I fumble with overstuffed brown bags and keys, stumble in the front door, and hear the phone ring as I dump paper sacks on the kitchen table and grab the phone.
This is MCV Hospital — do you know a cyclist?” asks an urgent voice.
For a moment I can’t speak. The voice shatters my silence, “Hello? Are you there?”
It’s my husband. Is he okay?”
“No. A car hit him. He’s in serious condition. You need to come down here.”
“How serious? What happened?”
“It would be best if you could just get here right away.”
“I’ll be there.” I hang up and stare at the phone, shaking. I have never been to MCV. I know it’s downtown, but two other hospitals are closer. Why the Medical College of Virginia? Instinctively, I call a few friends who could take me there, but their answering machines pick up. Just as I hang up on the third call, the phone vibrates and rings loudly in my hand, making me jump before I push the button to answer.
“Hello, this is MCV again; can you give us his name? He had no ID on him.”
“Hugh Rawlins, R-A-W-L-I-N-S. How did you know to call me?”
“We found your number on his cell phone. Is he diabetic? He may need blood.”
It was Hugh. I was hoping they had the wrong person. Blood?
“No, he’s not diabetic. How do I get there? Give me directions from I-64 heading east.”
I scribble the directions, stop for a minute and take a deep breath. After pulling a list of phone numbers out of the junk drawer, I grab my car keys and run out the door. “Just drive. 64 East to Exit 74C, 74C....” I repeat, talking to myself. At a red light, I call Hugh’s friend, Kevin, and reach his voicemail. “Kevin, it’s Rosemary. I’m on my way to MCV. Hugh has been in an accident. I think it’s bad. I don’t know if I can do this alone.” My voice breaks up. “Please come.”
Stuck behind a slow truck, I want to jump out of the car and run the rest of the way. My litany continues in a strained whisper, “Right on Eleventh Street. Right on Clay.”
I find a space in the parking deck, jump out of the car, and race to the emergency room, where the full force of dread hits. A security guard steers me to a policewoman in the hall. “Your husband has been hit by a car,” she says quietly. “He’s in critical condition. He needs surgery. They are x-raying him now. I’m sorry, but can I get some information? I need his full name, and a number where I can reach you later.”
Bile rises in my throat as I answer her questions. A young woman in a white coat hurries over. “Mrs. Rawlins?” she asks. I nod.
“My name is Karen. I’m here to help you. I’m sorry about your husband.” The two escort me to a small, narrow, whitewashed room with a few chairs, a box of tissues and no windows. “Can I get some information? Correct spelling of your name? Your husband’s social security, insurance?” she asks.
I numbly take out my I.D. cards and hand them over. “Can I see him?”
“Yes, in just a moment, before he goes up for surgery.” Why, if this is so urgent, does everything feel like slow motion?
I look at the police officer. “Who hit him? Was that person hurt too?”
“No, he was the only one hurt. I’ll be going now. Is it okay if I call you later for more information?” I nod.
Karen takes over. “Would you like to call someone?” she asks.
“No. Not now.” I say it slowly as if trying to stop time. My mind is as blank as the bare walls of the room.
A woman comes in and introduces herself as the hospital chaplain. “I’m sorry about your husband, Mrs. Rawlins,” she says. “It looks very serious. What religion are you?” Her voice sounds overly calm.
“Can I help in any way? You will be able to see him, but I must tell you, it’s a massive head injury. You may want to say goodbye. Be prepared for the worst.”
“No. I won’t say goodbye!”
Karen hands me a tissue. Her voice is sweet, like a family member. “Is there anyone nearby who can come here to help you? You should have someone with you.”
“No,” I repeat. “I won’t say goodbye.”
“Can I get you a drink of water?” I shake my head no.
“Your husband has multiple injuries. But the most serious one is his head injury. He needs surgery now; we will bring him up soon. We’ll certainly do everything we can. Come and see him.” She gently takes my hand.
“I can’t believe this,” I whisper as she guides me like a child across the hall. Hugh is lying flat and still on a gurney, the light over him casting a garish glow. People mill around him, but I’m unaware of what they’re doing. He looks dead. No, I tell myself, he’s just asleep. I walk over to him and lay my hand on his chest in disbelief. He is real — lying on a gurney — about to have surgery. I’m transfixed. Through hot tears, I see his solid frame dressed in colorful cycling clothes as he walked out the door just a few hours ago. We had said the most casual of goodbyes, no kiss, no hug....
A whiff of alcohol startles me back to the present. Still in disbelief, I lift Hugh’s hand, bruised and swollen at the knuckles. His black cycling shorts are torn and his jersey has been removed. His tan muscular thighs are streaked with lines of blood now drying to a dark crust. Gazing at his unconscious face, I lean close to his ear, “Please don’t leave me, Hugh Rawlins, don’t let go — I don’t want you to go. Mary and Anna need you. I love you.” Sensing someone nearby, I look up. An orderly nods sympathetically as Hugh is rolled away for surgery. A gentle tug from Karen tells me to follow.
