You stay somewhere long enough it becomes home. Gary knew his nurses, had seen their pics of kids and pets and partners. He’d fallen into a pattern of PT in the morning, some reading in the afternoon, and then TV until he fell asleep. All of this was punctuated with docile meals and snacks at predictable intervals. Going to the bathroom was the only reason to get out of bed. He even had his mail forwarded to his room. He wasn’t sure if the damage to his body would remain with him for the rest of his life, but he knew, unequivocally, that the hospital bill would.
It was the afternoon, and the sun came through the blinds, striping the room and lighting the dust on the surface of the wide screen TV mounted on the wall opposite Gary’s hospital bed.
“Afternoon, Gary,” said Susan, the afternoon nurse for half the week. She wore a slim gold watch over sun-spotted skin. She tended to the room with the brisk efficiency of someone with something else on her mind. Before Gary could stir himself from his fog and say something friendly in return, she was gone, the sliver of buzzing life outside collapsing as the door slowly shut.
Gary committed to taking a nap in the afternoon to be alert for Keiko when she showed up after work. She’d been coming out less frequently, so he felt more desperate for her presence.
Sleep proved to be elusive. At the moment of losing consciousness, he was still seeing the sky above him go dark with the oncoming vehicle and hearing the sounds of his body crunching under its wheels. He could hear his animal screams that continued until he lost his voice, until he passed out from overwhelming pain.
Keiko showed up after the room had gone dark and cool, the blinking LEDs on the equipment by the bed scattering Gary’s body with Christmas colours. Keiko had brought him a plastic tub of pho from the shop that’s on the way from her work.
“You hungry, babe?” she asked. “Oh, hey, you’re drooling.”
Gary tried to move his arm to wipe his face, but it had gone asleep, buzzing with swarms of bees in his muscles, so he rubbed his face on his pillow to clear the slate, so to speak.
“I must have finally fallen asleep,” Gary said, “After several hours of that in-between stage.”
Gary took the pho and started slurping it down. Keiko had already mixed in the fresh basil, parsley, and raw slices of jalapeño. He dribbled it down the front of his hospital gown.
Keiko’s purse hung from her shoulder, as if she’d forgotten it or was keeping herself ready to leave.
“You seem tired,” Gary said, “You okay?”
She was in her workout clothes, hair tied up in a ponytail. “I don’t feel so good today. I think I’m starting my period.” She put her hand on her stomach and stuck out her tongue. “Bleh.”
“I’m sorry, babe.” He’d nearly finished the noodles. He’d been hoping Keiko would come over in the mood to fuck, but the period put the kibosh on that little dream.
Keiko screwed up her face. “Hey, Gary, we need to talk about something.” She put her hand on Gary’s shoulder.
“Fuck fuck fuck. Don’t break up with me. Not now, not like this!”
Keiko recoiled and her purse slipped off her shoulder and to the ground. “Okay, so you’ve been expecting this?”
Keiko was gone. The reality settled in around Gary like the onset of a severe cold that slowly destroyed every corner of yourself that you had previously enjoyed. Somewhere in the dead stillness of the night he found some sleep, and in the morning a stern loneliness blockaded his train of thought as the light glowed through the curtains, signalling the beginning of another day in the room.
Thomas, the morning nurse, showed up and checked on things. “Here’s what I worked on last night,” Thomas said, as he showed the progress on his paintings on his phone. One was of a view of the sunset from one of the bridges that led into the city. Another was of a tree in the park by his apartment building. He was one of those people who liked to spend his weekends camped out with his podcasts, collapsible easel and tackle box full of twisted and wrinkly tubes of oils.
“I see you’re going for more of an impressionistic style,” Gary said.
“You think? I was just trying something.” Orange hairs carpeted his thick, freckled forearms as he checked the IV bags and adjusted the bed to the mid-morning posture. The summer sun was giving everyone a look of being in bloom. Meanwhile, Gary’s skin was the pale and sallow ghost of a formerly young, healthy middle-class person.
“No, I like the style. It adds an extra bit of spice to average scenery. Something I need right now,” Gary said, waving his arm to indicate his surroundings.
