Art by Heather Ramsey
The first time I saw Marnie naked she was lying on her back in an ambulance while two paramedics cut her yellow Burton shell off her torso. The zipper must’ve been caught on the fabric. The medical boys sliced her jacket and all the fleece underlayers right up the middle with a razor-sharp scissors as if she were a fish. They needed to get to her heart. Didn’t we all? I stood a few feet from the sliding door of the ambulance in full ski gear, gawking, mouth open, the ultimate perv. Red ski patrolmen floated by, big white crosses on their backs. They nodded at me and turned away.
Marnie had huge amazing tits, bone white, with nipples as pink and ripe as guava pulp. It was the only time in my sex-crazed life that I stared at a naked girl and wanted to look away. We weren’t together or anything, just pals, both obsessed with mountains and snow. We probably skied together 25 days a year, hiked, played softball in the summer with a gang of friends, drank beer, ran into each other at art openings. She liked to throw parties. She had a back yard with lots of trees and places to sit. Maybe we were like brother and sister; at least she treated me like that. I was the advice guy, giving her counsel on books, and sexual strategy for boys she lusted after — and now I was freaking out on this rad view of her body, clothes peeled back, revealing the blinding treasure within.
No one told me to move. I wasn’t Joe Sleazoid violating an injured woman’s privacy. I was an indeterminate blob, a confused idiot watching his friend be manhandled by rescue guys. I was going to report all this shit back to her. Tell her that boys handsomer than Jonny Moseley — who knows what they looked like, I just knew that’s what I was going to say — were rifling through her privates.
Marnie was the best female athlete I’d ever known: strong, fearless, stubborn, smart, prickly, generous, humble, freckly and flirty. She’d stand in the middle of the room in a tight thermal shirt, squeeze her boobs like a stripper and say how much she loved them.
We met at CalArts, in the grad program. One night after a screening of some Belgian art films a pack of us went out to Canter’s for liquor and matzo-ball soup. Marnie and I were both wearing the same Air Jordans. We started talking about sports, a giant relief from art babble, and within an hour we had more than one ski trip planned. She made tons of badass sculptures and photographs. I painted sexually deprived robots with pitiful captions about tenderness.
I expected her to wake up any second. I was all set to get in her face about how rad her crash was as soon as her eyes fluttered open. Our tumbles were never embarrassing, they were spectacular Indy 500 car wrecks — loud football grunts, huge explosions of snow, multiple somersaults, skis and poles twirling in orbit. But this fall of Marnie’s wasn’t like our usual crowd-pleasing highlights.
That morning we’d assembled our all-important turkey sandwiches with Cheddar and avocado and four kinds of mustard, prepared on the floor of our tiny motel room. The sandwiches hung from a tree in a plastic Vons bag, as per usual, but this time would never be eaten by us.
At 1 p.m., minutes before our feeding, we were on a short, steep run that we pet-named Satan’s Maw, a sexy funnel of snow, like a 400-foot tongue with superjagged rocks on both sides for teeth. I skied down first — the scout, the hog. The snow was ice-rink slick on the sides, soft and carvey in the middle. It had rained for two solid days, and then it froze up, and snowed a few inches overnight. The conditions couldn’t’ve been schizier. But when I got to the bottom, breathing hard, I was euphoric and psyched, blood pumping in delirium. Every little jump-turn, clean and sweet. The perfect run before lunch. Marnie traversed into the good snow, made a right turn and inched her way over to the ice. I don’t think she realized how slick it was. We hadn’t really talked about it. What began as an innocuous little slip of the skis — losing her footing at the top, tipping over onto her hip, sliding for two seconds until a tree stump knocked her downhill ski off — became something much worse. She continued to slide, accelerated, the other ski popped off, and from there she jetted straight into a huge pile of rocks, somersaulted over a small cliff, her body thrown back onto the snow where she torpedoed right past me, headfirst, a limp rag doll, until a small grove of baby fir trees stopped her on a dime. An ugly crash. The worst I’d ever seen in person. I skidded down to her. She was flat on her back, her legs twisted up at the base of a tree, one hand on her stomach, the other behind her ear. Her yellow shell was up over her head. I clicked out of my skis, jammed them into the snow, and kneeled beside her. I unzipped the top of her jacket. She was snoring. I stupidly thought, good, sleep is a good thing.
