The meat spits a clear froth that sizzles when it hits the plate.
“That’s my favorite part,” I say, grinning up at her, then hovering my nose over the slab of porterhouse. “Butter and blood, mmm, I would die for thee..”
She rolls her eyes and jabs at her eggplant. “Yes. That’s exactly what you’ll die from, Chris.” She is a joy tonight, folks.
The steak is divine. Immaculate as the last two times we made the 80 mile trek to Renata’s, one of the few Michelin-starred restaurants you will find this far inland. The type of restaurant where even the menu is deconstructed, and sixteen50 means the Caesar salad costs more than my wristwatch. Hell, the tip costs more than my first pair of boots.
Chew, chew, chew. She slices away a small chunk of eggplant, and I can’t remember whether she enjoys the stuff or whether its the only thing she eats on the menu. I chuckle to get her attention, and nod at her plate.
“It’s fine,” she says with a tight smile. “It’s food.”
An 80 mile drive for an 80 dollar steak. It made sense a month ago when we learned I was going back in for a “routine” spinal fusion. Routine, as in Dr. Jim Santiago treats an exclusive clientele of amateur grapplers, backyard prizefighters, school gym spot-monkeys, circus brawlers, and Canadian football washouts turned semi-loved pro wrestlers.
I press forward through the steak. When done right, a proper amount of steak eventually becomes a slog. “Whatchu think about tomorrow, Chelsea? Ready to see me in a sexy blue gown again?” The restaurant is candle-lit, the dull red haze makes Chelsea’s expression more inscrutable than usual.
“Not really. It’s supposed to be a short surgery right?” She shuffles the eggplant with the tip of her fork. Most of it is still there, hacked to bits, but on the plate.
“Short is relative,” I say.
“Well I’m sure you’ll be back in the ring receiving piledrivers soon enough,” her eyes challenge me to disagree.
“I guess.” I return to the plate, absent a better response. The evening before a person cuts you open, you hope for a little human connection. The trek, the steak, candle-kissed solitude - their romance dissipate as her eyes scan the room.
“I could really use more bread,” she says.
I’m wheeled into OR prep at 9:40 the next morning by Cheryl, a squat nurse whose speckled skin appears to have received too much sun too early in life. Orange, mottled skin isn’t uncommon among the men in my trade either, usually sported proudly by the thin-haired dinosaurs still running the ropes on the regional circuit. The prep room for the OR isn’t an unfamiliar sight for me. Over the length of my stints as a professional wrestler and minor-league defensive end, I’ve earned a torn ACL, two ruptured MCLs, shin splints, a sports hernia, a torn pec, and whatever the medical term is for shard-of-announcer’s-table-stuck-in-bicep. I’m face down on a crinkled paper sheet, ass peeking out of a gown seemingly designed to fall away from my hips. Clean white light reflects off the informational posters along the wall: here are the muscles in your back, these are your intramuscular injection sites, deltoid, dorsogluteal, ventrogluteal, vastus lateralis.
Cheryl presses on my hip. “Could’ya straighten out a little bit, honey?” The bed paper crackles and resists as I turn my body and settle back down. Cheryl swabs my arm with alcohol and sticks me quick. A guy this big, she figures, doesn’t get needle sympathy.
Two brief knocks on the door precede Dr. Jim Santiago, who bounces into the room.
“Fella!” he says, closing the door behind him slowly and deliberately. The one thing wrestlers have in common with surgeons: they both think they deserve entrance music. “Big day, my friend.”
“Is something happening today?” I ask. “Cheryl, I thought this was our weekly sponge bath.”
I get a chuckle from Cheryl. “Watch it there, Chris. Your girlfriend’s in the other room but I’m taking if you’re giving.”
“That sounds like a deal to me. C’mon doctor, how long am I going to be knocked out? Time enough for a quick bath?”
“Well, total time in surgery should be around seventy five minutes, if all goes well. I don’t know about Cheryl, but we’d love to wake you up before lunch.”
