“Sometimes When we Touch” by Dan Hill drifts from the speakers in the waiting room. I have to look up the singer because I’ve forgotten, if I ever knew his name at all.
Tuning out the sappiness is impossible. I can’t focus on anything else as I wait for an update from the surgical team, not the short story I’ve bookmarked, not the latest political chaos headlines on Twitter, not even the text from my boss expressing his sincere regret for bothering me at a time like this but …
The desperation in the refrain strikes my nerves like a rubber mallet against tempered glass, testing for strength. One ill-fated tap in a vulnerable spot and I will be reduced to an avalanche of shards.
A mental portrait of my mother materializes: her hands gripping the wheel, driving me to dance class, singing along to the radio like she’s never heard such beautiful words. Me, singing off-key in the backseat, desperate to be a part of her grown-up world. The lyrics come back with such clarity I could’ve written them, and I already know this god-awful song is going to be stuck in my head for days.
My phone buzzes with pleas from family members. Is he still in surgery? Was he able to respond to the paramedics? Has he suffered head trauma?
It is my understanding Joel went through the windshield like a human blow dart. I’ve told them all this, sans the dart reference. Head trauma would seem a given, no?
I am simultaneously glad both our families live out of state, and sorry that none of Joel’s siblings is close enough to be here—to relieve me of my obligation to sit trapped between the disturbingly large leaves on this wallpaper while being tormented by the most saccharine ballad ever recorded.
My best friend, Tana, returns with Starbucks and a box of Girl Scout cookies, like the saint she has always been.
Dan Hill warbles about too much honesty.
I’ve already downed three cups of stale waiting room coffee but I gulp my nitro cold brew, savor the bitter aftertaste, fidget as the caffeine floods my system.
Someone named Nancy texts from the OR to let me know Joel’s vitals are holding steady, and they’ve been able to stop the leakage of cerebral fluid. *smiley face* *thumbs up*
I didn’t realize his brain had been leaking. Probably someone had mentioned it. They gave me a lot of information when I arrived, albeit hurriedly. I caught the worst of it. He’d been ejected. Through the windshield. No seatbelt. Dumbass.
But I’m still his wife, still the primary emergency contact in his phone.
The hospital’s initial questions were easy. No allergies to any medications. No metal implants. No history of adverse reactions to anesthesia. Joel poses no risks to himself.
A cop kneels before me to ask questions that are more difficult. Where was Joel coming from? Did you know the woman who was in the truck with him? She had no identification on her. If you could give us her name, it would be helpful.
Dan Hill admits he has to close his eyes and hide sometimes.
Tana nods, silently urges me to answer the questions with no extraneous information. “No, I’m sorry. I don’t know where he’d been this afternoon,” I say. “And I have no idea who the woman was.”
Was. Apparently, sometimes being ejected provides the more hopeful option.
My mother-in-law sends me a GIF of a praying bunny.
I choke on my reply.
A brusque woman brings me another form to sign, one I’d missed downstairs. Maybe she is agitated because she’s had to track me down. I try not to take her bitchy demeanor personally, try not to feel hunted by these people with their forms and questions.
The back of the metal clipboard is cold on my leg, and the paper sheds invisible dust that coats my fingertips when I pushed it up to sign on the bottom line. An unseen powdery residue fills the crevices of my fingerprints, thickens my skin so I can hardly feel the pen as I sign a name that will be former in twelve days—provided Joel doesn’t contest at the last minute. Again.
But it remains my legal identity. I remain legally bound.
To my surprise, some tenderness remains.
The Thin Mints are different. “Did they change the recipe?” I ask. “Add wax and sawdust?” I wash it down with my now tepid cold brew. “Or do all our favorites eventually pale in comparison to our memories? Does everything we love become unpalatable at some point?”
“It’s too soon to be morose,” Tana says.
“But you’ll let me know when it’s time? Because being morose is kind of my best thing.”
“You are the queen.”
We tap the rims of our lidded cups together, raise them in an unspoken toast. I am certain Tana is mentally chin-chinning to more forthcoming good news and positive emojis from Nancy.
I think sláinte, but my voice is drowned in my own head by the sounds of liquid rushing from Joel’s. That’s the image my private salute conjures: Joel lying unconscious under a bright light, a newly sprung leak, external but unnoticed, literally streaming into a puddle on the sterile floor beneath his skull.
A doctor appears before me, his pale freckled hands freshly scrubbed. “Andrea?”
That’s me, I remind myself. “Yes.”
I clutch my phone as the scripted words leave his lips. “I am so sorry. We did everything we could …”
Another GIF arrives from Joel’s mother: a cartoonish little boy angel with purple eyes, sparkles emanating from his halo. Grotesque. Absurd. Unsettling, both the image and the timing.
I think about how the preacher will describe Joel as a devoted husband, survived by his loving wife. Those words will bring comfort to both our mothers.
Shelli Cornelison misses writing in coffee shops, and eavesdropping in between getting lost in her own words. She almost even misses the monsters that hog table space and talk on their phones. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, The Forge, and Hunger Mountain.