Wednesday July 13, 2005 9:42AM
“Ari’s been hit by a car.”
I bolt upright in bed as panic hits me like a swift kick to the chest. The air punches out of my lungs, and my throat closes up. I nearly drop the phone in my panic. “What?” I croak. “Is she—”
“She’s okay.” Greg pauses, lets out a ragged breath. “I mean, she’s going to be okay—she’s got to be okay. I don’t know…they won’t tell me anything—but—she has to be okay.”
Shit. My traitorous brain flashes me back to that terrible night all those years ago, the night I’ve worked so hard to forget. The night I’ve spent decades drowning in drink, drugs, and pussy.
I’m a boy again, listening to my grandmother over the phone, her voice trembling with worry. I’m a useless child, fisting my hands in my lap during the maddeningly slow drive to the hospital.
I look around the dim bedroom of my shitty apartment, desperately seeking something to ground me. Or better yet, to convince me this is all a terrible nightmare, and if I could just wake—
I find it, my proof-of-nightmare, there in the bed beside me: my ex-girlfriend, naked and sprawled across the tangle of sheets. What the fuck is Rebecca doing here? I stare at her, taking in the sight of her smeared makeup and her blonde hair, tufted and tangled from sex and sleep. Flashbacks of the night before flicker through my mind like a pornographic slide show.
I look down at myself to see that I, too, am naked, bearing a few new bruises, and there’s a used condom hanging from the tip of my limp dick.Fuuuuuuck.
This is definitely a nightmare. I frown at Rebecca, and she frowns back at me, cranky to have been awakened by the call. I look back at the phone clutched in my hand, held at arm’s length like a snake about to bite me.
I hear Greg mumble on the other end of the line, “Someone should call Alex, but I don’t have his number.”
My hands start to tremble. I squeeze them into tight fists. The phone groans with complaint as I pull it back to my ear and ask, “Where is she?”
“Brackenridge Hospital.” Greg’s voice teeters over each syllable.
“What happened?” I stand on wobbly legs, tossing the condom in the trash as I aimlessly circling around looking for a pair of clean jeans. Jesus, why didn’t I do the goddamn laundry yesterday? Fuck it. I grab the first pair I can find, cinching the phone between my ear and my shoulder as I yank them on. Not bothering with my boots, I slip my feet into a pair of ratty flip-flops and grab the closest t-shirt I can find as I head out to the living room.
Keys. Cigarettes. Lighter…lighter…where’s my fucking lighter? Screw it.
“What’s going on?” Rebecca asks from the hallway, leaning against the wall, making no attempt to cover her nakedness.
“I gotta go. Let yourself out.” I reply as I turn and head for the door.
“But…” Rebecca moves toward me, cocking her hip in defiance. She arches her back so her tits perk up and out toward me in temptation. “I was hoping we could—”
I pay her absolutely no attention, all of my focus directed at forcing strength into my trembling hands, willing them to turn the doorknob.
When I’m finally outside, the repressively hot and humid July air dampens my skin and drowns my lungs. I jog down the stairs and across the grassy expanse of the apartment complex’s common grounds toward the parking lot where I left my truck.
I can hear Greg breathing hard on the other end of the line, like he’s been out for a jog, too.
“Greg, talk to me, brother. What happened?”
No answer, just more of that labored breathing.
“Someone should call Alex, but I don’t know his number—” He’s repeating himself, only this time he adds, “—and Ari’s phone was…crushed.”
That word, that one awful word, sends a cold-as-ice panic through me, freezing my damp skin and the air in my lungs. I stop mid-step and shiver, stunned and lost as terrible imagery plays out in my imagination.
I force myself to calm down, taking deep breaths and working to steady my hands in order to open my truck door. I sit inside for a moment, staring blankly out of the windshield, then get my wits about me again. I force the key into the ignition so I can crank the thing and haul ass out of the parking lot and south toward the hospital.
“Greg, what the fuck happened?” I yell this time, trying to snap the bastard out of his fugue state.
Greg’s silence hangs heavy, and I punch the accelerator pedal down as I run a yellow light. But it’s not long before morning traffic jams me up. I curse and hit the horn for no good goddamn reason. Everyone and everything standing between me and my destination is an obstacle that needs to get out of my fucking way. I want to be by Ari’s side now. I want to know that she’s alright now. I need to see her smile and hear her call me an idiot for worrying and giggle in that way that she does right fucking now.
She has to be okay. She. Has. To. Be. Okay. “Greg, fucking talk to me. What happened?”
“I was going to work…” He takes a deep breath, and I nearly lose my shit, on the verge of shouting at him to spit it the fuck out. Fortunately, he starts talking again. “Ari was walking to the café on the corner. She was going to write. I pulled out of the driveway and turned my head back toward the intersection. That’s when I saw the guy. He ran the stop sign. She didn’t even see him…” Greg’s voice drifts off into nothing, just those shaky breaths again.
“You saw it happen?”
Greg lets out an audible shudder. Yeah, this is not a conversation to be had over the phone.
“Listen, brother, I’m ten minutes away.”
“I’ll talk to you then.”
“Hang in there.”
I hang up and drive, focusing on the lanes of the road, the gauges on the dash, the bumpers on the cars around me. I focus on anything and everything I can, so that my mind doesn’t wander to thoughts of what might have happened to my best girl.
But the traffic isn’t enough of a distraction. My mind races with horrific imagery. I picture the absolute worst scenarios—Ari’s smile fading just as she hits the windshield, or worse, her smile disappearing just as she goes under the wheels. I picture her bleeding and broken…crushed.
A pathetic whimpering sound fills the cab of the truck. It takes me a few seconds to realize that it’s coming from me. I sound like I’m the one who’s been hit by a car, broken and bleeding and mewling in agony.
Thankfully, I arrive. In the hospital parking lot, I circle like a vulture, looking for a spot. When I finally find a space, I barely pause to pull the key from the ignition and don’t bother to check that I’ve locked the doors. I haul ass across the asphalt toward the sliding glass doors of the emergency room.