“Sounds about right to me,” I say. “I got a triple-threat match in Poughkeepsie tonight, doc. I’m putting Parker Hatchet through a table. Taking that belt.”
“Well you might need to tag someone else in for that one,” Jim says, examining a few pages off of a clipboard and scratching notes in with a pen. “But you’re lucky that we’re addressing the separation in your spine as early as we are. Cases like these, well I don’t like to say every case, but every case I’ve seen we have people rehabbing in a month. Back in the ring, taking bumps in three months. Tops.”
Cheryl wheels my bed out and attaches a bag of fluid to the IV drip.
“Can’t wait. Can not wait.” I take a deep breath in as Cheryl rubs a damp pad down my back, the cold pinch of alcohol on my skin.
“Almost ready,” she says. “Guys like you, we usually have to shave their back before the surgery. You’re lucky.”
“You’re lucky,” I fire back, my voice a little shakier than I expect. Another deep breath. There’s the surgery, then there’s back home. Chelsea. Then there’s the road.
Cheryl twists a knob at the top of the IV, checks the digital monitor wired to my forearm. The monitor beeps twice in my right ear, and she nods. “Alrighty.” She moves to the head of the bed and releases the brakes on the bed’s wheels.
Dr. Jim flashes a smile. “We ready? See you on the other side buddy.”
Cheryl glides the bed from the prep room. The drip from the IV releases a heavy relaxant into my muscles, as if each passing moment my muscles weigh more, sink lower, lower. Cheryl strides and glides, traveling with my bed. Door after door slips by my nodding eyelids as the hall slinks along endlessly. When I started out in wrestling, we’d finish a show, jam into a rent-a-van, and ride 200 miles down the freeway to the next town. Inevitably, your ribs or knee or neck felt like shit, but you’d toss back a Soma and the engine whisked you along, and you’d make it there before sunrise, arriving at some new point in the darkness.
Cheryl asks me, “Any big plans for the holidays?”
To her, or to myself I reply, “This is my holiday.”
A few years ago I worked a two-shot in Ft. Lauderdale, two shows in one day. After the second show, I went back to the hotel along with my buddies Al Simms - or Snake Eyes as the nation had come to know him - and Doug Darryl, who at the time had just transitioned from an evil prison escapee gimmick to a reformed prison guard gimmick. Doug and Simms were hankering to run up some poor mark’s tab at the bar, while I planned to steal away to my hotel room to Skype with Chelsea. The backstage unreality of pro wrestling, the constant kayfabe - staying in-character - had a way of scattering my sense of real life during my weeks on the road. Our Skype dates were my anchor to Chris Huttleman, the person.
A relationship like ours, where we saw each other fewer than 10 days most months, didn’t need a lot of surprises. Still, she’d keep me on my toes for our twice-weekly Skype dates. New hair cut, new hair color, new piercing, new tattoo. Anything to get a pop from me. Most towns, I’d find a postcard to send her in the hotel or a cheap drug store nearby. The strangely, sadly boastful postcards from cities trying to sell themselves a little bigger: “Chattanooga: Appalachian Strong!”, “Ft. Wayne: Magnet Wire Capital of the World!”. On the back, I’d write to her, “Chicks, wish you could be here. The picturesque vista of the greater Pittsburgh area is impossible to capture with mere words.”
The show in Ft. Lauderdale ended early into the evening, so we arrived at the hotel shortly after dinner, when there were still enough people milling around the hotel lobby to recognize us. I lowered the brim of my trucker cap and prepared to make a beeline to the elevator. We passed by the reception desk, gear bags in hand.
“Guys, I gotta check in with Chels. I’ll take your bags up if you create a diversion.”
“Fine by me, duder,” said Doug as he heaved his strap onto my shoulder.
Simms dropped his bag to the floor and thwacked me on the back. “Go git her, man.”
I lifted his gear and paced toward the elevator’s cloudy bronze doors. As I leaned in to press the Up arrow, I heard Doug bellow from the lounge, “Holy shit, is that The Sureshot Chris Striker? Oh my god it is!”
