I wrote this story for an internet friend. Her birthday is coming up, and I let her pick three words and/or phrases to incorporate into the story. She picked three that I was totally clueless about, so if this story is even more incoherent than usual, that's why. Plus, it was written over a three-day period in which I was in a hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma (don't ask, man--just don't ask) and then back in Austin, trying to recover from the Tulsa thing.
I don't usually pre-critique my work, but I feel like this one's a little rough--I wanted to flesh out the characters more, but I was already running really long for a short story.
One final thing--when I began writing, she sent me a message saying, "No floating dead kittens." I really feel like you're doing something right with your writing when people have to specifically tell you things like that.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story.
You hear the screams immediately. They try to make it where you won't, not right away, but it doesn't matter, because you hear them anyway. Screams of pain. Of agony, really. Curse words, or just incoherent wails of anguish.
And you’re sitting there, the sweat already pouring down your forehead, your stomach clenched in anxiety, and your breathing labored, because you know that you’re next. And you know that as bad as it all sounds, it feels about a hundred times worse.
It was a nice day—still a little crisp in the morning, but by midday, it was going to be beautiful. My roommate and I loaded up our gear in his old beat-to-hell Jeep Cherokee, piled in, and headed to the river. The water was still icy cold, but with our wetsuits, it wouldn’t be too bad. Plus, if you do things right, you don’t get all that wet anyway.
We aren’t really morning people, even though we tend to do all kinds of stuff which requires us to wake up early and get moving. We didn’t speak much as we made our way to the river—both of us zoned out and listened to the music. Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.” Not exactly the most exhilarating song in the world, but we didn’t need anything rowdy to jerk us awake. We were just enjoying the morning, the anticipation of the day.
We’d driven this route many times before, and because it was just after six on a Saturday morning, there wasn’t much in the way of traffic. It was a peaceful drive. A good way to wake up.
We got to the river a little after seven—the sun was just peeking up over the pine-covered mountaintops, and mist was beginning to evaporate as it floated down through the canyon. We unloaded our gear—the kayak, the life vests, wetsuits—and walked to opposite sides of the Jeep to strip down out of our regular clothes. We’d made the mistake of making the trip in our suits once before, and decided that we’d rather risk a few seconds of nudity out in nature than do it again. You wouldn’t believe how much butt sweat you can accumulate while sitting in a car.
We were fully awake by that time, ready to hit the river. We emptied our bladders in the woods—no good realizing you have to pee right when you hit the rapids—and then made our way to the shore. We’d done this before, I don’t know how many times. Any chance we got, we’d take off to the river. If we had time to travel, we’d try new spots, different rivers, or whatever. But since we were both students with jobs, we usually only had a day to get to our destination, hit the river, and get back home. We’d been known to venture out so far that we’d have to drive through the night and return just in time to make it to class, stinking of dried river water and campfire smoke, and barely able to stay awake. That’s rough business, though, and it takes its toll.
This was our place. Our river. We knew it and loved it, and as goofy as it sounds, it felt like it loved us, too. You’d get out, you’d start paddling, you’d find your rhythm, and everything would fall into place. Or you could just float there, listen to the water run around you, listen to the world being itself, and you’d find such peace that you could hardly believe you had a job or bills or whatever it is that makes life seem to suck so much.
That river, it was our world. Which is why what happened shouldn’t have happened. It’d been raining a lot that spring, which is the only reason I can figure.
You’re always on your guard, no matter how well you know a river. Because one thing about nature is that it’s always changing, and it doesn’t send you a memo when it does. You watch for fallen trees or crumbling canyon walls or a hundred other things that can tip you off that something is wrong—the way the water swirls, like maybe something’s just beneath the surface that can roll you. Stuff like that.
We didn’t see any of that—had no indication that anything was wrong.
And then we were rolling. Rolling sucks, when you aren’t expecting it. When your kayak is suddenly above you instead of under you, and you had no idea that it was about to happen, it can be startling, to say the least. Instead of hearing gentle running water and birds chirping and insects buzzing, you’re suddenly hearing that underwater sound. If you’ve ever dunked your head into fast-moving water, you know the sound I’m talking about—that rushing, bubbling, almost violent sound.
