Fifteen Months Ago: Adam
“Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave the store.”
I hold up my hand, telling the weedy guy in the starched white shirt and bow tie to wait until I finish talking. I’ve been stuck in this line for-fucking-ever with the two little shits behind me ramming their cart into the backs of my legs. One of them just dinged my ankle and I’m trying to explain to them, and their mother, why that’s not appropriate grocery store behavior.
“Yeah, I heard you. Hold on.”
He swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing over the tight collar of his shirt, but he doesn’t back down.
“You’re going to have to leave, Sir. You’re upsetting the other customers.”
I roll my eyes. “I’m just talking here.”
“You’re raising your voice, Sir.” He motions toward the people around me and clears his throat. “Please go now, before I have to call security.”
I snort at that, because this is a little Mom and Pop operation and there’s no way they have security beyond maybe a ham-fisted cousin who lives a couple miles away. There’s really no reason for this idiot to be wearing a tie to work here, come to think of it. His little tag may say he’s the manager, but how strict a dress code can a store with four aisles really have?
“You don’t need security,” I say. But then his throat bobs again and he takes a step away from me and I realize that shit, maybe he does.
It’s happening again.
I suck in a deep breath, fumbling through my unreliable memory for the steps I’ve gone through with my doctors a hundred times.
Check for signs.
My body is tense, my hands clenched into fists, and my heart is racing. I take another breath, trying to slow everything down, because there’s no way a simple conversation with a mom and two kids should have me feeling this way.
Then I look at the kids, really look at them, and my stomach twists with shame. They both have tears running down their faces and they’re hiding behind their mom, who’s gripping the cart handle so hard her knuckles are white, her arms braced like she’s considering using it as a weapon. Against me.
Damn. I thought I was past this, but it’s the second time this week I’ve lost it on a stranger for no good reason at all. The scariest part? I don’t even realize it’s happening. In my fucked-up brain I was having a perfectly civil conversation about why clocking random dudes in the ankle with a shopping cart is a bad idea, but that’s obviously not how the rest of the people here saw it.
I glance around. Everyone in the place is staring at me and an old lady with curlers in her hair shakes her head.
I need to go.
“I’m really sorry,” I whisper to the mom. I touch my head, like maybe that will help her understand what’s happening here, but it’s not like she can see anything. My visible wounds are all healed up. Even my hair has grown back in, long enough now to cover the Frankenstein scars from when they cut my skull open to relieve the pressure on my brain. All this poor woman can see is an angry asshole wearing athletic shorts and a sweaty t-shirt.
I turn away from her and stumble past the people in line ahead of me, my eyes fixed on the door. Piper’s coming over to my place to cook dinner tonight, and I’m in charge of the food, but I’ll tell her I forgot and order a pizza. I guess I could haul my ass to another store, but I’m not allowed to drive and there’s nothing close, so fuck the try again step today.
I accidentally push the door open too hard and it slams into the wall, which gets me a chorus of gasps from my audience. Guess I won’t be shopping here again. Not unless I want to get arrested.
Jogging in ninety-degree weather is not what I need right now, but I’m so desperate to get back to my apartment that I don’t care. I thought I had a handle on this shit, I really did, but apparently not.
I still don’t remember everything about the crash. It’s been eight months, and the doctors say it might come back and it might not. That’s the thing about traumatic brain injuries: basically, nobody knows shit about what will happen. A neurologist meeting with me and my parents told us the doctors have a saying. “If you’ve seen one TBI, you’ve seen one TBI.” He laughed after he said it, like he was telling us a joke.
My mom cried.
I called him a fucking moron and threatened to punch him for upsetting my mother. My dad had to drag me out of the office, and the look on his face messed my stomach up so bad I ended up running outside and puking in the bushes. My father was scared. Terrified, actually.
Like his own flesh and blood had turned into some kind of monster, and he had no idea what to do about it. That was a rough day, but at least I scared myself enough to admit I was out of control and ask for help.