Shit. I jammed the elevator button but a mother and son were already approaching me in the door’s bronze reflection. The mother and son are a dangerous tag team. On their own, they’re make-a-wish saccharine, but there’s something in the chemistry of a meaty wrestler on one knee signing a kid’s notebook that crystallizes a dozen more families out of thin air, insisting on high fives, hugs, and autographs. Chelsea’s shift would start in an hour and I didn’t have time to play the babyface.
Mom approached, hunched at the waist, walking her son forward like an offering to the altar. “It’s Mr. Striker! Golly, do you see him, Connor? Go on, Connor, say hi.” Connor padded up to me, eyes trying to discern his hero Chris Striker - boots, tights, and walkout vest - from the plain Chris Huttleman - trucker hat, sunglasses, and gym shorts. Connor was looking at a Christmas tree with no ornaments. The elevator doors spread open, and I backed in. I had nothing for them.
Connor continued to stare, perhaps deciding that this wasn’t the same brash action figure that leapt around his TV set each week, that perhaps his mom has simply gone crazy. His mother’s face darkened. “Wait a second. What are you doing?”
“Sorry, I gotta run,” I said, knowing the explanation was useless.
“Hey, screw you,” she threw back. Her son looked up at her, then back to me. As the doors closed on the tiny, I hear a tiny squeak.
“Yeah, screw you!”
The tiny voice skates behind my brain. The doors are closed, but I can still hear someone talking. Not whispering, just distant. The elevator stops. Was it moving? Am I moving? The tiny voice doesn’t recede, and it doesn’t approach. I can’t remember the floor I’m heading to, or why. Something to do with Chelsea. Were we heading somewhere? The space inside the elevator dims to black, and only the afterimage hovers, a blurry bronze interior slowly pooling in the dark. The tiny voice laughs. A second voice responds, higher in pitch. I concentrate on the source. Somehow, the voice is coming from behind me. The tiny voice pauses, and I hold in silence, in black. The elevator is gone. I’m waiting for something.
A digital monitor beeps twice in my right ear. I tumble into state. This is the monitor. I am in the OR. The tiny voice settles and clicks, a record needle falls into place. This is Dr. Jim Santiago.
“The kids loved it, of course. But I’m sitting there thinking, two hundred million dollars to make this? I told Andie on the way back, they already made this movie back when we were dating. It was called Karate Kid. Didn’t take them two hundred million! Lord almighty.”
The female voice laughs in response. A second female chimes in, “They remade that too. With Jackie Chan.” They step around me, unzipping a bag, tearing open plastic wrap, placing metal things in metal trays. A digital monitor beeps, twice in my right ear. I am lying face-down on thin paper. Air presses my lungs open from inside. Hard plastic rests against my lips, my tongue, down the back of my throat. I am being made to breathe.
Has the surgery finished already? I think back to my previous operations. I remember waking up, Chelsea feeding me ice chips in a recovery room. This is different.
The short, searing whine of a drill snaps me to the present. More air presses inside of me. For the first time, it occurs to me that I should alert the doctor that I’m awake. I decide to open my eyes.
I remain still. The gap between thought and action is so jarring that I pause for a moment. Open. Open them. My eyelids are inert, I’m barking at them in a foreign language. I move an arm. No. I don’t move an arm. My stomach drops in the dizzying stillness. I visualize springing from the table. I’ve mastered this in my matches. The opponent pressed down on me, my leg hooked in the crux of their elbow. The ref slams down one, two, thr - my shoulder flies up and off the mat, the crowd loses their shit.
A felt tip presses into my lower back, dots upward, around. They are marking the incision. I need air. A digital monitor beeps, twice in my right ear. Air presses into my chest. I need help. I feel my calves, quads, glutes, obliques, lats, delts, traps. I shout at them, move, fucking move. Squeeze, shudder, kick. My eyes sting with phantom tears. My eyes are closed and serene.
