“Are you the boyfriend?” the clerk at the check-in desk asks.
I am not, though on nonconsecutive occasions I have been. I am the Grover Cleveland of boyfriends.
“No,” I say. “Not currently.”
She looks at me, grimaces.
“She’s in lot of pain,” the clerk says, turns, walks me back through the double doors where cops stand on either side of a man handcuffed to a rail, a blood pressure cuff on his free arm.
In the acute care area, gurneys line the walls, small curtains opening up to people triaged out of their street clothes into cotton gowns and tiny beds. A man yells about razor blades in his veins, begs for medication for withdrawals. Another sits upright, the right side of his skull caved in and drooping into his shoulder like a chocolate bunny left to melt in the sun.
At the end is you. You’re crying, eyes so wide with fear I think of your student’s teacher evaluation: “What a great instructor! And what giant eyes!” I laugh softly but loudly enough that the nurse draws back, stares at me skeptically: who could find this all so funny?
I lean over your gurney. We hug, nothing more. Another boy brought you here but he had to leave. I am necessary.
The nurse wheels you to another room where a technician waits to check on your guts. Nothing is as it should be. She can’t find your appendix, bounces echoes from your belly wall to your pubic bone in the same way she would search for a baby. After, they splay open your legs and a doctor younger than us uses something that looks like a plastic replica of a gas nozzle to get inside you. When he’s done he snaps off his oily, plastic gloves, sweat beading below a bad middle part, and asks if you have a family history of this. But of what? Belly ache? Sadness? He is annoyed, can’t find the right words, and neither can we.
Hours later, we sit in the waiting room, staring vacantly at the TV as the host of our favorite food show eats a pig’s cheek, his tan, bald head shining like a heart.
Your discharge sheet says undiagnosed stomach inflammation. It prescribes Vicodin. It orders an endoscopy.
We wait for the prescription to come up from the pharmacy, and I pull a McDonald’s burger from my backpack and hand half to you. You’ve been here so long you’re too hungry to care that even food will hurt. We chew the hard buns, the rubber meat, until it’s a paste sliding down our throats into our stomachs.
A woman enters, holes in the knees of her jeans, hair thinly dreaded and sprouting in patches. She wears a heavy winter jacket that glistens from the sleet; a jaundiced sadness beams in her eyes. Years ago, I woke in the emergency room, heart beating fast, head a cushion of needled pain. I swear this woman was in that room, her mangy hair and yellow eyes the same. Side by side, we waited on our gurneys and stared at the constellations of white spackle on the ceiling, wondering if this was the last iteration of sky we would ever see.
The woman cries. She tells a nurse through a glass window she just wants to find her son, that the medical examiner’s office is closed, that there’s no one there to let her in. There is no menace, just exasperation.
The nurse tells her to calm down. But the mother’s not angry. She’s just unbearably sad. Can the nurse not see? The nurse sighs, does not want to face yet another problem she cannot solve, and tells the mother to go to another wing of the hospital where maybe they can help. This turns the woman to hysterics.
“All I want is to see my dead son,” she says. “Why can’t I just see my dead son?” Her voice is reedy and broken.
“Does it hurt?” you whisper in my ear, faint scent of pickle, and for a moment I think you mean dying. But you mean the endoscopy.
It hurts—they’ve done it to me twice—but how to explain the pain, the violation of being put to sleep while a tube is inserted in your throat and snaked through hollow organs?
It hurts, but maybe not like it hurts for this mother with the dead son, like it might have for her boy cowering under the I-5 bridge as he plunged the syringe into his leg and suddenly felt oh so cold, like it did when my sister’s cancer ate its way through all her bones, like when your dad lost a lung, or when his new wife moved from China and withered up and died in a month, or when he gambled away all the family money and abandoned you.
It hurts, but not like the knowledge that there are not enough doctors in the world to bring back all the brown scabbed ghosts of family that have left us behind.
The nurse stands, almost in a challenge, and pushes an intercom button on the wall to request help. The mother begins screaming, pounding on the thick glass between her and the nurse, until finally guards appear like weary actors in costumes and take her away.
It hurts, but not like it hurts for you and us to be together now.
Not like the night months ago when I backed you into that corner of my apartment’s hallway, pressing my chest into your face, drunk, seething, pouring a blue flame into your mouth. When I screamed at you while the neighbors listened at their doors wondering if they should call they cops as I told you that I hated you, that I never wanted to see you again.
You lean in to my shoulder now, beyond tired, beyond fear, into another life where maybe I could no longer hurt you, where my lies could still reassure you.
Next year rent will be cheaper.
Alcohol will only lead to laughter.
Glaciers throughout North America will make an unprecedented recovery from the effects of global warming.
Researchers at Kansas State University will find that cyclical relationships often end happily.
In light of new evidence, historians will declare that during Grover Cleveland’s second term there was no cancer, no financial disaster, no major outbreaks of violence. It was an unrivaled story of redemption.
No, I whisper to you. It doesn’t hurt. All they do is shine a light inside of you, scrape out a tiny piece if they find something wrong.
Your tears come slower, a small smile. The ER is quiet again and you glance up at the shiny heart-headed man still there on the TV, cheeks bulging with succulent possibility.
You finger my neck and a warm jolt spreads through me like when they use radioactive dye for an MRI. The touch, your smile, it scares me. Maybe because lately I fear everything. I fear tiny pains in my stomach turning into rare forms of cancer. I fear mountains too tall and close to towns that they feel like walls.
I fear going home, being alone with nothing but a case of beer that makes everything and then nothing and then everything and then nothing make sense. I fear things I used to enjoy like movies and stories that once made me laugh and gloat at my full understanding of the world, but that now are so unclear my head feels like a galaxy of misfiring cylinders. I fear myself, what I’m capable of. Like how one night, drunk, I shot up from my chair while reading, threw the book against the wall and shouted at it: Why can’t you just be about what you’re about?
Like how two people should just know if they love each other or not.
Outside the hospital we walk hand in hand toward a taxi waiting to take us away. Your head is down, hair in your face, a limp from the pain, and you lean against me as I help you into the back seat. A group of men in hooded jackets smoke and huddle around a manhole where steam rises from a sewer, all their eyes on us. The tallest one is Razor Blades from the emergency room. Released from the hospital, bottle in hand, he sips, and we lock eyes. I hurry to the other side and duck inside the taxi where you and I fold into each other, hidden for the moment in our kind of love.
Paul Vega is the managing fiction editor of Pacifica Literary Review and received his MFA from the University of Washington. He has been published or has work forthcoming in BULL: Men’s Fiction, The Collagist, The Portland Review, theNewerYork, Ambush Review, and elsewhere. He teaches in Seattle and works seasonally in Alaska. Selected by Maya Sonenberg.