They say that the drunk driver never gets hurt. They also say that an alcoholic needs twelve steps to recover. Whoever they are, I proved them wrong twice in one night. In a car crash, the drunk person doesn’t tense up like the sober person does. But when your entire dashboard collapses inwards and crushes both your legs, it doesn’t tend to discriminate between the tense and relaxed person. This tends to be a one step program to quitting drinking. They don’t serve gin and tonics in pediatric intensive care.
In the hospital I went to, you were considered a pediatric patient until you were twenty-three. It actually reflected the truth better than anything else in the world did. You could sign a form there, but they still took you through everything step by step, they didn’t assume you knew anything about anything, they asked if you wanted to talk to your parents before you made a decision.
My younger sister was the only one who showed up that first night.
“Dad says he doesn’t want to look at you right now. Mom keeps crying whenever someone says your name. Here are your insurance cards.”
She tossed them down and left.
My friends never came to visit me. I got a few phone calls, so they did know, but only after one of them texted me asking if they’d left something in my car. Once the full story came out, I never heard from any of them again. I still don’t know if it was what I did—I had seen them all drive when they shouldn’t have before—or that they just didn’t care that much to begin with.
But I should explain. I don’t blame any of them. I didn’t even at the time. What else were they supposed to do? I had been the model child. The intelligent, successful, likable person that usually came from , my family. Except that was all a lie. I was in my fifth year of college because I had failed so many classes, I had lost my fancy, prestigious internship days into it, and there was no one who actually liked me. I was hardworking, but that was not a characteristic of my family. Everything came naturally to them. While my siblings glided through school with perfect grades, plenty of friends, plenty of relationships, I worked as hard as I could to measure up. Right before the crash, I wasn’t successful, I wasn’t even happy, but I still had the plan. Everything would work out fine if I followed the plan. Graduate in May. Work for my sister, Elizabeth, on her campaign for the state legislature. If she lost, I’d work at her law office for a year then go to law school. If she won, I’d work for her until I felt like going to law school. Politics would come later.
But suddenly even the plan was gone. The plan had been my only shield. It shielded who I was from almost everyone around me, but more importantly it shielded who I was from myself. Before, if bits of my true self got past the shield, it was just a minor slip up. Now, with it gone I was completely exposed. There was nothing to keep me from drowning inside of myself. Even my usual numbing agent, alcohol, was ripped from me. I could just see who I was with nothing to dull the pain. Stupid. Alcoholic. Unloved. Unwanted. Not good enough to deserve to be loved or wanted. There was one thing I still didn’t dare expose. But there were new things to keep me occupied just fine. Sober. Abandoned. Probably won’t walk again. Lucky to not be a murderer.
I don’t know how I got to the car that night, let alone how I managed to drive it. I don’t blame my friends for leaving me, but I’ve always sort of blamed them for letting me leave that night. I made it five blocks from the party before I didn’t slow to make the left turn and flew up onto the sidewalk at seventy miles an hour. I went right through a bus shelter and the whole thing came down on my car. That didn’t stop it though. I kept going until I had smashed into the brick wall of the closest building.
I tried to get out and walk. My legs hurt a lot. More than the rest of my body, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t too bad. My body quickly responded to my attempt to stand by removing my brain from power over it. The next thing I remember is laying on the sidewalk in broken glass. She was kneeling next to me, but I only saw her as a giant blob.
“Hey,” she was saying to me, “Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
I threw up, and everything focused a bit better. That’s the first time I saw her. Poe. Poe Keats Garrison. She hated her name, like any sane person would. But her father was not a sane man. For a while, I only knew Poe though. That’s all she would give. Everyone assumed it was a last name. She preferred it that way.
There was blood everywhere. I thought it was all mine. Then, I saw the gash across her forehead. One of her cheeks looked sunken in, and her mouth was too swollen to close all the way. She was holding her shoulder tightly with her other hand.
“It’s alright,” she said, “Someone called. An ambulance should come soon.”
I wasn’t really sure what was going on. I was hurt. I knew that more than anything. I was pretty sure I had caused it. This girl seemed hurt too. She keeled forward and started coughing. Blood splattered onto the sidewalk from her mouth. It was only as she completely collapsed, and the sounds of sirens started, that it registered that I had hit her with my car.
The first time I was really aware of myself again, before my sister even showed up with the insurance cards, I saw Poe almost immediately. It wasn’t a big hospital, and there were only two spots open. She was unconscious in the bed next to me. Before anyone said anything to me, I knew that I was the reason she was here.
I still wasn’t sober, so it wasn’t as painful as it would become. The alcohol and painkillers mixed and made my body feel almost separate from me. I had a hard white cast on each leg, and they were elevated above the rest of my body. I had a back brace and a neck brace as well as stitches up and down every exposed bit of skin. My right arm was covered in IV tubes and a pulse sensor.
It was in this first short awakening that they told me what I’d done. When I went over the curb into the bus shelter, Poe had been asleep under the bench. The whole thing had come down on her, but I didn’t hit her directly. There wasn’t too much damage to the building I’d hit—my legs had absorbed all that force.
