The Assistant – Marni Mann

“I’M HERE,” I whispered to my father, taking a seat next to his bed, moving the chair as close to him as I could. Never taking my eyes off his face, I searched for his hand on top of the blanket and wrapped my fingers around it. His skin was so rough and dry. It felt nothing like the hand I’d held when I was a child or the one that had walked me down the aisle or the one I’d clung to hours after giving birth to my daughter. My father had been there for everything. And, soon … he wouldn’t be. My lids squeezed tightly together, fat tears dripping past them, rolling down each cheek. I just wanted a moment without all the beeping from the heart monitor and humming of the ventilator, without the constant smell of alcohol and bleach and antibacterial gel. That was impossible now. With all the time I’d spent in this hospital, I should have been used to the sounds and smells. I should have been able to block them out. I couldn’t. Even when I wasn’t here, I heard the noises of his room. I saw the starkness of the walls and felt the coldness on my skin. The same thing happened every time I closed my eyes and whenever I thought about tomorrow.

But there was one thing I didn’t hear. The sound of my father’s voice. From him, I got complete silence. I just wished he would say my name one last time, so I could soak the syllables into my memory. I wanted to hold on to them the same way I was grasping his hand. It was a wish that would never be granted. So, what I had to do was listen to his eyes. They had been his voice for a while, and they’d been telling me how tired he was getting, how much pain he was in, how he couldn’t take any more. He wanted it to be over. But he was worried about my mom.

He loved her with everything he had. He’d been fighting to stay here with her. It had been the hardest eight-year battle I’d ever witnessed. I looked down at his long fingers. His nails were cut perfectly, filed until round, and cuticles trimmed. Hands so clean, they always smelled like soap. They still did even though he’d been in the hospital for weeks. She took care of him, no matter where he was. I’d learned so much from her. “Dad,” I started, gazing back up to meet eyes the same color as mine, “we’ll take care of Mom.

You don’t have to worry about her.” She was right outside the door. She wanted to give me a few moments alone with him, but she wouldn’t go far. “She will have everything she’ll ever need and more. Dad …” My voice broke as I waited for him to squeeze back. To blink. To acknowledge I was even speaking. It was far too late for that. I just … hoped. My cheeks were suddenly burning, the fire getting worse with every tear that streamed down.

The air was getting thicker, making it more difficult to breathe. My heart was racing so fast; my body shook. I have to get out of here. That was the only thought in my head, followed by a feeling I’d never felt before. It was a rottenness in the pit of my stomach, aching so badly that it forced me to my feet. I leaned over my father and pressed my lips to his forehead. Oh God, this hurts. “I love you, Daddy.” As I pulled my mouth away to gaze into his tired eyes, the urge to run became so overwhelmingly strong that I released his hand and whispered, “Bye, Dad,” before I hurried into the hallway. I immediately saw my mother and said, “I’m going for a walk,” as I passed her.

She knew how hard this was for me. That was why she let me go, not saying a word as I wandered down the stairs and found myself three floors down in the cafeteria. My stomach churned from the smell. I wasn’t sure what time it was or when I had last eaten. I couldn’t even think about putting food in my mouth. But I needed something to soothe my stomach and to warm me since I was shivering. I grabbed a tea and brought it into the elevator. I got off on my father’s floor. I expected to go back into his room, take a seat next to my mother, and wait, my ears filled with beeping, my nose with rubbing alcohol. The doctors had been telling us for four days that we were near the end.

I’d known we were approaching it for a while. He just kept fighting, but from what I could see, he wasn’t going to for much longer. When I approached his room, I learned that was a reality. I didn’t feel the tea that sloshed out of the top of the cup and burned my hand. Because, in that moment, all I felt was coldness. All I heard was the alarm on my father’s heart monitor going off as he flatlined. The only thing I saw was the nurse hitting several buttons, and then the room turned silent—no ventilator, no beeping, no humming. She didn’t grab the paddles or perform CPR. He had a DNR. As I walked in a little more, I should have been looking at my father, taking in his face, memorizing more of it even though I knew every line and freckle.

