Chris didn’t even know what was going through his mind when he hit the ground. He knew that before he’d been struck, he’d been doing an awkwardly hunched shuffle-run, thinking about how miserable walking in the rain is as he switched his umbrella to his right hand in order to dig through his left pocket for his car keys.
There was white, pain, and then nothing.
The paramedics and doctors later kept saying he was lucky–lucky that the fire department was only a few minutes away, lucky another man coming off the train had seen him get hit, lucky he’d switched his umbrella to his right hand, lucky that the scarring wouldn’t be too bad, lucky that the surgeons hadn’t been operating on someone else when he’d been brought in. Everyone who came to visit him in the coming weeks told him he was lucky to be alive.
The first thing Chris remembered after the rain and the white is asking someone to call Janelle. “Someone call her,” he kept shouting, but he was so confused, so dizzy and in so much pain, he didn’t think they understood. “Call Janelle. My wife.”
He remembers Janelle being there a lot at the beginning. His memory of those first days were bits and pieces. When he thinks back he remembers her crying, remembers feeling relieved. She’s here, he thought. She’s here. She’s here.
Most days she sat in the blue armchair on Chris’s left side, his good side. The doctors had informed him that the lightning had probably struck the ground and then arched back up into the sky through his right arm. The entire arm was locked in a cast, and his right side was a mess of bandages and seared flesh. The hospital room was filled with light, between the window and the fluorescent ceiling lights and the glow of the instruments. Janelle never seemed to take her sunglasses off.
“I’m going to bring Emily with me, next time,” she told him, patting his good hand lightly. “She’s been asking about you. Do you feel up to that?”
“Yes,” Chris murmured. He wanted to see Emily, but he couldn’t talk much. It hurt.
Her gaze roamed over the blanket that hid most of his body. “The doctors say that if you’d had your umbrella in your other hand, the bolt would have been more likely to go through your heart.” She said it like she was discussing the brunch menu at a restaurant.
Chris watched her glance over her shoulder out the window, where he could see the Burger King across the street from the hospital. “Lucky,” he said.
She got to her feet. “Well, I’ve got to get back to the office,” she said. “I’ll come back.”
Chris watched her go, his brain trying to remember something important. . .yes, Janelle walking in the opposite direction of where she went now, towards him, wearing a white dress. She was smiling widely, her eyes playful. And then the memory was gone, and he felt like telling her he was sorry, but she was gone, too.
Emily was ten, and Chris wasn’t quite sure how that had happened. Right after the accident, he’d been too confused to recognize her. He remembered that now. She and Janelle had gotten haircuts recently, with Emily now sporting a shorter version of Janelle’s hair. He’d come home that night and almost hadn’t recognized his own daughter.
Emily crawled onto the hospital bed next to him, careful not to touch him. Chris shifted over to the best of his ability, doing his best not to let her see how much it hurt. He knew she meant well, that she only wanted to be next to him, which he loved, but she was like her mother–she did what she wanted and expected everyone else to move.
“Hey, Dad,” she said. “Do you feel better?” Janelle had dropped her off after practice, so she was still wearing her softball uniform. Chris had only been to one game since she’d joined the team in the fall. Seeing her, with her short hair pinned up, he silently vowed to go to more.
Chris nodded, then whispered “Can’t talk much.”
“It’s okay. You missed a really good game last Saturday. We were facing Glenview, and Vanessa nailed their pitcher with the ball.”
“No, it was an accident. Coach told us if we hit a home run, he’d buy us all Sprite. She was trying to hit it over the fence. Mom was trying not to laugh all the way home. I was, too.”
She laid her head on the edge of his pillow. Then, more quietly, she asked, “How come Mom’s so mad at you?”
He was taken aback. “Today?” he managed.
“All the time.”
Chris sighed. He wasn’t used to being honest with his daughter. He’d spent ten years sugarcoating and adapting for little ears, and he and Janelle had gotten really good at it. And then suddenly Emily was getting to the age when she knew a lie when she heard it, and Chris had to figure out a new way of speaking to her.
“She says it’s because you’re so disappointing,” Emily said in response to his silence.
