The Constraints of a Neck Brace

“So I guess now would be a good time to tell you that I hate hospitals,” Patrick said.  We were there because I’d fallen off my horse, because the fall had been a bad one.

I took my eyes off the black man in front of me.  He was talking to a fat white guy behind a desk and glass window.  He was telling the guy behind the glass that his arm had been dislocated.  The black man’s sweatshirt was gray and had a skeleton’s ribcage printed in red on the back of it and it was hanging off one of his shoulders.  It was tacky and I had a sick feeling that when he turned around I would recognize him as someone I had bought drugs from.

I turned around and looked at Patrick.  His hands were shoved in the front pockets of his Levi jeans and his feet were planted three feet apart as if the white linoleum was holding them hostage.

“Babe, I’m sorry, but I can’t move,” he said, “I’ll stay right here, but I can’t move.”

I could see the sincerest, most loving look of fear in his eyes.  I stared at him and blinked a few times, but I couldn’t see him anymore.  I could only see my older brother’s face the moment he realized that my dad was about to hit him. He’d run.  Later, his childhood friends would joke and yell “Run, Tyler, run,” but only when my dad wasn’t around.  The truth was they were just as afraid of him as my brother was.  And in that second before he started to run, Tyler had looked at me.  I’d felt so helpless.  I’d never had to run from my dad or feel the back of his hand across my left cheek, but I’d wished I had.  I’d wished it so that now my brother and I could know something about one another.

“Miss?” the fat man behind the glass said.  I turned my eyes from Patrick’s face to his.  I couldn’t believe Patrick hadn’t started running yet.  The fat man had just sent the black man and his dislocated arm to a chair close by in the waiting room and told him the nurses would get to him when it was his turn. “How may I help you?”

He had on light blue scrubs and there was a white nametag hanging from the left breast pocket on his shirt, but I couldn’t read it.  He would have been attractive, maybe, if he had been normal-sized.  I could tell by the look on his face that he didn’t think anything was wrong with me- I had just walked in on my own, with all limbs intact and all veins still housing my blood.  I took a step forward and was right in front of the glass wall.  I didn’t look, but I knew Patrick was still there, and I knew he didn’t move closer with me.

“Hi,” I said, wanting to ask about the black man.

He asked me questions that I can’t remember answering.  I felt like I was a sophomore in high school being questioned by the dean again.  It’s weird telling the truth and wondering if you’re lying because everyone else thinks you are.  For instance, I’d told the dean I wasn’t selling weed and that I had no idea who on campus was.  I never said his name, but when Andrew Hayes was kicked out of my prep school, I’d felt like it was my fault.  Now I suddenly wanted to run before everyone in the hospital turned into everyone I went to high school with and started cursing me to my face.  One time, two boys stood on a balcony and flicked quarters as I emerged from underneath it.  I was too much of a coward then to say anything or even acknowledge the coins hitting my calves and back.  I just counted the blades of grass growing in the cracks of the brick pathway, trying not to walk faster.  That was an unlucky existence, I remember thinking- constantly struggling for a break to the surface, wondering your whole life how things would be better if your seed had only blown a few feet in another direction.

“Okay, go have a seat in that wheelchair over there to your left and someone will be right with you,” he said.

I looked at the weird blue seat in front of me, it looked like one of those weird shopping cart wheelchair hybrids.

“Do I really have to sit in this?” I asked Patrick.  “I can just stand,” I said.  But I sat down anyway.

I’m not even sure why I asked that.  I didn’t expect guidance or a speech about my health.  I expected him to stare at me and do nothing more than expand and shrink with each breath he took.  That’s what he did.  I’ve never understood the girls who complain about how dominating their boyfriends are.  I wish someone had been there to say, “Just shut up and sit down.”  Someone to simply tell me what to do.  Everyone I date is confident and outspoken in the beginning, and ends up like this- capable of staring and breathing.  It must be something I do, but I have no idea what it is.

“Mary Callahan?” A nurse yelled leaning on the gray door she had just opened, her right foot still in her small office.

“That’s me,” I said and raised my hand, looking at the black man and his dislocated arm still sitting in the waiting room.  There was a woman next to him, his wife maybe.  She had a round face with soft, shallow wrinkles and was patting his knee the way a dog would lick a fresh wound on his master.  You know in a relationship no matter how many times someone says “It’s not a competition,” it always is?  We constantly teeter on a delicate balance, hurting each other in small fragile ways.  Someone’s always keeping score of who’s turn it is to tip the scale back, and just how much it can go, the way a bee might decide if a petal could support his weight before landing.  I wondered if there was a part of her rejoicing in his pain.

