Authors: Susan Meissner
Tags: #Romance, #Women’s fiction, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Inspirational
A SEAHORSE IN THE THAMES
By Susan Meissner
Your courage and perseverance
have taught me to see grace and beauty
where I least expected to find it
ker was thinking about returning to port on the morning tide, yet as he hauled up his nets from the shallow waters of the Thames Estuary, once the outlet for the dirtiest waterway in Britain, he was about to get a surprise. He spotted among the seaweed a scrap of aquatic life not seen in these waters for more than a generation. The short-snouted seahorse,
, that he caught measured no more than 15 cm in length, but it is a source of great local pride. On display at the Southend Sealife Adventure Centre, it is being hailed as an important sign that the Thames Estuary is returning to ecological health. It is also being seen by some as an indication that the waters are steadily warming…”
The London Independent
June 16, 2004
tephen’s wounded body lies just inches from me. His eyes are closed but I cannot tell if he is awake or sleeping. Hushed red numbers on a tiny black screen blink at me, silently recording every beat of his heart; the Demerol they gave him has slowed it some, but the drug has taken the edge off his pain. A broken arm and ankle are thankfully the worst of the injuries Stephen sustained when he fell off my roof. Bandages here and there cover the places where his skin tore away but he will need surgery to repair the broken bones. I look at him lying there, a man I really barely know, and all I can think is,
So this is what it is like to fall in love.
I must be crazy.
I have known Stephen for only four days.
And knowing someone for four days doesn’t mean that you really
I don’t know what it means. I just know I cannot pull myself away from his bed even though he is surely no longer in any danger. The fall did not kill him. I am grateful for the hawthorn bushes outside my kitchen window that broke his fall. The branches poked him, puncturing skin all over arms, face and legs, but they held him up from the unforgiving ground. I don’t want to think what would’ve happened if he’d fallen off the east side of my roof to the concrete driveway below it.
My next-door neighbor, Serafina, saw Stephen fall. It was just after eleven this morning, a little less than an hour ago. She came running to my front door, pounding on the screen and yelling in her melodic Spanish accent, “Alexa! That repair man has fallen from your roof!”
“What?” I had said, coming to the door from my bedroom, certain I hadn’t heard her correctly.
Serafina’s long braid of gray hair, usually wound up on her head, was hanging loose, making her look like Pocahontas at age sixty-five.
“That man has fallen from your roof!”
That man. Stephen.
“I was out by the curb! I saw him standing there at the top and then he fell. Over the back!”
I grabbed my cell phone off the entry table and shoved it toward Serafina. “Call 911!” and then I had dashed out my back door. Fear was pulsing through my veins, making the four-inch long incision under my arm beat with pain. I had a simple lumpectomy six days ago. Simple in that the walnut-sized tumor was benign. It still hurt like the dickens. But it was why I was home and not at work while repairs were being made to the triplex where I live. It was why I knew Stephen’s name at all. If I had been at work, I never would have met him. And I wouldn’t have been home when he fell.
I winced as I threw open the door with my good arm; it still hurt the bad one. The moment I stepped out onto the patio I saw Stephen’s crumpled body half on and half off a line of hawthorn in bloom along the south wall. His left arm lay at an odd, sickening angle. I wanted to ease his broken body off the branches but I knew I couldn’t and shouldn’t. I knew I could never maneuver his six-foot-something body to the ground—even if I didn’t have stitches under my arm. I also knew it’s never a good idea to move an injured person unless what they lie on is on fire or about to collapse. I just stood there, bending over him, speaking his name and waiting for the ambulance. Stephen wasn’t moaning or moving. That’s what scared me the most.
Stephen stirs now and my breath pauses. He makes a tiny sound in his throat.
I’m suddenly anxious that he will open his eyes, and that he will be shocked to find me standing there in his hospital room at San Diego’s Sharp Memorial Hospital. I am not his wife or fiancée or girlfriend. Perhaps I am not even his friend. Can I say I am his friend? I have known him for only four days.
But this is what I told the paramedics after Serafina called 911. I told them the injured man was a friend of mine, not a handyman hired by Rose Marvelle, my landlady.
