By: Harvey Huddleston
When people drink too much they sometimes think they see things clearly when they don’t. Then when they stop drinking they might be able to see those things they were previously blind to. By “blind to” I don’t mean what was hazy or unclear before but things that they didn’t see at all.
I can’t say when Big Guy’s beeps became talking or when they became music. I also can’t pinpoint when I found out that Big Guy was a monitoring system and that one was attached to the head of every bed in the ICU. But just because I found this out doesn’t mean that I didn’t know it already, in the same way that it doesn’t mean that what I knew before I didn’t know after. Big Guy didn’t suddenly become something else. He still had his musical skills but now he could also monitor heart rate and an IV drip. And he does this while continuing to play the Slavic tune in perfect harmony with his fellow musicians.
The drunk and the hospital patient are alike in that they both live in constant fear. Acknowledging this fear would be admitting to it so they run from it as hard as they can. They hide out in the land of sedation, that fuzzy, familiar place where the fear can’t find them. But then comes that time – and it always comes – when there’s nothing left to drink or no more drugs to take and the fear again raises its head. It sidles up next to them like an old friend, at first touching them lightly on the shoulder but then gripping them hard around the neck while whispering in their ear that what’s coming next might last forever. This happens over and over until all that’s left is the certainty that nothing good can ever happen again.
I see her at the nurses’ station across the hall from my cubicle. Other nurses are at the station but she’s the only one who stares at me and I wonder why. She’s also the only one who doesn’t keep coming and going. Her seat at the end of the counter is higher than the rest and her computer is on a rolling stand that is also higher. She studies her computer screen and then looks across the hall at me as if there’s a connection between it and me. She keeps doing this until I’m sure that there’s something going on between us.
When she stares at me I stare back which is not something I normally do. I try not to stare at anyone, especially pretty women, because I don’t want to be an annoying jerk. But here for some reason – maybe because of my condition – I don’t avert my eyes when she stares and she doesn’t either when I stare back. We just stare at each other for these long extended periods. It’s interesting that we do this here in this situation, one that I’ve never been in before but that she’s probably been exposed to many times. It feels strange and I wonder why it’s this way.
Her hair is light brown and curly, almost frizzy, and her eyes are dark, almost black. She’s very young too and would be considered pretty by anyone’s standard. She can’t be much older than twenty but her eyes are so focused and serious for such a young woman that I wonder what she could possibly be thinking. I also wonder if she could explain what’s happened to me and what I might expect next. Or if there is a “next.” I decide to ask her these things if I get the chance.
Her name is Alexa which suits her perfectly.
So, Alexa, have you seen many here in my condition?
Not exactly but aortic dissections are fairly common in the CTU.
Cardio Thoracic Unit.
Ah, so that’s where I am. Maybe you could tell me… Did my aorta just… split apart like the doctors say?
You mean it exploded?
No, it was more like one long split. During your first operation they tried to repair the section from your heart to your legs using natural materials from your own body.
But that didn’t work.
There were problems. Then you had a second operation called a TEVAR where they put in a plastic tube running from the top of your heart down the right side of your chest to just above your groin. From there the blood circulates to your legs.
Is that tube in me now?
I can show you if you want.
I’ll bring the computer in so you can see it on the screen.
You can do that?
I can. But we’ll have to wait until it gets quieter around here.
That would be great. Thanks.
No problem. Are you okay?
I am… Thanks again.
She went back across the hall to her computer and it struck me what incredible luck it was to have Alexa here taking care of me. I’m her only responsibility and I’m probably the first patient she’s ever had in such bad shape which also explains why I’m right across the hall from the nurses’ station. With her being so young this is almost as new for her as it is for me so she’s interested and seems to care about my questions. An older nurse might just go through the motions as her patient’s life plays out with the patient never having had the chance to find out what actually happened to them in the first place.
Then it occurs to me that maybe that’s the real question I should be asking. Do I really have a chance here? Or am I like that drunk who can’t see what’s obvious to everyone else and only wants to hide out in his make-believe world for as long as possible? Or is the question even bigger than that? Is this all just one gigantic charade that everyone here, including me, is playing their part in? I mean how many failed operations can one person have before the doctors give up? How many major surgeries can one body stand? How much anesthesia can one brain be inundated with before it atrophies into an inert blob?
I wake up to Alexa rolling the computer into the cubicle and positioning it next to my bed. In the half dark there seems to be something clandestine about what she’s doing and I remember her saying we had to wait until it was quieter. I wonder if this is even allowed by her superiors and if she had to search for an extension cord long enough to reach this far across the hall. I’m getting more and more excited as she swivels the computer screen around for me to see.
It’s a graphic, white against black, of a torso slowly turning. She’s manipulating it with the mouse so that I can see the tube running down the right side of the torso. Glancing at her face I see her grinning and suddenly realize how much she loves all this, this miracle of modern medicine that she’s sharing with me. It’s also suddenly clear why she’s working here in a place I’d be a million miles away from if I had any choice in the matter.
Watching the torso I too become entranced by it and ask something that surprises me.
So is this how the tube looks inside some generic person?
She’s quick to correct me. No! This is you!
Oh! So that’s me… That’s incredible.
I’m not sure why I’d pretended to not know it was me. I’d recognized the torso’s shape as my own right off but maybe that’s why I’d acted like I didn’t. I’ve learned not to assume anything here. I’d also wanted to show by my amazement how grateful I was to her for doing this and that I didn’t take her kindness for granted.
And – I have to admit – there was another reason. I’d wanted to look into those eyes again. I liked staring into them without looking away because they were even more startling up close than from a distance. So intense, a little crazy even, but filled with such conviction and passion that it felt like medicine. Though I couldn’t see much further than the few feet near my bed, I knew that there were others all around me dying at this very moment. I also knew that I might be dying too so anything I could hold up against it, like a cross against a vampire coming at me with its fangs bared, I latched on to those eyes and held them up against my own death. Those eyes, so intense, so crazy, so alive.
I also knew that she wasn’t the exception here but the rule. Until now all the doctors, nurses, technicians, cleaning people, the orderlies who took me to my surgeries and MRI’s, the assistants there and everyone else I’ve come across have had such an intensity and dedication for what they do that it’s been nothing less than amazing.
So Alexa, I’ve noticed how intense everyone is here.
About their jobs. I mean about doing them right. And I just want you to know how much I appreciate it.
You think we’re all alike?
Oh no, not at all. I know you’re different. Like I’m sure some of you were at the top of your class while others were maybe long distance runners or political types… What I’m saying is that even though you’re all different, you’re all so intense and good at what you do. And I’m so impressed by that. I truly am.
At that Alexa studied me for a long moment. I was beginning to regret saying it when she finally spoke.
The truth is that all of us here are pretty much up into each other’s shit.
… Oh yeah?
She nodded her head sadly. Yep, that’s about all there is to it.
How are you?
Fine I think.
Good. So then get some sleep. I’ll be back.
Harvey Huddleston’s short fiction has been published in Otoliths, CC&D Magazine, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Mystery Tribune, Ravensperch, Stray Branch and The Scarlet Leaf Review.