Then it hit me in a panic; this type of snooze is dangerous. Her eyes were open. One pupil appeared irregular, ruptured, blasted out. Her goggles, gloves and hat were torn off her body. The temperature was in the low 20s. Her cheeks and the tip of her nose were pink. Frostbite, not a problem, yet. A chair lift was barely within earshot. I shrieked for help. I waved my arms and screamed emergency, unconscious, ski patrol over and over again. There wasn’t a scratch on her, though she’d fallen right through the most horrible section of rocks. I kissed her on the cheek, Marnie, it’s Sam, what are you doing, let’s get out of here. I wanted to watch her face but she was vulnerable to the cold, so I covered her up as well as I could, stuck my gloves on her hands and continued to scream for help. Her loud snoring sounds were eerie, deep within her chest, but at least that was breathing.
Out of nowhere a ranger in a black jacket appeared. He clicked out of his skis. “Hi, I’m . . . Tom?” he said, his voice rising, like he wasn’t sure of his name. “What happened?”
“She crashed, she fell through all the rocks up there, she hit ice and trees, and she’s unconscious.”
“Are you serious? Really?” he said, eyes wide with terror. He had no radio and didn’t know what to do at all, zero. We stood there like two helpless fools. He was frightened beyond belief, actually shaking; his pale, washed-out face nearly green. He took off his mittens and put on surgical gloves, took one step toward Marnie and fell 10 feet down to the next tree.
“How could you not have a radio?”
“Rangers don’t get issued walkie-talkies,” he said, struggling to his feet, climbing back up. “The mountain can’t afford it.”
After another round of screaming for help, Tom and I stood in silence, our backs to each other, staring at the trees, the snow, Marnie’s ã contorted figure. Time stretched out. Eventually ski patrol appeared. Bren and Bret. How long has she been like this? Did you see her fall? How did it happen? Who are you? What’s her name? Where are her skis? A third patrolman with a sled crept down Satan’s Maw from the top, trying not to crash himself, as runaway oxygen canisters jetted by us. His name tag said Brent. Three different mothers with a very similar boy in mind. They straightened out her body, and on the count of three slid her onto a flat plastic board and strapped her down. They lifted her into the sled, covered her up with blankets, said the gurgling sound might be a collapsed lung. One led, holding on to the handles of the sled, sliding ever so carefully, too steep to even snowplow. Another guy held on to the rear with a rope, keeping everything steady. I was supposed to follow but I just stood there. I couldn’t believe Marnie was inside that little cocoon. It should have been me; I was the reckless one, the crash meister, the head-banger of trees. She was more cautious, showed better judgment. When I got to the parking lot she was already in the ambulance. An angry father stormed ahead of his crying son and shouted that he’d had it up to here. With a stiff hand the temperamental dad, who wore a green iridescent one-piece (picture a six-foot lizard in orange boots), indicated a line just above his nose.
A fire chief tapped me on the shoulder, told me to ride with him to the hospital. He ushered me into a red captain’s truck. I’d never met a fire chief before. I felt honored, like I was in a sad American play about small towns. If only it was snowing, then I could just stand behind the fire station and let three inches accumulate on my head — maybe the falling snow would forgive me or reverse what was happening. But there were no snowflakes falling anywhere. The fire chief seemed like the sweetest old guy in the universe, a man of about 60 who drank coffee all day long until bedtime. He looked like Captain Friendly, with a huge boozer nose and big sad eyes.
“I hope your friend’s okay,” he said. “What’s her name?”
“Marnie.” I got hopeful and increasingly ill. I stared out the windshield. “How long have you worked for the fire department?”
“Forever,” he said. “Thirty-five years.” A tiny smile came and went. “I’m just helping out today. Shuttling folks. Today’s busier than usual.”
I could’ve told the fire chief that I’d always wanted to be a fireman myself. That I used to sleep in my clothes, and I made great lasagna. We said goodbye. A few horrible steps across the icy hospital parking lot, and then the automatic doors swung open.
A smiling receptionist held out a pen, asked me to sign in. I took a seat beside a gang of rat boys who were waiting for their bro Casey who was being treated for a broken wrist. One kid, whose face looked like it’d been bashed in more than once, his two front teeth missing, said, “The fool gets a foot off the ground and he thinks he’s Shawn Palmer.”
