ike always teased me about my memory, about how I could go back years and years to what people were wearing on a given occasion, right down to their jewelry or shoes. He'd laugh and ask what the weather had been, or who'd had a light beer and who a regular one, and I could almost always tell him. That was how I resurrected the past: people in their outfits, or who sat next to whom, and from there on to what we talked about, what we were like at a certain time.
Every Memorial Day we spent the afternoon at Clausen's Reservoir, about sixty miles north of Madison. It was only a mile or so across, but it was ringed by tall old maples, and it was far enough away so that going there seemed like an event. Mike came for me at a little after noon that year, the year everything changed, and once we'd loaded my stuff into his car and gotten onto the interstate, he accelerated to seventy-two, his opinion of the perfect speed if you factored in gas mileage, highway patrol risk, and safety. My mind was on the long untangling I felt was coming our way, and I stared out the window at dairy farm after dairy farm, their big, well-kept barns angled toward the highway. "Think it'll be hot?" he said after a while, and I didn't look at him, I just shrugged. A little later he said, "I wonder who'll get there first," and this time I just reached onto the floor for my purse and got out some Chap Stick. We were in a cold, dark place, we both knew it, but once I'd done my lips I handed him the tube, and he did his and with one hand twisted the balm back down before he handed it back. We'd been together for eight and a half years, we had all the little familiarities down. It was almost as if we were married, although we weren't, just engaged.
The parking lot was only half full, and we found a spot in the shade. From behind my seat I unloaded a grocery bag of chips and hamburger buns while he opened the hatch. He wore long madras shorts and a pine-green polo shirt, and as I watched his movements, the quick, effortless way he lifted the beer-laden cooler, I thought about how that easy strength of his had thrilled me once, and how it didn't anymore.
I looked up and there were Rooster and Stu, striding down the rocky hill that divided the parking lot from the beach. "Hey to you," Mike called back. He cast me a watchful glance, and I put on a smile.
Coming into the shade, Rooster pulled off his sunglasses and wiped his arm across his forehead. The sun had gotten to him already: his freckled cheeks were pink, his nose a shade or two darker. "It's perfect," he said. "Warm, a little breeze, and we got the pier no problem."
"Great," Mike said. He looked over at me, then turned back and said it again: "Great."
"Anything else?" Stu asked.
Mike reached into the car and tossed him a Frisbee.
"Ah, the all-important Frisbee no one will throw."
"I figured maybe you'd surprise us this year."
Mike locked the car, and we headed for the hill. It was dusty alreadyit had been a dry springand patches of scruffy grass brushed against my ankles as I climbed. At the top I paused to look down: at Jamie, waving from the pier; at the sweep of dazzling blue behind her.
I started toward the beach. On the pier Bill and Christine sat side by side, apparently together again: their hips and thighs touching, Bill's hand resting loosely on Christine's knee. Following Mike across the sand, I wanted nothing more than to sit like that with him, until I remembered that was what I didn't want. This mood I was in: I had to remind myself of its rules sometimes.
Rooster had already started the fire, and soon Jamie and Christine and I were unwrapping the raw burgers and laying them out on a paper plate. Jamie was right beside me, and in a quiet voice she said, "What's up?"
I shrugged. "Nothing."
She looked at me carefully.
After we ate, I took a second beer from the cooler and sat at the end of the pier. The can was icy, almost painful to hold, but I held it anyway, my feet just skimming the water, which I noticed was lower than usual. Wasn't it supposed to come up to my knees? I thought so, but I didn't think so very strongly, and I know I didn't say so.
Behind me Rooster's boom box played one of his compilation tapes, and I could hear everyone talking, the rise and fall of their voices, the little silences before someone thought of something else funny to say. Jamie said, "No, Long Island Iced Teas," and the next thing I knew Mike was standing over me, casting a shadow onto me and the water. He prodded me once with his big toe and announced, "I'm going swimming."
"Mikey!" Rooster hooted.
I could feel everyone looking at me: Rooster, Stu, Bill, Christineeven Jamie. Looking and thinking, Come on, Carrie, give the guy a break.
I turned and looked at his strong, hairy legs, then up at his face, which was dark against the bright sun. He'd stripped to his swimming trunks, and as he stood there waiting for me to say something, Rooster came over to stand beside him. "Getting a little spare tire there, buddy?" Rooster said, and he cuffed Mike lightly.
