As you enter your personal information into the LED console—male, sixty-five years old, two-hundred-forty pounds—you pretend not to notice the blonde in black stretch shorts and a pink halter pumping away on the machine next to yours. You are the Executive Vice President of Sales of an international grocery conglomerate, whose headquarters comprise a sprawling M-shaped complex on forty-five acres of pristine Tennessee grassland; in the aerial shots of the building hanging regally in the lobby, it appears as a single letter stamped onto an otherwise blank page. The gym is on the fourth floor of the complex, the cardio machines arranged in a long row before the floor-to-ceiling windows. You guess the girl to be in her late twenties, fresh out of an MBA program and full of that hear-me-roar vitality. You can remember a time when the gym was exclusively male territory, not because women weren’t entitled to their own means of exercise but because they posed a distraction from the decidedly unsexy business of working out.
Case in point: her outfit, which is the kind you can’t even notice without anticipating a sexual harassment suit, and that’s pretty much the last thing you need right now.
Not that you would even dream of making advances on a junior staff member. Oh, how gallant of you! Gail would tease, not necessarily kindly, you can just hear it, as if your concern over the girl’s gym attire were anything more than a matter of prudence. Then she would ask why you don’t just use the gym at the country club, away from all the work distractions. What she doesn’t get is that you like the on-site fitness center. You like the state-of-the art equipment and the view of the hilly countryside afforded by the wall of windows. You like feeling connected to the rank-and-file, like you’re all working toward the same goal.
There’s something else, too. Women like this one always make you think of your own daughter Emily, 24, also blonde, also heartbreakingly pretty, with her sparkling green eyes and her diminutive button nose. Or at least she used to be, before the accident at Wiley Lake two years ago. Since then she has been in a persistent vegetative state—a phrase the doctors insist on wielding like jackhammers—confined to an adjustable bed in the makeshift hospital suite in your living room. The bookshelves, once full of family photos, are now stocked with boxes of latex gloves and sani-wipes and gauze pads and a city of ointments and salves for her bedsores. She can move her fingers and tilt her head a few degrees, but beyond that she is completely immobile, her young, lovely life frozen in limbo.
Your life, too, for that matter. When you’re not at work you’re at home with her, listening to the steady beeping of her heart monitor, draining her cranial shunt, cleaning the gunk from the corners of her mouth. Studying the lines of her beautifully slender face, mentally mapping them for when she’s gone, which, if the doctors are to be believed, could be any time now. Except they’ve been saying that for two years, so what the hell do they know? Certainly not enough to nurse her back to the waking world.
So no, you have no designs on the girl highstepping away on the elliptical next to yours. What you really want is to cover her up, throw a blanket around those bare shoulders like a Red Cross volunteer comforting a survivor of a natural disaster. Protect her as though she were your own.
The elliptical was Dr. Orr’s idea, a low-impact way for you to manage your heart disease. With your broad chest and large bulldoggish head, you have always thought of yourself as more sturdy than fat. But your body doesn’t work the same way it used to. In the past few months alone, you’ve managed to pack on an extra thirty pounds. How does that happen? Tragedy, you’ve discovered, has a way of skewing time, speeding up the aging process: one day you wake up and you’re an oafish old man just trying to hold onto whatever is left. Emily used to say you were handsome, didn’t look a day over forty. She was sweet like that. You wonder what she would say if she could see you now. Probably she’d lie, tell you you’re still a looker, and you’d adore her for it.
Increasing the resistance to 6, you think about the illustration the doctor showed you during your checkup a couple months ago, the pink cartoon arteries clogged with yellow plaque, and you recall how the bespectacled man had leveled a grim gaze and warned that you would need to make some serious lifestyle changes if you wanted to dance at your daughter’s wedding. And no sooner had he said it than his eyes went as large as baseballs and his mouth fell open in a horrified O.
Jeez, I’m so sorry, Dr. Orr stammered. I wasn’t thinking.
You, who have known the doctor for more than a decade, waved him off. The man had simply forgotten, that’s all. He couldn’t be expected to remember all of his patients’ life stories. Nonetheless, as you pretended to listen to the remainder of Dr. Orr’s spiel, you couldn’t ignore the glaring truth of the man’s statement: there would be no wedding, no son-in-law to go deer hunting with, no sticky-fingered grandkids to twirl through the air like he used to do with Emily when she was a child, making her squeal with delight, her hair fragrant with that sweet loamy kid-scent. Like a handful of herbs plucked fresh from the soil. No legacy to continue. A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions, Marcus Aurelius said that, you read it on a quote-a-day calendar, and talk about someone who knew a thing or two about legacies.
