The words in my textbook dance off the page in highlighted neon lines. I hadn’t made the highlights. They came with the book despite Ebay’s reassurance that it was in “good condition; like new.” When I blink, the dance is over. The words fall back into the book with a resounding finality that gives me a headache. My companion for life. Along with the thousands of dollars I’ve incurred in debt - unless these words stop dancing when I try to read them so I can pass my classes, graduate, get my nursing license, and start working. Piece of cake.
I decide I’m done studying for the time being. This headache isn’t going anywhere. I stand and my chair scrapes across the ground in an abrasive way. It satisfies me. The light blue cushion of the chair holds an imprint of my butt, a relic of the last six hours. I don’t really know what to do with myself.
I amble around the apartment, opening drawers and cabinets and sniffing their interiors. I don’t linger too long by the pantry; it smells like something died. A myriad of dry herbs are suspended around the stove, collected from various parks and from Diego’s balcony garden. The junk drawer smells vaguely metallic. Opening the file cabinet where we keep papers makes my nose tickle. Between work and school, Diego and I haven’t had much time to declutter. Or even clean. My rummaging has raised a small dust storm in the apartment.
In the file cabinet is a folder with drawings I made as a kid. A crayon portrait of Dad slips out and flutters to the floor. It lies face up. Even from a child’s crayon rendition, his eyes bore up at me.
Dad drilled it into my head to choose an honorable and reliable career. He asked why I didn’t just go to medical school. I wondered the same. It had seemed to me that nurses had less responsibility, administering the medicine or treatment chosen by doctors. This passivity appealed to me, but I was wrong about it. There’s nothing passive about nursing.
I leave the drawing on the ground and step onto the balcony. Night had fallen abruptly since my last study break. By now I shouldn’t be able to stand on the balcony at all. Pots and containers bursting with edible plants and flowers command most of the space. A barely used grill sits in the corner, and Diego’s bike always takes up the remaining legroom at night.
The door to the apartment bursts open, which is strange. Usually I don’t hear Diego come in. Sound comes through these walls like water, but Diego moves like a drought. I’ve never dated anyone so quiet. It’s a comfortable sort of quiet, though. I never hear him coming but it doesn’t spook me if I suddenly feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder or his lips brushing my hair.
I step back inside from the balcony. Diego walks into my range of vision and for a few seconds I lose my nerve. There’s a violent sunset streaking across his face and I don’t know how I’m ever going to be a nurse because it looks like he’s wearing a swollen grotesque mask and all I can do is stand here. He tries to smile but it so clearly hurts. I grab my keys.
Time doesn’t have a solid footing in the ER. It looks exactly like it did earlier when I was here for my clinical, which shocks me for some reason. It’s not like emergencies distinguish between day and night. There’s a blanket of confused and anxious sleepiness over everyone in the waiting room. The pull of natural biorhythms versus the adrenaline of injury. Glaring lights show new colors on Diego’s face. I suspect some bones in his left eye socket are broken; a blowout fracture. I want him to tell me what happened. We sit holding hands on a teal cushioned bench that looks comfortable but isn’t. He stays quiet. I let him.
A nurse comes and asks Diego questions. He’s too shaken to scramble for words so I translate his Portuguese. What happened? Four guys jumped me while I was riding home, beat me up, and stole my bike. What are you feeling? Pain, some dizziness, double-vision. Do you have insurance? No.
When the nurse leaves, I ask Diego how he is. He tells me he’s lucky that he’s seeing double; two of me is better than one. I squeeze his hand. What are we going to do? He doesn’t know. I think about how surgery can cost upwards of thirteen thousand dollars.
“Quero voltar.” I want to go back. He says this softly. It’s the first time in a few months that he’s spoken to me in Portuguese without trying first in English. He goes on to say that there wasn’t much opportunity to make money where he’s from, but at least it was home. He’s tired.
Diego grew up in a small town in Bahia. The kids in his neighborhood loved watching lamps get lit at night. Stories about evil spirits were told to scare them into obedience. He broke lots of rules but he had a suspicion that his mother loved him better for it. It was his mom who encouraged him to come to America.
I understand why he wants to go back. If, right now, sitting under the bright lights of the waiting room, he asked me to go back with him, I think I’d say yes.
We sit in silence. My head still hurts. It’s gotten worse since we’ve been here. The murmured conversations and beeping sounds of various technologies in the waiting room all seem very far away. Diego feels real, though, real and close. I squeeze his hand and he squeezes back.
I look at Diego and cross my eyes the way I did as a kid. My vision blurs and doubles, and I see two of him. Both look back at me and smile.