On the night my boyfriend has a seizure after his 50th alcohol detox, we are placed in a room next to the ER psych ward. It is St. Patrick’s Day and there are 18 patients in aqua-colored scrubs lining the hallway. Some of them are screaming to be let go. One man with grey hair is on the phone with his mother, begging her to bring him home because he doesn’t really want to kill himself; he’s been there three hours and this place is “an insane asylum.” Another refuses to stay in his room so it takes two nurses plus a handful of police officers to strap him to the bed.
My boyfriend is drenched in sweat like he’s fresh from the shower when I come rushing in, my heart pounding in my ears loud as war drums because the whole drive over I was certain he was dead. I’d had to send him ahead of me in the ambulance to put away my dog and clean the vomit from our couch and because the EMTs told me there was no reason to hurry, they’d be a while anyway.
He is pale and shaking, getting sick into a white cone attached to a plastic bag. The sight of him both breaks my heart and releases the fist from it — he’s not dead. He’s not dead. I have to repeat this to myself many times.
Outside the room, I hear a man yelling “Doctor!” over and over. I’d had to pass through a barricade of cops to get back here and now I understand why.
The same questions are asked in endless repetition. Medical history. Did you drink today. History of seizures. I surprise myself by how many of them I can answer when he’s too incoherent to do so.
When the doctors are gone and the ativan kicks in, his eyes close and I am alone. I put my face in my hands and weep silently. He’s not dead. He’s not dead. I can’t think these words enough.
I hear the sound of wheels and look up to see an orderly with a linen cart. She has a kind face and doesn’t flinch when I wipe the tears off my cheeks to afford her a weak smile.
Without breaking stride she goes to the dirty bin and begins to change the blue bag. She offers me his green shirt, still damp with vomit, then thinks better of it and places it gingerly in a blue bag of its own.
“He’ll be okay,” she whispers, because he’s asleep and because she knows I need it.
I nod. I don’t know how, not really, but I nod.
“He’ll be okay,” she says again, doing her work while she comforts me. “Don’t worry, girl, he’ll be all right.”
He calls me ‘girl’ too. This almost starts me crying again but I hold it together and strengthen my smile. The orderly hands me the blue bag, which I tie a knot at the top of and set next to the bag of fresh clothes I’ve packed for him.
When she’s done and wheeling her cart back out I whisper a ‘thank you’ and she nods.
She’s a nice person. She’s a nice person but she didn’t see the way he stiffened like a corpse on our couch, foam bubbling through his lips tinged with an alarming bit of blood. Her words warmed me; they cool quickly.
I’m afraid to leave him alone. I always envision the worst and I can see it clear as day in my mind that if I leave he will code blue and I won’t have been there but holy god I need a cigarette. I don’t know that I’ve ever needed one more in my life. I wait until the nurse returns with more ativan and a fresh saline bag and ask if I can step out for a moment. I’m already grabbing my coat and purse.
Before I go I have to fish a lighter out of the pocket of his sick-soaked jeans because he always steals my lighters.
It is after midnight. I am outside on the street corner next to a trash can. It’s cold, it’s a busy city on a busy night and I’m next to a trash can despite the nurses telling me it’s all right to smoke just outside the emergency room door. The placard reading “THIS IS A TOBACCO FREE CAMPUS” scared me into submission — I can’t bear the thought of being yelled at by some stern-faced cop on top of everything else.
To my left, a man in a black hoodie is approaching fast. Out of pure instinct I inch closer to the ambulances, craning my neck upwards in an attempt to look like I’m watching the hospital helicopter take off but really I’m scared because I’m alone and I made the mistake of bringing my purse with me but only slinging it on my shoulder instead of across my chest so it’s harder to snatch.
“Miss?” he says, crossing closer. I don’t have time to think before he adds “Can I bum one of those?”
I feel bad instantly. I get the pack of Camels out of my purse with a trembling hand and offer him one. He accepts it graciously, as well as a light, then goes on his way.
From then on I make a point to leave my purse in the room and only bring a single cigarette with me at a time. I’ve counted and there are only four left, not nearly enough to get me through this night especially if I have to keep giving them away.
When I return he’s awake, but only for a moment. His lids lift over his eyes, those blue eyes I once told him were beautiful in a hallway in high school and then they droop closed again. He stopped vomiting hours ago and has been drifting in and out of a drug-induced haze ever since.
The doctors want to admit him to the hospital for a few days. They want to move him to a different bed and keep him for testing to see if he’ll have another seizure. I begin to make plans about what to do with my dog, where I’m going to sleep, how I’m going to take a shower since I haven’t in a week after he started his bender.
He goes back to sleep. I go out for another cigarette.
It is after 1 am. This time as I huddle near what I consider to be my trash can a man smoking behind me coughs until he vomits all over the cement. St. Patrick’s Day, I remember, and wonder briefly how much green beer he might’ve had to drink.
There are three, five, six police cars pulling into the ER roundabout. I see someone being lead inside in handcuffs but I couldn’t care less what’s going on, despite the news cameras setting up on the corner nearby. I’m more concerned with the fact that I seem to have finished my cigarette a little too fast. Only three left now and I don’t have that airy-headed feeling that usually comes with a good smoke.
