Week Twenty-Five Prompt: Intersection, “Closer”.

Closer

“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” – Albert Einstein

“At this stage, it remains unclear how many people have been injured, as the chaos surrounding the nightclub fire continues. First reports indicate an electrical short ignited the acoustical backing which surrounded the stage area…”
*
The morning has been chaos, I’ve been down in Emergency helping transfer the stable patients to theatre or a ward. The hospital is on bypass now, we’re not taking any more admissions. The burns unit is full and every bed up here contains someone in pain. Alexa asks me to do a dressing on a patient for her; rattling off a quick handover: She’s come to us from Emergency overnight, she’s fairly stable, extubated already, the main problems for her are pain management and infection control. Alexa touches my shoulder, “It’s a mix of first, second and third degree – her face, right arm, bilateral legs, abdo – face and arm are the worst. Just those dressings for now. Thanks.” I nod and enter the room, wheeling my dressing trolley in with me. The TV is blaring, another newscast about the fire fills the room. I mute it, and suddenly all I can hear is the ticking clock and the soft put-put-put of the pump pushing fluids into the patient’s one good arm. 

I cross to the sink, scrubbing my hands for the thirtieth time that day. My skin feels raw as I grab a towel and pat them dry, snapping gloves on after opening the dressing pack. What I can see of the woman is covered in bandages; swollen eyes and mouth are all I can see of her face. Puffy fingers peek out from one bandaged arm; the other arm uncovered, relatively unscathed. Good. One good arm. That is good. That will help. She begins whimpering as I slowly and carefully drip sterile saline onto the old dressings on her arm. 

“I know it hurts, I know. Try to take slow breaths.  We have to soften the bandages first before changing them.” 

Clotted blood and haemoserous stains turn wet, shiny from the saline. The dressing relaxes, no longer dried out papier mache, and I slowly, carefully, peel it back. 

Stop. Just stop. Get that look off your face. This is your job. Breathe through your mouth and suck it up. Breathe. Just breathe. This is a person. She is still a person. 

I bite my tongue. Stop. Her arm, what used to be an arm; what might, some day, again be an arm, stirs, reaches out, searching. Just stop. It brushes against mine; hot and angry. I watch it for a moment, see the red, oozing, raw skin against my own. My first impulse is to draw back, shake it off, some disgusting, rotting, inhuman thing touching me. She pulls her arm back, leaving a smear of clear fluid on my skin. I stare at the mark she left, anchoring me to this moment. Get that look off your face. The smell smacks into me, sinking into my nose, my skin, my clothes. This is your job. I close my eyes and suddenly, I am two years old again. I am staring out at the driveway of my childhood home. It is 45 degrees outside – mum and dad keep talking about it, “heat wave”, “we really should get air conditioning”. The driveway is paved dark stone and the heat is visible, rising in hazy waves to meet the hot blue sky. I am wearing latticed white stockings, no shoes, and a dress. It is 45 degrees outside. The door is propped open to let some air in. I step outside. 

Breathe through your mouth and suck it up. I think of the effort it must have taken this woman to touch me, how much pain it would cause that arm to brush against mine. Her eyes are wet; she is blinking as though she can’t see clearly. I look around for a tissue and grab one from her bedside table, holding it to her eyes. The tissue soaks up the salt water and I watch her mouth. She seems like she might be trying to talk, but I can’t understand her.

I reach to take off the dressings covering her face. They peel off, one by one, the smell rising up in cloying tendrils, getting worse with each unraveling layer. I gasp. I can’t help it when I see her face. What used to be her face. What might, someday, again be her face. But not today. Today it is half gone, blackened and shiny and swollen and oozing and it's never struck me before that without hair, eyebrows, a nose or cheeks a person doesn’t look like a person any more. Breathe. Just Breathe. The breaths remind me to focus on what she has been through. What she will go through. I see it all now, spinning out before me on some kind of timeline; I see debridements and amputations and skin grafts and excisions. I see how completely her life has changed even though she doesn’t know it yet. I see that right now all she needs is for me to be calm. In control. I take a deep breath. This is a person. I wipe a smile onto my face. 

“You’re going to be okay,” I lie through my teeth. I am two years old again. I am screaming and screaming and screaming as my stockings melt into my feet. I cannot move. I can only scream. 

“I’m just going to change these dressings okay? It will be over soon.” Panicked footsteps, and my dad is almost there. I know it’s my dad, even through my tears I can see he is dad-shaped and crying and trying to get to me faster. Closer now. Closer.
Almost there. 

