Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
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back MELINDA M. WHITE

Between Floors: Love and Other Blood-Related Diseases

What eventually became a lifestyle choice began with a suicide attempt. Not her own, of course, but her father’s.

Since she was here for the duration, June might as well take a lover. Two thousand miles separated her from Vincent, the one she’d so very recently united with—although it no longer seemed recent. June saw no hope of returning to him. She had planned to—booked tickets, imagined the reunion, the lips and hands and the feel of his skin. Her house, her bed. His house, his bed. Their space. The future. Their theoretical future. Falling in love, even; it had all seemed possible. Before the “accident.”

She was anxious, at first, to get back—to unfinished art projects, ones that were still vague thoughts swirling around in her mind. There were no easels here, no oils, no canvases, but there were paintings—generic, sterile, vaguely impressionistic works that cluttered hallways, waiting rooms, and patient cubicles. In the hallway to the cafeteria, an almost-Monet with lily pads and raindrops; in the fifth floor ICU waiting room, a Van Gogh–esque sky. But just as the paintings first appeared derivative and shallow, their presence began to soothe her, like visiting the same old friends day after day.

~

What eventually became a lifestyle choice began with a suicide attempt. Not hers, but her father, Ted’s. The lifestyle—bedside vigils, wiping chins, foreheads . . . other things; riding the elevator between floors to pace pastel-colored hallways, peruse pastiche landscapes, observing both tragedy and joy within these walls; eating hospital grilled cheese served up on yellow trays—began when June’s mother, Carol, found Ted on the floor in the basement, a noose around his neck, a broken rafter that could not sustain his weight, pooling blood seeped into the beige Berber carpet. Oozing from a gunshot wound to his right temple, red glue through his thin gray hair. It was either the carbon monoxide leaking in through the window from the exhaust of the running car outside or all the Vicodin he’d swallowed that made him too woozy to carry out any successful final steps he may have rehearsed. He thought he’d covered all the bases but, instead, ended up Life Flighted to the Shock Trauma intensive care unit of St. Joseph’s and hooked up to life support for months. Spurts of consciousness, not his will to live, kept the doctors from pulling the plug.

~

June began searching for her new lover on the second floor, ostensibly perusing the watercolors, and was immediately drawn to one handsome man, perhaps ten years her senior, who appeared fully functional. He charmed her with spare change and compliments while they tried to figure out the coffee vending machine. He was a Dr., of the academic variety, and had practiced as a lawyer for several years. Or at least this is what he led her to believe. But after the first two months of passionate visits, he began to show signs of the mental impairment that had brought him there. Perhaps it was a random change in his dosage, she was never really sure, but during one heated tryst in a supply closet he told her he fantasized about being smeared with blood and asked her if she wanted to fuck in one of the refrigerated drawers down in the basement morgue (and not an empty one). At this point blood no longer made her woozy, but she had never been into threesomes.

From then on she would more closely observe the floors she prowled. Second floor: Psych Ward. Check. Third floor: Neurology. Catheters complicated the mechanics of things and morphine drips made for dilated conversation. Fourth floor: Orthopedics. Awkward and uncomfortable maneuvering casts and attempting to wrap her legs around wheelchairs. Fifth floor: Burn Unit. Dangerous sensitivity to the gentlest contact, even with bandages meticulously left on. First floor: Oncology. Nauseating odor of chemical despair.

~

Carol had come in from her morning walk, noting the smell of firecrackers and exhaust in the air as she took off her coat and boots. The dog immediately ran to the head of the basement stairs and let out a half-whine, half-bark. Carol called out to Ted, who she thought must certainly be up and about by now, but there was no answer. “What in the name of God is that smell?” she yelled, loud enough to wake the dead. Still, silence. She hesitatingly made her way to the basement, calling out to him as she went. It was years before she could accept what she saw there—the noose, the rafter, the blood seeped into the Berber, Ted oozing, eyes rolled back, sprawled. Even after she shook him, tried to revive him, called 911, she could not stop from asking over and over between sobs and clenched teeth, “What have you done? Ted, what have you done?” June was two thousand miles away when she received the phone call that dropped her to the floor. She didn’t need to see it to not believe it.

