As I pen these words, I deal with the effects of what happened in the early fall of 1994. I forget things – I’ve learned that a short pencil is better than a long memory – and only come to cherished memories with the help of pictures or scents. Although playing with aromas is playing with fire. Certain smells trigger avalanches of uncontrollable memories: the smell of steak releases an onslaught of memories of my family; brewing coffee frees Shannie; burning leaves remind me of Count; cigar smoke evokes Russell and Main Street; burnt rubber takes me back to Atlantic City. The force of such memories paralyzes me. It’s as if my memories have me. It makes for a distracted lifestyle. Pictures are much safer, they aren’t the frayed edge of an unpredictable memory strand.
Since my accident, I have a tendency to befuddle. I fly into tangents. I rarely finish a thought let alone a project. My shrink suggested penning this, she says it’s great exercise in staying focused; I pray it will exercise my demons. My shrink is a sadist, but she’s patient. Krista is everything I like in a woman, too bad she’s married and has kids. If she wasn’t, I’d do her, the age difference wouldn’t bother me.
There isn’t a smell that triggers a clear memory of what happened that September night. My father insists I was driving around looking for Ellie, she ran away the previous night. He said I was worried sick – I don’t remember. I do remember it was raining. I don’t remember hitting the pole. He says no one witnessed the accident. The police said that my car was wrapped around the pole like an accordion. I was found sprawled across the front seat, unconscious. They said I was lucky not to be wearing my seatbelt, if I was I would have been sliced in two by the door. I’d rather not think about the details. Diane and my father took pictures of my hooptie – for posterity sake, they said; I refuse to look at them, the idea seems morbid.
I could have sworn there was someone in the car with me, both my father and the police insist I was alone. Why would they lie? I guess it’s another example of how people once present in my life haunt me.
For a week I battled for my life, slipping in and out of a coma. Ironically, my most powerful memory occurred the instant I hit the pole. It’s more like a feeling than anything else, a feeling of floating in water, but not separate from it, as if I was becoming part of it. The water’s current separating whatever remained of my identity from my being. I felt myself letting go – dividing in countless parts, all rushing to join distant parts. The feeling was rapturous! Then everything turned black.
I awoke in the prison of a broken body reeling from the invasive feeling of tubes and needles. They conspired to pull me back from euphoric disembodiment. In a strange way, I can relate to the helplessness of a hooked fish. Despite a valiant fight, it learns it isn’t the master of its own destiny – that it’s useless resisting. I came to understand that it wasn’t my time. That doesn’t mean I didn’t fight to find that feeling again. I slipped into obscurity, but the blissful stream was no where to be found, only darkness and the absence of pain greeted me.
When darkness faded and pain returned, I noticed a picture of a serious faced woman taped to a television like box that had green squiggly lines running across its screen. In the picture, the woman sat on the ground with her knees pulled to her chin, sunshine bathed her pale skin and untamed blonde hair. Her back rested against what I would eventually identify as the memorial arch in Valley Forge National Park. Above her etched into the stone was the quote: “We can not admire enough the bravery and fidelity of the American soldiery,” George Washington.
Who’s George Washington? I thought turning away from the picture. My head flinched against the pillow when I noticed the same serious faced woman sleeping on the chair next to my bed. I watched her chest expand and contract beneath a blanket, its rhythm steady and strong. Her mouth twitched and she mumbled something in her sleep. I don’t know how long I watched her, occasionally I turned to study the picture before turning back to her. Who is she? Why is she sleeping in my room?
I studied her face, turning its features over in my mind, prying through its recesses for a slightest hint. Her bright green eyes flew open.
“James,” She whispered.
I smiled thinking who is James?
“James,” she said louder. “Oh my God,” she cried bolting up in her chair. “Just James you’re awake!”
I don’t know why, but my heart raced as she climbed out of the chair.
“Nurse!” she cried. She stood next to me clicking a button. “Oh my God, Just James, you’re awake. Oh my God. Thank God. I can’t believe it! Oh my God!”
The door flew open and the room was flooded with light. “He’s awake,” the blonde cried. “He’s out of it! He’s awake!”
“Welcome back James,” another woman said while gazing at the screen with the green squiggly lines.
I smiled and looked back at the blonde woman. “Damn it Just James, you scared us shitless.” She brushed the hair from my forehead.
“I did?” I whispered. Why would this stranger care? Whatever the reason, I delighted how my forehead came to life with her touch. Something about it was familiar, but I couldn’t place it; something about her was familiar, but I didn’t understand how.
“Yeah you did,” the familiar stranger answered. She bent over and kissed my lips. “God, I love you Just James,” the stranger said.
A starburst of warmth exploded throughout my body. I smiled. Exhausted, I closed my eyes.
“James?” the blonde’s voice pleaded, it had an edge of panic.
“Yeah?” I struggled to open my eyes.
“He’s okay,” The nurse said. “James, are you tired?”
“Yeah,” I whispered.
“Shannie, why don’t you call James’ father,” the nurse said as I drifted off to sleep.