It can be fun when you do it on purpose—just to be a clown, or maybe to soak yourself on a really hot day—but even if it’s an accident, it isn’t the end of the world. Dave and I had practiced enough so that we could easily right ourselves if we rolled.
That day, we didn’t have time.
I still don’t know how it happened—we must’ve hit something below surface. And then we were over, there was that underwater sound, and I had a split second to see the sunrays lancing through the water in shafts so defined they almost looked solid. There was a crunch, and a sharp pain in my head, and then down the back of my neck. And then there was darkness.
Nobody ever said, “You’ll never walk again,” so don’t be expecting a miraculous tale of one man beating the odds or whatever. This is no Disney movie.
From the start, they told me that I’d probably walk again. They told me I’d never walk as well as I used to, and they told me that it would be a slow and painful road to recovery. “A slow and painful road to recovery.”
That’s how everyone said it, always. “You’ll walk again, Adam, but it’s going to be a slow and painful road to recovery.” I thought I believed them.
When you can’t walk, or even feel your legs, and someone says that someday, if you work hard enough, you’ll be able to walk again, you don’t even care. You think, “Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to get my legs back, to make me whole.”
I’m not saying that people with disabilities aren’t whole, I’m just telling you how I felt. These abilities you’ve always had and taken for granted—so much so that you’ve never even considered them “abilities,” at all, just something that happens—when you have them ripped away, you feel like an entirely different person. A weak person, a useless person, an incomplete person.
So when they told me that I would be able to walk again, I told them that I didn’t care how slow and painful the road to recovery was going to be, I was going to do whatever it took. I would walk again.
There were times that I wished I’d woken up in that bed and the doc would’ve just told me flat-out, “Sorry, Adam, but you’re done. Trade your Nikes in for a nice ass pillow and get ready to live out the rest of your life as someone else.”
Because then I could’ve quit, you see. I could have stopped working, stopped trying. I could have resigned myself to living with a wheelchair, and nobody would’ve blamed me. No one would’ve thought any less of me.
Well, I say that. She would have. She would have called me a quitter and a loser and a self-indulgent crybaby. Which she did anyway.
It stinks. That’s what you notice right after you notice the screams. Like bleach and sweat and piss. But mostly failure. Yeah, failure has a smell.
Usually, you don’t notice, because it’s mixed in with floor cleaner or alcohol or mildewed newspaper or any number of things that generally come along with failure.
But when you get in a controlled environment, and you eliminate those other things, you can still smell failure. And when you bring people in all day long, day after day, and you hurt them and you drive them, and still they fail, they give up on themselves and on life, that smell becomes so powerful that you’ll smell it in everything.
You’ll smell it in your sleep. When you dream. You’re kayaking down a glorious river with your best friend, and everything is beautiful and perfect, and you take a deep breath, expecting the fresh smell of pine and flowing water, and instead, you just smell failure.
Every time you think the words, “I can’t,” you’ll smell it. Every time you cry out in pain, every time you curse through tears at the world that did this to you. Every time you quit.
The funny thing is, I never noticed it until she pointed it out. I can’t remember how long I’d been going to the fourth floor—the torture ward, we called it. Maybe a few weeks, not quite a month.
That was when she was still nice, still a pushover. That was when she’d let me work until it hurt, and then she’d let me rest. And she’d murmur encouraging things to me, tell me to keep up the good work.
“You smell that?” Natalie asked.
“I smell all kinds of things, and none of them are pleasant.” It was true, too. They bleached the torture ward, and cleaned it with all their lemony and pine scented crap, but nothing covered the smells, not all the way. People were pushing themselves, man, and the unpleasant truth of the matter is that sometimes they didn’t quite understand what they were pushing until it was too late. I’d be lying if I said I never pissed myself during physical therapy. That was later, though.
“What do you smell?”
“I don’t know. Like, pine, lemon, whatever the smell of that crap is you people clean the floors with.”
“Bleach. Piss. Shit. Body odor. Something that smells like burning chicken.”
“And what else?”
“That’s it. What’s that burning chicken smell, anyway?”
“That guy Chad, he always microwaves his lunch down the hall. I don’t know what it is that he eats, and I probably don’t want to know. You’re missing something, though.”
“Something tells me it isn’t something I’d want to sniff, anyway.”
