Henry Liu lost his voice halfway through the trip, coughing so violently that he thought he pulled a muscle on his left side. Whenever he felt pain, he put his hand across his chest to reassure himself that his heart was still beating. He looked at the view as his wife drove, at the broken edges of mountains covered in snow and the turquoise lake where not a single fish lived because of its cold waters. The mountains held a stillness that silenced him. It moved him to think how many thousands of years they had stood, worn silently away by wind and ice, and he felt regret as the lake slipped past his window. When it disappeared from view, Henry felt as if he had been given a last glimpse of the world. He knew that he would be dead before the trip was over.
His sixteen-year-old son, James, slouched in his seat, playing his Game Boy. Alice leaned her head against the window, reading a Russian novel for college—it was a thousand pages at the very least—by an author whose name Henry couldn’t pronounce. His wife kept exclaiming at the scenery—look out side, isn’t it beautiful?—and when neither of their children looked, she became angry, saying what a waste it had been to bring them, until their daughter put the novel down on her knee and gazed through the window. His wife drove the car in fits and starts, pressing down hard on the accelerator and just as suddenly releasing it so that the car kept lurching forward and then slowing down. “Mom,” James yelled, “you’re making me sick! Stop it!”
“What?” she said.
“Your driving! It sucks! I’m a better driver, right, Alice?”
Alice picked up her novel and flipped a page.
“Mom, stop the car and let me drive!”
“You shut up,” Henry’s wife said. “I don’t want all of us to end up dead at the bottom of the cliff.”
James gave a heavy sigh as he collapsed back into his seat. He glanced out the window. “Everything looks the same,” he complained. He picked up his Game Boy and pushed his glasses back with the edge of a finger.
Henry rolled down his window, but his wife turned to look at him. She didn’t like the wind hitting her face because the lady who sold her makeup said that moving air wasn’t good for her complexion. So he closed the window, and they drove like that for another hour or so, the rented car smelling of vinyl, the way new cars smell, and lukewarm air blowing in softly through the vents. Through the glass, Henry stared at the mountains taking up the sky, massive fissured surfaces that from a distance became faint blue outlines. He wanted to remember them, but it seemed impossible for his mind to remember anything so beautiful and vast. On previous vacations, he had bought a postcard or two to remind him of the places they had seen, but this attempt at memory now seemed like wasted effort.
A tickle crept into his throat, and Henry held his breath. He didn’t want to begin coughing, but the itch blossomed until he felt he was suffocating. His eyes watered as he hunched over in his seat, coughing. His family watched him in silence. “How are you?” his wife finally asked.
Henry nodded, swallowing, his fingers touching his throat.
“Your father is sick.” His wife sounded surprised, as though she hardly believed it. Ever since Henry had lost his voice, his family talked about him as if he weren’t there. What about Dad? his children would say. Poor Dad! Their regard made Henry feel his sickness even more. He would look at the lines of his skin, its cracked translucence, and wonder if he were becoming invisible.
His children liked to hear him croak. “He sounds like the Godfather,” James said. “Hey, Dad! Can you say ‘He sleeps with the fishes.’ Say it, Dad.” Henry just smiled. When he wore his gray jacket and pants, James and Alice addressed him as Don. “How’s it going, Don?” they said, and laughed together in the backseat of the car. They made their voices deep and scratchy. “You do a favor for me, I’ll do a favor for you.”
It was odd, but when he did speak, his family stopped their chatter and listened to his every syllable. He spoke so rarely that his words seemed to hold unusual power. Now, as they followed a winding road through the mountains, Henry lifted his hand up. His wife glanced at him. “Stop,” he said. His voice was like dry wind, he felt his insides shaking. His wife pulled over to the side.
“Are you okay, Dad?” Alice asked.
“Okay,” he whispered. “Water.”
Alice found a bottle underneath a jacket on the floor and poured him a cup. Henry drank quickly with everyone watching. When he was done, he pointed to the mountains outside the window and then opened the car door to get out.
“What’s he doing?” Alice asked.
“Dad’s going crazy!” James said.
“He wants to see the view,” his wife told them.
His wife and Alice got out and followed him to the overlook while James stayed inside the car. Henry stepped onto a large red rock to see the view. “Let me get a picture,” Alice said to her mother. “Smile!” Her voice was buoyant in the singsong way of people who are taking photographs. Henry noticed that his wife was smiling without really smiling. Her face seemed to be resisting the wind. She kept blinking as she held her lips together, a colorful silk scarf surrounding her throat. Henry was struck by how old she looked as she waited for Alice to take the photograph. “Dad, turn around,” Alice said. Henry shook his head without looking at her, waving his hand as if brushing away a fly. His daughter took his picture anyway, a side profile of him gesticulating on top of the rock.
