I sit in chairs with Mr. Frohike in the waiting area.
"What were you guys doing?" I ask. "I'm sorry, this doesn't look like any kind of typical redneck drunk driving-ice fishing-snowmobiling type deal."
He looks at me. For a long time.
"Let's just say it was something about a girl." He then turns forward again, not wanting to converse further.
I don't think Mr. Frohike is much of a talker.
We sit in silence for quite some time.
"I...have to ask you this," my voice is halting and my cheeks are hot. "Is Ringo...you know...involved...with this girl?"
He looks at me sternly. "No."
"Is he...with anyone?"
He doesn't relax his stern expression. "Lady, right now, he's in agony and drugged out of his mind. We've just had three days from hell, and you're asking about whether or not he has a girlfriend? Is this a service you offer all your patients?"
His tone brings tears into my eyes. I gulp them back, hard.
To my surprise, the older man pats my arm in a gesture that belies his hard look. "You have to understand, he's very vulnerable right now...I don't want anyone taking advantage of that." His voice is tender and protective in speaking about his younger friend.
"I wouldn't do that." I mean to sound strong, positive, like I do when I practice medicine, but it comes out as a pathetic, childish squeak.
He puts a hand on my back, very gently. "Young lady, when was the last time you slept?"
"Almost three days ago."
"How do you know your mind isn't playing tricks on you?"
"I...I...I need to take a shower." I start to rise.
This is not a lie. I am positively rank. Maybe hot water and clean hair would clear out my head.
He studies me carefully. "Are you coming back later to see him?"
He takes that in, showing no emotion. As I turn to head for my locker, he calls to me.
"Be good to him."
I stand in the shower for an eternity. The stinging water brings some life back into my body. My spirit is another story.
I'm trying not to read too much into the older man's words. He has me confused. On one hand, he seems to be encouraging me. On the other, his warning is clear. Don't fuck with my boy.
I thought, maybe when I'm clean and my hair doesn't look as if birds have been nesting in it all this will float away from me. I'll feel like a new woman and I can go home and forget this entire day.
Doesn't happen, of course.
I search my locker for something to wear. I have a choice-jeans and a sweater or my sweats. The sweats would be more cozy, of course, but they also make me look like a Clydesdale. I'm built big.
I opt for the jeans and the sweater. Fortunately, since I can't remember when I last ate, I don't have to lie down on the benches to zip them up.
I'm about to slip into my hiking boots.
I opt instead for the Sylvester slippers.
Why not? I'm not planning to go very far.
He's in his room now, looking significantly more relaxed and comfortable.
"Did you survive Max's torture chamber okay?" I ask him when I come in.
"Barely." He smiles that soft, sweet smile again. This one is larger. The morphine must really be kicking in. He's hooked to a PCA pump. I wonder how many times he's hit the switch since he was linked to it. "How're you?"
He's about to say something when one of the floor nurses from med-surg pops into the room. "Is there a Mr. Frohike here?" she asks. "Oh Deb, what brings you up here?" It's Sheryl Ryan, who was going through nursing school at the same time I was in medical school.
"Just checking on a patient," my God, when did I develop such a stammer?
"Where do I take it?" Mr. Frohike asks, and Sheryl leads him out of the room.
It's just us now.
I almost feel faint.
I ease myself into the miserable little chair that was not occupied by his friend earlier. Mr. Frohike has taken the so-called 'comfy chair' (complete with what passes for soft cushion in this place. Don't be fooled. There is no truth in advertising here). I feel my head going light as I do it and quickly force it between my knees.
"Hey. Deb. You okay?"
I feel a soft hand on my back. Unbelievably tender touch.
The blood rushes back to my head. I don't faint.
Instead, I involuntarily burst into tears.
"Deb. Whassup?" He's stroking my back and hair now...oh God, what is wrong with me?
"You want me to call the nurse for ya?" He asks softly.
"No, don't touch that call button!" Please. I've had enough for one day. "I just...I need..."
"C'mere." He says it in a whisper. I'm not sure I even heard it.
I slowly raise my head. "Come over here." He uses his uncasted arm to beckon me in his direction.
I am a mess. My face is swollen with tears which won't stop.
He probably thinks I'm an ass now, I think angrily.
But his face stays gentle and sweet. "Bad day?" He asks me.
With that, the flood starts afresh.
And before I know it, I'm lying with my head across his chest. Which I shouldn't be doing, since he has broken ribs and is still not breathing as well as he should.
"I'm sorry," I pull up abruptly.
He gently forces me back down. "Nah, it's cool. Sometimes...you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you."
I laugh while I'm sobbing. "Looks like the bear got us both big time."