Mike grinned. "Makes two of us, huh? Maybe we should start a diet club, the Spare Tire Spartans. What do you say?" They all laughedthe Spartans had been our high school mascot. That we were a year out of college and still making Spartans jokes seemed to me to be a symptom of whatever it was we all had, whatever disease it was that had us doing the exact same things we'd always done, and with the exact same people.
"I think I'll wait till after the holidays," Rooster said.
"The holidays are six months away."
Now Mike looked at me. "So, what do you think?" he said. "Should I dive?"
"Why don't you just jump?" Later, I clung to that as evidence that I'd tried to stop him, but in fact I was just being contrary.
"Dive," Rooster said. "Definitely dive."
I glanced at Jamie, and she smiled at me. "Hey, girl," she said, and she scooted toward me with her hand extended low in front of her, palm side up. I reached over and held my palm on hers for a moment.
"Mayer," Stu said, "you lout."
Mike took off his baseball cap and held it out for me to take.
"What about your sunglasses?" I said.
He dropped the cap onto the pier. "They're coming," he said. "On a joy ride." He looked at Rooster and Stu and Bill with an endearing expression of amusement and challenge on his face, and for an intense moment then, watching him with his friends, I longed to feel again what I no longer felt: that he was just what I wanted. "You guys are wimps," he said. "I'll think of you when I hit that cool, refreshing water."
Everyone laughed again: it was Memorial Day, the water was freezing.
Then somewhere on the reservoir a motorboat started up, and we were still for a moment as we looked across the water to see if we could see it. I remember the sound so clearly, the sound of the boat and also the feel of the icy-cold beer can in my hand. I wish I'd done something to stop him thenjumped up and said I'd marry him that day, or burst into tears, or held on tight to his leg. Anything. But of course I didn't. I was already looking away, when from across the water there came the sound of the outboard revving higher. And then Mike dove.
Part One: Intensive Care
When something terrible happens to someone else, people often use the word "unbearable." Living through a child's death, a spouse's, enduring some other kind of permanent lossit's unbearable, it's too awful to be borne, and the person or people to whom it's happened take on a kind of horrible glow in your mind, because they are in fact bearing it, or trying to: doing the thing that it's impossible to do. The glow can be blinding at firstit can be all you seeand although it diminishes as years pass it never goes out entirely, so that late some night when you are wandering the back pathways of your mind you may stop at the sudden sight of someone up ahead, signaling even now with a faint but terrible light.
Mike's accident happened to Mike, not to me, but for a long time afterward I felt some of that glow, felt I was giving it off, so that even doing the most innocuous errand, filling my car with gas or buying toothpaste, I thought everyone around me must see I was in the middle of a crisis.
Yet I didn't cry. The first days at the hospital were full of cryingMike's parents crying, his brother and sister, and Rooster, maybe Rooster most of allbut I was dry-eyed. My mother and Jamie told me it was because I was numb, and I guess that was part of it, numb and terrified: when I looked at him it was as if years had unwound, and I'd just met him, and I couldn't stand not knowing what was going to happen. But there was something else, too: everyone was treating me so carefully and solicitously that I felt breakable, and yet I wasn't broken. Mike was broken, and I wasn't broken. He was separate from me, and that was shocking.
He was in a coma. Thanks to the combination of drought and a newly banked-up shoreline, the water in Clausen's Reservoir had been three feet lower than usual. If he woke up, it would be to learn that he'd broken his neck.
But he didn't wake up. Days went by, and then it was a week, ten days, and he was still unconscious, lying in Intensive Care in a tiny room crowded with machines, more than I ever would have imagined. He was in traction, his shaven head held by tongs attached to weights, and because he had to be turned onto his stomach every few hours to avoid bedsores, his bed was a two-part contraption that allowed for this: a pair of giant ironing-board-shaped things that could sandwich him and flip him. Visiting hours were three p.m. to eight p.m., ten minutes per hour, two people at a time, but it seemed we'd no sooner get in to see him than the nurses would ask us to leave. It was as if, merely body now, he belonged to them.
