I have said goodbye many times. Each time feels like the last, that I will leave and not return. And yet, I do. I’m drawn back to this dark corner in a cold, dimly lit room. The air is chilled and hangs heavy in my lungs, weighted down with fear and damp. Your corner is the only source of light, barring the glowing edges of the doorway – though the door is tightly closed (I check, and check again, consciously reminding myself to ensure its seal is complete, hiving you and I off from the world), its shape is delineated for safety, and remains a rectangular halo behind me when I drag the chair to your side. The chair’s legs catch into the grooves I’ve scratched into the floor as I’ve set and reset my seat over and over. They’re not deep gouges by any means, but the chair’s feet now easily slip into them, complicit in the casual wearing down of the tiles.
If I were more mathematically inclined, perhaps I’d be interested in the rate of wear – how long it might take me to score them so profoundly that I’ll hear an audible clack as the surface gives way. It seems as likely that the chair leg ends themselves will be rubbed smooth and stumped by their routine slide. But I’m not so inclined; I am, however, easily distracted, and my thoughts flicker around the room, alighting on some new or forgotten feature of this activity each time I return here to you, after swearing I would not. This is some expression of grief and confusion itself, my mind cannot simply land on you, rather my brain slowly adjusts to its orbit of you, and there are many things that can perturb this course. The chair and the floor, the way tiny pulses of light toss fleeting shadows across the penumbral veil that hides much of this space, the constant beeps and whirrs which rise out of the machinery like bubbles of air from the depths and pop on the surface of the otherwise silent sea. As I said, I am easily distracted…
But the back of the chair is a familiar presence in my hand, its metal refreshingly cool and smooth in my palm, the foam padding depressed under my fingertips and faintly cracked where my nails catch on the cover, rending them a little wider as I take a firm hold. Once, the chair glided with only a faint squeak, but now it lets out an anguished squeal as those metal feet drag through its tracks. This is part of the routine: re-feeling each of the sensations that afflict me here, that make up this experience, those senses which bring me back to you – a web, if you like, on whose strings I tread, producing a trembling warning that I’m drawing near; a note to myself, if not to you, that my mind needs to catch up with the physical world and make itself ready – for the spider at its heart. The spider is not you, I don’t think, but the darkness that lurks behind my outwardly attentive self, behind the one desperately formulating metaphors to divert my mind from dealing with immediate reality. It’s that version of me I’m avoiding, the one which will come crashing down as soon as I sit.
So I delay, relishing the squeal of metal on ceramic tile, which fills this darkened room with a fresh, living sound, even as another part of me cringes at its violence. But I can only draw it out so long – it’s only a few metres, and for all my prevarication I can’t bear doing things so slowly. So I set down the chair, and fold myself into it.
I draw my legs up under me, till I’m crosslegged, knees pinned down by the tubular arms of the chair. It will set a deep ache in my thighs eventually, but for now it’s comfortable, pushing my spine upright and limiting the extent to which my natural slouch can take effect. The tops of the chair arms are bare steel now. I long ago dug my nails into the cushioning and steadily ripped them apart with agitated kneading. Now they’re just cold on my bare forearms. Like the coolness of the air, it serves to keep me alert for the moment. It’s just a little too cold to become drowsy, but not so cold that I’m caused to shiver. It’s not the temperature that raises horripilations down my arms and up the back of my neck. That’s you. That’s always you.
At last I can put it off no longer and I raise my head. You are cocooned in a roll of metal and plastic. Wires, tubes and plugs emerge from your body and disappear into the machines which cluster close around you, looming protectively over you, surrounding you like gravestones marking a plague pit. The sight of you used to make me gag – an imagined smell of decay – the machines regularly coat you with an antiseptic film which evaporates into the air. That, and the thought of where all those tubes and lines go – it’s as if you’re a living voodoo doll of yourself. I know the machines keep you alive, but I don’t know what that makes you while they’re the ones doing your breathing, eating and circulating your blood. Can you really be alive when you’re not doing any of those things yourself. Your face is barely visible between semi-opaque plastic overlays and the tight skullcap from which even more cables extend, dripping down the back of the bed and out of sight.
What I can see of you is pale, papery in the electric glow cast over from the angled lamp at the foot of your bed. I say “bed”, as it’s easier to imagine you sleeping than that you’re plugged into a medical unit which happens to maintain you best while lying down. Visiting you and pretending you’re simply asleep is the easiest way to see you, but the reality of several dozen intermittently pulsing lights and beeps takes away that fiction. I can’t even close my eyes and ignore them – an irrational sense that you might wake up and lunge toward me while I’m not looking took hold of me some time ago, and as yet has not released me. Even when I leave, I’ll be walking backwards to the door.
I don’t understand the beeps and whines and whirrs that the machines produce. I know one of them is your heart, and others your oxygen levels, a map of brainwaves, pressures and measures of the seemingly endless number of processes a body is constantly in thrall to. At best they form a soft symphony, telling me you live, in some way. But the sudden increase in the frequency of a flashing light, or an additional trill underscoring the routine beat of your heart throws chords of anxiety through me. I’m curiously at their mercy. Which sound will signal your waking? What chorus of electronic chittering will measure your decline into death? Anyone with those answers is long gone and far away.
