Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Onde Anda Você — Eleven

 I hold the x-rays against my chest, checking once again the patient record in my tablet. I'm fast—I walk from the radiology department downstairs to the patient wing in a single breath, and those are so far apart that they could be very well set in different corners of any given college campus. 

I fight that urge to check my phone, but I fight against it. I cross the ER, one I'm too familiar with as a trauma nurse, and check the bed number once again in the x-ray file. The light blue curtains are closed and I stop myself before walking in, brushing my hair back for any strays.

Shit.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Juniper's (Part 1)

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a drop of water? Wondered what it’s like to be a group of molecules cycling through the universe? The water cycle is never ending, yet each stop on a raindrop’s journey will be vastly different. In the next cycle it might not even be a raindrop at all. It could be a drop of water flowing in the River Thames; it could be a life-sustaining drop of water for a cactus in the desert. 

That sounds nice, I think. So unlike the human lifecycle. One and done. That’s us. No chance to start over. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Juniper's (Part 2)

 

Sam manages to slip out of Juniper’s after that. He doesn’t come back to the booth, just leaves without a word. 


The night is beginning to wind down anyway. People have started to peel off and the bar is emptying. Outside it’s still raining, and people huddle in the entrance of Juniper’s while they sort out drivers and Ubers. Vaguely, I wonder how Sam and his PCA -- which I’ve learned means personal care assistant -- got there. Sam used to have a condo across the street, but it was on the third floor of a building with a shitty elevator that only worked a fraction of the time. Somehow, I doubt he lives there anymore. 


The memory of the condo almost makes me smile. 


Almost everyone has their phones sitting on the table. Most are face down; mine is faceup, expectant. Eventually, there’s a series of almost simultaneous vibrates and chirps as everyone receives a text message. 


Everyone except me. 


It’s hard not to feel like a middle school girl being edged out of the cool kid's lunch table as everyone at the table grabs their phones. Amy once again leans across Roger and shows me the message. Just a simple little text from Sam that says: Had to dip.


For some reason, the words hit me hard, and I can’t help but feel hurt and slightly vexed at being left out of the group message. Admittedly, those feelings are perfectly invalid, especially after everything I did -- or didn’t do, rather -- but it’s the way I feel nonetheless. 


I guess Sam’s olive branch only extends so far. 


“Everything okay?” I try to keep my words light and nonchalant. 


“He just went home. He didn’t leave to keel over in private, Lucy.” This comes from John. It’s the most he’s said to me all night. He’s by far the most reserved and mild-mannered of our friends, so the harsh acidity in his voice stuns me. “Which you would know if you had cared at all. Or, if you’d so much as answered a fucking text message in the last three years.” 


I look down at my pint glass. 


I care more than you can imagine. 


But the words sound empty to me, so I don’t bother saying them out loud. Instead, I drain the last of my beer and heave a big sigh. 


“You know what? I’m going to head out, too.” 


No one says anything, but Roger at least has the decency to look sorry that I’m leaving. Or maybe he’s just sorry that the night is suddenly in a chaotic free fall. They say that time heals all wounds. It is supposed to be a panacea. But clearly, that is not true. Not with this group. 


Amy grabs her purse and gestures for Roger to let her out of the booth. 


“No, I’ll just get an Uber back to my parents,” I tell her as I stand up. Rationally, I know that John’s reaction is a direct consequence of my own stupid and careless decisions, but my feelings are hurt, so I can’t help but look directly at him and add, “Great to be home.”  


As I walk away I hear Amy snapping at him. Unleashing. Something about how it’s a complicated situation -- one that none of them know anything about -- and how he should have kept his mouth shut. 


Well, that’s true. 


Unless Sam told her, which I highly doubt, not even Amy really knows what’s going on. To the best of Amy’s knowledge, I’m just upset by the unfortunate turn of events that have happened in the last few years. 