“Almost there, I promise. I just have to clean this first.” He’s there, scooping me up, crying and yelling and so mad at me but gentle and I am so tiny in his arms and then I am in the car, feet in an orange bucket. There is ice and water in the bucket and I cannot stop screaming. My sister is holding me, shushing me, telling me it will be alright. ‘You’re at the hospital now, they will take care of you. This is where people come when they’re hurt because people know what to do here. They look after you
here.’

She is still a person. 

“Right,” The nurse smiles down at me, I smile down at the woman; calm, in control. “Let’s get you fixed up.” I relax in the nurse’s arms. I trust her. The woman grips my hand suddenly, tight against mine, and her breaths come easier. She trusts me. 

**NB** 45 degrees Celsius is 113 degrees Fahrenheit. 

This has been an intersection with the very lovely , who put up with my nitpicking like a real trooper. Now go read hers, it's awesome!

Many thanks to  for 'whipping' (har har, see what I did there?) this into shape. 

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Week Twenty-Two Prompt: Bridge

Gremlins

We ride bikes over bridges. There are hundreds here, spread all over Osaka like some gigantic game of pick-up-sticks. We ride bikes because Alex isn’t allowed to drive or even get in a car for the next year. They ride bikes to work, riding straight on to the ferry then off again, then onto the train and off again, and I can't keep up. Alex and her friends laugh between themselves, calling out to one another, “The artist will not risk any harm, accidental or otherwise, to his or her body, while contracted to the company.” I don’t get the joke, the awkward younger sister playing catch-up tag-along with Alex and her friends. She explains over her shoulder. 

“We’re not allowed, but when we’re drunk we take taxis, and one night Chantelle wouldn’t stop repeating our contract, over and over, and I guess-” she sees my face falling. It’s not that funny.

“You had to be there,” Alex finishes lamely and I nod, uncertain. 

I’ve come here to help Alex, but she doesn’t want help. She wants to ignore it and I’m on ice around her, trying not to slip. So I nod and we ride, and there’s nothing between us but the wind in our hair and the whistling hum of bike wheels over bridges.

*

“Suit work is hard,” Alex tells me. 

“Suit work?” I’m distracted by the night parade spinning past, screaming at me that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Normally, for my family, it would be, but since that phone call, the one that changed everything, Alex has been ignoring us. So now I’m here, watching the night parade and Alex is beside me because she has the day off and wants to talk about suit work which she's never done but her friends have.  Suit work, when you have to dress up as Shrek or Bugs Bunny and spend hours standing around, every movement bigger than life, your face melting under the heat and the claustrophobic giant head over yours. Real important stuff.

Not as important as the answering machine telling you your sister needs to begin treatment for a cancer no one knew she had. Not as important as the scrambled panic to dial the buttons to call Alex to give her the news. She was only home for a week, and went to the doctor for a check up and then flew back to Japan to be an entertainer for another year, forgetting to wait around for the results, assuming she was fine. I hear the click that means she has hung up on me, and that click tells me she needs me. 

So I pack my bags, and while I’m packing I remember something from our childhood, something Alex was never seen without, something that lies forgotten in a closet somewhere. I pull him out, a bit dusty but still grinning. Gizmo, the Gremlin. We went on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld when we were little, screaming and clutching each other. Alex made me go on another seven times. Dad bought Alex the Gizmo toy and she dragged him with her everywhere she went; school, parties, bed. I hold him close now and breathe him in; he smells of childhood and is so tied up with Alex as a little girl that I start to cry. 

But now I’m here and I’m not crying but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She wants to talk about how hard suit work is, because she can’t admit to herself that she’s very, very sick. 

*

I lie on the floor of her tiny studio apartment; the one they give the entertainers who work for the company. Free from rent and space, the bathroom is in the kitchen and I’m on a mattress three feet from the front door, next to the toilet closet. Alex is on her bed and I’m dozing off when I hear her gasp. She sits up and I swear I can hear her heart pounding, or maybe it’s mine but I’m up on the bed next to her. She is struggling to breathe and I take her pulse. Her heart is racing and she looks at me with something like fear in her eyes. I reach into my suitcase and rifle through. My hand catches on an ear and I pull Gizmo out. Her tears fall like hailstones and her gulps are loud in my ears as we cling to each other on her tiny bed. 

“We’ll get through this. We have to.”

She holds me tighter and I know what she’s saying; that she’s not ready yet, that she’s glad I’m here, that she doesn’t want to leave but she will come home soon. That she can’t believe her younger sister is taking care of her. That she wants to say thank you, but can’t find the words. 

I find them for her, and I whisper to her in the dark. Words of encouragement sink into the night around us, wrapping her up in my hope for her future. You will be okay, you will get better, you will fight this and you will survive. Slowly, her breaths come easier. 

