Apr 11, 2011
By Carley Moore
I was nine and away from home for the first time. There was a schedule, but I wasn’t in on it. I started to understand the weird rhythm of doctors—the way they’re never around when you need them or always with another patient or worst of all, in surgery. I went to appointments I didn’t know I had, and always without my parents who were two hours away at their jobs. I began to cultivate irrational fears: the orderly will lose me and I’ll never see my parents again, the nurse will forget to tell my parents I’m having a brain scan and they’ll leave without seeing me, or somehow my roommate and I will become separated and I’ll have to sleep alone.
I could feel the doctor eyeing me when I put on a body stocking. I was mortified by its transparency, the way it clung to my stomach and thighs. He told my father to get a shotgun, to keep the boys away. “She’s that kind of pretty,” he said. I wasn’t buying it.
Like the time I couldn’t get my underwear on. Like the time I wore a body stocking and got painted in plaster. Like the time I was carried home from the zoo. Like the time everyone was way too nice to me at the birthday party. Like the time I fell off the bleachers. Like the time I ate the gravel. Like the time I stepped on a bottle cap and someone’s older brother carried me home bleeding. Like the time I couldn’t walk across the lawn. Like the time when I got extra Valentines for being “special.”
My room had still aquarium-like lights and nurses who came in every hour. My sheet felt thin against the hot, dry air. I read my first mystery about a smart boy who wrestled with a falcon and a weathervane on the roof of a church. When I was allowed, I walked to the gift shop and fingered the stuffed animals. Later, during visiting hours, I dropped hints to my parents. “That little penguin is really cute,” and “Did you see that sad elephant?” I skidded around the floor in my standard-issue hospital socks. I was more mobile than most kids, at least in the morning.
Like Jane Eyre, I had a beautiful roommate who was dying slowly. Susan had a pixie haircut and an attentive and ever-present mother who arranged framed photographs on the radiator. At night she whispered in her sleep, nothing I could ever make out. Was it wrong to see her as already dead? Like all good idol-friends, she was blonde, bony, and chic even in her gray-green hospital gown.
The orthopedist worked out of the hospital basement. My parents came for the fitting. I could feel the doctor eyeing me when I put on a body stocking. I was mortified by its transparency, the way it clung to my stomach and thighs. He told my father to get a shotgun, to keep the boys away. “She’s that kind of pretty,” he said. I wasn’t buying it. I’d met dirty old men before, knew their tricks. But we needed him, so we sat there grim as the concrete wall. The braces were molded out of plastic, made hard in a kiln, and shaped to fit the bottom of my foot, my heel, and the back of my calf. The strap was a thick strip of industrial-grade Velcro that made my leg red and sweaty. There was no quiet way of taking them off. I hated them instantly, and I knew they wouldn’t work.
Some days I walked better than others. Some days, especially late in the day, I couldn’t walk. On those days, one of the doctors gave me his arm for support. I focused on his watch or the tuft of wrist hair poking out from beneath his shirtsleeve, anything to not look at his face.
Deenie was my favorite book. The heroine, a girl with scoliosis, must learn to accept her brace. But she was so obviously a caterpillar-to-butterfly kind of girl. It was unclear what I was becoming.
My neurologist was glamorous. She wore high heels with her white lab coat. I could hear her walk down the hall towards my room, calling out to her favorite nurses by name. She carried a flashlight pen and tested my reflexes by running the sharp tip of her house key along the sole of my foot. I hated her for that instant of pain but immediately forgave her. She would cure me — I could tell. “Kiddo,” she said, day after day, “could you walk down the hall for me?”
I wanted my mother with me, but she wasn’t allowed in the room. Instead I got the usual efficiently sweet nurse, who I knew was just doing her job. You can’t possibly love me, I thought as she rubbed my forehead with her soft thumb. She asked me to count to ten. When I got to seven, she gently took off my underwear. I thought, I shouldn’t be awake for that, and then suddenly I wasn’t.
