Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Twenty-Eight

VICTORIA

I'm not sure what makes me open my eyes, but I am suddenly wide awake. I can't figure out what is different. I lay very still, listening and watching and waiting for something to happen.

I slowly begin to realize that nothing is wrong. I'm not feeling anything. No pain, nausea, hallucinations. My skin is not burning or prickling or itching. The purple bugs have vanished. I can move without cramping or muscle spasms attacking and seizing up my body.

White surrounds me; bright, pristine, pure. I feel weightless as a feather as if I'm levitating. I notice there is a lavender fuzzy halo around the light fixtures as if I've been swimming underwater too long with my eyes open. The whole room seems to have an angelic sheen. I have the surreal sensation of wondering if I'm dead. But, I can hear the drip of the IV, the machines beeping, my own heart beating. I can actually feel my pulse throbbing through my wrists, circulating and flowing in my veins.

Sunlight flits through the blinds, patterns shifting and dancing over my face and arms. I lift my hand, watching the beam glow through my fingertips, lighting me up from within as if I am made of magic or have gained superpowers. Even the hairs on my head are sensitive and tender. My entire system feels changed, reworked, and rewired somehow. As if I've found a way to go back through all the years and start over, and am now renewed and reborn. I feel ironically heroic and victorious, even though tubes still tie me to the bed, and my breath is not my own yet.

I hear the birds chirping and singing outside, their sound pretty and sweet and joyful. I read once they call out to each other at the break of dawn, to let the others know they survived the night, and are still here. It's the first time I understand their instinct. I have the strongest urge to stand on the rooftop, and call out to anyone who will listen that I'm still alive, and have made it through the darkest night of the soul I have ever known.

I've been wrestling against the devil, and I won.

I feel like me again. The me who sang and believed and hoped. The me I was before I ever took my first drink, before the vodka swallowed me, before my father got his grip into me. Before I believed him. Before I was ever hit. Before I learned to be afraid. Before I was an abused little girl and hid under porches and beds. Before I gave up and decided life wasn't worth living. Before I forgot who I could be, was supposed to be, was born to be.

Before.

Richard is in the chair next to my bed, staring at the television, the sound muted so he doesn't wake me. He's watching Jeopardy. It's always been his favorite show. I can almost hear him thinking of all the answers, and he's usually right. He's brilliant. So much smarter than me.

He looks worn out. He doesn't know I'm awake yet, and I take a minute to stare at him, absorbing every feature of his face. We're alone, and I like the quiet between us. It feels intimate somehow and reminds me of our early days together when he would study and I would write songs, and it was just us, in our own private world.

We haven't had much time to ourselves over the last few weeks. There's always been someone else here, in the way, around us, between us, interrupting. His hair is longer, grey at the temples, lines creasing his face from exhaustion and stress. He seems older, aging in minutes and hours rather than years, and much wearier than he should. Deteriorating under the weight of despair. Because of me.

My heart weighs heavy inside my chest. I dreamt he was gone, that he'd had enough, and given up on me for good. But he's still here. He's stayed with me and has never left. I feel so tender towards him, soft, weepy, desperately in love. I have to get to him. He's the only thing that matters at this moment. There is so much I want to tell him. I need him to listen, to hear me out, to know how sorry I am, and give me one more chance before he decides to walk away.

I want real air. Real life. Real anything. I want my husband back. I pull out the oxygen tubes and take my first full breath on my own. It feels euphoric in my lungs, crisp, clean, clear. I push myself up, trying to reach out for him, but the machines alarm, startling him.

He instantly sits up and is at my side, his expression anxious. I hate that I've made him look at me like that, that fear is what I see in his eyes more than desire or passion or love. Can things ever go back to the way they were with us? "Victoria? What is it? What's wrong?"

I open my mouth to tell him I miss him, I love him, I want him to come back to me. But the alarms are beeping too loudly, and he looks too worried, and Nurse Sarah is running in, and pressing me back onto the bed, again getting between us, pulling me away. I look past her shoulder at Richard, my eyes panicky, hoping he doesn't leave. He looks confused, but can't ask me yet, and to my relief, stays close.

"Well, I guess you've decided it's time to get up," she chides, but I don't feel scolded. I must look better because she seems relieved.