She hunched down in front of me, eye-level, just like I’d seen those women do to children when my ex-girlfriend used to watch Super Nanny or whatever that show was called.
“I see the people who come visit you.”
I scoffed. My dad had taken off when I was a kid, and my mom lived out in Vegas. I had lived with her until I was 16, and then had made a line to Colorado, determined to leave that life behind me. She had sent a get well card to the hospital. Inside, she had spelled my name wrong. “Get better soon, Adem,” it had read.
Dave had come to visit a few times, but it made him visibly uncomfortable, and I had told him not to worry about it, not to bother coming around anymore. I could tell that he didn’t want to abandon me in my time of need, but I could also tell that seeing me reminded him of all the bad things that could happen. In the end, his fear had won out over our friendship. I wish I could say I would have been different if our positions had been reversed, but that would be a lie.
I also wish I could say I had no hard feelings because of it. But that, too, would be a lie. There were nights, alone in my room, staring up at the ceiling, my legs feeling alive with angry ants, tears pouring down my face, that I cursed him along with the rest of the world.
Some people from my job had stopped by, but that had been early on. The ex had never stopped by—I wasn’t sure if she’d even heard about the accident.
“You might not know this,” Natalie told me, “But probably you do. When most people leave a hospital room, they ask the doctors or the nurses how the patient is doing. Even if they’ve asked the patient. I guess they feel like the doctor has been lying to the patient, and if they ask, they’ll get the real truth.”
“Most people are idiots, then.”
She shrugged. “I’m not a nurse, so I don’t get that very often. But sometimes I’ll end up bumping into someone when I’m picking up a patient for therapy. I talked to your friend David.”
“You must’ve had to run pretty fast to chase him down.”
“I’ll admit that he doesn’t like to come visit. Can you blame him?”
“We were best friends.”
“Wasn’t he the one who saved your life? Dragged you out of the river and resuscitated you?”
“Yeah, he saved my life—whatever’s left of it, I guess.”
“He said he knew you’d recover. Said you were a fighter.”
“Yeah, that’s what people say in situations like this. You can’t get away with saying something like, ‘Meh, the dude’s kind of a wimp—he’ll probably stay all gimped up.’”
“You know what? I say that. When I see someone who is going to recover, I say, “He’ll be fine, he’s a fighter.’ And when I see someone who doesn’t try, someone who just sits around whining and crying and feeling sorry for themselves, that’s what I say about them.”
“Good for you—there isn’t nearly enough of that kind of honesty in the world.”
“That smell you’re missing? It’s failure. You’ll smell that a lot around here, because people feel like it’s too hard to work for their lives back. It’s a lot easier to sit around and complain that it isn’t fair. It’s easier to sulk about why this shouldn’t have happened to them, instead of trying to take an active part in making it better. Your friend said you were a fighter. I don’t see that. What I see is a pouting child who stinks of failure and who is nothing but talk.”
I didn’t even know what to say—you’re supposed to be nice to crippled people, but someone forgot to tell this chick that.
“I can help you get better, Adam. I really can. But you have to work with me. And when I say work, I mean work. It’ll hurt more than anything you’ve ever experienced, and there’ll be times that you’ll hate me for it. You might even hate me from now on. But when it’s all said and done, you’ll be out of that chair, and you’ll get that nasty-ass stink of failure off of you. I’m assigned to you, so no matter what, I’ll pick you up and wheel you down here. But if you aren’t gonna try, I can at least bring a book or something, we’ll sit down here for an hour, and then go back. So what’s it going to be?”
“What is this? Some sort of inspiration speech? Because it could really use a soundtrack.”
“Nope. Inspirational speeches aren’t my thing. Right now, I don’t give a rat’s ass either way. You tell me to bring a book to our next session, that’s what I’ll do. Heck, I’ll even bring one for you, you want me to. But if you tell me you want to work, you better mean it.”
I looked at her, hoping that my bullshit detector would go off, but there wasn’t a beep. She meant it—everything she said. This was a choice she was letting me make, and I could tell she didn’t care one way or another.
“I want my legs back. You can help?”
“They’ve told you you probably won’t ever be back to where you were—and they’re probably right. Your legs will never work that well again. But I promise you that we’ll get them working. And we’ll get them working better than any of those doctors think is possible. But you have to promise you’ll work with me, do what I say, and give it everything you’ve got. The first time you don’t, I ask to be re-assigned.”
