Written by Rick Beck
What Are You Doing Here?
I called my parents at eight a.m. to tell them I wouldn't be home for awhile.
"Dad, it's me. My friend Greg was in an accident last night. I'm staying up with his mom and brother until we know something."
"Maybe it isn't a good time to be crowding those folks," he said.
"He's my friend and I can't leave until we know," I said raising my voice to emphasize we weren't bargaining.
"How bad is it?"
"It's bad. I'm staying until we know one way or another."
I didn't want to talk any more and I hung up. Neither Doug nor his mother reacted to any of my words. Reactions were impossible. We all knew what we were doing and saying the words didn't change it.
The vigil by the phone continued. It rang periodically and Doug's mom would give us short updates. He was in the recovery room. He was back in the ICU. He slipped into a coma during the operation but they let it happen so his vital signs would stay at low ebb. They thought the internal bleeding had been located and stopped. He was being monitored. His vital signs were weak but no longer life-threatening. Considering the circumstances, he was holding his own.
And so it went. They gave us nothing but slim and slimmer to go on for most of that morning. Time crawled agonizingly slow. The delightful mother I had come to love and enjoy was spent completely. Measured movements were all that was left of this good-time girl. Doug stared at nothing and said as much. I tried to stop my brain so I could get off this ride that had gone out of control. I went over the words I could not possible conceive or ever accept.
Each time the phone rang we all jumped three feet, starring at the black interrupter as his mother scooped the phone up before the 1st ring even finished. Then we sat helpless until she gave us whatever news had come. At ten the game started to turn in favor of the home team.
The message grew positive. He was strong. He was healthy. He was fighting. A base helicopter was at the ready waiting to take him there. All they need was some indication that he had gained enough strength to endure the eighteen-minute flight. The day was crystal-clear and flying-window was open wide. At noon his father called and said his vital signs had strengthened and even though he still wasn't strong enough for transport, he thought a visit would be a good idea.
"Come on boys," Doug's mother announced, dabbing at her eyes and stashing half a Kleenex box full of tissue into her pocketbook.
We didn't need to wait for her to explain where it was we were going. We climbed into the big baby-blue Ford and we were off, tires squealing on the asphalt of Old Highway once she launched us out of their lane. I sat in the backseat and I was grateful for it. At first Doug rested his face and arm on the back of the seat with his back against the door, facing his mom. We said nothing but his soft blue eyes stayed on me as we sped along. He reached into the back seat and held my hand. No one said a word. There was nothing to say.
Doug's father had aged ten years since the night before but he still stood tall in his uniform. As we stood at the foot of the bed holding his wife's hands he went through the list of procedures that had been performed on their son during the night and morning. I stopped listening once it got too complicated to understand and too scary to conceive. Doug didn't listen at all and sat in the chair by the left side of Greg's bed and held his brother's hand, placing his cheek upon it and closing his eyes. He seemed to be speaking to him every now and again but I heard no words.
Greg's face was cut and bruised but completely intact albeit swollen. One side of his head had some hair lose from where it had hit the ground and there was an abrasion there. Both of his legs were strung up like nothing I'd ever seen. They were wrapped in white gauze from his ankle until they disappeared where the sheet covered his crotch.
There were boops and beeps from various machines he was plugged into. He was very pale. I was told that came from the blood loss and that he would get some of his color back before the hospital pallor would take hold. His beautiful neatly styled golden hair was matted to his head and looked dirty brown. He was quiet, more quiet than I had ever seen him. This made it seem like it really wasn't Greg but an imposter. There had been a mistake. It was some horrible joke someone had played, but jokes don't hurt like that. There was only one reality and I was looking at it against my will.
The one thing his father said that registered big time with me came after the long technical explanation he went through, "He's going to live. It's not going to be easy, getting him back the way he was, but he'll live."
"Thank God," his mother said with incredible relief, and they hugged and she cried on her husband's broad blue shoulder. They disappeared into the next cubical as she all but collapsed in his arms. When she came back her eyes were clear of tears, her posture had greatly improved, and a slight smile had won the day. She finally went to her son's side. I kept my distance.
