On the eve of New Year’s Eve, something surprising. The thing itself arriving at your ear over the telephone line like a black fly bite, a little pinch you didn’t expect. But more importantly, what’s surprising is your reaction to the thing. You feel… bad. Worse than you thought you would. Sort of sick about it, really. After you hang up, there’s that churning sort of anxiety in your belly that you remember from when someone says something mean, or from the adrenaline rush right before a fight, or from when you know something unpleasant is happening but there’s nothing you can do to fix it. Those helpless butterflies are batting all around your belly, beating themselves senseless against the sides.
You throw up. That happens sometimes when you’re really upset. That’s the sort of person you are. You have physical reactions to emotional events. But still. It comes as a bit of a shock.
You toss and turn late into the night, obsessing. Bothered by the fact that you’re sure you’re the only one who cares. No one else lets this sort of thing get to them so absolutely.
In the morning, you wake up expecting to feel better but you don’t. That sick feeling persists, runs up and down your spine, gives you a headache. You chat on the telephone, make plans and try to ignore it. You go shopping with a friend. You visit with another. You shower and dress and head to a party you weren’t planning on because it’s New Year’s Eve and you’re sure as hell not going to stay home. Not this year.
The party is fun in the way only things you expect nothing from can be. There are lots of people there you like. You drink three beers and eat homemade dip – the first food you’ve had all day. (Maybe that’s why the feeling’s persisted? Probably. You feel stupid for not realizing. Not eating can make you feel weak. Sicker, ironically.) And after awhile… you feel better. You’re glad. Going out was the right thing to do.
Later, at the bar, you watch drunk girl after drunk girl stumble down the stairs on their way to the ladies’. Their dresses are too short or too tight, or both. Everyone is trying too hard to have a good time. You ARE having a good time. Without even trying. Without even having to think about it. You talk to everyone. People you don’t know. People you used to know. You have a long and fairly hilarious conversation with a boy about serial killers and boats and identification with characters you ostensibly shouldn’t identify with. You intellectualize, but you’re allowed. That’s your job. And no one is going to remember anyway.
At midnight, everyone kisses everyone, but it’s chaste. You feel friendlier than you really are.
But… still. Something is wrong. It’s been hours since the three beers and you’re still dizzy. The bar is stuffy and you have to take such deep breaths to steady yourself. Going outside doesn’t help. Everyone is smoking. You still have that niggling in your belly. You’re still upset.
And you’re bothered by that. By the persistence of that feeling you weren’t supposed to feel in the first place. And it takes the wind out of your sails. Luckily, it’s after midnight. It’s okay to leave. So you do. You leave and walk home (it’s just around the corner). It’s snowing a little bit and there are ambulance sirens in the distance. You think, It’s so different from last year. All that rain.
Your phone rings and rings but you don’t take any calls. Better to start the new year off alone. You’re used to it. You’re superwoman.
Back at your apartment, you strip off the clothes that smell like smoke and don flannel, wash your face and lie down in bed, try to get warm. It feels colder than usual. Forty minutes later you get up and drink two big glasses of water. You take two aspirin. You lie down again, but you can’t stop shivering. And still, that sick feeling. It’s hanging on. It’s getting worse. That happens in the silence before sleep. You’ve been here before. You care too much about things. That’s the problem.
Only it’s not. It’s not the problem at all. Another hour later and you’re throwing up again. Not just once, but again and again. At least five times. And you’re sure you have a fever. And the feeling in your stomach has run around to your back and is punching you in the kidneys, saying Pay attention to me, please! And all of a sudden you realize you know what this is. You’ve had this before. This is a real thing. You need antibiotics and pain meds. Asprin is a joke in the face of something like this. You were wrong all along.
You look online for Walk-In Clinics in the neighbourhood. You haven’t lived here long enough to know where to go. Student Heath is closed for the holidays. You can hold out ‘till morning, but it would be better to have a plan, so you can get there right away. Right when they open. So you can be first in line.
Only, it’s New Year’s Day. Everything is closed. You call clinic after clinic with no luck. Variations on the same robotic voice all tell you the same thing: We will be closed on January 1st.
So what, though? You’re tough. Superwoman, remember? You can hold out until January 2nd. You can ride it out. You drink another huge glass of water, take two more asprin and go back to bed. It’s 3:30 in the morning. You can wait. You have to.
By 4 a.m. you realize you’ve made a mistake. There’s no waiting this out. By Wednesday it will be so much worse. Unmanagable. You might not be able to make it a clinic alone. So what do you do? Who do you call? The only people you can think of are far, far away. Your family – they should be the default – but they’re sleeping. And what difference could they make anyway? That’s never been your dynamic. You can help yourself as well as they can help you. No risk of disappointment that way.
Your sister is a doctor and –luckily! – you know she’s on call. Working all night at one of the city’s major hospitals. Delivering babies. That could work. You try her cell phone but no one answers. You throw up again. All the water you just drank and probably the asprin too.
What’s that thing they have in this province? Telehealth? They’ll know what to do. Except, the wait time to talk to a nurse is more than two hours long. You explain to the receptionist that you’re just trying to find an open clinic. She tells you, confidentially, that you’d be better off going to the ER. Don’t hold for a nurse. She’ll just say the same thing. Better to try the Emergency Room now.
You resign yourself to wasting provincial resources.
You dress in the dark. Jeans and a fair-isle sweater. A heavy wool coat. Hat and gloves. You have a fever, so walking to the hospital seems like a good idea. Like it might wake you up. You can’t sleep anyway. Might as well not sleep in the ER waiting room as at home, right? You set off into the night.
The streets are fairly busy. It’s still New Year’s Eve, in spirit. You’d forgotten. Half way to the hospital you realize you made another mistake. It’s too far away. Icy rain is falling and it stings your cheeks, it crystallizes your hair.
