By Jess Charle
Herman was admitted 3 years ago to the state psychiatric ward where I work as a nurse. No one knows where he came from or who he is, only that he claims to be Cupid.
I was quite fond of him and I’d make a point to visit with him everyday. We played chess and he would recite Plato’s Symposium to me. I listened to him talk about romance and love and found comfort in his optimism.
I never believed him of course. The notion was preposterous.
That is until a few days ago.
Dr. Josie Griffith is a very plain woman. Her dull brown hair hangs limply at her shoulders, her matching brown eyes half hidden by drooping eyelids. Loose pant suits drape awkwardly from her body and the building’s dry heat creates a crown of moisture that kisses her hairline. Her thin dry lips turn down at the corners, making even her smiles appear forlorn. She would be forgettable if her plainness weren’t so distinct.
She works mostly with Dr. Wilson and together they make an odd pairing. Dr. Wilson, or Ted, is quite handsome. His brown hair is cut stylishly, the sides shaved neatly while the top section rests perfectly coiffed above his forehead. The dark brown strands are flecked with silver, giving him a sense of maturity. His features are defined but soft, his wide set eyes shining with an intelligent intensity. He’s of average height, maybe a bit on the shorter side, while Josie is quite tall. She looms above him by almost a foot, emphasizing their stark contrast.
“I’m going to set up Dr. Griffith and Dr. Wilson.” Herman said with a wink. We were playing chess and I was three moves away from checkmate.
I looked up, queen in hand, and chuckled. “That’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?” I placed my queen next to his bishop.
He shrugged. “Love works in mysterious ways. I am but its humble servant. It’s messenger.” He slid his bishop in front of my queen.
Herman is a short chubby fellow with rosy cheeks. My guess is that he is in his early to mid twenties, but his face still holds a youthful glow and roundness that implies he could be even younger. Baby faced, as they say. His light blonde hair hangs around his face in tight ringlets and his maroon lips always look wet, which I find off putting. He is not an attractive person.
One of the other nurses, Mindy, always makes fun of him, saying that the god of love should be more fuckable. Mindy is far from unfuckable or plain. Her shiny black hair is always styled in large loose curls that frame her heart-shaped face. Her ruby red lipstick and prominent widow’s peak make her look like a retro bombshell, her curvy frame obvious even in her shapeless scrubs. Despite her beauty, her gnawing insecurities manifest as vicious insults and unfair judgments. She turns her self hatred and doubt onto others, picking them apart piece by piece like a recess bully.
I dislike her for other reasons though. My throat tightens and my stomach twists as I watch Dennis’ warm smile widen every time he sees her. He stops as they pass each other in the hallway to ask her about her day and tell her that her hair looks nice while I only get a small nod and a polite smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Well,” I sighed, taking Herman’s bishop, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
He chuckled warmly as his rook slid across the board, taking my queen. ”Checkmate.”
I began to notice a change in Josie behavior two days ago. She was smiling more and her normally heavy footsteps seemed lighter. She glowed with warmth and happiness. I didn’t think much of it until I saw her getting out of Dr. Wilson’s car yesterday morning as I was walking into the building.
“Black or white?” Herman asked, setting up the board.
I fell into the chair, the leather cushion beneath me deflating with a vibrating sigh that I’d have been embarrassed of if not in a room full of crazy people.
“Herman, Josie and Ted came to work together!”
“Dr. Griffith and Dr. Wilson!”
“Well, what do you know.” He winked at me.
“Herman,” I leaned across the table. “How did you…?”
He smiled conspiratorially. “I told you.” He whispered. “It’s my duty. My purpose.”
I swallowed and reminded myself that I was speaking to a human being with amnesia and a literal god complex. I heard a giggle and looked over to see Josie standing with Ted, their eyes locked, their bodies facing each other. He said something, his white teeth a glowing beacon against the yellow of the room. Of Josie. She giggled again and playfully pushed his shoulder. Her normal grey pantsuit was replaced with a form fitting pencil skirt and a white blouse. She still looked plain but you could tell there was an effort. A confidence that hadn’t been before.
“You know,” Herman said. I turned back to face him and jumped, surprised at how close his face was to mine. “I could offer you my services.”
I leaned away from him, giving us distance. “Herman, that’s inappropriate.”
“No, I mean. I can help you with Dr. Turner.”
I cleared my throat. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you don’t.” He sat back in his seat. “Black or white?”
I couldn’t help but stare at Josie and Ted as they ate lunch together in the break room. I sipped at my tea, my sandwich mostly untouched. They weren’t even trying to hide it. Josie stole one of Ted’s grapes and he said something that made her laugh.
The seat beside me scraped across the tile floor as Mindy sat down.
“Oh my god, can you believe it?” She whispered, staring at the new couple.
I cringed. She was really not the person I wanted to discuss this with.
“Love works in mysterious ways.”
“Uck, gag.” She said, opening up a Tupperware full of salad. “Well, good for Josie, I guess. Not sure how someone with a face like that could get any guy, let alone a hot doctor. But, to each their own.” She stabbed a tomato with her fork.
A heavy ball of pity formed in my chest. Josie looked so happy. For the first time since I’ve known her, her smile looked genuine.
“I’m glad they found each other.”
Mindy rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
“Is this seat taken?” Dennis said, gesturing to the open seat beside Mindy. She looked up at him, her lips pursed together in a playful smile.
“Sure.” She said, her bitchy tone now replaced with coy amusement.
He sat down and nodded to me. My cheeks reddened and I opened my mouth to say hi, but he turned his attention back to Mindy before I could respond.
