Eva's Playboy-Winning Short Story
My eyes won’t open. I can’t move. I can’t breathe. Everything is black.
“Don’t worry about me,” I tell Mr. Swanson. My voice is feather-light. The sentence breaks apart into single words, then single sounds, until it is just a bunch of particles, floating randomly through the room like sunshine-dust. “Don’t worry,” I say again. “I went inside my body, and everything looks fine.”
Mr. Swanson raises his eyebrows. They are very thick and dark, but the rest of his body is hairless. His arms are smooth and soft like ropes of bread dough. “Oh you did, did you?” He smiles, and his teeth melt together like mozzarella cheese.
“I did. I’ll be back to work in no time.”
“You just need to concentrate on getting better.”
“I’ll take care of it,” I say.
Earlier in the day, I went inside my body. I sat in a comfortable armchair down at the bottom of my left lung. All around me the walls glowed orangey-pink and pulsed slightly. I reached out to touch them, and they felt like the slippery flesh of a cut-up nectarine. The room was warm, with high ceilings and a sweet scent like honeysuckle in the summer. I looked up at the domed ceiling and saw a patch in the peachy plaster: the place where the rib had punctured my lung. But the doctors fixed me. Just a little leak in the ceiling. All better now.
“All better now,” I tell Mr. Swanson, except that Mr. Swanson is no longer standing by my bed. Instead it is a fat nurse in Garfield scrubs. Garfield is dressed as a doctor. He has a stethoscope.
“Not quite, but you’re getting there, Miss Rebecca,” she tells me. “I’m just going to take your blood pressure now.”
I’m getting better. Instead of being on a constant morphine drip, now I have a clicker. It’s a small box that fits in my hand, and if I press the button, a big old wallop of morphine will shoot directly into my wrist. I don’t know how much. The nurse on duty just used the term “big old wallop.” Then she said “Aren’t you lucky?”
They tell me to click the clicker every time I feel pain. That seems like a dangerous thing to say to a person. I haven’t clicked it at all. I’m in a lot of pain, but I can deal with it.
I’m trying to lie perfectly still. It doesn’t hurt as much if I don’t move. I take in tiny breaths and blow them out slowly because it hurts to breathe. I also have to pee, but I’m holding it in because I don’t want to use the bedpan.
I squeeze my eyes closed, and think about a big field of grass. This is what I do whenever I ride a roller coaster: just close my eyes, grit my teeth, and wait for it to all be over. I think about a field because grass is neutral and non-threatening. Mountains, you can be buried in an avalanche. Lakes, you can drown. Deserts, you can dehydrate. But a field of grass? Nothing stressful about that.
The nurse who thinks I’m lucky clips something onto my finger, and I open my eyes. “Measuring the oxygen in your blood,” she says. She looks at me strangely. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I manage to say.
“Why don’t you click the clicker?” she asks.
“I’ll take care of it,” I whisper.
I’m trying to concentrate on an infomercial about the ab roller. I’m probably going to need one after I get out of the hospital – all this lying around, my muscles getting soft. Normally I get up at five a.m. to go running before work, but who knows how long it will be until I can do that again.
One of my doctors enters the room. His name is Doctor Mc-Something. He’s the one who cut me open and patched up the hole in my lung.
“The nurses say you’re not using your clicker.”
I close my eyes and pretend to be sleeping.
“You’ll feel better if you click the clicker.”
I can sense him moving closer to my bed. He picks up the controller, and I open my eyes. “No thanks,” I say.
“It’s this button right here.” He points to it.
“You don’t want to be in pain, do you?”
That doesn’t seem like an appropriate question. No one wants to be in pain, but we can't all go around doped up on morphine twenty-four-seven. Besides, I just had surgery. Shouldn’t I be in pain?
Dr. Mc takes off his glasses, and suddenly his eyes are very blue. “It’s perfectly safe.” He pulls up a corner of his white coat and uses it to polish the lenses of his glasses.
