Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ones You Don’t

I met her in an emergency room.

Let’s back up.

My friend Stephanie texted me after midnight. “You up?”

(For everyone’s reference, I hate text messages like that. Either I’m up or your text just woke me up. Or else I had the good sense to turn off my phone before I went to sleep and I won’t see your message until morning.)

That particular Saturday night, I was up mining YouTube for clips to use in a series of A Cappella Blog columns. Not exactly a riveting night, but I’d just as soon have kept it quiet.

But I texted back.

And she texted back, “Could you drive me to the ER?”

There are times when you don’t ask questions. Even if it’s against your better judgment and even if you’re curious.

A friend says she needs a ride to the hospital. You go.

I texted her again when I’d arrived outside her apartment building. She walked gingerly but quickly from her door in a hoodie and sweatpants. No visible wounds. Not so much as a cough or a sneeze.

The streets were slick with autumn rain and my tires needed changing. I hit the brakes early and often. After the small talk, and after I succumbed to hitting the next track button on “Colorblind” because the CD was skipping too much; after I rolled down the window because it was getting too warm, and after I rolled it back up at the stoplight because I didn’t like the look of the guys smoking cigarettes on the corner--I finally had to ask. “Why are we going to ER?”

“You don’t want to know.”

I looked at the clock. “It’s 12:37 in the morning. I want to know.”

“I had a date tonight.”

My male protector instinct geared up. I grew less annoyed with the glib answers. Ready to rage. “Did he do something to you?”

“Sort of.”

“Jesus Christ, Steph, tell me what happened.”

“It got stuck.”

“What?”

“The condom.”

“Where?”

She didn’t need to answer that one. I thought of asking why her date wasn’t the one who was still up and driving her, but figured I might not want to know the answer to that either. Besides Adam Duritz singing “I Wish I was A Girl” seemed like a less than appropriate soundtrack to the conversation. I skipped a couple tracks ahead to “St. Robinson in his Cadillac Dream.”

Most places I’ve lived, the ER is the only place to get late-night medical care. This means that the people waiting there fall into one of three categories—the obviously injured (the guy holding a blood-soaked towel to his forehead and moaning), the ambiguously ailing (take my friend), and those who are there to offer moral support. The people from the former two categories are too stressed about their current condition to take small talk, which leaves the third group to stare at the spots on the tile floor where the fluorescent lights reflect back at themselves. We third groupers run an internal monologue of speculation about what happened to everyone else in the room. Or maybe that’s just me.

We faced a pair of women, sisters by the look of them, each with strawberry blond hair, one’s straight and a little longer. The one with curly hair kept hers at neck length and wore glasses over her mask.

The two of them both wore those oval-shaped filter masks over their mouths and noses. I wondered what they were keeping in. Particularly because the one with glasses and I kept making eye contact and, though I couldn’t see her mouth, I could have sworn she smiled at me.

Stephanie got called in. A few minutes later, the sister with straight hair did, too. Once she was behind the door, the one with curly hair pulled the mask down so it covered her neck.

I looked at her. Quizzical.

She was definitely smiling then.

“What’s with that?” I moved my hand in a circle over the lower half of my face.

She looked behind her to be sure her sister was really gone, then crossed the aisle to sit next to me. “My sister’s a basketcase. Total paranoia. Total hypochondriac. Every time we set foot in a hospital she says we have to wear these or we’ll get SARS or swine flu or MRSA.”

“I didn’t think you could--”

No one thinks a mask is going to keep you from MRSA. No one except my sister. Who, if I didn’t tell you already, is batshit crazy.”

I offered her my hand. “I’m Mike.”

“Luna.”

We shook. Her hand was cold and dry.

“You don’t look like a Luna.”

“You were expecting the girl from Harry Potter?”

“More the professional wrestler.” I usually don’t volunteer my embarrassingly encyclopedic knowledge of pro wrestling in mixed company, but I suppose after one a.m. in the ER all bets are off.

“You know, I just had the vein tattoos removed from this side of my face.”

“Those weren’t actually tattoos--they were painted on.”

“You’re really going to argue about this?”

She was right, of course. I’d found a pretty girl who recognized a reference to Luna Vachon, and here I was arguing the finer points of her facial accoutrements.

“The boys at school used to tape pictures of her to my locker,” she said.

“So you’re not a fan?” I asked.

“Sorry.”

“No need to be.” I shifted in my seat so I could stop craning my neck and face her. “So what’s your sis here for?”

“I told you she’s a hypochondriac.”

We talked for the next 45 minutes or so. She shivered. I offered her my jacket. She hugged it around herself like a blanket, not putting her arms in the sleeves.

Luna’s sister returned to the waiting area ahead of Stephanie. She talked to the woman at the front counter, and Luna and I both stood up.

Luna removed my jacket from her shoulders and handed it back to me. Subtle as I could, I sniffed it as I put it back on. It smelled like daisies.

“What you, think I have BO?” she asked.

There are moments when you can make a move. When you can lay your cards on the table and make the best of your hand without waiting or plotting or subterfuge. You can kiss a woman. You can ask her to dinner. You can tell her you smelled your jacket because you think she's pretty and she smells nice and, at that moment, you'd like nothing more than to get her phone number.

Or you can let the moment pass. In a self-conscious moment of thinking that you can’t deal with rejection at 1:30 in the morning in a waiting room in front of a bunch of strangers with little better to do than eavesdrop on whatever attempt you might make--

you can let the moment pass.

I reached out my hand to shake hers again. “It was good talking with you, Luna.”

She licked her upper lip, grinned and pulled the mask back up over the lower half of her face. She walked away to her sister, leaving my hand hanging in the air behind her.

Stephanie came out a couple minutes later. She said she spent most of her time waiting for the doctor. The procedure, for what it was, was over inside a minute.

I thought of Luna as I watched my reflection in the glass doors before the automatic trigger pulled them open to release us outside. My hair didn’t look quite right and I wore an old summer camp t-shirt I wouldn’t ordinarily try to make a first impression in. Fact of the matter was, even if I had made my move, things may not have turned out all that differently.

I got home, sat down on the couch and looked Luna up on Facebook. I couldn’t find her. Name like Luna, I figured she might have made it up. A name she gave boys she thought might flirt with her at bars, at parties, in hospital waiting rooms.

I all but forgot about her until another night, maybe six months later. Maybe it was the late hour that reminded me of a similar time. I looked her up on Facebook again, no reason to think I’d have better luck this time around. And yet, there she was. Luna. In her profile picture, she had her head back, her eyes closed. A guy had his arm around her and he kissed her cheek. I could only see so much about her, what with privacy settings and the two of us not being “friends.” But I could see that she was listed as married.

There are the chances you take. And there are ones you don’t.

Conventional wisdom would say that if she was married six months later, Luna was probably engaged when I met her (though she didn't wear a ring) or at least in a serious relationship.

But what if she wasn’t?

Could it just as easily have been me holding her in that picture? If she was a part of one of those families that pressured you to get married to every boyfriend, would I have withstood that tidal wave? Or gotten swept up in all that romanticism and sense of obligation and maybe even love?

Perhaps worst of all, as I looked at that picture, I still wasn’t sure if this destiny that might have been my own was a missed opportunity or a nightmare I had lucked out of.

And I guess I’ll never know for sure.

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