When I opened my eyes there was light.
Boston. Matthew’s mother was standing over me. I was on the floor, in a sleeping bag, in the main room of the apartment which was everything, was the kitchen, the living room and the office. I considered her. She held her eye on me, kept an eyebrow raised. She drank some coffee and then the fax machine went off and she walked towards it. I had a headache and I felt nauseous.
Boston. Three walls of the apartment were made of glass. The apartment was on the third floor. It was $5,500 a month. The government was picking up the bill. “They’re treating us real good with this,” his mother said later. Said about the apartment, not about the situation. She was angry about Matthew’s benefit party. She was angry the government wouldn’t let Matthew leave the hospital to go upstate for it, even though his doctors said it would be okay. That Matthew would be okay to leave for the weekend. He’d travel by ambulance. But the government wouldn’t have it. Matthew’s mother kept at it. Calling people. Asking for favors. She said three of her boys had given their service to the U.S. Army and she had never asked for anything except for this. She let out a long sigh, said she was a country girl and hit the fax machine with the heel of her hand. “What am I doing here?” she said. I thought it was time to get off the floor. Brian, Matthew’s brother, was gone. I wondered where he went. I wondered if he was planning on coming back.
Outside there was a walking bridge over the freeway. The walking bridge was the same level as the apartment, if I stood at the window I was eye to eye with the pedestrians. “You can see the whites of their eyes,” Brian said last night. I wondered if he said that in Afghanistan when he was in the marines. I thought it was an odd way to put it. Last night everything was funny. When Brian and I were drunk we turned on all the lights. Brian mixed Black Label whiskey, his father’s, with ginger soda and ice. “Watch out, it’s strong,” he said bringing over another glass. He had manners I wasn’t used to. He kept asking if I was comfortable. The Celtics had just won the play-offs. We could see fans spread out of the stadium from the windows. I pressed my palms against the glass like I was surrendering. I examined the streets. Brian pushed at my neck with his fist. He rolled his knuckles from one side to the other. Playfully. It was same game Caitlyn was telling us about. How it tickles your spine. Caitlyn was sitting with Pat’s wife, Abby. They were drinking Coors Lights. Abby was telling Caitlyn about how Pat couldn’t shit. About how his head is three sizes too big and the swelling won’t go down. “But he’s all there,” she said. “I can see him in there. He’s just deep in it. I can see him though. He’s a mess. It’s a mess.” She said. I wondered if Brian and Pat’s wife had ever had sex.
The hospital was on one side of the apartment building. The bridge on the other. The big stadium on the third with the biggest Bud Light banner I have ever seen hanging over everything. The Mass Pike snaked around it all. Under ground and above ground. Burrowing below and then sticking its neck back out, cars darting out everywhere. I hated driving around Boston. Caitlyn and I got lost when we were trying to find the hospital. It was late. At one point we ended up at Logan airport. We had been driving for eight hours. We were laughing but mostly we were frustrated. I was frustrated. I was frustrated I was being pulled along into this whole thing. I just wanted to go to sleep somewhere. Get a motel. But I had already told Caitlyn I would go with her. I couldn’t figure out how to get out of it now. But I wanted to. I kept thinking of different excuses to tell her, but I couldn’t get any of them out of my mouth. So I didn’t say anything but my mind was going wild.
“There’s something I should tell you,” Caitlyn said and paused, “about Brian.” She said this somewhere along Route 95 in Connecticut. I had only met Caitlyn a few days before. I had begun to notice a disturbing pattern of how often she started up her sentences with that phrase; “There’s something I should tell you.”
I was eating baby carrots. I put the bag on the dashboard.
–“He was a heroin addict,” she started, “I mean up until three months ago. He had been using for the last two years. It was pretty serious. He was married, he got married really young, and she got into heroin. Brian never touched it. They had two kids and Brian was doing everything, working, taking care of the kids, taking care of her, everything. And then finally she left him. Just like that. Just disappeared. And that’s when Brian tried it. Like he wanted to know what this thing was, you know, this thing that ruined his life. And he got into it pretty deep. He lost his kids. His parents pretty much dropped him. But then he heard about Matthew and it all stopped. I mean slam-on-the-brakes stopped. He’s clean now. He’s devoted everything to Matthew. Him and his mom. I don’t know, I wanted to tell you that in case it came up there.”
I nodded. I thought, Great. I thought, That’s just great.
“I pray to the good Lord every day,” Matthew’s mother says. We are sitting at the kitchenette table now, she and I. She pours me a cup of coffee. “So many good people are praying to our Lord. And You’ve helped us, God knows. You’ve helped us. You brought Matthew back. Matthew had bled out, you know. When the medics arrived Matthew had bled out. When they got him to Germany he was gone. He was gone for one month. And then You brought him back. This is Matthew’s rebirth. And it’s our rebirth, too, it’s the time for our rebirth, and I thank the Lord for that. Just look at Brian for proof. He’s a new man. A completely new man.” She shook her head, focused on her coffee mug, and then lifted herself from the chair.
