Right Kidney

In the winter of 2005 I had a brief workplace fling with a married man that gave me a UTI, which ended the affair and started a bad kidney infection.  

It was an amateur move, hooking up at work, but I was vernal and far from empowerment judging by my choice of men at the time, Married Guy being the least wrong in the string of romantic errors that encompassed my early twenties.  He went on to divorce (somewhat of an anti-climax as our indiscretion was simply one of the symptoms of a long-coming breakup), and I went to the hospital.  

As a government employee—I was a dispatch operator at the Police Force back then, a young girl with a big important job, and I was pretty proud of it, too—I was entitled to receive care at the specialized Ministry of Internal Affairs Hospital.  You’d think this was a good thing, but in Bulgaria a good thing was hard to come by, especially in the government sector.  

I spent less than a week at that hospital, and by the end I was convinced that it must be ritually burned down to the very cursed ground it stood on, doctors and all.  
The only thing that was presently burning, however, was I; from my temples down my throat, through the layers of my clothes in which I sat crumbled on a bench in the Emergency Room, bent down the middle, moaning weakly.  I had woken up from a feverish slumber at dawn that day by a pain in my right side.  It was enormous, the kind of pain that told you you are in trouble.  It stabbed at me to go look for help immediately, or die.  My insides felt heavy, hard to the touch, and my urethra scorched all the way up when I tried to use the bathroom, my bladder ready to combust.  I got dressed somehow, barely not crying just yet, and being broke and all (my big important job paid regularly but little) I took the bus to the hospital.  

During the ride downtown, slushy grey and fogged up, I was frustrated by the inconvenience of it all.  It was my first of three days off work, the Holidays were near, and I was supposed to be sleeping in, maybe meet with girlfriends later to conspire against Married Guy over beers, and generally enjoy my young life without a murderous dagger tearing at my vital organs.  But the longer I sat on that waiting room bench, the more frustration morphed into fear, dull at first, growing glass-sharp with every pulse of my diseased flesh.  

The place was brightly lit yet claustrophobic—a long, narrow hallway lined up with tightly closed doors leading down to an industrial-style elevator that made clunking noises which echoed eerily, like ghost strings of a giant bass.  I was sure I was beginning to hallucinate: there were voices and movement but no people around other than a man on a stretcher across the hall who, by the static look of his face, was either unconscious or dead.  Then I realized that my eyes had been narrowed to slits the entire time, stiff in their sockets, and that there had been people here, nurses and doctors walking about the place in squeaky shoes and off-white coats, with an air of self-importance but no real urgency.  No one seemed to notice me or the man on the stretcher.  He was bleeding from the ear (and possibly internally) and I was turning white as the walls of this place, white as the fluorescent lights, blending in and thinning into air that smelled of rubbing alcohol and damp basement.  

It was only 9 AM or so, but it seemed that I had been sitting there for ages, the beginning of this whole ordeal becoming more and more fuzzy, like the edges of my own body.  This is what you get for fooling around, I thought vaguely, not fully convinced in my own culpability in all this.  So far I had believed that being horny was risky only emotionally.  Yet here I was, agonizing.  In my panic I was briefly tempted to start praying, but I didn’t know how.  I had no religion, just an old-time Bulgarian fatalism that passed for a moral code—though I didn’t see how superstition would help me, either.  I was sorry, alright.  I had gotten a man to cheat, and his wife had jinxed me with fire.

This was serious.  I knew hospitals.  When I was seven, a fat woman in a bloody green gown reached for me with a large metal instrument and ripped out my tonsils.  At ten, during a stint for suspected appendicitis, a doctor slapped me across the face because I was crying too loudly.  I remembered all the cases of post-viral bronchitis I suffered throughout my childhood that were treated with nauseating antibiotics and strong steroid shots, only now I was alone, no father to hold me down while they sunk the needle into my chubby thigh, or a mother to hug me while I coughed my lungs out.  