Near the nursing station there was a small lounge, and that's where we mostly were, talking or not talking, looking at each other or not looking. There would be five of us, or ten, or twenty: a core group of family and close friends, plus Mike's co-workers stopping by after the bank had closed, the Mayers' neighbors checking in, my mother arriving with bags of sandwiches. There was a rack of ancient magazines by the door, and we offered them to each other now and then, just for something to do. I couldn't read, but whenever the single, warped issue of Vogue came my way I flipped through it, pausing each time at an article about a clothing designer in London. I'm not sure I ever noticed her name, but I can still remember the clothes: a fitted, moss green velvet jacket; a silver dress with long, belled sleeves; a wide, loose sweater in deep purple mohair. I was getting through the evenings by sewing, a pair of cotton shorts or a summer dress every two or three days, and those exotic images from London kept appearing in my mind as I bent over my sewing machine, reminding me at once of the hospital and the world.
The two-week mark came, and when I woke that morning I thought of something one of the doctors had said early on, that each week he was unconscious the prognosis got worse. ("Unresponsive" was the word they used, and whenever I heard it I thought of myself in the car on the way to Clausen's Reservoir, not answering his questions.) Two weeks was only one day more than thirteen days, but I felt we'd turned a corner that shouldn't have been turned, and I couldn't get myself out of bed.
I lay on my side. The bedsheets were gritty and soft with use; I hadn't changed them since the accident. I reached for my quilt, lying in a tangle down past my feet. I'd made it myself one summer during high school, a patchwork of four-inch squares in no particular order, though I'd limited myself to blues and purples and the overall effect was nice. I'd read somewhere that quiltmakers "signed" their work with a little deviation, so in one corner I'd used a square cut from an old shirt of Mike's, white with a black windowpane check. I found that square now and arranged the quilt so it was near my face.
He had to wake up. He had to. I couldn't stand to think of what a bitch I'd been at Clausen's Reservoirwhat a bitch all spring. It was like a horrible equation: my bitchiness plus his fear of losing me equaled Mike in a coma. I knew as clearly as I knew anything that I'd driven him to dive, to impress me. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to remember when everything between us had been fine. February? January? Christmas? Maybe not even Christmas: he'd given me plain pearl earrings that were very pretty and exactly what I would have wanted just a year earlier, but I found them stodgy and obvious, and I felt dead insidenot because of the earrings but because of my disappointment in them. "Do you like them?" he said uneasily. "I love them," I lied.
It was June now. I had the day off work, and at last I got up and made coffee, then started laying out the pattern for an off-white linen jacket I'd been planning to make, first ironing the crumpled tissue and then moving the pieces around on the length of fabric until I was satisfied. I pinned them and cut them out with my Fiskars, then went back and did the notches, snip by snip. I chalked the pattern marks onto the fabric, and by late morning I was sitting at my Bernina winding a bobbin, entranced by the fast whir of it, by the knowledge that for hours now I'd be at the machine, my foot on the pedal.
I'd been sewing for eleven years, since my first home ec class in junior high, when I'd made an A-line skirt and fallen in love. It was the inexorability of it that appealed to me, how a length of fabric became a group of cut-out pieces that gradually took on the shape of a garment. I loved everything about it, even the little snipped threads to be gathered and thrown away, the smell of an overheated iron, the scatter of pins at the end of the day. I loved how I got better and better, closer and closer with each thing I made to achieving just what I'd hoped.
When the phone rang at eight-thirty that evening I'd taken a few breaks for iced cranberry juice, but mostly I'd sat there sewing, and the sound woke me from the work. Surprised by how dark it had gotten, I pushed away from the table and turned on a light, blinking at the jacket parts that lay everywhere, the slips of pattern and the pinked-off edges of seams. I was starving, my back and shoulders knotted and aching.
It was Mrs. Mayer. She asked how I was, told me she'd heard it might rain, and then cleared her throat and said she'd appreciate it if I'd stop by the next day.
The morning sun slanted down the sidewalk, aiming my shadow in the direction of Lake Mendota. My car was already hot to the touch, and I unlocked it and rolled down the windows, then strolled to the end of the block and stood looking across Gorham Street at the water, still almost colorless under the early sky. Mike loved Lake Mendota, the way the city hugged its curves. He liked to pull people into debating the relative merits of it and Lake Monona, Madison's other big lake: he'd reel off a list of ways that Mendota was superior, as if it were a team he supported.
