A Kind of Kinship
Rebecca Givens Rolland

 

The lights were as bright as always, fluorescently orange-white, and made her feel safe. Sarah pressed her knees together, stared down at the scratches on her shoes. These days, she spent an hour, sometimes two, after work, from five-thirty till six-thirty at least, sitting, waiting for no one, just past the first-floor lobby in the emergency waiting room. After her diagnosis, she’d started feeling comfortable here—whatever terrible illness might befall her, someone was around with an IV and a pill to fix her up.

She didn’t tell anyone who she was or why she was there. Even she wasn’t sure she understood. There wasn’t anything they could do about her ovaries—the gynecologists, three of them wearing formal business suits and heels, had already explained that much.

Her back against one of the sunken green couches, Sarah shifted her head to stare out the exit glass doors. They slid open and shut with hardly a click. It wasn’t a death sentence, not having children, she thought, letting her mind wander. She had to remember that. And health was the important consideration: since her childhood, she’d been oddly, exceedingly healthy, not a single virus, only the occasional summer cold.

She remembered herself as lucky, out in the fresh air when her brother stayed inside. There had been a pile of tulips that she’d run through, her mouth cut with clippings. There was a sensation of ice at the base of her lips. In the wintertime, watching the garden from the window crossed with snow, she’d reminded herself of those petals, curved umbrellas with thin blackened dots. She’d tried to forget about the absence in her family, all the relatives they’d never talked about. She’d make up for them—she’d provide the energy, the excitement where the absence of those relatives had left holes.

The books she’d loved to read were all about danger: she’d sat under a pile of covers late at night, devouring them like chocolate, like sweetmeats. Elsewhere there were circus accidents, sudden drops of acrobats, a loosening of hair. Elsewhere were men who ran with their back on fire. Leave me, leave me, they’d shouted, go away, flames. And yet the flames hadn’t listened, and they’d nearly died. As a child, she’d been obsessed with recalling these accidents. She was the one who’d made it out, who’d gotten away. Maybe her relatives hadn’t been so lucky. Maybe that was why no one in the family had referred to them.

There was no way to escape it: she’d been lonely. Growing into adulthood hadn’t helped. Even so, now she couldn’t stop the feeling—watching the patients enter and then shuffle out, plastic bags of medicine in their hands, a couple of dingy roses, stuffed pink bears, she envied how they brought their families with them, dysfunctional or not, cousins yelling “mom’s gonna hate you” into flip-top cell phones, pacing shoeless in caffeine-induced circles, four-year-olds ripping newspapers into forts in the patient care kitchen that smelled like eggs, leaping over sanitized steel-gray tables, then collapsing into fetal balls on the chairs.

Those patients had families who felt something for them, who’d sit back on tilted cloth-upholstered chairs, stinking of dried sweat and sickness, until their loved ones appeared. No matter how mangled, how close to death, the patient still had the family there.

She wouldn’t say she admired them, not entirely. Still, sitting with her hands crossed over her chest, her white coat folded in half at her side, she did wish that she could take part. Closing her eyes, she dreamed of cousins, uncles, stepsisters heading out for smoking breaks, then returning so late it was obvious they’d wanted to kill time.

She was like them, she realized, wanting to stuff time in a jar and send it off. Wanting time enough to win her family back.

One girl, fifteen or so, stood up just beside her, oddly elegant in a bright pink top and jeans. Twirling pieces of hair around two middle fingers, she sang out tunelessly I’m bored.

Was she happy? Were any of them? Sarah stared at her and tried to figure it out.

That girl wasn’t asking such questions. None of them were, Sarah decided. Not now, not at three in the morning, after the family had finally made it from Texas or Colorado or who knows where, shoelaces of the children untied, parents with plastic mugs of gas station coffee in hand, taking little chugs every once in a while.

Under the waiting room’s speckled acoustic tiles, beneath the ceiling’s pinpricks, Sarah listened. The patients’ voices mingled, the sounds hungering over each other, clinging onto the hair of each person, the earlobes. In those voices, she felt a kind of kinship, listening to them sort their worries out, scolding, “Eat this not that—drink only water,” fussing over their fathers, wiping foreheads, arguing over who was going to drive them home.

 

Rebecca Givens Rolland won the 2011 Dana Award in Short Fiction, and her fiction has most recently appeared in Slice, Hobart, and Tampa Review Online. Her first book, The Wreck of Birds, won the 2011 May Sarton New Hampshire First Book Prize and was published by Bauhan Publishing.