Authors: Nathan Field
20. “I need you to open your eyes”
The doctors told me I was lucky. My retromandibular vein had been severed by a glass shard, but the tip had stopped a millimeter short of slicing the external carotid artery, which likely would’ve killed me. Still, it wasn’t the kind of luck that made me want to rush out and buy a lottery ticket. Especially when they told me I had eighty-four stitches in my face. The painkillers and the bandages masked the extent of the damage, but when the doctors mumbled things like soft tissue loss and cheek reconstruction, I knew that my face would never look the same again.
Adding to my stress, I was certain the cops would soon identify me as Johnny, the mystery boyfriend from Lucy’s letter. Although we’d been as careful as illicit lovers could be, all it took was one nosy motel clerk or gas station attendant to put us together. And if the cops determined that Sterling had been the victim of a violent attack shortly before the shootings, the third party angle might be seriously considered.
My fingerprints were on the letter. My DNA was smeared all over Sterling’s bloodied face. A distraught family and a pressured police force might conspire to find a scapegoat. Someone above ground to charge with assault, or blackmail, or even murder.
I was allowing my imagination to run wild, but I felt hopelessly vulnerable in my hospital bed, at the mercy of events beyond my control. I didn’t dare contact Wendy for fear of rousing her suspicion. I didn’t even tell Izzy my whereabouts. I was reduced to refreshing the Tribune’s website twenty times a day, searching for an update.
On my third day in hospital, I found what I was looking for. A brief update from Wendy appeared in the local news section. The first sentence told me everything I needed to know: “Sacramento police have formally declared the Piper shootings a murder-suicide after third party involvement was ruled out.”
I felt a small amount of relief. Either the forensics were unequivocal, or Lucy’s insistence on discretion had paid off. Maybe the cops hadn’t even found the letter, and the third party angle was just idle gossip. In any case, as long as I kept my mouth shut, I was off the hook. I could concentrating on getting better, and trying to forget.
On the day I was due to be discharged, the duty nurse came and drew the curtain around my bed. I wasn’t even nervous as she peeled the bandages off. I’d already prepared myself for a shock.
“The redness will fade,” the nurse said as I studied myself in the mirror. “And the stitches will dissolve soon. It won’t be like this forever.”
“Sure,” I said, inspecting my profile. From my right side, I was virtually unrecognizable. The tear-like wounds were grotesque, and my cheek looked like two separate pieces of flesh stitched together. I was going to turn heads, all right.
“Do you want to speak to someone,” the nurse said tentatively.
“No,” I said, handing back the mirror. “I’m fine.” And strangely, I was. Not about what had happened, or what the future held. But about my face.
It was nothing less than I deserved.
After changing into the clothes I’d come in with, I pulled back the curtain, preparing to leave. But instead, I sat back down on the bed, breathing heavily. Something wasn’t right. My head felt hot and runny. When I looked up, the glare of the hospital ward – shiny floors, white ceilings, steel-framed beds – made me wince with pain.
I closed my eyes, hoping to ride it out.
“Peter, are you okay?” the duty nurse said, appearing as a shadow on my eyelids.
“No,” I mumbled. “I feel really sick.”
I felt her hand on my forehead, then her fingers on the side of my neck. She can’t have liked what she found, because the next thing she said was: “Don’t move, I’m getting the doctor.”
I was too nauseous to nod. The back of my head began to pulse, and I could feel pressure building in my brain. It was a new kind of pain – different to the flesh wounds on my face. This felt deeper, and more frightening, because the throbbing seemed to have a life of its own. I had no idea where it was going.
Then suddenly the pain was sharp. Something snapped inside my head, like a loud thunderclap. And it kept snapping; intensifying.
Hurried footsteps approached, and my eyelids darkened again.
“Mr Carney, can you hear me?” a doctor with a British accent asked.
“Yes.” The effort of speaking made the pain worse, like a metal bar being pushed through the roof of my mouth.
“Can you describe your symptoms, Mr Carney? Have you had a sore neck recently? Is there a sharp pain at the back of your head?
The doctor whispered something to the nurse, and I heard her scurry away.
“I can see you’re in distress, but I need you to open your eyes. Can you do that for me?”
“This is important, Mr Carney,” he said. “I think you might be having a stroke, and it’s absolutely imperative that I check your pupils.”
Hearing the word stroke was like a shot of adrenaline. I forgot my pain, and did as I was told, opening my eyes wide.
The sudden flood of light was like staring directly into the sun. I howled in agony, jamming my eyes shut, but the light was already inside my head. I felt it burning deeper into my skull, searing every nerve-end. The doctor was yelling at me to keep still, but I was in a world of hurt, clawing around the bed for a pillow to bury my head in. That’s when my body started shaking uncontrollably, and I felt my brain shut down.
I’d suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Blood vessels had ruptured in the space between my brain and its surrounding tissue, the steady leakage eventually triggering a stroke. The doctors moved quickly, opening up my head to remove large collections of blood in the subarachnoid area, and relieving the intense pressure on my brain. By all accounts it was a successful operation, and once again, everyone made a big deal about how lucky I was, claiming the hemorrhage would’ve killed me if they hadn’t caught it early. But while I was grateful for the doctors’ efforts, I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. I knew something was still wrong.
My vision remained hyper-sensitive. It was as though the protective membrane on my eyes had been removed, and any sharp light cut straight through to the pain sensors in my brain. I craved darkness and shadows – even thinking about bright light made my head hurt. To ease the pain, I spent the first few days after surgery with my eyes closed, imagining myself sleeping in a deep, soothing cave.