~

Ted really doesn’t want to be here, in more ways than one. He’d been very definite in his decision, was ready to move on. Now he’s stuck, strapped down in a hospital bed in St. Joseph’s Shock Trauma ICU. He knows that once the respirator is removed there will be questions. He sees the weepy, even angry eyes of his wife and daughter, pleading, questioning. He dreads the inevitable questions they will ask—questions he never expected to have to answer. He could make a break for it . . . through the window perhaps, although he imagines his IV and oxygen tubes would complicate things. He has a sudden, garish flash of himself hospital-gown bungee jumping—suspended by rubber tubing, oscillating like a yo-yo, snowflake-patterned johnny blown open, legs and arms formed in a gawky pirouette, oxygen mask askew, the rhythmless complaint of his disconnected heart monitor the only musical accompaniment to his absurd vertical dance between floors.

Carol eventually goes home to retrieve some of her belongings. The memory of the smell, the panic, the questions, the silence—it all comes flooding back when she went downstairs. It takes her three hours to scrub the blood out of the Berber. Even then there was a faint, wine-red stain that she doesn’t want to have to explain to professional carpet cleaners, so she moves a chair to cover it up.

~

When Ted is finally able to eat, June brings him turkey rice soup and chocolate pecan ice cream, like a good daughter. She sneaks them up in the elevator under her coat, despite the risk of scalds and freezer burns. After three months in the ICU and two visits from a social worker, he is still not talking. As soon as he is able, he mouths the words “I’m sorry” to June. She squeezes his leathery hand, attempts a half-smile, an “It’s ok, Dad,” but her hazel eyes fill with water. She no longer looks at him with the same sparkling, adoring eyes of his little girl, and he finds it easier to avoid looking at her altogether.

~

“Why don’t you find yourself a handsome doctor?” Carol had suggested innocently one Wednesday, a week or so after what she was calling Ted’s “accident.” “Have you noticed all the handsome doctors here? This is the place for it. A little hospital romance. What? Am I wrong?” June looked at her with her usual skepticism—maybe she didn’t believe she was pretty enough to attract a doctor. “You should ask one of them a medical question . . . you know, strike up a conversation. But not about a rash or anything—something more attractive than a rash.” June always did have self-esteem issues growing up. Canoodling patients here and there was one thing, but a doctor? Carol was persistent though—kept oh-so-casually bringing it up until finally June took her advice and snagged a surgeon. Imagine that. And Carol was very proud, even though June never bothered to thank her for her advice.

~

One night, Ted, connected and engulfed in a twisted muddle of various tubes and machines, managed to remove his oxygen mask, blood pressure cuff, oxygen sensor, and pull out his IV and catheter. In an entanglement of rubber and latex, blood and urine, he was sliding his way across the linoleum in his hospital-issued blue footy socks like a terribly underdressed ice dancer, when they caught him. He hadn’t even skated all the way to the door or found his sweat pants and leather coat (surely Carol had hidden them). He was going, that’s all he knew. All that work for nothing. He represented a flight risk after that and had to be watched. And tied down.

~

Just about the time June was supposed to fly back home—to work, to Vincent—Carol slipped in the icy hospital parking lot and broke her hip. June’s theory is the news of Carol’s accident and subsequent absence from Ted’s bedside is what eventually led her father to suffer his aneurysm, which had to be repaired with a stent, sent into his brain via an angio procedure because his doctors did not want to open his skull and disturb the self-inserted bullet still lodged there. Just as her hip was beginning to heal and Carol could wheel between halls and floors, the stress of the aneurysm and Ted’s ambiguous mental state caused her to develop bleeding ulcers. Frail and bed-ridden—Ted on the third floor, Carol on the fourth—it appeared it would be months before June’s parents would be able to see one another face-to-face. Carol was heavily sedated but conscious and Ted vacillated between extremes—angrily attempting to disconnect from various tubes and machines or professing his undying love for the nurses. But, in rare, brief windows of pseudoclarity, they scribbled notes to one another like sweethearts. Jilted sweethearts.

Carol,

Look, I’m the one in the hospital. I need you. How could you be so careless as to slip and fall in the parking lot for Christ’s sake? Who’s going to sneak me chocolate and cigarettes? Damn it. I’m dying here. What do I have to do for a little compassion? At least have the decency to recover quickly.

Ted

Needless to say, June censored the messages for health reasons. June found herself spending inordinate amounts of time on elevators relaying their bitter, garbled messages back and forth. Inside the rising/descending hush of the cars, between floors, June scrawled gentler notes to avoid raising anyone’s blood pressure or precipitating the need for additional prescriptions. She then delivered these edited versions to both parents. Ted and Carol grew a bit bewildered, but June was certain it would speed recoveries all around.

Dear Carol,

I was devastated to hear of your fall. I hope you are feeling well and that the nurses are providing you with pleasant doses of Percocet. You mean the world to me.