I couldn’t talk very well at that point, but I remember asking the nurse two things. The first was whether or not Poe was okay. She said she couldn’t tell me because I wasn’t family. The second was where my parents were. She said they’d been called, but hadn’t seemed in a rush to come. I waited for her to leave to start crying. Over my twenty-two years, I hadn’t gotten any better at not crying. I had however perfected the ability to hold in my tears long enough for no one to see them. Whether it was back in high school and someone had shoved a brochure for a Christian straight camp in my locker, or my father had told me that seeing me was such a disappointment I should try to come around the house less, I could usually hold the tears in until me or the other person was out of sight.
Because I was such a useless piece of shit, for a while I couldn’t move myself around. So someone had to come in every few hours and make sure I wasn’t getting bedsores. The nurses would fling me from one position to the other, somehow managing to increase the amount of pain I was in. I didn’t say anything about it though. What right did I have to be treated like a person?
It was the second night after the accident, and the nurse left, flinging me hard enough that my left leg clipped the side bar on the bed on the way down. I couldn’t keep myself from crying in pain for longer than it took for the nurse to get out the door. I lay there sobbing, shoving my hand up against my mouth to muffle the noise.
“You know you can say something to them when they do that, right?” I pressed my fist harder to my mouth. Poe’s voice only made me remember what I’d done to deserve the pain that I could only equivocate to having my leg slowly run over by a steamroller. “You can talk right?”
I nodded, choking on my sobs like a toddler.
“I don’t think I’ve heard you talk. But either way how they treat you is really fucked up.”
I looked at her. For the first time, I tried to look at her without guilt clouding my vision. She had dark brown hair, with this sort of thinned out ropy quality to it. Her skin was as white as the sheets she was laying on, and there was a small splash of freckles across her nose. Whenever she moved her mouth you could see her one dimple on the right side. She was so thin that her joints looked almost swollen in comparison to the rest of her.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked.
“Someone said your name was Haynes. Carol Haynes.”
“I mean what I did.”
“I was there.”
“Then, why do you care how they treat me?”
“You fucked up. It doesn’t make you less of a person. It makes you more of one.”
I didn’t know how to answer that. “Are you going to be okay?”
“I mean, you fucked up my shoulder pretty bad and the glass did a number on me in a few spots. But I needed a hospital anyway, and you got me a bed inside for a few weeks.”
“No. I rent out that bench by the month.” I didn’t know how to talk to someone about that. So I asked about why she needed a hospital anyway. “I’ve got some health problems. I wasn’t breathing right when I got here. Nothing to do with you.”
Poe was the first one to notice the bad symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. She mentioned something about me sweating a lot, and my hands shaking, but she didn’t call the nurse until the middle of the night when I woke her up screaming about birds trying to peck out my eyes. They still didn’t assume alcohol withdrawal in a pediatric ward. They thought they’d missed a head injury. I started seizing in the MRI machine, but they didn’t notice at first because the casts on my legs weighed them down too much for them to jerk around like the rest of my body.
When I finally woke up the next afternoon, I felt a hand wrapped around mine. I was reminded of when I was a little kid and had to get shots or have blood taken and how I couldn’t even start to calm down enough for it to happen without Mom there holding my hand. I didn’t open my eyes at first because I was afraid when I did I would find someone else attached to the hand. I had no idea who else it could be, but I was terrified nonetheless. Finally, I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was her. Mom forced a weak smile. She had been crying.
I’d always been closer with my father, or at least I tried to be. He made his love and respect seem like a reward for being good enough. He had come from a poor family and ended up with an Ivy League degree, working for one of the biggest oil companies in the world as a petroleum engineer. It gave him this idea that anyone who couldn’t raise themselves that much in society simply wasn’t trying enough. And I think I believed him. When I pushed myself to the very extent of my limit, and still couldn’t measure up to my siblings, I thought there was something fundamentally wrong with me. My father didn’t discourage this idea. Before the accident I was on the very edge of his approval, and struggling to be even there. My siblings were so much better than me. My younger sister, Steph, was an artist. She was at a top art school and her poetry had been published since she was seventeen. My brother, Will, was an All-State Swimmer and baseball pitcher, deciding between the Naval Academy and the minor leagues for next year. My older sister, Elizabeth, was a partner in a law firm and engaged to the mayor’s son. My plan had hinged on her success. She’d been the one who set me up with my internship and I’d been ignoring her texts and avoiding the house when I knew she’d be there ever since I got fired.
Elizabeth is my half-sister, but only biologically. Mom raised her. I’m pretty sure there was an official adoption at some point, but I don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. My father is twelve years older than my mother, and she was twenty when they met. My mother got pregnant with me during her last year of college. Even though she originally planned to just take an extra year to graduate, she ended up dropping out. My father didn’t hesitate to point out the similarities in our plans the day I had to ask him for an extra year’s tuition. He had used it as a reason why I should take his advice. Our family would have been better off if Mom had listened to him. She had regretted it ever since.