“Oh, buddy, don’t be too sad. We’ll get you out of here pretty soon. I hear the doctor is trying to get you home by this weekend.”
Gary startled at this. “That’s soon! I can’t even walk yet.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll have someone coming in to do PT with you. Greta. She’s great. You’ll love her.”
“How am I even going to take care of myself? Go to the grocery store. Wipe my ass. Get up and down my stairs?”
“I don’t know, man. You’ll just have to talk with your insurance about it. I’m just the messenger.”
Thomas was lumbering around, wrapping up his duties, and heading back out when Gary stopped him. “Hey, do you think you could bring one of your paintings in for me to see?”
Thomas registered some empathy in his brow. “Yeah, sure, man. I can bring one in. Which one do you want to see?”
On Gary’s last day at the hospital, Jabari came for a visit. It was raining and the giant windows in his hospital room were speckled with rain drops. The painting of the sunset over the bridge was wrapped up in butcher paper and leaned against a battered laptop backpack. Gary was reading through the literature for the pills he would be taking and getting ready to call for a cab, when he heard a light rapping on his door. Jabari strode in with his skateboard under his arm and his hat on backward. He looked great. He was wearing bright colours and fresh sneakers.
“What’s going on, why are you packed up?” Jabari said, “You don’t look ready to go home.”
“You go home when your insurance tells you to go home.”
“Well, that’s some bullshit.”
“Tell me about it. How are you doing, my friend?”
Jabari shrugged. “Got done with my paper and figured I’d stop by and see how you were doing.”
Gary tried to look at Jabari’s handsome face and see a friend, but he only saw the face of the man who drove over his legs by accident while speeding because he was late to a community college class.
“I’m doing pretty shitty actually. Keiko broke up with me and I’m still a mess and I don’t know how I’m going to get around my apartment and take care of myself like this.”
“Can you stand?”
“Nope. I have to stand on two crutches. I ordered a walker on Amazon. A walker, Jabari. Like a senior citizen.”
“No shame in that, bro. You have to take care of yourself. Hey, let me give you a ride to your place. The least I can do, man.”
“No, I’m getting an Uber.”
“An Uber? Come on. They’ll rip you off. I know that because I used to drive for them.”
Jabari’s self-confident grin vanished. “Hey. Not fair. Too soon, bro.”
“Okay, I’ll take a ride from you. I must be an idiot.”
Thomas showed up with a wheelchair and it was time to say goodbye to his home of the past month. On the walk down, Thomas and Jabari talked about the professional basketball team. Gary wanted to join in, but it hurt to even think about people running and jumping and experiencing the power of their lower bodies propelling them through space under the adoring gaze of millions of people. In the parking lot, Thomas sent Gary off with the invitation to come by sometime and watch him paint in the park.
Gary saw Jabari’s large, tan, vintage pickup truck with the landscaping company’s magnetic sign stuck to the driver’s side door. The truck stood out in the parking lot of bland sedans as it rose a good head and shoulders above all of them, propped up on a raised suspension with knobby off-road tires.
Gary feigned examining one of them, pointing with one of his crutches. “Hey, you can still see my sneaker jammed up in the tread.”
“You trying to make me feel bad because I already feel bad, Gary, you know that.”
“I just want you to never forget it. I want you to always feel bad.” Gary was trying to sound facetious, but his tone slid into sincerity as he grabbed onto the handle in the doorway and hoisted himself up onto the rumbler seat.
Four flights of stairs on crutches are no joke. Jabari begged to help him, but Gary told him no thanks. Gary was in decent shape from his day job, a director with Housing for Happiness, but the pain was still a force unto its own, another body stuffed inside his body writhing with fear and anger. With much effort, Gary got up the flights of stairs and stood jangling his keys at his door, trying to remember which one fit the lock.
Inside was dark and funky smelling. He collapsed on his couch and cried. Keiko had texted him that she was on her way to stock his fridge with frozen dinners so he wouldn’t have to cook. He was sad that she had left him for herself, out of a life decision about her personal direction, rather than for another man. Another man is simple math. A new life direction is something that a depressed person could easily use as a club to beat oneself up with.
