The Husband She Couldn't Forget
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“No. She hasn’t seen your crazy-looking self.”
Rolland took the ribbing in stride. “I’m a lot better than I was. I don’t know what I looked like before, but this isn’t bad, right?”
“You are correct there, my friend. Do ten curls, slowly. Melanie arrived two months ago, but she had to go through training on how to do things the Ryder way, and then she took over cases for Barbara Greenspan who went out early on maternity leave.”
“The lady with the cats.” Rolland chuckled. “I’m glad she’s gone.”
Horace held his curled arm for a second, then guided it down. “You scared of cats?”
“I don’t know, am I? She had like fifteen cat calendars, cat mugs, cat hats and cat chair covers. Her office is enough to scare anybody.”
Horace laughed and Rolland kept pumping iron, alternating arms. “She had a cat clock that chased a mouse. Do they screen people before they hire them here?” Rolland put the weights on his leg and watched Horace lie on the floor and laugh. “Get up. You’re making me look bad.”
“You’ll like Melanie,” Horace told him. “She’s really good. She’ll help you return to society with hardly any glitches.”
“Not if she has cats, she won’t.”
“Now listen, in all seriousness.”
Rolland stopped moving. This was their code phrase when to listen closely. “You’re almost done here. Physically, you’ve passed every test. The four-mile ride, and then you shook your head when Shelby was talking to you. Coordination, balance, stamina. You did it.”
Rolland leaned back and smiled. “Really? Well I’ll be—” he frowned. “I’ll be what, Horace?”
“A son of a gun.”
“That’s right. I’ll be a son of a gun. Why aren’t we celebrating with some of that bad chocolate cake Purdy cooks in the lunch room?”
“You have high-class taste buds, too, but don’t say that too loud. I like Purdy’s food.” Horace looked around as if Purdy had spies. He crouched down in front of Rolland. “The truth is that physically you’re healed. You might have a little difficulty with balance, but otherwise you’re okay. And you’ve got your cane, if you need it.”
“I don’t need it.”
“Okay,” Horace said, putting his hands out, knowing how Rolland felt about it. “We didn’t know Barbara was going out early on maternity leave, or we’d have already started you with someone on the last phase of your treatment.”
“I’m not mad about that, Horace.”
“I know the cat thing. Melanie is taking you on as a favor to Barbara. You have to get past Melanie Wysh before you can go into the world. You may never remember your old life, but you can start a new one. She’s the gatekeeper.”
“Melanie has the key, right?” Rolland said slowly.
“That’s right. Your memory is getting better every day. You’re remembering all the new things you’ve been taught. I feel as if my child is growing up and going off into the world.”
“I’ll miss this place.”
“You can always come back to visit, but once you’re gone you’re going to be fine.I promise. Besides, you’ll always know where to find me. Let’s finish up and get some cake.”
Rolland did ten triceps presses and stretched. The other therapists watched him and he realized they’d been charting his progress all along. These people had become his friends to replace the ones he didn’t know if he had.
“Horace, I’m going to shower and change. I want to meet Melanie today. Let’s get this last phase started.”
The door to the gym opened and Horace looked around him. “I guess you’re going to get your wish sooner than later. There’s Melanie now.”
“Dude, I’m sweaty.” Rolland threw the towel over his face and mopped himself dry.
“She won’t care. She’s down-to-earth people, like me. Melanie,” Horace called. “You might as well meet your new client. Melanie Wysh, this is my pal, Rolland.”
Rolland pulled the towel off his head and shoved it under his arm before extending his hand. “I’m sorry for my current state. I’m Rolland.”
Her eyes were the color of rust, her skin warm-looking like honey-baked bread. She’d been smiling as she walked, her hair bouncing in frivolous curls. Then she gasped twice and her hand flew to her cheek.
Her lips lost their smile, and she licked her teeth showing just a hint of pink tongue.
“Is everything all right?”
She nodded in a jerky manner.
Her hand fluttered in mid-air and he took it, knowing it would be as soft as it was. He’d learned people would sometimes react oddly to him and he forgave her.
“I’m Melanie Wysh,” she said. “And your name again?” She reclaimed her hand and put it behind her back. Her hair was red. He loved red hair.
“I don’t know. Three months ago it became Rolland Jones.”
The colored letters on the side of Rolland’s case file seemed to follow her as she walked barefoot through her cottage home. Melanie carried the glass of wine to the living room sectional and sat down, folding her legs beneath her.
Plumping the pillows, she leaned back and felt her back relax, yet the tension in her body remained until she reached for the file that had dominated her mind. She used her fingernail and opened it.
John Doe aka Rolland Jones had been in a car accident in Las Vegas, Nevada, June 16, a little over three months ago.
