The Chinese guy with the bad heart, high tech shoes, and English-speaking daughter returned to the E.R. His wife had arrived and was asking the nurse if there were any chairs for her to sit on.
“This is the E.R.,” the busy nurse gestured to the chaos all around. “We don’t have chairs.”
“You can sit on my stretcher,” I moved my feet over for the little old lady. The Chinese guy was sitting up and looked to be feeling better. There was plenty of room for his wife to sit beside him, but he didn’t offer her a space. I guess that kind of thing was against his culture.
“Oh no,” the old lady shook her head at my offer, “they gonna charge us for that,” she laughed.
It was weird of me to offer and good she didn’t accept. How strange to share a bed with a stranger, our lives made clumsy by uncomfortable mingling.
“We need another sample,” the Asian nurse with the pink cardigan handed me a box containing a plastic cup.
“Your CT scan looks serious,” Dr. Shamoon came up behind her expanding on the point. “The stone is big enough that you might have to stay overnight.”
I wandered back to the bathroom with its door that didn’t lock. Someone had wiped up the two drops of dark red blood. Now no one would know that anything had happened. How many horrors had that space seen? Calamity echoes, then someone cleans up the mess. The world forgets, moving on to better things. Three years before, I’d almost died. My diet had been terrible. I’d eaten myself to death. Crohn’s disease was a wake up call, a come-to-Jesus moment, but it didn’t last. As years turned into years, I slipped back into my previous habits, eating ravioli at wedding rehearsal dinners. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I learn? I scanned the bathroom, making note of the blue-green tile, the strong handrail beside the toilet, the way the fluorescent lights flickered. Maybe if I remembered everything, maybe if I never forgot, maybe then I would be whole.
The piss came out clear and easy, collecting in the tiny cup, a record of my transgressions.
As I left the bathroom someone new was yelling. “I’m dying! “I’m gonna die!” His words were frantic, desperate, tortured. “I’m dying!”
I walked across the lawless room, my chicken legs sticking out beneath a white gown covered in flowers. Addicts and aliens waited in the corners. The high priests of Exalted Medicine moved among them, administering sacraments and litanies of technological scripture. Most of the patients were immigrants, intrepid voyagers who had left their homes to forge a new life. I understood the impetus. I had left my home as well, traveling to the world’s capital in search of contentment. Now my plan was in jeopardy. One hospital visit and everything was crumbling.
“I don’t wanna die!” The man continued to scream.
I approached his stretcher, carrying my glass of urine. The man was strapped down, but not like Donald. His body was cinched strategically with leather straps on his forehead, chin, chest, arms, thighs, and calves. A spinal injury. The poor bastard was trapped inside his body. As I got closer, I realized he was one of the Wall Street guys. He had the same slick haircut and fancy suit as his distinguished brethren, but he was foaming at the mouth, his back arched and contorted in pain. The confident suit with the chiseled chin was standing over him, watching his friend writhe in agony, “I’m dying!” He yelled in a voice thick with pain killers, spittle spewing with each word, “I don’t want to die! Please, God, don’t let me die!” Chisel chin had finally lost his cool. His tie was loose, his face was drawn. What had brought him to this awful place? I pictured a cocaine fueled sex fest in some swanky penthouse suite. The hookers got unruly and tossed him off a balcony. The vision was absurd, fueled by Hollywood dogma. Truth is usually less interesting than fiction.
“Did you order an AIDS test?” A calm woman with a giant fanny pack full of samples and kits approached me.
“Yes,” I placed my piss cup on a table figuring someone would pick it up eventually. Then I sat on the edge of my hospital bed.
The lady with the fanny pack pulled out a needle, pricked my finger, and harvested a precise drop of bright blood. I thought about the kidney stone and the expensive CT scan. There were strictures in my intestines, and my colon was enlarged. My body was falling apart. I’d worked as a fisherman, musician, pizza delivery boy, cake decorator, courier, odd jobsman, painter, high school teacher, college professor, graphic designer, and now I was pretending to be a writer. All of it a desperate dream. All of it a hopeless failure. Now my body was beginning to fail. I was running out of time. I hoped the test came up positive. An extreme memoir with a protagonist who dies of AIDS could definitely catch on.
“I’ll be back in a while,” the woman with the fanny pack snapped a plastic cap on my blood and went to collect more samples from other patients.