Mendota and Monona. "Sounds like bad names for twins," a girl from New York had said to me once, and I'd never been able to forget it. I laughed, but I was a little offended: she spoke so smugly, flipping her brown hair over her shoulder and raising her chin. I hardly knew hershe was in my freshman American history class at the Ubut thinking about her five years later, I remembered this: that she'd owned a jacket I'd coveted, pearl-snapped and collarless like something made of cotton fleece, but fashioned from smooth black napa leather, soft as skin.
Across the street two guys sauntered by. They both wore sunglasses with tiny mirrored lensesone guy's tinted blue, the other's green. "No fucking way," I heard one of them say.
I went back to my car. It had a baked vinyl smell, and the seat scorched my legs. I always took the same route to the Mayers', an easy six-to eight-minute drive up Gorham to University and then up the hill, but today I headed away from Gorham instead. I crossed the isthmus that divided the lakes, and when I got close to Lake Monona I drove up and down the streets parallel to it, braking occasionally to look at some of my favorite houses: Victorians painted colors you didn't see in other neighborhoods, fuchsia and teal and deep purple. At a little lakeside park I got out and walked down to the water, where a cloud of gnats swarmed over the grassy green edge. Both lakes could lift my spiritssilvery blue when the sun was low, or vast and frosty in winterbut today they seemed flat and ordinary.
Unable to put it off any longer, I returned to my car. At the hospital I'd felt Mrs. Mayer watching me and watching me, waiting for me to break down; when the familiar shape of Mike's house came into view a little later, she was watching again, standing at the living room window with the curtain held aside, as if she'd heard I was on my way but didn't believe it.
I got out of my car. The house was big and white, a perfectly symmetrical colonial with black-shuttered windows and an iron eagle on the black front door. I hadn't been over since the accident, but the yard was as tidy as ever, the lawn so well trimmed I couldn't help thinking of something Mike liked to say, that his father came outside every morning and greeted each blade of grass by name. I thought of Mr. Mayer mowing, the smell of grass everywhere while he tried not to wonder if Mike would survive, and my stomach tilted with panic.
Mrs. Mayer opened the door. "Hi," she said with a smile. "I'm glad you're here."
I tried to smile back. At the hospital it had been hard to look at her wrecked face, but this was almost worse: she was pale and drained, as if she'd finally run out of tears.
"Let's go into the kitchen, shall we, dear?"
I followed her through the large, old rooms: past couches where Mike and I had sat together, tables where I'd casually piled my schoolbooks. It was my house, too, in a way.
The air conditioning was blowing hard, and when we got to the kitchen Mrs. Mayer said she'd make tea. I sat at the big oak table while she filled her kettle and got tea bags from a glass jar painted with hearts.
"Mr. Mayer can't get comfortable this summer," she said. "I try to keep the house cool, but every evening he comes in and complains it's stifling. It's colder than the hospital, don't you think?" She pulled her sweater close, a boucl? cardigan she was wearing over a flowered shirtwaist dress, its "self-belt" knotted in the front. It was the kind of ageless, styleless dress she always wore, the very kind of thing I'd first liked about her, that she was happy to look like a mom.
"It is chilly," I said.
The kettle whistled and she poured from it, then brought our cups to the table. "Let me get you your lemon." She crossed to the refrigerator and took one out, then cut it into wedges. She spread them on a flowered saucer and set them before me. "Would you like a bun? We've been given so much food I don't know what to do with it all."
"Actually, I'm OK."
She pulled out the chair opposite me and sat down. She ran her hand over her hair, and I noticed that her perm had grown out, and gray roots were visible along the part line. She blew on her tea and cleared her throat. "Are you going today?"
I picked up my cup. I thought about trying to explain about yesterdayabout the two-week marker, about how our reaching that point had scared mebut I knew she was aware of it, too; and scared, too; and that she'd gone anyway. I blew on my tea and took a sip, the lemon in it tart and satisfying.
"Having visitors means a lot to him."
I met her glance and then looked away. Nothing meant anything to him, that was the problem, the tragedythat and the fact that his spinal cord had suffered an injury that could leave him paralyzed for life, quadriplegic. Thinking that way, though, that my visiting would mean nothing, made me feel churlish, a dweller on the bad side. v "Carrie?"
She was staring at me, her still-young face lined with concern. Of course I'll go, I wanted to say. I wanted to take my thumbs and run them over her forehead and cheeks. When I spoke, though, I sounded distant, even to myself. I said, "I have to work, but I'll go afterward."