A nurse bought me a pair of sunglasses to wear, which helped stave off the glare from the fluorescent tubes, but whenever the morning sun streamed into the ward, I would still pull the sheets over my head and pray for clouds. The doctors told me I was experiencing photophobia, a not uncommon complaint from patients who’d suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage. They dismissed my symptoms as temporary, still basking in the glory of their successful operation. When a week had passed and my eyes were no better, they even tried to suggest my problem was psychological.
As soon as my strength returned, the doctors wasted no time in discharging me. Since they weren’t helping my photophobia anyway, I didn’t hang around to make a fuss. By that stage, I was sporting a pair of aviator shades with polarized lenses that cut the glare of the day dramatically, allowing me to venture outside without falling to my knees in agony. It wasn’t ideal, and I still kept my head low and my eyes trained to the ground, but at least I was able to walk around like a semi-normal person.
On the day I left hospital, I didn’t have any hopes or aspirations for the future, just a primal instinct survive. I went back to my apartment, packed a few boxes worth of possessions into my Corolla, and drove two hours straight to San Francisco. It was the nearest big city I could think of, and the perfect place to lay low and contemplate the next stage of my life.
The next stage came a lot sooner than I anticipated. My scant savings were gone within a week, and after selling my car, and chewing through that money, too, I was forced to look for work. My eyes didn’t make things easy. Brightly lit offices were out, as were any jobs that required me to step outside during the day. I quickly narrowed down my search to bars and clubs that kept the lights down low.
My appearance put a lot of potential employers off. Nobody said anything to my face, but I could tell from their forced smiles and squirming body language that they were worried about me frightening the customers. It was a harsh introduction to life with my new face. But after a week of rejection, I managed to land a bartending job at a comedy club in North Beach. The manager was in a wheelchair, and I think he took pity on me, recognizing me as a fellow hard-luck story.
By then I was going by my middle name, Sam. It wasn’t just a symbolic nod to my new life. I didn’t want anyone from Sacramento tracking me down, and I figured a simple name change would thwart most attempts to find me online.
The North Beach job suited me fine. I had some bar experience from my college days, and I was largely kept hidden from customers, staying behind the bar and making drinks for the waiters to deliver. I also got to see a lot of live comedy. Stand-up was something that had always intrigued me, and after three months of watching audience reactions and getting an idea of the types of jokes that worked, I started thinking about having a go myself. My scars, I reasoned, could even work in my favor if I acknowledged them in a light-hearted way, like comics with weight problems or ginger hair.
After many hours practicing and perfecting a three-minute routine, I booked a spot on the club’s open-mike night, ready to launch my new career.
It wasn’t meant to be. When I opened with a joke about losing an audition to play Seal, the audience was silent. Things only went downhill from there. Joke after joke fell flat, and a few loudmouths started heckling me. One guy in particular got under my skin. When he shouted,
“Taxi to the burns unit,”
I lost it, jumping off stage to confront him. Security had to hold me back.
The club manager fired me on the spot, but he offered some parting advice. He said my material wasn’t too awful – original, edgy, even quite funny in patches. But I suffered from what he called a “negative stage presence.” I was cold rather than deadpan, and my cynical observations came across as hostile. My looks didn’t help things, either. People came to comedy clubs to be entertained, not unnerved.
I thanked the club manager for his honesty, and took his considered advice on board. I hadn’t especially liked being on stage, anyway. Having a crowd of strangers gawping up at me, waiting to pounce on the slightest mistake. It brought out a nasty side of me, a side that was becoming difficult to control.
It didn’t help that my eyes were bothering me more than ever, to the point I was wearing my shades twenty-four-seven. My faint hopes of blending into everyday society were gone. I was an outcast, and the longer I had to brush shoulders with regular people, the worse I would get.
That’s when I decided to flip the day on its head.
I took a bartending job at a jazz club that didn’t open till 8pm, meaning I could get up after sundown and avoid the madness of rush hour. I rented a single room with a bath down the hall in the Mission, so I no longer had to suffer a crowded, brightly lit train into the city. And I started writing comedy again, making use of the dead hours before sunrise when I was winding down from the jazz bar. Eventually I found the nerve to submit a few pages of material to my old boss at the comedy club, who in turn offered the gags to one of his regulars – a Rodney Dangerfield type in the twilight of his career. He immediately incorporated some of the material into his act, almost verbatim. On the first night I watched him perform, the new jokes easily got the biggest laughs of his routine.
The comedian paid me a pittance, but the club manager made sure everybody knew who’d written his best lines. My reputation spread, and pretty soon I was writing for comedians all over the West Coast. My biggest break came when an ex-client landed a part in a sitcom pilot, and after some negative buzz on the table read, he persuaded the producers to bring me in to sharpen up the dialogue. On a whim, they sent me the script with a forty-eight hour deadline, clearly not expecting too much. But when I delivered my edits with twelve hours to spare, the producers were suitably impressed.
The sitcom was never picked up, but it didn’t matter – I suddenly had reputation in tinsel town as a fast-working script doctor. More screenplays fell my way, and before long I’d accumulated more work than I could handle. That’s when I quit my bartending job and officially turned my part-time gig as a comedy writer into a full-time profession.
It didn’t take long for the studio assignments to taper off, but I kept the wolves at bay by starting a web-site and accepting work from outside the Hollywood system. After a couple of years, thanks to a desperately frugal lifestyle, I even managed to scrape together a deposit for an apartment.
By that stage, I’d grown accustomed to my nocturnal existence. My peculiar routine might’ve been a hindrance if I’d desired a corporate career, or a regular girlfriend, or a house at the beach – but I cared for none of those things.
I only wanted to be left alone.
For almost eight years, my existence was tolerable. Some days I cried for the love I’d lost, and the life I never had, but for the most part, I managed to forget the horrors of my twenty-fifth year.