I’m across the hall in the white room again. “Sit here,” Karen says. I register short phrases floating off the cloud that cushions my mind against the onslaught of bad news: “Brain surgery...very serious...long operation.” My mind and heart bounce racquetballs off each other, the logical and the hysterical colliding.
“Mrs. Rawlins, is there anyone you can call to come sit with you?”
“Not really. My children are at a party. I have no family here. Hugh’s parents are in Florida and mine live in New York.” Tears stream down my face. I rub them off and wipe my hands on my jeans. “All my brothers and sisters live out of state.”
“Don’t you have any friends?”
“Yes, but they’re out. I already called some on the way over. I’ll be alright.” I feel small, curled up like a bug against a huge foot pressing down on me.
“Let me give you a moment, I’ll be right outside,” she says and leaves me to gather myself. I hear faint murmuring as she consults someone.
My mind drifts back to the day and night before it all happened, wondering if I could have changed the course of events by stalling, lingering, or making love to him when he sent me all the right signals. I resurrect and relive every second, every word, impression, and look he gave me in the twenty-four hours before he was hurt. “Stop it!” I tell myself. “What does it matter anyway? It happened. It’s done.” Still, like a winding newsreel, it replays in my head.
The night before he crashed, all four of us were home. Hugh and I heard the slamming of a door and the muffled stampeding of a carpeted race downstairs before watching Anna half slide, and nearly fall into the hallway with her sister in full pursuit. They had spotted their ride to the eighth grade dance from the upstairs window. “How can two tiny dancers sound like such a herd of elephants?” I whispered to Hugh, making him smile.
Anna skidded by us first, clad in a tight little skirt and fitted shirt, perfect for her thin straight frame. She brushed soft kisses on our cheeks, turned dramatically, opened the front door, and strutted across the green lawn in mock sophistication. Glancing over her shoulder with a wide smile, her blonde curls bouncing, she waved one last time. “We are in big trouble,” Hugh whispered to me. After hopping on one leg to adjust a flapping shoe strap, Mary followed with a hurried hug. Even while sprinting to catch up to her sister, she moved gracefully in a swirling skirt of violet flowers, her long brown hair cascading down her back. “Stay away from the boys!” Hugh shouted to them, only half joking.
“Sure Dad!” Mary called back, her eyes rolling with innocence and mischief.
“Those girls are growing up way too fast. Too many guys are calling them. Do you know all these kids?” he asked with a serious look, hesitating to close the front door.
“Well I know that one of them said he had a dream that you were chasing him with a chainsaw, so I guess they all know you are an overprotective father!” This brought a sinister smile to Hugh’s face.
“They’re fourteen year old boys, Hon. How bad can they be?” I said with a shrug. His eyebrows shot up as if to say, “Pretty bad!” Hugh stared at the empty spot where the car had turned the corner. “It sure is strange to think of them going to a dance,” he mumbled.
“C’mon. Let’s go around the block and eat at that little place by Michael’s. I don’t feel like cooking,” I said, nudging him in the waist. At the restaurant, we talked over drinks.
“Do you have any townhouse work to do with Lee this weekend?” I asked.
“No painting or anything, but he called me today to say he saw a few new condos on the market. Trouble is, both of us are too busy with our day jobs to look into new rentals.” He wiped buffalo sauce off the corner of his mouth and asked me about the girls’ plans.
“A few friends are throwing a surprise birthday party for them at the ice skating rink. They really have no idea, especially since they already celebrated with us. They won’t want me to hang around.” Hugh’s eyes creased sympathetically. Our knees touched under the table in the cramped booth.
“Any new clients this week?” Hugh asked.
“Two: a Capital One analyst and a store manager who works at Talbot’s. Her résumé will write itself. I hate to say this, but I’m getting tired of writing résumés. There are only so many ways to say the same thing.”
“Hire people, grow the business, or go back to school. You always planned on finishing your degree,” Hugh said.
“Oh, I don’t know — it’s so time-consuming and expensive. When are you and Anna going to start surfing again?”
“Soon, I hope. I need a wetsuit that fits, though.” He tapped his stomach and smirked.
“Think Mary will go?” I asked. Hugh finished his Jack Daniels. I savored my red wine. My salad and his burger were plunked down in front of us.
“She’ll go if Amanda goes; those two are joined at the hip. It’s weird, but she does look more like Mary than Anna does, people have mistaken them for twins instead of best friends. Anyway, I hope Mary tries it again. She’s such a great swimmer.”
