Here’s what I remember from last night: A couple of Jack and Cokes, a couple of tequila shots—okay, maybe it was more than a couple of each, maybe more like a half dozen, along with a few beers. Pee it out, drink some more. On a Friday night at Skinny’s, who’s counting? I remember bad karaoke, and I mean really bad, the kind that would make a dog howl along. Carlos and Gina were drinking beside me, all three of us roaring with laughter. I remember the relief of shedding another crappy week at work to hang out with my friends. At one point a cute guy eyed me from across the bar. He looked barely thirty, but I thought, What the hell, I can get away with telling him I’m thirty-five. There’s an odd snippet of me crawling out of a car, shivering, super-bright stars, and maybe another part about loud noises and people asking questions, but the rest is a blur.
Here’s what I encounter this morning: The sound of a metal door clanking open and a telltale throb in my skull. Sitting upright on a scratchy cot and blinking—Shit, am I in jail? I’m wearing my dress and high heels from last night, but the inside of my mouth feels like swamp muck and my shoulder and ribcage hurt like hell. I force my eyes to stay open wide enough to make out a uniform on the other side of the bars.
“All right, you’re free to go,” the uniform says. “Your brother-in-law paid your bail.”
“You’ve been bailed out. You can go.”
I get to my feet and steady myself to walk the few steps out the door, my stomach and head lurching like a wave machine in slow-mo. The cop, short and potbellied, eyes me in disgust and beckons me to get a move on.
“Come on, he’s waiting.”
Who is? Did he say Brian paid my bail? That’s impossible. He and Claire and I haven’t spoken since they kicked me out of Mom’s funeral over a year ago. He wouldn’t come get me if I was dead in a ditch…Fuck, why am I even in jail and how long have I been here? I may have been a little plastered last night, but I don’t remember being loud or disorderly, and no one at Skinny’s would call the cops if I were. It’s that kind of place, and besides, I used to work there, we’re pals. I look around for Carlos and Gina, but there’s no one else in my cell or the few others we pass to reach the door.
“What happened? Where’s my purse?” I twist for another glance behind me, trying to recall when I last felt the sensation of a strap on my shoulder, but the cop hustles me along a corridor and into a lobby where a lone guy in a business suit rises from one of the chairs. Brian? Shit, who ran him over? He looks worse than I feel, deep hollows carved into his cheeks, his skin gray to match his hair. Then again, I’d be pissed, too, if I had to spend my Saturday morning driving from Ann Arbor to Grand Rapids to bail someone out of jail.
“Let’s go, Maya,” he says grimly, vise-gripping my elbow and carrying in his free hand what I assume is the paperwork for my release. Okay, I get that he’s humiliated to have the world find out that a member of his family has been arrested as a drunkard, even this paunchy cop we’ll never see again and who patently doesn’t care. I get what an unpardonable offense I’ve committed in the eyes of the esteemed Drs. Brian and Claire Nakamura. But the reunion stops here. What business did the cops have calling them anyway? I can take care of myself.
“Look, I’ll pay you back for the bail. How much do I owe you?” I say to Brian as he propels me to the exit. Outside, the smack of fresh fall air makes my head ache even more, and the sun overhead clues me it’s closer to lunch than to breakfast. Wait, didn’t I have a sweater last night—where is it? If those fucking cops took my sweater and purse and aren’t returning them…I jerk free from Brian, determined not to leave without my stuff, and a pair of upstanding citizens crossing the parking lot pause and stare. Okay, okay, so I’m in a skimpy dress and high heels in the middle of the day, arguing with a Japanese dude outside the county jail. Take a picture and post it, see if I care.
Brian reclaims my arm, squeezing hard enough to hurt. “Let’s go.”
“Go where? What are you doing here?”
“Claire sent me to come get you.”
“Why? I don’t want anything to do with her.”
“Then why did you call her from the jail?”
Did I? Shit, I don’t remember. Brian yanks me to his car, and I get in and scrape my tongue with my teeth—yuck. I must have been out of my mind to call Claire. That she didn’t come herself must mean we’re still not speaking—good—and though I suppose I should be grateful she sent Brian to my rescue, it’s just one more thing they’ll have to lord over me. As for his business suit on a Saturday morning, what else does a respected professor of music wear when summoned to bail a disgraced relative out of jail?
Brian gets into the driver’s seat and looks me over.
“What?” I say, patting at my hair. “What’s the big fuss? Look, I’m sorry you had to come get me, I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused you and Claire, but just make the bastards give back my purse and I’ll reimburse you for the bail. I’ve got maybe forty dollars in my wallet, and I’ll write you a check for anything over. You can drop me at the bar where I left my car, and I’ll take it from there.”