His injury list was extensive. Broken nose and eye socket. Dislocated jaw. His front six top and bottom teeth had been knocked out. Sustained lacerations to his upper body, arms and hands. The injury list to his knee was gruesome and she winced, and then read, Traumatic Brain Injury. He’d been pulled from a car that had burned, but he had been spared injury from the fire.
After lying in a coma for twenty days, he’d been brought to the Ryder Rehabilitation and Spinal Center in Kentucky for complete rehabilitation.
His physical recovery had been nothing short of miraculous, except for the resulting symptoms from TBI. He knew how to write alphabetical letters and words, but he couldn’t write numbers anymore. He reversed things, his shoes occasionally, words, which hand to shake with. He had image memories of his past, but not of the past six years. Sometimes things had to be defined for him. He didn’t know his name, his age, but he thought he’d been married. He confused right and left and didn’t have a mental edit button. Whatever he thought came right out of his mouth. He still suffered with balance problems and he sometimes got lost.
Melanie raked her hands through her new short haircut and stared at the auburn strand that came away between her fingers. Why had she dyed her hair this color?
Because it was different and she’d wanted a fresh new look to go with her new life.
She did a few deep breathing exercises. How could she help Rolland Jones?
She jotted down the standard treatment plan, but given his physical advancement, decided maybe Mr. Jones might like to do some of his therapy outdoors.
He was handsome. Gorgeous, really and she wondered why she hadn’t spotted him before. She’d heard his name mentioned several times, but had never known who the women in the break room had been talking about.
She tried to put Rolland to words and realized there weren’t enough. He was the mmmph women talked about with a shake of their heads and an open-mouth laugh. He was the reason for the raised eyebrows and the twisted lip at the laundry center. He was the double sigh, neck roll, wrist flick, teeth suck, hip switch, six feet of mocha-mocha, hot, scarred, but still fine black man.
She rubbed her aching heart with her thumb, telling herself love was not in her cards. She was here to help make others whole so they could go into the world and become productive.
Her time had decidedly passed.
Sipping her wine, she closed her eyes and listened to the water and the sounds of the children playing around the man-made lake outside.
It was September, typically hot in Georgia this time of year, but Kentucky boasted moderate temperatures with low humidity, and she was glad she’d chosen this place to relocate.
The vacationing families had left after the holiday, and everyone who had stayed had already gotten acquainted.
She’d been welcomed, and while grateful for the warm reception, Melanie liked that her neighbors respected her desire for privacy. After her initial refusal to be set up with everyone’s brothers, they left her dating life alone.
She leaned back on her pillows, the file on her chest, watching the sun fade behind the Appalachian Mountains.
How could she give Rolland Jones reasonable hope that he’d be all right in the world without any help? Most TBI patients had family to aid their recovery in the outside world. Having TBI wasn’t easy. It wasn’t like he was ever going to wake up and not have the debilitating condition.
His brain would not be restored to its former state, but she could help make his life reasonably comfortable. Her job was to make sure he had the skills, but not to give him false hope. She’d teach him how to live within his limits.
Resting her eyes, Melanie listened to the distant strains of Michael Bubl? singing Me and Mrs. Jones on the stereo and dozed.
Melanie stood behind her desk, then on the side, then sat in the visitor’s chair, then went back behind her desk.
Where was Mr. Jones? He was thirty minutes late.
Walking to the door she peered out and then decided she wasn’t going to search for him, but get some other work done. She had other clients to see besides him.
Melanie sat down, then got up to adjust her fan to blow right on her, because her office got too much morning sun. She held her arms out so she wouldn’t perspire all over her summer sweater as she reviewed two client charts. Making notes, she reached for her diet soda.
“Soda isn’t good for you.”
His voice made her feel as if a hundred hands were bathing her with warm oil.
“You’re late. I expected you at ten.”
He looked at her, then down at the card in his hand. Large hands, capable hands turned the card over and she wondered what else they could do.
She pulled her gaze away.
“Melanie, I’m sorry. I can reschedule.” His sincerity made her feel guilty for being so blunt.
“Oh. Okay,” she said taken aback. Her husband had never apologized for anything. “Of course not. I’ll see you.”
“I get times wrong sometimes, but this says eleven o’clock. I can’t read numbers anymore. Although that may say ten o’clock. It looks like it says eleven.” He walked inside the office and came around her desk, the card extended. “You can see for yourself, I wouldn’t lie to you.”
The last few months, she’d uncovered so many untruths that Deion had told, she’d stopped believing in anything. She had to remind herself that they weren’t the same people.
“I didn’t mean to imply that you’d lied, Rolland.” She tried to rise just as he leaned down to show her the card.