Chris knew this already. He knew because Janelle had told him that many times in the past four years. Chris thought it was because he was taking middle age a little too well; it didn’t bother him that he only wore polos in a variety of boring colors, had worked the same office job for nearly twelve years, and was starting to get a paunch above his belt. It’s easier if you don’t fight it, he’d always wanted to tell her, but he knew it would be best for her to work it out in her own time. No, he was only surprised his wife had shared her opinions on his failures with their ten-year-old. Apparently, while he’d been struggling to move on from the Tooth Fairy and My Little Ponies, Janelle was treating Emily like an adult.
He was about to tell Emily that her mother had always been explosive with her feelings when Janelle herself strolled in, her hand buried in her purse. Chris jumped as if they’d been caught doing something bad.
“Here’s a sandwich, dear,” she said to Emily, handing it to her.
“Thanks.” Emily began to unwrap it, the cellophane the only sound besides the machines and the heart rate monitor.
“Honey,” Janelle said, perched on the edge of the blue armchair, “maybe you’d like to head down to the cafeteria? Your dad and I have to talk.”
Chris saw Emily freeze. She looked at her father, who nodded as encouragingly as he could. She took her sandwich and shuffled to the door, closing it behind her with a click.
Janelle shifted on her seat, crossing her legs and uncrossing them. “How are you feeling?”
“Slept a little more,” Chris said.
“Good, good,” she said, tucking her hair behind her ears.
He shot her a look that did its best to say, We’ve been married sixteen years. I know when you’ve got something to say.
She took off her sunglasses at last, her makeup-rimmed eyes trained on the floor. She sighed. Fidgeted in her seat again. Moved her eyes to the foot of the bed. “I just closed the sale on an apartment in Boston,” she said.
At first, Chris could only think, What’s wrong with our house?
“I’m sorry to have brought it up so late, but I just… couldn’t bring myself to say something,” she said. “And then you got hit, and we had to deal with that, but now everything’s ready. It’s big enough for Emily, too–I made sure of that.”
It dawned on him. “You’re leaving,” he said hollowly.
She swiped the tips of her fingers under her eyes and looked up at him. “Chris, I’m not happy. I don’t know if you’ve ever been happy. You never tell me anything. Even when you’re trying, you never tell me anything.”
God, he couldn’t look at her. “Don’t do this to me,” he whispered to the window.
“We’re not meant for each other,” Janelle pleaded. “Surely, after all we’ve been through, you can see that?”
“No, I can’t.”
He heard her sob, and his heart clenched like a fist. She’s doing this to herself, he said, she’s the one leaving you. But still he pitied her, wanted to make it better for her. God, he couldn’t stand to hear her cry.
The pain was immense, but he dragged his eyes back to her. “I love you, Janelle,” he said.
“And there’s the problem,” she whispered. “You know I can’t remember the last time you said you loved me?”
He blinked. It can’t be, he thought. I love you whenever I see you, and even when I don’t. But he couldn’t remember the last time he’d said it out loud.
“You want to go?” he asked, the words making his ribcage hurt. “Then you’d better go.”
She hiccuped. “You’ll just let me?”
Chris tried to picture his life without Emily and Janelle. It hurt, but what hurt more was the fact that they’d been picturing their lives without him for quite some time. As his eyes began to fill up, he wondered how he could have missed all the signs. I am a bad husband, he thought. She’s right–they would be happier without me.
“Okay then,” she said, just barely sounding like she couldn’t believe her luck.
Chris looked at her again. He tried to remember all the best things they’d had together before bitterness and loneliness wore them away: how she’d looked in her wedding dress, the months when their house was being built, the Christmas he gave her their golden lab, the day Emily was born. He couldn’t remember the silences, the arguments had in hushed tones, the dinners eaten alone. He was too dazed.
As she walked out, he remembered the lightning striking him. The whitehot pain over and over. The man who ran through the wet parking lot who, upon seeing Chris’s chest rise, said, “You’re very lucky, sir.”
Lucky, Chris thought, his eyes fixed on the heart rate monitor.