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Emergency Rooms in the Rain
The sound of clanging bottle escapes from the space under the door of the shop. Through the grimy glass window, I see Maurice and her sister angry, one clutching a bottle sitting on the counter, the other’s hands waving in the air.
I push open the door and find the two sisters arguing, their words sharp and mean. “I don’t know whatchu talking about,” Grace is saying. She takes a sip of the bottle--now that I see more clearly, I recognize the label as Red Stripe. She slams it back down on the counter, as if she were making a point in this action.
When Maurice sees me, she turns away from Grace and strides across the room. “Smith,” she says, peering into my eyes. She stands on tiptoes and kisses the tip of my nose. “You didn’t say you had time off today.”
I do not respond. I make my way to where Grace sits and take the beer out of her hands, studying the label. “Did you just get this in?” I ask.
Grace nods, then attempts to take the bottle back from me.
I shake my head at her. “For Chrissake,” I say. “You’re almost eight and a half months along. Think of the baby.” I take an obvious sip of the beer.
Maurice sits down at the stool on my left, slipping her hand around my neck. Grace scowls. I wonder if this is what they were arguing about. “The babe’s gonna be fine,” she says. I see her hand drop to her belly, huge now, and caress it.
I take more sips of her beer. A cold breeze comes in from the open door, pushing the menus on Grace’s right toward me. Maurice moves about the small restaurant, wiping down the counter with a washcloth.
My cell phone disturbs the silence. It vibrates before breaking into a song by the Weepies. I pull it out of my pocket and glance at the name, then put it back. My mother’s number. Every day, eleven A.M. I’m not picking up. I won’t let that be my morning.
Maurice has turned on the radio. The announcer breathes that there is a rainstorm coming, and that traffic will be heavy. Maurice snorts. “Like we have anywhere to go,” she says.
My phone goes off again. I take it out of my pocket and place it on the counter, on top of a glossy copy of Cottage, the one I brought for Maurice from a news stand right by the building I was working on last week. She’s been into those magazines lately, her fingers folding dog-eared corners of every other page, planning out our future home.
It has begun to rain. The water spills across the window, attracting a touristy-looking family into the shop.
“Can we help you?” Maurice asks. I see her eyes flicker to the Closed sign in the window, then back to the woman and teenage boy. I turn to look at them as I reach toward my phone to stop the buzzing. The woman has her arm around the boy, and he doesn’t seem to care. I stuff my phone into my pocket, squeezing it.
The lady speaks, “We were just wondering if we could have something to drink,” she says. “It says here--” she points to the menu “--that you serve mochas?”
Maurice scowls and points to the Closed sign. “We’re not open.”
The lady looks taken aback for a moment, glancing at her son. He says nothing, just wraps his arm around her waist tightly. Something pangs in my stomach. “We’re so sorry,” she says, “but could we stay for a moment, just to warm up?” She clutches her traveller’s purse close to her body.
Maurice shakes her head. I can feel the anger coming. “I’m sorry, but we’re not open. Good day.” They begin to leave, and I push my hair out of my eyes, and then someone to my left screams, her hands groping for something to break.
“Grace?” I say. Maurice has moved across the room in a nano-second, her hand on Grace’s belly.
The screaming stops. “The baby,” Grace says. She peels my fingers off my bottle of beer--not an amazing feat, now--and chugs three gulps. “He’s ready.”
I force the bottle back out of her lips. “Think of the baby.” I say this more aggressively now.
Maurice is everywhere in the room, her hands flying under old copies of Cottage and between rows and rows of bottles. “Keys,” she is saying. “Where are you. Keys.”
I rise from my position, letting my arm fall from Grace’s shoulder. “I brought my car.” I say this without thinking. Without realizing that my car means I drive, because I am the only one in the room who can drive a stick. My car means I’m coming. To the hospital.
* * * * *
When I was a kid, I knew the hospital as where my mother worked. I joined her there a couple times a year, depending on her and my father’s work schedule. He was a history professor at the university, spending long hours with his eyes bombarded with fancy-sounding, textbook words. She worked at the E.R., with a different kind of stress. (“A more real kind,” she’d say, rolling her eyes at his syllabi).
I loved going with her to the hospital, trailing behind with my tiny fingers clutched around the strands of her purse as we walked from subway car to subway car, finally finding our feet squeaking against the plastic floors of the emergency room.
For a long time, I thought that her job—a doctor at the E.R., saving lives, etc., etc., etc.—was magic because, when I was eleven, I saw a birth. It was an Asian woman, from Thialand, I think, whose boyfriend was new to the country and didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to take her to the emergency room.
