Not Margaret

“I sat looking at her face and wishing she were there, watching some stranger look at me with pity through my lover’s eyes.”

Illustration of a woman
Edvard Munch, Young Woman from the Latin Quarter, 1897, The Art Institute of Chicago, edited

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She was sitting up when I got into her room in the hospital and she turned to look at me, surprised to see someone, and I walked up to her bed and it wasn’t her. It took a minute for me to realize it. She looked like herself, her face and her body in the bed, except for her expression when she saw me. It wasn’t the way she always looked at me. She looked at me and she smiled, politely. That was the first moment of something impossible.

I had stepped right up to her bed and gripped her hands in mine before I stopped to wonder at that odd smile. My voice came out thin and wavering, startled when I expected to be glad. “Margaret?”

She looked at me, serious and sad at once, and said, “What? No. No.” After a pause, she added, “Where am I? What happened? Who are you?”

Amnesia, I thought, it had to be. She couldn’t remember anything, couldn’t remember a thing, couldn’t remember me. That happens when people hit their heads. I’ve read about it, and seen a movie about a character who forgot his life and had to get it back. Sometimes they end up remembering, as they heal. I thought, I hoped, that Margaret had just left her mind for the time being and she was lurking in the crevices of her wounded brain, waiting to come back and recognize me. It didn’t occur to me that something else might have happened in her head, that somebody else might be there.

I gripped her hands tighter and I said, “It’s me, sweetheart. You don’t recognize me? You don’t remember? You had a bad accident but you’re okay. You’re going to be fine.” I think I went on for a minute or two longer trying to be reassuring, listening to the tremor in my own voice and the rasp of her breath against the stifling air.

She shook her head when my words trickled to a stop, and she winced with the movement. She said, “I’m sorry.” Her face was so calm when she looked at me, and that’s when I started thinking that something was so different that I didn’t recognize what was happening at all. I kept my fingers wrapped around hers. Margaret wasn’t calm. She snapped and sniped at every little thing. She complained about the people at work or my messiness, and her words were sharp. They made me laugh until she laughed too, reluctantly, but we always ended up either bickering or laughing. She was never calm or still like this.

She didn’t apologize, not even when she’d done something wrong. When she ate my leftover Chinese food or forgot to pay the electricity bill, the most I ever got out of her was a shrug. She didn’t say sorry and she didn’t expect me to. This version of Margaret was apologizing even though she was the one hit and pummeled and sleeping in a hospital bed alone for too long a time. There were lines pressed into her forehead — she looked worried about me.

My mind was racing, weaving over and under this thing that had happened until it was all wrapped up in confusion and fear. I kissed her on the forehead, like a child, before I turned away. I left the hospital that night just like I had the first night after the crash, with the collision still shattering my thoughts and anxiety in little sparkling shards that dug into me all night. The train ride back was painfully long and slow, like the train ride there had been. Then, though, I’d been so eager to see my Margaret, to see her eyes open. On the way home I kept seeing her face in my mind, in its innocent unknowing. I’d expected a gasp of relief and the electricity of excitement.

The next day, luckily, was Saturday. I woke up and went straight to the hospital, so hurried I forgot to brush my teeth and cursed my sour breath the whole way over. Margaret was sitting up, smiling at the nurse who was taking away breakfast. She turned her head, cringing a little, to smile at me just as she had done the day before. It was so strange that I stopped there, in the pastel doorway, and looked at this lover I didn’t know at all.

When I walked up to her, she seemed pleased to see me again. Her whole face was happy, her eyes bright. I’d never seen her look quite like that. I said, “Margaret,” in a kind of curious croak. She shook her head again, gentle this time, and her smile turned rueful. I said,

“Who then?”

She sighed, and there I saw a trace of my Margaret. That rhythm of breath was familiar to me. The inhale stretched the delicate lines of her throat and closed her eyes. The exhale seemed to take all the air from her body, and she had to gulp in more. When she sighed I felt my own chest burn as though my air were gone too. The cadence of her sigh was the same, and that linked my old Margaret to this new and strange one. Then she spoke and I noticed, for the first time, that her voice had changed. There was a new lilt to it. She said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t know you, though, and I don’t know this place. The last thing I remember is going somewhere, to the market I think, with my brothers. I don’t understand what’s happening, and why my hands are so pale and my voice so high. I sound like a stranger to my ears.”

