I stumble out of the living room and leave my condo, grabbing my car keys as I go. I don’t know where I’m going. Just out. Away.
I can’t live like this anymore. I have tried to go on alone; God knows I’ve tried. But the world is so big and I feel so incredibly small, not myself at all. I am like a charcoal drawing of the woman I once was, just black lines and white space, a silhouette. My heart can’t hold this loss. I can’t … look away anymore. Now all I see is the emptiness around me, beside me. Inside of me.
A strong wind would blow me away, that’s how weak I am, and it’s okay. I don’t want to be strong anymore. I want to be … gone.
In the elevator I push the down button. As I careen through the underground parking lot, I fish the Xanax out of my evening bag and swallow two, gagging at the bitter taste.
I get into my car, rev the engine, and drive away. I turn onto First Street without even looking to my left. Tears and rain blur my view, turn my familiar city into a landscape I’ve never seen before, a jagged, misshapen blur of silvery skyscrapers and distorted neon signs and lamplight burned into impossible, watery shapes. My despair is spilling over, obliterating everything else. I swerve to the right to miss something—a pedestrian, a bicyclist, a figment of my imagination—and there it is: a hulking concrete stanchion that supports the aging, dangerous viaduct, looming in front of me.
I see that huge black post and I think: End it.
The simplicity of it takes my breath away. Has the thought been there all along? Have I been circling it in the obscurity of my subconscious, watching it? I don’t know. All I know is it’s there now, as seductive as a kiss in the dark.
I don’t have to be in pain anymore. All it takes is a turn of the wheel.
“Oh, my God.” I turn to Kate. “I tried to turn at the last second to avoid hitting the stanchion.”
“I had one split second where I thought, Who would care? and I kept my foot on the gas, but then I turned. Only … it was too late.”
The moment she says the word, I see that we are in the hospital room again. It is bright and white and there are people around my bed.
I’m hovering above it all, looking down on them.
I see Johnny with his arms crossed tightly, moving back and forth. His mouth is drawn into a frown, and Margie is crying quietly, a handkerchief held to her mouth, and my mother looks devastated. The twins are there, standing close together. What I see are the tears in Lucas’s eyes and the defiant, angry jutting out of Wills’s small chin. They look insubstantial somehow, boys who have been partially erased.
They have spent too much time in hospitals already, these boys. It breaks my heart that I have brought them back here again.
My boys, Kate says, and the softness in her voice takes me aside. Will they remember me? This she says so quietly I think I may have imagined it. Or maybe I am reading her mind like best friends do.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
My boys, growing up without me? No. She shakes her head; silvery blond hair shivers at the movement. What is there to say?
In the silence that falls between us, I hear strains of a song, coming from the iPod on the bedside table; the volume is so low I can barely hear it. Hello darkness my old friend …
And then I hear voices.
“… it’s time … not hopeful…”
“… temperature normal … remove ventilator.”
“… we’ve removed the shunt, but…”
“… on her own, we’ll see…”
The man in white seems menacing somehow; I shiver when he says, “… Are you ready?”
They are talking about my body, about me, about taking me off life support. They are here, my friends and family, to watch me die.
Or breathe, Kate says. Then: It’s time. Do you want to go back?
I get it. Everything has been leading up to this moment. I see that with a clarity that should have been there before.
I see Marah walk into the hospital room. She looks so thin and frail as she stands by Johnny, who puts an arm around her.
She needs you, Kate says to me. And so do my boys. There is a hitch in her voice; an emotion I know runs deep. I made her a promise to be there for her children and I failed. In a way, the proof is in the piercings. I feel my old nemesis—longing—uncoil from its place deep, deep inside me and spread out.
They love me. Even from where I am, through the mist of worlds, I can see that. Why didn’t I see it when I was standing beside them? Maybe we see what we expect to. I do want to undo what I’ve done—this terrible, selfish thing—I want to undo it and have a chance to be another version of myself. A better version.
And I love them. How was it that I have believed I was incapable of love, all these years, when I feel it so deeply? I turn to say this to Kate, and she smiles at me, my best friend, with her long, tangled blond hair and thick eyelashes and her smile that lights up any room.
My other half. The girl who took my hand all those years ago and didn’t let go until she had to.
In her eyes, I see our lives: dancing to our music, riding our bikes in the dark, sitting in chairs on her beach, talking and laughing. She is my heart; the one who lets me soar and keeps me grounded. No wonder I went crazy without her. She was the glue that held us all together.
Say goodbye to me, she says quietly.
In the hospital room—and now it feels far, far away—I hear someone—the doctor—say, “Does anyone want to say anything first?”
But I am listening to Kate now: I’ll always be with you, Tul. Always. Friends no matter what. This time you won’t stop believing.
