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The Etiquette of Being Broken

In the act of transformation not everything becomes new.

By Uncategorized

6:47 pm

He wiped at the fogged mirror with a bare hand but left only soapy streaks.  In a hurry, he slipped into a pair of light brown jeans and a bright blue t-shirt. Considering the rush he skipped putting on socks and shoes and chose his green Havianas. Typically he’d never bike in sandals, due to a long-standing fear of scraping his exposed toes against the pavement. Tonight he was travelling less than a mile, so what was the harm? He rushed out of the house leaving a rarely used helmet hanging in the closet. The earth still shimmered as the days baked-in heat slowly leaked back into the atmosphere. He pedaled fast.


7:07-10:19 pm

Arms crossed, a frown pulling at her lips, she waited impatiently outside the comedy club. With (what he hoped was) a disarming smile he grabbed her by the waist and they entered together. He ordered them beers, two oversized bottles of Fat Tire, and they settled in to enjoy the show.

After the performance they decided to have a snack and moved to a restaurant at the corner. They shared an order of fajitas and had a margarita each. They paid the bill and walked back to where his bike was parked. She asked about the plan for the evening, did he want her to come home with him? He demurred, claiming exhaustion, that he was just going to go to sleep anyway. She looked disappointed but said she understood. The sun had set a couple hours prior but the earth still seemed to glow. As he unlocked his bike, she asked him to text her when he got home. He smiled, I’ll be fine, he said. It’s just a couple blocks. Well do it anyway, please. He kissed her good night and got on his bike.


10:20-10:37 pm

As he rode down Armitage, the soft breeze helped soothe some of the lingering heat from the day. The street was busy so he turned south, then west again, riding slowly down Cortland. With almost no traffic on the street he rode languorously. His legs were tired so it felt good to push the blood down through his heels as he pedaled. He slowed as he approached the intersection at Cortland and Humboldt Boulevard, less than 100 yards from his front door. The light turned green and he coasted out into the street.

Cloaked in a screeching sound and escorted by a gust of hot air, a malicious shape unfolded from the corner of his vision. Sparks burst and dissipated in the night air. Everything went dark.


10:44 pm

Veil as liquid mask. Viscous and hot to the touch, he couldn’t see through the curtains of crimson streaming into his eyes. Shapes wavered outside, two, maybe three people. They were circled around him as he staggered in the street. Sit! They seemed to say. Please! Sit down! No, no, he said. He didn’t know who he was, where he was, who these people were. He wiped at the blood but more spilled into eyes. He wiped again. Shame overwhelmed him, the sense that whatever had happened was his fault. He didn’t know why, but he was embarrassed. Please sit down, they said. Someone held his shoulders. No, I’m okay. I just need to go home, I’ll be fine. Please sit, they said. Please. Finally he relented and sat on the curb. The night rushed at him and consumed his vision. Limp, he fell back into the soft grass.


11:04 pm

The swaying of the ambulance in flight urged him awake. Paramedics sawed at his clothes as he blinked and looked around. He was strapped to a backboard, his neck in a brace. They saw he was awake and started to ask questions. Where was he. What is his name. Who can they call. He was apologetic. I’m sorry, I don’t know. I don’t know. They were patient. They weren’t mad he couldn’t remember, but they wanted him to understand where he was, where he was going. There had been an accident, they said. He was going to the hospital. Do you know your name, they asked. Of course, he said. What is your name, they asked. He couldn’t answer.

Where does it hurt they asked? He tried to smile. Everywhere, I think. Can you move your hands? The howl of the siren and the swaying interior made it difficult to focus. He concentrated and sent an electric signal from his brain to his limbs. A moment passed, then another, then he felt a twitch as his hand rasped against the plastic board. Good! They said. Can you move your toes? He concentrated again, the howling siren getting louder and louder.  Another signal wandered vaguely down, in the space of a moment the ambulance became a vacuum, emptied of air and all was frozen in perpetual motion. He held his breath. At the furthest edge of the backboard, he couldn’t see, but he could feel his toe twitch once, twice. In a rush the sound crashed in again and the paramedic resumed working. The paramedic hung his face over the patient, congratulations, he said smiling. You’re not paralyzed.


