I have heard the familiar drag, behind the door, just before she emerged through the corridor accompanied by those assigned to her custody. Now I see her from the bench where I’ve landed - after squatting on the floor of the E.R. for numberless hours. It is not the first time I’m struck by such vision. There must be a fast track, an open channel leading from the jail to the hospital. A very traveled path.
Each time, my throat squeezes with a feeling I can’t explain. First of all the shuffle embarrasses me: the piteous tug of the cuffed ankles. I ache for those ankles. Then the expression on her face hits me, though I’ve seen it before. There’s no shame… well, clearly there was but it has been juiced up, distilled and compressed so much it became something else. It morphed into defiance then into beyond-human dullness: her eyes, perfectly opaque, are one-sided mirrors, shields of darkness.
She wears the orange uniform meant to make her visible, should she try to run. I don’t know what she did in the first place. I don't know what brought her here and I shouldn’t care. My predicament should suffice me. But my heart goes to her. It leaps out of my chest. I would gladly spare myself such unjustified rush: my heart disobeys.
Then the tall boy with the handsome face is pushed in by his mother. In her language – that isn’t English but I happen to know – she wearily, almost hopelessly reassures him, while she relates the facts to the nurse sitting on the other side of the desk.
The tall boy drools incessantly while another nurse, armed with a cup and several gauze pads, tries to free his swollen mouth of an impressive flow of saliva. Mixed with tears. The boy’s eyes are bright, restless, mad. He cannot speak – the mother says – since he has been accidentally slapped, a few days ago, during a police interrogatory. Yes, you heard me: he can’t speak since, and he can’t swallow. Maybe his jaw has been crushed – his tongue has been injured. I have never seen anything of the kind.
In despair - amid irresistible sobs - the eyes try to deliver what the swollen mouth and the broken mandible can’t, while he looks at the incredulous nurse, at the exhausted mother. My heart goes to him, though I swear I don't have a sweet spot in it, not even a square inch. It just can’t stay put, tonight.
Now I’m parked in a more enclosed room, with reclining chairs and more serious patients, waiting for more urgent assistance. I have been promoted: I guess it is a good thing, still I don’t like this remoteness. The street is too far, inaccessible. We are crowded as well: I don't get any of the comfy chairs. I’m in pain and I need rest: I lean against a wall, headphones on. I try to isolate myself in a world of sound, while still scanning around me.
Here’s another inmate, clad in orange. Next, a difficult case... I don’t know for how long he has been waiting: he wears the hospital robe or rather he doesn’t, for he keeps tearing it off his skin. He collapses on a chair, to be immediately shaken by a fury that makes him jump, stride across, aim at an employee’s desk on which he bangs his fists while loudly protesting… Loudly, but incoherently. Someone firmly grabs him, leads him back to his place: quite a useless ritual. He mumbles for a minute or two as if charging an old, broken clock, then he springs up again.
I’m not sure he wouldn’t attack other patients just to vent whatever is troubling him. I suppose I should guard myself. If he’s not dangerous – in which case I assume they’d restrain him – he might become it. But my heart has a mind of its own and it goes to him, of course. I can’t stop it. I know it doesn’t do it out of sympathy: it joins in the dance, that’s all. My heart tramps around, shouts, rebels, revolts.
When, hours later – lost all sense of time, tired beyond exhaustion – I wait for my prescriptions, the ethereal Japanese girl comes to me. Woman, I should say: she is older than me, so consumed by whatever’s eating at her, she looks weathered. She is skin and bones, way too clothed for this heat, a beret pushed down her brow for further protection.
She starts praising my clothes… what am I wearing, again? I have to look at myself for a second. I’ve no energy left for conversation, but I know I can’t dismiss her. She is in pain – I can tell by the unwanted contractions on her face. But she comments about my dress and it isn’t courtesy. She just wants it, now, as if it were the cure. She urges to know where I bought it.
I didn’t. I recently made it for myself, I confess, as if it mattered. That sends her to heaven… perfect, she wants me to do a replica as soon as allowed. How much will it cost? Oh, it will be reasonable… and I give her my card as if it could happen, as if she’d remember about it when she’ll come to herself. I mean to the place she has momentarily vacated, as I have mine, since I didn’t know what I wore… I had to look down, and I saw roses, I saw a splash of pink - incongruous.
When I wait for my turn at the pay phone (no cells between these walls) a guy tries to pick me up, though he barely can stand. Well… here I am unconditionally sympathetic, I apparently can’t say no to a fellow sufferer. Not because I have a sweet temperament but because my heart, the muscle I mean, becomes intemperate. It’s not me who sympathizes: my heart does.
It’s not me, for properly speaking there isn’t such a thing at the moment. There are only aching parts, more doleful as time goes by. And there are independent organs: my heart’s one of them. I am tempted to reciprocate the guy’s advances, though they are quite impersonal (that would fit my present state). A residual of logic – a trickle, a leak – reminds me I shall then fulfill his requests when we’ll get out of here, and that might be difficult.
Because in and out of here are not the same. Out of here my heart settles in its usual place: my rib cage. Destinies immediately split and my dress is mine. Inside here humanity gets shattered then remixed, curiously entangled. You end up borrowing scraps, losing pieces, for better or worse. It might be worth a try.
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