Dawn. A wintry light. Lukewarm consolation. I know what is going on outside even though I can’t see it, hear it, smell it. Merchants, corpulent and sly, are running up the gates of their shops, not giving a shit about who above them they wake with their terrible clatter or raised voices. The first customers enter past windows of cheeses cradled in nests of honeyed-colored packing straw, warm bread neatly stacked, pâtés and jellied meats, glistening with fat, never melting or spoiling behind the spotless glass. But here I am being sentimental about shit that used to really bug me. Always found Paris stifling. A city in aspic.
Have I slept? I don’t think so. I . . . hovered. Morphine sure isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Shouldn’t it be erasing the dull dread of expected pain and the claustrophobia of lying in the same position day after day? Maybe I need more. When I get out of here, I swear, I will never lie on my back again. Not even when . . . No; don’t even think about that.
Why would I want to sleep anyway? Horrible, fast, flashing dreams. Running, jumping, tripping dreams. And that Frankensteinian jolt of life which seizes my leg and makes my harness sway and clatter, perfuming the room, like an altar boy’s censer, with the scent of disinfectant, metal, and flesh.
I am not healing. The swelling has not gone down. The bruising has not come up. My bandages are still soaked. I am starting to hate the look of reserved disgust on nurse Marcel’s face, as if my poor leg were no better than a rotten joint of meat. I wish he’d pay attention to what’s good. Look at my toenails. They’re beautiful. Bright red. The night nurse did a nice job. I’d like her to do it again, but that would ruin the experiment, cover any evidence that they are, in fact, growing.
It’s funny to think that moments after I was struck I thought it was my head that had been crushed. My nose pressed up against the curb, gurgling sounds in my ears—what else was I to think except that my brains had gone to liquid under the wheel of a truck, were burbling out and swirling down the gutter to the sewage grate to join the river of human filth beneath the Parisian streets?
But it was my leg, only my leg. They have already taken out the few stitches my forehead required. Only my leg, and yet I still can’t conceive of the damage I’m told has been done to it. Hip: crushed inside out. Thigh: snapped. Knee: popped off. Shin: all shardy bones poking through the thin veil of skin.
No wonder I am not healing. Where to start? I can feel the confusion within. The white blood cells, the corpuscles or whatever the hell it is that swarms to the rescue. They are overwhelmed, spinning crazily, hands on their heads, mouths agape with no clue as to what to do. What was it my father used to have me do? Bite the heel of my hand whenever I hurt myself. “Can’t feel pain in two places at once.” Well, Dad, you were wrong. I feel pain, feel it all over. I am pain. I am an American lying in a French hospital in the heart of Paris with my leg smashed to bits. I am shut up inside the cloistered walls of the Hospital Saint Denis with Sonia, a teenage boarding school escapee with heart palpitations, as my only source to the outside world.
My low-frequency-tuned ears are able to pick up only sounds within the hospital, nothing beyond, none of the constant thrum of a city, the cars, the trucks, the horns, the people. In here just sick silence. There should, at least, be the clean, crisp lines of a modern hospital around me, but other than the white, metal-framed bed and the bent white metal chair, the room I am in is old, very old: warped walls, sagging floors, thick melting pane- glass windows. Yesterday I begged her, “Tell me anything, anything that’s not this.”
“Just trees,” Sonia said with a sigh, turning back to me.
“Only trees. Are you sure?” I asked.
“What do you want from me?”
“Noise. Noise that tells us we’re smack in the middle of a fucking city.”
Sonia opened the window by its chipped iron clasp and leaned all the way out. “I know where we are.”
“At the back.”
I had to turn away. There’s not a room in the world I’ve been in where I didn’t look under the beds, open the closets, listen through vents, know the front way out, the back way out, and the streets beyond.
Forget it. Think of something else. Listen. There goes the first one. Now the next. The early-morning trooping to the bathroom. Some men, lucky men, have to wait until their morning hard-ons wilt. I can hear them coughing. Can just see them scratching around the itchy mount of stitches that close over their refurbished hearts, livers, and kidneys.
Closer now it’s Sonia’s turn to join the zombied procession. As for me, I’ll have to wait. It’s at least two hours until that sanctioned hour of the morning when an efficient army of nurses fans out through these rooms and roughs the bedridden into consciousness so that we can be fed pills, jabbed with needles, turned over, washed, fed, and set upon cold bedpans.
If I could invent anything it would be a warmed bedpan. Better yet, a secret bedpan. No tin-roof-clattering-in-the-rain effect. No cold steel slipped beneath the bum. No walleyed nurse waiting. The silent pee. To pee alone. The humiliations of being bed-bound. Unceasing.
Like clockwork now, two rooms down, the last of the flushes. The pipes, strapped to the side of the building, gurgle and hiss. Look at me listening to pipes. I’ve become a Peeping Tom of sounds, a greedy little hoarder of everything that happens to float by my pricked-up ears. But what’s the point? Sonia breathes, her stomach gurgles, she mumbles in her sleep. These are just facts. The mystery remains. To go deeper. To hear what she is thinking. Now that would be something. What does a seventeen-year-old boarding school escapee with heart problems dream about? Not running, jumping, tripping dreams, that’s for damn sure. If form follows, then right now, this second, she stands in her dreamscape among school friends. She notices that they are all pulsating. She sees their temples throbbing, she watches the rhythmic rise and fall of their chests. They look, as they sway slightly in girlish unison, like weeds caught by the same current. It’s then that she realizes she is not one of them. Nothing pulsates in her, nothing beats.
Is that the crazy, scary dream you are having, Sonia? If not, what then? Are you reliving moments from earlier tonight, when you and Dr. Luc thought I was sleeping and you gave him that noisy blow job? Those sounds. Dr. Luc, with his short grunt of acquiescence. He didn’t sound anything like Ralph.
Don’t think of him. These dawn hours will only distort the heartache. But I miss him, I miss the singsong laughter, the wild body spasms, the startled look on his face. What I would give to have been the one, the first one, to excavate that untapped trove of adolescent desire which still resonates in him twenty years on.
It’s gone, over, like most marriages: a victim of confusion. That’s what it is. Not so much the end of love as the birth and wild growth of confusion. And confession. Don’t forget confession. Great marriage smasher confession is. Not that I confessed. I kept my secrets. Ralph should have known to keep his.
I wonder where he is now. It is less than a month that separates us, but it’s already gone, my ability to feel him, to know what he is doing wherever he is in the world. Can it be true that I’ve lost it so quickly, or is it that I am not myself, my human radar dulled by this infernal morphine drip?
I want him to come to me, now, this second. To materialize. “We’re only atoms,” he often said. “A table could be a steak if it was so inclined.” Then split your atoms, Ralph. Send a copy of yourself, a ghostly apparition who will look down on me and say, “My wife, my wife, my poor wife. Look at her, all smashed to bits.”