Stepping into that waiting area is like stepping back in time. I’ve taken great pains to avoid places like this for most of my life, and for a very good reason—the smell. Hospitals have a very unique scent that I despise. As those wide doors slide open with a gasp, I’m overwhelmed with the combined scent of death and disinfectant.
To be fair, I’m probably just imagining the stench of death. No one else seems to be reeling, their eyes wide with horror. I’m the only one panicking over the chemical miasma.
God, I fucking hate hospitals. I want to kick myself for being weak when I need to be strong. Instead, I center my mind and focus on the task at hand—walking. My flip-flops make their cheery little thunk, thunk, thunk sound as I cross to the nurses’ station. When I spot Greg standing against the far wall of the waiting room, I course correct.
Christ Almighty, the guy looks like death warmed over. His hair stands on end in places, like he’s been pulling at it. His light eyes are bloodshot with dark circles underneath them. His skin so white, he’s practically translucent. His tie is gone and the top button of his shirt is missing like it’s been yanked open. Worse than all that, though, is the blood. There’s a patch of dark red staining the front of his white Oxford shirt, and the cuffs of his sleeves are practically dripping red. His hands are stained too.
Ari’s blood. Fuck. My knees wobble and nearly give out. I support myself on the wall beside Greg, though all around us there are empty chairs. I can’t think straight or concentrate enough to actually sit down.
Greg looks surprised to see me. He blinks his bloodshot eyes and slowly emerges from his fog to nod at me, sounding stoned when he says, “All they’ll tell me is that she’s in surgery.”
Greg moves his arm up like he’s checking his watch. He hasn’t worn a watch since college. He’s not wearing one now. Absently, he says, “Could be a while before we know anything.”
I nod, not really sure why.
“I called her parents. Talked to her mom. She’s…they’re going to fly down.” Greg’s face pinches tight, and he starts to tug at his hair again. “God…she started crying…” A whole lot of silence stretches between us as we both think about what this news is probably doing to Steve and Kathryn Goody.
As I stand there next to Greg, I feel lost, adrift, and I want to grab onto something, feel something, do something. I stare at the ivy plant in its pot on the end table in front of me. I want to shatter it into a million tiny pieces with my fists and feet. I want to take out the table too, and the chair beside it, and the one beside that. I want to lay waste to this whole fucking place.
God, I really fucking hate hospitals. I’ve lost too many people to these godforsaken shitholes. Please don’t let me lose another.
“—to reach Alex?” I turn to find Greg talking to me. It snaps me out of my stupor and gives me something besides horror and loss to focus on. Thank Christ.
I blink at my best friend, a little surprised that he’s so anxious to get in touch with Alex. Not that I have anything against Alex; he’s a great guy. But he’s Ari’s new boyfriend. Considering that Greg is Ari’s husband, it seems a bit…odd. Then again, all of the shit between my friends has seemed a bit odd to me lately.
It’s been eight months since Ari and Greg mutually agreed to open their marriage and give each other “space.” I’d made it clear to both of them, repeatedly, that I thought the idea was colossally stupid. But did they listen? No. Eight months later, Ari’s now in love with another man, Greg is fucking his secretary, and Ari and Greg are on the cusp of a divorce.
Absently, Greg adds, “I’m sure she’d want him to be here.” Reason number eight-million-six-hundred-thousand-and-twelve why I love this guy like a brother; he’s not a selfish shithead. He truly loves Ari, and wants what’s best for her. And right now, what’s best is to surround her with her people—all of her people.
I nod, knowing that he’s right. “I don’t have Alex’s number.”
Greg furrows his brow, trying to concentrate. “What about that friend of hers with the colorful hair? Fuck, what’s her name?”
“Sheryl.” A.k.a Sher Nobyl, a wickedly cute little roller derby dynamo, and Ari’s new best friend. “I don’t have her—” Oh shit. I have a crazy idea. “Actually, I think I can get their numbers…maybe.” I fish my phone out of my pocket. “Give me a minute. I’ll see what I can do.”
Greg nods absently and I bolt for the exit. Outside, I listen to the sweet sound of those big glass doors sliding shut behind me, and take a deep breath of the sweltering summer air. Clearing the awful antiseptic stench from my nostrils works wonders for my mind. Still, I need a goddamn cigarette. I yank my smokes out of my back pocket and shove one between my lips, relaxing a bit with the familiar feel of it. Oral fixation to the rescue.
Shit. I don’t have a lighter.
I scan the sidewalk, looking for the obligatory “smoking area,” which is usually just one trashcan with an ashtray mounted on top standing at least fifteen feet away from any doors. I find it to my left, an ash-can placed beneath a small awning to protect smokers from the sun and rain. And, thank Christ, there’s a woman there lighting up her own cancer stick. She’s in scrubs, probably a nurse, and from the look of her tangled ponytail and weary posture, she’s been on shift for a while. I approach with a slow, steady gait, unlit smoke hanging out of the corner of my mouth.
The nurse glances my way, does a double take, then grins. I get that a lot. One of the advantages of being the only six-foot-two full-blooded Cherokee Indian in Austin, Texas—I stand out in a crowd. My Indian warrior look has helped to get me laid more times than I can count. Right now, though, I’ll settle for it helping me get an infusion of nicotine. And that’s exactly what the pretty nurse with the messy ponytail gives me. It only requires a sidelong glance and a suggestive raise of my eyebrow, and the woman silently leans toward me, ready to light my fire.
After one, then two long draws from my cigarette, my nerves settle a bit. I give the nurse a friendly thanks, fill my lungs again with the sweet relief, and start scrolling through the contacts on my phone. It doesn’t take long to find who I’m looking for. She’s in the “A” section under “Arson Nic.”
The fiery-hot yet cold-as-ice derby chick booked my band, Nebulous, to play the halftime show at the roller derby championship bout last season. From my first interaction with the woman, I found her to be utterly fascinating and incredibly intimidating—an enigma.
Everyone in town calls her a “crazy bitch,” probably because of the brutality she brings to the skate track. As a derby skater, she’s infamous; strong, fierce, fast, and violent—probably the best skater in the premiere derby league she helped to create.
