It is Friday at seven o’clock. You pull out of your driveway in your mom’s white minivan as you head to Beth’s. Snaking through suburbia, houses pass in varying colors of stucco, green grass uninterrupted. The park is next, with the adobe dwelling built to nineteenth-century specifications. The mannequins inside recreate what life was like here over a hundred and fifty years ago, back when Mesa Verde’s verde was the color of sage, not Miracle Gro. At the stoplight, you wait to turn right. There is a break in the cars flashing by, but you don’t step on the gas. You check the time. The clock’s barely moved. The light changes. You hope the others are on their way, too.
It’s become expected. Fridays at seven. Her mother cried last Christmas because you all were there for her daughter. The regulars who visited at the hospital left once she began to recognize them. They stopped coming, one by one, as she blinked for communication, then gripped your hand to say hello, and then struggled with words. By the time she began to walk with a nurse’s hand on the small of her back for guidance, only a few stayed.
Now, over a year later, it is just you and your three other friends, and apparently, it is the thing that she looks forward to. So every Friday you leave your apartment on campus, drop your laundry off at home, and go.
If you are the first to get there, the two of you will sit on her sofa. She will look at you under her short, curly brown hair and talk about the same thing that she talked about last week. She will touch her fingertips together, one by one — a new habit that she picked up since the car accident. She will nod as she talks, ringlets in her face. Her Schnoodle, Sam, will leap on the couch and lick you. You want to hold him, but his hair is greasy and leaves your palms coated with dander.
She will see him and say, “Isn’t it funny? All of our other dogs were like my family. Carly like my mom, Winston like my dad, Magnum like my brother, and now, Sam, he’s just like me.” It is true. Sam is like her: friendly, loving, full of energy. Sam melts the hearts of people who hate dogs.
If someone new is there, it will be different. A new person launches her into philosophy. She will say: “I think I always knew this would happen.” No you didn’t, you want to say. “I knew I couldn’t keep living like this.” We told you, but you ignored us. You know the others think this, too. She will continue, “At first, I would think, ‘Oh God, why did this happen to me?” It happened because you got clipped from behind. It happened because you spun into traffic. It was late. You might not have been entirely sober—nobody will say—but it wasn’t your fault. “But now,” And here it comes. “I’m just so much closer to my family and you guys. It’s just such…” We tried to be closer before. You pushed us away. “A blessing.”
She will get teary then, and you won’t know what to do, only thinking of what not to say. If you wait long enough, the others will chime in. They are the ones who know how to talk to her. But if it’s just you, and you can think of nothing else, you will mention how far she has come: “I mean, we used to be excited when you blinked. Now you can walk, talk.”
“But,” she will say, “I could dance before. I looked like me.”
You will look into her misshapen and too-wide left eye and try to focus on the right one. That side of her face still looks like her—smooth, almond eye with a pointed nose. You will remain silent because what can you say to that? Really?
So you drive under the speed limit. Cars pass, going at least fifty, but you stick to forty even though the sign says forty-five. You pass over the flood control, the cement-blocked thoroughfare that is the Santa Ana River. The river is dry. It is late September. Southern California hasn’t even begun to think about the rainy season. The river will be dry for another two months, but it’s ready for the runoff when the rains come. It’s ready to empty into the Pacific.
Before the accident happened, she hadn’t been Beth. On Valentine’s Day, you all met at Denny’s. A friendship date. In blatant disregard of the sign, she walked in without any shoes, yet still got service. You kept staring at her feet, embarrassed that the others seemed to be able to overlook her lack of footwear and you couldn’t.
You sat at a booth, surrounding each other, trying to fill in the time that you had been apart. Her laugh took over the restaurant. Too loud, screechy. It was a laugh that wasn’t quite in control.
She sat with her fries, and you knew that the family next to you wondered why a girl in her twenties put ketchup and syrup together. You knew the waitress just wanted you to leave, bringing the check early. And when it was time to pay, she brought out her purse and counted in change. You left the restaurant, your table filled with a few bills, a pile of coins, and a syrup-ketchup lake.
