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Authors: Jodi Picoult

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BOOK: Wish You Were Here
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“But…what did Sotheby’s say? I mean, do we get our jobs back…eventually? Or do we start looking for new ones?”

“They didn’t say shit,” Rodney answers. “Just a lot of
circumstances beyond our control
and
we remain committed to the field of art sales
blah blah blah. Didn’t you see the email?”

It is somewhere, I’m sure, buried under the 2,685 others I haven’t read yet. I wonder why
this
detail of my sedation dream would be the one that turns out to be true. “Isabela didn’t have internet service,” I reply automatically.

“Who’s Isabela?”

“Rodney,” I say quietly, “I want to tell you something. But it’s going to be hard for you to believe.”

“Like, how hard? On a scale from bike shorts and blazers during Fashion Week to Lady Gaga’s Meat Dress?”

“Just listen,” I say, and I sketch my other life: my arrival on Isabela and the closed hotel and Beatriz self-harming and her broody father. My mother’s death. The fierce and foolish night Gabriel and I spent together. The waves closing over my head.

When I finish, Rodney is silent. “Well?”

“I don’t know what to say, Di.”

I roll my eyes. “Rodney, I’ve seen you pass judgment on a five-year-old’s unicorn backpack. You have thoughts. You always have thoughts.”

“Mmm. It reminds me of something…oh, I know. Remember the guy who sleeps outside the Sephora on East Eighty-sixth? The one in the rainbow onesie who preaches End of Days?”

My face flames. “You’re an asshole. I didn’t make this up, Rodney.”

“I know that,” he says. “Because as it turns out, Isabela Island in the Galápagos did indeed close for two weeks, starting on March fifteenth.”

“What?” I gasp. “How do you know that?”

“Gooooogle,” Rodney says slowly.

“That’s the day I got there, on the ferry. Or dreamed I got there. Whatever.”

“Well, if you were running a high fever in the hospital that day, you probably weren’t doing Web searches.”

“Maybe it was in the background, on the television…”

“Or maybe,” Rodney says, “it wasn’t.”

When I hear those words, my eyes fill with tears. I don’t think I realized how much I needed someone to believe me.

“Look, baby doll, I got too many relatives who dabble in the occult to not give you the benefit of the doubt. Who’s to say you didn’t tumble into some fourth-dimension shit?”

“Okay, that sounds even more insane,” I mutter.

“More insane than having an affair with a figment of your imagination?”

“Shut
up
!” I hiss, although no one but me has heard him.

“So the million-dollar question is: have you told Finn about your, um, extracurricular excursions?”

“He thinks it’s a symptom from Covid, from the sedation on the ventilator.”

Rodney pauses. “If it was real…even just to
you,
” he says, “you’re going to have to tell him.”

I rub the heel of my hand between my eyebrows, where a dull ache has started up. “I can’t even see him. He’s working around the clock, and I’m not allowed to have visitors here. I feel like a leper. I can barely stand on my own feet, I haven’t had a shower in so long I can’t remember the date, and based on my experience trying to dress myself, bras may be a thing of my past. When I’m too tired to do therapy, my mind starts going in circles and I can’t remember what’s real and what’s not and then I start panicking even more.” I let out a shuddering breath. “I need a distraction.”

“Girl, I have two words for you,” Rodney says.
“Tiger King.”


Other things that happen on my second day in rehab:

  1. I put on my own shoes and socks.

  2. CNN reports that eighty percent of people on ventilators have died.


I am actively fighting against my own body. My mind is laser-focused, screaming things like
lift, hoist, balance.
My muscles do not speak the language. Like any other kind of dissonance, it’s exhausting. The only good thing about working so hard during the day is that at night, I am so exhausted, I don’t resist sleep. It fells me with blunt force, and I am too tired to dream.

I wonder, too, if the reason that I can fall asleep here the way I did not in the step-down ward is that I know every morning, Maggie will appear with a new torture device. I may not trust her with my physical progress yet, but I do trust her to bring me back to the real world.

On my third day, my occupational therapist, Vee, comes into the room and watches me struggle to squeeze toothpaste onto a toothbrush. It’s something that I used to do without thought but now requires Zen focus. I finish brushing my teeth just as Maggie enters. She is pushing a weird, squat box, which she sets at the side of the room. “Time to stand,” she says.