Morphine is perfectly safe? I don’t even know how much morphine is going to wallop into my veins if I click the clicker. What if I like it too much and become addicted? How can I be a role model for children if I’m some sort of incompetent drug addict?
“I’m fine,” I say. My side feels like it’s being gouged with knives.
Dr. Mc puts his glasses back on, and his blue eyes look gray again. Everything about him is gray. Gray hair, thin gray lips, gray five o’clock shadow around his mouth.“Rebecca,” he says. “You’re a good person. You don’t deserve to be in pain.”
I close my eyes again, hoping he’ll go away. I know I’m a good person. What kind of comment is that? Suddenly, something from the night of the party comes back to me: Mr. Swanson’s speech. He said I was caring. Several times, in fact.
I open my eyes. Dr. Mc is still there, pressing his gray lips together. He huffs loudly out of his nose. “Look, if you don’t use the clicker, we’re putting you back on the morphine drip, and you said you didn’t like not being in control of the drugs going into your body.”
I don’t remember telling anyone that, but it sounds like something I would say.
“When you’re in pain,” he says, “your body tenses up, and you take shallow breaths. We need you to relax and take deep breaths because that’s going to help fully inflate your lung.”
“Oh.” I want to be fully inflated. I make sure Dr. Mc is watching then I click the clicker. The morphine burns as it enters my veins.
My phone has been ringing all day, but I can’t reach it from my bed. I worry it’s Karen Johnson, the head of the charter school association, telling me that because of my accident they’ve decided to give the job to someone else. I worked really hard to get this new job.
My phone rings while a nurse is in the room, and she answers it. “Yes she is. Hold on.” She presses the phone against my ear.
“Hey, Sweetie. How’re you feeling?” It’s my father. Frannie called him the other day and told him I fell down at a party.
“Fine,” I say. “Almost better.” The nurse stares at me while I talk.
My father apologizes for not being able to come down and visit me in the hospital, but I hadn’t expected him to come. He wouldn’t know what to do with himself here. My mother committed suicide when I was eight, and after that I was the one who took care of my father, not the other way around.
“You got my flowers?”
“I did. Thank you so much.” I look over on the window sill. There are three bouquets, and I’m not sure which one is from him. My school sent a bouquet, and so did Karen Johnson. Frannie says the view out the window is nice, you can see the Potomac River and cars going over the Key Bridge, but all I can see from my bed is flat, gray sky.
“You gonna have some visitors this afternoon?” the nurse asks as she hangs up the phone.
“I hope not.”
Lots of the teachers and administrators from school have come to visit, but I hate for them to see me this way, so I’ve been trying to discourage it. Frannie stops by every day, but I don’t mind her being here.
In general, I don’t like it when people visit. They ask “are you okay?” in pity-soaked voices, and even if they don’t, their eyes do. They look at me like they’re afraid I might go jump out the window at a moment’s notice. I’m attached to IVs and monitors. There is a tube the size of a garden hose inserted between my ribs. I’m not going anywhere.
I refuse to pee in the bed pan anymore. It’s degrading, and I don’t like lying around on top of my own pee, waiting for a nurse to dump it out. Yesterday, after I complained for awhile, a nurse brought me a potty chair that sits right next to my bed. Now, every time I have to go, I ring for a nurse to help me.
I press the call button, and a few minutes later a man in blue scrubs appears. He has dark hair and a baby-fat face. He smiles, and his cheeks squish his eyes into slits.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Wayland. I’m your nurse.”
He looks to be in his late twenties, like me, which I find disturbing. Maybe if he was much older I wouldn’t care that he is about to help me pee. My gynecologist is a man, but he’s in his seventies, so I don’t mind him poking around down there. It seems non-threatening.
“Did you need something?” Wayland walks towards me. He checks my bag of fluid and my little machine that dispenses morphine.
“No,” I say.
“Are you in pain?”
“Did you need help going to the bathroom?”
“Are you sure?”
“I won’t look,” he says. “Don’t worry. I do this all the time.”
He is nice and very strong. He helps me scoot to the edge of the bed then he lifts me up with his arms under my armpits. He’s very careful not to touch my bandaged ribs or the tube coming out of my side.