Merry fuckin’ Christmas to me.
Someone came by and rolled the bleeding guy away.  A bell rang somewhere, the lights of an ambulance flickered red blotches through the glass entrance doors, but the hospital staff continued to ignore me.  It figured; I was at the mercy of nurses who had first started practicing back when the Berlin Wall was built, and of doctors crippled by the arrogance of past nomenclature hierarchy.  It wasn’t a great epiphany; everything else was falling apart in this country, why would hospitals be any different?  Medicine wasn’t magic, though I wished it was.  The doctors and nurses guarded the hospital doors from their patients with a self-preservation instinct they had developed over long decades spent roaming this unholy place: a curious mix of contempt and apathy for the ill that could only be bypassed if you had a box of fine chocolates, a bottle of imported liquor, or cash to appease them.  I had neither.

I was going to find no sympathy here, so I did the only thing I could in that moment and I let my body slump down—a maneuver so dramatic it made me want to laugh.  I had done many things for attention, but had never pretended to faint before.  
Then I hit the floor and my side exploded with fresh pain, and I passed out for real. 

When I came to, I was inside the doctor on duty’s office (finally!), and a nurse had propped me up on an examination table.  There was a thermometer sticking out of the corner of my mouth, and an oxygen mask hissing somewhere beside me.  The doctor was old and the tips of his fingers smelled of nicotine.  He seemed irritated with me.  I guessed he didn’t share my taste for absurdist comedy.  

He palpitated my abdomen and wrote something down without looking at me.

“104.  Distended.  What’s up with you?” 
“It hurts,” I managed. 
“Where?” Clearly annoyed now.
“Everywhere, really—here,” I pointed to my right side.

He nodded to the nurse, who pushed me down on the cot, threw a sheet over me, and rolled me out.  The entire examination took less than ten minutes; no medical history collected, no samples taken, no nothing.  There was only pain, ever-still growing pain.  
I was taken from the Emergency Room to the Internal Medicine wing and admitted for intensive antibiotic treatment and bedrest.  And still no one bothered to talk directly to me—I gathered I had a severe kidney infection from conversations I overheard while staff laid me down and hooked me up to an IV.  The nurse had missed my vein a few times and my IV kept getting blocked, but eventually the palliative drip started working its way through my system.  The blur that were the first hours since I dragged myself to the hospital gave way to sedation and quiet observation.  The backs of my hands were bruised.  My cheeks felt hot, the skin on my face suddenly too tight, starting to crack around my eyes.  My body was sticky with acidic sweat.  But my insides were no longer ablaze and I was too happy that I wasn’t going to die to care about that, or about the state of my gown, which was abysmal. 

I tried to rest, but text messages kept binging on my Nokia.  Married Guy was updating me on his divorce.  I left the messages unanswered because my brain was mushy and I couldn’t come up with anything devastating enough.  I only thought of a few rather profane ways to tell him to get bent, but I didn’t want to sound bitter.  I briefly considered throwing my cell phone in the trash when the pain meds hit hard and I just turned it off instead, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the high.   
The hospital room was small, tucked at the far end of the third floor.  My bed was next to a window which overlooked the inner courtyard.  I slept for most of the rest of the day and during the night, and I only got up to use the bathroom, which was every hour because a part of my treatment was drinking ungodly amounts or mineral spring water to flush all the bacteria, and hopefully the shame, away.  

The other room occupants were two ladies in various stages of kidney failure, or so I learned the next day when I was well enough to socialize, and finally allowed to eat.  The cafeteria was a floor below, and I wasn’t strong enough to walk downstairs so I took the elevator—that industrial monster of a machine that surely hoisted ghosts as well as patients up and down the building.  Admittedly, the elevator was perfectly harmonized with the rest of the hospital interior, which could be best described as an amalgamation of a Victorian asylum and a Socialist-era communal dormitory.  In other circumstances this would’ve depressed the shit out of me, but I had just the right amount of painkillers in me to find it marginally funny.
Donna, my next bed neighbor, told me she had spent three years on and off here, waiting for a transplant.    

“Take your medicine, drink your water, and get out as fast as you can,” she said during lunch of green mush and what looked like a moldy shoe sole.  They won’t help you; if anything you’ll get sicker.  And whatever you do, don’t let them open you up”  And she mysteriously tapped her forehead with a finger, her lips smiling but her eyes tired and hollow.  