Love, Ted

~

For a while, June would sleep in fits on a dingy mattress at the Motel Six around the corner from St. Joseph’s. But she came to expect the motel phone to ring at least every third night and for Ted’s or Carol’s night nurse to report that he or she was demanding something or other, and, like any good daughter, June would crawl out of bed and venture out into the snow, the slush, the rain, the sweltering heat in search of turkey rice soup or chocolate pecan ice cream. Or warming blankets or cooling fans. Or shrimp fried rice or ginger beer. Or toenail clippers or an emery board. Or Time magazine or DVDs of Johnny Carson. It was easier on these nights just to fall asleep in a mossy green hospital chair listening to the sound of the respirator and the beep-beeping of machines. She would wake up to Ted asking her to scratch his shoulder since his hands were tied down. Once he said, “I just want to die, June. I just want to die.” Eventually it was just easier to stay.

Dear Ted,

My ass I mean the world to you. If I meant anything at all to you, you wouldn’t have tried to kill yourself, now would you? Yeah, that’s what I thought. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be in this fucking mess in the first place. It’s not like I enjoyed walking through the icy parking lot every morning, and especially not ending up in the hospital with your cranky ass. My hip is excruciatingly painful and I blame you. And this is not the Percocet talking.

Carol

The notes were sometimes more intricate and June would be forced to ride the elevator a few floors past her destination and back again while she rewrote them. She didn’t worry too much about getting the handwriting perfect—between Carol’s medication issues and the fact that Ted’s wrists were still secured, neither of them ever questioned her.

Dearest Ted,

I know the news of my fall must have been hard on you. I hope your recovery continues to go well and wish I could be there for you. Don’t worry about me, I am doing very well. If it weren’t for you, I just don’t know what I would do. Hang in there.

Your loving wife, Carol

“Why don’t you find yourself a handsome doctor?” her mother had kept suggesting. “This is the place for it. A little hospital romance. What? Am I wrong?” June chalked it up to too much bed-ridden General Hospital and Grey’s Anatomy, but after a few weeks of it, she did Carol proud and roped a debonair ER surgeon in the cafeteria by asking a harmless “non-rash” question about the various purposes of CT scans. After a few weeks, when Dr. X’s monologues about tracheotomies and tonsillectomies started to blur together, June decided to sleep with him. After all, she was here for the long haul. For a while it was clandestine and exciting, but eventually sex in the doctors’ lounge, empty patient rooms, X-ray room, and blood storage freezer tended to be predictably short-lived, uncomfortable, and unsatisfying.

~

June ate most of her meals in the hospital cafeteria. Eventually she could walk up to the cook, ask for the usual, and receive a grilled cheese on white bread. Better than the ones Carol used to make. Or at least more comforting. She would sit, eating slowly while turning the pages of a novel, and eavesdrop on the gossip of the hospital staff, the murmured woes of those who had relatives in surgery, and the chatty excitement of those who were visiting the newly born. This prompted June to wonder where they were storing the babies, since the only proof she had witnessed of their existence to date was when they were wheeled out, attached to their new mothers, and put into waiting cars.

~

It was during Ted’s angio procedure to relieve the aneurysm, brought on by Carol’s broken hip and his still-embedded bullet, that Dr. X popped his head into the waiting room and motioned for June to follow. She trailed him to the elevator and they rode down to Diagnostic Imaging in silence. Dr. X led her into the CT room, locked the door behind him, and dropped his wedding ring in a small plastic dish before taking her in his arms. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said. “It gives me something to look forward to coming to work every day.” She removed his white coat and the stethoscope from around his neck as she kissed him hard. He pushed her onto the narrow patient exam table and by the time it slid completely into the tube, they were mostly undressed and contorted inside the CT machine. “This gives new meaning to Computerized Axial Tomography,” Dr. X whispered. Aroused and claustrophobic, groping for satisfaction, she thought of the scanner rendering abstract black and white imagery. Rorschach blot films to later be deciphered as brain tumors, emphysema, cysts, bleeds, bowel obstructions, or pulmonary embolisms, or aneurysms (not unlike the pixelated historical photos lining the main lobby).

