Like Stonewall Jackson’s Arm
He had both legs when we first met. When he asked for my number, I felt like the universe had finally come to give me something good. There are no mistakes. God’s got something better in mind for you. We’re never given more than we can handle. When Charlie asked for my number, it seemed possible that they’d been right all along. Maybe there really was a reason for it all.
On our first date I commented on a man passing by, “I love seeing little dogs walked by big men.”
“What about a little woman in the arms of a big man?” he asked and scooped me up. I giggled because it felt so good to be small. I had never been with a man who could lift me before.
When he set me down, I held my breath. If I could hold it until he spoke, he was meant for me. My lungs burned. My head hurt. After awhile he looked at me and cocked his head. “Are you okay?” he asked. I exhaled.
“I’m okay,” I said, and it felt like the square of sidewalk beneath our feet would hold our shoeprints forever.
When it happened, I was the first call. It was Charlie’s number, but it wasn’t Charlie calling. It was some guy he worked with on the docks. Charlie fell while de-lashing containers. He snagged his foot on the way down and hit the ground with a non-salvageable open fracture.
On the way to the hospital I held my breath through every red light. Maybe I did it right because he is still alive, but maybe I did it wrong because if I had done it right, they would have been able to save it and he’d still have both legs.
It’s not a bad view from his room. The building is tall enough to see over the tops of the other buildings. We are on the seventh floor. There are trees outside that move in the wind and cast shadows on the parking lot. This is better than the East Wing, which has a view of the North Wing. From there, all you can see are tinted windows that shield sickness and newborn babies. The trees remind you that there is an outside, that all light is not fluorescent and all floors are not linoleum. There are rivers and deserts and malls and movies and roads without names somewhere far off the highway.
We play this game sometimes where we make band names from objects we see around us. I take note for when he wakes up. Morphine Blanket. Tangerine Curtain. The Bedpans.
The pretty nurse walks in. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s still sleeping,” I say and start reading through his worker’s comp forms.
She walks over to the machines, checks his IV, and makes a few marks on his chart. “I’ll be back to check on him soon.”
I like the older nurse better. I never have to worry that Charlie is imagining her in a naughty nurse costume instead of baggy puppy print scrubs.
Yesterday when he woke up he thought his left foot was a litter of kittens. “Mary, look at all these kittens!” he said wiggling his toes. They’re giving him good drugs.
Twenty minutes from here is the house my grandpa built on Future Street. He literally built a house. Concrete. Lumber. Nails. Built himself an entire house. He was orphaned at fifteen and road the rails out to California. My grandma wasn’t his first wife, but she was his best wife. I never found out what happened to that first wife or if she was happy that he left. Sometimes I worry that she spent the rest of her life wondering why she had to be the one that came up short. I’m not Charlie’s wife, but I am his In Case of Emergency.
Next to his bed is a table on wheels with fake wood grain laminate. On the table his dinner is covered by an opaque lid. The food is always delivered like this. A surprise. If he doesn’t wake up for a long time, I steal his roll. It’s served on the side. I never lift the cover. Today there is a tangerine on the tray. I hold it in my palm and roll it across my forehead. It’s skin is so much colder than my own. I wonder if it’s dead, if fruit is ever really alive at all.
Back in highschool, I worked at a hamburger place. I had a hard time remembering which burger went with which wrapper. There was a hierarchy. Modest burgers were in plain white, slightly fancy in goldenrod. There was silver foil for deluxe and gold foil for ultra deluxe. The thing that threw me was distinguishing which of the thirteen burgers fell into which category. Sometimes I’d panic when it got busy and just wrap the burger in any wrapper and send it out. I told myself that it was stupid. Who cared which wrapper your burger came in? But I knew it mattered. There is a way things are supposed to be. And if the right wrapper mattered, then everything mattered. And if everything mattered, I wasn’t sure how I’d ever breathe normal again.
Charlie hasn’t moved in hours, but I know he’s okay because the machines would start screaming if he wasn’t. His face isn’t any better looking when he’s asleep. He’s pockmarked and slightly asymmetrical, his nose just a bit off center and a faint scar runs from his lip to his nostril. It’s funny what you can fall in love with. In a pitch black room of strangers, I could find him with only my fingertips.
When he is able to go come home, I’ll move in and take care of him. I’ll bring him his meals on a tray and put his medication in a little plastic cup on the side. I will fluff his pillows, but kind of nonchalant so it’s helpful but not a big deal. I will not even notice the bandage. I will take care of him, but not baby him. I won’t be his mother. He will still be the man. He will say that through it all, I was his angel, not Anita.
After the operation, he didn’t reach for my hand. He asked for Anita instead. He didn’t say he loved me or whisper my name like I hoped he would. He didn’t motion for a kiss. We’ve never kissed. After our third date, he proposed friendship.
Anita comes back into the room carrying two cups of coffee. She takes a sip off one, hands me the other, and kisses Charlie on the forehead.
She turns towards me. “Thanks for staying. I know it means a lot to him. He says you’re the closest thing to family he has out here.”
“I don’t mind staying.”
Her eyes never dip below his waist. Maybe the next time she steps out she won’t step back in.
“Do you mind sticking around for a few more minutes?” she says, “I just need to make a couple of calls, then I’ll stay so you can go home and get some rest.”
“That’s fine,” I say. “Take your time.”
I watch her walk out.
I thought we should bury his leg in the yard like Stonewall Jackson’s arm was buried on the battlefield. They don’t give it to you in a little zip-lock bag like when you have your wisdom teeth pulled though. They don’t even ask what you’d like done with it. They just saw it off and cart it away.
He wakes up. I tell him this and he says, “What did you think they’d do with it? Don’t say stuff like that.”
I feel stupid and small and make myself as tiny as I can in the chair beside his hospital bed.
He falls asleep again, the hair above his forehead damp with sweat. I hold my breath. If I can hold it until a bird chirps, I am meant to walk out and never come back. If I can’t, I am meant to be here and wait until he loves me back. The pressure in my lungs turns into burning and crawls up my throat. I move to the window and scan the sky, the trees, the clouds. There are no wings, no beaks, nothing gliding through the air. Black pin pricks dot my vision. I push my ear against the glass. Nothing. I push it even harder. Nothing. The dots get larger, my head gets lighter. I feel it float away.
“You’re all set,” the doctor says.
I touch the bandage on my temple. It hurts.
“Keep the stitches dry for forty-eight hours. If you feel light headed again, lie down before you faint.”
I stand up and walk through the loby. The hospital doors part for me and I step outside. The afternoon is almost evening. Across the parking lot is Charlie’s wing. I start at the bottom of the building and count up seven stories until my eyes reach his floor. From there, I keep counting until I reach the roof. I don’t know if the thoughts I had in his room are still in his room, or in my head, or if they have risen through the roof and into the atmosphere. Maybe thoughts are like light and take time to travel.
The sun I see isn’t the sun of now. It is the sun of eight minutes ago. When the stars come out, it will be their past that I see. I will never see their present.
I look at Charlie’s window, then up at the sky again. The universe will never see me as I am. It will only see me how I used to be. Right now, it still sees me sitting in his hospital room. It does’t know I’m in the parking lot. It hasn’t yet seen me take the roll from my purse and tear off pieces for the birds. By the time it sees me toss the last bit of bread, I will be in the future.
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