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A Night Like This

Phone message puts everything on hold

Did you ever have one of those nights when you thought you were going to check out a new Mexican restaurant with your neighbors but they took too long getting ready so you figured you'd duck back into your place real fast to see if someone left you a phone message? Not that you're expecting one, what with how your life, one day about two years ago, suddenly became a social wasteland - you never thought it would stay that way, but there it is. Even so, by some stupid Pavlovian pull, you still check your messages thinking you might catch a cosmic break and the light will be blinking and there'll be a message other than the one you left yourself the last time you checked your messages. So anyway, all you've got on your mind is the hope that this new restaurant you're about to visit will break the curse of crappy margaritas the city seems to be suffering from, like maybe they'll be able to mix one that doesn't taste like battery acid, and since you once lived in a trailer two miles north of Tijuana, you consider yourself an expert on all things Mexican, right? Anyway, you walk into your home and you see that, hey, looky there, the little light is blinking, but you still don't think anything of it because you figure it's probably that "editor" you met at a writer's junket who turned out to be a closet Amway rep.

So you push the button on your answering machine and you hear the voice of your little sister's husband calling from Arizona, the person you used to unkindly refer to as "the alcoholic walrus," and you think to yourself, why is he leaving me a message again so soon after the last message he left thanking me for those fashionable pretzel-printed Bermuda shorts I sent him for Christmas?

And then you hear him say, "... little Monica has been in an accident ..."

And you just stop. You stop everything — breathing, thinking, living — everything. Little Monica, who, just three years ago peeked up at you like a little blood-smudged kitten as you held her minutes after being born from your little sister's loins, and who, just by waving her tiny wrinkled fists and blinking her dark, cartoonishly huge eyes, elicited from you in that instant a life-long slavish devotion, has been in an accident.

And so you're stopped, but your brother-in-law's message isn't. It goes on. He's saying stuff like "car door," "crushed," "medical helicopter," "intensive care," "spine," "liver" and "lacerated."

The words actually seem to fly like evil bats out of the answering machine and down your throat, only to claw through your chest and orbit around the room. Jesus God, you think to yourself, lacerated liver? She's 3 years old, her liver is like, what, the size of a silver dollar? Right then you would fall to your knees if you could, but you're stopped, and then your neighbors come through the door, laughing.

"What's taking you so long?" they ask, and then they see your face.

"My niece," you say, and you really don't have to say much more, because they see your face.

And so exactly one hour and 40 minutes later, instead of spending the evening being overly critical of Mexican food with your friends, you are on a plane to Phoenix saying "no" to the flight attendant every time she offers you something from the bar, which practically wastes the first-class upgrade the gate agent was kind enough to give you after hearing your circumstances. And then you are in a rental car on the way to St. Joseph's Hospital, and for a second you are amazed at how efficiently you are accomplishing things, considering that you're stopped. Then you remember: Little Monica, after Sunday school in the church parking lot, got stuck between the door of a roll-away car and another car, and the word "crushed" was used when you later talked on the phone with your sister, your little sister, Kimberly, who used to make mud pizza and whose fingers used to be too short to reach the last morsels at the bottom of the bag of M&M's.

"Can you come be with me?" Kimberly had asked you over the phone, and since then you have been on autopilot to close the distance.

And suddenly you are there, and you and your sister are clinging to each other. And you're crying, but not because the news is bad. The news, so far, is good. There was no spinal damage, no oxygen loss to the brain, not even any broken bones ("A 3-year-old's bones are like rubber," the doctor had said. "If she were a few years older her entire chest cavity would have been crushed"). There's just those nasty internal lacerations caused when Monica's ribs poked into her liver, and there's a chance those will heal themselves without surgery. Kimberly leads you to the crib in intensive care where Monica lay sleeping with so many tubes sprouting out of her it looks like her little body is resting in a nest of giant albino spiders, and you reach down to smooth a strand of hair away from her beautiful little forehead. Suddenly she opens her eyes, looks at you, and smiles. With that, you are started again.

Ever had a night like this? Me too.

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