I was alone in the house and on my cell phone, talking to my friend Leigh about a Web site she’s thinking of launching. Leigh speaks very fast, especially when she’s fired up about something, which she was. It can be hard to grip all the loose bits of her conversation. Like trying to cuddle an armful of ping pong balls, it takes some concentration.
So I listened with some intent, leaning forward on the top railing of the small second-floor balcony, as if Leigh were right there with me, perhaps perched on the branch of the scrub pine just beyond the railing. The little balcony is like a bird’s nest, a private spot away from the rest of the house, and as Leigh spoke I absent-mindedly rocked to and fro, swinging my bare leg through the balusters.
Then, just like that, I couldn’t. My knee, which had moved more or less freely through the railing, was improbably caught: Most of my leg was still with me, inside the railing, but the business part of the knee was lodged outside of the balcony, through the balusters. When I peered over at it, my knee appeared as a smooth, flesh-colored tennis ball that might have gotten wedged in a courtside chain-link fence by a really superb forehand.
At that moment, two things went through my mind—actually, three, if you count that one of them was to quickly hang up on poor, confused Leigh. Another was that this situation was unbelievably ridiculous: Was I seriously stuck here, like, for real? If I twisted my leg just right, I thought, it would suddenly free, like a lock that springs open with the turn of its key, or a wooden tavern puzzle solved by fingering the secret notches.
But no: It seemed the more I squirmed, and the more I worked it, the less play my leg had between the wooden rails. I could see the sensitive skin on the inside of my thigh already starting to burn and redden. I swore I detected some swelling.
And that was the third thing: panic. The longer I stood there wriggling, the more alarmed I felt. My insides grew a little cold with dread, and at the same time I started to sweat.
I’m not really much of a worrier—except about things that are irrational and unlikely. And, in fact, the more irrational and unlikely the scenario, the more likely that I will worry about it.
I don’t worry about paying the bills or losing my job or being on time for a meeting. I don’t worry about lung cancer or menopause, the price of a gallon of gas, spiders, open water, heights, crowds, the dark, internet security, the clunk under my car hood, choking on a mint, or what that glass of wine will do to me.
But here’s the thing: I might not worry about my son riding without a bike helmet, but I do worry that he might be kidnapped when he’s out alone on the streets. I might ride around in my car without a seatbelt, but on an airplane I’m preoccupied with not surviving an emergency landing. When I was a kid I would sometimes voice my fears to my mother—not those, exactly, but others: our house catching on fire, our dog being stolen in the middle of the night. My mother’s response was always the same: She’d look at me squarely, release the smoke from her Tareyton, and say, “Now think about that for a minute: What are the chances of that happening?”
And with that phrase she’d unwittingly confirm that while whatever I was worried about might not happen, it would nevertheless be truly disastrous if—or when—it did.
One summer, when I was six years old, I was struck by a speeding police cruiser as I skipped across our street to join my friends. Actually, “struck” is too strong a word—I was more sideswiped by it as it swerved dramatically to avoid me, and its tailspin knocked me back a few feet onto the pavement, where I landed on my tailbone. The cruiser held two cops who were making a show of scaring a rowdy, dangerous teenager who lived a few doors down, and their presence on our quiet street—a street home more to working class families than to bad boys who, it was rumored, tossed kittens into fans —was both unexpected and out of context.
I dusted myself off that day without a scratch. But the way the mothers of the neighborhood flocked to our yard and, later, surrounded my mother and rubbed her back as she sat on the front steps of our house and wept, told me that the outcome of some accidents, some emergencies, can indeed be unthinkable. Decades later, when my own toddler son contracted a rare virus and was brain-dead within hours, I knew that this was true: The emergencies that seem the most unlikely and preposterous are often the ones that hurt the most. They are the ones you can’t ever get over. Bones can mend and wounds eventually heal. But, in my experience, the outcome to the phrase “What are the chances of that happening…?” is almost always impossible to recover from.
So right then, trapped on the balcony like a raccoon in a leghold trap, I have a sense of foreboding: What if I never free my knee?
The thought, I know, is completely irrational. Actually, it’s ridiculously so, and it borders on the kind of crazy that might make someone point a forefinger to their temple and wind small circles in the air. And so I cajole myself out of it. Stuck there on open deck, 15 feet up in the air, I indulge in a sort of freak-out fantasy: I calculate the time of my last meal, how long I can go without water, whether the August sun will blister my lips and render me unable to cry out for help.
In my daydream, I wonder whether anyone will be there to toss a raincoat over me in the event of some weather, how old I’ll need to grow before my bony knee slips out of its hold like a ball joint that has lost all sinew. For a moment, I contemplate the notion of “What are the chances of that happening…?” The very idea that there you are one day, talking to a friend on the phone. And the next thing you know, your lot has changed forever, and you’re praying for a miracle.
I’m standing there with an idiotic smile at the thought, which is enough to lighten my predicament. Which is good, because just then a miracle happens. Below me, from someplace that sounds far away, I hear a door slam, and voices. I hear my daughter, roaming downstairs from room to room, calling out for me: “Mom!” She is with her friend, Emily.
“Here!” I yell with some urgency, as if I’m signaling the Coast Guard from a deserted beachhead. “I’m right here!”
“Mom?” Caroline says again, attempting to follow my voice. “Mom! Where?”
“Here! Upstairs!” I yell back. And so it goes on like this for a minute or two. Caroline calls out, I chirp back, like she’s misplaced the telephone handset and is zeroing in on its location under the couch.
Finally the two emerge in the bedroom behind me, and then they are on the deck beside me, regarding me with some intent, like they might a curiosity at the carnival. They are smirking slightly, and I glimpse myself through their eyes. But I give them credit, because they don’t laugh. Instead, we talk over our options—Emily mentions lubricants—but in the end we settle for naked force. Emily will pull, it’s decided, and Caroline will lean over the railing, her hands positioned to push against my knee.
That Emily is tall and sinewy, and she’s pretty strong for an 11-year-old. When she wraps her long arms around my waist and pulls with all her might, I am, guided by Caroline’s final push, finally free. My knee slides through the wood and we all lunge backward along with it. I inspect the damage: On both sides I have an angry, oozing scrape. And, inside my thigh, I’m already growing a purple, doughy bruise the size of a pancake.
Later, I call Leigh back, and apologize for cutting her short. I sum up what happened, and I wait until she’s finished laughing. Then finally she shrugs, “Well, what goes in must come out, I guess!”
“Right,” I say. “Exactly. No big deal.”