T. K. Dalton

The Regular

Ruben Pichardo’s 24th birthday fell on a Thursday, on most weeks a drinking day. Pero. On Thursday birthdays, liquor flowed twice as fast and furious: happy hour shots at Altus to start, pitchers of Modelo and piles of pulled pork pastelitos at El Grito, then hoofing it down Broadway to House of Mofongo or up to Mamajuana’s, wherever the DJ played and the girls moved. Since graduating Roosevelt, his and Cesar’s Thursdays had been just like this–pues, “just like this” if you’re not counting winter hibernations and those three August weeks when the Heights is straight dead because every-damn-body is in D.R. Shots, pitchers, dancing, girls–this was the regular Thursday if you forgot about that joke of a fall they roped Eduardo and Tomas into trying night school, if you could squint hard enough to unsee the cash being too tight or the struggle too real.

To be honest, there’d been Thursdays when–Fuck it–whoever was down just met near the old water tower in High Bridge Park with a bottle or four and enough cash for the chimi truck. Cesar and Jose, Tomas and Pablito, a parade of girls (his, theirs) whose names he’d loyally forgotten–High Bridge Park brought all that back, with the freckled face of Meilani in technicolor against the black and white filter of everyone else who’d known him long enough to get away with calling him what his mother still wrote on his birthday cake: RUBY.

Oye, that was all mostly true, anyway. The regular Thursdays going up and down Broadway stretched back to the days before Meilani, even before Cesar had met Estefani–and who (they’d all agreed at the wedding) could forget that Thursday at Corcho the wine bar that tried too hard, with Cesar, deep in his polo shirt phase, gulping some half-baked cab-sav like store-brand cough syrup. The thought made Ruby smile, which didn’t hurt, thank God, like it had for months after the accident, when double-parked on W. 181st with the summer sun just set, Meilani buzzing up to her cousin to get his lazy ass downstairs already, an SUV speeding off the highway rear-ended him.

Besides his mother, who closed their barbershop to see him, Meilani had been his first ICU visitor, getting a gratis ride from Cesar and his tío. In daylight, she could sum up the room’s flaws in a single glance, the way his mother had in the night-time’s fluorescent. Meilani frowned, handed a carefully counted money clip of singles to La Camisita. (Her nickname for Cesar, the word covered both polo shirts and A-frame tanks, each a distinct phase that Cesar might only live down now that he’d been the first of them to cross the threshold from macho to marido).

Cami,” she told Cesar. “Get your friend some fresh flowers. ¿Este cuarto no tiene un po-co de sabor, sabes? Okay? Vamos.” She blew him a kiss. Cesar left, shaking his head.

“It’s not such a bad room,” Ruby said. “Better than anything you got at Lincoln.” That was the hospital in the Bronx where they might have taken him had the accident been off Harlem River Drive, not the Henry Hudson, if they’d been near Meilani’s place, not her cousin’s.

“We’re going to get you out of here soon,” she said.

“This sure was a crazy thing to go through. We’ll be ok, though.”

“I’m fine. But you’re not, Ruby.”

That was Sunday. Thursday, in the morning, Meilani brought everyone to the hospital. Eduardo took off work, Tomas got his sister to take their aunt to her appointment, Jose left class after turning in his last lab report, and Pablito, well, it was summer so he wasn’t doing shit before noon anyway. The flowers had wilted more every day, and by Thursday brown ringed the petals. The crowded room made Ruby sympathize with the botany. Even in the AC building, his friends seemed to carry the sticky heat of late-July city on their skin, bared in preparation for their trip to Orchard Beach. No one said it–they had manners–but Ruby knew once they finished their good-Catholic penance here they’d go straight to the Bronx Riviera, doublespeed. He sweat under the neck brace, which produced a smell of bandaged body in plastic that was both amplified and smothered by the spray-on sunscreen and extra-strength Off! his friends had smuggled in on their healthy arms and legs. Their collective breath betrayed the spoils of a take-out pit stop at the Floridita diner for eggs-on-rolls, extra sweet avena, and the large cups of Spanish coffee (to a one, they all took it “light & sweet”) that, now emptied, filled the trashbag in Tomas’ Chevy Bolt. If I weren’t here, Ruby thought, I’d be there.

