You take the elevator down from the medical intensive care unit to the main floor.
It's a little bit after noon on a Thursday in late October, 2007.
Get a little something to eat, she said.
You don't feel much like eating. You're jumping out of your skin.
You have a bad feeling about all of this. You feel certain that it will not end well. You want to talk her out of it, you want to sign some papers and take her home and regroup and rethink it all and come up with a better idea.
You know she won't hear of it. She's too logical and methodical to fall for a story about you having a bad feeling about all of this. She's relaxed, you're a wreck; an outside observer would guess you're the one having surgery tomorrow.
You take the elevator down.
3, 2, 1, main floor. You step out.
You've got a song stuck in your head, you can't remember the name of it, you can't remember who sings it. God, I hate hospitals, you think, and then you laugh: who really likes hospitals? Candy-stripers with a public service jones? Nurses with twenty years in? Surgeons, like the one who boldly claims he's going to remove that mass from your wife's head tomorrow?
You walk toward the cafeteria, a mass of neon and workers and visitors and the smell of something or other sizzling on a grill. You're surprised to feel hunger pangs.
You ask yourself, what's that song? Where did you hear it? EQX? CDB? RPI? When?
You didn't even particularly like it, you thought the singer sounded like a somewhat hysterical and somewhat pale imitator of another singer you like, you can't remember that guy's name, either. She won't listen to me, so don't even try, you think. You'll just make an ass out of yourself. Come home, you don't have to do this, I got a bad feeling: she'd laugh at you. Your mother already got mad at you yesterday when you mentioned your feeling to her yesterday; "this is about her, not about you," she said.
You reach back trying to find a line or two of the song. You didn't like it, well, you did and you didn't, that's how it goes sometimes. You liked the little guitar riff. You think, as you walk into the cafeteria, I think I'm not supposed to like this song, and I don't want to admit I do, and I'm not sure I do, but it's got its hooks into me now.
You survey a cooler full of premade sandwiches. The chicken salad wrap looks OK. Some really bad, vaguely sad Muzak-y tune plays over the PA system. You are a basket case. You close your eyes and try to think back to that song, to drown out the one you hear in the cafeteria.
"Put out the fire, boys, don't stop, don't stop, put out the fire on us..."
You pick up the chicken salad wrap and order some fries, find a table. You know it can't be the case but you feel as though you are the only person in this vast space eating alone. The hideous music plays on; people all around you seem to engage in pleasant conversation.
"Bring the buckets by the dozens, bring your neices and your cousins, come put out the fire on us..."
Dread fills you. You take a few bites of the chicken salad wrap, a few moutfuls of the fries, dipped in ketchup. You feel something warm in the crotch of your pants. Am I pissing my pants? You look down. The crotch of your pants is covered in blood. Not knowing what else to do, you stand up. When you do, you feel as though you are about to pass out. Am I dying, you wonder. Am I having a heart attack? Get a hold of yourself, you scold. Your wife is having brain surgery tomorrow. She sent you down here to get some lunch, not to fold like a cheap suit.
You find a bathroom, lock yourself into a stall, and, light in the head, you pull down your pants. You're no doctor but it appears rather obvious that you're bleeding profusely from your balls. Since you are already in a hospital it seems as though heading down to the ER to get checked out might be wise. You stagger out of the bathroom and ask the first person who looks like they work there for directions to the ER. Down this hall, left here, whatever: somehow you get it right.
You explain the situation, you tell everyone who comes in to see you that you are here because your wife is having brain surgery tomorrow, as if that will explain anything, or get you faster service or better care. You feel humiliated as medical personnel come in and examine your bleeding balls. Eventually they diagnose you with some sort of something, you can't remember what, nothing major.
Could stress have caused this, you ask, hopefully.
Sure, a doctor says.
Eventually the bleeding stops and they give you a prescription for an antibiotic to ward off any potential infection. You wait around for awhile until they can discharge you. Someone brings you a phone and instructs you to call some extension. You call and your wife's on the other end. They moved me to the neuro unit. You tell her what happened. You both have a good laugh.
You make it up to the neuro unit eventually. When you get there, the surgeon is standing next to your wife's bed. He explains that he originally intended to try and save what's left of the hearing in the left ear, but he has reconsidered.
Your brother-in-law arrives and listens in. The surgeon drinks from a small cup of Starbucks coffee. Chit-chat ensues, you jokingly tell the surgeon to go home and rest up. He laughs, tell you he'll get to bed on time, and then he leaves. You tell her you want to stay the night; she tells you to go home to tuck the kids into bed. They need that, she says. You argue meekly, but she insists. You realize she doesn't want you there that night; she needs to be alone with her burden. Get here early tomorrow, she says. I will, you say.
You kiss her goodnight and walk with your brother-in-law into an elevator. The doors close and you break down. After listening to the surgeon, he says, he realizes this is a little more serious than he first understood. Later, after she has died, you will learn he told your sister, "Lauren seemed fine, but your brother was a mess."
You're on vacation. Years have gone by. You've spent the past several days taking the kids to various beaches; it has been warm and humid. Your wife, your new wife, has started a new job and has no vacation this summer, and you regret that, but still, you are having a splendid time. You watch your children, the three you had with your first wife and the one you had with your second, swim, shout, splash. You visit with old friends. You and you four children do lunch each day. You take special delight in spying on them, one by one, as they eat; each of them in their own way. The baby girl smiling as she inhales, while singing, the little bits of pizza you have cut up for her; the eldest, fourteen now, inhaling a sandwich as if someone might steal it from him; your eight year old girl eating just like her mother, talking the whole time and observing everything around her; your six year old boy eating slowly, deliberately, staring off into space, everyone finishing before him, and him not noticing or caring, going at his own pace, refusing to be rushed.
You get them all into the car and drive on home. All except the oldest, who listens to music through headphones, fall asleep within minutes.
You turn the radio on low. For ten minutes you go from left to right to left to right to left to right across the dial, and nothing you hear strikes your fancy.
You turn off the radio and, safely tucked into the middle lane at something near the speed limit, you stare out at the highway, trees on either side of you.
In your head, from nowhere, you hear a piano begin to play. A bass guitar kicks in. A few bars later, a voice begins to sing.
"There's nothing to do here, some just whine and complain, in bed at the hospital, coming and going, asleep and awake, in bed at the hospital, tell me the story of how you ended up here, I've heard it all in the hospital..."
Shit, you think.
Where the fuck did that come from?
From that day in the hospital.
You didn't know then, but you know now what it is. "Hospital Beds" by Cold War Kids.
You have no idea why that song came to you on that ride home; there is no explaining it. You know there's no putting out the fire of memory; left unattended, it may smolder unnoticed for a long time, but eventually, without logic or warning, it will flare up.
You do some quick math and realize something like two hundred and ninety five Thursdays have passed since that particular Thursday.
You know joy, as sweet as it is at the moment, does not last forever. You know there is a hospital bed with your name, or hers, written on it.
You hope many more Thursdays pass before you have to meet it.