My suitcase, a torn and broken two-wheeler held together with bungee cords, rolls between my car and the curb. I tug and yank and swear until it pops free. Shivering in yesterday’s jeans and flannel shirt, no time for a jacket, I’m rushing five copies of my 613-page treatise on the Brontë sisters across town, across campus, up a gazillion stairs and into the hands of my dissertation committee before the deadline.
I whirl at the voice and blink, my head riddled with No-Doz and espresso, my precious cargo balanced not quite on the bumper, precarious. I take in Aaron’s ruddy face, then pivot away, shoving the suitcase into the trunk, but it’s caught on the spare tire that’s been loose and sliding around for months.
“Kristin, please,” he says. “Let me do that.”
He crowds in close, smelling of wool and bay rum, wearing the pea coat I gave him. “Scratchy” he called when he first put it on. I haven’t let go of the suitcase, but I do now.
When he closes the trunk, I wave a hand and blurt, “Thanks, but I gotta go,” then scramble into the car and start the engine. His bulky form wavers at my window, his shadow beckoning me to ask why the hell he’s here, but giving in to him is all I’ve ever done. I stomp on the gas, the car thrusting me and my dissertation on our way.
His yowl is piercing. In my side-view mirror, Aaron stumbles on one foot, then topples to the ground.
On the way to the hospital, I tell him I’ve seen lots of people on YouTube get their feet run over by cars. I don’t add that if it weren’t for the dissertation pulsing in the trunk, the whole scenario would be funny.
He scowls. “Are you laughing at me?”
“No. Of course not. No.”
When I pull up to the emergency room, he wrenches himself out of the Dodge, leaning against the door. He tries to stand on his injured foot, jerks it back with a grimace.
“Wait.” I bound out of the car and slip my arm around him, feel the itch of his coat on my wrist, catch a whiff of his cologne. Glimpsing his profile, I want to touch the tiny white scar on his jaw, but too many years of hard work roar from the trunk.
Inside the waiting room, a woman behind the intake desk looks up, smiles.
Aaron says, “She ran over my foot.”
The woman knits her brow, thins her lips.
“I didn’t mean to. If I don’t turn my dissertation in right now, I’ll have to pay for another semester. That’s ten grand I don’t have.”
She says, “You ran over his foot.”
“Not on purpose.”
Desperation must be dripping off of me because Aaron says, “Forget it. You go. I’ll be okay.”
“Really. Go. Go.”
I glance back at him as I go through the hospital door. He lifts his hand in salute.
I’m on automatic pilot as I race to campus, my mind jumbled up with Aaron, the deadline, my dissertation, my self-doubt. Those Brontë sisters. Were they really the rebellious, independent women I wrote about for six hundred pages? Didn’t they pine for love? Didn’t they always find themselves wrapped up in some man’s world? Did I get it wrong after all?
But I’d have my PhD by now if it weren’t for Aaron and his distractions, the wind-sailing, dirt-biking, bungee-jumping. Bungee-jumping! That was the worst. Leaping from a bridge, hoping the cord wasn’t too long or too worn to hold my weight, never knowing if those bungee guys actually checked everything, and the cord itself was so thin, just a bunch of latex threads wrapped in neoprene or whatever it was. How strong could it possibly be? It was dangerous, but fun. Like Aaron.
When my mother died, there was no hospital, just the morgue downtown, her little Honda T-boned, the medical examiner explaining she died instantly, no suffering. Can anyone die instantly? Wasn’t there terror in that split-second before? Did time slow down enough for her to deny or accept her fate? Did her life pass by like a hyper-speed movie? Did she miss saying good-bye to me? I asked myself these questions, I asked God, I asked Aaron. There was no harnessing the darkness. I clung to it. God kept silent, my father retreated, Aaron left.
A horn blares behind me. The light is green and I’ve somehow gotten myself to the university in one piece.
Aaron sprawls between two chairs in the hospital waiting room, his damaged foot up, his peacoat on the ground. I want to smell my armpits, but can’t because he sees me as the automatic doors slide closed behind me.
“How bad is it?” I ask. There’s no place for me to sit, his leg-bridge blocking the way to the couch.
He says, “Did you get it over there in time, your dissertation?”
“You should look happier than you do.”
“They still have to approve it.” The relief – no, the exhilaration I felt on my way back to the hospital – is gone, but not because of any worries about approval. “How’s your foot?”
“Soft tissue damage, a couple tiny bones broken. Ligaments okay.”
“You in pain?”
“They gave me a Tylenol.”
I turn my head to stare out the window, watch an ambulance screech around the corner, its siren starting up, heading out to save the day.
I drag over a nearby chair. Perch on its edge. The glass doors slide open, bringing in a gust of cold air. I shiver, stare at my bony ankles. Wrap the cord of my purse in and out of my fingers. Wait to see where this will go.
He clears his throat. “Did you write about the Brontës?”