"I feel like we've seen all of this a thousand times," Shelley said. "You know, in the movies."
The others all nodded or murmured agreement. They weren't just being polite. Countless movies featured a lovely woman— in this case, Shelley's sister Becca— lying motionless in a hospital bed, while her loved ones kept watch, waiting, and hoping, for her to wake from her coma.
Just like in those sentimental movies, they had brought flowers, pictures, and gifts. Just like in the movies, they sat with their sister, aunt, daughter, reading to her and telling stories about their past, their voices a bit louder than normal to cut through the sound of the ventilator and occasional electronic beep. However, what happened next was not part of any movie they'd seen.
The family smelled Murray before they saw him: he arrived on a cloud of General Tso's chicken and egg roll, complete with a hint of grease.
The family murmured their greetings, their surface politeness barely disguising resentment. Rebecca and Murray had only been dating for a few weeks when she got in the accident, and they all felt he was overstepping by acting like Becca's boyfriend. And they knew they all felt that way, because they discussed Murray every time he left. Which never happened soon enough.
His eyes flicked around the room, taking in the fact that there was no table or shelf space left anywhere, and only the one empty chair. He unbagged the food, flattened the paper bag on the remaining chair as an impromptu tablecloth, and flattened his butt on the floor.
"Well I never," Debbie muttered. Then, more loudly, she added, "Did you bring enough to share?"
"Not for you," Murray said. He ducked his chin at his lap. "Becca calls this sitting 'criss cross apple sauce'."
"We know," Rebecca's mother said. "We taught her that."
Murray bobbed his chin twice more, then turned his attention to the takeout containers. The ginger and chili powder smell grew stronger. While Murray was saucing up the egg roll, Debbie launched another salvo, the (barely) subtext of which was, you don't belong here. "Didn't your mother teach you it isn't polite to eat in front of people?"
Murray chopsticked a bite, and chewed methodically before answering. "She sure did, but begging your pardon, ma'am, but this isn't about you. Or me."
"Well I never," Debbie said more openly.
This time Murray didn't pretend not to hear. "And that's okay. Again, this isn't about you. Or me. This is about her."
He poked some General Tso's toward Becca's still form, then popped it in his mouth. While he was chewing, he did something strange. He took the hot mustard packet and squeezed a little on his shirt.
When his mouth was empty again, he started talking.
"Our first date was a set-up. We both had friends in relationships who were tired of us being third wheels, and thought we might make a good couple. Or at least, give them a break."
Murray stretched his mouth wide, an intentional yawn, and tongued a little cabbage to a place where he could chew it. Once done, he started speaking again. "They were so right that I feel like I should be sacrificing small animals to them."
He shook his head, then looked out the window and into the past. As he did, a small smile lit his face. "Dave and Shari, and Carol and Tegan, all knew we both liked Chinese food, so they made reservations for us at Bamboo Palace, over on 11th. She was already there, so when I stepped around the bamboo screen at the cash register, bam! There she was."
He looked at Rebecca. "I was so…overwhelmed, I ran into a highchair. I think I was bleeding by the time I got to the table where she was sitting, and I think she knew it."
His hand found his folded knee and rubbed it absently. "Anyway, we ordered a bunch of dishes to share. She liked oyster sauce, I didn't, so she ate some things, I ate others. But we shared the General Tso's and the egg rolls. I was reaching for the hot mustard with one hand when my other hand touched hers. The jolt moved through my whole body, and the hot mustard went…"
He gestured at the intentional spill on his shirt.
"She saw the spill— I mean, who could miss it?— and smirked a little."
"She does have a good smirk," Shelley said. "Almost a sneer."
"Almost," Murray said, bobbing his chin. "But not quite. Anyway, for some reason the fact that she was amused calmed me down. We had a good rest of the first date, and at the end…"
He raised another piece of the General Tso's, and bit it. He chewed and chewed, as if he were stalling for time. Then he swallowed, quickly and dramatically. And stood up. He walked around the nearest machine as if it were a much larger table, and leaned in to kiss Becca, twice, slowly and gently.
When he was done, he lingered, but closed his eyes. "I know we haven't been together that long, but I— I love her. And you guys have the stories and the blankets covered, so I thought I'd try to reach her with smell. The smell of our first date. The smell of our first kiss. The smell of our mingled breath."
By this time, tears were leaking from the corners of his closed eyes.
"Oh my…" one of the women said.
"Hey Murray," Shelley said. "You're gonna want to open your eyes."
When he did, Murray saw the faintest smear of General Tso's sauce on Becca's face. And the faintest trace of a smile. The first, faint, response to anything Becca had given since the accident.
"And Murray," Shelley said. "You're gonna want to come back tomorrow."
Murray couldn't speak. He just stood there nodding and crying, surrounded by the smell of General Tso's. And hope.