What happened here? a nurse says gently, touching the bridge of her nose.
Car accident, you say, the airbag went.
Ah, she says, with one nod, a kind of relief that you are not a victim of domestic abuse.
The nurse—her pin says she is an RN, and her smock is plain white—is helping you get settled in your half of the hospital room, in the bed near the door. You are acutely aware of the hierarchy in these places, after your husband’s three months in a hospital, but you are also intensely aware that if you don’t get something to eat it will be hard to sleep, so you ask this nice woman if she can find a sandwich for you, a box of cereal, anything, and she says yes, of course, and goes away.
She has pulled the curtain the length of your bed, to separate you and the other patient. In the seconds before she did that you took in the scene—evening sky outside the window, not yet full dark / woman lying flat in the bed, eyes closed, not well / another woman, late teens, sitting in a chair by the bed in street clothes. Their TV is on.
Your blood sugar is so low you doze, and then the nice nurse is back with a ham sandwich on white bread and a diet cola, which are as good as a take-out Chinese dinner for two. On the tray is the breakfast menu, and you check off as many items in each category as you are allowed.
There being nothing else to do after eating, missing one lens of your glasses as you are, you wash up and then arrange yourself and the bedding for the least exposure to the TV. You have never liked the sound of television, pitched high and fast as it is; after your husband died you gave away your two TVs and have lived peacefully since, without it.
At 8 p.m. a woman in a smock decorated with balloons checks the vital signs of you and the other patient. The other patient rises to this occasion and afterward has a telephone conversation, apparently with a friend, about not wanting her husband to visit her in the hospital. There is some problem between her and her husband, and you feel bad for her. You wish you could discuss this with her, to say that your husband wasn’t perfect either, some days he could be downright difficult, but you wish he were here to visit you: be careful what you ask for.
You lie there, recalling the week you spent in this hospital several years ago, on a Heparin drip. You had the window bed; flowers and books and cards accrued on the sill, and your husband visited twice a day, wearing a different one of his Hawaiian shirts for each visit, to cheer you up, he said.
The nurse stops by to see if you are OK, and you ask her to pull the curtain farther so that the TV light doesn’t flicker in your eyes. You’re probably getting a reputation on the floor as a demanding patient, but you will be gone tomorrow.
The teenager turns off the sound on the TV and begins a series of audible calls on her cell phone. You could ask the nurse to tell her to keep it down, but you enjoy eavesdropping, and you choose your battles. The teenager must be what your husband’s hospital called a “sit.” “The Safety Companion,” your husband’s first sit explained. “But we’re called the sit, ‘cause, we sit.” He outweighed your husband by a hundred pounds and prevented him from getting out of bed and wandering around. They also arm-wrestled. The sit won, with his advantage of weight.
You sleep for an hour, wake. The sit is still on the phone. She’s helping to plan a party, for when she gets off work at 3 a.m. A person by the name of Big Boy will buy a case of beer for them, who are too young to buy the beer, and the question is where to meet and drink the beer. You want to take this young woman by the shoulders and shake her and tell her that if she has the sense to get a somewhat responsible job like this—at her age, you were stuck with waitressing, which you hated—then she should extend that responsibility to the rest of her life and not get drunk on cheap beer with a bunch of jerks with stupid names and ultimately, one day, return to this hospital to have a baby that she has not planned for and cannot afford. You do not say this, of course. You lie there, irritated.
The next time you wake up it’s after three and the room is dark and silent. You can lie on your right side now, without the TV and the talker. As you do, half-asleep, you remember that you always take your earrings off before bed. Touching your ears, you find no earrings. You think about this. You remember, yes, you are sure, that you put on the jade earrings this morning, which seems about five years ago.
You sit up and touch your ear lobes again. Nothing. You have no memory, motor or otherwise, of taking the earrings off and no idea when you were last wearing them. You are starting to sweat. You remind yourself that they were earrings, not life, that you are OK, the dog is OK, that’s what’s important.
The shallow pockets of the hoodie are empty. The pants you were wearing have no pockets, always a nuisance. You are trying not to cry. You remind yourself that you haven’t thought of the earrings in hours, so they can’t be that important, but it doesn’t help, you have remembered them, they were beautiful, a treat, in their soft, creamy jade.
You touch your right ring finger and your silver ring is there, the last gift from your husband, a silver band embedded with a tiny diamond, he probably knew he was ill when he gave it to you. You remind yourself that if the ring were missing you would be walking up and down these halls moaning with grief, but the earrings were something you bought yourself, a souvenir of your trip to China. You can ask the nice nurse about them in the morning, but you remember that the nurse’s shift will have ended by morning, indeed has probably ended now.
You lie down again but you are upset with the idea that someone took the earrings right off your ears and you want to talk to someone about this so you press the buzzer and in a short time the nurse appears.
You’re still here, you say.
Yes, she says, I’m doing a twelve-hour shift.
You do not approve of twelve-hour shifts, the staff in your husband’s hospital was always doing them, which meant they would then disappear for days, but you do not say that, you apologize for bothering her about a pair of earrings, but you know you had them on this morning and now you don’t know where they are, can she help you find them?
She takes your request calmly and seriously.
Did you look in your purse, she asks.
No, you didn’t, the purse is too full of things, but now you put it on the bed and start taking things out of it.
They’ll usually put them in your purse, she says, and if there’s a zippered pocket . . .
There is a zippered pocket, and there are the earrings, twinkling at you in their jade and gold, tidy in a small square baggie with a Zip-loc top made and used for the purpose of keeping people’s valuables safe.
Oh, you say, thank you, feeling foolish and yet immensely relieved, and happy that you called upon this experienced, sensible person.
Do you want to put them on, she says, and you say no, thank you, I take them off at night.
She turns off the light and you lie on your left side, with your left arm extended so your hand just touches the purse. Having lost, irretrievably, the most valuable part of your life, you need the comfort of knowing that a few things remain in place, details with which, once again, you will start over. Tomorrow you will wash your face and put on your earrings. L will drive you back to your new home. By grace and luck, you have a future.