Their heads connected and the card fell to the floor.
“Oh,” he said, backing up, a smile as big as sunshine on his face.
“Are you okay?” she asked, up and out of her chair in an instant. “I’m sorry. Is there a bump? Can you see me? Are you having any trouble?”
“Melanie?” His voice moved boulders in her.
“My foot hurts.”
She looked down and realized she was standing on tiptoe on his toes. “Oh my goodness, I’m going to kill you. No! That’s a figure of speech. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
He laughed now, sidestepping his foot from beneath hers. “I think I’d better sit down.”
“Of course. Come over here to the couch. I’ll get some ice.”
“It’s just a head butt. You didn’t hit me with a Crown Victoria. Now that needed some ice.”
Melanie hurried across the hall to the break room and was back in a few seconds with an ice pack.
Rolland had sat on the couch with his head back. A knot the size of a pea had formed on his forehead close to his hairline.
“A Crown Vic hit you? Who drives those these days?” Melanie studied the knot, trying to decide how to apply the pack that was now freezing her fingers.
“Old people. Well, in my case their granddaughter who wanted to sneak out on the town. They’re paying for my care and offered a healthy settlement, which I accepted.”
“I’m glad you’re being taken care of.”
He touched her wrist. “You sound like you really mean that.”
“Of course I mean it. Everyone here wants the best for you.”
“Yes,” she said, holding the pack by her fingertips.
“I think we might need to cover that with something or when you take it off, you might peel off my new skin.”
Mortified, Melanie stepped away. She was standing between his legs. Looking down into his eyes, all she wanted to do was cup his face and ask him where had he been all her life?
She knew the thought was irrational and she’d have a serious talk with herself tonight over sushi. But for right now, she was not going to cause him further harm.
“Rolland, I’m a very capable rehabilitation specialist. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I’ve clearly started on the wrong foot. I’m going to get a towel, apply this pack and then call someone to check out your head.”
“That’s not necessary, Melanie. I’ve had worse injuries playing football.”
Melanie hurried to her desk and opened her lunch bag. “So you remember playing football?”
“Yes, when I was a kid. I remember running with the ball and laughing. But not my name, the team and all that. A cloth napkin,” he asked, once she wrapped the pack and put it on his head.
“They make me feel special.” Melanie tried not to look down at him.
“I feel pretty special for you letting me use it,” he said.
“And you should,” she tried to joke. “I don’t usually do wound treatment. But considering I caused this bit of trouble, I’m obliged to help you.”
“Thanks,” he said smiling.
“So what do you hope to learn, Rolland?”
“How to cook. Add numbers.”
“Like nine plus seven?”
“That’s going to take me a few minutes. Write numbers. I recognize it’s a number, but I can’t write it for anything.”
“The alphabet.” Melanie listened as he recited the whole thing without stumbling. “Backwards.”
She smiled, surprised at herself. “Yes, I am. What else can you identify that you want to learn?”
“I want to find out about my old life. Was I married? Did I have a family? Where are they? Did they look for me? I want to learn how to drive. I love cars.”
“Well,” she said. “Some of those things are on my list, too. Learning how to use numbers so you can dial a phone and cook are very important.”
“Do you use lists a lot?” he asked, gazing up at her.
It occurred to Melanie that she didn’t have to stand over him and hold the ice pack. “Yes, for everything. It helps you stay on task and helps me track your progress. You don’t like lists? Here, hold this.”
She guided his hand up to hold the ice pack and went back to her desk and sat. Feeling silly for leaving him on the couch alone, she took her pad and the contract she had every client sign.
“Lists are fine, but you have to keep them in the right, what’s the word?”
“Perspective?” she offered.
“Right. Everything has a right perspective. So let’s get started. Am I going to learn how to cook first or drive?”
She laughed. “No, but I was thinking, the most important thing for you is to always know your way home, right?”
“I don’t know that I’ll ever find my home, Melanie.”
Her heart pounded. “You—you will, Rolland, and you know, I’ve found, a home is wherever you make it. But first thing’s first. I’m giving you a contract and by tomorrow I want you to read it and sign it. If you don’t understand something, just ask me and I’ll explain it to you.”
“I’ve got homework already, Melanie Wysh.”
“That’s right. Now, here’s a compass. Let’s go get lost and find our way back. I just need to do one thing.”
She went behind her desk and changed her pumps to sandals.
Coming back to his side he looked down at her. “You’re short.”
“Thanks, Rolland, that was honest.”
“Was I supposed to lie?”
She saw the confused look on his face. Bless his heart, he really didn’t know social rules. “No, you’re not supposed to lie, but you’re not supposed to say everything you think, either.”
