Calla Devlin



The gurney creaks as I sit up and scan the room. The curtain surrounding me peeks open, and I see a child crying as his skin is stitched. An older man, bloated from grease or alcohol, rubs his stomach. With the exception of the nurse with the sewing kit, there isnít a single official-looking person around.

I focus on my body. My gray suit is gone, replaced by a sea-foam-green hospital gown. Bruises line each shin. I finger my face, wincing, and spot my purse on the floor.

My bare feet slap the tile as my body slips from the gurney to fetch my bag. All of my muscles ache when I lean down to pick it up. Everything is accounted for: wallet, datebook, lipstick, house keys. I smooth out the sheet before climbing back up. My datebook opens at November eighth. Spidery handwriting too much like an old womanís. It was raining and I was ill-prepared, leaving the umbrella at home and wearing suede boots. Downtown for a meetingówith whom? ó Heading for the parking garage when it started to rain. Running late to meet a friendóagain, who? óon Mercer Island for an early dinner.

I consult the datebook.

8:30 am: Pick up transcripts

10:00 pm: Call J.M.R.

12:00 pm: Lunch meeting w/ Tony

3:30 pm: Conf. call: Lancey & Assoc.

6:00 pm: Dinner w/ Katrina

And then, at the bottom of the page: dry-cleaning!!!

Did I meet with Tony and where is my briefcase? I pull my mobile phone from my purse to check the time. 10:00 pm. Moving my finger to the menu button, I scroll down to read the missed calls:

1. Unidentified #

2. Office

3. Katrina

"You canít use that in here. Please turn it off."

A man wearing a white lab coat fills the gap in the curtain. He extends his hand. "Iím Dr. Singh."

I shake his hand and turn off the phone. His skin is soft and warm. I appreciate his strong jaw line and cheekbones. He has remarkable deep-set brown eyes.

"How long have you been having seizures?"

"About two months."

"Did you sustain a head trauma recently?"

"No." I feel dizzy when I shake my head.

"What do you do for a living?"

"Iím an attorney."

"That explains it."

"Whatís that?"

"Your answers." He looks up and smiles. "Theyíre short."

"Yes," I say. Then I smile and meet his eyes and do not look away.

Dr. Singh takes a few notes and then glances up to ask his next question. "Do you have a general practitioner?"


"Have you had an MRI or an EEG?"


He looks up and raises his eyebrows. "No?"

Despite the pain, I shake my head.

"Does your doctor know that youíve been having seizures?"

"Yes, she does."

He lets out an exasperated sigh. "Iím confused here. If your doctor knows youíve been having seizures, why havenít you had an MRI and an EEG?"

"I cancelled my appointments because of scheduling conflicts."

His eyebrows remain raised. "I see." He writes something down on my chart. "Is this the first time youíve been to the emergency room due to a seizure?"

I shake my head again. "No," I say. "This time was the worst. Iíve never blacked out this long. Iíve never been hurt like this."

"Thatís because you fell down a flight of stairs. Iím admitting you for tests. Tonight an EEG and tomorrow morning a MRI. Then weíll see about releasing you, depending on the tests and the concussion."

Resigned, I nod.

"You need these tests. Theyíre important. Seizures are very serious."

Iím not used to being scolded. I continue to stare at him.

"Tell me what happens when you have a seizure." He uses a gentle tone as though talking with a child.

"I donít remember. I come to and usually someoneís helping me, but Iím too disoriented. Sometimes it takes me a while to wake up."

He nods and writes. "Do you feel them coming on?"

"What do you mean?"

"Are there any warning signs?"

He would make a good litigator. "I donít hear a fire alarm or anything."

"Do you sense anything?"

"I get a weird taste in my mouth."

"What kind of weird taste?"

"Like metal," I say. "A sharp taste." He watches as I swing my feet back and forth. People always tell me I have nice legs. I wonder if he would appreciate them if they werenít so bruised. He writes something on my chart. If I were less delicate a woman, I would crane my neck and peek. Instead, I continue to swing my legs and watch him watch me.

"Do you have a history of cancer in your family?"

My legs stop swinging.

He stops writing and looks at me. This time, I break his gaze.

"No." I lie down on the gurney. "Iím getting tired again."

"Iíll send the tech in to get you for your EEG. Back in a bit."

