Stranger Things Have Happened
So the important thing to know from the start is that she was miserable. She hadn't always been, of course--she'd gotten married in a flurry of sex and promises and she'd worn a white dress so hideously confectionary that she felt like a parody of herself, a joke told in crinoline and lace, and even that made her happy, because it was silly and she knew they'd laugh about it later. Which they did. Then they had a baby, who was beautiful and perfect, then later on became less beautiful, less perfect, in fact troubled, for a time Ritalin- and methamphetamine-addicted, but subsequently, amazingly, pulled himself together and managed, despite the rocky years, to graduate college and find a decent job at a zoo, tending to the turtles.
Which brings us to the misery, twenty-six years on. On the day she discovered she was miserable, which is to say allowed herself to feel it, Kathleen was forty-nine years old and a tenured professor of American literature at a college in suburban Philadelphia. Her husband, Terence, was fifty-two, and he too was tenured, in the same department, at the same school. Their son Steve had been clean for three years. The mortgage had been paid. Financially, emotionally, logistically, things were going pretty well. Both she and Terence were in a meeting, discussing whether or not to allow English majors to graduate without taking a course in Shakespeare. Tempers on this topic ran high, as they did on almost all topics; the professors were a testy bunch, desirous of offense. Terence, who was the chair, thought that this requirement was retrograde, absurd; everyone knew that English majors today went to marketing or advertising or law school.
"That's true," Kathleen said wearily. She was obligated to support her husband. At one time, she'd worked hard to stake out her own positions, to be seen as objective and fair. Once she realized, however, that no matter what she said she would always be perceived as being on Terence's side--even if she voted against him, this was interpreted as some kind of obscure but Machiavellian strategy the two of them had cooked up together--she opted for the path of least resistance, which was to pretend, both at work and at home, that Terence was the single most brilliant person she knew.
"Now, I love Shakespeare," Terence said. Kathleen wondered if this was true. She hadn't seen Terence read a book, any book, for pleasure, in over ten years. What he truly loved was reality television. He liked to root for the schemers, the alliance-forgers, praising them for their cunning and amorality. Play the game, he would urge them out loud in the den, his voice tight with drama.
Nonetheless, he went on about Shakespeare. "I could happily spend the rest of my days reading the plays and sonnets over and over again. But I'm a scholar. And we're not preparing scholars, by and large, after all," he finished. He prided himself on forward thinking.
"Surely you aren't saying that only literary scholars need to read Shakespeare?" Fleur Mason said. "Surely even you, Terence, are not that hostile to literature?"
Even you hung in the room's ensuing silence. In this group there was no such thing as a passing remark; all remarks were noted, parsed, enshrined. Fleur Mason didn't flush; she looked right at Terence, owning her words. She was young, square-shouldered, passionate. She wore ruffled skirts and lace blouses and a gold cross on a chain and seemed like someone who had spent her childhood alone in a room, writing poems about trees. She didn't belong to today's world, but refused, violently, to admit it.
"Surely even you, Fleur, aren't so defensive and small-minded as to think that questioning literature's practices is the same as being hostile to them," Terence said smoothly. He was gearing up. It was almost five, and the other members of the department looked indiscreetly at their watches, anticipating late-afternoon blood sugar crashes, child-care crises, cocktails tragically delayed.
"Maybe this is more than we want to get into right now," Kathleen said diplomatically, for which she received a few grateful glances. But not from Fleur and Terence; the two of them were breathing hard. Neither of them wanted to let it drop. Half an hour passed. The Shakespeare requirement was debated. No resolution was reached. Finally, after those in the department with children progressed from shuffling their papers into bags to actually standing up and moving to the door, Terence tabled the issue and adjourned the meeting, promising that next month they would communally endure the punishment of having to discuss it again.
Kathleen went back to her office, trying to wrap up a few things, but all she could think about was Fleur Mason. She felt feverishly irritated with her. It was ridiculous for her to be so difficult, so adamant. She obviously had to know that letting Terence have his way was the easiest course of action for everyone. Fleur had, in fact, always driven Kathleen crazy. She was single and thirty-seven and appeared to have little life outside of her job. She had a laugh like a demented clown; it rose too suddenly and lingered too long.
