Walk-in — Finalist, Mystery/Thriller.Lambda Literary Foundation
Walk-in — Finalist, Lesbian Mystery.
I think the peaches were the first thing I noticed that were wrong. They were in a bag in the refrigerator, a plain plastic produce bag, tied in a knot at the top just like all the others in the crisper. Peaches. Not nectarines, smooth and shiny, but three definitely fuzzy peaches.
I don’t like peaches.
It seemed a small thing at first, but it niggled at my mind. Why would I have peaches in my fridge? I moved things around, looking for any other strange vegetable kingdom materializations, but that was it. At first.
Gregory—that’s my husband—said not to worry. The doctors told us it would be some time before my brain was working normally. Closed head trauma, they call it—severe closed head trauma with concussion. Very scientific words to explain why my thoughts and memories are scrambled like eggs.
I like eggs.
God, I’ve been obsessed with food. I think it’s because it is such a simple, available clue to who and what I was. Am. What I am.
There is a method to my thinking. I call it Jennifer’s Scale of Order. Food is simpler than clothes. Clothes are simpler than work. Work is simpler than friends. I am simpler than I used to be.
I figured the scale out last week, scribbled it in my notebook in big, unfamiliar letters that crawled off the lines and up the page. Gregory frowned and said my penmanship would probably improve along with my memory. He was right; it’s a lot more even now, yet still not much like my old handwriting.
I don’t show my notebook to Gregory anymore. I’m beginning to think I don’t like him any better than I like the peaches.
It isn’t just the strange foods or the unfamiliar man in this house that make me realize how dense I’ve become. I remember things sometimes and am beginning to recognize people, but it’s sort of like an old movie I saw years ago: the plot is familiar and the actors have faces I know and names I almost recall, but the details are hazy and I’d really just as soon watch the commercials.
Doctor Carey, my psychiatrist, says, “Episodes of disorientation and emotional detachment aren’t rare with injuries like yours. It will take time for everything to resolve.” She really does sound that way. She says the fog will clear. Probably. “Ninety-five percent of head injuries like yours are back to normal within a year.”
That’s great. In the meantime, all I have to do is figure out how to fake everything until I get back to normal. Whatever that means. How will I know I’m back to normal if I can’t remember what normal feels like?
Is it normal to look at a man I’ve been married to for four years and wonder how the two of us managed to stay together for so long? I may still be a little dysfunctional a year from now, but I’m pretty sure Gregory will be as pompous and overbearing as he is now.
Did I always cringe every time he so much as touched me in passing? Lord, I hope not. That would mean I’m either an idiot or a masochist. On the other hand, it’s more frightening to imagine making love to him and actually enjoying it. I think I’d rather be one of the walking wounded than get naked with that man. Wanting to be normal again is one thing, but there are limits.
A hunger pang gnawing its way from my stomach to my backbone provides perspective. I’m hungry, and I have no intention of eating fuzzy fruit. I shut the refrigerator and decide to explore the pantry. Popcorn—a huge box of extra buttery.
This is more like it! I throw a bag in the microwave—this side up—and punch five minutes. I do remember how to cook popcorn. What more could a woman ask? A Diet Coke and popcorn. Breakfast of…breakfast of…something. I know I should know how that saying goes, but no matter.
Life is good. Wait for the beep.
Beep. Beeeeeep. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
“We’re losing her!”
“She almost bled out before they got her here. Hang two more units!”
“Call a code. Get a crash cart in here. Stat!”
The long, flat sound of the monitor muffles the voices of the doctors and nurses. The fog blurs the sight of them bending over the still, blood-drenched woman lying on the narrow bed, erases their frantic efforts as I watch from some uncertain vantage point.
Fog rising like magician’s smoke, filling the room, wrapping me in a blanket and carrying me away. No more headache. No more pain. No more day after day of day after day. Freedom after a long time of doing time. Just rising with the fog.
Not a cold lonely fog, but a warm living mist. Filled with comings and goings. Busy ones, going back. Tired ones, in for a rest. Communication without conversation.
