My eyes opened on a room flooded in turquoise light, the hill of my body under starched sheets. A machine blipped. My arms felt heavy. The left one hurt. My mouth was dry. A man craned toward my bedside from a green chair. Tears slid down his cheek. He smiled open-mouthed, anticipating something, as he stared into my face.
The smile dimmed. A slow fade. His mouth twisted like the wreckage of a car.
“You’re not Liz,” he said. An ocean of grief in three words.
“I’m Anari.” My voice sounded odd. Not sick, just—weird. It hurt to talk. It hurt to think. I blinked and blinked, my eyes wet, too, as if I’d caught tears from the man like an infection. My hands felt too heavy to lift and wipe the tears away.
He was attractive, or would have been. But he was unshaven, pale. The smell of no-sleep rose off his rumpled clothes. He had ashy hair. Intense blue eyes, red-rimmed. Educated professional white guy, mid-thirties, straight. Crazy for someone named Liz, who was probably a really lucky girl, except why the heck would he think I was her? I couldn’t remember why I was in a hospital.
My eyes teared worse. I struggled my arm out from the sheets so I could wipe the itch away.
What the hell was this?
“What’s wrong with my hand?” I cried. “That’s not my arm!”
My heart pounded and pounded and I shrieked and twisted around, trying to escape the bed with the foreign arm in it, my Scylla-arm NOT MINE with tubes coming out of it instead of snakes, too thin and too white and too black-haired and too NOT MINE! A machine alarm went off.
Rising had made me dizzy and I had to stop but Jesus what was going on?
“Anari, Anari, calm down,” Blue-Eyes said, pinning me down but doing it gently, careful not to tangle the tubes or bruise me.
I panted and held onto him with those horrible not-my-arms. I closed my eyes to ease the dizziness and so I wouldn’t have to look at the arms.
“Calm down, Li—Anari. Your J.C. will be here any second.”
“Your J.C. Joy Counselor. You’re OK. Really. Everything’s going to be all right. You’re fine. Healthy. Alive. Alive.”
Like I should be grateful for the big deal prize of being alive. Like maybe I didn’t deserve it. I caught that in his voice.
Do you know how when you’re super-upset, there are waves of hysteria and waves of peculiar super-calm? I’d just been lulled into quiet. Now the panic started again. I moaned. Someone else’s voice came out! I struggled again.
“What the hell?” I shouted.
The door pushed open and a woman rushed in. She wore lime-jello green scrubs and a multi-colored cap precious with neon cheerfulness.
“Anari! Welcome, welcome!” she exclaimed, as if I’d just stepped off a cruise ship and she was waiting on shore with a fruit-basket. Was I supposed to know her?
She pressed my hands firmly, smiling wide to show off perfect Pepsodent teeth. The wave receded, leaving me calmer. Caught up in trying to figure things out.
“Oh, Anari, we are so pleased to welcome you back. My name is Karin. I’m your Joy Counselor and I will explain everything to you. Just trust me that everything is fine. You are being cared for with the utmost love and respect. Please just trust and be calm.”
The wave crashed back again. “There’s something wrong with my arms!” I threw the sheets off to show her, to see the whole length of arm.
Oh my God. Oh my God! My belly was bloated, huge. Pregnant! What had they done to me? I’ve never wanted kids. Besides, I’m 62, way past that.
“What the hell is this? What is this?” I threw off all the covers. Not my legs!
“This isn’t me!” I screamed. “I’m not THIS!” I wept, screamed, tried to throw myself off the bed again but I was too weak. I wanted to run away. How do you run from your body?
Karin had me in a stronghold. Man, she really worked out. She nodded to Blue Eyes, who held me down. She injected me with a needle.
“This is a sedative, Anari. It’s going to calm you down so you can listen, and begin to adjust.”
The drug fogged my mind. Slowed my muscles. These muscles that belonged to someone else. Someone else! I struggled, but it was beginning to not be worth the bother. I took a deep breath. Felt the drug working in me even more. Slumped back, the knowledge of my invasion a mosquito-bite itching the back of my sodden brain.
Karin hit a button in a panel beside my bed. The turquoise light turned indigo.
“What’s with the blue?” My tongue was thick and cottony.