The nurse had on the same light blue scrubs as the fat man, the same unreadable nametag hanging from her left breast pocket.  There was a sympathetic, sad look in her eyes and the skin across her forehead was unnaturally tight.  The faint glitter on her cheeks only made her dull eyes more obvious.  I watched her face and waited for the florescent lighting to reveal tiny sparkles on her skin.  I often wonder what men see make-up as.  Do they see the face underneath or the soft twinkle a stroke of bronzer creates?  I always think it’s like staring into the still water of a pond and fighting the urge to look at your reflection so you can watch the fish move.

I talked to her about my accident, and she told me about a beautiful barn in the area on Cloverdale Road she had heard about.  She said that her younger sister rode horses, and what beautiful amazing animals she thought they were.  I nodded.

That’s what you’re supposed to do when people talk about something they think they understand, but you know they don’t.  That’s what I do when Patrick tells me he’s proud of me no matter how poorly I did at a horse show or how badly a test went because I decided to melt into a different world instead of studying.  Anyone who understood anything about that wouldn’t be proud of it.  It’s awkward hearing him say he’s proud of me, so I nod and say thank you.

She handed me a guest pass so someone could come back with me.  I figured I wasn’t going to need it though.  I’ve spent more of my life doing things alone than with other people anyway.  It was easier to watch my older brother and younger sister play from a distance than try to join them and get ganged up on until I left.  Whenever my mom tried to get me to go with them, I’d lie and say I wanted to read whatever book was in my hand more.  It was usually The Velveteen Rabbit- the rabbit desperate to become real through the true love of his owner.

I loved that story and have been convinced it was possible ever since.  In high school I would get stoned and talk to my dog.  I know that seems like a thing most people say they did in high school, but I mean I really talked to my dog, I expected him to remember things.  I know he did, he gave me a look once, that’s how I know.  It was the morning he died, two weeks before I left for college.  His small, round brown eyes had seen so many things.  I’ll take those memories with me.  No one will ever know who stole that bottle of gin last month, or why you needed to borrow fifty dollars from you’re dad a few days ago, or that you sent Peter Rubin a picture of your boobs last year, or that you secretly feel sorry for your father and how much you three hate him, they seemed to say.  I put my hand on his head; he closed his eyes and never opened them again.  I walked straight out of the vet’s office to the car.  He wasn’t real anymore, and I couldn’t look at him.

“I hope you feel better,” she said and sent me back to my wheelchair.

When I went to sit down and saw Patrick standing in the same place, I got so angry.  I wanted to scream at him, tell him to leave.  He isn’t your father, I thought, maybe he will come with you, maybe he will know what you want.  It’s ridiculous to expect someone to know what you want them to do without telling them, that I understand.  But when a person does something out of obligation rather than preference, it robs it of all meaning and importance.  How much would you appreciate the sunrise if you told it to do so every morning?

Maybe that’s why my dad didn’t do the things I wished he had.  Maybe he thought that buying me this or building me that was what I wanted.  Maybe I should have told him what to do.  Why would I have though?

The heavy, dark blue door directly behind me opened, I felt the air sweep back from the waiting room and into the now visible hallway.  Whatever was beyond that door seemed to suck the life from everything around me; even the air conditioner stopped humming.  The only thing I could hear was the discomfort in Patrick’s sweatshirt when he breathed.

“Mary Callahan,” a gruff voice said.

“That’s me,” I tried to spin around, but the muscles in my back and neck wouldn’t let me, so I raised my hand instead.

A black woman leaned around me until her face was very close to mine and let go of the door.  It shut so reluctantly compared to how eagerly it opened.  She had those twist braid things that are always in stereotypes of black women and the same light blue scrubs everyone else had on.  There was a bright orange t-shirt underneath them and I could see a gold chain hanging around the back of her neck and disappearing into the v-shaped neckline of her shirt.  I wondered if it was just plain orange or if there was something printed on it, maybe she got it from her husband or her high school sweetheart.  I often think about where all the t-shirts I’ve collected from boyfriends and one-night stands will end up.  She was fat, but fat in a way like she was carrying around the tax of ex-lovers or a failed marriage or a rebellious teenage son.  The weight didn’t look comfortable, the way weight from a good meal did.

She spun me around and I couldn’t see, but I know she looked at Patrick and I’m sure it was for more than to nod goodbye.  She pushed me into the world behind the waiting room and I closed my eyes.  I always close my eyes.  That sounds cowardly and that’s how I mean it.  The only person I could think about was my mom.

Something happened after giving birth to me, she needed two blood transfusions and emergency surgery to save her life.  She was being operated on when my dad arrived to the hospital.  He finally got to see her, and started screaming at her for wasting his time and all the work he could be doing.  Hospital staff threw him out.  I’d never heard anything about that my whole life, except for the one time my mom told me the story.  She said it was the thing that took her the longest to forgive my dad for.  It was my fault, she didn’t say that, but it was.  I failed my mother before reaching my eleventh day alive.