It’s this league-creator side of her that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. In working with her to book my band, I found her to be neither crazy nor a bitch. Intense, yes, but also smart, professional, courteous…and really fucking hot.
My strange attraction to her, in and of itself, is part of the enigma. Nicole Rollins is not my type. She’s the opposite of my type. I like my women soft. Still, I’d found her athletic beauty distracting, her big green eyes bewitching, her raspy come-hither voice sexy as hell, and the sway of her hips mesmerizing. A definite snake charmer, that woman. But off limits, because when I first met Nicole a year ago, she’d had a boyfriend—Alex Balfour. Alex, who dumped Nicole for Ari a few months later.
My, how things have changed.
In light of all the drama, I doubt Nicole will appreciate my call now. I stare at her number for a moment, take another long, soothing drag off my cigarette, then dial and flinch as it rings.
This will be interesting.
“Hello.” The voice on the other end of the line is vaguely feminine, but it sounds like she’s just gargled with a cup full of gravel.
Duh, jackass. Of course it’s Nicole. You just fucking called her.
“Yeah.” She sounds annoyed and about to hang up.
“Hey, listen, it’s…uh…it’s Jake Sixkiller…from Nebulous. You booked my band back in—”
“You’re Ariana’s friend, right?” she cuts me off.
I take a deep inhale of my coffin nail…annnnnd exhale. “Yeah.”
“What do you want?”
“I need… Listen, this is going to sound really shitty, and I’m sorry, but I need Alex’s phone number, and Sheryl’s number, too.”
There’s a long pause. You could park a tank in the middle of that pause. Then she laughs. But it’s not a good laugh. Her laughter is empty, brittle, utterly lacking in humor and good cheer. “If you want Alex’s number, why don’t you ask Ariana? You know, his girlfriend, the one he dumped me for.”
Yep. I figured this would be like pulling teeth. “Please, Nicole. Just—”
“Fuck you, Jake Sixkiller from Nebulous. Don’t call me—”
“Listen, Ari’s been in an accident. I need to get in touch with her friends.” I cringe at that last part. I figure my use of the word “friends” will not sit well, and with good reason…
“Friends?” She lets out another hollow laugh. “That little bitch stole my guy, and you expect me to—”
“Okay, first of all, don’t ever call Ari a bitch. If you think that about her, then you obviously don’t know her at all. And second of all, be a fucking decent human being, for fuck’s sake. At least give me Sheryl’s number.”
“Why should I?”
“Because I want to believe you’re not the colossal cunt everyone says you are. Prove me right.”
I cringe, prepared to hear her hang up. Instead there’s another long pause: a big, wide, deep, ugly pause.
“Whatever.” That’s all she says before I hear the dreaded click of her hanging up.
“Fuck!” I shout at the phone, then wince and shrug in apology to the nurse with the messy ponytail, who frowns at my outburst.
Internal voice, Jake, use your fucking internal voice: “Motherfucking, cocksucking, asslicking fuckity fuck fuck!”
I pace and smoke, trying to think of who else would have the numbers I need. Ryan, the bass-playing boy wonder, seems to know everyone in Austin. Also, I’m pretty sure Steven Lowe is actively fucking around with Sheryl. I could call him to get her number, and maybe Sheryl has Alex’s—
My phone chimes to announce an incoming text. I flip it open, and…it’s a message from Nicole. No words, just two phone numbers.
Hot damn! I owe that woman a beer. I text her back a quick, TY! You’re a peach, then hit the first number and listen to it ring.
“Hello?” It’s Sheryl. I don’t know Sheryl very well, but in my interactions with her, she’d always struck me as a bit flighty.
“Hey, Sheryl, this is Jake Sixkiller, Ari’s friend.”
“Oh.” She giggles like she’s being tickled. “Hiya, Jake.”
“Listen, I have some…uh…Ari is in the hospital. She—”
“Wait. What? What—”
“She was hit by a car. She’s in surgery right now. I’m here with Greg. I’m calling Alex next. I just wanted you to know. You’re one of her closest—”
“Which hospital?” Any hint of humor is gone from her voice, and hearing her concern raises her up a few pegs in my estimation.
“I’m on my way.” There’s a rustling sound on her end, and I go to hang up, but stop when she cuts through the ambient noise to say, “Hey, Jake, thanks for calling me.”
I nod and finish my cigarette. “Sure thing.”
Okay. That was the easy one. I hit the second number and nervously tap my foot as I wait through the rings. One…two…three… I’m preparing myself for voicemail when Alex answers, all business. “Balfour.”
“Alex, it’s Jake.”
“Hey man, what’s up?”
Fuck. “Listen, it’s Ari…she’s in the hospital.”
“What? What happened? Is she okay?” Jesus. The guy’s tone of voice sounds awful—pain with a side of panic.
“She’s been hit by a car. I don’t know a lot of details, just that she’s in surgery—”
I hear a jangly, metallic rustling sound on his end, the pace fast and frantic—no doubt his toolbelt bouncing against his hips as he bolts for the door at his job site. “Where?”
With that, Alex hangs up, a man on a mission to get to his woman.
I stand there for a moment, listening to the dead air left in the wake of Alex’s departure and watching Greg through the sliding glass doors of the emergency room. He’s listing to the side, like a capsizing ship.
I take a deep breath of the stifling summer air, and steel my nerves for the trip back inside this awful place. I would rather not set foot in a hospital ever again, but Greg looks like he’s about to teeter and fall. I’m needed, so I walk to the sliding doors, trigger the motion sensor, flinch at the sterile stench, and take my place at Greg’s side: a shoulder to lean on.
“Where is she? Is she okay? What happened?”
Greg and I both look up at the sound of Alex’s voice. Expecting information, he jogs across the waiting room and comes to a full stop in front of me. When I don’t have anything to tell him, he turns his pleading gaze to Greg.
It occurs to me that this is the first time they’re meeting—Greg, Ari’s soon-to-be ex-husband, and Alex, her new love. Seeing them together, I’m struck by how different they appear.