“Chromatherapy,” Karin said cheerily. “The colors induce different moods. This will help you feel more peaceful.
“You’ve been given a great gift, Anari,” she said in a soothing voice. I rocked myself in protest.
I looked over to Blue Eyes. For some reason I trusted him more than I trusted Karin. He looked almost as dazed as I was.
“Gift,” he repeated.
Karin pressed the intercom button. “I need a G.C. in room 626 stat.”
“J,” I slurred.
“What’s that, honey?” Karin asked. She flashed me another wholesome, canned smile.
“J,” I said. “J.C. Joy Counselor.” Had to let her know I wasn’t an idiot. They may have drugged me but I paid attention.
“G,” she corrected me. “Mr. Toricelli”—she pointed her head towards Blue-Eyes—“is waiting for his Grief Counselor.”
She pushed me back gently against the pillow, and covered up that disgusting belly and the horrible arms with the sheets. The drug felt so nice. I knew I’d sleep soon. Maybe this was a nightmare; I’d go back to sleep and wake up for real, to—whatever. I couldn’t remember exactly what my life was. I just knew I wasn’t in the right body. That’s all I knew. And my name, yes. I was Anari. Had that much straight.
“Mr. Toricelli’s wife, Liz, has been in a coma for three months,” Karin said in a babying tone, almost like she was telling me a bedtime story. I was in the mood for one, and a teddy bear, and hot cocoa. With rum in it. “There was no hope of recovery. But because she’s expecting a child, we’ve kept her body alive, in the hopes that we can save the baby. That baby will be their only child.”
Blue-Eyes covered his face with his hands and sobbed.
“Haven’t—you people—ever heard of—incubators?” I managed.
“They no longer work. A virus—you’ll learn about that later. It’s not like in your time. Today, an embryo needs to be in its mother’s womb to survive. Surrogacy doesn’t work either. The surrogate’s body would reject the fetus.”
Blue Eyes still wept.
Karin didn’t skip a beat.
“Modern science has been able to insert the souls of the dead into the bodies of coma vic—”
The door opened. In rushed a man in saffron scrubs. Short white hair, late sixties, trim, with radiant pink skin and one of those earnest faces. Definitely gay. The huggy type. He put his arms around Blue Eyes.
“Come with me, Ben,” he said. “Let’s talk. I know this is really difficult for you right now.” He walked Blue Eyes out of the room.
“Sorry for the interruption,” Karin said, adjusting the IV. New drug. I felt it rushing in, warm and comforting. Better than the cocoa with rum. “We’ve been able to fill the bodies of coma patients with the souls of the dead. We don’t know why certain souls are able to come back and others aren’t. We’re working on that. The body in the coma—now called the host—gets re-vivified, and the soul gets a chance at a new life. You’re a re-vivor!”
She practically gushed “Good job!”
Karin pressed another button. The room filled with the scent of lavender. It was very pleasant but I resented how they were trying to manipulate me into not being freaked out. Deep down, I was still freaked out. It was like when I’d had that wisdom tooth removed; I knew it had to hurt, but somehow under the anesthesia I failed to mind. Karin pressed another button and the sound system played hokey new-agey spa music, a flute wandering up and down keys like it was lost and trying to find its way home. Pretty as it was, that irritated me too. I wanted it to get somewhere. I wished it were Bach instead, or Mozart.
“You’re very lucky, Anari. Your metaphysician, Dr. Chadhar, was able to pluck your soul from the animasphere and transplant it into Mrs. Toricelli’s body. You’ve been given a second chance at life. Isn’t that amazing? I know this is very hard for you to grasp, but everything will be fine. I’ve been a J.C. for nine years and I’ve seen this miracle happen before. It’s just, wow,” she sniffled, “really beautiful, you know? You’re going to help Ben move on with his life, by giving him his daughter. What an amazing gift! And then you’ll have a wonderful, brand new life.”
I dreamed about my old house. It looked nothing like my real house had looked. It was Craftsman style, with a bright pink door—I would never paint a door pink—quaint and much prettier than anywhere I’ve ever lived. I opened the door and out rushed my dogs to greet me. I knew they were dead even in the dream. I was so happy to see them! I called, “Lucy! Darwin!” but they ran past me. Lucy swerved and raced back towards and then past me, the way she used to when she was young, her tongue lolling out like she was laughing. Oh, I missed them so much! I went after them but…
My eyes opened back on the horrible hill of the pregnant body that had the audacity to be attached to me without being me. The indigo light, the blipping machines. Ben was there, and Karin, and the gay guy in orange.