They tell me it’s not my fault, that impulsive anger is a result of my injury. I cracked my head hard enough to break my helmet and was in a coma for weeks. I was in really good shape when I crashed—being a professional snowboarder will do that for you, even if you love beer—and I kicked ass in rehab because I’m used to working hard and pushing myself.
They think all of that helped me. Every doctor I’ve seen has told me I’m a walking, talking miracle. They tell me my recovery is amazing and that I should be grateful, and I am. Of course I am. I’d have to be a bigger fucking moron than that prick of a neurologist not to know how lucky I am to be alive and (mostly) functioning okay.
Lots of people have it worse than me. My balance is good, and I can walk like a champ. I can even ride a bike without wobbling around so much that I look like I’m auditioning for clown college. The killer headaches are fading, and my sleep is getting better. If you saw me on the street, you’d think I was a normal guy.
Until you ding my ankle with a grocery cart and I hulk out on you like a psycho.
It’s not only the anger either. I lose things: Memories of conversations that happened a few hours ago, whether or not I’ve sliced the vegetables before I throw them in the pot, words I use every single day. I say stupid shit to people because I can’t read faces and tell when someone’s getting pissed off. My filters are full of holes, so I do things like knock on someone’s car window and tell him exactly why his parking job sucks and that he’s a shit human for taking up two spaces in a crowded lot.
Not good, especially since I’m banned from engaging in any behavior that might result in another head injury. Pretty sure getting knocked out in a parking lot would be on that list.
My hands are shaking when I finally make it back to the apartment. I fumble with the lock, then head straight to the kitchen and chug some water. It’s hot as fuck out there today, but that’s not going to last long. It’s October in Colorado and they’ve already had snow in the high country. People are digging out their boards and other gear, planning trips, and getting ready for the season. I want to join them so bad I can taste it, but I can’t.
I can’t ever get on a snowboard again, and it’s killing me. Snowboarding has been my life since I was a kid. I went pro when I was in high school and won an Olympic gold medal in Sochi a few years later. I crashed out trying to perfect a triple cork—the trick that nobody in the world has managed to land in a half-pipe competition. Yet. Guys have done it off the huge jumps in slopestyle and big air but nailing the triple in the pipe would probably have secured me another gold in the next Olympics and would definitely have added to the pile of X Games medals and other awards that are now gathering dust in my condo in Breckenridge.
I can’t ever snowboard again, and winter is coming.
This is why I’m scaring kids in grocery stores.
I collapse on the sofa and suck in deep breaths, staring down at the tattoo on my forearm. It says NEVER in swirly black letters an inch high. It’s new, and it’s there to remind me, because I don’t trust myself to remember. They say I absolutely can’t get on a board again. That one more fall, even a little one, could fuck up my brain so bad that I won’t come back from it. But then again, they also admit that every TBI is different, and none of my doctors have ever seen me on a board. They have no idea what I can do. So what the fuck do they know?
I promised my parents I’d stay off the mountain. I swore to my best friend, Ben, that I wouldn’t strap on a board until I got an all clear from the docs, and last week I put my hand on my heart and told Piper my ass would be staying out of the high country this winter. All those people love me, and I trust them, even if I think the doctors are full of shit.
But it doesn’t even matter. Because I don’t trust myself, and I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to stop myself from breaking every one of those promises at the first sight of the white stuff. That’s how much I love snowboarding, and it scares the ever-loving shit out of me.
Which is why I need to get out of here.
I got released from the hospital where I was doing rehab a few weeks ago, and the plan was for me to stay in an apartment nearby and keep seeing the same therapists and doctors, but there’s no way that’s going to happen. It’s time for me to go.
Ben answers on the first ring, which is pretty impressive considering he’s on the other side of the world.
“Adam! What’s up?”
He sounds relaxed and happy, which is good. Training must be going well. I’m not going to ask about it though, which makes me an ass, but Ben’s at a mountain in Australia that we used to visit together every year, and it cuts me up inside that he’s there and I’m not. He understands though. The guy gave up months of training to come babysit me in the hospital all summer, so he gets where I’m coming from. I know he’s not going to volunteer any information about how he spent his day unless I ask.
“I flipped out on some kids in the store today,” I say. “Second time this week. It’s happening again.”