She sounded like a stranger to me too. Margaret didn’t have a brother, and this was not her voice, these were not her words. This woman pulled on her words in a way that my Margaret never did. She talked like somebody I’d never met. She was quiet, and careful with her speech, and she was terribly frightened. I sat by her bed, holding my hand over hers, and didn’t know what to say.

An hour later I said goodbye, and her face fell. There were familiar lines between her eyebrows, ones I recognized, snaking their way into her skin with worry. I clasped her hand, pressed too hard on her fingers, and I left. There was too much confusion gathered in my mind, a great spiky jumble of uncertainty that pricked and pulled at me the whole way home, and for most of the night too. The question that came to me, after a long while of tossing and turning and trying to get away from the anxiety that clung, seemed so obvious I was surprised at myself that it hadn’t occurred to me sooner. There was somebody else in Margaret. Presumably something like the crash had happened to this strange person from far away, with her voice that rose and fell like that. If she was here, in Margaret’s broken body, then where was Margaret?

The next night my anxiety wore all the way through me. My words bit at her with an edge I didn’t mean to put in them. “I don’t even know who you are, and I want my Margaret back. Why are you here? Who are you? God,” I said, standing and pacing, “I don’t even know if she’s still alive or anything. God.”

The fear came back to not-Margaret, her eyes wide and staring at me, but there was pity in them too. I think that’s what broke my heart a bit. That pity cracked me open. It’s the strangest thing that has ever happened to me, sitting at the bedside of the person I loved and missing her with a deep unending ache. I sat looking at her face and wishing she were there, watching some stranger look at me with pity through my lover’s eyes. Everything felt heavy then, and I thought my Margaret might just be gone. I put my head down on the squeaky mattress, closing my eyes against the glare and the linoleum. After a bit, not-Margaret traced timid fingers through my hair.

I stayed like that, feeling the warmth of her hand on my skull, until visiting hours were over.

Those quiet visits must have lasted for more than a week. I came and held not-Margaret’s hand and we looked at each other, lost in ourselves. Sometimes I played a song for her if it was stuck in my head, or brought her the paper or maybe a book. A couple of days I sat by her bed and flipped through the book I was reading or a newspaper, nudging her every once in a while to read something out loud. She would tell me which phrases struck her, and her voice would halt on some syllables as though words were unfamiliar. For that first week or so, we spoke in words that weren’t our own, and the words belonging to us stayed pushed down and silent. Then we had a true conversation.

She said, “Tell me a story about Margaret.” Her own name from her mouth, in her strange voice, hung like ice in my chest.

I drew in a breath and said, “Okay, let’s see. So Margaret’s best friend is named Jenny. She actually was a friend of mine in college, we almost dated for about two seconds, but we didn’t and then when I got together with Margaret I introduced them, and of course Margaret stole her completely.” Talking about her while looking at her face as if she were not there felt like something that happened in the dreams that slip into early mornings, half-dozing before you wake and realize that it makes no sense at all.

“We sometimes had Jenny over in the mornings on weekends, for breakfast. Margaret used to have breakfast with her mom, you know, after her dad died. I guess you don’t know, actually. Anyway, her dad died when she was 12 and her mom’s the distant type. They made French toast on Sundays though and they had kind of a ritual about it. So Jenny sometimes comes over and the three of us make French toast. I think Sundays are one of the few times Margaret is really content, peaceful, you know? She sort of lives in a state of perpetual stress but when Jenny is there it’s easier. She said, sometimes, that she was making her favorite meal with her favorite people.”

My throat hurt, talking about Margaret. I missed her, and missed seeing the way she shook when she laughed, as though she was trying to hold the mirth in and it burst out of her anyway. Jenny made Margaret laugh more than anybody else. I swallowed past the ache and kept talking.

“She and Jenny would play pranks on me, or make very complicated jokes that I didn’t get, or something. This one time they both, I guess, decided beforehand, and when Jenny came over they spoke French for the entire time. So they spent literally three hours, making breakfast and talking in French over my head and cracking up because they were being ridiculous and making up words and probably making fun of me while I understood about every tenth word they were saying.”

Not-Margaret laughed, and her laugh was not Margaret’s. It was lovely, though, one of those trills of sound that makes a person want to smile. It made me ache, deep and dull in my chest, for the unfamiliar beauty coming out of the person I loved.

