The Reconstructionists

by Rebecca Thomas


When we got the phone call that Beth had been in a car accident, that she was in a coma, our first thought wasn’t that we could erase Samantha from Beth’s life. Eleven years later, our first thoughts are unmemorable, but we still can feel our stomachs dropping, a weightlessness as our brains tried to catch up to the news. After it happened, the four of us, friends from high school, collected details of the accident: someone clipped Beth’s car as she got on the freeway, spinning her into the far left lane where a man, asleep at the wheel of a pickup truck, hit her dead on. Her girlfriend, Samantha, was in the passenger seat and escaped relatively unharmed. We laid out each part of the accident, trying to fill in the gaps, like gathering the edges of a puzzle first to frame a picture.

Days after, we went to Beth’s room in the ICU at Cedars-Sinai, stared at her bandaged head with a suction tube sticking out of it, and got sick. We monitored Beth’s brain activity and marveled a month later when her blue eyes opened. We followed her to rehab, where she practiced walking, talking, where she celebrated her twenty-first birthday. We sat in her house, trying to chitchat, watching for her memory. It appeared in flashes, but there were breaches, spaces to fill, spaces to correct. Samantha was in one of those spaces.

*   *   *

Five months after the accident, we stood in her kitchen waiting for butter to soften. One of us had made chocolate chip cookies with Beth years before. Beth had taught the necessity of packing the brown sugar in the measuring cup. It was a fact that lingered, how some sugars are scooped like flour while others need to be pressed down until no space remains.

As we worked, Beth moved to get the ingredients. She walked like a Barbie doll, stiff-legged, unsure on her feet, ready to topple over. “We’ll get it,” we told her.

Beth stood, her hands resting on the counter for support. Christmas music filled the kitchen. Her fingers tapped along. She jerked her hips back and forth, swaying. It was rusty, but it reminded us that she used to dance, that she’d been a belly dancer, and maybe, in time, she would be again. We smiled. We were here, in December, baking cookies with our friend who we had feared was dead. She wasn’t the same, but in the kitchen, we saw some of her old self.

“Remember,” one of us said, “we made these before.” It should have been a question, but after the accident we spoke to Beth in statements.

*   *   *

We brought up the cookie-making the first time we saw Beth after the accident. We stood in the ICU as Beth lay unconscious, her face swollen beyond recognition. Her father sat on the folding chair holding Beth’s hand to his face, his eyes closed.

Machines spilled brain activity, spoke of her heart, swallowed excess fluid, fed her.  Above her a piece of paper told the nurses in thick black sharpie, “Caution, no left bone flap.” Part of her skull had been removed to ease brain swelling.

Cords and IVs streamed to Beth from machines like tributaries. We maneuvered around them, avoiding the tubes on the ground as carefully as a child avoids cracks. We tried to focus on her parents, not her bandages, as we talked about baking with Beth. Her ICP score dropped; the swelling in her brain decreased momentarily. Her EEG increased; she was thinking. Her mouth chewed on her feeding tube. “She must miss her cookies,” we said.

We began to interpret Beth. Her mouth moved because she was thinking about eating. She knew we were there. And she did. Her brain activity increased whenever we talked to her. “Stop coming, please,” her mother told us. “The increased activity creates increased pressure. We need CAT scans for her shattered pelvis. We need gates in her legs to avoid clots. We need her fever to drop. But we can’t do anything until the pressure in her brain goes down.” So we waited at home, trying to go back to work, trying to study for our summer classes, but our brains drifted to the seventh floor of Cedars-Sinai’s ICU, to Beth.

It took one month for the swelling in her brain to decrease enough to wake her from the drug-induced coma. The day the doctors woke her, we whispered, “She’s awake. She’s awake,” like we were reciting the benediction on Easter.

The hospital moved her to a new room on a new floor, one with a view of the cafeteria’s courtyard.  We sat by the window with Beth on the other side of the room, her body covered in a light blue hospital gown. We made small talk with her parents. Beth stared at us. Her blue eyes open wide like a baby’s.

“It’s amazing to see her eyes open,” we said.

She blinked.

“She’s listening. We love you. We love seeing your beautiful eyes.”

She blinked again. Her mouth moved.

“She’s smiling.”

She watched with her doll-like eyes, her head wrapped in white bandages that looked like a swimming cap from the 40s. We went home, not minding the traffic on the way back, our hearts were full. The recovery had begun.

*   *   *

The nurses taught her to say, “I love you.” They trained her, plugging up her tracheotomy hole for a few minutes at a time so she could speak. It allowed her to practice breathing. It made her use her muscles. It made her use her brain.