I should have been standing at his side, holding his hand. I wasn’t doing either of those things. I was frozen halfway between the entrance and the bed, staring at my mother, watching her expression. My father had once told me it was easy to determine how much a man loved his soonto-be wife on their wedding day. You had to watch the groom as the bride walked down the aisle, and his face would give him away. What I learned in those few seconds was watching someone die was no different. And it was that look—the one my mother had on her face right now—that would haunt me for the rest of my life. ONE JESSE AFTER “THIS IS the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” I said, staring into the eyes of my executive team. Some sitting at this table were the very first employees I’d hired when I started Cinched, a company that designed and manufactured shapewear, nineteen years ago at the age of twenty-three. Out of that group, a select few knew the news I was about to deliver.

Others had speculated, I was sure. Over the last five months, I’d laid the groundwork, gradually spending more time out of the office than in it, getting it ready to operate without me. The business was healthy. The last thing I needed was to create waves. “What I learned from my dad”—I took a breath, trying to find a voice that wasn’t full of emotion. I’d told myself I wasn’t going to cry today, and I meant it—“was a little something about time.” My voice softened. “How precious and valuable it is.” I paused again. I’d rehearsed this speech for weeks.

It had sounded so much better in my head. “And, right now, my time needs to be spent with my family.” I swallowed, the back of my throat pulsing, preparing myself for the news I had to deliver. “It’s time I take a large step back and let you all run the show. I’ll still be involved but from afar, and I won’t be part of the day-to-day.” I remembered when my high school drama teacher had taught us how to cry on demand. We were told to concentrate on something so incredibly sad until the emotion overtook us. After several tries, I’d mastered it. What I had become even better at was holding in the tears, and this moment was really testing that. Cinched was my first baby, making it a sensitive topic.

So was knowing I’d reached the point in my life when I had to pull away and focus on my family. My emotions were stirring. They had been since I made the decision. I looked at my vice president of sales, remembering his wedding ten years ago in Boston. It had been summer and outdoors, and I had danced under the stars. I took a breath and said, “I’ve watched this team tackle hurdles I wasn’t sure the company would ever overcome, some so large that they threatened to put us under. You didn’t let that happen. You worked, you sacrificed, and you exceeded every sales objective I’d ever set. I don’t have to tell you to take care of Cinched because I know you will.” Several moments of silence passed before my CFO broke it and said, “On behalf of everyone at Cinched, I can say I’m going to miss seeing you every day.

It’s a good thing I know where to find you when I need a Jesse fix.” I’d known her the longest and worked with her the closest. When she’d first started, I couldn’t afford an office, so she’d come to my tiny apartment, and we’d worked on laptops at my kitchen table. By the end of those two years, I could order for her off a menu and dress her every morning. When she had gone into labor with her first child, it’d happened in my office. I’d driven her to the hospital and sat with her in the delivery room until her husband arrived. “Thank you,” I whispered to her and then quickly glanced away, looking at the foreheads of the other team members. That was easier than connecting with their eyes. The sharp reality of not walking in here on Monday morning was suddenly becoming more real by the second. I made the mistake of gazing down, seeing my director of marketing.

She had now been in remission for two years. We celebrated after every round of chemo. Some of those celebrations took place on her couch, but we still acknowledged every one. She had fought so hard, and she was still here, stronger than ever. I forced myself to glance away, and I met more eyes, more history staring back at me. Pasts that were so incredibly thick. I didn’t need to say good-bye or shake their hands or hug them. I wasn’t leaving. I was backing up. There was a huge difference.

