This Is Not A TV

BY JOHANNA STIEFLER JOHNSON / @JOHANNACITY


The trip to the emergency room turned it all into an adventure.
I’d been throwing up every half-hour since daybreak; as much as a sip of water, fed to my parched, desperately thirsty lips, caused my stomach to churn and I’d be slumped over the toilet again within minutes. I was starving, but my body absolutely refused to keep anything down.
Even after forcing myself not to drink or eat, my face clenched with nausea and disgust. I heaved: acidy bile, miserable choking sounds, sweat sliding down my forehead and back. Sean rubbed my shoulders, worried, told me everything would be okay, told me I wasn’t going to die.





I stayed in bed all day and then tried to fall asleep. Fits of trembling erupted from head to toe within me like little earthquakes. I needn’t have worried about dying in my sleep, though, because I stayed wide-awake. I ran to the toilet again, retched, producing nothing but a single mouthful of neon bile thick as mud.
Afterwards, I collapsed onto the bed again and called the telephone number of the nearest Accident & Emergency ward. A gruff, grumpy-sounding woman who was clearly bitter about having the night shift on Easter Sunday barked into my ear.
“I think I need urgent medical attention,” I’d said.
“You can make an appointment,” she said impatiently, as if I was being terribly dim-witted, “or you can come to the A&E.”
“Is there a very long wait?”
“Well, if you’re really ill you won’t be worrying about the wait, will you?”
Well, I will if I’m in agony, won’t I?” was what I wanted to say, but all I said was “Okay,” and hung up.
At the hospital, I knew immediately that the woman I had spoken to was the same one who met us at the front desk. She scowled and rolled her eyes when we approached the desk: what terrible burdens all these patients were! Then she asked us some questions, but my mind was elsewhere—or more accurately, it was nowhere—and I was doubled over in pain. So, she spoke to Sean and he explained.
The night before we’d been to a party and I’d had two drinks that I’d mixed myself. Naturally this response was not proportional to the amount that I had drunk.
I saw the receptionist purse her lips disapprovingly at this, assuming—I suppose—that we had come to the A&E due to a mere hangover. As she sneered, her eyes mocking, I imagined what she was thinking: “Here we go again, another dumb kid drank herself into a state! And here she comes so that we can put her all back together, cooing there you go, love, and send her right back to her crazy parties! Well, wouldn’t I like to leave her just the way she is—teach her a lesson is what I ought to do! My God, what is wrong with this generation? I assure you we weren’t quite so irresponsible in my day, no, not at all…”
Before the interrogation was over, I retched again, into the plastic bag I’d been clutching since we left Sean’s room. My body expelling the few sips of water I’d allowed myself in the taxi. Secretly I was very pleased about this, because it was a way to show the mean old receptionist that I had a valid reason for being there—ha! My victory was somewhat stunted when, a moment later, Sean exclaimed that the bag had a hole in it and was dripping onto the floor. I ran into the bathroom, cupping the hole in the bag so the liquid dripped into my hand, hot and sickly. I washed myself off and didn’t recognize the girl in the mirror; she was the color of rainclouds, scabs of pimples standing out eerily red against papery skin, shadows clinging to eyes that were lined with tendrils of blood yet empty as death. She blinked when I did.
In the waiting room, a nurse who had seen me vomiting had given Sean a few cardboard basins. I placed paper towels over the slimy fluid I’d accidentally dripped onto the floor—could the receptionist see me? did I look pathetic enough?—while Sean filled out my forms. (“Oh, Joji, don’t worry about that!” he said when he saw me trying to clean up the mess.) I signed the piece of paper, but my hand shook so much that it rendered the signature unrecognizable.
With the form filled out, we were directed to the main waiting room. It was what you would expect: asylum-white, sparse, with three rows of plastic chairs in the middle and doors leading off the sides. A white board propped against the wall read: “Expected Wait for Doctor’s Examination: 4 hours.” In one corner, a television screen filtered through peaceful nature photos—pebbled beach, sunset, droplets on a maple leaf—with a label underneath that bellowed, THIS IS NOT A TV.”