Going to the opposite side of the bed from Doug, she kissed Greg's cheek and pushed the hair up off his forehead. "You're momma's here, baby. You rest easy. You're going to be fine. They're taking good care of you."
"He is," Doug said, looking up for the first time with tears welling up in his eyes. He held his brother's hand with both of his.
"He's going to live, Doug. He's got a lot of work a head of him but he'll live."
I couldn't get near the bed. I didn't want to see anything I hadn't already seen. It was difficult to admit it was Greg. I certainly wouldn't have recognized him if I didn't know it was him. The nurse came and ordered us to break it up, holding the door open while waiting for obedience.
"They'll be leaving in a few minutes," the Colonel said in stern words.
"Yes, Colonel," the nurse replied. "He shouldn't be excited. We only allow one visitor at a time in the ICU." She said the letters like we had entered a shrine. I suppose it was a temple to the Gods that did their miracles and saved lives, but if they were all that hot why wasn't Greg up, walking, and talking to us?
"He's in a coma. He'll be fine. He needs his family right now," he said, escorting the nurse to the other side of the door. "We'll call you if we need your assistance, and thank you for your concern."
It sounds a little funnier now than it was then, but there was no doubt who was in command in his son's room. He would not leave Greg's side until he was safely in the hands of people the Colonel trusted implicitly. He wanted him at the base where he could be advised and consulted every step of the way.
It was our only visit to Virginia and if the ride there had been at hyper speed, the ride back was at a snails-pace. Everyone passed us. I kept leaning forward thinking my weight might assist the lumbering car.
We had stayed an hour before returning to the house. Doug's mom began to putter in the kitchen while I sat at the dinning room table, helping Doug look out at the horseshoe driveway. The next thing I knew there were ham sandwiches, pickles, chips, and root beer sitting in front of me. Doug's mom patted my shoulder reassuringly and when I looked at her, she gave me a weak smile. I gave it back as best I could muster.
I ate the food because I felt obligated after she'd gone through the trouble of fixing it but I had no appetite and in spite of what was said, I was still numb.
The next thing I knew she was cleaning house. First it was the kitchen and then she took each room, one at a time. All day long she banged and clanged and even hummed as she vacuumed, dusted, picked up, and did general house maintenance until after dark. Doug and I didn't move until it was the last place to clean.
Even though we had been reassured, each time the phone rang after that, everything in the house stopped. We all waited apprehensively until she spoke the caller's name and title, Aunt Jane, Cousin Fred, or one of Doug's mother's many worried friends. They all had to call once they heard the news. Once she announced the caller's name for us, we could breathe again, but only a little. My heart stopped on each ring. They hadn't made a believer out of me yet.
I took a shower after we ate dinner. It was already dark but I don't know what time it was. I cried while I washed. It seemed safe. I was happy and yet I felt bad all over, almost sick at my stomach. I went to the dresser in their room and got one of Greg's old T-shirts that he'd left behind and a pair of his white boxers. I lay in his bed after taking the pillow cases off his pillows. I was immediately embraced by his smell. It was an instant sedative and I drifted off for the first time since forever. I slept in his arms.
This was hard time for all of us, not that we still feared he'd die on us, but being away from him, not being able to get to him, touch him, speak to him at a time when we knew he needed us, that made the time endless. He was all that was on my mind and all my dreams were full of him.
I needed to be with Greg more now than any time since we'd met. I don't know why. I was sure he would dismiss me as well as my attention as soon as he awoke from his coma. We were oil and water the two of us. I don't know why, but when we got together, it always made a big fucking mess, but just as I knew that, I also knew I loved him and was in love with him. I'd never be able to deny that again. No matter where he went or what he did, I'd love him until the day I died.
How stupid was that?
I felt Doug get in bed with me. I was only sure it was him because of his smell. I didn't completely wake up. He always smelled just like fresh morning dew and it filled my nose as soon as I felt him. He hugged himself to my body and clung to me all night.
I always wanted to know Doug better but every time I was around him I found something else that I never knew before and then I knew I didn't know him at all. He was so sensitive that anything could hurt him, only he had learned early to hide that behind a façade of bravado that his brother forced on him.
