“Equilibrium” by Laura Hinkle

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken…”

 

Equilibrium

by

Laura Hinkle

 

According to the check, it appears that the leg formerly known as mine has been appraised at seventeen thousand dollars.

To be fair, I’m rounding down.  The actual cash value is higher by two hundred dollars and eighteen cents.  It’s the change that really bothers me, like maybe I could have increased the value somehow.  Next time, Miss Wright, might we recommend a pedicure.

Something that was supposed to be a laugh crawls raw and bitter from my throat; the mailman, still attending to our neighbor’s mail box, jumps.  I lean most of my weight on my crutch and wave the envelope at him.

“My leg,” I say brightly.  “They put it in the incinerator.  I asked,” and I laugh again.  It sounds better this time.

He doesn’t return the laugh.  That’s okay.

Nobody appreciates my humor these days.

♦♦♦

My mother spent every day next to my hospital bed, whispering to nurses and pretending to watch TV.  Between the hospital and work at night, I wasn’t sure when she slept, if ever.  Sometimes I would catch her staring, her eyes heavier on my broken shape than the blankets.  When she met my eyes she’d mutter something vague and hurry out of the room for a cigarette.

I waited for these trips to use the bathroom, first in a bedpan and then in clumsy, slow trips to the toilet.  The first attempt to get there left me exhausted and dizzy. I missed the toilet seat completely and fell over instead, a defeated tangle of cotton gown and crushed dignity.

A nurse was there in seconds.  She took one look at the monitors I’d abandoned by the bed and shook her head, already reaching to pick me up.

“You’re not supposed to be doing this yet,” she said.  “I don’t even have to see your chart to know that.”

I leaned into her, letting her lift me like a baby or a drunk.  Pain rocketed up the leg that wasn’t there to hurt anymore.  My teeth ground together.  “I’m eighteen years old,” I said.  “I’m not supposed to be doing this at all.”

She clicked her tongue at me.  I could have grabbed the rail alongside the toilet, but instead I clung to her.

“I missed prom,” I blurted.

The stiffness in her shoulders lessened, letting me glance at her name badge.  Rosemary.  One of those names that predetermines your future as a nurse.  She couldn’t have been much older than me, but already she’d dedicated herself to the career: her scrubs were starched, her posture determined and matronly.  I braced myself for the lecture.

“What color was your dress?” she said.

“Blue,” I said, surprised.  “Satin.”  And as simply as that, I began to cry.

Rosemary put both arms around me, her hands small and cold against my back.  My mother turned the corner from the hallway and stopped, her eyes wide.  Her mouth opened and then closed, eyes darting from one of us to the other like sparrows.

“What -”

“She’s healing,” Rosemary said calmly.  “And it hurts.  Excuse us, ma’am.”

She closed the bathroom door and let me cry.

♦♦♦

My father sent me to Safety City when I was four, just before the divorce, and stayed long enough to watch me maneuver my way through the front seat of the fire truck.  The fireman let me touch the knobs and pedals and lifted me carefully down after.  He leaned very close so I could hear him over the siren.

“Are you having fun?” he said.  The siren was giving me a headache but I nodded anyway.  None of the kids I played with at home had ever been inside a fire truck.

“Just remember everything you learn here.  Always make sure you wear your seatbelt, sweetheart,” he said.

“What if the car crashes?” I said.

“Then it will protect you until we come help you,” he said.  “And so will your daddy.”

He smiled and waved at my dad.  My dad waved back.

Two months later, he was gone and all I had was my seatbelt to protect me from the world.  For years, every time I clicked it into place I thought of the fireman.  It wasn’t his fault.

♦♦♦

Jess and I started dating sophomore year, the year of temporary permits and more lenient curfews.  Jess had perfect grades and long eyelashes.  I had a Polaroid camera and a total lack of focus.  We spent our Saturday afternoons in parking lots, sharing french fries with the seagulls and then chasing them away.  At night we rented old movies and watched them in languages we didn’t speak.

Jess was constantly finding things, picking them up from under bus benches or payphones.  His favorite thing was lottery tickets: he’d run his thumb across the numbers, folding each one carefully into his pocket.  I’d find them months later when looking for a lighter and throw them away, rolling my eyes.

“Why bother?  Who would throw away a winning ticket?”  I said.

He shrugged.  “People lose all kinds of things.”

♦♦♦

What am I supposed to buy with the money? I wonder.  The insurance paid for the medical bills.  What would a normal teenager spend it on?  College, maybe.  But now there are scholarships for people like me.

A car.  I try to imagine driving again, using the wrong foot for the pedals, braking too early at every light.  The strange efforts it will take me to get out, my fingers tight and bloodless wrapped around the door frame.  Hopping to the backseat to get my cane.

What’s easier to imagine is the people staring.

No thank you.

I shove my crutch away from me, a useless temper tantrum that wipes the top of the coffee table clear.  My senior picture topples.  I’m wearing a skirt and heels in the photograph.  I’m standing, smiling.  Of course I am.  I’m intact.