“Why doesn’t he want his picture taken?” Alice asked her mother.
“Don’t worry about him,” his wife said. She and Alice paused for a moment, breathing in the view. “So beautiful!” his wife sighed. Then they turned and headed back to the car.
Henry set one foot on top of another rock. A burned oak tree rose from the craggy earth, its limbs twisted in the air. Acorns hung from the dried-up branches, as colorless as silver. They looked petrified, and Henry thought it remarkable that they had not already fallen. He picked up a small piece of rock, brick red, like a misshapen diamond, and pressed it into his palm. One side was crusted with dirt, leaving his fingers dusty and dry. It smelled like stale smoke, like ash, when he sniffed at it.
When he looked back to where the car was parked, he noticed that his family was staring at him. He tossed the rock to the ground and then spat along the side of the road, trying to clean his tongue of its acrid taste. When he was inside the car again, before they had driven even a mile, he turned to his wife, speaking to her in Chinese. “Please take me to the hospital,” he said.
Three hours passed by as they waited in the emergency room for a doctor. Henry had complained of chest pain, so the nurse had taken his blood pressure and pulse to make sure he wasn’t having a heart attack. She also drew a sample of his blood and sent it to the laboratory. His wife had dropped their children off at a tour company after giving them permission to sign up for an ATV ride. Henry didn’t like the idea at all, but his wife relented after James promised he wouldn’t drive but would share a vehicle with his sister. Henry knew, of course, that Alice would let her brother drive, but he didn’t say anything to stop them.
There was a television in the waiting room, and he and his wife were watching the men’s finals at Wimbledon. The screen was mounted so high, however, that it was impossible to follow the ball as it flew across the net. After squinting for an hour, Henry finally gave up and closed his eyes, while his wife continued to watch. He was tired of the heartless drama and the crowd, which demanded nothing less than perfection from the players.
With his eyes closed, Henry concentrated on the pain inside his throat. He wanted to drink something—hot tea with a couple of cough drops thrown in, a few tablespoons of whiskey mixed with honey and lemon—anything to relieve the soreness. The air had turned raw in his throat, as if he were breathing particles of dust. He had heard of people struggling with asthma being able to breathe again after being submerged in water, and he thought once more about the lake he had seen that afternoon, its glacial stillness with not a single thing stirring below. He imagined lying on the silt floor, his nameless body edged in blue, drifting without words or sound along the empty bottom.
His wife shook his arm, and Henry woke. He cleared his throat and sat up straight in his chair. Several people were looking at him. “You were snoring,” his wife told him. His body felt cold and damp, and he rose shakily to his feet. “Where are you going?” his wife asked.
He pointed his thumb toward the window.
“Outside,” he muttered.
In front of the hospital, there were a few empty benches. Henry chose the one facing the most sunlight and blinked as he sat down. The sun felt weak against his skin, as though the light were passing through him.
“You have a smoke?”
Henry looked up at a woman standing beside him. She was in her early thirties with frizzy brown hair, and she wore the flimsy gown issued to patients. When she stepped in front of him, Henry could see that she wore another gown underneath, reversed to cover her back. Her right arm was attached to an IV drip, and she had dragged the metal stand along the cement walkway with her.
“What?” Henry asked.
“Do you have a smoke?” she repeated. She made the motions of taking a cigarette in and out of her mouth.
Henry shook his head, waving his hand.
A nurse wearing blue scrubs walked through the sliding doors and approached him. “Henry Liu?” she asked.
Henry nodded, getting up out of his seat.
“Actually, Mr. Liu, you can stay where you are. I just wanted to check on how you’re doing.”
“We’re almost ready to see you. We’re still waiting for the results from the lab. It won’t be more than an hour or so.”
“Nurse,” the woman said, “got a smoke?”
“I’m afraid not,” the nurse said, turning away.
“God, what does it take to get a cigarette around here?” the woman demanded. She paced up and down the walkway with the IV stand. She stopped by his bench and rubbed her shoe along the cement curb. “This feels nice. Henry, right?” Henry looked over at her in surprise.
“Henry,” the woman said again, “won’t you talk to me?” Henry tapped the base of his throat and shook his head.
“I know my body better than any doctor,” the woman said, “but they won’t let me smoke. I can’t even drink my glasses of water. You know what they call my condition? Psychogenic polydipsia. ‘Psycho-fucking-what?’ I said. Who would think water could be bad for you?”
Henry raised his eyebrows and looked at her.
