It was a car accident, of course, the most common of contemporary tragedies. And there was no way she could reasonably blame him (the other driver’s fault, totally, as confirmed by multiple eyewitnesses, not to mention a silver-haired judge’s ruling and an insurance board’s unanimous decision), but sometimes she did blame him, later, when exhaustion and doubt got the best of her. He had been the one driving while she’d stayed home. He had been the one in control, supposedly, of the vehicle, her car, the crap Festiva, because his was in the shop. He was the one who’d decided, after several discussions that eventually escalated into halfhearted arguments (neither could really summon the energy for a full-blown tussle when so many other issues were more pressing, more argument worthy), that they needed a new VCR even though they couldn’t afford it and their current one only occasionally caused videotapes to jitter and jump and distort. He was the one who, on that seemingly inconsequential summer day in 1997, had opted for the mall rather than Best Buy, which was a little closer and probably even a little cheaper. He was the one who’d spaced on getting gas the previous day and then had to stop at a gas station, which meant the trip took an extra five minutes and required a slight detour from the usual home-to-mall route. Had he not spaced on getting gas the previous day, they wouldn’t have been crossing that particular intersection at that particular time and thus would have avoided the accident and one Matthew Ronald Kimbrough (blood-alcohol level well above the legal limit). And, she thought, he had been the one who’d chosen to make the trip in the late afternoon as opposed to the morning, on Saturday instead of Sunday, because on Sunday there was a game of some kind, and no, he couldn’t tape it, because that was another problem with the goddamn, piece-of-shit VCR, which just proved his point even more, he said. And she’d learned that these things — these simple, apparently random things that do not appear to mean anything at the time — have their repercussions; they add up and fuck you and shape your future whether you realize it or not. And why hadn’t he been able to avoid the other car? All crashes are avoidable, are they not? His driving skills, when she really thought about it in the aftermath, had always been somewhat suspect. He was one of those one-handed, cool-guy, Southern California drivers who barely grasp the wheel and concentrate more on the scenery and the radio station than on the road and the death and horror and destruction looming everywhere. So she wondered: Had there been a brief lapse there, a moment when a bikinied billboard model or a Led Zeppelin song he hadn’t heard in years had taken precedence over the safety of Anabelle, their six-year-old child, their world? Had such carelessness been the real culprit, despite the overwhelming evidence against Matthew Ronald Kimbrough, who’d wept repeatedly in court and didn’t have a child of his own and said he could only imagine what it must be like, and he was sorry, sorry, a thousand times sorry, Your Honor, adding that the one positive thing to come out of this whole mess was that he’d found God, whereas before his life had been sans God and pretty much unfocused and empty, and, sure, like everyone else he’d always been skeptical of people “finding” religion in jail, but now he understood; he understood completely how guilt brings you to God . . . And then there was the fact that he, her husband, was only bruised, merely sprinkled with cuts and laughable lacerations and also a sprained wrist, but nothing that required a hospital stay. He was in and out of the emergency room while their daughter fought for life.
He blamed himself as well. Naturally. He was the questionable parent, always had been. This was how the casting of their marriage went: she the vigilant, suffering mother who had the final say on everything; he the reluctant father who way back when had suggested that maybe they weren’t ready for this and shouldn’t have a baby just yet and as a result forever felt guilty of having committed some basic parental transgression that would never be forgiven. The accident, then, confirmed what was already well documented. He hadn’t seen the other car creep up, then accelerate toward them, into them. Hadn’t seen. Their seat belts were on, secure. So he was OK there. And he was sober. Completely and utterly sober. (But how many times had he piloted a vehicle while whiskey and Coca-Cola hummed in his veins? How many times with his very own daughter and wife in the car? Was the accident a kind of cosmic payback for all the lives he could have destroyed but hadn’t?) Still, it was his fault. No matter what the law and the judge and the jury had said; no matter how much the settlement had been; no matter how badly the doctors and the hospital had fucked up. And it was all so sudden, like a sucker punch that staggers you. He was driving, and Anabelle was there in the back seat, and then the tires and the unrepentant roar of metal against