I couldn’t pull out any more words, but not-Margaret saved me. She told me a little bit about her brothers, both older. She said, “They make me laugh the most, though they only let themselves joke about half the time with me. They could never make up their minds whether they wanted to tower over me and be scary or whether they wanted to be a big wall in front, making sure nobody else could get through to hurt me.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “I have a little sister and I switch between being annoyed and being protective, that’s just part of being siblings.”

Her mouth twisted then, half-amused and half-wistful. “Either way, they were always around me. I always felt small beside them, threatened or safe, I was always small. Even now my brothers — ” She stopped talking, her breath whisked away.

She set her jaw and blinked hard, like a child trying not to cry. “They’re still protective and scary. We were going to the market, I think, walking along and they’re still trying to keep me out of the road. There weren’t any cars the way we were going, I was dancing all around and they’re torn between laughing at me and yelling at me, trying to get me to walk in a straight line out of the way.”

We looked at each other then, and the silence stretched between us. Her eyes were steady on mine, and finally she spoke. “I guess it’s a good thing I’m here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she said, “I mean, not that I’m in someone else, somewhere strange. You know that’s not what I mean. But if I had to be changed like this, however long it goes on, I guess it could be worse, right?”

“I guess,” I said. “Anyway. I should probably get going sometime soon.”

She shook her head, mouth tightening. “No, don’t. It’s early yet. Stay and talk to me a little while longer. Please.”

I stayed, her hand warm in mine and her voice lilting and laughing at me, until visiting hours ended and the nurse came around to kick me out.

Every once in a while, I forgot that she had been Margaret. The person looking at me from her eyes wasn’t Margaret. It got easier to think of them as her eyes, not Margaret’s eyes. They were the same color, they didn’t change, but they stopped looking like Margaret. They didn’t have Margaret’s glint of mischief, they just looked at me plainly. After a time, I looked at her without really seeing Margaret at all. I just saw her, for all that her eyes were a familiar shade of hazel and her face was written in lines I’d memorized over and over, shadows whose shapes were pressed in my mind in all their shifting patterns.

We got comfortable around each other. I stopped talking about Margaret, comparing them. It felt like we talked for ages. I visited every night, mostly until I had to leave, and it was a lot of nights. There was some complication with blood clots or something, and then they worried about something else. A bundle of health problems appeared. They all spread over Margaret like ink on a wet page from that one car crash that had blotted out her mind, staining her with somebody else’s bright colors. She stayed in that hospital bed another week, then another. It felt like a long time.

Once I walked into the hospital room to find Jenny sitting beside Margaret’s bed. They were talking quietly, and Jenny started when she saw me. She let go of Margaret’s hand and stumbled over her words for a minute, and then got out, “Good to see you, Margaret. I hope you feel better. I’ll just leave you two alone then.” She put her hand on my shoulder and left it there for a moment before she left. I wondered if I was imagining the hesitation that trembled on her fingers before she retreated and fled the hospital.

I sat by not-Margaret and asked her what they had talked about. She answered me, “Not so much, really. She asked me many times how I was feeling, how things were going, that sort. She talked a bit about her husband, her job, other friends I think. I told her many times that I was all right but still shaken, and that you’ve been wonderful and have visited me near every day.

“She looked a little confused at that, would Margaret not have said it?”

I shook my head. “I doubt it matters anyway in a situation like this, you can’t predict how people would act. Right? But you don’t think she could tell?”

Not-Margaret’s lips curled. I could see the laugh she was holding in her throat. “To tell the truth, I think she mostly talked so much she barely heard me. You were right, she is funny. And I tried to act tired, nothing else. Also, a nurse came by and said that they only needed to keep me here one, maybe two more nights.”

I sucked in my breath and sat quiet for a minute. Neither of us knew what would happen if — when — Margaret was released from the hospital. Not-Margaret had never been to our cramped apartment. She’d never sat swinging her legs from atop the tiny kitchen counter, or lain in our bed buried under the pillows and blankets overflowing to the floor. I think we were both afraid of what would happen then. There wasn’t anyplace else to go.

“Okay,” I said finally, letting my breath rush out in a gust. “I guess then we’ll go home.”

We looked at each other, wondering what that meant.