“Okay, then,” says Dr. Santiago. His scrubs wrinkle and fold as he hunches over me. He swells with heat and life. I feel him breathing. I just need to focus. Send him a signal. Feel my right arm, feel my hand. Feel my fingers, feel my pinky. Flick my right pinky.
“One, two, three.”
A cold split draws down my back, following the felt tip trail. I am seized. Air presses into my chest. I can’t scream. A digital monitor beeps, twice in my right ear.
“You’re the fucking Sureshot,” the kid says to me.
I knock back my first tequila, always the best of the night. The right side of my skull rings. “God damn it, you’re right. Keep a secret?” I’m at some dive in Louisville. In Tacoma. Some dive in Fort Worth. The old guys, the main eventers have planes that take them home after the cameras turn off. Simms and I Yelp the diviest bar and get fucked up to forget the bumps. “Gimme a sec kid, I’ll sign whatever, gotta take a piss.” I lower myself from the stool and my knee clicks every step to the urinal. The piss comes out pink.
As I head back to the bar, the television talks about the biggest angle in my career. I’m heading to the main event over a movie ticket. I had spent the last nine months teaming with Roger Wrecks, the 80s wrestling icon. But as the newscasters bemusedly explain, when film goddess Anne Hathaway gave me tickets to her movie premiere in the ring at tonight’s live TV broadcast, Wrecks snapped and drilled me with the Bone Crusher.
“Wrecks, what a dick, huh,” asked the kid, still waiting by the bar.
I’m too tired to kayfabe. “Ah, he’s alright. Too old for the ring but he’s been nice enough to me,” I say. “Where’s the next round,” I ask the bartender.
“Hey, it’s on me,” Kid jumps in. “Yeah, well it’s great that they are finally elevating you, bro. Big money.” The next shot arrives, and I toss it back just as quick.
Simms arrives and slaps me on the back, a sharp cuff that cuts to my spine. I shudder. Kid giggles as he watches these two cartoon characters play-acting as mortals before him.
“Shithead,” I mutter to Simms. I flick a shot glass over with a pinky. “You’re behind.”
Simms examines the Kid sitting next to me. “You two need a fuckin’ room?” Kid chortles again. Fans are weird like that. Simms insults his fans directly to their face, berates them, questions their sexuality, demands money and drinks from them, and they roll on the floor with laughter. When faced down by a hungry lion, most people will play dead.
“What are you drinking, Snake Eyes,” Kid asks on schedule.
“I ain’t drinkin’ shit, I’m pounding the next ten Cuervos you put in front of me.” Kid snickers and turns toward the bartender. Simms puts his block of a fist on my shoulder, as if he’s ready to slam a gavel. “What’s it like to be big time, Access Hollywood?” he asks.
The phone in my pocket buzzes, and I slip a hand in to check it. Missed call from Chelsea. Missed text: “Night.” We should have Skyped tonight. Maybe I dozed off in the van. I sleep the phone and tuck it away.
“Feels like the next round’s on you,” I say, slapping him back on the shoulder.
“Fuck that,” Simms says. “This business ain’t good but for two things: free shots and ring rats.”
Steel wool grinds the back of my brain to wet, gray sludge. Smoking, charring heat rakes my eyeballs. Razor wire pushes into my lungs, a digital monitor beeps twice in my right ear. I ache to vomit. I hear the clink of a metal tool lifted from a pan. A chill of flat steel slips between my back muscles, too deep. The flat sides of the steel separate, pulling apart slabs of muscle and skin. Connecting fibers rupture like cheap thread yanked from an old sweater. A warm pool forms in the crater.
“Can you get a hose in there, Cheryl,” says Dr. Santiago. Cheryl lays a tube across my back that sucks the liquid out of the cavity they’ve formed. A latex finger brushes the bone of my spine. The shock burns an image to the back of my eyes: I’m at church, standing on the top turnbuckle, and twenty thousand people are waiting for me to jump. “Yep,” Jim says. “I see it. Okay.”
I can’t breathe. Air presses into my lungs, pushes blood into the crater, gets sucked away to somewhere. Feet shuffle below me, around me. Someone lifts a heavy tool from a metal pan. My hollow throbs and swells.
