Young Woman Pointing (in a Landscape)

Short Story by Terence Byrnes

Young Woman Pointing (in a Landscape)

The nurse standing behind him tucked a strand of dark hair into her lavender hijab before grasping the rail on the back of his gurney. “Gib” Gibson and his surgeon had been discussing the modern hospital building that was under construction while they waited for an operating theatre here in the old one. The stony turrets and false battlements of this showy Victorian relic on the Montréal skyline would soon be put to some new purpose. The grey sky Gibson saw out the tall window at the surgeon’s back was coldly translucent. Snow was coming. He felt the gurney begin to roll. “Now don’t be nervous because you’ve got a woman driver,” the nurse said. Her easy laughter was charming and, oddly, made him aware that he wasn’t frightened. He wondered if she knew how disagreeably old-fashioned “woman driver” was. Gibson remembered his father, almost fifty years earlier, saying the words like a curse.

She pushed him toward a glass door that slid smoothly open along its bright steel track. Her cheery tone had left a residue of buoyancy in his chest and, lifting his head, he looked around the operating theatre feeling more like a tourist than a patient. The surgical robot he had been waiting to see, the Da Vinci, appeared to be nowhere and everywhere—in an elevated console at the back of the room, in slim arms of cantilevered steel above, and in perfect round lights that hovered before him.

“Is that it? The Da Vinci?” he asked, pointing his thumb back over his thinly gowned shoulder to the elevated console. When he was diagnosed, but before he chose surgery over radiation, he had holed up in the after-hours darkness of his small renovation company’s offices and consulted Google about this wondrous machine. His search terms brought forth images of Leonardo’s somewhat sour-faced Vitruvian man with his arms spread like a compass rose and a photograph of the artist’s modern medical namesake, a curving blue module that controlled the motions of a surgical automaton. Studying the images, he allowed the thought that his forsaken years as an art history major at McGill were somehow part of a long arc that only now, forty years later, was approaching its terminus.

Gibson saw the masked and gowned people around him moving quickly now, and with purpose. As the stealthy general anesthetic overtook him, he tried to say, “Behold the Vitruvian man!” and pictured an exclamation mark at the end of his sentence elongating and bouncing, like a comic animation, over the stubborn period that anchored it to the line.

He opened his eyes with an immense sense of discovery and relief that the world still surrounded him, but the nurse who had steered his gurney into the operating theatre was not there. Instead, he saw Gloria smiling down from a height that made him dizzy. A small waterfall of dark bangs fell loosely over her forehead as she studied his face.

“Gib,” she said. “You’re back.”

His hand reached automatically for her arm but he stopped himself.

“I never left,” he heard himself croak. “You’re back.”

“I mean,” she said. “When the resident was here a few minutes ago to ask how you were, you told him your name was da Vinci. Then you looked at me and went back to sleep.”

The distance between him and Gloria slowly contracted while the space behind her dilated and he realized that he was lying in a softly lit, low-ceilinged room. His bed, the middle one of three, and the only one occupied, felt luxuriously accommodating despite the rough sheet that covered him. The Goldilocks bed, he thought, and heard his own unsteady laughter. Gloria’s eyes were wet, but whatever for? He fell into something like sleep again and dreamed that Gloria, wearing a lavender headscarf, was rolling him along a gravel road toward the mailbox at the end of the lane to his parents’ old home in the Kawartha Lakes. Then, when he opened the box and offered her its contents, she was gone.

He awoke next in a regular hospital room with tall green curtains cloaking the frontiers of his privacy. He saw tubing that climbed like translucent vines to collapsible plastic drip containers above him or fell to the bed frame below. Voices penetrated the curtain. A male voice rattled off point-by-point instructions about using a cellphone app to log hourly billing. A woman’s flat, tired voice formed the sounds of a language he didn’t recognize. From further away, in what must have been a hallway because of the clamour and squeak of metal carts and dishes, a woman speaking laboured French complained about her husband’s surgeon. “Il n’est qu’une machine,” she said. He thought of the da Vinci and smiled.

The curtains parted at the foot of his bed and Gloria slipped through. Had she really been there in the recovery room? She let the curtains fall closed behind her and stood surveying him. Gibson glanced at the dangling tubing and plump plastic reservoirs attached to the side of the bed. His weakness made him feel unmanned and he wondered, mean-spiritedly, if that’s what she had come to see.

