Before and After She Fell Down the Stairs
by Kate Doyle
Kelly lands in a heap when she falls down the stairs—she falls half a flight at least, hits the entryway tile.
Daniel says he can’t remember screaming. Owen tells him that he did scream, a shout that echoed in the stairwell.
Owen, for his part, keeps his cool. He always tries to be the sort of person who can do this, remain composed, unflappable. Owen is someone who would coolly say to someone else, in the hours after she flew back from Greece, in the moments before she fell down his stairs, “Do you think posting so many photos affected your ability to actually experience Athens? Didn’t you feel not entirely present? Is it okay to ask you that?”
“Ask me anything,” Kelly told him—affectionate but also like try me. She sipped water from a coffee mug (it was all they’d had to offer her) and leaned against the fridge, her suitcase in the corner. Daniel was looking for his wallet. Owen was picturing a photo he’d seen on the internet: Kelly at the Parthenon, arms thrown wide in sheer delight. On the fridge behind her, postcards she’d sent them were taped up next to Daniel’s teaching schedule, plus a photo from college at an off-campus bar, Ria and Kelly’s shared birthday party, the four of them all drunk and hugging.
Kelly put down the mug and started putting on her lipstick. She said, “Will Ria be extremely mad we’re late?” Owen said, “No question,” and Kelly laughed and said, “Oh well, I’ll text her.” Daniel ran his hands through his hair—he needed a haircut, Owen thought. “Did I have my wallet when we left the laundromat?” Daniel was saying, and he started lifting up the couch cushions. Owen said he can’t remember, sorry, and then he said to Kelly, “What?” “Nothing,” Kelly told him. “Just, I’m glad to be here.” Owen felt restless then; he stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Hey Daniel?” he said. “Listen, I’ll spot you, we’re really very late.”
It was unkind, what he said about her photos—that’s what Owen remembers thinking as they went into the hall, as they went down the stairs. He regretted having said it, he felt suddenly queasy. He decided that later, he’d say he was sorry. They were on their way to meet Ria downtown. The four them would have a drink, they would trade strong opinions about where to go to dinner, this was the plan: a reunion. All week Kelly had been emailing, Can’t wait : ) and, How has it been six whole months! and, See you very very soon, etc.
Then Kelly fell. Then Daniel screamed. Now Owen is calling an ambulance, looking down at Daniel bent over her, Daniel telling her, “Don’t worry you’ll be fine.” Can she even hear him? The dispatcher says to Owen, “Sir, it’s critical she doesn’t move.” It doesn’t seem to him this needs ensuring; she’s lying very still. Daniel’s frantic, his fingers pressed to Kelly’s wrist, her neck. “Age,” says the dispatcher, and Owen says, “Um, um, twenty-two?”
The EMTs arrive, they say Owen and Daniel should come to the hospital. They say cardiac episode, though Owen thought she only lost her footing when, below him on the stairs, she dropped away. Instinctively he reached for her, succeeded in catching briefly at the shoulder of her coat. Afterward, inanely, he keeps thinking: almost. From the hospital waiting room, pressing his forehead to the glass of a window, watching car headlights swim past below, he calls Ria. She picks up, annoyed. “Are you just ignoring my texts? This is late even by your standards.” And he tells her. “Wait,” she says. “Wait please slow down.” He says, “Come here, you need to come here. We called her parents—they’re getting on a plane, somehow. I mean they’re coming.”
Ria shows up at the waiting room thirty minutes later, still dressed for dinner—heels, blazer. “Oh no,” she says. “Look at you, both of you.” Daniel starts crying. Owen says, “Um so, they’re telling us brain damage, maybe her brain is damaged. Not from the fall, from this cardiac episode, from loss of air to, well, but they say that there’s no way to know until she wakes up.” Ria is taking off her scarf. She says, “But then falling down the stairs, what about that?” Owen says, “We don’t know. They don’t know. They’ve got her in this coma—induced, no, maintained—they’re watching her. They have her in a kind of cooling bed, and they said it’s what you do, um, when you’re worried about a brain, because scientifically, it’s that near-victims of drowning, they apparently have better outcomes when it happens in cold water.”
