Flute thin and rigid, Laura stood in the foyer, one arm extended toward David, the dog’s leash swinging gently from her hand. She was wearing those pink jeans that always made David think of flamingos. Holding the leash out to him, her face an imperious mask, she looked both regal and ridiculous.
David knew he should walk the dog — Dash was his, after all — but they’d stayed late at the party, and he was tired. “I walked him before we left,” he said, “while I was waiting for you to get ready.” He sat down and flipped on the television. “I’ll get up early and take him out.”
Dash pranced into the foyer and nudged the end of the leash with his nose. He was mostly retriever, with just enough shepherd to add patches to his coat and give him a pointed, quizzical face. Laura frowned. “That’s not really fair to the dog, is it?”
The hint of righteousness in her voice made David settle deeper into his chair. She had complained about Dash from the moment she moved in. She hated the hair on the furniture, the begging at the table, the summer ordeal of the flea dip on the back patio. Yet now here she was taking up for the dog. David turned up the television. Dash nipped at the leash and squirmed in frantic circles at Laura’s feet.
“I guess I’m going to have to walk him myself,” she said.
“I guess you are,” David said evenly.
All at once, Laura’s face lightened and she laughed. As always, this emotional sleight of hand amazed David — how she could paint herself into a corner and then float away on a laugh, effortlessly.
They’d been living together more than a year by then: his sagging sofa, her Eames chair; his Mexican vase on the bookcase, her eucalyptus wreath in the kitchen. He never thought of the arrangement as permanent, but he never thought of ending it, either. When she moved in, David’s friend Jack had warned him, She’s difficult. But this had rather pleased David. It made him feel as if Laura were an elegant calculus problem only he could solve.
At the door, Laura turned and smiled. “I’ll be right back,” she said. Dash was out the door already, pulling the leash taut. David had a last-minute impulse to get up and take the dog himself, but he didn’t. And so it was Laura at the edge of the road when the car shot out of the cool night, drawn like a missile to her heat.
David called Laura’s mother from the hospital, and she flew in from Duluth. He was surprised to find that the woman Laura argued with so fiercely on the phone was a plump, white-haired lady in a blue cardigan. After the doctor and the ICU, they sat together in the hospital cafeteria. David watched her stir extra sugar into her sweetened tea. She sighed and said, “I’m not well myself, you know.” She reached across the table and touched his wrist. “I’m so glad Laura has you.”
Two weeks later, David drove Laura’s mother back to the airport.
The hospital discharged Laura to the Ardmore Rehabilitation Center. Those first few months, David was there every day, meeting with the neurologist and the physical therapist, filling out forms, asking the same questions over and over. When Laura graduated to a walker, they sent her home, and David chauffeured her to outpatient therapy, sat for hours in waiting rooms beneath dreary abstract prints. Everyone at the accounting firm where he worked was polite about his absences, but David still felt guilty leaving work in the middle of the afternoon and arriving late each morning. Once Laura could walk with the quad cane and take a taxi by herself, David returned to work full time, even eating at his desk, unless Jack came down from the sixth floor to corral him into a fast-food lunch.
On the day of Laura’s treatment-team evaluation, David waited outside to avoid the sweet-faced social worker in whose snug office he had spent too many hours already. Standing in the parking lot, he caught sight of Laura in the glass entryway. From that distance he couldn’t see her cane, or how she slumped to the left, and he had the fleeting impression that she was straight and quick and whole again — that she was Laura, restored.
Then the automatic doors swung open in front of her. She was wearing one of the outfits her mother had bought her while she was still in the hospital: a sweat suit with a penguin on the shirt. It was like nothing he had ever seen her wear before the accident. She’d favored crisp, severe clothing, with sharp angles. He waved to her, but she was looking down, checking the position of her left foot. Crossing the parking lot, he searched for the signs of improvement the therapist was continually claiming to see. When Laura lifted her cane, her body seemed to yaw backward, as if pulled by some invisible tide; when she stepped forward, she listed gently to one side. It had been almost a year since the accident, since the doctor had stood with David in the emergency room and said, This is a serious head trauma.
