YOU OUGHTA KNOW
I set The New Yorker on the nightstand beside my hospital bed and checked the clock. I'd read for twenty-five minutes without my mind straying or my eyes growing heavy with fatigue. Twenty-five minutes! A new record.
I'd suffered a concussion in the accident five months ago. The split second impact of the car striking the moose, my head colliding with the fifteen hundred pound animal as it hurtled through the windshield and snapped my neck. At first, the spinal injury had left me completely paralyzed from the neck down, but the doctors had assured me that I didn't have brain damage. But even as the function in my left arm returned, even as I was able to use my legs to propel a manual wheelchair, my thoughts still lacked clarity. Images blurred, fragments from before the accident were lost.
But I'd read for nearly half an hour! Maybe I had retained this part of myself. Despite everything that had altered in my body, maybe my mind really was still me.
My ex, Daniel, would be here soon. We'd separated two years ago, but since my injury, he'd been at my side, surprising my family and friends, but not me. Ten years, a third of my life, we'd grown up together, it wasn't easy to let go. Besides, love had never been the problem. He'd been out west the last ten days visiting his family and I'd missed him. After staying in Ottawa with me all fall, my mother had returned to London, and over time, my friends visited less often. Without Daniel here, I felt disconnected from any other life beyond the rehabilitation center. Nobody here really knew me as me.
Boots stamped along the corridor and Daniel burst into the room. "Hello!" He bent down to kiss my cheek, his face ruddy from the cold, his blue eyes flashing.
"Your lips are freezing." I inhaled his crisp, clean scent, tinged with wood smoke and pine. "How was your trip?"
"Great. Mom and Dad are good. My sisters are good." He whipped off his coat and settled into a chair. "Everyone asked about you." He unzipped a gym bag and removed a video camera. "I have some of our old tapes. I thought I could video you too, show them how well you're doing."
"Let's start with the videos." He turned off the overhead lights and flipped a switch on the camera.
Images flickered on the wall: me, Daniel, my mother, grandmother, and sister.My mother's house at Christmas, three years ago. The volume was on, but I wasn't listening, transfixed by this former version of myself, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, tugging a thread from my cardigan sleeve, pushing strands of hair behind my ear: my right ear, my right hand. This was me, before everything fell apart. Me, but not me.
"Daniel." My throat constricted. "I can't watch this."
"Just turn it off. Right now." I wheeled to the light switch, obliterating the pictures still flashing on the wall with a harsh, bright florescent glow. I squeezed my eyes tight, blinked to stop the tears.
"" I took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, a shuddering, rasping noise."It's too hard to watch."
"I'm sorry." He knelt beside me and took my hand. "I thought it would bring back good memories."
"I'm just … so different now. It's not me anymore."
I had to contain myself. If I started crying, I was afraid a terrible wrenching, an unhinging would occur. I was afraid I might never stop.
"You're still the same person."
"You're getting better all the time. Look how far you've come."
"I just want to go to bed. Okay?"
"Sure." He gathered his things. "Can I get you anything before I go? Some water?"
"I've got some here. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
After he left, I picked up my plastic mug with my left hand and sipped water. I stared down at the rims on the wheels of my chair, at my right hand resting on my lap, the fingers clenched in a fist from involuntary spasm.
The next afternoon, I was in the workout room with Kyle, one of the physiotherapy assistants, who like me, was thirty-one.
"I hear you're going home soon," he said.
"Next week. But I'll be coming back as an outpatient."
"You can't bear to leave all this behind?"
"It's a big change, but you're ready for it. Want to start with the footcycle?"
He attached the apparatus to the bottom of my wheelchair and strapped my feet to the pedals. He set the timer for twenty minutes. "Be back in a bit." He crossed the room to set up weights for two young men in chairs.
I started to pedal. I loved the footcycle. It was like riding a bike and I could move my legs faster doing this than anything else.
"Be right there," Kyle called, when the timer buzzed. "Have you heard the new Alanis Morissette CD, Jagged Little Pill?"
"The teen pop singer?"
"She's this angry rock chick now. It's crazy."
"Is it any good?"
"It's great. Some radio stations won't even play it because it's explicit." He detached the footcycle from my wheelchair and looked into the gym. "If the crowd thins out, I'll bring in the boom box and play it for you."
* * *
Each afternoon, from four to five, the gym was reserved for "walking class" where patients could practice walking the thirty-meter length of the gym. A few chairs were set up in the middle for rest points.
I parked at one end. My legs were tired from the footcycle. I'd wait a few minutes before starting. I sipped water and watched the others.
A few feet away: the schizophrenic woman. Pudgy and dull-looking, in her mid-fifties, for the third time in two years she'd flung herself from the Champlain Bridge into the rushing current of the Ottawa River. Almost every bone broken, yet her body persevered. So here she was, alive, her expression vacant, muttering to herself as she paced back and forth without a trace of a limp. I felt sorry for her, but I was jealous too. So many suicide attempts, so many treacherous falls, and yet physically, she'd survived, and was more intact than I was.
A tall lean man sauntered beside his wife. He nodded to me as he passed. He was three weeks back in the world after a two-month-long coma. His body was functioning well. He stood erect and proud. But I wasn't sure about his mind. His wife did all the talking.
On the other side of the gym, a few amputees strapped prosthetic legs to their stumps, and elderly men and women hobbled along, clutching canes and walkers.
My people. For the last five months these had been my peers. There was safety here, everyone was damaged and everyone was the same. Who would I be in the outside world? How would I ever belong?
I took up my cane and joined the procession.
As I was nearing the end of my laps, Kyle hurried into the gym, holding up a music player."I don't think those two will mind hearing a few tunes." He nodded towards two women, maybe in their eighties, shuffling across the floor on the other side of the gym, hands clinging to their walkers. "This is my favorite." He inserted the CD. "It's called ‘You Oughta Know'."
Softly, almost sweetly, the song began, then the tone and instrumentation shifted. The music pounded through the gym: the rage in Alanis's voice, the frankly sexual lyrics. I glanced at my four-pronged cane that stood on the floor beside where I sat in my wheelchair. Across the room, the two older women shambled along, oblivious to the fury, sex, and betrayal that echoed off the walls. And I giggled, that it was here, in the gym of the rehab center, that I was hearing this song for the first time. The more I thought about it, the funnier it became. And I laughed. I laughed with pleasure. I laughed with relief. I gasped for air, tears streamed down my cheeks. I laughed: a full, throaty, bodily laugh. The kind of laugh I thought I'd never laugh again.