Surprise! I thought this was going to wrap up this week, but I don’t outline these things, I just sit down and write. Turns out there will be a Part Three next week to conclude this multi-decade saga in my ridiculous life.
Some people believe “story” is the universal human language, and by that I mean there does seem to be a structure that includes a beginning, middle, and end that feels correct. This applies whether you’re watching a movie in a theater, reading a book in your La-Z-Boy, or hearing some asshole tell a rambling tale in a bar between skunky beer belches. That satisfying feeling that a story has concluded is why we accept that it’s “over” when the Disney princess marries the nameless handsome prince or when the action hero shoots the bad guy in the face after blowing up half the city.
That tendency to assume things are over can fuck with us, though, because in real life there is no structure or payoff or much damn sense to any of it. The princess gets married, pregnant, and learns her handsome prince is banging the chambermaid. The action hero is arrested and then sued for the death, injury, and mayhem he caused in pursuit of lethal justice. If someone were to tell you about their entire day, point-by-point, in chronological order, without emphasizing anything or calling back to something, you’d rather shoot yourself than listen to it for long unless half their day was spent in a riot and the second half at an orgy.
If our lives are written, the cosmic force at the keyboard sucks at the job. Our actions have consequences, except when they don’t. Things that seem significant don’t go anywhere, but then some random event changes everything. People drift in and out of each other’s lives in ways dramatic and meaningless. Human beings are born because two people had unprotected sex at a particular moment and one sperm in a hundred million managed to burrow into an egg before the others, making each of us so unlikely as to be walking miracles—except we all began life the same way so none of us are special.
It wasn’t fate that brought a lady named Jessica back into my life after twenty-plus years. It was just the ping-pong events of life. A kid named Zuckerberg invented the social network that took over the world, and one day an algorithm suggested a friend to her that she kind of remembered from her old church and high school. I saw the request along with some others when either drunk or half-asleep because I don’t remember her name first popping up. Just one day she was among the status updates, and though there was an unpleasant twinge remembering my teenage crush on her that went terribly wrong, I wasn’t going to exile her in cyberspace because of something that happened when we were both kids. A couple of years went by with no interaction more than hitting Like buttons on each other’s updates once in a while. Until another random event pushed things in a new direction, because that’s life.
I no longer own a motorcycle. But once upon a time I had a beauty. Both of my grandfathers rode back in the day, and the one who had money didn’t leave me jack shit except his 1982 Honda Nighthawk 650. One day I’ll mourn her loss in a different tale, but this little slice of my life began because I was riding on a lovely gravely patch of dirt road that would be familiar to residents of the rural South when I dropped my bike and something sliced my leg.
The wound wasn’t deep, barely more than a long scratch along my calf. I couldn’t find exactly what cut me and my favorite pair of 505s. It might have been a chunk of glass, a bent bottle cap, or really sharp rock. And while a smarter man would have properly cleaned the cut, bandaged it, and possibly got a tetanus shot, but have you met me? I bitched about my messed up jeans until I got my sister to (badly) sew them up and didn’t think much about it. Until a few days later when I passed out while working at the bar.
My college degree does not protect me from a proud tradition of masculine redneck pride. I knew I wasn’t feeling great that night when I headed into work. I was a bit flushed and light-headed, my leg was tender around the mostly-healed wound. But four Advil and a shot of Jack later I had my Frankenjeans and boots on along with the t-shirt that declared “I have the right to throw your ass out and ban you from the bar.” I parked my bike out back and marched up the stairs, willing myself to get it together.
Amanda, my friend behind the bar, informed me I looked like shit. I reminded her that women insulting me only turns me on. She asked to feel my head but I said only if I got to feel something in return. (She knew I wasn’t being serious, just my way of refusing.) Always remember, I am an idiot. She was genuinely concerned and I didn’t want to surrender my pride or my fifty bucks and three free drinks just because I’d been running a fever earlier.
I was carrying the ice bucket up the stairs when my legs turned to overcooked fettuccine and reality got wobbly. I woke up to the sound of Amanda calling my name and rubbing an ice cube on my face, which was apparently beet-red. Ice was everywhere and my face felt like I’d been in a fight, which was true if you accept that I got pissed at the staircase and decided to give it a solid headbutt.
