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Rant #290
(published August 10, 2006)
by Sarah Erdreich
On the other side of the curtain are electronic beeps, fast for several minutes and then ponderously slow; there are the low, resigned moans of a person who's been in pain for so long, she moans out of habit and little more; there are people rushing back and forth, their forms ghostly from my side of the white sheet. Sometimes these forms brush against where I huddle on a backless stool, and I curl further into myself, acutely aware of how out of place I am here, the casualty room of a New Delhi emergency clinic.

My boyfriend Vince lies in front of me on a hard bed, which also doubles as a storage unit; the drawers underneath his mattress hold boxes of equipment. It's fortunate that no one has needed anything from his bed, has not had to dodge around the IV line that swoops from a metal stand into the back of Vince's hand. Though he is the one who is sick, I have almost passed out twice this morning — once when the nurse inserted the IV line, again when Vince lifted his hand in feverish panic and blood flowed into the plastic tube.

Now he is still, curled against the wall in a twilight state, his face pale and sweaty in the un-air conditioned room. The electricity has already gone out twice; I imagine that any kind of A/C would overpower the electrical system entirely.

And I am wrapped in a strange kind of silence, composed of equal parts fatigue, hunger, worry, and fear. It's only the middle of the morning but we have been up since before dawn, first when Vince began vomiting, and then when we had to leave our hotel to travel to the house where our friend Abhishek and his family were staying. It is because of Abhi that we are in India; this afternoon marks the beginning of his wedding festivities.

At Abhi's house Vince was sick again, and again, but felt well enough to get on the bus that would take our whole group to Jaipur, a city four hours away where the bride's family is originally from and where the wedding will take place. Only a few minutes into the drive, Vince began to worsen and I realized that we had to get off of the bus. A flurry of phone calls and conversations established a plan: leave Vince and me in the care of a friend's brother, who would help us find our own transportation to Jaipur when Vince was better. The brother's house is around the corner from this clinic, and he escorted us here right after we deposited our luggage in his living room. Both the brother and his wife have checked in on us here, and I wish I knew their names, knew how to thank them properly for taking us into their home and helping us without a second thought.

There are a lot of wishes bouncing around in my head right now, because I have no way to distract myself from what is happening and what could happen. No book, no iPod, no magazines — it's been years since I've found myself this devoid of tangible distraction. I begin to read the poster above Vince's bed, which outlines the proper way to dispose of medical waste, but feel light-headed when I get to the instructions for how to throw away body parts.

I didn't even think to be worried when we came to the clinic. I figured that Vince had inadvertently eaten something bad — not too difficult to do in a country where foreigners shouldn't even run their toothbrushes under tap water. So it was a shock when the doctor announced that his temperature was 104 degrees, and that if Vince didn't improve he'd be moved to a private room, and that even if he did improve he might not be well enough to travel.

Slouching on the metal stool now, alternate scenarios race through my head. One: the private room, an afternoon of sitting and waiting to see if he recovers. Two: another night in New Delhi, waiting in an anonymous hotel room with the vague hope of leaving for Jaipur the next morning. Three: Vince's fever spiking higher, his condition worsening some other way, necessitating calls to his parents, my parents. I try to keep my mind from fleshing out this scenario further. I read the casualty room schedule for the month of July, occasionally rubbing Vince's shoulder, lightly touching the side of his face.

The moaning patient is gone, and the curtain has been drawn back. Men are crowded into the room, one with his arm heavily bandaged. I am suddenly conscious of my tank top, modest by American standards but still revealing my arms and a hint of cleavage. The door to the waiting room is open and it appears that I am now the only woman in the clinic, save for the nurses and receptionist.

Vince opens his eyes and focuses for the first time in a while. I help him sit up and he looks around, asks for his glasses. He's feeling better; not great, but well enough to leave. He lies back down and soon another doctor comes, takes his temperature, and tells me it's dropped to 102, still too high. So a shot of paracetomol is administered and an order for the drug in pill form is written on Vince's intake card, along with the other medications he'll need for the next few days. When Vince is ready to be discharged, I'll find out that all four medications cost 45 rupees, or just under one dollar, total. The bill for this emergency care is about $23.

But leaving the clinic is still ahead, another part of this endless day that will include a dreamlike taxi ride into the arid country around Jaipur, the henna designs that will decorate my hands, and an exuberant rehearsal dinner which I attend while Vince sleeps.

All there is right now is Vince and I, quiet and waiting together, as tears of relief slide down my face and nurses rush around us, around the bed where we gently hold hands and wait for the doctor, and after hours of sitting silent I have no words left to say, not even as the power flickers and the lights fade around us.

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