Monday morning, a couple days before Christmas, you drove into the city to see the sick people at Bergan Mercy. You took an illegal shortcut through the parking garage on the west end of Mercy street, pulling the steering wheel right and then left and then right again, and chose a stall some distance away from the front doors. Even though you’re ill, losing blood and weight on a daily basis, you figured a short walk across the lot would be good exercise. The air was crisp. It cauterized your sinuses so that, for once, breathing was easy. You could do it like a normal person. But that would change. Once inside, where the air was temperature-controlled, shared hospital air, you’d be back to the constant dry sniffs.
You were there today on official business. The ageless papers in your right hand proved it. Among them was a copy of last year’s tax return. The sheet on top was a form for financial assistance. The top box, where all of your personal information was supposed to go, had already been filled by some kind soul at Omaha Gastroenterology Consultants. You could tell because the font was different there, blocked Courier, as if it had been typed. Sometimes when you looked at it you thought distantly of Hollywood screenplays. The rest of the form had your blue-ink scrawl all over it in the appropriate boxes, your signature a half-assed, illegible line at the bottom, the date two days before Christmas.
It was a short, awkward elevator ride to the third floor. You had slipped in after an old couple who were also heading to the third floor. While the number counted drearily upward, you stared at your smeared reflection in the door and practiced that child’s game of being as still as you possibly could.
You’re used to arriving at the front desk of Omaha Gastroenterology Consultants and there being no one around to consult with. It’s just how it goes. Your only tactic in these situations is to stand at the desk and wait to be noticed. The rules don’t allow people to just walk in. The third floor of Bergan Mercy Medical isn’t a free-for-all, a circus. It’s not the emergency room. There are no screams, no crash carts, no Code Browns. There are no mishaps wandering around with pencils in their left eye. Life on the third floor is calm, cozy, controlled. The dark walls and carpet soak up the light. Jazz burps and farts tenderly overhead. There, only the long-term effects of prescribed medications, not gunshot wounds, kill people.
“Can I help you?”
The woman who finally noticed you was different than the woman who normally notices you, the one you anticipated. This woman was blond-haired, bright-eyed. Her words lilted. She didn’t have a sore on her left forearm like the other woman did, the last time you visited. You pushed the ageless papers across the desk so the new woman would know to pick them up and mumbled incoherently about financial aid, and The Drug, and Nurse Geri. The woman nodded, said “Okay” several times, and vanished behind a cubicle wall with your paperwork in hand. Once again you found yourself alone at the front desk. You passed the time by allowing your gaze to trespass. Taped to the wall behind the desk were photographs of someone’s cute kids. Kids with grinning teeth, kids laughing their heads off. Maybe it was somebody’s extra special birthday party, you thought. Maybe that boy there with the striped shirt and the loud expression. Or maybe the ponytailed girl who didn’t think the camera was watching and had let her soul out to play.
Your gaze had moved to the opposite wall where bookcases were stuffed with brightly-tagged manila folders by the time someone returned to the desk. You didn’t recognize this woman, either, until she said her name was Geri. Then you were surprised, slightly dizzy. You had to spend many milliseconds reconciling the voice of Nurse Geri on the phone with the face of Nurse Geri in person. All this time you thought she was an ice queen, the matronly one with a sharp, angular face, pointed features, a frozen waterfall of grey-white hair. But the Nurse Geri who spoke to you now about faxing the financial aid form and free drug samples was not matronly or severe. Her face was round and compassionate. She was dressed modestly in coffee-colored slacks and a complementary dress shirt, not scrubs, which caused you to wonder if you’d been wrong in calling Nurse Geri a nurse. It’s happened before. Once, during an appointment with Doctor K, you had tunneled so deeply into your own anxiety-mangled brain that you forgot who you were speaking to. You addressed him by this fictional title, as though he were the character from your journal and not a real therapist. He seemed amused. He denied having that level of medical expertise, but thanked you for the honorary title anyway.
For a couple minutes, you and Nurse Geri talked drugs. Last month, you’d left their office with a grocery sack full of a drug sample called Giazo. They’d given you a two month’s supply, and didn’t have any more of that particular drug. That was okay, you told Nurse Geri. You planned to switch back to Colazal anyway because the samples didn’t seem to be very effective. You were still bleeding every day. And you later learned, from skimming the packaged drug facts, that the sample—Giazo—hadn’t been studied beyond eight weeks. That piece of information sounded scary, even as you repeated it back to Nurse Geri, asking if she knew, but you spoke calmly, without a trace of fear in your voice. Because the truth is the absence of a study of a drug’s long-term effects doesn’t necessarily mean the drug’s harmful. It was unlikely you were going to sprout a third arm or an extra testicle at nine weeks. Still, you’re not that brave and adventurous. Seeing blood, mucus, and the shredded insides of your guts in the toilet bowl each morning was already doing a number on your psyche, had stolen any initiative you might have possessed to conduct your own solo study of Giazo. Nurse Geri admitted she didn’t know about the eight-week thing. For the second time that afternoon, you wondered if Nurse Geri was actually a nurse.
The other drug you two discussed was another sample that had been stashed in your grocery sack of pharmaceutical treats, a steroid called Uceris. Steroids were necessary now. You weren’t getting better. There had been that period back in mid-November when you tried to beat the flare by going on a short, two-week course of Prednisone. For a time it seemed to work. You felt better. But too quickly the symptoms returned. The toilet water was again clouded with your blood, and it all just seemed to get worse and worse. Before you left this time, Nurse Geri placed two stacks of Uceris trials on the desk for you to take. The packages were simple pieces of folded cardstock colored blue, fuschia, and white, and opened the same way you’d be opening cards from your family two days from now, on Christmas Day. Each package contained two pills sequestered in their own foil pods. There was enough there, said Nurse Geri, to last you into January. You nodded, smiled weakly, and followed your feet back to the elevator. It was barely mid-afternoon by then, but the sun was already looming over the parking garage where you had made your illegal series of right, left, and right turns. As you waited for the elevator, you watched the daylight, the things that it touched, how it changed them. Streaming in through the wide window like that, into a different kind of air. It ignited motes, golded the leaves of plants both fake and real, was absorbed by the dark walls and carpet, but it did not warm anything.