Her baby was plump and healthy, and I cried with my head on my mother’s shoulder that day, with my snot leaking out onto her pale blue scrubs. I told her this was the happiest I’d ever felt, even better than when she bought me those walkie-talkies for my seventh birthday or the day I got to eat chocolate cake for breakfast. I stared at the mommy and her own baby and I decided that I would be a doctor.
I used to think about that day all the time, about the nurses with their funny plastic hats and the scalpels and everything they did to make it turn out just right. I’d go to the library and check out books about human anatomy, and I was the kid in fourth grade who covered for the teacher when someone asked why we hiccup.
It took until a year after I dropped out of med school for me to stop thinking about these things, to stop correcting people when they claimed to know home remedies. I became like an old English teacher who still spoke grammatically but whose knowledge was hiding somewhere in the back of his brain, only twinging slightly when his brother said “Me and so and so are...”
* * * * *
Maurice is hugging me. “Thank God for you,” she is saying. Grace is screaming again, and all I can think about is the hospital. I finish the beer and open another one without noticing.
Grace helps Maurice out of the room and into my car.
“I have a map of Philly in the pocket behind the passenger’s seat,” I say, hoping she will hear this as a hint for her to drive, instead. I hear her scramble in the car. Then the rain overwhelms the other sounds, its pit-pattering turning to an evenly-spaced pounding.
“Did you find it?” I yell over the rain. No response. My phone is still ringing. “Maurice?” I call, taking a short sip of beer. “Maurice?” I peer out the door. “Grace?”
It is pouring. The water is collecting in the tiny dents on top of my car, streaming down the windows. Dirt from the grimy streets and unpaved sidewalks has formed a layer of oily liquid on top of the road, almost making me slip as I amble to the car.
The door opens silently. My car is new, a Prius I bought about six months ago that my father, upon riding in it for the first time, deemed “the tin can.” It has plastic seats that crinkle when you sit down and a sticker that let me drive in the carpool lane for the first three months.
When I get inside, I reach for the map and pull it out, looking up to where Maurice sits. She is frozen, staring at a spot on the floor. I follow her eyes. Directly underneath Maurice is a wet puddle of clear liquid. “Wha’s wrong with me?” Grace asks me, her eyes turning down, almost pleading. “Why is there so much water? Why is there so much blood?”
It is strange, to feel so calm, when the two of them are so unbelievably frantic. “It’s your water breaking,” I say. Grace’s face is relaxed for a moment, then contorted once more as she discovers this isn’t what it’s supposed to look like. Even she knows that.
And even though I know this is a big deal, and even though I’m pretty sure, by the amount of liquid, that the baby is coming soon--soon soon--my heart rate is normal, and the steps I memorized years ago are throbbing in front of my eyes.
“We need to get to the hospital,” I say. “But the baby might be born before we get there.” It is strange, this calm feeling I have, and how much it reminds me of my nights working in the E.R. in my third year of med school, with the panicked parents of teenage drunk drivers and the children with broken bones who think they are dying.
Maurice is panicking, her eyes still locked on the wet spot and her hands clenched around each other. “The baby!” she is saying. “What about the baby?”
I open my mouth, breathe. “I told you, he’s going to be fine.”
“When will he be born?” She is looking at my face with apprehension, like I am God, like I will make everything okay.
“I don’t know.”
Her eyes are angry, now. Her hands split and they are shaking my shoulders. “How can you say that?” she says, her mouth tight. “Aren’t you supposed to be a doctor?”
“No,” I say. “I never was. I told you that.” I turn away from her. “I told you that.”
And I make my way back into the restaurant, after coaching Grace on how to breathe (“In, out.” “Ah! I can’t do this!” “Just breathe with me. In, out.” “I’ve got a f***in’ baby comin’ outta me!”) And I know where to find surgical gloves (second drawer on the bottom, where Maurice stashed them after the clean food environment inspection), and where Grace keeps the Advil, which she has hidden from Maurice for years, and where they keep the plastic sheets, and the strong scissors, and the clamps from Ricky’s electricity project last winter. I know all these things, as if I had been keeping tabs on them all along, checking off the items one by one.
I clamber into the driver’s seat of the car, and Maurice is squished with Grace in the back, and we drive. At first, there is no traffic, just the wheels of my car sliding down dirt roads and the windshield wipers fighting to keep up with the pounding rain. I see green trees and wet grass, and I almost forget where I’m going.
But as we approach Philadelphia, the familiar streets are clogged. I glance at the map every few seconds, as if retracing the path to the hospital I know so well would make the traffic go faster, make Grace’s child stay in its warm womb for another hour.
