When he came to, it was all gone. All of it: his name, the town where he lived, his age. He could still speak, and he could understand words when he was spoken to. His ability to read was impaired; it seemed to the specialists who tested him that he recognized common words or groups of words, but that he had lost the ability to interpret letters phonetically. He could define words, but their more subtle meanings, the implied relationships between words and what they stood for, were muddled or lost altogether. Many tests were administered to determine the level of damage. Scans were performed. Questions were asked. X-rays were taken.
She had been sitting on the chair next to his bed for two weeks by then. She had watched the cuts scab over and heal, the bruises fade from blue to yellowish green to yellow, and then disappear. She had watched the cast on his hand — the hand with which he must have tried to break his fall — become dingy, and she had spent many hours wondering how that was possible, even in this room which smelled of antiseptic, even in this hospital room where the air was filtered in by a central system and vented through a line of thin metal slats in the floor.
His hair had begun to grow back on the side of his head. It had been shaved for the emergency surgery to remove the shard of skull which had lodged itself in the left lobe of his brain. A tiny steel disc had been inserted, pressed in there to make up for the missing bone. His scalp had been stretched over the disc and sewn back up.
She had asked to keep the piece of his skull, and the doctors, to her surprise, had obliged. Her request was not as unusual as she’d thought it would be. The nurse who handed her the little plastic specimen jar with its bedding of cotton wool listed things that people had asked to keep. Kidney stones; a finger chopped off by a table saw; a yellow jacket that had flown into a child’s ear and stung her eardrum, leaving her half deaf. The nurse said the strangest request she had heard was one that the doctors did not, could not, fulfill: a man who had asked to keep his cancerous vocal cords after their removal.
She had taken that specimen jar in her hands and sat in the waiting room. This had been just one day after his accident, when it was still unclear whether he would live or die. She had held the jar to her chest, buried it between her breasts, pulled her cardigan around it.
She didn’t care what the others in the waiting room thought she was doing. Everybody in the waiting room was behaving exactly how they needed to behave. And she, she was there, alone with her jar. At one point, she unscrewed its lid and carefully lifted out the piece of bone between two fingertips. She pressed it to her lips. It was smoother on one side than the other. She kissed the rougher side as tenderly as she would kiss a baby’s forehead.
By the next day, it became clear that he would live. One of the doctors, a man with dark skin and white hair, talked to her about the fact that he might never regain consciousness. She ought to consider, the doctor had said, whether she would want to keep him alive indefinitely; she should look inside her heart.
She imagined that the woman wanted to slide her tongue inside his mouth.
But two days after that, he began to normalize. He could breathe on his own. His brain waves were more like those of someone who was simply asleep. She was told that he was in what was called a coma-like state. He was moved to a room with an armchair, windows, and a television.
She was walking back from the vending machines when a nurse’s aide came running up to her. The aide said that he had come out of his coma-like state, that he’d opened his eyes and said "Hi" to a television technician who had been installing new cables. She and the aide hurried back to the room. His eyes were still closed and he was breathing deeply; he appeared to be just as he had been when she had left fifteen minutes earlier.
The television technician had not been lying, though: he had come out of it. After the aide left the room, she sat down to keep watch next to his bed, but drifted off to sleep after a couple of vigilant hours during which nothing changed. She was awakened by a hand on her arm. She opened her eyes. He was on his side, gazing at her. He smiled. His fingers moved up her arm, along her shoulder, into the curve of her bare neck. She shivered.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi," she said, smiling back at him.
"I’ve missed you," he said.
"I’ve missed you, too," she said. "Where did you go?"
He did not answer. His eyes held hers, barely blinking. Trembling a little, she took his hand in hers, lowering it to his sheet. Then she leaned forward and pressed her cheek against his. She rested her chest on his chest. She wept, and her tears pooled next to his ear. He held her tightly. He stroked her hair.