I’m ready to rest now, for a while, ready to break the faint, silvery thread still connected to that body back somewhere in a frantic, crowded hospital room.
“Wait.” A voice from somewhere, someone. “Wait for me.”
Someone going, wanting to follow the thread back. Secrets told. Bargains made. Presto chango! The thread passes and I settle into the enveloping fog.
Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep. Beeeeeep. Beep. Beep.
“We’ve got her! We’ve got sinus rhythm. Good work! She’s back.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
The persistent timer signals the job is done. The microwave stops and the smell of popcorn fills my nose. I rip open the bag and rescue a hot kernel from the steaming interior and pop it into my mouth. Salt and warm butter melt into my taste buds.
Aah, yes. This I remember. This is living.
Gregory went back to work today, thank God. He’s in the market—make that The Market—stocks, not groceries. He’s been at my side since the accident, him and his laptop and cell phone. He has been considerate, though, I’ll give him that. The phone is on vibrate, not ring. And he moves a few feet away and speaks very softly so as not to disturb me.
It’s all right with me. I’ve learned to block out all the low, urgent talk of buy and sell and margins to the point that it has become background noise. Sort of a rumbling, high-tech, semi-human Muzak—familiar, bland and vaguely annoying. His return to the safety of his steel and glass safe room in downtown Dallas has turned the volume to “off” for a few hours.
The silence is blissful. I revel in the lack of noise. It gives me time to wander barefoot over cool Saltillo tiles and try to find anything of myself in these impeccably decorated rooms. I must have had some say in choosing this furniture, must have agreed to so much leather and wood and beige. I swear I don’t see myself as a beige person, but this house makes it hard to argue the point.
My closet is full of clothes in colors that run the gamut from basic black through a range of screaming neutrals—ivory in shades from eggshell to candlelight, a riot of taupe, and whites so pure they could star in laundry soap commercials. I wonder what would happen if a red T-shirt made an appearance here? Would there be chaos? An alarm summoning the fashion police? What is the penalty for standing out from the antique white walls? I shudder to think.
Even my underwear drawer has neatly arranged rows of pristine white bras and matching panties, discreet nude satin sets for a bit of variety. And for those nights of wild abandon, a champagne and cognac-colored lace teddy and robe. For once, I’m glad my memory fails me.
This memory thing is a lot more complicated than I realized at first. From the way Dr. Carey explained it, things will come back bit by bit, with pieces missing for a while or maybe forever. She didn’t mention that things would come back that didn’t seem to fit anywhere—certainly not in this elegant test tube of a house. Things are coming back, popping into my head like disjointed flashes from God knows where.
I remember blue jeans. I remember plaid shirts with a Gap label. I remember a woman with black hair and piercing eyes and a fireplace with ashes left over from an actual log. There are smells I knew that I’ve never known here. Spice and incense, like a church, but without the holy feel; some kind of cedar, old and a little damp; the odor of animals—a dog, a cat? Hell, it could be a muskrat for all I know.
But the strangely familiar, totally out of place flash fades and here I am in my perfectly perfect home, lost as a loon. What is a loon, exactly? I certainly don’t remember loons.
I don’t know how long I can keep on fooling everyone. Every day I meet people who ask how I am, how I’m feeling, can they do anything to help? They seem to be truly concerned, nice folks. I nod and smile and make remarks I hope are appropriate to whatever relationship we shared in my distant and dim-witted past, the life I must have had before the crash with the big red thing.
That’s all I can find of anything before the accident. Not my life. Not my friends. Most assuredly not my husband. Just a flash of something big and red and fast heading straight for me—then the hospital.
They said it was a truck. I believe it. I was sore enough to have been hit by a truck. My ribs still ache and my head is numb when I scratch the skin underneath my hair. Everyone says it’s for the best that I can’t recall the accident or all the pain I was in, but they’re wrong. I’d take all the pain for one clear day of my past.