Daniel takes a wavering breath. He fiddles with the zipper on his jacket. He says, “She’ll be in that for twelve hours, in this deep freeze, then they’ll bring her out of it, and then.” Owen says, “No actually, not a deep freeze. Not freezing: cooling.” Daniel says, “Oh, true, that may be the wrong term.” He scratches vaguely at his ear as Owen says, “It is, yeah, it’s wrong.”
Ria presses both her hands together, draws them to her throat. “Okay,” she says. “Well, we can’t think about this, not until we know more. Right?” A flicker of panic moves over her face, but then she gives them each a perfunctory hug and says, “Have you eaten? I haven’t eaten.” And she goes and buys three bags of cheesy popcorn from a pair of snack machines across the room. So they end up sitting in blue vinyl chairs, quiet, chewing, their fingers accumulating pale cheese film. Ria brushes crumbs from her coat, her hands sort of shaking. She says, “I’m trying to understand, could fright in the moment of falling lead to a cardiac incident? Or would it only ever be cardiac incident first?” Owen says, “It must be genetic, her grandmother, remember that story?” Daniel has his head down on his knees, has laced his fingers over the back of his neck. Then Ria says, “Think of the odds. After all those months traveling, of all places she’s standing on your stairs.” But Daniel lifts his head and says: “I don’t think we should pursue this kind of thinking, I don’t feel that we should do that.”
Then comes another call from Kelly’s parents, and Owen unfolds out of his chair, pacing in front of Daniel and Ria, nodding and nodding his head, feeling himself becoming glazed and disoriented. Her parents are getting on a plane from LAX to JFK. An aunt, who lives in Gramercy, is on her way to the hospital. This aunt has Owen’s phone number, as does Kelly’s brother who will stay in California, and Owen should keep these two updated while her parents are in flight.
“I will, I will,” he tells them, but then can’t find what to say next, so he lets Ria take the phone. Daniel pats the chair beside him; Owen sits. Ria is saying to Kelly’s father, “The three of us are here, Daniel and Owen and me, and when you get here, we will be here, I promise, and we’ll find your sister, too.” Ria hangs up; she frowns, gives a brief twist of her head like an animal shaking off water. She says in a very small voice, “Now they have to shut off their phones. Can you imagine?”
A feeling of confinement comes over Owen then, stealthy and crushing—he’d like to be out of this room, be somewhere else, alone. But Daniel beats him to it: running his hands through his hair again, bringing them down over his temples, looking from Owen to Ria, Ria to Owen. He says, “I maybe just need to go for a walk. I think I have to walk around, would that be okay?” He bounces a little on the balls of his feet. He’s always had this instinct, this nervous energy. It gets under Owen’s skin; it always has. Studying, in college, Daniel would pace the hallways of their freshman dorm, habitually roving, French vocabulary flashcards in hand. Murmuring “Je voudrais un café” and whatever, intermittently appearing in the open doorways to the room Daniel shared with Owen and, across the hall, the one that Ria shared with Kelly.
They would listen to his approach, his muttered French verb conjugations, then listen to him fade away. Whereas Ria did her homework in the library—usually completed in the precise amount of time she’d allotted—and Owen might go hours without moving from the place on his bed where he liked to sit and read, his back against the cinderblock wall. Kelly, for her part, sat on the floor, her novels and notes spread around her. With both their doors propped open, Owen could see Kelly from where he sat, and they’d wave at each other, a well-worn joke. Kelly had to shield her eyes at certain times of day to see him, because of the way the light came in behind him through the window. “That,” she said once, “plus your general personal radiance,” and Owen rolled his eyes.
Now, he says abruptly, to Daniel and to Ria, “Do you know, earlier tonight, I was criticizing her social media feed? I mean what the fuck is honestly actually wrong with me?” He stands suddenly, as Daniel looks away and balls his fists, but Ria says, with an adamant, desperate waving of both hands, “No, stop. Because maybe she is going to be fine, so you don’t have to, like, let’s not. Okay?”
She looks from one of them to the other. Daniel says, “Look I can’t sit here like this. I’m going to go. I’m going to go walk around.” He gets up, the sliding doors part for him as he leaves. Ria watches him until the doors seal up again behind him, and then she looks back at Owen, almost dazed, as if she’s only now remembering she knows him.
