The first time I saw her she was sitting on her stoop in a halter top. Smoking cigarettes and cracking dry peanuts between her teeth. She had long legs, big lips outlined in pink, a sunburn that crept up to her neck. Her skin looked like it was on fire. As I passed by she took a drag of her smoke and reached inside the bowl on her lap. A bunch of ashy butts and peanut shells were scattered on the steps below her feet. I slowed down and wanted to say something—Mind if I sit down?—or— You want to go for a walk?—but that day my Camels were back home and I was still on crutches.
—Hey, what happened to you? she yelled at me. We had never met each other before but she was like that, talking to everyone like they knew her mom and had gone to her graduation party.
—I broke my leg. As soon as I said it, I saw how obvious it was and felt stupid. I thrust my cast out so she could get a better look. A bunch of plaster molded to the break in the bone. Pale blue and dirty, as tight as my ribcage.
Jessica. She said her name with a Y—more like Yessica—but when I picked her up the next day she only told me the things she wouldn’t do. Eat ice cream after dinner: it made her stomach go sour. Skip church even if she was hung over. Babysit her sister’s kids, live in Bedstuy until she got old, go home with a guy on the first date. She was saying all these things so fast it made me think I was driving over the speed limit, like somehow my car was tuned to the beat of her voice, but when I looked down I saw we were only going 40 mph.
Still, she was fine. She had these hoop earrings that flashed silver when she shook her head, and her hair was all curly. I let her run down the list without saying anything back but a huh every now and then. It was only when we ran into a red light on the corner of Bailey that she stopped talking and looked over at me, pushing down on the brake with my good foot. So, she said. What’s your deal?
Me. For starters, I used to get in a lot of fights over nothing. Some guy would give me a wrong look, tilt his head too far to one side, and next thing he knew I’d be messing up his whole face. But then I tried to start something with this skinny guy who pulled out a gun and made a hole through the stop sign on the corner. When he tried to reload, I decided not to wait around for the next one. There was a fence and a jump. Then there was a bad landing.
At least that’s what I told Jessica in the car that day. When I was done, she gave me these big eyes and told me to be more careful next time. Then she laughed, and I laughed too.
—Okay, I got it, I got it, but what do you do when you’re not getting in trouble? she said, still catching her breath.
—Oh, you know, I said. Got a job. Pays the rent. She nodded instead of asking me more, so I shut up instead of adding that my boss and my landlord were the same person.
I met a girl, I told Uncle Ralph when I got home. He was on the couch drinking a Corona after covering my shift. Oh yeah? Is she hot? he said.
—She’s all right. Talks too much.
—That don’t make a difference, he said, if she’s hot.
I was about to climb up the stairs on my crutches when Uncle Ralph called me back.
—Wait, I forgot. These things came in the mail today. He pointed to a bunch of colored envelopes on the table, next to where his feet were propped up. I sunk my crutches down into the old rug and took my time swinging over there while he kept his eyes on the t.v.
As soon as I saw the handwriting, I knew what it was. The same fancy cursive my mom’s friends tried to pull off last year, and the year before. I tore one of the envelopes open. There was a card with a picture of a bleeding Jesus inside. On the Day of Your Loss Turn to the Lord.
My mom has been dead since I was fifteen. Before they started mailing cards, her friends used to bring me cakes.
—You going to write back? Uncle Ralph asked, pretending not to look at me from the couch.
—Don’t see why I need to, I said. You got any Coronas left?
Three beers later, I went up to my room, put the envelopes in a drawer, and fell down on top of my sheets. My eyes stayed open, but instead of the mail I thought about Jessica, how she had leaned over and whispered something to me at the movies. Onscreen some Asian guy was getting his nuts busted by a kung-fu master. With all the noise from the action, I didn’t hear what she was saying, but when the bottom of her hair touched my neck I felt kind of ticklish. Like something in me wanted to laugh, even as I watched the short guy get a kick to the belly and drop to the floor like a domino.