I’m wearing a flimsy hospital gown. It’s baby blue with tiny white polka dots, and it’s made for a person the size of a Sumo wrestler. It ties in the front and often flaps open to reveal my breasts, which is what it’s doing now. Wayland pretends not to notice. He lifts the fabric up in the back and helps me pull down my underwear. He sits me down on the toilet seat.
“I’ll go behind the curtain,” he says. “Just call me when you’re done.”
None of the other nurses have been this polite. They all just stand there, watching me, and listening to my pee hit the bottom of the plastic bowl.
When I’m finished, I call Wayland back. He helps me up and wipes me with a soft tissue. He’s very gentle. He puts me back in bed. “See,” he says. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
I’m beginning to notice a routine. Every three hours, a nurse comes in to take my blood pressure. They even do this in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep. They flip on the light switch and come barging into the room, making all this racket with their wheeled carts.
Every morning, the technicians come to take a chest x-ray. This is the worst part of the day because they jostle me around and make me lay back against a sheet of hard metal.
The doctors are very frustrated because, according to the x-rays, my lung isn’t all the way inflated, and they feel as if it should be by now. They’re talking about putting in a second chest tube, which is the thing stuffed between two of my ribs. It’s attached to a gurgling machine that sucks air out of my chest cavity, and the negative pressure is supposed to make my lung inflate. That's the plan, anyway.
Twice a day I get a breathing treatment, and the respiratory people make me blow into a little monitor that looks like a plastic bong. They are never very happy with me or my blowing capabilities. ‘Come on!” the female one always says, clapping her hands together. “You can do better than that! Blow harder!” She reminds me of my high school track coach.
Three times a day I get meals of chicken broth and Jell-O.
Every evening Frannie stops by on her way home from work. Frannie was my roommate in college, but back then I was more like her parent than her friend. I woke her up in the mornings for class, and I made sure she remembered to eat meals. Once she got so drunk she threw up in her bed and made me clean the sheets because she was too grossed out to do it herself. Sometimes I think she moved to DC because she knew I would be here to take care of her.
Frannie never stays very long because hospitals make her uncomfortable. “I don’t like seeing you like this,” she says. “You’re acting weird.”
“I’m on drugs,” I explain.
Frannie helps me brush my teeth and wash my face. She has to be very careful because my face is badly bruised, but everyone says I’m lucky I didn’t break my nose. I hate asking Frannie for help, and she doesn’t really like helping me, but it’s better than asking the nurses.
Sometimes Dr. Mc comes to talk to me with his residents, who follow him around like ducklings.He tells me my ribs are healing, and that I should continue to relax and take deep breaths.
Today something new is added to the routine. A woman calling herself “Dr. Pee” comes to see me. She’s a psychiatrist who has been assigned to my case. She sits down on the edge of my bed and flips through a folder of papers. She has very dark, curly hair. Her eyebrows are neatly plucked, but I can see a few stray hairs on her chin, and I wonder why she would spend so much time on one part of her face but not on the other.
“That’s not your real name,” I say. Who has the last name of Pee?
“My last name is too hard for people to say, so I just go with Dr. P.”
“How hard can it be?” I’m usually not this rude. It must be the drugs.
“Oh. I’ll just go with Dr. P.”
At first she asks me a lot of questions about my life in general. How old am I? Twenty-nine. Am I married? No. Where did I go to college? Princeton. How did I end up in DC?
“I did Teach For America right out of college. This is where they placed me.”
“Teach For America.” Dr. P. makes notes on her notepad. My head is throbbing. Without
encouragement, I pick up my morphine remote and click the clicker. Dr. P. watches me then writes something else down.
“And you’re still teaching?” she asks after a moment.
“No. Now I’m the Freshmen Administrator at Marshall.”
“How do you like your job?”
“I love it.” Which is true, sort of. I loved teaching. I loved being in charge of my own classroom and getting to know the kids when they came after school for detention or extra tutoring. Being an administrator is different. It's less rewarding and more stressful. But everyone says I'm very good at it.