Weren’t there memories strong enough to penetrate this dullness? Didn’t I have a day so glorious that it refuses to be stifled? My wedding? Falling in love with the stranger I live with? I’d like to remember a dark and rainy day when my dog got run over if it would come in clear-edged and certain.
I think I had a dog once. Sometime—I’m pretty sure I had a dog.
Looking around me, Rover or Spot must have come before Gregory. I can’t imagine any self-respecting dog living in this house.
What I need is someone to talk to. Someone real. Someone not Gregory. Not my shrink. Just somebody besides myself. There have been calls from friends who offer to do anything to help. I think I’ll just call and ask for help. Not that I can phrase it that way, can I? That would sound lonely and desperate and a little crazy, right?
Lunch would be a better idea. I’ll just look in my handy, well-organized desktop file and ask…Let’s see—Joanie, Kelli, Marybeth? Oh, I remember Marybeth. She came to the hospital and brought balloons and brushed my hair. Yes, I’ll do lunch with Marybeth, if she can make it.
Less than an hour later Marybeth picked me up in her pewter Jaguar convertible.
“I’m so glad you called me today,” she assured me. “My bridge group is on a break right now and I was really in no mood to stay and watch the maid cleaning the windows.”
“Wow, I really rate. More fun than watching the maid,” I said. And there I sat, feeling unimportant.
“Now, Jennifer. You know I didn’t mean it that way.” Marybeth pulled her gaze from the flow of traffic and looked at me as if she had farted in public. “I’ve been dying for us to get together. It’s just that I didn’t know if you were up for it yet.”
“A joke, Marybeth. I was making a joke.”
“Of course you were.” She smiled politely in my direction. “You were never much of a joker before…Before, you know. It took me kind of by surprise.”
“I’m more clever now that my brain is rearranged?”
“It’s not that you weren’t smart—just not the joking type. Know what I mean?” She checked the rearview mirror as she changed lanes, then looked again, pressing her lips together in a tiny, satisfied moue. “Do you like this lipstick? It’s called Poppy Kiss. The girl at Neiman’s said it was perfect for my skin.”
“It is perfect.” No way I’d question the Neiman’s girl. Right now, trying to figure out the intricacies of cosmetics was as out of reach as quantum physics. “Very, uh, floral,” I improvised.
“Exactly.” Marybeth breathed a contented sigh. “You always were so perceptive. Not everyone realizes that floral has completely replaced berries. I can’t wait ’til you get well enough to shop again. I sure have missed your advice.”
“I gave you advice? On shopping?” This was one of those moments when my head injury made me aware I’d lost more than my mind. I’d lost my fashion sense, which I was beginning to learn was a crucial part of my erstwhile charm. “I’m a good shopper?”
“World class! The stores in the Galleria have noticed that you’ve been out of commission.” She giggled, a witchy peal one note shy of fingernails on a chalkboard. “Their commissions are tied to yours. Get it?”
“Uh-huh.” My stomach was starting to hurt. “It seems I’m not the only witty one today.”
Marybeth looked pleased by the compliment and said, as if bestowing a reward, “After lunch, if you feel up to it, we could go by the mall for a little while and pick up a few things. Maybe just run into Nordstrom.”
“Maybe. Could we go to the Gap? I think I need some new jeans.”
“Oh, Jennifer, you are funny today.” The tinkling laugh rankled my nerves again as she turned into the restaurant parking lot. “The thought of you in the Gap. It’s great to have you back.”
I followed docilely in her expensively scented wake as she swept into the restaurant. As the fawning waiter showed us to our “usual” table, I began planning an imminent relapse. Lunch, a drink or two, then back to the beige cocoon with a sudden, splitting headache. Marybeth would have to take her chances without my legendary fashion expertise.
Maybe the girl at Nordstrom could call the girl at Neiman’s in case of an emergency.
I’ve marked six months off the calendar. Everyone expects things to be settling in and back to the good old days by now. Don’t I wish! I sympathize with Dorothy—I’m sure I’m not in Kansas anymore either. The tornado blew over, but there’s no sign of Toto or the Tin Man and the only ruby slippers I’ve seen have been in evening shoes at Willowbend Mall.