The next day at the pawnshop I couldn’t concentrate. I looked down at the row of gold chains I was supposed to be guarding. One of them had a skull pendant with fake diamonds glued around the eye holes. Further down I could see the Zippo lighters and the 8 oz. flasks lined up with their price tags. Uncle Ralph always bought a bunch of crap he couldn’t sell.
The clock said it was noon. I had been at work for two hours, and Jessica kept popping into my head, like one of those stupid clowns you spray down with a water gun at Coney Island—every time I tried to get rid of her face, it would come back a few seconds later, smiling at me. I couldn’t win.
When was the last time I had gone this crazy?
I ate lunch. I scooted around the store and used my finger to wipe lines of dust off the broken t.v. sets and the old headboards. I sat down by the cash register and stared at the clock. Noon turned into 1, then 2. Five hours to go.
The phone rang. I almost killed myself to get it out of my pock- et. It was Jessica.
—Hey Dom. Her voice sounded smoky over the line.
—What’s up? I cleared my throat and wondered what she was wearing.
—Not much. You busy tonight?
—Maybe. I hoped she could tell I was kidding around. Still, it wouldn’t hurt if she thought I had other things going on.
—You should come out to San Loco if you get the chance. They’re having a live d.j. Should be fun.
Things I don’t do in public: Kill pigeons. Cuss out old ladies. Piss on the sidewalk while other people are watching. Piss at all, unless it’s dark and I’m in a bind. Break windows in neighborhoods where the houses have security alarms. Start arguments with cops on duty. Dance.
Jessica was waiting for me at San Loco, facing the bartender as she stirred something frozen in a glass. One of her feet was touching the back of the other leg, and she kept switching which foot was on the ground as I stood there for a while, just looking. She was wearing heels that night, three inch heels the color of Pepto Bismol, and when I got closer I saw her toes were painted a darker pink.
The place was dark and smelled like spilled beer. The kind of dive I used to go with the boys, back when we all had fake i.d.s and girls on our minds. But now I could feel myself getting sick as I tapped Jessica on the shoulder.
—Dom! How you doing? Want to dance?
I shook my head and pointed to my crutches. The music was loud and shitty. Some techno beats imported from Sweden.
—Come on! It’s my night off!
Before I could say something to stop her, Jessica was in the crowd of people. Half of them were jumping up and down, and the other half were grinding against each other. There was nothing I could do but follow.
I found her by the d.j. booth, doing a two-step and shaking her hair around. Each curl was a black snake twisted onto her head.
—Don’t they normally play better music at this place? I screamed in her ear. Salsa, meringue, hip-hop. Not that it would’ve helped me, but anything was better than this.
Jessica’s shoulders rose and fell. It was either a shrug or a part of her dance.
Some guy bumped into my back, and when I turned around and pointed at him with one of my crutches he just laughed and bounced off.
I stood there not knowing who to get mad at. My head was pounding to the beat, and I expected them to assault me with a strobe light any minute. Should I go home? I thought about leaving and getting a good night’s sleep.
Over the speakers, the song changed into a new track: a lady with a robot voice singing about dancing at a club.
I forced myself to stay. There were a bunch of guys eyeing Jessica, and if I left early she’d probably give her number to some as- shole. I saw Uncle Ralph on the couch, telling me to stick it out. He was right. I dragged myself against a wall and watched Jessica’s bouncing head. Her eyes were closed in some kind of techno trance, but every once in a while she’d open them and wave in my direction, like I was her chaperone dad or something. Finally, ten minutes or an hour later, she danced over to the wall and stopped in front of me. Her hair was wet and her face was all sweaty.
—You want to get out of here? she asked.
I nodded. We pushed our way to the door and then we were on the sidewalk. No one was outside except for us. Even the late night deli across the street was closed, a metal gate blocking the window sign that spelled out an ad for Cold Cuts—Phone Cards—Cigarettes.
Jessica’s heels made a noise each time she stepped down on the pavement. I like your shoes, I said. Click. Thanks, she said. Click. Got them on sale.
