I sit silently in the emergency room chair. Marty talks to the cop. The woman I hit was wheeled in a hospital bed to a curtain drawn space twenty feet from me. I don’t know any details so my imagination goes all over the place. What if, because of me, she’ll never walk again? What if, because of me, she never gets married? What if she has nerve damage and can never feel an orgasm again. I make no effort to censor my thoughts. I take a deep breath and an incredible sharp pain pierces my lungs. This send me into a coughing fit that hurts even more. The X-ray showed two ribs were fractured, but not broken.
Marty comes back over to me. I still have no idea why he’s here. Part of me is afraid to ask. But the bigger part is glad he’s here. My parents are out of town and being alone right now would be so beyond terrifying I’m pretty sure I’d shut the whole world out.
“Try not to take so deep of breaths. Want me to get you more water?” Marty inquires.
I look down. My cup has three ice chips. No matter how much I push at them with the straw, all they will do is slide along the bottom rim of the plastic.
“No. That’s okay… What did the officer say?”
Marty sits down next to me.
“Don’t worry about that now.”
“People don’t say ‘don’t worry’ about good news.”
“No, it’s just that–“
“Fuck you, and fuck your stupid hospital!” A woman who can’t be much younger than me, wearing all black and dyed pink hair with blond roots showing, screams as she stumbles out of her curtained room.
“I’ve been here for four fuckin’ hours and I know you fuck heads are laughin’ at me.”
The police officer approaches her and directs her to sit down.
“You can’t keep me! I know my rights.”
She stumbles off. On her way out she knocks over a suture cart. The metallic crash echos in the hallway.
“Things could be worse.” Marty points out.
“Not knowing is worse.” I choke up while saying.
“Hey. Listen. You weren’t drinking, were you?”
I don’t reply.
I look down at my shoes.
“Okay, well I’m a lawyer. I can–“
“You’re a tax lawyer, Marty.” I say sharply.
“I have friends.”
“I wasn’t drinking.” But I still shouldn’t have been driving.
“Well, good. So you don’t have to worry about that. Even if it is your fault–“
“That what the cop said?”
“No. They don’t know yet. It’s snowing. It’s probably going to be a no fault accident.”
“But if they do find that it was my fault?”
“Well…you’re insured right?”
“Right now I am.”
“What does that mean?”
I look down at my shoes, again.
“I uh…” I rub my hands over my forehead then brush the hair out of my face. I feel doomed. But until the words come out of my mouth, I can still linger in that denial. I think I understand, for the first time in my life, what it means to ‘face reality.’
“I’m not supposed to be driving. I’m an epileptic.”
Marty’s reassuring demeanor vanishes as he takes in the new information. His mind is chewing it. Thinking. He is determined to find an answer. To save me. Then he lets out a breath and, for a split second, I can see defeat in him. It’s a deflation in his character. In the way he holds himself. Then a mask goes up.
“Well, that doesn’t mean…”
He wants to make it okay. He wants me so badly to be safe that he’ll lie to me.
“Please Marty, don’t. I’ve lived my whole life of people lying to me. Not you too.”
He starts to refute my accusation but then stops.
For the first time, the ER is quiet. Then two women in high heels and very short leopard print skirts walk in. The first one sings ♫”I got glass in my foot”♪ and her friend sings back up ♫”She’s got glass in her… foot!” ♪
“Did you have a seizure?”
“I don’t know. I really can’t remember…which makes me think…” I can’t finish the sentence. A golf ball swells in my throat. It feels like cancer. I wish it was.
“It’s impossible to know what to do or what to think when you’re in that oblivion of guilt. You’re not a bad person, you didn’t want to hurt anyone, but here you are with someone hooked up to a beeping machine.
It’s hard enough to trust yourself with your own problems. But now someone else’s fate is on you because of a mistake, not even consciously made. How could you ever live with yourself?
You’re not the only one to walk away from an accident terrified that someone’s blood might be on your hands. Twenty-three years ago, I sat in a waiting room. Only it was an ICU, not an ER. And it wasn’t a stranger. Those moments of not knowing…they’re the seventh circle of hell. But they’re nothing compared to the torture you endure from a guilty imagination.”
I look over at Marty. Until now, he had always struck me as a man free of worry, embodying a perpetual calm. But here was a man sentenced to a remorse so profound, so crippling it was as if the despair wore him like a cheap suit and a weathered mask.
He doesn’t say anything for a moment. I almost ask him something, but before I can–
“My son pulled through. I thank God every day for that. Two things never happened after that night. I never drank again. And my wife never spoke to me as her husband.”
Another long silence. Maybe the two girls were still singing and maybe the man in the room down the hall is still demanding more Percoset. Maybe the girl in black is being cuffed and dragged back. I wouldn’t know. Everything was so beyond my awareness at that moment. Everything but me and Marty.
“But I smiled again. It did happen. And good days followed once I did.”
I sat back in my chair and took stock of everything I was until this moment, bracing for all that was about to change.