We heard them before we saw them. A hubbub of bright laughter; a mix of introductions, the “I know you!” “Oh, yeah” and “What’s that?”; the muffled noise of bodies coming in from a New York winter, all slap happy; glad-handing and high-five-ing; polite and joyous, serious and silly, knapsacks dropping and dragged to a new spot; the sounds of zippers, coats slipping and stepped on; wire and plastic chairs scraping, clanging, tipping over; all while a woman strained to be louder than the room.
“Form a circle,” she chirped mildly, like a smoke detector giving up.
In my 30’s, I was often late. I would rush, anyway. Useless, really, because once you’re that far behind, even running won’t make up for lost time. I had done a kind of wind sprint, anyway.
So I was out of breath as I pushed at the yellowed oak door, which moved noiselessly but went only six inches before jarring me up to my elbow with a hard stop. I peered up at the swing arm to see why it was resisting. Right behind me, Andy reached over my head with a five-fingered, single-handed push up move, and pressed at just the right spot to unhinge the mechanism and bang the door open.
Andy thought like an engineer. Well, he was one, and usually logical. Except he hadn’t caught on that we were no longer dating.
Like sparrows on a line when the train comes through, the group went still at the noise we made. All 30 of them. All shapes and sizes, teens to middle-aged, in sweats and jeans, mainly, and mostly men. Many were disfigured.
Into the abrupt silence, someone said, “Welcome to the Head Injury Foundation Support Group.” I heard laughter. They pulled over two chairs.
It was then that I saw there were no windows. Strange for a hospital. It had snowed early that season, and in a wintry mix, as the weather forecaster had predicted. In the close air, the warmth of the crowd brought on the fug of damp pea coats, and knitted hats and scarves. There were intermittent waves of Naphthalene as we settled in. Underneath were traces of mildew.
I took out a pad of paper and pen but don’t remember if I have notes from that night. Probably not. Maybe I just needed to soak up what I could. Andy and I had visions of doing the right thing; we thought we were saving someone’s life. My kid sister’s.
“This group is a mix of families and survivors,” the group leader said. “We meet once a month to support your rehab efforts. Feel free to discuss anything here. Let’s start with the survivors. Tell us who you are and what program you’re in. We’d like to hear how your injury was sustained.”
My sister should have been there. She would have understood their stories. She was both the doctor and the patient. But she wouldn’t go to rehab. I was there to find the one reason she should.
“I’m Perry,” he began.
Perry. He has a kind of surfer boy drawl, an unstudied syncopation. With full engagement, he laughs through his own story. When he smiles, he shows his front teeth—slightly overlapped, like any good Norman Rockwell boy.
He has his hair up in a rockabilly pompadour; young men from Alphabet City wear their hair tall. He is the only one in a suit. It is brown corduroy, not so fashionable but nicely tailored; paired with a wide maroon and beige tie from the 40’s, with an amorphous shape on it but knotted tightly; beneath it, a pristine white button-down with a point collar. Sitting in the European style, he crosses his legs at the thigh. He’s wearing pony skin loafers.
Lordy, Lordy. Come to Jesus; he is Barnum AND Bailey. Yes, and he is a species I’ve never understood; the bon vivant, the flâneur. He scares the crap out of me. What I could see of him. Once shocked-to-hell by the full-on view, I could only risk sideway glances. I still didn’t get it. “Families and survivors,” the leader had said. Most of these guys were wrecks. How do you survive a head injury and look so good?
I didn’t hear most of what Perry said. I was suspended in my own disbelief, taking shallow breaths. And three minutes in, he seemed to be just warming up. He had friends there, among the younger guys, who reacted to what he was saying like he was skipping stones and they were the pond.
Perhaps we all were.