“How’d it go?” My boss hit send on another email.
“They want me to go to the Emergency Room,” I slumped into my chair, a wet, painful mess. “It wasn’t a total waste, though. Dude dropped a digit and I didn’t have to pay.”
“Digit?” My boss asked a little confused.
“He shoved a finger up my ass,” I held up my index finger.
“You have a way with words,” my boss shook his head then took a drink of water. “Are you insured?”
“Yes,” I lied. He was paying me extra each month to cover half my insurance costs, but the window to sign up had closed before I got the job. I was waiting for the next cycle before I took the plunge.
“My deductible is too high,” I was on the verge of tears. “They’re going to give me tests I don’t need, then prescribe me prednisone. I’ll be out thousands of dollars for nothing.” I put the soggy doctor’s orders on my desk. “I just bought a bed. I just moved to Williamsburg. I’m hemorrhaging money, and in two weeks you’re kicking me to the curb.” My boss winced. His wife was pregnant and his company was falling apart. To shake things up, he decided to move to Florida. He asked me to come. When I turned him down, I lost my job.
“So what are you going to do?” He looked at me, hunched and dejected, my glasses fogging from the rain.
“What would you do?”
“I’d go to the Emergency Room,” he said, as if it were obvious.
“Why?” The guy was greedy, but he had navigated life pretty well.
“So that you can get a prescription for prednisone,” he looked at me as if I were an idiot. He was right. I needed to go to the E.R., but Emergency Room visits were expensive. His wife was a doctor. He was a millionaire. People like that didn’t understand.
“I’m going to keep working.” I turned to face my computer. “If it gets worse I’ll—”
“—Tracy!” My boss answered an incoming call, grabbed a pack of cigarettes and headed outside. He used to hide the fact that he was a smoker. Then his business fell apart and his wife got pregnant. He began smoking openly. I didn’t care. We’re all dying anyway.
For two hours I sat there, trying to design a website for a company that supplied power generators to construction sites, but the pain kept growing. Before long I was pacing around our tiny cubicle, trying to moan quietly to myself. I didn’t want the other companies to know that I was a masochist. I didn’t want Beary to find out I was in pain. Around two o’clock I gave up. It was was more than I could take. I headed towards the elevators.
“Where are you going?” Eric was getting off the elevator from another smoke break.
“The Emergency Room,” I glared at him through the pain.
“OK.” His face took on a sallow scowl. His business was dying. He didn’t want to pay me for the half day I was about to miss. “OK,” he repeated as I walked into the elevator. I was the horse that pulled his plow. Without me, his business couldn’t do business. “OK,” he repeated a third time as the elevator doors closed.
I hit lobby on the panel and felt the ancient box begin its descent. The ragged building was 9 stories high, a dwarf compared to the rest of the city, but it would have been gigantic in other towns. Outside, the street was lined with similar monsters. In New York even big things don’t count for much. It was a comforting thought, like I was part of something bigger, like the chain would continue no matter how badly I failed.
Bellevue Hospital stood near the water on the Lower East Side. The entrance felt grand, like a train station from some bygone era. The Emergency Room was on the left. I wandered inside. It looked like a courthouse, but with sick people waiting to see doctors instead of criminals passing time until their docket was called. A cop stood behind a podium looking bored. I handed my soggy Urgent Care orders to the receptionist. She read through the report, entering data, then turned to the triage nurse and pointed to a specific section. The nurse pulled on her glasses, read the indicated lines, then looked up at me with a start. She was an old lady, weathered, but beautiful.
“Do you want me to put him in the cue?” Asked the receptionist.
“I’ll take his vitals now,” she began to move with urgency. Her reaction frightened me. “From one to ten, ten being the worst, what is your pain level?”
When I’d been sick three years ago it had been the most awful experience of my life. If that was a nine, this was a, “Six,” I replied, wondering how accurate that was. The old triage nurse twitched again, looking up at me for the briefest moment while recording my answer.
She sped me past the waiting masses and into the heart of the E.R., then recorded my vitals and printed a bracelet with my photograph and basic information. Absently, I wondered what the forceful doctor with the genius eyes had written to get me to the front of the line.
“Do you want an AIDS test?” She put a blood pressure cuff on my arm.