She nodded, then reached across the table and took hold of my left hand. She touched the tiny diamond on my ring finger. "Michael was so happy the day he bought this, it was like something he'd made at school, he was so proud. Julie made a remark, about how it wasn't that big or something, and his face just fell. He got that hangdog look on his face and he said to me, '¸Mom, do you think Carrie'll like it?' " She let go of my hand. " '¸Do you think Carrie'll like it?' He loves you very much, dear."
I looked away from her. "I know."
We drank our tea silently. After a while I told her I wanted to go up to his room, and I climbed the stairs and turned down the hall, going past framed photographs of all three Mayer kids, school pictures mixed in with casual shots, two or three of Mike in hockey gear, his helmet off so you could see his wide grin.
At his door I hesitated, then went in. There was a musty, unused smell, and I wondered, with the air conditioning going so strong, if his windows had been opened at all since the accident. I crossed to the bed and sat down, running my fingers up and down the ribbed blue bedspread. On his bedside table there was a picture of me from high school graduation, and I picked it up and looked at it. It was a familiar picture, but the girl in it seemed only tenuously connected to who I was now. Her hair was up in a way I never wore my hair anymore, and she wore more eyeliner than I'd had on in ages, but mostly she looked sure of herself, sure she'd stay on Mike's bedside table for years and years and be happy about it.
Mike had never left home, and his room bore traces of all the different stages of him I'd known: trophies next to textbooks next to the briefcase he'd begun carrying the year before, when he started working. He had a job in new accounts at a bank near the Capitol, and as I looked around I thought of how he'd been talking lately of finally moving out, saying that since he was making good money he should get an apartment, teach himself domestic life so he wouldn't sabotage our marriage. Three or four times he'd said it, and I'd never responded. It killed me to think of it now: Mike trolling for somethingjust Good idea or No, better keep saving your moneyand how I gave him nothing. Not even a wedding date: I deflected that question, too. Later, I kept thinking. Next year, the year after. Or I tried not to think about it at all.
I set the picture back on the bedside table, on the precise spot where it always stood. Then I lifted Mike's pillow to my face and breathed in his smell, a mixture of Dial and Right Guard and a clothes-and-body smell that was simply him.
I worked at the university library, where I'd had a work-study job while I was a student; when I graduated they offered me thirty-five hours a week, and so I stayed on. I could take or leave the job, but I liked being on campus: walking to the Union on breaks, heading up State Street to window-shop. My job was in the rare books room, where the only staff member close to my age was a graduate student named Viktor, from Poland. He was at the desk when I arrived, and I could tell right away he was in a good mood.
"Carrie, Carrie, come here." He motioned me over with a boisterous wave of his arm. Although he was sitting and I was standing, he seemed to loom over me: he was without doubt the biggest person I'd ever known, six-six with broad, beefy shoulders and a thick slab of a torso. When I first told him about Mike's accident, he grabbed me and hugged me so hard I nearly lost my breath.
Today he said, "This morning I am telling Ania that we must be more social. In Slavic studies we have parties, but they are too Slavic. You can come for dinner when?"
I glanced around. Viktor's library voice conceded nothing to the place, and several people stared at us from the long tables where they sat working, apparently waiting to hear if I'd accept. Dinner at Viktor's. This was a first, and I wondered how much it had to do with Mike's being in the hospital, and whether or not, given that Mike was in the hospital, I should go. I was about to make an excuse when a door at the back of the room opened, and the neat, prim head of our boss, Miss Grafton, poked out.
"Oops," I said quietly, but Viktor put on a big smile and waved genially at her, and after a moment her head withdrew and she closed the door.
"She loves me," he said matter-of-factly, his voice only a little lower now. "I am tall, strong, good-looking. She sees me and thinks of the agony of her dry, sexless life, but she is happy for a moment because I remind her of when it wasn't so."
"Viktor," I said.
"You don't think this is true?"
"It's just you're so modest."
He ran a hand over his bristly jaw. "I am shaving every two days now for my new look." He took my hand and made me feel his chin. "Yes, I think you like it."
I laughed. Mike loved my Viktor stories, and I thought of how funny he'd think this one was, then remembered I couldn't tell him. A feeling of something heavy moved through me, like sand falling through water. I looked away.