Someone thumbs a plastic switch, and the drill whirs to life. It pierces bone and sings of every hell a man can make.
“Ommmmmmmmmmmmm.” Simms pulls me firm to the side of his chest. My right arm drapes his massive neck, my left hangs around one of the three girls that followed us to Room 631. Her hair lingers of whatever lilac shampoo started her afternoon. Together, we form a three person huddle, heads faced down like praying bishops. Two months back, Simms’ ex-girlfriend introduced him to Ayurvedic meditation. “Do you feel it? Ommmmmmmmmmmm.” Simms rocks us from side to side. The tripartite concoction of Simms breath - tobacco, weed, and tuna salad - forms a dense haze in the cavern between us. “Feel the harmony in our collective vibration. Ommmmmmmmmm.”
“I’m feeling something,” says Lilac, squeezed to us. ”I can feel it.” The crown of her head nudges my cheekbone as we sway. Simms’ hand slides from her shoulder, past her arm, and stops below the slight bump of her chest. His fingers dig in.
“Deep breath in,” he says.
Tobacco. Weed. Tuna. The overripe fruit of lilac and dry hair. The stew swells my chest. We hold it in.
Behind me, Steve Carell fumbles through a conversation with Catherine Keener on basic cable. The two other girls that joined us snicker from the bed. One, tan in cutoff khakis, straddles the back of her friend, leaning onto her with one hand and delivering a sloppy massage. She tilts a can of alcoholic energy drink to her lips with the free hand.
The base of my skull begins to drum as I hold in Simms’ breath. The floor tips back. I kicked off the night with a rum and Soma cocktail. Wrecks had taken to ending our recent matches with chairshots across my back. Old school to the end, he delivered them hard and stiff so that the people in the cheap seats would hear them. The liquor and pills dampen the angry throb in my spine. They jelly my legs.
“And out,” Simms expels. He and Lilac blow from their bellies, “Ommmmmmmm.” The floor beneath my feet swings up, spins, and and I tumble from their arms to the tough carpet.
Lilac woops and Simms bellows. “Haha God damn man! You feelin’ it!” He sucks in two more quick breaths to put a point on it, ah-ooh ah-ooh.
I lift onto my elbows and shake the water from my vision.
“Yeah,” I chuckle, “You just healed the shit out of me.” I crawl over to the bed and heave atop. “Who needs healing?” I pinch khaki cut-offs’s thigh. “I got the maaaagic touch.”
Khakis climbs off her friend. “That a fact?” she says, and play-shoves my shoulder. “What if I don’t need healing?” I duck my shoulder in below her abs and lift her up off the bed. She gasps and shrieks as I skip around the room. Her hips twist, the smooth skin of her belly drags over my lips. I grab her thigh and hug it to my chest so she can’t kick. After a lap around the bed, I toss us both to the mattress.
“Bodyslam!” I pin her down, “She’s out! She needs healing folks!”
“Tag me in!” Her friend, all freckles and tanktop, slaps her hand and leaps to my shoulders, pulling back. I let her win, and we topple into an obscene mound of pillows.
I roll off of Freckles and grab the open handle of Don Julio on the nightstand. Three deep gulps steady my head. “Now there’s some healing,” I rasp through the bite.
Simms pads up, hand full of Lilac’s ass. “Not a chance, dude. That stuff is poison. Fucks your brain up.”
“Clearly,” I grin. Simms buried me below the bar in every city until he found Granola Jesus.
Simms takes a measured breath. “Listen. What does booze do? It closes up the shit in your brain, the nor-monal pathways. S’why we act a fool on that stuff. You think you’re getting to know people, but you ain’t.
“People, we all want to get closer right? We all begging to let the love out, but our mind’s too clogged with the crap. Look at the monkeys, the Bono’s.”
“Bonobos,” I suggest.
“The Bonobos. You ever seen bonobo’s on the nature channel? They don’t do shit but fuck and eat all day.”
