I’ve never been to the hospital to pray. When mom forgot her lunch, I’d deliver leftovers and a bottle of ginger ale, but she worked in the lab, behind the scenes where they’d tell bad jokes and post office stories. Intensive Care was always somewhere else in the building, a circle of hell I could avoid as long as I was good.
On my way, I keep playing the conversation in my head.
“Ojas. Honey, it’s Ginger,” she said over the phone. Even at ten in the morning, I could tell what was coming by the empty notes in her voice. “Sweetheart, Robbie’s in real bad shape.”
“Where is he? Ginger, what’d he do?”
“We’re in AtlanticCare off Pacific Avenue.” Her voice tatters into sobs. “My boy’s in ICU.”
“Oh my god.”
“He was in a bad accident, honey.” Oh my god. “Can you come here?”
“Yeah, I’m leaving now. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”
I saw you just yesterday. I kicked your ass at Risk. We went to Friendly’s for lunch and whispered about our server’s ass. My mom ordered pizza for us while we played Nintendo in the evening like we were still four.
And then your girlfriend called.
“Yo, man, I’ve got to get going. Shannon wants to hit the casinos again.”
“What the hell? You’re broke, what do you do there?” You hated going to Atlantic City.
“I know, but she wants company while she sits at the blackjack table.”
“Dude, that sucks. Just dump her.”
“You’ve been drinking hard liquor when you go, right?”
“Oh yeah. Just sitting with her at the table affords me free Jack all night.”
“Take it easy tonight.” I warned you.
You knew I was serious. “Of course.”
“And talk to Shannon tonight. If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to. That place is poisonous, you know that.” I warned you, man.
You nodded in understanding. “I’ll talk to her when we get back.”
You always liked learning things the hard way.
The man at the front desk leaves the Room Number space on my visitor pass blank. Instead, he writes “3112” on the name portion, protecting me from the big, bad ICU. When I put the sticker on, the “Jan 27” stamp on the date line burns through onto my skin, branding itself into memory banks that hold birthdates and obsolete phone numbers. The man points to the elevator and says, “Third floor.”
I walk the intensive care unit halls, a different story in each room. The cream-toned walls tighten; my limbs look bigger. Nurses walking by flash me smiles. They know it doesn’t help and I can tell they’re ambivalent about keeping the habit.
I pause in front of 3111, next to your room. An older man lays at an incline, his head turned to the side, mouth hanging open. He’s bald with some white tufts around his temples. The light is off and the sun through the window casts the room in blue. He’s alone.
It’s too cold here to be hell. There’s hell in the waiting, the not knowing. But this place is something different altogether.
The light in your room is on when I come in. Hospital lighting used to be perfect for reading and casual conversation. I remember when I visited my dad in the hospital when I was a kid. He had a fever and was on steroids or something. The lighting was perfect for seeing his smile and his warm eyes. But now that it illuminates the wounds to your face, the big cut going down your eye, I curse it. I blame the lights for your scars.
Standing next to your bed, the view of Atlantic City through your window daunts me, the people walking to work, carrying on with their lives, indifferent to you. Can’t the world take a break for a minute? I entangle my fingers behind my neck and let my elbows dangle in front of my chest while I stare into your face. I’m silent mostly, watching your electric organs keep you alive.
You really look like shit, man: tracheotomy, staples in your head, dry blood hanging over your wounds, some kind of yellow pus seeping out of your left eye – what’s with that eye?
Shannon walks in and stands next to me. I turn to her and give her a crazy huge hug. Look what you’ve done. I hated her. Hands down, this is the worst girl you’ve dated. Now she’s got to sub as my best friend until you wake up?
She stares at you with me. “His seat belt didn’t lock. His face took the entire force of the impact against the steering wheel.” Holy shit. “They say every bone in his face is broken. He’s been in critical condition since he got here.”
I shake my head to stay composed. Afraid to ask about your eye, I ask, “He really can’t breathe by himself?”
“His jaw’s wired shut.”
And then we’re silent. The question on my mind burns as much as the answer in hers.
I step to the side a bit and see the bag of your piss on the ground. “Oh.” Wait. “Hold on… is there a catheter in his dick right now?”
Shannon chokes on her laugh. She’s holding back tears. “Yeah, there is.”
“That’s a damn shame.”
She waits a moment. “Bob and Ginger are in the family room getting briefed on Rob’s condition.”
“I’ll meet you there in a minute.”
She nods and walks off.
I lean over to you with my hands in my pockets and speak quietly. “Hey, Rob.” I don’t know why I expect you to move. “I’ll be back.” I almost turn away, but an afterthought hits me. “I’m not mad, okay?” How could I be? How could I possibly blame you now? “Don’t worry about a thing. We have everything on this end. You just focus on getting better.”
