Kim and I met in college and it was pretty much love at first punch. Her grandma always used to say that every good love story should have a good beginning, or at least a memorable one. You could definitely put ours into both of those categories. Our story was just full of accidents, some much funnier than others. Some not funny at all.
It all started with a preoccupied Kim. She was on her way to class, not looking much further than a foot ahead of her, when her face suddenly hit the fist of a complete stranger, pointing out the nearest bathroom to a friend. Mister tall dark and handsome was me, Sam.
"Holy shit, are you okay?" I asked, genuinely worried that I had killed the beautiful girl.
She was caught a little off-guard, being punched in the face and all, and literally no words came out when she opened her mouth, just a weird gasping noise.
"Did I knock the wind out of you?" I leaned down and picked up her glasses, propping them gently onto Kim's face. "Sorry about your face. I mean . . . Wow. That was not at all what I meant to say."
"Ouch. Look into a mirror, stranger-puncher."
"Can we start over?" I helped her up, only slightly copping a feel. I guarantee she didn't mind.
"You should at least get my number first," she said, trying not to let her smile show. "And since you're apparently a fighter, you can call me when you want a rematch."
We had a rematch, alright. It was that very night, in fact. I was in love, but she was applying for law school in just a few short months. A sad but realistic ending was approaching in what I thought would most assuredly be remembered as a charming fling, when suddenly, it had been a year and Kim called me, out of the blue, asking me to meet her for dinner.
There I was greeted with the same beautiful stranger I had fallen in love with . . . plus one. Her name was Kayla, and she was the most adorable child I had ever laid eyes on. I had a feeling right then and there that those child's eyes would spell my doom. Gut feelings are usually true.
"She's ours," Kim told me, a forced smile plastered across her face.
That was when my life ended, and Kayla's began.
I was a dad now. I hated my job, my wife always complained that she was getting fat, I had an ulcer the size of a grapefruit, I never got the degree in journalism that I so desperately craved, and my daughter was a complete stranger to me. Did I mention that I had an ulcer the size of a grapefruit? There was a buzzing noise that kept interrupting my day, but before I could complain or even look up, I remembered that my life was hell and it wasn't a fly, but my boss.
"Sam! You worthless piece of shit!"
I looked up, finding the courage to finally speak my mind for the first time in my worthless sixteen years at the company.
"Look," I started, a rush of anger and hostility taking over every inch of my body, "First of all, you will calm the hell down. Secondly, you need to lose some weight, you fat fuck. Just because you outweigh everyone does not give you the right to treat people like shit. I mean, honestly, you're an assistant manager of a piece of crap company and you try to hold it over everyone's head like it's such a big fucking deal and it's really not at all. How did you get the job in the first place? The guy above you retired? Or did he kill himself? That's crazy. You've been here for, what, thirty years? Yeah. So you know what my third point is? Yeah, you got it. You can take your lousy piece of crap job and shove it up your super-sized ass hole!"
He began to talk, slightly shocked by my not taking his crap, but I immediately cut him off and began ranting again. Realizing that my life had finally taken an interesting turn for the first time in over sixteen years, I also noticed that I had an audience of people who needed to be inspired. I ended my rant with a zinger, knocking over the computer on my desk and telling him to pick it up.
"What?" I questioned, a look of fear appearing on his face. "Am I being too condescending?" As he reached down to pick it up, I looked down on him and added, "That means being talked down to." I punched out and heard a loud mixture of clapping, laughing, and cheering as I left my former place of employment. The sun was out and I didn't have a care in the world.
Then I got home.
Kim freaked out when I came home early, immediately figuring out what I had done. She told me that I was just a deadbeat loser and that she never should have married me to begin with. I reminded her that I gave up my dream job of working for the Times to raise her little accident. Some comment like that should have gotten me smacked, but she was so enraged that she just threw a dish at me. It broke against the wall. She was always a genius when it came to things like that.
"God damn you, Sam!" she screamed.
"Yeah, because the broken dish is my fault."