“Those things hanging on the side of your bed are just about full,” Gloria said. “I should get the nurse.”

When the nurse came, she replaced a bag and asked if he had needed his drip.

“My drip?” he asked.

Gloria folded her hand over his, and he became aware of the cigar-shaped apparatus, already in his grasp, that would allow him to administer pain medication to himself with the push of a button encased in a soft rubber nipple. A powerful, unbidden sense of gratitude for Gloria’s presence arose in him and he tried to resist it. He had, after all, sent her away.

Two years before, he had hired Gloria to manage his renovation company’s office, even though—like many of the young people he met—she was ridiculously over-schooled for the work she would be doing. Her résumé recorded a bachelor’s degree, a certificate in interior design, a real estate license, and the first two years of a graduate business degree. She was twenty-nine years old and mentioned neither friends nor family during her interview or her first months on the job. As far as he could tell, her life had been nothing but school. Gibson, glancing into her small office when he passed through the shop, imagined her nesting there for years, relieved to be anywhere but sitting in a classroom.

One day, she asked to go on a call with him to meet a client she had often spoken with on the phone. He was surprised, but not unhappy to have company. As they drove to the site, she unscrolled the architect’s drawings he had brought and bent her head forward in concentration, her auburn hair falling lazily over the side of her face. The next day, and the day after that, she invited herself along and, sometimes to his discomfort, was free with unsolicited advice. “Think resale,” she cautioned a client who wanted to panel a kitchen with red barn boards. “Really?” she said, when another ordered a noisily spouting, life-size, Manneken Pis for an en suite bathroom. Then, before the client could feel affronted, she supported her cautionary advice with a convincing review of resale prices on the MLS listings, which she displayed on an iPad she extracted from her scarred suede purse.

Despite her quick intelligence and appetite for overruling the foolish inclinations of others, Gloria seemed to Gibson curiously without guile or personal ambition, a world of difference from his ex-wife, whose personality was governed by both qualities. His only connection with his ex now was through their daughter, who lived and worked in Scotland, and from whom Gibson received bi-weekly e-mail messages about her work in cell biology at the University of Glasgow, and her Nigerian partner’s music career.

Gloria’s place in his life wasn’t something he had sought, though he realized that he was moved by the fall of hair across her cheek when she took her place beside him in the car. Since his now-distant divorce, Gibson had endured pangs of loneliness and desire that were not so different from those he suffered when he was married, but their intensity refused to diminish with age, as he had thought they would. Sometimes, alone in the office at the end of the day, he would click through pornography sites searching for “Amateurs,” feeling vaguely ashamed, but filled as well with an almost anthropological curiosity about the sexual world that had grown around him since his youth. He remembered, at fifteen, finding a folded sheaf of pages from a nudist magazine incongruously jammed between the boards of a park bench. The photograph that caught and held his eye the longest was of a young woman in a woodland setting drawing the string of a bow as she concentrated on a target far outside the frame. The taut string pressed a vertical crease into her right breast. Granular and dark as the image was, that soft crease brought a confusing rush of heat to his body. He remembered feeling at great risk and quickly re-folded the pages, forcing them back between the park bench boards before he walked away, flushed with anxiety that someone might have seen him.

When Gloria entered his darkened office in search of her iPad, after hours one night, he was trying to imagine why the overweight young couple on his computer screen would want to make love on a piano bench in their living room.

“Ooh,” she said, startling him with her presence and with the lack of surprise or judgment in her tone. “What’s going on here?”

The rest was unaccountable, really. He couldn’t have imagined that he would reach for her. Gibson’s distant memory of sex with young women was one of their guarded compliance and mute self-protection, qualities his wife had retained throughout their marriage. Gloria’s manner was forthright. He tried to turn off the computer screen on which the pudgy, thrusting couple changed position and location like fitness instructors. “No need,” Gloria had said, lightly circling his wrist with her small fingers.

The next day, Gibson let his hand brush Gloria’s shoulder when he stepped into her office. “I don’t think you should do that,” she said, with a slow, relaxed smile. “It’s office hours. Besides,” she said, “I’m not exclusive, you know.”