She excused herself to the bedroom to get her Bible; there was a passage she wanted to read to me. I was thinking then how there are different levels of religious people; there are the kinds who reference God a lot. But then there are the sorts who talk as if God is right in the room. Drinking his morning coffee or flossing his teeth in the bathroom mirror. I realized pretty quickly Matthew’s mother was of latter category.
I wondered how often she told this story.
“Hey you two,” Abby hollered to Caitlyn and I from down the hall. We were walking through the hospital. The hospital was filled with freaks. There was a boy missing most of his face. It was as if someone had just pulled down a long piece of thick skin to cover his eye, his nose, most of his mouth, like it was plastic wrap and his face was a heaping bowl of leftovers squished down underneath. He was sitting with a boy who was missing his left arm except for a small stump coming off the shoulder. They were on a couch in the hallway near a window. The boy with half an arm kept his eye on me.
–“If Matthew’s bitch of a wife comes in we can sneak you girls in Pat’s room! You know what Pat said? Brian did you hear this? Pat said, put ‘em in my bathroom!”
–“Did he really say that?”
–“Swear. I was telling him how we’re sneaking the girls in and he said throw ‘em in the bathroom!”
–“That’s a good one. We just might.”
Caitlyn was Matthew’s ex-wife. Caitlyn had explained that to me in the car. She told me that Matthew’s new wife was a control freak. That she was a jealous psycho-bitch. “She doesn’t want any single women visiting Matthew.” Caitlyn laughed, “His legs were blown off! Who the hell does she thinks wants to steal him!” She paused and considered her words. “So it’s sort of like, we’re going to sort of sneak in. Brian will help us. But like,” she paused again, “if his wife catches us I’m fucking toast.”
I kept my eyes on the road. I asked Caitlyn if she wanted any baby carrots. My mind was going wild.
Brain fell. He knocked his knee into the coffee table and fell onto the couch where I was sitting with my legs folded underneath. “Shit!” he laughed. “Jesus, Brian!” Abby said coughing out cigarette smoke. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor with Caitlyn. “I’m fine. I’m fine. Walking it off,” he laughed, took one lap around the coffee table and then sat back on the couch.
Brian took a big sip of his drink. I watched him. I watched him like he was a new and different sort of animal I found, like I was spying on him lurking around my backyard from the kitchen window, debating whether or not to call someone.
I was on my way to Maine, that’s where I was going. I had a job there for the summer. Shortly after I arrived I would realize the whole thing was a mistake. That I was better off staying where I was. Later I would hear a story on NPR, when I was driving alone between Baxter State Park and West Forks. Up there in the middle of nowhere. Long stretches of road and trees and what I consider to be nothingness. An hour would go by and I’d realize, anxiously, that I hadn’t seen one car yet. I was alone so much in Maine. I didn’t think it was good for me, not like I used to. I used to think that sort of thing built character but my mind was starting to change. Self-imposed challenges and exiles didn’t seem noble or educational anymore. They seemed stupid. I wanted to go back to the place where I knew I was happy. There was a physical place, 400 miles south, where I wasn’t lonely and it seemed strange and unnatural that I had voluntarily moved myself from that place. I was changing.
The story on NPR was about a Unitarian minister who told families that kin had died. One story she told was about the death of a 40-year old man in Brewer, Maine. It was a clear night in early December. She said he had decided to go ice-skating on the pond. The stars and the moon and the memory of the stars were bright when they came out of the woods, so much so that when the search and rescue team reached the pond they didn’t need flashlights. The minister said, “I didn’t blame him for wanting to go ice-skating that evening.” She said it was a beautiful night and she understood. She described seeing the tracks from the skates on the ice forming two nearly straight lines starting from the edge of the pond, through the middle, and then, towards the far side, a clean hole lit up by moon. And that was it. That was everything.
There was something I found very peaceful about that story and I found myself thinking about it from time to time when I was alone. In my tent in the woods, or driving from one place to another. Waiting to go home, I waited most of the time in Maine, to go home.
But I didn’t know any of this yet. I was still optimistic about my summer in Boston. Caitlyn was a co-worker who I had just met in New Jersey a day before and we were driving up together. That was my only relation to her. It was shortly after we left Jersey that she began with it all. Asking me if it’d be okay with quickly visit her ex-husband in Boston. How it would break up the drive. The other details started to trickle out later. We’d get back into the car after a rest stop and she’d mention he was in the hospital. That he lost his legs in Iraq three months ago. A few more miles down the road and she would add she hasn’t seen him since he left for his third tour of duty. How she left him after his second tour. And it went on. I kept telling myself it wasn’t that big of a deal. That it was going to be awkward but it was only one night and that by the next day we’d be in Maine so it was fine.