We were both silent as I took off my tie and she cleaned up the broken dish with a broom and dustpan that her mom and dad gave her the day they told her to leave forever.
"I have to get Kayla. We're checking out the dorms at the high school she worked so hard to get into. She's going to freak when I tell her we can't afford a car, let alone tuition for next year. Even with the scholarships. Damn it, Sam. We'll talk later."
She left without saying a word, and the next thing I knew, there was a cop at my door. Kayla was fine, the cop kept telling me. My daughter was just fine. She would be alright; there was nothing to worry about.
"I don't care about my daughter," I found myself saying, forgetting that she was right next to me in tears. "Where is my wife?"
Over the next few hours, I found myself asking that question. That night was the worst, but I couldn't give up hope. Part of me wanted her to wake up and be fine. Part of me wondered what it would be like if she didn't survive the operation. But part of me, the selfish college student who was robbed of his future and still wanted to travel the world with the love of his life, blamed Kayla.
A lifetime of accidents, that's all it was. The first introduced me my wife. The second simply brought about a change in both of our lifestyles. But that third accident, the night my wife hit a truck on the interstate . . . That was the one that finally saved my life. I just didn't know it yet.
The morning after was the hardest. I had absolutely no idea what the fuck I was supposed to do. I just got up, sat down at the dining room table, and waited. For what? I wasn't sure at first, but Kayla came in and did the same thing. We both just looked at each other.
"It's Friday," she told me.
"So?" I asked.
There was an awkward silence, not an unusual thing when talking to this stranger who was looking older every day. I waited for what seemed like an hour, not about to make small talk with her or inquire further into why it mattered that it was the end of the school week.
"Mom makes pancakes on Friday."
Always the one-upper, I simply responded with the boldest statement I could muster all things considered. "Yeah, well, I quit my job yesterday."
She glared at me. I glared back. The morning after was the hardest.
I got a call that afternoon, saying that Kayla was absent from all of her classes. The principal probably felt pity on us, calling the day after Kayla's mom was put into the hospital and finding out that I was also unemployed. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but I wasn't in the mood for sympathy, especially from someone who had no idea what I was going through. How was I going to find the time to go get Kayla? I had much more important things to do, like wait by the phone for the doctors. What if my wife woke up? What if she didn't have any visitors?
But then I had a horrible realization. Hanging up the phone, I decided that little shit was just screwing things up left and right, breaking everything in her path. I knew she went to see her older friends at that damn private school, probably hitchhiking just to spite me. The only thing I could think about was how much trouble I would be in if Kim woke up without her daughter at the side of her bed. I knew I had to go get her back.
On my way to get Kayla, one of my tires blew out on the side of the interstate. Never really paying attention to all of those times when my dad used to try and help make me manly in the garage, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and had actually considered starting to walk back home. Feeling defeated and beginning to curse the God that I didn't believe in, a sudden set of headlights stopped behind me. The headlights of a white suburban shined brightly on my back tire, and a tall thin man with a seemingly expressionless face exited the vehicle.
His voice was friendly enough, so I just told him that I was retarded and didn't know how to fix my own damn tire.
"Easy enough," he said.
He walked up to me and shook my hand, saying that I'd be back on the road in less than five minutes. True to his word, he had my new tire on in four and began to put the old tire in the back of my trunk. As he came back, he told me that my left tail light was out. Sure enough, it was.
"Should get it fixed. Spotted it a few miles back," he told me.
"Well," I said, only a little creeped out by that comment, "I appreciate the tire change."
"No problem," he said. "Drive safely."
He just stood there, smiling. I put the keys into the ignition and, as my luck would have it, the car wouldn't start.
"Trouble again?" the stranger asked. "Not your night, is it, pal?"
It definitely wasn't.
"I've got jumper cables in my trunk. Want to give me a hand?"
I got out of the car and walked behind my car, noticing the strange out of state license plates. Nebraska. What was this guy doing in New York?
As I arrived at the back of his suburban, I realized that he had several boxes stacked on top of the cables we needed. He handed them to me one at a time and I set them off to the side of the road as he did so. Glancing into the white suburban of this not exactly normal guy, I noticed something that sent me into panic mode.