~

Back at her usual green Formica table in the corner of the hospital cafeteria, June stirred sugar into her coffee with a plastic spoon and daydreamed about her own kitchen, her dining table, her coffee mugs, the ivy spoons that she had left behind when she set off unknowingly to immerse herself, here. Not in her childhood exactly, but unnervingly close. They were her mother’s spoons, the ones in June’s kitchen. She had somehow disconnected the line from there to here, the past to the present. Or carefully erased it. Before the “accident” she liked to think that the life she had created for herself was completely different from the life of her parents, the life that was perhaps embedded in her, knotted up in twisted strands of DNA. And based on most of the physical evidence, she had succeeded. But she had never really considered how her mother’s ivy-patterned spoons served up her childhood memories. The family dinner table, perfectly set, by June. Since she was about five years old, that had been her job. Her mother had taught her the proper way to arrange the dishes, how to configure the utensils—knife on the right, followed by a spoon, fork on the left, atop an elegantly folded white linen napkin. A salad fork and soup spoon too, if needed. Occasionally a shrimp fork.

~

The novelty of moaning “oh doctor” soon wore off. Particularly since over half the time the moaning had to be faked. She spent less time thinking about sex and more time imagining Dr. X going to his sterile home, tidy wife and kids, white leather furniture, and HDTV every night. She pictured him in the kitchen, lit with the glow of surgical LEDs, precisely measuring fluids, meticulously peeling and slicing vegetables with a scalpel, and brewing coffee in an IV bag. She did compose a rather nice tracheotomy poem and an impressionistic watercolor of lovers in the CT scan. She was certain the pop-hit “Lovers in the CT Scan” could top the charts. Vincent could write it. With verses integrating the claustrophobic groping with devastating diagnoses, and “oh doctor, oh doctor” in an endless refrain.

~

Sitting at that family dinner table of her childhood, silent, June often toyed with her utensils, her food, pushing it along her plate, contemplating the strangeness of the oddly shaped tools designed to get the food from plate to mouth. “Don’t play with your food,” her mother would nag as June stared down at their ivy-covered handles. Sometimes the vines would sway and grow, as she imagined far-off places they would creep away to, clinging to brick walls, both protecting and hiding them simultaneously. She wondered how she might put holes into their shiny handles and string them together to fashion wind chimes. Young June liked nothing more than to clink her fork and spoon together whenever possible, especially spaghetti night, composing the sound of her hypothetical wind chimes. She conducted similar experiments while washing the dishes, implicating her mother’s crystal tumblers and china cups. Amidst “too many” bubbles, happily trying out the variety of dings she could make between strainer and saucer, knife and crystal, soup spoon and saucepan, until Carol, exasperated, with “Juunnnne, you’ll break a glass!” and “MUST you make all that racket?” insisted she stop.

~

“Keep an eye on your father,” Carol urged as she handed June another note for Ted. “He needs you.” June could see the stress of the hospital lighting and lack of sleep in her mother’s face and messy gray-blonde hair. Her weary green eyes spoke of unanswered questions and layers of things they had left, and would continue to leave, unspoken.

“Of course, Mom.”

Ted,

This has all been very hard for me. I just can’t understand why you would off yourself, what about me? What about your responsibilities? You are the most selfish person I’ve ever met. I want you to know how much you have hurt our family and me—so much I don’t think I can ever forgive you. Now that I’m stuck in this godforsaken place I’ll probably never see you again and that’s just fine with me! You selfish, selfish asshole! I want a divorce.

Carol

Back on the third floor, June fed her father lukewarm oatmeal out of a white plastic bowl and scraped the remainder off his chin the way she imagined she would do for an infant, if she ever had one. The spoon was flimsy plastic, like the ones in the cafeteria. Not solid—breakable, weak. Lighter, she mused, to assist the ill and elderly in getting the whipped potatoes and green Jell-O from bowl to mouth. “Mom wrote you a note,” she said, “do you want me to read it to you?” Ted nodded.

Dearest Ted,

This has all been very hard for me, but I want you to know that I still love you. I don’t know why you did it, but I understand things must be really awful for you to do such a thing, that you must have been so depressed that you could see no other way out. We will get through this, together. I’ve asked June to look after you, so try not to give her a hard time and make sure you’re eating. I’ll see you soon. And I forgive you.

Love, Carol

Ted made a motion for June to hand him his notepad and a pencil. June loosened the binding strap around his wrist so he could scrawl a response.

Carol,

Forgive me? Well, you may forgive me, but I blame you. I’ve been unhappy for years and as my health declined, you treated me more and more like a child, someone to be ignored. I’ve been fucking miserable. You say you still love me, but I don’t know if I feel the same. I’ve had a lot of time to think here, I still don’t know that I have much to live for, but if I do ever get sprung from this hellhole, I know I don’t need your constant demands, judgement, and criticism. I would rather die alone.