A minute later a nurse called my name, escorted me to a tiny room, asked me if Marnie was my wife or girlfriend, and could I contact her family. She said Marnie was in critical condition. I got her parents’ number through directory assistance. P-u-u-s-e-m-p, the only Puusemps in Pittsburgh. Marnie used to rave about the Warhol Museum. When I wasn’t weeping I felt like a hollow creep, and when I sobbed out of control I was nervous a nurse would enter the room and see me quivering and ruined. Before I had a chance to dial, there was a knock on the door. A female voice said the doctor would like to see me. I felt a sickly pride that the lord of the hospital would ask or tell me anything, and that I was the diplomat of Marnie’s country. The doctor was a compact man with super-hairy arms. He introduced himself as John Smith. We shook hands. He said he’d had to drill two holes into Marnie’s head to relieve brain pressure, that swelling was so severe she would’ve died within minutes. A spinning laughter whirled inside my stomach. Holes? Drilled? I couldn’t help thinking, what is this, wood shop? That’s a little too primitive for my friend. Two minutes later I was telling Mrs. Puusemp that Marnie had been involved in a ski accident, that she was unconscious from a head injury, that a surgeon just drilled holes into her head, that they were flying her to Reno, that her head trauma was too severe for this little mountain hospital. Mrs. Puusemp was remarkably calm. She took down my phone number, hung up, phoned her husband, and called me back with him on the other line. He wanted to know if her brains had spilled out. I said they had not, that everything was intact except for the two holes.
The helicopter pilot was there in the hallway, eating a hamburger. He took a huge bite, held up a finger, chewed twice, swallowed and said there was no way I could hitch a ride to Reno, too much weight. My appetite returned in a flash when I smelled his French fries.
A kid named Shane who worked at the hospital as a nutritionist heard all this from down the hall and asked if I needed a ride home.
“Nasty shit, man. That girl Marnie’s your girlfriend or something?” He had big dark eyes, huge eyelashes and thick lips.
“No, just a friend.”
“Damn.” Shane looked like a tall Sophia Loren without boobs. “Where to?”
“Ah, the 6, I’ve partied there.” Each time Shane shifted into another gear the truck lurched and blurted a loud clacking sound, throwing both of us into the dashboard. “You want a bong hit?”
Shane’s truck skidded into the motel lot. I ran to my room, changed clothes, dove on the incredibly squeaky motel bed, and assembled two peanut-butter, salami and pickle sandwiches on rye. I threw Marnie’s belongings in her duffel bag, and all my crap in my bag, checked out of the motel, and drove two dismal hours north.
The Intensive Care Unit in Reno was filled with fucked-up white people who’d shot each other. Hardcore skinheads with swastikas on their jackets and various other earthlings drifted in. And cops. A TV was on with the sound off. After a while Marnie’s parents walked in. Mrs. Puusemp looked a lot like Marnie, only shorter, the same freckly cheeks and blue-gray eyes, the same Middle Western, nasal voice. The father was a big burly dude with a wide face and a white beard. We embraced. In a flash the three of us were sobbing. Mr. Puusemp told me not to blame myself and to promise never to ski without a helmet. He and his wife walked over to a wall phone and identified themselves as Marnie’s parents to an unseen security guard who buzzed them both in. I waited in the lobby.
That night I stayed in my own hotel room adjacent to the hospital. Marnie’s parents insisted I be their guest. Over the next several weeks, I visited Marnie every day. She was in a coma, but her brain swelling was relatively stable, and she was able to respond to questions by contracting her closed eyelids. This surprised me. She knew she was 29, not 30. She cried a lot. She was in a lot of pain. A tiny physical therapist put her through a daily routine of arm and leg exercises so her muscles wouldn’t atrophy. I massaged her feet and told her about the neo-Nazis in the lobby. I kissed her on the nose and was certain her eyes would open. She looked like a spiritual leader with her shaved head. We all took turns reading her the huge pile of faxed letters that poured in from every aunt, uncle, neighbor, old schoolmate and teacher. We played her favorite girl groups on a CD player — Elastica, Veruca Salt and the Go-Go’s. The patient next to her was a man who shot himself in the head after killing his wife. His head swelled to the size of a pumpkin. When Marnie’s cubicle got crowded I’d wander over to his partitioned area. On one occasion his arm mysteriously rose like he was saluting Hitler.
