[Trigger warning for suicide and suicidal ideation, attempted murder, gendered slurs, mention of drowning, and child abuse.]
I dreamed I made a goal.
When I wake up they tell me it wasn’t a dream. And it wasn’t a goal, either. It was a touchdown—that’s why you’re in the hospital.
But the walls are shiny with light, shimmery and slick and too stark–too white– with windows that are covered with stiff ivory panels shielding me from the constant hum of chaos I know waits for me just outside. I can’t focus on listening. I just keep thinking about how I made a goal…I finally made a goal.
The doctors come holding lungs full of delicate whispers, steady lines of warm bodies pretending to care about the jelly between the bruised bones of my skull. They say I was in a coma for two weeks, and I laugh. It seemed like half a second. It seemed like an eternity. When they ask me what that means I don’t answer—because I didn’t realize I was saying anything out loud and I wasn’t talking to them, anyway. I only think that it was worth it, and if it weren’t worth it, then the goal won’t count. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t tell them that part.
The machines I’m hooked up to are just here to keep me stable, they say. But they say it in a way that makes me think that they’re lying to me. As if what they should really be saying is that these machines are here to keep me lying down. To keep me from leaving.
As if I’m not already thinking about ripping the tubes from my veins and watching the last of me bleed out onto the plush white mattress, with its springy top strangely similar to the bouncy green field that carpets the football stadium I’d gotten to know weeks before. Maybe it’s the same material, even— that grass wasn’t real, just like the Rent-a-cop I skirted past to get into the game in the first place. Establishments around here are too fancy for stuff like living grass and stuffed mattresses. It all makes my skin itch. (How often do they change these mattresses? Do they change out the fake stained grass in stadiums, like art restorers must tend to splotches on stained glass?)
I ask the first nurse when I can leave. She looks alarmed, but I bet she thinks she’s hiding it.
-You can’t leave, she says. You can’t. You’re not stable yet.
-You mean I’m not sane, I say.
-No. Her voice falters. I said stable.
-But you meant sane, I counter.
She steps back and leaves the room as I smile. Widely.
The second nurse who comes in looks bored and sounds like Lucy. She reminds me of my mother, and of my father after my mother left us, right when I turned ten— but my mind goes back to Lucy right away, since thinking about my father always feels like pressing scar tissue to a white hot stove. (They say everyone grows up to marry their own mother, but I can only ever of think of my father when I think of Lucy. Especially now.)
My father pushed me off a pier when I was twelve. We were at a carnival for the first time since my mother left. I still had cotton candy all over my face and I couldn’t swim, but he dragged me near the water’s edge anyway, to show me the ducks paddling by. I thought.
A clown saved me, his slick white face turning red and yellow from the dancing carnival lights thrown from the Ferris wheel shining behind his head— a blur of color circling his skull like a whirling halo. My ears caught the voices of the surrounding crowd, their murmurs pitched up like watery sirens that were managing to close in around us even as we climbed up on land. The clown’s mouth was open, yelling, and I saw his teeth between his lips like dozens of bits of bone planted into the redness of his gum. He was screaming—and I was screaming—and I don’t think I ever stopped, even when someone’s dry hands pulled me away and assured me that the clown was not a monster. I saw the paint on his face shift back into a flat, brittle white as he turned away from the carnival lights, and the voices around me slid into whispers and repeated themselves. The clown had kept me safe.
But I didn’t feel safe until I saw my father being led away in the back of a boxy police cruiser, his face a blank canvas as it pointed toward me out the dusty back window, his eyes moving around in his sockets but not really seeing anything at all.
In the courtroom, before they ordered him to an institution and gave me to my grandma, she said he still loved me.
They said it was only because I reminded him so much of her, and because he went crazy after my mother left.
(They were referring to him pushing me off the pier, I mean. Not him still loving me.)
* * * *
The second nurse smiles with slightly yellow teeth. I like it. It’s honest. Her smile’s like the dingy whites of the clown’s worried eyes. Her smile is like my father’s eyes. Wild, strained, and worn out. They say everyone grows up to marry their own mother. Mine left me–left the both of us–and ran away.
It’s no wonder I wanted to marry Lucy.
