I spent those months in the VA working my ass off to heal. With partial muscle recovery and extensive neurological exams, I was finally allowed to go home. Same man, just newly rewired parts. My excitement dulled the minute the plane landed in Hartford. It was like the truth was too ugly and I wanted to run from it. I was no longer the same man they were all expecting to walk off the plane.
I felt incapable of being who they wanted or needed me to be. What if I couldn’t remember things? What if they couldn’t recognize me as the Asa from three years ago?
My fears were only confirmed by my family’s tentative hugs and their fragile, handle-with-care treatment of me.
But then, the minute I walked in the front door, Callie was there, like a burst of luminous sunshine. She was dressed in scrubs and somehow already the most capable adult in the room.
“Asa, we’re so happy you’re home!” I held her in my arms. She was still a cross between delicate and obstinate, but something had changed. The little girl was gone; the competent and confident woman in front of me had taken her place.
“Are you here to take care of me or my dad?” I ask her as we walk through the old neighborhood. Callie had insisted I needed fresh air. It wasn’t until we were outside and I was away from the stimulus that I realized how much I needed it—a moment to unwind, to unpack everything that had transpired not only in the last few hours, but in the years of my absence.
“Well, both, but in different capacities. For your dad, it’s mostly palliative. He’s finished with his treatment, and he doesn’t want to continue with the hard drugs. And for you, I’m here to continue your rehab. You and I have particular and serious goals.”
“That sounds heavy,” I tell her in jest.
“Oh, believe me, Asa Dashen, I have plans for where I want you to be not only at the end of the week, but by this time next year. I plan on pushing you hard and getting you back right where I want you to be.”
I look at her in earnest, and a mild blush rises on her beautiful cheeks.
“I mean… That came out wrong. Where we all want you to be, not just me.”
“Sounds good to me.” Her arm is looped through mine while we amble down the sidewalk as the sun starts to set. She’s the most solid and believable surface I’ve touched since the accident, Callie’s forearm, her elbow, the brush of her leg next to mine. I want to bottle up this moment so I can decant it whenever I feel out of touch. This injury to my head has given me the worst feeling of unreality, but Callie has the power to ground me like nothing else. I cling to her arm and feel like I want her to escort me through the rest of my life. But I can’t be so serious, or I’ll scare her and everyone else away. Instead, I have to take it one day at a time, just like my therapist in Virginia said.
A lot of my memories from before the accident are a convoluted garble. They seem fuzzy, out of order. Sometimes my mind can recall a video game before it can conjure the face of my own mother. But my memories of Callie are in full relief, perpetually on a freeze-frame taking up room in my head.
“Asa, stop trying to hustle. I know you can lift your leg another forty-five degrees.”
“Nothing gets by you, does it?” She records all of my progress, even now that we’ve progressed from my living room to the gym.
My fear with Callie is that the memories I have are skewed. I can’t trust my own brain to tell me the truth. Was there something more between us before I went away to war? I’m too invested to hear the answer if it turns out not to be the one I want. Was she ever more to me than just my little sister’s best friend? Or have I concocted these fantasies in my head, completely unfounded?
My abdominal muscles cramp as I near the fiftieth sit-up.
“Do you always wear scrubs, Cal?” I’m winded, totally spent, and trying to distract her.
“Forty-eight, Ace. Give me two more. And yes, even to church on Sundays.”
“For real? I can’t imagine you in anything else. For some reason, I feel like I’d like to see you dressed in regular clothes.”
“One more, Asa. You can’t distract me into not counting.”
“Fifty!” I collapse back on the gym floor. “Maybe a dress, even yoga pants, would be nice for a change. Scrubs are so clinical, Callie. Whatever happened to your red rain boots?”
She sticks out her arm to help me up off the floor. I latch on to her forearm and heave my weight forward.