I released the edge of the table, a slab of oak I’d been squeezing since I sat down, and I offered them all a smile. “Thank you for giving me the best years of my life.” My hand then went into the air, and I waved for a few seconds before I walked out of the conference room. I stopped in my office just long enough to grab my coat and purse, and then I immediately headed to my car. The cold made the door creak as I climbed in the driver’s seat. My hand shook as I pressed the button that started the engine. I didn’t turn on the radio. I just pulled out of the parking lot in complete silence and drove through downtown Burlington, Vermont, on this blistering February day. Ice sparkled on my windshield. Snow crunched under my tires.

I could focus on these sounds rather than replaying the last several minutes in my head. There were the words I had said, and then there were the ones that never got past my tongue. They were nothing alike. At the stoplight, I could turn left, and I would be home in four minutes. Instead, I went right, heading toward Saint Michael’s College where I’d been spending most of my afternoons. Six miles later, I was at the entrance of the campus, weaving my way through its narrow streets. I parked directly in front of the library, grabbed the small bag from the backseat, and hurried inside to get out of the cold. “Jesse,” I heard as I stepped past the doorway, just starting to loosen my scarf. I scanned the open space around the entrance until I found the source of the voice. My friend Bay was standing by the first row of books, holding several folders against her chest, smiling at me.

“Hi,” I said once I made my way over to her. I pulled her in for a hug, squeezing for several beats before I let her go. When I did, I held out my hand with the bag. “This is for you.” Her cheeks reddened. I could tell she was genuinely surprised. “You bought me something?” “I saw it in the window of a store, and it reminded me of you.” “Jesse …” I could see the appreciation in Bay’s eyes. It was a beautiful thing. “You really shouldn’t have.

” “It’s just something small.” I nodded toward the bag. “Open it.” She moved over to a nearby table and set the bag on top, reaching inside to remove the box. There was a red bow taped to the top that the salesclerk had insisted on. Bay lifted it off along with the lid, and the largest grin came across her face. “Oh, Jesse, I love it.” It was a keychain, and dangling from it was a lemon made entirely of yellow crystals. It wasn’t large or flashy—things she wouldn’t like. It was petite and understated, like her.

She held the keychain in her palm and closed her fingers around it, bringing it up to her heart. “I’ll cherish it. Forever.” If I hadn’t cried at my office, I certainly wasn’t going to here, but Bay was making that so difficult. I pointed toward the back of the library. “I’m going to go. You know where I’ll be.” “Studying today?” she asked before I moved. I shook my head and took a breath. It hurt during the inhale.

It hurt even worse when I exhaled. “I’m going to catch up with an old friend.” “An old …” Her voice trailed off as she thought of who I was talking about. Once she figured it out, she laughed. It was a sound I needed to hear today. “Go enjoy yourself, Jesse.” Without saying a word, just giving her a slight nod, I turned and walked away. I wasn’t more than a few paces from her when she spoke my name again. As our eyes connected, she mouthed, Thank you. I smiled, holding our stare for several seconds before I continued moving toward the back of the library, finally reaching my favorite shelf.

These hardcovers had spines that were as dark and cracked and weathered as the ones I had at home. Time had changed the outside, but the inside was untouched and timeless. That made me love them even more. I lifted Macbeth off the shelf, opened it somewhere in the middle, and inhaled. The musky scent of paper and dust and age filled my nose. Certain scents brought back so many memories. This one was of my father. I carried the book over to one of the large leather chairs and took a seat, my eyes gradually falling onto the page. I had four hours … To escape. I opened the garage to our house and drove in, turning off my car and going right inside.

I only made it as far as the powder room before I heard voices. They were sounds I loved more than anything in this world. “Tommy,” my daughter, Viv, said to my son, “don’t you remember that, in order to calculate the area inside the compound shape, you have to …” I didn’t stop walking until I reached a spot in the family room where I could see my two children sitting at the island in the kitchen. Tommy had several notebooks and books spread out in front of him. Viv held a pen and was pointing to something on one of the pages. At first, I hadn’t been sold on the idea of Viv helping Tommy with his math homework, and I’d thought a private tutor should be brought in. My son was struggling with the subject, and I quickly assumed a professional would be a better route. But Viv excelled in math. She had offered, and Tommy was comfortable with it. So far, the arrangement was working out really well.

