I doze off again, and am woken up by the sound of the door to my room opening up. It’s dark now, and there’s something a little ominous about how the door creaks open. I grip my blankets, preparing to make a run for it from the Hospital Strangler.
Except it isn’t a random murderer at my door. It’s that guy with the kind hazel eyes and the wheelchair. Riley, I think his name was.
He pushes my door open, then closes it behind him. He grabs onto the end of my bed to pull himself forward, towards me. I’ve never known anyone who used a wheelchair before. This is kind of awkward, and moreover, I don’t know what he’s doing here.
Now that he isn’t right on top of me, I have a chance to look him over a little more carefully. His black hair is just as disheveled as it was earlier today, maybe more so. And the five o’clock shadow has darkened considerably in the few hours since I last saw him—he must be one of those guys who needs to shave like twice a day. (Unlike Walt, who can get away with shaving every other day.) He’s wearing a wrinkled button-up shirt that’s half tucked into his pants and half loose. And the tour de force is his shoes, which are resting on a single footplate attached to his wheelchair. He’s wearing two different shoes. Two completely different shoes. They’re not even the same color.
As Walt likes to say, some people look like they got dressed in the dark.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. I check my watch. “Visiting hours are over.”
“Snuck in,” Riley says, grinning as if pleased with himself. “Pretended I was a patient and said I was going back to my room. I knew this wheelchair would come in handy.”
I frown at him as I reach for my nurse’s call button. “So it’s a fake? You’re not really disabled?”
The smile fades from Riley’s face. “What are you talking about? Maggie, you know I am…” He shakes his head at me. “Seriously, what’s going on?”
I locate the red button just to the side of my hip and press it firmly. I want this guy out of my room. “Nothing’s going on,” I say.
“Please tell me, Maggie,” he says, his dark brow furrowed.
“Stop calling me Maggie!” I snap at him. “That’s not… you don’t know me well enough to call me that!”
Riley stares at me like he was slapped. “Then… what should I call you?”
“Margaret. Or Dr. McDaniels.”
“Okay. Margaret.” He stumbles a little bit over my full name.
He leans forward in his wheelchair until his elbows rest on his knees, then he drops his face into his hands and starts rubbing his eyes under his lenses. He looks so pathetic right now that I kind of feel sorry for him.
“I’m having some trouble remembering things,” I finally admit.
He lifts his face to look at me. “You are? Like what?”
I heave a sigh. “Like, I don’t remember anything from the last three years. Since my wedding day.”
Riley stares at me. “Are you serious? You don’t remember anything?”
“You must remember something?”
I shake my head no.
Riley looks like a truck just slammed him in the chest. He bites his lip. “So you don’t know who I am?”
“No,” I admit. And because he looks so crestfallen, I add, “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry,” he mumbles, shaking his head. He grabs the wheels of his chair and shifts his position slightly. He lowers his voice several notches when he speaks again, “Maggie… I mean, Margaret… I don’t know exactly how to say this, but…”
It’s at that moment that a middle-aged brunette wearing scrubs bursts into my room. “Hello, Mrs. Sneed!” she says cheerfully. “What can I do for you?”
Riley jerks his head in the direction of the nurse then back to me. “You… you called for the nurse?”
I’m too embarrassed to tell him. The nurse is looking Riley over, as if unsure what to make of him. Finally, she says, “You’ll have to go back to your own room, sir. Would you like me to take you back there?”
Riley makes a face and for a moment, he actually looks cute. “I’m not a patient. I’m just visiting.”
“Oh,” the nurse says, although she has this suspicious look like she doesn’t believe him entirely. “Well, then let me take the wheelchair.”
“I hate hospitals,” Riley mumbles under his breath. Despite myself, I giggle a little at the aggravated expression on his face. He flashes me a hopeful smile, but I quickly compose myself. I don’t want him to get any ideas.
“This is my wheelchair,” Riley explains to the nurse. “I own it. I assure you, I came here with it.”
She hesitates, as if she’s considering asking him for a receipt to prove it. Then I intercept with, “It’s true.”
“Oh,” she says again. “Then… you have to leave. Visiting hours ended an hour ago.”
Riley nods as if he expected this, and he leaves without putting up further fight. I watch him wheel out of the room, and even though his shirt is wrinkled, I can make out the tight muscles in his arms underneath. For a moment, I very much regret having called for the nurse. Even though I don’t know him, it’s clear that he feels that he knows me very well. And now I’m never going to know why.
