The traffic on Mercy seemed to be going no faster than five miles an hour. It was still early in the morning. The sun had not risen far above the squat houses to the East. Across the street the cemetery lay quiet and dark, the carefully manicured lawn murky and mud-colored in the dim light. The whole of it slowly unfolded into a hill that crowned almost a half-mile away, at a line of maple trees and fenced-in backyards. Outside the cemetery on the sidewalk, on the other side of Mercy street, a knot of women smoked and gazed back at the hospital.
Someone had already been in my room to change the names on the white board. Where the space for today’s date had, a day ago, been filled with a large handwritten Tuesday, now it was a cheery, bubbly Wednesday. On the line where Misti had written her name, like a promise, and where I still wanted it written now, was someone else’s name I didn’t care to read.
Had I known yesterday was the last time I’d ever see or talk with Misti, I would have pushed for something more meaningful than the conversation about our favorite bands and genres of music. I would have read from the script I had spent many nights, on the edge of sleep, writing in my head. The day before, she had stopped by after my shower to collect the soaked towels from the floor. She was quiet as she worked. It always seemed like it took a few minutes for either of us to warm up and say anything to each other. Once we started, it was easy—we talked and talked and talked. I sat on the edge of the bed in fresh clothes and waited for that moment. In the mean time, I picked at the wrap on my left arm. Tiny droplets of water speckled the surface of the plastic, but inside everything else looked okay. The winged, see-through clamp holding the PICC line in place appeared dry, as well as the round, spongy Biopatch that concealed the entry-site—where the wire dove into my skin and Basilic vein. I pushed down on both the clamp and the Biopatch a couple times to make sure no water squeezed out beneath my finger, then peeled the three strips of tape off one-by-one. In the thirty or so minutes I’d spent in the shower, my skin had nearly become fused to the plastic and sucked at the dry underside of the wrap as it came unfolded. Every time I did this on my own, Mom’s voice played in my mind: Do it slow, she cautioned, otherwise the PICC line could be yanked out. That word, yanked, was so horribly evocative. I couldn’t help imagining the purple wire sliding out of the hole in the underside of my bicep. I wondered if there would be pain when it finally did come out. It was the same kind of anxiety that sometimes seized me in the past when it was time for a nurse to change or take out my IV. There had been times when the catheter was in longer than it should. The taped-down end, the lump where the catheter first entered the skin, often felt tender and uncomfortable to the touch. I’d get so crazy that when the catheter was finally withdrawn visions played in my head of blood, violent streams of blood, gushing from the leftover gaping hole.
Misti was in the doorway to the bathroom when I finished unwrapping my arm and looked up. She still hadn’t said much since returning to clean, and neither had I, but now she came near and asked if the PICC line was dry. Her voice was soft again, the kind of voice I imagined would be in my ear some blue morning, when we were together in a different bed. I ran my finger along the edge of the Op-Site, near my elbow, where the cottony fabric was soaked. “Just there,” I said. I tried sliding my fingernail under the edge of the dressing with no luck. “But it’s not a big deal,” I assured her. “These things are on so tight.”
Misti’s lips parted like she was about to speak, but then they closed again to form a flat line and her eyes focused on the door behind me. Nurse Julie had come in again. It was four in the afternoon—time for my second dose of Colazal. She smiled and greeted us both briefly before going to the bedside computer to chart the medication. Her fanny pac was cinched around her waist as usual, and she still had on her large sunglasses from the eye doctor. Another minute passed where the three of us didn’t speak and only the TV softly babbled in the background, Misti and I because we were too shy all of a sudden. Julie tapped away on the keyboard. She didn’t seem very interested in talking. When she did, she had an interesting tendency of ending the conversation abruptly, just when it seemed to really be going somewhere. I’d noticed it on several occasions, both when she talked with Mom and myself.
Misti straightened and backed away as Julie came around to the side of the bed. In one hand she held the scanner gun, and in the other a tiny cup with three peach capsules—my horse pills, as I’d often joked to the nurses. I held out my left arm under the scanner’s searching red laser light, turning my wrist so the barcode on the bracelet could be read. The three of us waited in silence until the scanner beeped. Julie handed me my cup of pills. Misti lingered by the recliner, the window beyond huge with daylight. She seemed conflicted about whether to stay or go, and merely looked on as I fingered the pills out of the tiny cup one at a time and swallowed them with swigs of water. The courage to read from my mental script had again evaporated, this time in the stern presence of Julie. It all felt so young and awkward and stupid. Even the additions I’d written while in the shower never made the transition from thoughts to spoken words. It had been another music suggestion. Burial was cool, and I hoped she’d go home that night and listen and love what she heard, but there was someone even cooler who I was sure she’d love.
“Okay, so here’s what you do,” said my mental script. In my head, Misti grinned at my irresistibly charming tone of voice and rested her hands on her cocked hips. “Go home tonight and find Jeff Buckley on YouTube. Listen to it all. The whole Grace album. It’s amazing. You’ll love it.”
But I never got that far. Instead, I merely said, “No, that’s it for now. Thanks,” after Julie collected the tiny cup and asked if there was anything more she could do for me. By then, Misti had left the room. She told me she’d come back to visit a final time before leaving for home. Hearing her nearly smile the words with such understated ease and promise, I figured it was true—that surely I would see her again, either later that day as she said, or before I was discharged the next day, that the last time I would ever see her would be some time other than right then, as Julie scrubbed the port on my PICC line with an alcohol pad. But Misti had stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind her, and I watched the syringe in Julie’s hand as she pushed clear fluid down through the milliliters—saline, then Solu-Medrol, then more saline—the window darkened and lit with dawn as Tuesday became Wednesday, the names on the white board morphed into ones I didn’t care to read, and I never saw her again.