My two kids couldn’t be any more different. Viv, my seventeen-year-old, was fierce, independent, and extremely determined—the way I’d raised her to be. She wanted to be an architect, like her father, and was going to MIT next fall. She would join her dad’s firm once she graduated college. Boys were really starting to give my beautiful daughter attention, and she was learning how to balance that along with her senior year of high school, her friends, and her studies, all while not caving from the expectations we set for her. She had something to prove … and she would. “Ughhh,” Tommy groaned, tapping his finger on the notebook. “I just don’t get it.” My twelve-year-old was just like me. Creative, unable to wrap his head around an equation, preferring to make something with his hands or his words.

We babied him a little more than Viv. He needed it. But, where Viv’s drive came from her need to succeed, Tommy’s was led by emotion. He was the one I worried about the most. There was movement in the back of the kitchen, and my eyes slowly connected with Emery’s. A smile bigger than I’d worn all day came across my face. Twenty-four years. That was how long I’d been with that man. There was a sensation in my stomach, a fluttering on the inside of my navel. It happened every time I saw him.

Still. I looked at my little family, and in that moment, I knew I was doing the right thing. They needed me. And, boy, did I need them. I finally stepped forward, and Tommy called out, “Hi, Mom,” when I approached him. I pressed my lips to the top of his head. The scent of a twelve-year-old boy was about as stale as the gym clothes he always forgot to bring home from school. It didn’t matter. I loved every bit of that kid. “Hi, baby,” I said into his hair.

Then, I moved to Viv, kissing the side of her forehead, leaving my lips there so that I could breathe her in. I could smell the orange she’d eaten when she got home from school and the new shampoo I’d picked up for her last week. “Thank you for helping your brother.” “Sure, Mom.” I turned and walked toward my husband, my arms wrapping around his neck, my body pressing against his. “How was your day?” He bent his head down and gave me the softest kiss. “I got it.” My entire body tensed until I pulled away and saw that his expression confirmed what I’d thought. “Oh my God,” I said, throwing my arms around him once more. “Emery, you did it.

” A new high-rise was going to be built in the Back Bay of Boston. The builder had requested bids from architects located all over the world, and my husband had been chosen. This wasn’t just an honor. This was life-changing. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time. I cuddled into his neck, clutching him with all my strength. “I’m so proud of you.” “You know what this means …” His tone took away some of the excitement. “Two nights a week,” he added before I had a chance to respond. “Three, max.

” Emery and I had met our freshman year at Northeastern and lived together in the city after we graduated. It was too expensive to start a business there, so when I’d opened Cinched, we’d relocated to Burlington. About five years ago, we’d purchased a brownstone in the Back Bay, and we still took the kids there at least one weekend a month. Boston wasn’t the issue. It was how much time he’d be spending away from his family. It was my job to worry about things like this. Not his. I leaned back to show him my eyes, knowing he needed the reassurance. “Listen to me; it’s all going to work out just fine.” His stare didn’t lighten, even when he said, “This is a decision I want us to make together.

” I kept my voice low, so the kids wouldn’t hear, and I clung to his leather belt. “We made it when you submitted your design. I knew back then what it would mean if you got the project.” I smiled. “My feelings haven’t changed, Emery. I’m so, so thrilled for you.” He cupped my face and dragged me closer for a kiss. “I don’t know what I would do without you.” A few seconds after his lips left mine was when I finally opened my eyes, immediately getting greeted with the question, “How was your day, baby?” My day. An eruption of emotion happened all at once, and I did everything I could to shove it away, making sure nothing showed on my face.

I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I needed a night—at least. So, I stared into my husband’s honest, loyal, intoxicating gaze. I put on a smile. And I lied, “It was perfect.”

.

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