We heard the story from her parents: they walked into the room, she was staring at them and said, “I love you.” We took the story for ourselves, repeating it—she’s awake; she’s talking—even if our minds whispered that she was only parroting. We told the story even after we had visited and seen that her eyes were as blank as a bird’s.

In the early months when everything was so hopeful, we filled in the details for her. We are your friends, and this is who you are: you are a lifeguard, a belly dancer; you are good and kind and accepting.

We filled in her past, too. One of us said, “When we went to prom, we took the wrong bridge in Long Beach. We ended up in a strip club’s parking lot near the shipping docks. We sat, trying to figure our way back, worrying that we’d get to the dance too late. You didn’t worry, though.” We said that last part not knowing if it was true.

We were the storytellers, not she, and in the stories we chose to tell, Samantha was absent. We left out the stories of Beth in the last few years before the accident. The stories where we saw her slip from casual drug use to something else. We left out the stories of her parents watching Beth’s eyes go a deeper shade of bloodshot. We left out our silences, the times we wanted to tell her to stop but didn’t. We left out the story of when we all gathered at Denny’s for Valentine’s Day one year before the accident. She arrived without shoes. She ordered a plate of French fries. She mixed ketchup and syrup together as a dip. She paid in change. We didn’t tell her that that memory stuck in our minds like a pebble in a shoe. We never could shake it away.

Instead, we told her, “In zero-period chemistry, your hands were so cold they were purple. You wrote smiley faces all throughout class on your hands.” Who knows if Beth was listening, taking anything in, but she looked at us while we talked, smiled when we smiled, and moved her head with us.

*   *   *

After she arrived home from the hospital, we visited Beth every Friday. The four of us sat in her living room on a leather sectional. With her parents in their bedroom, it was like a junior high date night, supervised, curfews intact. Most nights Beth spoke of the accident. She talked it out, either forgetting that she’d said it or else needing to say it again. “I just don’t know why this happened to me,” she said. “It’s so unfair.”

We said “yes” and “you’re so much better” and “it’s brought us all together.” And we meant it, happy that we had her home and she was able to speak.

But at times she skipped the accident, looked around the room, listening for her parents, and said, “I just want some alone time with her, you know? We miss each other and want to… you know…”

None of us wanted to know.

We changed the subject or turned on the television. The Country Music Channel was always on, and Beth sang along, a recognizable piece of her from before. If she brought up Samantha again, we pointed to the television and talked about Shania Twain.

Because Samantha was the problem. She had been in the car that night. They were coming home late after a night of partying. Drugs might have been involved. Beth was driving, but Samantha’s mere presence was enough to incriminate her. When Beth came home months later after the insurance ran out, her parents decided who could see their daughter. Although they let Samantha in, she was not welcome.

“It’s not fair,” Beth said. Her parents wouldn’t let them be alone. We should have said what we’d wanted to say ever since she’d started dating Samantha—this woman was bad news. Instead, we said, “Your parents just want what’s good for you.”  We hugged her, edging for the door.

But Samantha did not leave quietly. Less than four months after the accident, Samantha tried to sneak in and encouraged Beth to lie to her parents. We were outraged. This was weeks after Beth’s release from the rehabilitation hospital. Her bone flap was only recently back in place on her skull. When we talked, Beth nodded, grinned, understood the social cues, but her eyes were blank. She held her fingertips together as if she was trying to hold onto thread. She couldn’t walk without someone standing nearby, their hands ready to catch her if she fell. This is what we saw, and then we saw Samantha trying to pressure Beth, mold Beth, manipulate Beth just like she’d done before the accident. How dare she, we thought.

*   *   *

When I tell Beth’s story, I speak in the collective. I think in first-person plural because it felt that way at the time, a survival mechanism. Comprehension on our own seemed impossible; banding together inevitable.

If I am honest, though, I also speak this way because it is easier. I do not know what the others were thinking or feeling, but I can hide my actions, my manipulations, in the crowd of us. I become one of four. If I strip the story of its plural identity, I am exposed.

I wish we could pool our recollections, search through each other’s mental pictures. I want to know if my friends remember the Denny’s incident like I do. That day, I was fine letting my friendship with Beth go. I didn’t want to be friends with someone who left a pile of change and hoped others would make sure it was enough. I was tired of trying to connect with her when she was high. The entire time at Denny’s, I wanted to tell her that she made people uncomfortable, that she wasn’t fighting the man by not wearing shoes; she was just risking infection. But I kept my mouth shut. The others were closer. They fought for her friendship more, but that day, I was ready to open my fist and let our friendship drop into the sea.

Then she got in an accident. Then she almost died on the 101. Then the doctors released her out of the coma. It seemed like a second chance, and I let my perspective shift into the plural.

