The afternoon hours in the Polio ward wear on in dull sameness. White walls and white sheets blend together; minutes melt to hours melt to days. The tremendous swishing of two iron lung tanks can be heard through the wall. I know my husband Frank will come to the window soon because we have all just had our afternoon turn – we lay left in the morning, right at noon, and now we are flat on our backs for the evening and night. Frank comes every day after work, his face framed exactly by the small square window in the door, which is as close as any visitor can get. He doesn’t wave or smile, only nods, each day, ever since I was admitted six months ago, ever since the Polio swooped through my body and stole my movement and almost my life.
Josie, in the bed next to me, is new. Her husband has not yet come and she still thinks he will. Frank is one of the few. Josie hasn’t yet learned that we don’t mention our husbands, out of respect for the women whose men don’t show.
Edith is across from us. Her husband hasn’t been here in months.
When Frank’s face appears at the window, today is different—he holds up flowers.
Josie turns her face toward me on the mattress. “That’s wrong,” she says. Her voice is edged with ice. “You shouldn’t brag.”
“I didn’t say anything!” I scoff. If she means to argue with me it can wait until after Frank leaves. For now I want to memorize him, though I am not close enough to see the details, only what must be a grey scruff uncharacteristically covering his face, his usual cropped hair growing out. He raises the flowers again so I can see them, in front of his face, then lowers them, pointing at me and mouthing the word “You.” Could I have missed the first part? I try and imagine his German accent, imagine him saying “I love you.”
“Look at me!” Josie hisses and I reflexively shift my eyes to her, then back to Frank again. His eyes show concern; his brows furrow. “Stop!” Josie yells when I look away.
And then Frank is gone, slipped from view.
“You witch!” I scream at Josie. “You jealous witch!”
“Stop! The two of you!” This from Edith, across the row. The outburst surprises us; we stop. My pulse beats in my throat. It is quiet in the ward.
“Pity her,” Edith says. “She will die soon. That’s what the flowers mean.”
I try and swallow but I can’t take in enough breath. The flowers signal something, that’s certain, but whether it’s death or release from the ward, I cannot say.
Both options offer freedom. I close my eyes and realize I would welcome either one.