They say comatose patients are in a state of suspended animation; that they can hear everything happening around them but are unable to do anything, allowing the body time to repair itself without interruption. I know this to be true because I am currently in that exact predicament, and am cognizant enough to recall portions of my tale to you. I cannot feel anything, cannot taste or smell or see past the blackness of the back of my eyelids. When my private room is quiet, save for the beeping of the monitors, the push and wheeze of the ventilator, and the steady hum of the cooling system in the room, I can recall snatches of the events preceding my current hospital stay. I’m not sure how long I’ve been in this state, but it must not have been for long because the air is still on and it was a muggy first day in August when the accident happened. My dreams are fragmented. I see a bridge and water and cars. People are screaming and I have this sensation of falling.
I remember yelling at the cab driver to do the impossible and circumvent the afternoon rush hour congestion over this bridge where almost half of the eight lanes were closed due to construction. I repeated several times to the cabbie not to lose sight of my sister’s car. He shot a look at me in the rearview mirror and threw his hands in the air. I was irritated because it was hot. The traffic wasn’t moving. No air circulated through the open windows, and my sister was once again increasing the distance between us as she did all of our lives growing up. I just wanted to tell her that our mother had died.
I can hear two nurses coming in to change the gauze around my face and adjust the intravenous fluids. They comment on my dark and bruised face and swollen eyes, that if I were conscious, I would not have been able to open them anyway for several days. I hear a man enter my hospital room mumbling something about the ventilator. I assume he must be the doctor because his shoes make that expensive clack-clack sound on the floor when he walks. I hear a chair scratch the floor and… Is he sitting at my bedside? Checking my chart, no doubt, because I can also hear him turning pages…
Pages! My mind’s eye flashes to me sitting in my mother’s closet deciding on a decent death shroud for her. I find a box and finger through ten years of letters that Mama had received from her prodigal daughter. My sister’s terse words recounted a perfect life with a happy marriage and her joy in relocating far from anyone who knew her. She was living the life she wanted. Her only fear was what the contents of her newly occupied womb would reveal. She vowed to keep in contact if only Mama promised not to let anyone, especially me, know where she was. My sister never gave much detail in her letters, never described her house, never named her husband, and never revealed exactly where she lived.
Most identical twins I knew were close, but my sister and I weren’t even on the same planet. While most of my friends lived in the more flavorful side of our hometown six hours southeast of here, my sister took advantage of our fair-skinned features and broke barriers at the private high school we had attended. While everyone just thought of her as the average cheerleader-homecoming queen-student body president type, the rest of us who could detect the mocha underneath her skin tone saw her as the first to achieve these feats. I was secretly envious of her chameleonic ability to move within the two worlds. Instead of allowing both of us to capitalize on her newfound talent, she kept me at arm’s length, ever careful not to have me reveal which side of the fence she belonged. My friends and I kept the shameful secret to ourselves. The student body, teachers, and administrators who unwittingly participated in our social experiment just assumed that I had been the one with the identity crisis.
But this time, she couldn’t ignore me. Surely she wanted to know about Mama’s death! So I took a chance and followed up on the postmark of her last letter, staking out the post office in hopes that my sister would be awaiting her weekly reality check from Mama. After three days, she finally arrived and removed the letter from her rented box. She’d dyed her hair blonde and was even sporting a tan that transformed her usual fair skin into a ruddy bronze. How ironic! I called her name and for a second, our eyes locked and time stood still. I smiled and approached her. My sister’s wide-eyed, stone-faced expression never changed. Without saying a word, she dropped the unopened letter, took off running, and jumped into the driver’s side of a silver BMW sedan. I retrieved her letter and hailed a cab. The last thing I remember was asphalt coming up at me through the cloud of dust as the cab plunged into the pile of twisted cars and debris below.
The nurses chat with each other as they leave my room. I hear that clack-clack, the door swinging shut on its oil-deprived hinges, and then clack-clack back to the side of my bed. The man sobs, wondering aloud why he couldn’t see this and how something like this could have happened to his beautiful wife.
Wife? He thinks I am her! I wonder… dare I try to cross over and live my sister’s lie? If she perished in the accident, then maybe I have a chance to reinvent myself as well. She repeatedly wrote to our mother about how much easier her life was now. Besides, she owed me! How many times did I watch the world be handed to her and I wait to receive the scraps? Maybe I would have the chance to finally stop explaining my looks to one side, and defending who I am to the other.
The tone of the man’s voice steadies as he tells me that he found and read the letter included with my sparse personal effects. He apologizes and hopes that I understood how this information could never come to light, not with his bid on a judgeship. He clack-clacks over to the other side of the bed. I don’t hear the ventilator wheezing anymore and the cadence of the heart monitor slows until there is just a steady… flat… tone.
Photo Parson’s Chameleon by Steve Wilson from Flikr