This man was gone. Drugged out of his goddamn head, right in the ICU. I’d never seen anyone so fine. I wanted to share in his oblivion, to walk around in his solitude, to look up through his vacant, stone-blue eyes at the burning fluorescent glare and mistake it for the light of God. That’s probably what he was doing: having a vision of God, an out-of-body experience, while the rest of us in the ICU sat around hooked up to a gazillion wires, listening to the buzzing of the blood-pressure machines and blip-blip-blip of the heartbeat monitors and the screams of grown men and women crying and dying down the hall.
“What are you in here for?” asked the woman in the bed next to me.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Not as bad as that guy,” I said, pointing to the man in the hallway, still drugged out, his eyes rolled back, being wheeled off now by several nurses. I couldn’t see where he went, because the heating blanket on me blocked half my view. It was huge, bloated and full of air, like an inflatable foam mattress covering my body. A machine at my bedside powered it.
“What about you?” I asked the woman.
“My boyfriend shot me with a .45. He caught me messing around with another man.”
“Oh, shit.” I didn’t know what to say.
“He shot me right here,” she said, pointing to her left breast, a little bump under the hospital gown.
“Isn’t that where your heart is?”
“Yeah, but I just got new implants. The bullet got stuck there, lodged in the silicone. The implant saved me.”
“Are you serious?”
“Dead-ass. Doc said it was a one-in-a-million thing. Missed my artery by, like, a solid inch.”
“Jesus fuck,” I said. “That’s the craziest shit I’ve ever heard!”
“That’s what they’re saying. When I came in here, they didn’t believe me. I seemed fine, they said. I couldn’t have been shot.”
“Where’s your boyfriend?”
“In hiding. He’s running from the law.”
“He’ll get it. They always do.”
“That’s right. They always do,” she said, nodding and closing her eyes, like she was trying to will my words to life, like all she had to do was believe me and his arrest would manifest right then and there.
“When did you get implants?” I asked.
“Last week,” she said, and here her voice went quiet. “I’ve always been self-conscious about my body. It’s my fatal flaw.”
“Hey. Don’t look at it that way,” I said. “They saved your life.”
I wanted to share in this woman’s oblivion, too. I wanted to bear her bullet in my own breast. Not because I wanted pain, but because I wanted something to lift me out of myself. I’d been sleepwalking through life for 18 years. I needed something to come along and prod me awake, to shake me out of my habit.
Suddenly I felt hot and wanted the heating blanket off. I wanted everything off, even my clothes. I called the nurse.
“I’m overheating now,” I said. “Get this blanket off me.”
The nurse leaned over me, a gloved hand on my arm. “You’re not overheating, honey. You just feel like you are. It’s normal. When your muscles get exhausted, all the warm blood goes to your extremities. You get a hot flash. It’s normal. It’ll pass. The hypothermia’s already much better. Just lie flat and breathe.”
“OK,” I said, lying flat, breathing.
I was so cold that now I felt hot. My body was suffering from coldness, but my brain was lying to me, giving me the wrong signal. I lay back and pretended not to feel hot, cold, or anything whatsoever.
The nurse took my temp, my pulse, pumped another round of intravenous fluids into my arm, and left the room.
Down the hall I heard another sickly, guttural moan, like someone passing to the other side of life. I heard nurses sighing and cussing under their breath. Death was in the air, but these people seemed numb to it. They had to be. When it happened, they just sighed and cussed and slammed some drawers. Their numbness is what gave them strength, I thought. You could walk in here with a bullet in your breast and they wouldn’t bat an eye.
“Do you think that scream was from the same guy?” my roommate said.
“The guy we just saw. The unconscious one. The one they rolled away.”
I’d been so lost in my own discomfort I’d forgotten about him. I hoped it wasn’t the same man. I hoped he was still having his vision, still blissfully unaware. He was on the other side, but he would come back. He was probably gathering the strength to return right now.
“Well, if he’s unconscious,” I said, “He wouldn’t cry out, would he? He wouldn’t even know to. His unconsciousness would keep him from having to deal with all that.”
I had come into the hospital as I came into the world—twitching, foaming, groaning. I was almost brain-dead, they said, yet here I was, good as reborn. One night I was crying onto the kitchen table, a whole round of white wine lined up with my Naltrexone. This is it, I said. The next night, I awoke to find myself on a metal-railed bed with tubes going in and out of my veins and strange, wraithlike figures in long blue frocks gliding over me. I mistook them for angels.
The overdose had caused my body to go into hypothermia, the docs said. I had a body temp of 19 degrees-Celsius, yet I was still alive and kicking. How? The hypothermia had slowed down my blood flow, they said, keeping all the bad cells from entering my brain. The cold had blocked my brain from further cell damage.