“So, Mindy. Any fun Valentine’s Day plans?”
Her smile widened. “Why do you ask?”
He shrugged. “The boyfriend taking you out somewhere fancy?”
She laughed. “I was planning on ordering Chinese and watching terrible rom coms. You know, your typical single girl night in.”
A dimple formed in Dennis’ cheek as the corner of his lip twisted into a half smile.
“Those were my exact plans as well.”
“What a coincidence!” She exclaimed. “Maybe we should celebrate a sad and single Valentine’s Day together. But,” she put her hand up, “only if you like Kung Pao chicken.”
He grinned. “It’s my favorite.”
I looked from Dennis to Mindy. Back and forth, back and forth. Like watching a tennis match. Before I knew it, words were vomiting uncontrollably from my mouth. “I’m not doing anything!” I exclaimed, much too loudly. I could hear Josie and Ted’s whispering die down and I was painfully aware of everyone’s complete attention now focused on me. “I like Kung Pao chicken too! I can bring brownies!” The second the words left my lips I wished I could scoop them up and shove them back inside.
Mindy looked at me slack jawed while Dennis stared down at his lunch uncomfortably. The silence of the room weighed on me as heat rose to my neck and face. Tears welled in my eyes and I stood quickly, my chair falling backwards onto the ground with a crash.
“I have to go!” I yelled, grabbing my sandwich and tea before half walking, half jogging out the door.
I followed my feet to the rec room where Herman sat at his usual table reading a book. He looked up at me, his smile fading as quickly as it started. I sat down heavily, causing the last few sips of my tea to splash up out of my mug with the force.
“I need your help.” I said, still buzzing with humiliation and hatred. Tears flowed freely down my cheeks. “I need you to make Dennis love me.”
He nodded knowingly. “Of course. Anything for you, Naomi.”
“What do you need?”
He looked towards the windows. Heavy metal bars ran across them, leaving lines of shadow and light across his face.
With that, I understood.
“Whatever it takes.”
I spent the rest of the day locked in one of the spare offices. By nine, everyone from the day shift had left. I walked slowly and deliberately down the hallway, avoiding eye contact with the few overnight staff members I passed. No one seemed to notice me. I approached Herman’s room, my body shaking with nervous excitement.
I swallowed, my hands trembling as I unlocked the door.
Herman stepped out of the room.
“Quickly.” I hissed.
He nodded silently and I lead him down the side corridor, away from any possible activity. The front door had a series of locked gates, complete with security cameras and a 24 hour guard, but there was an emergency exit at the back of the kitchen. The automated alarm had been disconnected by one of the kitchen workers, allowing them to go on smoke breaks without walking all the way across the building. Meaning all we needed was my key card to get into the employee only section of the hospital and Herman would be free.
I had spent the day imagining all the horrible things that could happen during our escape, but it was blissfully uneventful. I opened the emergency exit door and turned to Herman, who hesitated.
“Are you sure you want this?” He asked. “Messing with love doesn’t always work out like you want it to.”
“As long as he doesn’t end up with Mindy, I’m happy.” My words dripped with every ounce of hatred I felt.
Herman gave me a small smile and hugged me. The unfamiliar touch was shocking. It felt wrong. Violating. The smell of chemicals and sweat filled my nostrils and my stomach seized with disgust.
Finally, he let go and walked out into the night. I watched him disappear before turning and retracing my steps back to the main hall. I grabbed my purse and coat and headed to the front entrance, smiling at the guard as he wished me good night.
I woke up today feeling light and alive. Victorious. I wanted to pamper myself like the protagonists of one of the rom coms Dennis and I would be watching only a few days from now.
I made myself a breakfast of fluffy pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream, followed by a mud mask and mimosas. I sat in the warm bathtub, sinking into the cool porcelain as the scent of steamy lavender surrounded me.
My cell phone rang and I leaned over the side of the bathtub to see who it was. It was the hospital. I wiped my hand on a towel and hit accept.
“Naomi, it’s Elijah.”
“Um, hi.” I said awkwardly. Elijah was the office manager for our ward and he’d only be calling me if it was an emergency. Like a patient escaping. I swallowed nervously and held my breath.
“I’m sorry to call you on your day off but the circumstances require it.” He hesitated. “Dr. Turner was murdered last night.”
My lungs began to ache with the breath I was still holding, but I couldn’t exhale. It was as if my face was paralyzed.
“Someone broke into his house and…. He was shot through the heart with a hunting arrow. They’re looking for the murderer, but…” The phone fell from my hand.
The events of the past 24 hours, the past week, have been running on a loop through my mind. With sickening realization, I think of releasing Herman from the hospital. Of listening to Dennis and Mindy flirt. Of my outburst. Of Josie and Ted.
Josie and Ted, who had been whispering and giggling. Josie and Ted, who had come to work together. Josie and Ted, who eat lunch together and gush about their love of classic literature. Who laugh at inside jokes and talk about going to the film noir marathon at the local art house cinema. Josie, who places her hand on Ted’s back as she confides in him. Ted, who is always telling us about the funny things Josie says. Whose face lights up when she enters a room.
Herman didn’t make Josie and Ted fall in love, he only noticed it happening. He knew what to look for. I had only seen a plain woman and an attractive man and so I ignored their flirting, their connection. But Herman had noticed. Herman, a man who memorizes great philosophers’ writings on love. Herman, a man who recites poetry and thinks it is his duty to spread love.
Herman, a man who thinks he’s cupid.