“Sure,” I sighed, some sick part of me hoping it came up positive. That would sell some books.
The old nurse took me to an Asian nurse in a pink cardigan. The Asian nurse in a pink cardigan had me put on a hospital gown covered in snow flakes. She wheeled me through a hallway full of infirm minorities, and white bums handcuffed to stretchers. In Denver, they piled the bums in chairs, or left them sleeping on the floor. None of them had been handcuffed to anything.
The Asian nurse with the pink cardigan left me in a curtained room next to an elderly Asian man. The guy had amazing calves with high tech running shoes that looked like they had been forged in a video game. A younger woman stood next to him. Neither of them acknowledged my arrival.
One of the drunk bums, handcuffed to his stretcher, began to yell, “Let me out, right now!” He tried to rise, but fell clumsily back onto his bed.
“Do you speak English?” An attendant came into the room and approached the Asian man.
“I’m his daughter,” said the woman standing next to him. “He’s been having heart pain for a few months but didn’t want to tell anyone. He kept it to himself. This morning he collapsed.”
“Does he live here or is he visiting?” Asked the attendant.
“Visiting for a little while,” the daughter looked around nervously. The old man was in the country illegally.
A very uncomfortable Wall Street type with a chiseled chin and well-cut suit wandered around the corner. He stopped in front of one of the bums chained to a stretcher. He was a cool character, floating above the unwashed masses. He belonged in a nicer hospital, with fewer people like me.
The attendant began wheeling the Asian guy away.
“Should I come with to translate?” Asked his daughter, concern on her face.
“What’s he speak?” The attendant looked over his shoulder.
“No worries,” the attendant reassured her, “we got that.”
A drunk bum with a busted arm and an unbuttoned button-up shirt lurched slurring from the curtained room next to mine. “Mother fucker…” He considered the statement, “Mother fuckers.” He amended the adjective to include everyone in the room.
“Get in your bed,” a nurse pointed towards his stretcher as she walked by.
He leaned back, his shirt falling open to reveal a chest covered in tattoos, then he started singing, “You can do what you do is right,” the words filled the room, rich and strong, “I swear to God I’ll bring you back to life…”
“We need you on the bed,” another nurse pointed towards his bed.”
The drunk man stumbled, trying to focus on the woman who had given the command, “I got a voice that don’t stop,” he tried to explain.
He was right. There was something powerful about the way he sang, something weathered and warm, desperate and proud.
“I want you to understand that I’m a good man,” he adjusted the tilt of his hat. The hat was covered in punk rock studs. His face was rugged from years of outdoor sleeping, a droopy mustache lounged lazy across his upper lip. “I’m stylistic,” he tried to explain, then began singing, “I wanna spend this moment,” his heaven-touched voice reverberated off the walls, “with yooooooooooou!” The note rang out, a sacred performance for those who could hear. “I got the stylistic…” he stumbled backwards, “Singing angel don’t leave baby now, you know that I will be there.” He looked at the nurse who was trying to herd him back to his bed. “I would love you,” he staggered to the left, “I would cherish you forever.”
“You’re in a good mood today,” she smiled. “I like it when you’re in a good mood.” The nurse led him back to his stretcher, trying not to touch the bloody gauze that covered his arm.
“I’m getting a guitar this week,” the old man said proudly, “and then I’m gonna show you that I’m not a bad man. I just need something to eat.”
A doctor walked up, “Hey, Donald.”
“Hey,” the old drunk looked up and pointed with one finger.
“How much did you drink today?”
“Little bit,” then he stood and started singing again. His voice filled the Emergency Room.
A hipster doctor with a beard and full sleeve tattoos approached me on my stretcher. “I’m Dr. Shamoon,” he was young, with bright eyes and a friendly smile. He radiated kindness. I’d always wanted to have dark hair. I’d always wanted to radiate kindness. “What’s going on today?”
I thought about it for a moment, trying to condense the last three years into a few sentences. “I went to a wedding this weekend,” The wedding was for a friend. The friend had helped me the last time I got sick. “I have Crohn’s disease,” I wiggled my hands, trying to sculpt my condition in the air. “I regulate it with diet and exercise, but this weekend I was at a wedding rehearsal dinner and the only options were terrible for me, but I had travelled all day and I was hungry and…” I shook my head at my stupidity, “…I came off my diet. For the whole weekend.”
