Then came the day that changed everything. I passed out in the loading dock office of the record store and was sent home to rest up. I signed out a VHS copy of Alice in Wonderland to watch that night. Someone shouted a heart-felt “Feel better!” as I walked out the store’s front door to catch the bus.
I was roused with a poke at my shoulder.
“Hey, we’re at your stop,” the bus driver said, tapping me once more.
“Huh, what?” I responded drowsily. “I must have fallen asleep.”
I thanked the driver very much for remembering my usual stop. A touch of small town neighborhood kindness, something I used to disdain about the towns I grew up in was now a comfort. Whether or not my beachy chic veneer would have been willing to admit it, I appreciated the connection. I walked along Pacific Coast Highway taking in the smell of the ocean and the even-tempered warmth of my beloved California sun. As I turned the corner I noticed that breath came harder and harder. I managed to navigate 15th Street and trampled into my bungalow on Acaia.
I’ll just pop in Alice in Wonderland and veg out on the couch for a while.
The plan to relax and gather myself seemed simple enough.
Alice began her journey down the rabbit hole. I began to become aware of feeling something more than tired. A pressure inside my chest was growing. I twisted my body to the left, then right and there seemed to be no way to relieve it. My feelings rushed from odd to disconcerting to shocking as I shifted again and again. Soon, the inability to breath was unbearable.
Maybe if I shift into an upright position. Maybe that will help.
Desperately I slid onto the floor using the couch to support my back. Innocent, adventurous Alice: She was sipping tea with the Mad Hatter. I was flat on the floor, gasping to breathe.
The Roommate arrived home after almost an hour’s worth of agony. Bouncing in after a shopping spree on Melrose Avenue, a phone call was the first thing on the agenda. I hoisted myself across the floor, reaching for my multi-colored Converse high tops. One of my newest finds at a local re-sale shop. I admit I sometimes was a joker, so The Roommate, giving half a glance my way laughed at my “clowning,” as I tried raising myself up from the floor. It was impossible. I tried to speak. Roomie chattered away to a friend on the other end of the line. I went ignored. “Whatever, LL,” the body language seemed to say. In a sick flash, I felt like The Girl Who Cried Wolf, and regretted the pranks we had played, so often, on each other.
After great effort I reached the sneakers and tried to put them on. I kept silent to conserve the precious oxygen I was able to get into my lungs. Finally, The Roommate glanced down casually, as if about to Pshaw! another of my antics. I looked up in agony and the realization hit – the gasps were not a joke. Somehow, that 5 foot 1 rotund frame, whose bed I had covered with ants and leftovers, gathered up my flagging frame and threw me into the passenger seat of the Alfa Romeo. The car was still warm from the trip back from L.A. I recall us whizzing through the beach town in the topless red sports car. My eyes closed as I felt the sun cradling my face. When the warmth was replaced by a cool shadow I opened my eyes. We were under a massive concrete overhang, the entrance to the Emergency Room of a nearby hospital.
“Do you need a wheelchair?”
The question floated in the spongy air around my ears. My answer came as I collapsed into the chair offered. I remember being just conscious enough to panic with the singular thought that maybe every moment was going to count. In between breath-deprived seconds of sleep, my brain screamed:
My God, what the hell is wrong with me?
No matter the differences between us, that day The Roommate showed true mettle. Two attendants stood nearby – one to the side and one who seemed to me to appear suddenly, in front of me. I remember a pair of veined, fleshy hands holding a series of papers. There were questions about insurance and liability waivers that needed signatures. The Roommate unleashed justified fury.
“Get her some fuckin’ oxygen! She can’t breathe!”
Urgency ignited action and the white coats buzzed all around me. Someone prodded me. Someone else shone a light in my face. There were too many questions for me to even attempt to answer. My body could no longer hold me and I slumped till my cheeks nearly touched my thighs. Immediately, I felt myself being propelled down a long hallway.
Where are you taking me?
I had no ability to voice my question. Finally, we stopped in a dimly lit room where a woman helped me take off my shirt. She propped me up chest-first against an x-ray machine and asked me to hold the frame of the screen. A long moan grew inside me, but came out a flat, defeated melody.
