When the ambulance doors opened up, sunlight fell in, too bright and caustic and nothing like the warmth I mourn each fall, just a little bit and then more fervently with winter’s gray advent. When that day rushed back at me, there in the belly of the ambulance, I blinked and blinked, and though an oxygen mask was tied over my mouth, I struggled to breathe. I was hurt, badly. I think now of the glass I knocked from a table the other day, how it shattered, clear scraps of glass scattering away. I think of how I seized up in the moment and winced and shut my eyes and wished it all could be undone and looked around me to see if anyone had witnessed it. I’m sure I cursed. Mildly. Under the breath, beyond hearing, besides myself. And it was just a glass, light because I’d drained all the water from it. Just a glass.
The ambulance doors opened up to the moment from which my old life could never, ever return. That Saturday morning, nothing much had changed. I was whole, intact, unbroken in a way I’ve never been since.
I remember my father standing there, waiting for me to be rolled out of the bus (watching Jeopardy the other night, one of the answers reminded me this is what cops in old movies call an ambulance) and I remember feeling brokenhearted, that I had ruined everything for my family and my friends and more.
I could have wept through a false smile and laughed haltingly beneath the just audible hiss of dry oxygen pushing its way into my mouth and down my throat and up my nose and into my lungs. In my mind, I think I did.
Except that my father wasn’t the one standing there, waiting, having raced the ambulance to the hospital. It was my uncle, my mother’s oldest brother, Randy, who my whole life had been a strange avatar: of Corvettes, as he’d been a member of the local chapter, always strutting about in a black and white jacket; of the tiny and frail alligator that he had for a while in a dank aquarium beside his house, how it chirped like a little bird, all night, all night long; of the foot broken in Hawaii after it had been smashed by a car rolling over it; of the surgery that followed that dumb mishap. All this had fascinated me. I think he was the first person I ever knew who had a mobile phone, back when you lugged one around in a briefcase and to even touch it, or maybe come too close, was to spend more than I could begin to understand.
Sometime in the next week or so my uncle would roll into my hospital room a BMX bike and then hoist me up in the air so I could see it. This was for me when I would get up out of the bed and walk away from so much hurt, back to the boy I was. It was mine, even though I had nearly killed myself on a bicycle and could not wiggle my fingers or feel anything touch my skin or go to the bathroom by myself.
These days I think I’m afraid of sentimentality. I want to rage at the president and cry at dog videos on Twitter and laugh at easy jokes. I want to do anything but look straight down the road, at the horizon, into the future, at what is approaching way too fast.
So I look back into the past. At my uncle. At the no-color ceiling of an ambulance. At another life. Not this one.
Paul Guest has published three collections of poetry: The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World (winner of the 2002 New Issues Poetry Prize), Notes for My Body Double (winner of the 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize), and My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2008). His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. His memoir, One More Theory About Happiness (Ecco), was selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. Read the entire CATAPULT series here.