Donald muscled out of his chemical prison and began shrieking again, “I’m a goddamned chieftain,” he yelled, “and I’m bustin’ out like you want me toooo!” He sang the last note, holding it loud and long, defying the drugs to keep him from this raucous world.
Next to me an H.I.V guy with Hepatitis C was getting talked to by a female doctor. His body was shriveled, his limbs contorted in a palsy-like torpor. His neck had stopped working. He could only move his eyes. His mouth hung open, revealing rotten gums and a few broken teeth. He’d stuffed something plastic where his molars used to be, trying to protect his mouth from the world outside.
“Are you in pain?” The kind doctor held the dying man’s hand in her own. The gesture was symbolic. He was not a pariah. There were people who loved him.
“Yes,” his voice rustled like sheets in the wind.
“How old are you?”
“Pretty old,” he tried to make her smile.
“And how long have you been in the nursing home?”
“Twenty years,” his tongue had difficulty forming the harsher consonants, distorting the words with a jaw too sore to move.
“Wow,” she smiled, impressed, “you’ve made it a good long while.”
The old man stared at her, his eternal soul peering out from the wasted wreckage of his body.
“Do you have any family we can contact?”
“Do you have any friends we can call. We would really like to get in touch with someone that knows you.”
“No,” the old man tried to shake his head. He was alone, like all of us some day, his withered life was nearing its final chapter.
“Do you want us to resuscitate you if your heart stops beating?” The doctor stroked his anorexic head.
“Yes.” Another brave soldier, fighting to survive.
“Do you want us to intubate you if you stop breathing?”
The shrunken husk considered her question with giant, wet eyes. “Yes.”
I looked at my tan calves sticking out beneath the gown. All around me death danced mocking, next to beds of brave men and women in circumstances worse than my own, with lives more difficult, whose decisions had led down nightmarish alleys. And all of them wanted more. They had taken life’s punches and come back smiling, blood pouring from their glorious mouths. What was wrong with me, sitting on that stretcher, waiting for my AIDS test, hoping for news that I was dying a little faster.
“Carson?” A woman in the distance called out my name.
I froze. It wasn’t the AIDS lady. It was a female doctor in a white coat with a clipboard. They had sent a doctor to give the results of my blood test. A chill ran down my back, as a sudden, growing awareness took hold. I had AIDS. Tiny viruses had hijacked my immune system. They were using it against me. I took a deep breath. The face of death appeared. I had seen him once before, on a boat in Alaska. The waves wrenched us sideways, my fate was all but over. He smiled back, winking without malice.
“Carson?” The doctor wandered in the wrong direction. I pretended not to see her. I needed time to figure out how I would react. After a few minutes, I decided to crack a joke, “Will I live long enough to see the Broncos win the Superbowl?”
It would be the first line of my next memoir.
I felt a little guilty. The place was busy. People needed help and I was delaying one of the specialists from visiting her next patient. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Dr. Shamoon point towards me.
“Carson?” The woman approached. She was young, but already homely, her features made holy by ten thousand nights spent studying for exams.
“Yes.” Adrenaline coursed through my limbs. I steadied my breathing, feeling my heart pound in my chest.
There was sadness about her, a soul made heavy after telling so many people about their AIDS.
“I’m the urologist,” she began. The urologist. A flood of disappointment and relief washed over me. I leaned back in my bed and put my hand on my heart. “Are you in pain?”
“No,” I looked up at the ceiling. “Not any more.” There was still hope— that I was dying, that I would live. “For some reason the pain went away.”
“Strange. Do you mind if I conduct a few tests?”
“I think that’s why I’m here,” I smiled.
She tapped my back in various places. She examined me with a stethoscope.
“Lay down,” she directed me to lean back onto the bed. “You’re fit, so it’s hard to feel your abdomen,” she poked and prodded. The pain was gone. “I need to examine you,” she looked awkwardly around the room, “without pants.” My bed with wheels had been left in the middle of the room, surrounded by an audience of infirm minorities. There was no curtained wall space where the examination could take place with decency.
“Just do it,” I began to unbutton my shorts.
“Are you sure?” She laughed nervously at my lack of inhibition.
“It’ll make a good story,” I pulled down my shorts, leaving my boxers until the final moment.
She set down her clipboard and put on latex gloves. Earlier, when I thought I was dying of Crohn’s disease, a man with forceful eyes had shoved his fingers up my butt. Now I was getting my penis touched in front of a crowd of somber refugees. It had been a strange day.
The examination ended quickly, whatever she was looking for was big enough to detect with a glance and a few pokes.