There was also the profound and unforgivable stupidity of her name.
By six-thirty everyone else had left, including Terence, who played squash with his friend Dave on Tuesday afternoons. Fleur Mason's office had once been Kathleen's, and she still had the key. She walked down the hall and let herself in. She stood there for a moment, energized with hate. The room smelled like dust and Yankee Candle. There were framed New Yorker cartoons with literary jokes on the walls. And there was this: Fleur kept a bird in her office. God only knew how this had started or why it was allowed but she'd moved the bird here--it was a parakeet--one semester when she was, she said, spending more time at the office than at home, and didn't want the bird to be lonely. Now the bird was a permanent fixture, chirping all day long. At night she put a blanket over it, and the bird went to sleep. Or so she said. Kathleen lifted up the blanket and the bird was not sleeping, at least not as far as she could tell. It stared back at her with tiny, waxy, jelly-bean eyes. She opened the door of the office--there was no one around--then opened the door of the cage. She reached in and grabbed the bird in her hand, and in the instant before she threw it out into the hallway, before it confusedly took flight, its yellow wings scraping the walls, she could feel the frenzied, angry beating of its miniature heart against her palm.
She went home and cooked shrimp scampi, which she ate while listening to Terence talk about Shakespeare and the irrelevance of canonical literature in today's digital world. As she finished, she glanced outside and noticed a cardinal sitting on the branch of an elm tree, looking back at her. She thought of Fleur Mason's parakeet, trapped in the hallway of the Humanities Building--or, alternately, flying around the campus, making its yellow way through a world it had never before seen. She felt remorseful, but also still corked with hate. Nothing had been exorcised from her soul.
She knew, then, that it wasn't hate for Fleur that consumed her so feverishly, that this action of hers had been misplaced. She understood--how belatedly!--that she detested not Fleur but herself, her own life, and most particularly her husband and his relentless occupation of that life. And she had hated all of this for a very long time.
"Terry," she said.
He cocked his head at her, bird-like, chewing. Sometimes conversation seemed like something he'd read about in a magazine, never experienced first-hand. To him, her preferable role was audience. Anything she said, any response, even agreement, was liable to piss him off, and he'd storm away from the table, never clearing or washing the dishes, to scour the cable channels for shows.
"Never mind," she said.
For a time she kept this knowledge to herself, shepherding it through her days, clutched to her body like a moneybelt. I hate my husband. She'd been fighting it for so long! Now she knew. It was a relief tampered only by the dread of telling him, leaving him. She could picture, so perfectly, the scene of her escape, her refuge: she'd buy a little condo, and furnish it simply but cozily, in reds and yellows, and she'd have fresh flowers and no stereo system, no flat screen TV, none of the consumer electronics Terry spent his weekends shopping for. But it was hard, it was impossible, to imagine how to get from here to there. His anger was scorching, and his speeches long-winded; she'd have to budget days, weeks, to let him get it all out.
Then, one Sunday afternoon, Steve called, and announced that he'd received a job offer in California, to be head turtlekeeper at a large municipal zoo, and he was going to be moving cross-country. Both Kathleen and Terence were happy for him, and not a little surprised that he'd managed to do so well. Terence spoke to him second, and when he got off the phone, his face was thoughtful.
"It's weird," he said. "It'll just be the two of us now."
"It's been the two of us for a while," Kathleen pointed out.
"I know, but now it seems like he really doesn't need us the same way anymore. He doesn't need--" Terence gestured to the house, the living room, the framed photographs, all the archival, institutional memory of the family--"this."
And she knew, from the way he said that this--because she was, after all, a professor of literature, and she paid attention to the placement and nuance of words--that Terence was every bit as miserable as she was.
So she spoke, for the first time in years, with genuine affection.
"Honey," she said, "let's get divorced."
They stayed up late, making plans, more excited about this stage of their lives than anything since their honeymoon, practically. They couldn't stop expressing surprise and joy at the revelations; the discovery of shared misery was as thrilling, in its way, as the discovery of mutual love. Terence said he wanted to take early retirement and drive a motorcycle to Central America. What a cliché, Kathleen thought, then realized that his behavior no longer implicated her, that she didn't need to be concerned. And she told him it sounded like a great idea.