*

We wake, wrapped around each other, necks stiff and knees creaking. My eyes are puffy and I blink them open. I must have cried at some point and I feel like a wet rag wrung out, left to dry in a heap on the bathroom floor. Alex is next to me, eyes still shut, hands curled around Gizmo, so much younger than her 26 years. The street noises far below drift up to us like smoke signals. Start your day, get moving. 

She stirs, then clears her throat.

“Wait here.”

*

Alex is gone for over an hour, and I stare out the window in her apartment. I see the smoke stacks, the buildings, the cars, the bridges, stretched out over the city, people like ants from up here, crawling aimlessly. I wonder how many other people out there are sick, how many are crying, sleeping, laughing, eating. At times like this, I imagine there is a plan for us all; that we can’t all be here for nothing, that all the suffering has a point. I imagine the world is better than it is. Then I stop, because if I don’t I’ll go crazy and I do know the world also has a lot of good in it, and there’s a knock at the door and Alex’s friends are looking for her and they see that something is wrong and they wait with me. 

They stream America’s Got Talent on Alex’s laptop; one of their friends back home is going to be in it and they want to cheer them on. I’m sitting in the corner of Alex’s room, waiting for her, hugging Gizmo to my chest. One of Alex’s friends teases me about Gizmo, and another one tells me one of the judges was the voice of Gizmo in the Gremlins movies. 

Their voices mingle around me and I lose track of the conversation. They cheer for their friend, but I can’t; I don’t know this person, I don’t even really know these people, but I am grateful they are here and that they seem to care about Alex. 

She comes in and stops short at the sight of us gathered in her room. They mute the computer, and I can’t look at Alex so I stare at America’s Got Talent; watch fire twirlers glinting in the stage lights and I think for a moment I’d give anything to be one of them instead, away from this tiny room. Alex crosses over to me and snaps the laptop shut. My neck cricks as I look up at her. 

“I’ve just been to talk to the director. I’m going home,” she says to the room at large, but she’s looking right at me and suddenly I am five and I am on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld.  I am lost and scared and screaming and wanting to run from the Gremlins which have taken over and then out of nowhere I feel a hand over mine; I open my eyes and see it is her hand, and I look at her, teary-eyed and she is shrieking too. She squeezes my hand. It is her way of telling me that she’s here with me, that it’s okay to be scared, that we don’t have to face the Gremlins alone.

This has been an intersection with the ever lovely . I wanted our team name to be whipgig, but she just looked at me funny

Week Twenty-One Prompt: The straw that stirs the drink.

Geoffrey looks a little like Karl Lagerfeld, minus the rings and the camp. I know his name is Geoffrey because I sneak a peek at his boarding pass as I stash my bag in the overhead bin. My friend plunks herself in the window seat, insists I take the middle, and she pulls down her eye mask, pops in her ear plugs and there is no hope for me. Geoffrey and I sit on the plane next to each other, perfect strangers confined in a petri dish for the next 16 hours. I tell him where we’re going. He nods as I list off the usual hot spots, but his eyes light up as I mention his home.  

           
            I’ve lived there for 20 years, he tells me.

            I spent three days there once. Does that count?

            It’s not enough.

            I know, I say. That’s why I’m going back.

As the plane touches down, he hands me a vomit bag. Across it he has scrawled bars, restaurants, hotels, sights, hand drawn maps. Two words etched across the top of the paper in messy ink hold my attention.

San Francisco.

*

            I could never live here, she says with a toss of her hair.

She sucks her juice through a straw as she looks across the bay. I hate the way she does it, lifting the straw above the level of the liquid, just enough that the noise disturbs the group of German boys at the next table. I want to snap at her. She knows what she is doing, she knows the best way to stir me after five months of travelling together, but it is getting old.

We have been to Victoria Falls, then Johannesburg, Tokyo, Osaka, Lausanne, Paris, London, New York, Vegas, now, finally, San Fran. Five months away. It feels like the whole world should be changed and my mind is half back home, in my sunlit bedroom, listening to music and cooking dinner, going to work, dropping by my parents house. Five months and the friend I’ve been travelling with isn’t my friend anymore. Conversation has run dry, there are no more words spilling from our mouths. We go some place loud, some place we don’t have to talk and just dance the night away. There have been people we’ve met along the way who have filled in the blanks, but now I’m sick of it.

So I take a breath.

I am silent, taking in the way the light slants off the bay, the faint noise of the Pier 39 seals below us, the beat of this city. I close my eyes, tuning her out. She is saying something about how it is too slow here, the people are too simple, the place is too pretty and it is all just a bit vapid. We pay and leave Eagle Café and I take another breath, watching my feet wind their way through the street, careful not to step on the cracks. There are so many here, spread out over the road like scars. I imagine they are from earthquakes that rumble underneath the city while cats hide behind refrigerators and people sleep on, undisturbed. People who live in an earthquake city aren’t slow or simple, I want to yell at her. So what if it’s pretty and the people are nice? Does that mean it can’t also be taken seriously?