The headshake Brian gives me says he can’t begin to comprehend what universe I inhabit.
“Do you have any idea what happened last night?” he asks, and by the tone of his voice I know he’s just waiting to spring it on me and roast me over the coals of his indignation. “You were in a terrible accident, staggering along the road so sloshed you could barely tell the cops your own name. So they went into your purse to get your ID, and guess what they also found?”
“My forty bucks, which they’ve obviously taken. Nice little sideline they’re running, cleaning out their guests’ cash…Oww.” I press my hand to my throbbing head.
“No, Maya, they found two joints.”
Marijuana? Shit. My stomach drops, but I catch it before it falls too far. How did that get in my purse? I haven’t done pot in ages, months. Come to think of it, I haven’t used that purse in a while either. I only grabbed it because the red matched my belt and shoes. Possession of marijuana…Okay, that’s not good, but it’s not the end of the world. As anyone at Skinny’s can tell you, two joints isn’t possession with intent to sell. Hell, for all I know, someone might have slipped the weed into my bag last night at the bar. I’ll plead no contest, get probation and community service or some such, but it can’t be any worse than that since I don’t have a previous record.
“Well, I’m really sorry, Brian,” I say, striving to be polite, “and I appreciate you bailing me out, but I don’t expect you and Claire to get involved any further. Just take me to my car, and I’ll pay you back when I can. I’ll deduct it bit by bit from my paycheck.”
“Maya, didn’t you hear me? You were in an accident, and you no longer have a car.”
“Your friend totaled it when he went off the road and into the tree.”
“What?” I fumble through the information. Carlos totaled my car? Why was he driving my car when he had his own? He came with Gina, and we met up at the bar. My heartbeat accelerates, and a memory erupts—sirens, shouting, the smell of hot oil—then vanishes before I can nail it. “What do you mean, Carlos totaled my car? He and Gina—was she with us? They’re all right, aren’t they?”
“No, they’re not, and from what the cops told me, you’re lucky I’m not IDing you at the morgue instead of picking you up at the jail.”
“The morgue?” My panic is full-blown now. “What are you talking about? Tell me!”
“The police said they already did. Carlos, if that’s his name, is dead, and the girl in the front seat is in critical condition in the hospital. You were in the back seat and crawled out.”
He starts the car and I stare at his profile.
“No…no…But the bartender at Skinny’s…He should have seen, he should have stopped us.”
“He thought he had. Carlos told him you all came together, so he took Carlos’s keys and called a cab, and the bouncer sat the three of you outside on a bench to wait for it.”
I start to cry, tears of fright, as if the accident has only just happened, which in a way it has because I didn’t know any of this before.
“There’s something else,” says Brian, driving out of the parking lot.
“What?” My voice sounds like glass that’s about to crack. Carlos dead, Gina critical.
“There’s some question as to how Carlos came to be driving your car. Did you give him permission, Maya? Did you give him the keys? Did you?”
“I don’t remember!” Can’t he even give me time to absorb the awful news? Okay, maybe I didn’t know Carlos and Gina that well. We’d hung out only a few times before. But when a person dies…
“Well, try harder,” Brian snarls. “Or maybe you shouldn’t, because if you knowingly allowed someone who was even drunker than you to get behind the wheel of your car—”
I cover my ears. No, no, this can’t be real. What happened? How did I get here? My last lucid sequence consists of blowing off my job at Happy Days Hobbies when the store closed at eight, swinging by my place to change, then driving to Skinny’s to meet my pals. Drinks, karaoke, cute guy. Now Carlos is dead? For the next five minutes we ride in silence, Brian taut, me miserable.
“The cops should have taken me to the hospital, too,” I finally say. “How did they know I wasn’t hurt?”
“They did take you to the hospital. They took you into protective custody at the crash site because you were wandering along the highway, a danger to yourself and others. They had you medically cleared in the ER, then they brought you to the jail where you phoned Claire. It was five a.m., and I got to the phone just in time to accept the call, but you were so slurred, I had to call back and ask to speak to an officer. They put you in a detox cell to sleep if off until I could get here. Are you hurt? Do you need to go to a hospital now?”
“Do you have any idea what you told them last night? Do you remember if they read you your Miranda rights?”
“No, no, no!”
He takes his eyes off the road long enough to send me a glare, but I’ve had it with his self-righteousness. Okay, I’ve screwed up again, massively, but I’ll take it from here. It dawns on me we’re not even driving in the direction of my apartment. Instead, the car is merging onto the highway.
“Where are we going? Just drop me at my place and you can go home.”
“I can’t. Claire wants to see you.”
“What for? I’m not going to Ann Arbor. Where’s my car anyway? Who says it’s totaled? I want to see for myself.”
“You can’t. It’s been impounded.”
