It’s the dream I always have: I’m on a plane, high above the clouds. The plane starts to descend, and I have this sudden panic because I just know that I’m on the wrong plane, am traveling to the wrong place. It’s never clear where I’m landing—in a war zone, in the midst of an epidemic, in the wrong century—only that it’s somewhere I shouldn’t be. Sometimes I try to ask the person next to me where we are going, but I can never quite see a face, can never quite hear an answer. I wake in a disoriented sweat to the sound of the landing gear dropping, to the echo of my heart beating. It usually takes me a few moments to find my bearings, to locate where it is I am—an apartment in Prague, a hostel in Cairo—but even once that’s been established, the sense of being lost lingers.
I think I’m having the dream now. Just as always, I lift the shade to peer at the clouds. I feel the hydraulic lurch of the engines, the thrust downward, the pressure in my ears, the ignition of panic. I turn to the faceless person next to me—only this time I get the feeling it’s not a stranger. It’s someone I know. Someone I’m traveling with. And that fills me with such intense relief. We can’t both have gotten on the wrong plane.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I ask. I lean closer. I’m just about there, just about to see a face, just about to get an answer, just about to find out where it is I’m going—
And then I hear sirens.
I first noticed the sirens in Dubrovnik. I was traveling with a guy I’d met in Albania, when we heard a siren go by. It sounded like the kind they have in American action movies, and the guy I was traveling with commented on how each country had its own siren sound. “It’s helpful because if you forget where you are, you can always close your eyes, let the sirens tell you,” he told me. I’d been gone a year by then, and it had taken me a few minutes to summon the sound of the sirens at home. They were musical almost, a down-up-down-up la, la, la, la, like someone absentmindedly, but cheerfully, humming.
That’s not what this siren is. It is monotonous, a nyeah-nyeah, nyeah-nyeah, like the bleating of electric sheep. It doesn’t become louder or fainter as it comes closer or gets farther away; it’s just a wall of wailing. Much as I try, I cannot locate this siren, have no idea where I am.
I only know that I am not home.
I open my eyes. There is bright light everywhere, from overhead, but also from my own eyes: tiny pinprick explosions that hurt like hell. I close my eyes.
Kai. The guy I traveled with from Tirana to Dubrovnik was called Kai. We drank weak Croatian pilsner on the ramparts of the city and then laughed as we pissed into the Adriatic. His name was Kai. He was from Finland.
The sirens blare. I still don’t know where I am.
The sirens stop. I hear a door opening, I feel water on my skin. A shifting of my body. I sense it is better to keep my eyes closed. None of this is anything I want to witness.
But then my eyes are forced open, and there’s another light, harsh and painful, like the time I spent too long looking at a solar eclipse. Saba warned me not to, but some things are impossible to tear yourself away from. After, I had a headache for hours. Eclipse migraine. That’s what they called it on the news. Lots of people got them from staring at the sun. I know that, too. But I still don’t know where I am.
There are voices now, as if echoing out from a tunnel. I can hear them, but I cannot make out what they’re saying.
“Comment vous appelez-vous?” someone asks in a language I know is not mine but that I somehow understand. What is your name?
“Can you tell us your name?” The question again in another language, also not my own.
“Willem de Ruiter.” This time it’s my voice. My name.
“Good.” It is a man’s voice. It switches back to the other language. French. It says that I got my own name right, and I wonder how it is he knows this. For a second I think it is Bram speaking, but even as muddled as I am, I realize this is not possible. Bram never did learn French.
“Willem, we are going to sit you up now.”
The back of my bed—I think I’m on a bed—tilts forward. I try to open my eyes again. Everything is blurry, but I can make out bright lights overhead, scuffed walls, a metal table.
“Willem, you are in the hospital,” the man says.
Yes, I was just sussing that part out. It would also explain my shirt being covered in blood, if not the shirt itself, which is not mine. It is gray and says SOS in red lettering. What does SOS mean? Whose shirt is this? And whose blood is on it?
I look around. I see the man—a doctor?—in the lab coat, the nurse next to him, holding out an ice compress for me to take. I touch my cheek. The skin is hot and swollen. My finger comes away with more blood. That answers one question.
“You are in Paris,” the doctor says. “Do you know where Paris is?”
I am eating tagine at a Moroccan restaurant in Montorgueil with Yael and Bram. I am passing the hat after a performance with the German acrobats in Montmartre. I am thrashing, sweaty, at a Mollier Than Molly show at Divan du Monde with Céline. And I’m running, running through the Barbès market, a girl’s hand in mine.
“In France,” I manage to answer. My tongue feels thick as a wool sock.
“Can you remember what happened?” the doctor asks.
I hear boots and taste blood. There is a pool of it in my mouth. I don’t know what to do with it, so I swallow.
“It appears you were in a fight,” the doctor continues. “You will need to make a report to the police. But first you will need sutures for your face, and we must take a scan of your head to make sure there is no subdural hematoma. Are you on holiday here?”
Black hair. Soft breath. A gnawing feeling that I’ve misplaced something valuable. I pat my pocket.
“My things?” I ask.
“They found your bag and its contents scattered at the scene. Your passport was still inside. So was your wallet.”
