Although I was groggy when they wheeled me into the room following my two-level cervical-fusion surgery, I could still feel the tension in the air. Behind the curtain dividing our shared space was my roommate, a man who welcomed me by barking, “I TOLD THEM I DIDN’T WANT A GODDAM ROOMMATE!”
To be sure, between the pain, suffering, and exposed backsides, people are rarely at their best in a hospital. Still, my roommate was more not-at-his-best than anyone I’d ever encountered. You probably know the type. He was rude to the nurses, awful when the Soup Guy delivered our lunches, and constantly yelling at the woman sitting next to him (his wife? his daughter? his concubine?). Worst of all, he wanted me out of “his” room as soon as possible — or even sooner, if that were possible.
But with an inflamed throat that kept me from speaking, a stiff neck brace that kept me from moving, lingering sedatives that kept me from thinking, and surging opioids that kept me from crying, I wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t “want a goddam roommate” either, and certainly not this one, but we were in this together.
Well, sort of. Perhaps together but apart would be a better way to put it. You see, while we lived at the same address for twenty-four hours that felt like twenty-four years, we never actually met. We began and ended as strangers joined by happenstance, with little in common but disdain, despair, and bedpans. I never even learned his name; to me, he was just The Man.
Initially, of course, I was inclined to meet him — or at least I wasn’t disinclined to. It’s just that the curtain was drawn before I arrived. Which meant we never made eye contact and never even did that head-nod thing that guys do when they huddle in a circle at the Sunday tailgate. Or when they pound their chests in the primate exhibit at the zoo. As a mute, a captive, and a partial cripple, all I could do was lay there. And listen. And imagine, using my remaining senses to make sense of him. Call it assessment as self-defense.
“Dammit, that’s a lie!” The Man erupted, an hour or so after I arrived. Fox News had just shown a clip of Barack Obama saying something The Man didn’t like. It was September 2012, the height of the presidential-election season, and The Man was frustrated by President Obama’s habit of speaking in a calm, measured way about complicated issues that, to The Man, weren’t really that complicated.
For The Man, most things were black and white. Because when you are The Man, you know everything under the sun — and even some things that aren’t. Which means you have — and share — opinions on the Middle East, the Dodd-Frank law, fluoride in the drinking water, male nurses, the Illuminati, and how too many of “those people” are coming into America — but also how saying those people doesn’t make you racist.
He’s definitely white, I thought, as I began to profile him. About sixty, I figured. Goatee? Beard? Some kind of facial hair, for sure. Is he maybe a plumber? Does he have kids? God, I hope he doesn’t have any —
“GET ME A NEW MACHINE, YOU FOOL! THIS ONE’S BROKEN,” he barked at an orderly. I reflected on The Man’s assured tone and his assumption that announcing something would make it so. He was angry at his “machine” for suggesting he might have high blood pressure when, clearly, that was impossible. His blood pressure was fine — the best ever — and an unbroken machine would know that.
As nurses who weren’t being paid enough rolled in a new device, The Man resumed yelling at the television and grumbling about modernity in a way that made Archie Bunker seem enlightened. After his seventh or seventeenth I’m not racist, but . . . statement, I took a hit of morphine and slipped off to Happy Land.
But when I returned, The Man was somehow even worse. “GET HER!” he bellowed. “NOW!” He was yelling at the mystery woman sitting next to him, demanding that she locate the nurse who had been in the room earlier in the afternoon — the one who, according to The Man, introduced herself as Dorothy, but who also said her name was “spelled backward.”
Spelled backward? I thought. How do you spell your name backward? It’s impossible. Spelling Dorothy backward gives you “Yhtorod.” Dorothy isn’t a palindrome like Mom or Rotavator, it’s —
“OH, NEVER MIND, WHERE THE HELL IS THE THING?” The Man took matters into his own hands, buzzing for the nurse nine or ten times in one or two minutes. He sounded even angrier than he had been back when Barack was using all those big words.
Assuming there must be a medical emergency to warrant such intense buzzing, the nurse rushed in — only to be interrogated on the whereabouts of a colleague who didn’t exist. While she insisted everyone on staff spelled their name in a conventional direction, The Man wasn’t hearing it. That’s because The Man doesn’t like being told “no,” especially by an uppity woman. He speaks truth to power, even though he has most of the power, and he is wired to deny any contradictions that might contradict him.
As day turned into night, things became eerily quiet behind the curtain. One moment The Man was Father Coughlin, the next he was the Buddha: hushed for the first time in forever and, for some reason, whispering. Not just saying things that were drowned out by the whir of his new blood-pressure machine; saying things so I couldn’t hear them. There’s a difference.
Which is why it was now harder for me to make out the words he and steal in the same sentence. I realized that unless the Soup Guy was the “he” in question, The Man thought I was going to rob him — that I was going to roll my bed over to his side of the room, raise my spoon in a threatening manner, and return to my side with a fresh copy of Field & Stream and some black socks.
Seeing an aggressive offense as my only defense, I pressed counter-charges, indicting The Man for perhaps planning to kill me. I wrote a desperate note to the nurse that said: “Help!” Then I buzzed for her at least nine or ten times in one or two minutes, adding: “He’s going to hurt me!”
The nurse read my note, smiled, shook her head with the dismissive rhythm of a practiced health-care provider, and wrote: “You’ll be fine.”
“But I’m afraid of him!” I scrawled in return, crossing out her totally insufficient response.
To which she smiled again, albeit not as much as before, and replied: “We will protect you.”
Oh really? I thought. Who’s going to do that — the Soup Guy, Backward Dorothy, and what army? I was helpless. I couldn’t scream about “not wanting a goddam roommate,” because I couldn’t even speak. I couldn’t roll myself down the hall, because I was too doped up to unlock the bed. And I couldn’t negotiate with my presumptive attacker, because he lacked the capacity to reason. All I could do was close my eyes and hope I wouldn’t die.
Several hours later I awoke to hear a doctor on The Man’s side of the room. He was discussing a procedure involving a special part of the male anatomy. After that, The Man got to hear my muted howling as a nurse with two left hands tried — four times — to insert a straight catheter into my own special part of the male anatomy. By exchanging vulnerabilities had we grown closer? Did we enjoy mutual empathy? Compassion?
No, don’t be silly. None of that — although, at one point, I did push my call button so the nurse could use her two left hands to turn off The Man’s television once he started snoring. Because that’s what Jesus would have done.
The next morning, we both learned we’d be going home, meaning we would finally see each other. When The Man left first, coming out from behind the curtain and into my field of vision for the first time, I realized I’d nailed the profile. He had on Carhartt pants, a Philadelphia Eagles t-shirt, and a baseball cap emblazoned with a union logo. He also seemed to be in his fifties, with a thin graying beard and a face reddened by years of lamenting progress.
I reached for the buzzer (just in case), adjusted my neck brace as if to convey, Here’s why I never said anything, and flinched as he came toward me with his right hand outstretched. I’d expected him to barge out the door, in hot pursuit of Backward Dorothy. But he didn’t. Instead, he slapped me on the foot like a football coach would whack your helmet, smiled, seemed almost grandfatherly for a moment, gave me a “You take care, son,” and then walked out of my life forever.
Funny, I thought, as our relationship ended before it even began, just when you think you know a guy.