She put it off for an hour, and then she had to force herself to press the red call button. She knew that when she did, it would start the next round of tests and treatments. He seemed bewildered but was good natured over the next several days as he was wheeled from floor to floor of the hospital, and the doctors and psychiatrists and neurologists asked him their hundreds of questions and tested every reflex in his body. It was during this time that they learned the extent of his memory loss, the oddities in his understanding of language. Whenever he wasn’t sure how to answer a question, he’d say, "Hmmm, I don’t know."
She was shown charts and printouts; she was asked to bring photographs and objects from home; she herself was counseled by a social worker, on the recommendation of an intern.
He began physical therapy sessions on the top floor of the hospital. She watched the physical therapist, a young woman with long black braids and silver earrings, touching him, holding his thigh down while he lifted the opposite leg, helping him grasp a light dumbbell in his good hand, gently encouraging him to push a bar with his injured one. She imagined that the young woman wanted to press her lips to his; she imagined that the young woman wanted to slide her tongue inside his mouth. She imagined that the young woman wanted to move her hand to his groin, to cup it and stroke. He didn’t seem to notice that the young woman was beautiful; he was affable and appeared eager to learn, but he didn’t seem to desire her.
About ten days after he woke up, she had a formal meeting with two of his doctors. The doctor who was overseeing his case told her they would need to keep him in the hospital for another two weeks, minimum. Even though he seemed fine physically, it was really impossible to tell without constant monitoring. Then, after he was allowed to move home, he would enter a phase of intensive out-patient rehabilitation. The therapies would continue for a long while. The second doctor, his neurologist, said, "I’m very hopeful. I’ve seen cases like this, worse even, get back their memories, become themselves again. He’s energetic and he wants to learn. He’s not depressed. These are all good signs for improvement."
She nodded, smiling. Then she felt her eyes getting wet. She heard herself make an ugly noise, a kind of choking gasp. "I’m sorry," she said.
The neurologist said, "It’s okay. You’ve been great, really strong, and I’m sure that’s part of why he’s doing so well."
The doctor said, "Some people get hysterical in your situation, and it doesn’t help the patient at all."
"Thanks," she said.
She knew she could start sleeping at home again, but she didn’t. She stayed on in his room, sleeping on the reclining armchair.
That night, he woke her up, very late. "Hi," he said.
"What is it?" she said, sitting up. She glanced out the window. The moon was huge; there were no stars. Then she looked over at him. He was sitting up in bed. She could see him smiling at her in the silver light.
"I’m getting tired," he said.
"I’m tired of this. How much longer do we need to be here? Everybody’s really nice, but I’m getting bored."
She was silent for a few seconds.
"I don’t know," she said.
"Don’t you? They tell you things they don’t tell me."
She stood up and turned away from him, facing the window. She looked out at the sky, then down at the parking lot, Route 9 beyond it, and the river on the other side of Route 9. The water looked black and silky, and the moonlight reflecting off its ripples looked like the scales of a snake. She left the window and walked over to his bedside.
"Whenever you want to go," she said, "we can go."
By early dawn, they were in the mountains. He was asleep next to her. She glanced over at him a couple of times a minute, to make sure his chest was still rising and falling, and once, she reached across the gear shift to feel his pulse. In places, the road cut through the rock; in others, it wound through great pine forests. Sometime close to sunrise, she pulled off into a rest area with a small parking lot and a structure that resembled a log cabin. She stopped the car in front of the building and patted his hand. He opened his eyes and said, "That was a funny dream." Then he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, near her chin, and his lips grazed the corner of her mouth. She pulled away a little and smiled at him.
"Do you have to use the bathroom?" she asked.
"No," he said. "Do you?"
"Yes. I’ll just be a minute, okay?"
"I think I’ll go for a walk," he said, looking out the window. They were near the top of a mountain peak, and the trees were low and sparse. White flowers dotted the patchy grass around the rest stop. No other cars were parked in the lot.
"Please don’t," she said. "I’ll be really quick, and then, if you want, we can take a walk together."
