While Lee Slept

1

Tara could feel the ocean through the glass with more clarity than she heard it. Its song seeped up to her hilltop on the wind, and she stared as the water collapsed into itself beneath the fog’s weight. Its voice shadowed her emotion, of the wandering blood behind her ears. It distanced her from reality before seeping in, as rhythmic as the gusts themselves. Life, always weird. Someone had said that to her once, a sentence’s rendition that still contained more than there were words for. Shards of life could glint themselves inside you when you thought they were gone. She thought of her dad, his time at the hospital, a weeklong era she had once felt had been let free. But looking out at the water, she could see it like her reflection in the window. Her dad had said it: Sometimes we just wink out.

She decided to go for a walk down by the water. She put her phone in her sweatshirt pocket, in case Shelly texted her, and turned toward the door.

Kendra was standing there and their visions bumped into one another.

“Holy. Crap.” Tara smiled toward her and looked down. “You startled me. Wow. I didn’t think—you’re not at work yet?”

Kendra reflected the embarrassment. “Sorry,” she said. Her smile looked like it wanted to hide. “I was about to say something but you turned just before I did. I seriously wasn’t stalking you.”

“I know. What’s up? Do you have the day off?”

“Yeah, I stayed home today ‘cause I have these really crazy stomach pains. I’ve just been stressed from work. I really need to relax for a bit. I guess everyone feels that way here though, in this fucking city. And after the election.”

“I hear that. I was just about to go for a walk down by the beach.”

Kendra worked nights at a bar downtown, so she and Tara didn’t see one another often beyond a glimpse. The misalignment of their work schedules made them each seem like a breath, personalities that existed, but more as a comma than what would finish a thought. Tara loved that about living here, as she didn’t know Kendra very well. She’d found this room on Craigslist and enjoyed Kendra’s company, but their relationship more or less ended at trying not to be a bad roommate.

“I actually wanted to talk to you,” Kendra said. “How have you been? I know I don’t see you very often, but I—well, I guess I just feel that you’ve been… you’ve carried a weight lately. Does that make sense? I mean, am I right?”

Tara smiled at her. “No—yeah. You’re right. It’s been really weird. I know I talked to you about meeting Lee a few months ago. Do you remember talking about that? I had met him at my friend Shelly’s birthday party and we’ve been… I don’t even know what, honestly. We’ve been seeing each other a little bit. It’s kind of a tough situation. It’s hard to explain—but we just haven’t gotten super serious in some ways. Because there’s just some shitty stuff that makes him unable to feel comfortable. Jesus, I’m rambling, sorry. But about a week ago he was in a really bad accident. Car accident. He had a head injury and he’s been in ICU the whole time but I haven’t been able to go see him, just because of, just, weirdness. Bullshit.”

“Oh,” Kendra said. “Jesus, I’m sorry. Is it, I mean, is he going to be okay?”

“I’m not sure. I guess so. I haven’t been able to see him yet. Sorry, I already said that, huh? I’m pretty scattered. I’m not sure how to feel about this.”

“You mean if you should be getting worked up when you’re not exactly a bona fide thing yet?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“I understand.”

“There’s other stuff,” Tara continued. “I mean, I shouldn’t…I haven’t been able to go the hospital—yet—because of… just some weird shit.”

“Okay. I understand, I think. Does he have a girlfriend? Is that it?”

“No. Oh fuck, no. I mean, he better not. It’s just that, his parents –I mean, his whole family has come down. His little sister too I guess. I haven’t met her. She’s twenty-five, apparently. I haven’t met any of them. That’s exactly it.”

Tara turned and looked out the window, then looked back at Kendra. “That’s what?” Kendra said.

“His parents are not willing to . . . God, I don’t know how to say it. They’re fucking racist. They’re old and not willing to accept the fact that Lee could be in a relationship with a black woman. So we’ve been skirting it, in a way. It’s crazy. So I have to keep waiting for word from Shelly. To see—to see how he is.” Her voice’s shadow glanced a tremor but she tucked it in.