She glances around, her gaze landing on the walker she brought in for yesterday’s dose of therapy. She sets it on the side of the bed. “Let’s get up close and personal with Paul,” she says.

“Alice.” (We’ve been arguing about the best name for a walker, which is already a misnomer because I’m using it to stand, not move.) But I swing my legs over the side of the bed, and this time, I barely have to think to make it happen. Maggie wraps a belt around me, waits till she is sure I’m not dizzy, and helps me scoot to the edge of the bed. When I stand for thirty seconds, my legs don’t quiver beneath me.

I look up at her, a smile spreading over my face. “Bring it on,” I challenge.

“What did you tell me you wanted to do when you got here?”

“Leave,” I say.

“And what did I tell you you needed to be able to do first?”

Vee, I realize, has not left the room but has instead shoved the weird little box that Maggie dragged in so that it is kitty-corner to Alice the Walker.

She flips the top up, and I realize it’s a commode. “Ta-da,” Maggie says.


Day four of rehab:

  1. I transfer to a wheelchair by myself.

  2. I wheel it into the bathroom and brush my teeth.

  3. I get so tired, halfway through, that I put my head on the counter and fall asleep.

  4. That is how a nurse finds me to tell me that, finally, I’ve tested negative for Covid.


Now that I’m no longer Covid-positive, Maggie tells me that for physical therapy I will go to the gym. She wheels me into the large space, where multiple patients are working with multiple physical therapists. It is almost shocking to see so many people in one place, after so much time in isolation. I wonder how many of these people had Covid.

She gets me settled on a mat and begins moving my arms and legs, assessing joint tightness and strength in my deltoids and biceps. The whole time, she is grilling me about my apartment.
Do you live with someone who’s there full-time? Is there an elevator? How many steps from the elevator to your apartment? Are there carpets or throw rugs? Stairs?

By the time she leads me to the parallel bars, I am grateful to concentrate on something other than rapid-fire questions. My mind still is foggy; I will start a sentence only to forget where it was going.

Maggie stands in front of me, belly to belly, with a wheelchair behind me. “Lift your left leg,” she says.

I feel sweat bead on my forehead. “If I go down,” I tell her, “you’re going with me.”

“Try me,” Maggie challenges.

I am dizzy and terrified of losing my balance, but I lift my leg an inch off the floor.

“Now your right one,” Maggie says.

I grit my teeth and try and my knee buckles. I collapse into the wheelchair, scooting back a few inches.

“That’s okay,” Maggie tells me. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

I look up at her. “Again,” I demand.

She narrows her eyes and then nods. “Okay,” she says, and she hauls me back up to my feet. “Let’s start with a knee bend.”

I do it, the world’s ugliest plié.

“Now shift your weight to your left foot,” she says, and I do. “Now. Lift your right leg.”

My knee wobbles, and I have to clutch the bars in a death grip, but I do it.

“Good,” Maggie says. “Now…march.”

Left leg. Right. Left. Right.

I force myself to move in place. I am bathed in sweat now, and grimacing, and depending on the support of the parallel bars like they are an extension of my own skeleton. I’m so busy concentrating, in fact, that I do not realize I have advanced a foot.

Maggie whistles. “Look who’s walking.”


Vee tells me that if I can wash my own hair, she has a surprise for me. I cannot imagine anything better than the shower itself. Sitting on the little plastic stool, with water pounding against my skin, I begin to feel human again.

I feel like an Olympian when I bend down to get the shampoo bottle, squeeze some into my palm, and scrub my scalp. I don’t fall off the chair. I hold my face up to the weak stream of water and think that this is better than any spa in a four-star hotel could ever be.

As I watch the suds spool down the drain, I think of all the things that I am washing away. This weakness. This fucking virus. The ten lost days I can’t remember.

I felt like a failure in the hospital, dependent on tubes and medications and IVs and nurses to do every little thing I’ve done independently since I was a child. But here, I’m getting stronger. Here, I’m a survivor. Survivors adapt.

