But I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. So instead, I just focused on the part of her that still looked remotely like Mia—her hands. There were monitors stuck to her fingers, but they still looked like her hands. I touched the fingertips of her left hand, which felt worn and smooth, like old leather. I ran my fingers across the nubby calluses of her thumbs. Her hands were freezing, just like they always were, so I warmed them, just like I always did.
And it was while warming her hands that I thought about how lucky it was that they looked okay. Because without hands, there’d be no music and without music, she’d have lost everything. And I remember thinking that somehow Mia had to realize that, too. That she needed to be reminded that she had the music to come back to. I ran out of the ICU, part of me fearing that I might never see her alive again, but somehow knowing that I had to do this one thing. When I came back, I played her the Yo-Yo Ma.
And that’s also when I made her the promise. The promise that she’s held me to.
I did the right thing. I know it now. I must’ve always known, but it’s been so hard to see through all my anger. And it’s okay if she’s angry. It’s even okay if she hates me. It was selfish what I asked her to do, even if it wound up being the most unselfish thing I’ve ever done. The most unselfish thing I’ll have to keep doing.
But I’d do it again. I know that now. I’d make that promise a thousand times over and lose her a thousand times over to have heard her play last night or to see her in the morning sunlight. Or even without that. Just to know that she’s somewhere out there. Alive.
Mia watches me lose my shit all over the Promenade. She bears witness as the fissures open up, the lava leaking out, this great explosion of what, I guess to her, must look like grief.
But I’m not crying out of grief. I’m crying out of gratitude.
Someone wake me when it’s over
When the evening silence softens golden
Just lay me on a bed of clover
Oh, I need help with this burden
COLLATERAL DAMAGE, TRACK 13
When I get a grip over myself and calm down, my limbs feel like they’re made of dead wood. My eyes start to droop. I just drank a huge cup of insanely strong coffee, and it might as well have been laced with sleeping pills. I could lie down right here on this bench. I turn to Mia. I tell her I need to sleep
“My place is a few blocks away,” she says. “You can crash there.”
I have that floppy calm that follows a cry. I haven’t felt this way since I was a child, a sensitive kid, who would scream at some injustice or another until, all cried out, my mother would tuck me into bed. I picture Mia, tucking me into a single boy’s bed, pulling the Buzz Lightyear sheets up to my chin.
It’s full-on morning now. People are awake and out and about. As we walk, the quiet residential area gives way to a commercial strip, full of boutiques, cafés, and the hipsters who frequent them. I’m recognized. But I don’t bother with any subterfuge—no sunglasses, no cap. I don’t try to hide at all. Mia weaves among the growing crowds and then turns off onto a leafy side street full of brownstones and brick buildings. She stops in front of a small redbrick carriage house. “Home sweet home. It’s a sublet from a professional violinist who’s with the Vienna Philharmonic now. I’ve been here a record nine months!”
I follow her into the most compact house I’ve ever seen. The first floor consists of little more than a living room and kitchen with a sliding-glass door leading out to a garden that’s twice as deep as the house. There’s a white sectional couch, and she motions for me to lie down on it. I kick off my shoes and flop onto one of the sections, sinking into the plush cushions. Mia lifts my head, places a pillow underneath it, and a soft blanket over me, tucking me in just as I’d hoped she would.
I listen for the sound of her footsteps on the stairs up to what must be the bedroom, but instead, I feel a slight bounce in the upholstery as Mia takes up a position on the other end of the couch. She rustles her legs together a few times. Her feet are only inches away from my own. Then she lets out a long sigh and her breathing slows into a rhythmic pattern. She’s asleep. Within minutes, so am I.
When I wake up, light is flooding the apartment, and I feel so refreshed that for a second I’m sure I’ve slept for ten hours and have missed my flight. But a quick glance at the kitchen clock shows me it’s just before two o’clock, still Saturday. I’ve only been asleep for a few hours, and I have to meet Aldous at the airport at five.
Mia’s still asleep, breathing deeply and almost snoring. I watch her there for a while. She looks so peaceful and so familiar. Even before I became the insomniac I am now, I always had problems falling asleep at night, whereas Mia would read a book for five minutes, roll onto her side, and be gone. A strand of hair has fallen onto her face and it gets sucked into her mouth and back out again with each inhalation and exhalation. Without even thinking I lean over and move the strand away, my finger accidentally brushing her lips. It feels so natural, so much like the last three years haven’t passed, that I’m almost tempted to stroke her cheeks, her chin, her forehead.
Almost. But not quite. It’s like I’m seeing Mia through a prism and she’s mostly the girl I knew but something has changed, the angles are off, and so now, the idea of me touching a sleeping Mia isn’t sweet or romantic. It’s stalkerish.
I straighten up and stretch out my limbs. I’m about to wake her—but can’t quite bring myself to. Instead, I walk around her house. I was so out of it when we came in a few hours ago, I didn’t really take it in. Now that I do, I see that it looks oddly like the house Mia grew up in. There’s the same mismatched jumble of pictures on the wall—a Velvet Elvis, a 1955 poster advertising the World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees—and the same decorative touches, like chili-pepper lights festooning the doorways.