The next morning, I get to experience what it’s like to have an MRI of my brain. And quite honestly, I’d be happy if I could get through the rest of my life without ever experiencing that again. It was really noisy, for starters—loud enough to turn the gentle throbbing in my head into a considerable pounding. And even though I’ve never considered myself particularly claustrophobic, I was practically having a panic attack by the time I got out of that tiny little donut.
As horrible as it was, I was even more frightened about what it might show. What if I had some horrible brain tumor that caused me to drive into a tree? What if… well, I don’t really know what an MRI might show. All I can think about is tumors.
When the MRI is done, an orderly wheels me back to my room so I can wait for the results. As I sit in the clunky hospital wheelchair, I can’t help but think of Riley, even though this chair doesn’t much resemble his. I still can’t figure out who he is and why he thinks he knows me so well.
When I get back to my room, my heart nearly stops when I see who’s sitting next to my bed. It’s Jill! I’d almost been afraid to ask about her, afraid that somehow we’d gotten in some terrible fight and now were no longer friends or something. That would be pretty consistent with my life, I think. But instead, she’s here, waiting at my bedside, obviously concerned about me.
And honestly, she looks fantastic. As horrified as I was by the person staring back at me in the mirror, Jill looks ten times better than she did at my wedding three years ago. Well, maybe not ten times better, but she looks very good. She’s dropped some weight, and she finally got rid of that terrible perm she’s sported for so many years. Her dirty blond hair is now sleek and shiny, and more of a honey color than before. But despite these changes, she’s still unmistakably my best friend Jill.
“Jill!” I cry as I get into the room. The orderly tries to help me into bed, but before he can, I leap out of the wheelchair and throw my arms around my friend.
“Oh, Maggie,” Jill says. As I pull away, I see her eyes have filled with tears. “I was so worried about you! Walt phoned me yesterday to tell me what happened. I wanted to come right over, but he told me to hold off.”
“I wish you had come,” I sigh. “This has all been… very strange. It’s good to see familiar faces.”
Jill lowers her voice, “Walt says you’re having trouble remembering stuff…”
I nod miserably.
“You remember me though, right?” Jill asks.
“Of course I do!” As if I could ever forget my best friend. “But the last three years are kind of foggy.”
Jill frowns. “What do you mean by foggy?”
Time to ‘fess up. “I don’t remember anything, Jill. I remember passing out at my wedding and then… I woke up here and the wedding was three years ago.”
Jill looks like she’s not sure what to make of that information. “So you really don’t remember anything from the last three years?”
“No,” I say. “But everything else is clear as day.”
“That’s so weird!”
“No kidding…” I look down at Jill’s left hand, half expecting to see a ring there. I wonder how much gossip I’ve missed from the last three years. “You look great, by the way. Your hair is completely different.”
“Oh!” Jill touches her silky blond hair self-consciously. “I did that ages ago. You really don’t remember anything, do you?”
“No. And it’s awful.” I realize that this is my chance to ask Jill all the questions that Walt seemed reluctant to answer. Although part of me doesn’t want to know the answers. “Jill, can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Jill says, nodding vigorously. I love Jill. “Anything, Mags.”
“Why don’t Walt and I have kids?”
Jill sucks in a breath. “Oh, Maggie. You guys tried. Immediately, right after the wedding. Then after about a year, you went to this fertility specialist, and… he said it didn’t look good…”
“Oh God,” I murmur. I knew I shouldn’t have asked.
“You guys did a few cycles of IVF,” Jill says. “But it didn’t work. Then about a year ago, you said you wanted to take a break, and… that’s the last time you mentioned it. I was afraid to bring it up.”
“Oh.” It’s like two years’ worth of failed fertility treatments hit me all at once. I’m infertile. I’m never going to be a mother. I’m 38 years old and it’s too late.
“Oh, Maggie,” Jill says again, and she hugs me. When she pulls out, her eyes are glistening again. “I know it sounds awful, but you were mostly okay with it by the end. You actually seemed really happy lately. You lost some of the weight…”
I wince at the mention of my weight. I don’t want to think about those extra pounds I gained. As soon as I get out of here, I’m putting myself on a strict diet.