“Alright honey,” the black woman said, “You’re not going to like this, but I have to put a neck brace on you and I really don’t want to cut your shirt off, so if you can take it off without moving your neck, do it now.”

I kept my eyes closed and pulled my pink v-neck shirt off.  Everyone tells you growing up that you shouldn’t be self-conscious in front of doctors because they see people of all shapes and sizes everyday and don’t pay any attention to that kind of thing.  I don’t care where you are, if you take your shirt off in front of other women, the first thing they all do is inspect you.  I’ve learned that.

I’ve grown out of my insecurities and gained weight with my confidence.  My whole life I’ve been long and boney.  When I was younger, my face looked like a mouse with straight, red hair.  Usually red hair is vibrant and brilliant and incredible to look at.  No one with hair like that blends into the background of a group picture, but I did.  In the past few years, my chest and stomach have grown about three times the size they were in high school.  I found cellulite on my thigh the other day and my face isn’t quite as pointy.  I’m not saying I’m fat, I’m just saying sitting there made me very aware.  Almost as aware as I was when I sent Peter Rubin naked pictures in the eleventh grade.  I told myself it wasn’t true, but I knew other people would see those pictures, and I did it anyway.

Some people came in to put me on my bed.  I had on a hospital gown, black spandex pants and my neck brace.  A nurse put a white clamp on my right index finger and a cord ran from it to a monitor displaying numbers and lines.  She typed a lot of information into a computer and asked me questions.  Someone else asked me my name and birthday and where I was and what year it was.

Everyone left the room and I had nowhere to look but the ceiling, scared to move in fear of hitting a button I wasn’t supposed to.  I couldn’t imagine touching something that would bring a nurse frantically to my side.  I imagined Patrick running through the hallways demanding to know where I was and being thrown out by hospital staff.  He didn’t have that much passion though.  I could hear a man and woman talking just outside the curtain covering my room.

“His lungs started bleeding again,” the woman said, “so I think they’re going to send him back into surgery.”

“Really?” the man said, “let me know if you get to watch that, I’m stuck doing rounds all day.”

I wondered if hospitals were like the ones on TV shows where the interns fight over the best patients.  There surely wouldn’t be anyone excited to treat me, I probably shouldn’t even be here I thought.  I felt like an outcast.  But it was comfortable in the way that constant discomfort breeds, the way light breaking through the worn wrinkles in the curtains of your childhood bedroom wakes you up, but you refuse to replace them.

A dark haired man came in the room and four or five people followed him.  That seemed to be the norm around here- with one came many, one blade of grass growing in a crack only encouraged the others.  He asked me more questions and pulled my hospital gown up.  At first I tensed the way I always do when a man pulls my shirt up, but I relaxed suddenly and felt like a young girl who didn’t know the difference between a touch that was sexual and one that was not.

“Oh look, there’s something stuck in your belly button,” he laughed and started pushing on my stomach.  He was talking about my piercing.

I forced myself to smile.  He said it in the same way you might tell a little girl there was something in her ear and pull out a quarter or pretend to steal her nose.  It made me uncomfortable, and for some reason I wanted to reach up and run my thumb behind each of my ears.

“Okay, let’s roll her over so I can examine her back.”

“I can do it myself,” I tried to say, but before, I could finish, an older woman with short white hair and glasses said, “No, no honey, you don’t move at all, that’s what were here for- that’s what we get paid to do.”

Everyone left except the dark haired man who told me all the procedures I was going to have done.  Before he left, he said someone would come get me and to sit tight.  I thought about how mad I was at Patrick and then about all my old boyfriends, not one came to mind that would have left me back here alone.  I never cried, I hated it, and still two tears ran out of the corners of my eyes, across my temples, and behind my ears right where someone would hide a coin.

I thought about who would come visit me if I was in the hospital for a while.  I realized that the list wasn’t very long.  I used to think that I repelled people.  That there was something about me others just didn’t want to be around.  It never bothered me, but I didn’t think it was a positive thing.  I didn’t understand that it was me who barely tried to make friends.  I always thought there was too much involved in changing yourself for someone to want to hang out with you.  If you don’t like me, I don’t care.  And I never have, although I probably should.

