I stood by my kitchen sink, wet hands perched on the cool marble, and there I watched as water dripped from the tap with a methodical rhythm. Entranced, I watched each droplet appear, grow fatter, and release, only to begin the cycle again. We thought it was the water. I chuckled to myself at how naïve the thought seemed now.
I put on my rain boots as I prepared to walk through the tall, dewy grass as I did every morning. An arbitrary ritual I had developed in a world which no longer rewarded ritual. The sky hung heavy with the threat of afternoon rain as I walked out to the bench that overlooked the surrounding hillside. It sat under a large oak tree that loomed large and weighty. You don’t seem to mind being alone. I said to the tree, and to myself.
I remember that it started with young people. The ones who didn’t know any better or have any reason to be afraid. Everyone always gets incredibly nervous when young, previously healthy people get sick and die. It upends us. It is against the rules. It is against our nature.
The flickering fluorescent lights of the hospital cast weak shadows on the stiff starch of our white coats. Each day we went down the list of patients, ticking each off like an item on a grocery list. Before it all began, most of our admissions were people in their seventies and eighties — people that we expected to become sick, heavy with life’s burdens. But then, the composition of the list started to change.
35-year-old male, chest pain.
22-year-old female, bloody vomiting and diarrhea.
16-year-old female, seizure.
Wildly different complaints in young, seemingly healthy people. All dead within days, sometimes weeks, if they were lucky, I suppose.
At first, there were the excuses and explanations. Tragedy. Water. Food. Environment.
Then, things got even stranger. Young parents to newborns. One first, then the other, sometimes within days. Occasionally, it was someone older, but even then, they tended to be the ones who were entirely independent one day, without even so much as a high blood pressure. Then the next day, they would be in a hospital room shared with a 30-year-old ailing from the same abdominal pain. Once thought to share so little, now they were forced to share so much.
Then, there was the panic. Was this HIV again? There was the typical scapegoating — blaming the queers (again,) immigrants, and the like. But as people kept dying, these theories fell apart — even in their desperation for answers, there was no pattern to follow because it truly hit anyone and everyone. When there was no one left to accuse, unease grew and the tension slowly poisoned what little optimism we had left.
On the day that I met him, I had lost an old high school classmate. She came to the Emergency Room with her new girlfriend, and my heart sank. Through pale sweat, she smiled upon seeing my face. I faked a smile upon seeing hers.
“Hey — what are you doing here?”
Her girlfriend answered for her, a little quake in her voice slipping through that façade of calm. “Oh, you know, she was just feeling a little light-headed this morning, and we came in, you know, just to be safe –”
She was gone by 8 o’clock that evening.
I did one of the few things I knew how to do and went to the bar when my shift ended. Drinking alone was something I learned well from my father, whom I had watched do it for years. That was why I was so unsettled when he came up and asked, “Mind if I take a seat?”
The answer was yes, I do mind, but I felt too tired to be dealing with a bruised male ego and decided upon boring him into leaving me alone.
I expected him to begin chatting me up, and I braced myself for my inevitable eye-rolling and curt responses. Instead, he just sat. There was no one else in the bar, but he had decided to sit next to me, and not speak… I shifted from being annoyed to being intrigued.
“Hi…” I heard myself offer.
“Hi,” he responded with a gentle smile.
Months flew by and at first, I treated it like all my flings. Purely physical. Sometimes, I would even get close to making a friend. That never lasted though — he would catch feelings or get bored, and I found it easy to always blame the hospital. No one questions a busy doctor, so it was simple.
Maybe it was everything that was going on, and the fear of it all, but things were different this time. There was a gentle ease about him that calmed even my stone heart. I felt myself softening and opening to his warmth. It is silly and cliché, but he made me laugh. I hadn’t laughed in a very, very long time.
One morning, we were lying in bed and I watched as his chest rose and fell softly with each breath. My mind was flipping through images of my old textbooks — the diaphragm contracts, drops down, and the air rushes into the lungs until there’s too much to fit, and the body pushes it back out again. I smiled thinking about his breath and beating heart, something that we too often took for granted before all this shit got started.
This was also the precise moment when I knew. The warmth in my heart instantly recoiled and withered like paper thrown into the fire.
The rise and fall in his chest now felt like a ticking time bomb, a threat of what would soon disappear if we continued the way we were. I grabbed my clothes and snuck out of his apartment, as quickly and quietly as I possibly could.
Later that night, my phone rang.
“Hi — uh, so what happened this morning? Are you OK?”
I felt my throat tighten and I paused.
He interjected, “Because if you want to call this off, please just tell me –”
“No! No. I — uh, I — think I know why everyone is dying.”
This time, he was the one to pause. Tears welled up in my eyes as I realized that this would be the last time I would ever talk to him. Because I never wanted to speak to him again.
“We can’t… do this. Anymore.” I choked out.
I heard the tears in his voice now too, and his voice cracked a little as he spoke, “What, no — why? We — I can’t go back now. I love –”
Until now, he had never told me he loved me, but I was determined to cut this off clean and dry–“Stop, just stop. It’s love. It’s falling… in love. The new parents, the teenagers, even the older people. They’re all falling in love, maybe for the first time. I don’t think it’s infatuation, because well, that happens at the drop of a hat. I think, I think it happens when you first start to love and care for someone… more than you care for yourself.”
We both paused, the silence saturated with our pain.
I hardened my heart, closed it fast. I was surprised that ignoring his calls and texts felt more familiar than answering them, but then again, not surprised at all. Shutting myself out was something I had learned to do many times before. That’s one way to survive an alcoholic father and an absent mother. They were the ones that taught me how to get through life without opening myself to pain, or at least without something to numb it. If there was anything I knew how to do, it was how to isolate myself — physically, mentally, emotionally. I knew it like I knew that the sun set in the west, the knowledge buried deep in the marrow of my bones.
The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference.
Sitting on the bench on top of the hill, I was thinking about the day that I learned he had died. It was only a week later. I don’t know exactly what happened to him, but it was hard to believe that I had nothing to do with it. I tried to drown my guilt and self-blame with vodka, but even with my genes, I was never good at being an alcoholic. Unlike my father, my education and my career became my escape of choice. No one really asked any questions. If they noticed anything, they shared their admiration for my “hard work.” I doubt they’d be so flattering if they knew it was my drug of choice.
But now, there wasn’t even really a hospital to go to. Well, there was, but there weren’t really any patients to see. Those of us who were left knew to keep to ourselves. Occasionally, I would see someone in the field in the distance, but I never wanted to let my mind wonder about them. What’s the point? I would think to myself, but the more times I had to repeat it, the more I knew that I could not keep this up much longer.
Pain was swelling in my chest, when I heard the grass rustling. Expecting a squirrel or maybe a rabbit, I was surprised to see a small dog peer out of the grass. By the look of its fur, I knew it couldn’t have been more than three months old.
It cautiously approached me with curiosity. I wanted to scare it, make it run away, but each time I thought to do that, I hesitated. It put its snout down and sniffed the edges of my boots, before looking up at me with warm, glassy eyes. I carefully put my hand to pet her and felt the ribs right under the skin. My stomach sank at the same time that I felt a stir in my heart.
“Damn it,” I scooped her up and held her in my arms. My tears ran fast and hot down my face as I tried to hold back sobs, but failed.
Walking back to the house, I tried not to think about this decision too much. I knew I was being selfish, but I was done sacrificing myself for a life that I didn’t want to continue living.
In the kitchen, I place the puppy on the cold tile floor and she starts to acquaint herself with her new surroundings.
I hope I go first.