I am seized by a mental image of Gabriel gesturing toward a marine iguana. I find myself folding forward into the spray, closing my eyes against it.

I rap my knuckles on the side of the shower. “I’m done,” I say thickly, wondering how long before I’m no longer ambushed by these memories. I hear the click of the door, and Vee comes in with a towel. She yanks open the plastic curtain and turns the faucet off. Not even being stark naked in front of her can rob me of the joy of finally being clean.

Vee watches me drag on my sweatpants and sweatshirt and then hands me a brush for my hair. I try, but the snarls and mats after all this time are impossible for me to deal with. She sits behind me on the bed and starts to pick through the knots, combing the hair back from my face.

“I think I’m in heaven,” I tell her.

She laughs. “No, we’re happy you
didn’t
wind up there.” Her fingers fly over my scalp in an intricate pattern. “I do French braids for my girls all the time.”

“I never learned how.”

“No?” Vee asks. “Your mama never taught you?”

I feel her weave and pull and twist. “She wasn’t around much,” I reply.

And now that she isn’t far-flung and hightailing it all over the world, I haven’t been around her much, either.

That could change.

I have always believed we are the architects of our own fates—it’s why I so carefully planned my career steps and why Finn and I dreamed in tandem about our future. It is also why I could blame my mother for choosing her career over me—because it was just that: a decision she
made
. I have never really subscribed to the mantra that things happen for a reason. Until, maybe, now.

If I was so sick that it nearly cost me my life…if I was one of only a handful to survive ventilation…if I returned to this world, instead of the one embedded in my mind…I would like to believe that there is an explanation. That it isn’t random or the luck of the draw. That this was a lesson for me, or a wake-up call.

Maybe it is about my mother.

Vee ties the braid off with a rubber band. “There,” she says. “You’re like a whole new person.”

Not yet.

But I
could
be.

She pulls over a wheelchair and sets the brakes and then positions Alice nearby so that I can do the stand-pivot-transfer move to seat myself. “I believe I promised you a surprise,” Vee says.

It’s probably a trip down to the multipurpose gym to do more physical therapy. “Do we have to?” I ask.

“Trust me,” Vee says, and she opens the door to my room.

She gives me a surgical mask and pushes me down the hallway, past patients who are carefully moving behind their own walkers or with four-footed canes. A couple of the nurses smile at me and comment on my appearance, which makes me wonder how terrible I looked before. Instead of heading into the elevator, though, Vee turns right at the end of the hallway and hits an automatic door button with her elbow, so that a glass panel slides open. She rolls me into a tiny courtyard that is walled in by four sides of the hospital building. It’s unseasonably warm, and the sun falls in an amber slant. “Fresh air?” I gasp, tilting my face, and that’s when I see him.

Finn stands at the far end of the narrow courtyard, holding a little bouquet of tulips.

“I think you can take it from here, Doc,” Vee says, and she winks at me and slips back inside.

Finn stares at me, and then unloops his mask so that it dangles from one wrist. The bridge of his nose is still dark and bruised, but my God. To see that smile.

I cry out, frustrated by my inability to get to him, and as if I’ve willed it, Finn is at my side a second later. He kneels, his arms coming around me. “Look who tested negative,” he says.

I unhook my mask and set it in my lap. “You read my labs?”

He grins. “Professional perks.”

Finn rests his forehead against mine. He closes his eyes. I know that this moment is too big for him, too. To hold him, to be held. It is as if I’ve been trapped underneath ice, and suddenly, I’m back in a place where there is sound and warmth and sun.

“Hi,” Finn whispers against my lips.

“Hi.”

He closes the distance between us, feathering his mouth against mine, before pulling away with a stripe of pink on his cheeks, as if he knows I’m still recovering but couldn’t help himself.

I wait for it, that last click of the lock, that satisfying final puzzle piece, that familiar sigh of reaching home.

This is where you belong,
I tell myself.

“You were so lucky,” Finn says thickly, as if he’s struggling to push away the shadows of what could have happened.

“I
am
so lucky,” I correct. I grab both sides of his face and press my lips to his. I show him that this is what I want, what I’ve always wanted. I consume him, to convince myself.

BOOK: Wish You Were Here
10.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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