We sat there for thirty minutes, during which time I threw up again before the first nurse called us into her room. Her blonde hair was laced into a loose braid and she wore deep blue scrubs, clean Nike shoes and a nose ring. She listened to me with a crease in her brow and such a sincerely concerned expression that I felt certain I was the most important patient she would meet that night. Her pale eyes, brimming with empathy and affection, made me start to cry. She said she would give me an injection to stop the vomiting, and that they would take some blood samples. She called me “my love”.
When Sean and I went to wait again, I rested my head on his knee and he traced his fingers through my hair as I cried. I had never been so exhausted, or endured so much consistent pain. My entire body felt wrung out, dry as an old sponge, and still I felt as though there were iron fingers clamped around me. But how relieved I was to be here! A moment later the braided nurse tapped me.
The anti-vomiting injection was magic. The shot itself was painful—I turned away from it and widened my eyes in shock at Sean—but almost as soon as the needle was withdrawn from my body I felt restored. The nausea vanished completely. I smiled, sighed, limp with relief, feeble as a kitten.
That was when the adventure began. Now that I was no longer heavy with the weight of nausea, pain, fear and sadness, I saw the waiting room in a new light. I saw all the other people there, truly, for the first time. It was one o’clock in the morning.
The woman was pallid, dark-eyed, with black hair pulled into a loose bun and deep pockmarks in her cheeks. The man looked as though he had spent half-an-hour in front of the mirror before driving his sick wife to the hospital: he was freshly shaved, and his hair, salted with gray near his temples, was styled with gel even though it was past midnight. They’d been at an Easter dinner party, I thought; it was their anniversary; a relative’s birthday—but why then was the woman in her pajamas?
This couple stood in front of us in line upon our arrival at the hospital.
The husband said, “My wife’s had a bit of a shock…” and the woman said, “On Saturday… but then today…” but other than that there was no decipherable explanation of what had happened to her. She was holding a handkerchief, faded blue, clutched in her fist like a safety blanket.
In the waiting room, she was one of the first to be called into the consultant nurse, which meant her invisible ailment was serious. Afterwards, the two of them sat to wait again. The woman didn’t speak very much, and when her husband spoke to her, he whispered. Every so often she would start to cry. She was still in her house slippers. She had been in a car accident, I thought; she’d had a miscarriage; her father had died. Why was her husband so dressed up? The two of them stayed there for almost as long as Sean and I did, keeping their voices hushed as if in a cemetery.
In front of us sat an Arabic family: mother, father, daughter and son. The father had a bandage taped above his right eye. He had fallen down some stairs; a door had been opened on his head. The family sat mostly in silence, the children looking around wide-eyed, no iPad screens for them to stare down at and separate them from everyone else. During my vomiting fit into one of the cardboard basins, they had turned to gawk at me. Every so often, the father would stand and pace, clearly impatient.
Nurses appeared and disappeared throughout the night to call patients into their secret, mysterious offices. Every time one of them stepped into the waiting room we would gaze collectively after them. What were they doing? That form in their hand, who did it belong to? Who's turn was it to be cured? Everyone sat in anticipation that they would be the next to be called. Of course only one would be so lucky, and afterwards the room would appear to deflate. Now that I’d received the nausea medication I was not bothered in the least. Sean and I sat close to one another, speaking little except to comment on the events taking place.
The father wanted to go home. The fifth or sixth time his name was not called, he appealed to the nurse: “Excuse me,” he said. “I’ve been here for four hours. Please.” Four hours! And yet the nurse brushed him off politely and he sat down to wait again. Not long afterwards, when a door opened into one of the offices he attempted to force his way inside, determined to be taken seriously, and was ushered out again by three bustling nurses much smaller than he was.
At around two in the morning he told his family to go home. Another nurse named Tristan was taking my blood at the time. Tristan was tall, plump and kind, with short blonde hair, gray scrubs, and thick-rimmed black glasses. He hesitated for five full seconds on my last name and, when I realized he was talking about me and stood up, looked at me and exclaimed, “That is such a cool name.” In the nurse’s office Tristan arranged a few syringes—two for taking my blood, one for injecting saline—and printed a plastic band with my name and birthdate on it, which he taped around my wrist.









