“You tricked me,” Winnie accused. Joel wouldn’t have been surprised if she stomped her foot. “You said I could come home.”
“No one tricked you, sweetheart.” Joel tried to wrap her in a hug, but she shook him off. He didn’t resist. She’d had enough trauma already and she hadn’t even moved into her room yet. She’d halted in the doorway, probably realizing a dormitory sized room with a bed, dresser, and attached bathroom wasn’t part of the evaluation. The tour was over. This was where she was going to sleep tonight. “You knew there was the possibility you’d be asked to stay for a couple of weeks. That’s why we packed the suitcase.”
“We didn’t pack my toe shoes,” she said with panic in her voice. “We need to go home. I can’t live here without a pair of toe shoes.” She turned around and tried to leave the room, but Joel was right behind her blocking the doorway.
“Honey, you’re not going to be dancing while you’re here.” From the research Joel had conducted, he realized that her eating disorder would cause her to say very irrational things. Her brain was starving and not functioning normally. “I’ll ask the staff if I can bring you a pair of toe shoes when I come to visit.” He looked up at Barbara, who was already inside the bedroom.
“We don’t encourage the residents to exercise while they’re here,” she said with a soft shake of her head.
“I’ll lose the calluses on my feet if I don’t wear them every day,” Winnie insisted. “I usually have toe shoes on for eight to ten hours a day. I need my toe shoes.”
“You’ll gradually earn privileges and toe shoes could be one reward.”
“Privileges? Rewards?” Winnie’s voice rose. “I am a grown woman. I should not have to earn privileges.”
“We have certain regulations we follow while we’re living here,” Barbara said without emotion.
“Do you live here?” Winnie asked, taking a step toward Barbara. To her credit, she didn’t even flinch. “Why do you keep using the collective? You don’t even live here.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Scrappy,” Joel held Winnie’s shoulders firmly. “No reason to get testy. Hey, have you seen this bed? It’s almost big enough for two.” Joel left Winnie’s suitcase near the door and led his wife over to her new bed. He lifted her into his arms and gently plopped her onto the bed then climbed up next to her and tucked her into his arms.
“What are you doing, Joel?” Although her tone was panicked, she didn’t pull away from him. She did glance over at Barbara. “You’re probably not allowed to be in my room.”
Good sign that she had already taken ownership of the room. “I just want you to be able to picture me here with you tonight when you rest your head on your pillow. Snuggle with me for a minute. They won’t mind.” He raised his eyebrows at Barbara, who took his nonverbal plea to let him help.
Barbara smiled and turned her head away, not leaving the room but not interjecting herself into their private conversation.
“You’ve got my hoodie to sleep in tonight, so the bed will smell just like me,” Joel whispered. “You can just snuggle right down into that sweatshirt and imagine me right here with you.”
“What if they have to wash the sweatshirt?” She looked up at him from the crook of his arm, vulnerability in her sad eyes.
“I’ll bring you another one in a few days.” He leaned closer and kissed her lightly on her lips. “And in a few weeks, we’ll get to sleep together again. This will be just like when I go to Ann Arbor and you stay in New York City.”
“Why can’t you just stay here with me?” Her voice was almost a whimper. “Like you said, this bed’s big enough for two.”
“You’re here to focus on getting healthy and that requires you to be here by yourself. Besides I need to concentrate on finishing my incomplete classes. That was one of your goals, remember?”
She nodded but didn’t speak.
“I’ll focus on that goal and you focus on getting healthy so you can come home with me and work on our number one goal.”
“For you to make love to me on our anniversary.” She giggled. What a beautiful sound. She hadn’t laughed in days.
Joel’s throat closed with emotion and he couldn’t even answer with words just pressed his lips to hers in a kiss that was probably a little more passionate than what he should have done with Barbara still in the room. He pulled away after less than a minute and choked through tears, “I’m gonna miss you.”
“I’m gonna miss you too.” Tears flowed down her cheeks. “Please don’t leave me here.”
“I have to, babe. You know that. I don’t want to, but I have to. Be strong for me, okay? Get yourself healthy so we can be together.”
“Okay.” She sobbed and held him like she’d never let go.
But he had to let go. After letting her cry for a few minutes, he sat up with her still in his arms and held her for a minute more as she continued to sob. Then he set her on her feet. With tears still flowing down his own cheeks, he took her by the hand. “Walk me to the door, okay?”
Winnie stumbled along with him practically holding her in an upright position. “Joel, you can’t leave me here. Please don’t make me stay. I’ll do anything. I’ll force myself to eat if I have to. Just please take me home. I want to go home.”
When they reached the outermost door, which would be locked behind him, Joel pulled her in for one more hug, pressed his lips to hers one more time, then handed Winnie to Barbara and another staff member. “I love you, Winnie. Please get healthy so you can come home with me.”
He opened the door and left the building, hearing the lock engage behind him. He somehow made it out to his car and slumped his head against the steering wheel, sobbing. After several minutes of crying, Joel used every ounce of willpower he had left inside him to start the ignition and pull out of that parking lot.
Book Club Discussion: Be honest. Did you cry? I did.