This second waking came with full remembrance of what had happened at the first. I was dead. They’d put me into Liz’s body. Ben was her husband. Karin was my J.C., Orange-aide was Ben’s G.C. And just to reiterate, because somehow it seemed mildly important, I was freakin’ dead.
I groaned without meaning to and had to hear Liz’s voice where mine ought to be.
Ben was the first to look over at me. They’d been talking quietly together, the three conspirators. Vampires. Grave-robbers.
They sat at a couch in front of a big picture window. I’d merited a private room with a view. Hooray for me. Was I going to have to pay for all this? Did my insurance cover it? Or was Liz going to foot the bill? After all, they were her feet, ha ha. It was night out there, and raining. A very sloppy rain, the kind that makes you glad to be inside and cozy, heaped in bed under the covers. But only if it’s your own body under the blanket. I stifled a mild urge to vomit.
“Where am I?” I said. “I mean, where’s this hospital?”
“Chicago,” Karin said.
“I’ve never been to Chicago.—No, not true. College. Choir tour. That’s a long time ago.” How did I end up in Chicago?
“That’s right, you were a singer,” Ben said. “Like Liz.”
“Not were. Am,” I argued. “I AM a singer.”
“There’s no reason you can’t still enjoy all the things you enjoyed before, Anari,” Karin piped in. I could tell this was the kind of thing she’d been programmed to say. Probably got that sentence from some J.C. textbook. “Isn’t it great that Liz was a singer? You can put all your knowledge of music to good use; you know Liz’s body, now your body, will respond. Dr. Chadhar is famous for finding appropriate matches. He has a very high success rate.”
“Then what am I doing in Chicago? Huh? I don’t belong in Chicago. It’s cold there. I don’t know anybody there.” My resentment kept building. Why was everyone making all kinds of decisions for me? What ever happened to free will? “My job’s in New York. My apartment’s in New York. What am I going to do in Chicago? All in all,” I mustered the energy for a pathetic joke, the anger spending itself out, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
The only one to laugh was Blue Eyes. The other two didn’t get it.
“W.C. Fields,” he explained. “He was a movie-star in the olden days, comedian. Put that on his tombstone.”
Karin blanched. I’m guessing “tombstone” is a biggie on the list of Forbidden Words to say around the Dead Person. The wave started to build. If I hadn’t been so busy being mad at Karin, wishing I had the strength to smack her in the face, I might have screamed.
She came over and fussed with my pillows. Staring at me with her big social-worker eyes. Syrupy smile. She pressed the button and turned the light green.
I slowly ventured the sheets off. Stared at the foreign arms. They weren’t ugly or anything, though there was some bruising from the IV. I was going to have to get accustomed to them. It appeared I didn’t have any choice. Did I?
“Is there any way I can be put back into my own body?”
Karin shook her head.
She looked uncomfortable. Suddenly wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Body’s not in good enough shape to be put back into, huh?” That seemed the only reasonable explanation.
I really didn’t want to think about that. One thing I hate is zombie movies. And detective shows where they zoom in on the decomposed corpses. Uch.
I didn’t remember dying. You’d think that a person would recall that. It’s not like your sixth birthday or where you put that postcard from Aunt Sally’s Hawaiian vacation; it would seem to merit attention. Why couldn’t I remember? No big accident or lingering illness leapt to mind.
Blue Eyes came over. I liked the way he seemed genuinely concerned about me. About me, not Liz. The way he looked sorry. He should. I was here to serve as a human incubator for his damn kid, no permission asked, after all. But he didn’t look at me like that. I could always tell when he was looking at Anari, and not at the Liz-shell, or the Baby-Container.
“Is there anything I can get you? Something to read or listen to? Some special food you’d like?”
I shook my head. But now that I thought about it, I was really hungry.
“I’ve been on an IV for three months?” I asked.
