I am laying on a gurney in a Palm Springs emergency room when I see my wife for the first time since our wedding reception. Christina has changed out of her soaked wedding gown. She has been crying, her usually bright smile replaced by concern, disbelief, and what I mistake for anger.
In a few hours, we are supposed to fly to Hawaii on our honeymoon. We are supposed to embark on a great romance, but a nightmare has upended that dream. So instead of the usual wedding-night bliss, we are waiting for a doctor to tell us what we already know, that my badly-broken ankle will require surgery. Unable to look Christina in the eye, I ask if she’s angry. She says no, but later she admits that she was mad at herself. “I know you, honey,” she says a few weeks before our first anniversary. “No way you’d jump in the pool, if I hadn’t gone in first.”
They say humor is tragedy plus time. Four years ago, a minor Jackassian tragedy ended my wedding night. I took a running jump feet first (glasses off) into the shallow end of a hotel pool. To this day I’m amazed none of our guests had thought to record the moment the happy groom shattered his ankle. If they had, the video probably would’ve gone viral. Who knows, maybe Daniel Tosh would’ve invited my wife and me on his Comedy Central show for a “Web Redemption.” Maybe we could’ve renewed our vows and taken the marital plunge, this time without a trip to the E.R. “Remember to tuck like you’re doing a cannonball, dude,” Tosh would probably say. “Make a splash — with your butt.” Or maybe, that moment would live forever in an endless GIF loop, fodder for a Buzzfeed article — 29 People Who Went From Happy to Sad in the Blink of an Eye.
Thankfully there is no footage, and therefore no need to redeem myself, virtually anyway. Mine is an old-fashioned embarrassment, the kind that goes viral offline, remembered by those who know me and know of me. The story of our wedding lives on as a story that friends and friends of friends tell. I am that groom and always will be. Four years later, I am healed. My ankle, held together by two plates and thirteen screws and rehabilitated after a year of physical therapy, is healthy. More importantly, my marriage is strong and loving. Still, almost without exception, friends ask the same question: Is it funny yet?
Some ask out of genuine concern, thinking that if I can laugh, I must be over it. But I suspect others ask because they seek permission, or perhaps forgiveness, for their own urge to laugh. Who could blame them? Countless times I’ve thought there must be a romantic comedy in there somewhere, one where the lovable-but-very-flawed groom injures himself in a hilarious wedding-day mishap, setting in motion a year of newlywed hell and a plot that skewers marital tropes while barreling toward a heartfelt dénouement, one that confirms trite truths like love conquering all and laughter being the best medicine. That’s the movie version. In real life, whenever friends ask if it’s funny yet, I lie. I smile and say something in the affirmative, then hope they’ll take the hint and find a new topic of conversation. It is not funny yet and I’m not sure it ever will be. It was a fucked-up thing that happened on the best day of my life, and the mere passage of time can’t reconcile that incongruity.
I am shivering. It is a hot night in the desert, but the air conditioning makes the E.R. feel like the Arctic. The problem is that I am still in my suit, which is soaking wet. My teeth chatter, and I wonder if I’m on the verge of shock. This is a remote possibility, medically speaking, but I am learning quickly that pain has a myopic quality, blurring everything that isn’t pain and fertilizing whatever malignant thoughts remain. Thankfully, Christina is thinking clearly. She finds blankets and wraps my torso like a mummy. She tells me not to worry, but through the pain she reads disappointment on my face.
“I ruined the surprise,” I say, my voice low and halting as the pain echoes through my leg, each new wave of agony slamming into the preceding one.
The surprise is that I upgraded our tickets. When I tell Christina, she cries and hugs me. It’s been her dream to fly first class, and like a good fiancé I wanted to surprise her. Now, for her anyway, the surprise comes off as a sweet, but unfulfilled gesture. To me, life as a newly-minted husband seems like a cruel joke; how else can you explain the instantaneous shift from joy to misfortune? And what can you say when happiness turns to shit?
The doctor enters. Working at an emergency room here, he sees a mix of elderly patients, drug-related cases that blow in like tumble weeds from the desert, and the occasional party casualty, especially during Coachella. But a couple of newlyweds strikes him as novel. He asks the usual how did this happen questions. We explain, and even before the first drop of painkiller hits my bloodstream, before the first X-ray can be taken, and before the doctor can temporarily set my ankle, the diagnosis is in.
“It’s a story to tell the grandkids,” our doctor says. “You’ll laugh about it someday.”
Unbeknownst to the E.R. doctor and us, hundreds of other people will say the exact same thing. The collective wisdom is that eventually, after a lifetime of marriage, this will be funny. When I arrive for the X-ray, they’ve already heard my story through the E.R. grapevine. The X-ray tech jokes that there are easier ways for a groom with cold feet to get out of a wedding. I don’t laugh, so he falls back to what is quickly becoming the old standby about telling the grandkids. A little bit later I’m back in the observation room. A nurse jabs at my arm trying to start an I.V., but I am cold and wet and my veins are playing hide-and-go-seek. Between attempts the nurse assures us we’ll laugh about this night eventually.