“My ions are off,” she said. “Missing electrolytes. The doctor said I was drowning.”
The woman’s eyes had a green fluorescence. When she spoke, the skin around her mouth moved tightly, as if she’d received a face-lift. Yet she couldn’t have been older than thirty-five or so.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” the woman said. “You probably think I need a new liver or something.”
Henry cleared his throat. “How much water . . . ? ” He curled his fingers and made the gesture of drinking from an imaginary cup.
“A lot, Henry. I am addicted to water. The pills I take make my mouth so dry.” A couple walked toward them from the parking lot. “Hey, excuse me, got a smoke?” the woman yelled.
“Sorry,” the man said, and the couple passed by.
The woman pulled her IV stand closer to the bench and sat down beside Henry. “Guess how much water I drink.”
“Come on, guess.” In his lap, Henry stuck out his thumb and forefinger. “Two gallons,” he whispered.
“No,” the woman said. “I drink four hundred and forty-eight fluid ounces each day. Three and a half gallons of water.”
The woman leaned her head back, tapping her fingers along the bench, paying no mind to the tube that came out of her hand. She crossed her legs, bobbing one foot up and down, the laces of her tennis shoe dangling. Henry could see short brown hairs sprouting from her legs. His wife didn’t ever need to shave; her legs were so dry that they had a sheen to them, like cracked porcelain.
“Nothing more delicious,” the woman said. “Everything has a taste except water. You know how hard it is to find something without a taste, Henry?” She began fiddling with the intravenous tube on the back of her hand. “The other night I dreamed I was sitting in a restaurant with my ex-husband,
Ronny, and it was like we were married all over again. The only thing he said to me was ‘I’ve flushed out my ears.’ Then he proceeded to cut his bread into small pieces. To be honest, I was more interested in looking at the menu. There were fancy things, a lot of French words I didn’t know. But I remember one dish in particular. Encrusted Squab Stuffed with Goat Cheese. Can you imagine? All I wanted was meat loaf, but I couldn’t find it on the menu. The more I looked, the more convinced I was it was my last meal.” The woman caressed her IV with the tips of her fingers. It made Henry nervous, worried that she might yank the tube out at any moment. “I never wanted to have a taste for things.”
“Lou Liu,” a voice said from behind. Henry jerked his head up, saw that his wife was standing behind the bench. Old man, she had called him. Old Liu. His wife stared at the woman sitting beside him.
“Your wife, Henry?” the woman said.
Henry got up awkwardly out of his seat. He would have introduced them, but he didn’t know the woman’s name.
“It’s time for me to pick up the kids,” his wife said to him in Chinese.
“Oh, I know,” the woman said. “That’s Japanese, isn’t it?”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be here waiting.”
“What are you talking about, Henry?” the woman asked.
“Who is that?” his wife said, digging through her purse. Henry shrugged. His wife put on her sunglasses. “Don’t forget about insurance,” she said as she turned away. She walked to the parking lot, clutching her purse. Henry watched her recede into a horizon of glinting cars.
“Well, I have a better chance of understanding you when you don’t say anything at all,” the woman said when Henry sat down again. “How long have you been married, Henry?”
The question startled him. He stared down at his feet planted on the smooth, newly laid walkway. For his last birthday, his wife had to remind him that he was turning fifty-three, not fifty-two as he had thought. Sometimes he caught himself drifting only to be seized with panic that he no longer knew where he was. The years had passed by as in a dream, and he suddenly found himself sitting on this bench, speaking to a woman he didn’t know, as he tried to remember his life.
“Twenty-two,” he finally answered.
“Impressive,” the woman remarked. “Ronny and I didn’t last half that long. Love can turn ugly so fast. The simplest things about him made me go crazy. Like at night, when Ronny brushed his teeth, he used this curved metal thing to scrape his tongue. He liked showing me all the gunk it collected and tried to persuade me to use it. Whenever we went out to eat, he’d inspect his glass. If there was the slightest water spot, he’d wipe it down with a napkin.” The woman sighed. “It’s the stupid, small things that make you hate someone. We parted ways, and then last summer a neighbor found Ronny. I never thought he would be capable of doing that. He didn’t leave a note, just a piece of paper calculating how much he would have to fall. He was a hundred eighty-nine pounds, and he worked it out that he would have to fall eight feet and two inches.” The woman scratched her elbow.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, folding her hands over her stomach. “The doctors ask me all the time. Do you know what’s going to happen to you if you don’t stop? they say. Seizures. Coma. I don’t know whether to believe them or not. I have such a terrible thirst.” The woman paused to gaze at Henry. “You don’t think my body would be steering me wrong, do you?”