Finally, they left. Meilani lingered, picking dead petals off the remaining flowers.

“It was good to see folks, but you don’t need to bring them by again,” Ruby said. “You know, I’m fine without a ton of visitors.” Meaning fine without all them. Fine as long as you’re here.

If I weren’t here, I’d be there, he thought again. Alone in the room, the sentence echoed in his head like the chorus of a reggaeton song, then pulsed through him, sticking to his brain like a hit song on La Mega. (!Se pega!) If I weren’t here, I’d be there. If it weren’t for the neckbrace, he could imagine being out of bed, with them, on the way to the beach. But the neckbrace, its stench, made him unable to forget things like what his oldladydoctor told him later that day. “You’re lucky, Mr. Pichardo, that a few weeks in a brace and few months of physical therapy is all you need for your recovery. If you hadn’t been so close to this hospital you might be getting familiar with a chair. And I don’t mean the kind in your barbershop.”

“Unbelievable,” Ruby told Meilani, the next time she came to see him. “How about, ‘If you weren’t a woman, I’d knock your teeth into your flat ass.’ ”

“On it, mi amor” she said, standing up as if she meant business.

Later, he told that same story to the social worker doing rounds, a guy named Luis who led a head injury ‘talking group.’ In a low, serious voice that made Ruby picture, for some reason, the cornerstone of the old church near his house, Luis told Ruby, “That kind of anger isn’t uncommon. Join us. We meet Thursdays.”

He was not there, but here, so Ruby tried ‘talking group’ his last Thursday before discharge. The group was an odd handful: an epileptic pool shark; a guy who’d been driving and texting during his car accident; a high school athlete with chronic concussions; a mom who’d had emergency surgery to remove brain tumors she didn’t know she had; an old-lady stroke survivor; and him. The mom and the texter were Puerto Rican, the athlete was East Asian, the pool shark West African, and the stroke survivor was Black. He told the oldladydoctor story, got some laughs, even heard someone curse her, to more laughter. They got it, fast. Ruby started to relax, then thought. Whoa, I’m not one of you.

“Chair wouldn’t bother me,” he said. “My high school was named for a guy in a wheelchair. Roosevelt.”

He noted nodded, wondered who recognized the dead president, who the shit school. For the rest of the meeting, he daydreamed of his last day at Roosevelt, of leaving through the gym and stamping on the paw of a huge black cat painted centercourt, thinking the same thought then as he was now: I’m never going to see these people again. But before he could escape group for good, Luis caught his eye and nodded. “See you next week, Ruby.” That was all it would have taken, but then Luis pumped his fist and said, “Go Panthers.”

That’s how Ruby became a regular at Thursday group, trading the bars with his friends for a trip downtown to see these oddballs every week. Medicaid paid for the whole thing, not that Ruby didn’t let Luis take care of the paperwork. Luis was cool, the sort of guy who could drop into Ruby’s barbershop just as easily as he could get a table at the snobby seafood place up on Pinehurst, that one-way street stacked deep with white families who took their kids, to a one, downtown to Groovy Groomie’s Kidz Stylez to get their hair cut in what might as well be a toystore that happened to have barber chairs in it. Ruby didn’t talk for the first couple weeks he went to group, but a month in, he shared that story about Meilani, the one where he’d told her he was fine.

“ ‘I’m fine, Ruby.’ That’s what she told me the last Thursday she visited before returning to the regular–now her regular, everyone else’s regular, but not his regular. ‘You’re recovering,’ she says, like it’s a dirty word. Then she goes, ‘This,’ waves her fingers down her body like magic dust making those tight clothes tighter. ‘This is fine.’ She turns, bends, shakes it, shimmies back like we used to do, reaches for my belt and just — stops there.”

Group was rapt; Ruby was surprised to find himself craving their attention. “Guess she didn’t find the right reaction,” he said. The stroke survivor blushed. The athlete shook his head, mouthed, Dude. “She was right,” Ruby said. “She was fine. Fine. Got with another guy, and quick. Some regular where she bartends.”