I nod and turn to face the wall, realizing that I was unprepared for that question. A list of appropriate responses:

1. My mother died of cancer.

2. No. Cancerís the only thing thatís not wrong with us.

If I squint and examine the wall closely, I suspect Iíll see something disgusting. Some fleck of something human. But the paint looks clean and smells of disinfectant, a pungent scent of something pretending to be clean. I rest for a while, sometimes closing my eyes and sometimes examining the wall. In Dr. Singhís absence, I recollect the gathering late yesterday afternoon. I was the only woman wearing a small black dress at the cocktail party aboard a yacht in Puget Sound. I headed for the bar, leaned close to the bartender, and ordered a gin and tonic. Then I caught the eye of a dark-haired man. He smiled and I smiled back

"Hello," he said. "Iím Charlie."

I clinked my gin and tonic on his martini glass. "Cheers, Charlie." I said and sipped.

"Cheers." He finished his martini. "What brings you to the boat?"

"Iím an attorney with Barnes, Corning, and Fulton. How about you?"

"Iím hoping to leave with an attorney from Barnes, Corning and Fulton."

I laughed and ran my finger around the rim of my glass. He was the only other person not wearing pastels on the boat. He appeared trustworthy. I never go home with a man who doesnít look earnest. "When would you like to leave?"

"Excuse me."

I flip over and see an older man with pale skin. I guess heís worked the graveyard shift for at least a decade.

"Are you ready for the EEG?"

I look him up and down because I know this will make him feel uncomfortable.

"Yes." I ease off the gurney and pick up my purse.

"Leave that here," he says. "Weíll be back soon."

He leads me into a small room with a gurney and instructs me to lie down. "Iím going to put these electrodes on your head." He holds up a handful of suction cups attached to wires and I feel each muscle in my body tense. He brushes my hair back from my face. Closing my eyes, Iím startled to feel a cold substance on my temples. There are so many electrodes that I lose count. I worry about my hair before closing my eyes.

Later, Charlie said he needed a glass of water and asked if I would like one as well. I nodded, rested my head against the pillow, and itemized his good qualities: nice skin, imaginative lover, well dressed, courteous, funny, impressive vocabulary, kind face, and professional. I thought of breaking my rule.

I must have dozed off because I woke with a start after hearing a crash. When I found him, he was picking up shards of glass from a puddle of water on the living room floor.

"What are you doing?"

"Iím sorry. I broke the glasses when I bumped the table."

My eyes assessed the damage. Not too much water, and the furniture looked safe. When I looked back up, he smiled and his kind face once again impressed me. "Iíll get a towel."

I snatched one from the kitchen counter and tossed it to him. He bent down to mop up the floor. I would have forgiven him then if I hadnít seen the photo album.

"What were you doing with my things?"

"Just looking around to see a little more of you." He wore that smile that got me into bed. With his free hand, he picked up the album and pointed to a picture.

"Who are they?" In the photograph, my sisters and I leaned against a wall, standing in birth order. The picture was taken in Mexico, at my motherís hospital. Adrienne had bougainvillea in her hair. Her hair was almost white in the sun. I was wearing my favorite miniskirt and smiled with my mouth closed because I had braces. Amy was next, wearing her bathing suit and dreaming far away. Marie looked tiny. She wore the biggest smile.

"Thatís my family."

He picked up more glass. "I canít believe there are four of you. Itís like a buffet. Tell me about them."

"No. Iím tired and I think itís time you left. I have a busy day tomorrow."

He gave me a surprised look, half-smiling, inspecting my face for a trace of humor. Then he put down the photo album, fetched his clothes, and left.

I inventoried the room, trying to evaluate Charlieís snooping. A few books were pulled from the shelves, but that was it. Keeping the picture out, I returned the album to the shelves.

I stayed on the couch, gazed at the picture, and felt the onset of another headache. I inched down on the sofa and rested my pounding head against a pillow. My frequent headaches and dizzy spells reminded me of my chronically sick mother. I brought the photograph close to my eyes and inspected each face.

Like a dog, I circled the apartment searching for a comfortable place to rest. Finally, I sat on the piano bench. The piano itself was shrouded in blankets, topped off with an Amish quilt. When I first moved in, the neighbors complained about the noise. While I ignored their heavy steps and late-night screeching spats, Beethoven bothered them. To avoid eviction, I muffled the sound with blankets. From time to time, I sought revenge by stealing the Sunday edition of their newspaper.