"Let's say a week from Saturday," he said. "We are cooking Tex-Mex. Ania is a fabulous cook, you know."
"I don't know, I"
"Not 'I don't know,' " he said. "Yes. Yes!"
He smiled triumphantly, deep lines appearing in his stubbly cheeks. He was twenty-eight but looked older.
I moved away, ready to get to work, and he called my name.
"Viktor," I said, turning back wearily. "Miss Grafton's going to"
"You have to relax a little, Carrie." He lifted both hands and shook his head mournfully. "We talk and we do our work, and it is not a problem."
I rolled my eyes.
"Anyway, I am just giving you a message."
He handed me a piece of paper, and I walked a few paces away and slipped between a pair of tall bookcases. In his big, blocky capitals it said, jamie. 10:30. can take lunch any time between 12 and 3 if you call by 11:45. please call. says hi. Sighing, I folded the note and put it in my pocket. Jamie worked in a copy shop three blocks away, and we sometimes met for lunch if our hours were right. The past few months I'd mostly been telling her they weren't, that I'd been given a late lunch or none at all, but recently, since the accident, she'd been pushing it, leaving messages like this one, calling at work just to say "Hi, are you OK?" I knew she was worried about me, and I felt grateful for that, or if not grateful, at least touched. I looked at my watch: 11:35. At the very least I should call to say no, but it would be so much easier not to call, to pretend I hadn't gotten the message in time. I touched my pocket and felt the note in there, the faint outline of it. Then I went and found a cart of books to shelve. Since the accident I could get away with more, which scared me.
The hospital was like a city, with distinct neighborhoods and commercial areas, and corridors inside like long, long streets. When I arrived that evening I sat in one of the lobbies for a few minutes, trying to get myself ready to go up. A farm family stood conferring near me, the men in poly-blend short-sleeved shirts that showed their brown arms and their creased, dark-red necks. Across the way, a very old woman in a wheelchair had been left by herself near a drinking fountain, a crocheted shawl over her hospital-issue gown. Mike and I had passed through this very lobby a couple years ago, when his grandfather was dying of lung cancer: his uncle Dick was too jumpy to sit for a meal, so we were searching for a box of Whoppers for him, the one thing he felt like eating. We finally found them in a gift shop just down the hall, and Mike opened them on the way back so we could each have one. Sitting there two years later, I could almost conjure up the taste of the malt on my tongue, how it burned a little next to the sweet, artificial chocolate.
I wondered: Would he look any different after a day away? Would it be any easier to see how he did look, beached on that strange bed? I hoped he'd be on his back. Seeing him on his stomach, his face framed by a cushioned oval and directed at the floor, was the hardest thing.
I happened to glance at the revolving doors just then, and there was Rooster, coming in, still in his suit. I stood up immediately. He was like Mrs. Mayer, full of hope, and I knew he'd disapprove of my just sitting there, of anything that smelled of pessimism. He put in his hours at the hospital as if they could accumulate to some good, to Mike's recovery.
He didn't see me, and I watched as he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror and paused to make an adjustment to his tie. I couldn't help smiling: it was still funny to see him in a suit, maybe because he took the image so seriously himself. "The customers want you to look better than they do," he told me once. "It's a psychological thing." For a year he'd been working on the sales floor of a Honda dealership down on the Beltline. He referred to cars as units now, even to those of us who could remember when he'd thought of them as wheels.
I crossed the lobby and met him near the information desk. He looked at me oddly for just a moment after we'd said hi, and I wondered if he knew about my absence the day before, if Mrs. Mayer had told him.
We rode the elevator up to Intensive Care, where it was always quiet and a little dim. Several nurses sat inside the central workstation, speaking in low voices or going over charts. Surrounding them were the patient rooms, a circle of cubicles with open doors flanked by big plate-glass windows, so the nurses could see inside no matter where in the unit they happened to be. I could hear the even beeps of heart monitors, the deep whooshing sounds of ventilators. Opposite Mike's room a cubicle sat empty, and I tried to remember who'd occupied it two days earlier. An old lady, I thought. Had she stabilized and moved on? Or died and been moved out?
