When we hear the crash, we assume a lamp has fallen because earlier, a lamp did fall and made a similar sound. But then Michael pushes past the flimsy curtain that our cheap hotel installed to separate the sleeping spaces from the living room, his arm spurting blood in rivulets and shirt soaked in red, and we realize we are very, very wrong.
I don’t register the exact dimensions of the sliced glass, only that it’s large and looks heavy sitting in his arm like that. As Michael approaches, the piece travels further up his limb, parting flesh like butter. His face is grey, and he isn’t smiling. It was his smile that I approached instinctively when we met at the airport for this trip that I didn’t want to attend because I think these service programs are a scam, but my parents insisted it would boost my college applications, and I didn’t protest too hard because I was secretly afraid they were right. I’ve never seen Michael without his smile in all two weeks we have been together, even when packed tight in buses moving us from village to village, even when walking through sulfurous heat, even when explaining to strangers in splintered Mandarin that high schoolers will take their blood pressure and probably do nothing with the information because ultimately I’m right, this program was a waste of money, we didn’t really help anyone —
and right now, we aren’t helping Michael either, who removes the glass from the crook of his left arm himself and lays it gently onto the floor before pressing his right hand tight against the wound and stumbling towards the door. Later, we learn that there was a mosquito on the window, and Michael smashed the glass in his haste to kill it. When we retell this story to our friends, everyone always asks if the mosquito died, which is meant to be clever, but maybe they wouldn’t say that if they had seen the blood —
which, even with his hands over the gash, keeps stubbornly seeping out. There are three flights of stairs between us and the lobby, and Michael is going to take them. He is upright and walking, and everything is happening so quickly that only when he is halfway out of the door does someone shout at us to, Jesus, do something! And we all scramble to move. I can’t find my flip-flops which are quite ugly, and under the couch somewhere and oh, here they are — Michael is halfway down the first flight of stairs. I creep gingerly behind the crowd, the seven of us who had been gathered together in that one room trying to impress each other with how many people we have kissed and how many beers we have had in our lives. Now we are all silent as we follow the trail of pooling rust down to Michael, who is — Oh! — now collapsed at the bottom —
so, of course, we rush to slap his opaquely grey face. Wake up! In the lobby, the community service supervisor sees us, then sees Michael and then he is running towards us, sweat beading at his nose and yelling. I imagine he thinks there will be some great liability if something happens to Michael, by which I mean death because something has already happened to him — look. Since the slapping fails, we grab towels, napkins, anything to hold against his arm. The blood does not wait. Our synthetic offerings drink up his insides while we are on the landline, screaming in our poor Mandarin, no one saying much more than blood! But the man on the other end understands our American-brushed panic, and, Thank God —
a lifetime later, a taxi shows up. As we lift Michael into its backseat, his eyes flutter, and he coughs, If I die from a fucking mosquito, I’m going to kill myself. Our pitying laugh shorn of humor. Then, nothing else to do but close the door and trust it will reach the hospital in time. As the car turns the corner, we are a collective mass of fear — all together minus one.
Two months later, Michael will come to my house in California with his cast finally off, and we’ll crack open a bottle of stolen tequila and drink directly from its glass lip, and he will show me his scar, four inches long, and I will run my finger along the grooved edge and ask if he can feel anything and he will say no, and then I will take a picture and save it on my phone, so I can pull it up whenever I need proof for this story. I will hug him tightly when he leaves, and he will tell me to ease off, then he will hug me tighter. I will meet his brother, and he will go to my dance performances and embarrass me by whooping my name before my set even begins. Some weekends he will chauffeur me around town, and I will complain about his reckless driving. We’ll both get into universities without having to put the good-for-nothing trip on our resumes, and when we are at these schools, we’ll call each other and commiserate about boys and bicker. We’ll stay good friends —
and I’ll eventually forget the smell of iron. But I could never forget watching the taxi recede into the dusty evening, where, among my friends, I’m the only one dry-eyed. Standing there, I’m not thinking about the distance between the hospital and our ratty hotel with thin windows, nor about the blood they are discreetly mopping up behind us. Instead, I’m thinking of yesterday, seventeen hours before the crash —
When we were all still together and whole and sitting in a circle in the hotel room with the flimsy curtain pulled between the beds and couches. Outside, the sun is dripping instead of oozing, but still runny, half-raw in the summer sky. There is a watermelon on the table but no knife and no cutting mat, and so we just stare at it with lazy longing. But Michael won’t accept that fate, so he takes a quarter out of his pocket and starts carving a line into the rind all the way around, sawing through the green determinedly while I tell him, Don’t bother, it’s too hot, I’m sweating just watching. But he doesn’t listen, he just keeps going. After he encircles its equator, he raises his left hand and starts hitting the hips of the fruit with the side of his palm — thwack! It rings hollow, and no one is trying to stop him now, not because we really want the watermelon — no one has ever wanted watermelon that much — but because we’re mesmerized by the effort. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Michael’s furrowed forehead is turning glassy, and then — thwack! The watermelon relents. It groans open, and Michael holds out the jagged halves for us to marvel at while his grin widens and a pink bead of juice trickles down his arm, catching the light of the setting sun. Then, we all leap forward to share in this unearthed sweetness while Michael stands back and watches us do so.
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