The thump of the keys calmed my nerves. I allowed my body to absorb the sound, every cell filling with Bach. I played the same piece four times before I felt my fingers grow sloppy. When I hit more keys incorrectly than correctly, it was time to sleep. The piano erased Charlieís clean scent and disappointment, the bright faces of Adrienne and Amy and Marie. It relaxed my muscles but didnít ease my crushing headache and the complaining sound of my motherís voice.

As he pulls the suction cups off, I try to run my fingers through my hair, but there are thick, squishy tangles all across my scalp. When he is finished, he leads me back to my purse.

Iím patting my hair when Dr. Singh reappears. "We should have the results shortly," he says. I wonder how long shortly is. "I need to examine you." Dr. Singh reaches out and touches my knee. I tilt my head to the left and smile as though weíre meeting at a party. He whacks my knee with a metal hammer with a rubber arrowhead.

"Ouch," I say. My leg kicks. I continue to smile.

He whacks the other knee. I kick again.

"If you do that fast enough, Iíll do the can-can," I say.

He picks up my arm and whacks my elbow. My arm jumps. He repeats this test on the other arm, creating the same reaction. Then he pulls out a thin metal stick. "Tell me if this hurts."

He presses the sharp edge against the arch of my foot and scrolls up to my toes. My foot curls and I withdraw from his hand. "It hurts," I say, but I want him to do it again.

"Sorry. Your reflexes are good. Now stand up."

I climb down from the gurney slowly, stretching my legs like a cat.

"Please walk with your arms out."

I obey and he writes something down on my chart. I decide to keep walking towards him to see how close I can get. He doesnít stop writing until I bump into the chart. "Howís that?" I smile and tilt my head again.

I can tell heís trying to figure me out because his eyes remain on my face. So, I smile again, softly this time because I have the sense that he likes soft women.

"Vanessa, we are in a hospital, not a bar, so please stop the games and let me examine you."

I wonder if he can see the emotion drain from my face.

"Now follow my pen with your eyes."

I look up and down and right to left. Then I take a step closer. He stops me by cupping my chin. "Stand still," he snaps. "Donít move. Itís distracting."

I move my arm to smooth my hair, but he catches it with his hand and secures it at my side. His hand returns to my chin. Suddenly, Iím pummeled by conflicting emotions and I break from his grasp and knock the chart to the floor.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

Once again, I make a mental list of what I could say. While I want to tell him that I hate hospitals and my mother loved hospitals and I need to leave and I like how his hand feels on my skin and that bastard Charlie could have stayed longer if he hadnít gone snooping and Iím exhausted and my hair is a birdís nest, but I say, "Iím a little dizzy. Sorry." Then I lean back on the gurney.

"You need to rest," he says. "Youíll have the MRI in the morning. Iíll have the nurse take you upstairs now so you can get some sleep."

I follow the nurse to the elevator and ride to the third floor. The nurse hands over my chart to another who looks like she just celebrated her sixteenth birthday. I pat my hair again and wish I had a brush. The jailbait nurse stands and asks me to follow her. Healthcare has been reduced to a game of Simon Says.

I am led to a large dark room. "Take your pick," Jailbait says. "You

have the room to yourself."

I select the bed next to the window. Itís raining outside.

"Push the call button if you need anything." She closes the door behind her.

I crawl into bed and relax. My legs ache and my head is a balloon. I try to piece together the day, but my mind tires from lack of details. For a moment, I think of Dr. Singh and the way he touched my face. But the odor of rubbing alcohol summons my motherís face.

Jailbait wakes me up and I see the sun through the curtain. It has stopped raining. "Itís time for your MRI. The bathroom is here if you need it."

When I flip on the light, I hear the whirl of the vent before catching myself in the mirror. Iím not prepared for how bad I look: a lump dominates my forehead; purple and lavender bruises surround the bump; a scab distorts my cheek. I claw at my hair. Finally I give up and stick my head into the sink and wash my hair with hand soap, managing to work out most of the tangles. Someone knocks and I yell, "Just a minute." I grab a handful of paper towels and dry off.