Because it was still the middle of the semester, because they wanted to sell the house and each buy new ones, because the start of a new life was something that ought to be relished, as the luxury it was, they decided not to rush it. They spent spring break with two separate realtors, looking at houses in two separate neighborhoods. They stopped eating dinner together, and sometimes Kathleen just had cereal for supper, while reading a magazine. Terence would go out for a burger with his friend Dave. Dave had never been married and started drinking at noon on Saturdays. He had false teeth and believed himself irresistible to women. What Terence saw in him was a mystery, but she no longer felt required to plumb its depths. And thank God, thank God, thank God.
The week after spring break, Kathleen was at home grading papers when the phone rang. A man identifying himself as a police officer asked for her by name.
"What's this about?" she said.
"I'm afraid there's been an accident," he said. "Your husband is at the hospital."
"What kind of accident?"
"It's hard to say," he said.
"What do you mean it's hard to say? Is he okay?"
"He's not able to give us a statement at this time. I think you'd better come down right away."
When she got to the hospital, the police officer was standing outside the room she'd been told was Terence's, along with a doctor and a young, rail-thin man in a dirty hooded sweatshirt whose connection to the situation was unclear. They all started talking at once, and Kathleen stood there listening to the cacophony, unable to understand any of it--some of them were asking questions, others were explaining--until finally her teacher instincts kicked and she said, firmly, "Stop. All of you." She pointed to the police officer. "You first."
"Your husband appears to have been the victim of a crime," the officer said. At this the guy in a hoodie tried to interrupt, but Kathleen shushed him. "From what we understand, he was waiting at the stoplight by the Everton Mall when a young individual, wearing a ski mask, entered the vehicle and asked Mr. Schwartz to exit. Mr. Schwartz appears to have refused. An altercation ensued."
"You're saying Terry was carjacked? At the mall?"
"As you know there has been an escalation in violent crime in this area," the police officer said gravely, "linked to the increased presence of illegal drugs."
The guy in the hoodie could no longer be contained. "I'm coming out of Sears and I see this guy dive into your husband's car, and he's yelling ‘Pterodactyl! Pterodactyl!' and he grabs your husband? And pulls him out and starts beating him and then he leaves him in the middle of the road and screeches off in the car and he actually, uh, runs over your husband when he drives away."
"Pterodactyl?" Kathleen said.
"I think he was hallucinating, you know, like tripping?" the man said. "My theory is that in his mind he was being pursued by this, like, animal, and getting away from it was the top priority?"
"Your husband's injuries are quite severe," the doctor picked up. They were in a rhythm now, this information committee, filling in the picture for her. "He's non-responsive at this time."
"You're saying he's unconscious?"
"He's in the state you would know as a coma," the doctor said.
"Jesus," Kathleen said. "Can I see him?"
All three men nodded, as if they collectively gave her permission. Inside the dim, white room, her husband lay swaddled in tubes and gauze. Beneath the bandages what she could see of his skin looked bloated, purple, etched with rupture. He was a Franken-Terry, a monster version of himself.
"Dear God," she said out loud. The machines beeped, as if in sympathy. She couldn't bring herself to touch him or even say his name.
The department gathered round. Everyone came to the hospital, bearing flowers, cards, audio books. Lots of audio books. It seemed to have been universally agreed upon that the sounds of literature would bring Terence back to consciousness, a notion that Kathleen found both touching and ridiculous. She herself pictured his brain as rotten and pulpy, fruit that had been dropped on the ground. Playing books on tape to it seemed hardly adequate. It would be like reciting Beckett to a flesh wound.
But she thanked everyone, and accepted the gifts with all the graciousness she could muster. She couldn't help feeling, though, that she was playing a part. She and Terry hadn't told anyone of the impending divorce. For one thing, they'd wanted to wait until the semester was over; for another, they knew the gossip would rise in the halls with the force of a storm, and they each wanted to enjoy the secret knowledge of the surprise for a little while before unleashing it. Desire to spite their colleagues was one goal they still shared.