“You’re OK. Do you have any family history of stones?” She stepped back as I pulled up my shorts.
“One time my dad got something done to his penis,” I said, remembering. “He described it as getting cleaned out with a roto-rooter.”
“Really?” The urologist’s eyes brightened. “Was it a strictured urethra?”
“I don’t know,” I made a disgusted face, “as soon as he said roto-rooter and penis I was done.”
“Understandable,” she laughed. “That sort of stuff really interests people like me.” She wrote something on her clipboard. “Your stone is 1.2 centimeters across, which is quite large. We might need to put a stint in.” She pulled out a little black notebook and began to draw the kidneys and bladder in purple pen. The stint was some kind of hellish device they shoved up your dick hole to open a passage for fluids. It looked incredibly painful.
“We’re still running tests on your second urine sample. The initial numbers looked alright, but we’re double checking before we let you go. If we send you home and you get a fever or begin to experience any pain, you’ll need to come back immediately.”
The urologist left. I sat there writing on my phone, hoping the stint would prove unnecessary. The AIDS lady with the fanny pack full of samples appeared out of nowhere— no time to worry, no time to dream. She gave me a thumbs up, which meant negative. Which was, I suppose, good.
“We would like him to stay overnight for observations,” a doctor said to the Chinese guy’s English speaking daughter.
“He won’t do it,” she shook her head. “He stubborn.”
Maybe he was stubborn, or maybe he was weary, disconnected from reality, waiting around to die. Whatever killed him eventually, his family would mention his hatred of hospitals at his funeral. They would talk about this moment and maybe remember the white kid who offered to share a piece of his stretcher. For that moment, a part of me would live again.
Denver called, the headquarters of Sauron made manifest. It was around 7. I shuddered to think of how much pain I would have suffered had I waited for them before going to the Emergency Room. “Dr. Kugelmaas doesn’t want to write a prescription without seeing you first,” the nurse said timidly. You could tell she was expecting me to get angry. It made sense, three years ago, when I was insane, I’d called her office every day and bitched out anyone who would listen. My file was probably full of comments like extremely difficult and possibly psychotic.
“That’s probably for the best,” I let my shoulders slump, “I miss diagnosed myself. Turns out I’m not flaring. It’s a kidney stone.”
“Oh good!” She laughed, clearly relieved that the monster she had read about failed to make an appearance, “Not good that you have a kidney stone, but, well,” she stumbled over her words, “you know.”
“I do. Thanks for returning my call.”
I went to the bathroom again. The Wall Street guy with the broken neck was gone, whisked away to specialists at a more expensive hospital. My piss came out clear and not at all painfully. The morphine had worn off completely but the pain had not returned. I took a bathroom selfie, to remember the moment, to let people know that in an ocean of fabricated happiness, it’s OK to have a bad day, weekend, life.
As I returned to my bed, the hipster doctor caught my eye. He told me they were still discussing things with various specialists, but it seemed like it might be OK for me to go home.
I wanted to ask what his secret was, how he was so happy and awesome. It was infectious, his dynamic personality. Maybe there was a trick to it. Maybe I could harness some limitless potential and start enjoying life. Or maybe people were like dogs, some breeds bark, others hunt raccoons. Was I the depressed breed of human?
“You have a pretty impressive stone,” the hipster doctor explained, “and it’s blocking the tube. Your C-test is running 1.2, but we want to be sure.”
“What’s normal?” I asked, not understanding most of what he said.
“One point two to one point three is normal, but with guys as fit as you, that number is usually lower.”
With guys as fit as me. I exercised a little and sort of tried to avoid ravioli, but I wasn’t healthy. I looked alright, but that was mostly genetics.
They kicked all the visitors out, like children from some obscene pool. I sat there watching the various patients, wondering about their lives, listening to conversations as they related their tragedies to one another in broken English. One lady in particular struck me. She had a massive underbite and an angry scowl. Her husband had visited earlier with Tupperware containers full of chicken, rice, tortillas, and corn bread. She polished off every bite. Then they kicked the visitors out. An attendant came around with trays of hospital food. Chaos ensued. Everyone wanted apple juice, beef stroganoff, and cartons of milk. The lady with the underbite, who had just finished eating, managed to nab one of the T.V. dinners. She devoured it as if it were the first meal she had ever eaten. I understood her greed. The demon inside me was hungry as well, but it had been chastened, the fear that I was in the midst of another flare up still echoed, keeping me in check, at least for the time being. That was the beauty and tragedy of pain. Our calamities teach us a better way, and for a time we’re able to follow its demands. Eating right, exercising, waking up early; but terror fades. A janitor comes and cleans up the blood. Pretty soon we’re eating ravioli, our sins recurring as if they were seasons. How long until I failed again? How long until I found myself eating hamburgers and plates of macaroni?
