I sit in a neuro-psychology session in Spandau Hospital, with my slight, rusty-haired therapist, Lisa:
“Okay,” she says. “We’ll continue testing your brain’s capabilities. I’ve got a series of math questions to ask you.”
I blanch: my stomach spreading ice-cold tendrils up through my sternum at the thought of Dreaded Mathematics. “Ah,” I stammer. “I’m happy to do anything you ask, but just so you know, maths may be a slight issue. I’ve been terrible at it for something like ten years.”
“Terrible?” she says, cocking her head.
“Really, really, bad,” I explain.
A beat, and she nods her comprehension, setting out a series of wooden flash cards.
“Okay then, let’s begin. Seven times twelve.”
A half an hour later. I think, as expected, that I’ve failed the test and there’s a heavy silence between myself and Lisa.
“Sooo,” she begins. “Were you always this bad with math before the accident, or…?”
I’m caught in a small group of people in the Malthouse Theatre’s vast foyer, enjoying the free food on offer that signals that tonight was the opening night for Calpurnia Descending, a high-action romp fuelled in equal parts by insanity, sheer intelligence and razor sharp edges. My friend, Ash, now de-costumed post-performance, is chatting merrily away:
“Now,” he says; his voice belying the same level of faux-concern as the doctors in my life, tones thick and dripping with saccharine intention. “I want to ask. Were you always gay before the accident, or did the car crash make you gay? I’m very sorry if it was the car that made you gay; you’ve got enough going on without this extra disability. Very, very sorry. We can offer you a lobotomy if you want it fixed?”
Midday, two weeks ago, and I’m sitting in a small hospital office with Jane, my Australian neuro-psych.
“Maths questions!”, she announces cheerfully, retrieving those familiar flash cards from the depth of her desk. As in Spandau, my entire body seems to sink and shiver.
“I’m pretty atrocious at math,” I explain. “Always have been.
“How ‘bout we try anyway, hm?” she insists. “Now: what’s five times twenty-two?”
I haven’t the foggiest.
Once more, the silence between us is foggy and thick with my embarrassment. I feel like a mathematics-based lover who can’t perform when the pressure’s on. My results, I can tell already, are pitifully flaccid.
“Okay,” Jane speaks, pointed cheer and concern masking her voice. “Did you always have trouble with math, or… since the brain injury…?”
Walking through the labyrinthine halls of Caulfield Hospital, I’ll occasionally get a whiff of that generic, unpleasant hospital smell – the pointed stench of human shit mixed with erect, white pressed thick starched sheets and the unmistakably depressing smell of hospital food (which has, like airplane food, a strangely disinfected scent about it, as if the nurses had surreptitiously added a smear of White King to your egg salad sandwich.)
It is a week ago, and we are waiting for Jane to arrive and go through the test results that will essentially decide my fate for the immediate future. We have been waiting for ten minutes.
I consider asking Jane, when she finally arrives, whether she’s always ten minutes late to appointments or whether that’s the accident, but decide against it. She’s asked enough questions about whether I can successfully control my anger “since the accident” already, and I don’t fancy giving her more fodder to wield.
Apparently getting hit by a car makes you the hot topic de jour for a host of people. Countless messages, generic in their tone and emotion, have flooded through since it happened, from people I haven’t spoken to in years, the majority beginning with the most horrid and weirdly insistent greeting, where the tone is directly indicated by the amount of “aaa”s included: “Baaaaaaaaaabe!”. My feeling with these is if you didn’t feel it necessary to catch up with me pre-car crash, why should the accident change anything? I get it, but I’m as alive as I was before the crash and subsequent coma.
The car crash also introduced me to – besides a score of asphalt and the dangers of drunk 5am road crossing, that is – the concept of something I’ve dubbed “survivor banging.” To explain; I have never been more sexually attractive, apparently, than right now, right this second, as a person who almost died, completing menial exercises to return to the person I was beforehand, at least mechanically. Countless men – the majority of whom I’ve never spoken to or met in person – have cropped up, mostly through social media, to hassle me in ways previously unheard of.
“Hey bae,” one gay might pop up on Facebook messenger. “What happened to your eye??? :(“
“Got hit by a car,” I reply, bored already of telling the story and the inevitable route I can already tell this conversation will take. “The muscles behind my right eye are pulling my vision up and out, so I’ve been given a patch to help correct it.”
“Oh no!”, the reply comes quicker than lightening and with about as much subtlety. “That’s so horrible! I’m glad you’re okay, though. Burgers soon???”
“Yeah,” I think. “I’ve a gimpy eye and twelve hours of therapy a week, completing menial tasks like “using chopsticks” and “running on a treadmill.” Real sexy. Let’s defs burgers soon, I totes can’t wait.”