metal. He reacted as best he could, turned sharply to the left, locking it up like in a video game, skidding uncontrollably, but there wasn’t enough time. It was too late. Nothing had ever happened so quickly, with such fierce, brute force, so true and final, as if the universe had never been more sure of anything; as if the gods had willed this to be, and now it was so. Immediately he knew it was bad. It was just a question of how bad. The car was flipped around backasswards, and he’d lost all sense of direction. Where were they? He was OK basically. His head was a thunderstorm of guitar feedback and his heart a riot in his chest, but not so bad, considering. The passenger side of the car, however, had crumpled in on itself like a crushed aluminum can. His daughter was bloody and squashed. That was the word exactly: squashed. The silence afterward chilled him. Such fury, then such quiet — which was worse? He started screaming. For how long he didn’t know. What he was saying he didn’t know either. It was just a primal moaning, pure lament. Pain that had to be released. They dragged him from the car (still screaming, he was later told), but they had to wait for the Jaws of Life for Anabelle, and he kept hearing that — the Jaws of Life, the Jaws of Life — and it didn’t really register what they were talking about; it was that device you see on the news that they use to pry people out of cars, and it usually means death, not life. He dropped to the sidewalk. It was happening, and it wasn’t happening. Maybe he was more injured than he thought. His wrist throbbed. Ouch. The left one. The one he’d been driving with, holding the steering wheel. Where had his right hand been when it happened? The car that hit them had apparently then rammed another car and another, though neither as bad as his. There was a man on his knees. The man was saying something. Cops and firetrucks arrived. The curious. Something dark and disturbing had transpired, and how could you not look? He’d probably have done the same thing if he’d been passing by or standing there, part of the crowd and not a participant, as he now was. People hovered stupidly. They seemed afraid to talk to him. He must be the father, someone was saying, and it was his inclination to deny this, to tell them no, he was not the father; he was not worthy of such a title, the way his father hadn’t been, and the way his father’s father hadn’t been, shitty parenting having been passed down from generation to generation, and how can you break a chain like that once it gets going? Waiting, waiting. The concrete warm from the sun. Telling the paramedics he was OK, but his daughter . . . The last time he’d seen his father was a few months before he’d died, and they’d had dinner and said very little. In the ambulance he got his first real look at her. One of the paramedics talked about head trauma and lack of oxygen to the brain and how every second counted. My wrist hurts. I think it’s broke, he wanted to tell them, but how could he say such a thing at such a time? A wrist hardly mattered. Clumps of blood clung to Anabelle’s hair. Her eyes were closed. She was strapped in, and the ambulance snaked and wailed. He couldn’t really make out her face, recognize her as the girl he’d left home with. Everything mangled and red. They had put one of those neck braces on her, and now that was bloody too. Another paramedic cradled her head, as if his hands were all that was holding her skull together. And maybe they were. Up front the driver yelled: Fucking cars! Fucking traffic! What do people not understand about the concept of flashing red lights? A group was waiting for them in the hospital parking lot: activity, a lot of words he didn’t understand. The words had a strange power because they were secret. Was he standing? Was someone holding him up? They wheeled her away, and he followed, and one of the doctors asked if he was OK, and he said, Yes, fine, I think, and the doctor said, We’d better check you out just to be sure, and that’s when he told them about his wrist, which was throbbing worse by then. He tracked down a pay phone. He had to call first, before anything else. He almost forgot his own number. Maybe it was shock. He slammed the phone in the cradle because he couldn’t remember the number, and people stared, and he leaned there against the phone until the sequence of digits came to him finally. He waited for Karen to pick up. What was he going to say? Where to begin? Shit. What had he done? Later he would wonder: What had Anabelle been saying before the crash? He couldn’t even remember. It was probably nothing out of the ordinary: I’m hungry. When are we going to get there? Can we go to KB Toys? Why was Mom mad at you this morning? When are you going to like each other again? But even that would have been something. His daughter was quiet, mysterious, given to staring out windows and sitting on the sidewalk and mumbling to herself in that weird made-up language of hers. The last words she might ever speak, and he couldn’t remember them. His failure was complete.
