It had become day without me realizing. If it weren’t for the gray light seeping around the blinds, I would have bet it was the dead of night, so dark and hushed were the hospital room and the corridor beyond. But time had become abstract, perhaps because I was being forced to repeatedly relive the same few minutes: the walk down Pleinweg, the man emerging from the shadows, the rush of violence in slow motion.
I began to lie around the fiftieth time I was asked about it. I began to make jokes. You should see the other guy, I said. For once I could say whatever I liked; his outrage and anger were as short-lived as his memory. I kept my voice low as I weaved my tales and made my confessions. I told him of a glorious battle of which he was the victor. I told him of an accident of which he was just a hapless victim — wrong place, wrong time, babe.
I told him I was falling out of love with him.
There had been an earthquake, a hurricane. We were in Tokyo, and then New Orleans. We hopped continents. I said I was sick of his temper and I was afraid of him. I would leave him if he didn’t stop. And then I took him to California where we’d just escaped a wildfire, where he had risked his life to save mine.
I said that I was so very tired. He closed his eyes and I shook him. That was my job — to keep him awake. I was committed to it. I was good at it. Even he wouldn’t have been able to criticize my technique.
“What happened?” he asked.
I sighed, rubbed my temples. The walk, the man, the fight.
“Did I win?”
So much said in these three little words. Bitter aftertaste in my mouth. Yes, dear heart, you should see the other guy.
The scuffle hadn’t lasted long, had ended abruptly with his almost slapstick trip and fall. The result was a lateral skull fracture, a winding crack through the bone from front to back black against the bright white of the light box, like the gulley between the shifting tectonic plates I had told him he had vaulted across. I peer at where the doctor points, trying to see beyond, knowing that this is not all that is broken.
“What happened?” he asks.
You died and this is the afterlife.
The doctor does not laugh but she doesn’t seem shocked either. She says the amnesia is temporary and that it is now safe for him to sleep, then tells me I should get some rest too.
From the tram I watch the city flit past. The early hour is generous, bathing the concrete and glass in amber and all the hues of gold, making the cuboid ugliness seem warmer, less severe. I know this is an illusion. Around corners there are threats unseen.
I get off the tram and walk fast, head down. I turn onto Strevelsweg, the wide avenue swollen with sunlight. A bloated dead thing, and I a parasite scuttling along it. This is where I call home.
Our apartment is on the ground floor, our kitchen and dining area in full view of passersby when we have the curtains open. We do not often keep them open, as much to hide from prying eyes as to obscure the depressing view. Gray brick and beige brick, a low-rent brothel, a dingy bar. I close the curtains.
We have been here for months, and we have only the essentials; a sofa to sit on, a bed to sleep in, a table to eat at, curtains to hide behind. I make a cup of tea and sit at the table, leaving the teabag in too long so that it becomes stewed and acrid. I drink it anyway. It thaws the chill I did not know I had. Silhouettes glide past outside, monstrous shadow puppets looming against the cheap fabric of the drapes. I am terrified and exhausted.
Moving into the bedroom, I lie down among the rumpled sheets. They smell of him, musty and slightly sour. They smell of our disappointing sex. I get up and change them, then get back into bed. The feminine scent of the laundry powder is something he complains about often, and yet he doesn’t go out and buy a new brand. He doesn’t wash his own clothes. I consider setting my alarm for a couple of hours away but am adrift in the half-real half-surreal world of pre-sleep before I can reach for my phone.
I wake slowly, my dream a veil in the wind, my fingers just brushing against its edge as it billows and swirls away leaving just a trace of euphoria in its wake. With my eyes open reality crashes in, but I still feel well-rested, and very hungry. I bring day-old French bread and a jar of peanut butter into bed. On the second bite, the left side of my jaw sticks and then painfully clicks. When I can chew again, I move over to his side and allow the crumbs to fall freely.
I take a long shower and the steam drifts into the bedroom, clouding the windows. Writing my initials in the condensation, I reminisce about the little messages scrawled on the bathroom mirror when I would get ready after him. But that was a long time ago. I try to remember when they stopped, but I don’t believe I noticed at the time. Probably too much had been lost by then.
Through the traced ‘E’ I see that autumn has arrived, fallen leaves in the backyard. It will be up to me to clear them.
I dress slowly, lying for a while in just my underwear, my wet hair soaking the pillow. The ceiling has a faint crack, probably because of the upstairs’ neighbors. They are heavy-footed, noisy people. He has a very deep voice. She laughs a lot. I have never seen them, but I imagine she has round cheeks and gapped teeth, and he has a beard that tickles.
I rise and finish dressing, start filling a duffle bag with some of his belongings. Clean underwear and socks, deodorant, toothbrush. I nearly don’t pack the book he is reading, knowing it’ll be unlikely he’ll be able to concentrate. At the last minute I shove it in, rationalizing that its absence could give his usually directionless anger a focus.
I leave the apartment, my hair still damp. In the convenience store the owner appraises me frankly and then asks if I am okay. This makes me want to cry. I tell him I am fine and thank him. He shrugs.
I fill a basket with things that I suspect are brought to hospitals only to get thrown out. Grapes. Vitamin water. Flowers. Once outside, I remove the baby’s breath and toss it in a bin. It has the opposite effect to what I intended, depleting the already small bouquet, making it even sadder.
On the tram I close my eyes and allow the other passengers’ conversations to wash over me. I feel the lunges and turns, hear the whirring beneath as we gather speed. Listening for the robotic voice that tells me when my stop is imminent, I rise and stand gripping the metal rail tightly, bodies behind me pressing too close.
I breathe deeply once I am off, the lingering scent of cigarette smoke tainting the air. I stamp on the still lit butt as I walk up the path, extinguishing the ember with the worn heel of my boot.