I’d been to the Emergency Room when I was a kid. It happened at church, playing with toys during Sunday school. I tripped and fell and busted my face on the edge of a metal dump truck. They took me to the hospital for stitches. I fought them. I fought them like Donald fought his nurses, screaming like the Wall Street guy in traction, begging them to let me live. Eventually they subdued me and fixed my face. Afterwards, my parents took me to McDonald’s. They bought me a small order of french fries. I had never felt more loved in my life. That moment, unfortunately, stuck— echoing, refusing to fade.
My parents, like all parents, were broken and flawed. They did their best, but in the back seat of the car eating french fries, I received something they couldn’t give. Food became synonymous with love.
After my first flare up I exercised and ate right, but slowly, as years turned into years, the horror faded. I let my guard down, not because I was hungry, but because I needed love. My choices were spartan. Live as an unrepentant glutton, or spend the rest of my days without affection. I sat there wondering which was worse.
They wheeled in a new guy, a balding punk rocker with giant steel earrings and hot pink Doc Martens.
“Help!” He yelled at the top of his lungs, pretending to be a lunatic, but without the dynamic persuasion of actual mania. “I can’t move my right side!” He wailed over and over again, but no one paid attention to him. He kept screaming. “Someone take off my right boot!” He commanded, but no one listened. The guy was a terrible actor. You could tell this was all some strange performance. “My entire body hurts! Someone take off my shoe! I can’t move my right side!” It went on for several minutes. No one helped him. His shirt had the sleeves cut off, the style that summer, and his shoulder was adorned with a Mucha tattoo. “I shit myself!” He yelled and rotated his knees above his chest. He was wearing an adult diaper, a shit-filled adult diaper.
“I can’t move my right side! Someone please take off my boot!” The guy was probably scamming for meds, trying to make a nuisance of himself until the doctors gave him a prescription for percocet. I stood up and began undoing the laces.
“Not that one,” he said angrily, “the other one!” I had accidentally started in on his left boot.
“Sorry,” I apologized. He had taken a Sharpie and drawn anarchy symbols and band names on his hot pink, patent leather boots. I was trying to extricate his foot from the bouncing vibrum soles when the Asian nurse with the pink cardigan saw me.
“What are you doing?” She scolded.
“Taking off his boot,” I gave the thing another tug, but it wasn’t budging.
“Sit back down. I will help him.” She shooed me away.
“Ow! Ow! Be gentle!” The kid screamed as she took off his boot. “I’m cold!” He yelled, “Give me a blanket!” The nurse rolled her eyes and spread a sheet over his body, “Gently!” He shrieked, “You’re hurting me!” Once she’d gotten the sheet over him, he started insisting that she change his diaper. She shook her head and walked away.
Doctor Shamoon came back, walking past the guy, ignoring his angry cries for help.
“They’re sending you home,” he said proudly, as if I’d done some great thing. “I’ve scheduled you for several appointments. “The stone is big enough that you’ll have to have surgery. They’ll send a little robot up there and zap it with a laser.”
“Awesome,” that made me happy, the thought of a nano bot equipped with a laser, “I love living in the future.”
The friendly doctor explained the events that would follow, where I should go to get insured, the details of the hospital’s sliding scale, and the various uses of the medications he had prescribed. The whole time the anarchy kid with the shitty diaper and one pink boot kept yelling. I didn’t mind. His parents had probably fucked him up, too. Somewhere along the line he’d gotten confused, finding love in unhealthy places. No one was perfect, except Dr. Shamoon. I wanted to ask him if he felt like grabbing a drink, how he had come to be so full of life. In the end I shook his hand, took off my snowflake-covered gown and left the building.
It was late, a perfect summer evening. The air was sweet, the women were beautiful, and the lights shone like friendly stars. My arm hurt where they’d stuck the I.V. and I was exceptionally hungry. My boss would be pissed that I missed work. I’d have to stay late the rest of the week to make up the hours. Still, I was happy, inexplicably joyful for no reason at all. I wondered if that’s what it was like to be Dr. Shamoon.