Now that we live together, Jon rarely calls in the middle of the day anymore, and that’s okay. But two days ago, my phone rang and his face lit up my phone’s screen.
“Lurcher,” I sang.
“Rosie,” Jon said. “Are you busy?”
I was setting up to paint my nails. “Sort of.”
“I accidentally injected hydraulic oil into my hand and I need you to take me to the hospital. Can you?” He tried to laugh but under it, a hard line. I didn’t have to ask. He wasn’t joking.
“Okay,” I said, and hung up the phone, then immediately Googled, ‘hydraulic oil injection injury’ and found horrifying pictures of mangled hands and amputated limbs and reported cases of death by sepsis. I sat on the couch with my hands on my knees while Joan Didion pulsed through my brain.
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. — Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
I stood up and went to the bathroom and washed my face and applied my make-up. After brushing mascara onto my right eye, the front door swung open.
“Rosie.” It was Jon. “Let’s go.”
I looked at the mirror, at the mask of my face, my one eye mascaraed and the other bare.
By the time we reached the hospital, his hand had swelled to the side of a baseball mitt and the joints in his fingers locked.
“Now I have two claws,” he said. A few years ago, a bar fight destroyed the bones in his right hand and, five surgeries later, left it permanently disfigured. We sat in the ER, barely speaking. I rubbed the back of his head softly until finally he twisted away and said, “Will you please stop petting me before I beat you with a stick?”
I said, “I need to touch you. I almost didn’t even answer the phone when you called. I was still upset with you.”
I love Jon, but we aren’t perfect. And some fights are stupid and silly and a hospital visit, in a perfect story, would alleviate the tension. But this fight wasn’t stupid or silly and that morning as I left the house, I almost couldn’t even bring myself to kiss him goodbye.
He said, “See, this is why you can’t leave the house angry. What if I’d been alone and the tractor had fallen on me?”
“Or if the hydraulic fluid had gone into my eye and I lost it?”
“What if it had shot through my chest? Broken the sternum open and gone into my heart?”
“What if I die? Then how would you feel?”
“Awful. I would suffer.”
Satisfied, he leaned back into my open hand. I rubbed his head until a nurse called for him three hours later.
It’s almost funny, now, to think about these recent events. It was, after all, just a hand injury. And to an outsider, the injury looked like a tiny hole that a tack could cause. But Jon is one of the toughest men I’ve ever known, and the pain was excruciating. To see him suffer openly unmoored me.
The Arabic word, ya’arburnee, to capture the hope that you’ll die before your lover because the pain of living without them would be unbearable. That’s how I was feeling. Don’t go. You bury me.
Once they finally pulled us out of the ER waiting room and back into the strange maze of hallways and rooms filled with broken hips and motorcycle accidents, once they changed Jon into a hospital gown and started an IV drip, once arrangements were made to conduct emergency surgery to save the hand, I started to get scared. To think, what if, what if, and found the thought unbearable.
I sat in a plastic chair at the foot of his bed and looked at the scarred skin of his shins, focused on a tiny crater below the knee from child chickenpox, the golden weave of his hair. I couldn’t stop touching him. I wanted to touch him and touch him and touch him. To never let him go.
“The surgery, prep included, will take about an hour. And then maybe thirty minutes in the recovery room,” the doctors told us. They were frank. Lines framed their eyes. It was past one o’clock in the morning. They laughed as Jon removed his boots.
“You mean I can’t take them into the operating room with me?”
The meds were already coursing through his body. The nurse handed me a plastic bag filled with his clothes. They reeked of hydraulic fluid.
“Can you carry these?” she asked. She looked at Jon. “We can’t leave them here.”
“I know,” he said. “You might steal them. You said you liked them.”
“Goodbye,” I said, and bent down to kiss him.
“See you later.”
The nurse instructed me to move through two sets of double doors and out through the hall. I turned away from Jon without looking back, as though that terrible myth of Orpheus and Eurydice might suddenly come true.
So I waited. There was a whole tribe of us in the waiting room–a woman with bedazzled sandals and two cellphones, a family of four, eyes bleary with tears. In silence we watched The Office reruns and Conan. The humor seemed absurd.
An hour passed and the doctor emerged. The surgery went fine, she reported, and explained that the fluid had gathered, oddly, in its own sac above the the flesh between the index finger and his thumb. No widespread damage, no blood-poisoning. She was going home, and he would be out of recovery soon. Thirty minutes, tops, she said.
I gathered my things, his things. Thirty minutes was nothing. I could wait. I could call his friends and report the good news. Congratulations passed all around. Jokes. Relief buoyed us. I promised to pass on the well-wishes and hung up. Check the clock.
Thirty minutes passed.
And then another thirty.
At the far end of the hallway, I saw Jon’s anesthesiologists catch an open elevator and disappear. Nurses and emerged with patients on beds until finally I was the only person left in the waiting room.
I’d been waiting for nearly two hours. Googled, “Slow to wake up from anesthesia” and found the terrifying results I’d expected.
And then finally, finally. They pushed him out on a bed with his head rolling on a blue foam pillow, eyes fluttering. I followed them to a private room in the surgery recovery ward. He was shivering.
“Cold in here, huh?” the nurse asked. He spoke to Jon as though speaking to a child.
Jon shook so hard he could barely respond. I ran to the thermostat. It read 55 degrees. After turning it up I came back to Jon’s side and helped the nurse lay blanket after blanket over his body.
This was the most frightening part of the day, to see him like this, to see him so fragile, quivering.
It was three thirty in the morning. I left to get him tacos, then brought them back and fed him. Tucked him in. Shopped for new clothes, clothes that were not soaked in hydraulic fluid, at an empty 24-hour Walmart. I felt like a crack head. When I took the men’s clothes up to the check-out I felt as though I should explain myself: My boyfriend, he’s in the hospital, he needs new clothes.
It all passed as we hoped it would. The next afternoon, the doctor dressed the wound, a jagged crevasse across the rise of his palm, and sent him home. He made phone calls during the drive, assured everyone of his health. We cracked jokes. He called me Nurse Nightingale. I made homemade alfredo sauce and we ate a quiet dinner, and then he went to Walgreens to fill his prescription.
It was getting dark when he came back, walked through the door with two Walgreens bags hooked across the bandages. “Man, I went crazy at that Walgreens!” he cried. “Bought bandages and pens and a shower drain…”
I laughed. He disappeared into the kitchen and then came back and dropped a blue envelope into my lap.
It was a small card. It broke my heart before I even opened it. It was the kind of card that my generation, we with our trendy individualized paper shops and unique hipster cards, snub because it printed, too-directly, words that perhaps deserve to be said. But there are men with little to say, for whom even when what needs to be said needs to be said, can’t say it. It broke my heart to imagine him standing in the card aisle, trying to find the card to summarize the words. He’d scrawled the first letter of his name, ‘J,’ with an extended tale to mark his name.
His name, no words. No words necessary anymore.
I leaped off the couch and kissed him the way I should have the morning before, the way you should always kiss the one you love, whether you’re fighting or loving or waiting in a surgery ward until three in the morning. I felt grateful to have him back, to know we would retire to the same bed once again, to have the luxury of undetermined time to fight and make-up, to kiss, if we wanted, without saying anything else. With nothing else that needed to be said.