|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets a Life.||Rowena Moves Closer, Part 3|
Rowena finished her dishes, rinsed the sink, wiped the counter, the table, and her hands, and seated herself in the chair by her phone. Linus looked up from his paw-cleaning, cocked his head at her, and trotted over. Rowena scooped him into her lap. “What a lapdog you are,” she said, and ruffled his fur. In answer he wagged his tail and attacked her with his tongue. Rowena gave him another ruffle, picked up the phone, and dialed.
“Hello?” Sammy said.
“Hi. How goes it?”
“Better now,” he said. “Glad you called.”
“Better? What's wrong?”
Sammy paused just slightly. “Stomach flu, I think.”
“At least I was okay for the big lunch meeting,” Sammy said. “Not that it was all that productive or anything, but at least I wasn't sick for it. Actually I was fine until I got home.”
“That's handy, I guess.”
“I didn't do it on purpose, believe me,” Sammy said. “Though I'm afraid you'll probably have to go to your sister's party without me tomorrow night.”
“I'm sorry,” he said, though she wasn't annoyed at him. “I know it's a—it's not much fun.” He sounded strained, as if his stomach felt suddenly worse.
Rowena asked, “How—” but he interrupted her.
“'Scuse me,” he said, and put the phone down. Rowena covered her eyes with her hand. She had yogurt in the fridge; she could bring him some of that. She had—she had several things, and anything she didn't have she could get.
She waited for his return, waited it seemed forever, waited and worried just a bit.
“Here we go,” Rowena said. She set Sammy's soup before him—carry-out chicken noodle from a local restaurant. “I'd have made some myself if you'd warned me.” His toast popped up and she bustled off to tend to it, careful not to step on Caesar, his suddenly-vigilant cat. “I wish I'd brought some jam; you seem to be out.” She dropped the toast onto a plate and buttered it. “And I brought you some yogurt for whenever, and a milkshake for dessert—kind of cold, maybe, but nice and creamy, you know?”
“Thank you. That's—thanks.” He picked up a piece of toast and took a deliberate bite. Rowena sat down.
“Too bad you don't drink tea,” she said. He smiled with some effort.
“You and your tea,” he said fondly. And then he bent forward, wincing. “Excuse me,” he said again, and hastily he pushed back his chair and left for the bathroom. Rowena stared a while at the table, at the just-started meal. Sammy had told her he had diarrhea, nausea, and stomach pains. He was dizzy and weak. But he seemed to have no fever and did not want to see a doctor. Nor did he want her to stay with him the next day instead of going to work. “It's just the flu,” he'd said. “I might be going to work myself tomorrow. You get your Finkler Project done; don't worry about me.”
Stupid Finkler Project. She sat and waited for Sammy to return, Caesar in front of her on the floor with his ears up, alert and ready.
Rowena wished she felt so competent.
She did manage to get some work done the next day, though Molly thought she looked unwell.
“Men,” Molly said when Rowena explained. “They never take care of themselves.”
“Um,” said Rowena. She didn't want Sammy criticized, even over something like this. Even by someone like Molly.
“Listen,” Molly said. “Give him my regards, okay? And I hope he's better soon.”
“Thanks,” Rowena said.
She spent her workday as best she could on the Finkler Project, and she spent half her lunch hour in a bookstore, buying Sammy a get-well card and a gift—a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, which he'd once told her he'd never read. She was pretty sure he wouldn't mind her giving him a children's book, especially when he was sick. Then a sandwich at her desk and a phone call to Sammy. She was glad to find that he had taken her advice and stayed home, and also that she had not awakened him. She was not so glad to hear that he felt, if anything, worse than before.
“Oh, Sammy. Are you okay there by yourself?”
“Yeah. I can get to the fridge and the bathroom and so on. I'm fine.”
“Hang in there,” Rowena said. “I'll be by tonight; let me know if you need me sooner.”
“I'll be fine. Don't worry.” He paused. “Tell your sister Happy Birthday for me.”
“Sure,” said Rowena. She twiddled the phone cord between her fingers. “I'll tell her.”
After she hung up she glanced at the clock, picked up the phone again and dialed her sister. She found herself wishing she hadn't had The Phantom Tollbooth giftwrapped; the Feiffer illustrations would have helped her stay cheerful. “Hello,” mumbled Maralynne, her mouth full.
“Hi,” Rowena said. “Happy Birthday,”
Maralynne swallowed. “Thanks.”
“Sammy says Happy Birthday too.”
Maralynne was briefly silent. “You're not coming,” she said.
“Sammy's sick. I'll see you as soon as I can, but I'm going to have to look after him tonight and I can't promise—”
“It's my birthday.”
