How did I know his name was Daniel?
That, of all questions, ran through my mind as they wheeled me in. Lucky to be alive, in agony like nothing I’ve felt, ER nurses firing questions, and I’m wondering how I knew my rescuer’s name. The mind works in strange ways.
I remembered the pickup volleyball game, fun in the sun and sand. So much so, that when Dee told me she was going back to the room, I stayed on the beach instead, planning to meet up with her later. The women and I all worked up a thirst so we took our bikinied bodies to the Sandy Breeze where happy hour had just begun. We were doing shots and had an informal contest going who could shoot down the come-ons from the male bar patrons in the most creative way. “You’re looking really good today.” “Well, you’re not.” “I’d really like to get to know you.” “I’m tall, you’re short. What else do I need to know?” “You look fine. Are you Southern?” “Yeah, I live at the South Pole. Can you pick me up at my door.” Looking back, they were not very creative, but there’s nothing like booze for consistently rave reviews from one’s inner critic. For some reason, the more vicious we were, the more the guys loved it, and bought us more shots.
It was too noisy to call Dee, so I ducked outside and walked down the street to a quiet spot. I had my phone out, ready to punch Dee’s contact button to tell her to join us, when a guy walking down the street, suddenly shouted to me.
“Quick. Get up those stairs!”
At first I assumed he wasn’t talking to me, because what he said didn’t make sense, but he was looking right at me, and only a few feet away.
While I stared uncomprehending, taking in his close cropped hair and and neatly trimmed mustache, he sprang into action. Before I could gather my thoughts, he had grabbed me with one arm, slung me over his shoulder, and was carrying me up a stairway that led to the upper level in a two-story row of shops. I didn’t have time to marvel at the strength it must have taken to heft me like a sack of potatoes or wonder why he had done it or whether I was in danger from him. A second or two was all I had from the time he put me down onto the concrete walkway before we were both swept off our feet by a force that slammed us into the wrought iron railing at the top of the stairs. It was like being hit by a freight train. An unbearable pain exploded over my upper thigh and I grabbed the railing as a reflex. It didn’t make sense that there suddenly was an intense salty taste in my mouth, a burning pain in my eyes, and water up to my waist splashing into my face (In my confusion, I didn’t connect these phenomena until after the water was gone). It even took a minute or two, after the water began receding, before I realized how tightly I was clinging to the black metal.
By the time I could take in and integrate the various ways my body was in pain, I was no longer in the water. My left leg couldn’t hold my weight and I sank to the walkway, my clothing soaked.
Memories of the ensuing minutes are scattered, like a cubist painting. The leg pain, while I didn’t yet know exactly where it was coming from, had started demanding attention. I think I asked Daniel what happened.
“A Tsunami,” he told me. “I saw the ocean receding suddenly. I knew what was coming. We had to get to higher ground. Can you stand?”
“I don’t know.” I tried in vain to lift my beleaguered body, but my left leg would not cooperate.
“I’ll help you,” he said. “We’ve got to get off this thing. It might be unsafe.”
He got me up, letting me lean on him. I was able to put full weight on my right leg.
As he helped me down the metal stairs I became aware of the devastation around us. The water had gone, and what had been a neighborhood of wooden houses and shops was now a tangle of lumber and roofing debris. The store windows in the building that had been our salvation were now empty holes with a few clinging shards. Mere seconds had sufficed to destroy the seaside town where my friend Dee and I were vacationing.
“We need to get you to help,” Daniel said. “Sometimes these waves come in groups. We want to move to higher ground.”
I had no choice but to trust him, stranger though he was. It would only be later that I questioned my preternatural knowledge of his name. The time passed in a blur of excruciating throbbing, as we picked our way through the rubble. The streets were hard to find – houses had been washed clear across them. I lost count of the times Daniel had to carry me over some obstacle. I’m embarrassed to say it hadn’t occurred to me to ask whether he was OK. I suppose in my compromised state, I can be allowed some latitude. During those tense blocks, he kept up a steady stream of patter to prevent me from melting into a pool of pain and anxiety. I answered best I could.
We saw very little evidence of human survival for those first few blocks. It was becoming clear that had he not dragged me up the stairs of the sturdiest structure around, we both would have been gone as well. I commented on how strong he was and how quick thinking had saved both our lives. He told me he’d been in the marines for six years, where he learned how to pick up a comrade (“twice my size” were his words) with all hell breaking loose around him. “If it were up to me, I’d still be there with them.”