Then there were those moments when Doug was completely vulnerable to the forces around him. This was such a time and he found safety inside my arms. Just then, being there for him, helped me get through it. I did love Doug. I think everyone loved Doug back then. If anyone could be loved it was him.
There was a similarity between Doug and Herbie that I realized. They both wanted to be whatever you wanted them to be. Herbie was a little more immature about it, but he was only a little boy, caught in a time warp that he might never breach, but that was who he was to all of us. Doug was putty in your hands once he gave himself to you. That did make the real Doug difficult to find but it made him no less sweet or pleasing. He did not give himself to everyone, but when he did give himself to you, you believed he was yours, even if it was only meant to get him or you through a long, dark nightmare.
We were waiting on the tarmac next to the emergency entrance when the helicopter arrived two days later. First the Colonel stepped out, straightening his uniform, and then he supervised Greg's unloading and the trip inside. We were escorted into the waiting room until they got him settled into the ICU. I did notice his color had improved slightly but the bruises were way worse. His face looked puffy and the swelling had gotten worse. Both of his eyes were now black. He looked like a very untalented boxer.
A tall doctor in a long white coat came into the waiting room with clipboard in hand but he never looked at it. The Colonel stood and shook his hand and they called each other by name while exchanging big warm smiles.
"He's developing fluid on his lungs. We'll start him on antibiotics immediately to take care of that. Pneumonia would be one of the big concerns at this stage. It's always a possibility. Our biggest concern now is the left leg. We'll do all we can to save it. Tissue, arterial, and muscle damage is extensive. They did good work over there and we've got all the latest film, so we're right up to speed with all of his treatment so far. We'll pick right up like he was here all the time. The team has already been appraised of everything until the time the helicopter lifted off and we are ready to pick up where they left off.
"Everything else is manageable as I see it. We'll have to keep him heavily-sedated for now. We don't want him experiencing too much pain. It's just time we're looking at now. We'll take it a step at a time and we'll get him back as close to the way he was as is medically possible. A lot will be up to him."
"What about the coma?" Doug asked. "How long before I can talk to him?"
"That's up to him as well. We'll keep him sedated but he'll wake up in his own time. He had quite a blow to his head and that needs constant monitoring. Concussions can be tricky. He lost a lot of blood as well. These are factors beyond our control at this point. The body is inconsistent in reacting when it comes to things like that. One guy'll bounce right back in a few days, another guy'll have long term disabilities from a similar injury and may never fully recover."
"He'll bounce," Doug said with conviction.
"Yeah, he will," the doctor said with a wide smile. "I have no doubt he will. Well, time for me to get busy. We'll have specialists look at him over the next few days. They'll want to start treatment right away. He's going to be here awhile, so don't get impatient because healing will take time. We want to give him whatever time he needs."
"What ever it takes," Doug's mom said.
No one asked me when I was leaving their house. Doug stayed by my side constantly, so he had already announced where he stood on the subject. The morning after Greg was transferred, Doug's mom woke us up because she had prepared sausage, biscuits, and scrambled eggs. She said nothing about us being in Greg's bed. I felt really guilty but Doug told me to lighten up. I suppose people are still telling me that. There might be something in it.
Each day we trekked to Greg's hospital room. At first he only looked worse, but then his color did start to return and the bruises were fading and the puffy face started to give way to the strong handsome features that were undeniably Greg. His mom and Doug talked to him, sometimes incessantly. I kept my distance and never went near the bed, just in case my smell was as recognizable to him as his was to me. There were other reasons I stayed well beyond the foot of his bed. I'm not sure what they were. It was just hard for me to see him like that.
The doctor came in a couple of days while we were there, but it was only the three of us, the Colonel had become invisible and I suspected he was staying on the base and visiting all night when no one else was there for his son. We'd all lightened-up and Doug's mom was returning to work on Monday. Everything looked good, his leg was responding and there was nothing to do but wait.
I road with his mother onto the base the Monday she went back to work. It had been a little over a week since the accident. She dropped me at the snack bar where I could eat without I.D. and wait until visiting hours.