“I know. I'm very sorry. I—”
“I'm getting older,” Maralynne said. “By myself.”
Rowena had been afraid of this. “You've got Chester,” she pointed out. “And all your friends.”
“And one sister,” Maralynne said, “who doesn't care.”
“My one special day out of the whole year!”
“Maralynne, I promise . . .”
It was actually a relief to get back to the Finkler Project.
After work she first went home to take care of Linus. He ate with his usual heedless joy, but she kept thinking of Sammy, of how unwell he had sounded over the phone. If he needed to be looked after all night but kept insisting he didn't . . . She would not give him any excuses to send her away. She put a breakfast-sized portion of puppy food in her purse and on the way back from Linus' walk stopped by her landlord's apartment to see if Mrs. Masters would be willing to dogsit for her. The Masters' dog, Wilburette, was delighted to see her and Linus both; Mrs. Masters, luckily, was on the phone and unable to detain Rowena for more than a few minutes—or to demand much of an explanation. Rowena thanked her and petted a puzzled Linus goodbye. “Be a good boy,” she told him. “Have fun.” Because Mrs. Masters was there, she did not say, “Poor puppy,” but she did promise him a special treat when she came to take him home.
Back to her apartment. She fetched The Phantom Tollbooth and the card, hesitated, decided against digging up anything else to bring, and left. In the car she changed the radio from news to music. After a couple of minutes of music the top-of-the-hour news came on. It was less than ten minutes to Sammy's building; the music barely had a chance to begin again before she was there. She parked, got out, hurried to his door, tapped softly, and let herself in with her copy of his key.
He was sitting on the couch, rocking back and forth with his arms crossed low on his stomach and his cat by his knees. “Hi,” he said shortly, as she hurried over. His temperature was still normal, and, pain or no pain, he still did not want to see a doctor or even lie down. She fixed him some hot chocolate, which he drank, and he seemed to feel better.
For a little while.
“Oh, Sammy,” she said, as he doubled over again. She set down, again, his unopened gift.
“It's just the flu.”
“Sammy, let me stay with you tonight. Just tonight; I'll go to work in the morning, if you're well enough. Okay?” He leaned against her, his head down. Caesar inserted himself into his master's lap, insistently. For the moment, Sammy ignored him.
“Your sister's birthday . . .”
“Sammy. Please.” She put her hand in his hair. “You come first. You know that.”
He reached across to grasp her other hand. “I'm probably contagious,” he said. “I don't want you to catch this.”
“It's a little late for that,” Rowena told him. “Anyway, I want to help. You really think I can just leave you like this? You think I—” He was crying. “Sammy,” she said gently. “Sammy . . .”
“I love you,” Sammy said.
“I know,” Rowena began, but he didn't let her continue.
“I love you. I want everything to be nice for you.”
“I'm supposed to take care of you!”
“You do take care of me. Remember when I was sick, how you—”
“I'm supposed to take care of you all the time!” Sammy said. Rowena closed her eyes.
“Hey,” she said. “Ease up, okay?”
He shook his head forcefully, as if to dislodge something. “I don't want to be like my dad! I don't want to be like my dad!”
Rowena caught her breath. “You're not like your dad. You're not. You're not like him at all.”
“Bastard,” Sammy said, his voice thick. “Self-centered, hypocritical bastard.”
“You're not like that,” Rowena said. “Sammy—”
“I just can't—oh, God,” Sammy said. “I have to go again. Damn. Damn.”
“Okay.” Rowena shifted out of his way and stood up, Sammy still clutching her hand. “It's okay; you can tell me about it afterwards.”
“Don't go,” he said. “Stay with me. Stay here.”
“I'll stay,” Rowena said. She bundled the cat out of his lap and helped him up. “Don't worry. I won't leave.”
She got him on his way, then sank back down again. She put her head in her hands and sighed, as quietly as she could.
Rowena was only half awake at 5:14 the next morning when Sammy left once again for the bathroom. She had not slept well, between Sammy's illness, Caesar's attempts to help, and her own worry. She pulled the blanket higher; it was too cool a morning for bare flesh. She lay with her eyes closed, waiting to fall asleep.
“Rowena?” He sounded confused, and perhaps alarmed.
“Coming.” Rowena scrambled up and got unsteadily to her feet. In the dim light she couldn't see anything she could throw on for warmth so she went as she was. She blinked a few times before venturing into the brightly-lit bathroom where Sammy stood, quite still. One hand was braced on the wall and he was looking into the toilet, his pajama bottoms around his ankles.
“Sammy?” He answered only with a brief, uncertain movement of his free hand. She went to him and looked where he was looking.