The skin along the woman’s face sagged once she stopped talking. Henry wondered what it would mean to be like her, smoking her cigarettes, taking her pills, drinking her water. He had never been addicted to anything in his life. He imagined her arranging glasses of water neatly in a row. She would pick up a glass and begin to drink, and when it was empty she would pick up another, letting the liquid pour down her throat, filling the folds of her stomach. She was trying to drown something inside of her, but Henry didn’t think it could be done.
“It’s the moments of pettiness that you regret,” the woman said, “even though they reveal who you really are.”
When the nurse came to get him, he rose out of his seat.
“So long, Henry.” The woman smiled. She gave him her hand, brown and lithe, the nails bitten down to shapeless stubs. Her skin had a soft dryness, and her fingers clutched his own with nervous energy. He turned and followed the nurse back inside.
After taking his vital signs—measuring his temperature and pulse, his blood pressure, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation—after taking his blood and submitting it to a laboratory for tests, after giving him a chest X-ray and then a CAT scan, hooking him up to the cardiac monitor to follow the rhythms of his heart, it was determined that Henry had bronchitis. Henry laughed at the news. It wasn’t too serious, the doctor said, prescribing for him the usual course of antibiotics as well as a cough syrup with codeine to suppress the fits and relieve the pain. Henry’s family was sitting in the waiting room when he came down the hallway. He had a bracelet around his wrist, and he was holding a white paper bag containing his medications.
“What’s up, Don?” his son said to him.
“How are you doing, Dad?” Alice asked.
Henry nodded his head and smiled. He’d taken his antibiotics and cough syrup already and felt like he was going to be better. “You drive?” he asked his son.
“Sure,” James said.
“We saw a bear from the side of the road,” Alice told him. Henry’s eyes widened. “A bear!”
“He had a white patch on his chest,” Alice said. “He stood up on his hind legs when he saw us.”
“Alice tried to take his picture,” James said, “but he ran into the forest when he saw her.”
“You kids.” He smiled, patting his son on the shoulder.
Outside, the mountains had become a mass of shadows darker than the sky. Henry felt them closing in as their tiny car pressed forward along the highway. They stopped at a seafood restaurant a few miles from their motel. Henry wanted to eat for the first time in several days and ordered two bowls of vegetable soup. Alice had brought her novel into the restaurant—she was at a good part, she explained, and had only a couple of pages left in the chapter. She read diligently until the food came and then placed her book facedown on the tablecloth.
Henry cleared his throat. “What kind of story?” he asked, pointing to the cover of his daughter’s book.
“Oh!” Alice exclaimed. “It’s hard to say.” She bit her lip, revealing her large opalescent teeth. “It’s about this young man who’s innocent. Almost like a saint,” she said, touching the spine of her book thoughtfully. “He’s in love with a general’s daughter, but there’s also this tortured, fallen woman. She’s beautiful and mad, all these men are in love with her, but she doesn’t like any of them. One of them gives her a hundred thousand rubles, but she throws them into the fire.”
“Sounds like a stupid book,” James said.
“It’s not,” Alice said.
His wife cut off a piece of her salmon and put it onto Henry’s plate for him to try. Henry couldn’t help but notice the gentle slope of her hands, her maternal fingers and clear, rounded nails. They had been at an ice-skating rink, he remembered, when he first touched her hand. She had clung to the wall, wearing a bright yellow dress—a dress, even though they were skating!—but he realized she had worn it for him, and as she tottered on her skates, he had taken her small cold fingers into his own.
His wife’s jade bracelet gleamed in the light as she turned her wrist. The waiter came and refilled their glasses of water. Henry touched his glass, felt the beads of condensation along his fingertips. He thought of the woman at the hospital, imagined her lying awake at this hour, trying to forget the dryness in her mouth. Perhaps she swallowed her own saliva for relief, moistening her lips with her tongue. He lifted the glass to his mouth, his lips parted to receive its coolness.
Something clinked against his teeth. A pink mass floated up toward his lips.
“Dad, my water!” James laughed.
Henry saw a pink retainer sitting in the glass he was holding. His family erupted into laughter.
“I put it in there for a rinse,” James said.
“You know your father is getting confused,” his wife said.
“I didn’t see,” Alice laughed. “Did he really drink from it?”
People began looking over at their table. Henry flushed, realizing that he was still holding the glass of water in his hand. He felt a painful throb in his chest, as if his heart were swollen, but he knew that it would be years before it finally gave out.
He could hear it beating louder and louder now as he set the glass on the table and waited for his family to quiet down.