Abruptly he said, “I have a question for you.” He glanced toward the waiting room and then closed the door to the office; whatever he was about to say was clearly confidential. He looked at me seriously and said, “Would you rather have permanent Cheeto dust on your hands, or biscuits for fingers?”
A few minutes later as he raised the first needle, I said instinctively, “I’m scared.”
“Scared? What for?!” Tristan cried in a tone that suggested having needles stuck into my forearm was a ridiculous cause for fear.
When we returned to the waiting room—a needle still taped into the crook of my arm incase they needed to inject medication—the father was in a corner, hood over his head, which he rested in his hands, and his family was gone.
By this time, the homeless drunk was snoring.
He had arrived shortly after Sean and me, and stayed in a small alcove off the waiting room with some other people: a young man, who hung his head, and his mother; a policewoman with Swiss braids who had brought in an underage girl with alcohol poisoning. Two policemen stood outside the alcove with a man who had been in a physical fight but nonetheless chatted cheerfully with them.
The homeless man was tall and pink, his arms and chest sagging with faded tattoos. He wore baggy pants and a loose shirt that revealed his protruding belly. When he first arrived, he stood at the front of the room speaking loudly to himself in a thick Scottish accent: “All these people, eh! Got to go to the shop. Where’s the window? I’m sorry, Marion. My cigarettes…” He patted his chest absently in search of the cigarettes. Turning to the policemen nearby he said merrily, “Hello, old boys. Marvelous!” He absolutely reeked of alcohol, street pavement and grease, but he wasn’t ill. Perhaps he only wanted shelter from the wind, which wailed and tugged at the open skylights above our heads as though trying to tear them off and get inside.
When we came back to the waiting room, me with the needle in my arm, he had stretched himself like a cat across three seats in the alcove. His snores could be heard to the very back of the waiting room. He dreamt of a long dining table filled with roast beef and potatoes, fried chicken dripping with spicy sauce, shepherd’s pie, fresh fruit with chocolate fondue and all the wine in the world.
Two women came in. They looked in their sixties, one slightly plump with long dyed-brown hair, and the other skinny and wrinkled, hair short and blonde. Both wore black ankle boots they could hardly walk in, dark makeup bleeding around their eyes. Most strikingly, of course, was a bloodied bandage taped across the blonde woman’s nose, which covered most of her face. Above the bandage her mascara-rimmed eyes were slits and when she spoke her voice was muffled. There were streaks of blood in the hair framing her face and splatters of blood across her shirt. Everyone in the waiting room stared.
As soon as the two sat down they began arguing. The blonde woman’s angry, slightly hysterical voice pierced the sickly silence of the waiting room.
“You fuckin’ left me!” she said. “I thought we were all goin’! I thought you were right behind me! You left me!”
The brunette woman tried to quiet her, saying in a high-pitched voice, “I’m sorry, Jane! No, I didn’t—Jane, we didn’t! Calm down.”
The blonde woman, Jane, continued to speak angrily, cursing every other sentence, and then started to cry. Ugly, snotty sobs escaped her. Her voice rose to something of a shriek—“You fuckin’ left me! I was blown across the fuckin’ road!”
The brunette was distraught. “Jane, be quiet, we didn’t!” It continued like this for some time until Tristan, the nurse who had taken my blood, intervened.
“Excuse me,” he said kindly but firmly as he knelt down in front of where the two women were sitting. Jane had stopped screaming and was bent over with her head in her hands, crying into them.
“I don’t know what to say to her,” said Jane’s friend desperately.
“That’s alright,” said Tristan. “Excuse me, what’s your name?” he said to Jane. She didn’t answer, refusing to lift her head. He asked her to look at him, and asked her name again. Reluctantly she raised her head and told him, her voice still stifled by the bandage.
“Hello Jane,” said Tristan, confident and steady, trained for patients such as these. “My name is Tristan. Now, we’re going to try to help you as soon as possible, but for now I need you to stop swearing because I think you’re frightening the other patients. Can you do that for me?” She nodded sulkily, a child who had just been scolded. Not long afterwards, her name was called. She returned with a clean new bandage and a calmer temperament. I imagined her outside in the wind, as if in a Tim Burton movie, her ankle boots giving way beneath her, her skeletal body flung across the road, eyes wide clay balls, as she shrieked to the friends who had abandoned her. Her face smashed onto the pavement with her mouth in the shape of a perfect “o” of surprise.