Ted

As Ted was writing, June snuck a peak at his medical chart, propped at the foot of the bed. “Self-inflicted gunshot wound,” bolded, was the difficult to ignore, main classification. She hadn’t seen it in print before. “Suicide watch” it warned. “2 mg Xanax, 5 liters type B positive, 12 aspirin NSAID per day, Lasix as needed.” The room was closing in on her. She took the note from her father without looking at him and made her way to the elevator, where she transcribed.

Dearest Carol,

Please don’t divorce me! I don’t know what I would do without you. Please give me another chance to change. I need you, need you to take care of me, need you to love me. I’ll do anything. I’m taking Xanax and I think it is beginning to help my mood. I’ll even go to therapy. June is taking good care of me and she makes sure I eat. Don’t worry. My words can’t ever express how very sorry I am for hurting you, for hurting our family. I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t want to die alone.

I love you, Ted

The note did not have the desired impact on Carol, but June swore her mother was just a little touched by Ted’s words; she could see something in her eyes, and it made her hopeful that her mother would eventually come around.

~

On her many vertical travels between floors, June noted that although there appeared to be seven stories from the outside of the building, there were only six accessible from the elevator. She viewed it as a mystery to be solved, and scheduled it in her day planner (back when she still had the damn thing) for Tuesday. 10 a.m. After rounds, before lunch. And left the afternoon open just in case. She didn’t have a map of the hospital, so she had to rely only on instinct. She first double-checked all of the main public elevators—only six. But she suspected the service elevator must certainly visit the hidden level if only for logistical reasons.

When the allotted Tuesday rolled around, June boarded the elevator to check the numbers on the button panel, confident in her theory. But before she could duck back out, three white-coated doctors (or nurses or lab techs) wheeled in an elderly woman prone on a hospital bed. She lay motionless, seemingly unconscious, attached to tubes attached to bags of fluid, attached to a bypass machine, attached to a canister of oxygen. June smiled awkwardly but offered no explanation for her unaccompanied presence in the massive moveable space. She did manage to ascertain that although there was no button for a seventh floor, there was what looked to be restricted floor key access. As she bore the medicinal, elderly, oxygenated, recycled blood smell for the duration of the slow ride up two more floors where the white coats wheeled the woman out, she wondered: how would she get that key?

~

Two thousand miles (and several months) separated her from Vincent, the one she’d so very recently united with—although it no longer seemed (or really was) recent. June had never really seen any hope of returning to him. Despite her plans. The booked tickets. The imagined reunion. The feel of his skin, her house, her bed, his house, his bed. Falling in love, even, might just have been possible before the “accident.” But she had been here for the duration. She had taken lovers. June still missed him, though. While she sat in Ted’s hospital room, listening to the beep-beeping of machines, she knitted her longing into a patchwork scarf. June could no longer retrieve a static memory of Vincent’s face. At least not all at once. The blue eyes, the scratchy, stubbled chin, an earlobe, a collarbone—they came in fragments, tiny snapshots of a whole she could no longer grasp. She found the knitting therapeutic and it kept her mind off the questions the social worker was asking, where her father would end up if he got out of here, who would take care of him . . . and Carol.

~

June breathed a sigh as she visited her almost-Monet lilies on her way back to the cafeteria for a much-needed coffee break and key-retrieval plotting. From her green corner table, June noticed employees coming and going through what looked like a heavy metal door, painted caution-tape yellow, in the far southwest corner of the cafeteria. When no one was looking, she tried the door, but it was locked. Convinced this was a potential secret portal to the seventh floor, she took to sipping her lattes at the table nearest the yellow door. She bided her time. When, one fateful Saturday, two chatty nurses balancing Styrofoam containers of BLTs and pizza used their ID cards to open the door, she seized the opportunity, sprang up and slipped through behind them.

At the top of the stairwell, the door to the seventh floor, unmarked and painted the same beige as the wall, would have been unnoticeable if not for the knob. Beyond it, shiny floors and a crisp lemony scent that seemed endless; fertile watercolor fields of purple and amber adorned the crisp, nondescript pastel hallway. Skulking along, absorbed in her reconnaissance mission, June jolted at the sudden faint sounds of high-pitched feminine screaming juxtaposed with base guttural moans. She continued forward, and when she rounded the corner the walls became glass and behind them were perfectly aligned bassinets with pastel-wrapped, pink-faced infants in them. All this—secret floor, elevator-key locking, door-hiding—to protect these little mounds of soft and pacifiers and toes and stripey blankies. Of course they couldn’t allow access to just any elevator rider: she had seen plenty she imagined wouldn’t be above baby-napping.

