The fluorescent lights spelled out SCREW YOU in Morse code. I didn’t know Morse code, but there was definitely some hostility coming from the fixtures.
This was the last day of my life. Or was it the day after? I forget. Anyway, I’d just walked into the Emergency Room and the lighting was bad. It was a Wednesday afternoon and not a full moon or Christmas or anything so it was pretty quiet. It may have been a Tuesday.
So I walked up to the front desk and there was this big fat bitch sitting behind it. That sounds bad – I don’t have anything against fat people or women, but she was unpleasant. An Unpleasant-American. OK, I guess none of the rest of the stuff matters – there was a person of indeterminate age, race, gender and orientation with an unpleasant demeanor sitting behind the desk. Maybe she was pulling a triple shift, maybe her boyfriend left her, maybe she was just born with an upside-down smile – I don’t know. My point is that at this stage I had done nothing other than exist and she was already looking at me like I’d crawled out from under a rock. I had, but she didn’t know that. You’d think sympathy for the plight of others would be part of the job of being a nurse, but perhaps it wasn’t as big a part as cleaning up bodily fluids. Maybe that explained the attitude.
“What,” she said. I felt that it was a question but there wasn’t a question mark, so I just stared at her for a few seconds before I decided that it must have been.
“I’m going to die soon,” I said. She continued to look at me as if I’d raped her dog. I glanced behind me just in case her nemesis was standing there and she was trying to make their head explode and I was standing in the way. There was a zig-zag rope line as if they expected a lot of people, but there was no-one behind me. Like I said, it was quiet. I wanted to assure her that I’d never met her dog, only enjoyed consensual lovemaking and in any case wasn’t sexually attracted to animals, but I didn’t think it would help.
“I took 1200 mg of hydrocodone half an hour ago,” I said.
“What else?” She didn’t seem impressed. Wasn’t that enough?
“I had some cough syrup yesterday,” I said, and then leaning forward conspiratorially, “I had a cough.”
She gave me a dirty look and began collecting forms from various piles behind her desk and pinning them to a clipboard with the practised ease of a mail sorting machine.
“How will you be paying?” she asked, pausing with her hand hovering between two piles. I hadn’t really thought about it. I’d decided to die and then I’d changed my mind – it hadn’t occurred to me that I couldn’t afford to. Was a life that included medical bankruptcy still worth living?
“Let me put it this way,” I said, “not cash.” This comment did not raise my stature in the eyes of to the dear lady. It seemed that the only people she disliked more than people like me were people like me who tried to be funny. And were poor.
“Insurance?” she specified.
“No thanks,” I said. “It’s only worth it if you’re going to be really sick.”
Our eyes met briefly and for some fractional moment I thought I saw a splinter of sympathy – we both knew I was going to be really sick quite soon.
She finished picking forms and dropped the clipboard in front of me. I decided that she hadn’t handed it to me because she thought that whatever it was that she disliked about me was communicable through solid objects. Like static electricity or something. Static dislikability.
“We don’t have any pens,” she said. I looked down at the stack of forms, wondering how I was going to fill them in. Maybe if I’d been bleeding I could have finger-painted the forms with that.
“Ask them,” she said, waving a hand dismissively at the occupants of the waiting room. Some of them did have blood-soaked bandages… Oh, a pen.
I shuffled over to the waiting area, trying to quickly and subtly assess which of the wounded would be the best to approach. People naturally sit as far away from each other as they can, but eventually the only seats that are left are next to somebody.
There was an old homeless man who appeared to be in the Emergency Room for a life threatening odor – not my first choice. A good looking young woman who sat with her purse pressed on top of her clenched knees and to whom I was invisible. A mother who held her child close when I looked in their direction, having apparently decided that I was a predator based only on… I don’t know, my gender? I decided to be more generous in my assessment of others based on their appearance.
There was a cluster of teenagers who were obviously playing gang members in their school play and had somehow become injured while studying hard at the library. There was a biker with a head injury in handcuffs (obviously only a suspect and innocent until proven guilty) sitting next to a vacant-eyed police officer.