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“You want to think it over a little first?”
“No. I want to walk again. If you really can help with that, I’ll do what you say.”
“All right. Let’s get started then.”
“Our session is up, though.”
She shook her head. “We’re doing two hours today. We’ll do long sessions from time to time, so get used to it.”
From time to time to time meant three times a week, and I never did get used to it.
If you don’t know what it is, it doesn’t look all that horrible. Once you realize what it’s for, you’ll dream about it. Have nightmares about it. And those nightmares will be worse than the ones with the screaming and the ones with the stench of failure combined, although those things are usually in these same nightmares.
A little silver bell, the kind they have in diners. The short order cook, when he drops a plate of greasy bacon and steaming eggs on the stainless steel shelf under the heating lamps, he’ll yell something like “Order up,” and he’ll bang his hand down on the top of the bell.
Or if you’re at a hotel, and there’s no one around, you’ll see a little bell like it sitting there, usually with a sign that says something like “Ring bell for service.”
Or if you’re holding yourself up on a pair of parallel bars, sweat’s streaming down your forehead, down your face, into your eyes, stinging, but that’s the least of your problems. Your entire body feels like it’s made of pain, you hurt in ways that you’ve never even imagined. You can’t even describe the pain because it’s so intense and so omnipresent.
You stare at the bell, and at her hand hanging over it, taunting you, torturing you, and you hate that bell and you hate her. There’s nothing but the pain and the bell, and then the hand drops, the bell rings, and you’re falling.
She catches you—she never lets you fall to the ground, not when you make it to the bell—and your hate turns to love, both your hate for her and your hate for the bell, because what you were just doing, you don’t have to do it anymore, because her and the bell have told you it’s okay to stop.
She held me against her chest and I trembled and sobbed. Not the kind of behavior I generally liked to exhibit around females, but she had broken me of shame long ago. Shame about pain, anyway.
“You did good, Adam,” she murmured into my hair as she held me. “You did so good.”
When she said something like that, the world glowed. She didn’t offer empty positive reinforcement. She offered truth, and if she said I had done good, it was because I had done good. It was because I had made her proud, and it was because I had made myself stronger, better.
I took deep breaths, tried to focus. Grasp the pain and release it. It never really went away, not even when I gobbled up my pain meds and passed out—but with some ferocious concentration, I could sometimes get it under control enough so that I could speak to her before our session ended. Other times, I would be wheeled up to my room still weeping and whimpering and unable to stop my babbling.
“Thank you,” I said. “For the compliment and the help.”
“You earned both.”
This was a tender moment between us. There were some, but not many. Usually, there was her screaming at me something like, “Do it, do it, do it!” and me screaming back at her, “I can’t do it! I can’t I can’t!” And she’d get in my face and scream encouragement and insults, and I’d scream back at her, insults or indecipherable cries of pain.
Sometimes I’d do it, accomplish my goal, and bask in the glory of a task completed. Other times, I’d give in to my failure, and collapse into a screaming wailing heap of anguish. She’d tell me it’s okay, I tried my best, or she’d tell me that was a joke, that was insulting, that was nowhere near my best. Sometimes, she’d tell me get up, we’re doing it again. Other times she’d tell me I did good, Adam, I did really good.
And this was physical therapy.
She explained the bell to me the first day: “You ever play that game when you were little, Red Light, Green Light?”
“Well here’s how it works. Green light, you go. Red light, you stop. Pretty simple, right?”
“Go like how?”
“That part isn’t so simple.” And then she explained to me what we were going to be doing for my physical therapy. Honestly, it didn’t sound so bad. Stuff like, I’m going to bend your leg like this and you’re going to bend your leg like this. Or, you’ll hold this here, just like that. And then she’d hit the bell, and hell would begin.
Sometimes, it didn’t start out so bad. You’d think, okay, this isn’t such a big deal. I can do this. And then a few second would pass, you’d feel the first beads of sweat pop out of your forehead, you’d feel the first tremors ripple through your muscles, the first indications of pain.
By the end, it hurt. Without exception. Sometimes it only hurt bad enough to make you shake and lose your breath and turn red. Other times, you’d be screaming at her, crying at her, begging her to hit the bell.