~

The future she had imagined with Vincent ended about the same time her cell phone went dead. For a while they had kept things up over the airwaves—via conversations that always occurred, for June, in the company of eavesdropping strangers in various waiting rooms of the hospital. She had tested the reception of her device in all of them and found the family waiting area in Shock Trauma to be the most welcoming—no children, a fish tank, free coffee, tea, and cookies, pillows and blankets; only when bad news was delivered by a doctor or nurse or desk telephone and the wailing and hysteric sobbing was too loud did she abandon this signal-friendly, snack-rich refuge. But there’s only so much you can accomplish over the phone. Soon June found she had missed Christmas, New Year’s, Vincent’s book publishing party, his birthday, Valentine’s Day, readings and signings, dinners, parties.

She could no longer remember exactly what he looked like. Or felt like. Or recall all the day-to-day details of his life, or hers. It was impossible to relay, really, in a one-hour phone call. She had left just before she would have defined them as a couple, during the middle of the beginning. That sparkly time that should have been full of passion, kisses, sex, laughter, joy, eye contact, contact contact. When her cell phone gave out, it was a lot of trouble to acquire phone card minutes or find a waiting room landline that wasn’t being put to critical use already by someone with a family member in surgery or a birthing suite or the ICU. Who was she to take away their lifeline? Conversations with Vincent had become short and stilted in these public spaces anyway, and finally it was easier to give up her rollover minutes and let her contract expire.

She still had thoughts of Vincent, as a distant, once-possible, beautiful, floating abstraction, but the orbit of June’s days began to fit more and more precisely within the sterile bubble of St. Joseph’s. She took on the role of an official observer of life and death and the waiting for both. Families nervously awaiting the latest news from the ICU, daughters or widows crying in dark corners, young children coming in to meet new siblings, proud fathers and grandfathers toting them through the lobby up to the glass baby-pod room, gang members and cops in Emergency after an occasional violent arrest; CNAs, nurses, therapists, and doctors exchanging hospital gossip over coffee, usually nothing more than rumors of the newest young interns having sex in on-call rooms or supply closets; a couple holding each other close after some shared tragedy or another—all reminding her somehow of security gate reunions in airports, eliciting in her that same voyeuristic thrill and the longing of sorts she felt when witnessing that sort of public intimacy not her own. In no way her own.

~

There were thirty or more. Pods of babies. All different sizes, shapes, colors, yet indistinguishably uniform lined up in their rectangular plastic boxes. Some had hair, some with pacifiers, or sucking on tiny hands, some sleeping, others blinking wide-eyed at the fluorescent lights. She wondered about their newcomer thoughts, wrapped in cotton pink or blueness, their first moments of light, the difference in temperature out here than where they came from. Could they yet imagine the scope of the world, all the pain and beauty that was out there waiting for them? Not one of them cried, but down the hallway . . . more screaming.

As June stood, almost not breathing, she imagined them all with silver spoons poking out of their little bird mouths. Her gaze was still fixed on this view of pink and blue baby landscape, when a nurse, shrouded in the same sterile white of the walls, whisked into the field of infants and deposited a squirmy, wrinkly red, tightly bound infant into an empty plastic pod-cradle. The child looked out with wide blue eyes, like she was taking it all in so she would remember the journey later, if someone were to ask her about it once her communication skills developed. The nurse placed a name card on the foot of the cradle and it read: Baby Girl M.

~

Back down in Ted’s room, June rubbed his forehead, tried to comfort and quiet him by humming Neil Diamond. Fine baby hair, wrinkles, and wide, wondering, curious eyes, Ted, infant-esque in his own way, had also been through a recent life-changing, life-giving (in a way) trauma. Like the babies, she wondered what Ted was thinking. Could he recognize her, know who she was, hear her voice? So close were the third and seventh floors, separated by the space of an elevator shaft, four flights of stairs, a secret door, Ted’s wife, death, and life. So seemingly close physically, and yet that chasm between the new and the old, those wide-eyed baby pods and Ted’s exhausted existential defeatism—the span of a life, the space and time between floors, between years, seemed a fissure impossible to traverse.

She thought of Baby M and remembered a picture of Ted, a younger man, holding up a chubby, laughing toddler. She was the baby, but the connection was almost impossible to make, no memory to assist her. Perhaps Baby M would have better luck. The toggling between the third and fourth floors continued, with intermittent trips up the cafeteria stairs to the mysterious baby floor. Baby M never left her plastic cradle yet seemed always content as if waiting patiently for something. If she wasn’t sick, why would she still be here, waiting? Or maybe she had stopped expecting anything else.

