©Feeling somewhat relaxed? Read a bit of Leave Me by best-selling author Gayle Forman and I can almost guarantee you will feel your heart rate go up. This is not a thriller; far from it, it’s a story of workaday stress and one person’s out. Just thinking about her schedule as a mother, wife, daughter and employee got to me. Little wonder that Forman’s protagonist took care of herself the only way she could figure out, once she acknowledged that a heart attack had changed her life, if not the expectations of those around her. Published last month by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Leave Me can be purchased at local booksellers or here or here. Forman will be in the Washington area on November 7 at the Bender JCC in Rockville.
MARIBETH EXAMINED the monitor on her finger. A pulse ox. She recalled her father wearing one after his stroke. The monitors taped to her chest itched; she suspected it would take a good scrubbing tonight to get the glue off. “Excuse me,” she called to one of the ER residents, a stylish young woman who wore expensive shoes and spoke with a Valley Girl lilt. “Do you know when I might get out of here?”
“I think they, like, ordered another blood draw,” the doctor said.
“Another one. Why? I thought my EKG was normal.”
More like covering their asses or padding the bill. Maribeth had once edited an exposé about profit-driven hospitals.
With that she remembered the piece Finoula had sent. She might as well cross something off her list. She pulled it up on her phone. It was an interesting premise—about celebrities who were harnessing social media for philanthropic purposes; Maribeth vaguely recalled suggesting it in a pitch meeting—but it was terribly executed. Usually, Maribeth could read an article and immediately see the problems in structure or logic or voice and know how to fix them. But she read the piece a second time, then a third, and couldn’t see the forest for the trees, couldn’t see how to make it right.
It was the hospital. Hardly a conducive workplace. She needed to get home. It was almost dinnertime. Jason would probably be back with the kids by now. He might even start to, if not worry, then wonder. She closed the article and saw several missed calls from the landline. She called and Jason answered almost right away. “Maribeth,” he said. “Where are you?”
The sound of Jason’s steady, sonorous voice shook something loose in her. Maybe because his phone voice resembled his radio voice, it had the power to ricochet her back twenty-five years in time, to those nights when Maribeth and her friends would listen to his Demo-Gogue show from their dorm and muse over who he really was (his on-air name was Jinx) and what he was really like. “I’ll bet he’s ugly as sin,” her roommate Courtney had said. “Hot voice, hideous face.” Maribeth, who worked for the college newspaper, had no opinions as to his looks, but she was certain that he would be an unbearable snob, like all the art and music writers on staff were. “You should interview him and find out,” Courtney had dared.
“Where are you?” Jason repeated. Now she heard the irritation in his voice. And then she heard why. In the background was the clatter of adults and children. Many, many children.
The potluck. Tonight. Shit!
“I thought you wanted me to make the chicken, but we don’t have any in the house and now people are here,” Jason said. “Are you getting food?”
“No. I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“You forgot?” Now Jason sounded pissed. Which she supposed she understood, but it still made her chest clench again. Because, really: How many times had Jason spaced on something, leaving her to mop up the mess?
“Yes, I forgot,” she said, her voice snappish. “I had other things on my mind, what with being stuck in the ER all afternoon.”
“Wait? What? Why?”
“I was having chest pains, so Dr. Cray sent me just to get checked out,” she explained.
“What the fuck?” Now Jason sounded angry, truly angry, but in a different way from before. Like he was sticking up for her against a bully.
“It’s probably nothing, just stress,” she said, feeling foolish for having told him, and more foolish for having told him out of spite. “They’ve had me under observation for hours.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“I tried, but you didn’t answer, and anyway, I thought I’d be out of here by now.”
“Where are you?”
“Should I come up?”
“Not with everyone in the house. Just tell them I had to work late and then order some pizza. They’re letting me out soon.” She pounded her chest with her fist, hoping that might make the resurgent pain go away.
“Shouldn’t I be with you?”
“By the time you got up here, I’d be discharged. It was just an overblown case of heartburn.” In the background, she heard Oscar begin to cry. “What’s going on?”
“Looks like Mo took Creepy Lovey.”
Creepy Lovey was a defaced teddy bear that Oscar couldn’t sleep without. “Better get it back,” she told Jason. “And can I talk to him? Or Liv?”
As Jason tried to corral the children, her phone made that mournful sound, down to its last 10 percent, and then, a few seconds later, made another sad sound, and died.
“I’ll be home soon,” she called. But they could no longer hear her.
LATER A GRANDFATHERLY doctor wearing a polka-dot bow tie showed up. He introduced himself as Dr. Sterling and told Maribeth he was the on-call cardiologist. “There was an abnormality on one of your EKGs so we ordered that second blood test and this one showed elevated levels of troponin,” he explained.
“But the earlier EKG was normal.”
“That’s not atypical,” he replied. “My guess is that you’ve had what we sometimes call a stuttering infarct.”
“A what?” Maribeth asked.
“Ischemia, probably ongoing for the past twenty-four hours or so, which is why you’ve had intermittent pain, and now your blood work suggests complete occlusion of one of the arteries.”
“Oh,” Maribeth said, struggling to take it in. “I see.”
“So, we’re going to send you to the cardiac cath lab to look for any underlying blockages in your coronary arteries, and if we determine a blockage, we’ll place a stent right then and there.”
“When is all this happening?”
“Lickety-split. As soon as we can get you upstairs.”
“Now?” She looked at the clock. It was past seven. “It’s Friday night.”
“You have plans to go out dancing?” He was amused by his joke.
“No. I just wondered if we could we do this, this stent thing next week?”
“Oh, no. We need to get in there before any more damage is done.” Damage. She didn’t like the sound of that. “Okay. How long does it take? I mean, when can I expect to get out of here?”
“My, my, are you always in such a hurry?” he asked. He chuckled again, but this time there was the slap to it, as if the underlying message was I see how you got yourself here.
But at this very moment twelve four-year-olds were rampaging around her apartment. Someone was going to have to clean up after them, to find the Goldfish crackers that Mo always stashed away in the closet, or the soiled diapers that Tashi always left in the kitchen garbage (because Ellery still would only crap in Pampers). Someone was going to have to make chocolate chip pancakes for Saturday morning breakfast and to make sure the pantry was stocked with all the ingredients.
And that was just tonight. In the coming days, someone had to get the kids to their ballet classes, their soccer clinics, their speech therapy sessions, their playdates, their birthday parties. To take them shopping for their Halloween costumes, to the pediatrician for their flu shots, to the dentist for their cleanings. Someone had to plan the meals, buy the food, pay the bills, balance the checkbook. Someone had to get it all done, while still getting all the work-work done.
Maribeth sighed. “It’s just I have a house full of four-year-olds and a very busy weekend.”
He stared at her for a long moment, frowning. Maribeth looked back, disliking him already, and that was before he said, “You do realize you’ve had a heart attack?”
From Leave Me by Gayle Forman © 2016 by Gayle Forman. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.