Your family’s with your surgeon when I enter the family room. He’s discussing your condition and his recommended plan of action. I take the leather seat next to your dad, who doesn’t even nod to me. He’s staring up at the doctor, who neither flinches nor startles with my presence, just continues. The light through the large window reflects against the black leather couches lining the walls and the sheen of the coffee table.
Only one piece of what the doctor says sticks. I spin it around in my head; swish it around my mouth to see how it tastes; slow it down to make sure I’m not leaving anything out. “We can’t save his left eye.” We can’t save his left eye. We. Can’t save. His. Left. Eye.
The surgeon leaves, and your mom breaks apart in my arms. In one sweeping motion, every piece of her crumbles and falls.
“Did you see him?”
“Yeah. He doesn’t look so bad; they’ll be able to fix him right up, Ging. Don’t worry about it.”
“Oj, his eye.”
Your dad stands and looks towards my direction, but not quite at me. “Have you eaten?”
“Come on, let’s get you something. The cafeteria’s just downstairs.”
The cafeteria looks like a small version of the one from our high school. Crappier even. No olives at the salad bar.
I see you everywhere. I pour coffee and it’s your blood in my cup; it’s your bruises on the apples.
Your parents fill me in. Seventy miles per hour – you collided first with a side rail, then you hit a parked car in a parking lot, and you rolled to a stop right in front of the big oak in the Absecon park. Your BAC was .16. Your girlfriend thinks you were stoned on your Klonopin. I’m holding on to that as an excuse for you – I want in my memories for you to have been completely out of your mind. I don’t want to believe that was really you in the car.
“I just can’t believe it, Oj.”
“I know, Ginger.”
“They say he needs major facial reconstruction surgery,” Shannon says.
My body feels cold. “Will they be able to make him look…”
Everyone is thinking the same thing. Ginger says, “They say the surgeon is very good and has a lot of experience with this.”
The worst thing about it is you just started getting handsome. You finally cut that matted hair off. Your face started clearing up of the acne that’s been festering there since you hit puberty.
Ginger tries to bring us back up. “They say there’s little reason to worry about his other eye. So he probably won’t be blind.” But there is no bright side to this. We’re in an infinite shadow.
“You know, I knew something was off the second I woke up,” Bob says. “I woke up around six or seven. Oj, it’s Sunday, a mailman’s day off, and I’m a heavy sleeper. I never wake up before nine or ten on a Sunday, and even then, it’s just to leave for church in time.”
“That’s true,” Ginger says. “But you know that, honey.”
“Well, I look out our window and see the car’s gone. At first, I thought it was stolen. I went to wake Rob up to see if he knew anything and saw that he wasn’t in bed. I woke Ginger up and told her to wait by the door for that cop. And sure enough, he came.” He scrapes his fingers along his stubble. “Now you know me, Oj, I’m a faithful man. I know God would never give us something we can’t handle and I know there’s something to be learned in all this.” His eyes drift off and I know he’s looking at a careful darkness, a new devil.
“Let’s say a prayer,” I say.
“Will you say it, Oj?” Ginger says.
“Of course.” We knot our hands together and channel the little strength we each have to each other. I can feel the movement of particles around Ginger’s trembling eyelids. “Dear lord, we come to you in this dire time, in this critical moment. Our beloved Robert Joseph Sink, jr. suffered a terrible car accident. We pray to you for the speedy recovery of our dear Robert. We pray that with your divine guidance, he will come out of this accident with a new vigor, the spirit to overcome his old habits and learn from this experience. We pray that you offer us the strength to support Rob in this time and the endurance to manage ourselves through it all. We put our lives in your hands and trust the path you’ve forged for us. In Jesus’s name we pray.” Together, under our breaths, we say “Amen.” A god would never answer my prayers. I’m no believer, and even if I was, I’m just not a likeable guy. But watching the doubt and darkness in your dad’s eyes melt away – it’s as good as god.
He smiles. “You always know what to say, Oj.”
I come see you before I leave, fingers behind my neck, elbows dangling. “Don’t worry about a thing, bud. You focus on getting better.” I linger and stare into your face and reacquaint myself with you. “God bless,” I say, like I believe in something.
I visit you every chance I have. I come see you in AC before I drive to Glassboro for class. I stand by your bedside with you. Always, I wear the visitor pass like a badge of honor until I come back home at the end of the day and stick it into my notepad for safekeeping.
One day, before I step in, Ginger stops and pulls me aside. “He just had his reconstructive surgery.” She’s unsatisfied.
