The Gray House — Part Five

By Megan Cummins

Years later, Mindy is back at the hospital in Sacramento, but this time a visitor. She is seven months pregnant, and the waddle has come, the sleepless nights. It was the secret all along: pregnancy has made her colitis nearly disappear. Her husband, at home in Massachusetts, feels sorry for Mindy but not keen on understanding more about why she had to buy a plane ticket in the middle of the night. His family is all east coast – articulate women, suave men. Elderly aunts who are doctors. “MG MD,” they call his Aunt Mary Grace, a retired physician who winters in Arizona.

“Don’t worry,” MG MD had said, patting Mindy’s hand. “UC Davis, they’re the best. For where she is.”

They will always think they are better than Mindy, and Mindy will always think they are snobs. Her husband has never met Gwynn or Nolan, and now he never will. Mindy waits for the bus outside of the Emergency Room, which will take her back to her hotel. Inside, Gwynn is dying of multiple organ failure.

Before Mindy arrived, a nurse told her over the phone that Gwynn’s doctor had removed her from sedation in an attempt to save what might be left of her brain, and she’d bitten clean through her tracheal tube, a feat the nurses said they’d never seen before. Gwynn had turned purple before they managed to put her under and replace the tube.

“Is she going to live long enough, if I can’t make it until the day after tomorrow?” she asked the nurse.

The nurse hesitated, the phone line fuzzy with static. “Your friend is very sick. Her mother asked for you to come.”

It seems a cruel joke that it would end like this, as though the universe is playing card tricks with their lives. Mindy, the wild one, the daredevil with a bad colon, now in a family that speaks seriously of pedigree. And Gwynn, the sensible one, with a body dying after years of struggle with an eating disorder, finding inhuman strength to kill herself with.

Gwynn is sedated again, and being fed. When Mindy saw her friend, who was half-reclined, head lolled to one side, she didn’t know what to say, so she just watched the steady drip of IV medication –  antibiotics? Steroids? What do you give a person who is just dying of being alive? Gwynn’s mother didn’t sit by the bed, but by the window, where she watched the traffic move below. Mindy sat across from her and had been surprised when Miguel walked in with food from the cafeteria. They’d talked briefly and awkwardly. He had been made manager of the new location. He hadn’t needed Mindy’s help.

Mindy’s memories of their time in the gray house are cicada like, emerging from the ground every so often and then multiplying. The unpleasant ones, she tries to pave over, instead choosing to focus on the vanilla, mostly meaningless ones: the time after Nolan had moved out and before Mindy did, too, when she and Gwynn stayed up through the night to watch Kate Middleton marry Prince William. Two Americans, drunk off white wine, ogling over royalty. It was harmless, pedestrian, perfect. If Gwynn’s mother hadn’t found her, she could have gone on for a long time, maybe forever, not knowing.

What changed with Mindy? She didn’t know the answer herself, but she’d abandoned California when she became tired of herself – the same thing that Nolan had done. When she was a patient in this same hospital, she’d taken on an attitude but sometime afterward she realized scorn didn’t suit her. She wasn’t quick enough for it. But it had worked on medical staff, whose job it was to take neuroses seriously. After Gwynn told Mindy’s doctor about the worms, the bloody vomit she’d ignored, her refusal to allow her friends to call an ambulance, he’d called the psych nurse into her room.

“Do you think of hurting yourself?” the nurse asked.

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Hurting others?”

“Oh, about 15 a day.”

Gwynn would have turned thirty-two this year, and for some reason, because of some biopic she watched and remembered, Mindy knows that was the age of Karen Carpenter when she died. Mindy shakes her head, as though the act could remove all this useless information and help her keep only what she needed to know.

A car pulls into the lot nearest the entrance, where there are a few temporary spots for patients. A young girl, maybe Mindy and Gwynn’s age when they lived together, gets out and goes around to the other side where she struggles with her passenger. They are both girls, just bones and tank tops, which gives Mindy chills and makes her want to run to them with the banana and package of mini muffins she absentmindedly bought from the hospital cafeteria.

The others waiting for the bus realize before Mindy that the girl being supported by her friend is very sick, or very drunk, or both. Her body goes limp as her friend arches her back to support her weight and tries to zombie-step her into the hospital. The sick girl will have none of it: she lets out a pitiful groan, and reaches for the ground.

A middle-aged woman with no-nonsense shoes and short, prim hair runs to them, and manages to soothe the crying friend. She puts her coat under the head of the girl on the ground. An orderly dashes toward them with a gurney, and the wheels rattle over the rumble strips of the wheelchair ramp.

Mindy has a sudden choked feeling, as though a bird has flown from her throat: it tells her that Gwynn has died. And she feels silly at how moved she is physically –her palms sweat, her head begins to ring – by her own prediction of her friend’s death. Her hand moves toward the bird she imagined. If only she could catch it, tag its ankle with a red band before it flies away, then Gwynn wouldn’t die.

Mindy checks her phone, which stares back emptily. Gwynn’s mother said she would call if anything changed. Mindy said goodbye when she left Gwynn’s room, but in a forced, noncommittal way.

Her baby kicks, and she wants to go home to her apartment in Cambridge where her husband is working on his post-doc, an effort that is subsidized by his parents and MG MD. She wants to escape the haunted feeling that brims in her.

Right before she got the call from the hospital, Mindy had been planning to contact a PI to help her find her half-sister. It had been MG MD who had encouraged it. “You can never have too much family!” she’d said loudly, brandishing a wine glass, her lipstick a little uneven. Mindy had been convinced then but now she thinks she shouldn’t. She has learned to take a hint. She can’t handle a baby and a sister all at once, and she doesn’t need one more person she might lose.