“What story?” Ria says, and it takes him a moment to realize what she’s asking. “Oh,” he says, “Kelly’s grandmother, you remember.” But Ria only looks at him. “I never heard it,” she says, “I don’t know what you mean.”
Years earlier, when Kelly told Owen this story, she was writing about it for freshman comp, a required course. The two of them were in the same section, Tuesdays and Thursday at noon. “The horror,” he remembered Kelly would say darkly, anytime someone mentioned the class, which both of them detested. All semester she would cross the hall to lean against his doorway and read, with indignant relish, the most extremely boring sections of the Academic Writing textbook. Then she’d flutter the pages of that week’s reading and say, “Can you believe they get to make us do this?” It made Owen jumpy and impatient, the way Kelly liked to talk. The way she sometimes said things, just to hear the way they sounded. “Look,” he said, “I dislike the class too, but yes it is credible to me we’re required to take it.” Kelly exhaled; she covered her face with the book. She said, “But Owen I can’t do it. I just can’t.”
One week they were assigned to write on the subject of “family.” It was the only assignment of interest to either of them. “My grandmother died very young,” Kelly told him, her voice unusually measured. She was sitting on his floor in a white square of sunlight, her back against Daniel’s desk. She’d lost her computer charger somewhere on campus, it could not be recovered, so if Ria was out then Kelly would cross the hall to charge off one of theirs. She said, “I’m writing about this more from an imaginative position, like what would have happened if she’d lived, how life might have been different than it turned out. Because I did think that was interesting, what the TA said—about how it can be as truthful if you tell what might have happened, as it is to tell what did. More so, maybe, even. I mean I know you don’t like that TA, but.”
Branches shifted in the window, their shadows moved along the floor, and from somewhere out on the quad a strange noise rose up. Owen couldn’t identify it, but right away it faded. He wasn’t sure what to say then, so he asked her, “Which grandmother?” “Oh,” Kelly said, “My father’s mother. My father was six, and if you can believe this, he was in the car. My grandmother drove their car off the road, and she died. But my father was fine. Of course, it was 1965, there was no autopsy, they’ll never know the reason. And there are times I’ve asked my father, don’t you want to figure out what happened here? But he says no. I think, you know, he feels he shouldn’t be affected, because all this time has passed. I mean this happened to my father when he was six, but here he is always saying: My sister has had a very hard life. My sister lost her mother at the age of two.”
Kelly seemed to take interest in the tops of her knees then, which were bent to her chest. It must have been spring, the window behind her was open. Owen said, “That’s really, I mean,” and clicked his pen a few times over. Kelly looked up; he was sitting there with a draft of his essay open on his lap. She said, “My father doesn’t know that it’s okay to grieve for things that might have been. Anyway, what about you though? Are you still writing yours about your cat?”
He felt uneasy, he had an impulse to sit next to her. He said, “Uh, now I’m not. Now that idea is sounding really kind of stupid. Thanks for coming over here, and taking our electricity, and putting things in horrible perspective.”
Kelly laughed as she reached to unplug her laptop. He thought she was going to say more, but instead they both heard Daniel intoning vocabulary down the hall—“La gare, le billet, se dépêcher”—and maybe those were Ria’s footsteps on the stairs. Owen looked out the window; in the wind the branches moved like waves. Anyway, Kelly was saying, “Thanks for the charge. I think this will be enough to tide me over.” Then Ria came around the corner—she was standing in his doorway, alert, her smile fading. She seemed to react to something in the air. What did she see in both their faces to make her ask: “What happened here?”
In the years after the night Kelly falls down the stairs, only Ria keeps on living in New York. “I like my job so much,” she insists to Owen. “So I’m fine.”
Daniel moves to Utah. He seems to feel the same as Owen, like he needs to make a change. He starts teaching high school French and—he tells Ria, who tells Owen—he takes up hiking in a serious way, he just wants to walk and walk.
Owen relocates to DC. He takes this internship, then a PR job that turns out be okay. He gets into yoga, indoor rock-climbing, half-marathons; he goes running for miles along the Potomac. Then one day, when he’s been living there a couple years, he takes out his phone and starts reading, compulsively, his whole email history with Kelly.