“Pizza.—Crap, this is Chicago. Don’t they do pizza weird here? I just want a couple of New York slices.” I started to cry. “Jesus, is it too much to ask for some normal pizza when you’ve just come back from the dead?” I blubbered. Snot came down my nose. A pretty picture.
Blue Eyes looked all disarranged. It dawned on me that to him it appeared as if his wife were falling to pieces, and he couldn’t comfort her, or help her. Because it wasn’t really her. That didn’t make me feel any better.
“Sorry,” I sobbed. I couldn’t stop. Karin put her arms around me. She soothed my hair and made mama-shushing noises. I wanted that. Real bad. I felt horribly alone, without even my body to keep me company in all this strangeness.
“I’ll come back when you’re feeling better,” Blue Eyes said quavery-voiced. “With pizza. In a few days.”
He escaped the room, Orange-Aide trailing behind, never glancing my way. I bet the G.C.s weren’t supposed to get involved with the D.P.s—Dead People. (They weren’t the only ones who should get to make up acronyms.)
When I’d regained my composure—I’ll give Karin credit that she waited to see if I’d do it naturally, without drugs or aromatherapy—I thought of what Blue Eyes had said.
“Why is Bl—Ben—coming in a few days? What’s wrong with tomorrow?”
“He has to plan the memorial service for his wife. He’s going into mourning. It’s part of the healing process for him.”
“Poor Ben.” I leaned back into the pillows.
“It’s a lot to come to terms with, for both of you,” Karin said. “You both have a long road to travel. I’ve brought you some materials. If you want to, you can read them at your leisure.”
She handed me some glossy brochures. One had a lime-green cover suspiciously the same shade as Karin’s scrubs. It was entitled, “Welcome to Your New Life! You’re a Re-vivor!” Another, a pale robin’s-egg blue, with photos of smiling people gathered around a hospital bed, including a J.C. and a G.C. (I could tell by the uniforms), was called “Coping With Change: Re-vivorship and You.” I didn’t want to look at the rest. I felt nauseous again.
“We gave you actual paper ones. I thought you’d be more comfortable with that.”
“Huh?” I answered.
“Nothing,” she smiled. “Now, let’s discuss your physical therapy schedule.”
The next few days I spent learning how to sit up, how to stand, how to walk—slowly and with assistance. My body—Liz’s, I mean—had been lying around for so long, it didn’t remember the simplest stuff. I’d get really mad at it. I had to fight the urge to punish it with pinches and scratches; after all, I was the one who’d feel that, not Liz. She was the one who was truly dead. Karin told me these were normal feelings, anger at the host, the host’s family and the J.C.
I read the brochures. I had talk sessions with Karin, a psychiatrist, and a “spiritual advisor” named Jonathan. I had visits from a pet therapist (I loved getting licked by Molly the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, couldn’t wait till she came back), an art therapist (oh whoopy, Liz made frigging finger paintings—actually it felt good to do that, getting dirty, swirling the colors around; they told me it was an excellent way of forcing mind and body to merge in a single activity and reluctantly, I did feel it happening, mastering control over Liz’s fingers, feeling like they were actually mine), and a music therapist who came with a harp (I wanted to tell her I’d just come back from a place where all I did was play the harp but she looked a little scared. I didn’t think she could handle graveyard humor). There were meetings with a psychologist, who made me do memory tests, which I apparently aced. Various specialists made sure my bodily functions were fine, and that the baby was healthy. Even the metaphysician, Dr. Chadhar, put in an appearance, trailed like a comet by three interns. He checked my charts, asked the usual questions about physical, mental and emotional health, and faded away. I was rather disappointed he was just a middle-aged Pakistani guy in a suit and tie, with a lab coat over it, rather than a wizard type with moon-and-star robes.
I was taken off the IV. To prevent melt-downs they gave me little pink pills, which left me mildly buzzed. Purple pills when the waves crashed.
On Wednesday—I now was attuned to the days of the week, the season, the date—when I woke up, there was a strange J.C. in my room. Chubby older woman with short gray hair. She was about my age. My real age, not Liz’s. In fact, she was sort of a white version of me—round, dimpled, the kind of person I wouldn’t mind striking up a conversation with on a long subway ride or during the pre-Thanksgiving madness at Zabar’s.
“Hey there,” she said.
“She gets the next two days off. How are you today?”