Gibson tried to match her expression, which held shared discretion, but not intimacy. A humiliated sense of naïveté and betrayal claimed him, and he turned away in the hope she wouldn’t see his loss of composure or his anger.

“Everything OK?” she asked, with real but apparently uncomprehending concern.

A nurse Gibson didn’t recognize impatiently tugged open the green curtains around his bed. The metallic tracks on the ceiling stuttered noisily. He felt like he was being unveiled to an audience—or they to him. Gloria, to his relief and disappointment, was not there. To his left, he saw a gowned man with a perfectly round paunch listening to the complaints of a woman sitting beside his bed with a watchful, proprietary air. To his right, he heard soft moaning from behind a partly drawn curtain. Soon, a sharp-featured young woman with dark eyes swung her legs slowly over the edge of the bed from behind the curtain, lowered her weight to the floor, and stepped carefully into view. She teetered as though the floor were shifting and rolling under her. At the bathroom door, she clutched the doorknob and regained her balance. The interior of the bathroom suddenly glowed with yellow light and the door’s bolt clicked lightly against its strike plate, twice, without locking. After what seemed a long time, he heard the aggressive rush of water in the toilet and the door opened. The girl took tiny shuffling steps out of the bathroom, stopped in the middle of the room, and swayed.

Gibson moved reflexively to help her but realized that the tubing above and below had webbed him in. As the girl stood there, Gloria swung into the room, one shoulder drooped under the weight of her purse, and immediately folded her hand around the girl’s elbow.

“Aneeta! You should have called a nurse, you know?”

She settled the girl back into her bed before coming to Gibson’s side. She nodded hello to the man and his wife across the room. “Harold. Sharon,” she said. “Keeping it together?” The couple smiled and nodded.

“You all know each other?” Gibson asked, uncertain how many people he was addressing.

“We’re a commune,” Gloria said, loud enough for others to hear. “We share everything.” Aneeta gave a strangled little gasp of laughter.

When Gloria announced his name to the room, he saw three heads dip in greeting.

Wet snow fell from the folds in Gloria’s purse when she dropped it heavily to the floor. She shucked off her coat and reached down into the purse to lift out the first book of a stack that grew on his bedside table. The stack wobbled so she laid the last volume on his stomach

“Pictures for the old art major,” she said. “The librarian helped me. You really should get an iPad. These things stink like an ash tray.”

Gibson felt the weight of the book pressing near stitches in his belly. “I don’t know why you’re here,” he said, too aware that he was addressing everyone in the room.

“I’m helping you out,” she said, not looking at him while she stuffed back tissues that had flown out of her purse with the books.

“You don’t have to be here,” he whispered. “What’s going on?”

“Someone’s got to look after your business,” she said. “Do you really think those idiots in the shop can keep up with things?”

Gibson tried to detain her but she firmly lifted his hand from her arm and walked out, waving goodbye to the room. Aneeta waved back with her fingers.

After she had gone, Sharon, from across the room, said, “You have an awfully good daughter.” Aneeta peeked from behind her curtain and gave him a smile of what looked like complicity.

When Gibson and Gloria were together, the daughter thing had been a problem. On the street, Gloria would hold his arm and walk close to him in a way that was not daughterly. Middle-aged women approaching them gave him a recriminatory glance if they looked at him at all. The expressions they reserved for Gloria shuttled between curiosity and scorn. Once, while they waited in line outside a pizza restaurant in Little Burgundy, Gloria left him to use the washroom. While she was gone, a man younger than Gibson approached and quietly asked if he could have Gloria’s name and her escort agency’s number. Older men, acquaintances who knew Gibson well enough to be aware of his involvement with Gloria, were respectful, but only of what they saw as Gibson’s accomplishment in dating a much younger woman.

Writing to his own daughter, Katie, in Scotland, Gibson had been silent about Gloria, who could have been Katie’s younger sister. And if he did tell her, how would he put it? Coded bits of judgmental language from his distant past flew through his thoughts. Isn’t that why Dagwood was disinherited by his parents, he tried to recall, because they thought Blondie was a gold digger? Wasn’t that the assumption?

“Just wanted to let you know that I’m seeing someone,” he once started to write Katie, feeling evasive because his sentence hadn’t had the courage to begin with “I.” Then he tried, “I’m keeping company with someone.” But that didn’t work, either. The language had abandoned him. The men in his shop seemed to use “dating” and “hooking up” as euphemisms for having sex. Weren’t there any new words to describe his relationship with Gloria?