I was immediately accosted by Attila, The Nurse. She demanded to know who I was. She wanted I.D. damn quick or it was off with that day's visit. I assured her I was neither an enemy agent or a commie bastard. I guess I wasn't too convincing. Timing being what is, the doctor in the long white coat was at that instant hurrying down that very hallway.
"Oh, nurse, you know who he's looking for? We moved him into a private room last night," the doctor explained to her and suddenly she was this delightfully warm and empathetic servant of the masses.
"I was just trying to determine who he was. He doesn't seem to have his I.D. and there are rules," she advised the doctor in a sugar sweet voice.
"Yes, he's the brother of the double fracture we've moved into the last room earlier. You are up to speed on that or should I get you there right here?"
"No, I know the patient's history and condition, Doctor."
"Good! Now, you see to it that he's shown his brother's room and I'm sure there won't be any more complications about who he is and why he needs to spend time with his brother any time he likes?"
"Of course not doctor. I'll post the order."
"That's very good nurse. Now, I've got another patient if we're through here?"
The doctor's voice was neither sweet nor empathetic. In fact he seemed a bit on the ticked-off side. He knew Nurse Attila better than she thought he did, and suddenly I was a VIP and due some respect. Thanks Doc! Being Greg's brother wasn't the worst thing I'd been called. I kinda liked the sound of it.
There was morning light that shined in the room from the sun rising on the east side of the building. It was kind of sterile but it was a hospital. There were several chairs and a folding cot leaning on the wall beyond the bed. There were two Colonel's uniforms hanging in the otherwise empty closet. There was a shaving kit on the sink in the bathroom.
Greg was silent, lying on his back, strung up like a side of beef. The sheet was tucked up into his crotch. His chest was bare and he was breathing on his own. I stood looking at him for a long time. I thought about the times we'd been together. I thought about that 1st day on the gravel road. I wanted to talk to him to hear his voice, but that wasn't going to happen.
I stayed most of the day so that all the personnel would get a gander at me. When they asked what I was doing there, I invoked the doctor's name as well as Nurse Attila. No one questioned me a second time. Just before five I walked out of the hospital and went directly for the back gate that emptied out just behind Route 5 and less than a mile from Greg's house.
That night when Doug's mom came home, she had a temporary base ID for me that she'd gotten from Civilian Personnel where she worked. Low and behold, my picture was on it and I was identified as a visiting civilian. It was good for ninety-days. The picture was one that had been taken in the mountains at their weekend house. I remembered it and how good things were down there.
"Now, if you have any trouble, here's the Colonel's phone numbers and the location of his offices. Heaven help anyone that wants to test him on this."
"Thanks! How did you...?"
"Connections, Martin. You know people who know people," she chucked and hugged me, making me feel I was still welcome even if I was sleeping with her youngest son. I'd never slept with anyone I wasn't doing it with until then.
The second day Doug went with me and he had proper I.D. but no one asked and once we were in the room, a steady stream of corpsman and nurses came through the room. I didn't take much note of the nurses, but a couple of the corpsman were good-looking enough to have gotten me there pretty quick. I bit my tongue when I thought about crap like that, but it didn't stop me from thinking the thoughts.
I did finally sit down on the heating system under the window. It was one of those long skinny boxes like they had in school. We were getting full time air-conditioning but I suspect it furnished heat as well. Doug left after awhile and said he would catch me at the house. I guess he walked or hitched or something.
Doug went with me again on Wednesday and we sat on either side of his bed. Doug talked to him about stuff Greg would recognize. Some of it was pretty personal and told me more about brotherly love. I didn't have much to say but Doug insisted I talk anyway, so he'd know I was there. I wasn't sure that was the best idea, but Doug wasn't to be denied. His face remained expressionless, although he got better-looking each day. At least I hadn't killed him.
On Thursday Doug left after an hour and I was going to leave but something held me next to the bed. I remembered my first meeting with Greg and I'm sure he saw it from a slightly different perspective since he had Alfie in toe and I was just hindering him getting with him. I confessed everything to him, my instant love, my instant erection, and my desire to know him. It was the fabled first-love for me, although without any reward or reciprocation that didn't come with massive amounts of insult and injury.