“I’m sorry,” Mom told me softly. She brushed my hair out of my face and tucked it behind my ear. “I should have been here sooner.”
I managed to look towards Poe’s bed. Through a small gap in the curtains, I could see that she was asleep. Mom saw me looking. “I talked to her. Well, she talked to me.”
“About what?” I asked. I had no idea what she would have to say to my mother.
“She told me she’s only still here because of another medical condition and if it was just this car thing, she would be sleeping on a sidewalk tonight. She also said that crushing both your legs seemed like enough punishment for what you did.”
Mom put her hand on my cheek. She looked like she was seconds from starting to cry again. “What happened, honey? Why didn’t you say something?”
“I didn’t want to bother you,” I said, softly.
“Why would it have been bothering me?”
“Just…Dad said…never mind.” Then, I was crying.
“No. What did he say?”
“Nothing. I’ve already messed everything up enough. I didn’t need to do it more.”
“What have you messed up?”
“School. The plan. You—“
“Me?” Mom asked. “What do you think you did to me?”
“You had to drop out because of me. You would have been better off without me… Dad said you wish you had gotten an abortion.”
Of course I’d seen my mother angry before. But there was something about this anger that was so fundamentally different than any anger I’ve seen before or since. She was not only as mad as she had ever been at another person, she was as mad as she has ever been at herself. And the fact that something had happened that made her capable of being this angry at both herself and my father was completely and utterly devastating to her. I can’t call it fury or rage. Those words imply a feeling that has heated you, elevated you to a point where only some sort of change can lower you down again. This was a feeling that had ripped something from her very core. It wasn’t a thing that any action could have made better. The cause of her anger came from two places. One piece of her devastation was her own, not only that I was able to believe that she regretted my very existence, but that someone else, who she trusted so completely, was able to make me feel that way. The other piece was mine. She was feeling all of the pain and rejection and total absence of love that I had felt in the year since my father had told me all at once. The look on her face told me two things. The first was that it wasn’t true. She didn’t need to say it out loud for me to know. The second was that in twenty-two years of slowly increasing self-loathing as I tried to become something I wasn’t and could never be, one of my parents never needed or came close to wanting it. I had chosen the wrong one to try to impress.
For a few minutes, it seemed like she was in shock. Then she started sobbing. Quietly, though. These tears weren’t a show, or even a way of dealing with the pain. They were just what leaked out during a completely overwhelming discovery that everything she previously thought about her life and family was untrue.
To say I was happy my father had lied to me is wrong. There wasn’t any happiness. There was guilt, at having made my mother so upset, but there was also something deep inside of me that just flipped. Less than a week before, I had spent two hours in the bathroom staring at the bottle of sleeping pills my Craigslist-found roommate took and considering swallowing them all, and it hadn’t been the first time. Now, that feeling was gone. Not because my other problems had been fixed, but because there was someone I knew would truly be worse off if I died.
Mom stayed until about six when she got a phone call from Dad asking where the hell she was. She took it out to the hallway, but I could still hear that she was crying. Without realizing it, I found myself crying too.
“At least someone’s on your side now.”
I still had the neck brace on, so depending on the position the nurses had put me in, I sometimes had no idea Poe was awake until she spoke. She had slept through me and Mom actually saying anything. The last few hours had mostly been scattered apologizing and crying, with reassurances of love, which was fine, but I had never filled in the reasons behind it for Poe. I didn’t feel like repeating any of it, so I acted like it was just the car accident and nothing else.
“Only because you put her there,” I said, “How is she supposed to stay mad at me when the sick little homeless girl I hit with my car tells her not to be?”
“I do have a certain amount of influence here, but I’m not little. If you could stand, I bet I’d be taller than you.”
“Size has got nothing to do with it.” I answered, even though, for the record I’m about an inch taller than her, but even a side-by-side picture of the two of us wouldn’t make her admit it.
“What then? Age? I’m twenty. They said you’re twenty-two.”
I didn’t have an answer for her. Twenty actually seemed young. If I hadn’t been pushing the age limit of the pediatric ward myself, I would have assumed she was older than me. Before I had to answer her, another voice appears in the hallway.
“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?” Elizabeth was really going to learn to control her mouth if she was going to run for the state legislature. Mom didn’t yell her answer back, so I couldn’t make it out.
A few minutes later, they walked in together. Mom didn’t say anything while she gathered up her jacket and purse. Finally, she told me she’d be back after work tomorrow and kissed my forehead. She didn’t tell me what she was planning to do with what I had told her, but I don’t think she knew herself by that point. She just kept going through the motions of her old life until she figured it out. Elizabeth lingered in the doorway. She and Mom nodded at each other as she left.
For a full minute, Elizabeth said nothing to me. Then, she leaned forward with both hands on the bar next to my bed and stared at her feet.
“I knew you got fired for drinking on the job,” she said quietly. “I tried to contact you. I thought about going to your place, but I didn’t. I should have realized something was wrong.”
“It was my fault.”
“I’m not saying it wasn’t. I’m saying I could have stopped it. Remember when you were fifteen, and I turned twenty-one? I dragged you out that night with my friends. You were so against drinking before that.”
