By Anna Mavromati
The first section of The Handbook for Almost All Disasters, eleventh edition, is called “The Escape Artist.” The table of contents lists various terrible scenarios, like How to Escape from a Sinking Car, How to Free Your Leg from a Bear Trap and How to Survive a High Rise Hotel Fire. All of these situations are escapable apparently, if a person can just remember the right directions.
I flip to a section called How to Escape if You’re Buried Alive as I hear Connor shut off the shower in the bathroom.
Step One: Conserve your oxygen supply. If you are in a typical coffin, you may survive for up to one or two hours if you refrain from panicking.
Connor walks past with his towel hanging low on his waist and even if I didn’t already know I would be able to tell by the way he holds his shoulders so stiffly that we’re going to be visiting the hospital today. He rifles through the underwear drawer and the griffin tattoo had done in college looks at me with narrowed eyes.
“Maybe you should get dressed,” Connor says.
Step Two: Take off your shirt part way so that it is inside out, covering your head. Tie the shirt at the top so that it’s sealed. This will keep you from breathing in dirt.
I wouldn’t have thought of that. As I read Step Three—which involves kicking through the coffin’s center where it’s weakest, but not so far from the torso so that dirt could trap someone’s body inside before she could crawl out—I imagine someone digging upward through the dirt with a shirt tied around her head: a strange, filthy humanoid figure emerging from the earth with no face.
I close the book, slide out of the bed that smells like Connor’s shampoo and my deodorant and I start to undress. Connor barely watches me as I do this anymore and I wonder if that kind of lack of fascination with my body is par for the course in marriage, maybe even when it was still fairly early in the marriage. And of course he has other things on his mind.
“It’ll be five months next week,” Connor says. “A whole five.”
I nod and my fingers fumble with the zipper on my dress. I want to crawl back in the bed again and disappear but instead I say, “Nick deserves better.” It feels like the truest thing I could ever say.
Nick is Connor’s age and Connor’s height and about Connor’s size, but although they’re identical twins I have always been able to tell them apart easily. Nick is skinnier around the middle and has such a different way of making facial expressions, with much harder and more prominent lines forming in his face. But the two of them are still enough alike that I know exactly what Connor feels when he sees Nick lying in a hospital bed, unresponsive as a corpse. He sees a better version of himself dying.
Connor turns to me and his brow is heavy. This has been his look for some time now, another change that seems to come with marriage and an office job and now, on top of everything else, misfortune too.
“Unless a miracle happens, you know he’s not going to see you, right?” he says. His looks softens right after the words come out, and he turns away, his head down low as if he just noticed something on our carpet.
Connor always thinks I’m overdressed when we go to the hospital together.
“And please don’t take the book this time, babe,” he says. His eyes gaze past me to the bed where The Handbook for Almost All Disasters is propped up against a pillow. “I just don’t know if it’s right to take that book into a hospital like that.”
“I’ll leave it in the car,” I say.
“Do you really need to read it in the car?”
“It’ll calm me down. I promise I won’t take it in with me.”
The handbook was a gag-gift some friend bought for us as a wedding present last year. She had highlighted a section in the table of contents called Honeymoon Disasters and drawn a smiley face. The disasters in this section included treating food poisoning, severe sunburns and—our personal favorite at the time—How to Revive an Unconscious Spouse. Connor and I would play dead for one another in the hotel room at random times throughout the week, one of us sprawled out collapsed on the floor or in the bed waiting for the other to walk in. Sometimes we’d put our mouths on each other and call it CPR. Connor would always pretend to kick me or he would reach down to unhook my bra to make me laugh and break character.
For months after the honeymoon, The Handbook for Almost All Disasters sat forgotten on a shelf until sometime after Nick’s accident. I started reading it when Connor visited his mother’s without me. I skimmed the pages, drinking red wine straight from the bottle. Honestly, I knew that the book wasn’t going to help me or Nick or even Connor, but for whatever reason I wanted to read it anyway. There was nothing in the book about comas, so after a few more swigs of wine that night I had flipped back to re-read How to Revive an Unconscious Spouse.
Step One: Gently tilt the victim’s head back to lift the chin. This will promote breathing.
Connor still holds doors open for me as if we’re going on dates—the door to the house, the door to his truck. But now I pass him without saying thank you. It’s hard to keep thanking someone for the same actions for months and then years. The words become empty.
In the car Connor turns down the radio so that the classic rock station becomes a soft hum in the background. We drive in silence. I lift the handbook to eye level. In a section called Animal-Related Disasters there are directions on how to survive an attack from a venomous snake, how to cross a piranha-infested river and how to deal with a bird that is trapped inside a house. I flip to the page about piranhas and open to a page with a sketched illustration of a sharp-toothed fish staring off into the distance. My eye catches Step Two immediately: Cross the river at night. The book goes on to explain that this is when most species of piranhas are resting.
“You’ve been reading that book a lot lately,” Connor says once we’re on the freeway. We’re stuck in traffic.
“It’s kind of funny,” I say, “and kind of terrifying.”