At around three in the morning, a group of four young men came in. They were clad in tight suits, crisp shirts with the top several buttons unbuttoned, dress shoes, clearly still drunk from a night out. They drew everyone’s attention with their loud shouts and laughter. The patient among them was a stumbling boy who came in with his right hand held triumphantly above his head as though he were the survivor of some extraordinary battle. The hand was wrapped tightly in a bandage, blood seeping through. Tight white dress shirt stained with red. He yelled a greeting to the room and then became wide-eyed and said, “Oh shit, it’s so quiet. Everyone here hates us.” The boys laughed together about how bothersome they were being, and then shouted their apologies: “Sorryyy!”
We watched them as they confusedly made their way around the room like insects caught in a jar. It was clear that the injured boy was the drunkest. He exclaimed over everything in the room—“What does that sign say? Four hours to wait? Are they mental?”; and squirming in one of the plastic chairs, “Good God these chairs are uncomfortable, aren’t they Fish?”—all the while holding his hand high above his head.
His best friend, “Fish”, was the most sober. “For the millionth time,” he said to the patient, “you don’t have to hold it above your head, they said above your heart.”
“No, no,” the other replied unnecessarily loudly. “I like it like this!”
“Do you want some water?” said a third boy.
“Yes!” cried the injured boy, looking up with an unfocused gaze from where he was typing a message to someone on his phone: “at emrgncy room mlfao, hahahhah ik my hnd is fkced up LOL.” But the third boy walked right past the water fountain and out the door, and returned empty-handed, staring around as if this were his first time in this room. The injured boy was unfazed that he did not receive any water—he had already forgotten.
The boy named Fish sat next to him and said, “You owe me twenty quid for that shirt,” and they burst out laughing.
Before long the patient was sent to get his hand checked out, and left with a new bandage. The group exited the room just as noisily as they had come in. The next day they would tell the story to others, like this: “Mate, we had to go to the fuckin’ A&E ‘cause this idiot fuckin’ sliced his hand open on a bottle! No, I’m completely serious, look, here are the photos … look at the twat! Blood all over the new shirt. A bottle of Smirnoff, yeh. What a night, eh?!”
Not long afterwards, my name was called for a final time. We went into the doctor’s office and the doctor, a young woman in a white doctor’s coat and a blue hijab, told me that there was nothing wrong with me. I squinted at her, challenging this rather cold dismissal. Nothing? Ms. White-Coated Authority Figure, I do not believe there can be nothing wrong with a girl who spent twelve straight hours puking up every centimeter of her insides! But, as is often the case, I didn’t think of a retort until long after the meeting was over. A “strange one-time occurrence” was what she said. At this I pictured an invisible little worm wriggling unseen into my mouth and causing uproar in my stomach; strange indeed. The doctor gave me medication for nausea, should it return the following day, and that was that.
Leaving the hospital meant passing all the people that had yet to be cured. An elderly woman in a wheel chair, with a bandage wrapped around her knee and a kind-faced, white-haired husband. A young blonde woman with a large white band-aid across her forehead, looking at her reflection in a glass door and saying, “I look like a twat!” A man who had flipped through screens on his phone all night and still sat patient and uncomplaining. A red, puffy man whose problem was his lungs.
I felt completely energized. “I want to watch a movie!” I said to Sean. “I’m so hungry! Do you have anything to eat? I can’t wait to brush my teeth.” Sean said I needed to go to sleep. I nibbled on crackers and drank orange juice from a plastic cup; moved close to Sean, on the verge of tears with the affection I felt for him. It was almost five in the morning when I was freshly showered, my hair clean and smelling of citrus, my teeth sparkling and minty. I touched my stomach and it was flat as paper, then my chest where I could count every rib. In houses across the city, a drunk boy with a bandaged hand would be tucked into bed by faithful companions; a wrinkled woman with a broken nose would accept the apologies of the friends who had abandoned her; a sour receptionist would climb, sighing, into a long-awaited bed. Crisp dawn sunlight would soon join the buzzing white of the waiting room. I buried myself in the warm blankets and had the deepest, purest, most unaffected sleep of my life.



1 comment:

  1. I really liked this story. Nice engaging writing :)

    ReplyDelete