~

June had begun to forget that she herself, in her mid-thirties, could survive outside these medicinally scented walls. The staff had let her shower in one of the oversized bathrooms, open showers with handrails and an emergency pull string. It was while manipulating the handheld showerhead in an experimental attempt at masturbation that she accidentally called for assistance. Unshaved legs parted, plastered dripping auburn hair, thirty-three-year-old breasts exposed, arms and showerhead contorted as she balanced herself on the shower chair. She was never able to look the stout occupational therapist in the eye after that.

She longed for someone to hold her, pat her back, kiss her hair, whisper softly, “Everything’s going to be alright.” If only to protect herself, she thought less and less of Vincent as the days blurred together until, one day in the spring, her pangs of loneliness prompted the hunt for another lover. She wouldn’t look for a doctor this time, but a patient—someone, like her, who was here for the duration.

~

Sixth floor: Hematology. Disorders of the blood sounded permanent and not necessarily leading to immediate dilapidation or demise, but rather to an awaiting-tests kind of limbo. Like a black-box experiment, a mysterious truth fully understood by no one aside from an occasional hematologist. Like theoretical physics, it fascinated her, and so she did some preliminary research. When she stepped off the elevator and out into the crimson hallway, she noticed the vampire-like pallor of the patients here, in their dark rooms, bags of blood flowing down into their fragile arms. Unoxygenated life, pumping in from the outside.

She heard the low moaning from down the hall—a throaty, deep, familiar, musical humming moan. June entered the darkened room, made out a pale figure with even paler blue eyes. He smiled. Familiar. And as her breath caught, stomach lurched, heart lifted, the fragmented pieces arranged themselves. “Vincent? It’s you,” she said, and tears dripped like IV fluid.

“Or a shadow of me, a shade,” he replied.

She watched on the monitor as Vincent’s heart rate increased and she knew she loved him still. June drew the curtain around the bed and crawled in beside him. She wrapped the patchwork scarf she’d knitted around his neck and his thin frame wrapped around her body. “How I’ve missed you.” The smell of the hospital blanket provided a strange comfort. The lack of privacy was not a concern. What was a little intimacy among strangers? Besides, the patients and staff were more family than strangers now. She curled up inside the wiry steel of his embrace. Safe. The subtle red scribble of a unit of blood winding its way from bag to arm to life hummed a bit in her ears, like river babble or the buzz of traffic. It called out to her. Calling her home.

~

What eventually became a life began with a suicide attempt. Not hers, but her father’s. Since she was here for the duration, June might as well fall in love.

Despite the diagnosis that brought him here (multiple myeloma) and the months and months apart, June and Vincent’s reunion goes well and their passion blossoms within the confines of his hospital room. She was touched that he had requested a transfer to St. Joseph’s, had sensed her decision never to leave when the phone calls ended. June is now a capable and enthusiastic caregiver, having had so much practice. She tells Vincent bad knock-knock jokes to keep his spirit up, fluffs his pillows, fetches him magazines from the gift shop, alerts the nurses when his O2 levels get low, rubs his feet and changes the channels on the television for him.

They watch all the old movies they never had time for and get hooked on Days of Our Lives and Maury Povich. They hold hands and snuggle, surrounded by flowers and Mylar balloons. They sip white grape juice out of plastic mugs with plastic bendy straws and toast daily to how lucky they were to have found each other again, despite the eccentricity of their hospital romance.

~

Ted passed away in the summer, Carol and June at his bedside, although they never speak. There was no heroic leap from the third-floor window after all, although he had thought about it and even wrote one undelivered note to Carol inviting her to come witness the whole to-do. He was instead taken by the very diagnosis that had prompted his journey here in the first place. The cancer, which had before only been creeping, seemed to thrive on his lack of survival instincts, the chocolate pecan ice cream, too much daytime TV, and the crisp, germ-free air of St. Joseph’s.

June takes Carol on a trip, on a mother-daughter outing to the seventh floor in an attempt to cheer her up, where Carol, gazing at the field of baby pods, tears up, squeezes her hand, and tells her, “the day you were born was the happiest day of my life.” But Carol declines quickly and follows shortly thereafter, ironically taking her own life with an entire bottle of Valium, although they never performed the autopsy that would prove it. Though she would never have admitted it, Ted’s passing grieved the life out of her. Despite protests, June insisted that both funerals take place in the hospital and gave the eulogies herself.