It was a familiar gesture, and it roughly translated to you’ll learn.  My dispatch team co-workers had the same attitude, and rightly so.  I was practically a baby, knew next to nothing, and they enjoyed having me around, mostly to joke at the expense of my rookie anxiety.  One of their favorite tricks was to transfer the toughest emergency calls to my terminal and watch me panic as I listened to people scream for help after being robbed or attacked.  Administrative police work came with a price; we were safe from bullets at the station, we didn’t see the dead bodies, but we heard about it every night shift, every rush hour.  Some people drank to cope.  Many engaged in intense office gossip and elaborate moonlighting schemes.  And then there was me, a grungy-looking girl that showed no interest in any of it.  You’ll learn meant that eventually, inevitably, I would break too and make a career out of being calloused.  

But when the teasing became too much and the pressure—too brutal, there was always one older woman on the team who assumed the role of my protector.  I supposed she felt magnanimous… or she simply took pity.  On my first New Year’s shift fireworks exploded over the city for three straight hours and activated every single home, store, and office security alarm, which then signaled over to my computer screen like an impossible final level of a video game.  I was wretched that night, and I cried as I scrambled to dispatch as many patrols as I could, not knowing whether I’d still have a job in the morning.  Everyone laughed and laughed, until the lady next to me finally told them off, took my place at my terminal (now manning two at once), and sent me to the bathroom to splash water on my face.  When I came back, the room has calmed down.  My newfound Fairy Godmother had everything under control, and she spoke to me while tapping keyboard keys and writing down names and dictating addresses on the radio:

“What, you think that’s easy for us?!  Toughen up!  I had three break-ins last New Year’s—they use the false alarm signals to cover up the real ones.  We can’t possibly dispatch a unit to every house that’s ringing in.  Not enough patrols working during the holidays.  It’s fine.  You’ll learn.”      

Similarly, Donna now fended off anyone who attempted to approach me in the hospital cafeteria. “Half of them are filthy old perverts,” she said, loud enough to turn a few heads.  “The other half are filthy old nepotists.”  I took Donna’s advice to heart.  She was down to her last working kidney and fresh out of patience for the health system, the flaws of which she had experienced first hand while bouncing in and out of most major Bulgarian, and some German hospitals.   “They don’t even have a portable ultrasound here,”  she added with disgust. 

I didn’t worry about that as much as I did about the food situation; I didn’t see how I was going to survive on green mush and moldy shoe soles.  And I still couldn’t conjure up a good, cutting reply to Married Guy.

The rest of the lunching patients didn’t appear much more cheerful either.  At first I thought it was the prism of stress and pain that refracted everyone in such a sorry-looking light, but the more I paid attention to my surroundings, the worse it seemed.  The whole place—a maze of brick-and-rock buildings erected in the late 30’s and connected to newer, concrete wings via glass corridors and underground tunnels—was going bad.  The bathrooms were leaking.  The rooms were drafty.  Ancient medical equipment stood discarded in shadowy heaps in the corners, and the sick had a neglected, exhausted look that confirmed Donna’s warning.  They had come here to heal, but instead they all seemed half-dead.  I was eating lunch with a bunch of zombies.        

Stephanie, my other roommate, had just finished dialysis and joined us in the cafeteria with a heavy sigh as she sat down and pushed her food tray away.  She rummaged through her robe pockets (I wasn’t given a robe so I wore my own “civilian” parka over the abysmal nightgown) and she produced two candy bars and an apple.  She gave Donna one of the bars, kept the other for herself, and presented me with the apple: “Here, eat.  Courtesy of the Basement Boys.” 

The ladies munched on the candy, none of them caring to elaborate on who the Basement Boys were, exactly.  I didn’t have the chance to ask; a nurse came in the cafeteria with a bell in one hand and a clipboard in the other.  With a nervous jerk she rang the bell and yelled at everyone’s general direction that lunch was over and go to your rooms at once.  Scooting of chairs followed and reluctant scuffle of slippers started down the long peeling hallways. 

Back in my room, I finished my apple while looking through the window as people paced back and forth in the courtyard.  It had been a dry week, and what remained of the last snowfall was now shiny ice on the pathways and a thin layer of dirty, hard snow punctured by dripping rain gutters.  