My concentration is much better and I’ve been watching television and movies. A lot of movies. It’s the strangest thing—I know these stories better than I know my own life B.C.—before the crash. Rhett and Scarlett are old friends. Likewise Thelma and Louise—love ’em.
Who I don’t love is Gregory. In fact, he gives me the heebie-jeebies. The man makes me feel like I’ve wandered into the Twilight Zone, a place where I’d feel more comfortable than this pretty mausoleum I live in now. If I walked into the living room and found a quartet of redheaded Martians playing bridge, they wouldn’t be more alien to me than Gregory is.
Dr. Carey finds the subject endlessly fascinating. Our last session started where they all seem to start lately.
“I hate my husband.”
“And why is that today? What did Gregory do to upset you?”
Dr. Carey uncrossed her legs and made a note on the newest of the yellow legal pads that chronicle my life. I watched as she repositioned her legs, noticing that her calves didn’t squish flat even crossed. Good muscle tone for someone over fifty—a runner, maybe. She was looking at me looking at her legs. Another squiggle on the pad. Uh-oh. “Can you tell me why you’re so angry at Gregory?”
“I’m not angry at him. I said I hate him. Okay, that may be too strong a word—hate. I dislike him. A lot. Whatever he does annoys me. I loathe him.”
I paused, warming up, getting into my rhythm. Dr. Carey nodded, waiting without helping fill in the silent spot, waiting for more fodder to fatten her legal pad.
“Well okay.” I wanted to be fair. “It’s not what he does. He just gets on my nerves. He has a perfect job, a perfect car, eats at the best restaurants. For God’s sake, he’s a Stepford husband, executive model. Makes me seem like an idiot for complaining. The only thing wrong with him is me.”
“That’s an interesting observation.”
“I hate it when you do that shrink thing. If you want to ask me something, just do it. Don’t give me that Jungian-Freudian-Dr. Phil coy ‘isn’t that interesting’ bullshit.”
She smiled, a real-person smile, flashing even white teeth and revealing a killer set of dimples. Who’d have figured the cool Dr. Carey for dimples?
“Fair enough,” she said. “I’ll just ask. What makes you think the problem is with you?”
“Have you been listening to anything at all for the last few months? Read your notes. Head injury. Lala-land. Didn’t even know my hair isn’t naturally blonde until the goddamn roots started showing. Now that was a shock.”
“I’ll bet.” Dimples again. “But, Jennifer, having a head injury and memory impairment doesn’t make everything your problem. Did you ever consider the possibility that you and your husband were having adjustment issues before the accident?”
“Before?” The thought set off a mind explosion. “Before the accident? You mean I didn’t like him then either? That’s too weird; it’s ridiculous. It’s…it couldn’t be. I wouldn’t be living with him if I hadn’t liked him before. Why would anyone live like that?”
“You’d be surprised what people will live with and for what reasons.” Dr. Carey returned to the inquisition. “There are a few things that make me curious.” She looked right into my eyes. “For example, you have made a point of avoiding any questions about your intimate marital relationship.”
“Sex?” My voice squeaked, sliding up half an octave in the one word. “You want to talk about my sex life?”
“Is that a problem for you? Are you uncomfortable discussing sex?” I swear behind her professional exterior, she was enjoying watching me squirm. “Tell me about your feelings,” she pried. “Are you embarrassed because you and Gregory are incompatible in bed? That may be part of your hostility toward—”
“As a matter of fact, we don’t have problems in bed. He sleeps in his and I sleep in mine.” Her pen flew over the notebook, but her eyes were still on me. Oh well, might as well make the rest of the session a triumph for her. “It was a convenience after the accident and it sort of just stayed that way.”
“So you don’t have sex at all?”
“I have great sex sometimes. Gregory just isn’t there when I do it.”
“Oh I see. And Gregory hasn’t complained?” I shrugged, and she pressed on. “What does he do for his needs?”
“Sweet God, I try not to think about Gregory and sex.” I suppressed a shudder. “For all I know, his laptop probably has a special port for sex—he uses it for everything else.”