She turns off the beeping machines, and the room falls back into the quiet. She has a clipboard in her hand. She's my favorite face here. Kind and always gentle as she's cared and cleaned me up and carried me through the long, screaming, sweaty days and nights of detox. "You're alright. Just a false alarm." She fusses around me, checks my vitals. I flinch a little when the cool metal of the stethoscope presses against my chest. They never seem to warm it up enough. I wonder if my heart sounds as loud to her as it does to me. It seems as if it's pounding clear through my hospital gown into her hands. "How are you feeling?"

"Really good," I answer, and I can hear my own amazement. "Like every cell in my body is singing."

"That's great news," she says, smiling. She wears the prettiest earrings, I notice. She seems to have a million of them. Today they are pink butterflies that sparkle and flutter whenever she moves. For some reason I can't stop staring at them, fascinated at how the wings shimmer and change colors depending on how the light hits. They seem appropriate somehow as if they are trying to tell me something or recognize me. Ever since I was a child, I've loved butterflies; how they are born from a colorless, ugly cocoon and transform into something beautiful and triumphant, just as I've longed to.

She drapes her stethoscope around her neck. "Everything is going to feel very sensitive and raw. You might experience highs and lows and be extremely overwhelmed for no reason. You also might feel some adrenaline rushes and euphoria. It's completely normal." She gives me a tender look. Her eyes are the most compassionate I have ever seen, and I feel the urge to cry and make myself swallow the hot lump in my throat. I wonder if this is the rush of emotions she was talking about. "Congratulations. You're finally clean."

Clean. I'm clean and shiny and new. I thought I wouldn't like it, that I would be too frightened of what was waiting on the other side once the last drop of vodka was gone. But it is so much different than what I imagined. Is this humming under my skin what it feels like to have my blood purified from the inside out? Is this what it feels like to be a human being again? I haven't felt like one in years. I haven't known how, or even wanted to. Daddy was wrong about me. I'm not like him. I can be different. It's the first time in my life I believe it.

I manage to smile back. "Thank you," I say, knowing she doesn't understand that she's helped rescue me from so much more than just a bottle. She's restored my hope.

"It's a big deal. The withdrawals are one of the hardest parts. They can be brutal. A lot of people don't make it through them." She winks at me, the butterfly wings glittering as if cheering me on. "You must be strong." All business and efficiency, she pulls a pen out of her scrubs pocket. "Now that you're stable, a spot has opened up tomorrow morning at the rehabilitation center. We need your signed consent for the transfer."

"Tomorrow?" My stomach drops, my smile fading. Both Richard and I go still. "That soon?" I wonder if it's quick so I don't have a chance to change my mind and escape.

"Yes. The spots fill up fast, unfortunately." She clicks the pen, getting it ready as if she knows I'm out of options. "Do you consent to go?"

I'm strangely reassured that addiction is such a common problem. It makes me feel less alone. I look at Richard. No one is between us now. We stare at each other, and I see our lives flash before my eyes, wincing as the years of darkness and blackouts and locked doors spin past my vision, and then bring me harshly back to this moment of sitting in a hospital bed after an overdose. He says nothing, knowing I am the only one who can choose to get sober. He doesn't move, doesn't blink, but I can actually hear him silently pleading, praying, begging me to say yes. Lexy and Becca aren't here, but I know if they were, they would have the same expressions on their faces.

I think of my father, and all the pain I've caused because of him. I know I have to do it. I am not letting him win, and drag me back into hell. I can't put my family through this anymore.

"I consent," I finally say, my voice unsteady, a little breathy. The two words seem to echo around me off the white, clean walls. I wonder how many people have spoken them in this exact room. I doubt I'm the first or the last. I don't know why it helps. I watch Richard's shoulders gradually relax, loosen, lower as he lets out his breath. His relief is so palpable, I smell the tang and sweat of it.

Nurse Sarah nods, holds out the clipboard and the pen. My hand is trembling, the letters spiking, clumsy swirls, and looking nothing like my real name, as I sign on the dotted line. "The doctor will come in and talk to you about the process of what's next."

"Okay." I'm shivering, as I hand the pen back to her.

Nurse Sarah smiles at me, and I feel a rush of warmth towards her. She's helped save my life. "Good job, Victoria. This part wasn't easy, but you did it. It's now time for a new start." That's literally the name of the treatment center, I realize, and wonder if she gets paid to promote it. She removes my oxygen tubes, turns off the air supply. "You don't need these anymore." She gently touches my shoulder before turning to leave. I watch the butterfly wings flit and twirl between the strands of her blonde hair as she wheels the cart out.