“I would’ve gotten into it some other way.”
“But you didn’t!” Elizabeth was quiet for another minute. “I’ve got a friend in criminal defense. He’s good. They don’t have much against you. Apparently, the medication they were giving you for blood loss could have messed with the results they got from your BAC test. I’ll talk to the DA…”
“No!” I said, “I did it! Stop trying to get me out of trouble!”
“You seem to be in trouble with or without this charge. I’ll make phone calls in the morning. See what I can do. Miranda is going to be annoyed with me.”
“Don’t use the mayor to get me out of this! I did it!”
“Then what?” I asked. “Why then? Why’s she going to be pissed? Because I just fucked up everything?”
“No!” Elizabeth snapped, “Because I’ve got to push back the wedding again if the maid of honor is in the hospital!”
“I want you to be my maid of honor, you insufferable little fuck!”
She grabbed my papers from the table and stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
My mother didn’t return until late the next night, after dinner, but Elizabeth was there at nine in the morning with her lawyer friend. The other lawyer left a bit ahead of Elizabeth. Right before she left, she asked, “So you going to fucking do it?”
“Fine, bitch,” I mumbled. The only reason I’d thought about saying no was because I didn’t know how long she was pushing it back. I didn’t want to have to be pushed in, in a wheelchair. “I don’t know if I’ll be good to walk in time.”
“What if I don’t walk again?”
“They’ve had these things called wheelchairs for a while. If Miranda mortgages her house she might be able to rent one for the hour.”
Once Elizabeth left, Poe said from her bed, “Whoa, who’s she marrying? Bill Gates? They can afford to rent a wheelchair?”
“You’re not supposed to mock the cripple.” I hadn’t even known she was awake.
“You’re right…hey remember that time you hit me with a car?”
I’m pretty sure that was the moment we became friends. Slowly, we actually spoke about ourselves. Poe told me about her mother, who died when she was ten. She kind of hinted that whatever was wrong with her medically was what killed her mother, but she never said it outright. She never even named her disease outright. The only hint I had to what was wrong with her was constant coughing, and her being short of breath from walking back and forth to the bathroom. But she didn’t name a lot of things she didn’t like or was scared of. I never knew her father’s name. She never called me her girlfriend.
The morning of my first surgery, they moved me to a different room to be prepped. My mother, sisters, and even my brother showed up. I hadn’t seen my brother since the night of the crash. He made it no secret that he thought what I did was horrible, but he wasn’t going to disown me or anything. His attitude didn’t bother me. It was the logical way to go about it. My mother treated me like none of it was my fault. Elizabeth was always arranging things, trying to fix things, but it was fine I guess. She did feel a little guilty. Steph acted like nothing at all had happened. She’d show up for twenty or thirty minutes after class every few days, complain about her life to me and leave. The only reason I knew she knew I was in a hospital was because sometimes she would mention arguments at home. She seemed to think they were just over the car accident. I didn’t correct her.
After they made everyone leave so they could finish prepping me, Poe slipped into the room. “Don’t die or anything.”
Then, she left. She never mentioned it again. I don’t know if it was to mess with me—I hadn’t considered dying, or if she was actually scared I would.
Two and a half weeks post accident, a social worker came in with Poe’s doctor. Her coughing and breathing had gotten better, and she was going to be discharged in the morning. Her father was coming to pick her up. I’d never seen Poe lose control before. Her hands shook and she just squeaked out, “No…No. No.”
“It’s that or you’ll be taken to a shelter.” The doctor said.
“Fine! Shelter! You can’t call him! You can’t make me go!”
“The shelters are currently full,” the social worker cut in. “At least the woman’s and family shelters are. I wouldn’t advise you going to the other shelter.”
“Nothing that happens there is going to be worse!” Poe screamed.
“Your father will be here in the morning.”
They left Poe there, sobbing and shaking. She stood up and kicked hard at her bedside table, knocking it over. She kicked and threw a few more things around until she ended up standing over my bed, clutching the bar so tightly her knuckles were white. I was convinced I was going to be the next thing she took her anger out on. Instead, she fell to her knees, grabbing one of my hands in both of hers on the way down. She pressed her face against it and I felt her hot tears on my fingers.
“My father named me,” she whispered, “Poe Keats Garrison. That’s my real fucking name. He’s a poet. Thinks he’s a genius, and who knows, maybe he is. Maybe when he’s dead they’ll find his shit and study him for the next two hundred years. He needs his tea to work—needs his tea. 170 degrees. Every two hours. If it’s not there, he gets the belt out. If it’s too cold or too hot, he dumps it on me. On my hands, legs, crotch. He worked on the same book of poems for ten years. Sent the manuscript out to ten publishers. They all said no. He made me hold each one while he set it on fire. He started homeschooling me when Mom died. Said I wasn’t healthy enough for school. Said I wasn’t healthy enough for anything. My bedroom locks from the outside. I wasn’t allowed out if he wasn’t there. I only saw him and doctors. He convinced them I was always hurting myself. No one knew what he was like. No one ever knew.”