11:11 pm

In the ER he couldn’t put a face to the flurry of activity attending to him. His neck was still held fast as the many-handed entity hovered above him; binding the fast bleeding wounds, adding IVs and pummelling him with questions. When he tried to put the evening’s events back together they scattered and reformed like starlings shocked into flight. He recalled — the smell of fresh grass, the blur of lights as he biked, the girl  — but they were disconnected sensory points of reference. Fragments of memory and sensation that refused to cohere. As they asked questions, his tongue brushed against his front teeth. He felt the back of his incisor break off and in tumbling toward the back of his throat threaten to choke him. He located it and with his tongue pushed the fragment of enamel out of the corner of his mouth..

When the doctors and nurses were done, he was left alone trying to rebuild his night, his life. A woman in a dark suit entered and spoke. She moved in an interstitial place, both here and outside his perception. She introduced herself as the hospital’s chaplain and asked if there was anything she could do. He said no, he is fine. Well, your family is here, and she escorted in his mother and sister.

They all stood over him, varying levels of concern drawn tightly in the lines of their faces. The chaplain lurked, wanting to help, providing nothing. Finally she asked, anything you want me to tell the doctor? Yes, he said. Tell them to bury me at sea. His mom and sister laughed with relief.

Later the police officer who reported at the scene came in to take a statement. The details were vague, but according to the officer, corroborated the sequence of events as conveyed by an eyewitness. The bicyclist proceeded through the intersection with a green light when the motorist, travelling northbound, ignored the red light and sped through the intersection. The motorist struck the bicyclist with the front of the car, throwing him into and shattering the windshield. The bicyclist was knocked unconscious on impact, awoke for a few moments before passing out.

Later the witness would testify that the driver was visibly intoxicated at the scene, but for unknown reasons the reporting officer did not perform a field sobriety test. As the car was towed away he wrote the driver a ticket for an obscure moving violation. Meanwhile the bicyclist was in the hospital garnering what would be over $30,000 in hospital bills.


02:18 am

After being wheeled to his room the nurse helped him walk to the bathroom. I’ll give you a moment, she said, but I’ll be right outside. He limped to the sink and held himself up with two hands and raised his eyes. He found the ghastly visage of a broken man staring back at him. How could this be the same man from before? Their faces had the same shape, but this new person was swollen and caked with blood. His lips were flecked with dry spit and his eyes were crisscrossed with fiery lines. An already rust-brown bandage held his nose together and his hair was pulled back, wet with fresh blood from the bandaged wound on his temple.

He tested his face with his hands, all seemed to be in place. He smiled, relieved that this was a different person. It couldn’t be him, he knew, this new man had two broken front teeth. He called in the nurse and together they washed the remaining blood from his face.

Set in bed his whole body ached. Nurses plugged him into two saline IV drips and a third that flooded him with morphine. His mother entered the room and took the chair next to his bed. They chatted awhile but as the morphine kicked in he nodded off. You should go home, he told her. It’s okay, she said, I’ll just stay here. Mom, he said, please, I’m fine, just go home and we’ll both sleep better. She turned and fixed his eyes with a look that brokered no further discussion.


05:20 am

He had never been good at being sick. He didn’t typically self-administer medicine and would just suffer (complaining to anyone who would listen) until the illness went away. This was his first time in a hospital for a reason that was his alone and he didn’t understand the etiquette of being broken. When the nurse awoke him in the morning to ask him how he was doing and to rate his pain, he had no clear answer. It hurts, he said. Where, she asked. Everywhere, he said. Rate the pain 1-10, she said. I don’t know he answered. So she gave him more morphine but it just made him sick. It was difficult for him to isolate the pain. He knew his head hurt and the back of his neck burned (they brought him ice). They changed the bandages on his wounds, and that hurt, but there was something else. A general sense of disconnectedness. As if he was there, but not all the way. He’d look at the still wet wound on his arm and he’d know it caused pain, but he wasn’t sure to whom, or how bad. It was like the arm was shouting to him but in a language he couldn’t understand. The arm was a child with outstretched hands and he had nothing to give, so he tried to ignore it.

After a morning trip into the quivering canyon of the CT Scan (his first was late the night before) a doctor came by on his rounds. The CT Scan indicated what they all feared, the patient had a subdural hematoma that had spread over night. Essentially, his brain was bleeding and he would have to be kept at the hospital until it stabilized or they performed surgery to remove the pooling blood.