Strange how I feel a bit naked without all the crutches I've relied on to stay alive. I can't seem to stop trembling. My teeth are chattering.

Richard looks concerned and sits closer to me. "Are you cold?" He tucks the covers around me.

I shake my head. My hands clench the white blankets, needing a shield, some protection from the reality of what is to come. "Just realizing it's really happening."

"I'm proud of you."

Surprised, I look at him. I can't remember the last time he said those words to me. Of course, there isn't much to be proud of over the last few years. "You are?"

"It's a brave thing to do, Victoria. Not everyone can admit they need help."

I nervously bite my lip. I don't feel brave or strong, and I'm not a butterfly. "What if I can't do it?"

"Let's just get you in there. They will help us figure it out."

Us. He said us. As if he will be there, as if he wants to be, to stay. A possibility, long dead, flickers and stirs. "One day at a time?" I ask softly.

"Exactly." He shrugs helplessly, and I understand he doesn't know what to do any more than I do. "Please try."

Feeling overwhelmed, I look away. His eyes are hurting me. They are too blue, beautiful, and heartbreaking. I've let him down so many times. I am very aware of how alone we are, how far apart we've become. Is there still a way to meet each other halfway? "Where's Lexy?"

"I let her sleep in. Becca went to her hotel to shower and change and said she will bring her back here later. Lexy was up pretty late on the phone last night."

"Really?" I ask, curious. "With who?"

"Someone named Nick, I think."

My brow creases as I try to recall the name. "Isn't he the one who works out on the ranch? I've heard Becca talking about him."

"Yeah."

The distraction helps, and my grip loosens on the blankets. I wonder how we are having such a normal conversation as if we are normal people, normal parents, a normal husband and wife. There's no way we could be. I've hurt him too much. "It's good she has a friend she can talk to."

"He sounds like he might be more than that. When I was up going to the bathroom, I heard a little of their conversation from the hallway. It seemed a bit intense."

I meet his gaze and he gives me a knowing look. Oh. Interesting. I guess life does keep going on, whether I'm ready for it to or not. "He must be important to her if she was up all night with him. We used to do that." I sneak it in carefully, trying to read him, gauging, checking to see if there's an opening, a glimmer of a chance left for me, a way back inside where he is.

"Yes, we did," he answers quietly, sadly, and I wonder if he still remembers the late nights, the passion, the feverish exhilaration of blissfully unraveling in kisses and skin and hair and sheets. We'd go days on nothing more than two hours of sleep just so we could be together. We couldn't get enough of each other.

The awareness of how things used to be is thick between us. I can feel the heat radiating through his clothes. But he is still too quiet, too far away. I misread his guilt for indifference and resentment towards me, and don't know what to do.

I look down at his hand. It's so close to mine, our fingers could brush, but he won't touch me. His wedding ring glints in the morning light. He's never taken it off. He's had every reason to over the years. I stare at the silver band. He hadn't wanted a gold one. Too traditional for us, he'd said. I want to laugh. Nothing about us has ever been traditional. Our initials are engraved on it. Back then we believed in permanence. In sickness and in health. Til death do us part. All of it, and we were so convinced our love was strong enough to survive anything. I don't think this was ever what he signed up for. I fiercely hope we can find our way back.

I spread out the fingers of my left hand, and notice one of my fingernails is broken, the tip ridged and rough and uneven, clean down to the skin, a little sensitive and sore. I don't remember breaking it, and wonder if it happened in the thrashing of detox. It's a strange, unnatural sensation. Nothing ever feels right until it grows back. Richard and I are like that. Not fully able to function without each other, lacking, grasping, failing to get a grip, and hold on. Without him I'm just torn and jagged, waiting to be whole again. I look down at where my ring should be. My finger is too naked without the familiar weight and rub. I don't like it. "Do you know where my ring is?"

"I have it."

I touch my neck that is still bare. "My locket, too?"

He nods. "They took them off when you...um..." he falters, grief flashing in his eyes, and he clears his throat, takes a deep breath. "When you were brought in," he finishes, his voice gritty. I notice his neck is flushed, and remember that always happens to him when he is upset or stressed.