*   *   *

Three months after the accident, Beth had her twenty-first birthday party in the rehabilitation hospital. We helped decorate, a tiki theme. We thoughtlessly bought posters with recipes for Mai Tais and Daiquiris even though she couldn’t drink alcohol. We decorated the tables with white butcher paper and crayons.

This is how I remember the party: Samantha sat by Beth near the center of the room, a clear division between Beth’s old group of friends and her new ones. Samantha made a speech, tentatively touching Beth’s arms and hands, as if she was checking to make sure that Beth was still there. But when I found pictures of the party, untouched for years, I saw that we sat together at the same table with Samantha. There was no separation. In every photograph, Samantha beams at Beth. Her smile stretches her mouth as wide as it will go. We sit just out of frame.

When I first thought of that birthday, Samantha didn’t even enter it. It’s like she is in the deleted scenes. I only get to her if I search, but when I do pull up the picture of Samantha in my mind, even if it’s pixelated, even if the picture is incorrect, I can see her love in it.

*   *   *

Doug replaced Samantha. I don’t know when exactly, but I know this much: by that point in the recovery, Beth had enough of an identity that Doug couldn’t be shaped out of it.

Because Doug was problematic too. He had taken Beth to his senior year prom when she was a freshman. They dated, but she broke up with him shortly after the dance. For the next five years, he called her on her birthday, a fact that she used to find disturbing.

He showed up after the accident, devoted, and I found it odd that a twenty-five-year-old would be so happy to date a woman who could hardly carry a conversation and whose parents hovered constantly. She would be dependant on someone for the rest of her life. Doug signed up for that role.

Her parents said nothing. He took her to my wedding in Yosemite. She spent the night at his house. By then, Beth could be on her own more. She knew to take her medication. She could walk easier. She could talk better even if her memory still stuttered. Her parents seemed happy that she found a partner who was so willing to work with them.  He didn’t sneak around. He didn’t try to pressure Beth. It seemed as if Beth really liked him.

We couldn’t understand why everyone was so satisfied with Doug. We didn’t know why Beth couldn’t remember how she’d felt about this guy before the accident. But maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe Beth was happy to find someone who created peace in her life and in her family’s. Maybe she was happy to be with someone who wasn’t pressuring her to change.

*   *   *

With distance, my convictions, like my memories, fade. I still believe that Samantha was manipulative, and Doug’s relationship with Beth is inappropriate, but time doesn’t allow me to clutch to innocence. I wonder why I acted the way that I did. If I was so ready to walk away before the accident, why did I cling to our friendship after? I know that part of it was to recapture the Beth whom I love. She is warm and giving and prone to joy. She lost some of that right before the accident. I wanted it back. Perhaps it was because I was young, and this was my first tragedy. In that murky time, I also think I liked being a part of a clear narrative. I liked feeling the power of a purpose and a collective.

None of us are innocent in this. We all reinterpreted Beth’s life and filled in the stories we wanted.

People are trying to keep us apart, Samantha said.

We are high school sweethearts, Doug said.

You are our little girl, her parents said. You never disappoint us.

You are the girl who you were in high school, we told her. Now, I tell her nothing. I used to listen as she talked about Doug. Then I picked up the phone less until I didn’t pick it up at all. Eventually, she stopped calling.

*   *   *

There is a picture of the five of us taken that December, and I like to think that it was from the cookie-baking night. In the picture, we stand at Beth’s door, our arms wrapped around each other, and smile. I look like I’m wincing, as if a fraction of a second later, I sneezed. Beth’s smile is her before smile, unchanged, her teeth still perfectly straight. If I put a fingertip over the left side of her face, Beth looks like her old self: her almond eye; her thick, arched eyebrow; her slender nose, but when I lift up my hand, the symmetry is lost. The rebuilt left side, which is fine on its own, does not match. Her right eye is shaped like a football, her left eye like a paper heart folded in half. The reconstructionists did a good job, but looking at all of Beth, something is off.

That night, we hugged Beth goodbye. We opened the door and left. As always, I’m sure we stood around at the end of the cul-de-sac after Beth shut the door. We talked in the chill lamenting the fact that Beth wasn’t better, hoping that soon the memories would stick. We were hopeful then, certain that things would work out, that she’d find her way back to being herself, to us. We talked, growing cold. Eventually, we walked to our cars, started the engines, and drove away. We would return the next Friday, talk about the same things, and wish for recovery. In time, I stopped coming back.


Rebecca Thomas’s work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, The Massachusetts Review, and other journals. She received her MFA from West Virginia University. Originally from Orange County, California, she now teaches writing in Morgantown, West Virginia.

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