“What’s his name?” one of the paramedics had said, after they had gently pulled Stephen’s body off the bushes and placed him on a stretcher. The one that spoke to me eased a cervical collar on Stephen’s neck. The other one was speaking into a radio transmitter pinned to his collar.
“Stephen Moran,” I said. Stephen Moran the Handyman. My friend.
“How old is he? Is he allergic to anything?” the paramedic continued, while the other paramedic started saying Stephen’s name, asking him if he could hear him. Apparently Stephen could not. He made no sound.
“He’s not coming around,” the other paramedic said.
“He is thirty-two. I don’t know if he is allergic to anything,” I replied, my stomach in knots. There are just a few things I do know about Stephen, but the paramedics didn’t ask me where Stephen grew up. Santa Cruz. They didn’t ask me if he enjoys surfing. He does. They didn’t ask me if he is kind to strangers and little kids. He is.
They asked me if he has any family.
“He… his mother lives in Riverside,” I’d said, remembering all the short conversations we had when he took breaks, or when he drank my lemonade, or when he asked for some Tylenol for a headache, or when he helped me back inside my house on Tuesday when my own pain medication caused me to faint on my lawn while reaching for the morning paper. Stephen had told me on Monday his mother is his only family. He had been married once. But he only spoke of this in one sad moment of reflection as he chatted with me while he tore out rotting floorboards on the front porch. The marriage had ended badly. He doesn’t even know where his ex-wife is.
“I wasn’t the man then that I am now,” Stephen had said. And I had wanted to ask what kind of man is he now? But I didn’t. I think I already knew. I was already feeling the attraction to him. I was already falling for him. And that was just the first day.
“Do you know how to reach her?” The paramedic had roused me from this remembered snippet of conversation. He was removing the tool belt from Stephen’s waist, but he was looking up at me.
“Why?” It suddenly and horribly occurred to me that maybe Stephen was dead and the paramedics needed to notify the next of kin.
“If we can’t get him to come to the hospital will need someone to sign the medical release.”
“So do you know how to reach her?”
“What? Um, I… maybe,” I stuttered. Stephen’s mother doesn’t even know who I am. At least I don’t think she does. Did Stephen call her earlier this week? Did he mention in passing that he is working on a repair project on a triplex in Mission Beach? and that he met one of the tenants? Did he tell her the tenant fainted on the grass and he carried her inside her house? Did he say he twice stayed after quitting-time to talk to her tenant on her patio, that he made her consider for the first time since she was twelve what it means to have a relationship with God?
No, I was certain he had not. Why would he?
I hadn’t called
I’d nearly laughed at this thought. My mother has no phone. She hasn’t had a phone in her house for seventeen years. It’s e-mail, snail mail or doorbell with her. But thinking of this had given me an idea.
“Let me get his cell phone,” I said, but I didn’t wait for permission. I kneeled down and quickly slipped my hand into the cell phone holder on Stephen’s belt. On impulse I also gently removed his wallet from his back pocket. I quickly scanned the contents of the wallet to see if there was anything else the paramedics should know about him. Driver’s license. Not a bad picture. Hair the color of toast. Perpetual tan from working day after day in the legendary San Diego sunshine. I saw his address. A street in Encinitas. A Visa card. Triple A. His contractor’s license. A medical insurance card.
“Here.” I extended the card to the paramedics.
“Aren’t you going follow along in your own vehicle?” It was more like the paramedic requested I follow. I felt a rush of importance. I felt invited.
“Oh. Yes, of course.”
The paramedic turned away from my outstretched hand and back to Stephen lying motionless on a stretcher.
“Just bring it with you,” the paramedic motioned with his head to the card.” We’re taking him to Sharp Hospital, they have a trauma center—just in case. Do you know where that is?”
“Use the emergency room entrance.”
The paramedics whisked Stephen away into their vehicle. I stood as they sprinted to the cab, threw open the doors, got in and slammed them shut. As I stood to watch them leave, I noticed for the first time that Serafina was standing beside me and probably had been there the whole time.
She crossed herself as the siren began to wail and the vehicle pulled away. And then she uttered a prayer for the handyman as I hurried inside to get my purse and car keys.
