When I came to, the first thing I noticed was that wherever I was I had never been there before. Flat on my back, an oxygen mask on my face, I looked up and saw a silver wall, some flashing lights, and a man in a dark blue jumpsuit, his back to me. The mask made it hard to call out. I tried to raise my arm but couldn’t. My arms and my legs were strapped down. My head, too. My gaze was directed straight down at my bare chest and the several wires taped to it. My stomach, I could see, was caked with blood. My khakis, too, were a dull dry red. On the left side of my face I felt the warm pleasant drip-drip-drip of even more blood. Apparently, I’d been in some sort of accident: what sort? I had no idea. But I knew what I was meant to do, from TV shows. I wiggled my fingers, then my toes.
The man in the blue suit turned around and removed my oxygen mask. I now realized, again from TV shows, that I was in the back of an Emergency Rescue Unit.
“I can feel my toes and fingers,” I reported, knowingly.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
I told him. But my voice sounded strange and manufactured, not my natural own.
“That’s good, Michael,” he said, and smiled, with a terrifying condescension. This man knew something I didn’t: what?
“Do you know what day it is?” he asked.
“I never know what day it is,” I said.
“He says he never knows what day it is,” he said. Out of the corner of my eye I now spotted a second man in a dark blue emergency rescue uniform. And I remembered something: Tallulah on an ice rink. I remembered skating over to her awkwardly, like a man pumping a Razor Scooter up a steep hill, and then skating back to my own beginner’s ice-skating lesson. I also remembered that they had lumped the beginners together with the intermediates. I remembered a short, squat Irishman showing me how to spin. I recalled thinking: If I try to spin I’ll kill myself. But what I couldn’t remember is why I was ice skating in the first place.
“Do you know your address?”
I did, just.
“Michael, you’ve been a little funny for some time.”
I now recalled why I was ice skating. I was ice skating because Tallulah’s mother had conceived that the three of us should do something meaningful together. Just one thing, to remind Tallulah that she was still special. We cast about for one meaningful thing and landed upon ice skating. Tabitha knew how to ice skate, Tallulah and I did not. Tallulah and I would learn together, side by side. In that briefly harmonious spirit we had set off, presumably not long before, for the local ice rink. What I couldn’t remember is why we needed to remind Tallulah she was special.
“Where are my wife and daughter?” I asked.
“They’re outside in your car,” he said. “Do you remember what kind of car you have?”
I did, a bit more clearly. “How long have I been unconscious?” I asked. He didn’t answer.
“What year is it?” he asked. A wave of irritation crashed over me. My head pounded. I didn’t care what year it was, or what car I owned, or what I had eaten for dinner. I had bigger problems. Such as: Who was I? Or rather: Was I the same me as I had been before whatever had happened to me happened to me? I needed for the man to sit down and listen to my life story, from the beginning, to see if it all felt familiar. Then I remembered something else: the book! Before I fell on my head, I was writing a book.
“Can you remember what year it is?” asked the emergency rescue worker.
I told him what year it was. This time the answer came to me easily.
“Do you remember falling?”
“What do you remember?”
“I remember that if I don’t hand in my book in six weeks, I’m fucked.”
He looked at me a little strangely. “OK,” he said. “That’s a start.”
And so I told him about my literary problems. How thrilling it had been to be handed material so rich that I was limited only by my ability to handle it. How for months I’d been haunted by the sense that something would interfere with my finishing it. How, a few months earlier, with about a third of the book done, the manuscript had been stolen, along with everything I had ever written and not published, including 15 years of private journals and biographies I had kept of my two daughters. How a fancy truck with darkened windows—it was spotted by a neighbor—had rolled up alongside my office in broad daylight. How its occupants had picked the lock to my office, stolen my computer, all my backup files (from a separate room) and … nothing else. How they’d left no fingerprints, only a mystery.
Then, by some miracle of brain chemistry, I realized I sounded like a lunatic. “I know this sounds nuts,” I said.
“This all happened?”
“This all happened,” I said.
I explained to the man—who continued to stare calmly at me; how I do not know—how my wife had understood, or pretended to, that to compensate for the loss of my manuscript I needed to abandon most of my responsibilities as a father. How I had spent several months redefining what is meant by “the bare minimum”—how little a husband and father can do and still not trigger screams of terror when he walks in the front door. How I had a genius for it—and an excuse. A deadline. How Dixie didn’t seem to mind—a father doesn’t add much to the life of a 6-month-old child—but that Tallulah was different. The moment I put some space between me and her, she set about trying to drive her mother insane. She’d eat nothing but sugar, do nothing but watch cartoons. Denied sugar and cartoons, she took to calling her mother “you stupid lady.” Told not to talk to her mother that way she’d spit, absurdly, “Jack-n-Ass!” Somewhere in there she got her first bad report card: Her teacher said that the normally ebullient Tallulah was now, occasionally, “morose.” On my brief visits home I saw more truculence than moroseness, but that was as alarming, in its way. On Christmas morning, the moment she realized that she’d ripped open her last present she looked up and said, “Oh, shit.” Fucking hell, I thought, where did that come from?
When I spoke that last line the ambulance man laughed. “He’s OK,” he shouted out to his colleague. They changed their plan to drive me to the trauma center to determine if I’d suffered brain damage. Instead, they would drive me to the emergency room, to have my head sown up. Before they did they invited Tabitha into the truck to tell me that she and Tallulah would be right behind me, in the aforementioned car. My wife is at her best in such moments; she’s as good in a crisis as ice on a burn. After making it clear to me that I was a wimp to be concerned about the state of my brain, she said that I didn’t need to worry about Tallulah: She had hustled her off the ice before she could see her father lying in a lake of blood. It’s astonishing how much trouble we take to prevent our children from seeing the world as it is. It’s even more astonishing how, even when we might think we have earned a right to forget about our children for a moment, we haven’t.
The ambulance started, the siren wailed. I remembered another thing: Tallulah needed to feel special because I had spent too much time working on my book. I was learning how to ice skate because someone had broken into my office and stolen my book. The theft of my computer memory had led to this assault on my own.
The emergency rescue worker was back to fiddling with one of the machines hooked up to me. He seemed to think we were done talking. We weren’t. My mind wasn’t right, and I knew it wasn’t right. I thought: When you hit your head and you are never again the same, how do you know? If you have that thought does that mean you are the same? I didn’t know; and I was certain the only way I would know was to talk and talk and talk. “I’ve got to finish this book soon,” I said, a little desperately.
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“No,” I said, “I still have a problem.”
“I can’t remember what the book’s about.”
“Give me a moment,” he said. He didn’t even try to hide it: I was boring him. I was boring the emergency rescue worker! I must have fallen asleep, as the next thing I knew I was looking up not at an emergency rescue worker but a lady doctor. “I hear you’re a writer,” she said, making conversation. “What do you write about?”
She was soon sorry she had asked. For it was then I remembered: baseball! I was writing a book about baseball. As she stitched me back together I offered her, free of charge, my literary autobiography. Every last detail, including the various articles I’d written for this magazine. I told her, for instance, I’d written about the birth of my child, which had occurred in this very hospital. I told her I’d lived in Paris, and written a letter from Paris. It was then that she perked up.
“I read those!” she said.
Inexplicably, I feel better.
“I loved those descriptions of you with your son in the Luxembourg Gardens.”
“That was Adam Gopnik,” I said. For the first time I felt something I knew I had always felt. The surge of irritation, the choking back of indignation—oh the horror, oh, the smallness of existence—was so breathtakingly familiar that I couldn’t deny it: I was still me.