The Slow Machine Inside
In some sense there’s really no difference in being handed over to a group of fascinated strangers by a man in white in your moody older years, than when you’re handed over as a squealing pink infant. The only difference is in their eyes, how they look at you. So when I’m thrown at the collection of glassy tired eyes in the hospital hallway that stinks of gauze and staph infections, I’m like a bewildered maniac left wondering what I’ve done to them all. No one in the crowd can fake-beam pink-infant-optimism at me, even though I’m sure they want to. There’s too much time behind us, far too many things that will not be forgotten.
I think they’re unfeeling pigs. There’s no mercy though I’m a mental feeb and can’t remember shit. Don’t they know my gray matter’s all screwed, some poor quivering chopped liver now?
It was the doctors’ idea to have the whole family here when I step out, so that I’m deluged with warmth and memory. I have a team of doctors because apparently I’m an important man, which I guess means I have a lot of money. My room’s been wonderful and all the nurses kiss my ass. The food is good. Every morning I get fresh squeezed orange juice—the real thing, I’m sure, since I can remember exactly what concentrate is like.
“Danny,” Mom says, and she claps her hands together with joy, as if I’m taking my first steps. But I walk just fine—my motor skills are okay, the brain’s the trouble.
“I don’t want to make a scene here,” I say, and try to move to the exit quickly. They’re all waiting for a great moment; they stand around me for hours as if marking time for the second coming. They expect the messiah to rise from my navel. So I pretend to have bits of memory come back here and there, and since they see what they want to see, they believe me. I think only my wife knows for sure. She doesn’t play along when I lead them into revealing nostalgic tidbits and then light up in a burst of faux recollection. So, I hate being alone with her, most of all.
Home is just like the photos they’ve been showing me, so many of them that no room comes as a surprise. Apparently I like to read on a sun porch that smells of orange citrus mixed with candle wax. Katie sits out there with me every morning like a hospice nurse, and I look up from magazines and smile at her warmly, trying to conjure an idea of what her thick haunches look like naked: if I can picture them thinner, closer to the smooth gazelle-like legs from our wedding video, from the Aruba video, from the video out by my parents’ poolside on a Labor Day’s past whose unreality is only disputed by the presence of a Young Me in the grainy VHS picture, eating burgers and other Americana consumables.
On my one week anniversary back, as I’m studying the legs once again, she says, “I know what you’re doing.” The afternoon sun is falling across her lap and she doesn’t bother lifting her eyes. She has on the wicker table in front of her a pad on which she’s sketching, poorly, a baby banana tree. The tree’s across the room in a pot that catches the sun just about all day long.
“Stop it. Okay?” Katie says.
“Sorry,” I say. I need to get away, so I pop up quickly and take off. It’s not fair that she knows me so well, it’s too one sided, I can’t fight with one hand behind my back. I don’t even know if we’re supposed to be fighting at all.
We sleep in separate beds. Katie’s given me the bedroom, while she stays in a nice guest room that has a bright and spacious feel to it, as if fresh wind current is blowing through it all the time. Meanwhile I can’t sleep in our marriage bed because of the alien stuffiness. There’s no ventilation yet there seems to be motion all around, inside the ceiling are scurrying footsteps, the house is old and a radiator spits out suffocating steam heat every twenty minutes or so. My first few nights I spend walking around, trying to get a feel for the place, feeling worse for every hour that goes by that nothing comes back to me. It’s a nice place with a warm lived-in feeling, albeit one that’s teetering on a knife-edge. Apparently Katie likes knickknacks, since I can’t imagine any of the décor was my doing.
Morning’s I get breakfast from a nice Hispanic woman who works for us, although it makes me uncomfortable. If I had to pick up after people and fix their food, I think as I wriggle down a slightly undercooked egg white, most of what they consumed would be a cheeky admixture of spit and piss. She tells me to call her Inez, and then spends the rest of the morning staring at me, waiting for me to remember something.
The spies are everywhere. When the hell will the baby take his first steps?
I bring Inez my dishes when I’m done, which makes her uncomfortable. Power structures aren’t meant to be fucked with.
My parents call every day, and talk to me as if we all know each other.
Inez treads in constant fear of me, and expects me to know why.
The common denominator is familiarity, they all stink of it, and want me to fall down and wallow in the mire too. Only Katie seems content to keep me an exile, not telling about my favorite spots or which things are mine, or if it’s our ritual to eat together instead of suffering through the lonely meals Inez puts in front of me at seven sharp each night, upon which I concentrate intently for excessive amounts of time, before and during eating, as if each bite contains a secret. I don’t like the food but don’t say anything. Once or twice I catch Katie watching me eat, and suspect her of choosing the meals on purpose.
It goes on for nearly two weeks, this strange dance in which no one is doing anything wrong, yet somehow every move is an attack on everyone else, the war of all against all. By the time Katie rejoins me in bed she’s more of a stranger to me than the day I woke up.
“So what now?” she says once she’s climbed in. During the entire ritual of her prepping for bed, removing makeup, et cetera, I don’t dare look at her. So the feel of her body is a complete surprise, along with how willingly she slides it along my own, making me feel lordly and proprietary. Her thighs are thick but strong and her legs have been shaved with less than exquisite care, slivers of straggling bristle reminding me that we are not newlyweds, novel as this all may be, and she will not be putting smooth grooming at the top of her to-do list.
