath, he inhaled that sterile doctors-office-smell from his youth. At least those doctors gave him nice band-aids after the brief pain; now, he got relentlessly poked with needles, and the nurses wouldn’t even warn him.
They thought he was out of it. Looney. “Mr. Schwartz,” they’d croon, their voices falsely sweet like cherry cough syrup, “do you know what year it is?”
The first time they’d asked, he’d gotten frustrated. Obviously he knew what year it was, but it just took him a second to think of it! They’d looked at him pitifully and checked a wretched box on their clipboard. After that it became a game—he’d lie to their faces, making up absurd years and naming presidents from 40 years ago. They thought he’d gone mad.
Mrs. Schwartz, his wife of nearly 66 years, came to visit every Thursday. She followed the same routine each time, sitting down neatly on his bed and introducing herself. She’d look into his vacant eyes and wonder if he recognized her, asking the nurses how he’d been doing. He’d just look back blankly as the nurses ticked off his medications and eating habits, listening to the rhythmic beep beep beep of the machine. He wanted it to stop.
If that’s what his heartbeat had always sounded like, he couldn’t believe he’d put up with it for so long.
“Harold,” his wife asked, “Do you remember our first date?”
Mr. Schwartz nodded. He remembered those things easily. The nurse smiled, “He tells us the story every day. He must really love you.”
Mrs. Schwartz blushed. Harold had stolen three nickels from his father’s coin jar to take her to the cinema. They’d danced to “The Way You Look Tonight” on the jukebox. His father beat him the next morning, but she thought it was romantic. He remembered it fondly too, Dana’s 17-year-old smile as she drank her milkshake.
But more recent events were a blur. She couldn’t believe he’d forgotten the months of chemotherapy from his cancer treatment. She supposed it was better not to remember that painful period, but how could he forget? He’d been losing it for years and she hadn’t noticed. It felt like this—being monitored in a hospital with tubes in his arm and chest—was her fault.
The wild beeping irritated Harold. The women kept saying it was his heartbeat, but if that’s what his heartbeat had always sounded like he couldn’t believe he’d put up with it for so long.
One nurse told him it was Thursday, so Dana was coming. He asked the nurse to help him sit up so he’d look more presentable when she arrived.
But the woman who came in wasn’t Dana. Her face was grey and she used a stick to walk. That wasn’t the girl he’d been expecting, the girl who smiled as she drank the milkshake. What happened to the beautiful Dana he’d taken to the cinema? There had clearly been some mistake.
“Harold, it’s me,” she sobbed. “It’s Dana.”
Harold wanted to feel bad for her, to recognize her, but all he could think about was how pathetic she looked. Crying over a man she didn’t even know? She pressed her lips to his forehead and he grimaced, overwhelmed by the disgusting scent of lavender perfume.
“We’ve been married 65 years,” she whispered.
He realized that he hated her. Who was she fooling? He could practically taste her desperation, with gold hoop earrings and red press-on nails at her age. She wasn’t crying for him, but for herself, for the youth she couldn’t have.
“The kids say hi,” she sighed through her sputtering sobs. Seeing the confusion in his eyes, she clarified, “Our kids, Harold.”
The beeping roared into a crescendo. He was just a teenager—what was she talking about? He felt his blood churning again and felt sick just looking at her makeup-stained face. He couldn’t speak, but screamed at her with his eyes, letting her see the pure hatred he felt.
Through her tears, she placed a shiny disc in the nearby CD player. It was “The Way You Look Tonight,” the song they’d danced to on their first date. She hummed with Sinatra, but Harold’s expression turned blank.
He’d never heard the song before, and though it drowned out the incessant beeping, he hated seeing the woman embarrass herself like this. He pressed the button to call the nurses. Soon, the woman was gone, and he was back at peace with the vibrations pulsing in his veins.
Dana would return each Thursday, searching desperately for her Harold in those vacant hate-filled eyes, but he was no longer there. And each week, he’d call for the nurses and ask when his Dana would come to visit. But she was gone too.
This story was written and workshopped in my creative writing class this semester. It was inspired by my own grandfather, who is slowly losing his memories but still loves to tell the story of when he first met my grandmother with a card trick at Coney Island. It was heartbreaking to translate my own family experiences into this story, but I believe that I successfully communicated these emotions through the tone and mood of the story.
Emily Zas is a senior in high school in NY, with a passion for writing and storytelling. She has always been inspired by shared group experiences, whether in movie theaters, protests or classrooms. The possibility that her words could inform, excite or even anger an audience thrills her. She hopes to continue writing in college and pursue a career in journalism.