I saw a few familiar faces: a security officer from Reception at the station where I worked, the secretary from Administration who gave out our paychecks each month (always wearing knitted vests and a scornful expression, as if she was handing us charity), the Lieutenant in charge of the Petty Crime division.  Maybe getting a few sick days off wasn’t so bad.  I was glad I didn’t have to go back to work for awhile, mainly because I didn’t want to look at Married Guy’s face, but also because I was tired.  Night shifts at the dispatch center were grueling, and left me with a sense of uncleanliness I couldn’t wash off no matter how hard I tried on my free days.  

As I looked on and tried to clean bits of apple skin from between my teeth, I indulged in a small but sweet fantasy about a week away from the cacophony of ringing telephones, the urgent messages on the screen, and the drone of the TV that was absolute—the TV was always on in the dispatch center, so much so that if someone pressed the power button the poor machine didn’t know what to do and it took a good half-minute before the thing shut off with an audible click of static and disappointment.  Away from the radio and the emergency codes and the bad coffee we drank by the gallons.  And, perhaps, the time a kidney needs to recover from an infection would also be just enough time for the unpleasant business with Married Guy to go away, preferably on its own.  

Outside, the day was getting darker fast, winter-early, and the last of the courtyard-walking zombie-patients were finishing their cigarettes (which no one stopped them from smoking).  Soon everyone was inside, onto their cots, waiting for the evening rounds… everyone but two men who stood huddled under the arch of the East entrance.  Their breath came out in short, quick puffs; they were talking animately and handling something—packages of some sort, and maybe money, but I couldn’t see because it was now fully dark and my attending doctor came in the room, putting an end to my window gazing. 
The doctor wasn’t too bad.  He looked significantly less grumpy than the one who had admitted me at the Emergency Room, and he confirmed my improvement with a little smile—the first one I got in this hellhole—letting me know that I was allowed visitors the next day.  He consulted with his assistant, talked to my roommates for another few minutes, and turned the lights off on his way out.  Unable to fall asleep immediately, I read through Married Guy’s messages.  It hurts so much, he wrote, but it had to end.  Thank you for everything.  Be well.  I wondered what hurt more, an infected kidney or a broken marriage, but once more I didn’t text back.  Instead, I sent a message to my best friend Selma, requesting she comes to visit and bring me some fresh clothes, my journal, and my Discman.  The blue glow of the phone tired my eyes and I drifted off.

Day three at the hospital started with a shower while my roommates were at breakfast.  I had no appetite (not for hospital food anyway) and I was itchy all over, thanks to the questionable bedsheets but also because they had stopped giving me pain medication and withdrawal made me want to scratch my skin off.  Even my nose was itchy.  Especially my nose.  

I stood naked in the shower room and looked at myself in the mirror, a little shocked to see that I had lost quite a lot of weight in those three days.  My reflection was pale; a white body crossed by a map of red scratch marks that was somehow gaunt and plump at the same time.  Skinny ankles and wrists (the IV catheter still attached), round butt and breasts (the cellulite now purplish), and my shoulders hunched by habit.  I was never one with a good posture, and sitting for hours at work was slowly causing my neck and back muscles to atrophy.  I traced the bluish veins and the broken capillaries, and I could almost see through my own surface if I stared long enough.  You don’t really know something until you take it apart to discover what’s inside.

The hot water felt amazing, and I cried a little with relief in the shower.  It was going to be fine.  Today I was going to take my medicine, nap, drink my mineral water and, thanks to Selma, listen to some punk rock for moral support.  I was also hoping to ask my doctor about discharging me the next day.  He, however, failed to show up for morning rounds, and Selma called around noon to let me know she couldn’t make it either.

“I hate hospitals,” she informed me on the phone.  I had donned my parka and boots over a fresh gown, walked out in the courtyard, and was just about to light up a cigarette when I caught a glimpse of the two men I’d seen the previous evening through my window.  “They freak me out,” Selma continued.  “I have such painful memories from hospitals.  And besides, you should be out of there soon enough.”  

I wondered what hurts more, an infected kidney or a memory? 

