a shard of orange light


At first it was only flashes of color, a light show behind the eyelids.  Sky-blue when the woman spoke, green when it was the man, a tumble of browns and yellows when the other woman came near.  She touched his hand sometimes, whispered to him, and this was orange, a bright shard of it.

Green was the doctor, he learned later, when he could open his eyes and make sense of the images.  The first time he’d opened them had been a shock – a flood of bright white, a flurry of shapes moving faster than he could track, shadows and flickers, a stab of black, then dark red.  He’d closed them again just to keep from throwing up.  The sky-blue woman had leaned across him to adjust his pillow.  She smelled of chemicals, sweat, a brush of floral when her hair swept across his cheek.  The nurse.  Eventually he learned there was a succession of nurses, all of them sky-blue, some of them male, all quick and gentle, sweat, antiseptic, floral.

He slept most of the time.  When he was awake there was a throbbing at the front of his skull.  He imagined his brain shrinking and expanding, pushing up against bone, retreating again.  If it was quiet in the room he could travel inside the rhythm, let himself be buoyed by it, a wave, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, until he fell asleep again.

Often, he was woken by the burst of orange light.  This was always the first sense, then the smell of lemons, soap, something stale.  After that he would register the touch.  Her hand on his arm, or a brush across his forehead, delicate, tentative.  Sometimes a movement across his groin, down his leg, slower, more sure.

Some days he would feign sleep until she left.  Others, when the throbbing in his head was not so bad, he would peel his eyes open slowly, see the rounded, soft shape of her and will himself to focus, but she never crystallized.   Once, while he stared at her, she rose up and loomed over him, all soft brown and yellow, touched her mouth to his.  He could smell coffee on her breath.

After a few days he understood she was saying his name. “Eric.  Eric.”  A low voice, nearly a whisper.  That was all.  He didn’t respond.

When his eyes began to work again, when the blurred shapes became people, faces, he sorted out the brown ponytail, the pale mouth, the glasses with their lenses that reflected the overhead lamps, making it seem she had lights instead of eyes.  She came close, rubbed her thumb briskly across the side of his face, as if he’d been crying, as if there were tears she had to wipe away.

One day he woke and she was standing with her back to him, her shoulders hunched up, holding something to her ear. 

“Well, he needs me now,” he heard her say and a memory flashed before him of her standing in a room – their room, he suddenly realized – her body turned away, her hair bound into a pony tail by a black elastic band, wearing a yellow sweater, just as she was now.

“Jody,” he tried to say, but his voice would not work.  She hadn’t heard him, didn’t turn around. The nurse arrived, and his eyes closed.  He fell asleep.

Other people came.  His father, bearded, grayed, who stood at the bedside with his coat on and cried when he asked, “Where’s mom?” His sister, who looked strangely aged.  She talked with the nurses and gestured a lot and when Jody was in the room, spoke with a loud cheerfulness that even he understood was a lie.  Gradually he came to understand he’d lost time, maybe as much as a decade.  The things before were there – he remembered his childhood, his siblings, high school, the year off to travel the country, coming back home, the job with Uncle Dennis, finding he was good at construction and that he liked the work, meeting Jody at the church he’d visited once or twice.   She looked the same then, hair always neatly brushed and pulled back, the calm gaze, the smile that took her from pretty enough to noticeable.   He remembered their wedding, the apartments they rented while they saved enough for a house, dinners around the thrift store table they’d bought, cooking together after work, the succession of burnt, dry, tasteless meals they managed until they learned how to cook.  He remembered that.

Gone was everything after.  His mother.  She’d died of breast cancer, his sister said, eight years before. But he was sure he’d seen her recently, that she’d been at the apartment.  She’d been wearing that silly baseball cap, the one they got at Joshua Tree, a gray top, white stripes. He remembered pouring her a cup of coffee, sitting across the table.  Last week, maybe?  The week before?  His head ached and he retreated behind his eyelids again until the lights dimmed and the room went quiet.  They’d come again the next day with more of their memories, feel they were doing something helpful by telling him everything he’d lost.

When the doctor came the next morning on his rounds, he feigned a migraine, asked for darkness, silence.  The nurses turned them all away.  Except Jody.  She came in noiselessly, carried the room’s only chair into the corner and sat there, just outside his peripheral vision.  He never turned his head towards her, she never spoke, he didn’t understand why.  It was worse, almost, to remember only the falling into love, unable to remember the falling out.

Later, after he’d been discharged, gone back to make a life in the strange house they owned, he would wonder when she’d become this way, if the calm and poise he’d taken as contentment and self-possession, had really been lassitude, a disinterest in the world.  The only things she seemed to take pleasure in now were the hardships he was causing her – the time off from work to take him to therapy several times a week, buying him new shirts because he’d stained the old ones with his clumsy hands which were still unable to bring food, or a coffee cup, to his mouth without trembling, the extra cleaning because the nurse would be coming by the house.  She recited these burdens to him in detail whenever he asked how she was, becoming suddenly loquacious, voluble.  He would have to close his eyes then, and this too she collected.  He imagined her preening over his offenses while she worked, polishing their edges, gathering them up to be presented to him each night the way other wives brought home armfuls of groceries, a bouquet of flowers.  He grew to dread the sound of her tread on the porch that signaled her return from work.  It was autumn now.  When she opened the door, the sun would be beginning to set and he would see her as he’d seen her first in the hospital, shadowed, dim, soft.  Behind her the sky would be changing its clothes, a flash of purple and pink, the underside of clouds rimmed in yellow, where the sun was sinking, a bright shard of orange light.