Sam’s diagnosis. Losing my job. Getting kicked out of The Purple People Eaters group text. 


It is all of those things. It’s none of those things. It’s the banality and reality of everything crashing down in front of me. 


But there’s also more. 


***


My Uber comes, and ten minutes later I’m safely ensconced in my childhood bedroom at my parent's house. I’m surrounded by familiar, comforting memories. Pictures from high school and college, postcards and souvenirs from family vacations. Right next to my bed, hanging above my desk, there’s a calendar from July 2015 hanging on the wall. One date -- a Wednesday -- is marked with a smiley face drawn with a blue highlighter. The ink is faded, but the memories are stronger than ever. 


You see, that Wednesday night in July, while at a going-away party he organized for me, Sam drunkenly kissed me, surprising absolutely no one. It sounds dramatic -- especially because it was just a sloppy, drunken kiss -- but it was also perfectly sublime. But two days later I left for a job across the world. Then a few hours after my plane landed, Sam sent a text, casually informing everyone of his “imminent doom” via motor neuron disease. 


I sit up and angrily throwback my bed covers. I walk over to the stupid calendar and rip it off the wall as the memories of what made me draw that juvenile smiley face in the first place threaten to drown me. 


The two carefree days between the drunken kiss, radio silence, and diagnosis that were spent in that little third-floor condo and filled with lots of promises, laughter, and sex. 


Stupid, stupid Lucy. 


Stupid for so many reasons, but mostly because I was the only one who didn’t know how to respond when Sam delivered the news about his health. Stupid because mine was the response he needed most. 


I pull out my phone, and my finger hovers over his name. 


It’s an exercise in futility, though. One that I’ve engaged in far too often over the years. Because even now, it’s me, not Sam, that is still truly paralyzed by the catalyst of that kiss. 


I put my phone back on my nightstand without calling or texting. Just like always. 


***


An entire week after our truce begins, it ends. 


It’s preposterous that what causes me to pick up the phone after so long is a literal dumpster fire. The irony that I couldn’t call him when his life was devolving into one is not lost on me. But, as I stand across the street from the Midtown staple and watch the fire spread from the dumpster to the building, the flames lapping the old wood up greedily, I tap his name in my phone for the first time in three years without overthinking and chickening out. 


“Juniper’s is on fire,” I tell him, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice. It’s hard not to see the flames consuming the building where we met, formed our friendship, and unexpectedly redefined our relationship, as a cruel cosmic sign


“I know.” His answer surprises me. “I can see it,” his words are punctuated by a pause for breath, “from my condo.” 


I spin around towards the building that Sam used to live in. “I didn’t know you lived there anymore.” 


He laughs, and the sound isn’t the comforting, warm sound I’m used to. It’s short and raspy. “Yeah, there’s a lot you don’t know anymore.” 


As usual, I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I just watch as fire engines arrive on the scene and start dousing Juniper’s with thousands of gallons of water. 


“Don’t take it as some macabre symbol.” 


If we weren’t still dancing around everything, his words might have made me laugh. Somewhere in a parallel universe, Another Sam just made that remark to A Different Lucy, and they’re laughing fondly at how well he knows her. 


But this is the universe we’re stuck in, so Sam sighs instead and the sound is heavy and loaded. “It’s just life, Lucy. Nothing lasts forever.” 


My throat tightens, and it has nothing to do with the smoke that fills the air around me. Tears spring unbidden to my eyes, and I silently curse myself for not keeping better control of my emotions. 


“I moved to 1108, but the gate co--,” his words end suddenly and it sounds like he runs out of breath. “Code is the same,” Sam says, trying again. A moment later he ends the call without waiting for my response. 


That’s Sam. Extending yet another olive branch. 


I tip my head back and look up at the sky. It’s naturally overcast, but it’s also darkened by the thick, gray smoke filling the air. The tendrils spiral upwards, looking as anchorless as I feel. 





Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Juniper's (Part 3)

Fifteen minutes later I’m sitting in Sam’s living room. This unit is located two floors beneath his old unit, but it’s laid out the same. Wide, open, studio floor plan with a half-wall delineating the space between the living room and bedroom, then a small two-seater breakfast bar separating the kitchen from everything else. The living room has these beautiful French doors that lead out to a narrow balcony that overlooks Midtown. I wonder how much use that balcony gets these days.

It’s amazing how much this condo is exactly the same as the old one: same generic artwork hanging over the couch; same bar cart, mostly filled with expensive amber-colored liquors, sitting beside the TV; same heavy, espresso colored furniture. 

But some things have changed. His PC is gone, which, in my opinion, is an improvement. It was a giant set up with three monitors and a computer tower that lit up. I didn’t understand the allure or reason for a custom-built computer then and I still don’t, but for some reason, its absence hits me hard. 

Looking around, I realize other things are missing. His bike. His vintage Leica. The saltwater aquarium. Instead of the familiar quintessential hints of Sam, now the vibe is more like that of a very nice hospital room. In the corner of the living room, there’s a hoist with a sling attached. The half-wall between the bedroom and the living area doesn’t hide much, and I can see a machine with a screen and lots of plastic hoses -- a ventilator, maybe? -- sitting next to what looks like a hospital bed. 

This condo is now a study in contrast. Not unlike Sam himself. Simultaneously the same, yet also changed. 

Sam sits across from me, his wheelchair looming large in the small space. I wonder why he didn’t move somewhere with more space. He got hired as an accountant at a Big Four firm right out of college; he could probably afford it. But, like so many times before now, I don’t ask the question that’s really on my mind.

Instead, I comment about that stupid computer. “I see you parted ways with Deep Thought.”

He rolls his eyes. Despite inviting me here, his demeanor is guarded. He leans forward slightly and takes a sip from the ventilator before speaking. “It was getting too old to run most games.”  

“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say. “So, Juniper’s --” 

With a little click and an electric whirl, Sam cuts me off by moving his wheelchair closer, and the small gap between us suddenly closes. The toes of his shoes barely brush against my calves. He gives me a hard look.

I draw away from the contact, shifting sideways on the couch. “This feels awkward.” 

“It damn well should,” there’s no trace of warmth in his voice, “I needed you, Lucy.” 

“I know,” I whisper. 

Sam moves his wheelchair closer again, and this time I can’t escape. I’m trapped on the couch between the bar cart and the half-wall of his bedroom. He’s literally backed me into the corner of his living room. 

“I’m sorry, Sam.” I sigh heavily and look at him. He’s thinner and different. He looks deeply tired and his body sags a bit in the wheelchair. But he’s also still very handsome. I wonder if he would be insulted or flattered if I blurted that out right now. Without a doubt, he would growl at me for trying to change the subject, for continuing to run away from everything. 

So I don’t say that and Sam doesn’t chastise me. We sit in silence for a moment. 

“It’s easier to be the bearer of bad news than the receiver.” Even as I’m saying the words, I know they’re a miserable attempt at an explanation.

Sam snorts. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” 

“Let me finish,” I say, feeling unjustifiably angry and defensive. “I didn’t know what to say, Sam. I still don’t. I know that’s shitty, but it’s the truth.” 

He doesn’t say anything, so I go on, knowing that if I stop, I might never start again. 

“I kept trying to come up with the right words, but I couldn’t. And then suddenly all this time had passed, so then, on top of not knowing what to say, I felt self-conscious about having not said whatever the hell I was supposed to say in the first place. It was like this massive cycle of indecision and guilt and it depressed me and paralyzed me and --” 

“Fucking hell, Lucy.” Sam cuts me off for the second time since I arrived. He moves his hand from the joystick and shakily starts to raise it to his face. He makes it about halfway before it drops to his lap with a thud. “That’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard.” 