If memory serves, because this is a bit hazy, I loudly declared I just needed some fresh air and I’d drive home to lay down—which was a great plan except I was having a hard time making my arms and legs work correctly. It was like trying to walk and God thought it would be funny to switch my limbs around. Amanda took my phone and dialed 911.
“Fuck you,” I said through bloody teeth. Then I went to sleep.
Surprise Mr. Vartanian! Your untended wound from the unknown object offered you the gift that keeps on giving! Specifically a soft-tissue infection that brainy medical-types call cellulitis—specifically of the MRSA variety. This lovely bacterial strain is highly resistant to conventional antibiotics, so it needs to be dealt with ways both brutal and expensive. But we’re not going to start with a full diagnosis and comprehensive treatment, because we are a shitty north Georgia hospital. We’ll start you with a low dose of penicillin and hospital Jell-O and episodes of Judge Judy, and then slowly step up our game while you lose your will to live.
All told, I was in that hospital two-and-a-half goddamn weeks. I saw my pink, swollen leg get increasingly red and continue to expand like it was the world’s slowest pufferfish, the badness slowly advancing up toward my knee. I could barely get out of bed while the antibiotics gave me asshole-destroying diarrhea. The hospital internet was probably powered by a 1200 baud dialup modem, so the internet was dicey and the only thing to watch was the six shitty channels on the tiny CRT television affixed to the wall fifty fucking feet away. I guess my blood pressure was high or maybe they just decided an overweight lunk like me needed a “heart-healthy diet,” so all my food was no-sodium and sugar-free and devoid of all flavor. Oh yeah, and they told me that amputating my leg was a real possibility.
I would have wept for joy if someone had offered to shoot me in the face with my granddaddy’s trusty twelve-gauge.
Half a week into this waking nightmare my phone started beeping alerts at me. Fucking Facebook … Amanda decided to tag me in a “Get well, we miss you” message. She was and is a total sweetheart, but goddammit. I wanted as few people to know my situation as possible. My immediate family was in the know and had visited, my sister taking care of the roommate for me with a full declaration that I would Owe Her. But I didn’t want the sympathy parade or having to constantly tell people how I’m doing or someone to start a fundraiser to get me a pirate outfit to go with my new peg-leg.
Flowers arrived. (Yay!) Balloons. (The healing power of Dollar Tree balloons are well-known.) Friends and acquaintances stopped by with things I didn’t want and sat with me for a few minutes before looking at their watches and phones and declaring they had responsibilities to get back to, knowing they had checked off the “Good Deed” box for the day. I lay in bed in miserable silence, my leg hurting like hell despite the narcotics, my greasy hair and untrimmed beard and hollow eyes making it easy to believe Death was strolling up the hall to begin our scheduled game of chess.
Responding to well-meaning get-well wishes on Facebook became a part-time job. I was hurting and bitter and angry and more than a little scared. More meds every day but the swollen redness and pain just kept creeping up my leg. I wanted to break my laptop in half and flush my phone down the toilet, because I just wanted to be left alone. And I didn’t want to be alone.
Then the person I tried not to think about for more than twenty years posted on my virtual wall.
I was bitter and joking in my reply, because I’m an asshole.
She didn’t reply, and I didn’t blame her. I wanted to sleep but I just stared out the window; it offered a lovely view of another wing of the hospital. Just below there was a rooftop from a lower section of the building that had four huge A/C units that constantly and loudly fought against Georgia summer heat.
Less than two hours later a woman’s voice called out. “Knock knock!”
The door opened and the Tits of Christmas Past entered, stage-left. Jessica walked into my room and started setting things down. “I would have been here fifteen minutes ago but you never gave me your room number, silly.”
I didn’t speak, not sure if I could. I wasn’t expecting to see her, couldn’t have imagined seeing her, here of all places. I could only stare.
