“I want to see the body,” said my 12-year-old son, Miles.
He and I were sitting in our minivan outside of the hospital. I texted my wife again: “We’re waiting in the parking lot. Will you come down? Your burrito is getting cold.”
We weren’t supposed to go inside. This was intended as a quick favor, bringing my wife dinner so she wouldn’t have to eat more institutional food.
“Miles, it’s not ‘the body,’” I said. “You only say ‘the body’ when a person is dead. Eric’s still Eric. He’s just had a terrible accident.”
I texted my wife again: “Honey? Please!”
“Then I want to see him,” Miles said. “Can’t we go inside? Just for a few minutes.”
“It’s private,” I said.
“Well, Mom is there.”
“Mom and Eric have a special relationship,” I said. “Eric is in an intensive care unit. They’re cramped spaces full of sensitive equipment. We don’t want the room to be too crowded.”
“I think it’s just Mom there, and Eric,” Miles said. “Maybe Shelley.”
Here’s where it gets interesting. Shelley is Eric’s wife. My wife (and Miles’s mother) is Eric’s girlfriend. We both have open marriages and respect each other’s privacy, but this accident propelled us into a new reality.
I stared at my phone, hoping for the gray bubbles of a pending response. One of my wife’s sweetest qualities is her focus, in real time, on the people she loves. I imagined her at Eric’s bedside, holding his hand, talking even though he was not responding. It had been only three days since a semi-truck cut off his motorcycle and sent him spinning, landing so forcefully that his helmet split.
Her phone was probably buzzing in her purse, even though she knew we were coming and that I didn’t want to come inside.
“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing the bag with the burrito from her favorite food cart and opening the car door.
“Excellent!” Miles said, as if we were going on a macabre amusement ride.
Even though I am not good at mathematics, I found myself ruminating on the cruel geometry of the accident: the driver of the long semi-truck swinging out at a wide angle that unexpectedly narrows, blinding him to Eric’s presence; the rear of the truck breaking the trajectory of the motorcycle’s path as it turned in its respective lane.
There were two impact points: the middle of the truck (his head) then the asphalt 30 feet away (the left side of his body). A hypotenuse of flight. Smashed ribs. Traumatic brain injury. A compound fracture of his left leg. A shattered left arm.
I didn’t want to see him broken.
“Which way to the acute care unit?” I asked the front desk attendant. We followed signs along a circuitous route as my stomach roiled with dread. Visiting at such a vulnerable time, his survival still uncertain, seemed wrong. Like it should be just family, which we weren’t exactly. I didn’t know what my relationship to Eric was.
Like other couples we know in open arrangements, my wife and I compartmentalize, keeping our dating relationships mostly off each other’s radar, a buffer against jealousy and insecurity. To most people, we look like a conventional family: two parents who met in college, three children each spaced two years apart, a pretty four-bedroom brick house.
Close friends and family know the deeper story, but otherwise we keep it to ourselves. I’m careful about how I move in the world because people judge, or they are uncomfortable, or they avoid. This situation — entering the hospital room of my wife’s lover — risked exposing our oddness in a way that unnerved me.
“Elevator six, over there,” Miles said. “Step it up, Dad. The burrito will get cold.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s already cold, buddy.”
My wife and I have what psychologists call a “mixed orientation marriage.” I am bisexual and always have been. When she and I fell in love, we both wanted to think we could work as a monogamous, conventional couple.
We married, bought a house, had children and made a go of it, but ultimately our relationship didn’t fit that particular script. After a lot of talk and therapy, and even a few moments of nearly splitting up, we arrived at this creative arrangement: “Will and Grace” with children, cats and a mortgage.
When we first settled into this platonic agreement, a shared life with permission to see other people romantically, Miles was 5. Unlike his two older siblings, he didn’t understand open marriage, despite our attempts to explain it in a way that (we hoped) would make sense without overwhelming him.
It didn’t matter. Miles has always known his parents living under the same roof, each other’s dearest mooring in the world. As the youngest, he has been the most comfortable with our unconventional arrangement because he never knew anything different. He doesn’t know the dissonance my wife and I have long struggled with, having married according to a traditional template before creating this new one.
“This is it, Dad,” Miles said. “Level 1 Trauma Center. Wow, man.”
I wasn’t clear if we were allowed to be here, not being family.
“We’re here to see Eric,” I said to a nurse. “I’m bringing his friend some dinner. Can we stop in briefly?”
“She’s the girlfriend?” the nurse said. Eric’s wife had confirmed with hospital staff that his girlfriend would alternate sitting vigil with her.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
My wife was sitting in a green chair beside a bed, her hair rumpled from a night of uncomfortable sleep, her face drawn with worry and hunger. She had been there all day. She missed her children and garden and home routines.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at the formless heap beside her. “Here’s your burrito,” I said.
When she rose, I gave her an everyday kiss before gathering her in a hug. She held on longer than usual, then started to cry quietly. “Thank you for coming,” she said.
“Why isn’t Eric awake?” Miles said. “I want to hear about the accident.”
She sighed. “He has to remain in a coma for a while. He wouldn’t be able to tolerate the pain of so many broken bones.”
After my wife had been seeing Eric for six months, I arranged to meet him for coffee. A marital courtesy: I didn’t think we would be friends, but it seemed right not to be strangers. Trim and athletic, gray-brown hair that was thinning on top, he was the same age as me. He had one child to my three. We were both in health care: me a psychotherapist, he an audiologist.
We talked about the challenges of running a practice. He offered to connect me to the woman who handled his billing. I knew we liked the same music and poetry because my wife accompanied him to concerts and readings that I wished I could attend too. Sometimes it seemed that she had simply found a more heterosexual version of me.
“And just so you know,” Eric said as we were parting. “I respect your marriage. I don’t want her seeing me to pose any threat.”
His words surprised and reassured me, even if that’s what he was supposed to say. He and his wife had been in an open marriage for longer than us. He knew the map of this strange terrain. I thought he was a mensch, and we were lucky she had found him.
Still avoiding looking at Eric’s bed, I stepped over to the window.
Miles’s voice had a new solemnity, as if this was something other than an interesting adventure story he wanted to hear. “Dad,” he said. “This should never have happened.”
“You’re right, buddy,” I said.
Sometimes a child’s innocence supplies the soundest etiquette in an uncertain situation. “Dad,” Miles said. “You need to look.”
So I turned my gaze to Eric, though I was ashamed to, as if looking at him while he was comatose was a violation of something tender. As if the compartments of our lives, our everyday, still applied in this sanitized room that didn’t belong to anyone. A chorus of machines surrounded his body, beeping and blinking yellow, green, blue.
Eric’s face was puffy and unrecognizable — purple, red, swollen, stubbled. Gauze bandages covered his head and neck. His left arm and leg were enshrouded in casts. It seemed as if every piece of him had been bandaged and stapled and pushed into place. If the bend of cruel geometry that landed Eric here, comatose and broken, came from not being seen, we now needed to give him our attention — generously, unflinchingly.
Months later, Eric would come through all of this — ambulatory and healed, if altered. But that evening, looking at him, I felt a fluttering in my gut, a stir of mortal awareness, as if holding him in our gaze was the only thing tethering him to the earth.