I step in slowly. Your eyebrows are parted too far, your cheeks are too round, your jawline isn’t right – they got your face wrong. And oh, the scarring – Rob, what’d you do?
Ginger steps in. “What do you think? The swelling needs to go down, but he looks back to normal right?”
“That’s right. They did a great job,” and I put my arm around her and kiss her forehead. “I wish they would’ve shaved that fucking soul patch though.”
She stuffs her laugh into my shoulder and leaves her tears there too. She kisses my cheek and leaves.
Standing next to you, I read the labels of the products that you’re connected to. These bastards capitalize on drunk drivers and drug overdoses every god damned day. “Thank goodness,” I say.
The night they’re keeping you at Cooper, you start coming around. Worry lines appear on your forehead that had never been there before.
It’s just you and me. I hold your hand and your fingers tighten around mine. “Rob, it’s me.” And your worry lines fade. You can’t open your eyes because of the crust that’s been growing there. “Don’t be scared. You’re safe. You’re lying in a beautiful cabin on a mountain in Aspen” and your lips curl into a slight smile before you squeeze a weak sob out through your breathing tube. “Your jaw’s wired shut. I know it’s a pain in the ass, but it’s helping you get better.”
A nurse comes in to check on you. “Well, look who’s up. Can you try to open your eyes for me, honey?” Your eyelid shakes weakly; you can’t do it. The nurse says, “I’m going to open one of your eyes for you, nod if you can see the light.” She pries your right eye open with her fingers and shines a flashlight around it, and you struggle to nod. Your eye moves directly to me before she shuts it. I’m unsure of whether or not you saw me, but it does not matter.
“You’re not blind.”
It’s a speedy recovery from there. I can’t even believe it, walking into your room to see you sitting up. Your jaw’s still wired shut, so your sloppy arm movement talks for you: “Fucking hug me.”
I don’t care that you’re fragile. I hug you tightly.
You have to write in order to communicate with me. You have a notepad and a little pencil like the ones you get at a mini-golf course. They couldn’t get you an actual pencil?
You’re shaking as you write. I glance at your previous notes to see what I’ve missed. “Food. I’m so hungry;” “It fucking hurts;” “No, just food;” “Where’s Oj?” You finally finish your note. You barely write, “How do I look?”
“No different than before; ugly as hell.”
You write, “I love you.”
I nod violently to choke it all back before I can muster, “I love you too, Rob,” and then, “It’s damn good to see you up.”
You cough phlegm up through your breathing tube. Your movement becomes stale and you struggle to lift your hand to the notepad.
You write, “They have a patch over my eye.”
I look up at your parents and they won’t meet my stare. I say, “Yea, you got a catheter up your wang too.”
Sometimes I’ll cover my left eye and look around. You’ll have to jerk your head to the left to see that way. But you’ll adapt quickly. I’m sure there’s a Neuroplasticity for Dummies if you need help.
My own brain struggles to readjust to your new face; I still see you as you were. I remember every texture of your old face in my dreams, your smile lines, the way you squinted on a sunny day, the sharp lines of your jaw when you were smoking Reds.
It’s the image, the face I’ve watched grow through our eighteen years of friendship that cracked me. I was driving home from Cooper. Tail lights stretched along the wet pavement; I could smell the rain even with the windows closed.
The heaves of screams started forcing themselves out as I pulled the car over. It wasn’t that you were different, but that you’d never be the same. I slammed my forehead against the steering wheel. The car horn amplified my screaming so the world could hear “God, no” and “Why.” I clenched at the steering wheel and slammed the bottoms of my palms against it. The screams ripping through my throat sounded like Niagara fucking Falls and they may as well have been. They poured out of me. They reached their carrying capacity in my psyche and emigrated. Maybe they travelled back to the ICU.
What they do in there is a marvel, but I want to forget it exists. It’s suffering. It’s a purgatory with no promise. It’s a dying man’s last words with no one to hear them.
Rob, don’t take this the wrong way. Things will get back to normal and you’ll always be my best friend. But dude. I miss your old face.
Ojas Patel, from Egg Harbor Township, NJ, earned his B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing at Rowan University. His story “Your New Face” won first place for creative non-fiction in the Denise Gess Literary Awards. He has also won contests for his poetry and critical writing in Islamic Studies, has contributed to his local newspaper, The Current, and is currently working on his first novel.
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This piece is profound. I have been that person in ICU watching the dying. You put words the magnitude of that experience. It brought me back and my story doesnt end as well as yours did but yours left me with inwardly searching for those awful moments; trying to contain them and bring back those very profound moments. I was totally engrossed in this story and lost anything else around me while I read. I think it will be with me for awhile. Brilliant just doesnt cover it.