I emerge, hoping to see Dr. Singh. Instead, the same technician waits, grayer in daylight.

"Are you ready for the MRI?" This time, he hands me a bathrobe. Things are more civilized on the third floor.

We follow the signs to Neurology. "Hereís your MRI," he says to the woman.

The woman nods and says, "Hello Vanessa."

She explains the procedure and asks me to lie down. I climb onto the machine and lower myself lengthwise. The woman sticks a needle into me and then adjusts an IV until my arm feels hot and heavy. "It will just take a few minutes. Would you like to listen to music during the procedure?"

"That would be nice."

The nurse places headphones on my ears. The bed slides into a domed chamber. I try to turn from side to side, but thereís no room. Pitch black. Metal is a harsh, detached substance. Suddenly Iím twelve again. sitting in the back seat of my motherís car, leaning against the door. Nothing calms meónot the wind or the view of the ocean, or my sisters riding with me. My mother drives and we are her hostages. Sheís plucked us from home, from our father, claimed us as accomplices. She drives with determination, her jaw set in a severe line, intent on going to Mexico where she can be sick. Where she can absorb pity like a sponge. I want out of this car and out of this chamber. My throat goes dry.

I try to focus on the music. Itís Chopin. One of his Nocturnes. His notes are delicate, climbing and descending the scales. Just when the melody sounds too sweet, his music takes a turn towards the dark and complex. My fingers move, pretending to touch the keys. Sometimes when I am this close to the sound of the piano, I feel as though I am the instrument. Skin and blood and muscle are exchanged for wood and metal. My bones become as fine as the keys, my teeth rattle with every note.

I smile and mumble thank you and follow the technician back to the room. It is still empty. I crawl into bed and face the window. It has started to rain again. "Vanessa." I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn over and see Dr. Singh.

"Donít they ever let you go home?" I ask.

"Iím afraid not. But you get to go home now."

I sit up and check my hair. It feels smooth. "I can? What about the tests?"

"Your EEG was inconclusive. I wonít have the MRI results until tomorrow."

"So Iím fine?"

"Vanessa," he lets out an exasperated sigh. "I donít know how bad you think this needs to get before you take it seriously. I really donít believe you appreciate the gravity of your situation or how damaging your actions are. I donít want to see you in the emergency room again. Follow up with your doctor as soon as you can."

"Why do you think Iím having seizures?"

He holds my gaze for a moment before answering. "It could be a number of things. Sometimes a fever can induce seizures, but you donít have one. It could be due to head trauma, but you said that you havenít survived an injury."

"What else is there?"

"You could have a mass in your brain. The MRI will tell us more."

"And that mass would be cancer?"

"Not necessarily. That is what we are checking for, of course."

I nod.

"Iíll have the results sent to your doctor. The nurse will give you your discharge papers. You can get dressed now."

"I donít know where my clothes are or my briefcase."

"Iíll tell the nurse."

"Thank you."

"Youíre welcome." He smiles.

Ten minutes later Jailbait comes in carrying my things.

After putting on my suit, I apply lipstick and mascara and use face powder to cover my forehead and chin. Finally, I brush my hair, trying to reassemble myself piece by piece. My car must still be at the garage. I hail a taxi.

When the cab reaches Queen Anne, I climb out, testing my legs. Iíve always thought of my street as Porn Star Row because of the names of the buildings. I live in the Charmaine, which is nestled between the Lola and Tiffany Manor. The Naomi is the most attractive, only rivaled by the Bambi Arms across the street. I climb the three flights of stairs. I drop my briefcase and purse onto the floor. My hair drips wet from the rain. On the floor rests a business card.

Charles Whittaker, Vice President


Then I flip the card to see his note:


Iíd love to see you again. Please call.


After changing into pajamas, I dial his phone number. His machine tells me itís Tuesday and heíll be in meetings until late afternoon. I say my name and number and then I apologize. I just say Iím sorry and Iíd like to see you again. Then I hang up.

I hold Charlieís card and return to the piano. My eyes focus on the letters that make up his name and I begin to play Chopinís Nocturnes. My fingertips grace the ivory, reminding me that my body is made for this. Not for illness and worry. But for touch.

Copyright © 2003 Calla Devlin.  All Rights Reserved.

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