He nodded. She got out of the car and went into the building. Inside, it looked nothing like a log cabin. It had concrete floors, a water fountain, a rack with flyers and pamphlets for local attractions.
In the ladies’ room, washing her hands, she looked at herself in the tilted mirror. During those many weeks in the hospital, she had trained herself not to look in the mirror — she knew that she would look shockingly tired, that her skin looked dry and gray, her lips bloodless, and that dark bluish semi-circles puffed out under her eyes. Under the fluorescent lights of the hospital ladies’ rooms, every wrinkle had looked like a deep canyon in her skin, and she could see clearly how her freckles were transforming into age spots, larger and darker than before. But now her cheeks had some warmth to them and her lips were rosy. In the dawn light that came through the high windows of the fake log cabin, she found herself admiring her face for the first time in a long while. She splashed some cold water on her eyelids and went back outside.
The passenger’s side door was open, and he was gone.
She started to run, calling his name, zigzagging the grass to the edge of the trees. She jogged down to the edge of the road, and looked up and down it, shouting with her hands cupped around the sides of her mouth. Then she jogged back up to the parking lot. She was sweating, panting. He was there, sitting on the hood of the car. He held a pinecone.
"Where the hell were you?" she said. "Didn’t you hear me calling you?"
"I went for a walk," he said.
When she reached the car, she grabbed his shoulders and shook him.
"I told you not to go for a walk without me. Do you know how worried I was?"
"No," he said. "How worried were you?"
She looked at him. He smiled at her and handed her the pinecone. "It smells good," he said. She sniffed it. "I’m going to keep it," he said, taking it back from her.
"Please, get in the car," she said.
The road slalomed down the other side of the mountain, and the morning sun strobed as she took the hairpin turns. She was driving fast, her heart pounding and her stomach rising just a bit with each switchback. As she remembered it, a high valley sat between the two mountains, and in that valley was a town. And yes, at a crossroads where a gas station faced a tackle shop, a sign for the town pointed east two miles. She was hungry, and she was driving recklessly. Her head ached.
As they approached the town, she slowed the car, and they drove by a small white church across from a schoolyard with a swing set and a roundabout. She had not spoken since the rest stop, and neither had he. He had been fiddling with
He opened his lips and pushed her thumb between them.
the pinecone, bringing it to his nose, tossing it from hand to hand the whole time. Now she spoke.
"I came here once a long time ago, before I got married."
The pinecone made a tapping noise as it hit his cast.
She looked over at him. He was looking out the window, craning his neck as if to see something they’d passed — at the swings, she thought.
"Are you hungry?" she asked.
"Famished," he said.
In the middle of town, they found a coffee shop. Behind the counter, a young girl with pink hair and a ring through her eyebrow waited on them. They were the only customers. They stood there, staring at the blackboard that hung high on the wall.
She saw the counter girl looking him up and down. The girl was playing with something inside her mouth, and it made a click-clicking sound. She imagined that she was the girl, taking in his skin, which, always pale, had become truly white during his month in the hospital. Taking in the way his thin arms moved from sockets hidden deep inside the short sleeves of his t-shirt. She imagined that she was seeing his blue eyes for the first time, his dark eyebrows.
The girl spoke: "Know what you want?" and a silver ball glinted from her tongue.
She ordered her cappuccino and muffin, and he copied her order exactly.
"Aren’t you Kev’s brother?" the girl asked him as she handed them their cups.
"Hmmm," he said, looking down at his torso, his feet. "I don’t know."
"We’re not from here," she said to the girl. "We’re passing through."
"You look so much like this kid Kev," said the girl, corkscrewing her tongue as she spoke.
When they sat down, she leaned forward and whispered to him, "This place doesn’t seem like a small-town place." She peeled the paper off the bottom of her muffin and took a bite.
"Small town?" he said. "Place." And then: "This is a place." He bit also, and then started to make little spitting noises.
"Don’t eat the paper," she said.
"Oh, okay." He said.