“Well, I bet that’s pretty normal,” Ria tells him. They try to catch up when they can on the phone. He gets bad cell reception at his place, so he sits on the building’s front stoop while they talk, as people go past him running, or on bicycles, with strollers and dogs, in fading light.
“I think I disagree,” Owen tells her. “It doesn’t feel normal. I’m not so sure it’s healthy.” He tells Ria it’s unplanned, it just happens, but often: waiting for toast in the morning, or just having taken a shower, or walking from the elevator to his desk. He’ll just search Kelly’s name in his phone and start perusing, lose all track of time, the toast going cold, work emails left unopened, whatever. “It feels out of my control,” he tells Ria. “It makes me feel crazy.” “Well, no, I’m certain that it’s normal,” she insists, and he can hear the New York street noise in the background: clamorous voices, the growl of traffic, an MTA announcement as Ria descends into a subway station. She seems only to call him if she’s walking from one place to another, when she needs to fill the time.
For several months that year Owen dates this med student, Natalie. He likes her; he isn’t sure why he goes and tells her everything he does, in so much detail. “I’ve heard of it,” Natalie says when he blurts some of this out, about Kelly, one night over dinner at Natalie’s apartment—he’s brought wine and she made pasta. “Congenital,” Natalie says. “Usually, there’s family history, right?”
He says, “I have always felt guilty, to be honest. I was the one behind her on the stairs. Later, I found out I was the only one of us who knew this thing about her grandmother. Not that it changes anything, but. I always felt sort of responsible for her—well no that’s not the word. I felt, I don’t know what. I’m sorry, do you want another glass?” Natalie says, “Yes, sure, I’ll have another.” She reaches to take his hand, but it only makes him feel numb, and he wonders should he change the subject. The next day he deletes some emails, an effort to be present, stop dwelling, but then he arrives at this one that he really likes, with its total exuberance—Hello look at this photo, isn’t Sweden BEAUTIFUL, I’m never leaving—and he decides he won’t delete them after all.
In the months when he was first receiving Kelly’s emails, they had just graduated from college, and she had begun her trip through Europe. The rest of them were brand-new transplants to New York—he and Daniel rented a U-Haul in June to move their things from Massachusetts. In September, Ria moved into a place downtown and started coding software for a startup, whose cutesy name Daniel and Owen mocked gently behind her back. Daniel was in his first semester of a PhD in French. Owen was tutoring to supplement, in theory, his freelance writing. And Kelly was sending them all these group emails, Hello from Copenhagen, Normandy, Berlin, etc, and mailing them postcards they taped to the fridge. All of this is strange now to remember. Owen and Daniel shared a one-bedroom far uptown—they were trying to save on rent—so Owen would email her back from his futon bed in the living room, his laptop open on his stomach, while Daniel paced a short loop from the front door into his room and back again, making notes in the margins of books or grading quizzes.
Owen wrote, You will be glad to know the change in location has changed Daniel not at all. Kelly wrote back, Sigh of relief! She added, Stop being so gloomy in your emails, you can stop hinting how it’s going to be. Europe is beautiful, everyone I meet is wonderful. Let me have this before I join you in a lifetime of English-major underemployment. I’m totally realistic about my prospects and expect to spend my life inhabiting a series of increasingly expensive couches belonging to Ria. You can tell her I said so, xox.
When he read this aloud off his phone in a dark East Village bar, Ria laughed and put her hands over her face. Daniel polished off his beer and said, “Too true. Ria makes much more money than any of us.” She elbowed him, he pretended to be injured. It was November, and Kelly was in Dublin. Her latest email described Trinity College, the Book of Kells, a bridge over the Liffey that she particularly liked. Owen said, “I miss her,” but it didn’t seem like either of them heard him. Ria was finishing her drink, Daniel waving down the bartender, joking that Ria would have to pay for the next round to make up for his bruised rib, seeing as she could afford it.