Connor exhales loudly and taps a beat on the steering wheel. He gets frustrated when there’s traffic but always tries to hold it in.
“Do you want to know how to cross a river with piranhas?”
“Not really,” he says.
“Quickly,” I say. “You don’t want to make any noise or disturb the water too much because you could wake them up.”
Connor rubs his temples and says, “Do they even sleep?”
The traffic is so heavy that before we even pass two exits I’ve already learned how to jump off a moving train, how to extinguish a flaming Christmas tree and how to take a bullet.
Stay low. Avoid letting it hit the back of the skull.
I flip the book open to a section called, How to Survive a Plummeting Elevator.
There isn’t anything in the book about getting beaten up. The book couldn’t have helped Nick that night those men ambushed him in a parking lot and slammed the back of his head into the curb. Nick once told me that he was the stronger twin even though Connor was a little bit bigger.
One time I was spending the weekend at my mother-in-law’s house, helping them prep for a family reunion while Connor was still away on business. I used to hate being home alone when he’s away, and his mom’s house is only an hour-long drive and she’s much better company than either of my bitterly divorced parents. She tends to leave until late in the evenings though to spend time with her old, blind cousin who I’ve only met twice.
I never mentioned to Connor how often Nick stayed at his mom’s house too. That in between his other travels he would stop by for a long weekend. It was something I assumed Connor already knew.
One night we were in the childhood bedroom Nick and Connor had shared when Nick smiled at me and pressed my hands against his waist under the covers and said, “See? I’m secretly made out of rock.”
I repeated the word secretly and rolled onto my back, brushing the sweat out of my bangs with my fingertips. The house was quieter that weekend than I had ever experienced it being. Nick’s breath was warm on my ear and I remember the exact ways it made my skin tingle but I forget what else we talked about then. Something about his half-joking, half-serious tone reminded me of the day I first met him only weeks before my wedding when he told me I was way too young to be getting married.
Nick didn’t have Connor’s tattoos or even his taller-seeming, dominating presence, but even if I didn’t already know about Nick’s gambling and drinking problems, I could tell from the way Nick smirked at people that he was the more dangerous twin.
Step Two of How to Take a Bullet reads, Face the shooter.
I don’t notice the accident in the road until just moments after we’ve finally passed it. The cars around us are moving faster now and I look up from my book to see a reflection of what happened in the rearview mirror. The SUV behind us is completely on its side, resting against the center divider with four wheels jutting out into the air like the legs of a dead bug.
Connor seems to have been staring at it for a long time by now.
“Do you think anyone was hurt?” I say. Connor says nothing. He cuts across three lanes and speeds to a freeway exit. We drive into a suburb and pull over on a street with picturesque overhanging trees.
Connor presses his forehead head against the steering wheel.
“Can we just fuck?” Connor says. He doesn’t raise his head to look at me. “I really need to fuck right now.”
“But we need visit Nick,” I say.
Connor starts to run a hand through his hair but then he stops with his hand partially covering his face. His shoulders are slumped forward. He’s staring blankly at the odometer.
“I don’t know if I can keep doing this shit, Veronica.” He says it in a flat, quiet voice. “I don’t know how anymore.”
I know there was a time when seeing him looking so defeated like this would have made me feel so much pain for him but so much overwhelming love for him all at once. I hate seeing him this way all the more now—and in a dreadful, depressing way. Something in my chest becomes heavy, but the feeling has become too familiar for it to be something special.
I reach out to take the hand off of his face and hold it in my own, but I pull back because I’m afraid that touching him this way might make one of us start crying or talking too much for me to handle. Then I unsnap my seatbelt I climb on top of him in the driver’s seat, hiking up my skirt. He pants heavily into my neck.
I’ve memorized the steps to How to Revive an Unconscious Spouse since our honeymoon, but I haven’t told Connor that. Step Two is to put an ear close to the person’s mouth to make sure the person is still breathing. Step Three reads, If the person is not breathing, call 911 and immediately begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Connor rests his forehead against my chest for a long time afterward.
“Sometimes I just need to remember that I’m here,” he says, “that I’m supposed to be the lucky one because I’m the one that’s still around. And I need figure out how to be OK with that.”
“I know what you mean.”
I slide him out of me and roll back into the passenger seat, adjusting my clothes.
At the hospital we see that Nick’s bruises are healing and the scars that remain actually enhance that rugged look he tries so hard for. Connor pats Nick’s hand and shaves his beard, wary of the oxygen tube. Nick looks thinner this way and he doesn’t have any semblance of childlike innocence and unawareness that people sometimes have when they sleep. Sleep actually makes Nick look a little older, his mouth slightly open, deepening his laugh lines.
CPR won’t help him. The oxygen tank he’s hooked up to won’t wake him up. But as Connor sits with his head buried in his hands I lean over the bed and put my face close to Nick’s until I’m close enough that I can feel his body heat. I let my mouth fall open a little and I can hear my own heart throbbing just below my throat. Then I breathe and breathe and breathe.