A photo I took while living in the East Bay. 1998.
My head burned and my joints ached. I sat up, searching for the glass of water I had left on the floor beside the futon. It wasn’t where I had left it. I got up and walked slowly towards the kitchen, my bones in my foot cracked as I stepped over a tangle of clothes and blankets strewn across the black and white checkered floor. I stopped in the bathroom on the way to the kitchen to rinse my face. I let the water run cold, and examined my reflection in the streaked mirror. I had just turned twenty and appeared a little worse for wear. Gnashing at my dismal appearance, I grabbed a few napkins that were left on top of the toilet seat. Back up toilet paper for the days when money was especially scarce. They had been bought, presumably, at the corner store down the street. I recalled seeing a display of marked down Valentine’s Day stuff. I grabbed a napkin and ran it under the water, gingerly wiping my hot face.
After fetching a glass of water, I wandered back towards my bedroom. My two roommates had spent the better part of the evening watching a Godzilla marathon on one of our four broken television sets. Several small Cisco bottles littered the floor, along with an array of empty 40 oz bottles. A small kitten tumbled across the floor in a flash. Stale cigarette smoke lingered in the air. A pit bull barked outside. It was the same as every other night. Scowling, I walked over to the bathroom and shut the door. The bathroom served as a pit stop for my constant wanderings back and forth between my bedroom and the rest of the apartment. It was my own personal solitude chamber, albeit a dirty one. I spent hours in the bathroom. On my days off from work, I bathed for whole afternoons. Other times, I would shower until I scrubbed myself painfully clean. A junkie’s version of self flagellation.
I grabbed the wet napkins from the bathroom and made myself comfortable on my futon. Picking up a pen, I began to write to a good friend in Ecuador. A few minutes later, my head began to burn up again. I reached for the napkins and placed them on my forehead. Warm water trickled down my temples. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, my head was as hot as coals. Wiping my runny nose with the back of my hand, I made my way towards the bathroom. Someone had taken a shower and steamed up the mirror. I took an old towel to the mirror and wiped it clear. “Fuck me,” I said, bringing my face closer to the mirror. I hurried into the living room, where my roommates appeared to be thoroughly engrossed in a Godzilla film. “Guys, look at my face. I am burning up,” I said, walking in front of a flickering TV. Jack had passed out in the moldy la-z- boy. Too much Cisco for one evening. Shamus sat at the end of the couch, bicycle parts strewn about from a project he had been working on earlier in the day. They lay unfinished by his feet. I walked over and stood in front of him.“Hey, check out my face,” I said, pointing. “This isn’t normal.” “What are you going on about?” he replied wearily. Brushing back a shock of wet hair away from his eyes, he glared at me. “Sorry to have interrupted whatever it is you got going on here, but I’ve got a serious problem that needs tending to,” I responded, rubbing the skin around my nose. I sat down on the couch, sinking into the middle of it. “What is it?,” he asked, sitting up. “I am sick. I need to go to the hospital,” I exclaimed, reaching for my boots. “It’s like two o’clock in the morning. Are you sure you need to go to the hospital? The subway isn’t even runn…” I need to go! Look at my face!” I grabbed his hand and placed it on my face. “I am burning up. My face is all red!” I shouted. “You are slightly warm,” he said calmly. “Yeah, I am hot as hell,” I replied, getting up from the couch. “Alright, alright. Let me get my shoes,” Shamus replied curtly. He grabbed his sneakers from the closet, and within a matter of minutes, we were out the door.
We headed north on Adeline, towards Shattuck Ave. Trudging across a grassy intersection, we made our way into a realm of flickering street lights. The craggy sidewalk gave way to newly poured cement. After walking seven or eight blocks, we came to the Black & White liquor store. A couple beggars exchanged wilted one dollar bills for a couple of beer cans. Their thin wrists reached for their only salvation through the closed roll-down security gate. The Middle Eastern man behind the metal gate nodded at us. The liquor store was a one stop shop for late night vagabonds who wanted to purchase alcohol after all the other shops were closed. They notoriously sold to underage teenagers such as myself. “You guys need anything?” The man asked, his heavy Lebanese accent rolled off his tongue. “No thanks,” I responded glumly.
The small emergency clinic was partly obscured by dark trees. We entered through the automatic doors into a dimly lit reception area. A rush of cool air hit us as we entered. A middle aged women with glasses peered at us through a small window behind the receptionist counter. “Can I help you?” she asked flatly. “Uh, yeah. I need to see a doctor right away,” I said, “I think I have a fever.” I shuffled towards the reception window. “Sign in here,” she pointed to a clipboard with a booklet of papers attached to it. “Do you have insurance?,” she asked rather sternly. “No ma’am,” I responded, filling in my name and address on the medical form. “You are here for a fever?” she asked.