The hospital doors slide open, eager to admit me. They wait patiently as I take my time to cross the threshold, then shuttle closed with a thud. To my right is the gift shop, and from its entrance shiny pink and blue balloons spill out, their silken ribbons taut. I have the urge to pop them. They are gaudy and take up too much space.
He is awake when I enter the room, and when he asks me what happened I tell him. He nods, seems to process what I have said. I wait for him to repeat the question, but he does not. He instead asks if I got hurt, and I am momentarily touched by his concern. No, I say. I sit by his bedside and tell him everything.
“So, it’s my fault?”
I didn’t mean that, I reply. Look — I brought you some things.
“How the fuck am I supposed to read this? I have a head injury, or haven’t you noticed?”
The doctor enters and he greets her almost cheerfully. It never ceases to amaze me how he can do that—change masks so swiftly, charm so easily while I sit stunned and sullen. I don’t think she is fooled, though. I know that expression. I have seen that flickering of pity in a hundred different faces. It makes me want to run. But her measured tone cuts through my shame, and through the tests and the medications she is listing I can hear my time getting stretched thin by what is now being referred to as his condition.
“Will I be able to play the drums?” he asks.
“One step at a time,” she says.
Her eyes dart towards me and my heart sinks. She leaves, and he covers his face with his hands. I know what is coming next and I have only been here fifteen minutes. I cannot run. He takes his hands away and stares at me. I remember how he used to look at me, unblinking wide blue eyes that made my cheeks feel hot and my stomach somersault. He exhales loudly and I grip the armrests of my chair. A nurse enters, informs me in his clipped accent and precise English that he needs to change the catheter. I stand, grateful, and am walking out before I hear the curtain being pulled around.
The lounge is small with walls painted a pastel green that some study probably said was calming. Yellow curtains frame the view of the carpark, and around the perimeter of the room are chairs upholstered in pale pink, the occasional seat stained with what I hope is coffee or tea from the machine that squats by the door. In the center of the tan carpet is a table with a shelf underneath. Through the glass I can see the games people must play while they are waiting. Scrabble, Monopoly, decks of cards. There is also a chess set, and after checking that all the pieces are there, I set up the board.
I have never been good at the game, so the idea of playing myself is as enticing as it is demoralizing. It was my first proper boyfriend who taught me how to play. He was not particularly good at it either, but he had a seemingly infinite amount of patience, something I have always lacked. Invariably he would win, but when he did, I would tell him, better luck next time. But I won, he would say. Yeah sure, I would reply. Nice try. I don’t think that this is the reason his patience with me eventually ran out, but neither do I believe it helped.
I am halfway through a cup of watery hot chocolate and three pawns down on each side when she enters. She is tall, middle-aged and probably still beautiful on a good day. But today is not a good day. Her skin is sallow, and her eyelids are puffy. A clean white bandage is wrapped tightly around her head.
“Goedenavond,” she says brightly as she approaches the coffee machine. I return the greeting and she stops and looks at me for a moment before switching to a lilting and melodious English.
“Where are you from?”
I tell her, and she asks what I am doing in the country, then what I am doing in the hospital. When I briefly explain what happened to him, she makes consolatory noises.
I ask why she is here, and she touches her bandage lightly.
“I had an operation. There was a tumor. Quite a large one. They removed it.”
That must have been pretty scary, I say.
“It was. But the doctors here are wonderful. Your boyfriend is in very good hands. The best neurologists in the city.”
So I’ve been told, I reply. When I ask if the operation was totally successful, she tells me that it was, and that she expects to be back at work very soon. She’s a lawyer, she tells me, family law specifically.
“I can’t wait to get back to work. So boring in here! And the doctors and nurses always saying rest, rest, rest! But I go crazy if I just sit around doing nothing.”
I tell her that I totally understand, that I’m the same, and I motion towards the board.
“Now how does that work, playing chess by yourself?”
I say that it just means I am twice as terrible. She grins, then pulls a chair over and sits.
“It has been a while since I have played. Would you like to have a game with me?”
I see from the clock that I have already been in here twenty minutes, and yet I readily agree. I begin moving the pieces back onto their starting positions, but she touches my wrist.
“Would you mind if I set it up? You can correct me if I get it wrong — I just want to see if I still remember.”
When I say that of course I don’t mind, she reaches out across the table.
“I’m Brigitte,” she says, and grasps my hand. Her handshake is firm. From the pocket of her robe she takes a pair of glasses and pushes them on, peering down her nose at the board. With a sudden swipe she knocks all the pieces over. They clank onto the glass top of the table and a few tumble to the carpet. I bend down and retrieve them.
“Let’s start afresh,” she says. She cups her chin with her left hand as she uses her right to place the pieces on the board. The bishops white and black she pushes into one corner, their croziers all pointing towards each other as though they are discussing some crisis within the church. In the corner diagonal she has a queen flanked by two kings. They sidle up to her, vying desperately for her attention. Lucky lady, I joke. Brigitte points to the remaining queen opposite, ostracized and peering over at the trio with longing.
The knights she sets in a line in the center, lying on their sides with the muzzles of the horses pressed against the squares, drinking deeply from pools before they continue their journey. There seems to be neither logic nor a pattern in where she places the rooks, but they all balance on their turrets with their filthy red felt undersides exposed, no longer dirty little secrets. And she sets not a single pawn on the board. Instead, she has them surround it, circle it, angry villagers closing in with pitchforks. All but one. This Brigitte regards with a furrowed brow before sliding it carefully into the pocket of her robe. She pats the pocket twice before turning to me with a smile.
“Ready?” she asks.
I look at the clock. It’s getting late.