After the tears dried, Gary went about the apartment testing his mobility. His paranoia about not being able to care for himself began to drain off. He could get around and do things, his mind had exaggerated his disability. It would be slow and painful to do the simplest task, but he could manage it without hiring a home assistant. He looked in the fridge and found shrivelled vegetables, rancid milk, moulded cheese, and some beer. He wanted to get a beer, but it was on the bottom shelf and inexplicably shoved to the back. To retrieve a bottle, he would have to lie on the floor and then get himself back up again. While he was contemplating this Keiko let herself in, carrying two paper bags full of frozen food.
“American classic,” she said, “Frozen food.”
Keiko had a determined look to her that was new to Gary. When they first met – when he was orienting her as a volunteer on a Housing for Happiness site – she had a lilting voice and dewy eyes for him. The same eyes he had been transfixed on as they rode their bikes into the intersection, in front of Jabari’s speeding truck. She had seen the truck and stopped. Now she only seemed to notice him with every 20th thought. In the past month, there had bloomed this giant and eventful life without him.
“How’ve you been?” Gary said.
Keiko sighed. “They work us like dogs. I’m so exhausted. But, in other news, I’ve been auditioning for improv work three nights a week. I think they’ll let me perform with their troupe. One of the players is going to Berlin for a fellowship and there’s going to be an open spot.”
“That’s fantastic, babe.”
Gary crutched himself over to the groceries and began to peruse the contents. “It’s awkward, honey. You say you need to focus on yourself and what you’re doing, so you need to break up with me, but here you are delivering groceries?”
Gary turned to Keiko’s face expecting her large eyes to be quivering pools, full of meaning. Instead, they were darting around the apartment, assessing things.
“I’m not a monster,” Keiko said, crossing to the living room area. She started to pull the furniture toward the wall, opening things up. “I figure if you have a clear path to your bed from your kitchen and the bathroom, without all this crap to trip over…”
She was hefting furniture like a college kid working through the summer. “You don’t have a tv, do you? My brother has an extra 44 inch. I’ll get him to bring it over, okay?”
Gary shrugged. “I guess I’m a TV watcher now.”
Keiko wiped some sweat from her forehead. “You should. You need to rest and heal.”
“You look thirsty. Wanna beer?”
“Can you get one for both of us out of the fridge? I can’t reach it, the cripple that I am.”
Keiko rolled her eyes. “Clever way of getting me to do your bidding.”
She fetched them the beers. Keiko took hers to the couch and motioned for Gary to join her there, which he did, after much effort. Night had set in confidently. The crack addicted were yelling at one another on the street outside, the streetlights painting the dark apartment walls in ghoulish yellows. This was the couch they had made love on, the first time and many times after. The couch where he ran his hands through her long, silken black hair, across her smooth pale skin. The couch where he believed he played upon the golden strings of her heart.
“So, are you going to continue with volunteering at Housing for Happiness, or will you be too busy?” Gary said.
Keiko had her long legs stretched out straight in front of her, in a display of the deep comfort of being the dumper, rather than the dumpee. She held the beer bottle in her crotch like a joystick, calmly picking at the label. She stared at the bottle for many moments. “I’m sorry, Gary,” she said finally, “don’t get mad at me.”
“What? Why would I be mad? You are busy with your improv and your job. There’s always plenty of people who want to volunteer to help build houses.”
“No, it’s not that. They offered me your job, Gary.”
Gary felt dizzy, like he needed to fall over. But he was already as far down into the couch as he could go.
Gary woke up in what he assumed was the middle of the night, his legs throbbing with pain despite the strong opioids the doctors still prescribe, his bladder filled with urgency, the crutches leaned up against the bed. The memory of Keiko in his apartment last night like something he’d seen on TV: the image of her body was like a favourite actor playing their role behind that scrim of plastic-video-screen material. He sourly chided himself for drinking so many beers and now having to struggle to the bathroom in the dark, his head muggy with drugs.
