After the Coma


December 15, 2013 by The Citron Review

by Nancy McCabe


Her first week back, Carrie comes over to watch a made-for-TV movie. In it, a woman wakes from a twenty-year coma and discovers that her best friend has slept with her husband.

We used to do this all the time, get together to watch movies with bad acting and cheesy scripts, but now things feel different, awkward. When Carrie snorts, I say, “It has been twenty years.”

“Friends just don’t do that,” she says.

I feel guilty about all of the stuff I haven’t told her. But she did dump Greg before her company sent her abroad for three months. It wasn’t like I really did anything wrong.

“Hey, on your way over, can you stop at the pet store and get a mouse?” Carrie asks me on the phone, like this is a normal request.

“A mouse?” I say.

“I’ve been too busy cooking to get anything to feed the snake,” Carrie says, then hangs up.

I’m dreading this dinner, making polite conversation with Greg, feeling guilty, not sure what I want now: for him to come back to me, or just to stop pretending that the last few months never happened? He meets me at the door, unlatching the screen to let me in, but all he says is, “Did you bring it?” I hand over the brown paper bag. He takes it, looking at me like he misses me. The baby mouse is absolutely still, deadweight. I’m not positive that it’s still alive.

Feet propped on the coffee table, Carrie doesn’t rise to greet me. Greg lifts the bag toward her like he’s proposing a toast.

“Could you just dump it in the aquarium?” Carrie regards me with a glitter in her eyes.

The snake is coiled in one corner of the aquarium, eyes wide but blank.

Faking calm like a kid on a dare, I jiggle the bag sideways until the mouse slides out and cowers where it lands. It’s smaller than I expected, and brown as dirt. It huddles there, scaly tail twitching. The snake doesn’t stir.

Carrie saunters off to the kitchen. Greg and I lean against the back of the couch, awkwardly side by side, waiting for activity in the aquarium. While she was away, Greg stayed in their apartment and took care of her pets. When she came back, he was going to move. Except she came back, and he hasn’t moved.

“I know we have to tell her,” Greg says now. “I know we have to figure things out.”

“I think she already knows,” I reply. What I don’t say is, I think we’ve already figured it out.

I remember how in the TV movie, the best friend gradually steals the life of the comatose friend, wearing her clothes, cooking her secret family recipes, raising her daughter and pretending the girl is hers. And I thought: no. That’s not what I want. I don’t want Carrie’s life, and if I’m honest with myself, I don’t really want Greg, either.

But when I think back to the movie, I’m still arguing with her in my head. Come on, I think. It was twenty years. How loyal is anyone required to be? My boyfriend died in a car wreck three years ago and for months, before Greg, it was like I was the one in a coma, cradled by thick darkness where no one could reach me. But Carrie and Greg kept inviting me over. Greg and I would yell at each other for hours, arguing about books and movies, debating the nature of good and evil, boring Carrie. Or we’d all go out to hear bands. I remember late at night, climbing the stairs from a basement bar and passing through a darkened restaurant as the band we’d left behind struck the first notes of “Stand by Me.” Greg and Carrie started singing along, then dancing, whirling past tables of upside down chairs. At those moments, I didn’t want anything to ever change again, I wanted my friends to stay exactly the same, happy like this. I’d go home through the empty streets, hang my smoky clothes on my balcony to air, remember the evening with a bittersweet pleasure, an ache of missing my boyfriend. I doubt that Carrie will ever believe that I didn’t covet hers.

It was Carrie I missed when I stopped by their apartment that first time to drop off some books for her care package. I wasn’t expecting any of this to happen. And now, I wonder if she senses my presence here. My fingerprints on her silver toaster, my bagel crumbs spilling from its tray, my hairs drifting behind doors, my skin particles in the dust that floats in the light.

Carrie slams the oven and bangs dishes onto the table. In the aquarium, the mouse and snake stay frozen in opposite corners. I expected to feel sad or cruel, to feel something, but instead I watch with detached interest. “Did you know that snakes don’t hear?” Carrie calls. “The bones of their skulls catch vibrations.”

Now, the snake unwinds itself. Tongue flicking, it ripples toward the mouse, coils itself around it, and squeezes. The mouse emits a tiny scream that cuts off abruptly.

“You paid for it,” Greg says to me. “How does it feel?”

And I realize: this wasn’t Carrie’s idea, it was his. He wants me to prove that I’m just as much to blame as he is, maybe more. And maybe I am. I shrug, pretend to be nonchalant. “Snakes have to eat,” I say.

I remember with unexpected longing our friendship, my solitude, even those months of comatose grief, and I think of the woman in a coma, machines scrolling out the glorious cursive of her white-lit dreams, their roller coaster dips and peaks, so much easier than this: this guilt, uncertainty, awkwardness. The knowledge that we can never go back sits in me like a lump as the mouse’s shape bulges its way through the placid snake.


Nancy McCabe’s work has appeared in many magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, and Crazyhorse, won a Pushcart, and been short listed six times for Best American anthologies. She directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in the Spalding Brief Residency MFA program.


One thought on “After the Coma

  1. Kristan says:

    Great interplay at work here.

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