Things that suck about having a broken leg: When you’re walking a girl back to her house and you can’t put your arm around her waist because you’re too busy holding onto your crutches. When she invites you up to her room and it takes you five minutes to climb the stairs. Then, when you’ve been kissing for a while and her jeans come off and all of the sudden she’s lying there all warm-eyed and bare-legged, you think that if you climb on top of her you won’t be able to move the right way and you start to lose it. And you point to your cast, tell her she should save it for some other time, and she says okay, that’s a good idea, and you start to snore like your uncle does when he’s had too much to drink.
I went to the doctor in the morning after leaving Jessica’s house. My one-month check up. Under the cast my leg was itching, and I was sure there was something wrong, that it was swollen or infected or, worse, about to fall off.
At the hospital they took an x-ray of my leg and told me to wait. I sat down in a plastic chair and messed around with my crutches. Half an hour went by before the doctor came in holding the results. A bald guy with good teeth that showed when he smiled. He fished a pen out of his pocket and stuck the x-ray to a lightbox on the wall.
The bone in my leg was a hollow white tube someone had snapped in two. There was this hazy glow around it that could’ve been muscle or skin, and behind that there was a field of black.
—How’s it looking? I asked him. It’s been itching me these last couple of days.
—That’s normal, he said. Try not to think about it. Your leg is coming along…
He took one look at my face and stopped talking. These doctor guys are always acting like they know you better than you know your- self. Like anything you say to them is wrong.
When I got home Uncle Ralph was frying slices of ham in the kitchen. I could smell it by the door, and for a second I thought of my old house.
I walked in hungry.
—Where were you last night, boy? he said, hearing me come in. He was standing by the stove, no shirt on. He could have passed for a pregnant lady with a moustache.
—I was with that girl.
—Oh man. He pounded me on the back. Do you like her or what? He shut off the stove, flipped a piece of ham onto his plate, and left one for me.
I thought about Jessica in the club. Dancing in a 360o pattern and barely missing some guy who tried to grab her ass when she spun around. What kind of girl meets up with someone, then ditches him for an hour?
But then I thought about the way she had looked that morning. When I woke up, I could see her face right next to me on the pillow. She was breathing low, her eyelids closed, her eyeballs moving underneath like they were looking at a secret picture. Her make-up had rubbed off, and two moles on her right cheek were showing. They were kind of cute.
—Yeah. Guess I do.
After lunch I worked up the nerve to give Jessica a call. In my head she was still in bed, covered by a blanket, and the thought of wak- ing her up got me all nervous.
She picked up after the fourth ring.
—Dom? What happened to you?
—I had to go see a doctor.
—Oh, well, I had fun last night. Too bad you couldn’t dance, huh?
She laughed a little, then stopped.
—Yeah, too bad. You know, when I got both my feet, I’m better than Michael Jackson. Listen, you doing anything later on?
—I don’t get out of my shift at Kellog’s ’til 1, but I’m free after that. You want to come over?
When I hung up the phone I asked Uncle Ralph to borrow the car again. It was a beat-up sedan, but just knowing how to drive was enough to impress a girl in Brooklyn. He said yes, as long as I’d fill it up on my way home.
Jessica was waiting to answer the door when I knocked. She was wear- ing a starched dress with her name sewn onto the pocket. She looked good.
—We need to be quiet, she said, pointing behind her to a room upstairs.
I pushed my face towards hers and leaned in. She got the hint.
Jessica’s room still looked like a messy Victoria’s Secret catalogue: bras and panties mixed up with heels and make-up. I stepped on a tube of lipstick on my way in, but she told me not to worry about it.
—Oh man, I’m tired, she said, falling onto the bed where I had left her that morning.
I stayed on my crutches for a while, trying to decide how fast I should move. Did she like me more after what happened last night? Well, I figured, as long as I was here might as well give it another shot.
I lay down beside her and gave her a kiss on the neck. Good. Smooth.
Jessica kissed me back below the chin. Then she sat up.
—I need to tell you about this asshole who comes into work tonight. So he orders a hamburger medium-rare, right?