“Mm. Shit, I’m sorry, Tara. It’s so easy to forget how backwards it is in some places when you live in a city like this. Where everyone’s so freaky liberal that it’s almost annoying.”

Tara nodded, looking out the window. Her eyes had received a gleam, but she was keeping herself under control. They were quiet for a moment, then Kendra said, “Sorry to interrupt you, Tara. You were gonna go down to the beach.”

Tara said quietly, “Yeah.” Then she looked up. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

“Let me know if you want to go out for a drink or anything. I work at a goddamn bar. It makes me a pretty good listener, God help me.”

Tara laughed and they said goodbye.

She walked through the wind as it skimmed against the water’s anger; the closer she got to the beach, the more the two seemed indiscernible from one another. The waves had grown when she wasn’t looking, as was often the case with these waters. The bay gave them their own personality, which both excited and frightened Tara.

As she got to the Shoreline highway, she saw Clyde breaking down his table, putting the shells carefully back into a box. She smiled to him, not feeling the strength to talk.

“Hi there, young lady,” Clyde said.

“Hi Clyde,” she said. “Is everything okay?”

“I’m not sure yet.” She imagined herself inside her own eyes, holding the tears to her breast.

“Well remember,” Clyde said after a beat, “it’ll be good in the end. And if it’s not good, then it’s not the end.”

Tara said thank you and crossed the highway, ducking her head against the wind.

She checked her phone for a text from Shelly every few steps, then, thinking about what Clyde had said, she felt she needed to reach an end, whatever it may be. As she got to the beach, Tara ducked beneath the cement crescent that bordered the sand and called Shelly, not expecting her to answer, but it was at least a scent of progression.

Shelly did answer.

“Hey Tar.”

“Hi Shelly.”

“How are you?”

“I’m all right. Any news? Can you talk?” It frightened her how natural it came for her to feel like a dirty secret.

“Yeah, listen. I’m actually glad you called. I was going to call you, but I’ve been dealing with work and it’s just been really stressful with all of this shit.”

“I understand.”

“So, they just told Lee’s family that—fuck, this is . . . I’m sorry. Okay, they told them that they’ve tried everything, and his brain won’t stop swelling. So they have one more thing that they can use, some kind of medicine that—I forget what it’s called. But they don’t have time to figure out if he’s allergic so they just have to do it. They’re going to shoot him with it I guess. Er, an IV or whatever, I think. But, the thing is, if he’s allergic to it, it’s really strong and it could kill him.”

“Jesus,” Tara whispered. She felt like her breath had been replaced with the howling wind.

“And if it doesn’t work… I mean, that’s all they can do. I guess they’ll have the option to pull the plug.”

Tara started talking before she could decide what to say. “I’m going to come down there. This afternoon. I’ll… shit, I don’t know. I’ll try to sneak around his parents or something I guess. God, this is so fucked.” Her eyes had clenched shut, and as the wind wound into her alcove, she felt the tears decorating the side of her nose and face. “I’ll figure something out, but I need to go. It’s just not right, to not at least see him once. Jesus, fuck this. Are they down there now?”

“Yeah,” Shelly said quietly. All Tara could do was hope that Shelly understood.

“I’ll see you in a little bit. Are you there now?”

“Yeah. I’ll figure something out. Come on down.”

Tara hung up her phone and whispered, her voice swallowed by the wind, “It’s not the end.” Closing her eyes. She imagined what he looked like, laying there beside her waking dream. She’d heard stories that he was unrecognizable, that it was too sad to watch. She refused to believe them. It was impossible for her to grasp that she wouldn’t ever see him again. And if she only had three days left, it was clear that it was time to stand before it, whatever it was. She didn’t think that she was in love with him. She hardly knew him, really, but he’d been nice and he laughed at her jokes. He wasn’t what she had pictured. But he was there, and he had these people who were a part of his life who felt like phantoms to Tara. Like some kind of archaic spirits who wanted to keep them apart, and this alone made it feel so unfair for her not to see him again. Because it suddenly felt like this could be the last time she would ever have the chance. She had to at least talk to him so he wouldn’t go into a void wondering why he had never heard her voice, waiting for the time to let go. She looked at the water, listened to its angry words and ignored the feeling that it was warning her. She went back up the hill to her car.