Another thought suddenly occurs to me: “Jill, do you know someone named Riley Samuels?”
Jill nods. “Yes, of course I know Riley. He’s a computer science professor at the university. The one in the wheelchair.” She hesitates. “Right, he’s newish. Got hired about two years ago. You wouldn’t remember him, I guess.”
I bite my lip. “Are he and I friends?”
“I suppose.” Jill shrugs. “Not really. He’s a bit of a… I don’t know…”
“Well, he’s in the computer science department.” She laughs. “I don’t know. He’s kind of a clueless dork. And he uses a wheelchair, like, permanently. You were sort of friendly with him, I guess. But he’s not really the kind of person you’d be real friends with.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Jill raises her eyebrows at me. Did she pluck her eyebrows? After fifteen years of my nagging her, has Jill really started plucking her eyebrows? “Why do you ask?”
At first, I hesitate to tell Jill what happened yesterday with Riley. It seems personal somehow. But then I realize I’m being totally ridiculous. There’s nothing between me and Riley that needs to be concealed. Obviously.
“He came here yesterday,” I say. “He was acting really worried, like we were best friends. Or… more than friends, you know?”
Jill snorts. “As if! Can you imagine? Maybe you don’t remember the last three years, but trust me, you were not cheating on Walt with some disabled computer science dork.”
“Obviously not!” I say. “I don’t think that’s what he was saying. Not at all! Certainly not.” I add, for good measure, “Definitely not.”
I wasn’t even implying that anyway. The thought was, as Jill clearly agreed, completely ridiculous.
Jill spends the next hour getting me caught up on her life. It turns out she’s been dating a really nice guy named Peter and she thinks he’s on the verge of proposing. While I’m very excited for her, I’m also kind of depressed that my married life hasn’t gone quite as planned. But then again, I’m still married to a great guy. So in that sense, it’s worked out exactly as it should.
I’ve nearly forgotten about my scary MRI when Dr. Vance marches into my room, holding a clipboard in his hand. The creases on his face have deepened since yesterday and I suddenly feel certain he’s about to give me bad news. How could he have anything but bad news with that expression on his face?
“Mrs. Sneed, I’d like to speak with you about your MRI,” Dr. Vance says to me.
“Her name is Dr. McDaniels,” Jill says in a clipped tone of voice, reaching out to give my hand a squeeze.
Dr. Vance ignores Jill’s interjection. He addresses me again: “I think we should speak alone.”
Speak alone. Oh God. That doesn’t sound good.
Jill looks pained, but she leaves the room, swearing over and over she’ll be right out in the hallway. My stomach is doing flip-flops. This is it. I’m dying. I have a huge, inoperable tumor. I’m going to die childless and without tenure.
“Mrs. Sneed,” Dr. Vance says. “Your brain MRI was negative.”
Say what now? Negative? Negative is good though, right? Or is positive good?
I must look completely confused, so he adds: “It was normal. I didn’t see any reason for you to be having the memory issues you’re having.”
“Oh,” I say. I feel sort of relieved, but not entirely. Dr. Vance still has a grave expression on his face. He needs to work on his facial expressions, seriously.
“We could do further testing,” he says, “but I doubt it would show anything. The pattern of memory loss you’re having doesn’t seem consistent with any real kind of neurological injury.”
It finally dawns on me what he’s getting at. “You think I’m faking!”
“Not faking,” he corrects me. “But no, I don’t think there’s an organic cause to your amnesia. I think that more likely, there’s some psychological reason you’re keeping yourself from remembering such a huge chunk of time.”
I let my head fall back against my pillow. So I’m not dying, after all. I’m just insane. I’m not entirely sure which is better.
“I’d like to make an outpatient referral to a psychiatrist,” Dr. Vance says.
“I just wonder if something happened to you that you’re trying to repress,” he says. “Maybe you’re subconsciously trying to protect yourself from an unpleasant memory.”
I don’t tell this to Dr. Vance, but what he’s saying sounds like a crock of horseshit. I mean, I bumped my head in a bad car accident. How is that psychological?
“Anyway,” the doctor say, “in the meantime, I don’t see any reason why you can’t be discharged in your husband’s care. You can go home in a few hours.”
I nod. “I guess that’s okay.”
Home. I’m going home.
Where is home anyway?
To be continued.....