She had been at home, paging through one of the women’s magazines that she fell prey to in checkout lines, or maybe not even that, just sitting there doing nothing at all, perhaps contemplating housework and dishes and the Buns of Steel 4 videotape that someone had given her two Christmases ago (a hint?) and that was still shrink-wrapped, or wondering which bills could be put off and which couldn’t, or vaguely deciding whether she was going to shower that night or wait until morning. Did she know something was wrong when it happened, the accident? Did she feel something deflate and die inside her at the moment of impact? No, she was too immersed in her stupid reveries, too glad to have the house to herself for a while, enjoying the silence and peace and space and still wearing her slippers and absently scraping off the last of her burnt-sienna nail polish. How she’d like to change that part of it. How she’d like to have intuited that her daughter was in danger right when the crushing of metal and flesh and skull occurred; that their lives were about to turn inside out. But she didn’t. Her motherly radar wasn’t motherly enough, apparently. She’d tried her best to be the kind of mother worthy of those sappy Mother’s Day greeting cards — the raised lettering, the elaborate cursive fonts, the couplets chronicling love and patience, understanding and sacrifice — but she knew that whatever she did or didn’t do, it would never be good enough; that it was her fate to fall short; that people have kids for all the wrong reasons or no reason at all, because it’s just what you do, and she was no different. They were no different. You bring a child into this world, and you had better be prepared for the consequences. When he called, she almost didn’t even pick up the phone. Just let the machine get it. But she got up. His voice did not sound like his voice. It had a fear in it she’d never heard before, not once in nine-plus up-and-down years of dating and breakups and makeups and marriage. John? she said.
At first he thought she wasn’t going to answer. Fuck. Then she did, just after the machine clicked on, the default computerized Please leave a message because he kept unplugging the damn thing by mistake (yet another much-maligned appliance), which had erased each of her increasingly reluctant personalized greetings until she’d finally given up. She uttered a sleepy-sounding Hello? (Had she been napping in front of a movie she’d already seen six times on cable?) He started rambling. He didn’t know what to say exactly, so he just dove in headfirst, rattling off details, hoping that if enough syllables spilled out of him, he’d be able to impart the necessary information. There’d been no time, no time at all to react. It had all happened so fast. The fuck just pulled out right in front of us like we weren’t even there, like we were invisible. There was nothing I could do, I swear. Then he hit another car. The guy was obviously on something. How else could you explain? She’s in surgery right now. Surgery. They’re not saying much. They’re saying it’s too soon to make any kind of . . . what? Prognosis. We’ll know more after the surgery. We’ll know more later. My wrist . . . But Karen wasn’t saying anything back. She was quiet, absorbing, because that’s what she did: listen calmly, make the other person mistakenly think everything is serene and swell and fine, and then explode once all the evidence had been gathered. He kept going because he was afraid of the silence on the other end. If he continued talking, then it would be all right. His seat belt had been on. Anabelle’s too. The car was too old to have air bags. But eventually he ran out of words. He sputtered to a stop. There was nothing left. He had said all he could say. He had done his best. He was ready for her response. Why wasn’t she saying anything? What kind of reaction was this? Then it sounded like something happened with the phone. The static got worse. Everything got very far away. He said her name: Karen?
There was that empty, cavernous phone echo when no one is speaking, but they’re still there, and you swear you can hear the lines and grids and all the technology you don’t know anything about swirling together, as if everything that makes telephones and telephone conversations possible were suddenly audible, and you can hear it all contained in that ambient echo. He had been talking nonstop, like she’d never heard him speak before. She pieced it together as best she could: They were not at the mall. There had been an accident on the way. Some guy had pulled right out, and there had been no time to react. John was fine except for something with his wrist, but Anabelle was not. She was not fine. She was the opposite of fine. She was in surgery, and the doctors were saying things like massive head trauma and major blood loss, and they’d had to use the Jaws of Life to pry her out of the car. OK. This was the situation. How does a mother respond? How does anyone respond? This was one of those phone calls that strip away your vague belief in a safe world, which is quickly replaced by the view that the universe is cruel, cold, uncaring, and indifferent, especially when it comes to what happens to you and those you love and those you are supposed to love. Only, such phone calls usually come in the middle of the night, tearing you from open-mouthed dreams. It was daylight, not night. So maybe it wasn’t one of those calls. Maybe it was going to be all right. She had all the curtains and blinds pulled, but she knew it was daylight outside — the sun asserting itself, a simmering yellow. It was the tail end of that period from late August to early October when there’s a kind of desert-planet, sci-fi glow to Los Angeles — and it was Saturday, and there’d been an accident, and her hand that held the phone began to shake, like her great aunt who had . . . what’s it called? Parkinson’s. And then her entire body began to quake and quiver and turn fuzzy, and soon she was no longer vertical but horizontal, and the coolness of the kitchen tiles pressed hard against her face felt nice, like the damp cloth on her forehead when she’d stayed home sick from school, sipping 7 Up through a straw and watching daytime TV shows she didn’t normally get to watch. She decided it might have to be a while before she moved. Soon, though. Her body was adjusting to something: a new weight, a brewing truth. She was on the cordless, which had already been somewhat on the fritz and had dropped to the floor and would never work as well thereafter, adding a crackling undercurrent to all their conversations.