When I almost died. That's what he was going to say, and I involuntarily gasp and feeI my body jerk at the shocking reality of how close I came. I would be gone right now, and he would be planning my funeral. The guilt is unbearable and tastes poisonous and bitter on my tongue. I want to break down and sob. He's very still, and I know he's thinking about it, too. This conversation is what has been waiting for us in between everyone else. We haven't talked about it yet. We haven't dared. I desperately want to fix it, to try and explain, to tell him I'm sorry. I open my mouth to say something, anything, but I don't know how, and it's too big and would shatter us completely, and my words fade out on a helpless, shuddering breath. The space between us is tense, stilted, and stalled as if the air itself has been told not to move. I lose my nerve and awkwardly change the subject.

"Do you think they will let me wear them in rehab?"

"We can find out."

"If they don't, will you save them for me?" I hope he understands what I'm really asking him and that my question has to do with much more than a ring and a necklace. I want to know if he will wait for me if he will still be there when and if we come out on the other side. I'm terrified of the finality, that I'm down to my last few moments and days with him. What if he really does leave? I'm relieved to see that at least his eyes look a little less dark.

"I will," he answers, and I think of our wedding vows. Do you take this woman? I will. We were so young, so certain, so hopelessly in love. A lifetime ago. I do. Two small little words that don't even begin to explain the gravity and complexity of what a marriage, a life together brings. There was so much we were unprepared for.

He's being so polite, so careful, so distant. Tiptoeing around me. As if I'm a dangerous land mine or a grenade about to explode. My heart sinks. This is what I've done to us, driven us apart, pushed him too far. Is this how it's going to be with us from now on? Painful small talk, sidestepping and skirting around each other, avoiding direct eye contact? Cardboard cutouts, barely existing with each other? As if we never loved each other at all? Everything I long to say hovers hangs in the air above us. I don't know how to reach it, or where to start. What if he can't forgive me? Or won't?

I look down at his ring again, and tentatively reach out and touch the R and V that are engraved in scrolled, cursive letters. Everything in me aches. I feel him staring at the top of my head, trying to figure out what I'm doing, what I'm thinking, where I'm going to take us next. I remember the look well. As if I'm made of fire, or am a siren singing him to his death. I'm a dangerous, forbidden mystery he's always been fascinated by.

I'm so lost in my thoughts and pain, I don't notice when he moves his hand, turning it over to where our fingers link, fitting perfectly, a missing puzzle piece. He wraps his tight around mine and our palms touch. He used to say the creases of my lifelines led to his, and wonder if he still thinks they do. Startled, my breath catches as I look up to see his face, unsure of what I will find. He's staring back at me, and I see the same questions, uncertainty, guilt, loneliness, and need.

Tears fill my eyes, my body flushing all over, the heat rising clear up into my scalp. I feel embarrassed, too exposed, vulnerable. I feel like an alcoholic. "I miss you," I whisper hoarsely, and shake my head at how useless the words are. "I know I have no right to, and I understand if you don't love me anymore, but I -"

I don't finish the rest of my sentence because he's kissing me, his mouth hard, hot, desperate. He hasn't touched me in years, and for a second, I'm stunned still at the surge of sensations. He's not careful now, and his hands are firm, and a bit reckless, gripping at the back of my neck, pulling me close, holding me in place so I can't move. His fingers tangle into my hair, the roots pulling, tingling, and I don't care that it hurts. I crave it, am starving for him, as we make up for lost time and broken promises, trying to reverse and repair the damage we left each other with. His mouth is greedy, his tongue hungrily parting my lips, and diving into me as he breaks through all the years and barriers and doors I had slammed in his face, determined to get back inside, refusing to be shut out ever again.

I'm flung back twenty-five years to our first kiss in the parking lot behind the diner. The traffic had roared and rushed from the strip, car horns blared, music and voices echoed in the distance. Steam radiated off the grate, drifting hazily around us, the greasy scent of fries and burgers had mixed with our breath. And he had found me in a way no one else ever had. I knew then I never wanted to live without him.

I still don't, I can't, I've never been able to, and grab onto him, blindly touching anywhere I can find, holding on for dear life. He tastes the same, feels the same, is exactly the same. He's still in there, under all years of drunkenness and devastation and disappointment. He still wants me, loves me. I haven't lost him. This is what I wanted. This is the part of his heart I needed to know still belongs to me.