I pushed the side bar down as well as I could, and she finished pushing it the rest of the way down. For a while, she just knelt there, sobbing into my hand. I managed to just reach her shoulder with my other hand. It started to hurt my back, so I ended up with my hand just on the back of her head.
At about eleven that night, she woke me up. She was wearing actual clothes, but they were so big there’s no way they were hers.
“I’ve got to go. Thanks for not killing me or anything.”
She didn’t stay gone for long. It was the coldest December on record. A few times a week, she would slip into my room. There was a small closet in one corner, and if she heard someone coming towards the room, she would hide in it. I always saved any packaged foods they bought with my meals and shoved them under my pillows, just in case Poe came.
The whole thing was very gradual. I’d glance over at her while we were watching TV and she’d be watching me. Then, I found myself watching her just to see if she’d look back. One day she laid her hand on the bed absentmindedly, and it landed on top of mine. She didn’t move it right away and we both stared as my hand turned and wrapped around hers.
It scared me. I won’t pretend I was completely okay with it. I won’t pretend that it came as a surprise either. For years I had been with guys, but never really getting close enough for them to actually know me. People said I never had a long term relationship because I was trying too hard, and I was. Just like I had tried too hard at school and at winning my father’s approval. I tried so hard that for a while I had tricked myself. I tried so hard because I knew that if I admitted it would be one more thing I wasn’t right at. My father couldn’t have accepted it. I spent many nights growing up playing out what I told myself was a hypothetical situation where I came out to him. None of them ended in anything short of him giving up on me once and for all. So what I’m saying is, this isn’t some magical love story where Poe helped me “discover myself” or changed me so I could be happy. This is real life. Poe helped me accept myself, and on some levels, I think that’s better. Or at least it’s more honest.
About a week and a half before Christmas, Poe showed up, shivering and coughing. She looked almost too weak to stand. It was past lights out when she got there, and the bed next to mine was occupied. It was snowing and she was so thoroughly soaked that her lips were blue. She pulled off her jacket, and laid it on the heater. I made her take my blanket, but with all the wet layers on, it didn’t make her any warmer. Eventually she was down to underwear and a t-shirt that was just a little damp. It’s not like there was another way for her to not completely freeze that night. She helped me slide all the way over to one side of the bed and laid down next to me. With all the blankets over her and me next to her, she finally stopped shaking so much. She started coughing and tightened against me, grabbing my shoulder and coughing into my chest. When the coughing fit passed, she didn’t move further from me. I turned my head slightly to look at her—the neck brace was gone—and she was inches from my face.
She kissed me.
My brother was the first one to find out about it. He’d only been by a few times and never when Poe was there, so she didn’t realize she was walking into the room just ahead of him. She assumed he was visiting the person in the bed next to mine. She’d been there a couple days, a cheerleader who’d fallen off the top of the pyramid. I’ll admit, my brother looked exactly like the type of person who would be coming to visit her.
I should back up a bit. There were a few close calls before my brother. The main one was my father. He stormed in, in the morning right after the first time we kissed. Poe was already pulling her clothes on from the heater, and when the door flew open, she dove into the bathroom because it was closer than the closet. He was holding a few unfolded sheets of paper. He shoved them in front of my face. At the top of the first one it said, “Petition for Divorce.”
“You see this?” he asked. He didn’t scream. I think I would have preferred it if he did. “I want you to look at this. Let it sink in. Know what you’ve caused. Understand that your selfishness doesn’t only affect you, or your mother or even me. If you had remembered what the term “private conversation” meant, our family would not be in pieces right now. Your brother and sisters will never have a normal home life again. And it is your fault.”
My brother came the morning of the 22nd. Poe hadn’t met him, but his jacket said Haynes, so she doesn’t get too much of a pass. She walked in barely five feet ahead of him, and seeing that I was alone, kissed me lightly on the lips before sitting down. As soon as she sat, I saw Will standing there in the doorway, his mouth hanging slightly open.
“She’s the next curtain over,” Poe told him automatically.
I was busy trying to not let the next words out of my mouth be a mistake. Will looked back and forth between us a few times. “Who is?”
Will looked at me. “Is your girlfriend trying to set me up?”
“I’m sorry. I skipped a question. What the fuck?”
Poe turned to say something to him and saw where our last name was written in white script on the front of his jacket. “That is your—he’s your—brother. Bye.”
She stood up and ran out faster than I knew she could move and continue to breathe. Will stood there with his hands in his pocket for a minute before walking in and sitting in the chair next to my bed. He rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together.
“I’m going to play baseball next year,” he said. “I’m clocking 93 consistently on my fastball. I can curve it at eighty, and I’m left-handed. There’s no reason for me to put off making money. Plus baseball’s not going to land me in Iraq.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I was kind of hoping you could help me tell Mom. Also, Dad said he wouldn’t pay your hospital bills at all so with me making money—“
“No,” I said. “You can’t.”
“If I can, then I will. Who’s going to pay it? Even if Mom stays married, she doesn’t make enough money to do that and support herself. Elizabeth’ll end up paying everything. Plus, a scout from the city team seemed interested in me. So I could stay close.”