A vivid, insistent green.
Rowena closed her eyes. Her hand found Sammy's shoulder blade. “You're going to the doctor,” she told him. She kept her voice as steady as she could. “I'm taking you to the doctor. Today.”
He shifted his weight to lean on her, just a little.
Sammy's HMO kept Rowena on hold for a long, long time. Finally, though, she got through to a live person. “Yes, I'd like to make an appointment for this morning.” It was still quite early.
“I can't give you a same-day appointment,” the woman said.
Rowena forgot, for a moment, to be polite. “Why not?”
“I can't give you a same-day appointment. Just come in to Urgent Care and they'll take care of you there. Urgent Care is located—”
Rowena knew what this involved: a wait of several hours in a small and sometimes crowded waiting room. “He's too sick for that! He's dizzy, he's doubled up in pain—and you'd better have a bathroom right off that waiting room of yours or there's gonna be a real—”
“How about eleven o'clock?” the woman asked. Rowena slumped in relief.
“If you get a prescription, I'll pick it up for you,” Rowena said. “At least, I'll do whatever standing around there is. So don't worry about that, either.” She glanced at Sammy, tipped back beside her in her car. She'd done her best to make him comfortable. And when they got there she discreetly helped him out of the car and walked beside him into the building.
“Bathroom,” he said. She went with him to the door of the nearest Men's Room and waited yet again. She checked her watch, not for the first time since they'd left. No problem there. She'd made sure they left early.
She checked her watch again, several times, in the waiting room. Six minutes to eleven. One minute till. Ten minutes after eleven; twelve minutes; fifteen . . . She tried not to let Sammy see her impatience, tried to look as if she was actually interested in the magazine on her lap, but she tensed hopefully each time the door leading to the examining rooms opened. Sammy sat quietly with The Phantom Tollbooth, though one hand occasionally pressed at his stomach; Rowena kept looking over at the illustrations in the book and at Sammy's face as he read. He seemed to be enjoying it as much as could be expected, under the circumstances.
Finally she heard the nurse in the doorway call Sammy's name. And then he squeezed her hand and stood up and gave her The Phantom Tollbooth and walked carefully to his appointment, and she watched until the door closed behind him.
When he returned, he looked tired. In his hand Rowena noticed not just a little prescription slip but at least one full-sized sheet of paper. She went to meet him.
He looked at her and smiled—smiled a little wearily, a little oddly, but with tenderness. He put his hand on her arm. “Salmonella,” he said, in low tones.
“It's okay.” He gestured at the little window behind which the records nurses sat. “I have to take care of something here,” he said.
She went to the window with him so she could stay near him and so she could look at him some more.
“I can't believe it,” Rowena said for the third or fourth time. She looked from the diet sheet Sammy had been given over to Sammy himself. “The milkshake I brought you, and the yogurt and the pudding and the hot chocolate—and the butter—”
“It was nice,” Sammy said. He was back home in his bed, resting up from the trip, a glass of plain water within reach. “It made me feel better, for a minute or two.”
“It was the worst thing I could have done! The very worst!” She stared again at the sheet. “Even the soup and the orange juice,” she moaned. “Who'd have thought that orange juice—”
“Darling,” Sammy said, “the worst thing you could have done would have been to leave me alone.” He reached for her, and she took his hand and held it tightly.
“I wish I'd been helpful,” she said.
“Rowena. You got me to the doctor.” He rocked their clasped hands back and forth. “I wish I'd gone when you first asked me to.”
Rowena smiled at him. “Does this mean I get to take care of you after all?”
“Please,” Sammy said. “Please do.”
She gave him a hug. “I should go get you some stuff, then,” she said. He didn't let go. Rowena snuggled closer.
“All right,” he said at last, and released her. Rowena picked up the diet sheet.
“Anything I can do for you first?”
Sammy considered. “Set the phone down here so I can call my boss,” he said. “Tell him what I've got and what I think of the stupid restaurant he picked out and their lousy chicken salad.”
Rowena lifted the phone from the bedstand and set it beside him. “Gonna make a Federal case out of it?”
Sammy laughed. “Can't you leave all that at my office?” he asked. Caesar leaped gracefully onto the bed and sniffed at his hand.
“I guess it's time to leave, then,” Rowena said. “You know, give Caesar a chance to look after you.”
“I feel like saying, ‘don't be gone long,’” Sammy said. He lifted his hand and began stroking his cat. “What nerve, huh, Caesar?”
“I ought to check up on Linus, if you don't mind,” Rowena said, “or my landlady will think I've abandoned him. But I'll be back before long.” She bent carefully over him, over him and his cat. “Don't worry,” she said. “I'll be back.”
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