He kisses me as if searching for reconciliation as if trying to offer it to us both. As if he's remembering me, rediscovering me, reminding himself of the curve of my mouth, the taste and feel of my tongue, how it fits, melts, mixes with his. I thought we wouldn't know how to do this anymore or would have forgotten each other after all this time, that it would be awkward or uncomfortable or clumsy or too different. But it all comes rushing back so easily, so effortlessly, and I let him take me away into our past, our memories, our history, our habits, the intimate parts of each other only we know, reminiscing over how we were. As if he's recovering me, and it's still possible, and worth it to find me.

After a few moments, he breaks the kiss, leans his head weakly against mine. Our faces are close, our breaths ragged and warm as they mingle, moist on our skin. His eyes are intense and beautifully blue just like I remember. They are all I can see. I used to drown in them, and it was the best form of suffering I've ever known. He's crying, I realize, jolting. I didn't know he was, and gently touch his damp face, as my heart breaks. Why didn't I understand he needed this as much as me? Why didn't I see the guilt he was carrying? All I could feel was the crushing weight of my own, and the shame over what I was doing to us.

"Don't leave me again," he says, his eyes burning intensely into mine, his words thick, each syllable pronounced, fierce and fiery and forceful, making me listen and understand and go breathless. It's a thrilling relief.

"I won't." I'm sobbing, apologizing, begging his forgiveness, hoping there's still a chance at redemption. "I'm so sorry."

"Shhh. I know." He's kissing my face, my eyes, my tears. He whispers how sorry he is, how much he loves me, over and over, the words healing me, a balm on my bleeding soul. I don't want to let go of him, and he climbs into the hospital bed with me, being careful of the IV and tubes and tangled blankets. Still crying, we cling to each other.

"I kept dreaming you were gone," I muffle tearfully into his shoulder. "I was so afraid I had lost you."

"I'm not leaving," he soothes, his lips not leaving my skin, as if needing the constant contact. I think we both do. "I'm here."

I burrow into him, I can't get close enough, and he holds me tight. We lay together, arms, limbs, legs, hands wrapped, intertwined around one another. Two bodies melded into one. It's been so long. My head is on his chest, and I imagine I'm eighteen again, in the back of his beat-up black corvette, two young dreamers in love, steaming up windows, listening to the radio, our hearts pounding just for each other.

"Do you remember our first date?" I ask, after a long while, when the quiet has lulled us, and our tears have dried. He's holding me as if I am fragile and precious and important, and I desperately need him to.

"Yeah," he answers, and I hear him laugh softly. "We couldn't get a table at that Italian restaurant."

"You took me to the Santa Monica Pier and we ate three dollar tacos and watched the sun set." That night seems like a hundred years ago, but the feelings are still so close and raw as if we were on the pier yesterday.

"Best first date I ever had."

My body is warm, content, against his. "Me too. That was the night I knew I loved you."

"I knew way before then," he says.

"You did?" I ask, drifting in the afterglow of our conversation, a lovers haze glossing over us, lazy and hushed and intimate.

"Yeah. I knew the second you walked towards me in the diner."

"You just liked my Southern accent and my waitress uniform," I tease, remembering how I used to leave the two top buttons undone just for him.

"Yes, I did," he says huskily, and I actually blush. I feel gloriously young and beautiful again.

I smile into the crook of his throat where my lips always fit just right. I breathe him in. He even smells the same. Shampoo, Ivory soap, and the polo cologne that is his favorite. He's worn it ever since I've known him. He's so familiar, exactly where and how I left him. I feel safe for the first time in years. Tilting my head, I study his jawline, the faint stubble on his skin, the dark fan of his lashes. I would know each feature with my eyes closed. I have him memorized. "When I'm out of rehab, can we go get another taco?"

I feel his smile. I somehow always could. I watch as it erases and softens the lines of grief I had put on his face. "It's a date," he answers, as his fingertips trace lightly over the back of my neck, just under my hair, and I know he remembers it is my weak spot.

I ease back into him, into the groove and niche of his body, as if molded there, intricately carved into the shape of me. The doctor will be in soon and will inform us of what our next steps will be. But, for right now, I'm not an alcoholic who is going into rehab in the morning.

For a few more minutes, it's just us, and we get to be two normal people who fell in love over twenty years ago at a hamburger joint in West Hollywood.
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