After I decide that I no longer like the nurse with the clown’s eyes on her teeth I refuse to let her change my intravenous drip. When I tell her why, she looks hurt.
-Don’t take it personally, I say. It’s just because.
When she switches to room 493 and doesn’t return, I decide she’s more like Lucy and my mother than I previously thought.
The third nurse that comes in is gay. He says he has a wife and children, and I tell him, so do lots of gay people, but he is gay.
-You’re being rude, he says, but he doesn’t leave, just finishes swapping out my pillows.
-You’re gay, I say again. Stop lying to yourself.
His lips press together, thin and amused.
-How do you know? he asks.
-I can see it in your eyes, I say. They’re how mine used to be.
-I’m not gay.
His arms are muscled and hairy. Lucy always wanted me to let the hair on my arms grow out, even though I told her it reminded me of how I always got teased in gym for having more body hair than any of the lanky, fair-haired girls who pointed their fingers during volleyball. I did grow it out for her once, and she would stroke the hair after we had sex. I didn’t like it; it felt like I was a dog, being patted after a good trick. From then on I would wax my arms. My legs, too. She got over it.
-I’m not gay, the nurse is still saying when I drift back to reality. I’m a man. I like boobs, he says. Big ones.
-Those two statements don’t have to be related, I saw. Some men have big boobs. Stop lying to yourself.
-No, they don’t, he says as he walks out. I’m straight, he calls over his shoulder.
He doesn’t sound angry, though. I know I’ll see him again.
The next day I have a new nurse.
* * * *
A psychologist comes in a few days later. I don’t like him.
-Why did you do it? he wants to know.
-Do what, I say, just like that. No question marks.
I am speaking in a monotone because they have given me too much morphine. I had been complaining of a headache. They said it was a result of my cracked skull.
He keeps speaking.
-It was all so elaborately planned—finding out schedules, security, best point of entrance…but the last step didn’t quite seem to fit the grandiose nature of the rest, he says. Why did you do it?
-I dreamed I made a goal, I tell him.
I see his eyebrows join and form one bushy black bar above his gaze.
-Really. He makes a note on his clipboard. You mean a touchdown?
-No, I say. A goal. This was after the touchdown.
-Were you playing another sport?
-A sport, I repeat. Why would I be playing a sport.
After he leaves I fall asleep. I wake up and see a new nurse. She tells me the other nurses left because I was too difficult, but she’ll be tougher to run off. She won’t deal with my attitude. She loves to bust humps.
-Tough nuts, I say. Go suck a duck.
(She seems thrown off by my self-censorship, and she doesn’t talk for a little while.)
I wish Lucy would come by. So I can tell her about my goal.
I think about it some more, about what Lucy will say when she finds out. Maybe she’ll be proud. Or maybe she’ll push me off a pier like my father. The events in my life all seem to repeat themselves, sometimes in smaller scales or smaller numbers, but they still form patterns nonetheless—like broken bits of music that form a monstrous symphony when you put it all together. Someone always lures me in, and I always end up getting pushed away—and the fall is always more sudden and destructive than it first seems.
Why do I keep following people to the water’s edge?
Maybe patterns are meant to repeat. Maybe that’s why you grow up to marry your father or your mother or your wet nurse. Maybe you can’t break the mold that was pressed into you. Maybe.
My father always said: you are the decisions you make. That never made sense to me until I found out he was a monster.
My mother said it best: when people tell you who they are the first time, believe them. She tried to tell me, years before she left us, that my father wasn’t who he seemed to be– in little ways– and I even brought this up the last time I ever saw him, when I was seventeen.
I’d been visiting him monthly for a while, but he almost never spoke at all for the first year. After that, our conversations became sporadic and always ended up with me in tears, or my grandmother dragging me away while I swallowed my rage until it burned away all of my soft edges. He dug at my confidence until it was a razor-thin ledge, and the last time I saw him, I told him this—and reminded him what my mother used to say, about people telling you who they are.
My father said she never said that, and that she stole it from someone else, but I can’t think about him long enough to care most days. His words matter less each time I destroy myself and rebuild my frame again, and I wonder if this is at all bad thing. What would my mother say about this? What would she say if she knew I hadn’t seen him in ten years? Maybe that he made his own bed. Or maybe nothing. You can’t run from consequences, she used to tell me. But she ran from me.