“Yeah, well, I am burning up pretty badly,” I said, writing. “My face is all red. I think I may be bleeding from my pores,” She put down here pen and glared at me through the glass. There was a moment of silence before she slid the glass to the side, doing away with the barrier between us.
“Why do you think you are bleeding from your pores?”
“Because my face is all red.”
“Are you wearing any makeup?”
“I am pretty sure you are wearing makeup. It must be your foundation.”
“I told you, I am not wearing any makeup.”
“You must have put something on you skin. People don’t just bleed from their pores.”
“I didn’t put anything on my skin. No blush or anything! I think I have Ebola…”
“Ebola doesn’t cause people to bleed through their pores,” she said tersely. “It can cause bleeding from mucous membranes, but I highly doubt you have anything serious.”
“I disagree,” I shot back, arms crossed. She looked incredulous.
“Have you taken any drugs this evening, Ms. O’Brien?”
“Please answer the question.”
“What is this? Is this a police interrogation?” I asked, exasperated. Just then a nurse entered the room. “Ms. O’Brien, could you please come with me?” she said. I turned to Shamus, who sat on a bench with his eyes closed. “I’ll be back, I said.” I followed the nurse down a short corridor and into a small, sterile room. “Please sit down. Someone will be right in to take your temperature. I will be right back,” she replied and left the room. A few minutes later, I had my temperature and my blood pressure taken by an older Russian women. “Your temperature is 98.5. It is perfectly normal,” she said. “You do not have fever.” I nodded, and after answering a series of questions about my health, she left the room. I waited for about twenty minutes before the doctor entered. “Why don’t you take a seat over here,” he pointed to the hospital bed. I walked over and sat on the bed, the disposable white bed sheet crinkled under my weight.So I understand you are here because you think there is blood coming out of your pores?” he asked, examining my face. He touched my chin and peered closely into my eyes.Um, yeah. I woke up from a nap and my face was red. I pretty much freaked out because this has never happened to me before,” I replied, embarrassed. He asked me to open my mouth, then shined a small light into my eyes. He then lightly grabbed my right arm and gave it it good look. He stepped back from the table let out a heavy sigh.I can tell you one thing, you are not bleeding from your pores. Your face is perfectly fine. The thing you need to worry about is that junk you are shooting into your arms. Do you use sterile water when you rinse?” he asked, taking off his sleek black glasses and rubbing them on his coat. He was youngish and slightly handsome. “Hmm,” I hesitated. “I use tap water.” He nodded, his brow furrowed with disapproval. “You ought to be using bottle water. Tap water has all kinds of bacteria and pathogens in it, especially here in California. You can get an infection, not to mention other diseases, if you aren’t careful.” He waved for me to follow him back towards the reception room. “You really should be aware of the dangers associated with the lifestyle you are living. You are young and have the rest of your life ahead of you. Be careful.” I stared at him and nodded. The receptionist called me over to try and get a payment, but I ignored her. “Let’s go,” I said, walking towards the large glass doors. “Young lady, please come back here,” the woman stammered, standing up. We left the coolness of the clinic and walked into heaviness of the night.
“What did the doctor say?” Shamus asked, walking slowly beside me.“Nothing really,” I said, touching my face. “He told me to quit using drugs.” “That is probably the best advice he could give you,” he said, lighting up a cigarette. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk under a humming street light.“Sorry to have dragged you out here in the middle of the night,” I paused, “It was stupid of me.” He stared at me blankly. We walked on in silence.
The sound of dogs barking punctuated the silence of the early hours of dusk. The sound of palms rustling in the wind was comforting. Gazing up towards the hills , I marveled at the incandescent lights flickering from the homes perched on the edges off the cliff. Small lights twinkled in the darkness. I wish I lived up there, away from the concrete jungle down here.
It was nearly four o’clock in the morning by the time we made it back to our apartment. I took off my heavy boots and went to the bathroom. When I entered the bedroom, Shamus was fast asleep on the futon. I set on the edge of it and took a couple sips of water. I noticed a ball of crumpled napkins that I had left on the floor the prior day. I picked them up and examined them. They were red and soggy. I squeezed the ball, and a trickle of bright red dye ran down my arm. I began to laugh. I held my head in my hands, and my laughter quickly turned into quiet sobs.