They did keep company, though. Gibson bought them memberships for the art museum and every month or so, they walked through an old fur district building where businesses had once graded, cut, and sewn pelts. During the building’s conversion to art galleries, golf-ball sized tumbleweeds of fur still rolled down the long hallways, reminding him of dark fur collars in Renaissance portraits. Gloria professed no interest in art, but she seemed to enjoy his pleasure, and was delighted to have scooped up a little tangle of fur that a remaining furrier identified for her as “probably ermine.”

For a time, Gibson was almost happy. Gloria’s disavowal of what she called “exclusivity” still gnawed at him with jealousy but it seemed ridiculous to ask her for commitment. Women, he knew from past experience, had a capacity for forgiving or overlooking physical imperfection in a man, but asking her to overlook age was another matter. Often, he felt that he was hailing her from across the unbridgeable chasm of his years. He experienced disabling bouts of guilt for monopolizing so much of her time, as though it could be invested in a future. Then again, he would tell himself, what did it matter, since she was free to see other men? He refused even to spend time in her orderly bachelor apartment, walled as it was with books from her endless education, relict CDs by bands he had never heard, and tainted by the invisible traces of lovers. When he declined her suggestion that he spend the night at her place, she just looked at him and shook her head. “You’re such an idiot,” she had said.

When Gibson reported some uncomfortable physical symptoms to his doctor, suffered through a biopsy, and received the diagnosis, he kept it to himself. He realized he’d been waiting for something to release him from what had felt like an endless time of waiting; now, he had finally arrived at the end. When he told Gloria they should stop seeing each other, she watched him with the same thoughtful concentration that overtook her features as she studied an architect’s drawing, eking out the sense of it. The next morning, he discovered that she had emptied her office and left a yellow legal pad with numbered notes about outstanding accounts, inventory, deliveries, sample books, crew schedules, and the URLs of real estate listings in the centre of her desk. That night, Gibson sat alone in Gloria’s empty office at midnight, reading and rereading his daughter’s dutiful e-mail messages from Scotland.

The art books Gloria had brought him, with Dewey Decimal ciphers typed on embrittled paper taped to their spines, were a jumble of periods and styles. Goya sat atop Hockney in the bedside table’s open drawer. He accidentally pushed the Pratts—Christopher and Mary—off the table and they landed on Verrocchio. The only book that remained comfortably within reach on his second day in the hospital was a soft bound collection of da Vinci’s drawings, with foxed pages and no publication date. As Gibson turned each page, the musty fragrance of old paper, pungent with cigarette smoke, as Gloria had said, reached him. He wondered how she had heard about his illness. She had sometimes eaten lunch with the workers in the shop and one of them might have told her. A hot bubble of shame and anger rose to accompany his jealous thought that she was now seeing one of them—or, perhaps, had been seeing one of them all along. He wondered, then, if he should have just let the disease take its course and allowed things to reach their natural conclusion.

“Everything OK over there?” he heard Harold ask. Without pausing for an answer, he went on, “They took care of this obstruction in my gut, but they wouldn’t listen to me about the pain. So suddenly I’m back in here awaiting their pleasure.”

“I tell them, I tell them,” Sharon said, speaking to Gibson from her bedside perch, but keeping her gaze on her husband. “I go back to his old doctor, but he can’t help. All we can do is wait.”

“I know what you mean,” Aneeta said. She pulled the curtain away from her bed and looked directly at Harold, then at Gibson. He could see she was propped up on two pillows. “I can’t tell when my bad time will start. They talk about these triggers but…it takes such a long time to get better! Oh, but I will get better,” she said.

In the early evening, Aneeta, without preamble, began to speak about her brother, who promised to visit but had never arrived. She said he had been carrying her up the circling iron stairs to her second-floor apartment since she was nineteen, when the disease entered her life, and she loved him for his selflessness. She was, she said of herself, a very bright girl who spoke Punjabi, Hindi, English and French, and she wanted to complete her business degree and get to work. Her family was worried about her marriage prospects because she was seeing “a white boy,” but she was, she said, determined to have her own life.