Rooster stopped to talk to one of the nurses, and I stopped with him. She was twenty-nine or thirty, blond, beautiful in an icy, Nordic way. Impossible, in other words, which was just his type. I stood behind him, smiling a little whenever she looked my way. The nurses knew who each of us was. Rooster was the best friend. I was the fiancÚ. They'd all made a point of asking to see my ring.
Mike was on his back, and I relaxed a little at the sight of him. It wasn't any harder to see than it had been two days ago, a completely familiar body now ministered to by machines. The only thing covering him was a small cloth draped over his crotch, and the rest of him looked pale and doughy.
"Hi, Mike," Rooster said. "It's me, bud. I'm here with Carrie." He looked at me and waited, then lifted his chin a bit to urge me to speak. The nurses and doctors had encouraged us to talk to Mike, but it made me feel uncomfortable, as if I were speaking into a tape recorder. I stayed silent.
"It's June 14th," Rooster continued after a moment. "Seven-twenty p.m. I came straight from work to see you, bud." He took a piece of paper from his pocket. "Sold a Civic to a guy with a doozer of a name today. OK. This guy's a dentist, right? Moler. Dr. Richard Moler. I said to myself, That's one for the collection. That's one I gotta remember to tell Mikey."
For as long as I'd known them, Mike and Rooster had had a theory about names. Larry Speakes, the former White House spokesman. A chiropractor in the phonebook, Dr. Clinch. Driving through Menominee on their way back from a camping trip one summer, they saw a plaque on a building: Dr. Bonebrake, Orthopedist. Coincidence? Absolutely not, was their attitude. Their favorite was Rooster's freshman advisor at Madison Area Technical College, Mr. Tittman, who Rooster was willing to swear wore a bra.
Rooster folded up the piece of paper and put it back in his pocket. "You never know," he said with a shrug.
I took a few steps closer. With Rooster out of my vision, it was possible to imagine Mike and I were alone. I didn't want to speak out loud, but that didn't mean I couldn't talk to him. I looked at his face, at the shallow cleft of his chin and at his thin, pale lips. I covered his hand with mine and told him not to worry. I'm here, I told him. I'm here, I'm here.
At the elevators we ran into Mike's family, making their nightly trip back in to tell him goodnight. Mrs. Mayer was plainly relieved to see me, and even Mr. Mayer looked at me for an extra moment and nodded, as if tucking away for future analysis the knowledge that I was here now but hadn't been last night.
Rooster said he had to go, but I felt I should stay. I headed back to the lounge with them and waited while two by two they visited Mike's room. Then the five of us were all in the lounge together, and although there was no reason to stay, none of us made a move to leave. It was nearly eight, the end of a long day, and the smell of burned coffee drifted from the back corner of the room. I knew just what I'd see if I went over there: dirty coffeemaker surrounded by spilled grounds, empty blue and pink sweetener envelopes lying everywhere, carton of milk souring nearby.
"Have you seen the doctors today?"
I looked up and found Julie watching me. She was nineteen and just home from her first year of college; she wore a long print skirt and dangling silver earrings, and she smelled faintly of patchouli. I shook my head.
"I mean it, Mom," she said. "We can't just sit around on our asses and expect them to keep us completely up-to-date. We have to be active participants."
Mrs. Mayer cast me a sad smile.
"Jesus," Julie cried, and she got up and ran from the lounge.
"Oh, dear," Mrs. Mayer said.
"I'll go," Mr. Mayer said, but he didn't move.
I glanced at John Junior. He was sixteen and heartbreaking, with wavy brown hair and gray eyesMike's hair and eyesand the exact body Mike had had six years earlier, muscular but still narrow-waisted. I saw John and his friends at the Union sometimes, asking people with IDs to buy them beer at the Rat.
"How are you, John?" I said now.
"Fine." His voice was huskyI thought he was trying not to cry.
"How's the job?"
"OK. Stop by sometime, I'll scoop you a free one."
"Maybe I will."
The weekend before the accident he'd been hired at an ice cream parlor on State Street. I was at the Mayers' when he came in with the news, and quick as anything Mike said, "Perfect, bring me home a pint of butter pecan every night or I'll have your ass." Without missing a beat John said, "If you eat a pint of butter pecan every night no one'll have your ass," and Mike loved thathe told everyone about it for days afterward.