“Fine,” I said.  “I can ask my folks to come over.  I really need shampoo.  I washed my hair with hand soap this morning— ”  My hair was indeed badly tangled, and since there was no hairdryer available, it was still damp and the tips were starting to freeze.  I huddled in my parka and puffed my cigarette faster.  
“Also, the food here is disgusting,”  I added.  

I could see the two mysterious men better in the winter daylight.  They were both young, and it was immediately clear they were neither Police employees, nor in any way sick.  They were too fit and springy to be patients here, and nothing in their mannerisms said cops, a look I had learned to recognize after a couple of years on the Force.  One of them was lean, with short cropped hair and long legs, the feet of which presently did a little dance in place due to the cold.  The other was rather short and muscular; thick hair fell over his eyes and I could’t catch their expression well but his lips were full under a grecian nose.  He was pleasant to look at, at least from afar.  I finished my cigarette, threw the butt in a dead flowerbed, told Selma not to worry about it and hung up on her.  Without a pause to give myself a chance to think, I walked through the icy courtyard towards the two men.  They saw me approaching, stopped talking, and faced me looking expectantly, almost at attention.

“Hi,” I greeted, not really knowing what I wanted to say.  They nodded.  “Do you guys know where the café is?  I heard that there was one that sells sandwiches and stuff.”  I was pleased that I had managed to improvise a casual question, and also a bit surprised by my sudden curiosity for those two men.  The last three days had put me in an odd mood, and I embraced it.  Also, I was becoming a little hungry.  Fuck the hospital cafeteria, fuck Selma, and fuck my folks.  I could forage for my own food.

“It’s near the reception, over by the Lab,” said Bulky Guy, “But it’s closed now.”  
“Aw, okay—I’ll try it tomorrow,” I smiled and got ready to go. “Thanks!”
“Tomorrow is Saturday.  The café only works on weekday mornings,”  Bulky Guy said.  Tall Guy was quiet, and didn’t seem to care for small talk.  He tapped Bulky on the arm and made a face at him to wrap it up.  I had nothing else to add, so I walked away but before I got inside I looked back.  Bulky turned back too and gave me a little wave.  Just as he did, something warm ran down the inside of my leg.  My period had started.

“I see you met the Basement Boys,” said Donna as I lied down in my hospital bed.  I wrapped my head in a towel in attempt to thaw the icicles in my hair, and pulled the blanket over my mouth and nose.  As my kidney got better, my general condition worsened: my skin felt dry, my legs—prickly, and I was using a wad of toilet paper as a sanitary pad.  I was proper hungry now.  I hadn’t realized it was already Friday, and all signs pointed to my doctor being away for the weekend.  That meant that I was stuck here until Monday, and without anything to keep me entertained (or to stop me from bleeding onto everything) I was starting to feel mad again.  

“Who are these guys, anyway?” I snapped at Donna.  
“Rocco is a carpenter, he’s the hospital’s handyman,” she answered, choosing not to hear the irritation in my voice.  “Miro is the janitor.  They fix things, run errands, you know?”  Donna winked at me.
“No, I don’t know.  What errands?”   Over from the other bed, Stephanie chimed in: “Anything you are willing to pay for.  They go outside.  They can get you stuff.”  Hormones, withdrawal, and hunger were making me cynical, and the first thing I pictured was some sort of a nefarious smuggling operation… then I guessed the Basement Boys were simply doing the patients small favors—they probably brought them food from nearby restaurants or bought them cigarettes for a small payment in return.   I whipped the covers, jumped in my boots, threw my parka back on and hurried out.  “Where to?” called Donna after me.
“The basement,” I called back.  

The elevator descended under the building on its whiny bass strings and opened up  to a wide, murky hall.  More trash here; there was old furniture and empty oxygen tanks lying around.  “HELLO”, my voice echoed.  Nothing.  I started down the hall towards a couple of doors to the right.  Behind the first one was a storage closet, and I half-expected to find the morgue behind the other, but instead it opened to a well-lit room.  The ceiling was low, and there was only one tiny window, but the room seemed almost cozy with its colorful wallpaper.  Rocco, aka Bulky Guy, sat at a carpenter’s table in the middle of the room.  He was fixing a chair and looked up at me not as much surprised but displeased.  “You are not supposed to be here,” he said, matter-of-factly, with a slight accent I hadn’t detected when I heard him speak earlier. 

