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Authors: Douglas Coupland

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BOOK: Girlfriend in a coma
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Hamilton said, "What's that, Pammie? You're just scared of those North Van chicks in their white jeans.
it." In 1979 white jeans among partying females were the tell-tale code that the wearer was up for "a scrap.""What. . . and like you're
scared, Hamilton?"
Wendy said, "Touché, Pamela," then looked at me. "Are you going down there, Richard?"
- I'd rather not. But Linus is down there. Ham and I told him to meet us at the party and we can't just leave him among the pagans. As we speak, he's probably sitting inside a boiling cauldron reading a World Book Encyclopedia." Pam fondled the amulet on the chain around her neck, which Karen told me contained a curl of Hamilton's pubic hair. Wendy chugged her cocktail completely and said to Pam, "ABC." I asked what that meant, to which the two of them chimed, "Another Bloody Cocktail! Now go rescue Linus, you wee laddies. We three are gonna stay up here and guzzle
And so Hamilton and I went down the steep driveway - reluctantly, with forced bravado and a patch of giggles behind us - down into the pale yellow rancher then being smashed by angry, dreadful children, ungrateful monsters, sharks in bloodied water, lashing out at this generic home, their incubator - a variation on their own homes - homes for the prayerless, homes that imbued their teen occupants with rigid sameness and predictability while offering no alternative.

An uprooted ficus tree straddled the billiard table, its soil and some beer making a mud puddle onto which a six-ball now rested; a sliding glass door was smashed, touting a hole wider than a fist where blood dripped down onto the carpet; the TVroom walls were Dalmatian-spotted with boot-kicked holes and dents; the remaining billiard balls had been tossed through the holes and shattered on the patio. The toilet had overflowed in the worst way imaginable; vomit had been seemingly flung, then sprinkled, onto the most unlikely surfaces. "It's like an inmate riot at a maximum security prison," Hamilton said. Only the stereo, with its ability to generate ambiance, had been spared, playing more and more loudly as drunken teenagers skulked around in their jean jackets and leather coats, walking amok, erupting spontaneously into beery rages, crashing chairs and pulling down the light fixtures from stippled ceilings. The girls, those tough NorthVan girls in the fabled white pants, sat in the master bedroom uninterested in the crashings. The bedroom was now converted into a smoking room, its occupants trying on silk blouses and orange lipsticks and combing their hair with pastel combs. Some of them sat on the kitchen counters hotknifing hash with heirloom silver, showing only marginal concern when a particularly loud crash was heard.
We continued walking. Both Hamilton and I had never been to a party of this caliber of violence before, and we didn't dare say we were frightened. We skulked about, hands in pockets. "Precisely
is it that's giving me the niggling feeling we're headed backward as a species?" Hamilton said. He was then almost slugged in the sternum by a partygoer offended by too many syllables. Shortly, he said, "Right. Well. Where's the pisser then?" only to learn that the other toilet was in shards. Out the window, people were skeeting records across the pool, lobbing empty beer bottles at these bat-like targets.
Walking by what was somebody's bedroom, we found Linus monkey-postured, stubble-chinned, and wiping his nose with the back of his ink-stained hand - poring over an atlas, oblivious to the toxic trashing about him. "Oh. Hey - you guys wanna go get, umm,
or something?" he asked.
We considered. The unthinkable consequences to the poor kid who lived there was too depressing. Hamilton said, "Cops'll be here soon, kids. Let's booze-and-cruise. Come on, Linus."
Suddenly, out of a window a lime-green lightning bolt cut the sky above the patio; seconds later, a La-Z-Boy recliner went to sleep at the pool's bottom. Linus walked behind us, lighting a cigarette and placing a book or two back into a bookshelf that had been tipped over. "Did you guys know that Africa has over sixty countries?" he asked, while Hamilton bellowed, "Be gone, you imbecilic avalanche of hooligans!" and led us up the driveway. We cut over a topsoil landscaped mound and into a neighboring yard. On the road above, police cruisers' cherries pulsed American reds, whites, and blues. At my Datsun, Wendy and Pam stood over Karen.