In the light that spilled in from the hallway, Gibson had seen that her eyes were underlined by dark crescents and the shape of her clavicle was touchingly and sharply evident through her hospital gown. She was obviously struggling with something but the glow of her skin and the liquid intensity of her gaze were vital. Whatever disease had colonized her had also left her age hard to determine.

Harold caught Gibson’s eye long enough to suggest that there was something dubious about the idea of Aneeta’s ever getting better. He mouthed two words that might have been “big talker,” and let his features settle into an expression of resignation. Gibson tried to see if Aneeta was watching, but her expression was impassive.

Sharon, apparently troubled by the moment of silence, began a zestful recounting of her husband’s multiple illnesses and surgeries, and then slipped, without a noticeable break, into an account of her favourite reading, her arthritis, her grandson’s dyslexia, and her mother’s dementia.

Harold, who had never completely released his gaze from Gibson, interrupted his wife to ask, “So what’s your story?”

For reasons Gibson couldn’t discern, the question struck him as funny. There was no story. He was waiting for histological results that would write the next chapter of his life, which was probably bound to be a short one. The chapters before that no longer spoke to him. Earlier in the day, he had re-discovered, in the smoky paperback, Leonardo’s Annunciations and Madonnas, stately portraits, and lolling putti with flesh like risen bread dough. He wished he could stand in front of these paintings again, as he had in a youthful trip to Europe. He wanted to see the light glance off their surfaces, whose subtle topography of brush strokes revealed the hand of the maker. Then, there had seemed nothing more than exquisite craftsmanship in a painting. When his McGill professors demanded that he coerce biography, theory, history, and intention from the paint, he left university, married, and trained as a cabinet maker, a satisfyingly self-contained trade devoted to geometrical precision and attention to surfaces. How could he make any part of that a story for Harold?

“No story,” he said to Harold, who took no pains to disguise his annoyance.

The soft rustle of fabric drew his attention back to Aneeta’s bed as she carefully placed her feet on the floor and worked her way toward his bedside.

“Gloria brings you books,” she said. “And when you are asleep, she sits with me.”

Gibson remembered his daughter, frightened by nightmares, suddenly appearing beside him in the middle of the night. But when Aneeta sat on the edge of his bed, he could see that she no longer seemed young. Or that the disease had consumed her appearance of youth.

He lifted his hand from the page where he had been studying Leonardo’s anatomical drawings of intercourse between a headless woman and a man whose body was sliced vertically through the middle of his spine. Aneeta touched her fingertips to the page to hold the spread flat.

“This one is sad,” she said.

Gibson thought of the histological slicing of tissue that had been excised from his own body and turned a whole sheaf of pages to escape the drawing’s clinical chill. Flesh was, too often, ugly. He let his eyes wander instead over subtly feminine botanical drawings, a young man with a girl’s small breast and a smudged erection, and a young woman—“in a landscape,” the caption read—with wide-set eyes who pointed meaningfully at something in the white space before her. When he tried to imagine what was happening in those unseen planes hinted by the lady’s pointing finger, he felt pain burrow into the middle of his body. He depressed the nipple on his morphine pump. As the drug dulled his senses, he was almost grateful for the clarifying hint of sourness Aneeta had brought from her bedclothes, and aware of the light and reassuring pressure of her hand on his. He could see that her other hand held the book open at the image of the young woman pointing. Aneeta, he tried to ask, what is she looking at?

On his third day in the hospital, a new day nurse wheeled his morphine pump out and wordlessly disconnected his catheter. “You should get up and walk,” she said. “It’s time.” Weightless snowflakes touched the window beside his bed and melted.

He started to carefully travel the hospital corridor every few hours, tethered to a five-wheeled stand and a dangling plastic bag. His destination was a poster of a forest glade at the end of the corridor, where the housekeeping staff and cleaners stowed dirty sheets in beige canvas hampers. On the way back, he would glance into a mysterious ward with empty beds, read the blackboard messages about C. diff. in the nurse’s station, and eavesdrop on medical and family conversations. After half a dozen circuits, he was tired, and grateful to return to his bed. Aneeta would greet him when he rattled back into the room and speak the opening line of a game they had begun to play. She would ask what the weather had been like out there, if he had found any restaurants to recommend, if he had met any pretty girls, or if the traffic was heavy, and he would invent a story about his experience to hear her grateful laughter.