“It’s funny because when I took the girls to see Titanic, Anna was scared to death and covered her eyes, but Mary was fine, and now it’s Mary that’s skittish in the water. She told me she hates the jellyfish and not being able to see the bottom, but I think it was that show, Summer of the Sharks.”
“She wants that Roxy surfboard, though,” Hugh interjected.
“Yeah, and she knows you won’t pay for it unless she learns how to ride it.”
“I hope she comes. It’s more fun with both of them.”
As we left the restaurant, Hugh held the door for me like a gentleman. His old world manners charmed me from the start. Once home, I checked our voicemail, and kicked off my shoes. As we flopped onto the couch together, Hugh signaled me with his eyes. “Alone at last,” he whispered. His arm tightened around my waist as I picked up the remote and kicked away the throw pillow blocking my feet. In a half- hearted attempt at romance, his hand wandered under my shirt. My squirming told him to stop, so he rested his hand on my hip after a retaliatory squeeze.
“Sorry hon. I have to pick the girls up soon. What do you want to watch?” I asked.
“Anything,” he said, breathing against the back of my neck. Within minutes, he nodded off. Just as I felt sleepy, I slipped away, rubbing his humid breath into my shoulder. I closed the door quietly and left to pick up the girls.
Inside the dark van, Mary reported, “There are no tall boys to dance with. The only two tall boys have girlfriends. But we all danced in groups anyway.”
“Mom, check this out, a new dance,” Anna said as she demonstrated the percolator making us all laugh out loud as she jerked spastically while strapped in her seat belt. Her snorting laugh made us double over.
“Stop it! I’m trying to drive,” I yelled still laughing.
Mary cut in, “When we get home, I want to show you the wedding veil I found on the Internet. It’s gorgeous, Mom. It’s called a mantilla. Wait till you see it!” She has been planning her wedding since she was five years old.
“Which one is this, Mary? Veil number ten already?”
“No, honest, this is the one,” she said earnestly.
Saturday morning, Hugh left early to mow his parents’ lawn not far from our house since they were not back from their winter stay in Florida. I threw a load of laundry in the washer and heard Mary call down the hallway, “Can you buy Snuggles, Mom? Amanda’s mom uses Snuggles and it smells so good!” Back in the kitchen, I stole a minute to look at the newspaper while the girls got ready for Skate Nation. The sound of the upstairs shower and calls from room to room told me they were choosing outfits and heaping the floor with wet towels and abandoned clothes as they dressed for their afternoon out.
Hugh returned around lunchtime to grab a sandwich. “How does this look, Dad?” Mary asked him. She stood with her hands on her hips to show off a new shirt.
Without looking at her, he mumbled, “You always look beautiful, honey.” Grunting audibly, she huffed past him back to her full-length mirror.
“Did I say something wrong?” Hugh whispered to me in a baffled tone. I cocked my head and shrugged. He retreated upstairs to change his clothes and rejoined me in the kitchen.
“What do you want to do tonight?” I asked.
“How about Training Day with Denzel Washington,” he said, clomping on the kitchen floor in his cycling shoes. He stopped to fill his water bottle at the sink and added, “I’m going for a short ride. I’ll be back soon to mow our lawn.” He looked like a Times Square billboard in his multicolored cycling jersey against the plain white walls and natural cabinets of our kitchen that some liken to a bowling alley. The girls asked us not to install a breakfast bar so they could practice their dance turns.
I swiped away small crumb pyramids from the table, stacked dirty dishes, and headed toward the sink in my usual clean up mode. “Okay, I’m dropping the girls at Skate Nation. I’ll pick up the movie at Blockbuster and meet you back here.” Hugh strode to the garage for his bike. “Bye!” he yelled, and the door slammed before I could answer. Up to my elbows in hot bubbly water, I wondered again what was keeping me from going back to school.
While driving the girls to the skating rink, I kept quiet, careful not to ruin the surprise for them. Instead, I wrote a grocery list in my head.
“Pick us up at ten, Mom?” Mary asked as we pulled into the parking lot.
“Hey, can’t I even come in for a minute?”
“If you want,” Anna said hesitantly. I walked into the lobby with them and saw their delighted faces as friends yelled, “Surprise!” After a quick kiss, I discreetly slipped out as they stood by the sheet cake and stack of gifts. One grocery list later, I stepped into the house clutching brown bags of food. The phone rang, and a voice tore my life out from under me with one question.
“Do you know a cyclist?”
* * *
The words reverberate as I sit in the emergency room. Slumping in the chair, I close my eyes. Rorschach blots of blackness drop beneath my lids as I feel a light sweat break out all over my body. Someone fans me with paper. “Put your head down for a moment, Mrs. Rawlins.”
Yes. I know a cyclist.