“What do you mean if Mom stays married?”
“So you’re gay.”
“I don’t know.”
“Wait—Fuck—Is that the same girl you ran over?”
“Maybe. That’s not really—don’t tell anyone.”
“Was she your girlfriend before you hit her with a car?”
Will leaned back in his chair. “Did she say something about a cheerleader?”
I didn’t see Poe for a few days after that, but I kept seeing forecasts of a blizzard for the day after Christmas along with a cold snap to follow. I was worried about her. I’ll admit it now, but then I couldn’t force myself to accept the idea that I was terrified of her freezing to death.
When I woke up on Christmas, Elizabeth was already there. Poe was the first thing I talked about. Before I even realized it what day it was, I told her that Poe still came around sometimes. I asked her if she showed up, if she could stay with her until the bad weather passed. She seemed confused, but agreed.
My mom showed up about half an hour later with Will and Steph. My brother was lugging two huge black trash bags. My sister was carrying a box, and my mom had two shopping bags. Without saying anything, Steph took a small Christmas tree out of the box, put it on my beside table, and started to decorate it. Will started pulling wrapped packages out of the bags and putting them around the tree and on the floor. Mom spent a few minutes fussing over me, while Elizabeth unpacked Tupperware from the shopping bag. The cheerleader had been discharged, to Will’s dismay, so she used the table from the other side of the room to lay out the breakfast Mom cooked every Christmas morning after we opened presents. Once they finished with the tree and pulled out our old stockings, I realized they’d brought the entire holiday with them.
I always eat too much on Christmas morning. Mom has these homemade cinnamon rolls that she only makes once a year, and I can never stop myself at less than three of them. This time, it was such an improvement over hospital food, that I ate five. On top of the disgusting food, the morphine I was on tended to make me nauseous, something my stomach conveniently let me forget until half an hour later when I found myself lying completely still, trying not to vomit.
“Are you okay?” Mom asked me.
“It’s snowing,” Steph said, and everyone turned to look. I tried, but even when I wasn’t trying to move my stomach as little as possible, I could only see a small slit of the window from my bed.
“You can’t see anything, can you?” Will asked. I just shrugged.
A few hours later, my doctor came in. He did an examination that moved me around way too much and made me even more nauseous. It was painful too. They had been trying to cut back on my painkillers and it was going well from their end. Not as good from mine. Then, he confirmed my third, and hopefully last, surgery with Mom. It was scheduled for January 2nd. Then, I should be able to go home within a few weeks. No one looked at anyone else when he said that. I didn’t want to be in the hospital, but I didn’t exactly have a home to go to. My roommate—a random guy from craigslist who went to my school—had found a subletter for my room. Not that I would have been able to manage a five-floor walk up when my most significant achievement in physical therapy to this point was “sort of sitting up without crying.”
“Can we take her outside for a little while?” Will asked, bringing me out of my thoughts.
It took a while, but they found a wheelchair that reclined back a bit. I’d done a bit of damage to my pelvis and lower back, and I still couldn’t sit up straight. The transfer hurt the most, even though Will lifted me while an orderly held my legs still, and he tried to do it as gently as he could.
A nurse pushed me down to the elevator and out to a small courtyard. Every little shift and bump made everything from my toes to my legs up my spine to the base of my neck tense and spasm. Right before she pushed me through outside, the nurse warned my mother that I would be more sensitive to cold than usual. At first I didn’t know what she was talking about, but a minute after she had gone inside, I was shivering. It didn’t matter though. For the first time since the accident I could see the sky. I’d forgotten how big the sky was. It was a pleasant white, not the dead gray it was the day of the crash. The snow was floating down slowly. I knew it was going to become faster and harder tonight. She was going to die out here. She’d left her father’s house late last February, but it had been warm then. Almost like spring. Mom took off her coat and put it over me. She couldn’t get it behind me at all without me passing out from pain. A minute later, Elizabeth’s coat was draped over my legs. As Will was trying to tuck the fourth coat under my legs without touching them too much, he glanced towards the corner of the courtyard.
“Is that her?” he asked me quietly.
“What?” I said, “Where?”
I tried to look behind me where his eyes were, but turning as quickly as I attempted to was so painful that my body froze, and I couldn’t turn back the right way. Then, I was throwing up everywhere. Someone’s hand tried to turn me back and I passed out.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong with her?”
Poe. It was Poe’s voice.
“I don’t know—she just—“ That was Mom.
“Calm down. She’s waking up already. Just wait. Will went to get someone.” Elizabeth said. Poe was standing a bit behind her, hugging her torn coat to her body. She was wet and shivering. She was pale too. She was breathing too fast, and trying to hide it by keeping her mouth closed when she wasn’t speaking. But she was alive.
“A nurse is coming?” she asked. She was scared they were still looking for her.
“Stay,” I managed. “Make her stay. Don’t go back out.”
