Hospital hallways are a special kind of convoluted, methodical in their turns meant to deposit visitors with mysterious efficiency at a set of double doors affixed with red “no” signs.It seems like a mistake when I finally arrive at these doors, squinting at the walls in hopes of spotting a magic button, but it’s exactly the right place.Someone swipes a card in a slot near the knob.The doors open with a hesitant jerk.“Go to the very end.Last room to your left,” a nurse says, the soft splat splat of her shoes receding amidst whirs and beeps and white light.The white of seventies sci-fi shows.The coldness of unclasped hands.This is exactly the right place.
I find Joe on the gurney they’d lowered from the ambulance and left in the trauma room, as I’d guessed from the room’s proximity to the paramedics’ entrance, its lack of doors, its crash carts.I’ve watched a few episodes of E.R.I know what’s what. I sit on a cracked plastic chair and ask, “So, are you bored yet?”
“Yeah,” Joe says, wires connecting him to the EKG machine winding underneath a slouched hospital gown.He’s wearing jeans.It’s casual Friday.
Sometime shortly before five, he was managing a hostile client on the phone when he’d stood up in exasperation and the office slid away from him and kept going around and around.He phoned me to say he couldn’t walk, he was going to throw up, he felt weird.And that’s when it happened.That’s when my crisis switch flipped.
It’s less of a switch, actually, and more of a lever that flushes out every last bit of emotion.When it happens, I temporarily sprout robot insides like cold, white labyrinthine hospital hallways. I clip-clop in, sit, and ask things like, “Are you bored yet?” Then I remember I should be asking something else.“Has the doctor seen you?”
“Briefly,” he says.“They think maybe it’s vertigo.”
I imagine his disembodied head like this:
Just like this, spinning amidst psychedelic rays to the furious rhythms of castanets and Bernard Herrmann.
I’d once taught Hitchcock’s Vertigo in a university course titled “Theatricality in British Literature and Film,” even though Vertigo isn’t technically a British film.Hitchcock was British, though, and that was enough for me, considering that Vertigo was, and is, one of my favorite movies. When it was over, I switched the lights on and said, “So let’s think about the ways theatrics are used here to manipulate Scottie.”
One hand went up.“I think Kim Novak shows what a big difference eyebrow plucking can make,” one young woman offered.
“Exactly.I mean, it takes her from blah to gorgeous,” another said.“Eyebrow grooming is everything.”
“That’s all you got out of this film?” I asked, as wide-eyed as a slapped child.
Yes, that’s all they got out of this film.
I remember I should be asking about the doctor, and then I remember I should have hugged Joe maybe, asked how he was feeling maybe.I rise from the seat a little, but then his eyes roll up as he clutches the blue plastic puke bag he holds on his lap.I settle back on the cracked seat.“It hasn’t gotten better?”
“It’s a little better,” he says.
“Did you throw up in that?”
“No,” he says with a slow blink.“It’s just in case.”
My robot self can take a lot, but not vomiting. In many ways, the crisis switch makes me great to have around.I’ll never dissolve in sobs or be paralyzed by anxieties or get overwhelmed.I’ll listen patiently.I’ll remember to pack magazines and a fold of dollars for the vending machines. But if you vomit, man, you are on your own.
Joe doesn’t vomit.He just thumbs the rim of the blue bag now and then.
I hear a nurse in the hallway say something about vertigo.
“Are they talking about you?” I ask him.
“No,” he says.“It’s some elderly woman they brought in.She has vertigo.”
From where we sit in the open room we can hear everything about everyone who is wheeled into the E.R.Like the old woman with vertigo.And the man next door with vertigo.And the child crying up and down the hallway in his mother’s arms because he has vertigo.And everyone, everyone here has vertigo.Maybe “vertigo” is the new “consumption.”Maybe vertigo is the “I don’t know what the hell you have, good luck with that” diagnosis.
But I’ve seen Vertigo, so I know what’s what.
“Did you nearly slide off a roof and plummet several stories today?” I ask Joe.
“Then you don’t have vertigo.”I cross my arms.This hospital’s pissing me off.Vertigo!
Vertigo, the film Vertigo, is notable in my family.My dad apparently had a teenage crush on Kim Novak.I say “apparently” because the only proof of this is mom telling us dad had a teenage crush on Kim Novak with a vast rolling of her eyes while he smiles as if for a mug shot, a kind of tentative “make this quick” nervous grin.And, let me tell you, Kim Novak strikes at the strangest times.
Recently, I took my parents to see Rango.When the titular character rides out to the Eastwood-like Spirit of the West and asks if they’re all dead, the Spirit of the West replies, “If this were heaven we’d all be eating Pop Tarts with Kim Novak.”No one laughed louder than mom with her elbow in dad’s ribs.
“Wasn’t that a weird thing to say?” dad said later.“You’d think they would have said ‘Marilyn Monroe’ or someone like that.No one really thinks of Kim Novak.That’s really strange.”
“Maybe everyone hears the name they want to hear, so you heard Kim Novak,” mom said.
I thought my parents’ marriage was the only one Kim Novak haunted until I met a couple running a used bookstore in upstate New York.When I asked for a copy of Moll Flanders, the husband said, “I have just the one for you.”This is what he slid over the counter to me:
His wife, preparing to ring it up on the register between them, glowered.“Oh, sexy Kim!I’m surprised you’ll part with that one.”
“Oh no, no,” he said.“This young lady can have it.”
“I can’t wait to show this to my mom!” I said.
The doctor lowers the gurney so Joe is perfectly flat and looking up at her as her waist-length hair grazes the mattress edge and she turns his head left, then right, watching his eyes.
“It’s worse on the right?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he groans.
“I’m going to try that one more time.”
Left, then right.She looks at his eyes, and his eyes shift.
After clicking a pen against a clipboard she diagnoses him with Benign Positional Vertigo, and by midnight we’re free to leave.
He pulls the tape with the EKG sensors off the shaved areas of his chest, lets the tapes accumulate on the bedside tray, slips his knit shirt back on.
“Do you need help walking?” I ask.
“No,” Joe says, surprised to find equilibrium on his feet again.“I’m good.”
The hospital hallways seem to have rearranged themselves for our exit.Three right turns and we’re standing in the parking lot, clouds of moths in the street lamp lights, the black asphalt still holding the day’s heat.I look up at a white globe I think is the moon, but it’s a dull, switched off bulb of a moon, hanging lifeless like it might drop.And the world slides away somewhere under my ribs and keeps going around and around.Then I see what it is.A round white something-or-other on the power lines.
I weave my fingers between Joe’s, his hand feeling light and dry in mine, and lean in for a kiss.“You must be tired,” I say against his neck.
It’s not the moon at all.And Joe, Joe is fine, gingerly sliding into the passenger seat of my car with the blue puke bag I made him bring.Just in case.
I steer the car up one lane and down another, coming to a dead end.I back up, turn around, try the other direction.The headlights slide around to illuminate an “ambulance only” sign.It’s midnight, and we are lurching in endless zigzags in the Northeast Methodist Hospital parking lot.Joe’s thumb flicks at the rim of the scrunched blue bag on his lap.A Bernard Herrmann track crescendos in the back of my mind.