When I’m sure the vomiter isn’t moving any nearer to me and that I’m not in the news crew’s shot, I inspect my cigarette closer. There’s still half of it left — the way I was holding my fingers just made it look nearly spent.
You’re okay, I tell myself. You’ve got more than what you thought.
Around 1:45 my boyfriend sits up a little, shifting in his damp jeans. There’s lucidity in his face now when he looks at me. I know he’s starting to feel more like himself when the saline pump beeps loudly and he displays some of his old charming irritation at the sound.
“What the hell is going on out there?” he asks when a patient begins yelling outside the room. I want to ask him how he hasn’t heard the chaos all night but don’t when I remember his brain has been scrambled by the seizure and he’s spent the whole time floating in a fog of ativan. He has no idea that I’ve been here, for all intents and purposes alone, soaking in every second with terrible clarity.
The patient’s name is Mike and he has a head wound. I gather this much from what the police officer keeps telling him — “Mike, you can’t go anywhere, you busted your head open, man” — and he’s apparently not a fan of staying on the stretcher where he’s been placed.
“Why do you look so sad?” my boyfriend asks me. The question strikes me as so starkly ridiculous that I just don’t answer.
We sit in silence staring at the muted television mounted on the wall as Mike struggles with the cop. Every now and then I hear someone sing just the chorus of the theme from “Three’s Company.” Come and knock on our door, we are waiting for you… I genuinely can’t tell if it’s Mike or the cop. I stop wondering.
A new doctor comes in. That counts three now. She’s blonde and pretty but no-nonsense in the way that reminds me of a substitute teacher you don’t want to screw with.
She begins to tell him that they’re ready to take him to a bed in the main hospital now for observation. He tells her no.
He explains he has “a lot to do” tomorrow. Today, I guess. He has “obligations” on Monday and doesn’t have the time or the money to sit around in a hospital with a fucking IV in his arm. He feels fine and he knows they can’t keep him there and he’s ready to go home. The nurse keeps looking between him and the doctor as though it’s a tennis match.
I try to reason with him — usually I can reason with him — and say that we can stay just for a little while in the hospital. In between my gentle nudges towards a sane choice the doctor peppers in details that make me sick to my stomach: if he leaves, he could have another seizure. If he leaves, he could have lasting neurological damage that goes undetected. If he leaves, he could die. I only have three cigarettes left.
“I’m not staying,” he says in that flat way of his that I know means the decision has been made, that’s that. “I’m leaving. Get me out of here.”
Clearly at the end (or perhaps the beginning) of a very long shift, the doctor doesn’t argue with him, but she’s angry. Angrier than I’d expect from someone in her position — a cold, clinical sort of anger. A mother that’s not disappointed but mad.
“Fine,” she says, voice tight. “You know, it doesn’t matter much to me.” Then she points a finger at my face. “But it matters a lot to her.”
He doesn’t look at me. He doesn’t break eye contact with the doctor. She shakes her head and leaves to write him a prescription for some benzos that will help the withdrawal.
“I’m not going to die,” he says at last after we’re alone again. I don’t say anything. I can’t, or I’ll start crying.
My boyfriend checks himself out AMA — against medical advice. I am asked to sign the paperwork as a witness to absolve the hospital of any responsibility. The pen in my hand makes me feel physically ill, but I sign.
After he gets dressed, I stand guard outside the bathroom that doesn’t lock as we wait for his prescription and he takes a leak. A nurse, the same nurse that quietly witnessed the battle of will between my boyfriend and the doctor, passes by me to get something out of the room. She pauses, then turns and looks me right in the eye.
“Good luck,” she says. She does not say it in a nice way.
It is after 3 am. We are at home in bed. We picked up his pills and I counted them out, made sure he took all four, got him some water and now we are in bed. The sheets are stiff and have a faintly unpleasant scent from his days of sweating on them during the bender that lead up to this.
The ativan is kicking in again and he’s fading. He wants to cuddle but he smells like vomit and the hospital, a combination of sickly sterile wretchedness.
I know I will not sleep tonight. I can’t sleep knowing that at any moment his body could go rigid again, his throat could fill with bile and this whole thing would start all over — if it even gets that far. He’s falling asleep and I’m waiting for him to die in our bed. Why did I sign that paper?
We smoked in the ER parking garage before we came home. I have one cigarette left.
“You always said you didn’t have enough stories in your life,” he says, one arm curled around my shoulders, the other draped over his closing eyes. “I guess I’m a story.” I want to tell him this is not the story I was looking for but I know it won’t matter.
I watch his face. Every twitch and jerk makes me shoot straight up, my skin thrumming with panic. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so painfully awake and so dreadfully tired at the same time. How can he sleep? After all of this, how in god’s name can he be asleep right now?
I don’t know how. I don’t know how it comes so naturally to stick by his side despite it all, despite the drinking and the sickness and the screaming patients that he didn’t have to hear. I don’t know how I can clean up his vomit without gagging or how I hold on to every last shred of hope that he will somehow get better. That I can somehow make him better.
Don’t worry, girl, he’ll be all right.
I don’t know how.
My boyfriend sleeps and I do not and as the sun rises outside, painting the sky with pale blue and eggshell yellow, I try to remember I’ve got more than what I thought.