by Abigail Hickman
I went into work two hours late today although I had no business going in there at all. But I kept thinking back to when you had that tooth infection and the whole side of your face was swollen and soft and your pupils pulsed with your heart rate, pumping the pain through your head. And you went to work anyway. I know we need the hours because I see how scared you get at the grocery store, worrying over the price of the razors and popsicles.
I fear I had already worn out your patience with being a patient. I’ve been in bed for many long days now, moaning on the lime green summer sheets even though it’s cold out and we should have changed out to the snowman flannels. You took off work yourself yesterday to drive me up to the doctor’s. Vertigo incited by an ear infection.
We already knew what I had from the Google search of my symptoms but I was secretly happy at the diagnosis because it was real and medical. You asked me on the way up if I thought my condition could be because of stress. You meant a “mental” condition but you wouldn’t say it for fear of upsetting me. I told you I couldn’t rule it out and was open to any diagnosis at all because that would lead to the cure. But I didn’t want a “mental” condition. I wanted a “real” one. I needed a medical name to make sense of my distress and justify my malaise.
So I made you take me all the way up to the doctor anyway, thinking she could stop the swirling and the nausea even though the WebMD.com already told me she couldn’t. Vertigo doesn’t have a bonafide cure. You just have to wait it out.
It’s been five days and I really should be trying harder to participate in our life. I sit back in our room incubating, as I do in illness, only this isn’t an illness; it’s a condition. I’m a real drag, not up and about in my usual perky and enthusiastic way and I know this drains you. You bring my medicine and water and Chapstick, fluttering in and around me. You move towards me and then away again. It all makes me dizzy. All of it.
Then Ellen came over and brought in a big bag of get-well treats and a bouquet of flowers. She brought me two helium balloons as well but I made her take them out of the room because they kept bumping up against each other in currents of the air conditioner and their gentle sway then bump made me dizzy. The flowers were beautiful, yellow daisies and different shades of purples ones. There was one oddball carnation in the bunch, coral colored, and when she put the vase down on the desk at the end of bed, that peach colored carnation was staring right at me. I knew I couldn’t get up and turn the vase a few degrees and I felt pretty awful about it anyway because she had gone to all that trouble to buy the flowers and treats and balloons and I already asked her to take the balloons away. She sat in my bedside chair but I couldn’t turn my head to look at her without a swirl of nausea so she good-naturedly jerked and tugged at it to move it within my line of vision. Vertigo felt like balancing a glass of water on my head while standing on a spinning whirly-go-round. I kept thinking that if I could get my head settled into one position, the walls would stop lunging toward me and the floor would stop beckoning. She finally got the chair positioned when she pulled a short story out of the treat bag she had brought. The polka dots on the tissue paper protested with a grating, rustling noise when she removed the story from the treat bag.
She had just written the story a few days before. She is a fast writer and frequently shows up with something new. Sometimes, I am jealous of her talent but last night, day four of the upset, I was happy she had written something new and particularly pleased that she was going to read it to me. She is southern and deliberate and slow. I carefully moved my head back to the wall to rest while she fussed with her papers. She read the title, “I Wish I Had Some Vodka in my Hairbrush,” and I knew, before she even got into the story, that I would I like it. I also knew that I would like her reading it to me. She took her time, as if she had nowhere else to be, even though I knew she had come straight from work and had to get home to feed her cat, Coco Chanel, before her writing class at seven. I stared at that peach carnation and listened to Ellen tug my weary and spinning brain into her story and I felt that pinch between my eyes relax. I exhaled and began to think that carnations were beautiful flowers. The one I looked at during Ellen’s story was just so optimistic, standing among real beauties thinking it was worthy.
Ellen paused at the commas and fully stopped at the periods. The room would go quiet but it wasn’t awkward; it was expectant. I felt calm and unhurried and happy. I forgot about kneeling in front of the toilet the night before, each violent surge forward causing pee to push out and land in a puddle on the floor. I was too sick to bleach it and too humiliated to tell you. I know it’s silly for me to feel this way. You would just smooth my hair and say it was fine and go to clean up the mess. But I pulled the bath mat over the puddle to hide it. I keep thinking I’ll feel well enough to disinfect but I don’t and I know that mat is lying on top of my private emission, hiding my effrontery within its microfibers.
Ellen’s storytelling slowed my racing thoughts and eased my guilt. Everything had been moving so quickly, my head, the walls, the list of bills, the missed work, your impatience at my complaints. Ellen read on and I got lost in Sugar and her cheatin’ husband Bo there in the Belk’s department stores already decorated for Christmas despite the children still eating their Halloween candy from this year’s loot.
But then Ellen had to go and I was nauseous anyway, afraid to throw up in front of her, thinking she would always see me that way, lying their swaying in my weakness. She left the room and you came floating in. You gave me some directions about medication or some such thing; your voice was loud and it hurt my head. You fluffed my pillows and squeezed my hand and I felt pinched and tight and tilted.