—So I’m like, we don’t do medium-rare. Only well done. And he’s like, I want it red and juicy. So I roll my eyes and tell him I’ll see what I can do, but of course I can’t do nothing because the chef is a dirtbag. So I bring it out to him cooked and leave it on the table and go off to wipe the counters. And this guy takes one bite and tries to call me over, but I ignore him and keep on wiping away, so he gets up and finds the manager. Ends up getting his food for free, and I get yelled at.
—Sounds like hell.
—Yeah, and you know what? Things aren’t like that in nice restaurants. It’s like last New Year’s Eve, the place is empty, right? Everyone is out partying with their friends. No one wants to eat. And my friend Angela is having this big party out in Bushwick, and she calls me up and tells me I should come, but of course I’m stuck with the shitty shift no one wants and my boss won’t let me leave. So I hear from her later that the party got so crazy the cops had to come and break it up, and all I want to do is quit my job. What’d you do last New Year’s, Dom?
—I stayed in.
—With your family?
—With my uncle.
She didn’t hear me.
—It’s just that I’m so sick of serving these ugly men coffee six days a week. All they do is leave me shitty tips after they look down my shirt all night. Seriously, every time I refill their cups their eyes pop out. But you’re not like that, are you?
—What? Like what?
Jessica shook me to make sure I was still awake. The whole time she’d been talking, I’d been lying down with my eyes closed.
—Like those guys.
—No way, I said. I opened my eyes.
Outside we heard a pair of sirens go by. Inside it was quiet. —Hey, she said. Will you give me a backrub?
Jessica worked the night shift. I mostly worked days, so I’d pick her up in my uncle’s car and we’d drive over to her house. Jessica lived with her mom, who went to bed early so she could catch the 7:30 PATH train to New Jersey, where she cleaned a house owned by this dentist guy and his doctor wife. In the mornings, her mom would leave us some hardboiled eggs on the table for breakfast. We’d peel them nice and slow, pour ourselves two glasses of orange juice. Put on some music I could stand. When I got home, Uncle Ralph would be waiting in the kitchen with a pile of toast and bacon, so I’d sit down and eat again.
—Look, I’ve been meaning to ask you…what do you want, Dom? Jes- sica asked me from the open door to her closet. It was late. She was changing out of her work dress.
—What do you mean?
Was she tired of moving so slow? We had been together for a few weeks, but with the lights off we were still fourteen, messing around with our clothes on.
—I mean, you know. Whatever you think I mean.
I thought for a while. Don’t bring up the cast.
—Can’t think of anything. Wait, I got it—money. You?
She finished unbuttoning her dress and put it back on a hanger.
—Every time I think of something big, it just sits there for a while, then goes away. It’s like I have all these ideas, you know? But all I do is wait and wait.
Jessica walked over to the mirror in her closet. She stood there and checked herself out. Lowered her eyes, made a face. Ran a hand through her hair to loosen it up. Got less bored when she looked over and realized I was watching her from the bed. She started swinging her hips from side to side, and when she turned around, she smiled at me like she was about to tell me something I’d been wanting to know for a long time.
Things I can’t shake about Jessica: Her lips. Her hair. Her butt. Her lips. Her butt. Her legs.
My friends started calling and leaving messages on my phone.
—Where you been, Dom? Haven’t seen you in a while. —Dom, it’s Veto. You still got that broken leg?
I called them back from work.
—Yeah, man, doing good…No, no, haven’t been getting out much…Still dragging my leg around…Yeah, you try pissing when you got crutches.
But I always made excuses when they asked me to hang out. In my head, I could see them standing on the corner of Myrtle and Wyckoff like a pack of baggy-coated turtles. Watching the traffic lights change, talking about who was pissed off at who. Only moving to pull up their pants. Once in a while, someone would pass around a joint, and five minutes later they’d all be laughing at some joke about a girl who walked by with a little too much showing.
With Jessica, I felt good just sitting with her and knowing that she wasn’t somewhere else. I told this to Uncle Ralph, and all he did was shake his head and pass me another beer.