*

We walk down to the water and take a ferry out to Alcatraz. It’s one of the strangest places I’ve ever been to. I stand in the tiny cell open to visitors, stare at the four walls and imagine how cold this place would be at night. My not-friend takes photos of herself putting her head through the bars, pulling faces and I look away, a bit ashamed, but she just shrugs and says the men who were in here deserved everything they got.

*

We rent bikes from Dylan’s Bike Store, and we follow the map he marks out for us in highlighter, right before he adjusts the seat heights for us and gives us a number to call if we puncture a tyre and I can’t stop saying thank you because people are so friggin’ nice here.

We ride through Marina and get looks from rich young things spending their money on Union Street underwear, and I stop and stare through the window at the French lace corsets, delicate as butterfly wings. The women who wear these are tall and tanned (and young and lovely) and I want to be them, or be friends with them or I would even settle for standing near them sometimes and smelling their perfume.

We wind through Russian Hill and take in the zig-zagging Lombard Street. I imagine the architects and town planners; and someone slapping their palm onto a table crying, “I’ve got it!” The houses are tiny leaning towers of Pisa and there are eight hairpin turns slashed into the hill and she thinks they were kind of crazy, but I think they were kind of amazing.

We turn onto Valencia and suddenly we are in the Mission. We fly past bars and restaurants and colours, so many colours they blur as we tear down the hill towards the water and then we are at the waterfront. The rest is a haze of shape and shadow until we reach the bridge. We climb off our bikes and look down at the waves crashing against the pillars holding it up. We see the tiny dots of the surfers in full winter body suits, and something comes over me and I speak. She almost listens.

*

I would rather live in New York, she says to me as we stroll through the Farmers Markets looking for cheese.

I shrug and don’t say what I’m thinking, because in total I’ve spent less than eight days of my life here and I know that it’s incredibly weird, but I’m protective of this place the way I am about my family, and I don’t want anybody insulting it.

New York is the younger sister skulking behind a tree; edgy and bright and boiling over with too much of everything. Lost souls are drawn to her bright lights and she burns them out while they don’t even notice.

Las Vegas is the older sister dressed in sequins tap-dancing around the kitchen table. She gets a boob job and a tattoo that says princess just above her butt and she makes no apologies for it.

San Francisco is the middle sister lazing on the couch reading a book, effortlessly stylish in a way that tells others she doesn’t give a shit. She has fights with her parents about global warming and the importance of standing up for gay marriage, and she brakes for animals. She is kind, kind in the way that doesn’t come along too often these days and she feeds the homeless regularly. She can peel an apple in one long strip.

*

We’re in Haight-Ashbury, having been directed there by the hotel, spending so much money there’s no point putting my credit card back in my wallet. Even she has to admit the shopping here is fantastic, and even though we had other plans today we let them slide with a ‘we’ll get to that tomorrow’ as we stare at rack after rack of clothes, shoes, bags, knick knacks.

It’s a shame that it’s winter and I’m wearing so many layers because much valuable shopping time is lost peeling leggings and stockings and thermals on and off again. I’m in a frenzy, ripping things I don’t need from shelves and saying, “I’ll take it,” and I feel sick at the amount I have spent, but this place is getting to me and I need to take a small part of it home as proof.

I will keep these things in my closet until someone I trust comes over for tea. I will wait for a lull in the conversation, then I will take the things out of my closet, shyly offering them one by one to the person I trust. I will show them the vomit bag Geoffrey gave me, carefully kept for all those months. I will show them photos of me on the cable cars. I will make them touch the fabric of the clothes and trust in the power of osmosis to explain for me the unsettling pit in my stomach; one which tells me that I feel at home here in a way that startles me out of my old skin. I could carve out a life here, here in this pretty earthquake city with the vapid slow simple people. I could hang out in the Castro and make gay friends and I could run down by the waterfront, only eating organic veggies I buy from the farmers market. I could be a kind stranger on a plane dispensing advice to young girls about my home and I could take my mum and dad out to Alcatraz when they visit, and they wouldn’t stick their heads through the bars. I could ride my bike over the bridge, pausing at the top to watch the fog roll through the bay, freezing my hair into slick tendrils that stick to my skin. I could leave my sunlit bedroom behind and settle into this city by the sea, and I could get a cat that would hide behind my refrigerator as I sleep undisturbed in my San Francisco bed.

I could.

This has been an intersection with the very lovely . Many thanks go to her for being so inspiring, and also to , for her insight on how to make this not suck. 

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