Then I got mad and told him what a prick he was. How he twisted my heart and didn't even have the courtesy to remove it from my chest beforehand. There was no response. He seemed so still and lifeless. Just one insult, one wisecracking comment meant to zing and sting my sensitive side was all I wanted from him. I'd settle for that but he gave me silence, which was even worse.
There were collective visits on the weekend and talk of a Sunday drive to the mountains, and I might have gone, but I didn't want to enjoy anything until he was back. On Monday we started the entire routine over again. The doctors were optimistic, we were cautious, and Greg remained, "non-responsive to stimulus." Now everyone talked to him but to no avail and the doctors couldn't say when.
On Monday I went alone. Doug was coming later. The Colonel was still there, tying his tie. The cot was out, unmade and he was late.
"He had a restless night. I'm glad someone will be here."
"I come every day," I said.
"I know. They keep a record at the nurses station. You're a good friend, Martin. Greg's lucky to have a friend like you."
For the first time since early on in this ordeal, I wanted to cry. The Colonel disappeared without ceremony and I sat by the bed, kicked my feet up on the air conditioner and watched the world roll past out on the street in front of me. From time to time I made a comment about this car or that. Just before I was going to go eat, I reminded him about that day next to the river when I finally told him the way I felt about him. I told him how he ripped my heart out every time I tried to tell him about my feelings. It was one of the things that always pissed me off and now I could express it. He was a captive audience.
"Do you ever shut up," he said once I had shut up.
I leaped up and leaned over to look at his mouth. He spoke to me. I was sure of it.
"Will you fucking shut up so I can sleep."
"Yeah, thanks to you."
"Glad to be of some help."
What the fuck are you doing here," he said in words that had me smiling and crying.
"I don't know. Waiting for you I guess."
"What are you crying about?"
"I don't know."
"Jesus, Martin, you're so lame."
"I know," I cried and laughed.
"You never did know much," he said weakly, blinking his eyes and looking around. "I was dreaming about you before," he said. "Sit down, will ya. Makes me dizzy looking up at you."
I sat down and his hand moved on top of my hand. I held it and he closed his fingers in mine like that's where he wanted them.
"Don't go," he said softly. "I'll be good. I promise. Just don't leave me alone, okay."
"Greg! Don't go back to sleep," I said.
"Why not. I'm really tired, Martin. You're always contrary to everything I do. Just leave me alone and let me sleep a minute, I'll be fine."
"Greg! You've been asleep for two weeks."
"What? No one sleeps for two weeks."
"You're in the hospital. You got hit by a car," I said and his eyes opened completely at last.
"I am? I did?"
"Yeah, you been in a comma. You really had us scared," I said, crying again.
"You know you're a drama queen?" Greg sighed.
"Yeah, I guess so, but you're a bastard," I said, still a little ticked off about the deal at the river and how he made me feel that day.
"What a thing to say to a guy what's been hit by a car," he said in a sardonic voice.
"What are friends for?" I said.
"We? Friends, Martin? I wonder about that sometimes."
"I don't know what you call it. I love you and that's what I call it. I don't know about friends."
"I'm not very nice," he said softly.
"I know," I agreed.
"I dreamt about that day we met over by your house. How you looked at me. You wanted me bad. Nobody ever wanted me that bad."
"I did not," I lied.
"Yeah you did. That look on your face. It was like you'd seen... you'd seen...."
"God!" I said.
He said nothing but he squeezed my hand in a way that told me he knew exactly what I had seen in him back then.
I picked up the phone off the floor by the cot and dialed the number that I kept wrapped around my official government ID card.
"Colonel Martin, I've just been talking to your oldest son."
With in two minutes all hell broke loose. First it was doctors and then corpsman and nurses. They came and poked and prodded the angry boy. He fought them and wanted to be left alone, but they would have none of it or his saucy mouth. He was without power here and I winced and felt queasy about some of the stuff that was done to him.
Greg was back and happiness once more came to their house and into my heart. It was a welcome relief and I was there to see it all.
I did love him so.
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