—Got to watch out for yourself, boy. How long you been seeing her?
—You know what your mom would say to that.
—Don’t give me that lip. Look, I want to stop by the store today and see what’s there. You coming with me, right?
Like I had a choice. We finished our beers and got into the car, drove the twenty five blocks to the Devauro Pawnshop. Uncle Ralph always wanted a place named after him. Too bad the place is a rented room carved out of an old fabric warehouse.
When he unlocked the door and I walked in after him, the first thing I saw was a bunch of dust dancing around in the air, looking for some place to land. Uncle Ralph saw it too.
—You going to clean this place up? he said. He moved towards some old typewriters we had on sale, all of them with missing keys.
—When I get the chance.
I watched as Uncle Ralph counted the things in the store and subtracted what I had sold in his receipt book. Then he called me over.
—Listen, Dom. You got to step it up. The rate you’re selling, we’re both going to be working at Dunkin’ Donuts by next Christmas. You’ve been spending too much time with that girl. Can’t let it get in the way of your job.
I told him that I felt bad and repeated what he said to Jessica that night, but she just told me not to listen to him.
—That man needs to get laid. Did you say your aunt left him a while ago?
I nodded. Aunt Eva was like that—one night, without telling anyone what she was doing, she woke up to a sleeping house, packed her clothes, her rosary beads, her toothbrush and toothpaste in a suit- case, and only asked God for forgiveness once she was on a Greyhound heading south to Baltimore. My uncle went nuts, then got a younger girlfriend who broke up with him a few months later. This was before my mom died and I moved in to his house. My aunt still asks me if he’s mad at her when we talk on the phone.
—Don’t worry, Jessica was saying to me. We’re tight, okay?
—Okay. She leaned in and grabbed my hand. I felt her acrylic nails dig into my palm, but I didn’t say anything about it.
—When are they taking that thing off? Jessica asked me one night. We were hanging out in her room again. She was sitting in a furry white chair across from me.
—Not sure. Why’d you ask? I looked down at my cast and wondered if it smelled bad. I had been stuck in it for three months, and the doctor was aiming to keep it on for two more. He kept telling me that my leg just needed some time to “get its act together.” Then he’d add some time on to how long that would take.
—Did you drink milk when you were growing up? he asked at my last check-up.
—Yeah, I drank milk, I said, too pissed to even sound pissed. I looked back at Jessica.
—Oh, no big deal, she was saying. Just wanted to check. There was something in Jessica’s voice that made me keep my eyes in her direction. I saw that she was still wearing her shoes. They were black lace-up sandals that showed her toes.
—You know, she started up again. I was talking to some guys over on Driggs the other day, and they said they’d never heard of you. She stopped, though I could tell she wanted to keep going.
—You sure? How old were they? Must’ve been too scared to say they knew me.
I puffed up my shoulders to try and make her laugh. She didn’t buy it. When she got quiet like this, I got scared.
—It’s a good thing no one’s asking about me, I said. I don’t want them to know how easy I let off that guy who made me break my leg.
I was talking as fast as Jessica normally talked, but I stopped when I saw her staring at me.
The sweat started oozing out from my skin. What was I sup- posed to tell her? That I had really crushed my leg by falling off the back ramp of a truck while unloading a chest of drawers? A few months ago, Uncle Ralph got into this streak of buying heavy things that used to belong to other people’s grandmas. He called them “antiques,” but I should have told him before it happened that you can find the same stuff at Salvation Army.
I stayed quiet. Jessica looked away and started to play with the bow on her shoe.
—Forget it. They probably didn’t hear me right.
You know how it is when things start to go. First, the kissing breaks off early, and instead of staying in bed you decide to watch a movie in the living room, when it used to be the other way around. Then, ten minutes into some James Bond action flick where all the women are wearing those tight plastic bodysuits, you start to want it again, so you reach over and put your hand on her thigh, but she pulls away and tells you she’s not in the mood.