“I know!  I’m sorry.  I just wanted to ask—”  I trailed off, distracted by what was hanging on the walls.  

It wasn’t a colorful wallpaper.  Hundreds of photos, pages torn from magazines, and posters covered the room with faces and bodies of women, nude, lustful, spread open, being penetrated by men whose faces were cut out; closeups of wet vaginas and oiled boobs were everywhere.  Some of these images were sexy, but most were so blatantly pornographic that I suddenly became, very much despite myself, painfully aware of my own vagina.  It throbbed against the wad of toilet paper, which was now completely soaked.  There was music playing, Gypsy folk music with twisty clarinets and percussions in 9/8 compound time.  

“I need a favor,” I pressed on.  

After all, this wasn’t weirder than anything else I’d already seen in this hospital.  What’s a porn-collage for a wallpaper compared to chain-smoking surgeons that held patients hostages in a haunted hospital? 

“I can’t get anyone to come and visit.  I need a few…things.  Like food.”  

Rocco continued to fiddle with the chair.  I waited a few seconds, trying not to stare at the walls, and trying even harder to figure out a way to get a reply out of him before the soaked wad of toilet paper between my legs started dripping.  I wandered what’s more painful, tightening your vagina in a desperate attempt to stop menstruating, or asking a completely strange man in a room covered in porn pictures to buy you tampons?  

“Please, Rocco—I wouldn’t ask but I won’t be discharged until Monday and, well, I’m pretty hungry.”  
“How do you know my name?” Rocco sounded curt but was smiling a little.  His teeth were pretty. 
“Donna and Steph.  They told me you were the guy to ask for that sort of thing.”
Rocco stood up, lit a cigarette, and walked over to me.  We were almost the same hight and looking straight into his eyes felt easy, pleasant.  “They told you to come look for me…here?”
“I mean, not directly, but I figured.  Listen, can you do it or not?”  I was starting to bleed onto my boots.  I desperately hoped Rocco wouldn’t notice.
“Sure.”  He took a pencil from behind his ear and handed me a piece of paper.  “Write a list.  I’m going out in a couple of hours.”

I scribbled fruit, chocolate, sandwiches ANY kind (2), pads/tampons (regular), put the list face down on his carpenter’s table, and reached for my parka pocket to get my money, but Rocco stopped me. “Payment upon delivery,” he said with that serious but smiling voice.  I smiled back, mumbled a thanks, and ran out of there.  When I returned to my room, the first thing I did was to change the dripping, bloody wad.  The back of my hospital gown was blooming with a red Rorschach blotch as big as a dinner plate.  

I didn’t see or hear from Rocco before or after dinner (chicken soup without the faintest trace of chicken), and I had to ask a nurse for yet another fresh nightgown, while I tore the old, blood-soaked one to pieces and used them as pads during the night.  Rocco was again a no-show the next morning.  The PA, irritated by the absence of his boss, who undoubtedly vacationed in the mountains while he had to do the early weekend rounds, took it out on Steph and threatened her with surgery if she continued forgetting to take her medication.  “Imbecile,” she scoffed after the PA had left.  “I know better than anybody when to take my pills.”  Donna agreed, as she too had developed her own medication schedule that had little to do with the doctor’s orders.  “The dosage is wrong for my weight.”  Both ladies then had a fun time comparing the Ministry of Internal Affairs Hospital to a number of private hospitals they had stayed at previously, but could no longer afford, emphasizing the lack of a portable ultrasound once more.  

I was getting impatient.  My kidney was functioning; I was peeing fine, and had no pain whatsoever, but I was starving, so I agreed to join Steph and Donna at the cafeteria for plain toast and black tea.  

There was a plastic bag on my bed when I came back from breakfast full of all the things I had asked Rocco to buy for me, and a couple of extra items: a pack of Marlboro’s and a book—Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.  It was an old paperback discarded from a library, and I remembered catching a glimpse of a crate full of books on the floor by Rocco’s door as I ran out of there the previous day.  Nice touch, I thought, and I went to the bathroom to put a pad on before taking the plastic bag outside in the courtyard.  I sat on a bench in the winter sun and I ate both sandwiches, all the chocolate, and an apple.  Then I smoked Marlboros and read the detective novel until it got cold and dark.  I gathered my things and headed upstairs when Rocco appeared.