The emergency room was not especially busy when I arrived and for this I was grateful. I had not thought much about where I was headed until I was in my own car, making my way to Sharp Hospital. I avoid emergency rooms whenever possible. I avoid them like some people avoid spiders or commitments. I have to work extra hard to avoid them because I actually work in a hospital as an occupational therapist. But it can be done. You can work for five years at a hospital and never set foot in the emergency room. I am living proof.
I have been like this ever since my sister Rebecca’s car accident. It’s not so surprising, I guess. Trauma can do that to you—produce in you an aversion to something because it reminds you of the ordeal.
Even though Rebecca survived that accident I still lost her. Rebecca emerged from her injuries a different person; forgetful and dependent, but also chatty and childlike. Her head injury swept away her brilliance and assertiveness, but it also erased her obstinacy and tendency to be selfish. She became what I was. An amiable twelve-year-old. And that’s where she has stayed. Seventeen years later, she still has the mind of an adolescent.
I still think of that night from time to time. I know how pivotal it was—for all of us. We were still a family before that night. My parents were still married to each other. We still lived in Mount Helix. My twin sister Priscilla hadn’t stopped talking to my father. My mother still had a phone in the house. But in the quiet darkness of that one night we all crossed a line. And we quickly found there was no going back to the other side of it, the familiar side.
It happened on a late June evening. Rebecca had gone out with her best friend and college roommate, Leanne. She didn’t say where they were going, but I remember Rebecca seemed anxious and distracted. I figured it was because she hadn’t liked being home that summer after having tasted freedom at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she spent her freshman year. Rebecca, Leanne and a third roommate named Mindy Fortner were planning to head back to UCSB at the end of the summer. Rebecca left the house in a grumpy fuss—typical for her—when Leanne came for her. Leanne didn’t even come to the door. She just honked. Mindy was not with them that night.
Dad was on a business trip in Tokyo, but Mom, Priscilla and I were at home watching TV when the phone rang two hours later. Mom answered it. There had been an accident. Leanne was dead. Rebecca was alive but she had been rushed to Grossmont Hospital in critical condition. No other cars were involved. Leanne had struck a mighty sycamore head-on at full-speed. It was unclear what caused her to run off the road.
Priscilla and I kind of pieced this together from the scattering of words that came out of our mother’s mouth between the time she picked up the phone and said” Hello?” and the moment she dropped the receiver to the floor.
I had barely processed the news when my mother rushed out of the house into the velvet shadows of the evening. She said nothing to Priscilla or me as she grabbed her car keys. She just dropped the phone, sailed out of the house and ran to our car. Priscilla ran after her. I followed Priscilla. We climbed into the back of the car, barely getting the door shut before Mom peeled out of the driveway. She drove like a mad woman to the hospital, screeching to stops, running red lights and jumping over curbs. I reached over to Priscilla and grabbed for her hand as we drove. She let me have it.
The emergency room that night was hellish. There had been an accidental shooting and family members from both sides were warring over whose fault it was that a six-year-old now had a bullet in his chest. Someone else had nearly severed a finger slicing a bagel. Someone else held a toddler in her arms sweating with fever. Someone else had a foot with shards of glass sticking out of it. I saw all of this as we were led to the room where Rebecca was lying, awaiting a surgeon’s arrival and a parent’s signature. It was like being inside someone’s nightmare.
And that’s what it was, actually. It was a nightmare. It was ours. It was mine.
My mother’s face turned ashen when she saw Rebecca, her firstborn, lying battered and bruised on the gurney. Ruptured spleen, fractured pelvis, punctured lung, multiple contusions. I heard the doctor say all these words but I wasn’t entirely sure what any of them truly meant. When you are twelve, the word “contusion” means nothing to you.
Then the doctor said something about a head injury, bleeding on the brain and “we must relieve the pressure,” and I somehow knew that my life would be different after that night. That even if Rebecca survived, which she did, my life would be different.
That was the night I learned to hate emergency rooms.
That was the night my mother learned to hate telephones.
Stephen was nowhere to be found when I’d walked into the emergency room at Sharp. He had no doubt been there for many minutes already since I had to drive at the posted speed limit and then hunt down a free parking place.