On the surface, Greg has a classic-Hollywood sort of elegance; a stark contrast to brawny working-man Alex. Greg is built lean, like a runner, not a lifter. Alex is taller, more muscular, and tanned from years of working outdoors. Greg’s expensive haircut and clean-cut face contribute to his debonair look. Alex’s jaw is covered with dark auburn stubble, which adds to his rugged appeal, as does the nasty scar that marks one of his eyebrows. Alex is decked out in work boots, beat-up jeans, and a neon orange safety vest over his white tee shirt. It’s a clear contrast to Greg’s buttoned-down business attire, though the refinement of Greg’s style is dramatically offset by the smears and stains of Ari’s blood.
I watch as Alex looks his rival up and down, wondering just how awkward this face-off will be.
There’s a moment when they make eye contact, and seem to come to some sort of accord—a peace between the two men who love Ari most in the world, aside from me and her dad. There is no overt hostility, or even discomfort. In this awful place, in this awful situation, they are united in the common goal of being here for Ari when she needs all the love and support she can get.
Alex notices the blood covering Greg’s hands and clothes. Cursing, he turns pale, looking like he might be sick. He takes a deep breath, looks Greg straight in the eyes, and asks, “What happened?”
Greg’s initial haze lifts, and when he speaks, it is with a clear voice and calm cadence. “…She was crossing the street and a little blue car, a Honda Civic I think, ran the stop sign. He saw her at the last minute and tried to avoid her. I think that saved her. Instead of hitting her straight on, he clipped her. She went up onto the hood, then rolled off to the side.”
Greg rubs his bloody palms together, and his face pinches like he’s picturing that moment over and over. I don’t envy that. As much as I wish I had been there to help Ari, I’m glad I’ll never know what that moment looked like.
Greg continues, “The driver stopped. He called 911 while I tried to take care of Ari. She’d fractured her left leg. That much was obvious. Also, she had a big cut on her arm, which was where most of the blood came from.” He pauses and looks down at his red hands, flexing his fingers into tight fists. Fissures and cracks form in the crimson coating of Ari’s dried blood.
What little color Alex had in his face drains out, and he wobbles on his feet before collapsing backwards into one of the chairs behind him. He bends forward like he might puke. With his elbows on his knees, his hands in his hair, he stares down at the tile floor, practically catatonic.
Greg and I exchange a glance, then park our asses, too. And this is how we remain. It seems like hours, days, weeks, while none of us move or even speak. We sit together, but alone—each trapped in our own heads, yet imagining the same horror.
“What happened? Is she okay? Can we see her?”
Greg, Alex, and I all look up at the sound of Sheryl’s voice. She stands a few feet away, her hands braced on her hips, a frown marring her pretty little pixie face. As small as she is, she looks even smaller now. It’s the boots, or lack thereof: she’s wearing a pair of basic sneakers which don’t give her the height boost her patent leather platform boots normally do.
More than just smaller, she looks entirely different from herself today. Instead of her usual leather, latex, and spandex, she’s wearing green scrubs patterned with little tacos. She’s not wearing any makeup, either, and her shock of hot pink hair is tied in a tight knot at the nape of her neck.
It occurs to me that I’ve never seen Sheryl out of costume, because that’s what her style is—costumes and masks. Today, though, the mask is off and the real Sheryl shows through.
“We don’t know anything yet. She’s still in surgery,” I answer.
Sheryl frowns, then harrumphs as she drops into the seat beside Alex. Looking at him like a big sister helping out her little bro, she laces her fingers through his and squeezes her palm against his. “How are you holding up, big guy?”
Alex glances at Greg and me, then grimaces and squeezes Sheryl’s hand when he says, “She’s strong. She’ll be okay. I have to believe that.”
Sheryl nods at him, then looks across the aisle at Greg’s bloody hands and clothes. “What happened?”
Greg explains again. Sheryl asked several pointed questions making it clear she has some medical training. Greg isn’t able to answer them, making it clear he does not.
I sit quietly, trying to ignore them. I sing songs in my head—Cherokee versions of old gospel songs from my childhood, stupid pop songs from the radio, Slayer—anything I can think of, so I don’t have to listen to Greg outline the litany of horrors again.
I tune out all the sounds around me, focusing instead on the sights, mainly the sight of us all together for the first time. We make quite the motley crew—Greg in his bloody shirt, Alex in his construction safety gear, Sheryl in her veterinarian garb, and me…shit, my shirt’s on inside out and backwards.
I yank my shirt off, flip it right-side out, and slip it back on. Iron Maiden, and it’s relatively clean. Cool.
I look up to find that all eyes have turned to me—including messy ponytail nurse at the front desk—as if my impromptu strip tease is the most interesting thing in the room. I shrug and smirk at the peanut gallery.
When I’m dressed again—show’s over, folks—messy ponytail wanders off, and Greg, Alex, and Sheryl all turn their faces down to the floor, staring at their feet again. I stare at them, at us—all of Ari’s people in one place.
I grimace at the clear divide between us. Here on one side of the aisle sit Greg and me, the old guard—her once and former lover and friend. And across from us, on the other side of the aisle, there’s Alex and Sheryl, the new guard—her now and future lover and friend.
Once upon a time, I’d thought I was irreplaceable in Ari’s life. Now, staring my replacement in the face, I’m less certain.
It’s been almost thirteen years now that I’ve known Ari, and I still remember every detail of the day she walked into my life. I’d just smoked a fat joint in the stockroom of the bookstore where someone had the bad idea to give me the title and responsibility of “Assistant Manager,” when Ari strutted right up to me and asked me for a job.
She looked like a vampire: all gothed out with jet-black hair, porcelain skin, a lace and velvet dress, and thick, heavy combat boots. She was trying so hard to look mean. It was adorable. I remember I laughed in her face, but only because I was really high and thought she was joking. When she frowned and then asked me again, I hired her on the spot.
I’d fallen instantly in love with her on that day. I was way too old for her, of course, twenty-two to her seventeen, but I’d loved her in all the other ways a man can love the people in his life.
Greg was slightly less scrupled when it came to the age gap, and he effectively put the kibosh on my affection for Ari ever turning romantic. Regardless, the moment Ari walked into my world, it got better.
