Everyone comes over for dinner and is complaining about something. I’m stuck on the couch with a blanket over my face, watching my family converse through a gap in the stitching.
My oldest sister says she is tired. She doesn’t want to work anymore. She wants to get paid to watch her kids at home.
My girlfriend agrees, not about watching the kids, but about the not working thing. She talks about sitting too long and how that relates to her less than satisfactory posture.
“There is like, this really weird thing that happens with my lower back. The lower left corner, above my hip. I know I sit wrong. And then I get a headache.”
“I’ve been getting headaches a lot lately, too!” my younger sister says. “I got a really bad one at Rebecca’s baby shower.” Which then reminds her of something. She turns her attention to me. “Hey, why were you acting so weird when I brought Rebecca over here the other day? You didn’t even say hi?”
I know it is not fair to make headaches off limits. I do not own supreme reign over things that hurt. I know I’m not the grand pillar of suffering. All bad things do not need to be heard and approved by me. I try not to clear my throat every time someone mentions head and pain in the same sentence. Pointing out that I’m acting strange as of late is a cheap shot, though, because of course I am. Two months ago, my roommate was fooling around with his gun in our apartment and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through two walls before it struck my head, fracturing my skull, sending shards of bone into my brain. But here I am, after a craniotomy, titanium plates and screws, and eight-day stay at the hospital. I guess you could say I’m still a little sensitive about all that.
The blanket slinks down to my stomach as I sit up, become Hulkish. My eyes narrow, hands make a fist. I want to lash out, although in my current state the best I could probably muster is throwing a pillow across the room or shutting a door a little harder than usual. Weaker than before, it’s anyone’s guess what will and won’t come back.
The dead giveaways of my injury go away, so it’s easy for my family to forget. Staples are removed. Hair does in fact, grow back and covers scarring. Appetite returns. I fill out again. Walking more than seven steps at a time, albeit not quite right, becomes much less of a problem.
I don’t need to wear sunglasses indoors. When I bend down to ask my niece how preschool is going, less often do I need to plug an ear to temper noise and overstimulation. She doesn’t always remember her mother’s instructions to use a soft voice around Uncle Paul.
The superpower wears off, too. The, I can do anything now that I’ve survived that dissolves. The you’ll never believe what happened to me begins to fade. The glory to God quiets. If you only knew only lasts so long.
I hold the curse of the petty after what happened. Which, in a way, is a welcome break from the pain of trauma. To be dismissive or angry almost feels like a position of power. Your back hurts from sitting too long in an office chair? Tooth ache? Migraine? You attention seeker. Fuck you. You know nothing of real misery. Though deep down, I don’t really believe that. It all bubbles from the same spring of vulnerability.
It’s true, I did not enthusiastically chat up Rebecca or even say hi when she came over to visit. Am I forever rude now? But do I not get a pass? Remember what happened eight weeks ago? Time has gone by, but I haven’t deescalated from the experience and I’m still experiencing the shooting 24/7. Any real progress is an illusion. I’m simply getting used to the new normal.
The complaining baton gets passed to Mom. She is super-stressed. Her brother just died of cancer that started in his hip and spread all the way to his lungs. Her sister has a brain aneurism that is too big and tangled to operate on, though she is looking for second opinions because it could burst and kill her instantly. Her ninety-four-year-old mother, who lives fifteen hours away by car, has no money for food, forcing mom to send checks every month to make sure she is eating enough. And her brother takes some of that money for cigarettes.
Eight hours away by car in the opposite direction, Dad is taking Mom to court in attempt to end his spousal support duties.
Don’t forget her son was recently shot by his friend, on top of it all.
“Maybe I should just take work off and go home for a while,” Mom says, meaning Detroit, where her family still resides. “But I can’t because I have to worry about your father sending me hate mail. And I need money for a lawyer now, too.”
She is concerned her boss will say no, and that she may be fired for needing so much time off.
Mom makes a finger gun with her thumb and pointer, places the barrel above her ear, and gives an imaginary weight to the noiseless trigger pull. With make-believe recoil, and a pretend aftershock, room to superimpose blood spatter.
“Just shoot me,” she says.
My vision zooms out as if someone forced a fisheye lens over my head. The same bowed out, expanding sensation moves to my stomach, followed by a tingle like I’ve swallowed a glass full of steel wool shavings. I look for the nearest mirror, check for the hole where the bullet punctured, broke my skull, and ricocheted off, which is more of a scab covered crater now.
The dead giveaways go away, but the daily reminders do not. If fact, they become more diverse, they multiply, while those around me seem to forget so easily.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, realizing what she’s said.
Faces turn foul when it sinks in. I’m momentarily satisfied in their pity, until everyone feels miserable again.
Paul Rousseau is a disabled writer from Minnesota. His work has been featured in Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, and Catapult, among others. You can read his work online at Paul-Rousseau.com and follow him on Twitter @Paulwrites7.