I don’t know who I was telling to make her stay, but Steph put a hand on Poe’s arm and said they would meet us back in my room. When they pushed me back up, my sister was the only one in sight, but she’d pushed a chair up against the closet door and was sitting in it. As soon as all the doctors were gone, my sister stood up and Poe pushed the door open.
“What the hell was that?” she said walking right up to the side of my bed, ignoring my family. “Why did she drag me up here?”
“I didn’t want you to leave.”
“Why’s it matter to you? If I don’t want to be somewhere they know me, it’s my business.”
“Where are you going to go for the next couple days?” I asked, “You’ll die outside.”
“I’d rather freeze than get sent back. You know that. I don’t know why you even care.”
Poe was eyeing some of the food left on my table, and I knew she was about to try to grab it and run out. So I grabbed her hand. She was way weaker than I expected because when I jerked her forward her face got close enough for me to kiss her.
“I care because I love you.”
After Christmas, the roads were too bad for anyone to come see me, and the phones went out. So the first time I talked to anyone I knew again was New Year’s Eve. Elizabeth showed up with Poe trailing behind her. She was wearing clothes I’d never seen before. Her jacket looked like it was actually thick enough for the weather, and she even had gloves and a hat. Elizabeth stayed for a bit then said she needed to go over to her practice and see if there was any snow damage to the building, and she would pick Poe up on the way back.
“What did she mean pick you up?” I asked once she was gone.
“I think she means that I live there now,” Poe answered quietly. “She’s helping me press charges against my dad. So even if the whole thing living with her doesn’t work out they can’t try to release me to him again.”
“Why wouldn’t it work out?”
“Your mom isn’t crazy about me and you living together, but it doesn’t seem like she’ll actually stop it.”
Apparently, I was moving in with Elizabeth after I got out of the hospital. At least until my parents’ divorce was final. This was the beginning of Poe knowing more about my life than I did. She fit in with my family almost seamlessly. Even Miranda loved her. She wanted to get the newspaper to run a story about the whole thing for Elizabeth’s campaign. Poe hated the idea.
“I don’t want to be famous, and I don’t want my dad to be,” she told me one night, “It’ll be like that Virginia Tech shooter where everyone was suddenly reading the shit he wrote. What if they find out he’s great and in two hundred years my whole childhood is something they tell high school kids about to prove he was a tortured genius?”
“He’s probably not even good,” I answered.
Poe shook her head. “I’m pretty sure he is, and that’s what makes it worse you know? Like publishers won’t touch the shit but actual people who read, professors, critics, people he’s showed it to all think so. If publishers think they can sell it, they will. And if it is that good, was it worth it? If people appreciate it for a hundred years, was what he did to me and my mom worth it?”
She was crying and I pulled her down onto the bed. We slept next to each other, and that’s how my family and the doctors found us the next morning when they came in to tell me I was finally leaving the hospital. I should’ve noticed though. While she was laying next to me that night I should have noticed how thin she still was even though she’d been living at Elizabeth’s for almost a month, how when she breathed in her sleep it came in whistles, how she shivered the whole night.
The whole process of leaving was exhausting to me, and by seven that night I was ready to go to sleep. Mom was going to spend the night, and she left me with an old baby monitor that she had the other end of. I wanted to say I didn’t need it, but if I woke up and needed to go to the bathroom, there was no way I was getting there on my own.
I’m not sure what time Poe slipped into the room, but she laid down next to me in the double bed and I woke up. She reached over me and flipped off the baby monitor.
“This must really suck for you.”
“It’s my fault.”
“I wish you would stop saying that. Everyone worth a shit forgave you a while ago.”
“You forgave me?”
“That implies that I’m worth a shit, but yes. I don’t want to say that car accident was the best thing that ever happened to me, but I’m pretty sure meeting you was.” She paused to breathe. “I used to hate that I was going to die young, you know, and I still do, but now at least I think I got something out of life in the first place.
“What?” I said, “You’re not going to—“
“Not right now, but I am. We both know it. And I’m sorry. If I’ve made you a percent as happy as you’ve made me, I’m sorry that I’m taking that from you. But who knows, maybe we have years left, and they’ll be great. I really hope they happen.”
She dozed off not long after that and left me awake with tears streaming silently down my face. I must have finally fallen asleep though, because when I woke up, her head was on my shoulder and I couldn’t move it. My arm was starting to go numb.
“Hey,” I whispered, “Hey, can you move a bit?”
I tried nudging her but nothing happened. I shook her as hard as I could, but still nothing happened. I started screaming my head off. The baby monitor was still off, but they heard me eventually. Elizabeth went with the ambulance, and Mom stayed with me. I know I must have been horrible to her that night, but I can’t remember anything I said. I just know that even when I was unable to turn myself over in bed, I’d never felt that helpless.
Poe did survive that night, but it taught both of us that what she’d been saying wasn’t just talk. It was true. She was in the hospital for a month, and I was there as often as I could be. By the time she was released, my father had moved out of my mother’s house and I was living in my childhood bedroom again. Poe lived with my sister for a while longer, but may as well have lived with us. She was there for everything. She was there when the physical therapy actually got somewhere and I walked three steps from my wheelchair to the couch before collapsing. She was just as happy as Mom that day, and both of them were happier than I could have ever been.