The frame’s glass shatters when it hits the floor.

♦♦♦

The car hit us doing fifty miles an hour in a fifty-five zone.  Its driver wasn’t drunk.  They weren’t distracted.  A glitch in the traffic computers went unnoticed for just a minute too long, turning several intersections in the city into four-way free for alls.  A one in a million chance.

♦♦♦

I can’t get used to my prosthetic.  It hurts when they fit it initially, the skin of what used to be my knee baby soft and uncallused against its foreign, harsh weight.  Something about this seems unfair.  I just got comfortable with the strange hopping gait that counts as walking for me these days.  Now I have to start all over.

Words can’t measure my mother’s relief.  I–she–can avoid people’s eyes immediately now, can have a conversation with cashiers and clerks without their palpable curiosity setting our sleeves on fire.  She buys me half a dozen pairs of designer jeans.

The prom dress still hangs on the back of my door, wearing its plastic bag like a burial shroud.

♦♦♦

The doctors showed me x-ray after x-ray of myself doing impressions of a jigsaw puzzle.  There were specialists for everything: taking apart, putting together, rearranging and reassembling.  The airbag broke my nose and shattered one of my cheekbones.  I had pulled muscles in my arm and back.

And, of course, there was the leg.

I clung to the bed rails and watched my mother watching me.

The driver’s half of the car took the initial impact.  From there, it rolled, folding in on itself like a paper fortune teller.  Somewhere during the process, what had previously been the steering column pinned my leg, crushing or tearing through most of my calf.  I was lucky, they said.  My mother frowned.

I said, “Where’s Jess?”

The doctors looked away.  My mother fumbled for her cigarettes.

Jess wasn’t wearing his seat belt.  While I’d been pinned, he’d been thrown.  Either the windshield or the ground had broken his neck.  They were sorry for my loss, sorry to have to tell me, sorry, sorry, sorry.  The words stuttered their way through the static in my brain.

I was lucky.

♦♦♦

Some days after physical therapy I meet Rosemary in the hospital’s cafeteria for coffee.  The hallway leading there smells like sickness and disinfectant, and some genius painted the walls a garish, glaring shade of yellow, but whoever brews the coffee knows what they’re doing.

She talks about long work shifts and the ongoing battle against her car’s faulty power windows; I grumble about my mother and how I miss wearing heels.  Sometimes I search her face for some betraying sign of pity, but I never find one.  I’m not sure it would matter.  She’s the closest thing I have to a friend.

The little girl with her takes me by surprise.  At first I think she’s a patient, her carroty hair buzzed to a soft, shining halo.  Then I look again and she has Rosemary’s mouth and upturned nose.

“You have a daughter,” I say stupidly.  She’s five years older than me, but the little girl looks seven, maybe eight.  The math makes my head hurt.

“Carolyn,” she says, “This is Allison.  Remember Mommy telling you about Allison?”

Carolyn beams at me.  She’s missing one of her front teeth.

I guess we’re friends after all.

♦♦♦

When they released me from the hospital I went looking for Jess’s grave.  I didn’t ask anyone about the funeral; there was nothing I wanted to know.  I didn’t want to imagine Jess in a suit he would never have worn willingly, didn’t want to wonder how his cheeks looked stuffed with cotton.  I couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, think about someone closing the lid on the casket.

His grave was covered in flowers: lilies, carnations, roses, Easter flowers with their cloying earthy perfume, but all of them wilting.  Dying.  Everything dies.  I still felt guilty.  I hadn’t even brought him flowers.

“I’m sorry, Jess,” I said.  My voice sounded flat, wooden.  What had I even come here for?  Jess wasn’t here.  Jess wasn’t anywhere I could reach out for him.

“I love you,” I said.

I waited, but Jess didn’t say anything.

I laid my crutch across his flowers, and limped back to the land of the living.

♦♦♦

I ask Rosemary and Carolyn to celebrate my last day of physical therapy.  Carolyn draws me picture after picture with a fat green marker.  Rosemary’s face creases, then crumples when she sees the amount of the check.  I have my hands in my pockets again already when she tries to hand it back.

“Allison –“

“It’s not sympathy money,” I say.  “It’s not charity.  It’s for Caro.”

“But –“

“Start her a college fund,” I say.  “Go buy her a bicycle.”

Rosemary keeps staring at me.  There are tears in her eyes, and absurdly, I think of my prom dress.  “Buy her a helmet, too.  You know, just in case.”

Carolyn hands me her latest piece of art, and I watch her curiosity rise when she reaches over my leg.  I realize it’s the first time she’s seen me in shorts.  She runs her pudgy hands over the place where my skin meets the stiff straps of my prosthetic, reads the seam of flesh and brace like Braille..  “Does it hurt?” she says.

Carolyn!” Rosemary says.

I laugh.  Carolyn’s palms are warm and baby perfect.  She has marker on her fingers.  I put my hand over hers and smile.  “No,” I say.  “Not anymore.”

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