I tell my nurse at 10pm that I want to take a walk, that I haven’t really moved from my bed all day and when I had in fact done this it was only to use the bathroom or to be unnecessarily, but necessarily by policy, wheeled on a stretcher to the ultrasound department where some goo was pressed over the kidney transplant and a young woman freely pressed buttons on a very intimidating keyboard while we both stared intently at the screen, trying to make sense of an ambiguous symphony of muscle and organ. Bright blue, yellow and red pulsating splotches indicated points of rich blood flow. The only thing I found gross was the actual shape of the kidney, utterly predictable and yet seemingly objectively, aesthetically offensive to the part of me that is an animal laying down, conscious of the object receiving the wrath of an otherwise invisible disease. The woman looked to be about thirty. I thought “I could do what she does. She is not smarter than me and yet she makes so much more money than I do. In virtue of her choices, she might be smarter than me.”
I ask my nurse if I can leave the floor, instead of monotonously making the same short loop from the nurse’s station to the back hallway and back, consciously making it a point not to look into other peoples’ rooms while also trying to avoid awkward contrived smiles with exhausted nurses. The nurses often stare at me and I always wonder why, and then I realize that I am no longer very conscious of the fact that I am the youngest patient on this floor by at least twenty years. When the nurses first interact with me they always ask about my history, and when they find I’ve been coming here since I was four and that I’m not scared of needles (I’ve had six in twenty-four hours), they seem genuinely sorry, and sometimes there is a well-intentioned “frequent flyer miles” joke.
The nurse says I can go down to the third floor, to the atrium where the doctors eat lunch every afternoon. I know my way around almost every wing of the hospital. The hospital is enormous and occurs in several different buildings and I know my way around those buildings. I take my ipod, put on my sweatshirt and sneakers and leave the floor. I take the elevators to the third floor. Wandering the entire empty hospital by myself seems appealing but almost too romantically contemplative. I bypass the atrium and go to the bathroom, where I stuff my hospital down behind the bar behind the toilet. I roll up my pant legs and take off my big hospital socks and pull them into a ball and make a fist around them in my pocket. I tuck my hospital bracelet up under my bunched-up sweater sleeve. I tuck my IV under the other sleeve. I look in the mirror and fix my hair and smile. I try not to look like sick shit. My face looks old and I can’t tell if “I don’t give a fuck” is “giving a fuck” just in virtue of the hostile way the sentiment is articulated in my mind. By all appearances, I am just a doctor going home for the night in my blue pants.
I take the elevator to the first floor. The plan is to leave the hospital and walk outside. I want to walk to Park Street and lay on the common. If I walk ten minutes down Tremont Street I will be at the common. If I had my phone I could call my brother. If I had my wallet I could get something satisfying to eat. I don’t have either of these things.
When I get to the first floor the revolving door and handicapped doors are blocked off because the entrance is closed and locked from the outside. A doctor walks by me. I ask the doctor if the doors at the other end of the lobby are locked from the outside; he says yes, but I can leave through the emergency room door. He casually asks me if I work here. I tell him I’m a patient who wants to go outside. He asks if I got clearance from my nurse. I say no. He reluctantly tells me it’s probably not a good idea. I take the elevator back up to the third floor. I go to the bathroom and get my hospital gown.