Next time I remember coming into consciousness, I was face up on a gurney with noise all around. People shuffling from room to room, and back and forth across the noisy area with which I now felt bizarrely fused. There were all these machines at the side of the gurney. What are these things for? My eyes followed the multi-color tubing to where they terminated with needles in my arm. I brought my hand up to touch them. It all felt solid. Plastic and metal and flesh. I had to let go of the last vestige of any disbelief I might still have harbored that nothing serious was happening.
I turned to investigate the apparatus as my sides. Each made its own sound and the blink blink blinking lights had established their pattern of colors indicating my what insides were doing. Turning back to lie down I felt something pulling at my chest and I look down to discover pads attached in several places. I followed the lines to see my heart’s every thump making a moving picture on a black screen with green lines to my left.
Where is that cool breeze across my face coming from?
Through my grogginess I realized that I wasn’t in a draft, but that the plastic tube wrapped around my face was forcing oxygen into me. For some reason this realization made me more aware of my situation and I started to wake up even more at that point. I got a clearer look at the room and as I attempted to sit up the tube around my face pulled my head back and I got the first real impact of the pain in my arms.
“Owwwwwww…. Please no more needles,” I pleaded weakly as a nurse approached with a silver tray of tubes and syringes on a sterile blue cloth. She smiled and then pierced my arm deeply with the largest of the needles despite my plea. My breath shortened and started moving in and out faster and faster. Please stop. Please stop. Please stop.
“It’ll be fine,” the nurse assured me. She sounded like the mini-cassette of a clunky 80’s answering machine, with a message rewound and repeated a million times a day. Have you actually been stabbed over and over again like a voodoo doll? Along the outer edge of my eyes tears pooled until they could no longer maintain their weight. They dropped down the side of my face. She walked away without an acknowledgment of my pain, on to her next stabbing.
Soon somebody else in a green smock came and put an x-ray on the light board opposite my gurney. I used all my might to lift my head to see.
More medical people paraded in, speaking in jargon tongues, blocking my view. Their swirl of activity reminded me of busy hornets tending to their hive. I however did not feel like the queen bee as they swarmed all around me. My mind confused by my racing thoughts. Those gathered around the lighted image pointed here and there with their backs to me. Their humming voices spoke so softly I could not hear what they said. As they moved away form the mounted x-ray what I saw on the light board was the most shocking thing yet.
What the heck is that thing in my chest? Hey, is that my heart? Did it explode, or what? Am I having a heart attack? Maybe I’m dead. Is this some purgatory hospital before I transition to the afterlife?
After some perplexing stretch of unsettled quiet, a nurse darted in with news.
“We’re moving you into a bed in the main hospital,” she told me flatly.
She informed me next that some attempts had been made to reach my family members. A message had been left with my aunt Faith. She was the most local, but currently unreachable. She had been at a Buddhist temple in the Santa Ana Mountains for the day. They had tried my mother back in Wisconsin where it was the middle of the night. She wasn’t answering, my mother could sleep through a bombing dropping into her backyard. And she had yet to join the 20th century by buying and hooking up an answering machine. The location of my father was unknown.
I am all alone and I have no idea what is happening to me. This familiar sense of aloneness sunk in and took me back to the majority of my life growing up. I was sad, awkward, and misunderstood by my peers from grade school to high school back in Wisconsin. I always felt the outcast and was happy to escape there as I looked to create a new start for myself in Southern California. Distress crept in from the edges of my mind as I realized I had almost made another life for myself. This realization weighed down my heart as much as the physical pain and peril I was experiencing somatically. Was there no one they could find? The Roommate had been sent home, I discovered, because no one but blood relatives were now allowed to see me at that point. All alone once again.
The nurse turned the overhead light off and the room darkened with only the light from the hospital hallway through the open door. Just before leaving me again, completely alone in that large, dark room. She looked over her shoulder, “Try and sleep, ok?” She closed the door and the deep aloneness from within completely enveloped me as the door shut creating a deep blackness, only a muted aura from the machines at my bedside lit the space. I laid all by myself feeling completed isolated from the rest of the world.
Eventually I did sleep. I lost myself in its grace in between fits of throbbing. Sleep was the only reprieve from the discomfort in my arm. The pain came back each time one of the indifferent-seeming personnel came in to check my vitals, and to make sure all the puncture wounds they had caused were intact, the fluids were still pumping through the tubes and the lights were flashing and the green blip bleeping on the heart screen indicating that I was still indeed among the living. In my exhausted haze I wondered again and again:
What the hell is wrong with me?