Bad Times

“He couldn’t find the toe,” she said. “It doesn’t matter really. The doctor said it didn’t come off clean. They couldn’t have sewed it back on if we had found it.”

We talked as strangers sometimes do when they find themselves together in places of fear and pain, like boats in a storm or emergency rooms like this one, where the usual notions of privacy and the etiquette of small talk do not hold.

“The worst part is thinking some bird has picked it up and eaten it.” She spoke with difficulty, like a person who has awakened in a cold hotel room from a deep sleep.

She was in her early forties, a short woman with a deep tan and bleached blond hair cut in the no-nonsense boyish coupe favored by Scandinavian women of her age but which on her looked out of place. The skimpy lemon-yellow tank-top she wore also seemed to belong to another woman, but a much younger one.

She had already been looked after, her wound sutured, her foot bandaged, her body probably pumped with its first dose of antibiotics. I was still waiting to be seen. Sprains don’t count for much in a room of severed limbs and stab wounds.

She kept looking at her foot. I looked, too, and felt ashamed for what felt like prying. But I couldn’t see anything, except for the bandage around her foot. She was wearing disposable slippers, the kind you didn’t have nudge your toes and foot into. The top was just two flaps of cloth that you brought up from the sides  and secured with a strip of Velcro, like a diaper for the foot.

At one point a man came in—her lover I assumed—and I got up from my chair and went across the room to leave them alone. I noticed she shivered a bit when he put his hand on her shoulder, as if a midge had landed on her skin. They spoke quietly for a few minutes, and then he left.

“My sister is coming to pick me up,” she told me. I hadn’t asked but she seemed to need to explain why she was all alone in a hospital with a lost toe.

“What am I going to tell him?” she said. “How can I tell him?” She didn’t seem to expect an answer.

We were in the city’s trauma hospital. They do a lot of things here, stuff like advanced orthognathic surgery and lumbar spinal fusion; they’ve got some of the best orthopedic surgeons in the country. But everyone thinks of it as the place you go when you have an accident. It’s where they fix bodies mangled by machines and guns and knives. The hospital for the kakiá óra.

That’s how she described it. The kakiá óra. The unlucky moment, the wrong place at the wrong time. No, better: the evil hour. Evil, as if time has a spiteful, mean-spirited side that reserves for each of us a moment in which it usurps the authorship of our lives (which was never wholly ours anyway) and mocks the precautions we take–the day’s jog and egg-white omelets, the vitamins and morning yoga–or upends the schedule of slow undoing the less disciplined among us prepare for ourselves with fatty livers.

The kakiá óra, the unkind hurtful hour that breaks into our lives with a random event almost as disruptive as the one that brought us into existence.

Usually we live in a world of rules so ordinary and well-observed we hardly notice their number. We spend most of our time in a world in which people wait for the red light to change and the hand holds the saw tight, the world in which we notice holes in the pavement and the fray in the cord. Until the kakiá óra, when the motorcycle finds the film of motor oil on the bend in the road or the foot the patch of ice on the step.

“I’d probably still have my toe if I hadn’t been wearing flip-flops. But who would have thought?”

She was right. Who gets dressed thinking, what if I have an accident? The blood seeping through the mesh of scrapes on my legs were proof, too. I was in shorts when the car hit our motorcycle, she was wearing flip-flops when her lover’s slid off the road. Neither of us was dressed for an accident.

Now she would see it every morning when she put on her stockings, perhaps even now as I write she could be lying in the tub soaping and massaging her foot while her husband, if he forgave her and stayed, shuffles about in the bedroom, A little stump where once her little toe sat, a reminder of the evil hour that changed her life. Was it mark of shame, the obverse of Hester’s letter, a branding by absence, or a private loss which she alone mourned?

It shouldn’t have happened. The road was straight and dry and his was the only car on it. It was midday on a hot June Sunday afternoon, a time when most of the city is at table or already at the beach. He had no distractions. The road swung down from one of the city’s hills past an expanse of shrubland. There was nothing to look at except the stubble of broom on the russet clay hills and the traffic light and two young men on a motorcycle descending the hill in the opposite direction.

He should have seen us, but he didn’t. He turned left. Matthew had only a few seconds to stop the bike. It wasn’t enough time. We crashed into the side of the car, and I was hurled a few body lengths away. I didn’t see where Matthew landed.