A muffled freak-out pulsed through his midnight brain when he emerged, hobbling, from the bedroom into the living room and saw his giant marine fish tank glowing in the corner, by the kitchenette. Had he forgotten about them for the month he was in the hospital? Are those poor creatures floating dead from neglect and starvation, or their torn carcasses in pieces strewn throughout from a vicious fish-on-fish feeding frenzy? He stared at the tank as he made his way in the opposite direction toward the toilet, whacking through the weeds of his memory with a very dull machete. He sold them, right? Gave them to a friend? He took care of that, right? He is not a monster.
Something sent him down. Some unexpected dark form in the previously memorised landscape of his dark apartment. Keiko rearranged the furniture, he remembered, as his head smashed into the corner of the coffee table that was now along the wall.
The next thing Gary saw was Jabari’s vintage, mint condition Michael Jordan shirt bending over him and Jabari saying, “I don’t think I’m supposed to touch you or move you.”
Daylight flooded the room. What day is it? Never mind. It’s day. He’d hit his head. Blood was dried to his face, with fresh blood oozing over it.
“You just don’t want to get blood on your shirt,” Gary said, blood projecting into the air with his speech.
“No, asshole. I’m not supposed to move you. The ambulance is on the way.”
“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
“If you’re trying to make a Gen-X reference, I don’t get it.”
Michael Jordan’s tongue hung out at Gary from the surface of Jabari’s t-shirt. “I think I’ll be fine,” Gary said. He felt the blood on his face, ran his fingertips over the gooey clots. “I think it’s pretty much stopped. I might have a concussion.” He tried to get up.
“Hey, what if you just didn’t try to get up?” Jabari said. He was hovering over Gary like a nervous parent. Gary thought he had a vague, Basquiat-like ghostliness to his movements.
Gary heaved himself up to the coffee table and gathered his crutches. “An ambulance? You called an ambulance? An ambulance is coming?”
“Yes, of course. You’re fucked up. You need medical attention.”
“You think I can afford a trip in an ambulance? That’s several thousand bucks, my friend.”
“You need to go to a hospital to get checked out. You could have a bad concussion.”
“Well, then, take me. Take me in that giant truck of yours.”
Jabari paused. Jordan would have to get blood stains.
Gary waved his hands. “I’ll pay for the clean-up, don’t worry about that. I’ll buy you a new shirt.”
“It’s not that, it’s just that I’m not a doctor. And what if something terrible happens, like you pass out or go into seizure? I am not equipped for that, I’m a carpenter! I could fix you if you were made of wood, but you are not.”
“Hurry! Call the fucking hospital and cancel that ambulance!”
Gary was woozy – from the loss of blood, from the medication, from the concussion to the head – and slumped against the door inside Jabari’s truck, trying to weave through noontime mid-town traffic snarls. Gary saw Jabari’s hands on the wheel, painted red with his blood.
“You good?” Jabari said.
“Yep. Great,” Gary said.
“You know, you could at least say thank you. This is all your fault, you know. I shouldn’t have to wait for you to forgive me.”
“Sorry. Yes, thank you. You’re right.”
Jabari was playing a ‘Mos Def Live’ playlist through Bluetooth on his phone. Gary tried to follow the eddies of thoughts in the lyrics, but his mind kept spinning out, unable to grasp the flow of words. Jabari seemed stressed out, gripping the wheel, shouting exasperatedly at people trying to merge into his lane in front of him.
Gary started to fade out, not like sleep, not voluntarily. It is like the wait staff at an expensive restaurant, where a different person comes by every few minutes to gently take a dish, until the table is suddenly clear and your coat is back on your shoulders. That was how his consciousness was gradually removed from him, as he glided into a dark hole. His last thought was of that day he tumbled over the handlebars of his Trek city bike, thudding onto the asphalt, rolling end over end until his legs landed under the behemoth knobbed tires of Jabari’s skidding work truck, which was trying to stop (too late to avoid hitting the cyclist who’d ignored the stop sign); his last thought then, as he heard the wet interior crunch of his legs under the truck, the sound he would never unhear, his last thought was how it was worth it to have looked into Keiko’s soft, friendly face and be transfixed, to know that he could feel that abandon for another person.
About The Author
Josh White is an emerging writer with a smattering of mostly non-fiction publishing credits, with local outlets. This is his first widely published piece of fiction. He lives in Brooklyn.
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