She saw him and began to ease her way down the access ramp. He met her halfway. They made an odd couple: he was tall — the top of Laura’s head didn’t even reach his chin — and with his dark hair and broad shoulders he seemed to loom over her; beside him, she was a wisp of freckles and pale red hair. He felt self-conscious, trimming his long steps to match hers, watching the sunlight run down her aluminum cane.
She drew a noisy breath. “I have an appointment with the vocational counselor tomorrow.”
“Great,” he said, squeezing her shoulder, hiding how her frail pride depressed him. He thought of the vocational counselor, a soft man with a soft voice who spoke of “job modification” and “retraining.” Laura had worked in local television, dealing constantly with pressures and deadlines. Her job had long since been filled. No counselor could modify that.
“I have to be there early.” She frowned and punched the ground with her cane. The slightest change in routine distressed her.
“You’ll do fine,” David said.
She was silent, her lips a tight, brooding line. Although her speech had come back quickly, if she was tired or upset she still sometimes lost words, and the sudden lapse seemed to alarm her.
At the car, Laura stopped and waited while he opened the door for her. For a moment they were side by side, close enough to kiss, and he breathed in her warm scent; this, at least, remained the same — her sweet smell of soap and spice. Then she was inside the car, sliding her cane between the seats, struggling to latch her seat belt. He reached for the buckle and felt the cane bounce against his hand. The buckle slipped again and again, then finally caught with a solid snap.
“It would be easier if you’d put the cane in back,” he said, straightening up.
“I like to keep it close.”
He could easily have flipped the cane into the back seat with one hand, without even looking. “It makes it hard to shift,” he said.
He drove in silence for a while, watching the last light of day slip over the windshield and disappear. “You want to stop and get some take-out curry?” he asked. Laura was the one who’d taught him to enjoy Indian food, bringing him to tiny, fragrant restaurants and spooning fiery meats and vegetables onto his plate.
“Let’s just go home.” She shifted in her seat, fidgeted with her seat belt.
“You OK?” he asked. She was too stubborn to take anything for the pain that still smoldered in her hip and back.
Her smile was as thin as glass. “Fine,” she said, “really. Just fine.”
“You’ve got an entire pharmacy at home,” he remarked, immediately regretting his peevish tone. “They said to take something if you need it.”
“I know.” She leaned away from him and rested her head on the window, her eyes closed.
He missed the way her words used to swerve and dive, all hairpin turns and sudden stops. Now they were measured and balanced, as if crossing ice instead of air. Sometimes, briefly, her old voice broke through, and he felt a spasm of recognition, as if catching sight of her in a crowd. And then she was lost again. At first, David had thought he could provoke such moments by surprising her, so that she answered him without thinking. But the neurologist had said it was just the way the brain reacted, and had nothing to do with him.
He clicked on the radio and spun the dial, searching for news to distract him. During the long days at the hospital, while Laura had slept, he’d let the television shows flow over him in an endless stream. It was news he liked best, events lined up like beads on a string, every war or disaster rolled into a few neat sentences and left behind.
But now he found only a babble of commercials. He turned the radio off again and looked over at Laura. Her face was worried. He thought of reaching past the cane and taking her hand. What is it? he would say. Tell me. Perhaps then she would squeeze his fingers and let her troubles spill out like grain from a sack. Or would she simply smile and say once again that she was fine? Her left hand, curled in her lap, still looked swollen to him — the whole arm, really, puffy and soft. My dead arm, she had called it in the hospital, agitated and crying. He hadn’t known if that was what she’d meant to say, or only aphasia tripping her tongue.
When they got home, Dash met them at the door, his tail whipping back and forth, his big body wriggling with joy. (After the accident, a neighbor had found him, unscathed, his leash snagged in her rosebushes.) Dash insinuated himself between Laura and her cane.
“Get away, Dash.” David jerked the dog by the collar. It occurred to him that Dash was really too big for a town house, always bounding through the room or darting underfoot.