Through the years, Ari has been my sister, my friend, my shrink, my confessor, and my voice of reason. She’s made me laugh and cry and holler and hug and share and feel in ways I never knew I was capable of. She’s made me marvel at the good parts of my life and the amazing people within it—chief among those people being her.
Sitting here now, looking across the narrow aisle at Ari’s new life, her new best friend and her new love, the prospect that I could lose her looms over my head like a dark cloud.
I frown. I don’t want to be on this side of the aisle. I don’t want to be part of Ari’s past. I want to be in her past, present, and future. I consider changing seats, getting up and crossing the aisle to sit beside Sheryl.
But what about Greg? I can’t leave him behind. But I can’t exactly shoehorn him into Ari’s new life, can I? Would Ari want that? Would Greg want that? I glance over at Greg, who’s eying Alex—as if he’s come to the same conclusion I have.
“You’re her husband?”
Greg nods vacantly at the doctor, whose light blue scrubs are spotless, pristine. I take comfort that he’s not covered in blood like Greg is, then start to fret again when I wonder if he changed his clothes before coming out to talk to us. Do doctors do that…wardrobe changes between the operating room and the waiting room—
“And you are?” The doctor eyes me over the patient chart in his hands.
“Her brother.” Well, it’s sort of true, in a her-parents-love-me-like-a-son sort of way. Greg nods, backing me up.
Doc turns to Alex next, and it’s all eyes on him as he fidgets and frowns. Oh won’t this be awkward; I wonder how many patients have a husband and a boyfriend. Then again, this is Austin.
“He’s her other brother,” Greg blurts out, surprising everyone. Alex frowns, but doesn’t argue, and slowly nods. The doctor frowns, glancing between me and Alex, no doubt wondering at the contrast between my Cherokee red-man tan and Alex’s white-man complexion and auburn hair.
I improvise. “I’m adopted. So what’s up, Doc?”
Alex turns back to the doctor to give him a hurry-up-and-speak nod. Sheryl flutters in with an armful of donuts and a round of coffee for us all. We unload her haul as Greg again takes care of the introductions with the doctor. “Sheryl is her sister.”
The doctor looks weary, but doesn’t seem to want to delve into the truthfulness of our family ties. He just nods and looks back at the chart in his hands, “As I was saying…” He then starts to rattle off a whole lot of blah-blah-blah. I hold my breath, waiting for the doctor to get to the part where he says, “Oh and by the way, miracle of miracles, Ari doesn’t have a scratch on her, darndest thing. Also, she’s hungry for blueberry pancakes and asking for you, Jake.”
That part never comes.
Instead, I hear things like “set fracture of tibia…three bruised ribs…observation for signs of concussion.” With a strange grin, the doc muses, “She’s lucky, actually. Had the car been going much faster—”
A tremendous pressure starts to build in my chest and my lungs squeeze shut, not able to draw in breath. I press my palm to my heart and wince.
Sheryl notices and wraps an arm around my waist. I frown down at her, surprised by her sweet support of me. She doesn’t know me from Adam, yet she’s letting me lean on her like a crutch. I’m not sure why I’m surprised. Ari has always had a knack for surrounding herself with the very best people, after all.
I give her a small grin as I force myself to breathe, with Sheryl quietly assuring me, “She’s okay, Jake. Our girl’s going to be okay. Are you going to be okay?”
Numbly, I nod.
“When can we see her?” Alex asks, his voice steady even as his hands shake at his sides.
“She’s still unconscious from the anesthesia, and when she wakes, she’ll be a bit groggy from the pain medication, but you can visit her now.”
The doctor instructs us on how to find her room. We thank him, collectively, then turn as one, the old guard and the new walking in perfect sync, a surreal lock-step as we haul ass upstairs to see her.
On level three, it’s a hurried scan of room numbers until we finally find her. The door is open to her room, and at the first sight of her, I feel equal parts sick to my stomach and elated beyond measure.
First thought: Jesus, she looks like road kill.
Second thought: Thank fucking Christ she’s not actual road kill.
Ari’s face is a patchwork of scrapes and angry bruises. Her arms and hands are just as shredded, with one arm covered in thick bandages and the other a pincushion for the IV. Suspended at the end of the bed, her left leg is in a giant cast, with her little toes sticking out the end, the trim nails painted bright purple.
Seeing her like this is a total mindfuck. My brain seems to misfire, and my eyes deceive me. In a blink, I don’t see Ari at all—I see my mother.
In a flash, I’m in another time, another place, a different hospital room. Instead of Ari lying before me, battered and broken, I see my mom’s comatose body supine and still, a shell of herself, surrounded by an array of beeping and blinking machines.
I stagger in my step, nearly knocked on my ass as I blink and rub my eyes, confused and pained by what I’m seeing, both in the here and now and in the past. While I stumble, Greg goes stock still as if frozen to the floor, and Sheryl winces and wobbles.
Alex, though, doesn’t hesitate, not even for a millisecond. With an assertive gait, he rushes through the door to Ari’s room and kneels at her bedside faster than a vampire drawn to a juicy vein. He clasps one of her hands and whispers words into her ear. I want to look away, feeling like an intruder in their private moment, but seeming unable to look anywhere else.
Greg, Sheryl and I slowly inch inside the room and stand awkwardly at the foot of Ari’s bed. There aren’t enough chairs, just two for the four of us. What’s the protocol here? Who gets to sit—old guard or new guard? We all shuffle awkwardly from foot to foot until Sheryl speaks, her voice cracking the silence like a whip. “I’m going to find a couple more chairs.”
She disappears, and it’s just me and Greg, doing the awkward shuffle as we watch Alex tenderly pet Ari’s hair with his calloused fingers. There’s a bang behind me and I turn to see Sheryl wrestling a chair through the doorway. The thing is twice her size and probably weighs more than she does. Greg is quick to help, maneuvering the thing into the room while Sheryl disappeared to find another one. When she brings that one in, I help and one by one we each sit. Alex remains at Ari’s side, holding her hand, while Sheryl, Greg, and I dot the corners of the room.
I don’t know how long it is that we wait—it feels like eons. The beeps and blips of Ari’s machines remind me too much of the past. I lean forward and dump my head in my hands, covering my ears so I don’t have to hear that steady rhythm.