In a gesture they meant to be kind, the department arranged for someone to take over not just Terry's classes, but also hers. Kathleen called both realtors and told them they had to stop looking at condos. Her world shrank to the house and to the hospital room, an orbit of two planets. At the hospital, she played Terry the tapes--who knew, they might help--which were mostly, it turned out, of Shakespeare plays. Everyone had taken his profession of love for Shakespeare seriously. So Kathleen lost herself in the recitation of Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, leaning back in the room's only chair, her eyes closed. Sometimes, she forgot where she was; but then she would open her eyes and see him, this broken, silent mummy entombed with machines. It was impossible to know what of him was still there. The doctors said there was some brain activity but they couldn't specify what this would mean, how long the coma would last. It's a waiting game, they liked to say, to which Kathleen always responded, "Game?" They'd smile wryly, then leave the room.
Steve came. She'd kept the news of the accident from him at first, because she was afraid of what might happen to his recovery if he were shaken too badly. The twelve steps were his only navigational tool through the world, and she did not entirely trust them to keep him on course. And indeed, when he came in, he was a mess--red-eyed, ashen. He was six foot four and two hundred pounds, her son, yet still managed to be the most fragile human being Kathleen had ever known. No wonder he'd been drawn to turtles; he too should have been born with a shell. He was overly sensitive to the world, and he had had to swathe himself with drugs so as not to feel it too much. Now, sober, he was unsheltered, exposed. One look at his father and he burst into tears, shuddering against Kathleen, his spine curling. If he could feasibly, logistically, have crawled into her lap, she knew he would have done so. Cradling his huge shoulders in her arms, Kathleen cried too. His grief was the knife that sliced through her own numb skin.
"It's going to be okay," she murmured to him, over and over.
"It is?" Steve said wildly. "How? When?"
"We just have to wait," she said. "It's a waiting game."
He wanted to know if he should put off his move to California, to the better zoo with more kinds of turtles. She forbade it. She told him Terry would want him to go. Which he would. Which, if he had any brain activity inside the sleeping carapace of his body, he did.
The car was recovered in a wooded area off the interstate. Its windows had been left open and by the time they found it, its interior had been colonized by raccoons--Terry had left some fast food in there, he thought eating at McDonald's made him a man of the people--and swept through with tree branches and rain. As a crime scene, it was less than pristine. Because the pterodactyl-seeing man had been wearing a ski mask, because the sole witness, the guy at the hospital, had, it turned out, been drinking, because even violent crimes are just passing deeds in a world stuffed full of them to overflowing, the carjacking case did not get solved. The police, at first, called Kathleen regularly, she went to the station, reports were filed. Gradually she realized that she was the one calling them; eventually, they stopped returning her calls. The case ebbed away. At night she sometimes dreamed of him, the hallucinating carjacker, and in her dreams he was always riding the pterodactyl, hanging on to its leathery neck, laughing as it flew him up and away.
Steve loaded his possessions into a U-Haul and drove west, calling every day, then every other day, to report on his new place and job. Her departmental colleagues, so solicitous at first, stopped visiting, and their calls dropped off, too. "End of the semester," they said apologetically, "you know how crazy it gets."
She was left alone with the breathing, silent body of her at-one-time-soon-to-be ex-husband.
Only one person, of everyone she knew in the world, did not seem to forget her, and that person, horrifyingly, was Fleur Mason. She'd been part of the group that first came, bearing a group bouquet, and in the flurry of group conversation Kathleen had been able to ignore her, though she suspected her of having left behind the white teddy bear holding a mug that read, "Get well soon!" But she was unignorable when she came alone, a week later, with a box of chocolates and basket of specialty teas. She stood next to the bed and said cheerfully, "He doesn't look so bad, does he? I think he looks better than last week."
Of everything Kathleen had been through--she missed her job, her students, she missed her son, and she missed, most of all, the sense of a future opening up before her, a future without constant irritation, which seemed to have been ripped from her just as she was about to grab it, like Tantalus and his grapes--being alone with Fleur Mason in a hospital room seemed like the one thing too many. Though she'd realized that her irritation of Fleur was a substitute for other hatreds, that didn't mean she liked the woman any better; she still found her presence, her clothing, her voice, her manner--in short, her--as intensely aggravating as before.