“And you plan on working at Marshall next year?” Dr. P asks.
“No,” I tell her. “I’m going to be the principal of a new charter high school opening in the fall.” I feel out of breath.
“Wow. High school principal at twenty-nine.” Dr. P. raises her thin eyebrows as if she doesn’t believe me. “Congratulations.”
I was celebrating my new position the night of the party. That much I remember. And, bizarrely, now I remember the entire speech that Mr. Swanson gave. I can see him in a corner of my mind, holding a wine glass in one hand and rubbing his bald head with the other. He talked about how sad he was to be losing a great teacher and administrator, but how lucky College Prep Charter High School was. “I have one word to describe Rebecca Hallows,” he said. “Care. She cares about her students and coworkers like no one I’ve ever seen. And, of course, we all know her favorite catch phrase. ‘I’ll take care of it,’ When Ms. Hallows says she’ll take care of it, you know it'll get done right. Soon she’s going to be in charge of hundreds of children. An entire school. And I know she’ll take care of it.”
After the speech, Frannie convinced me to do shots of tequila with her and some guy she’d brought with her named Ryan. “You need to relax,” she said. “You're too tense.”
“What do you remember about the night of the accident?” Dr. P. has her pen poised over the notepad, which is balanced on her crossed knee.
“Do you remember going out on the balcony?”
“No.”I click the clicker again. Soon, Dr. P’s voice begins to float away.
I’m off the clicker! Now the nurses bring me little blue Percasets in plastic cups. I’m allowed two Percasets every six hours, but I can’t take that much. They make me queasy and dizzy, and I can hardly stand to eat my Jell-O.
“God,” Frannie said yesterday, examining the remnants of my Jell-O and broth lunch. “I wish someone would force me to eat nothing but broth so I wouldn't have to go spend an hour on the elliptical.”
Frannie and I are both into exercising, but I do it because I want to stay in shape, and she does it so she can attract men. I’ve pretty much given up on men. They’re all big babies, even the older ones. The last man I dated was thirty-nine, and he didn’t know how to hard-boil an egg. That wasn’t the most annoying thing about him, but it says a lot, I think. I don’t really have time for dating anyway, especially with my new position.
Today Dr. P. is back.She harps on the fact that I was extremely drunk on the night of the party. “Do you remember why you were drinking so much that evening?” she asks.
The doctors told me it was my inebriation that saved me. Most people who fall from a third floor balcony aren’t as lucky as me, but because my body was so limber, I only broke three ribs, punctured a lung, and bruised my pelvic bone. Not bad.
“Do you drink often?” One of Dr. P’s dark eyes looks at me, but the other is drifting over towards the window. For some reason I didn’t notice yesterday that she has a lazy eye, but today it’s all I can think about.
“So this was unusual behavior for you?”
“I drink sometimes.”
“How often, would you say? Every day?”
I feel trapped. Depending on my answer, she’s going to think I’m an alcoholic, or that I was acting out of character, and either way it will signify that I am depressed and need psychiatric help.
“Were you feeling unhappy?”
“Why do you think you fell off the balcony?”
Dr. P. asked me this question yesterday, and I didn’t answer it. I know she thinks I was trying to kill myself. A lot of people do. The reasoning is, there was a chest-high railing all around the balcony. How could it have been an accident? I wish I could remember what happened. I don’t like not having the answer.
“Wayland,” I whine. “I have to pee again, but I don’t want to.”
Every few hours I have to pee, and that’s with saving it up and waiting until I can’t stand to wait any longer. It’s very upsetting because it hurts so much to get out of bed and onto my potty chair, and I hate having to call the nurses in to help me.
“I’m sorry,” Wayland says. “Do you want the bed pan back?” He smiles because he knows I don’t.
Wayland has come to give me my daily Lovenox shot. I pull up my hospital gown to reveal my stomach. It’s swollen and dotted with purple and green bruises from all of my other Lovenox shots.