Laura went into the kitchen, and from the slap of cupboard doors David knew she was starting dinner. She had never been much of a cook, but lately she insisted on preparing meals. If David started to peel carrots or rinse lettuce, Laura gave him a brittle smile and told him she could do it — she wanted to do it. David suspected the social worker had been counseling her to practice her daily living skills. Through the kitchen door, he watched her peel a potato and appraised each stroke as the skin curled away. That small skill was a gift, he told himself. He remembered her in the emergency room, her face slack, her pale red hair dark with blood, her broken leg on the white sheet. At least now she was upright again, function crammed into her muscles, speech stitched into her mouth, a new thin smile that said fine fine fine on her lips. The knife knocked rhythmically on the cutting board as she sliced the potato.
What would she say to him, he wondered, if she were here — if Laura were here, as she had been before? He could see her sitting on the high kitchen stool, eyebrow cocked, legs crossed, foot swinging with nervous energy, but he could not imagine what she would say. He was no better at putting her back together than the doctors had been.
“I’d better change,” he said.
“You’re going running with Jack?” Laura stopped cutting a chunk of potato. “But I’m making dinner.”
“Cook slowly,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He could feel her gaze on his back as he started for the stairs. She hated to be left alone, especially when he was going somewhere with Jack. She’d never liked Jack much, even before. A few weeks after the accident, he’d started appearing at the hospital to drag David out for dinner, a drink, a movie.
Running had been Jack’s idea: The best thing for stress, he’d counseled. So David had started running while Laura was in rehab. When she first came home, he tried to give it up so he could spend more time with her. But he missed the rhythm of his body moving, could feel the speed in his legs, craving release.
Jack was waiting for him at the playground behind the old Catholic church, jogging in restless figure eights between the swing set and the sandboxes. They fell into an easy run, following the slope of Quail Hollow Road into an old neighborhood: clapboard houses with lawns as smooth as bedspreads, flowers blooming in tidy patches — geraniums or verbena, brilliant clouds of impatiens in the shade.
Jack was talking about work, a gleeful, manic edge to his voice: “I swear to you, when he got to page five of that contract his face went white.”
“Yeah?” David was only half listening. Jack’s accomplishments were all intricate paper-and-pencil affairs whose details reflected endlessly, like a house of mirrors. Laura had once said Jack could make an epic out of completing a crossword puzzle.
“No kidding. For the rest of the day, all I had to do was say, ‘Page five,’ and the whole office cracked up.”
At Mt. Airy Drive, they turned and started a long, slow ascent, the hardest part of the run. The neighborhood changed abruptly. Houses shrank and yards grew narrow. Apartments took their place. The street widened, and the sidewalk turned into a dry rut at the edge of the road. Skimming past convenience stores and parking lots, David felt the heat creeping into his lungs, the sensation of dragging a heavy load behind him in the dust. His chest began to burn. And then the crest of the hill slid underfoot, the weight fell away, and he broke into an easy stride.
At an intersection they veered right, toward the park. Jack wiped his forearm across his face. “So how’s she doing?”
“About the same.”
“Well, I give you credit. You’ve done a hell of a lot for her.”
Before Laura came home, there had been numerous earnest conversations. Let her go live with her mother, Jack had said. I’m telling you this as a friend. But David had never thought himself the kind of man who left a woman while she was sick and broken, a man who walked away when visiting hours were over and never came back.
They were inside the park now, the tall trees coming together overhead. A flock of geese scattered across the water as they circled the pond.
“I just hate to see you spend your life baby-sitting,” Jack said.
Jack assumed there wasn’t any sex, but that wasn’t quite true. David and Laura had made love several times since the accident — quiet, deferential couplings, tentative and incomplete. It was not something David wanted to talk about.
“It’s my life.”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong. I admire you. I really do. Only, if it was me, I don’t think I could do it. You know what I mean?”
Jack wasn’t going to let up without a response. But David could not tell him how he longed for the Laura that had once been, how he tried to conjure her, to lure her back from wherever she had gone. He looked ahead to where the path plunged into the trees. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he said.
Dinner was cooling on the stove when he got back; she must have cooked it right after he left. He watched her reheat it in the microwave, frowning at the plates as if she expected more of them. In the hospital he’d often coaxed her to eat. Once, she’d thrown the breakfast tray at him. Stunned, he’d stood there holding his injured wrist while she’d flailed in a snarl of bedsheets. Emotionally labile, the nurse had said as she handed him an ice pack. Common in brain injuries.