When Jessica said it a few days later, there was something in her voice that told me there was going to be no back-and-forth con- vincing, no trying to get her to sit on my lap. I sat there, breathing hard as Jessica tuned into a waterski chase playing on the VHS. The volume was low so we wouldn’t wake her mom up.
Two seconds later, I heard her sigh. I looked over and saw her head tipped against the back of the couch.
—Will you go get me a pillow? she asked, but it didn’t sound like a question.
I didn’t want her to start getting worse, so I took my crutches from the floor and swung up to her room.
Jessica’s pillowcase had little red lipstick kisses printed all over it. The kind I used to wipe off for real when my aunt attacked my face on Sundays, while my mom stood off to one side. I tucked the pillowcase under my left arm, fit my crutch under there too, and was swinging out into the hallway when I heard Jessica turn off the t.v. and walk towards the kitchen below.
I went down the stairs. I felt like I was getting smaller as I went down.
The night it happened we were up late again, watching an old movie about a cowboy who leaves his ranch and goes to find gold in Mexico. A good-looking guy who gets in trouble for his stupid way of pronouncing Spanish words. In the middle of the reunion scene, when the cowboy comes home broke but finds his wife still wearing the same dress she wore to the train station to see him off, I heard Jessica’s cell phone beep.
The movie kept playing. She picked up her phone and read a message on the screen, then typed something back. Then she glanced at me like she wanted to say something.
—What is it? I asked. The cast on my leg was still scheduled to come off in another month or two.
—It’s nothing, she said. She scooted a little closer and gave me a kiss on the cheek. They want me to come in early tomorrow. You know how it is. Let’s go to sleep right after this.
I figured she was ready to doze off. But once we were in bed, Jessica kept rustling under the sheets. I lay beside her on my back, thinking it was the coffee she drank at work every night. I knew the feeling—when you’re tired but not tired, running through all the stuff that happened today and all the stuff you’ll have to do tomorrow. I held out and pretended to be asleep. As long as Jessica was awake, there was still a chance she’d reach over and start stroking my arm.
Instead she kept tossing around by herself, and I started to fall asleep for real. The space in my head got jumbled up. Then it got empty.
I woke up sometime later. The room was darker than it was before, and I couldn’t even see the ceiling. I turned over to spoon with Jessica, but the mattress was smooth on her side of the bed. Then I heard her moving around the room somewhere, and I closed my eyes again without knowing why. There was the sound of a dress being zipped up, then the sound of a door opening. She was standing there, I could feel it—her hand on the knob, her hair all over the place. I turned my head towards the light coming in from the hallway. The door closed.
I lay there for a while longer, not knowing what to do. I was hoping that maybe Jessica had gone to the bathroom, except there was no way she’d change out of her t-shirt just to go pee, but maybe the dress was really a pair of jeans she put on so she wouldn’t be cold.
A few minutes passed. A few more. She didn’t come back. Did someone tell her about that stupid thing that didn’t even matter… Finally, I found my crutches beside the bed and flipped on the light switch.
Jessica’s purse was gone. Instead, there was a dip in the car- pet the size of a watermelon. I felt a muscle on the left side of my face tighten, like it was about to have a spasm. The right side of my face turned numb.
Somehow I managed to put on my sock, my shoe, my shorts over my boxers, my jacket over my undershirt, and make it out of her room with my crutches—
Lift. Swing. Foot on the ground. Lift.
When I kicked the front door shut behind me, I wasn’t sure whether I felt closer to the cowboy guy or his wife.
The air outside was cold. I looked down the street one way and saw that it was empty. I looked the other way. Same thing. Jessica’s block was a row of brownstones with Keep Out and Beware of Dog signs taped to the front doors. A neighborhood where all the families knew each other’s business and hated anyone whose mom wasn’t second cousins with someone’s brother. I could have told you what was where during the day, but in the dark all the houses looked the same.
I flipped a coin in my head and decided to take a right.
A few blocks away, a car horn beeped. I pictured Jessica stepping off the curb and getting into a cab.
Across the street, a blinking crucifix was shining out from one of the houses. On. Off. On. Off. The yellow light hurt my eyes. It was almost worse than staring into the sun.