Eventually I decided on a family speaking a foreign language that I couldn’t even begin to identify. Tamil? Urdu? See, I told you. Peshwari? They clammed up when I approached and I suddenly felt very scrutinised. Their English was infinitely better than my Farsi (?) and they gladly offered me my choice of identical cheap plastic Bic pens. The closest seat was next to a female member of the family and not knowing if their culture frowned on strange men sitting next to their young women I left an empty seat, which put me next to Life Threatening Odor. The sacrifices we make for ignorance and politeness. I tried to breathe through my mouth.
MISERABLE, said the lights. I ignored them.
I flipped through the forms. There were some very personal questions. How many sexual partners had I had in the last year? I thought back. There was that night I went home alone, then that other night I went home alone, then another three hundred and sixty-three that were pretty much the same. I wrote a big 0 and then cheered it up by drawing in eyes and a smile. Maybe the doctor would think I was being coy.
LONELY, said the lights.
There was a sheet that was just a big list of diseases, and I was supposed to tick the ones I had. It made me feel good that I had only had a couple of them – I was better off than someone, at least I didn’t have herpes. Or hepatitis. Or HIV. And that was only some of the H’s. On the other hand, some were so generic that I couldn’t imagine anyone not having them – trouble sleeping? Really? What sort of bureaucrat puts “HIV” and “trouble sleeping” on the same form?
SICK, said the lights.
I got to the payment form. If I sold everything I owned I’d still owe credit card companies and banks a lot of money. How was I going to pay for this? I knew how – first they’d treat me. Then I’d have a debt. Then they’d try to collect the debt. Then either I’d somehow take out another loan and spend the next decade trying to pay it off or they’d take me to court.
POOR, said the lights.
“Shut up,” I said. The foreign family stopped talking Gujarati (?) to look at me and then resumed at a greater intensity. I could only assume they were discussing how they shouldn’t t have given one of their pens to the crazy white guy. Gringo. Gwai Lo. Gaijin. Gâvur. Gentile.
I was starting to feel sleepy. Either the hydrocodone was kicking in or the Life Threatening Odor was. I stood up. Maybe I’d filled out enough of the forms to be seen by a doctor now. Although I’d been in the Emergency Room quite a while, and not a single person in the waiting room had been called up. Maybe they had a different definition of “emergency” here. I didn’t think that indecisive suicides were at the top of their priority list.
I put the clipboard on the front desk. The indeterminate person with an unpleasant demeanor didn’t even look up from her phone.
GET OUT, said the lights.
“I’m here for help,” I answered them. The dear lady glanced up at me and then back to her phone without changing her expression.
YOU LEFT THE STOVE ON, said the lights.
“No I didn’t,” I replied. The nurse sighed, put her phone down and started punching numbers into her desk phone.
“Another crazy one,” she said to herself in a resigned tone.
I hadn’t left the stove on. Had I? Maybe I had. I had. I started walking toward the door.
“Come back,” she said to me, “someone’ll be down in a minute.”
RUN, said the lights. I ran.
Outside was brighter but everything seemed washed out. I had the thought that my eyes were going back in time, from color TV back to black and white. The sun didn’t say anything.
It was warm. It was hot. I felt like I was wrapped in a warm blanket. A sleeping bag. An oven.
I tried to take my clothes off as I ran but they fought back, trying to strangle me and trip me up.
I could hear things – they sounded urgent but they were far away and muffled. I was losing peripheral vision.
Then I was hit by a bus. It hurt, but not as much as you’d think. It was the number five. It was very confusing because my view was flying all over the place and spinning around. I could feel things happen to my body, and I knew abstractly that they were bad things, but I couldn’t make myself care. Skin, bones, teeth – none of them really felt like they were me. I was safe in my warm, quiet sleeping bag.
My vision grew darker and darker until everything was just black. It was getting harder to think.
So this was it. I thought back over my life and remembered some good things I’d done. I remembered some bad things I’d done. I wished there had been more good things and I regretted the bad things, but it didn’t seem to matter much anymore. It wasn’t as if I could learn from my mistakes now. My life had mostly been procrastination – killing time until there was none left. Why? I didn’t know.
It felt sad, but also peaceful. My thoughts faded like my vision had, until everything was just black.
I guess that was the last day of my life after all.
Maybe it was the number six bus.