On Friday afternoon I took not-Margaret home, back to the apartment I’d shared with Margaret. I held her hand as we got on the train and she leaned against me. We jounced and jostled in the hard plastic seats and the curve of her forehead bumped closer into the crook of my neck with each toss of the train. It should have been familiar, but it sent tension arching in my bones and curling my fingers. When the train slowed at the first stop, I shifted a bit to put my arm around her. She started to withdraw as I moved, but settled back against me. The slap of footsteps and murmur of voices registered blurrily, at the edges of my mind. For that twenty-minute train ride, for every jerk and rattle that shivered us together and apart again, it seemed that my whole being was concentrated in my arm braced around her and her warmth nestled against the indent of my shoulder.

When the name of our stop crackled from the speakers, I stirred, and nodded at not-Margaret. She nodded back, her face pale and her lips pinched. I should have told her which stop we were.

Everything looked different now that she was here. The kitchen was small and dim, the sofa was nubby, and our bedroom was a hasty mess of sheets and laundry. The sun was sneaking away and left dingy light scattered across the floor. Not-Margaret wandered the apartment. She sat on the nubby sofa, and opened the drawers and cabinets. I cooked. She sat on the bed, cross-legged and patient. I waved her into the kitchen when the pasta was done, and we were quiet while we ate. Our eyes met over mouthfuls of spaghetti. It was somehow comfortable. We finished and talked for a while. She told me stories about her brothers and her friends. I laughed, and the bright loud sound surprised me.

Soon it was late, and the windows were black screens with bright pinpricks. I found old pajamas of Margaret’s. We brushed our teeth next to one another, our eyes darting in the mirror. We spat into the sink at the same time and both laughed a little. She got into the bed without hesitation. I slid under the blanket and arranged myself with care, trying not to bump into her. She shifted closer, laying an arm around my waist and fitting her head in the curve of my neck again. I debated, and then pressed a kiss into her hair and felt her smile against my chest. I lay awake listening to her breathing slow and steady, feeling the warm comfort of Margaret’s body against mine and the strange thrill of not-Margaret curling her fingers over my ribs. The tension held me stiff for a long time, and then it drained away and I relaxed into sleep.

It was late when I woke up, and Margaret was smiling in her sleep, her head on my shoulder. I eased her away and sat up, nudging her a bit. She blinked awake and I froze. Something was different, some new hardness in her eyes or a cautiousness to her waking expression. I panicked, thinking she had awoken in a strange place with me, a near-stranger, and was suddenly afraid. Her eyes lingered on mine and then she smiled. It was different, and I watched her for a moment, unsure. She said my name, and her voice didn’t lilt. I opened my mouth, but had no words. She drew in a deep shaking breath, and then she closed her eyes for a moment. She opened them and looked at me with a steady, new, familiar gaze.

I found my voice, and spoke over the ringing in my ears and the desperate gasp suppressed in my lungs. “Margaret?”

She nodded.

I held her for a long time and we both cried a little. Finally I moved, backed away from her enough to crane my neck down, and asked her if she wanted me to make breakfast. She nodded against my shoulder, so I tugged her into the kitchen. While I whisked and poured, she sat on the counter and watched me. It took me longer than usual because my hands were shaking. My arms jerked, I couldn’t hold them steady, and I spilled across the countertop. Margaret let out a tremulous laugh that startled me, and when my eyes jumped to hers she smiled.

We sat next to each other at the table, eating French toast from the same plate. Margaret nudged over to me, her arm against mine. The surprise and rush of emotion was still swelling in my chest, and it bewildered me. We distracted one another from breakfast. I kept kissing her lips, sticky with syrup. I couldn’t believe I had her back. I couldn’t believe she’d been gone at all.

Later, when we’d nearly fallen asleep piled against the arm of the couch, I knew we had to talk about it. I said, “Margaret, you were gone. I mean, you know what I mean, there was somebody else here and you weren’t here. Do you know where you were?”

She shrugged, looking down. She said that she had woken up in a crowded hospital with a bandage around her head and a broken arm. There were two strange men there she didn’t know who told her they were her brothers and tried very hard not to cry. They all said she had amnesia and she didn’t know how to tell them otherwise. She went home with her brothers and stayed in their house with their mother, who fussed over her and made her soup. She spent weeks curled in the tiny bedroom she shared with the stranger’s mother, trying not to show her bewilderment and her anger.

Margaret paused for a long time, and I pulled her over to me. Her body was tight, tension threaded through her. When I put my arms around her, she leaned her head against my neck very slowly but she was still frozen.

The family worried over her and her new sharpness, she told me, the knife-edges they thought the accident had thrust into her. Margaret wasn’t very clear what had happened, but she didn’t want to know the wounds inflicted on the body that was not her own.