And man, how I hated it. Those elevator doors would open onto the torture ward, I’d hear the screams, I’d smell the smells, and my nuts would try to crawl into my stomach. Sometimes the fear would make me sweat before I even made it down the hall to Natalie’s training area.
Once in a while, she’d see me freaking, and she’d tell me, “Don’t worry, Adam—we’re taking it relatively easy today. You’ll do fine.”
Other times, she’d see me freaking, and she’d say something like, “We’ll work those jitters out pretty quick today.” Those were the times I knew I was royally screwed.
It worked, though. I was walking again. Not far, and it hurt like a wicked bitch to do it, but I was doing it. Day three, in fact, and I’d already made it five feet. Day three of walking, I mean—this was after weeks and weeks and weeks of building up the strength to do it. And then I’d fallen into a bawling heap and basked in her compliments and consolation.
“Now,” she said. “Do you think you can do it again?”
I looked up at her. “Geez, Nat, are you serious?”
“It’s just a question.”
I looked up at the bars. It wasn’t fear that I felt, I don’t think. It was something deeper than that, some animal instinct that warned me to stay away—that hurts. I wanted to avert my eyes and never see them again, never think about them again. I wanted to be somewhere else, someone else. I smelled it, then. That familiar stink.
“You think I can?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. You’ve made some serious progress, and that might be pushing it. But I’m curious.”
“Tell me something, and be honest. You trying to kill me?”
“I…think I can do it.”
She lifted me up, balanced me as the pain screamed in my legs and as steel barbs ripped up and down my spine. I held onto the parallel bars with sweaty palms, and balanced myself with unsteady arms.
“Tell me when you’re ready.”
I put more weight on my legs, and used my arms to support myself. “Okay, I’m ready, Let go.”
She let go, and I continued to hold myself up. I slowly eased off with my arms, allowing my legs to hold my weight until I felt in control enough to take a step. I was gritting my teeth so hard that my jaw ached, but I continued to hold myself up with my legs. And then went for a step.
I crumpled to the ground, and even Natalie wasn’t fast enough to catch me. She was close, but gravity was against me. Everything around the rehab area is padded, so I didn’t get hurt, but I was pissed off something fierce.
I ran through every curse word I knew, including several I had added to my vocabulary since beginning rehab.
“It’s okay, Adam,” Natalie said. “You still did really good.”
“Put me up. Pick me fucking up!” Like a kid throwing a fit. I knew it, but I couldn’t help it. I was enraged and ashamed and dejected. My body had failed me yet again, turned against me. And I had failed her.
“Fuuuuuuuuuuck! Lift me up, dammit! Put me back on the motherfuckin’ bars so I can do my motherfuckin’ exercise, I can fuckin do it, if you’d just fuckin’—”
The bell. Red light means stop, and the rules say that you have to stop whatever you’re doing. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking chin-ups, or stretches, or if you’re just throwing a temper tantrum because you couldn’t take five more steps.
I glared up at her through a mixture of sweat and tears. I fought to keep from speaking, and trembled with anger and pain.
“You done with the potty talk?”
“No.” Petulant. Pissed off.
“You’re done,” she said. “We’re both done for today. I shouldn’t have pushed you to do more. You aren’t ready.”
“I just need another try.”
“You could do serious damage, Adam. I’m glad that you want to push yourself, but if you do too much too fast, you can hurt yourself. “
I was barely even listening to her. I was thinking about the bars, thinking about how they had beaten me.
“Nat, please. One more try, please.”
“I need this, Natalie. Please. Just once more.”
“We aren’t getting into this habit, okay? This one time, that’s it.”
“Thank you. Thank you.”
She rolled her eyes and leaned down to pick me. “I swear, I think you just have a problem with authority. I tell you give me five more reps, you say you can’t. I tell you can’t do five more steps, you say you want to.”
“I find that being a little disagreeable…” I had to stop and take a deep breath—the pain was already surging through my body, sucking out my air and igniting my nerve endings from the back of my neck to the tips of my toes. “…adds to my charm.”
She laughed a little as she positioned me on the bars. “Not sure where you ever got the idea that you had any charm.”