The choking sound she made might have been a cough.
“And you’re satisfied with things the way they are? You don’t want to reconnect with your husband sexually?”
“Not unless it’s a choice between that and being shot with a small-bore weapon at close range.” I stretched a smile over my face, but it may have still sounded a little hostile. “Look, I hate the man and if I hated him a year ago, you should have been treating me for a long time.” I fidgeted on the sofa. “I’m really bored with this subject. If it has to be discussed at all, I think another time would be better.”
“As you wish, but I think this is a sign of progress. Are you sure?”
“Right. Like I’m sure of anything. I mean, it’s like the dreams. The fog. How many people do you know who have dreams about total strangers? Only about total strangers.”
“Are you still having the same dream?”
“Sort of, but it’s getting more detailed, more real feeling. Pieces here and there are new.”
“Tell me what’s new.”
“It starts in the usual way. I’m walking down a street, talking to the dark-haired woman. We’re laughing, our arms linked. Celebrating our success. Celebrating—I still can’t remember what it is or why we’re so excited.”
“And that’s bothering you?”
“I need to know what’s going on. Who is she? Not one of the people who’d ever fit with Gregory, that’s for sure. It makes me crazy trying to make it fit. Why can’t I remember?”
“What happens next?”
“The fog starts to come in. Sudden. Thick rolling fog. Jo’s afraid.”
“Jo? Is that the dark-haired woman’s name?”
“I…I think…yes. Jo. Jo’s afraid. I try to calm her, but the hair on the back of my neck starts to prickle.” I glance around Dr. Carey’s familiar office, reminding myself of where I am, but I still feel the threat. “Now I’m afraid too. Someone’s in the fog, just behind us, but I can’t see who it is. The fog is heavier, so thick now you can’t see the lights of the bar or the lights on the street.
“Someone’s near. You can hear footsteps now. Jo is there with me one second, then there’s a yank and her hand is gone from mine. She’s gone. No scream, just a muffled gasp of surprise.
“I turn, spin around in the fog. Call her name. Nothing. Then a flash of light. A streak of red, something fast and red heading straight for me. Then nothing. No fog. No Jo. Nothing.”
Dr. Carey stopped writing, her pen hanging in the air above the page. She was watching my face. Without saying a word, she got up and brought me a bottle of cold mineral water from a small refrigerator built into the wall.
“Here, sip on this and take a few deep breaths. You’re very pale. Are you all right?”
I nodded, but my hand was trembling and my voice wouldn’t work at all. She stood beside me, close enough that the faintest hint of her perfume wafted around me. Something soft and flowery and spicy. I closed my eyes for a second and gave in to the small womanly comfort.
Her fingers were firm and warm against my clammy wrist as she checked my pulse. She gave a slight squeeze before returning to her usual chair. Notebook back in hand, she wrote for a couple of minutes while I sipped my water and tried to hold onto the dream. No use—it was fading, slipping away the more I tried to pin it down.
“This dream is important,” I said, surprised at the solid certainty in my voice. “I don’t know why, but I have to find out. You’ve got to help me.”
“Have you talked to Gregory about the dream?”
“It doesn’t have anything to do with him.”
“Perhaps he could tell you who Jo is. Some old friend you can’t recall yet? Family?”
“This isn’t about Gregory. I’m certain of that in my gut. He and Jo have nothing to do with each other.” Hope flickered in my stomach, a tiny flutter of bright butterfly wings. “Dr. Carey, I don’t have much in life I’m sure of right now, but this is clear beyond all else. Gregory doesn’t know Jo, but I do. I know it. You’ve got to help me get to the bottom of this. You just have to.”
She stared at me, not like I was a bug under a microscope, but as if she were looking inside my muddled head, seeing part of the real me for the first time, knowing how desperate I was.
“I have a suggestion, but you must let me know if the idea frightens you or makes you uncomfortable.” She put down her pen and pad and leaned closer. “There is one possibility I think we should try. Hypnosis.”
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