“Okay, I guess.” And I was. I was adjusting to bizarro-world.
“What’s today’s date?” she tested.
“Wednesday, April 20th,” I answered promptly. It dawned on me that I didn’t know the year. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? Fours days ago during my Awakening (that’s what they called it; they had names for every damn thing), Karin had said something about “my time.” Was my time different from this time? None of the brochures had any dates on them, no history of the program. I hadn’t been given a TV or computer yet, no newspapers or magazines.
“What year is it?”
The new J.C. smiled. “Glad you’ve finally asked. That’s another important step in your adjustment. It’s not going to be easy for you to come to terms with this new information.”
My heartbeat sped up. For some reason, I missed Ben.
“OK, I get it. It’s some scary time way in the future,” I said, breathing hard and bracing my Anari-self. I clenched the bedclothes with Liz’s pale hands. “You’re probably all living under a plastic dome because you destroyed the world with pollution, and since plants can’t grow you crush people up in blenders to eat. Soylent-Green-is-People. Explains the taste of the hospital food.”
The J.C. horse-laughed. “You’ve watched too many sci-fi vids!” she said. Karin, who had no sense of humor, would never have reacted like that; she would have spouted some J.C. philosophic I-Understand-Your-Problem bullshit. The J.C. sobered herself but the remains of the smile twitched at the corners of her lips. She held on to my/Liz’s hands.
Karin would have spouted a whole bunch of “don’t be worrieds” and “you’re OKs” but this woman left me alone to let this sink in.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Jasmine. I know, the name doesn’t fit. I’m no delicate flower. I ought to be skinny and young and look like something out of an ancient illustration, but—alas,” she gestured apologetically to herself, “this is what I am.”
“We don’t get to choose our bodies,” I said.
It took me a beat to realize what the hell I’d come out with. “I sure as heck didn’t choose this one.”
Jasmine laughed with me. Karin would have been appalled.
“When are you from?” she said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t have a chance to do more than glance at your file.”
“I—I don’t know when I died. I remember it being—2016. Was that when I died? That’s a long time ago.”
“But things weren’t so different from how they are now. The metaphysicians try to transplant only souls born after 1930. Some of the early implants, medieval souls, Victorian souls, never got used to how different this world is from theirs. Most of them—couldn’t cope. More recent souls are accustomed to technological and social revolutions.
“Why don’t we go for a walk? I think you’re ready to learn more about your new home. Maybe watch some vids, to get you more up to speed.”
I’m not going to bore you with all my discoveries of 22nd century stuff you already know about. I’ll just say it was an eye-opener.
It wasn’t ‘til we’d inched halfway to the conservatory that I realized. They were all dead. The people I’d started to remember, wondering why they didn’t visit. My sister Marisa. My nephews Luke and Ramsey. My boyfriend Joe. His kids and their grandkids. All my friends. My ex. Long buried. Anari just a name on genealogical charts, if any descendants cared about that sort of thing.
I collapsed. Jasmine rushed me back to my room in a wheelchair, administering an injection of oblivion-juice. I lay me down in blue-light like an aquarium-fish and slept.
Got up hours later, emotionally aching, but not sick. The thing was, the grief felt old, distant. Like when you’re 40, remembering how your lover broke your heart when you were 22; you recall the hurt, you harbor the resentment, but it’s so remote it feels almost like it happened to someone else.
Next morning, I felt so alone, I clung to every familiar face. I waited anxiously for Jasmine’s visit. Right off, she asked me if I’d like to change the art-work in the room; they weren’t posters or paintings but vid screens. I downloaded a forest scene on one wall, a seashore on another. For a third, I scrolled through thousands of paintings from museum data bases. I hit the portraits. Looking at all those faces made me realize I didn’t know what Liz looked like.
“So,” my finger paused. “Do you think I could get a mirror? Is that allowed?”
“You feel ready for that?” Jasmine said. “That’s a great sign! You’re strong, Anari. You’re going to do well.”
She buzzed the nurse’s station and requested the mirror. Apparently, these were kept on hand for re-vivors, behind locked cabinets. For the first time I noticed that my room contained no metal surfaces—nothing that could possibly give a reflection to scare the crap out of the re-vivor before she was ready to look.