A little later, the doctor returns with a choice. “We’re going to set his leg,” he says. It’s a temp job because I will need surgery. But for now, it’s all about reconnecting the tibia and fibula as best we can. To do this, he will literally wrench the bones back into place. It will be painful. They can give me propofol, a drug that is in the news because it was linked to Michael Jackson’s death. Sensing our concern, the doctor offers an alternative — they can give me a leather strap to bite down on and I can “cowboy up.”
“He’s not a cowboy,” Christina says immediately.
We don’t know it then, but this phrase — he’s not a cowboy! — will become a recurring inside joke for us, something we say whenever we are faced with difficult circumstances. It’s our shorthand, reminding us that we’re tougher than we think, but maybe not “cowboy” tough.
The propofol works as promised. I have no recollection of the doctors setting the leg. In fact, about fifteen minutes after they’re done, I ask when they plan to start. Christina tells me they already set the leg and that they need to hold me for observation for a few hours. My parents and many of our close friends have been in the waiting room, but Christina has sent them home. To pass the time, she tells me a story about one of the desert denizens in the emergency room.
“This dude looks beat-up,” Christina says. “And he’s talking really loud on his cell about how it all went down at this rave, how some dude starts talking to his date, and he’s all like, ‘what the fuck, bro?’ And then — BAM! — the other guy roundhouse kicks him to the face.”
Christina says the man calls it a “Jean-Claude Van Damme move.” It’s probably the narcotics, but in my mind I see The Muscles From Brussels hitting on the man’s date. I see a barefoot Van Damme — the one from Bloodsport, naturally — deliver a powerful roundhouse kick. The ferocity of the blow plays out in slow motion. The man’s eyes widen as Van Damme’s foot cuts through the air. Neck and jaw snap violently to the right. The man’s mouth opens and vodka Red Bull sprays out in an archipelago of droplets that sparkle in the lights. Then, like a falling tree, the man hits the floor.
“She left with the kickboxing dude,” Christina says. “Can you believe that?”
I can’t. You don’t see roundhouse kicks outside of action movies. In real life, such martial acrobatics would likely send the attacker to the hospital with a pulled groin. So right there I’m laughing at the cartoonish violence. But what seems especially funny is that a fight would cause a woman to shift her affection. That’s the kind of lie we only accept from a bad movie with cheesy dialogue and great stunts. The whole scene seems funny and far-fetched, unless you’re on opiates, in which case the idea that Jean-Claude Van Damme would steal a man’s date after a brawl at a rave makes about as much sense as honeymooners spending their wedding night in Observation Room Three.
A few hours later, I leave the hospital. On my way out, I pass the man. He’s still on the phone, alternating between condemnation of his “bitch girlfriend” and half-baked plots to find the mystery karate man and “kick his fucking ass.” At least he has someone to blame, someone to be angry with, I find myself thinking. Then the man stops his tirade and looks up at me hobbling by on my crutches. His face is badly bruised and drops of dried blood dot his white dress shirt, which is ripped near the collar. As Christina escorts me to the door, I notice something else about the man. He is alone. All at once, I regret laughing at his misfortune. I don’t know this man, but what seemed funny in the abstract now strikes me as sad, not because he’s in pain, but because he’s alone. Somehow, I think, it’ll be easier for me to laugh at my situation than for the Van Damned to laugh at his.
My surgeon is a humorless man named Krieger. He has the kind of face that seems to have only one expression: stern. We meet Krieger two days after our wedding. I like him immediately. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I appreciate him immediately. In the two days since our wedding, everyone from my mom to the hotel bellboy has insisted on telling me that this will be funny one day. But Krieger does not do jokes. He is one serious orthopedic surgeon. If he believes that all the pain and humiliation and trauma I associate with our wedding will one day make a hilarious story, he keeps it to himself.
“There are risks with surgery, like death,” Krieger says. “Another risk is we might have to amputate.”
I am too high on painkillers to worry about losing my leg. Actually, for a moment it seems like a good idea, because without a leg it is impossible to feel pain in your leg. But Christina’s stomach turns at the possibility, however remote.
“But that’s highly unlikely, right?”
“It happens,” Krieger says in a monotone voice. “My dad had the exact same kind of break, and they had to amputate.”
Not wanting to burden me with her fears, Christina shares this warning with her best friend, Ryan, who tells her that what happened to Krieger’s father was probably the personal motivation he needed to become a surgeon. Ryan has a knack for cinematic narratives. Later, Christina shares Ryan’s fictionalized backstory, but by then I’ve had several follow-up visits with Krieger, and I am convinced that the man is an orthopedic robot who has no interest in or time for human emotion, let alone a legless father.
The surgery goes well, but the thing with ankles is that you don’t really know for sure until a few weeks later, when the swelling goes down. Actually, you don’t really know for sure until the cast comes off and you can stand on two feet again. But that’s three months away. In the meantime, my world shrinks.
There is the pain — a constant throb punctuated by stabbing bursts, like an arrow shooting out from the marrow. My foot and lower leg are swollen like a water balloon that’s about to burst. Except the water balloon can’t burst because it’s encased in plaster. I continue to swell, but the cast holds strong, never yielding a single millimeter over three months of constant pressing.