I had stopped believing—in her, in me, in us. In everything.
I look at her, see through the brightness to the face I know as well as my own.
When someone hip-bumps you or tells you that it’s not all about you or when our music plays. Listen and you’ll hear me in all of it. I’m in your memories.
I know she’s right. Maybe I’ve known it all along. She is gone. I lost her a long time ago, but I didn’t know how to let go. How do you release your other half? But I have to … for both of our sakes. I see that now. Still, I can’t say the word.
“Ah, Katie…” I say, feeling the hot sting of tears.
See? she says. You’re saying goodbye.
She moves toward me, and I feel a heat shimmering off her, and then, like a touch of flame, I feel a brush of skin against mine and goose bumps break out across my flesh, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. Slip out the back, Jack, she says. Make a new plan, Stan.
The music. Always the music.
“I love you,” I say quietly, and finally it is enough. Love is what lasts. I understand that now. “Goodbye.”
At that, just the single heartfelt word, I am plunged back into the darkness.
* * *
I can see myself, I think, from a distance. I am in pain. A headache blinds me, it hurts so much.
Move. It is an old word, one I used to know, and it comes to me now. There is a black velvet curtain in front of me. I am backstage, maybe. Somewhere out there are lights …
I have to get to my feet … walk … but I am tired. So tired.
Still, I try. I get up. Each step sends pain ringing up my spine, but I don’t let it stop me. There is a light out there, onstage. Like a lighthouse beam, it flashes bright, shows me the way, and then disappears again. I keep walking, trudging forward, thinking, Please, but my mind is so muddy I don’t know to whom I am praying. And then suddenly there is a hill above me, growing fast, reaching upward, climbing out from the blackness in front of me.
I can’t make it.
From far away, I hear: “Wake up, Tully, please—”
And pieces of a song, something about about sweet dreams that I almost recognize.
I try to take another step, but my lungs ache from the exertion and I hurt all over. My legs give out and I pitch to my knees, landing hard enough to rattle bones and break my resolve.
“I can’t do it, Katie.”
I almost ask her why, almost scream the question in frustration. But I know why.
It is something I have never had.
“Come back, Tully.”
I follow the line of my goddaughter’s voice. In this black world, it shimmers like gossamer, just beyond my reach. I reach for it, follow it. Then I take a deep, painful breath and try to stand.
September 4, 2010
“Are you ready?” Dr. Bevan asked. “Does anyone want to say anything first?”
Marah couldn’t even nod. She didn’t want this. It was better to keep her godmother plugged in, breathing, than to take her off the machines. What if she died?
Tully’s mom moved closer to the bed. Her cracked, colorless lips moved silently, forming words that Marah couldn’t hear. They were all here, gathered around the hospital bed: Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, the twins, and Tully’s mom. Dad had spoken to Marah and the boys this morning on the ferry, explained to them what this all meant. They had raised Tully’s body temperature and taken her off the heavy meds. Now they were going to unplug her from the ventilator. Hopefully she would wake up and breathe on her own.
Dr. Bevan put Tully’s chart in a sleeve at the end of the bed. A nurse came in and removed the breathing tube from Tully’s mouth. Time seemed to screech to a halt.
Tully took a rattling, phlegmy breath and released it. Beneath the white cotton blanket, her chest rose and fell, rose and fell.
“Tallulah,” Dr. Bevan said, leaning over Tully. He pried open her eyelids and shone a beam of light in her eyes. Her pupils reacted. “Can you hear me?”
“Don’t call her that,” Dorothy said in a cracked voice. Then, more softly, as if she thought she shouldn’t have spoken, “She hates that name.”
Grandma reached out and held Dorothy’s hand.
Marah pulled away from her dad and inched toward the side of the bed. Tully was breathing on her own, but she still looked pretty much dead, all bruised and black and blue and bandaged and bald. “Come on, Tully,” she said. “Come back to us.”
How long did Marah stand there, gripping the bedrails, waiting for her godmother to wake up? It felt like hours had passed when she finally heard Dr. Bevan say:
“Well. Time will tell, I guess. Brain injuries are tricky. We’ll monitor her closely over the next few hours. Hopefully she’ll wake up.”
“Hopefully?” Grandma said. They’d all learned to be wary of that word from doctors.
“That’s all there is now,” Dr. Bevan said. “Hope. But her brain activity is normal and her pupils are reactive. And she’s breathing on her own. Those are very good signs.”
“So we wait,” Dad said.
Dr. Bevan nodded. “We wait.”
The next time Marah glanced at the clock, she saw that the thin black hands were still moving, still gobbling minutes and moving on.
She heard the adults whispering behind her, talking among themselves. She spun to face them. “What? What?”
Dad came forward. He reached out and held her hand, and she knew it was bad.