The nurse, Theo, somberly handed me a largish mirror. It was covered with a cloth bag in case, I guess, I changed my mind. I propped it on my lap.
“I’m here, if you need me,” Jasmine said, “but I can leave if you prefer privacy.”
“Stay,” I said.
I slid the mirror from the bag.
I liked the face. No super-model but not bad. 30ish. Longish nose. Dark brown eyes. I’d always been so proud of my eyes, a light golden brown. Joe used to say they were amber, and he was a fly who got trapped in them. “I can see me buzzing in there,” he’d tease. Liz’s were nothing special. I looked closer. And—there she was.
Me. I could totally tell—no matter that the shape and color were different—that those eyes belonged to Anari. I tried out a smile. She had a pleasant smile, even with its tiny crooked tilt to the right. Maybe there was a little of me in there, too.
“What do you think?” Jasmine asked. I didn’t think Karin would have said that.
“I like her,” I said.
“You,” she said gently. “It’s you.”
I’d thought I’d flip out. But I didn’t need a purple pill, not even a pink one. I felt prepared and steady. Dealing.
I touched the skin on the face.
“Why isn’t she pale?” I asked.
“Enviro-therapy,” Jasmine answered. “Just like you’re getting now.”
“Oh, yeah.” Twice a day they set me up in a giant plastic baggie and fired up fans, dichroic lights, and hologram parks. Pretend sunlight and fresh air.
I re-scanned the mirror. I’d never had straight hair before. White person’s hair. I wished Liz’s were blonde or red, something more exciting than this dull brown but I tried not to be too hard on her. She was pregnant, after all, and had been in a coma for three months.
“Hair’s too long. I don’t suppose I could cut it?”
“Why not? It’s your hair.”
“Am I allowed around sharp objects?” I asked.
Jasmine smiled, but didn’t laugh. “We have a beautician on staff. I’ll make an appointment for you.”
The next morning, the beautician came. Once I got my new blunt cut, I felt lots better. I felt like I had some control over this body, this life. I wasn’t just on the re-vivorship conveyor belt.
The next day, Karin was back. She stared at my hair, then gave an ear-splitting squeal of admiration. She suggested I order lounging clothes instead of my hospital gown. I picked comfy purple sweats, nothing silver or robey—nothing ultra Bladerunner or Flash Gordon. I ordered off a tiny vidpod, charging it to Ben in an account already set up in my name. That seemed fair. They woke me up to bear his kid, they owed me.
On Monday, when I struggled in from PT, Ben was in my room waiting for me.
“Wow,” he said as I did my little walker-crawl. “You cut your hair.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It got in my way.” I could tell from the polite no-reaction that Liz would never have cut her hair like this. That he loved her long hair. Tough. My body now, toots; my choice.
He looked different, too. He’d shaved. Bathed. His eyes still looked like hell but he seemed fresher. After three months of hanging around a hospital day and night, he’d finally gotten some fresh air (the real deal), even if it was to attend his wife’s memorial service. He was moving on.
He watched me totter to the couch by the window, his arms out ready to steady me or pick me up if I fell.
I gestured him to join me.
“Let me know when you’d like your New York-style pizza. I found a place that makes it. I have them on speed-dial.”
I hadn’t cried since yesterday. They had me so busy, I’d gotten used to this Anari-in-a-Liz-living-in-a-hospital-learning-how-to-cope-as-a-re-vivor existence. Other than Jasmine (who I hadn’t seen once Karin came back), Ben was the one person I genuinely liked here. I wondered sometimes if there was some part of Liz in me that responded to him, the way foreign stuff popped up in my dreams that I knew belonged to her, the way some foods I used to love just tasted wrong and I craved crazy crap I never enjoyed before, like peanut-butter and jelly—yuck. Mmm.
Stupid waterworks started up. I was alone out here. It meant something to have him concerned about the pizza, to have someone thinking about me not just because it was his job.
“Thanks.” I stared at my slippered feet, gaining my composure. “Probably in like an hour. I’ll be hungry then.”
“You look great,” he said. “You have your color ba—you have color in your face.”
“Not as much as I used to.”
He laughed a little. The whole race thing might have made him squirm but he was cool with it. For me, that was just one more item on my plate: Dead. Stranger’s body. Pregnant. Alone in the future. White. At least they hadn’t made me a man; that would have sent me off the deep edge.