There was a hand sticking out of what looked to me like a black industrial strength trash bag. It was wearing a wedding ring and one of the nails had chipped red polish on it. This guy was transporting a dead woman in the back of his vehicle.
"So," he said, "How do you like New York, son?"
Jolted back to reality, I managed to answer, "Fine."
"Fine? Just fine? I thought you'd for sure like it better than good old Nebraska."
"Nebraska?" I asked, wondering if he knew that I had just seen the girl in the back of his car.
"Yeah. I teach there, remember? I'm still just a lowly associate professor over in the art history department, but I got the promotion last year to curator of the museum."
"Oh," I tell him. "Good for you."
He drives his car around in front of mine and proceeded to give me a jumpstart. It works, and he even offers to check my oil and windshield wiper fluid, but I tell him I'm fine. I can't get my mind off what I saw in his trunk. But I know that he'll kill me if he figures out that I know.
"Kind of a Jack of All Trades, aren't you?" I ask.
"You might say that."
"Well," I begin, trying to shut my door and head off to go pick up Kayla and get her back to town before her mom wakes up from the operation, "I suppose I was lucky you were here. Thanks again."
"No problem," he tells me, not taking his hand off the door, preventing me from shutting it completely. I look into his eyes and realize that even they are creepy. One looks normal, but the other one is ash gray.
"Here's my card." He smiles again, and something about him doesn't seem right. "You know, just in case you want to come back home some time. Pick up another painting from my gallery."
I wave, not even saying anything. The weirdo waves me on, and I'm back on the interstate within seconds.
As I reach the campus my daughter ran off to, I park my car and get out, inspecting the new tire. Random acts of kindness do not exist. The world is not inherently good. The stranger had helped me out of a jam, but he had also taken my wallet.
I didn't have much cash in it, and all of my credit cards are maxed out thanks to Kim. But that wasn't the point. He wanted to let me know that he knew . . . I saw the body in his trunk, and he saw the fear in my eyes. The most valuable thing in a man's wallet is his ID. He knows who I am, where I live, and where I'm from. But the thing that unnerves me the most is that I think, for some strange reason, he already knew all of that.
I reach into my glove box and pull out my cell phone, dialing Kayla's number. She picks up and says that she's sorry . . . She's at the police station. This is just what I need to top off the perfect night. Sitting in the waiting room, I pull out his card.
"Lucius Foreman, Curator, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln." On the back, there was a message. "I'll check up on you from time to time."
Kayla had a strange story, too. Mine was eerie and creepy and just all sorts of wrong, but hers was just another plea for attention.
We made it back in one piece, but we didn't say an entire word to one another. She pretended to be asleep, but I knew that Kayla didn't sleep a wink. We had just gotten done fighting for the last fifteen minutes on our way out of town. The little brat had the balls to tell me that the love of my life was dead and gone. She had no right, and her story, or "proof," as she put it, just made me simply despise her that much more.
She told me a far-fetched tale about being at a college party and then walking home by herself. She was afraid, remembering that her friend's dorm was actually several blocks away and there were very few lights on the campus. Beginning to hear strange and unfamiliar noises, her mind began to play tricks on her and she was suddenly afraid for her life. At this point in the story, I was sympathetic, having a similar inexplicable fear on the side of the interstate with the stranger who robbed me blind. But then she continued her tale, and it left the real world and entered that of fantasy.
She was being followed now, and she was sure of it, by who she believed to be the serial rapist on campus. First of all, there was no serial rapist, and secondly, I was in no mood for this story. Trying to calm her down, I assured her that there was no one there, or at the very least, it was just some drunk guy trying to get his kicks. That was when the police officer who picked Kayla up at her friend's dorm room interjected.
"Actually, sir," he began, "Your daughter's story has some facts in it that are undeniable." Intrigued, I listened to the cop. "We picked up a guy, trying to hide in the bushes outside of the dormitory that your daughter was visiting, waiting for someone to jump out and attack. We currently have him in custody and your daughter has ID'd him."