“What happened?” I managed to ask.
He didn’t want go into it, but also wanted to keep me calm. He figured the story would get my attention away from the destruction around us and the damage to my body.
He thought for a moment before speaking. “What happened is they discovered I wasn’t born a man.”
Yes, I was surprised. But so much surprising had happened in the past several minutes, there was no room for further shock.
“My service record, the fact that I’d seen combat, none of that mattered. My CO got rid of me quickly.”
“You look so much like a man.”
“I am a man. I’ve been on testosterone for more than eight years. Had everything female cut off or cut out.”
I didn’t question it. We got to talking about where we lived and what we did. I told him I was a bookkeeper for a car dealer in Huntington, Long Island. He was a warehouse manager in North Jersey. We both liked oldies music and dry wines. He liked snowboarding. I liked buying oil paintings from street artists. At some point I stopped contributing – every step sent a stab of pain through my useless leg and I concentrated on keeping from crying out, clinging to his shoulder so as not to collapse. But he kept talking, about everything and nothing, his gentle voice bringing calm energy when I needed it. We came to a place where there were a lot of people. I’m not sure, but I think he went and got someone in uniform. Police? Fire? I was hurting too much to notice. I was laid on the ground with a blanket underneath and another on top – I hadn’t noticed I was shivering. I lost track of Daniel when they finally put me in an ambulance and headed to whatever area medical center was caring for survivors.
At some point later – probably not long – Dee joined me. Our hotel had been far enough back so that not much water had hit it. We were on the third floor, so we both shared a nervous laugh at our good fortune that our combined resources hadn’t been enough to score an entire beach house, or even a place closer to the beach. She might not be here talking to me.
After they gave me some sort of painkiller, I nodded off briefly to news reports from the TV which gave further reminder how lucky we were. A rare Atlantic tsunami had resulted from an earthquake originating at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that had destroyed towns and killed thousands all up and down the coast. I dropped off with dampened spirits mourning lost souls, including, probably, all the beach volleyball girls and the pickup guys at the bar. It was not until the doctor came in that I awoke.
“You have a massive hematoma around the contusion, but in my opinion it will heal completely. You’ll probably need to stay off it for a week or two, but you can put weight on it as soon as you’re comfortable. I’ll order the physical therapy folks to get you some crutches so we can get you out of here.”
He left quickly, a huge backlog of patients needing his attention, and Dee and I were in the curtained area alone.
Or so I thought. I became aware there was someone behind my head that I hadn’t seen. I cranked around to get a look and I saw the benign face of the ex-marine who had carried me to safety. For some reason his presence filled me with joy and peace, and I realized that some of the discomfort I had been feeling was emotional, brought on by missing his steady presence.
“You’re here!” I said, or some other inane and obvious pronouncement.
“I wasn’t going to leave before I found out you were all right. Is that OK?”
I smiled at him. “OK? I’m thrilled. I was worried I’d never see you again. I would have no way to find you.”
“No such luck. I asked at the scene what hospital you would be taken to. It took me awhile to get here. Taxis aren’t running, for obvious reasons, but I was determined to find you.”
I tried to introduce him to Dee, but they had met while I slept.
He began inching toward the door. “I’m afraid, I need to go. I came with a couple friends. They’re probably OK – they were planning to spend the day inland – but I want to track them down and make sure.”
Suddenly, I knew, as clearly as I ever had known anything, that I did not want him to walk out of my life. My heart could not escape the power of someone risking his life to save me.
“I really want to thank you. When I get the hang of my crutches and I’m up and about, can I take you to dinner sometime? Pick any spot you want. The most expensive place in the city.”
I was hoping I read his smile correctly – It seemed deliciously flirty.
“I’m not too short for you?” he asked, in a tone that sounded almost playful.
“Why would you think…” I started, and then I remembered where I had seen him and how I knew his name. He had been in the bar. Our meeting was like a movie playing in my head. “Hi. My name is Daniel. I’d really like to get to know you.” And then, a wave of crushing embarrassment as I remembered my rude, insensitive, and dismissive response. “I’m tall, you’re short. What else do I need to know?”
“Oh God, I remember what I said to you. I am so sorry. I didn’t know. I wasn’t thinking. I…” I stopped myself. There’s really no excuse one can make for being totally evil to another human being.
He laid his hand reassuringly on my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I assume my height stopped being an issue a while ago.”