“Hey,” Alex says, and I perk up. He’s staring at her hand in his. “She’s waking up.”
We all rocket to our feet and circle her bed, watching closely for any twitch, any sign of life. There’s a flutter of her eyelashes, then another. She opens those big brown eyes, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold.
She looks around the room, confused and wincing from the glare of the bright lights. I step back to the doorway and flick off the switch to the overheads, so the only illumination shines in through the large window at her side. When she sees me and the others, her confusion and panic seem to ebb.
Alex moves close to her again, and she turns to him, her lips hinting at a smile.
“Hey there, Little Hare,” he purrs as he runs his fingers gently through her hair again. “Do you know where you are? Do you remember what happened?”
She blinks away any remaining confusion, then nods, flinching as if the movement hurts her. Alex flinches too, like her pain hurts him. Ari sees the torment on his face and slowly lifts her palm to his cheek. With a hint of a smile, she whispers in a raspy, coarse voice, “I’m okay, baby.”
Alex slumps with relief, looking practically boneless without all the tension and panic to hold him upright. On a gust of breath, he sighs, “Thank fucking Christ.”
Ari smiles at him, this time a genuine full-wattage grin. It is pure gold, brighter than the sun.
Alex moves in and kisses her temple, because the rest of her face is a maze of bruises no man could navigate. Her eye lids flutter and she grins to herself as he whispers some sweet secret into her ear. When he pulls away, Ari pinches the fabric of his dayglow safety vest between her fingers. When she speaks, there is a hint of humor in her tone. “What are you wearing? You look like a traffic cone.”
Alex chuckles when he answers, “I hope you like it. ‘Cuz if you keep playing in traffic, I’m buying you one and making you wear it every time you leave the house.”
Ari giggles and looks at him like he’s her brave knight pledging to slay the dragons that threaten her. And shit, it feels awkward to stand here and watch their private exchange.
“I should go,” Greg whispers to me and fidgets, taking a step toward the door, obviously sharing my discomfort.
“Greg, wait,” Ari calls out.
Greg stops in his tracks and nods as she beckons him forward with her bruised fingers. “Do you need anything? I can bring you something from the house, just name it—”
“Thank you.” Ari’s eyes tear up.
I feel a lump form in my own throat at the sight of it. Shit. How close did we come to losing her today?
She reaches out, and when he steps closer, she squeezes Greg’s hand, her voice watery when she repeats, “Thank you.”
“I…uh…” Greg’s eyes water and he looks down at the floor. He shakes his head, then sets his jaw in a rigid line when he looks back up at her and clears his throat. “I’m just glad you’re alright.”
When Ari smiles, Greg does too, but still it’s weird to see them like this. For years, they were inseparable, a unit; all of us were the Three Musketeers. Now, they look so awkward and distant, even as they hold hands.
On the other side of her bed, Alex stands and faces Greg. The two men have sat together for hours now, waiting for news about Ari, waiting for her to wake. And never during that time did they actually do the whole meet-and-greet thing. Now, with Ari’s fate known, with her smiling eyes watching them, they shake hands for the first time.
It’s Alex who takes the lead, stretching his hand out, spanning half the distance of Ari’s bed. Greg looks down at it, then extends his own hand—which he’d had the good sense to wash clean of blood a few hours ago. Ari tears up, clearly touched by the silent peace accord between her soon-to-be ex-husband and her new boyfriend.
“Hey guys, don’t bogart the babe,” Sheryl hollers as she clomps forward and makes her way to Ari. It’s just the right amount of levity to calm everyone’s twitchy nerves. Dialing back her usual bone-crushing action, Sheryl gives Ari a hug that is downright gentle. It looks weird.
“Sher Bear!” Ari grins at her friend, then asks the room, “jeez, was there an article in the newspaper? How’d you all know I was here?”
“Jake.” Alex and Sheryl answer in unison.
Actually, it was Nicole who helped me get in touch with everyone, but I don’t say that, because, yeah, awkward.
“Hey, Jake.” Ari levels her gaze at me as I hover by the door like a creeper. She gives me that heart-stopping grin of hers. Despite all the black and blue, her face is as sweet as an angel’s, and that smile just about levels me to the ground.
“Hey, Two Shoes.” I take a step toward her, then another, approaching with caution, as if walking too hard could do her harm.
“I tried something new today.”
“Heard about that.”
“I don’t recommend it.”
“Heard that, too.” I smirk. “And here I thought your days of experimentation were over.”
She giggles, and the sound soothes my jangled nerves. Man she’s tough. Just one more thing to love about her.
“You once told me you’re not as breakable as I think you are. I have to say, I completely believe that right now. Look at you. You’re the fucking Queen of Road Rash, but nothing can break you.”
“Well, technically…” Ari points at her broken leg in a cast.
“Aw, you’re just bent, little sis, not broken…never broken.” I give her a wink and swoop in for a hug, trying not to hurt her as I gingerly drape my arms around her. In return, Ari squeezes the ever-loving shit out of me, then grumbles that I’ve hurt her.
Her grousing is sweet music to my ears. The breaks and bruises will heal. What matters is her feisty spirit, her genuinely sweet smile, and the twinkle in those big brown eyes—to lose those would have been devastating.
Sheryl again interrupts the touchy-feelies with her usual delicacy. “So what the bloody fuck happened, diva? ‘Cuz if your goal was to get everyone in the same room, you could have just asked. Am I right, guys?” Even Greg nods and laughs at that one.
“Well, I was crossing the street, and this guy ran the stop sign, and then blammo.” Ari uses her fingers to demonstrate the scene like action figures. I don’t miss when Alex blanches, both of us seemingly picturing the live-action version and not liking the view. Greg goes pale, remembering the live action version and not liking the view either.
“Shit.” Sheryl speaketh the truth.
“My baby,” the strained and reed-thin voice comes from behind me. I turn with a start to find Ari’s parents standing in the doorway, looking haggard and stricken by the sight of Ari in that hospital bed. Jesus, they got here fast. I check the time on my phone, surprised that nearly the entire day has slipped by while we sat and waited.