After some time, a different black woman came into my room and helped me get into a wheelchair.  She had braids in her hair and was fat like the first woman who helped me, but she was joyfully fat and her smile made me smile.  She pushed me around more hallways that I hadn’t seen yet and brought me to get my X-rays done.  She waited outside and when I was finished, pushed me further to where she said they were going to take pictures of my brain.  We were going down a long straight hallway and she started slowing down.  I could see a woman leaning against the wall about fifty feet in front of us, crying tragically.  I wanted to reach my shaking hand out and touch her.  Not sympathetically, just to make sure she was real.  I don’t know why.  Her blonde straw-like hair was anything but neat and her eyes and cheeks were so red.  She looked unusual, but in place, the way the weird wooden birds my mom puts in between pictures and candles on bookcases and floating shelves do.  She tried to hide her tears as we got closer.  The black woman stopped me almost right in front of her, but then pushed me a little further so my back was facing her.  I was thankful she did that.  I’m not sure where the woman went, but she wasn’t there when I returned to the hallway.

“Someone will come out here and get you when they’re ready for you.  I hope you feel better,” the black woman said before she left.  I wanted to smile at her and thank her, but I couldn’t turn around.  I couldn’t see anything but what was in front of me.

A young man wheeled me from the hallway into a room that looked complicated and nerdy, kind of like he did.  He had to be only a few years older than me, and had glasses and brown hair that curled a little bit at the ends.  He looked sweet and slightly insecure, and like someone I would flirt with to get free drugs at a party or to cut the line at a concert.  I felt sorry for him and all the times I was sure that girls had done that to him.

“I hope you feel better,” the young doctor said after he finished taking pictures of my head and neck.   I smiled at him and wished I knew his name.

Someone I couldn’t see pulled me backwards and started guiding me to my room.  I had absolutely no idea who was pushing me and there was no way for me to find out.  It was weird being in a neck brace for so long, as if all the details behind me or around me didn’t matter.  Once I had traveled over a floor tile and it had disappeared behind me, there was no sense even trying to see it a second time.

I wish I could live like that.  So when my dad says “be careful” before I leave the house, I take it as him being protective, and don’t think of when he called me a bitch or all the nights I was already in bed and heard him slam the garage door after getting home from work.  So that the time my brother, sister, and I sat at the top of the stairs listening to our parents throw things at each other, and my brother reminded me that it was all my fault and they left me there alone, didn’t happen.  So that I didn’t keep a running tally of everything I owe my mom since she always tells me I’m the biggest investment she’s ever made.  And that I could go to the emergency room after being in an accident, and think about something, anything other than how much the trip will add to that tally.

But I can’t live like that.  And I guess the only thing to do is remember that it’s easier to forget how you’ve hurt people than it is to forget how someone’s hurt you.  It’s always easier to see how a squirrel jumped and broke a branch than to notice the branch’s weakness and see how wrong the squirrel was in jumping.

The dark haired man came back in, walked over to me and took my neck brace off.  It hurt as he awkwardly pulled it out from under my head.  He said all the test results looked fine and gave me a few prescriptions for pain medication.  I signed a piece of paper and he told me I was free to go.  I had questions I wanted to ask, but I just sat there quietly.  I’m sure that was exactly what he expected.  He nodded and smiled at me and left.

I put my T-shirt back on and no one cared that I moved my neck to do it.  I had no idea how to get to the waiting room, and no one offered any help.  I could have asked, but everyone looked like they were dealing with something more important than my questions.  So I wandered through the halls I had been pushed down before and looked at all the things I couldn’t notice with my neck brace, the outlets on the wall with no plugs in them, the tiles cut down to nothing just to fit into the last small bit of space right before the corner.  I stopped at a window and watched an ambulance pull in without its lights on.  I always thought that was weird, were there different levels of emergency and they only turned the lights on when it hit a certain one?

I finally got to the waiting room door and could see Patrick sitting out there through a small rectangle shaped window.  He was slouched down in a chair facing the door and his knees were a few feet apart and his hands were in his lap.  His Boston Red Sox hat was pulled down over his eyes a little.  He looked submissive and weak and nothing like the man I wanted waiting for me.  But I had broken up with that man long ago and he had replaced writing love letters to me with oxycontin and a girl still in high school.  There was nothing else to do, so I pushed open the door.  He looked up and rose from the tragic position he had been in.  I wasn’t mad anymore and walked over to him.

“How do you feel?” he said and put his hand in the small of my back.  I cringed a little.  Not because it hurt, but because I was trying to forgive him for something he didn’t even know was happening.  I imagined looking at a cityscape full of hail.  Being the only person outside watching buildings, and cars, and sidewalks overgrown with cracks and grass.  Hearing the stillness and violence of a storm and of hail meeting metal.

It’s amazing how you can make anything silent if you really want to.  That things are only as loud as you let them be.  That measuring the importance of one tree’s roots on a mountain is impossible.  That bees do not fly on a straight track for a single petal.  It wasn’t Patrick’s fault he was waiting there and Adam wasn’t.  It was mine.

“I feel fine,” I said and smiled.

“I’m fine,” I said.

I was fine.

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