Jess is a few years older than me, and like many girls who were blessed by the boob-fairy as a young teen she filled out in the intervening years. She had wide hips and thick thighs, a little wobble under her upper arms a few streaks of gray in her long-dark brown hair. Her skin was kissed by lots of time spent outdoors, a tan that covered every inch of her that I could see, no lines visible at the edges of her Capris and tank top and open-toed shoes. Her blue eyes and wide smile were just as bright as ever, even if they were shadowed by decades of sadness that living life gives us all.
I found her even more beautiful in that moment as I did as a dorky 8th grade boy, because this was a real woman, not some mentally constructed fantasy-girl. If she had called me Jack in that moment, I would have answered without correcting her.
And while I was staring at her like a love-struck moron, she was clearing things off my bedside tray, organizing them on a shelf near the window. Then she started unpacking the bags.
Still warm from Longhorn steakhouse was a beautiful ribeye, perfectly red in the middle. In a smaller container was the requested baked sweet potato, smothered in sweet fat and dark sugar. You can guess the dessert, or the fact that there were two Venti coffees from Starbucks—not three, but if you poured them into regular coffee cups there was enough for more than five. Which I learned when she pulled out an unglazed black coffee cup with the gold words “YOU GOT THIS” and poured me a very full cup.
I still hadn’t actually spoken, but probably looked like I was going to cry.
“It’s okay,” she said. She slid her hand in mine for a longmoment. “It’s going to be okay.”
I don’t know which emotion brought on the heaving sobs. Probably all of them. Gratitude for being spoiled when I felt so terrible. Relief at not being alone after spending days with fear gnawing at my guts. Guilt for all the awful things I’d once thought and said about this beautiful angel who marched in during my hour of need and took care of me.
A long time ago a hurt thirteen year old boy had thought of Jessica as this cold-hearted bitch, a shameless slut, and any other uncreative, cruel label a petty and rotten kid could imagine. Those unkind words faded over time—we all gotta grow up eventually, at least most of us—but they echoed as I watched her give me unselfish love for no reason at all.
You see, Jessica had no idea what I witnessed that night in the church. I never told anyone, I just made damn sure I never set foot in that place again. I didn’t go around talking shit about her, just in my own head and in a journal that I would hurl into the sun if it’s ever found in my parents’ attic. She wasn’t helping me to correct her karma or assuage any guilt.
Jess was showing me kindness because that’s who she is—a better person than I will ever be.
She set books and DVDs on a shelf and made idle chit-chat as I chewed my dinner and washed down my cheesecake with enough coffee to really piss off my cardiologist. I learned that her teenage son was a junior in high school and working on weekends at an auto body shop. With the practiced hands of a lifelong caregiver she cleaned up, telling me about the insurance branch she worked in as a receptionist and office manager. Then she sat near the edge of my bed and pulled out a set of clippers and snapped on a guard, draped a fresh towel over me, and proceeded to trim my beard. It took a nurse to help prepare me for a shower, and Jess assisted while respecting my modesty. The nurse said, “You gotcherself a good wife, Mr. Vartanian.” I almost corrected her, but Jess gave me a wink.
After the shower my faux wife pulled out a fresh triple-blade razor and some gel, and proceeded to shave my neck and the apples of my cheeks. She combed my hair and got me a fresh gown before I was hooked back into the medicinal pump once more. Each step was painful and my leg looked fucking awful, but I still felt better than I had in more than a week.
“Now tell me,” she said, tucking me back in bed. “What happened to get you stuck in here?” Her hand was soft on my arm and made its way back in mine, stayed there while I related my tale of stubborn stupidity.
“You handsome, ridiculous man. You really do need someone to take care of you.”
Sensing she was about to leave, I felt a burst of courage that would have amazed a certain thirteen-year-old boy. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” I flashed my most ridiculous smile.
She didn’t miss a beat. Jessica leaned forward and gave me the last item on my list, her lips pressed against mine as my heart threatened to smash its way out of my ribcage. Then she leaned even closer to give me the kind of awkward hug that’s the best that can be managed when one party is laid up in bed. I barely noticed her still-magnificent breasts pressed against me as she enveloped me with nurturing affection.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. Just let me know what you need.”
And just like that, we were dating.