"Richard," Wendy said, "Karen's totally out of it. Not even twodrinks and she's almost passed right out. Not her style. Pam, go get a blanket. You should get her home, Richard. Hi, Linus. How was the, urn,
"Smashing," said Hamilton, cutting in.
A jolt passed through me: Karen had only two drinks? She looked okay, but something was
No vomit, no anything; she was weak and pale. Talking to her didn't work; she was almost asleep and was making no effort to say anything or communicate with her eyes. I tried to sound casual to quell panic: "Let's take her back down to her house. Her folks are out of town, so we can put her to bed, watch TV, and keep our eyes on her. It's probably nothing."
"Probably that
diet," said Wendy. "She probably just needs to sleep after skiing on several days' worth of empty stomach."
"There's a new
Saturday Night Live
on," said Pam. Wendy and I lifted Karen into the Datsun, her clammy skin offering no shivers. Our small convoy of cars fled to Karen's house, one house below my own. There, I carried Karen into her bedroom, removed her coat and shoes, and tucked her into bed. She still felt clammy, so I put another blanket over her. She seemed okay. Wiped out, but the day had been long. We sat in the living room, turning on
Saturday Night Live
just as the show was beginning. Wendy burned some popcorn in the kitchen, and we sat in beanbag chairs watching the first few minutes of skits. Hamilton was feeling upstaged by TV, and he tried to steal our attention with tales of boils, cysts and lame knock-knock jokes. We told him to shut up.
Linus lay on the sidelines staring at a blood-red poinsettia beside the presents underneath the Christmas tree. He was telling us about its petals' veins, marveling at the cell structure of the stems and leaves. He explained how you could say that roots are like electrical wiring and that photosynthesis was the most self-contained and efficient solar energy system possible.
"Will somebody tell Johnny Appleseed to
said Hamilton, Pammie maneuvered her way toward Hamilton.

Tastemaster Wendy, going through a snobby I-don't-watch-TV phase, was doing a tabulation of the number of owls Karen's motherhad accumulated - "Owls, owls, owls - no surface left owl-free. There's even a small macrame owl above the phone in the hall alcove. Thirty of them and you could make a macrame jumpsuit like the one Ann Margret wore in
just before she rolled around in the pile of baked beans."
are you talking about?" asked Pam from the kitchen. "Why is Mrs. McNeil obsessed with owls? What do they represent to her? What dark secret lurks inside them? What need do they satisfy in her?"
"They're pill stashes," said Hamilton. "The brass owl on the mantelpiece contains two hundred decayed Milltowns."
I excused myself and went to check on Karen. I heard Wendy shout, "Eighty-six," as part of her owl tabulation. I saw Karen had turned white as milk. Her head was propped upward, green eyes vacant, looking at the ceiling.
My brain collapsed. My arms and legs stung as though they were growing quills; my mouth dried as though stuffed with straw. "She's . . . not . . . breathing!" I shouted. "She's not
The gang in the living room was confused, saying,
"Wha . . .
?" as they came over.
Pam said, "Shit. Oh
Oh God. Wendy? You're on the swim team. Do mouth-tomouth." Wendy dropped down to Karen on the bed and gave the kiss of life while Hamilton called the ambulance from the hallway phone. Pam said,
"Oh, no, it's another Jared,"
to which Hamilton raged, screaming, "Don't even think that fucking thought! Don't even
of thinking it."

Jared. Oh
This could be
This could go well beyond
My eyes moistened and my throat hurt. We stood around feeling desperate and alarmingly useless, muttering
and bobbing our heads uselessly. The bedside plastic dome lamp on her side table was turned on, throwing cheap yellow light on us and the mural on Karen's wall - an aging photo mural of the Moon with Earth in the background. I saw her swim medals and a Snoopy trophy saying:
World's Best Daughter.
There were lipsticks; lip smackers; two shirtsthat hadn't been chosen for wear that day laid out on the chest of drawers; a beer stein filled with pennies; high school yearbooks; a thesaurus and hair brushes.
The paramedics swooped through the front door with the gurney. Karen's lumpen body was lifted onto it like a clump of Play-Doh. The driver said, "Drinking?" We said vodka. "Any drugs involved?" Pam, Wendy, and Hamilton didn't know about the Valiums, but I did. "Two tranquilizers. I think they were Valium."
"Overdose maybe?"
"No." I'd seen her take just the two.
"Any pot?"
"No. Smell her if you don't believe it."
A respirator was being stuck down Karen's throat.
"Down in Birch Bay."
"How long without breathing?"
"It's hard to say. A few minutes? She was wide-awake just thirty minutes ago." "You the boyfriend?"
"You ride in the car with us."
We shot out into the hallway, then onto the front walk and on to the driveway. My parents walked toward us from my house, faces pulsing colors from the ambulance lights, the panic in their eyes subsiding only slightly when they saw that it wasn't me on the stretcher.
"Hamilton, fill them in," I said. "We have to leave." Then Karen and I were in the ambulance, launched off toward Lions Gate Hospital. I took one last look through the rear windows at the neighborhood where Karen and I and Hamilton and Linus and Pammie had all grown up - cool and dry and quiet as a vault.
Karen's dad's burnt orange Chevy LUV . . . leaded gas fumes . . . two pills . . . trimmed hedges.
Our ambulance drove up Rabbit Lane to Stevens Drive and onto the highway to the hospital, and how was I to know that time was now different?