In the hospital room, the outside world fell away, leaving only the sodality of Harold’s gruff friendliness, Sharon’s wandering monologues, Aneeta’s tottering visits to his bedside and, when the curtains around her bed were drawn, low moans and suppressed crying.

Gloria brought news from his daughter, and Belgian chocolates, pralines, which she offered around the room. Sharon and Harold had discerned that Gloria was not his daughter and Sharon apologized for her mistake. Aneeta’s throttled giggles carried through the curtain around her bed.

I knew it!” she told them.

Before dawn, on his final night in the hospital, Gibson completed his last circuit of the hallway and stood at the doorway of their room awaiting Aneeta’s questions but heard only the soft footsteps of the night nurses in the hall. “Aneeta?” he said. “Are you there?”

Hearing no answer, he pushed closer to her bed.

“Was the snow deep?” he finally heard her ask. He could tell from her taut voice that she was coping with pain.

“Metres deep,” he said.

“Did Gloria make it through?”

“No. She got stuck,” he said. “I think she’s visiting someone else tonight.” Aneeta’s silence was accusatory. A hot bubble of shame rose in his chest.

“You are a selfish man,” she finally said. “Why do you think she is here?”

Later, anxious to see the dawn, he heard the metal track above Aneeta’s bed scrape and rattle. Her breath escaped her in tiny gasps, and she touched each piece of painted furniture in the old hospital room until she reached the foot of his bed. When he held his arm out to her, she grasped it with both her hands and squeezed with surprising force before she lay beside him with difficulty and clasped that arm to her chest. When he awoke in the light, she was gone.

“I think you make a cute couple,” Sharon said, as Gloria dragged a chair to sit beside Gibson’s upward-tilted hospital bed on the morning of his departure. “Don’t you?” she asked the room.

“Are we cute?” Gibson asked Gloria, who was making invisible adjustments deep in her purse.

She extracted a folded sheet of paper and placed it in Gibson’s lap. “From Katie,” she said. “I printed it for you.”

Gibson unfolded the e-mail from his daughter. She had received funding for her work on the photosynthetic light-harvesting abilities of proteins. Her partner was on tour in the north of England. They were anxious to leave the E.U before Brexit. Her mother was coming to visit for a week.

“You haven’t told Katie anything about being sick,” Gloria accused. She lifted the art books from the bedside table where a nurse had stacked them and wrestled them into her purse. “You know, you can’t keep it all to yourself. You can’t keep everything for yourself. You have to tell her.”

Gibson saw Sharon nod forcefully in his direction.

Earlier that day, a narrow-featured resident who looked like Céline Dion had visited him to deliver the results of the histological examination that followed his surgery. The jargon of “negative margins” and “clear glands” seemed to be good news but he had felt dulled to the promise of recovery and didn’t ask for clarification. It was only when the resident declared, “Time to go home!” with disarmingly honest warmth that he felt something in him give way to relief.

He didn’t want to share this news with Gloria or anyone else, at least not yet. Harold and Sharon, knowing they were about to lose him to better health, didn’t bring the subject up. In health, he was about to become a citizen of a different country. They had already started to withdraw into the empty space his leaving would create. Aneeta’s bed remained cloaked. Gibson wondered if she was still there or if they had taken her away for tests in the early morning.

“I’ll be back after the shop closes,” Gloria said, sounding filled with forgiveness for his not having told Katie. She leaned so close to him that her bangs almost brushed his forehead. “Come home with me and I’ll look after you.”

Gibson, overcome, no longer hindered by the plastic lianas that had webbed him to the bed or to the wheeled mascot that supported his drip, was almost ready to resign himself to her care. For the moment, though, all he could think of was Aneeta’s tight grasp of his hand as she lay beside him and his ensuing dream in which she stood, strong and unaided, pointing at something in the empty landscape before him. “That way,” she had directed.

About the Author

Terence Byrnes

Terence Byrnes is a Montreal writer and photographer. His books include "Wintering Over" and "Closer to Home: The Author and the Author Portrait." Byrnes, who teaches creative writing at Concordia University, won a 2017 National Magazine Award (Gold) for his text-and-image portrait of Springfield, a post-industrial city in southern Ohio.