Once I’m sitting here with you, I can hardly take my eyes off you. They flick away to the graphic displays occasionally, noting without comprehension as the green threads rise and fall, that tiny bead always racing along, sketching out your lifeline. For all that I’m repelled by the idea of you plugged into these machines, denied the basic agency of decision making and action, you remain fascinating. The machines were originally holding you in a medical coma, suppressed and held below the threshold of awareness. For your own safety of course: this being medicine, it must be in your interests. That was a long time ago, though, and whatever treatments you were receiving surely are completed. Hence my recurrent fear that you’ll wake suddenly and reach out to grab me. A ridiculous notion: the straps and tubes would almost certainly prevent you from making such a dramatic entrance into life. It’s an inescapable thought though.
The coma you were placed into ended some time ago, but you didn’t wake up. In the absence of medical staff to decide how best to rouse you, the machines gave me a simple choice – forced waking (presumably a vast dose of adrenaline intended to shock you out of your slumber, or whatever course which medicine outside of dramas might prescribe), or a state of deep hibernation. That in itself had startled me – I’d been lost inside myself, staring unseeing at you and your coterie of beeping companions, when abruptly the machine which loomed over your face had extended an angled arm with a small screen toward me. It was an impossible choice that it presented, as I had no idea of the consequences of waking you. For three days I stared at that palm-sized screen and its increasingly urgent flashing. For another day I stayed away, caught between action and inaction which ground through my guts like a serrated blade. In the end, it was fear that decided me, not any caring instinct on my part. In this state, our relationship was clear, our interactions manageable – for me. If you woke up, our current balance would shift, and ultimately I wasn’t ready for that – didn’t know what that would mean, what would be expected of me, what I would have to give, how I’d have to change. So, half-covering my eyes and mouth, holding my breath, I stabbed at the blinking orange oblong containing the words “hibernation”. After doing so, I could barely regain my breath, convince myself to inhale again, as if doing so would make it real, that I’d breathe in the consequences of my choice, take them into myself and be responsible for them. Eventually, I had to breathe in, of course. It’s almost impossible to hold your breath so long that you pass out – those autonomic functions we rely on don’t like being denied. Sometimes I wonder to what I extent I’m just a passenger in this body, which goes on doing whatever it feels it must, with no regard for the screaming homunculus within. Doubly so for you, where even your body is a puppet to these mechanisms around you.
And so, into hibernation for you. It’s like sleep, only longer, and slower. If there was another medical unit, perhaps I’d give myself over to that too, but then I’d not be sure that you still slept. That thought alone, of our positions being reversed, of you sitting beside me while I slumbered, unaware of my surroundings and possibly even myself; you leaning over me – to be under your power again… Unacceptable. So even though I sit here, pointlessly watching over you, hollow-eyed, half-starved, tremble-fingered, this is still better than having our roles reversed. I suppose that would seem ridiculous to you – you’d insist that you’d take the best care of me, that I’d never have to worry again. You’d be right – I wouldn’t worry, because I’d be so far below the level of awareness that I’d not even be able to muster that notion. It’s better that I watch you, and fret, and feel such enormous relief.
You barely breathe, even though at least one of these plastic coated machines is responsible for pushing air into your lungs and drawing it back out again, and I find myself counting your breaths again, still surprised each time your chest rises, and almost imperceptibly falls again. Before the hibernation you breathed almost normally, albeit with aid, and that regular rise and fall was like a tide which steadily overwhelmed my resistance to the chill air, dragging me into a drowsy stupor. When I caught myself nodding, that awful lurch on the verge of half-sleep, like falling over and over, I’d leave you and seek real sleep on the other side of the door. Now there is no such tide – you breathe perhaps once every ten minutes. It’s an inexorable breath in, or rather pushing in of breath as you’re inflated like a balloon, so slow that it feels like it takes forever, will never end until you’re swollen to a hundred times your size. Then it pauses, a breath held, which I instinctively try to match, for another minute before the slow, slow extraction of air from your lungs begins.
The slow motion semblance of life, on top of the medical appendages, dehumanizes you in my eyes. The human features – cheekbone, lip, fingers – they all look like they’ve been crafted from clay, squeezed between scraps of industrial waste. At times I struggle to see you as a person. I’m standing guard by a mismatched assemblage of organic and synthetic components, fusing sluggishly into a cyborg with uncertain purpose. Again, when I can no longer see you, I know it’s time for me to go. I unfold my knees from the arms of my chair – they started to stiffen and numb, and they audibly click as I straighten them out. The legs drop back into their etched furrows, and I pull it out of your glowing corner. I return it to its spot by the wall, brush the seat with one hand to smooth out the deepening dimple. From there I sidestep to the door, hit the button with one thumb and step backwards as it hisses open behind me. Immediately I press the button on the other side of the door and it hisses closed.
This is the worst moment, the one when I imagine you suddenly animated and moving like a spider, rapid and skittering till your hands, still dangling cords and needles reach through the doorway and haul me inside. The door closes and the edges brighten once more, sealed. I pick up the metal bar leaning against the wall and lay it across the two hooks I welded to the outside of the door. Satisfied, I sit back on the wheeled cot and listen to the distant sounds of thunder.