I liked how Ben was able to get my sense of humour. Dark ironic jabs were always part of my repertoire. Now they helped me cope. God, I was sick of that word. Cope, deal, heal, move on. That’s all there was any more. It would be so great to just BE.
Ben followed his grin with a nostril-flaring exhalation, an almost-snort. That made me like him even more.
“How are you feeling?”
“Too bizarre to talk about. Physically? Mostly OK, except having to re-learn how to walk. And dealing with an internal foreign invasion—I’ve never been pregnant before. Baby’s doing well. She kicked yesterday.” I felt I owed it to him to tell him. Throw the poor widower a bone. This was why I was here, wasn’t it? So his baby would live.
Though I was beginning to connect with the baby. Wondered if Ben would let me name her Marisa. Or Julia, after Momma. The baby would be my only blood-relative here. We were fellow stowaways on the Liz-ship.
“Really?” Oh, wow. He just lit up. First time I saw his face as it must have been pre-tragedy; truly alive, not haunted. He was kind of gorgeous.
“I—I can only imagine the shock of all this to you, and a baby on top of it,” he said. “I just want to tell you—how grateful I am. Profoundly grateful.” And he looked at me. Man. These weren’t just words. No mere Karin-babble.
“Of course your life is going to be your life,” he continued. “It IS your life. But I want you to know that you’re welcome to be a part of my life, my daughter’s life. You’re family. You don’t have to feel alone here.” His hands drew a circle in the air to indicate “here” was the world. The bizarre 2147 world.
“Thanks,” I coughed. “You know, I’m moving into rehab tomorrow. They’ll keep monitoring the baby, keep up my PT, intensify my work with the JCs and psychiatrists. Start getting me ready for—out there.”
Ben nodded. “May I keep visiting you? Would you mind? It’s hard to—let go. I mean, I know you’re not Liz, but—“
“There’s a connection,” I finished. “Like they say in the stupid brochures. You know what I hate the most? The way they’ve got all my goddamn emotions figured out ahead of time and are always trying to soften the blow of this absolutely—queer, creepy, maybe wrong?—thing they’ve done.”
He started to say something. Probably about how sorry he was that I felt violated. I waved it away.
“I get it, your wanting your baby. You deserve her, deserve your family. You’ve been through enough. And it’s not like I’d prefer to be dead. I’m just saying. The whole thing’s unnatural.”
He nodded. “I feel the same way about their always knowing what damn phase you’re in,” he said. “Psychotherapy in a can.”
“But different flavors. Orange for me, lime for you.”
We stared at shoes and slippers for a minute. I was musing about gulfs and connections. I fought the urge to play footsie. I fought the urge to hold Ben close, feel his chest, arms, back through the sky-blue sweater that brought out his eyes. I wanted him to kiss my neck and twirl my hair around his fingers. I think that was Liz. It was me, too, don’t get me wrong, but the hair thing had to be Liz; I’ve never wanted a man to twirl my hair before. Must have been a thing he used to do with her, and she—her body—still remembered.
“I never answered you,” I said. “Yes. Come and see me. I’d like that. Come whenever you want. I don’t know anybody else in Chicago.”
He leaned into me. It felt natural. I leaned back. That was it. No kissing or hand holding or anything, just shoulder against shoulder. Damn. They’d better bring that Cavalier puppy over to rehab tomorrow, I thought; I obviously needed physical contact. As the J.C.s say, the soul seeks comfort via the material world.
“Did you get to the part,” he said very quietly, “where they tell you that re-vivors and host-spouses have a tendency to get married? Kind of spooky. It makes sense but it’s…”
“Yeah.” I turned and looked deep into his blue eyes. “I don’t like following their Program. I don’t like them anticipating all the crap I’m feeling.”
“It’s like you’re no longer in control of your own life,” he agreed, “you’re just a—symptom. But I can kind of see… We’re not entirely strangers. Not entirely. And there’s the sudden joining of two lives.”
“All these intimacies.”
“Yeah. The baby,” he said. He gave me a bashful look. Ben to Anari.
“Let’s order the pizza,” I said. “Hungry?”
“Famished,” he said.