Outside, an early snow was falling thinly on the sidewalks. Owen had not expected to feel Kelly’s absence on nights like this: the three of them without her in New York. When she first announced her plan to go away and travel, over Chinese takeout senior year, it had been a curious, small relief, and Owen left the feeling unexamined. Instead he’d stirred his noodles in their paper takeout box and listened to her chat, rhapsodic, about the profound and ancient beauty of the Greek language. All through college he would have said there was this space between him and Kelly—so much of what she said to him seemed inexcusably frivolous. “Proust,” she once told him appreciatively, from across a table in the library, “just knows how to write such a beautiful sentence.” She thumbed at the pages; they made a zippering sound on her skin. He stayed quiet and did not suggest that this was no observation of staggering insight.
That was senior year, back when the four of them could spend whole Sundays around a table in the library, a little hungover from whatever party they’d been at the night before. He still recalls one morning, cold and bright, Kelly lifting her sunglasses away from her face on the library steps. “I just want to be enthusiastic and express how I love library Sundays,” she said. “I love them extravagantly and with abandon. I wish they didn’t have to end in May.” Owen, freezing, hugged his coat closer. He said, “Sure, agreed. Are we going inside?” Another time, at an after-party for a play that Kelly starred in, he recalled her dancing across the room to the place where he was leaning, ill at ease, against the wall. “I’m having so much fun,” she said, and he was possessed by a bottled feeling, like this moment was passing him by; he could not find the words to answer her.
He wished he understood her better, he wanted to. He and Daniel were a solid match, the kind of roommates who could pass hours in the dorm in easy silence. Owen liked the way, if they ran into each other in another part of campus, Daniel brightened visibly. Then Ria was this intent, productive presence—she had, Daniel said once, an actually terrifying administrative drive. She would come home from class, from jazz ensemble, from her internship, she’d put down her bag and propose they all go to dinner now, or they should come with her to X lecture or Y film screening tonight, it was going to be excellent. Ria was the one who’d molded them all into a shabby, sudden whole, appearing in their doorway hours after move-in freshman year to ask would they like to go with her and her delightful new roommate to the ice cream social? Her dark hair was pulled back from her face, the roommate behind her wore a yellow shirt. They had honestly been thinking they might not even go, it sounded stupid, but Daniel said, “Why not, we’ll come along.” Owen remembered Kelly, the invoked roommate, sort of in the background, smiling too much.
Of course he always cared for her, it was just that something changed—once Kelly was traveling he depended on her emails in a way Daniel and Ria seemed not too. “Well sure,” Ria tells him on one of their phone calls, and in the background a car honks, someone starts shouting. Ria says, “I mean that much was clear. And so what? So you were always hard on her. Like what can you do? Be kinder to yourself.” Of late, Owen’s mostly been reading and re-reading one email from Kelly’s first week away: Dear O, Hi from Paris! Hard to believe you’ve now written back a third time. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s thrilling to see you break character. I’m flattered, though should note we’re in danger of establishing a healthy pattern here. What did I do to provoke this—or does it have nothing to do with me? Is real life agreeing with you, softening your edges? Or is real life just the worst, and you’re pining for the past?
He remembered lying on his back on the futon, as he read it for the first time. Daniel was at the kitchen counter eating cereal, formulating a shared grocery list out loud. The light through the room’s single window streaked into the room, over Owen’s shoulder and on to the floor. His cursor blinked feverishly in the corner of a fresh email, re: What have you done with Owen. Daniel was saying they were out of paper towels—“Oh and orange juice,” he said. “Is that it? Anything else you need?”
“No,” said Owen, “No nothing else, totally set, thanks.” To Kelly, he typed: Dearest K, No comment.
