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Garbo the German Shepherd sniffed through the trash overflowing the kitchen bin and knocked choice bits onto the linoleum floor to molest in further depth.

“Garbo, I see that!” the large woman with blue eyes called from across the living room.

Garbo did not look up. The large woman was far away in time, if not in distance. The woman’s unsteady gait and the disaster that was the living room floor meant that Garbo was in no danger of immediate retribution.

“I see you!”

The tone heightened with the added exertion of balancing on faulty legs and navigating through the obstacles of books, piles of magazines, a fallen tea towel stiff from some sopped-up liquid, now unrecognizable. The large woman shuffled through them like an ice skater, keeping her feet close to the ground and gently ploughing the items askance in her wake. Her hips jerked instead of rolled. Her torso and large breasts hinged forward. Half-way to the kitchen, she stood still, looking like a refugee stranded in an endless sea of detritus. From this distant vantage point, the large woman watched the dog eat through the remainder of the garbage with impunity. Chuck would come home to find it. He would pick up the garbage spread over the kitchen floor without a word.

“The fall has impacted her motor nerves.” The surgeon looked at his clipboard, as if this line was written there for him. He did not look at the young man with dark hair in front of him. The young man just starting his life, back with a new lease and GI Bill funding after a tour flying helicopters in Vietnam.

“Even if she wakes up from the coma, she may not be able to walk. Her balance will be affected.” 

The young man looked out the window to mask his rage. He bought time to compose a poker face for the doctor. He hated doctors. Especially this one. They were an unwelcome reminder that things were beyond his control.

“She will need to be taken care of for the rest of her life. It’s unlikely she will be able to live independently.” The surgeon paused and looked at the young man. He softened his tone to something more conspiratorial. “You just started seeing this girl. You’re not yet married, son. You can walk away from this.”

The rage leapt up suddenly into the young man’s eyes. The surgeon saw it and took a step back. He consulted his clipboard again and recovered his detached tone.

“I think that’s all for now. We are keeping an eye on her vitals. She’s stable. We will, of course, contact you if there are any changes in her status. You can go home and rest.”

The young man gave a look of disgust at the word ‘rest’, pressed his mouth into a tight downward grimace and acknowledged the surgeon’s words with a curt nod. Then he walked slowly, ramrod straight, back down the hall to Charlotte’s room. He hoped this civilian doctor would take a note on what commitment looked like. Later, as he looked back on this time in the hospital, he would wonder if he had done it all just to make a point.

The young man with the dark hair was Chuck. He had met Charlotte at the campus canteen. They had no mutual friends. The artists and the rugby players did not tend to mix. He had stood in front of her in the line one day and handed her a tray before taking his.

“Aren’t you going to pour my water too?”

His laughter shot out like a cough. He turned toward her, his formality and good manners suddenly a liability in the presence of her boldness. He looked at her and smiled with the corners of his mouth turned down in a wry bend, humouring her as he poured water into the hard plastic cup and placed it on her tray.

“That’s better.” She looked at him without smiling, like a dare.

She wore a long skirt and a white cotton top with tiny cornflowers and no sleeves. No jewellery. No make-up. Her eyes were a vicious blue, demanding your full attention. Her pale, colourless hair was twisted up in a tortoise-shell clip with the strands loose and splayed like a fountain over her crown. She could have been a farm girl except for the look in her eyes, which was not simple. The look ensured that the lack of adornment was understood as defiance.

“Anything else?” He asked, his eyes dancing.

“Maybe a fork. Or should I just eat with my hands?”

He picked up a fork and rolled it slowly into a white paper napkin before handing it to her in a package.

“You think I’m a messy eater?”

He laughed again at the trouble she caused, her willingness to inconvenience another person, to rest her weight on him. He had never allowed himself such a luxury.

“I think you might want the option of a napkin.”

She assessed him with her eyes. He gave her a derisive smile, hiding his wonder. 

Chuck began to look for Charlotte in the canteen and approached her with offerings of shared symbolic jokes: origami-folded napkins, elaborate water-pouring rituals. All were tendered in silence, to enhance their pantomime humour. Charlotte would reward him with a quick-witted undercut, which he never saw coming. It was this element of surprise that proved addictive. He could never predict her next move. She was somehow always able to ambush him.

He began walking her back to her dorm after canteen dinner, or to the art studios after lunch. He picked his way gingerly through her sculpture room, weaving through half-formed heads emerging from soft brown clay, picking up a pink-glazed sow suckling her ceramic brood, sidestepping an upturned clay hand protruding from one of her work counters. She watched his response with a level eye, surveying him for any hint of judgement. But when he turned to meet her gaze, his eyes always broke into a conspiratorial smile, as if he had discovered hidden contraband. It made her feel as if she had a secret to keep, something dark and valuable that now lay between them.

Although she was beautiful, Charlotte had mostly navigated her life alone up until that point. Men didn’t tend to approach her. Her sister told her that she should try to come off as less intimidating.