So she didn't say much when Fleur showed up. She just glared. She figured it was her prerogative to be rude. And she also figured that it was better to discourage Fleur now, lest she keep coming back--by the same principle she used to be strict and a harsh grader on the first paper of the semester, so that students would know she wasn't a pushover.
If Fleur got the message, she didn't show it. She cocked her head and spoke in a high, chirping voice seemingly meant to connote sympathy. "You'll get through this, Kathleen," she said. "I know you will. You're a very strong woman and you will prevail."
Kathleen said, "Whatever happened to that bird of yours? Did anybody ever figure out who took it?"
"Ah, no," Fleur said. This rattled her and she looked down at the ground, fiddled with the fringed edges of her beaded, ruffled scarf.
"Maybe no one took it," Kathleen said. "Maybe it just escaped on its own."
Fleur Mason was looking at Terence now, at the cage of his body. If Kathleen was not mistaken, tears were visible in her eyes. "Stranger things have happened," she said.
Each week, Fleur came back. Sometimes she came to the hospital, during visiting hours, but more often, as time dragged on, she came to the house, dropping in on Kathleen on a Thursday afternoon after classes were over. She brought gifts: a book, brownies, departmental gossip. Sadly, she also brought with her the annoying gift of her personality and her chortling, exasperating laugh.
Kathleen made no attempt to be polite to Fleur; she never offered coffee or tea; she never even thanked her for coming by. Fleur took to bringing coffee with her, in a thermos, and separately packed containers of milk and sugar, along with cookies, which she brought out of her bag and arranged on a floral plate. Which she also brought. She was a portable concession, a coffee-shop-mobile.
She rarely asked about Terry. She seemed to assume that if there was news on that front, Kathleen would tell her. Rather, she asked about Kathleen's week, what she'd been doing, as if Kathleen had a life. And because Kathleen was proud, she found herself anticipating this question throughout the week, and developing a life in order to have an answer for it. She read books, she knitted a scarf, she watched a documentary film about turtles so that she could understand better what her son did for a living. These things weren't much, but they were something, and she offered them to herself in Fleur's presence, Fleur the conduit for them, the road she was obliged to travel to get there.
Fleur days, as she called them in her head, gave the week its only shape. Otherwise she separated the days into mornings, when she was at home, afternoons, which she spent with Terry, and evenings, which she spent with a bottle of wine. Each day was distinguished from the next only by the shift rotations of the hospital staff, all of whom she came to know by name. She asked after their kids; she celebrated their birthdays with them, ate sheet cake in the lounge.
Alone with Terry, every afternoon, she played Shakespeare for him and read. She rarely spoke to him. The doctors had told her that the sound of her voice might help--"couldn't hurt" is what they had actually said--but she couldn't bring herself to read to him. It felt too much like pretending. She sat with him. She watched as they changed his catheter, his bandages. His skin was healing, day by day, and he looked less like bruised fruit and more like supermarket poultry: naked, trussed.
Inside the hard container of his skull his brain was trying to heal. She imagined it pulsing gently, rifling through itself, finding only the useless--childhood memories, sports scores, Marxist theory--looking for some pure good cells that would bring him back to life.
It was entirely possible, the doctors said, that he might never wake up. They spoke in measured tones of percentages and possibilities. She needed, they said, to be prepared for every eventuality. But when she pressed them--When do I decide? What do I decide? How will I know?--they shook their heads and counseled patience.
To say that what she felt, sitting next to him, was complicated would be more than understatement. She believed, with all her heart, that Terry didn't want her there; that he had long hated her the way she hated him; that her presence had grown to be a burden, even her voice, the sound of her mouth chewing, the rhythm of her steps--the way only married people can hate these inconsequential things. It was as a gesture of kindness that she didn't read to him, because surely just being in a coma doesn't erase your irritation with your wife's voice. With all the troubled intimacy of their twenty-six years together she knew this about him. And it was this same knowledge that bound them; which meant she had to keep coming back, every single day, to visit this trussed chicken who had been her lover and her companion and her enemy. Because she was who he had.
At home that night, a little tipsy, she called Dave.
"It's Kathleen," she said.
