By Stephanie Lenz
The E.R. smelled like Listerine spilled on stainless steel. Voices around the curtain spoke medicalese. Once in a while I heard "psych consult" and my posture improved for a moment.
I glanced around. Pretty standard. White cabinets. White drawers. Cotton gauze. Half-empty container of rubber gloves. A red box with a biohazard symbol and "sharps here" printed on it. A sphygmomanometer on the counter. I always liked that word. "Sphygmomanometer," I whispered to myself. "Sphyg-mom-a-nom-eter."
Someone yanked the curtain and the metallic rattle startled me. "Sorry about that Ms. Barrett."
He was about my age. Probably a resident, I said to myself. Long coat. He's not a student.
"I'm Dr. Lapham. You can call me David. Mind if I call you Laura?"
"Go ahead." My throat was dry.
"Let's see what we have here. May I?" He reached for my purse. I handed it over and he put it on a cranberry-colored chair.
"Could I get some water or something?"
"Absolutely," he smiled, flipping up the first page on my clipboard chart. "We have a vending machine if you want something stronger."
"Sure." He dipped in his coat pocket and fished out a penlight. Flashed them in both of my eyes. "Follow my finger just with your eyes." He went through the usual motions and asked, "You wanna tell me what happened?"
"She does this sometimes" I answered, looking left, right, up, down.
"When she's off her meds, yeah."
"Ah." He felt around the gash in my forehead. "Headache?"
"So what'd she hit you with?"
"The phone receiver. It's one of those old phones too. Heavy."
"Doesn't look too bad," he said, squinting at the gash over my eyes, feeling the skin around it. I winced twice. "Couple stitches maybe. What happened to your hand?"
"The bottom part of the phone when I made a grab for my purse. I keep my keys on me anymore but not my license. It was stupid."
Doctor Dave shook his head. "Pretty smart if you ask me."
The nurse who brought me in slipped through the gap in the curtain. He told her about my equal, reactive pupils and said, "Can we check her pressure again? Seems high."
I didn't want to think about it any more. I wanted them to take their info and fix me up so I could go home and get two or three good nights of sleep. They'd release her tomorrow. She'd be compliant for maybe a week. Then it would begin again.
I answered Doctor Dave's questions while the nurse pumped the bulb and cut off my circulation. What day is it? Christmas. Who's President? Bubba. What's your name? Depends on who you ask. When he gave me a look, I answered properly. Where are you? The E.R. If you're walking down the street and you find a stamped, addressed envelope, what do you do with it? I wanted to say "set it on fire" but I said, "Mail it." I was pretty far through "start at a hundred and count backwards by seven" when the nurse released my arm.
"Pressure's the same," she said.
"I have GAD. Can I get that drink now?"
"Um, yeah. I'm going out there," Doctor Dave offered. "Do you have something to take?"
"Little yellow pill." I pointed to my bag.
After he left, the nurse asked if I needed a shot of something anyway.
"I'll be fine once I take a pill. Seriously."
She handed me my bag. "Your mother's being admitted."
I nodded. Same old, same old.
She did her busy work, scribbling on the chart, looking back through my records and worrying her forehead. Nothing new. I found my pill case and extracted a diazepam.
Doctor Dave returned with a can of Canada Dry and his attending.
"I'm Dr. Patil," she said, extending a smooth hand. "How are you Laura?"
"Okay." My standard answer. People tended not to question "okay."
She stepped forward and examined my forehead more gently than Doctor Dave had. "Butterfly closure should do it. I want an x-ray of her hand though. Move your fingers, please, Laura."
I wriggled my blackening knuckles.
"Thanks," I said to Doctor Dave as I popped the pill and took a swallow of ginger ale.
"Do you live at home?"
"For the holidays. I'm a student."
"How long has your mother been off her meds?"
"Since before I came home."
The nurse handed my chart to Dr. Patil. She read over my previous injuries, the broken arm, dislocated fingers, burns, cuts, bruises. I realized I was slumping and sat up straight. Habit.
"Is your fatherů"
"He died in Vietnam. MIA on paper. Ask my mother." No one smiled back.
"Do you have brothers or sisters?"
I never knew if I should count Lance as a brother. I had no idea where he was. "We weren't exactly close. He left home when I was twelve," I answered. "He left before he left, if you know what I mean."
"Do you have someplace to go?"
I hated that question. They always asked. The docs who patched me up. The docs who admitted my mother for seventy-two hour observations. Did I have somewhere to go? Whenever my mother was locked up, home was safe. I could answer, "Yes."
After the x-ray, I waited in the private row of chairs in the E.R. proper picking the fingernail polish off my bruised left hand. My fingers still trembled slightly; the pill hadn't kicked in. I was sorry I hadn't agreed to the shot. My mind flashed to the dime bag in my purse and I considered sneaking out to light up. Damn papers were at home though. My forehead began to itch. The stuff they'd used to irrigate the cut dried my skin. I picked the acetaminophen out of the little paper cup one at a time and consumed each with the paper-flavored water I'd been given.
Cardboard cutouts of drunk-looking Santa Clauses smiled from the wall. Silver and red tinsel drooped from the ceiling. A sad three-foot fake tree sagged in the corner. I considered getting up to plug the lights in but reasoned it was after Christmas by that point. Besides, they must have been unplugged for a reason.
Overhead, someone paged Dr. Patil and Doc "Sam-I-Am," my mom's psychiatrist. He never believed me when I said I could spend the night at my grandmother's. Maybe my mom had gone off on her "I hope that fucking bitch is getting fucked in the fucking ass with a fucking pitchfork" rant. I sipped my ginger ale and fantasized about smoking that joint.
I looked up to see Dr. Sam-I-Am. "Hey."
"We're gonna 302 your mom, okay?"
I lifted my shoulders and shook my head. "Whatever."
"She's covering," he said, scratching his cheek. "Not doing a good job though."
"Will you be at home tomorrow?"
"Probably." I searched my bag for my scrunchy blue knit hat. No reason to stay. They could commit her without my help.
"I'll call you to discuss the options."
I stood and zipped my coat. "Options. Right. My options or hers?"
I let the car idle in the hospital parking garage. Heat redeemed my numbed face, hands and feet. I futzed with the mirrors, making the extra effort not to see my latest scar. Played with the radio, looking for anything but Christmas carols but turned it off instead.
The parking garage is free on holidays, so I didn't have to stop. I drove past the raised metal arm with my left turn signal on to go home. My hand throbbed but my nerves finally seemed quiet. I took a deep breath and flipped the signal the other way.
Stephanie (better known as Eden), Toasted Cheese's resident witch and keeper of useless (but entertaining) facts, can be reached at baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.