“And you?” asked Luis. “Are you fine?”

The answer to that question wrapped itself in long-tossed dead flowers and beach towels dried and stored for winter, in the randomness of the order in which people piled into a car to get picked up to go to a party they never arrived at, in the very meaning of Ruby’s changing words for what had actually happened. Group helped point this out to him, the fact that at first, he had called what happened an accident and later, a rearending. Now it was a crash. He’d never used a Spanish word to describe it, pointed out the mom. Luis added that the words in English that he had chosen each made different pictures in his head. “Accident, I see something coming from offscreen, out of nowhere, wreaking havoc. Rearending, it blames someone, the person behind you, and it describes the event itself.” Nods all around, including from Ruby. “But crash: that seems to describe both the randomness of the event, that it was accidental and at least partly on you for double-parking. Even if everyone fucking does it. Think about it.” Think about it Ruby did. After session, he came up to Luis and said, “I figured out why I say crash.” Luis gave him that look, blank except for eyebrows raising and a quarter-inch nod, that meant, Go on. “Crash, it describes the ceiling coming down, the walls closing in, the crash of a building that can no longer stand.”

“That’s what the accident felt like?”

“That’s what this whole thing feels like.”

Ruby left with a pamphlet, “Living with Your Brain Injury.” For him, it held no news, and he felt a little depressed to know so much about the nuts and bolts of his newly awkward and pained physical body. The pamphlet mentioned but couldn’t explain or extinguish the mood swings, the emotional dives and climbs that group honestly helped more than anything–except maybe being able to handle scissors for a living again. Looking for a recycling bin on his walk home from the “A”, in the free books box his eye got mugged by a title that described what he wanted to know: The End of Sorrow: The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, Vol. 1.

Since the accident, Ruby had been forgetting so much. But he’d get jumped by random memories, too. Seeing this heavy book with the Hindu gods on its cover, he’d recalled the title, but he hadn’t been sure why. He’d take it with him to all his PT appointments and out-patient neurology follow-ups, partly because the story seemed interesting, but mostly because the book helped him zone out in waiting rooms, spaces with sterile walls and trashy television. The last time he’d taken it out, at his fifteenth and final PT appointment–the last one before he planned to start back at the barbershop, at least for a few hours on Wednesdays–some loudmouthed diabetic had looked over at him and said, in Spanish, of Krishna, “Who’s that blue fairy?” Ignoring the man and opening the book as if to use its cover as a shield from the room’s judges, Ruby finally realized how he knew the name on the inside cover. Devaki, who went by De, was the wife of the one person outside group who might be best able to understand Ruby’s new brain and body: The Regular, a white guy from Vermont–or was it New Hampshire?–who for the last six years had come in for a haircut every eight weeks on Wednesday at 10. The Regular had easy hair but the thing about his haircuts was you had to work around a huge U-shaped scar on his head from a brain surgery, for tumors, when he was a kid. Ruby’s first day back was a Wednesday, and he realized that there’d be a one in eight chance that his first customer would be The Regular.

He was. Though Ruby was nervous, the mechanics of haircutting came back quickly enough. The Regular’s thick head of fine hair had been the sort that he’d first learned to cut in school. If you had solid scissor skills, you could do it in your sleep. But Ruby noticed how close his blades sometimes got to the fingers of his own left hand, and how he didn’t quite realize that he’d come so close. Get in a rhythm, he thought, don’t worry about it. Then he nicked his pinky. A drop of blood dotted the white tissue around his customer’s neck.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m going to have to start over. Give me a second.”

“Better you than me,” The Regular said.

“Even in school this never—”

“Don’t worry, seriously. You do a good job. Relax. Accidents happen.”

True that, thought Ruby as he fiddled with the first aid kit under the register. He returned with two bandaids under a latex glove. “I had a little accident myself.” And he told The Regular the whole story start to finish. He found himself talking about the need to use a walker at first to get back on his feet. The relearning he’d had to do with his arm and especially this hand he’d just cut. “The whole thing wouldn’t move at first, and the oldladydoctor sent me to PT at a dirty old clinic where I got all my shots growing up.”