Although, Marcus Aurelius had all of Rome behind him. But you? Who do you have? Your secretary Nina perhaps, a fortysomething waif who’s been with you for just over ten years and whose notorious lack of people skills she makes up for with savant-level efficiency. But besides her, who? There was a time you could rely on your wife and daughter to be your support system, but those days are gone. You and Gail rarely speak anymore, and when you do it is usually about coordinating your schedules to look after Emily (you have a home nurse who comes during the week, but Gail still refuses to leave her daughter for more than a few hours at a time). You don’t even share a bed anymore, not since Gail took to sleeping on the foldout sofa downstairs so she can be closer to Emily. Not that you fault her for this: you, too, feel a constant aching need to be near your daughter, despite the fact that most of the machines she’s hooked up to are equipped with alarms in case her vitals drop. In fact, sometimes when Gail and the nurse aren’t around will will sit beside Emily’s adjustable bed and talk to her like you used to. Nothing of any consequence, just chatter about your day and the folks at work, projects you intend to complete around the house. You like to imagine that in some shadowy region of her brain she’s processing what you’re saying, that there’s still some part of her that recognizes you.
You check the calorie counter: 56 so far. Not even a third of the chicken Caesar wrap you had for lunch. You up the incline to 10 and the resistance to 8, and that’s when the bolt of pain blasts through your chest like a blade bisecting your sternum. In a flash, all the breath vacates your lungs. You slump against the LED console, grappling for purchase, but your foot slips off the paddle and down you go, tumbling onto the floor in a tangle of limbs, the back of your head thwacking against the stiff, cracked matting.
Now you’re on the floor gazing up at the beams crisscrossing the ceiling, and the pressure in your chest, Christ, it’s like an eighteen-wheeler is parked on you. You sense that you’ve turned a corner toward death, and yet oddly your life doesn’t flash before your eyes as the movies might have you believe. You aren’t besieged by a wave of memories, friends and family and sunny beach vacations and birthday celebrations and long-forgotten lovers and bad decisions and irrevocable mistakes. You don’t think dejectedly about your wife of forty-four years, her thickly-veined hands and thin, lank gray hair, the love between you that long ago degenerated into something hard and shapeless. Nor do you think about your invalid daughter in bed at home, her body wasting like an old car left to rust away in a field. Instead, your mind unaccountably zeroes in on one memory in particular: the crisp September evening one year ago that you drove to Wiley Lake.
Emily’s accident had taken place six months prior. She had graduated from Vanderbilt and was home for the summer before she started law school. A few friends from high school had invited her out to the lake for an afternoon. Watching her descend the stairs in a pair of cutoffs and a bikini top, her towel draped around her pale shoulders like a shawl, you felt a peculiar combination of pride and embarrassment: you couldn’t reconcile the coltish girl you knew with the radiant woman who now kissed you on the cheek and flounced out the door to where her friends were waiting for her in the driveway.
Wiley Lake was a large C-shaped basin in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, a few miles outside of Pigeon Forge. For years visitors had lobbied the county for buoys to separate the swimming cove from the boating lanes, to replace the ancient weathered pylons jutting from the water, half of which had toppled over and sunk, making it hard to determine where one area ended and the other began. This was how Emily and her friends, having swum out beyond the mouth of the cove, ended up in the path of an oncoming motorboat. The driver, as you would later learn, was a forty-five year old real estate agent who at the time had been too drunk to notice the girls bobbing in the water. Emily’s friends would later attest that she had been floating on her back, so that she must not have heard the boat until the moment before it ran her over, the propeller blades severing two of her fingers and cleaving her skull open as cleanly as a machete. That she hadn’t been killed was nothing short of a miracle, or so the doctors said.
However, after more than six months in the hospital, it became clear there was nothing more they could do for her, no more surgeries or procedures to jolt her from her coma, and so you and your wife were forced to move her home, into the living room suite. To make matters worse, because Emily had technically put herself in harm’s way by swimming into a boating lane, and because there were no laws prohibiting the consumption of alcohol while operating a watercraft, the judge had dismissed the case altogether.
Nothing miraculous about any that, as far as you were concerned.
And so this was how you found yourself following the dark winding highway out toward Wiley Lake one night a few weeks after the judge’s decision. You had left work two hours earlier, stopping off at Bart’s Tavern instead of going home, where one drink quickly turned into many, enough to fill you with a gloomy restlessness. You pulled into the graveled parking lot behind the manmade beach, exited the Buick and plodded across the cold sand. At the edge of the water you stopped and stared out at the moonlight rippling on the surface. A vein of purple twilight lingered just over the ridgeline in the distance. In the air, the briny aroma of mud and algae.
As a father, everything that happened to your daughter came back to rest on your shoulders—this might have been the only thing in the world you knew to be true—and while it was unreasonable to think that you should have been there to save her from being mown down by the skiff, there it was all the same: the whole thing—the accident, the aborted trial—it all felt like a failure on your part. Something to atone for. So now you kicked off your shoes and stepped out of your slacks and peeled off your starchy oxford shirt, until you were standing in just your boxer shorts. You stepped into the water, your feet sinking in the muck, and then waded out as far as you could, the steely fall chill seeping into your bones. You swam out to where one of the remaining pylons jutted from the water like a crooked fang.