“I don’t wanna go to the bathroom,” I say. “I hate going to the bathroom.” I stick my lip out in an exaggerated pout. Something about Wayland makes me want to act like a three-year-old.
“Don’t worry. I’ll help you.” Wayland taps the edge of the needle. “Let me give you your shot first.”
“I hate the shot. It burns.”
“I know how to do it so it won’t burn.”
It’s true. All the other nurses push the depressor down slowly, but Wayland does it fast. It’s over quickly, and I don’t feel a thing.
“Wayland,” I say. “Look at my stomach.” Normally my stomach is flat, but now it’s round, and the skin is stretched tight as a drum. “I look pregnant.”
“No you don’t.”
I rub my hand over my big, bruised stomach. “I feel so full. But all I’ve had today is three sips of apple juice and half a thing of Jell-O.”
Wayland steps to the side of my bed and looks at my bag of fluid. “Whoa,” he says. “They’ve got you on five hundred milliliters an hour.”
“Is that a lot?”
“It’s how much we’d normally give a much larger person.”
“My bladder is about to explode. Did they fail to notice that I’m a rather small person?”
“Maybe they didn’t notice because you have such a big personality.” Wayland smiles. His chubby cheeks are flushed, and he looks like a Boy Scout in his navy blue scrubs. “I’ll go ahead and cut your fluids down to one-fifty,” he says. “That should help a lot.”
“Can you do that without consulting the proper people?”
“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.”
That’s what I used to say.
“Do you think I was trying to commit suicide?” I ask Frannie. She’s picking all the dead flower heads off my bouquets.
“Whoa there, Nelly,” she says. Frannie used to ride horses. She comes from a very well-to-do family. I envision her in breeches, sitting atop a bucking chestnut mare, telling it, “whoa there, Nelly.”
“Do you? Apparently everyone else does.”
“Well, were you?”
“I want to hear what you think first.”
Frannie throws a handful of brown, crumbling petals into the trash. She’s still
wearing her work outfit: beige slacks and a matching tailored jacket. Only Frannie can get away with all beige and still look sexy. It’s her blond hair that does it. “I didn’t think you seemed suicidal,” she says. “Not then, not now. I would have never thought you’d do anything like that.”
“So you weren’t, right?”
“No! I don’t remember how I fell, but I’m pretty damn sure I wasn’t committing
suicide. You know me. I’m a planner. I would have written a note and canceled my cell phone policy.”
“Yeah, I thought of that.” Frannie turns away from the window. Her eyes are big.
“Do you think someone pushed you? Do you have any enemies? Anyone who would want you dead?”
“This isn’t Murder She Wrote.”
“Seriously. Who hates you?”
Frannie comes and sits in the pastel flowered chair by my bed. “Who’s she? One of your Teach For America people?”
“Yeah. She wants to be the next Michelle Rhee. I think she also wants to be the first female, Asian-American president.”
“She interviewed for my position and was really pissed when I got it instead of her.”
“Oh my god, Rebecca. She pushed you so she could get your job!”
“But she wasn’t at the party.”
Frannie leans forward in the chair. “She could have had an accomplice. Someone you
wouldn’t suspect. Why’d you go out on the balcony in the first place?”
”I don’t remember.” I don’t mention that if Frannie had stayed at the party instead of going off with her boy-toy, Ryan, she might have been able to help me piece together the night.
“Maybe you went out there with some hot dude, and then it turned out that he was
Christy Chen’s accomplice, and you were making out with him, and he lifted you up on the railing so you could wrap your legs around his waist, and then he pushed you.”
“That seems unlikely.”
“Whatever. It was Christy Chen. That crafty bitch.”
I feel tired all of a sudden. I let my eyes flutter closed.
“How have you been feeling lately?” Dr. P. perches on the edge of my bed. “Before the accident, I mean.” I can’t tell if she’s looking at me because of her wonky eye.
“Fine,” I say. “Busy.”
“Yeah, but not enough to kill myself.” I feel like she’s trying to convince me that I’m depressed and suicidal, and I have to defend myself. She must think it’s suspicious that I can’t remember anything about going out onto the balcony. She asks if maybe I’ve repressed it in my mind. I say maybe someone slipped me roofies.