The evening’s city felt dead as she drove through it, but maybe because of her detachment. She felt like she was watching herself from outside, from a different place, and a different day in the past or in the future as she drove to the hospital. She tried sending out thoughts to Lee to please still be alive when she got there. She rehearsed again and again what she would say to him. A scenario would flash into her without her trying it on first, but the words she said to him were always the same. She rehearsed her lines, and a memory slipped from the fog, clear and haunting, when she was about to say goodbye to her dad.

She parked and went in, trying to move with the wind’s grace at the beach, blending her sounds in with the tides of people washing against the lobby, receding into the halls. She didn’t recognize any faces, but she kept to the shadows, trying to assure that she saw anyone she knew before they saw her. But she only saw the detached vapors of personality.

Here she was again, struck with a horrible and ugly shame at having to feel like it was her responsibility to not exist. It was other people’s demons who made her hide from them and not the other way around. This made her want to storm. But she never did, she just moved along like a breath against strangers. It was easy, as everyone there carried a weight heavy enough to pay little attention to much of anything.

She was disconnected from all of it. The world was far away. She felt only vaguely in control of her own body. But she careened it through the lobby, back toward the ICU doors. There was a phone. She picked it up out of instinct and a woman’s voice asked her who she was there to see. She told her and the door buzzed as it slowly opened to a room that she’d experienced the energy of before. This felt like a memory come alive, with the subtle yet powerful differences of someone else describing her own nightmare. She was led by numbers and she hoped Lee’s family wouldn’t be there, but knew they would.

Then she saw him. She ignored the bodies orbiting his bed. She felt her stomach drop. It was true, he was hardly recognizable. Not only with the contortions of his face, but the machinery that seemed to have become his limbs. It was everywhere. He looked like he was beyond sleep, so deep away from the world that there was a refreshing sense of peace, of absence. But she knew he would still hear her, another memory from her father’s last days. She stepped up and the heads around him all turned to her and she hardly noticed enough to smile and nod. She’d learned in the past how to turn off her receiver for other people’s energy, it was like a light switch. Now, today, she was able to ignore them all.

She looked down as he slept, and clearly spoke the lines she had rehearsed: “Hi Lee. It’s me, Tara. I just wanted to see you and let you know I’ve been thinking about you. I’m sending you the best that I can every day. I look forward to seeing you again when you’re awake, aware, out of this place and walking. I don’t want to take up your family’s time with you, so I’m going to go. You know where I’ll be when you wake up.” She touched his hand, smiled again to his family and left.

She coasted through the hospital, outside, back to her car, and along the sleeping paths of the city until she was back home. She stood and stared at the beach, and the only way she could tell that she had ever left was the shade of the sand, the mood of the water. She texted Shelly and told her she’d seen him. Shelly said again that in three days they would know one way or the other.

Days wisped by and she continued waiting to hear news. She tried to ignore if it had been three days yet, but knew in her heart that it had been more. She just couldn’t bring herself to confirm it. Finally, on her way home from work, she got a text from Shelly, and Tara realized that six days had passed.

That evening, she walked down to the water and sat on a rock. She hung her head, watching the water. It felt like a different world from the day she had seen him. Or even from her morning walk today, when the waves had clashed like intersecting cars. It now held the movement of a small lake and she watched the sun’s remaining breath create a waltz against the seafloor. The characters shifting, glancing, replacing their masks, embracing one other until each had become the same. She felt like she was standing in the sky, looking down at Union Square during the lunch rush when the entire city seemed to become different parts of one body. Every movement strode with a ripe grace. The spots of sunlight that glanced off the water all seemed to have their own voice and their own greeting. Speaking to one another’s moves without judgment, without eyes, just casual acquaintances, perfectly-stepped chaos. She thought of when she had been at the hospital. The groups of anonymous friends and lovers swinging along. Water in their eyes, questions on their lips, and a symbol in every movement. Like they were becoming an embrace in the air beyond their stories; they wrapped themselves in anything other than a seeping tragedy. Even Lee’s family, she felt, hadn’t an awareness to hate her identity as she’d expected. They didn’t seem to remember. But she wasn’t sure if she had just chosen to place this sheen on her shadowed memory. Either way, these glints of water reminded Tara of that day and its rare kind of horrific beauty.