That first week of Karen's coma was the hardest. We couldn't have known then that the portrait of Karen that began that cold December night inside her Rabbit Lane bedroom was one that would remain unchanged for so long: ever-shrinking hands reduced to talons; clear plastic IV drips like boil-in-bag dinners gone badly wrong; an iceberg-blue respirator tube connected to the core of the Earth hissing sick threats of doom spoken backward in another language; hair always straight, combed nightly, going gray with the years, and limp as unwatered houseplants.

Mr. and Mrs. McNeil tore up from Birch Bay near dawn. Their Buick Centurion's right front wheel nudged over the yellow-painted curb beneath the Emergency's port cochere. Already inside sat my parents, Hamilton, Pammie, Wendy, and Linus, all of us worn out from worry and fear. The McNeils had faces like burning houses. I could see they'd both been quite drunk earlier and were now throbbing in a headache phase. They refused to speak with any of us younger folk at first, assuming that we were all entirely to blame for Karen's state, Mrs. McNeil's accusing red eyes saying more than any shouted curse. The McNeils spoke with my parents, their neighbors and moreor-less friends of twenty years. At sunrise, Dr. Menger emerged to lead the four of them into the room where Karen was lying.
"Thalamus ...
fluids; brain stem ...
cranial nerve . . . hypoxicischemic encephalopathy . . . breathing . . . "
"Is she
Is she dead?" asked Mrs. McNeil.
"She's alive, Mrs. McNeil."
"Can she
she continued.
"I can't tell you. If this continues, Karen will have sleep and wake cycles and may even
But thinking ... I have no idea."
"What if she's trapped inside her body?" asked Mr. McNeil. "What if she's - " Mr. McNeil, George, was fumbling for words, "
in there
hearing everything we say. What if she's screaming from the inside and she can't tell us that she's stuck?" "That's not the case, sir.
Meanwhile, Linus was glurping and snorkeling through a cup of vending machine hot chocolate. Hamilton called him an asswipe for being so disrespectful, but Linus said slowly, "Well, Karen
chocolate. I think she'd want me to have it." There was a pause and a straw poll of eyes indicating this was the conventional wisdom. Hamilton calmed himself but remained in a piss-vinegar mood.
"Richard," barked Mr. McNeil, rounding a corner with the other older folk, "Dr. Menger said Karen took two pills. Did you give them to her?"
I was alert: "No. She had them in her compact. They were Valiums. I've seen her take them before. Mrs. McNeil gives them to her."

Mr. McNeil turned to his wife, Lois, who nodded her head and motioned her hand gently, confirming that she was the pusher. Mr. McNeil's posture slackened. I said, "Karen wants to look good for your trip to Hawaii. She's trying to lose weight." My use of the present tense shook them. "It's only five days from now," said Wendy. "She'll be fine by then,
Nobody responded. Mrs. McNeil, whispering like a calculating starlet, asked Wendy, "Were . . . were you girls drinking? . . . Wendy? . . . Pammie?"
Wendy was direct: "Mrs. McNeil, Karen couldn't have had more than a drink and a half. Weak stuff, too - Tab and a drop of vodka. Honest. It was mostly Tab. One moment she was standing there wondering if she'd lost her watermelon lip smacker, the next she was on the grass beside the road moaning. We tried to make her throw up, but there couldn't have been more than half a French fry inside her, tops. She was trying to lose weight really fierce. For Hawaii."
"I see, Wendy."
Dr. Menger cut in with the results of the blood-alcohol test, which confirmed next to no alcohol in her system. "Virtually clean, he said. Point-oh-one."
Almost clean. But
clean. Dirty. Tainted. Soiled and corrupted. Shitted. Malaised. Poxed and pussed. Made unclean by her sick teenaged friends who wreck houses. And we sat there in silence far into the next day, six friends, wretches of transgression, feeling deserving of punishment, sipping lame paper cones of Foremost eggnog brought to us by a nurse leaving night shift, anticipating our burdens, and castigating ourselves with silence. Sunday morning. Already news would be traveling throughout the school community - the early risers off to skate or ski. Karen's mental state would be glamorously linked to the house-wrecker, as though the damaged house had been the actual cause of her ails. And drugs.
I developed a cramp and went to the bathroom. There I found a stall, took a deep breath, and remembered the envelope in my jacket. I opened the envelope. On binder paper it read:
15 ... 6

BOOK: Girlfriend in a coma
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