“What did you have?”
“Ravioli,” I looked up at the doctor with a sparkle in my eye, remembering the glorious taste. There is nothing so sweet as pleasure deferred.
“When was your last flare up?”
“Three years ago.” It had ripped me apart, tearing down everything. In its wake I emerged, like a phoenix, reborn. A writer. A shitty, unpublished writer, but a writer nonetheless.
“What medication are you taking?”
“Diet and exercise,” I waited for him to try and talk me out of it. Doctors were always trying to talk me out of it.
“Three years without medication or a flare up,” Dr. Shamoon arched an eyebrow. “You have been doing good.”
“Too good,” I leaned back on the bed. “It wasn’t just the wedding dinner. Lately I’ve been cheating more than I should. I thought I’d beaten this thing. I thought I was cured.”
“You look like you’re in pain.”
“Lots of pain,” I nodded.
“Have you ever had morphine?”
“How did it make you feel?”
“Like,” I remembered my grandma, dying in a hospice room. My mother believed it was the morphine that had shut down her liver, that had sent her into an irreversible coma. “Like I want to be a heroin addict.”
“Don’t tell me that,” Dr. Shamoon laughed. He launched into a litany of questions and tests, administering finger prods and telling me to breathe in and out. “Your diagnosis is a bit confusing,” he said after a while. “I’m going to talk to the supervising doctor, and see what he thinks.”
“Everything is a goddamn Bollock finagle!” Shouted Donald from behind the curtain, then his voice disappeared into a pile of wet coughing. “I hacked up something wet,” he muttered when the coughing was through. “I got more life in me!” He yelled. “God’s gotta wait a while!” He laughed.
There was fight in that old man. I was jealous of his greed. If he wanted more time, he could have mine. I had sold my soul to the great muse, and been repaid with fear and poverty. Donald, no doubt, thought such degradations were a matter of course.
“If you leave me baby!” He sang, his wail a warrior’s cry, defying God to strike him down. “Please remember our love!”
“Sing it!” One of the nurses smiled as he walked by. I was glad that someone else recognized the man’s manic gift.
The Wall Street guy with the fancy suit and chiseled chin wandered by, looking like he was trying to look like he had everything under control. What was he doing here with the poets and dreamers?
Donald got out of his stretcher and approached a nurse, “What you gonna do?” He challenged her, “Give me a steak burger?”
Behind the nurse stood two cops, New York City’s finest. They were laughing, enjoying the show.
“What’s up Donald?” A skinny doctor with wire-framed glasses approached. He was the senior member on staff and carried an air of authority.
“Hey, brother,” Donald stumbled forward.
“I need you to go back to your bed,” The skinny doctor tried to stand his ground, anger and fear in his eyes.
“I got AIDS,” Donald replied. “They can’t understand why I’m not dead!” The doctor approached him, mindful of the bloody bandage on his arm, “They don’t know why I’m not dead!” Donald roared, wheeling about violently. A team of nurses and attendants gathered and began forcing him towards his stretcher.
“We’re going to have to strap him down,” the Asian nurse with the pink scrubs said sadly.
“If I spit on somebody,” Donald warned, “They’ll get my AIDS.” The nurses surrounded him and began tying him to his bed. He wheezed heavy from the back of his throat, attempting to breathe HIV on the people restraining him. But he didn’t spit. His threat was only a threat. He didn’t actually want other people to die.
The cops watched passively as nurses wrangled Donald. Why were they here if not for this?
“I got full blown AIDS!” Donald hollered, then continued breathing on nurses.
By this time about ten people had surrounded him. There were leather straps and steel cuffs. The skinny doctor with the wire frame glasses began filling a syringe with clear liquid.
“I will bury you,” Donald shouted, “I will bury you deep in the grass.” They managed to incapacitate him, then restrained his arms and legs with devices out of an asylum. “I will put you deep in the grass!”
The doctor approached the bed with his syringe, “Can I give you an injection?”
Donald lost it, attempting to throw punches, trying to dodge the needle.
“He’s getting one whether he wants it or not,” the doctor said sternly, and disappeared into a crowd of hospital staff.