Every night Marnie’s father sequestered himself in a room and delivered a meticulous progress report into an outgoing voice mail so people could call in and find out her daily status. He took copious notes on exactly what the doctors said regarding infectious diseases, inner-cranial pressure and brain-stem functions, and relayed that into the tape recorder. At the end of each day, mom and dad and whoever else was visiting piled into a tiny room equipped with a desk, a speaker phone and one chair, and listened to hours of phone messages left by people who wished them well. I sat on the floor and stared at my feet and listened as each call generated strong reactions around the room. Mr. Puusemp, one of the tougher 50-year-old men I’d ever met, someone who could easily tear the arms off most guys half his age, was by far the most emotional. When he wasn’t weeping profusely, struggling to catch his breath, he’d tell stories or ask me what I thought of the spur-of-the-moment ski-helmet design he drew on a cocktail napkin. He was a supersuccessful entrepreneur obsessed with solving problems. He’d sit me down in the hospital cafeteria and ask me how I could come up with the perfect artwork that would enchant the world and make me rich. You have to start with what people need most right now, he’d say, and I’d stumble through the conversation saying incoherent things about organic process and intuition. I was kind of in awe of Mr. Puusemp, but his interest in who I was, how I was making a living (construction, pounding nails), made me nervous. It was like talking to a senator. He really did seem lit up from the inside. More than once he pulled a little rubber mouse out of his pocket and playfully terrorized an unsuspecting nurse. If she didn’t respond favorably to the mouse gag, he didn’t want her handling his daughter. His sense of humor was relentless, the only thing that kept us from sinking. I accidentally slammed a car door on his thumb. Without a shriek, he calmly asked me to open the door.
At the end of one long day and night, all Marnie’s pals from L.A. crowded into the hospital hotel room like at a slumber party and smoked pot and drank Jack Daniel’s. The hotel didn’t even allow cigarettes. At some point the phone rang and it was Mr. Puusemp, in his room on another floor. He’d gotten word of our misbehavior and asked us to stop. He used the expression tout de suite.
I returned home and started keeping a journal for Marnie. I yacked on endlessly about what went on every day. I got it in my head that I should do everything that Marnie thought was cool, so I dyed my hair blue, bought trail-running shoes, ran in Elysian Park, pumped iron, did zillions of sit-ups and push-ups, played tennis, swam laps at the Y, ate Indian food, and pizza, went to more parties than I could stomach, drank champagne, read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, made piles of drawings and fucked every cute girl willing to take her clothes off. I taped a tiny snapshot of Marnie to the tip of my skis; bought a helmet; skied three or four days a week. After seven hours of skiing on St. Patrick’s Day I got a call from Mr. Puusemp. I was staying at a friend’s cabin in Mammoth. We’d been in constant phone contact. He told me that Marnie had died the previous night. I was standing in the hallway, staring at a ceramic Santa Claus. I was wearing these clownish snowboard pants Marnie had bought me for my birthday. She’d been in a coma 10 weeks. Her doctors hadn’t been sure what kind of shape she’d be in if she was ever able to think or walk or talk, if she did come out of the coma. On her most productive day of physical therapy, Mr. Puusemp said, she willed herself away. He said that it was just like her to do that, to take control of the situation — if she couldn’t be physically active she didn’t want to live.
A week later my blue-haired brain delivered a eulogy in the largest church in Pennsylvania to a zillion people who adored Marnie as much as I did. I told a story about the time she took me on my first backpacking trip through the Sierras. I was a complete novice and didn’t know squat. I’d never slept outside before. After a 10-mile hike through a high alpine canyon we stopped at a lake. She wanted to swim naked. She asked me if I’d mind, her swimming naked. I said, no, that it would be all right. I’d guard the lake, make sure no one saw. She stripped, I could feel her naked over my shoulder, giggling. Out of stupidity or some psycho brotherly respect I didn’t turn my head. I closed my eyes and pictured my sexy naked friend, standing on a flat rock. Then I heard a big splash.
Benjamin Weissman is the author of Dear Dead Person (Serpent’s Tail). He lives in Echo Park. “Marnie” is adapted from a longer story in a forthcoming book entitled Headless.