I throw the hospital gown down on an atrium table and throw my head down on the gown. I lay there for a few minutes with my eyes closed. I open my eyes and out of the corner of my left eye I see a vague tall figure. I turn to see if it’s a person who wants to talk to me, but it’s a bottle of hand sanitizer on a tall dispenser stand. I think about how this would be the perfect setup for a romantic drama: two night owl, chronically ill patients meet each other wandering the same hospital late at night. They are both in the hospital for a long time because they aren’t expected to live very long. They make a pact to meet at the same time every night at the atrium tables. They fall in love with each other. The night before they’re expected to die (because they discover that they have the same life expectancy), they escape the hospital together and die on Boston Common, completely engrossed in each others’ love and unafraid of death. For added drama, one of them could not show up to the tables that night because they are too weak to do so, and the other has to kidnap him/her. There could also be an ironic situation where one needs a heart transplant and one needs a bone marrow transplant, and Bone Marrow Lover (BML) wants to die first to donate his heart to Heart Transplant Lover (HTL), thereby saving her life, but she doesn’t even want to live if he’s not alive, so they make a pact to die together holding each other in their sleep on the common, or maybe BML tricks HTL and kills himself or does something to expedite his death so that HTL must accept his heart, and when HTL goes to meet BML at the atrium tables on their big night, she is met instead with her own doctor, who has known about the pact all along and informs her that they have a heart for her and she tells her slowly, compassionately, that the heart belongs to BML. HTL accepts the transplant and moves on, or possibly not, or she “can feel that he is always with her,” or “he lives through her now,” or something like that. And there is closure in that, because there has to be, because that’s all there is.
I walk back to the seventh floor of the North building, the floor where my room is, and do a couple laps. I stop in front of the window at the end of one of the hallways, the window overlooking the airport and the highway. The light in the hallway is bright and fluorescent and its loud reflection obscures the city. I walk closer to the window until I’m almost leaning against it so that my own darker reflection grows larger, blocking some of the light and revealing the details of the airport and the highway. There are many cars on the road but there is no traffic. There are lights on in all the buildings and the moon, in the upper left hand corner of the sky, seems large but not full, a cloud covering half of it and receding slowly towards a town that I grew up in. Boston looks beautiful for the first time in the history of my opinions about Boston, which is a long history full of sparse, bad opinions that aren’t sophisticated. I think about being driven in to the hospital as a child by my drunk stepdad, driving fast and talking confidently about how Boston sits on the world’s biggest fault line and one day there’s going to be a huge earthquake in Boston and no one will be prepared. Even now when I drive into Boston using highway ramps that are as tall as some buildings, I think of this and feel a muted fear. Being on the seventh floor of the hospital, I feel a muted fear.
I return to my room and find a clean hospital gown with towels on my bed, with a plastic packet of pre-moistened towelettes that say “BATH” on the front. I go into the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror, letting the large hospital gown fall from my shoulders and onto the floor. I think about how she said she couldn’t visit because she had nothing to wear, and when she could sense my confusion she elaborated that she had to do laundry, and then I consider her failure to sense or address my still in-tact confusion. I take a towelette out of the package and run it from the top of my right hand to my shoulder, then down to my underarm where I scoop away a faint musk. I wash beneath my right breast and then make a circular motion over it with the towelette. I maintain eye contact with myself in the mirror and make one more circular motion and realize that the reflection of this has triggered a desire to masturbate. I think that it must be impossible to masturbate with a roommate in the hospital.
I think about the old woman who is my roommate, who has fluid around her heart and three stints in her heart and who seems pleasant. There is a man with long gray hair who comes to see her from the beginning of visitor’s hours until the very end. He is with her for the entire day, watching the television and talking quietly. I have heard her say quietly that she “(doesn’t) believe anything any of the politicians say, not a damn one.” He orders her lunch from the hospital cafeteria, orders extra food for himself, and they eat lunch lying in that small bed together. Then they are tired from the eating and I can hear them fall into a nap because they snore quietly in unison from the other side of the curtain. When her nurse comes in for a vitals check she peeks over from my side of the curtain first, and she looks at them and she smiles, and then I smile, I piggyback on the smile of this thing that I can’t see but that I can feel very strongly. When the man leaves at the end of visitor’s hours, the lady rises from her bed; I can see her slip her varicose-covered feet into a pair of purple flip-flops at her bedside. His shoes are slightly larger and are facing hers, they are hugging goodbye and I hear her say to him:
“You are a good man Paul. Thank you for spending this day with me. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I smile in silence from my bed, and the part of me that is an animal both uniquely human and chronically injured, feels a heavy water lying in the sills of its eyes