There was a pause.
"Terry's wife," she said.
"Oh right," he said. It was ten o'clock, and he too sounded drunk. "Everything okay? I mean, how's Terry?"
"He's the same. Why haven't you been to see him? You're his best friend."
There was another pause. "I am?" he said.
"Jesus," she said. "Listen, I need to ask you something and I need you to be honest. For Terry's sake."
She had a memory of Dave at their house, at a party--back when she and Terry still had parties--slipping a bottle of vodka to their son, their imminently addictive-personality son, and shrugging afterwards, saying that the longer you kept it away from kids the worse they wanted it. They found poor Steve at three in the morning, puking in the park, and he swore he'd never again touch alcohol. Which was true, actually, he only ever snorted drugs, so maybe Dave wasn't completely off base.
"Sure, anything," he was saying now.
"Was Terry having an affair?"
"Oh, Kathy," he said. "No."
"I'm not asking for the reason you think I am," she said. "I'm not mad. I just thought, if he was, he would probably want her with him in the room, do you know what I mean? Instead of me? So I thought it would be nice to invite her or whatever. As a," she stumbled to find the right word. And then her mind seized it, brilliantly: "As a mitzvah."
Dave, like Terry, was Jewish; Kathleen was Irish Catholic, though the question of religion was one they always, resolutely, ignored. But Dave, right now, did not sound pleased to hear her use the word mitzvah. In fact, he sounded sober and annoyed. "There's no girl, Kathy. Get some sleep."
She told him not to call her Kathy, but he'd already hung up.
The notion of an affair preoccupied her for some time. The truth was that she suspected Fleur Mason--nothing else, she thought, could explain her relentless visitation--yet there wasn't anything in their conversations to support it; Fleur gave no indication of knowing anything more about Terry's life than Kathleen did, and she had little curiosity about him, either. She only wanted to talk about Kathleen, her interests, her mental and physical health, her opinion of world politics. She kept insisting that Kathleen had a life, against all evidence to the contrary. It was, frankly, more than a little weird.
Summer came, and Fleur left town for two weeks to visit her family in Wisconsin. Kathleen had been looking forward to this Fleur-less time for ages. Finally she would have some peace. She wouldn't watch any DVDs or read the newspaper or knit. She would sit around in her pajamas and be miserable without interruption or witness.
It was an unpleasant surprise, then, to discover that she missed Fleur. She felt like she was going out of her mind, in fact; the days were formless, chaotic, her visits to Terry felt off because there was no one to report to about them, her evenings collapsed into drinking and endless crappy television--she was appalled to think how much of it Terry used to watch, it was such an obvious cry for help--and she woke up at three a.m. sobbing with loneliness and despair.
Dear God, she thought. Fleur Mason, whom I hate, is my best friend.
When Fleur came back to town, she was at Kathleen's the next day. Kathleen had cleaned the house, baked muffins, and brewed coffee. Fleur took it all in stride. She told Kathleen about her vacation, then asked Kathleen about her own family. Instead of answering, Kathleen said, "I have to tell you something."
Fleur set her muffin down. "Shoot," she said.
"I was the one who took your bird out of its cage," Kathleen said. Even as she said it she wasn't sure why she was confessing. To kill the friendship or strengthen it: both urges commingled in her mind, her heart.
"I know," Fleur said.
"You're the only one with a key to the office. Except the custodian, and he loves birds. He keeps pigeons at home, did you know that? I also know that you didn't want to hire me in the first place, and tried to terminate my contract in the second year." This was true, though Kathleen had thought it was a secret. "And I know you told people that my teaching was terrible and that you didn't want me to get tenure."
"If you know all that," Kathleen said slowly, "why are you here?"
She steeled herself for what she was about to hear, the words like grit, rubbing against her. Because I get to pity you. And that is my revenge.
Fleur laughed her too-long laugh. "Just because you don't like me," she said, "doesn't mean I don't get to like you."
"What the hell does that mean?" Kathleen said grumpily.
"You're smart and sensible. I look up to you. I figured whatever issues you had with me, eventually you would get over them, if I didn't let myself get distracted by the other stuff."
"I don't know what to say," Kathleen said.