The other phenomenon, it would seem, is the two-pronged fact of my recovery. My doctors and therapists themselves are amazed at my recovery and that I didn’t end up a quadriplegic, which is both parts encouraging and terrifying whenever one of them stresses how close I was to never walking again. The other part rears its head whenever I see a friend I haven’t seen since before Germany: the attempts to explain the subtle differences in my abilities and how I try and deal with them (I didn’t, as Jane has yet to ask me, spill my tea before the accident, indeed, my balance was far better than it is now). In many ways, I’m reminded that I present as an elsewise normal person – albeit, a normal person with jagged scars through the back of his head – and the need to explain how close I came to sitting, drooling and blank-eyed in a wheel chair, is somehow necessary.
“This totally isn’t the same thing at all,” someone might start, “But when I was ten I didn’t wear my helmet bike riding, and I once hit my front yard gate and flipped over it and the handle bars, hitting my head on the pavement below. I mean, I was alright, obviously, but for a few months afterwards I used to get splitting headaches and couldn’t go biking again.”
“No,” I think. “It totally isn’t the same thing at all.”
I am sitting in an off-white office in Caulfield Hospital with my parents and physiotherapist, the sound of treadmills and feet far off a strange backdrop to our conversation.
“You need to give him some independence,” my physio, Christie, smiles. “I know it must be tough after all that’s happened, but he’s moving back to Sydney, isn’t he?”
Mum gives me a side-eye. “Yes,” she says.
“Exactly!” Christie adds. “And you can’t be there with him, so you’re going to have to let him do things on his own. God, a 26 year old boy! I’d be going insane locked up in all of this!”
I tense up, the muscles in my torso running stiff and hot from my pelvis, up through my back and chest and around my neck. It seems as if my whole body is running on high alert for news of my fate.
“O…kay,” Mum replies. “We’ll give it a try.”
“You’re a writer?” Jane asks, voice brimming with curiosity. “We can help you with that. If you wouldn’t mind, just send some of your writing to myself and Danielle,” (the occupational therapist) “and we can assess it for you.”
“Assess it? I think. Yes, I would mind, actually.
“You know,” she continues. “We can see if it’s any good.” Then: “Sometiiiiimes, the thing with people with brain injuries is they think things are good when they’re actually not. Don’t want you to make that mistake.”
With sudden terror, I resolve to get someone I trust to read the things I’ve written since the crash and tell me if they’re any good or not.
“It’s all good,” I try. “People have read them and it all just feels the same as before the accident.”
“Here’s my email,” she passes me a business card breezily. “Just send along whatever you’re comfortable with us reading.”
“He’s fine,” Mum says. “I’ve read everything he’s written, since, and it all makes total sense.”
“Oh,” Jane says. “Good to know.”
I wonder why it takes the authority of Therese to make her believe my writing is okay.
It’s October 31st. My parents are out and I’ve gone, with Jeremy, to the local BP. My jumper has a bone structure design knitted on it – the skeletal cross section of a human chest – and my eye-patch is, as always, strapped on, and I’m acutely aware that I must look like the most confused, apathetic Halloween-goer in the neighbourhood.
I approach the cash register and place my things in a small tower for the cashier to put through.
“Costume?”, she asks.
“No, car crash,” I reply, my brain already switching into a bored type of auto-pilot. “It stuffed my eye, so this patch helps fix it.”
Silence. The cashier, turning crimson in her silence, scans the rest of my items, then: “Sorry,” she says softly. “I was gonna say, you’re welcome to have some lollies if you are in costume.” Then: “I can just give you some anyway.
With that, she trots off to find the supply of Halloween candy.
We’re sitting in a quintessentially “Melbourne” hipster café, Jeremy and I, waiting for his friends Amit, Georgia and Emma to arrive, and I can feel that familiar dryness and lump at the back of my throat; my nervousness at meeting new people running at a pitiful high.
Half an hour later, his friends have arrived, laughing and joking and smiling. I do something, or say something, kind of stupid, dropping my serviette on the ground.
“Oh,” Amit says in an impressive mock of the tones I’ve now learned to hate. “Is that ‘cause you got hit by a car, or…?”
“Yeah, it is,” I reply. “I was carrying a serviette, actually, when it hit me, and now I just can’t look at them the same way. Too many memories, y’know?”
We laugh, and a certain ease begins to slide over me; calming me, I realise that this is what I’m missing: this good humour, this refusal to treat me differently whether for better or worse; people’s ability to make light of the situation and offer me a lobotomy or mock my classic Bryant clumsiness like they would any other friend. Unlike my ability to use chopsticks, it seems, my humour hasn’t been crushed under wheels and hard Berlin pavement. That humour, no matter how bleak, allows me, in a way, to be treated as I was before; as an actual human, not a new best friend or survivor worth banging, and, when attempting to outrun the veritable darkness that seems to have overcome so much of my life, that’s important – by God, it’s important.