“Would you like to talk more about your parents?”
“Then let’s talk about your life now. You’ve been working very hard at a stressful job, and you're getting ready to move on to an even more stressful job. And besides your friend Frannie, you haven’t mentioned any other support networks. How do you feel having so much on your plate?”
“I like having a lot on my plate. I'm very organized.”
Dr. P. nods. “Okay.” She presses a few fingers against her closed lips. “Anything else
you want to talk about?’
“No.” I know I’m acting like a baby, but I don’t care.
I officially hate the hospital. Now I have a second chest tube, and my lung still isn’t fully inflated. Today a nurse named Tanya clucked her tongue at me because I haven’t had a BM in nine days. My hair is greasy, and my scalp itches, and I’m sick of lying around doing nothing.The other day I asked Frannie to bring me books and my laptop because I thought I could at least respond to some emails, but the Percasets cloud my vision and make it hard to think clearly.
Today I do nothing but drift in and out of sleep. While I'm lying drowsy and doped up, I have a memory from childhood. I was seven – second grade – and home with a bad cold. Instead of making me soup or tea, my mother curled up in bed with me for what seemed like days. Maybe she was sick, too? I remember the prickles on her hairy legs when she snuggled next to me. I remember getting out of bed to heat up some soup for the both of us.
The only hospital person I’m nice to is Wayland. I tell him the other nurses are mad at me because I haven’t had a BM, and he says he’ll get me a laxative. He comes back a little while later. “I’m not sure how you’re going to feel about this,” he says. “It’s a suppository.”
“So you have to put it…”
I sigh. There’s no point in arguing anymore. “That’s fine, Wayland,” I say. “Do what you need to do.”
He helps me roll onto my good side. The chest tubes gurgle, and my ribs feel like they’re breaking all over again. He puts on powdered gloves and shoves the pill up my ass.
Today is Wayland's day off, but he stops by to visit and bring me a strawberry smoothie. He says that on one of my first days in the hospital, when I was high on morphine, I kept muttering about strawberry smoothies.
We talk about a lot of things, like incompetent coworkers, and why he became a nurse. “I spent a lot of time in the hospital when I was sixteen,” he says. “And I had one nurse who was really nice to me.”
I ask Wayland why he is so nice to me, and he says it’s because he feels like he understands my situation.
“What?” I ask. “You had a collapsed lung?”
“No,” he says. “Never mind.”
I’m getting better. It doesn’t hurt quite as much when I have to get onto my potty chair. And now I get put in a wheelchair and taken down to radiology every morning for my chest x-ray. There’s a place on the back of the wheelchair where they can hang my chest tube machine. After my x-ray is breakfast, then a nap, lunch, then a visit from Dr. P. or Dr. Mc, followed by dinner, then Frannie, then sleep.
Now that I’m not in as much pain, I can think a little clearer, but I don’t know what to think anymore. What I want to believe is that I was just really drunk. Maybe I sat on the railing, swaying in the wind, and then I fell off and splatted onto the ground. The only problem is, I landed on my stomach. Not on my back. I fell facing the street.
Frannie is still investigating the Christy Chen possibility.
I know I wasn’t trying to kill myself, but I was stressed out. Overwhelmed. That’s why I did so many shots. I wanted to turn my brain off for once. But my brain didn’t turn off. Instead it went into a special mode. It opened up the file where I’d been storing all of the stress from this year, and last year, and on back to when my mother abandoned me.
Dr. Mc. says that if my lung is fully inflated by Friday, I can go home. Part of me hopes that by then I’ll remember for sure what really happened. But part of me doesn’t want to know.
I’m waiting for the results of my x-ray. Wayland sits in the chair next to my bed, reading to me from the newspaper. It's an article about public education in D.C., and just hearing about all the problems makes me tired. Being the principal of a new charter school for low-income kids is like being the president of a tiny, war-torn and impoverished country.
Wayland finishes the article and folds up the paper. “What do you think?” he asks.