They tilted his stretcher so that his head was lower than his feet. He breathed and cursed and yelled and fought the medication coursing through his veins.
The Asian nurse with the pink cardigan came back with a cup, looking slightly frazzled after her ordeal with Donald. “I need you to give me a urine sample.”
I took the cup, feeling the cotton in the back of my throat, “I’m pretty dehydrated.” All morning I’d been scared to drink water, afraid my stomach would reject the liquid.
“We don’t need much,” she insisted.
I took the cup and wandered towards the bathroom. Donald continued to fight. I was proud of him. I hoped he managed to break free.
The door to the bathroom had a lock, but the lock had been disabled. That made sense. They didn’t want the Donalds of the world taking a hostage and locking themselves inside. Next to the toilet were two big drops of reddish-brown blood. It seemed someone was having a worse day than me.
I managed to squeeze out a sample of dark piss, my insides loathe to release the moisture. I screwed the plastic cap onto the plastic cup then returned to the Emergency room holding my own warm urine. The cops were leading a convict in an orange jump suit and steel shackles towards the exit. It explained why they hadn’t intervened with Donald. They were here to escort prisoners, not keep the peace. Donald was still fighting and yelling. The Wall Street guy was still acting cool. The staff was still doing their best to keep up. I stood amidst the chaos, wondering what to do with my piss.
The Asian nurse in the pink cardigan returned and took my sample. She hooked me up to an I.V. and pumped me full of morphine. Then she gave me a bottle of irradiated beverage. “Drink this slowly over the course of the next two hours.”
I’d done this before. The irradiated beverage in Denver had come in a container decorated with slices of fruit splashing through streams of crystal water. This irradiated beverage came in an unadorned, reusable pitcher with a plastic cup to pour it in. I took a sip. The stuff wasn’t nearly as bad as the juice in Denver. I leaned back, my arm a tangle of intravenous tubes, the pitcher and cup in my lap, Donald still fighting beside me.
The morphine hit as an attendant wheeled me towards the x-ray department. I could feel the insidious syrup enveloping the pain.
“Are you Carson?” A hipster technician approached my stretcher, “I’m going to give you a chest x-ray.”
“I’m here for a CT scan,” I tried to stay alert, to focus through the sweet morphine bliss.
“Yeah,” he smiled easily, “they might be admitting you overnight, so we’re covering the bases.”
Overnight. That was a scary thought. What was wrong with me? The ache was in my back. Had my appendix ruptured? The morphine hummed softly, telling me everything was going to be alright. I tried to focus. I tried to summon fear. I tried to keep my senses sharp. I was alone in the Big City. I had to take care of myself. Modern medicine was awesome, but mistakes could be made. If you didn’t look out for yourself you might end up swallowing the wrong pill and going insane.
The technician led me into a room with two robots. One was suspended from the ceiling, the other mounted to the floor. I read his name tag. Thomas. Thomas was his name. I focused on the badge, repeating the word in my mind. A single point of clarity in a swirling sea of bliss. The pain was gone. I had to stay alert. I had to remember. He unhooked me from my saline bag and led me to the floor-mounted robot. “Wrap your arms around this guy and grip the plastic handles.
“I’m hugging a robot,” I muttered to myself.
The technician wrapped a lead kilt around my leg and positioned my body precisely.
“The robot cannot hug,” I reasoned out loud. “The robot cannot love.”
The ceiling unit came to life, moving into position behind me. I listened to the whirs and clicks, to the whine of precise motors with limitless strength. Engineers had recently combined Google’s neural network with image generation software and asked it to draw things. The mushy aberrations it created were full of fractalating eyes that spun through the energy fields of a digital mushroom trip. A new consciousness was coming into existence, beginning to understand the world. Like an infant in its crib, the creature watched and waited, growing stronger every day.
“A robot…” Drool dripped onto the machine. I tried to focus, to think about the future, but all I could see was a vast and unknowable mind. Humanity had given birth. Someday this new being would have a body. It would inhabit automobiles, telephones and x-ray machines. And then, in the fullness of time, the creation would create, spawning a child of its own, and this new race would dream of things impossible to comprehend.
