“Joel!” Winnie came running toward him with the biggest smile on her face. He’d never seen anything so beautiful. She had color in her cheeks and adorable braids in her hair. He barely had time to set his bag on the floor in the lobby of the eating disorder clinic before she leapt into his arms, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist and pressed her lips to his with vigor and passion.
Dang, he wished he could take her home with him, but she’d only been at the clinic a week and he was pushing the boundaries showing up this soon into her treatment anyway. He’d cleared the visit with the center’s director before arriving and even got permission to bring her a surprise. He barely pulled his mouth away far enough to mumble, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” and then his mouth was occupied with hers again.
“Ahem,” a woman’s voice interrupted. “Winnie, would you care to introduce me to your husband?”
“No, go away,” Winnie said, barely taking her lips off his.
“You don’t want me to lose my job, do you?” The woman sounded playfully impatient.
“Joel, this is Celeste,” Winnie said between kisses. “Celeste, this is Joel. Now go away.”
“Can’t do that,” Celeste said. “Mr. Anderson, if you’d like to stay for an evening visit, you need to disentangle yourself from the monkey clinging to you and maintain a G-rated distance between you.”
“You’re no fun,” Joel said, but set Winnie on the floor. He turned to Celeste and found her to be a friendly girl in her mid-twenties. He stuck out his hand and kept his voice light and teasing. “Hi, I’m Joel. This monkey is my beautiful wife so technically I have a marriage license that says I’m allowed to make out with her any time I want.”
“Celeste is my drill sergeant,” Winnie said. “She wakes me up at the crack of dawn, force feeds me gourmet food, makes me go to group therapy appointments, and braids my hair.”
“You look beautiful, by the way.” He turned Winnie around. “Let me see the back. Dang, how long did that take you to do?”
“She’s really fast,” Winnie said. “It helps that I’m nearly catatonic at five-thirty in the morning.”
“You got her to wake up at five-thirty in the morning?” Joel asked Celeste. “Amazing.”
“Five, actually. But she forces me into a shower before doing my hair.”
“I want to be your drill sergeant if that means I get to watch you shower.” Joel leaned down and kissed Winnie’s neck.
“G-rated, Mr. Anderson,” Celeste reminded him.
“Yeah, yeah,” Joel waved his hand dismissively, then crouched down and picked up his bag. “I brought you a gift.”
“What is it?” Winnie bounced on her toes with excitement, which was a good segue into the gift bag. When she opened the bag and unwrapped the tissue paper, she collapsed to the floor and pulled the bag to her chest with happy tears that were more like sobs. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“What’s in the bag?” Celeste asked, as other girls gathered around.
“What did he bring you?” one girl asked.
“Show us!” another demanded with playful excitement. This was probably the most fun they’d had in days.
Winnie pulled aside the tissue paper to reveal a pristine but broken-in pair of toe shoes, the pink ribbons on which were wrapped around and around just the way she’d left them the last time she’d held them.
Joel lowered himself to the floor and sat cross-legged in front of his wife. “Nice surprise?”
“The best surprise,” she said through happy tears. “Thank you so much.”
“I have another surprise but it’s not going to arrive for three more days.”
“Thanks a heckuvalot,” Winnie said. “Now I’m dying to know.”
“Worth the wait, I assure you. Now try them on and then introduce me to all your friends.”
Without further discussion, Winnie pulled off her socks and dug something fuzzy out of the toe of her shoes, which she wrapped around her toes and then stuffed the whole foot inside the satin. She moaned in the kind of ecstasy that he wished he was able to provide but was glad he was able to give her this little bit of pleasure if nothing else. “You are the best husband I’ve ever had.”
“I’m the only husband you’ve ever had, but I’ll take the compliment.”
She leaned forward and reached for a quick, chaste kiss. “Thank you, so much.”
“You’re welcome, sweetheart.”
“Everyone, this is Joel, my incredible husband.”
“Hi Everyone”—he waved playfully—“I’m Joel, her only husband.”
People said hello and then gradually went back to whatever it was they were doing before he arrived. Joel and Winnie sat on the floor cross-legged with their knees touching. He tried to keep the conversation light and playful. “My mom’s going to come visit tomorrow, if you’re up for it.”
“Heck yeah,” she said. “I’ve been dying to see her. Speaking of, I talked to my mom on the phone the other day.”
“Seriously?” He couldn’t fathom why they would have talked. “Did she call you?”
“No, I called her. And we talked about when I was a little girl and she gave Ulysses her old chocolate chip cookie recipe and we made cookies together.”
“Who’s Ulysses?” And why am I suddenly jealous of this guy who is able to make cookies with my wife?
“He’s our dietitian. He makes me vegetarian food and smuggles strawberries in and makes strawberry shortcake.”
“I’ve never seen you so excited about food.” Joel chuckled. This was such a welcome change.
“Celeste challenged me to learn to like food again.” Winnie turned to her friend, who was also sitting cross-legged on the floor a polite distance away. “Come closer, Celeste. Celeste has the most adorable three-year-old little girl. She showed me pictures.”
“Well, Celeste, you are my hero because you seem to have waved a magic wand and considerably improved my wife’s mood since the last time I was here.”
“It was a group effort.” Celeste dismissed his praise, but Joel suspected otherwise.
“Other than braiding hair, eating gourmet food, and baking cookies, what else have you been up to?” Joel asked.
“Group therapy, individual therapy, music therapy, art therapy, yoga, meditation, snacks, meals, more snacks, more meals, journaling, more therapy.”
“That all sounds very therapeutic,” Joel said, then lowered his voice. “Are you glad you came?”
“Yes, thank you for insisting I get help.”
“Thank you for getting help.” He felt emotions prick his eyes and knew he needed to pull himself together. “Hey, they won’t let me stay long so come kiss me for a minute before I go. We’ll keep things as G-rated as I can force myself.”
“There’s nothing G-rated in your eyes right now,” Winnie said, glancing sidelong at Celeste, who took the hint and moved a few feet away.
“I’m doing the best I can.” Joel leaned closer to her ear. “One week until our wedding anniversary.”
“I am seriously going to try to get a day pass,” she whispered back. “If I’m a good girl between now and then maybe I can convince them.”
“I already talked with your director and they’re going to have me come in a few times next week to work with me, preparing me to have you home for a few hours at a time. They want you to transition home gradually and not leave here cold turkey.”
“Bad pun to use with a vegetarian at an eating disorder clinic,” Winnie said with a gleam in her eyes.
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I’m just teasing you.” She pushed his shoulder lightly and Joel took her closeness as an opportunity to pull her onto his lap.
He kissed her for several long, careful minutes, trying not to get carried away and failing miserably. He knew he’d failed worse than miserably when Celeste cleared her throat and reminded them to wrap things up.
“Enjoy those toe shoes, okay?”
“Thank you so much for bringing them to me.”
“I will bring your next surprise in about three days, and my mom will be here to see you tomorrow. She’s going to be working with the staff here to get some meal planning going.”
“One more kiss?” She leaned forward again and he pressed his lips to hers.
Such a difference from the last time he left her here. There wasn’t a sobbing fit begging him to stay. She even smiled and told him to drive safely. She was still too thin but making obvious progress. Joel left the building with a spring in his step and hope for their future.