“Boner-bos,” says Freckles. She throws her head back and laughs.
“We came from the Bonobo’s, and that’s where we should be. Fuckin’ in some trees. We just gotta open up. Open the brain, the body, and our chalkers.”
“Open your shit up dude.”
“Okay, now you’re just creeping me out.”
“Just tear it open!”
I no-sell him for a few seconds. Blank stare, no reaction. Then my hands dart to the collar of my shirt. I wrench, and the fabric splits down the middle with bare resistance. I loose a primal yell, “AH-OOH, AH-OOH!”
An intruder slinks through red moss, a wire worming through a fresh hole in my vertebrae. The wire loops around a solid plate set to bone. A hand pulls the wire snug, and I suck inward. The nerves around the crater in my back squeal in the crackling smolder. In a moment, I forget my name. I am meat on a tray. The meat expands, air pushed in by a hard tube. The meat deflates. A digital monitor beeps twice.
“Did they fix the soda machine yet?” asks Santiago.
“Not yet, I don’t think so. I checked this morning,” Cheryl says.
“Ridiculous,” he says. “Hold here.” The pressure on my spine shifts slightly between two hands.
“I know. I’d kill for a Coke Zero. I don’t know how Deb manages the night shift. She doesn’t drink coffee. Here you go.” The pressure passes back, firms up. “Arnie is on this water kick lately. Drinks two, three gallons a day and says that gives him energy enough.”
“I’ve heard something similar,” says Jim, his voice searching for something.
“Really,” says Cheryl, “I’d never be able to drink that much water. I’d have to leave surgery to go pee.”
“Okay, can you hand me the first screw?”
The drill snaps back to life. I thump my chest, eyes wild. I roar in vicious certitude to the crowd. I stomp and shake and weep. A hand pulls wire tight to plate. A screw bores through. The crowd roars back. I am deafened.
“This has to be a scar,” I say, ducking my forehead to meet the tiny eye of my tablet. I trace the black rail of stitches that run along my hairline. “Or maybe I just hit a gusher tonight. I was full-on crimson mask.”
Chelsea’s eyebrows furrow for a moment. She mocks a quick smile, then settles back to neutral. “Another one for the boys on the road,” she says.
“You don’t like it?”
“The novelty’s worn off a bit. Can you hold on a sec?” She exits the sight of her laptop. The camera frames her empty room: a Shiba Inu calendar, half the days slashed or circled; a halogen Ikea light, lopsided and unplugged; two books tossed on the cream carpet, Jewelry Making For Dummies, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
I examine myself in the self-view on Skype and adjust my tanktop. If she’s impressed by the extra definition I’ve added to my chest, she hasn’t mentioned it yet. Between packed house shows, ass-early radio interviews, and charity dinners, it’s been nearly two months since I’ve been home. I scoot back and prop the iPad to the mahogany headboard. The wood has the drab sheen of wax fruit. The sleepy spatter of a motel Monet hangs above the board, almost stately in the desk lamp’s dim blonde light. I spend the empty minutes waiting on Chelsea wavering on whether I understand the impressionists.
She sits back into frame, slice of pizza in hand.
“Had to get the guy at the door,” she says through a mouthful.
“Cool. Jersey Joe’s? I miss that place,” I say.
“Do you?” She taps bone-white powdered parmesan onto the slice.
“Yeah. You would think Atlantic City would cough up better pizza than Fresno, but nada.”
She shrugs and chews. I sent her a postcard from Atlantic City years back: Chicks - come lose your pension in nature’s bathroom!
“Anything else new?” she says, working her way to the crust.
“Did you get the package I sent?”
“I think so. The nightgown?”
“Yeah! Have you tried it on yet?” I pop forward to the iPad for a closer view, elbows mashed into the beige thread comforter. “You wanna model it for me Chello?”
She pauses, pizza crust balanced between two fingers. Her eyes fix to the lens of the camera, flat and detached. She makes two tight circles with the tip of the crust, as if casting a spell. “Maybe another time.”