The thing Ruby couldn’t quite say: that cutting his hand hadn’t hurt. That the feeling wasn’t back yet and that, maybe, it would never return.

The Regular told Ruby he’d had to do PT himself. There were some things he’d done easily as a teenager–running hurdles, contradancing in P.E.–that he’d never do again. “I still manage to do almost everything that matters. Some things just take longer, and feel different than they used to. It’s scary, a little, but…” Here he trailed off.

“But what?”

“You ever play baseball?” Their eyes met in the mirror, where Ruby gave him that look he sometimes did when The Regular tried to do “reporting” from the barberchair. The look was deployed in questions about smelling skunk weed on a summer night, being harrassed by dumb cops for walking while brown, or code-switching within or between languages in the same sentence without thinking twice about it and it generally meant, I’m a Dominican guy who grew up in Washington Heights, I was born doing that. Ruby trimmed around ears. “I guess what happens is you suddenly start seeing different pitches, but you do the same thing. Keep your eye on the ball even if it’s moving differently.”

“You get used to it,” Ruby finished.

“No. You don’t get used to it,” The Regular said. “You definitely don’t get used to it. You learn from it, or maybe you learn to stop being so scared of looking right at it. You don’t doubt. You trust. You accept the fact that the ball could move anywhere, and you do your best to make good contact. You learn to see better.”

“That’s wise,” Ruby said.

“My wife,” said The Regular.

De had come in once, last year. His mother cut her hair, growing out from being shaved at an ashram upstate where she’d gone for advanced training. The stories she’d told Mama–waking at dawn to meditate, eating in silence to appreciate the food, studying holy texts, like this one–seemed suddenly present in the room. What wisdom did she have that he could glean?

“Women,” Ruby said, putting the certainty in his voice that was lacking in his mind.

“She taught me everything I know.”

For the rest of the haircut, they argued over baseball and the best bars in the neighborhood, familiar topics that felt strangely intensified by their sudden, shared history. After his hair was once again short enough to spike, The Regular paid and tipped him a little more than necessary. “Remember, Ruben. Just make contact.” He placed a five in Ruby’s palm. “Doubt be fucked.” Ruby had a forty-minute break after this appointment. On the one hand, The Regular’s experience gave him hope that struggle was to be expected. But the mention of Devaki held out the other possibility, that it could be overcome. The thought of her sent him to his bag, for the Gita. He looked once more at her name, and beneath it, at an address:  301 W. 24th Street.

After group that Thursday, at the end of a year of headaches and dizziness, confusion and blank spots, a year of searching for words and meaning and everything in between, he walked crosstown to the Chelsea brownstone that housed the Sivananda Yoga and Vedanta Center. The basement entrance smelled aggressively of incense, but Ruby found the door unlocked and entered. He crossed the room to greet the suddenly (predictably) nervous woman behind the counter. “Om blessed self,” she said. “Please remove your shoes.”

Ruby climbed the stairs–“Durga is on the fourth floor”–in his oh-so-fresh Marshall’s tube socks. Blinding white as an angel’s underpants, they screamed what Meilani would have called basic, a word she’d applied only once to his always carefully chosen outfits. Today, his G-Star raw denim flared out at his ankles, and a Y-3 shirt, collar popped, gaped like the mouth of that purse-clutching whitelady downstairs. Easy to spot, even from across the room: Dominican male at 1:00, where’s my phone?  But–fair is fair. He’d also seen her challenge the impulse, correcting for it as she over-politely reminded him to sign in (“Thank you very much!”) and solicited his email for the center’s newsletter in as bubbly a fashion as she could muster. (“My, we haven’t had a hotmail in eons!”). She even offered him a vegan cookie. (“They’re full of tumeric and just out of the oven.”) If he’d felt exposed at the front desk, the climb in these socks kept the feeling going. Not just out of his element, Ruby was out of shape. He’d been a runner, but it hurt after the accident, and stopped mattering after Meilani. High school summers he’d done stairs at the “1” train. The sweat in his eyes and the pulse in his ears had thrilled him. Tonight, though, stairs just gave him this bone chill, wind blowing off that dirty river and straight through your cheap-ass spring coat. That’s embarrassment, Ruby thought, that feeling like holding ice cubes tight in your palm. No problem, except they kept melting, until suddenly, holding got impossible. You had to let go.