I looked at her, tears forming in her eyes, and began to console her. I felt the sobs of a nearly grown woman, and it chilled me to my bone. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I actually felt something for this accident of mine. But that's when she pissed me off.
"I want to stay the night," she said to me.
The cop made his exit, somehow predicting the ensuing fight.
"What? Hell no! Your mom's operation is tomorrow morning, Kayla, and you will be back at home with me!" I could feel my face getting red with anger. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Then she moved in for another hug. I pushed her away.
"No. Apologize and get your crap. We're leaving."
Then she shocked me. "She's dead, dad." Before I could even react, she continued. "I know it." My world began to spin, and for some reason I actually believed what she was saying. "I was scared walking home from the party and I asked for her. I asked for her help."
I grabbed her arm and took her to the car, very nearly throwing her into the passenger seat. The cop followed me out to the vehicle, and he asked me to fill out some final paperwork. "Sorry about your wife," he said. "She would be proud of your little girl. She's very brave."
"My wife is proud of my little girl. Is. She's still alive."
"Oh," he said. "Right. Sorry."
Another awkward silence, then he produced a collage of photos of fifteen girls that looked to be around Kayla's age. "These girls," he began. "All of them reported being raped within the last semester here on campus. We believe that your daughter's tip finally brought him to justice."
I'm still pissed at her, so I simply nod and tell him that we have to go, and that we're expecting news from my wife's doctor.
"I understand, but you need to hear this last part. Your daughter is a very smart girl, opting to get those two guys to escort her home."
"Escort?" I ask, remembering my daughter's fear. Why would she have been afraid if she wasn't alone? Why would she make up such a lie? Why would she tell me that she asked her mother, who was supposedly already in Heaven, to help her?
"Yeah. After we caught the psycho, he said that the only reason he didn't touch her was because of the two great big guys walking her home to her friend's dorm."
I couldn't look at my daughter, but for the first time ever, it was out of shame for myself. I always thought of her as an accident, interfering with my life and screwing up my plans. She was always in trouble, and it wasn't until the cop finished his story that I finally understood the ordeal that my daughter had went through. The psycho said that the big guys were wearing wings and white robes.
Maybe she was coming from a theme party, maybe they were angels. Maybe my wife is dead.
I sat at the edge of the bed all night long. Kayla fell in and out of consciousness while sitting at the kitchen table. The operation was going to last eight hours, and it had been twelve since it began. What was I going to do? I had no idea who I was, where I was, and when my life was going to get better.
Then the phone rang.
I run to the kitchen in my bathrobe and put my hand up to grab the phone. It rings again, and I feel a jolt go up my leg that feels like a stroke. I'm paralyzed with fear. What if she's dead? What am I going to do without the love of my life? Am I going to be the guy who spends every Sunday at her grave apologizing for the fight that we had and the mistakes I made and the things we didn't get a chance to do together?
She can't leave me. Not now. Why does this keep happening to me? Why do the people I love always die? Just like my first wife, Jennifer. She died when we were in the Peace Corps. The doctors there said it was just some sort of fluke thing. She got a virus and it was just too late to help her. She died a painful death. Kim can't die like that. I won't allow it. I won't stand for it.
The third ring reminds me of the girl I was dating before I met the love of my life. Her name was Constance, and she had the most beautiful poetry. She had a brain hemorrhage while I was at work one day. She had no family, no friends, and no one ever missed her. No one except for me.
Then there was me. Well, the old me. All of my friends and family think I died in the September eleventh terrorist attacks about twenty years back. For all extensive purposes, I did.
The fourth ring brings me back to reality. I died at ground zero twenty years ago, but Sam rose up from the ashes. A new man. A better man. The answering machine will pick up at six, and the fifth ring is sounding. Time halts and my world stops spinning.
I feel the warm embrace of my daughter's hand trembling on my shoulder. Turning around, we look into each other's eyes. I get it now, I finally understand. She gives me the courage to be a better man. She gives me the courage to pick up the phone.