“You have to make them feel needed, Charlotte. Give them a little space to approach you. If you always need to hold the upper hand, then you will end up empty-handed.”

Her sister had an annoying tendency towards mixed metaphors. She had also made it her life’s mission, ever since they were both little, to groom Charlotte into a more socially-acceptable version of herself. She dropped small pearls of wisdom at every opportunity. Charlotte never gave a verbal rejoinder to her sister’s genteel prodding, nor did she explain herself. Instead, her sister’s “Betty Crocker advice”, as Charlotte called it, produced in her a drive to systematically repudiate each suggestion by doing its exact opposite. The precision and specificity of her behaviours left no margin for misinterpretation on her sister’s part. She would look at Charlotte with a sense of exasperation and pity, as only older sisters can. And Charlotte would return her gaze with an indomitable stare, unapologetic, and unperturbed by her failure to meet her sister’s standards.

Chuck seemed nervous, but not put off by Charlotte’s refusal to recast herself as something smaller and sweeter. He laughed at her provocative statements, showed admiration for her unconventional choices. His shyness made her feel formidable.

She pushed to see if it was real, to see if his resolve would break when faced with the full weight of her, with all the parts her sister had targeted for reform.

On a walk back from the canteen after dinner one day, Charlotte handed Chuck her school bag and said, “Hold this.”

“What are you up to, Charlotte?”

They were walking next to the lake that separated the main campus from the residence halls. There was a designated swimming area but it wasn’t here. Apart from the official entrance, the rest of the lake was encircled by a high fence.

“I’m going to take a dip. I’m feeling hot,” she said, without looking back at him.

Chuck let out a nervous laugh.

“Um, Charlotte, do you want to go down to the entrance? I think it’s closed now anyway, it’s after seven.”

“Exactly, it’s closed, so why go down? Why not go right here?”

She had taken off her shoes and had begun to climb the fence, placing her pale toes between the chain-linked circles. She did not ask him to come with her. She was not looking for company.

She jumped down onto the sandy tall grass on the lake side of the fence and turned to face him. Looking for his reaction to her. There was laughter and embarrassment on his face. She saw that he struggled to remain calm.

She took off her shorts and t-shirt, with only her bra and cotton underwear remaining.

“Watch that no one steals these,” she said with a straight face, then grinned after a few seconds of watching Chuck restrain all his instincts to tell her to return.

And then she dove in, surfaced and turned her face toward the sky, eddying the water slowly with her hands as she floated.

Chuck was still there when she emerged from the water and quickly dressed. Her undergarments made huge wet patches on her shirt and the seat of her shorts. Her pale hair had gone dark and dripped rivulets down her back. She walked up to the fence and hung her fingers through the chain links, opposite where he stood. Then she looked at him to understand what he had seen. He held her gaze with a wry smile pulling at one side of his mouth. “Charlotte,” he said, shaking his head slowly from side to side.

“Jealous, scaredy cat?,” she asked, holding her poker face, her blue eyes boring into him.

Chuck was drawn to her defiance as often as he was embarrassed by it. He backed away from her outrageous statements, punctuating them with a stab of exhaled laughter, as if they knocked the breath out of him. Sometimes they did. He hadn’t been allowed to say things like this growing up. He was the eldest son in a Marine family, saying “yes, sir” to a father who tolerated no insurrection. Charlotte’s boldness was unfamiliar territory, a part of himself unexplored except in fantasy. He imagined a slew of insouciant rejoinders to his father’s belittling barks, but in reality he had always remained silent. Charlotte said all his secret lines out loud for him and through this she gained power over him. He both admired and hated her for it.

Chuck invited Charlotte to his rugby practice at the stadium. It would be a date. She wove amongst the spectator-less bleachers. Rows and rows climbing up like cake layers. All empty. Waiting for her. She had carried her pencils and charcoals in her bag. Maybe she could make a sketch while she was here. The light was bright but the players on the field created such sharp shapes. She could capture them in the air, shoulders twisted away from the torso, hurtling towards the grass. She leaned on the bar, bending over row fifty-one and looking down onto the empty bleachers. She squinted to blur the shapes into some kind of pattern that she could capture.

Chuck wore a striped rugby shirt with the number 18 printed on the back and blue shorts.

“Rugby players don’t wear padding, Charlotte. That’s the difference. If you get hurt, you get hurt.”

He had just returned from a trip to England, where his team had made it to the semi-finals, losing to the Aussies in the final three minutes. She had thought of him.

“How long will you be?”

“We have a scrimmage. You’ll like it.”

“I’ll do a handstand for you on the bleachers.”

He laughed, embarrassed at her boldness, her lack of fear.

“Watch for it during your game.” She looked at him without blinking, to call out his dismissal.

He caved under her gaze and looked down with an indulgent chuckle, as if humouring a child’s flight of fancy.  “Ok, ok.”  This subtle belittling was his only recourse against her indomitable will.