And then this morning you mentioned something about it being time to get back to work and you reminded me, or yourself, of the time you went into work with the abscessed tooth, all swollen and in ridiculous pain and I felt maybe I owed it to you to try. “You’ll feel just as sick at work as you do at home,” you said to nobody. So I walked liked an Egyptian to the shower, fully medicated on my expensive anti-nausea medication. I wasn’t worried about any indiscretions in there. But the anti-nausea medication, strangely, makes me dizzy. I tried to explain to you the difference between spinning and dizzy but the conversation took more energy than I had to expend. I was reserving that energy for the shower. The water felt good, hot and soothing, running through my dirty hair. I felt optimistic that I would feel better afterwards and put the vigor back into my step. The shower would show me how to be my old, happy self again. But by the time I washed my hair, I was already debating with myself if it was worth the extra effort to condition it. If I skipped this step, I could be out of the shower sooner, but then it would take me longer to brush it through. I thought about the hairbrush pulling my head from side to side and made the very sound decision to condition it. By the time I washed my face, I knew that going to work was no good. It was just no good at all.
I called you for assistance. This was very awkward for both of us because I am so very private and rarely parade naked in front of you. But I knew I couldn’t get out of that shower without your help and it was better for me to try to stretch up and hold myself in a way that underexposed my jiggly parts than to spin out and lie splayed where I would have no control over what you saw or how it was arranged. After some time, I got dressed and zombie-walked to the car. I was dizzy and kept hitting the sides of the hallway, and then the doorframe. You came running out, “Let me help you,” but you didn’t understand that by going in the first place, I was trying to help you.
You drove me to work and I wore my movie star sunglasses, the ones with rhinestones around the top part. You parked illegally on my campus so you could help me through the door into the Writing Center. I was scared to go in; I had missed two days already and the place felt like it belonged in someone else’s life. I felt like an interloper as you helped me past the receptionist’s desk. You walked me straight into Lisa’s office and she got up in her graceful way to hug me. She whispered something about going home and how they were fine and could get along without me for another day or two. This was one of my worries. I had been laid off last semester and the last thing I wanted was for my boss to see how easy it was to get along without me for a day or two. I was still wearing the sunglasses when you escorted me, like a blind person, to the nearest desk. I sat down and knew again what I had already suspected in the shower. It was no good. None of it was any good.
You left quickly so you wouldn’t be late for a hair appointment but your appointment wasn’t for another hour. I think you felt awkward, with me sitting with my back stretched rigid, my neck fixed upon it moving as if fused together. My sunglasses were still on and everybody there knew that I wouldn’t be able to do my job. I couldn’t read anything without the nausea kicking it up in my head and the job required me to read. You left me sitting there in the quiet room with the other tutors. I wanted to watch you leave but couldn’t allow my eyes to follow you without unseemly consequences. I was embarrassed that I had come in and exposed myself as weak and greedy. I sat staring at the front wall, afraid to move my head and interfere with the bobbing center in the middle of skull. Students came, moving toward me and away again. It all made me dizzy. All of it.
I remained frozen, staring forward through my sunglasses, my distress hidden while I sat publically exposed. At the top of the hour the students packed their bags; I could hear them rustling and zipping and then the center was quiet again. Margo, one of my peers, turned to talk to Yolanda who was sitting behind her. Margo was laughing about a prompt a professor had given her back when she was in grad school. She wanted to tell the story, maybe to deflect from the awkwardness of me sitting there like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly guy. She started out loudly, still laughing and I listened because there was nothing else to do. Her professor had given a prompt that used a particular word. Apparently this particular word could be interpreted in an unsavory way. When Margo said the word she dropped her voice and I couldn’t hear it, so I missed the whole point of the story. I couldn’t hear enough from the rise and fall of her voice to piece it together but I could tell that the story was just a boast. She had poked fun at the professor in front of her classmates with some kind of witty retort. I knew she had told this story before; it felt grooved and worn. Yolanda laughed when she was supposed to and this annoyed me even though I could tell the story was probably funny. Margo got up to go to the bathroom, still chuckling at her cleverness and I suddenly disliked her. I was a carnation to her daisy. She was put together just so with her experience and savvy and somehow her life made mine feel like my bathroom mat. A pretty cover for an awful mess.
I watched her walk out by way of the reflection in the front window of the center. She was wearing a blue sweater and it looked pretty on her. Her motion to the door was too much movement for my eyes so I trained them once again to stare forward. On my way to the safe position, I caught myself in the reflection, rigid, clutching my just-in-case grocery bag, my movie star sunglasses sparkling along the top ridge.
Lisa slipped out of her office just then, gliding towards me like the gallows man moves toward the one with the rope around her neck. She whispered in her gravelly, radio voice that I needed to go home. Lisa’s message sounded urgent although her voice was quite calm. I made a weak attempt to argue my case. I told her that I was sluggish from my medication but that maybe that would be an advantage to the students. I’m normally so fast and intense. But she had made up her mind and Lisa was always solid, always resolute. I told her I had to wait for you to finish at the at the hair salon and she said that would be fine. She added that I shouldn’t come in tomorrow and my cheeks got hot and I wished I were in my bed looking at the flower arrangement sitting on top of the four leaf clover coaster you stole for me from the Airbnb room in Boston. Lisa walked away and I sat staring at my spot, thinking about Anna, your hairdresser, lightly flirting with you in the way that she does. I hoped she wouldn’t take too much off the top like last time.
When you came to pick me up, you fussed over me, squeezing my hand, kissing the back of it then wiping it off because you know I don’t like sloppy kisses. My hand remained cold and limp inside your warm one. You held it in silence until we were nearly home. “We’re almost home,” you said, and I dared the nausea to take me down as I opened my eyes for the first time since getting into the car. You had just turned down our street and the leaves from the big tree across from the funeral home were wild with plums and deep reds and you kept squeezing my hand until nothing felt tilted at all.