“Impounded? Those bastards! They’ve got no right!”
“They have every right. There was a fatality—do you get that, Maya?—and your car and everything in it, including your purse and ID, are being held by the police while they investigate. They said it might take a couple of days. You have to be in court Monday morning to hear the charges.”
I sink against the passenger door and fold my arms across my stomach to hold down the churning. “Well, who asked you to come anyway? Trust me, Claire is the last person on earth I would have called if I’d been sober.”
The car swerves violently onto the verge, and the snapping tight of the seatbelt sends fresh jolts of pain through my sore ribs as we jerk to a halt—Oww! Beside me, I see the throbbing vein in Brian’s neck that means you better duck because a guy’s about to hit you. But Brian doesn’t lift his hands—he’s probably never hit anybody in his life—he just keeps squeezing the steering wheel, eyes shut tight and breathing hard. Then he swings the car back onto the road, incurring a horn blast from another driver.
“You shut up,” he says, and now he drives like a controlled madman, as if there’s a demon fighting to emerge from the impeccable citizen behind the wheel. “You shut up, you shut up,” he repeats, and I knot myself into the corner and obey. Everything hurts now, my chest, my head, my eyes in the bright sunlight reflecting off the road. I swear I didn’t give Carlos my keys, I swear I don’t remember the bouncer. Now Carlos is dead and Gina is hurt, how badly I don’t know. They’re both barely in their thirties, and that was one of the reasons it was so much fun to hang out with them, because they aren’t weighed down by a lot of mistakes, and they just get happy drunk, not morose. Last night I was happy, too, and now I’m in such a fucking mess…
We drive the rest of the way to Ann Arbor without a word, Brian so murderously tight-lipped it’s as if the fumes of anger emanating from him are poisoning the air inside the car. When we reach the stop sign at the end of the off-ramp, he turns in a different direction than I remember, then onto another road that leads to a one-story, red brick building landscaped with shrubbery, flowers and a flagpole. What the fuck? It’s about the size and shape of a large elementary school, but the sign reads Glenwood Rehabilitation Hospital. Brian gets out of the car and stalks toward the entrance, apparently expecting me to follow. Fine. I slam my door, and the scenery around me does a red-green swirl.
“Hello, Dr. Nakamura,” says the smiling receptionist, and when Brian brushes past without any acknowledgement, she looks hurt, then concerned, then puzzled as I come tottering after. Brian is halfway down the hall, and as I hurry to catch up, he makes an abrupt turn through an open door. I skid in beside him, and the eyes of the patient in the bed slide ever so slightly toward us.
Brian goes forward and clasps her hands, and I stare. What is Claire doing in a place like this? She’s always in excellent health, she wasn’t sick when I saw her at Mom’s funeral. Yet she looks awful, her body slack and unmoving, a plastic tube protruding from her bandaged throat, an IV bag dripping something vanilla-ish into her, wan and sheeted like the victim of some sadistic medical experiment.
“Brian?” I ask, because although her eyes seem to recognize me, there’s no expression on her face and no greeting, angry or glad, coming from her lips. “Brian, what’s going on?”
“She had a brain-stem stroke…here.” He clamps his hand behind his neck, the place where the skull meets the spine, and his emotions are all over his face like the pieces of a puzzle so scrambled he can’t begin to put them together. “Six weeks ago. It cut off all the motor signals from her brain to the rest of her body. It’s called Locked-in Syndrome. She can’t move, she can’t talk.”
“But…but…” But Claire is only fifty-eight, she and Brian play tennis, they’ve never smoked, they eat healthy food, fruits, vegetables. Her gaze searches toward me—she looks like a zombie in a horror movie—but still no word emerges from her mouth, and my insides fold like a dynamited building collapsing into rubble. This is horrible, ghastly, but why didn’t anyone call? It’s true Claire and I weren’t speaking and I’ve had to move around a bit, but I’ve managed to hang on to the same phone number for a while. How am I supposed to react when I didn’t know? If I hadn’t happened to ring Claire from the jail, does this mean neither she nor Brian had any intention of ever contacting me at all? Brian forces my eyes to meet his.
“And this is the person you expect to come save you when you’re drunk in jail,” he says, “but the last person on earth you’d call if you were sober.”
“But no one told me.” I wrench my gaze from him to Claire and back again. To look at her for more than a few seconds is almost unbearable. “You can’t blame me for staying away when you’re the one who didn’t call. This isn’t fair.”
“And this is?” He gives a dead laugh and jerks his head at our surroundings. Then his expression contorts into a heartbroken twist, and he presses Claire’s hand to his chest as if to keep her from letting go. “Why would anyone call you, Maya?” he says, the tears rising in his eyes. “You didn’t deserve to know.”