A nurse comes in, checks the monitor at Jeffrey’s bed.
“Comfortable, Jeffrey?” he asks.
“He’s comfortable,” Alison says quickly. Jeffrey hates being called Jeff.
The nurse leaves.
Alison sits on a chair that she’d pulled over to the window. Jeffrey lays in shadows on the bed at the other side of the hospital room. The bed nearest Alison is empty for now.
She’d opened the shades as soon as she came in, wanting Jeffrey to see the snow. It tap-tap-taps upon the window, coats the roofs of cars in the parking lot — many of whose windshield wipers stand at attention — and sheens the treetops in the park next door. Jeffery, from his vantage, can’t see the entire seen, but maybe he can sense it.
“Beautiful!” she exclaims.
“You should leave.”
“Nice to see you too, lover.”
“Roads will be messy.”
“Four wheel drive,” Alison says.
Jeffrey’s head turns in painful degrees to look at her.
“Got Dad’s car,” Alison explains.
“What does he think?”
“He feels terrible, of course. Everybody does!”
“What does your father think about us. Now.”
“I do what I want. He knows that.”
Jeffrey sighs. The monitor beeps. “He still gives you money, Alison.”
“Less and less. I’m getting good at this waitressing.”
“You don’t have to be here.”
“This again? You just won’t let it go, will you?”
They’d taken the bandages off Jeffrey’s face two days before, and it had been as emotionally shattering as the burn unit people had warned.
Jeffrey’s sister related the scene. Jeffrey didn’t want Alison in the room. The sister had taken a few photos for any possible lawsuit, and had shown Alison. When Alison visited the next day, she managed to look only slightly distraught (a total non-reaction would have given her preparation away).
“They can fix you,” Alison had said.
“No, actually, they can’t,” Jeffrey answered.
The nurses had talked about the miracle of cosmetic surgery and, for something like this, insurance will pay. But the fire had no doubt permanently disfigured Jeffrey and the surgeon, when he finally arrived, admitted that he can do only so much.
“You mean I’ll always be this?” Jeffrey asked.
“The swelling will go down some more.”
“But the mask?”
“We’ll do our best.”
Google isn’t always your friend and Jeffrey knows that half his face will forever be a slab.
Now, Alison’s tightened stomach tightens even more.
“For better or for worse,” Jeffrey rasps. “You never took that vow. We never took that vow.”
“Eventually you’ll get tired of this,” Alison says. “But it’s new and nobody blames you.”
“Anybody would be depressed.”
“Oh, well then, that settles that.”
They’d met at Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia, both starving for the sort of instruction that art departments at universities disdained. Incamminati means moving forward, but Alison and Jeffrey do so while looking back. They appreciate that color isn’t the same as pigment and that a lot of fraud crowds MOMA’s walls. They want to learn like the old masters learned. They don’t go for sticking sponges or broken plates on canvases and calling it art.
So just being there, at that school, connects Alison and Jeffrey. It’s as if they’d joined a religious cult.
And all the girls (and a few of the boys) just love Jeffrey to pieces: his edginess, his looks. And, of course, his smile — that smile — when it comes, is always worth the wait. Here’s something old and new: Heathcliff and Matthew McConaughey wrapped in one.
Alison bagged him. Why her and not someone else?
“Because you’re not a total pain the ass,” Jeffrey had explained.
“Charmed, I’m sure.”
They’d been together for a year and had begun making plans to be together forever. They wanted to get married, live on pizza and Ramen while honing their craft. Working shit jobs on the side to make ends meet.
Jeffrey is right, though: None of this had been official. No rings yet. They both lived at home, but had begun searching for an efficiency in Fishtown. They painted at the studio or in their families’ garages.
They took no chances with safety, either. Being careful about how to use turpentine and dispose of the soaked rags in a responsible way. Turpentined rags sometimes spontaneously combust.
The fire that got Jeffrey, however, got him at the gas station where he worked. The exact cause is still unknown, but he’d been leaning under the hood when flames suddenly whooshed up onto him like a giant grabbing hand.
Jeffrey screamed and the manager chased and tackled him with the fire blanket, but too late. Third degree burns to half his face, his upper right arm, and down his side.
“Look at the snow, Jeffrey. You need to paint this scene.”
“I don’t want you doing penance for the rest of your life,” he says.
And the shock of just everything that’s happened suddenly bursts through.
“I love you!” Alison cries, immediately wishing she hadn’t said it quite that way. Damn! She’d been so stoic.
“I can’t love anybody,” Jeffrey says evenly, the right way. “Takes too much out of me.”
Alison stands. No, he isn’t going to give up. She walks over to him, pulls a chair close, hovers over his face. Takes it full in.
“May I kiss you?” she asks.
His ironic smile gets halfway there.
“This is what I believe,” Alison says.
She bends, takes both his hands. Kisses each one.
“You still have these, Jeffrey.”
Then she lays her head on his stomach. In a few seconds, he pulls one his hands out from under her weeping and places it on her head, begins smoothing her hair. The monitor beeps.
“Don’t leave me,” Alison manages to say. “Please don’t leave me, Jeffrey!”
“I am not going anywhere,” Jeffrey says. “You are my girl.”