While they ate, David watched television. It was not until Laura rose to clear the dishes that he snapped off the set, surveying for a moment the greasy plates and half-empty glasses.
“I have to be there early tomorrow,” she said softly.
“I know,” he said, scooping up the silverware.
“I had to wait a long time for this interview. I have to make the most of it.”
He felt sure the social worker had told her this today, right before she left. “You’re going to do fine,” he said.
She stood beside the table, one hand on the cane, the other clutching two dinner plates together. “I have to make the most of it.”
“You’ll be great,” he said, his voice rising. “Really, I mean it. You’ll knock ’em dead. They’ll make you president of the whole damn rehab center!”
She put the plates down and looked at him, a hint of challenge in the angle of her chin, a sly smile flickering across her face. She was like a snapshot of her old self, tantalizing him. Her words came smooth and dry as sand: “You’re always such an inspiration to me.”
David went to bed with a book, intending to read while he waited for Laura to come out of the shower, but the drumming sound of the water lulled him and he tossed the book onto the night stand. When she opened the bathroom door, steam and the fruity scent of her soap drifted into the room. She was wearing an oversized T-shirt, and as she raised her arm to brush her hair the shirt lifted slightly, exposing the bare curve of her hip. David felt a tug of desire. As she got into bed, he put a hand on her arm, feeling the heat of the shower on her skin.
“Are you tired?” he said.
She rolled closer to him but didn’t speak. He leaned over and kissed her cheek, her lips, the corner of her mouth — tiny, coaxing kisses, like sips of water. She didn’t move.
“Laura?” He propped himself up on one arm and searched her face. Her eyes were huge, dark, opaque. “Laura, do you want to?”
The stillness of her body broke as she reached for him. He relaxed, pressing his face into her damp, fragrant hair. His hands slipped under her T-shirt and up to her breasts, fingers grazing her nipples. She had gained weight since the accident — not a lot, but enough to swell her breasts and cushion the bite of her hipbones. He caressed her thoughtfully, his fingers tracing the reassuring arc of her belly.
It was not until he felt how vaguely her hands fluttered on his back that he realized she had simply acquiesced to please him. Her touch was weary, passionless. The sigh of her breath against his neck came pure and steady as a child’s. Yet he couldn’t stop himself now. He whispered her name — more summons than seduction — but felt her grow remote beneath him. Frustration rolled through him like adrenalin, sudden and dark. He gripped her shoulders and closed his eyes, a thin panic urging him on, as if he could find her old self buried in this new body; as if he could tear her apart and set the old Laura free.
Afterward, he looked down at her, white as porcelain on the snowy sheets, a shadow streaking her hair, bruising her face. The sight unsettled him.
“Laura? Are you all right?” He lay on his back and felt the air on his skin.
When she answered, her voice seemed to float above him, her soft reassurances just out of reach. He closed his eyes against the sound.
David woke to the moon hanging like a new dime in the window. The room felt empty, and he realized he was alone. He sat up, listening. The bathroom was dark. Wide awake now, he pulled on a pair of shorts and went downstairs.
In the living room, the first thing he saw was Dash stretched in a long, lazy line across the couch. Then he saw Laura squeezed in next to him, the dog’s head resting on her thigh. The cane stood, a sentry, at the sofa’s edge. As David approached, Dash thumped his tail against the cushion, but made no move to get down. Laura didn’t stir, but just stared out the window at the dark row of town houses, the moon-bleached street.
“Right,” she said, still looking out the window. “Can’t sleep.”
He sighed, forcing himself to be patient. “You’re going to be tired tomorrow.”
“Come on, Laura. Bed.”
She turned just enough so that the moonlight caught her face. The loneliness he saw there upbraided him. For a moment he felt too raw to speak. Dash nuzzled Laura’s hand, and she stroked his head, slid her fingers into his fur. David knew he should go to her, put his arms around her, say, I’m here. But he didn’t move. He looked away to where the moon shone a quilted pattern on the carpet. He knew now she wasn’t coming back. The thought did not surprise him; rather, it seemed familiar, expected. In his mind he saw her standing before him again in her flamingo jeans. She smiled. I’ll be right back, she said. He let her go.
Another version of this story previously appeared in Mediphors.