She released me, and I kept myself standing, my weight on my arms. I took it slower this time, gradually increasing the pressure on my legs. My arms were beginning to shake, but I knew I could hold out for several minutes like this. Even back before the accident, I had a helluva lot of upper body strength—kayaking isn’t a sport for the weak-armed—and since I had begun rehab, my arms had grown even stronger.
Once most of my weight was on my legs, I took a step. I was still supporting myself with my arms, but it was a step.
“That one didn’t count,” Natalie said from behind me. “You’re gonna do this, do it right. More weight on your legs. That’s what they’re there for.”
“I thought they were just there to give you something to slobber over.”
“Sorry, dear, I don’t like my men with quite as much lip.”
I took another step, and my witty remarks were forgotten. Instead, there was only a series of clipped swear words and panting.
“Don’t be tryin’ to turn me on with your dirty talk, either,” she said from close behind me. Ready to catch me if I fell again.
To keep my mind occupied during the long pain-filled nights, I had alphabetized my cuss words. Throughout rehab, I had perfected my list, able to burn through them in under two minutes. By my third step, I was back to the f’s, and as was generally the case, got caught up there. One word, in particular.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck, falling!”
“No! Falling isn’t next. It’s ‘fuckbasket,’ then ‘fuckbucket,’ then ‘fucksucker.’ Falling isn’t in that list anywhere.”
I laughed and screamed and said fuckbasket. I was amused and a little touched that she had memorized the f section of my curse babble. I took another step. And then another.
“One to grow on,” she said, and I took another step.
I didn’t pass out, really, but one thing you do a lot of when you’re doing intense rehabilitation is kind of lose track of time. Like one moment, you’ll be collapsing into the arms of your therapist, and next thing you know, it’s several seconds later, and you’re in your chair.
She used my towel to wipe the sweat from my forehead and my face. She never did that. She’d be right there touching you all through therapy, but once the session was over, she generally kept her distance. A pat on the shoulder or something, maybe, but nothing like this.
“Geez, Nat, you falling in love with me or what?”
She laughed. “You wish, goofball.” And then she got serious. “You did good today, Adam. I’m proud of you.”
“You’re gonna be okay. I wasn’t sure at first. I gave you fifty-fifty. There was a lot of you that wanted to fight, but there was a lot of you that wanted to give up, too. I’m glad you decided to fight.”
The pain felt like it was killing me, and I really wanted to get to my room and gulp some pills, but I had to know. “The other side of the fifty-fifty?”
She looked at me and didn’t say anything.
“You thought I might kill myself?”
“I didn’t know you then, but I’ve known the look for a while.”
“So that day, the speech about you could bring a book. You would have sat by and read a book and waited for me to kill myself?”
“It happens. I don’t like it, and I do whatever I can to prevent it, but it happens. Some people just don’t want to go on. But that’s not what we’re talking about; we’re talking about how great you did today. And about how I’m sure you’ll do twice as good tomorrow.”
“Or I could be rewarded for my success by getting a day to relax. You could wheel me to the pool, we could sit around and drink beer.”
She laughed. “Nice try. The day you go to the pool is the day I make you swim laps.”
“This is why you have no friends, you know this, right?”
She laughed again and signaled for the nurse to come get me.
“You’re gonna be okay.” That’s what she told me that day, and I never forgot it. I didn’t always believe it, but I never forgot it.
Did you know that if Superman had stayed on his planet, he wouldn’t have been super at all? His planet got blown up or something, so he wouldn’t have been anything if he had stayed, I guess, except for loose particles floating around in space.
But even if his planet hadn’t been blown up, if he had stayed there, he wouldn’t have been extraordinary at all—just another guy trying to get by.
I got better. I got better than they ever thought I would, and I got better much faster than they thought I would. In the hospital, I was a superman.
In the real world, though, I was just a guy who couldn’t move very fast and had to walk with a cane. I was a burden. I was a cripple. In the real world, nobody gave a damn that I had fought my way back from paralysis. Nobody cared that I had pushed myself harder and harder each day, that I had fought, that I had won.
The “life counselor” at the hospital had helped me get things organized for after my release. Cheap apartment, a steady job, and even grants so that I could go back to school. All of this for the handicapped, of course, because that’s what I was now.