There are painkillers. They blunt the pain, but you pay a price: a fog of indifference that turns rancid immediately but — for your own good — is encouraged to linger for the duration.
There are the four walls of our apartment, where I’ll spend all but a few hours out of the next three months. Mostly I’ll sit — all you seem to do is sit — in the living room. I will prepare lunch in the kitchen and teach myself to transport items without using my hands, both of which are to remain on the crutches. At night, I will scoot on my butt up the stairs to our bedroom. The trick is not to bump your cast on a step. I learn this the hard way and spend that night eating painkillers, convinced the bones in my ankle have come apart.
There is our dog, Mortimer, who welcomes me home by peeing in our bed. I discover this the hard way, too. Meanwhile, Mortimer discovers that I am prone to dropping food on the floor — manna from dog heaven.
There is the small kindness of the deliveryman from our local Lebanese restaurant. Throughout my recovery, he insists on bringing the food inside and setting it on the table. He refuses an extra tip because “you are hurt.” Though prompt, professional and indifferent to my condition, I determine that the deliverymen from other local restaurants are, by comparison, total assholes. I say the same about our UPS driver, who refuses to bring packages inside because his job “stops at the door.” These are about the extent of my dealings with strangers. Thankfully, none of them ask what happened, and therefore none of them tells me it will be funny someday.
There are the people in orthopedics. They all know what happened, because people talk, regardless of profession. Everyone but Krieger reminds me that this will be funny one day. They’re being sweet and they ask how married life is treating me, but it’s not something I want to talk about.
There are the larger kindnesses of my friends and family. My parents pitch in and help. Friends stop by to cheer me up. One of my groomsmen and his wife bring a makeshift Hawaiian honeymoon to us, complete with tropical drinks and leis.
Still, for three months I am unable to put weight on my leg, which gives our marriage a kind of 1950s hue, albeit with a modern twist. Christina cooks, cleans, and somehow manages to keep her sanity while working an eighty-hour week at a new job. I work too, but nothing I write is good. Each story is a paycheck. Stack enough of them together and they add up to the rent and medical bills. The trick, I soon learn, is to write like mad in the morning window before the pain gets so bad I have to pop a pill and call it a day.
We muddle through. We are like an old married couple, task-oriented and full of complaints nobody will listen to. There are moments of laughter, like the time I have to use my crutch as a hockey stick to swat a Lego refrigerator magnet away from Mortimer, who is seconds away from swallowing it. Or the time my sister, Allison, takes me to buy a birthday present for Christina. Over Allison’s objections and adamant that the painkillers are “not clouding my judgment,” I choose an avant-garde photograph of a Mexican laborer smoking a cigar with a live rooster perched atop his head. For three years the gift remains stored in a closet. Eventually, Christina warms to the piece, but to this day she insists that friends don’t let friends take painkillers and buy art.
Eventually, my world widens. I venture out, first with a walking cast, then no cast. I go to physical therapy, where standing, walking, running, and jumping are the true waypoints of my recovery. Each one looms large and imposing, but each ultimately falls in a process that is as much about coaxing muscles and tendons back to life as it is about rewiring the circuits of the brain. My physical therapist is a family friend, and the staff knows my story. They say the usual stuff about eventually seeing the humor in all of this, but that bromide has long since passed its expiration date. My responses range from sarcastic rebuttals to silence.
As our one-year anniversary approaches, I am certain that everyone is wrong — time and tragedy do not equal comedy. If that equation were true, I’d be laughing my ass off. But the problem isn’t that it’s too soon, the problem is that it’s too close. That’s the secret variable in the equation, the unspoken rule that says the further you are from the punch line, the funnier the joke. This is why we laugh when we see videos of strangers falling. It’s why we can joke about war, famine and disease as long as those real tragedies aren’t happening to us. And it’s why my minor Jackassian tragedy won’t ever be funny for Christina and me. Sure, there were funny moments along the way, moments where tears gave way to the kind of laughter that clears the soul and makes you feel as though a mountain has been lifted from your chest. But it isn’t funny yet, and I don’t think it ever will be.
So I lie. I tell people that I can laugh about what happened. It’s just easier that way.
But the truth is, I prefer to think of the accident as a peculiar gift to a young couple, rather than an amusing anecdote to tell the grandkids. Our wedding night tested us, and that is comforting, because life has tragedies that are too big to be anyone’s punch line. And while the honeymoon eluded us and there’s nothing nostalgic about our time as newlyweds, we know our marriage is better for the test. Because what did not kill us, did not make us laugh, but it did make us stronger.
As Christina said on our wedding night, “I knew those vows were for real, I just didn’t think we’d test them so soon.” She tells this joke whenever the subject comes up. People laugh, and if I’m feeling game, I sometimes say I needed to test my bride before it was too late to get an annulment. It’s silly stuff, the kind of one-two punch every couple has in their chitchat arsenal. But for us, it isn’t a joke. We are as serious about that anecdote as our vows. Because for us, it’s a kind of sarcastic counterpunch, reminding her and me that as long as one of us is still standing, both of us are.