Translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan
I wanted to run away. Who comes to the emergency room willingly? The gray lobby was chaotic. Patients, families, and visitors all blended together. I could step right out of here and into the city spilling just outside the gate. I could walk the streets, sit at a café. But instead, I walked inside.
It was flu season, and the beds were all occupied. An older man was pacing the halls in his hospital pajamas, a catheter poking out of his pants, an I.V. stand dragging behind him like a pet.
I could still leave.
I plopped myself into an available corner bed, shrouded in hospital sheets. No one approached me. I tried to take a nap, but the buzzing of the neon lights and the airport-style noise in the background—patients crying out, broken moans—kept invading my sleep. Still, I felt a little better. I got some rest. Finally.
Two hours later, a young man in a white coat came to see me.
What’s wrong? He asked.
It hurts, I said.
What hurts? He asked.
Please be more specific, he demanded. I wondered how many hours he’d been running around here, among all these contagious patients, among all this suffering, on zero sleep.
Go home , someone whispered inside of me. I won’t, I whispered back. Stop it. Shut up.
The doctor fixed his eyes on me, awaiting more details.
I began to speak. The words hatched slowly at first, as if wrangling their way out of a cage, then strode ahead. I sat on the high hospital bed, my legs dangling off its end, bare. I said, the head, my head hurts. My sorrow hurts. The passing days, the necessity of making a living, putting off any time for staring into space. The endless errands, the parents losing their wits before they lose their lives, the helplessness, the new wrinkles around the eyes, the fact that I used to be pretty but had no idea. It hurts that there isn’t enough love, that there’s violence and the situation. It hurts that people in southern Tel Aviv hurt, in houses wrecked by the rain, on the street, stray cats and dogs lost at the airport, and it hurts that there’s lack. What’s hidden hurts, what’s revealed hurts, the places I’ll never see hurt, it hurts that it hurts. That I want to walk, that I want to dance—but it hurts. That I want it not to hurt. It hurts even when it doesn’t hurt, and when I smile—it hurts. Even when I laugh—it hurts.
The young doctor stared at me for a moment. He glanced around, perhaps looking for backup. Then he pulled himself together. Let’s check your heart. He pulled out a stethoscope, listened carefully, and nodded. He checked my blood pressure and called a nurse to take a blood sample. Then he nodded again. Everything looks normal, he said. The cause of pain is unclear. I can prescribe small pills that will ease the pain—not erasing it, only blurring it, but they have side effects, including new, different pain. Do you want them?
I told him I was looking for a real cure, not a blur, not new pain.
The doctor paused, looked at me, and sighed. The PA system must have been calling his name: Dr. Situation, Dr. Situation, report urgently to internal medicine. He pricked his ears, listened, then returned his attention to me. He was much younger than I was. My heart ached for him. So many hours spent in this place, fighting viruses and bacteria, angry families, and tired nurses. He said, there’s innovative machinery, magnetic resonance that examines the mental makeup. Perhaps that can offer a solution. We could check.
Here? I asked. Right now? In the emergency room?
Yes, that’s what we do here. We check.
Two nurses pushed my bed into the imaging unit. I wriggled into a long, dark tube. The technician told me to think about something nice, to make the experience easier. To stay calm. I thought about the little ginger cat that used to wander in the yard, sitting on the hoods of cars like a king, purring at me whenever I came in and out of the building. When I carried out leftovers from lunch he would run to me, and sometimes even allowed me to rub his stomach. There were other moments, when I watched him sitting on cars, and he watched everything except for me, but we understood each other completely. He knew it and I knew it. Thinking about the cat hurt. I recalled that—when he felt particularly charitable—he would put his paw on my foot with the distraction of true intimacy. But then, all of a sudden, he died. Another cat arrived at the yard, also ginger, but bigger and firmer than the one I’d loved. He was very nice. He would rub himself against my shins. But he was different. Just when I’d found someone with whom I shared a language, even though neither of us could speak it. Just when I’d found someone in this world. Pain floated through my body as the machine jerked left and right, with me inside. After a while, I can’t say how long, the ticking died down and the machine stopped moving. I pushed my way out and was led back to the emergency room.
The young doctor returned, his eyes tired, the suffering of the people around him sunken and drowned into them. He spread out a long, narrow strip of paper, covered with black, asymmetrical marks, graphs, and spots.
There, he said, showing me the results. That’s your pain. He stood proud, like a winner, as if he’d just discovered the cure for a virus that threatened to end the world. Our heads leaned together over the paper. His hand patted one of the pages, as if to reinforce clear, scientific proof.
The female voice called him over the PA system again—Dr. Situation, Dr. Situation, please report urgently—but he remained beside my bed, taking his time. The cause of your pain, he said—a complex mental makeup. Too much scaffolding, too few walls. Even the walls that are there are too thin, unprotected. The foundations need to be bolstered, and the walls need to be thickened with reinforced concrete. Basically, you need a bomb shelter built around you. Then no pain will be able to penetrate, you can be sure of it. He smiled.
I was skeptical. My mental makeup may not be perfect, but how can I actually change it? Reinforce it?
Don’t worry, said the doctor. Almost everything is possible these days. Worst case scenario, we’ll clone a version of you with a stronger mental makeup. What do you say?
I said, that hurts.
I was just kidding, the doctor said, his face brightening. I’ll write you a referral to a pain clinic. This is just the emergency room. Only preliminary treatment. And there’s no guarantee that the pain clinic is the answer. Maybe acupuncture.
That hurts, I said. It pricks.
In that case, go home and get used to it. Learn to move around carefully, take pain killers. Morphine or opium or codeine. Medicine has no magic tricks.
I felt sorry for him. No solutions. Pain is the number one problem facing contemporary medicine. I told him I’d read that somewhere.
I tried, in vain, to rid myself of this hunched, pricking, bleeding body. I looked at him, disappointed. No cure? No magnetic resonance? No cloning?
Maybe there’ll be something like that soon, the doctor said, gathering his tools and rolling up the test results. There’s always hope.
A woman on a stretcher was rushed into the lobby. She was very pale; not breathing. A man, maybe her husband, was waving a newspaper over her face. He looked terrified. The woman disappeared inside a circle of doctors and nurses who surrounded her at once. The voice over the PA system was alarmed, almost panicked: Dr. Situation, Dr. Situation!
The young doctor turned away from me, hurrying toward the circle concealing the dead, or dying woman. Suddenly, he turned back to me and said, you can go. I wrote you some referrals. Then he ran off to try and save the lives of other patients, ones that were truly ill.