The weird part is, I felt bad for taking the job, for taking the apartment, for taking the grant money. Because although my legs didn’t work as well as I wanted, I didn’t really need the help nearly as much as a lot of the people I met at the hospital. I needed a wheelchair ramp because I had trouble walking up steps. Others needed wheelchair ramps so they could maneuver their wheelchairs up them.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Nat told me when I expressed this thinking. “Right now, most people will look at you like you’re an obstacle. It sucks, but it’s the truth. Employers will see you as the guy who won’t do as good of a job at work. Landlords will think you’re the guy who will complain. Take what they’re trying to give you, and once you’ve proven yourself, once you’ve gotten out and done something better with yourself, come back and give back.
“Go back to school, get your degree, get a job where walking slow don’t matter. Get a job where your brain will make you loads of money, and then get an apartment where steps aren’t an issue because you’re always taking the elevator. And then come back and give someone else a chance.”
“And what about you?” I asked her.
“Me? Just get me some flowers.”
So I took the job, and I took the apartment, and I took the grant money, and I worked my ass off. I kept telling myself that I’d get back to the hospital with flowers, but things kept coming up. Between the job, the school, and the physical rehab I was still doing off-location, I didn’t have time to do much of anything else.
Time slipped away, like it does, and by the time I was finally able to make it back to the hospital, three months had passed. I didn’t have the amazing job yet, or the amazing apartment, but I figured I could at least take care of the flower issue.
I wasn’t sure where she’d be—she worked with several patients throughout the day, and could be anywhere from the weight room to the ice bath to the gym to the pool.
I was still using my cane quite a bit, but I could do an hour or so without it, and had decided to impress Natalie with my progress. I limped up to the front desk and asked the nurse if there was any way I could talk to Nat.
She immediately looked troubled.
“I’m not a creep or stalker or anything,” I explained. “She was my physical therapist, and I just wanted to tell her thank you. She said if I ever wanted to do anything for her, I could bring her flowers.” The woman continued to look troubled, so I continued further explain the situation. “So, um…that’s it. I can leave them here for her, if you think that would be better. I’m not trying to hassle her or anything, really. I just wanted to show my appreciation.”
“I don’t think you’re a stalker or anything. It’s just. Nat was…she was killed.”
She was mistaken, of course. I wanted to tell her, no, not the Nat who had died. My Nat. She worked here in the physical therapy department, on the torture ward. Not the dead Nat. Instead, I just stared at the woman behind the desk. So she tried to further explain the situation.
“Two weeks ago. Drunk driver. She was walking home, the guy ran a red light.”
I shook my head. “No, this is. My Nat. Kind of big. Not fat, but muscular. Black lady, always changing her hair around. Has a thing for Usher. Physical therapist. Um…she likes these.” I held up the flowers. “Flowers. I can’t remember the name of them right now.”
The woman behind the desk was crying and nodding. “They’re water lilies. She loved them. I’m so sorry. We all loved her.”
I stared at the water lilies. I stared at them the same way I used to stare at my legs when they weren’t working. Like they belonged to someone else, like they belonged somewhere else. Like they were cursed.
I put the vase on the desk. “I…I can’t have these right now.” And then I turned around and left the building.
I walked home and looked up her obituary online, just to make sure. Then I took a few pain pills and went to sleep.
I called in to work the next day and told them that I wasn’t feeling well, and they said no problem. One thing about being a gimp, nobody accuses you of faking it when you tell them you can’t make it in.
I spent the day sleeping, and when I woke up, the full moon was shining in through the window. It reminded me of that day, the day of the accident. The way that the sun rays had pierced the water, like solid things.
I took some pain pills and then poured a glass of whiskey. I wasn’t supposed to mix them, and usually I didn’t drink at all, but I figured this was a special occasion. I didn’t turn on the lights—just sat there in the dark, looking at the moonbeams in my living room.
I drank the whiskey slow, sipping it so that I didn’t throw up. And I thought about that day, and I realized something. I realized that I was supposed to die. I realized that I shouldn’t have been saved, that Dave should have un-strapped himself and swam to shore, and I should have stayed unconscious as I floated down river, until it was too late for any CPR.
And I realized that this was my chance to make things right.
The ocean isn’t really my thing. I know people who love the beach, love to surf, love to sit around and relax. It always seemed too quiet to me, though. I want my water rushing, and I want it launching me to somewhere new.