“I can just wait outside,” I said and Brian and Caitlyn just looked at me. “I have a book,” I added. I started to fish through my backpack to wave it in front of them as proof.
–“He’s not going to bite,” Brian said and I felt like an asshole.
We were standing outside Matthew’s hospital room. Caitlyn and Brian were sanitizing their hands. I wondered who Caitlyn told Brian I was. I felt a strong urge to explain my relationship to Caitlyn, which was that we didn’t have one. That we weren’t friends. That we barely knew each other. I strategized ways I could explain this politely.
–“It’ll be fine. He likes visitors,” Brian said. I smiled. I think I might have said Oh, okay, great then. I put my book back in my backpack. I sanitized my hands.
“Matthew’s still totally full from the ice cream social earlier, aren’t you buddy?” Brian said and clapped him on the shoulder. Matthew gave a smile. One leg went as far as his knee and the other was totally gone. There was a white knit blanket that went up to Matthew’s chin. He was handsome. He was twenty-three.
I smiled at Matthew when I walked in and he smiled back politely. Caitlyn followed in after me. I had wondered, thinking about it in the car, what she would do, seeing him for the first time like this. I had imagined she’d start crying. I pictured her falling onto his hospital bed crying. It seemed like the sort of thing you’re supposed to do. I was thinking about the movies—it was all I had to go from.
–“Oh my god, Matty,” she said when she walked in, “we got so lost in Boston! I’m still shaking. I was driving stick! Can you believe that? Stick! I can’t even drive automatic and we were going in all these tunnels. We ended up at the airport!”
–“How in the world did you manage to get to the airport?” Brian asked. Caitlyn laughed. She sat down on the chair near Matthew. I sat in a chair in the back of the room, by the end of the bed, where Matthew’s feet would have been. I didn’t know if I should introduce myself. I am no good at improvising so I just sat there and smiled when everyone else smiled, laughed when everyone else laughed.
–“You got new tattoos.” That was the first thing Matthew said to Caitlyn. Matthew seemed drugged up. It was late. Brain said earlier, when we met in the hospital parking lot, that Matthew had already taken his night meds, but he was trying to stay awake to see Caitlyn.
–“Matty got his first tattoo a couple months ago, right buddy? On his calf.” Brian said, he was standing on the other side of the bed opening up a laptop, “but then two months later he got it blown off! You should see if you can get a refund. Can you imagine, going back to the tattoo parlor? I’d bet they’d give you another one for free.”
Matthew and Brian laughed. Matthew told Brian to show us a picture of it on the computer.
–“It was the Punisher, you know the cartoon? His whole unit got it. Matty was really close with his unit, he’s been getting all these letters from them back in Iraq.”
Brian was still trying to pull up the photo on the laptop. “Matty’s a celebrity. Caitlyn, I don’t know how much of this you know but Matt’s been on I swear, every news channel. He was on Fox News.”
Matthew was nodding along.
–“Tomorrow I’m doing a radio interview for a Boston station,” Brian continued, “When we get back to the apartment I’ll show you the album my mom is making of the newspaper clippings. I mean he’s been in everything.”
Abby was standing in the doorway. “Hey Mary,” she said and I looked up. I was surprised she remembered my name. “Want to meet my Pat? He’s right down the hall. He’s still awake, I think he’s excited about the whole secret mission of sneaking you girls in.” She smiled.
“I only met Brian here,” Abby began when we were in the hallway, “We live on the same floor in the apartment, and we met in the elevator. I mean his face was familiar because we were both doing the same thing. Waking up, coming to the hospital all day, going home, going to bed, over and over, you know? And finally I said something. There are a lot of us at that apartment, the government pushed us all in there,” she laughed. “You know, it’s nice and it’s close to the hospital. But mostly it’s the wives, and a lot of them are just, I don’t know, it’s a lot for a person. Brian’s different though. We can have fun together. You have to have fun or you’re going to break. You’re going to completely melt down. We’ll get some beers after and,” she paused. “You know, he understands. He’s a good friend. Anyway,” she said turning the corner and pushing open a door.
“Honey, this is Mary, Caitlyn’s friend.”
His head was swelling from the left side. It reminded me of a cartoon dinosaur egg. It reached the end of his bed and was wrapped in white gauze. He didn’t have an arm.
“Roadside bomb,” Abby said, “just like Matthew. You just got’ve thank god there was no shrapnel. You’ve no idea what’s that like. How dirty. Just one piece. Those injuries. It’s hard to imagine.”
Abby walked to Pat and rubbed his shoulder.