It had been okay though because you didn’t see her much. She was always away with excuses. The others were closer with her. One of them told you about pictures of Beth in Vegas. Pictures that, when described to you, reminded you of Requiem for a Dream. Another said that Beth showed up sporadically for class with eyes lined with white pencil. Beth thought it looked good. Your friend said that it just accented the red in Beth’s eyes.
A green light turns yellow. You are a car’s length away when this happens, and you roll to a stop, waiting for the red. Cars on either side easily make it. Mini malls surround you, a seemingly endless repetition of coffee shops, cafes, grocery stores.
Before the accident, you all tried to get past her behavior and just remember how she had been originally, when it was fun and she had worn shoes. In geometry class your sophomore year of high school, she would sit behind you and massage your neck. She would tug on your hair when Mr. Atwell wrote solutions on the board. One of the others sat in front of you, and you would pass papers back and forth, whispering something dirty about right angles, as you all tried not to laugh. Everyday you celebrated the fact that your last names started with the same letter and the seating chart was in alphabetical order.
The light changes back to green. Mini malls fade into suburbia. Cinderblock sound walls line empty sidewalks. A school stands on one side of the street, the speed limit changing to twenty-five if children are present. They aren’t. You slow down anyway. An orange tree reaches over the wall. Tiny green fruit crowd the branches, hundreds of them, waiting for winter to ripen.
A month ago in late summer, you were at Starbucks with her and one of the others. It was morning. You and a friend had spent the night at her house. Her parents needed a vacation, and so they enlisted the four of you to watch her. When one had to work in the morning, another came over, so there would always be two of you with her. You were tired, having barely slept the night before, and you just wanted coffee.
She danced in the aisles while you waited to order. Her hips jerked back and forth. She looked rusty, stiff, hardly the moves of a belly dancer. Her shirt read “It’s five o’clock somewhere” and she paired it with a long, floral skirt, purple, her favorite.
You tried to talk to your friend, tried to ignore the dancing, pretended like you could hold a completely normal conversation. You probably talked about work, you tutoring, your friend operating rides at Disneyland. Beth danced.
The dancing wasn’t new. Before the accident, she would shake and shimmy and nod to music that might not have even been there, but her smooth grace, the way her hips shifted effortlessly, made people transfixed. Before the accident, she had begun to get gigs with her belly-dancing troupe.
The group performed at the rehabilitation hospital for her twenty-first birthday. Beth got up, her feet shaky under her, a helmet on her head to protect the part of her skull that had been removed. She danced, jutting her body back and forth while people hovered. Everyone applauded, joyous at so much improvement.
As she danced in Starbucks, you could feel people watching and wondering why a girl in her twenties was doing this. She stood next to the Huntington Beach mugs across from the seasonal blends and French presses. She stood in the center of the store as you all waited to place your orders, and she danced while people stared. They tried to not make it obvious. They pretended to contemplate bags of beans, reading the description about Free Trade for far too long, or studying the menu, but you knew they were watching. Your cheeks burned.
You talked about DC. Someone you knew was visiting.
“Washington?” she asked; her post-accident voice now too high.
“Yes, that DC,” you said, and you said it sarcastically, because you knew that she wouldn’t know you were being mean, and because she wouldn’t remember it in five minutes, and because you stayed up until three in the morning in her living room, since her brother was on the computer next to you until then, and you couldn’t fall asleep. So you were mean, embarrassed for being mean, exasperated, because it was only nine in the morning, and you had to stay at her house until one, before heading to work for seven hours, only to come back and help make her dinner. Her parents wouldn’t be back until the next day. Driving now, you can’t remember if you looked at your friend after you said this. You hope that you didn’t. You hope no one heard.
You stop at a stop sign, not rolling through, despite the fact that no one is out. Ahead, the street dead-ends. It empties to a chain link fence and an inlet that leads to the Pacific. Behind the fence, the land shakes away cement, rolling, stretching with the hills of the wetlands. Muted colors line the view: sage of salt brush, white of buckwheat, and rose of icicle plants. Palm trees polka dot the landscape. You continue, pausing the full three seconds at each stop sign, looking right, then left, then right again before moving on.
Eucalyptus trees wave you down the street. You love them, but on the days when the Santa Ana winds blow the land dry, the smell makes you sneeze. You wait for a car to pass before you turn onto her track.