And photos, they’re everywhere, hanging on the walls, covering every inch of counter and shelf space. Hundreds of photos of her family, including what seem to be the photos that once hung in her old house. There’s Kat and Denny’s wedding portrait; a shot of Denny in a spiked leather jacket holding a tiny baby Mia in one of his hands; eight-year-old Mia, a giant grin on her face, clutching her cello; Mia and Kat holding a red-faced Teddy, minutes after he was born. There’s even that heartbreaking shot of Mia reading to Teddy, the one that I could never bear to look at at Mia’s grandparents’, though somehow here, in Mia’s place, it doesn’t give me that same kick in the gut.
I walk through the small kitchen, and there’s a veritable gallery of shots of Mia’s grandparents in front of a plethora of orchestra pits, of Mia’s aunts and uncles and cousins hiking through Oregon mountains or lifting up pints of ale. There are a jumble of shots of Henry and Willow and Trixie and the little boy who must be Theo. There are pictures of Kim and Mia from high school and one of the two of them posing on top of the Empire State Building—a jolting reminder that their relationship wasn’t truncated, they have a history of which I know nothing. There’s another picture of Kim, wearing a flak jacket, her hair tangled and down and blowing in a dusty wind.
There are pictures of musicians in formal wear, holding flutes of champagne. Of a bright-eyed man in a tux with a mass of wild curls holding a baton, and the same guy conducting a bunch of ratty-looking kids, and then him again, next to a gorgeous black woman, kissing a not-ratty-looking kid. This must be Ernesto.
I wander into the back garden for my wake-up smoke. I pat my pockets, but all I find there is my wallet, my sunglasses, the borrowed iPod, and the usual assortment of guitar picks that always seem to live on me. Then I remember that I must have left my cigarettes on the bridge. No smokes. No pills. I guess today is the banner day for quitting bad habits.
I come back inside and take another look around. This isn’t the house I expected. From all her talk of moving, I’d imagined a place full of boxes, something impersonal and antiseptic. And despite what she’d said about spirits, I wouldn’t have guessed that she’d surround herself so snugly with her ghosts.
Except for my ghost. There’s not a single picture of me, even though Kat included me in so many of the family shots; she’d even hung a framed photo of me and Mia and Teddy in Halloween costumes above their old living-room mantel, a place of honor in the Hall home. But not here. There are none of the silly shots Mia and I used to take of each other and of ourselves, kissing or mugging while one of us held the camera at arm’s length. I loved those pictures. They always cut off half a head or were obscured by someone’s finger, but they seemed to capture something true.
I’m not offended. Earlier, I might’ve been. But I get it now. Whatever place I held in Mia’s life, in Mia’s heart, was irrevocably altered that day in the hospital three and a half years ago.
Closure. I loathe that word. Shrinks love it. Bryn loves it. She says that I’ve never had closure with Mia. “More than five million people have bought and listened to my closure,” is my standard reply.
Standing here, in this quiet house where I can hear the birds chirping out back, I think I’m kind of getting the concept of closure. It’s no big dramatic before-after. It’s more like that melancholy feeling you get at the end of a really good vacation. Something special is ending, and you’re sad, but you can’t be that sad because, hey, it was good while it lasted, and there’ll be other vacations, other good times. But they won’t be with Mia—or with Bryn.
I glance at the clock. I need to get back to Manhattan, pack up my stuff, reply to the most urgent of the emails that have no doubt piled up, and get myself to the airport. I’ll need to get a cab out of here, and before that I’ll need to wake Mia up and say a proper good-bye.
I decide to make coffee. The smell of it alone used to rouse her. On the mornings I used to sleep at her house, sometimes I woke up early to hang with Teddy. After I let her sleep to a decent hour, I’d take the percolator right into her room and waft it around until she lifted her head from the pillow, her eyes all dreamy and soft.
I go into the kitchen and instinctively seem to know where everything is, as though this is my kitchen and I’ve made coffee here a thousand times before. The metal percolator is in the cabinet above the sink. The coffee in a jar on the freezer door. I spoon the rich, dark powder into the chamber atop the percolator, then fill it with water and put it on the stove. The hissing sound fills the air, followed by the rich aroma. I can almost see it, like a cartoon cloud, floating across the room, prodding Mia awake.
And sure enough, before the whole pot is brewed, she’s stretching out on the couch, gulping a bit for air like she does when she’s waking up. When she sees me in her kitchen, she looks momentarily confused. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m bustling around like a housewife or just because I’m here in the first place. Then I remember what she said about her daily wake-up call of loss. “Are you remembering it all over again?” I ask the question. Out loud. Because I want to know and because she asked me to ask.
“No,” she says. “Not this morning.” She yawns, then stretches again. “I thought I dreamed last night. Then I smelled coffee.”
“Sorry,” I mutter.
She’s smiling as she kicks off her blanket. “Do you really think that if you don’t mention my family I’ll forget them?”
“No,” I admit. “I guess not.”
“And as you can see, I’m not trying to forget.” Mia motions to the photos.
“I was looking at those. Pretty impressive gallery you’ve got. Of everyone.”
“Thanks. They keep me company.”
I look at the pictures, imagining that one day Mia’s own children will fill more of her frames, creating a new family for her, a continuing generation that I won’t be a part of.