All these things he says to Natalie in these months—over the course of so many dinners at her place, breakfasts at his, long runs together, and movie dates, and drinks in bars—it feels good to tell her, a kind of offloading sensation that both frightens and relieves him. Like something opens in his chest and the contents slide away. How after Kelly fell, after the hospital, after the funeral and everything, Owen and Daniel had arguments, raging fights about nothing: unwashed dishes, expired whatever in the fridge. How it had never been that way with them, how they started going crazy over old things from college, stuff they’d never talked about, things that hadn’t seemed to matter at the time. How Daniel started staying at his office later and later, even sleeping there some nights. How when their lease was up they said it might improve things if they lived apart. How Owen made the excuse that he was sick of the futon—he said a year was about as much as he could do, living that way. They moved out, Daniel went home to his parents’ in Boston, saying it would just be for the summer, he’d see them in the fall. And Owen lived on Ria’s couch for those three months. “We drank way too much,” he tells Natalie, who looks troubled but puts her hand on his. He says, “Just me and Ria at home, or we’d go walking blocks and blocks around New York at night. It was terrible, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves, we were always crying. I remember Ria would say, ‘We just can’t think about it, we just have to find things to do with our time.’ She called Daniel almost every day, but I never did. She’d sit on the fire escape and talk with the window closed. And then instead of coming back to the city Daniel takes this high school teaching job, he tells us he’s going on leave from the PhD. He says he just has to process things alone, he’ll just do this for one year and then he’ll be back, he promises. He came to the city once more before he moved out west, I think it was August, the three of us had a drink. Margaritas, on some rooftop, awful. We tried to talk about her, about what happened, but it was like, I don’t know. I remember Ria said, ‘Okay enough, let’s get the check, I can’t, I want to go home.’ I remember hugging Daniel, I said, ‘Good luck and let us know how you are there,’ and he said, ‘Definitely I will.’ But actually we don’t keep up at all, it’s only Ria who’s in touch with him, and rarely to be honest.”
The night he says all this to Natalie, they’re walking to a restaurant for dinner. They meet up when she finishes class, she comes out of the front door buttoning her jacket, putting papers in her bag. She kisses him hello, her hand on the side of his face, and they go for a drink at a bar down the block, catch up about her day. Then she is talking about anatomy lab, and out of nowhere he is saying all of this. “Let’s walk,” Natalie says, “let’s walk to dinner.” She grasps his arm and then lets go. The light is all but faded as they come to Dupont Circle, the windows have a dusky shine, cars in the roundabout whirl violently, and he wishes Natalie would take his hand again, he has the impulse to reach for her himself, press the bones of her wrist, the length of her fingers. Instead he stuffs his hands down in the pockets of his coat and wishes for another way things might have been. He feels sorry for getting into this at all, and when they pause at a crosswalk he can feel Natalie look over at him—curious, gentle, just a little alarmed. In the dark, his face warms.
He has never forgotten all those sensors, wires, taped to Kelly’s face. Taking the pulse of her brain. It was a smaller room than you’d expect, the lights off, everything sort of purple. The better to get at her forehead, someone had gathered her long hair away, piled in a twirl on the pillow, like dry seaweed strewn on a beach.
He and Daniel and Ria stood there, shoulder to shoulder. Early hours of the morning, pre-dawn, her parents had arrived, and somewhere they were off conferring hopefully with doctors. It would be another hour before they tried to wake her, but a nurse came to check on all the charts and screens and fluid bags, and he said it was perfectly all right to take her hand if they would like to do that.
In Owen’s memory, Ria straightens up, as though it’s clear she must go first. The hand sanitizer, in the corner, is automatic, it gurgles when she puts her palms out. Then she goes and links her hand in Kelly’s, looking stiff and anxious, her eyes fixed down. Daniel hesitates, then he goes to the hand sanitizer too. The machine growls briefly, and when Daniel turns back he meets Owen’s gaze, gives a small choked cough, and nearly laughs. Bleakly, Owen tries to smile, but Daniel looks away. The last time they are all four together in one place. Owen is bewildered, he takes Daniel by the elbow, knowing this is helping nothing. Ria takes a long unsteady breath, she lets go of Kelly’s hand, she lets it stay there on the blanket, her own hand hovering above it. “I don’t know what to do,” she says, in a voice that’s rising, verging panicked. She puts her hand up to her forehead, says, “I think maybe we should go now, should we go now, do you think?” She looks at Daniel, looks at Owen, like one of them is meant to tell her what to do. And then Owen can feel something between all of them, coming undone. Neither he nor Daniel answers, and everything is quiet, there is only this repeating beep, beep, beep, as Natalie turns in the crosswalk with an inscrutable expression. The crossing light flashes, Owen stands at the curb, his heart is racing. “Are you coming?” Natalie says, and puts out her hand. The dry leaves turn over in the wind, and over and over.