Now Jessica was giving the driver directions, sitting back, and pulling out a mirror to check her make-up.
I was going down the street as fast as I could when I stopped and remembered Uncle Ralph’s car. I felt around. The keys were in my pocket. Good. But then I realized the car itself was parked at the other end of the block, and I wanted to kick myself. By the time I got there, unlocked the door, and put the key in the engine, Jessica would be dancing up against a stranger at San Loco’s, thinking I was still back home, asleep.
Or maybe she was already there, wrapping her leg around some guy’s waist right after he bought her a drink.
I swung my cast around and worked my crutches like they were being propelled by jet fuel. Lift. Swing. The houses passed on either side of me, their front gates locked, their owners asleep or in the shower or playing poker in the kitchen. Meanwhile all I could think about was getting to the car and tossing my crutches in the backseat. I would go and find Jessica, and once she saw me she’d act all sur- prised, maybe say my name real loud in front of everyone. And then… Well, after that, things got less solid.
I was halfway down the block and working it hard when I hit a puddle on the sidewalk. A spread of oily water that blended in with the pavement. Someone else’s spill. Before I could figure out what was going on, my arms were hanging onto nothing and my crutches were flying off. I watched as the left one hit a wrapped-up newspaper. The right one soared a few feet before landing by a fire hydrant. Then I lost it. The last thing that I saw as I fell to the ground was a patch of sky with no stars, and I remember thinking all the light was being blocked out by the skyscrapers over the bridge.
I woke up in the hospital wearing a blue nightgown. I felt like shit. My head was throbbing like someone had knocked me through a door into a wall, and when I looked down I saw my cast was gone. —Dom? You awake?
It was Uncle Ralph. He was sitting in a chair a few feet away from me, chewing on his bottom lip.
—Yeah. What happened to my leg?
—They had to take off the cast to make sure you didn’t hurt it again.
I checked my left leg. It was half the size of the other one, a bunch of limp muscle knotted around the bone below the knee. There were these big purple bruises all over it that made my skin look like a rotting piece of fruit, but it felt fine. Better, even.
I had other things to worry about.
—You see my phone anywhere? I asked Uncle Ralph. He reached down and took it out of a zip-loc bag by his feet that also had my wallet and his keys.
I checked my cell. No messages. No missed calls.
I was going down my contact list, trying to get to the J’s, when the doctor came walking in the door.
—How’re we doing here?
Different guy, same uniform. I stopped what I was doing and squinted at him as he scribbled something on a chart.
—I just woke up. My head hurts.
He nodded like he already knew what I was going to say. —The good news is, your leg held up in the fall. The bad news is, you gave yourself a concussion, so we had to give you some pretty strong drugs.
For the first time I noticed the small needle stuck to the inside of my elbow. It was connected to a plastic tube that led all the way up to an I.V. bag full of clear stuff that looked like water but wasn’t water.
The doctor pointed to a red button sitting by the pillow. It was hooked up to the I.V. by another cord.
—You use that button when you want some extra relief, okay? He winked at me and turned around to leave.
Once he was gone, I gave Jessica a call. Her phone rang once, twice, and went straight to voicemail. The clock said it was 5:20 am. She was probably still awake dancing to some disco version of a Bob Marley song. Spin. Swing. Move your hips across the room.
I put my phone on the table next to the bed and listened to Uncle Ralph snoring in his chair. I scratched my leg, then looked out the window. It faced the open courtyard of the hospital instead of the street. A plot of dead grass fenced in by eight floors of sick people on all sides. Across the way, I could make out the shadow of a lady getting a sponge bath in another ward. The blinds were drawn. I watched as the lady’s outline held her arms up over her head, like she was reaching for something hanging from the ceiling. To the right, the nurse started scrubbing her back with a black square of a sponge. She took a long time washing off the soap before she moved on to her neck. I wondered what they looked like, but there was no way of finding out—the whole thing was a dumb puppet show no one was watching except for me.
When it was over, I looked down and pushed the button.