I looked at Mr. Mayer: at his tanned, balding head, at his hazel eyes filmy behind thick glasses. He'd left his coat and tie at home, but he still wore his pressed white shirt, his navy trousers, and his shiny black lace-ups. The orange couch he sat on was too low for him, and as he shifted, swinging his knees from left to right and bringing his arms closer to his body, I was suddenly certain he was about to make a pronouncement.
I stood up. He'd become ministerial in his speech since the accident, one day delivering sermons about hope and patience and the next lecturing us on the spinal cord and its function. I liked him, but I couldn't listenit made me too jittery.
"I guess I better go," I said.
The three of them said goodbye, and I felt them watch me as I left the lounge. I wondered how long they'd sit there before they went home.
At the elevators I found Julie, her arms crossed over her chest: her cheeks were flushed, her eyes brimming with tears. She pushed her hair away from her face. "I don't want to hear it, Carrie, OK?"
I was taken aback. "I wasn't going to say anything."
"My mother's an idiot. I can't believe I never figured that out until I was nineteen."
"Better late than never."
She half smiled but then quickly shook her head, as if she didn't want to be derailed. "Do you know what she was doing when I got home this afternoon? Ironing tablecloths. Do you know when the last time we used a tablecloth was? Christmas! Do you know when the next time will be? Thanksgiving!"
"She has to do something," I said.
"Then why doesn't she do something about Mike?" Julie cried. Then she burst into tears. "Because there's nothing to do," she sobbed. "There's nothing to do."
I put my arms around her and pulled her close. Why hadn't I cried? Why couldn't I? I felt stony. I ran a hand down her hair and felt her shoulder blades, how bony and angular they were.
She palmed her face, wiped her hand on her skirt, then looked up at me. "Why couldn't it have been Rooster?" she whispered fiercely.
As if it had to have been someone: I'd thought the same horrible thing. "I don't know," I said to her. "I really don't."
Rooster was still in the lobby when I got there, standing near the exit, talking to the same blond nurse. Her hair was down now, a sweep of pale waves, and she carried a shoulder bag. After a moment he looked up and saw me, then motioned for me to join them.
"Have you guys actually met?" he said. "Carrie, this is Joan. She's from Oconomowoc, believe it or not."
I nodded: his parents were both from Oconomowoc; it was where he went for holidays.
"You know who Carrie is."
Joan smiled at me. She was taller than I'd realized, nearly six feet, with clear, fair skin and extraordinary pale blue eyes. "I'm sure sorry about Mike," she said.
"It's way too soon to give up hope, though."
"Exactly," Rooster said.
Joan headed for the exit, and I watched Rooster watching her, his eyes on her even once she was out the door and heading into the parking lot. "Nice," he said at last.
"Nice what?" I was used to his ways. Nice legs. Nice ass.
He put his hand on my shoulder, and after a moment we started toward the door together. It was muggy and hot outside, the sky a glaring white. Heat blew toward us from the parking lot, thick and exhaust-tinged.
"Let's go for a drink."
I glanced up and found him watching me closely, face flushed, red hair damp at the hairline. I looked away. "I don't really feel like it."
He stopped walking and put his hands on his hips. "Come on, Carrie, be a friend for once, OK? One beer, I promise. We'll go somewhere quiet."
"For once? Why did you say for once?" My eyes burned a little, and I thought it would be incredible if this were what finally made me cry.
"I didn't mean it like that."
"How did you mean it?"
He rolled his eyes. An impatient look came over his face, and he stared out at the sea of cars baking in the late sun. Finally he looked back at me. "I didn't mean it at all, OK?"
I sighed. Rooster always got his way eventually, through sheer force of will. I could go on resisting, but what was the point? "All right," I said, "one beer."
We drove separately, then met up in front of the University Bookstore. While we were standing there trying to decide where to go, we ran into Stu, who talked us into the Union terrace. Rooster stood in line for beer while Stu and I got a table. Lake Mendota was a rippled silver, like a vast piece of silk spread out but not yet smoothed. I remembered the morning, how both lakes had disappointed me, and I decided they'd been tainted: by my failure to visit Mike the day before.
"Earth to Carrie," Stu said.
Rooster had arrived with the beer. I reached for my mug and took a sip. "Sorry."
Stu leaned forward. "How are you doing?"
I lifted my hand off the table and rocked it back and forth.
"And the Mayers?"
Excerpted from Dive Off Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer. Copyright © 2002 by Ann Packer. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.