They were not even in a rough part of the city. The shot was unattached to shooter, appeared only as the quick needle through her abdomen, clean, and not the wreckage of the hollow-point round or a point-blank shot. Then the sound—in his mind it seemed to arrive almost after the hit—and her body folding to the concrete against the pull of his arm. She had been leaning against him when she was shot, her head thrown back, laughing at what he’d said. What had he said? So light, except when she fell. The sudden heavy movement of her body counterclockwise—unwind this action—his clutching at her, transferring her blood to his shirt, like the art his daughter made by pressing paint between two sheets of paper, which she pulled gleefully, triumphantly apart.
He gets up to run, as simple as that. His instinct to help is obliterated by his instinct for self-preservation. He doesn’t turn, not even that, to register the dazzling confusion of her face, its stricken deportment, hung as she is on the hook of an almost painless surprise. He isn’t certain that she says anything, makes any noise whatsoever, though it is possible that his first steps away from her have rendered him deaf. The first steps are dream steps, sticky and slow. Then better. He gets up to run, as simple as that.
He wonders who to ask for help, but he can’t keep a thought. His brain is trying to process: too many stairs to count—hard to assemble the forms of so many people. The streets at a distance are full of them. Even though he thinks of a crowd as an uncaring thing, a crowd as a kind of absence (how many of his patients, after all, have met violence surrounded by people), he figures that if he screams and hollers, someone has to stop and help. And help.
Glancing down a side street, he sees a hundred red leaves flurry out from a tree in a single burst. Leaves like an arterial explosion.
No one will help a crazy person with a bloody imprint on his button-down. The city seems out of reach, slipping through. He runs hands over chest to make sure it’s true that the one hit is not him. The city is a slot machine of actions and reactions, you never know what it will do. He bellows to a veritable chasm that she’s been shot.
No, he doesn’t do that, he doesn’t say a thing. In the still center of the vortex he has the realization that he need never say the words at all.
He thinks of his patients in the emergency room: the man with the nail in his skull who asked if he could watch television, the teenaged girl who handed him a urine sample and apologized that it was full of blood, the terminal boy who wanted to know why his dead grandmother was there at the end of the bed.
He hasn’t understood until this minute the impact of what he’s done. He has gone against every moment of his medical training in leaving her there, he has transgressed. Couldn’t he, after all, turn around—
In the city are pockets of solitude, emptiness, and you can see in the cross streets the taxis gliding, a crowd beyond the buildings up ahead. He wants to reach them and make them hear him, understand his position. He would like to make a plea, but the noises drown him out. A city in sound, sirens and screams, buses’ pneumatic hiss.
What he supposes she must be feeling, if she is still alive. How abandoned. If she is still alive. There would be the shock of a bullet for no reason and by someone unseen, and then the shock that her lover, a doctor even, has just run away. Perhaps to get help. But, no, she would know better. She has been left beside someone’s corduroy sofa, a recycling bin, stacks of cardboard neatly tied with twine. There is even a bow, double knotted. She has been left beside shards of a broken bottle that have been ground down so much they sparkle.
As he stumbles along, he feels his heart clobbering his chest, how his heart wants to undo itself, escape his body. The only way for him to manage this situation, really get control of it, is to act as if calm. Walk slowly. Never mind how he looks, there’s nothing wrong.
He is among them now, the others. There are a few strangers who look at him and his guilty shirt, a few who divert their paths, and one trashcan that he nearly topples, but otherwise he moves among them like a ghost. They are going to work, or going home or to the dentist or to a tryst. He feels the rasp of drying blood against his skin. Her face looms so large in his mind as he half walks, half runs. Stumbles. Encapsulated in her rounded mouth and the curvature of the wound, the surprise of dying suddenly. A silent sustained Oh!
Her expression, its particular distance, is a familiar one to him. He has seen the look many times in his years in the ER. Once that look has settled in—the death look—it ticks off the minutes at an inexorable pace until the end is irrevocably there. No matter what anyone says about the few who come alive again. No matter what they say.
He would take it back, meeting her today. He had had doubts about their relationship for many months; it was petering out, he knew. And she had sensed it, which was why she was laughing so easily at his stupid joke when she was shot. Here is a phrase that people say: out of nowhere. She was shot out of nowhere and he had stopped loving her out of nowhere. Sometimes there isn’t a genesis that can be named. Sometimes things just happen. Happen.
He should have ended it months ago, as his wife and the woman’s husband were surely on the brink of discovering their tryst. His wife had begun to hunt his pockets, his top drawer, his phone. He would have ended the affair, if it weren’t for—what?
Inside the romantic triangle, the pinpoint of annihilation, its addicting scrutiny.
The act of leaving his dying lover is a force that grows in power the farther away from her he gets. It propels him through the crowd in which he wants to wash himself clean. He cannot slow his heart, shore his brain, stop himself from leaving her. The rift, now nine city blocks in diameter, is wide open and sutureless.
In exchange for the city drinking him down and letting him get away with his escape: his nightly search for sleep, trying to stab it down with a fist screwed into the pillow. The city commiserates, however, it understands the unsettled soul. It always forgives.
The start of evening will unfold this way for him, regardless of season, with the blood of the descending sun, and those indifferent hordes through the cross streets. He will always notice the detritus of leaving. The overstuffed trashcans, bundled cardboard, abandoned furniture. Kites of litter.
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