The new nurse asks, what am I muttering about. I press my face into the pillow until I can’t feel that it’s wet with tears anymore.
-Go suck a duck, I say again.
* * * *
I have a lot of time to myself. Now that I am no longer hooked to a machine, I can walk around. Sometimes I slip out my door and stand in one of the little hallway bridges that connect the different wings of the hospital. The walls are made of glass there. I like to press my body to the cool pane and stare down at the blackness of the main entrance to the building, where the pavement is blotchy from oil spots and blood. It is a hospital, I remember. How many people have fallen to their deaths here? Has anyone ever pounded this barrier until they crashed through the glass wall, slicing their arteries open and feeling the life trickle out behind them as they sail toward the ground — only to wake up days later, in the bed that they jumped to escape, still living the life that they leaped to evade, restored to the earth they sought to be embedded in? I know how it feels, to be surprised that you haven’t found the end you sought.
If I wanted an end, I could find it now. If I put my mind to it.
I was religious before. I guess I was surprised when I woke up and realized that I didn’t see Jesus or my grandmother or even a starburst of light accompanied by a warm, fuzzy feeling of peace. I think I really wanted to die this time, but none of those things happened.
A month ago I would have been devastated, because I was the type of person who needed to know what was at the end of the road before they met their destination. I thought everything was entitled to me, including an afterlife, but I also thought nothing mattered if I didn’t have everything checked off my list. That’s how I was before. That’s why I made that touchdown. But that’s not how I am now.
That’s why I made that goal.
I go back to my room because the view is starting to make me dizzy. I’ve been here nearly a month, and I can navigate these halls in my sleep, if I needed to. I wonder if I’ll be sad to leave here, because even my room is starting to seem like home – – but everything has seemed so new and different lately that I may never want to look back again.
The psychologist is back in my room.
-Let’s start over, he says. I am Dr. Fink.
-Fink the shrink.
-You’ve heard that one before, I say. I’m disappointed.
-Yes, he says. Many times.
I sit down on my bed. My legs are a lot thinner now. I’m not emaciated, but I’m still thinner than I used to be, and my joints sometimes crack like dry ice under cold water.
-I think I know what will help this along, Fink says.
-I doubt it, I say back.
He brings out a small picture. It’s a football field—the college football field I studied before I made my goal. He hands it to me.
-It’s where you made your touchdown, he says.
I peer at the photograph. There are tiny people splattered around one edge, shunned to the side as if they are avoiding something at the touchdown line. As I look closer, I see that they are avoiding something. Something curled and flattened and surrounded by a dark pool of liquid. It looks tiny and fragmented, and a couple of the stationary people are in the process of hurrying toward it.
-Yes? Dr. Fink says. Who is that?
I’m about to say I was trying to figure out what it was, what did he mean by who, and then it hits me.
-It’s me. How did they get this?
Dr. Fink is watching me eagerly, and his face is starting to swim in and out of my vision. The paper crumples in my hand, and my palm starts to bleed. Dr. Fink is standing over me, yelling at me to let go of the paper, stop clenching my hands. The nurses are streaming in, telling me to breathe, and I try to tell my throat to stop swelling and beg the world to stop tipping. Everyone is too close. Everything is too dark. I can’t see anything. All I can do is float.
* * * *
For the second time I wake up with machines hooked to me.
-To keep me stable, I croak through a throat coated with sand.
-What? says a voice to my left. Are you awake?
I look and see a nurse. She’s beautiful. She has wavy brown hair and wild green eyes, a thick frame and full lips. She is short, shorter than me. She looks like Lucy. She smells like Lucy. She sounds like Lucy.
-It’s me, she says. It’s Lucy.
I nearly jump out of my skin. I leap out of bed even though she’s standing now, telling me to sit down– I need rest–I had a bad ordeal–I need to calm down, she’s happy to see me too— but all I can do is reach forward and stroke the soft curls framing her face and scan the soft lines of her body until I’m sure she’s really here. My planned speech sails out the window as every emotion I ever cherished comes surging through my body like flame eating through a dry forest. Love envelops me, and as her lips touch mine, I’m transported back in time: Before the hospital.
Before the game.
