By: Anne Falkowski
I find him in the waiting area of the emergency room.
Yesterday all I could think about was my new winter boots that came in the mail all the way from Ely, Minnesota.
But now, under the fluorescent lights that shine down on linoleum floors wet from street snow, with new boots on my feet, I can’t take my eyes off him.
I make myself look away. At the others. The elderly couple huddling. Their structure familiar, they’ve done this before. Waiting room experts.
I look away at the small framed woman whose face is being swallowed by her fur-lined parka, legs crossed over like stark branches. On the other side of me is a fifty-year-old guy, with neck hair and legs spread wide to make room for a belly.
Yesterday, all I could think about was my new winter boots, and today, all I can think about is my right ear. I left my six-month-old baby boy with a bottle in the arms of his daddy to come here, in the middle of a snowstorm, with new boots on my feet. An infection brewing in my eardrum. Pain forgives nothing and pierces the back of my skull, the bones below my amygdala, and reaches deep fingers into my jaw. In response, my teeth won’t stop chattering.
This is where I find him, in a waiting room, during a snowstorm, somewhere between a pus-filled eardrum and chattering teeth.
He is maybe twenty and beautiful like I imagine God to be. Like I know my baby boy to be. They both have dark eyes and thick lashes which curl up without effort and red lips made to taste things.
He’s not quite a man and his too-large sneakers have no laces. He’s a man/boy with bare ankles. I look down at my boots that had to come from far away and were designed to withstand the Iditarod Race Trail. My six-month-old son needs me for nourishment, and that should be enough, but sometimes I’m never enough and need something new and shiny to make me feel. Pain takes over the right side of my head, and I can’t stop my teeth from chattering. I worry about my need to feel things.
He sits directly across from me, and if I reach out my arms, I can touch him. He looks mostly at the door where the nurse appears with no regularity, to tell us who’s next. His lean man/boy body is a dark mink who fixates on what’s behind doors. Twice, he gets up to ask the lady behind the glass window how much longer. Twice, she tells him to sit down. Her eyes roll sideways behind his back.
I name him Robbie because those are the letters tattooed on the back of his hand. One letter for each knuckle except for the middle finger which has two b’s. I suspect the letters cover holes leading down to veins in his fingers. I suspect there are holes in the crooks of his elbows. A snake tattoo with fangs slithers on his cheek and ends at his throat.
A tattoo artist once told me that most professionals will not tattoo hands or faces. It’s too vulnerable, she said.
Did you design the tattoo on your neck yourself? I ask him.
He looks at me. I wonder what he sees. Woman. Getting old. Easy life. He doesn’t yet know that we all hide holes in different places. He thinks he’s the only one scared of the light. I get it. His bare ankles are fearless. He’s not scared to die because he already has. I choose to die slowly instead of attempting a rescue.
My ear is killing me.
Yes, I designed it, he says and raises his Robbie hand to touch the back of his neck.
I take this as a sign of trust. I’m not going to judge him, for drug seeking, like the nurses will.
It’s beautiful, I say, but what I really wanted to say is I think you are. Beautiful.
He looks towards the emergency room doors.
They’re taking their fucking time, he says in a soft way, in a way where it’s not just about him.
You look sick, he says.
I look at him, beyond the beauty, beyond the snakes, the empty ankles and the holes in his hands, I see he is sick. Pinprick pupils, pale skin, and a runny nose. His dark eyes are sick eyes. And if I look hard enough his whole body is trembling.
I’ve got an earache, I say. It really hurts.
An hour goes by.
The guy with the beer belly is gone. The elderly couple is gone. The lady with the parka is sleeping sitting up.
We are the only ones awake in the waiting room. Snow is falling. It’s early still. Nine pm.
I wonder if my husband got our baby to bed. My son has never taken a bottle before. I shiver. My breasts grow hard beneath my shirt.
I got out of jail two days ago, he says. They let me out sick. Real sick with nowhere to go.
He looks at me again.
I’m sorry, I say.
His sniffling is constant.
My girlfriend can’t take me back cause she’s in rehab so I had to stay at this old guy’s house.
Oh, I say
The worst part is I had to blow him in order to stay there.
His body grows bigger. He looks to see my reaction. He wants to shut me down or prove I’m just another uppity bitch but I don’t flinch.
I’ve had my head forced up against a penis before without reciprocity.
Words don’t scare me.
It doesn’t matter anyways, he says. The old guy locked me out.
The tattoos on his fingers and face make me want to kiss him the same way I kiss the knuckles and cheeks of my son. As if each carefully planted kiss could make innocence stay a little longer.
As I hold the gaze of this man/boy, I see the future. I see how one day my son could grow up to be just like him or not at all. There’s no way to predict but I want to create an antidote to make pain go away. If I can make Robbie’s pain go away, then maybe I can save the future of my son and will no longer need to buy things to make me feel real.
Robbie’s body shrinks back down again. Another sniffle. This time he wipes his nose with the back of his hand. He ignores me now. He’s said more than he wanted. His lips are still red and beautiful.
I want to resuscitate him, but I don’t know how, and in this waiting room, underneath fluorescent lights, with a sleeping lady in an oversized parka bearing witness, I want to take him. Lay his long lean man/body across my lap and nurse him. Pull up my shirt and offer him my breasts like I have done hundreds of times before with my own child. I want him to suck me until I am empty and he is full. I want to let down and let go. I want him to fall asleep sated and loved and healed. I want to run my hands over his snake tattoo and touch the letters on his fingers with my lips.
I want to feel things.
The nurse behind the doors comes out, all business. I get called before him, Robbie. He doesn’t look up. My ear throbs. He’s beautiful. I love you, Robbie, I say inward. Yesterday all I could think about was my new winter boots that came in the mail.
Anne Falkowski has honed her writing for the past two years in the Corpo real Writing space led by Lidia Yuknavitch, best-selling author. Her previous work has been published or is forthcoming in Change Seven, The Coachella Review, The Manifest-Station, and CommonGround.