He hands it to me. I look at the billfold. There are more than a hundred euros inside, though I seem to recall having a lot more. My identity card is missing.
“We also found this.” He shows me a small black book. “There is still quite a bit of money in your wallet, no? It doesn’t suggest a robbery, unless you fought off your attackers.” He frowns, I assume at the apparent foolishness of this maneuver.
Did I do that? A low fog sits overhead, like the mist coming off the canals in the morning that I used to watch and will to burn off. I was always cold. Yael said it was because though I looked Dutch, her Mediterranean blood was swimming in me. I remember that, remember the scratchy wool blanket I would wrap myself in to stay warm. And though I now know where I am, I don’t know why I’m here. I’m not supposed to be in Paris. I’m supposed to be in Holland. Maybe that explains that niggling feeling.
Burn off. Burn off, I will the fog. But it is as stubborn as the Dutch fog. Or maybe my will is as weak as the winter sun. Either way, it doesn’t burn off.
“Do you know the date?” the doctor asks.
I try to think, but dates float by like leaves in a gutter. But this is nothing new. I know that I never know the date. I don’t need to. I shake my head.
“Do you know what month it is?”
Augustus. Août. No, English. “August.”
“Day of the week?”
Donderdag, something in my head says. Thursday. “Thursday?” I try.
“Friday,” the doctor corrects, and the gnawing feeling grows stronger. Perhaps I am supposed to be somewhere on Friday.
The intercom buzzes. The doctor picks it up, talks for a minute, hangs up, turns to me. “Radiology will be here in thirty minutes.” Then he begins talking to me about commotions cérébrales or concussions and temporary short-term memory loss and cats and scans and none of it is making a lot of sense.
“Is there someone we can call?” he asks. And I feel like there is, but for the life of me, I can’t think who. Bram is gone and Saba is gone and Yael might as well be. Who else is there?
The nausea hits, fast, like a wave I had my back to. And then there’s puke all over my bloodied shirt. The nurse is quick with the basin, but not quick enough. She gives me a towel to clean myself with. The doctor is saying something about nausea and concussions. There are tears in my eyes. I never did learn to throw up without crying.
The nurse mops my face with another towel. “Oh, I missed a spot,” she says with a tender smile. “There, on your watch.”
On my wrist is a watch, bright and gold. It’s not mine. For the quickest moment, I see it on a girl’s wrist. I travel up the hand to a slender arm, a strong shoulder, a swan’s neck. When I get to the face, I expect it to be blank, like the faces in the dream. But it’s not.
Black hair. Pale skin. Warm eyes.
I look at the watch again. The crystal is cracked but it’s still ticking. It reads nine. I begin to suspect what it is I’ve forgotten.
I try to sit up. The world turns to soup.
The doctor pushes me back onto the bed, a hand on my shoulder. “You are agitated because you are confused. This is all temporary, but we will need to take the CT scan to make sure there is no bleeding on the brain. While we wait, we can attend to your facial lacerations. First I will give you something to make the area numb.”
The nurse swabs off my cheek with something orange. “Do not worry. This won’t stain.”
It doesn’t stain; it just stings.
“I think I should go now,” I say when the sutures are done.
The doctor laughs. And for a second I see white skin covered in white dust, but warmer underneath. A white room. A throbbing in my cheek.
“Someone is waiting for me.” I don’t know who, but I know it’s true.
“Who is waiting for you?” the doctor asks.
“I don’t remember,” I admit.
“Mr. de Ruiter. You must have a CT scan. And, after, I would like to keep you for observation until your mental clarity returns. Until you know who it is who waits for you.”
Neck. Skin. Lips. Her fragile-strong hand over my heart. I touch my hand to my chest, over the green scrub shirt the nurse gave me after they cut off my bloody shirt to check for broken ribs. And the name, it’s almost right there.
Orderlies come to wheel me to a different floor. I’m loaded into a metal tube that clatters around my head. Maybe it’s the noise, but inside the tube, the fog begins to burn off. But there is no sunshine behind it, only a dull, leaden sky as the fragments click together. “I need to go. Now!” I shout from the tube.
There’s silence. Then the click of the intercom. “Please hold still,” a disembodied voice orders in French.
I am wheeled back downstairs to wait. It is past twelve o’clock.
I wait more. I remember hospitals, remember exactly why I hate them.
I wait more. I am adrenaline slammed into inertia: a fast car stuck in traffic. I take a coin out of my pocket and do the trick Saba taught me as a little boy. It works. I calm down, and when I do, more of the missing pieces slot into place. We came together to Paris. We are together in Paris. I feel her hand gentle on my side, as she rode on the back of the bicycle. I feel her not-so-gentle hand on my side, as we held each other tight. Last night. In a white room.
The white room. She is in the white room, waiting for me.
I look around. Hospital rooms are never white like people believe. They are beige, taupe, mauve: neutral tones meant to soothe heartbreak. What I wouldn’t give to be in an actual white room right now.
Later, the doctor comes back in. He is smiling. “Good news! There is no subdural bleeding. Only a concussion. How is your memory?”
“Good. We will wait for the police. They will take your statement and then I can release you to your friend. But you must take it very easy. I will give you an instruction sheet for care, but it is in French. Perhaps someone can translate it, or we can find you one in English or Dutch online.”