He passed other rooms on other floors: Ganesha, Siva, Krishna, but every time he saw “Durga,” the arrows pointed up. From each room he passed came calm, practiced teacher voices. In his mind, he knew they came from separate bodies, but the words jumbled, seeming to come from a single source. Ruby peeked in as best as he could see, checking out the scene; some Asians here and there, a sister or two, but mostly white people teaching other white people the mystic Hindu art of moving slowly. For us folks without choices, there’s no two ways, he thought. We have to hustle.

The book got him in the door, but what kept him here and climbing was Cesar. Last winter, Cesar traded his sophisticate phase for a spiritual thing, the first step of which was quitting bars (“completely,” he said, chucking the last bag of his polo shirts into the Goodwill bin, “and forever, mi hermano”). All winter, while Ruby played Xbox through migraines like roadwork, Cesar bugged him to come to a Thursday night community yoga class. Finally Ruby did. The whole thing was wild. Flawed. To be fair, Ruby’d been warned there’d be just as much chanting as the “core building” Cesar had promised. Core building was a phrase that triggered Meilani, who’d managed to drag Ruby’s ass to Pilates in the Park down at 173rd. Just say the words Meilani’d say, back then, and Ruby’d do whatever you asked: study for finals like Tomas and Eduardo, exercise in public with fat tias and prude yuppies; or the regular, what the rest of them were doing anyway. Cesar knew that. “It’s one thing to look good, bro, but once you got her attention you gotta say something worth saying. You’ve got the surface alright, you look good, my man. But without the other piece, if you can’t play the Deep card, olvídalo, it’s all over, feel?” Cesar’s yoga class ended with the teacher “releasing” the chakras of their head, throat, stomach, thighs. Each personality was dominated by one area. “Yours is obvious,” Ruby told Cesar, when they stopped at a cart for juices. “Definitely the asshole chakra.”

With the sign for the Durga room in his sight, Ruby suddenly recalled seeing the juice’s thick green straw jostle slightly as Cesar opened his mouth, but said nothing. This is just the way we talk, Ruby would have said back then, if you asked him; in truth, this moment was so normal, he’d forgotten it entirely. But tonight, ascending toward Durga in basic socks, he realized he’d shocked his friend, hurt him bad. Something about the class, about corpse pose and this nonsense with the chakras, had loosened Cesar up in that way Ruby didn’t think either of them–nobody they knew–could ever get loose. Honestly, the whole thing scared him: the need to get loose and the fact that maybe, actually, he couldn’t.

“Durga” it read, right there on the door. Ruby paused before her likeness. Calm face and a dozen arms, her hands made figures that reminded him of high school, of dumbass thug-wannabes and really-weres. He turned his eye to the open hands. Open, he thought suddenly, like Cesar’s mouth after that class. Like Cesar, you dumbass, after that class. What made the straw fall out of Cesar’s mouth was not the curse, no. In taking Ruby to the class, Cesar opened his hand to his friend, showed Ruby his soft, small palm. And I knocked him down. He’s always doing shit like that, Ruby thought, todos los fucking dias, and I knock him down, time and again. How hard it was–how much Ruby had failed, then, and had failed not just on the regular but every second of every minute of every day since then–to unball the hundred invisible fists they’d spawned over time. Their own hands had learned, without any conscious effort, without a second of study, to keep clenched tight.

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About the Author

T. K. Dalton’s creative work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best of the Net, and appears in Apogee, The Common, Southeast Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. Dalton’s scholarly writing appears in The Journal of Teaching Disability Studies and Disability Experiences (eds. Couser & Mintz), and is forthcoming in the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies. Dalton holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon and is pursuing a PhD in English at the CUNY Graduate Center.