But you work with what you have, and I could take a cab to the ocean. So that’s where I was.
The moon was there waiting, hanging low, as if it was pointing to me, telling me, “Right here, Adam, this is where you go to make things right.”
I paid the driver, opened the door, and cringed.
“Yeah, stinks like hammered death, don’t it? Red tide.”
“Fuckin’ figures,” I told him, and shut the door.
Red tide. Like so many things in life, it’s a really beautiful thing to see, right up until you’re close to it. Seen from a distance, it’s like someone’s setting off fireworks under water. Or spray-painting waves. Seen from a distance, it’s gorgeous.
I’d lived around this area for years, so I knew a little about it, but it’s one of those things, you know? You never really care to learn much about it, and you only hear about it in passing. Something about an algae explosion, I can’t remember why. I know they worry sometimes because the algae sucks up all the oxygen, so fish and shit start dying. I know that sometimes it makes the tap water taste septic. And I know that it smells like someone shit in a gym shoe and then microwaved it.
I walked down from the street, across sandy steps with rope handrails strung up between wooden piers, and made my way across the beach. There was some activity further down, a bonfire burning and a few drunk kids listening to music and whooping.
Even with the full moon, they probably wouldn’t notice me. And they were far enough away that even if they did notice me, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
In my mind, that’s all I would call it. Not killing myself. Not suicide. It. So are you really planning on doing it? How are you going to do it? You better make sure you do it right, or they’ll lock you up.
It. Killing myself. Suicide.
Setting things right with the world. I owed a cosmic debt, and it was time to pay up.
I reached into my left jacket pocket and brought out the bottle of pills. Then I reached into the right jacket pocket and brought out the little bottle of whiskey. Then I reached into the inside pocket and brought out the knife.
It wasn’t a very big knife, and it wasn’t even particularly sharp. Just a kitchen knife, one I usually used to cut up apples. A paring knife, is what’s it’s called.
It would do the job, though, especially if I took a swim afterwards.
I didn’t want to fuck this up, you see. That had happened once, and life had bitch-slapped me to show me that it didn’t like that kind of thing. When you’re supposed to die, you’re supposed to die. You aren’t supposed to recover and fight and pull yourself up and find your self-respect.
I figured I’d take all the pills, wash ‘em down with whiskey. Then slice up my forearms, wrists, all that. And then I’d swim until I couldn’t swim anymore, and then I’d sink.
Simple, really. Just like that game. Green light, go, red light, stop.
It was time. Time for me to go and stop. I opened the bottle of pills and unscrewed the cap on the whiskey. I readied myself—not for death, but for the taste of the whiskey. I’ve never been much of a drinker, and straight liquor has never been my thing even when I was drinking.
I took a breath to prepare myself, and the smell almost made me gag. Not of whiskey. Not even of the algae.
It was the smell of failure.
I stood at the water’s edge and looked out at the full moon over the red tide. Its reflection was blood red, and the wispy streamers of algae beneath the surface seemed to beckon me. It promised an end to my pain, it promised to make me better.
I inhaled again, and I smelled the familiar scent. How many times had I fallen? How many times had I screamed that I couldn’t do it? And how many times had she lifted me back up?
How many times had she encouraged me, pushed me, helped me?
I fell to my knees, and I began crying. And as I sobbed, I heard the bell.
Time to stop. Time to stop the crying, the feeling sorry for myself. Time to stop looking for the easy way.
And then again.
Time to go.
I stood up and walked back to the street. The cabbie was still there, eating a sandwich and reading a magazine. His on-duty light wasn’t lit, but I knocked on the window anyway.
“Any chance you could take me back?”
He glanced at his watch. “Yeah, why not—break’s almost over, anyway.”
I tucked the flask behind the flowers—I didn’t know who else might come visit, and I didn’t want to seem disrespectful. I dug up a little loose dirt and buried the knife in the ground, along with a few pain pills. Not all of them—I was still recovering, still had bad nights, and I knew I’d need them at some point—but enough that I knew she’d be proud.
“Not exactly flowers, Natalie, but it’s for you, nonetheless. Thank you.”
I stood from the grave, and my legs howled, and I had to use the cane. But I was going to make it, and I knew that that’s what she would have focused on.