~

Shortly after the death of June’s parents, Baby M was adopted by one of the pediatricians and his life partner. Baby M couldn’t have asked for a more loving home and June is happy for her, but June grieved when M left the hospital, cradled in her new baby car seat, grieved for the loss of so much—her childhood, her potential “before” life—never actualized—the possibility of a normal future with Vincent, her own chance to have a child, her parents’ deaths, and the suicide attempt that had brought them here.

The hospital staff let June stay in Vincent’s room even though it is against policy. She fixes it up nice—a few plants, some curtains, a new comforter, a striped IKEA chair. Eventually she develops health problems of her own and is denied affordable health coverage for, it seems, the preexisting condition of having lived for years in the hospital. An $8,500 deductible and $30,000 out-of-pocket maximum is beyond astronomical, and everything is just easier in the hospital anyway if you’re a relative. One day, June unsuspecting, Vincent proposes with a silver teddy bear ring from the gift shop with the words “Get Well” etched into it. They marry in the hospital chapel, patients and doctors in attendance, flowers and “It’s a Boy” and “It’s a Girl” balloons from the gift shop, wedding cake and green Jell-O courtesy of the cafeteria staff. The priest on call is unavailable, so, at the last minute, they wheel in a retired sea captain with a fractured pelvis to perform the ceremony. “Ah fuck,” he says at more than one crucial moment, “I’ve forgotten this part . . . only done this once before you know.” His salty language only adds to the festive mood of the day.

~

There is a community here, a family. June works in the gift shop or helps out in the glass-enclosed baby-pod room. She treats the Baby Ms as her own, tells them of every secret nuance of St. Joseph’s—as far as the pod babies know, the entire world. She sits with them, occasionally rocking the fussy ones, reinserting binkies here and there, singing “You are My Sunshine,” and weaves tales from the impressionist hallway artwork and hospital characters. She discusses with them the most amazing future lives, adventures, and happinesses she hopes they will have. June knits for the patients and hospital staff, even the OT from the shower “incident,” and paints dozens of her own vague, watercolor landscapes. Having been through it herself, she offers advice to those grieving for their parents. She develops a sense for the families of suicide attempts the moment they step into the ER, something about the bewildered, hurt, guilt-grief etched on their faces. She wants to go to them, but she never does. Sometimes she leaves afghans in the waiting room of the Shock Trauma ICU for those who continuously spend the night. Surprisingly, she ages with only minor health problems and doesn’t end up in the psych ward or back in the third-floor ICU where it all began.

June and Vincent read to each other, everything off the library cart and in the medical library. They follow the news of the world outside—the mass shootings, the Democrats’ return to office, the cure for AIDs, for cancer, the tsunami that took New York, the second Civil War, the typhoid fever epidemic of 2031. When the Republicans returned to office and the Great Canadian War began, they stopped watching the news or reading the newspaper. If it was not health and hospital related, it didn’t touch their lives. Until, of course, the great celebration of the evolution into global peace in 2052.

When Vincent’s health declines, June, now gray and wrinkled, stays with him night and day, rubs his forehead, his back, helps him up, feeds him banana pudding with a plastic spoon. When he passes, she coincidentally develops angina (from years of grilled cheese and cafeteria fries) and a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis (exacerbated by decades of hospital-bed tantric sex). Unfortunately, her health insurance coverage lapsed when premiums became universally unpayable, but the hospital staff, now her family, let her stay on for her remaining days. To repay them she volunteers in the cafeteria and continues to check on the newborns as much as possible, always partial to the Baby Ms passing through, filling their days of motherlessness.

~

June lets the haunting memory of Vincent’s love be her companion in the final years—the heyday of their hematological romance enough to make her smile to herself. He is still her home and she has no further need to wander the halls in search of another.

June moves into the cardiopulmonary unit and dies of a myocardial infarction. She ends up in the morgue, where she has donated her organs. Her lungs are harvested for transplant—strong and healthy after breathing years of oxygenated hospital air. The recipient, a young man with emphysema, takes her lungs outside St. Joseph’s for the first time in sixty years to breathe the fresh air.

June’s delicate hospital-air-spoiled lungs unexpectedly cannot take on the heavy reality of city air, added to now by years of accumulating pollution, and, after one night of passion, reunited with his lover, a day at the county fair, taking in the view from atop a Ferris wheel, and one last mediocre meal—a grilled cheese sandwich and terrible cup of diner coffee—the young man gasps one last sharp intake of breath, collapses on the sidewalk, and doesn’t survive the ambulance ride.  end


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