A toxic hum clicked electric as mechanical eyes took pictures of my bones.
Thomas wheeled me back to the Emergency Room, past more bums handcuffed to gurneys, past signs written in Chinese, Spanish, and Russian. There was a group of Wall Street types sitting on sofas in a quiet corner. The guy with the chiseled chin was there, talking in hushed tones. The four of them were identical, right legs crossed over left, expensive, gaudy socks, giant gleaming watches.
The Emergency Room was full. There was no wall space. Thomas left me in the middle of the room. Doctor Shamoon led a group of medical students around, pointing at different things with his tattooed arms. They discussed each patient as if they were butterfly specimens, noting the beauty of each breed before moving on. As they walked past Donald’s inverted bed, he fought through his stupor, still struggling against the tranquilizers in his blood. He growled an unintelligible string of profanity, attempting to break his bonds, attempting to run screaming down the halls. I looked down at my pathetic arm with its single I.V. They didn’t have to do much to keep me docile. If someone tried to kill me I would let him, smiling as I disappeared into the black. Donald fought for each moment with a rebel yell.
After a while, space opened up against the wall and the Asian nurse with the pink cardigan wheeled me into the more desirable locale. From behind a gaudy curtain, mere inches away, I heard a desperate, unintelligible, foreign whisper. There was pain in the voice, an older woman with tears in her throat. I had been there. I had felt that suffering. I had fought that war.
“Hello!” A cheery voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Would you like to participate in a study about opioid addiction?”
“Um,” I looked around, my thoughts swirling, wondering if this girl was talking to me. “Sure.”
“OK, great.” She had a ponytail and a purple shirt. Her shoes were orange and her clipboard was made out of wood. I made sure to remember these things, focusing through the delirium.
“Have you ever done illegal drugs?”
“I’m from Colorado,” I leaned back in my bed. “I used to eat edible marijuana for my Crohn’s disease, but it was legal.”
“That’s a new one,” the pressed her pen against her lips, “I’ll put no.”
“Also ecstasy and cocaine.”
“I’ll put yes.” She scribbled out her previous answer.
“And mushrooms,” the words slurred sleepy out my mouth.
“Have you ever seen an opioid overdose kit?”
Donald started screaming again, fighting for consciousness, trying to look around.
“Do you live in stable housing?”
“Have you ever taken an opioid?”
“I’m hooked up to morphine right now,” I pointed towards the mess of tape and tubing shoved into my arm.
“OK, great!” The cheerful girl with the ponytail shouted over Donald. “Thanks for your help.”
After a while, the morphine wore off. The desperate, foreign voice next to me continued to whisper. I realized she was speaking English, her words obscured by a heavy Jamaican accent. There was poetry in her prayers, something beautiful I had tried my whole life to capture. That was when I realized I was in a story, that this was a moment I would tell again. I pulled out my cell phone and began to write, jotting down everything I could remember, trying to affix each moment before it disappeared.
An attendant came and pushed me down chaotic halls full of drunken addicts, disenfranchised immigrants, and a shadowy consortium of Wall Street suits still muttering quietly to one another.
Awkwardly, I transferred from my hospital stretcher to the CT scan bed, holding my own I.V. and the empty pitcher of irradiated beverage. At a more expensive hospital they would have supplied a tiny bedside tray on wheels, a place to set my things. It struck me then, how much it must cost to equip each room in this giant hospital with simple items. I thought of Africa with its raging epidemics, a place where fresh bandages were a luxury. Better to spend the money elsewhere, better to carry my own pitcher and tube.
“Have you had one of these before?” The technician asked as he slid my reclining body through the eye of a giant plastic ring.
“I have.” The machine was battered and worn, with black scuffs and tiny nicks. I loved it when technology was damaged, it was a poignant metaphor of mankind’s destiny. We begin each day with triumphant hope, with gadgets and tools designed to make things better. Then reality asserts its will. Lessons are learned. Another step towards our inevitable destiny.
“We’re going to move you through the scanner,” a voice said over an intercom. “Follow the instructions.”
Machinery buzzed. The bed moved backwards, “Breathe in,” a robot voice commanded. An icon of a happy face with its mouth open lit with yellow light. The symbol was meant to tell immigrants that they should breathe in. “Hold your breath,” the robot voice directed. The yellow-lit icon of a smiley face with its mouth open turned off. A second face lit up. The second face had puffy cheeks, the international symbol for hold your breath.