But now, at the sight of her parents, Ari’s mask of bravery slips. The adrenaline she’s been coasting on tanks, and with an exhausted whimper, she crashes. “Mom,” Ari whispers softly—cue the waterworks. Ari’s always been a hell of a crier. Not just quick to tears, but once she starts, it’s like a crack in the Hoover Dam. Which is perhaps why seeing her brave-faced and so jovial after such a trauma feels a bit…off. It’s when Ari doesn’t cry that you have a reason to worry.
In a flash Ari’s mom is at her bedside, hugging her only child against her chest and rocking her. My own eyes water at that. At the other side of her bed, Alex nervously jumps to his feet and makes room for Ari’s dad to sit on his daughter’s bed. The big man cups the palm of his hand on the back of her head and whispers quietly to his little girl.
Alex, Greg, and Sheryl stare down at the floor, like they’re trying to give the family some privacy, but I don’t. I can’t seem to help myself—I watch them. I’ve always watched them. I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics of other families. Not to mention that the hospital happy ending playing out before me is too good to look away from.
As if to spite me, my brain burps up a noxious cloud of toxic memories. Awful images of my mom in a room not much different from this one. The indelible impression of my brother seizing on the floor, his hand still clutched in mine, trembling like a puppet wiggling at the end of a string. The controlled chaos of the nurses and doctors trying to save him. The feeling of Uncle Eli’s arms wrapped around me, crushing me, while I clawed and fought against him—
Fuuuuuuck. I close my eyes and rub at the lids, trying to wipe away those awful memories. Fucking hell, I hate hospitals. The fact that I’ve been here for the better part of a day is clearly starting to mess with my head.
“I need to get out of here.” Greg mumbles at my side, his thoughts mirroring my own exactly. He turns to leave just as Ari introduces her parents to Alex.
“Yeah, man, I’ll come with you.” I murmur back. A bit louder, so the room can hear me, I say, “We’ll give you guys some privacy. Call if you need anything.”
“Greg,” Kathryn calls to him as he moves toward the exit, effectively stopping him in his tracks. He slowly turns on his heels, and freezes as he watches his mother-in-law approach with warm eyes and a sweet smile. Ari has her mom’s smile, and I can’t help but grin at the sight of the familiar expression. Kathryn surprises Greg with an embrace as she whispers, “Thank you for calling us, sweetheart, and thank you for…being there…and—” she steps back, taking in the vision of his bloody attire, and blanches, but quickly recovers. She grasps both of his hands in hers. “Just, thank you.”
Greg swallows hard, looking a bit lost as he slowly nods.
Next, Kathryn turns her attention to me and frowns. “Jake, honey, are you okay? You look a little pale?”
I nod. “It’s been a long day, Mrs. Goody, but things are looking up.”
She wraps me in a hug, and as her warmth envelops me, I feel at peace for the briefest moment. Steve follows his wife over to us and offers us each a solid handshake, before returning his attention to his daughter and the new people in her life.
I look to my left and find Greg is already gone. I have to jog to catch up with him in the hall as he marches toward the exit of the hospital, “Hey man, you alright?”
Greg stalls out in his pace and turns, his head hanging heavy from his shoulders. “Yeah, I’m fine.”Fine. Right.
“Want to go out tonight and get completely shitfaced?”
Greg chuckles, then nods, “God yes.”
“Two shots of Jack.” As I order, I wink at Maggie, the cute little tattooed and pierced bartender. She winks back at me, then glances and grins bashfully at Greg. With his casually-refined clothes, hair neatly combed back off his face, and his tragically sad eyes, he looks the spitting image of Montgomery Clift tonight. He doesn’t notice her. As he stares at his own hand tracing a pattern in the wood grain on the surface of the bar, he doesn’t seem to notice much of anything. With a shrug, Maggie turns away to tend to our drinks. I nudge Greg with an elbow to his side. “You were saying?”
“I wasn’t saying anything,” Greg stubbornly grumbles as he watches Mags deliver our drinks. Since our parting at the hospital, he’s showered and changed out of his bloody clothes. But he still looks like a wreck, like he’s the one who’s been hit by a Honda. When Maggie moves on to other customers, Greg picks up his whiskey shot and stares into it like it’s a crystal ball. Then he shrugs and smirks at me. To the din of bar chatter and The Scorpions rocking us like a hurricane, we do our shots without a toast.
Only then does Greg start talking. “Man, shit sucks.”
As he starts, I settle into my seat for the long haul. Greg has this way of not sharing a damn thing about himself until the whiskey starts to flow, and then it’s an all-out emotional-upchuck. Cue the word vomit: “We were fine, you know. I mean, maybe a little stale, but isn’t that what marriage is supposed to be like? You settle into a comfortable—”
“Numbness?” I add helpfully.
Greg frowns at me. “I wasn’t numb. I loved her. I still love her. Fucking hell, I still love her. But she wanted to open things up and, honestly, the idea excited me, and—then the whole thing with Kate…shit, that was such a fucking mistake.”
Welcome to the Greg and Ari Show. I’ve been in the live studio audience for almost thirteen years. Lately, it’s been a fucking soap opera. “What’s the story there? Are you and the secretary no longer a thing? Because, I thought you were in love with her.”
“She’s my assistant, not my secretary, asshole.” Greg huffs and takes a swig of his beer, then the tension in his shoulders melts away when he admits, “I thought I was in love with her, too.” With a shrug and another swallow of drink, he adds, “Turns out, I had it all wrong…what love is.”
“What is love?” I ask with a chuckle.
Greg frowns at me. “Christ, Jake, if you start singing that Haddaway song, I will break your nose.”
I chuckle as I take a sip of beer. The thought had occurred to me, but tonight is not the time to burst into song. I raise an eyebrow, but remain silent, waiting for Greg to share whatever insights he has to offer.
“I think…I used to think that love was about the good times. I thought it was just about being happy with someone, or at least being content with them.”
“It’s not about being happy?”