He waited in the waiting room. Doctors were paged; nurses slalomed by the door. Buzz, buzz. It was hard to keep up with it all. But he had to, because one of them might know something about Anabelle. Every doctor or nurse or orderly potentially carried information that would change his life, their life. Maybe this information was already officially out there, on the record, and it was now just a matter of telling him. Somebody said, Saturdays are the worst. Fuck me if I gotta work two Saturdays in a row. Fuck me right here, right now. A man with dreadlocks assaulted a vending machine, which had consumed his dollar bill without dispensing the desired snack. Families held hands and congregated, hoping to defeat death with numbers: the more people assembled in the waiting room and hallway, the less the chance of . . . He couldn’t even pace. He just stood there. Time? What was time? He was alone, and he was the only one who was alone (even the dreadlocked man was there with somebody), and obviously this was hurting Anabelle’s chances. More people were needed. Bodies. Safety in numbers. Who else could he call? Then Karen arrived, and they waited together, two instead of one. Still not enough, he worried. Karen said she had fainted in the kitchen, but thank God she hadn’t been out for more than a few minutes, and she’d called a cab because his car, of course, was in the shop. Any news yet? No, he said. No news. It could be hours still, they said. Just wait and try to relax. Yeah, right. And he touched her face, traced her cheek slowly, softly with his thumb, using his good hand, the one that wasn’t bandaged. He noticed the first inroads of lines around her eyes. He saw the sadness permanently etched there — and everywhere in her face, every centimeter of skin. He’d seen it before, but it had never seemed so profound and real, this sadness, and he knew that he was responsible for it in ways he couldn’t even begin to fathom, because she hadn’t always been this way; that his desperation had somehow become her desperation, and he wanted to rub it away like smudged lipstick, make it disappear so she would no longer be sad, no longer be who she had become. When had the sadness begun? Or had it always been there, waiting, dormant like some disease? Sadness as a disease? Sure, we’ve all got it. People are sad, no matter what they tell you. We’re all haunted by who we are and who we aren’t, by how nothing ever satisfies the way we think it will. And the older you get, the sadder. Made sense. And they were getting older. They had aged each other, he realized. It was true. Funny because they’d been thinking of possibly having another child, because it might be the salve they needed, the missing piece that could perhaps fill the ache that had afflicted them both. Because things weren’t right, hadn’t been since — well, who knows? They were only getting worse and worse, and after a while you reach that point: Let’s have another kid. Sometimes he thought, Yes, that would do it, but other times he thought, No, what the fuck are we thinking here? It would only make matters worse. Another kid would double everything. Karen nuzzled closer, so close he could smell her tears. The two of them wrapped themselves around each other tighter and tighter, rediscovering the fit of their bodies. What was happening? The fluorescent lights buzzed, and the dreadlocked man launched a new series of improvised karate kicks at the uncooperative vending machine. And just like that they were a couple again. A real couple. How could they ever have doubted that? How could they have let themselves get to such a sorry-ass state, so distant and unknown to each other? One day you intimately know the curve of your wife’s back, and the next you don’t. He stumbled through his snowy thoughts, groping: OK. Anabelle would pull through. She would pull through because of what was happening here, their unspoken reunion, and they would become a family, a real family, not the cheap imitation they’d been before. And, yes, they would have another child, and they’d fix up the house so they could finally sell it and move somewhere else and start to live the sort of life where you lie down at night and reach out to touch the other person, and they’re already reaching out to touch you. He held his wife even tighter and mapped out their newly bright future and told himself to remember this feeling and not to give it up, not to let things go back to the way they’d been (only minutes ago, true, but how much had changed since then!), not to resign themselves to the sadness of living together yet living apart. And if it is true that we’re all terminally sad, and there’s no getting around that basic fact, then at least they could be a little less sad, right? He would try. He would really try. If Anabelle came through this, then they would begin again. Whispering in her ear, he said, Everything’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be all right. She’s going to be fine, and we’re going to be fine. Shhhh. There, now. Shhhh. It felt good to say the words, to make the sounds. This was what a husband, what a father did.