The orderly wheeled me into the waiting room of another weird basement outpost and receded back into the elevator with a nod. I admired the height of his afro, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know if we were supposed to talk. I got out of my wheelchair to look around. The waiting room was empty, and there was no receptionist. My fear of being alone slowly turned into boredom. I stood on the chairs and spun the eye-malady pamphlet rack around until it nearly toppled. I ripped two pages of lion pictures out of a magazine and stuck them in my robe pocket. I called down the hall twice, a faint, “Hello?” I pressed the elevator button, watched the elevator door open and close revealing no one and nothing. Finally, a doctor appeared, nose to clipboard, mumbling, “Yes, yes, you must be next.”
I was a puzzle. I walked down hospital hallways while visiting doctors leaned against the wall to watch. Sometimes they exchanged information about me. You say she’s worse at the end of the day? Or asked a question. Why does the left side drag more than the right? But they never spoke to me. I started to hate hallways—the slippery waxed floors, the sheer length of them, and the way they shaped my sense of myself as spectacle. Some days I walked better than others. Some days, especially late in the day, I couldn’t walk. On those days, one of the doctors gave me his arm for support. I focused on his watch or the tuft of wrist hair poking out from beneath his shirtsleeve, anything to not look at his face. Near the end of my stay, someone—a resident—videotaped me. I never understood what that tape was for—a record of embarrassment, a way into an unknown archive, a testament of sorts?
More Gift Shop
I liked the stationary sets and postcards, which suggested that hospital time was really just a vacation. I wanted the mug with a rainbow on one side and a plump heart on the other. The silver “Get Well Soon!” balloons seemed to float on the air of their own certainty. I even liked the red t-shirts with the hospital’s logo on them. The powdery old ladies who volunteered in the gift shop sold individual postage stamps and monitored the helium machine. They favored hot pink lipstick that clung to their front teeth and wore blue striped smocks over their loose polyester blouses. One even let me man the tiny register while she went outside for her afternoon cigarette.
His room was at the end of the hall, farthest from the nurses’ station. He had cancer or a bad heart. We played crazy eights in the afternoon, always in his room. He couldn’t get up; he was attached to machines. I noticed his skinny ankles, his feet bare and chapped. I imagined us on the outside: riding skateboards and getting matching haircuts.
Right before Christmas, the nurses arranged for a small group of us to leave the hospital and see A Christmas Carol. We left in a sleek black van with a broken heater, packed in with extra regulation blue hospital blankets. There was snow on the stage and a flying bed! Afterwards, lying in the hospital bed staring up at the fluorescent light, I wondered how I’d been chosen for the trip. Did my parents sign me up? Did they fill out a permission slip? Maybe I wasn’t as sick as I thought.
I didn’t say good-bye to Susan or the boy. They were both at appointments, and I didn’t ask to wait. My father carried my light blue suitcase with the snap latches to the long-term parking lot while my mother talked about my brother who was at home building me a fort. It didn’t occur to me to ask questions. Nobody ever knew anything anyway. I was leaving—that was enough.
After I got out, my parents gave me a plaid diary with a tiny matching plaid pen. I wrote my first entry about my stay in the hospital. I stuck to the facts (room decor, nurses’ names, and length of stay) and shared it at the dinner table while my brother ran a Matchbox car back and forth across the length of his placemat. I didn’t think then that a diary should be a record of feeling, so I didn’t write about the night the nurse came into to check on me because I was crying. I thought I was asleep. I thought I was only dreaming of crying.
I extracted promises at awkward moments. When my mother was drying my hair, I shouted over the roar of the hairdryer, “I don’t have to go back, right?” She smiled weakly and started to use the brush to straighten my bangs. I slammed the door of my father’s car and said into the January air, “I’m done with hospitals.” My father looked across the hood of our blue rusting Volvo and nodded. One January afternoon, when my brother threatened to break the leg of my favorite Barbie, I said to him cool as a spy, “No matter where I go, you can never have my room.”
Carley Moore's poetry has been published in The Birdsong Collective, The Blue Letter, Coconut, Conduit, Fence, La Petite Zine, and Painted Pride Quarterly. She teaches writing in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University and lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, New York. She is the co-curator of the POD reading series with Matt Longabucco and a founding member of the Brooklyn Writers Collaborative. Her young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.