“We don’t have to do anything, Katie.” I’m staring up at the ceiling, she hasn’t turned off the lights and I need to concentrate on something specific, so I choose the elegant moldings.
“Let’s just do it and get it over with,” she says, speaking husky and somewhat mannish. She sounds like the women in porn movies look, resigned to the rigors of the job.
We don’t get it over with, though. We don’t even get it started because no matter how hard I try, there’s no stiffness between my legs; I’m dead and unresponsive. The doctors said this might happen, and I can’t remember having a hard-on since I woke up. Serious head trauma and impotence apparently go hand in hand.
“Asshole,” she says, and then turns over, giving me her cold posterior.
“I’m sorry,” I whimper, surprised by how feeble I sound. I didn’t mean it to come out that way. I was aiming for tenderness.
“Go to bed, Daniel,” she says.
“I just need more time.” Meanwhile I pull at the blanket, working the threads hard with my fingernails.
Katie sighs, dramatically, and we feign peace for a few minutes: a long pause in all breath and speech during which we both put on the act that it might be possible for us to fall asleep like this, together. We manage to keep it up for the proverbial four-that-feel-like thirty minutes, before Katie starts thrashing back and forth, wrestling with the sheet, finally rolling out of bed, smoothly in time with one of her spastic rejections of peace and quiet. She leaves to go sleep by herself without another word, and remarkably, almost immediately I find darkness closing in around me, and I wake the next morning feeling glorious and refreshed while Katie walks around like a zombie, fading in and out of rooms while keeping a suspicious watch over me.
Me—I go for the sunroom again, and lay in the warmth like an invalid while life goes on around me. Inez rattles around and slumps through the machinations of cleaning. Bleach, or something like it, slopped against kitchen tile wafts into my sun zone around midday. The sun starts roasting the fumes, and I know my time hiding out in here is limited; the pervasiveness of the Mr. Clean Clouds grows, and so I gather my stack of magazines, all dog-eared, confused sheets flapping around under my arms, and like a homeless person think about looking for a new place to settle down with my purposeless stash.
I don’t know if Katie’s been listening to hear when I get up, or if it’s just coincidence, but she’s waiting for me at the threshold of the sunroom. “Let’s go out for a while,” she says, and leaves no room for debate.
We’re in the car before I ask where we’re going. “Change of scenery,” she says. Katie is looking better today; somehow it’s obvious that if she were to strip her clothes off now the entire experience would be much gentler. Not that I could get anything going in my neck of the woods. Still it’s calming, and the unfamiliar scenes zipping by don’t seem so ominous because of it.
“How have you been feeling?” Katie asks after about ten minutes. It’s really the first time she’s asked since we’ve been reacquainted. She darts her eyes with insect quickness, looking me up and down as if she’s able to see everything bleeding through on my surface.
“I still don’t remember anything,” I say, and it comes out in kind of a groan. “Not a fucking thing.” Coming off as angry about it seems to make everyone happier: at least I’m not complacent. “I may never, you know.”
Katie nods, says nothing.
“I hope that’s not the way it goes,” I say.
Katie nods, and again says nothing.
We’re in a nice area, though more urban than where our house is, when Katie parks. It’s a sudden park without indication of slowing down; she sneaks headfirst into a spot that looks too small for that kind of ballsy contortionism, yet somehow gets in tight and without a scratch.
I say: “I’d like to try driving again, some time soon.”
“You should.” She gets out. “Come on.”
I live and move on the commands of others, these days. I truly am a pink baby cherub delivered unto his filial dictators, and so I float obediently behind Katie, giving her a couple of steps’ respect. She’s talking at me over her shoulder, nothing I can hear or make sense of, so I don’t expect it when she quickly ducks into the doorway of an unobtrusive gray apartment complex—residential, some potted plants out front, and a doorman at a desk inside who smiles at us once we’re spit into the belly of the beast by the heavy revolving door. The lobby is plush, and so is the elevator, though not recognizable.
This is an exercise, an immersion to help me remember something. Clearly this place is supposed to strike something deep and profound in me, there’s a smell or sight that’s supposed to give a jumpstart, like the feel of the carpet underfoot or the hum of the air vents in the hallway we walk down together, in complete silence.
“I’m sorry,” I say, but it comes out like a whip this time.
Katie stops, she looks at me, surprised. I can’t tell if she’s glad for it or not.
I say: “I don’t remember this place. I just don’t. We can go back now because this is just a waste of time.”
“Shhh,” Katie soothes, for the first time since I’ve been back, which as far as I’m concerned might as well be the first time in my life. Her voice is gentle and somehow sallow, as if emerging from the throat of a tubercular, and it gives me the first glimpse of understanding as to why we’re married at all. I could love someone with a soothing hiss like this. And then she touches my hand, which stops me cold from mumbling another half-assed sorry, thankfully and for both our sakes, and she takes me to a door which she has a key for.
Photo Courtesy of 123rf.
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Story Copyright © 2006 Adam Hartman. All rights reserved.