How long did they hold each other in the waiting room? She couldn’t say for sure. A long, long time. Long enough for her to want to hold on for good, to be afraid of separating, of their bodies parting. Letting go would disrupt whatever was passing between them. Letting go would mean that soon a doctor would emerge from surgery and deliver the news. No, letting go was not an option. She remembered closing her eyes and telling herself to clutch him closer, if that were possible. She remembered burying herself in that silly Hawaiian shirt that he wore all the time, weekends especially. He thought it was so uncool that it was cool. One hundred percent rayon. Machine wash, tumble dry. Made in Russia, he liked to point out, fascinated by the notion of a Hawaiian shirt stitched and sewn in Russia. Those were the little odd bits of information that made him laugh and tolerate the world. But she couldn’t remember if they’d still been holding each other when finally a doctor did emerge from surgery, and, yes, he did have news, and it was the famous good-news-bad-news speech (although he did not offer a choice of which they would like to hear first but just jumped right in), the good news being that Anabelle had pulled through so far. She was a fighter, all right, and they had managed to keep her alive throughout the surgery, which was a victory in and of itself. But there had been massive — again that word, massive, which had never before seemed so harsh to her ear — head injury and massive blood loss, which meant that there was brain damage, and they wouldn’t know how much or how little until later, but for now she was in a coma, or not really a coma but more of a comalike state, and he’d go into that more later, because that was enough for now, but there was one other fact that he’d be remiss if he didn’t tell them about, and that was that, besides the accident, which had caused such significant trauma to the head (You mean “massive,” she’d wanted to correct him), there had been an initial discrepancy of sorts when Anabelle had first arrived at the hospital, and she had been given too much of a particular drug, which had added a whole other layer to the mix, and they wouldn’t know the true repercussions of this until later, but he was saying it right now, up front, so that they’d know he was being totally and completely up front about everything, because he’d be remiss if he weren’t. Again she faced the question of how to react. Her daughter was alive. For that there was relief. Alive. But then: Brain damage. Did that mean that Anabelle was unlikely ever to speak or move again? And given too much of a drug. John was asking more about this, about what the deal was with the drug she’d been given too much of, the so-called discrepancy and other layer: Are you saying that could make it worse? The doctor said, I’m not saying anything. I’m telling you the facts. I’m telling you the facts of what happened and what we know so far and what we don’t know so far. The doctor was wearing scrubs and glasses. A tight, compact barrel of a man. And for sure by this point she and John had peeled away from each other, and the distance was returning. Of course she wasn’t thinking of that at the time. It was all Anabelle. It was all her daughter, who was in intensive care and would be for some time. And in the weeks and months ahead she would be tested as a mother like never before. She would discover a deeper level of motherhood, one of profound vigilance and exhausting purpose, caring for a child, another soul, in such a consuming manner: cleaning, feeding, wiping, monitoring, ministering around the clock. It was an altered state of being that exiled you from the rest of the world. She would also blame herself for the accident and everything it wrought — after all, she was the one who’d suggested Anabelle go with John. Ordinarily Anabelle would have stayed home. Why don’t you go with your father? Mommy’s tired. Mommy needs a little downtime. That’s what she’d said. And of course Anabelle had said all right, even though she would rather have remained home and continued her coloring, and what do six-year-olds understand about “downtime” anyway? What it came down to, though, was something else. What it came down to was that two people could love each other, and this could happen. What it came down to was that two people could stop loving each other, and this could still happen. The doctor then told them they could see Anabelle, and they followed him down corridor after corridor, left then right then left, the doctor walking his brisk doctor walk so that they had to move faster to keep up. When they arrived at her bed in the ICU, Anabelle was surrounded by people in masks and gowns, and the doctor said, The parents, and the people in masks and gowns parted so they could get closer. The hum of machines, the release and push of suction, of manufactured air. She touched Anabelle’s face, stared at her closed doll’s eyes and open, twisted mouth. This was her daughter now. She turned to John and tried to say something, but her voice was not there; it was gone, and she waited for John to say something, but he didn’t. He was silent and slowly backing away from Anabelle’s bed, like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, this girl, this still, foreign creature so elaborately bandaged and manacled, this new beginning that was upon them, and they had to figure out what could and couldn’t be fixed.