“Shit. You okay?”
“Not really.” I twist around so I can lie back on the sofa. “I’m going. This week, if I can get a ticket.”
“Yeah. I found a clinic with a doctor who said she’ll take me. I can finish up my rehab stuff there, and I won’t be here when the season starts.”
It’s spring in Australia. If I keep traveling and play my cards right, I might never have to live through winter again.
I sigh. “No choice. I’m going backward and I know it’s because the snow is coming. I’m not ready.”
“I get it.”
Ben is one of the only people who can get it, because he loves riding as much as me. He doesn’t speak for a minute, but I hear computer keys tapping.
“I’ll meet you there on my way home. Help you settle in. Maybe we can hit that crocodile park place we used to watch on the Discovery channel in high school.”
“You don’t have to do that, man.”
He taps a few more keys. “Bought my ticket. I’ll see you in a week.”
“Thanks. For everything.” I hate to admit it, but it’s a huge relief he’ll be there. I used to travel all over the world on my own, and this trip shouldn’t be a big deal, but knowing someone will be around to check on me does make me feel more secure.
And that makes me fucking angry, because I hate being so weak that I can’t even get on a plane without worrying. My heart kicks up again and I look down to see my free hand clenched in a fist. Shit.
“I’ve gotta go,” I tell Ben.
“No worries. Talk soon.” He doesn’t linger or ask me what’s wrong, which I appreciate. I know he won’t be shitty about it later either.
I press my hands against my eyes and do the breathing exercises from the yoga class I went to when I was in the hospital, visualizing my lungs filling and emptying, making sure I feel the breath all the way down in my belly. It works, so after a few minutes I get up and start going through the list I made with my therapist. I called it my escape plan. I book a ticket for a couple days from now. It’s spendy to fly on such short notice, but at this point I don’t really care. I have a month-to-month lease on a furnished apartment, so a call to the property manager and a cleaning service settles that problem.
My life is pretty damn small, which is either convenient or pathetic, depending how you look at it. Either way, the list isn’t long. An hour later and there’s only one step left to check off.
Talk to Piper.
I stare at the paper for a long time. My stomach growls and my head starts to ache, but I don’t do anything about either of those problems.
Piper is Ben’s little sister. We dated for a year and a half, starting when she was eighteen and I was twenty-one, and she’s owned me ever since. But I was totally focused on snowboarding and I fucked everything up. We didn’t talk for years. Then she showed up at the hospital this summer, interning as a physical therapist, and the two of us started hanging out a little. She’d bring me cookies and stay to watch me eat them, shit like that.
We’ve kept in touch since I got out and her classes in Boulder started back up. I can’t drive, so she comes to see me. I honestly have no idea what we are to each other at this point. We don’t touch, but all the blood in my body goes straight to my dick when she sits next to me on the sofa and stretches those long, tanned legs out to rest them on the coffee table. I had to go out and buy a cushion to keep on my lap when we watch movies.
Sometimes she turns her head quickly when she’s driving and the long blonde waves of her hair fan out and tickle my arm, and I have to sit on my hands to keep from touching her. I can be having the shittiest day in the history of days, but hearing her laugh—or, even better, making her laugh—turns everything around.
I think about her all the time.
Truth is, I never got over her, but she deserves a hell of a lot more than a guy who yells at little kids and can’t remember the word pizza when he calls up to order dinner.
She deserves someone who isn’t broken.
Talk to Piper.
And say what?
I love you, but I have to leave because I’m so fucked up I can’t control myself?
I have no idea how long it will take to fix me, but please wait?
In the end I text her that I have a headache and need to take a rain check on dinner. She sends me back a smiley face and a promise to call me in the next couple days.
Two days later, I’m shoving my pack into the jammed overhead compartment on the plane when my phone buzzes. I see her name flash up as I sit and snap on my seatbelt. I don’t answer, partly because I’m a fucking coward and partly because I’m afraid hearing her voice will break me, and I’ll shove my way off the plane trying to get to her. Instead, I text her goodbye.
I turn off my phone.
And I leave.