“Matthew’s still 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-five.
I smiled at Matthew when I walked into his hospital room, there were homemade cards taped to the wall from school children. Matthew smiled back politely. Caitlyn followed in after me. Caitlyn was his ex-wife, my colleage. We were in Boston for a trade show for two days and she asked if I would mind afterwards, if we visited her friend who had just come back from Iraq. The rest of the details emerged slowly thereafter. The bad marriage when they were too young, his brother, Brian, about Matthew’s legs being blown off. I thought, this is just super.
I wondered what she would do, seeing him for the first time like this. In my mind she would start crying. Collasping onto his hospital bed. It seemed like the sort of thing you’re supposed to do. I was thinking about the movies.
“Oh my god, Matty,” she said when she walked in, “we got so lost! 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 did you manage 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.
“You got new tattoos.” That was the first thing Matthew said to Caitlyn. Matthew seemed drugged up. It was 10pm. 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. He’s been in everything.”
Abby was standing in the doorway. “Alice,” she said and I looked up. I was surprised she remembered my name; Brian had introduced us all when we arrived at the hospital. “Want to meet my Pat? He’s right down the hall. He’s still awake.”
“I only met Brian here,” Abby began when we were in the hallway, “We live on the same floor in the apartments, we met in the elevator. 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 put 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 Alice, Caitlyn’s friend.”
Pat’s 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 got’ve thank god there was no shrapnel. You’ve no idea what that’s like. How dirty. One piece. The injuries. Hard to imagine.” Abby walked to Pat and rubbed his shoulder. I stayed with my back against the wall.
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. After the hospital Brian insisted we spend the night because the apartment was a walk away, and had an extra room. 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.
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. I thought it was an odd way to put it. The Celtics had just won the play-offs. I watched the fans cross the bridge all green with glittering plastic horns. Brian started pushing at my neck with his fist. He rolled his knuckles from one side to the other. It tickled my spine. I was starting to get drunk so I laughed. Caitlyn was sitting with Pat’s wife, Abby. They were drinking Coors Light. 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 through it. He’s a mess. It’s a mess.” She said. I wondered if Brian and Pat’s wife had ever had sex.
“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 a while ago. I wondered what they were doing.
“The pride. The language for all this. Hero. Bravery. Pride. Bullshit,” he took a big sip. “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. Otherwise, I mean, otherwise it’s too depressing. It’s a waste. Meaningless waste. So I understand, that the words makes it better. I understand the importance of spinning the story. I told Matthew I’d be his legs. I told him from now on I’d be his legs. He’s my life now, you know? He’s my baby brother.”
“Where did you come from?” I said keeping my eyes fixed on my socked feet perched on the edge of the couch.
I could feel Brian’s smile. “I came from upstate New York, with Matthew. In a big old house on a lot of land in the middle of nowhere. We have two other brothers. I did the marines first because my dad did. Went to Afghanistan. Afterwards I got into heroin and it was bad. I was living in Arizona because of this girl. I never talk about this. This isn’t something I ordinarily talk about. My mother is really into Jesus. She believes that Jesus carried Matthew out of that humvee where he bled out, completely bled out, carried his white body out of that desert in Iraq, carried him all the way to his first hospital bed in Germany. That’s where he woke up for the first time. That’s the first thing he remembers. First driving to a checkpoint, then waking up in Germany to my mother. My mother says Jesus dragged my ass out of that basement I was living in Arizona. Dragged me by the collar across the country,” Matthew laughed a little. He swung his glass back, finished the drink.
“I’m really comfortable with you, I’m not always this–” Brian started.
I kept my eyes fixed on my socks. I thought about how one minute people are strangers and then the next something switches and you are bound to them. Harnessed together, hurtling through the night.
The next morning Caitlyn and I flew back home to Sacramento. Caitlyn was let go two months later, I’m not sure what happened to her after that.