"And anyway the custodian found Harry, so no harm done."
"My parakeet. He found Harry in the men's room and trapped him for me--as I said, he has pigeons, he knows about birds--and called me and I brought Harry home. He's fine."
"Everybody thought he was gone. They said you were heartbroken."
"It doesn't hurt," Fleur said mildly, "to let people feel sorry for you every once in a while."
The next day, at the hospital, Kathleen didn't play any Shakespeare. She opened the blinds in the room--Terry loved the sun, he wanted to retire to Florida and play golf all day, after the motorcycle trip to South America--and sat next to the bed. The view was of the parking lot, where a few spindly trees played host to crows and sparrows, but at least the light was bright. She looked at her husband. The bandages had been removed, and his skin was perversely healthy, even pink. On his hands were scabs, raised like tattoos on his knuckles. His beard had grown but the nurses kept it trimmed, so that he looked, if anything, more professorial than ever. She put a hand on the coarse crinkle of hair on his head.
"Oh, Terry," she found herself saying. She had known him so long, and that familiarity, however abrasive it had become, felt inextricable from love. She felt so badly for him, for everything he'd been through, everything he'd lost. She felt grandly and enormously sorry, a Niagara Falls of sorry that crashed from her in a torrent, flooding her voice with tears. "My heart, my love." She touched his cheek, his shoulder, the poor pale skin beneath his papery gown. "Come to back to me, love, come back, please, please, please, please, please, please, please."
She spent the night at the hospital, in the chair by his bed, and when she woke up in the morning, the crows cawing outside, she saw that his eyes were open and he was looking at her expectantly, as if she were the one who had just spent so much time asleep.
It had been three months, but to Terry, it was as if no time had passed. He said he felt like he had woken up from a particularly long nap. Of the accident itself he had no memory whatsoever; the last thing he could remember was buying lunch at MacDonald's and eating French fries as he drove home. Within three days of awakening he was released from the hospital, though Kathleen drove him back every day for physical therapy on his atrophied muscles and cognitive therapy for his atrophied brain.
She had no idea whether it was her voice that had finally woken him up. She hated to think that if she had only spoken sooner, instead of delegating all the responsibility to Shakespeare, she might have shortened the ordeal. And she was astonished to think that in spite of the bad years, in spite of the misery, Terry still needed to hear her voice. The intensity of emotion she'd felt that night in the hospital, so grievously sorry, had thinned in the morning, but she couldn't help wondering if maybe all the divorce talk had been a mistake, if maybe, just possibly, they still loved one another after all.
But she didn't talk to him about any of this. She just helped him get through the days. She fed him and helped him to the bathroom, his shrunken body leaning sharply against her, more connected than they had been in years. The house was very quiet; he slept almost fifteen hours a day. When awake he said little, asked for nothing. He seemed tranquilized. In the mornings he sat out in the backyard, a blanket covering his knees, and listened to the birds. Kathleen had strung up feeders and houses--something Terry had always discouraged, saying the house would be swamped with bird feces and noise, but he didn't complain. He was peaceful in his recovery, though it was unclear to her if this peace was spiritual, related to his near-death experience, or material, a symptom of his brain damage. The waiting game was still going on.
It was a still, humid day in July when she brought him outside, and left him to sit in the sun. She was almost back inside when she heard him say something. Turning, she saw that tears were streaming down his face. She could remember the exact last time she'd seen Terry cry, at his mother's funeral, ten years earlier. Now he was crying in a quiet way, letting the tears come, his skinny arms resting by his sides. He was looking up at the sky and she saw, following his gaze, a red-tailed hawk circling high above them. It soared and swung, strong and heavy-winged, eyeing whatever prey it had spotted below.
Through his tears Terry spoke again. "Pterodactyl," he said. "Fucking lunatic."
Gradually, Terry recovered his brain, his words, and he grew able to walk around the house, then around the block, too. Still they never talked about what was going to happen between them, if their future was shared or separate. Kathleen was not even sure how she felt about it anymore. Their shared project, for now, was the recovery of Terry's body, just as for years the care and nurture of Steve had been their shared project, one so hulking and important that it overshadowed everything else.
