This story is true even though it never happened. I know that sounds like a line, something people say to excuse their fantasy, but this is a real story. That’s what I mean—there’s no valiant knights or wailing princesses trapped in a tower prison and letting their favors flutter down. There’s no magic in this story. There’s just the quiet sigh of sunlight on stone, the way she looked when the shadows crept into the curves of her face, the twisting twinge in your chest. It’s real because of those things that build a dream into a solid house where your sadness lives, until you believe the things you think in your sleep.
It’s a story about Margaret—sort of. It’s a story about what happened when she left me. Not on purpose, that is. We were getting on well. We had just moved in together. I had gotten used to listening for her even breaths at night and the way she dragged her spoon across the cereal bowl in the morning, idly, reading the paper while I still struggled with the brightness and the cold of morning. She still held warmth in her eyes when she looked at me, and I still slept better when I was touching her. She didn’t leave on purpose, but she left just the same. Or perhaps she was taken.
It happened when she was hit by a car. It’s such an ordinary thing, or it sounds ordinary to say. It’s the kind of tragedy that happens all the time, right? Everybody all over the place gets hit by a car. They rushed her to the hospital with internal bleeding and a couple broken bones. That and her head had hit the pavement so hard her whole face was dark with bruises and her brain had scraped against her skull. They didn’t know when she’d wake up, or if she’d wake up, so she stayed unmoving and heartbreaking in a hospital bed with tubes sinking into her and her every breath rasping against plastic.
I was lucky and had vacation days saved up, so I could clasp her hand in the hospital instead of going to work. I did that for a week and then I had to go back. I was almost out of vacation days, and it was driving me crazy. Her eyelids stayed tender and closed, round and unforgiving. Her hand was warm and limp in my grasp, hanging off her wrist like a dead thing. Her machines just made the same beep beep beep beep every minute of the day and I thought I might cry until I ran out of breath to sob with. I sat for as long as I could and then I buried myself in work for two weeks, visiting at 5:23 when I could get to the hospital every day straight from work until 8:26 when they kicked me out because visiting hours were over and the nurses were doing their last rounds, rousting family members and friends from the rooms and herding an exodus of us shuffling to the parking lot and subway stop. I worked every day until Margaret woke up.
I went straight to the hospital, walked the now-familiar route over the shiny floors and through four pastel doorways, and into her room. She was sitting up when I got into the room and she turned to look at me, surprised to see someone in her room, and I walked up to her bed and it wasn’t her. I mean, it took me a minute to figure it out. She looked like herself, of course, except for the curves pressed under her eyes and the expression on her face when she saw me. It just wasn’t the way she always looked when she saw me. She looked at me and she smiled, politely. My Margaret was not usually polite to strangers, and she didn’t waste smiles on things that weren’t worth it. This Margaret though, this person smiled at me just because I was another person, despite being in a hospital room, not knowing what had happened or what was going on. She smiled anyway. That was the first moment of something, and it will take more words to explain what exactly it was.
I had stepped right up to her bed and gripped her hands in mine before I stopped to wonder at that odd smile. My voice came out thin and wavery, startled when I expected to be glad. “Margaret?”
She looked at me, serious and sad at once, and said, “What? I’m sorry. No.” After a long pause, she added, “Where am I? What happened? Who are you?”
(to be continued)