“We don’t have to hide anyone in the bathroom, I don’t think Ashley will be in tonight. She usually leaves around suppertime. It would’ve been funny—can you imagine? If you girls were holed up in his bathroom? That was a good idea, honey,” she said to Pat, “Brian and I had the whole escape plan routed out. It was like an army mission.”
I stayed with my back against the wall.
“Matthew is our miracle,” his mother says, coming back into the main room slapping the Bible onto the dinning table. “He’s our miracle. They came to my door. Upstate. And I saw them coming in their uniforms and,” her eyes teared up. It was eight in the morning. “They said there was a roadside bomb. Everyone in the Humvee was dead.” She pulled out tissue from her fanny pack and blotted her eyes. “Before that it was a normal day. Before things that mattered, I was upset we were out of coffee beans. That’s what was on my mind before I saw them driving up. The coffee beans. And the lawn needed mowing. But then, a month later, Matthew came back to us. He woke up in Germany.” Matthew’s mother started directing the conversation to the Lord again. I wondered if she was ever lonely, always keeping God in the room.
–“And Brian. Brian had lost his way. He was in the dark place. In the dark place for years and we couldn’t reach him. But he’s back now,” she looked at me and smiled wholly. “You gave Brian back to us. He found his way. His purpose in all this. He’s a caregiver. That’s why he was put on this earth and now we know it. How he treats Matthew. When you don’t know your purpose it can be hard.” She paused. She remembered the passage she wanted to read me. She flipped opened the Bible. Her nails were painted peach. The page was bookmarked.
“It’s about Our Rebirth,” she said and began to read.
“Matthew’s so fucking proud he’s getting $100,000 from the Army and I’m like Jesus fucking Christ you don’t have your legs! You lost your legs!” Brian had been chain smoking ever since his third drink. Caitlyn had gone with Abby to her apartment down the hall. Brian and I were sitting by the window. All the Celtic fans had gone home. Every once in a while a person would cross the walking bridge, I followed them with my eyes. It was two am. It looked so quiet and lonely out there all of a sudden. I took it as my job to watch the night people, when they came, to cross the bridge.
–“And the pride. The language for all this. Hero. Bravery. Pride. Bullshit.
“Sorry, there is no one to rage to here, you know,” Brian laughed. “I’m not going to tell this to mom or anything. Or Abby. I mean she goes along with a lot of this—you have to. It’s all you have. These words. Otherwise, I mean, otherwise it’s all a depressing waste. Meaningless. It’s too depressing. So it makes it better. The ways we spin our stories in order to live, the imagination it takes to bear it.
“I told Matthew I’d be his legs. I told him from now I’d be his legs. He’s my life now, you know. He’s my baby brother.”
Brian kept on talking. And I listened. I thought about how one minute people are strangers and then the next something happens and you are bound to them. You are harnessed together hurtling through the universe. You are holding onto them for your life.
A while later Caitlyn and Abby came back with more beer. “You have to hear this one!” Abby started up. “About Matty’s crazy wife!” She started to put the beer in the fridge as she began to tell the story. It was funny and she kept interrupting herself to laugh. She couldn’t get it out. “You just can’t make this shit up!” She cried, wiping mascara off her undereyes with her thumb. She brought everyone a beer and sat down on the floor. She kept going on with the story, we were all laughing.
As Matthew’s mother read the scripture I wondered where Matthew’s legs were. I wondered what doctors do with the parts. I imagined a department store’s basement piled with mismatched mannequin pieces. The light was pouring into the apartment still, piles of it like stacks of boxes.
Like the Universe beginning it all burst into a trillion stars. And then the Lord sat down in the sun. Hot and dry. Sitting on the Humvee’s fender 100 yards from the engine. He started to pick at an ingrown hair on his arm. After a while the Lord shook a pebble out of his sandal and stood up. He stretched his back from one side to the other and walked to Matthew. The blood was blooming into a larger and larger flower and Matthew’s body was the center of it all. With no great speed, the Lord put his hands under Matthew’s arms and picked him up. Put a hand under his behind and an arm around his back. Matthew rested his chin on the Lord’s shoulder and kept his eyes shut. The Lord rubbed his back. He hushed him.
“Matthew is our miracle,” his mother said again.
The Lord walked away with Matthew. The blood came out and rolled down the dust, rolled back to the broken car and the broken body parts and the bodies, the blood rolled out until Matthew was pure and empty. The Lord walked Matthew out of Iraq. He walked over countries and over the Atlantic and over most of the United States to Brian in some basement in Arizona. He grabbed Brain’s collar with his free hand and dragged him out of his self-imposed nothingness. Brian allowed himself to be pulled away. And then the Lord walked them both home.
I am driving alone now. Turning a corner on Route 201 in central Maine that looks identical to the corner I turned a half an hour before. I am imagining the hole in the ice again. The ice-skating tracks leading up to it. And how the stars and the moon and the memory of the stars must have looked illuminating it all.