I set myself to washing dishes. In the kitchen, the morning sunlight peeked in with golden curiosity. Everything looked the same as it always had. I cleaned up our breakfast and put the dishes away. It looked like nothing had ever changed.

The day passed quietly. We talked in low voices. When it grew late, she drew in a sigh and let it fall out of her, and then she told me that she wanted to sleep. We went into the bedroom and I pulled the covers over her, slid in behind her, and put a hand on her waist. She moved to me and held onto me, so I wrapped myself around her. Her breath wavered in and out, and I listened and wondered if she was sleeping.

The next morning, she woke up before me. I could smell the coffee waiting in the kitchen. She was sipping, reading the paper, as if we could be back to normal already. It’s possible that she was just getting back to normal, easing into our life again like an old sweater that still held her shape. I was the one startling at its touch on my skin, right when I had begun to learn to shrug out of it. I sat down anyway and picked up my section of the paper, drinking my lukewarm coffee.

Margaret got up then, unfolding her legs gingerly and stretching upward. Her voice startled me. “I might call Jenny in a bit.”

“Oh,” I said, nodding. “That’s a good idea. I bet she’d love to hear from you now that you’re back home.”

“Yes,” said Margaret, “Exactly.”

I heated myself some food and brought her a plate, then returned to the kitchen. The food was still too cold, but it didn’t matter. I ate without thinking, typing one-handed as I tried to catch up on work. Margaret didn’t eat at all. I heard her voice, peaks and valleys of muffled sound, from the living room. Once in a while the crack of Jenny’s laughter rang through the phone.

The day faded more quickly than it had promised in the bright harsh morning. Days went by like that, more than a week, and we moved around one another as though careful not to break.

“What was she like?” she said, once, into the silence. I only shrugged. I was in bed with a book and Margaret with her laptop, and I fell asleep while she was still working or reading. When I woke up, too early, she was drawn tight into a knot, her arm clenched over her body and her face turned away. I watched her for a while, wondering if she dreamed she was still trapped in a sleeping body that belonged to somebody else. I was startled when she woke and turned to me.

Margaret was half-lit in the dawn sun, with a familiar caress of shadow clinging to her face. She looked up at me and she said, “This feels weird. It’s all the same but so much has happened. Do you know what I mean? We’re not ourselves anymore.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said, too hasty, “who else would we be?”

She looked at me, a long solid gaze. “Somebody else,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say, so I let the silence grow stale between us.

Margaret curled up and turned away. My head ached. I sat on the edge of the bed, resting my hands on the crumple of sheets, and looked at Margaret as if she was a stranger huddled on my bed. I don’t remember lying down, just the surprising feeling of being awake unexpectedly from a sleep I hadn’t noticed taking me over.

The morning was warm and the sun coming in from the window was insistent as always.

Margaret must have already eaten, because the scent of maple syrup was hanging in the kitchen. I made cereal and ate while I read the paper, as usual. Margaret was busy with something in the bedroom. There were erratic shufflings and thuds, and I was afraid to investigate. When I had gotten to the Arts section she came into the kitchen. “Come in the living room, I want to talk to you.”

As I stood up my stomach dropped. In the living room we sat on the couch. Margaret handed me a piece of paper. I looked at her. “We haven’t talked that much about what happened,” she said, “and mostly I just don’t want to. It was too strange and too wrong. You got to know this other person, and I got to know her life. Now that I’m back, you know, it’s just not the same. It’s just not. I’m going to leave — ”

I tried to say something, though I don’t know what. Her words hit me and sound came out, an undignified shocked squawk. So simple a sentence meant so great a change.

Margaret’s mouth wavered. She might have tried to smile. “I know. But what else is there? I guess — no, listen, it’ll be okay. Really it will. We’ll both be who we are now, or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting this. I’ll be back later, somehow, for the rest of my stuff. Listen. I know some things about the other person, whose body, the one you met.” Her hand fell toward the paper I was holding before she pulled it back. “It’s her name, the address, anything else I remembered that I thought might be useful. Don’t open it until I leave, okay?”

I looked down at the folded slip of paper in my hand and Margaret bent to kiss my cheek as she went by. The door shut behind her, the same click as always, leaving me alone inside. I sat for a long time in my living room with the sunlight pooling at my feet, holding hope in my hand.

Featured image: Edvard Munch, Young Woman from the Latin Quarter, 1897, The Art Institute of Chicago, edited

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