You hail a taxi. The driver looks back at you when you tell him where you want to go. Looks you in the face, suspiciously. You look back and say, I promise I won’t throw up in the car, okay? Don’t worry. You hope he believes you. You lean back into the vinyl and close your eyes.
At Toronto General, the Emergency Room is busy. You apologise to the triage nurse right away. You know this isn’t a real emergency, you explain. No, she says. You were right to come. Not much else is open. It’s okay. But you’ll have to wait. You’ll have to wait a long time.
They check you in, give you a bracelet (they get your address and phone number wrong, you notice) a biohazard bag, a sample cup, etc. They point to a chair. You take it. You wait.
The room is filled with packs of teens and twenty-somethings, waiting for their friends. There are boys in suits, bleeding, needing sutures. There are girls vomiting into small basins. More than half the people are dressed up, but looking a little worse for wear. Party girls in heels rest their heads on their date’s shoulders, their hairdos coming undone, sweaty strands sticking to their foreheads and the backs of their necks. Two of the young men almost get into a fight. Security guards in big black riot-gear costumes (bullet-proof vests, etc.) separate them.
There’s a man whose pants are soaked in blood, crying, and another, an older man, who looks exactly like Uncle June from the Sopranos. You wait for a long time. You have a book and your ipod. You came prepared. You throw up twice, in the bathroom. There’s a terrible smell to the place. You’re the only one waiting alone.
You play little games with your memory. You scroll back through all the ER visits you’ve ever made. 1985: Fractured arm. 1990: Stitches and a cracked finger. 1991: Cracked rib. Each time, your father takes you to Sick Kids where everyone is nice. Nicer the first time, but still nice even when you’re older. Everyone tells you you’re brave. Everyone smiles. Your Dad is worried about you. You can tell.
Then, in University, you shut your thumb in Nick’s car door, and you’re awake all night with the pain of it. And the bleeding. And when you finally tell someone, it’s Frase, and first he just says, Seriously?, looking hard unto your face, seeing that you’re about to cry. That you aren’t joking. And that you’re only telling him in desperation. And then next thing he says is Let’s go, babe. Suddenly you’re in the car and he’s driving you to Hotel Dieu. He sits besides you in the waiting room. He doesn’t ask you a lot of questions, doesn’t say much of anything really, but he stays with you for a long time. Until you tell him to go. And that’s a comfort.
There are other times. Another broken arm. A friend who needs stitches just above his left eye. Times when you’re the one waiting. Darrell’s ankle is black and swollen and they tell him he has to BUY crutches, only they don’t have any. They’re sold out. It’ the middle of the night. Everything closed. You have a brain wave. You stop in at St. Paul’s. You talk a nice orderly into giving you a set for free. You carry them home in triumph. You help.
But here, in the present, you’re at Toronto General and you’re all alone. This is not the way you imagined things would be. Not in general and not specifically. You play a different game, flicking back two days, to when your plan for New Year’s Day involved skating and drinking hot chocolate, to two weeks before that, when you thought you’d be at a cabin in Collingwood, and two week earlier still, when you thought you’d be somewhere else entirely. You didn’t expect to be alone, anyway. Not that you haven’t done it before. And maybe it’s better this way? Maybe this is how it would have been, regardless. It’s the likeliest scenario, isn’t it? You’ve never been good at choosing care givers. That’s not the natural order. You would have been abandoned, you’re sure of it. Better to be frank with yourself about that. Better not to expect anything less. Or more, rather.
And one part of this feels good! That’s something else you can be happy about. The part where you know you’re really sick. Where the reasons you thought you had for feeling so terrible aren’t reasons at all. You don’t care so much after all. Not this much. You care a reasonable amount. That’s a relief.
You wait for five hours. First outside, then inside, in “fast-track-chairs”. You’re at the hospital from 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. The resident sees you for less than 60 seconds. You were exactly right about what was wrong. Maybe Dad was right, you think. Maybe I SHOULD have gone to med school. (You still have a fever.) The doc gives you two prescriptions. One for pain, plus the antibiotic. You spend half an hour out in the wet snow, hunting for a 24 hour pharmacy that will be open on New Year’s Day. You find one, and almost cry with gratitude. You get your meds. You cab home. It’s begin snowing in earnest. A white out. The cabbie takes the corners too fast, and you feel the slide of the tires, but you want him to hurry. You don’t wear your seat belt and you don’t complain.
You over tip. You make your way across the street and up the walk, and the fat flakes gather on your shoulders. The bottoms of your jeans are soaked. Inside, you look into the pharmacy bag and see that the meds must be taken with food. You put a pan on the stove and make two eggs. You don’t even take your hat off. You stand over the stove in your boots, and coat, and hat, and your fair isle sweater and jeans, making a puddle, and you eat the eggs right out of the pan. You drink a glass of milk. You pound one of the prescription painkillers and an antibiotic. You feel sick immediately, but there’s no way you’re letting yourself throw up again. You need this stuff to stay down. You focus hard on the little details. Is the fridge closed? The stove off? Yes? Okay.
You shed your coat, the boots, the damp jeans. You leave them all in a pile on the floor in the hall and you crawl into bed and cocoon yourself, pulling the duvet up over your head, and breathing hard into the pocketed space, warming the air.
You wait to feel better.
When you wake, it’s past noon. You feel a little better, but tired. So tired. Outside, the snow has continued. It’s the sticky kind, and has gathered on even the smallest branches. Everything is clean and white and brand new. It’s dead silent. It’s one of those winter days. Perfect for starting again.
You putter for less than an hour, take more meds, nap. When you wake the second time, it’s dark. The wind throws a thousand ice pellets against your window. You stay where you are. Your bed is warm. You do feel better.
This is the first day of 2008.