Chuck and his peers were small now on the field below, so far down. The sharp exhales and grunts, quick shouts made their way to her to interject the silence, but they were the background from this height, not the main event. It was hot. But the breeze came through at just the right moment to chill the sweat on her arms, between her thighs.

Charlotte pressed her hip bones against the railing on row fifty-one and felt the hard metal click against her bones. She tilted over so that the weight shifted to her lower belly and felt the sun-warmed metal roll into her flesh. She placed her hands beside her hips and began to rock against the bar, looking down to see where it left white paint flecks on her skirt.

On campus, she balanced everywhere: the landing outside her dorm room, the railings in the breezeway that led to her morning art class, the bars of the modernist steel sculpture in the front lawn of the Arts Department. She liked the feeling of weightlessness in her body, the sense of flying—surrounded by air. She liked the tenuous link to earth, the way her body explored it, testing out its weight on something other than her feet.

She lifted her hands away, the weight of the bar hitting just where she imagined her ovaries lived. Her legs stretched back. And she was flying.

“Chuck!” she called out from row fifty-one of the bleachers, hoping he would look up from the field and see her.

And then she fell.

“She took a few steps with a walker today.” The doctor now spoke only to his clipboard when giving updates. The rage in Chuck’s eyes had taken up permanent residence and the doctor thought it best to avoid them entirely. Chuck never spoke to him, never asked questions or replied to the news of Charlotte’s progress. The doctor now treated the daily updates as reporting for duty, as if mustering before a drill sergeant, even though he outranked this young man in both age and status. He reported out progress, changes, prognosis as if barking out surname, rank, report.

Chuck came every day to the hospital. He skipped classes. He was benched during the rugby games for missing practice. Charlotte had woken up after three weeks. He had been there. She began to speak after a month.


“I’m here.”

Her speech was altered. It wobbled and halted. The pitch went haywire and the sound came out in sharp, high-pitched barks and animal-like grunts. She was fragile. He carried her from the bed into her wheelchair. She leaned her head against his chest. She spoke less, not liking the sound of her voice. He loved her like this, perhaps for the first time. He felt a clarity in himself, of who he was. It was a sense of his own solidity in the world. He had not felt this before. Not when he aced his exams. Not in the cockpit of the helicopter in Vietnam. Not on the rugby field. Not in his own home, the string of military bases he had traversed across the country.

Chuck brought her drawing paper, charcoals and coloured chalks. Her hands shook and moved unsteadily. She drew the patients in the hospital corridors. She drew the nurses in their starched uniforms. She drew the hospital bodies in various forms of vulnerability. A leg exposed and scrawny, angled like a broken wing on a gurney stranded in the centre of the hallway. A woman’s face straining toward the treatment room window. A doctor, all angles, with a clipboard shielding his heart. The drawings were made of sharp gashes in black and red, her anger etched as clearly as if she had made them using her own blood.

Upon arriving, Chuck would gingerly flip through the day’s sketches. He knew immediately that the rage in them was directed toward him, exposing the fraudulence of his devotion, which everyone interpreted as sacrificial. The upstanding Marine giving up his bright future to care for this difficult girl, now wheelchair bound. But Charlotte knew the story was different. And so did he. She watched for his reaction as he looked at the drawings, to make sure he knew that she knew.

The hospital drawings were framed now and stood witness over the chaos of the living room floor. Charlotte no longer saw them but the anger in her had remained. Perhaps increased. She retained her defiance in small symbolic gestures: a refusal to wear make-up, an insistence on washing her hair with baking soda, a long intentional bathroom cohabitation with a Wolf spider she had named Virginia. She drew sometimes during her long days alone.

She never apologized for the weight she rested on Chuck. She knew somewhere that he had wanted her like this. The fact of it went unsaid, communicated only in his glance—the dark precious secret binding them. He had wanted to carry her from the very beginning. She saw that now. The heaviness of her dependence on him was the only source of dominion that remained for her. She leaned into it and watched to see if he too could break.

At eight o’clock, the kitchen door jerked and Chuck walked in hefting two paper bags of groceries.

“Watch your feet!” Charlotte called from the living room.

Chuck set down the bags on the counter and bent to pick up the strewn garbage covering the kitchen floor. She watched from her seat as he cleaned. He knelt, expressionless, the protective rage in his eyes long subdued into something more like resignation.  From the cool linoleum floor he lifted torn bits of plastic, wiped scattered coffee grounds and filmy egg shells to clear a path through to her.

Lara C. Caldwell researches, edits and develops content on culture. After co-authoring four non-fiction books, she is finally working up the courage to send out her fiction and poetry. Her short story, Nothing is Required, was published in The BWW Bangalore Anthology (Atta Galatta Publishers, 2022) and later featured in The Bangalore Literary Festival 2022. Lara lives with her husband and two rescue dogs in Bangalore, India.

© 2023, Lara C. Caldwell

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