This was where it happened, you thought, the incident as your friends and family referred to it in conspiratorial whispers. Like an incantation. Lying back in the water, you stared up at the scrim of clouds passing over the moon and considered, not for the first time and not without a considerable degree of shame, whether you and Gail would have been better off if Emily had died. While you would never admit as much to your wife, there was a part of you that wished she had, if only to spare her the indignity of her current state. Yes, your daughter was alive, and thank god for that, but it was only in a technical sense. She wasn’t Emily, not anymore—would death have been any worse a fate?
How long did you float there? A half hour or so you guessed. Long enough for you to be startled out of your stupor when you heard the sound of tires crunching on gravel. You looked toward the beach to see a jeep with an arrowhead-shaped emblem on the door pulling up in the parking lot. A park ranger in a green shirt and trousers climbed out and tromped down to the water’s edge. He shined a flashlight in your direction.
Hey, you out there! he called. Get out of there! You’re not supposed to be here!
You hesitated. To your left was the shore, but to your right was the expanse of the black lake. You could hear the water rippling in the silky darkness. Glancing back at the ranger standing with his hands on his hips, you began swimming further out into the lake. The man continued yelling at you, but you could barely hear him over your splashing. The water grew colder. In the dark, you could just make out the far side of the lake, about two hundred yards ahead. If you could just make it there to the opposite shore, things might begin to make sense again. You didn’t know how, but it didn’t matter. A distance to bridge, that’s what you needed. Only, you were never a strong swimmer to begin with, and it wasn’t long before you started to get winded, your breath coming in panicked gulps. Your arms, burning from the strain, locked up, and so did your legs. With no energy left to stay afloat, you flailed in the brackish water, which filled your throat and threatened to pull you down into its gullet.
That was when the ranger, still fully dressed, dashed into the lake and began breaststroking out to you. You felt his arms wrap around your chest in the middle of your thrashing. With what you would realize later must have been enormous effort, he hauled you back to shore and dragged you onto the sand, where he held you in his lap as you coughed up mouthfuls of brown water. You could feel his callused hand on your bare shoulder.
You’re okay, you’re okay. He spoke with the easy, reassuring lilt of a parent comforting a frightened child. You’re going to be just fine.
Those words, they resound through your head as you lie on the floor of the fitness center, your field of vision clouded by the faces of concerned gym-goers—Is he alright? What do we do?—and you think that the elliptical is not unlike wading out into the lake, the way the slimy floor sucked your feet down so that every step was a test of strength. The back of your head aches from where you hit it on the ground. Probably going to be some laughs at your expense around the office tomorrow. Doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you find a way up from the ground, out of the fitness center, away from all the bystanders gawking over the flabby old man whose body seems to be shutting down, but no, that eighteen-wheeler is still bearing down on you ribcage, making it impossible to maneuver.
Amidst the cluster of anxious faces the girl appears, shouldering her way into the scrum. Her bangs cling damply to her temples. She kneels down beside you.
Sir, can you hear me?
You try to respond but can’t summon the words. She feels around your neck for a pulse, probes her fingers around in your mouth. Puts her ear to your lips to listen for breathing.
Call 911! she tells someone in the crowd. Go! Now!
Then she stacks her hands on your chest and begins the compressions, One! Two! Three!, and you are dimly—and absurdly—ashamed of how sweaty your t-shirt is.
Stay with me, okay?
The onlookers are watching the scene with the raptness of children, but you keep your eyes trained on the girl’s.
One! Two! Three!
Her ponytail bouncing with each compression. She really does look like Emily, doesn’t she? Same tapered chin, same vaguely protuberant forehead, which is maybe this is why you don’t feel afraid, because you trust her. You trust her the same way you trusted the ranger, the way we trust those tasked with ushering us through our own calamities.
And then finally, after what could be seconds or years, you can no longer tell the difference—breath. Yes, slowly but surely, the truck is easing off of you, the piercing sensation in your chest weakening, the air leaking back into your lungs. You can feel the blood returning to your face and his limbs, warming your fingers. The girl pauses mid-compression as you take a long greedy gasp. Like you’ve just emerged from underwater. She presses two fingers to your neck, checks your pulse again. You breathe like it’s your first time.
Don’t try to move, she begins, but then stops short when your hand rises into the air, trembling like a needle pushing into the red, and seeks out her free hand. You interlace your fingers with hers and give it a few brief squeezes, just like you used to do with Emily, a game of yours, either person upping the number by one each time until the squeezes turned into a prolonged clutch. The way you might hold somebody’s hand during a farewell. The girl is looking down at you like a puzzle she doesn’t know how to solve, and you know that turning away from her would reignite the pain in your chest. Bringing her hand to your face, you press your cheek against the back of it, the edge of your jawbone nestling between two of her tiny knuckles, and you hold it there, waiting for her to tell you you’re okay, you’re okay.