“Breathe out,” the robot voice finished its cycle after a few seconds. Gears came to life, and the table pushed me back through the eye of Bellevue hospital’s space needle.
“Breathe in,” the table moved. “Hold your breath,” the table moved, “Breathe out,” the device reset.
“Breathe in. Hold your breath. Breath out.” Flashing lights and robot voices. Then the technicians hit go and the donut came to life. Serum flooded my veins, administered by a steel overseer. Warmth washed over me as caustic chemicals reacted with irradiated beverage. A burgeoning consciousness peered into my profane depths.
“Did you see anything?” I asked the technicians as they helped me out of the CT machine.
“An alien,” the middle aged lady laughed.
“With three hearts and big teeth,” confirmed her young assistant.
“Awesome,” I smiled. They were my kind of people.
On the way back to the Emergency Room, a bum was pissing himself. He had his legs up above his head in Happy Baby pose, and pee was flying everywhere, “I’m urinating!” He yelled through his remaining teeth.
“Can you stop?” Asked an attendant, more bored than angry.
“No!” The bum replied, “I’m 102 years old!” He was lying. The guy was probably 30, with a scraggly beard that went down to his chest.
As the Asian nurse with the pink cardigan took me past a group of hospital workers, Dr. Shamoon, the hipster physician with full sleeve tattoos, saw me and smiled, “How’s the pain?”
“There’s pain,” I admitted. The morphine had worn off and a dull ache was starting to spread. It wasn’t as bad as before. I figured I’d let it ride.
“Let us know if you need more painkillers,” he flashed his brilliant smile and went back to the task at hand.
Once again there was no wall space. The Asian nurse with the pink cardigan parked me in the middle of the room. I pulled out my cell phone and started writing about what had happened during the CT scan, about the donut made of science and how the attendant said she’d seen an alien.
Doctor Shamoon came over, “I’ve looked at the images. Your discomfort is being caused by a kidney stone, a pretty large one.”
My world twisted. All morning I’d been convinced I was having a flare up. All morning I’d been cursing idiot doctors for making me jump through literal hoops. What if my shipments of illicit steroids had made it across the border? What if I had taken prednisone instead of going to the Emergency Room? “Can you die from kidney stones?”
“In rare cases,” his kind eyes nodded, “but you’re pretty healthy. The blood tests show no infection. Has there been blood in your urine?”
“Have you been running a fever?”
“When did you start experiencing symptoms?”
He had a tragus piercing with a silver cone sticking out. It looked so cool. I’d been in New York for five months and didn’t have any friends, unless you counted my boss. Which was depressing. I spent all my time writing. There wasn’t time for relationships. But this guy. This guy was someone I wanted to know. “What causes kidney stones?”
It can be all sorts of things,” he leaned against a column as if he had all the time in the world. “Sometimes it’s diet. Sometimes it’s bad luck.” The Emergency Room was crowded beyond capacity, packed with bums and dying aliens, but Dr. Shamoon was going to take as long as I needed to feel comfortable. Something about his calm was comforting. “Did either of your parents have kidney stones?”
“I don’t know.” It had been years since I’d spoken to my mom and more than a decade since I’d seen my dad.
“Separate from all of this,” Dr. Shamoon continued, “it looks like your colon has some strictures and enlargement.” He was concerned. Maybe he liked me as much as I liked him. I looked down at my skinny legs sticking out from beneath the snowflake gown, realizing that we lived in different worlds.
“I have Crohn’s,” I said, “and I’ve been cheating on my diet.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” he absolved my guilt. “A kidney specialist is on her way down to talk you through what happens next. Do you have any questions?”
“Do you need more morphine?”
“I’m good, actually,” I touched my side, realizing it was true. “The pain is gone.”
“Probably because we got you hydrated,” he looked at my I.V. with its bag full of saline. “You’re going to want to drink lots of water from now on.”
From now on. I’d passed the invincible stage of life. My body was taking damage, healing more slowly. Soon ten thousand cuts would take their toll, sending me to a quiet place without dreams.