Before I found the trove of emails and texts and notes that pointed me toward a university, to a student, to an offensive lineman and business major who caught Lucy’s eye around the same time I thought I’d reeled in her heart. Before I made the decision to end my life over losing someone who had never really been mine.
My hands are still on the small of her back, and hers are still pressed against the nape of my neck, and with our bodies locking together like two worn puzzle pieces I can still pretend to be in that time when I thought our love was still ours, and no one else’s.
She’s saying my name.
My face is buried in her locks.
I hear my name again, tugging at my focus.
I don’t want to leave, I think. I don’t want to give up this illusion.
Lucy repeats my name.
-We need to talk, she says.
-I pull back. Yes, I agree. We do.
I stare at her as her lips form words I can’t fully hear. I stare as she shakes her head and begins to cry, apologizing for lying and cheating and hiding from me, pulling off the ring the football player bought her and throwing it in the trash. I keep staring even when I don’t want to anymore, because I want to remember her as she is at this moment, and as she has been all along. I’m still being swarmed by my emotions, but I’m struggling to breathe through the tide that’s threatening to take me down.
-When I saw what I had done to you, she finishes, I realize that you really loved me. And that I loved you. I still do.
Something sounds deep inside me, and my body vibrates like ripples across a lake.
-You still love me? I ask, thinking about my father and the pier.
-Yes, of course. Don’t you still love me?
I smile at her for the first time, and it feels like I’m working muscles I never knew I had. The words I’d planned to say float up above me, and I finally grab hold of them to pull myself to the surface.
-I dreamed I made a goal, I tell her.
She looks confused.
-You mean a touchdown?
-No, I mean a goal, I say. I know what a goal is. Why does everyone think I don’t know the difference between a goal and a touchdown?
-I don’t know, Lucy says. She looks nervous. I don’t know.
-Anyway, I dreamed I made a goal. It was after the touchdown but before I woke up in the hospital. I’m sorry too, for putting you through that. That was wrong. I should have–I should have chosen another way. It was wrong.
Lucy nods, tears welling in her eyes.
-A lot about me was wrong, I continue. About us, actually. A lot about us was wrong. And I think you knew that.
Her eyebrows knot together, and I see her realize where I’m going. She takes in a sharp breath and starts to say my name again, but I sprint through her words, breaking through her defenses before they can slow me.
-We both deserve happiness. But I’m not going to get it this way.
Lucys eyes are wide with fear in a way I’ve never seen them before.
-What? What are you saying?
My legs are starting to tremble, but I stay standing.
-I made a goal, in that weird in-between apace before I got out of the coma. That goal was to stop getting in the way of my own happiness, and I’m finally ready to do that.
She’s shaking her head. I love you!
No, I say. You don’t. You don’t treat someone you love that way. You don’t love me.
Lucy is crying, too hard to form words.
I take a breath and speak again. I’m learning to love myself, though.
Lucy is saying my name again, but her cries are growing too thick to speak now. I watch, wordlessly, as she stands and leaves, retrieving the ring from the trashcan before she exits, her eyes averted but unashamed. I hear her footsteps recede for far longer than I think possible, and then I realize that it’s just in my head. I let myself replay her exit until I’m ready to let it go.
After she leaves, I toddle back to the little hallway with glass walls and stare down at the pavement again . The sunlight streaking through the glass angles off of one corner, filling the corridor with a dizzying golden light that encircles everything like a soft halo. I feel raw and reborn, and every breath feels like a new discovery and an old friend at the same time. I’m both frozen in time and hurtling forward through space, and each element around me is so bright and vivid with the shock of exposure that it almost hurts to be so alive. Almost.
When I wander into my room, the gay nurse is back. I ask him when I can leave.
When you want, he says. Doc says you’re all healed, and you just need to schedule outpatient treatments and get a physical therapist nearby. Your insurance will be able to help out. He smiles and goes back to refilling my water jug, eyes raised to the television in the corner.
You look different, I tell him. I mean it.
He turns toward me and regards me fully as I sit on the bed.
So do you, he says slowly. Like you stopped lying to yourself. His lips twitch.
I smile. How did you know? I ask.
He smiles back and shakes his head. He gestures with his now ringless hand, expression bitter, amused, and exasperated all at once:
How did you?