I started making plans again after that. We were going to move into our own apartment. I was going to work for Elizabeth. Poe had started working for her fiancé’s web company. She picked up programming pretty quickly, and she could work from home when she was sick. We would get married.
The plan was falling into place. Elizabeth won her election and hired me full time. I was able to walk with crutches and take care of myself. So Poe and I moved into our own place. Elizabeth got married in a huge ceremony the next Christmas Eve and while Poe ripped the maid of honor dress off me afterwards in the hotel, I asked her if she would ever want a wedding like that. She said only if it was to the bride’s sister. We exchanged engagement rings a few weeks later.
Like I’ve said, this isn’t some magical love story. Finding love does not make you immune to real life. It makes you experience real life for another person. All the disappointments and hardships, but also all the happiness. So yes, there were good moments, some of the best of my life, but no amount of happiness can cause a miracle.
I do know the name of Poe’s disease now. I’ve known since we went through the process of me getting the authority to make medical decisions for her if she couldn’t herself. Naming it didn’t make her any more or less likely to die from it.
I guess what I’m trying to get at, is that I don’t regret this time. I have had the most passionate eighteen months of my life. Along with the happiest moments of my life, big things like Poe saying she would marry me, as well as small things like the way, whenever she was cold, she would sit next to me or stand in front of me and wrap my arms around her without saying a word because she would never admit to being cold out loud. There were some of the most painful, like the doctor’s appointment where they told her things weren’t looking good, or the morning she woke up and realized she could no longer breathe well enough to walk to the bathroom. Now, even looking back at the happy moments hurt. I think about how excited we were for something that would never happen. I think about how when she would wrap my arms around her, she felt smaller and more delicate each time. Some of it was me regaining weight and muscle mass I’d lost in the hospital, but most of it was her losing more and more weight as time went on. I spend hours at a time remembering a Memorial Day barbeque at Elizabeth’s house, how that morning she had seemed too tired to move, but insisted on coming anyway, how she kept trying to pretend she was fine, like that would stop me from worrying about her. She refused to let me take her home. But mostly what happened after dinner. Will built a fire in a metal fire pit out back, and we were all sitting around it. Poe was in my lap, shivering and shaking despite the unseasonable heat and the comically large sweatshirt she’d borrowed from Elizabeth. Instead of asking her, I announced to everyone else we were leaving.
“Just wait,” she murmured.
“Can you not walk?” I asked even more quietly.
“What’s the difference if I feel like shit here or at home? I want to be here. You want to be here.”
One by one my family got up to leave. They said their usual, quick goodbyes to me, just with a little more of the pity that had been steadily growing for the past few months. But they all lingered on saying goodbye to Poe. Like she was moving away. Like they would never see her again. Each time, I wanted to scream at them to stop, tell them not to talk to her like that.
Finally it was nearing midnight and it was just the two of us and Elizabeth out there. She threw another log on the fire, said the longest goodbye to Poe yet, and told me to call her if we needed anything.
“Take your time,” she told me.
We sat there together for a long time without speaking. Poe looked up at my face and wiped the tear slowly winding down my cheek.
“When we get married,” she said softly, “will we buy a house or have a kid first?”
I didn’t want to talk about it. It hurt too much knowing it wasn’t going to happen. Then, I figured it out. “Buy a house, I think. We’re still a bit young for kids.”
“Are we going to adopt them? Or get a sperm donor? Or both? How many?”
“Two. A boy and a girl. We’ll adopt them.”
“Which one first? What’s their name?”
“The boy. Darren William Haynes Garrison.”
“You accidentally said Haynes Garrison instead of Garrison Haynes there, but I forgive you. What about the girl?”
“Alice Catherine Haynes Garrison.”
“You did it again. Maybe you’re dyslexic or something. After our mothers?”
“What are they like?”
We sat there and talked through our life. All the way through old age and even death. We felt each thing as if was true. To say it was a happy moment is wrong. It wasn’t just a moment. It was our lives. But it was a happy one. The entire time we were going through it though, I was overcome with a feeling of devastation, that eventually this moment would end, and I could never go back to it again.
Maybe it sounds like I regret this, but I don’t. Sometimes I think about the alternative. Maybe I’m happy, maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m out, maybe I’m not. But it doesn’t matter, because Poe is going through this with no one. She is dying alone.
Elizabeth didn’t tell me the law passed at first. She just showed up in the hospital room. I was supposed to go to the capital with her for the vote, but I haven’t left this room in weeks. When a male nurse recognizes her and thanks her, it comes out that I can now legally marry the girl laying in a coma in front of me.
But she’s not even going to live long enough for the law to take effect. When the doctors come in, they’ve been staying for less and less time. The looks the nurses give me while I sit next to her bed day in and day out have gotten more and more pitiful. It’s summertime, but things feel less alive to me now than that winter when I thought everything was gone. I can plan however much I want. Death doesn’t follow plans. Who says the drunk driver never gets hurt?