I don’t know what the point of that gesture was. The effort leaves him breathing heavily, and he takes a couple of breaths from the ventilator. 

It only takes me a second longer to realize what the point was. When I do, I don’t know whether to smile at the realization, or frown because he can no longer do it. It’s a gesture he’s done a thousand times, and if I look at him, I can perfectly picture it: hand to the bridge of his nose, thumb and forefinger pinching it, eyes squeezed closed, head shaking slightly in disbelief or amusement. The Lucy Look, our friends used to call it. It was usually accompanied by a smile, too. 

Right now there is no smile. 

He lifts his hand back to the joystick, backs the wheelchair up, then pivots away from me. He’s facing the French doors -- and the charred remains of Juniper’s. For someone not able to move most of his body anymore, his actions are extraordinarily loud. 

“There were words, you know. There were very specific words you could have said to make all of this better.” 

His own words sound thick, a little choked. I look at him in alarm and he scowls at my concern. That look keeps me from saying anything else. 

Eventually, Sam makes a weird noise. It’s almost like he’s trying to clear his throat, but the sound is weak, like it comes from the top of his throat instead of his chest, and clearly ineffective. Before I can dare to ask if he’s okay, he starts to speak. 

“I choked on a piece of food last year, and it turned into pneumonia. It’s probably the reason I have to use this stupid thing,” he nods at the ventilator and then takes a sip. “I thought I was going to die at one point. Everyone showed up at the hospital, all weepy and shit. Amy was the goddamn worst.” He rolls his eyes. “Do you know what I remember from that whole thing?” 

A million different emotions flood me because this is the first time I’m hearing about this particular incident. I shake my head. 

“Other than Amy’s wailing, not much, actually. The whole thing was a painful blur.” He angles his wheelchair slightly towards me and his expression is unreadable. He sucks on the ventilator mouthpiece. “I don’t want her crying to be the last thing I hear.” 

Tears spring to my eyes and I dig my nails into my leg, trying to momentarily trade one kind of pain for another. 

Sam tips his head back and turns his gaze towards the ceiling. “I meant it. What I said that night.” 

I know instinctively that he’s talking about that night three years ago. The Last Night. 

“That’s why it hurt so much when you didn’t say anything for so long.” 

I don’t trust myself to speak, but I try. “That’s exactly why I couldn’t --” 

“I loved you.” Sam cuts me off. He looks at me and there is such deep-seated pain in his green eyes. “And for some inexplicable reason, I still do.”  

I’m still digging my nails into my leg, but it isn’t enough to quell three years of pent-up emotions anymore. Despite my best efforts, the dam breaks, and I’m ugly crying in Sam’s condo.

***

“I hate crying,” I say, wiping snot from my nose on the back of my sleeve some time later. We’re sitting on the balcony. Turns out the small balcony does still get a fair amount of use. There’s just enough room for his massive wheelchair and a single Adirondack chair. 

The discovery of the beat-up old Adirondack out here on the balcony filled me with delight. “You really think I would get rid of it after that night?” He had told me with a rakish smile when I asked about its presence as I sat down in it. The answer made me laugh -- genuinely laugh -- like I hadn’t in a long time. 

With some effort, Sam lifts his arm and extends it towards me. I take his limp hand in mine, trying not to focus on how weak, how small, how different it feels in my hand than it used to. Instead, I focus on how surprising, how unexpected, how utterly amazing it is that we’re here like this at all. 

We’ve got a perfect view of the smoldering building that used to be our favorite bar in Atlanta. All of the activity is starting to die down. The crowds have dissipated and the fire engines are gone. The perimeter of the property is wrapped in caution tape. It’s hard to believe that Juniper’s is gone. Harder still to process the many feelings I have about that fact. Because, I know that if it hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now. 

I look over at Sam and finally say the words that I’ve felt so long. “And I love you too.” 

Sometimes new beginnings truly are born out of endings and ashes.