He towered above her by more than half a foot.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I get what you’re saying. Shelby perspires like a man and some of the guys joke about it in the locker room. I’m not going to tell her.”
Melanie laughed. “Good example. Don’t ever tell her. Now let’s go?”
Rolland stepped outside and Melanie closed her door behind them. She pushed her sunglasses in place before joining Rolland and heading out into the sunny and breezy day.
“I love the color of your hair.” He let his palm touch the spikes and smiled down at her.
“Thank you, Rolland. Now, you know north, south, east, west, right?”
He stopped at the intersecting sidewalk and shook his head. “The cafeteria is blue. The dorms are brick red. The gym roof is orange and rehab center is white. The administration offices are beige. If north isn’t a color, you have to tell me where it is.”
Even though she had on her sunglasses, Melanie had to lean backward to use her hand to shade her eyes because Rolland was so tall. “Okay, this is a compass. North faces the sun. Anywhere in the world. North always faces the sun.” She showed him the compass in her hand and looked at his, but they weren’t reading the same.
“Hold on a second.” She took his and shook it. “Yours is broken.”
“You trying to get me lost already?”
“No,” she said, banging on the instrument. She stopped hitting it. “Rolland, don’t follow my bad example. Hitting something never makes it work.”
He laughed. “If you say so. We’ll just have to use yours.”
“Okay,” she said, more softly than she intended. Clearing her throat, she held her compass out and the needle pointed north. “We’re facing north. Behind us is south. To our left is west and to our right is east. Okay, let’s walk west. Which way is west, Rolland?”
“Right,” he said and stepped on her foot.
“No,” she yelled too late.
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. Okay, let’s try it again. West is left and we’re going left,” he sang and walked to his right.
Melanie screamed when he stepped on her foot the second time.
Rolland jumped, and she slammed her hand over her mouth.
Neither of them moved.
Other people around them stopped and Melanie waved them away. She was going to recover.
“You scared me,” he said.
“You hurt me.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“I know, Rolland. I’m sorry for scaring you.” She reached out but didn’t touch him. “Let’s try tomorrow. I’ve got an idea of how we can get this perfect tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, not looking at her.
“I’m fine, Rolland, really.”
“Don’t lie to me, Melanie. If you lie, I can’t trust you.”
“I’m not lying. I promise.”
“Yes, you are. Your toes are bleeding,” he said, and walked away.
She saw that they were and wished she could take back the words.
Rolland sat outside his dorm, sunset streaking the sky in blues and mauve. He looked at the book in his hand to verify the color he was witnessing. Yes, it was mauve. Left of pink and right of rose, it was beautiful and calming. He leaned his head back and let the breeze dust his neck in coolness before he sat back up and looked straight at Melanie Wysh.
“I owe you an apology, Rolland. May I sit down?”
He moved over on the swing and made room for her. “Do you like to swing?” he asked, pushing it with his foot.
“I do. I haven’t in a long time,” she told him. “I have something to say.”
“Then you have to swing for a few minutes. You’ll enjoy it. Put your head back like this.”
Rolland pulled Melanie’s head back just as a happy breeze floated by.
They sat this way for a few minutes and it gave him time to study Melanie undisturbed. She was a tiny woman, no more than a hundred and fifteen pounds, and if she was five three, he was being generous. Her hair was short, freshly cut with auburn/reddish highlights that looked cute with her eye color.
She was a pretty woman, a classy woman, someone he wished had known him long ago. She had kissable lips like the women on TV, but Melanie was real. She was someone he could see himself coming home to and having dinner with.
“Why did you come see me?” he asked her.
She seemed embarrassed to have been caught relaxing. She straightened her spine and folded her hands. “I came to apologize for lying to you earlier. I did it because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings—”
Rolland let her drift off, his mouth pursed. “I didn’t cut you off,” he said, laughing.
“I know you didn’t,” she jumped in, hurriedly, then laughed. “I just mean to say that it was easier to say I wasn’t hurt so that we could get to the greater goal of you learning which way west is.”
He gazed at her out of the corner of his eye. “Okay.”
“Do you understand anything I’ve just said?”
“Yes. So it’s better to lie than to tell you you’ve confused the hell out of me.”
Melanie crossed her legs and touched his arm and it felt like fire had been set to his limb. Rolland liked the heat and didn’t want it to stop. For the past three months he’d been cut, sewn, stapled, massaged, twisted and rehabilitated by so many people that he thought he was immune to the human touch, until now. He moved his arm closer so she would touch him again.
“I don’t want you to lie to me. If I’ve confused you, then tell me. What I mean to say is that I’m sorry for lying to you. It won’t happen again.”
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