“Thanks for the— ” I lifted the plastic bag. “What took you so long, anyway?  I nearly starved to death.”
“Now, now.  You look perfectly fine to me,” Rocco was smiling but seemed uncomfortable.  Surely, it was because of the tampons.  “I’m getting out on Monday” I offered.  I really wanted to ask him out.  To thank him properly for the favor.  That reminded me: “Hey, I still need to pay you!  Walk with me.”
“I can’t.  But it’s fine.  It’s on me.”
“No way!  Please, come.  My wallet’s in my room—”
“I can’t,” he repeated.  And as if that needed explaining, “I am not allowed.”
“Oh.  Okay.  I’ll come to you then.  I’ll come down during dinner—I am quite full, thanks to you.”

Rocco shook his head and stepped forward.  He was close now, our eyes leveled again, and I could smell his breath.  It was warm and a little sour, but not unpleasant.  “I can’t come upstairs, and you shouldn't come downstairs.  It’s not a good idea.  Take care of yourself now.”  He briskly walked away then, and it took me a second to gather myself and do the same.  Back in my room, and still pleasantly dazed by the encounter—who knew that romance was a possibility in this place!—I threw myself on the bed and let Donna and Steph tease me about Rocco.  They had seen us talking from the window.

Basement Boys.  It’s not very nice to call them that.” I said.  
“Better than what everyone else calls them,” said Donna.
“And what’s that?” I asked.  I was already planning a date with Rocco once I got discharged.  The ladies started giggling and didn’t answer right away.  I took out my phone and texted Married Guy: I am fine.  Already met someone new.  Have a great divorce!  Not quite the devastating comeback I was hoping for but true enough.
“The Inmates,” said Steph. 
“Huh?” I didn’t get it, so I looked questioningly at Donna.  Donna seemed guilty somehow.  She let Steph do the talking.  “They call Rocco and Miro The Inmates.  Didn’t you see their room?!”
“Yeah, I did.  But—why?” I was trying to guess if they were pulling my leg.  I had a feeling they weren’t.  Donna walked up and sat next to me, assuming a compassionate expression.
“They are prisoners, dear.  Not violent, so they can leave the hospital unsupervised, but they have a curfew and have to work.  It’s part of their sentence.  I think Miro robbed a bar—”
“A few times,” Steph chimed in.
“Prisoners.”  That’s all I could manage.  
“Yes, but Rocco’s a good guy.  He got into a fight or something,” said Donna.
“In the hospital.  Prisoners, in the hospital—”  I was suddenly feeling very sick again.   “Prisoners, in the Police Hospital.”  Feverish.
“Well, it’s fine.  They do their job and don’t bother nobody, so don’t you worry about that,”  Steph concluded, and left for her evening dialysis.  Donna kept patting my back for a while, not without sympathy, but also a bit theatrically.  Pat, pat.  She found it funny that I hadn’t figured it out.  You’ll learn.  Pat, pat, pat . 

Monday morning came with my doctor back on duty, my discharge papers on his desk.  He was in a good mood after a weekend at his mountain villa, and he whistled a tune as he signed my prescription.  

“I don’t want to see you here again,” was his parting directive.  “And don’t go fraternizing with, er, Gypsies.  Do you understand?”  I winced.  Unsurprisingly, Donna and Steph had made a quick work of clueing the doctor in on the latest hospital gossip, but I hadn’t pictured him for a bigot.
“Don’t you mean criminals?” 
“Same thing.”
“It might be a little late for that,”  I said, my stomach clenching.  I burped, looking straight at him.  I just wanted to grab my paperwork and run out of there, go home, eat till I burst, and then sleep for an entire week.  “Anything else?”  There was nothing else, so I left.  

A couple of weeks later I was back at work, and back at living my young life, but while I occasionally thought about Rocco, I soon forgot all about Married Guy, the doctors, and my hospital roommates.  
What I remembered, though, was to always pee after sex.


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