“You know what they say. No one’s dead till they’re warm and dead,” I heard one of the nurses outside my room say. “She’s gonna make it.”
The next day my roommate was gone and there was another girl in the room with me. She had her head down and her hair bunched up around her face. I couldn’t see what she looked like. She hardly spoke. She seemed morbidly depressed, just like me a few days ago. I said a prayer for her soul.
“What are you in here for?” I asked.
“It’s complicated,” she said, in a voice so humorless and deadpan she might as well have told me to fuck off.
“Sorry,” I said. “I ask too many questions. It’s my fatal flaw.”
“You’re right. It’s your fatal flaw,” she said, as if she’d known me for years. She rolled over to face the other wall, fingering the wire to the heartbeat monitor.
“I tried to take my own life,” she said, after a long pause.
“Me, too,” I said, more excitedly than I probably should’ve. I was just glad to have something in common, even if it was attempted suicide. I was desperate for companionship in a place like this. Everything was so clinical and neutered and there was nothing to look at but bare walls and nothing to listen to but the machines buzzing and droning and the occasional dying groan down the hall.
“I tried to swerve into oncoming traffic,” my roommate said. “But it didn’t exactly work. The car I tried to hit swerved into my lane at the last second. We just missed each other.”
“Holy shit. The driver must’ve had quick reflexes.”
“He was trying to take his own life, too.”
“Are you serious?”
“Dead-ass,” she said, still maintaining the same deadpan tone as earlier, like she was unmoved by her own story. “He ended up in some briars, and I ended up in the breakdown lane. We both got out and walked over to each other. Turns out he was trying to off himself, too. He said he saw my car and decided that was it, he couldn’t take one more second of it. We both had the same thought at the same time. And missed.”
“What are the chances?” I asked.
“That’s what he said.”
Now I knew I was here for a reason. We were all here for a reason. It was no accident that we’d all stumbled into this place, twitching and foaming and halfway to the afterlife. Our lives bore the stamp of rebirth. I felt certain everyone else in the ICU had a story just like this one. It was like all the miracles that had ever happened had happened to all the people here, right now, over the course of these few days. I felt lifted out of myself. I was high without being high, drunk without being drunk. For the first time in years, I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live forever.
“He’d been dealt a shit hand of cards in life, this guy,” my roommate went on. “His girlfriend had left him for another man. Then she shot herself in the hopes of framing him. He thought his life was basically over. That’s why he did what he did.”
I sat up. “Where did she shoot herself, this woman?”
“His girlfriend? He said it was her left breast, right under her heart. But she had breast implants, so it didn’t kill her.”
“When did she get the implants?”
“Last week, he said.”
My roommate rolled over to face me. Her hair fell away from her face and I saw it was the same girl from earlier, the one with a bullet in her breast.
“What?” I said.
She just stared at me blankly, boredly.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I thought you were a new roommate. I thought—wait, shit, was that all true?”
“Was what all true?”
“The thing about the crash.”
“Nah. It was just for kicks.”
“What about the other one?”
“What one? The one about the breast implants?”
“Nah. I’m just here for another seizure. I get them all the time. It’s a neurological thing,” she said, shrugging and sitting up in bed. “You mean, all of that was just—,” I began, but didn’t even finish. There was no point in finishing.
Here I was, thinking I’d seen it all here. I didn’t foresee this. Was this a regular thing? Did this woman normally pull stories out of her ass like this? I was shocked, confused. But more than that, angry. What possessed her, that she should lead me on with such false hope? Was I nothing to her, that she would make me yearn to live again and then snatch that yearning out from under me?
I heard another groan. I thought of the unconscious man down the hall. Was his life, too, just a passing shudder of false hope, a cruel prank by God, strategically placed there to renew my interest in living?
The nurse came back into the room to pump another round of IV fluids into me.
“The hypothermia saved your life, kiddo,” she said, smiling. “Unbelievable. Kept all the bad cells from getting to your brain. Your body temp is almost back to normal. You should be out of here by tomorrow. I’ll have the papers ready. The discharge specialist will go over all that with you. He’ll probably recommend some local rehab clinics. The social worker will stop by, too.”
“OK,” I said, flatly.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I felt like I’d swallowed a boulder. I’d wasted three nights here.
But I didn’t want to leave, to go back out there looking for miracles again. I swallowed hard and rolled over. I stared at the wall. I listened to the incessant, soul-crushing prattle of the heartbeat monitor, there to remind me that I was alive every second of my goddamn stay.