Everyone in my family was a janitor, so it only made sense that I become one too. My dad was the head janitor in the school district, my mom cleaned the freshman wing at the high school, and my older brother ran things at St. Mary’s hospital in town.
Two days after I graduated high school, my brother set me up with a three to eleven at the hospital. Each night I toiled through my eight-hour shift alone, cleaning various bodily fluids off the walls, the floor, sometimes even the ceiling. Since my brother worked on the other side of the building, I rarely got to see him. Most of the time, I worked the entire week without saying a word to another person.
Near the beginning of my third month of work, I fell in love with one of the nurses. Her name was Sandy. Pale, thin, and delicately pretty, Sandy looked like a glass figurine brought to life. For hours each night she floated from room to room in perfect silence, a small, sad smile on her face. Everything about Sandy was quiet. Her spotless white shoes were the only shoes that didn’t squeak on the waxed floors.
None of the other nurses ever said a word to Sandy. In fact, no one in the entire hospital seemed to notice Sandy at all. But I did. While I mopped the floor each night at the end of my shift, I made up stories for why Sandy always smiled in that sad way.
A few weeks later I finally worked up the nerve to talk to her. It was a cold Wednesday in October, and I was mopping the hallway near radiology. Sandy was leaning against the wall outside the MRI suite.
“Hi Sandy,” I said, trying to mask the anxious warble in my voice. “Are you waiting for one of your patients?”
She stared at me for a long time. She didn’t say a word.
I looked down at the floor and kept mopping. My face flushed hot with embarrassment.
“I’m sorry if I said anything wrong,” I said. Then I turned around and mopped my way back to my cart, cursing my big mouth the whole way.
“Were you really talking to me?” Sandy said. Her voice was thin and distant and icy, and it was the first time I’d ever heard her make a sound.
I looked back at her and nodded.
“Oh,” she said, her quiet voice rising in surprise. “Why don’t you ignore me like all the others?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. Feeling my face flush hot again, I looked down at my boots. “Actually that’s not true. It’s because of how kind you are. The way you care so much about your patients.”
“Thank you for saying that,” she said. “What’s your name?”
I cleared my throat and looked up at her.
“Thank you, Paul,” she said, smiling in that sad way of hers. Then she glided across the hallway and shook my hand. Her skin felt as cold as a glass of icewater. “May I ask you something?”
“Do you have any children?”
“No. I haven’t learned how to take care of myself yet, let alone a kid,” I said. “But I definitely want to have some later on, once I find the right person. What about you? Do you have any kids?”
“I love children,” she said, a warm smile slicing across her thin face. “Ever since I was five years old, all I wanted to be was a mother.”
“I’m sure you’ll be a great mother,” I said. “You’re so kind.”
She shook her head and stared at the floor.
“That’s what everyone used to say,” she said. “And then they said congratulations. And then they said that miscarriages can happen to anyone. After that, they said I should see someone. And now they don’t say anything.”
I swallowed hard. My eyes burned. I didn’t know what to say.
She grasped my hand. The touch of her frigid skin sent a forest of prickling gooseflesh running up my arm.
“Will you please help me, Paul?”
Rendered stupid and powerless by the sound of my name coming out of her mouth yet again, I nodded in agreement.
Sandy led me up to the roof and told me to close my eyes. I had never even kissed a woman before, so I didn’t know what was happening until she climbed on top of me. Everything about her was cold: her lips, her arms, her hands, her body. Her cold seeped into my skin and chilled the blood inside my veins. She didn’t make a sound the entire time. Once it was over, we lay together and let the icy October air wash over us. Then she told me what it felt like to be dead.
“It’s like when your toes go numb in the cold,” she said, interlacing her fingers with mine. “You can’t feel them anymore, but you know they’re still there. That’s how it is for me. But this,” she said. She picked up my hand and rested it on her chilly abdomen, the place where a baby would grow if she were still alive. “This will change things.”
I turned my head and looked at her. She stared up at the white moon and smiled in a way I’d never seen her smile before. For a moment I thought about reminding her that she could never carry a baby inside her again, but I kept quiet. My fingers ached in the cold. My ears went numb. It was the happiest night of my life.