“I don't want to think right now,” I tell him. I fling my sheet partially off of me. “Wayland, look at this.” He comes and stands over my bed.
From the knees down my legs are covered in a fine mist of dark hair. Normally I’m very meticulous about shaving. Now my legs look the way my mother's always did.
“Wow,” Wayland says. “I'm impressed.” He reaches out a hand. “Can I feel?”
I shrug. “I guess so.”
He pets my shin like it’s a cat. His hand feels nice. “It’s smooth, actually,” he reports. He begins to stroke the other leg. “Maybe, when you’re feeling up to it, I can help you shave.” He smiles shyly.
I close my eyes, enjoying the feeling of his hand as it moves down the slope of my calf. “Maybe,” I whisper. I know this is inappropriate, but I don’t care.
Dr. Mc comes to tell me that my lung is still not adhering to the chest wall, and that they need to do a CAT-scan to figure out the problem. After the CAT-scan, I come back to my room, exhausted and sore, and fall asleep. I have a dream that I’m standing on the other side of the railing, balancing in heels on the tiny ledge. My arms are behind me, holding on as I lean forward, looking down. I’m so drunk I can barely see. This must be what she did, I think. It would be so easy to just make everything go away.
When I wake up, I realize it wasn't a dream but a memory.
I wanted to see what it felt like to stand there. To be her for a minute. I didn’t mean to let go.
Wayland walks in a few minutes later, holding a paper plate with a piece of cake. The cake is white and the frosting is white and there’s a mushy pink rose falling off the top. “It’s Tanya’s birthday,” he says, “and they brought this – hey, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I whisper. I'm crying. I haven’t cried in years, and now the tears ooze out slowly, like my tear ducts are clogged. My head throbs, and I can feel snot dripping from my nose. I sniff it back in.
Wayland sits down on the edge of my bed. He leans over and puts the cake on my tray table. He smooths my greasy hair away from my face, tucks a strand of it behind my ear. “Let me get you a tissue,” he says.
“No. I'm okay.”
“What’s going on?”
“I hate this. I hate being hurt and not being able to do anything for myself.”
“Yeah.” Wayland nods. “I can tell you're the type of person who can take care of yourself.”
I'm quiet for a moment. “I want to be in control of what happens to me.”
“You are. You will be.”
“I didn’t want to die.” I close my eyes. I can feel my wet eyelashes against my cheeks.
Wayland's hand rests on my shoulder. “Neither did I,” he says quietly. “Not really. I just wanted a break. You know? Everything was too much, and I was tired, and I needed to get away.”
I open my eyes. He is looking at me, biting down on his bottom lip.
“Oh.” I don't know what to say.
A break. Is that what it was?
My lung is inflated! Dr. Mc says if the x-ray still looks good tomorrow morning, I can leave. Wayland hangs out in my room, looking through the stack of books Frannie brought me. “So you might leave tomorrow, huh?” he asks.
“I hope so.”
“The ICU won’t be as much fun without you.”
“Maybe we can hang out somewhere besides the hospital.”
“That'd be great,” he says. “I'd really like to.”
I watch Wayland program his number into my phone. I'm not sure exactly how I feel about him, but he's seen me at my worst, my most helpless, and he still likes me. That's comforting.
When Wayland leaves, it hits me. After sixteen days, I'm going back to real life. The thought terrifies me, but, in the back of my mind, I've known for awhile what I need to do.
I grab my cell phone from the tray table and scroll through my contacts, looking for Karen Johnson's number. She doesn't answer, so I leave a message about how I've decided to go back to classroom teaching for awhile. I recommend that she contact Christy Chen, who would certainly be interested in the position.
When I hang up, I feel the tension in my forehead and shoulders dissolve in tingly waves, like a big old wollop of morphine is rushing through my veins.
I close my eyes, and the insides of my eyelids pulse fleshy orange. My body feels cold and weightless, like I’m falling. But there is a soft bed beneath me, and my lungs are filled with air.
“Clicker” was originally published in The Normal School in 2011