As soon as he could, Steve flew home to visit. Next to his father he loomed giant with health. He was loving California, and told them all about the turtle habitat, living close to the beach, what seemed to be a promising relationship with a girl who worked in the reptile house. Terry smiled at him across in the table, in his benevolent, post-coma way.
"That's wonderful, kid," he said. "Now listen. Your mother and I are getting divorced."
Steve laughed. He thought it was a joke. Kathleen stared at her husband. They hadn't conferred; they hadn't made any plans; this was typical, pre-accident Terry, not to consult, not to think about Steve's reaction, not to think about hers.
"Sorry," he said then, to her. "It just came out."
"What the hell?" Steve said. He turned to Kathleen, immediately accusatory. "Is this real? Are you seriously leaving him right after his accident?"
"It's not like that," she said, faintly. She felt dizzy, floating above the scene, disassociated from it.
"Or you?" Steve said to his father. "Is this some mid-life crisis thing after the coma? You're going to date twenty year olds now, to prove you're alive?"
Terry would not be rattled. "We planned this long before the accident. It just set us back a little, that's all. We know you want us both to be happy, and we think we'll be happier living separately. It's amicable. We will both always be here for you. Just in two houses instead of one."
"Two houses. That's all you think it is," Steve said. The veneer of adulthood chipped off him and he was an angry teenager, explosive, bereft. His chair scraped as he pushed it away from the table and stormed out of the house. Terry and Kathleen were left looking at each other across the table. She opened her mouth and found she had nothing, not one single thing, to say.
The following morning, Steve sat by himself in the backyard, muttering angrily, out loud, an old habit Kathleen had hoped he'd outgrown. Terry was in the living room, reading and listening to music. He hadn't turned on the television since he came home from the hospital. It was strange, but no stranger than anything else, she supposed.
The doorbell rang; it was Fleur Mason. Since Terry's return she hadn't been by, and Kathleen was pleased to see her. She actually hugged her, garnering a certain amount of satisfaction from Terry's silent but unmistakable surprise. Fleur waved to Terry. If Kathleen still had any lingering doubts about an affair, the casual, uncomplicated friendliness of that wave dispelled them.
"Welcome back, miracle man!" Fleur said cheerily. "You are arisen."
"Uh," Terry said.
"I've missed you," Kathleen said to Fleur. "Thanks for coming by."
Fleur smiled, as unruffled by this as she had been by Kathleen's rudeness in previous months, and allowed herself to be led into the kitchen. Kathleen gestured out to the window at her son. The windows were open and his mutterings carried to them.
"God grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change," he was saying to the air. "But still, I mean, come on, what the hell?"
"Don't you think that's weird?" she said. "He's twenty-five years old."
Fleur shrugged. "Maybe I should go talk to him."
"Why not?" Fleur said.
She walked outside without waiting for permission. She was wearing a flowery yellow shirtdress, like a housewife from a previous generation, and her wavy brown hair blew in the summer wind. She sat down next to Steve and put her hand on his shoulder. Kathleen watched.
"Do you want to pray with me?" Fleur said.
Her son's mutterings ceased, and he nodded and bowed his head. So far as Kathleen could remember he'd never met Fleur before, and he did not, now, ask who she was or why she was there. The two of them held hands in the brilliant sunshine of the backyard, bird-lover, turtle-keeper. She could hear Fleur's voice saying, "Dear God," and the rest of it was lost on the wind.
Dear God, Kathleen thought. Is this the game we're playing? The accident, the coma, Fleur's visits, the pterodactyl? Are these signs and wonders? And if so what do they mean? She could not decipher them; she could not read her life that way. Over the months to come, as her misery, so long-nurtured, ebbed; as the divorce was filed; as Steve announced he was marrying the reptile girl in California; as she and Fleur remained best friends; as Terry did, in fact, fall in love with a student and almost lose his job before recovering himself and his sanity; as she started to date her realtor, Bob, and eventually invited him to move in with her in the condo he helped her buy--she still did not learn the answer to these questions. But she felt them all around her, the questions of her life, at times beating like wings, at times soaring cleanly through the air, and she only wondered how it was that she had never felt them before.
-Alix Ohlin (from failbetter)