He smiles again. "Yeah, I'd say so." We both chuckle a little, although I'm still in a fresh storm of waterworks.
He takes my chin in his good hand.
Stares at me.
God, he has beautiful eyes. Even blackened and swollen, they're blue and soft.
He slowly gathers me closer to him.
Oh My God.
What is happening...
Before I can figure that one out, his lips and mine are softly touching, and he plants a light, tender kiss on mine.
His lips are chapped and cut.
Nothing ever felt so good...or so right.
"What's gotcha down?" He asks me when we finally come up for air.
"You should really get some sleep. That's what you need most," I tuck the rough blanket around him.
"No, I wanna know."
He sounds exhausted. I should leave him be and force him to rest.
"You need to rest now."
"What's it look like I'm doing, skydiving?"
He smiles again, this time wicked, charming, and lopsided from all the facial injuries.
Did the temperature just go up in here?
"C'mon," he gropes for my hand. "Talk to me."
"Listen, you don't want to hear about my life."
We're interrupted by the return of Mr. Frohike. "Langly, I've gotta take off for a bit."
"Byers okay?" He blinks his light eyes.
"I don't know. I'm not going to be gone long. Do you think you'll be..."
He looks down to see our hands clasped together.
"I think you'll be fine," he growls, stomping out of the room.
Ringo closes his eyes again. "I think some sleep would do you some good," I lean over and kiss his forehead.
"No, I want you to talk to me." He sounds almost pleading, like a recalcitrant child. Normally, I object to whining in men, but he's still in a lot of pain, so I'll cut him some slack.
Not to mention that he's so damn adorable.
"So you want me to tell you about my so-called life?" I sound more cynical than I wish I did, but living like this will do it to you. "Do you want to know how many people in my care died today?"
He squeezes my hand. "Seen people die too."
"I can't seem to get used to it."
"Me neither. Maybe we're not supposed to."
"So I'm told. But it makes it hard. Every time somebody dies, even if there was really nothing I could do to save them...it's like a personal failure. Do you know what I mean?" I don't feel as if I'm making an iota of sense here.
"Yeah. I do."
I believe him.
"What do you do, Ringo?"
He chuckles. "Hmm, what do I do? Guess you'd say I'm a journalist."
"Do you always get so banged up on assignment?"
"This...this was something else."
"What was it?"
"For a friend."
His eyes close again. The morphine is working-it will frequently make you fall asleep, then wake up a few minutes later, then drift back down again, then wake up, lather, rinse, repeat.
"If this is what you'll do for a friend, then you're a good man, Ringo Langly," I say quietly, and I mean it.
"Actually, I'm a real asshole," he says dreamily. "I mean...I live with two guys in this hole in the wall...live on pizza and Twinkies..."
"So do I." A kindred food spirit.
"Really? Think being a doc and all you'd like try to eat healthy stuff."
"I try. But you know what my favorite meal is?"
"One where I can sit down and use a knife and fork."
He actually laughs at my lame but truthful statement. "Yeah, that'd be different, wouldn't it? Actually you oughta come down sometime, Frohike man, he's a killer cook..."
"He's a good cook?" I would have never guessed that the little man in combat boots and fingerless gloves (doesn't he know how 80s that is?) would qualify as a gourmet chef.
"Yeah man, he makes Chinese and Italian and Mexican...oh man, making me hungry thinking about it."
"Don't go crazy, boy. You're on clear liquids for the next 24 hours."
"Beer's a clear liquid."
"Doesn't mix well with morphine." We both laugh gently.
Maybe that's what I like so much about him. He makes me laugh. I've had the day from hell, and we're talking about food and laughing.
His battered but lovely face turns serious. "You lose patients today?"
"I lost three." Depression is beginning to set in again-I knew this was too good to be true.
"Tough deal. How many'd you save?"
"Hey, two out of three ain't bad...yeah, it's gotta suck though. Still, like you saved more than you lost. Sometimes you gotta take what you can get."
"So is it six with me or without?" he asks, the mischievous smile returning to his lips.
"Actually, with you, it's seven."
"See? Better'n two outta three."
He lays a hand on my back again. I feel my eyes closing. I feel safe, comfortable here.
It makes me realize how tired I am. I could fall asleep here in this chair. For about a week.
"You're a good doc, Deb," he says tenderly. "Mean that."
"Thank you. And now, Ringo, you have to go to sleep."
"Why?" The whining tone returns.
"Because I'm very tired."
"Oh, well, in that case..."
He shuts his eyes, and I feel my eyelids drop along with his.
I fall asleep with my hand tucked into his.
Even in this hideous chair, I sleep better
than I have in months.