Lauralie Goldman is making phone calls on the other side of the sea foam and cream tapestry curtain separating my hospital bed from her chair. I listen to her croak Hanukkah wishes while I stare at the words “Lenox Hill Emergency Department” stitched in between various boxes filled with flora and fauna.
“I was divining a little but did you get in touch with the gentleman? I need someone to take care of me today. It’s too cold to be outside, you see. And I make my money being outside.”
Lauralie Goldman is likely eighty years old and incapable of taking care of herself. It doesn’t sound as though the gentleman she is inquiring about is able to help her.
“Could you tell him I have no family,” she says, “no one else to help me. Can’t you tell him I’m a legitimate person?”
A legitimate person.
I’m lying on my stomach waiting for someone else to come in and look at my bug bite from hell. With the exception of Lauralie, it is quiet. The room hums with a comforting white noise. No one’s shoes squeak or clatter on the linoleum floor. Machines beep occasionally. There is no frantic New York City to be seen through a window. It’s nice here. Calm. I feel the soft fabric of my over-washed hospital gown. I sink into the deep comfort of my hospital bed. I breathe in air neither too cold nor too warm. And for no reason whatsoever, I begin to cry, because the self-imposed expectation of taking care of yourself all the time is exhausting. Nothing will fill you self-pity quite like being alone when you’re sick.
I didn’t want to come here today or yesterday. I didn’t want to come alone.
My doctor/nurse/whatever he is comes into my curtained-off corner of the emergency room. “You ready for the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced?” he asks.
“What?” I ask, humored and horrified as I turn around to look at him.
“This is going to hurt reaaaaaallll bad.”
“Oh, come on man. You can’t do that to me.”
I’m laughing because I’m nervous. He’s taking advantage because I’m a good sport.
“Aren’t you going to numb it?”
“Yeah,” he says. “But I’m going to stick a needle right in there.”
I’m laughing again.
He tells me he’s going to spray the bite with something really cold. “Really cold,” he emphasizes.
I make some joke about it being sixteen degrees outside, that his threats are empty ones, but the artificial cold coming from his can becomes so frigid I think my skin is just going to shatter and fall away.
They think it’s funny that I’m laughing. They think I’m cute.
I go dead quiet when I feel the needles go in, one after another after another, though it’s likely only one needle, not many. In my head, I imagine it is many because my head is focused on pain and not logic. “You okay?” he asks, but I don’t realize he’s talking to me at first. My brain thinks he is talking to the RN standing next to him.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “I’m fine.”
My face is down in this comfortable bed while he cuts into the back of my leg. I close my eyes or I keep them open. I can’t remember. He stops.
“Are we done?”
I tell him I want Vicodin.
They walk away and I put on my clothes. Lauralie Goldberg is gone. There is blood on the bed sheets. I get queasy. My leg hurts. I sit perched on a chair because I can’t sit down. The nurses are tending to an older woman sitting by herself outside of the waiting room. They’re asking her questions. She’s got that breathless voice of an old person whose lungs do not work like they used to. Breathless and soft. A grandmother’s voice.
She keeps talking about blueberries.
She was eating lunch and then her vision went blurry. “The blueberries,” she says. She thinks it was the blueberries.
I hear the nurses say something about a stroke.
They change the soft bed I was just on, stripping the blood speckled white sheets with a new pair like I never happened. The old woman is walked over. They close the curtains but I can still see her through the corner. They have her lying on her back so they can take off her shoes. She is wearing black socks, worn near the heel. The old woman wraps her arms around her knees and the nurse complements her on her bendiness. “It was an accident,” the old woman says. “In the ocean.”
Beyond the curtain, a serious looking doctor with a bald head has moved a machine towards them with a name on the side of it that infers life saving capabilities, which infers this woman is not doing well. Everyone looks focused. No one is laughing.
They wrap her in a soft sheet and push her bed away from the wall. I notice its big plastic wheels for the first time. Of course you can move it, I think. This is an emergency, where emergencies happen, not just a place where young girls come to treat bug bites on weekends. Nurses and doctors push her into the hallway, leaving a big empty space in the corner, a framed painting of flowers looking down at nothing, someone’s lost sock found against a baseboard.
“That’s hard,” the nurse says to me. “When they start to go like that…”
“How old is she?” I ask.
“Ninety-five,” she says. “That’s a good number.”
I stare at the empty space the two of us just shared. Two completely different worlds. Parallel places in space and time, her time more limited than my own.
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, it is.”