She got out her phone and read Shelly’s text again to confirm it: Lee’s swelling went down on the third day. He’s going to live and he seems to be getting better already. Really fast.

2

It was getting warm and the summer clouds hadn’t begun to cover Tara’s neighborhood yet. It felt nice being outside, walking down to the water. The wind was still waking up and the waves were low. There were surfers paddling around, waiting for something to feel right. Tara looked at them and felt that she could sympathize. Lee hadn’t said much as they walked and Tara felt she could almost hear his mind turning. She had always felt that he had powerful thoughts, and was happy to spend time with him, to see that his musings were beginning lift themselves with more ease.

They crossed the Shoreline highway and saw Clyde setting up his table of seashells. He smiled as they walked up. “Hi there, girl. How are you on this fine morning?” She had stopped long ago trying to get him to remember her name and refused to take it personally.

“Hi Clyde,” Tara smiled back. “Things are good. How’s the shell business?”

He swept a hand over the expanse of the ocean. “It’s great. Stock never dries up. Although we’ll see what happens with Trump in office.” He gave a laugh that felt filled with smoke. “Who’s your friend?”

“Oh, Lee, this is Clyde. Haven’t you guys met before? A while ago, I thought?”

Lee stepped up and offered his hand with a shy smirk. “I feel I remember meeting you once.”

“Well, I’m sure we did, if you remember it. You’re obviously a pretty smart cookie, running around with this girl.” Clyde motioned to Tara. “She’s as good as they come, you better hold on tight. And I oughtn’t see you walking on the inside of the sidewalk next time.”

Tara looked at Lee. Confusion had draped over his face. “The… inside?” he said.

“Yeah, don’t you know? A gentleman always walks on the street-side of the sidewalk when he’s with his lady. I saw you guys walking down here and she was on the outside of the two of you. I’m just trying to tell you so you know. For when you walk her home later.”

Tara smiled at Lee but felt for him. She could see a brand of puzzled shame in his eyes. She took his arm and said, “Oh no. Lee‘s always a gent when we walk, but I wanted to this time. To walk on the outside. This is my hood and I know how crazy folks drive over here in the mornings. Plus, I’m looking out for my friend. For now.” She patted Lee’s arm and saw Clyde’s eyes wander to the scar on the top of Lee’s forehead. She had avoided talking to Lee about his injury since he got out of the hospital. It had always felt too fresh, but it suddenly felt like it could be time to open that up.

“I got you,” Clyde said. “Good on you, young lady. Told you you’ve got a good one, my friend,” he said to Lee. “I’ll say it again. Hold on tight.”

Lee smiled and touched Tara’s hand. They made their way down to the beach. Tara could feel Lee’s mind returning: it was like a puzzle that found another piece of itself every day. She was waiting for him to find the piece that reminded him that he wasn’t supposed to be with a black woman, and she knew it was coming any time, the way his family hovered, making sure he was healing well. But for now, she felt that this light was too dim to make her wait in the shadows. She decided then that when the time came, she would see if he was finally willing to introduce her to his family, and if he wasn’t, she would say goodbye.

“You know I came to see you when you were in the hospital,” she said, throwing out a line.

“I know,” he said. “My dad told me.”

They walked in silence and Tara tried to hold onto one of the thoughts that swam around her head. Finally, Lee said, “It might be a little uncomfortable, just cause my family’s weird. But they’re always around right now. They drive up every weekend.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Well, I’d like to take you to meet them.”

Tara looked over at him. “What do you think they’ll say?” she asked.

“I don’t care,” he said. “They’ll see that you walk on the outside of the sidewalk. And I don’t really care if they understand what that means to me.”

Tara clutched his arm to her as they walked.