I puff my chest with a deep swell of breath, then huff for the imaginary fans in the rafters. “Babe! It’s a special night!”
“We’re spending our anniversary on an iPad.” Her lip twitches, she bites down on the remaining crust to dam the sudden wet glisten in her eyes. “I’m not putting on your fucking underwear.”
The empty ache in my lungs catches fire and climbs through my cervical vertebrae, hooks my brainstem and blooms an inferno. I vanish in the pyre. A screw twists and locks below, pinning me back to the world. Air pushes into my lungs. I drink it dry, the embers in my chest still crackling. I’m gasping, craving, thirsty, clenched. I’m inert on a pan. Undisturbed and still.
A clasp unlatches in the place below, and I spill in.
The sheets of our bed are drawn taut, each fold clean and angular. The morning’s rising light casts a chilly mauve to the white linen. Past the trees, the early train chunk-a-chunks away to the next town. The grumble of tracks cedes to the humming silence of our apartment. I walk my gear bag to the closet and flop it in the corner. I’m home early from our sellout European tour. The traveling physician insisted I address the tingling in my fingers with an orthopedic surgeon. As passengers shambled aboard my returning redeye, Chelsea responded to the text message announcing my return: Ok.
I ease myself onto our bed, careful not to scramble the fabric. I take a deep breath. Hold it in. My phone’s alarm jangles, buzzing my right side. Chelsea’s shift ends early A.M. I peek over to her calendar. A different Shiba Inu, more days slashed through.
I drum my fingers on the bed. I check my phone. I pad to the window and back to the bed. I shiver at some imagined chill, a flat steel surface slips through me. I press my fingers into the sheets. Is she coming? Was she here? I pad to the window. The room is dark. Night eats the driveway in hungry black. I wander back to the edge of the bed, the linen is smooth and undisturbed.
In the next room, a door clicks open and closes. A pin sticks the skin of my back, pushes through, pulling a dry strand of thread in and through. The weight of footsteps creaks the floorboards of the living room. Three steps, three pin sticks. The thread pulls through. The steps approach, creaking, sticking. I draw a deep gulp into my lungs. I let it out. Two more steps. The thread pulls tight. The bedroom door opens, and I fall into the devouring light.
“You’re back,” she says.
“My back,” I answer, shutting the screen door to our entrance way. The kitchen radiates in the warm June morning. She faces the stovetop, folding over a spattering mash of eggs and peppers in a gray skillet. I bound over in three exaggerated leaps and softly ram my shoulder in behind her, just above her hips. “Your back!” She kicks an ankle up to shoo me, and turns her face for a quick peck.
“Eggs, Chello? Eggs?” I gasp in false amazement.
“Sit,” she says. “They’re basically done.” I saunter to the copper suede sectional and vault over the armrest. Chelsea paces over, places two steaming plates on the coffee table, and leans back onto the couch.
“You just get home too?” I ask. She sinks a hand below the collar of her green scrubs and squeezes the nape of her neck.
“That I did. Bout a half hour ago.” She shovels of forkful of egg into her mouth. She chews, then jabs the tip of the fork at the UPS badge on my lapel. “Holding up?”
“Easy peasy,” I say. “The rehab kicked my ass so hard that a night of stacking boxes is cake. Way easier than it was lifting assholes for a gorilla press. Half the time, they were sandbagging and trying to fuck up my timing, other half I ended up with a fistful of johnson.”
“No johnson at the warehouse?” she lilts.
“There are dicks, don’t get me wrong,” I say. “Just none of them I gotta grab.”
Chelsea chuckles and grabs a quick sip of decaf. She sweeps a hang of hair back behind her ear, and her eyes move to the window. Then back to me.
She asks, “When you went in for surgery, they said you had what, three months of rehab to do?”
“Four,” I reply.
“Four.." She stares at her hands for a moment. She nods, slowly. "But didn’t they say you were supposed to be able to head back out on the road after that?”
I search her eyes. A tiny voice skates behind my brain. A thread pulls tight.