“Well, of course everyone wants to be happy, but the good times…that’s the easy part. The real shit, the true test of mettle, that only comes out during the bad times. That’s when love really matters. And I…I fucked it up. I took things for granted. I took her for granted.” Greg presses his palms to his bottle of beer and holds the thing out like he’s reading the label. “And when things got bad, I didn’t even notice. I stopped paying attention years ago. I figured, if I’m content, then she must be, too. I didn’t put any work into it. I didn’t think I had to. All my life, things have come easy for me. It never occurred to me that this wouldn’t.”
Can’t argue with that. Greg’s led a remarkably charmed life, especially when compared to mine. “This?”
Greg scowls at me, but answers. “Marriage. Love. You know, all that shit. I never thought that it would require…work, you know?”
I roll my eyes at him, “For a smart guy, you’re kind of an idiot. What did you think all those marriage vows about sickness and health and richer and poorer are about? Marriage is supposed to be about the good and the bad times, or did no one ever explain that to you?”
“Yeah, but that’s my point.” Greg’s eyes seem to twinkle, and he shifts on his seat to face me, ready for a debate, ready to let the analytical parts of his brain take over from the emotional parts for the first time today. “We’ve got plenty of money, and we’ve both been healthy. We never had those obvious sources of stress to contend with. Most couples fight about, what; money, sex, kids…well, the money and sex have always been good, and no kids, so—”
“If the sex was so good, why was she in such a hurry to fuck other dudes?” I don’t know why I say it. It’s a needlessly cruel observation, and one I’m sure Greg has spent many nights wondering about himself. Still, I find it frustrating that Greg could have been so blind to what was really happening in his own marriage. When his wife had asked to open the marriage, he’d jumped at the chance rather than taking a moment to wonder why she was asking. But that’s nothing new for Greg; he’s never been one to worry about the emotional shit. He’d just assumed that all was well at home, never noticing that his wife was withering away in the house he’d bought her, fucking Rapunzel wanting to let down her hair.
Greg scowls at me again, “If it were just about sex…it wasn’t about the sex.”
“And Kate, how does she fit into this?”
He groans and finishes his beer, then orders another and another round of shots. “Kate…Kate was about the sex. I conflated my curiosity of the newness, my sexual attraction to her, and my genuine admiration of her into some big emotional…thing, then confused that thing, whatever it was, with love. And I’m not sure exactly what Kate felt toward me, but it wasn’t love.”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”
“I’ve had a lot of time to think lately.” Greg grimaces and takes a drinks of his fresh beer. He pauses in deep thought for a moment, before adding, “This morning, when Ari was hit…all I could think was, ‘I’m going to lose her. I’m going to lose her.’ And then, when we got to the hospital…seeing Alex, seeing her with Alex today, it all became really clear. I’ve already lost her. I mean…shit, that sounds awful…that came out wrong. I’m not equating her leaving me with her dying, I just meant—”
I frown. “I know what you meant, brother.”
With a relieved exhale, he muses, “I had the love of an amazing woman, and I didn’t even realize how lucky that made me. And now look at me…getting drunk in a bar, pining over everything I’ve lost.”
Welcome to my life, Greg. I drown that pathetic bout of self-pity with another chug of beer, then grab one of the shots. Greg grabs the other and with false cheer in my tone, I go with an old toast, one we made up one night back in college. “To the two hottest guys in the bar.”
Greg remembers it too, and graces me with a nostalgic smile as he raises his glass to clink mine. “To them, whoever they are.” We both chug our drinks. With a low groan, Greg rubs his hand over his face and then forces a smile in my direction as he asks, “Enough about me, what about you? Anything new?”
“I fucked Rebecca again last night,” I admit with a heavy sigh.
Greg chokes on his beer. Laughing and coughing as he pounds on his chest, he adds, “Well aren’t we a fine pair?”
Can’t argue with him there. I glance across the bar to a blonde and redhead who’ve been giving us their come-hither looks for about fifteen minutes now. The redhead is cute in the face, and the blonde has a massive set of tits that jiggle when she fake-laughs. I turn to Greg. “Speaking of a fine pair, there’s a fine pair of ladies making eyes at us, ten o’clock. Shall we fuck them?”
“Yes. Let’s…” Greg toasts the air and then downs the rest of his beer. “Or…no, wait. I forgot. I have to go home, curl up into the fetal position on the bathroom floor, and weep until I pass out.”
“Sounds like a party. Wear a condom.”
Greg smirks at me as he ambles to his feet and tosses a couple of twenties on the bar for Mags. With a nod to me, he turns and leaves without another word.
In his absence, I find that the heavy weight of my mood doesn’t lift. If anything, my mood worsens. Without Greg here to cry in my ear about losing Ari, I’m left to my own thoughts, and lo and behold, they stray to Ari as well.
We could have lost her today.
The weight of that reality settles on my shoulders like Atlas’ burden. What would I do without her? I close my eyes, and in an instant, my traitorous mind morphs my thoughts back to those memories of before, images of the woman I did lose. I see my mom lying in her hospital bed, non-responsive, sallow in color, the left side of her face covered in thick bandages, a tube shoved down her throat to push air in and suck it back out of her lungs. There’s an empty space where her right leg should be, severed just above the knee. The car had landed on her, crushing the limb beyond saving—
I blink and rub my eyes, wanting to wipe my memories away, then look over at the blonde and redhead. How much work would it take to get them into a threesome? The way they’re looking at me, not much. So why does the thought of it exhaust me?
Too tired to fuck? That’s a new one.
I stare at the bottom of my glass, contemplating leaving, but where would I go? Back to my apartment, to stare at the bottom of a different glass…or bottle? Alone? But I’m alone here, too. Always alone. I glance across the bar at the blonde and redhead again, recognizing the opportunity for what it is. I don’t have to be alone; not for tonight, anyway.
With a groan and a sigh, I gulp down what’s left of my beer, leave some money on the bar for Mags, stand on stiff legs, and weave my way through the crowd. As I near the two women, they straighten their postures and paste inviting grins on their plump lips. I grin too, and nod at them as I near. I consider my evening options for a moment, consider the prospect of burying my sorrows in them.
But at the last minute, I continue past their corner of the bar and head out the door to find a cab ride home.