07:12 pm

A seemingly endless parade of doctors, nurses, experts and therapists shared one view alike: he was lucky. The bleeding in his brain had stopped and since he didn’t break any bones, he was free to leave the hospital. Best of all, he could finally eat and drink water again, two things denied him as he waited for surgery ultimately deemed unnecessary.

As he was transported home he didn’t feel lucky. He felt wronged. He was full of an irrational anger that had no logical target, or perhaps too many targets to focust. He had been riding safely, following all required traffic requirements. It was only through the extreme carelessness of a stranger that his life was put into crisis. He felt wronged by the driver, by his once comforting and now malicious neighborhood, by the very forces of chance that put the illusion of solid objects within each other’s path. He burned inside with a sense of injustice that grew with every bandage he changed.


10:46 am

In one sense he was lucky, or to be more accurate, his family seemed to share the same twist of bad luck at the same time. Two weeks before the bike accident, his father had fallen a short distance from a trailer, landed awkwardly, and shattered his left leg. His dad wasn’t able to visit him in the hospital because he was laid up at home himself. So the day after leaving the hospital, the patient was transported to his father’s house, where they both came under the gentle care of his step-mother.

The days following the hospital stay were a blur. He slept nearly 18 hours a day as his body recovered from the shock of impact. He drifted around the house mindlessly, barely stirring to eat and field phone calls from concerned friends and family. His closest companion was a deaf Persian cat named Timmy who shared his sleeping habits. It was during this time that he developed the practice that would define his convalescence, something he called “laying quietly.” He had never been one predisposed to idle reverie but after the accident it was often overwhelming to do … anything. Instead of watching TV, reading or listening to music to fill the hours, he found he could only lie on the bed or couch simply staring into space.



Brain injuries offer unique and vague obstacles to overcome. As he watched the wounds on his body heal in their turn, he had no such indications for his mental progress. Some days he was alert and mentally agile, as if nothing had happened. Other days he was sullen, tired and seemingly incapable of anything beyond long sessions of “lying quietly.” At night he was haunted by insane nightmares, and on the rare occasions he ventured outside by day he was maniacally nervous just trying to cross the street. Despite these obstacles, he was determined to live unbowed by fear, even if it was rational. After a little over a month of recovery, he bought a new bike (and a helmet) and was biking again.

The sense that he was, in fact, lucky also took hold. He began to understand the enormity of his circumstances. With that dawning he found peace and perspective. While he didn’t break any bones and the other wounds were ultimately superficial, what left an unshakeable chill was understanding that ultimately his life was saved by fractions of a degree. Had the driver flinched a moment later, had the car been travelling at 1 mph faster, had the angle of impact been slightly altered, he could have easily been paralyzed if not killed. Every being faces this crisis every day and most choose to ignore it. We are all just barely holding our places on this planet, our lives as arbitrary as the toss of cosmic dice. But few see those machinations exposed so clearly before their eyes and live to ponder it. In this sense he understood that he was impossibly lucky and each additional day of life began to bear the saccharine but still poignant gilding of a gift.

The paramedics had placed the bandage on his nose the night of the accident, essentially holding it together. It was their advice that he leave it untouched until the wound healed of its own accord. Eventually the bandage fell off, leaving a wet, red scar down his nose. In the weeks that followed the wounds on his body healed, but his nose was stuck in time. The wound still looked fresh and made no progress. One night he had a nightmare where shards of broken glass were pulling at his flesh from within. The next morning he met a determined self in the mirror. He took up a pair of tweezers and with the tips gently explored the wound. As he pushed around the wound’s contents, vaguely the consistency of peach jelly, he found something solid. With shaky hands he drew out a long thin shard of  broken glass. Through the process there was no pain, just a vague and uncanny sense of displacement. Three days later he pulled out a second shard in the same way.

Eventually the wounds healed and he re-entered life shaken and changed, but far from ruined. Today he sometimes thinks of the still undiscovered glass bound in his flesh, of the dark scars crisscrossing his body, of the beads of sweat that pool in his hands in traffic. He wears these changes proudly, as totems of the person he once was. In the act of transformation not everything becomes new.

3 Responses to The Etiquette of Being Broken

  1. tip says:

    painfully beautiful

  2. Joel says:

    WOW! Amazingly and sadly so real…a big OUCH! Do you jump out of airplanes…?

  3. Nicole says:

    This was so beautifully written that I can’t imagine it isn’t true. I hope you’re all right.

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