The police came and Matthew insisted I go to the hospital. He said he was fine, and stayed behind to deal with insurance details and statements. He was like that, take-charge Matthew, denying his own pain until others were taken care of. (He’d come back later that afternoon with his own left arm in a cast).

“What will I say when he comes home?” she said again.

He was away at sea. The Merchant Marine. I wondered how she could keep it a secret, even if it healed in time for his return, and she was freed of bandages and ointments and antibiotics. It was not the worst of scars to bear. It wasn’t like the broken bones and battered souls left by abusive husbands. I hoped for her sake that their affair was one of the best things that happened to her in her life, and that her lover made her feel loved.

Maybe she could hide it. She would have to be careful. She wouldn’t wear sandals and, of course, never again flip-flops. She wouldn’t swim with him again or lie on the beach together. How then? She could feign a sensitivity to the sun. She could say her dermatologist had discovered some worrying marks on her skin—she had more than enough discolorations and moles to make the story credible.

She would have to be careful, I thought. He could notice it when she least expected. It could happen sitting on the patio in the sticky heat of an August afternoon, playing cards with her husband and friends. Without realizing it she’d slip off her espadrilles to cool her fee and his gaze would wander—he never liked card games—down to the flagstones in the courtyard. And then he would see it: the missing toe.

She’d be safer if, as I suspected, her husband had already stopped looking at her in the way a lover would. Maybe he no longer kissed her knees or flicked his tongue down her shin, no longer took her foot in his hand, massaging it and bringing her toes one by one to his lips. Maybe he had stopped looking at her altogether.

She could hide it from her husband only if he no longer desired her. She could conceal the absence of her toe only in the absence of love.

Each love makes its claim, traces furrows in our soul. Each love steals something for itself and leaves something else behind.

Matthew left his marks, too. Good ones, mostly. He showed me that I could love well. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise but it was.

But the last years of our relationship were different, and so was the new imprint that was slowly and imperceptibly being laid within me. It was just as physical as a tattoo or the stump of a toe, but much harder to see. It was a mark made not in the flesh but within the folds of my consciousness, embodied in thickened pathways of neurons that bring like stimuli to the same choice of behaviors.

The longer we lived together, the less he initiated our love-making. I didn’t mind at first, since he usually would respond to my overtures. But in time his passivity made me feel needy, and I didn’t want to feel that way. I wonder now if she had lived through the same, the woman who had lost a toe riding to the sea on her lover’s bike.

I became adept at reading his mood, or so I thought, silently calculating the odds that he would respond or, as eventually was more often the case, instead say he was tired or stressed out or wanted some time alone.

I erred too much on the side of caution and succumbed to the paranoia of the lover who sees signs of coming rejection in the most innocent of gestures: a note of impatience in his lover’s voice, the book brought to bed, the beach towel set at a colleague’s distance. In my mind I moved them all along the ever more heavily trafficked neural pathway of perceived indifference, shuttling them to the single destination that was increasingly my favored response: don’t even try.

But that would all come later. That day in the emergency room I felt lucky, despite the pain seeping through my arm.

Our arms healed, the casts came off, and we had a story to tell. The accident changed nothing, or if it did, it made things better. We sold the bike and bought a car and drove out to the country on weekends with the dog. Our kakiá óra would come, but this wasn’t it.


Image: Helmut Kolle, “Bullfight”.  Helmut Kolle (1899-1931) was a Berlin-born painter who worked in the style of both German modernism and the innovations in painting that his French contemporaries such as Picasso, Braque and Derain—whose works his mentor and lover, Wilhelm Uhde, was among he first to collect—had brought to art. If the subjects of Kolle’s earlier work were often adolescent boys, those of his later works—if one can speak of later work in an artist who died tragically young at the age of 32 (from complications of endocarditis)—were brawnier men: sailors and bullfighters, like the one in the work reproduced for this post.


2 responses to ‘Bad Times

  1. I was looking through posts I missed in my reader while I was away for a few days and was about to stop, as there is always so much else to do, when I found this. I am so glad. A precious story, beautifully written. What I love is the way my response to the narrative shifted. At first I was reading it at a simple level, thinking it about chance and reminding myself to bless the quotidian. Then you introduce layers (through your respective lovers) which make it about more than just the unlucky moment. I love this. Imagine this is a story my head will carry for a while. Thank you.


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