Her parents hadn’t even asked. “We need to get away,” they said. “When are you free? When do we need to come home? Our numbers are on the fridge.”
So you ran back and forth from work, bending under the responsibility. And what if she fell? Did she take all her medicine? What if one of your friends came over? Would you have to kick them out at her bedtime?
You are an only child. You’ve never babysat. You switched majors from directing to screenwriting just so you wouldn’t have to call the shots, and yet, you found yourself sitting on her couch with the others, the last week of summer before you started your senior year of college. You watched a guy fix their cable while she showered and then forgot to put on pants. She ran out half-dressed because she heard laughter in the living room. You told her to put on clothes: there were men in the room. She slammed her bedroom door.
When her parents got back, they said, “Thank you so much. We really needed it.” And you knew your script, though you felt sick forcing the words “no problem” out of your mouth.
You turn at the turquoise house with the overgrown pine tree covering the sign that says Summerdale Circle. You take your foot off the gas and coast.
You can still feel your insides falling away from the phone call after the accident. You stared at your nutrition book after hanging up. The words “drug-induced coma” rang in your head, and somehow, it sounded better than a regular one, like she could wake up if she wanted to. Your Winnie the Pooh lamp from sixth grade illuminated your childhood desk, and you looked at the words on the page describing caloric intake. You tried to read the paragraph again and again, and when you couldn’t comprehend the passage, you got up and found your mother.
And you remember the blood rushing to your head when you first saw her, after it all happened. You sat outside the ICU with a friend; only two were allowed in at a time. Fire doors stood at the end of the hall, a metal grate at the threshold. It jarred each gurney that passed. You sat on the linoleum, waiting, hearing patients groan. The two of you couldn’t understand why the hospital would do that, why they couldn’t design a smooth floor.
Two left, and you two were buzzed in. The nurses’ station sat in the middle of the ICU with glass-enclosed rooms encircling it. You barely glanced in at any of them. You tried to make your eyes blur, converting the people lying in beds into indistinct lumps. You stared at the nurses’ station, filled with family pictures, sticky notes, files. You think you smiled at the nurses, trying to look relaxed, in control.
Beth’s room was on the other side, a full half-circle from the entrance. And there she was on her back, in the middle of her bed, an octopus of wires. A machine hissed and clunked as it breathed for her. A monitor spilled out numbers in green and red, Christmas colors in July. Her mother explained what the numbers meant – heart rate, blood pressure, brain pressure. She explained how swollen Beth’s brain was, why there was a sign reminding the nurses that a piece of her skull had been removed. You saw Beth there, her face swollen, her head bandaged, with a tube sticking straight out of the top to suck out excess fluid, looking like a terrible Dr. Seuss character. But it was Beth. It was her.
Her mother explained the number for her brain activity. It became a beacon for all of you. You took turns talking, telling stories, trying to get that number to move. If it jumped, surely, she must have been listening.
You stood by her side, holding her hand, smooth, tanned, unscarred. Staples lined her face, disappearing into the bandages circling her scalp. A staple shined next to her right ear, and it struck you that that staple was in place because doctors peeled away Beth’s skin to get to her brain. You had to sit down or else you’d be sick. “Low blood sugar,” you said.
And you know she didn’t cause the accident. It wasn’t her fault, even if you never got all the details, even if she had been out late that night. People whispered that drugs were in her system, but maybe you heard it wrong. You don’t know. They can’t even find all the cars involved. Someone hit her from behind as she got on the ramp to the freeway. She spun across five lines of traffic, resting with the driver’s side in the left lane. A man in a truck fell asleep at the wheel. It wasn’t her fault.
They shut the freeway down, an artery through Los Angeles. Someone you all knew had been stuck in the traffic, and saw a few shards of the remaining wreckage. What a coincidence, you thought.
As you tap the gas, giving the car enough momentum to reach the end of the street, you think of Beth’s story, how she holds on to the fact that she had died and was resuscitated. You remember that she’s gotten better (and you think that she will only get better from here. She won’t.). You try to make yourself remember her old laugh, the way that she filled a room. But you can’t. But you can still see those staples, and you don’t want to see them again. So you drive to the end of the street, wanting to cry at the fact that it’s a cul-de-sac and you have to parallel park but you don’t even know how.