The contractions are closer together, now, as her perspiration makes her appear as if running through the rain. She screams with her head thrown back, her hands ripping into the seat-covers. Maurice is yelling, too, but her words are mean: “Why aren’t we there yet? I thought you said it only takes thirty minutes. God, we need to get to the hospital. God, we need to get to the hospital. Smith, we need to get to the hospital!”As if I don’t know.
And my phone rings again. It is my mother, calling from the John F. Kennedy Mental Health Center. Calling from a different kind of hospital, a hospital where nothing turns out perfectly and medicine is not magic and no one cries, not for happiness, anyway. My mother is a patient, and I am an architect, and neither of us are doctors. Not anymore.
I pull over off Ridge Avenue, into a huge parking lot of a gas station. No other cars are there. Grace is crying, now, the tears mixing with the sweat mixing with the rain when she gets out of the car and moves to the passenger seat.
“It’s coming,” she says.
“I know.” I help her sit down perpendicular to the seat. Maurice keeps her hand on her sister’s waist, trying to take the spot directly in front. She is in my way. “Maurice?” I say.
“Have you ever delivered a baby?”
“No. Have you?” She looks at me quizzically, then realizes why I am questioning her.
“No, but I know how.” And for some reason, today, she believes me. She holds my hands, moving to Grace’s left, and watches her eyes as I yell instructions to her over the rain. I do not worry about the alcohol content of Grace’s blood. I only believe that if my mother could do this, then so can I.
Grace’s head is crooked on the arm rest of the driver’s seat, her eyes weepy. It is such a scene, Maurice leaning awkwardly against the hood of my car holding a green striped umbrella that barely keeps the ground upon which I kneel dry.
“One final push,” I say, and now Maurice’s two hands have left mine and been captured by Grace’s, and faces contort, not just Grace’s but Maurice’s, too, as the strength and love and passion make the child’s head appear. It is round and soft, and I study its face, pursed lips and whispersweet eyes and skin unmarred.
Next is the long dark torso, the umbilical chord spiralled loosely around the baby’s hand, as if the child were clutching close the connection to its mother. I do not see Grace’s face, the joy that I know has overcome her splintering pain. Maurice leans over me, perching the umbrella on my shoulder so it can shield the baby, now, instead.
The legs, now, and a round bottom and the baby is a boy. His feet come last, tiny blocks of blotchy black skin, the toes tiny pebbles and the baby is in my arms. He is so small. I worry I will drop him, his tiny fingers, his glassy brown eyes. He wiggles his toes, as if he were discovering his connection to them for the first time. He enjoys the rain, it seems.
The umbilical chord is spongy and strong, but Maurice’s scissors, combined with the rigor of fingers constantly clutching golf pencils, allows it to be broken, and then the child’s mouth opens and lets out a sweet, sweet scream.
Grace’s eyes are more open now. She puts her legs down and gazes at the child in my arms, at the features of the baby’s tiny body. She tries to stand up, but I push her back onto the seat. “Let me hand him to you,” I say, and I do.
I watch her hold her son, and it seems that she knows what she is doing, her hands instinctively cradling the head and bottom of the baby. She is “cooing” at him now, trying so hard to make him stop crying. The baby is fragile, but she knows this.
I turn away from the car, away from Maurice leaning in and dropping the umbrella and speculating on whether Grace should try to breastfeed. Running, I make my way to the concrete building fifty yards away and lean against it, my hands reaching into the rain and being cleaned off the blood.
My shirt is disgusting, the goop from the birth clingy to my chest and arms. I can see them still, just the outlines of their bodies, and the glowing smile on Grace’s face. I can see the way she looks at her boy, as if he were the most important thing in the world, and the way the little boy reaches for her finger. My phone buzzes again. I wipe my wet hand on my jeans and reach into my pocket, opening it with the tips of my fingernails.
“Hello?” I say, “Mom?”
“David?” she asks.
“No, Mom. It’s Smith. Remember?”
* * * * *
After some time, we get back into the car. The baby is still crying. I remember that we need to go to the hospital, and I drive us there, right into the E.R. I do it on instinct. When we get inside, it is just the same, with the urgency and the scientific words and the nurses..
“Smith?” everyone says. “Is that you? Smith?” I nod my head. I shake their hands, but only after washing my own. They make jokes, and I laugh, even at the ones Mom used to make.
And I get a taxi home, leaving my car for Maurice to drive when the doctors decide the baby is going to be okay. Which I know they will. I can feel it, like a doctor’s instinct.