Alie breezes in with her big warm smile, scans my barcode—to make sure I’m the right person, or maybe to see if I’m on sale—then carefully lifts up my sheet and peers down at my penis. Well, at my incision; she’s a professional. The doctors were merciful enough to take my catheter out before I woke up so there’s nothing obstructing her view, save for the mustard yellow surgical disinfectant dolloped between my legs. She carefully inspects the area around my sad little organ—an organ which now finds itself the color of a Simpsons character and the length of a candle wick.
“Good, that looks really good,” Alie reassures me.
“You really think so? I can do better,” I stop myself from saying. “Thank you,” I manage instead, mostly for not laughing.
The surgeons just plugged a pseudo-aneurysm—a blood-filled sac to the layperson—in my cardiac wall. There were two entry points for the thin cables that went slithering through my arteries and into my heart to operate—benevolent miniatures of the metal octopuses from the Matrix movies. One incision was at the base of my neck and the other at my groin. Alie’s main job is to check these two incisions and make sure they aren’t bleeding excessively. Hence all the gazing below the waist.
At 23, I’ve already been on the American medical carousel for quite a while: heart valve replacements starting at nine, then moving on to pacemakers, lead extractions, I’ve honestly forgotten what else. But this is the most ridiculous situation I have ever found myself in. To make matters worse, Alie is the most beautiful nurse I’ve ever had. She’s around my age, blonde hair, sharp blue eyes, and a warmth in her voice that makes me want to bury my face in her neck and tell her all my secrets. She’s my night nurse, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Alie, with an ‘e’: just the kind of thing I would normally hold against someone (“Doesn’t make you unique, just spell it like everyone else”) but she gets away with it, the way pretty girls get away with everything. Which I also normally resent, for the record.
I’m fresh out of surgery, slaphappy and cocky from the adrenaline of waking up on the other side of yet another velvet cocoon, making it through at least one more round. No family or friends this time, but I don’t care. I’ve been doing this for years, I’m tough, no problem. Besides, I don’t want people getting between me and Alie. Our love will play out like any great TV hospital drama: our feelings for each other amplified by the intensity of this place, the immediacy of life and death so present and tangible that everyone walks around falling in love at the drop of a hat. It’s inevitable, and I’m not leaving until it happens. It’s true that Alie only comes in when it’s time for my checkups, but she’s busy tonight, and we’re growing closer with every half-hourly visit. She knows everything about me: my birthday, if I’m circumcised, the fact I’m still on my dad’s health insurance.
It isn’t long before the painkillers start to ebb and my hands start to shake. Stabs of pain run up my legs and throbs balloon and pulse in my chest, making me wince. Alie looks at me with her head cocked in concern and offers any number of comforts: another pillow behind my neck, a better angle for the bed, more painkillers. I thank her and brush them all off good-naturedly, trying to show her how brave and low-maintenance I am. When she leaves I pretend to watch TV while anxiously staring at the clock, waiting for her to come back to me, too proud to just press the nurse button above my head.
Every time I hear Alie coming I try to smile and sit up and look strong, like something she might want. When she leans in to listen to my heartbeat I force myself to observe proper stethoscope etiquette, looking away from her into the middle distance as she concentrates, eyebrows slightly furrowed. The pace of our breathing syncs as she listens. But the part I’m most grateful for is the humiliation of the groin check itself. I love the way Alie’s face remains clear despite the awful sight and stench of me. She’s so tender and without judgment, like a wife beside her old, incontinent husband. It’s a kindness I won’t forget even long after we’ve married. Some day she won’t even put on gloves before she touches me. Mark my words.
I drift into a drug-induced half-sleep and find myself walking through the door of the apartment Alie and I share in the San Fernando Valley, not far from the hospital. Alie’s on the couch with her feet curled beneath her, wearing grey cotton sweatpants and one of her old high school gym shirts.
“Hi sweetheart,” I say.
She smiles. She always smiles.
I sit down and rub her feet while she tells me about work and her patients. I encourage her and try to make her laugh, but I can tell she’s exhausted. Soon she falls asleep in the middle of a Top Chef episode. I just sit and listen to her breathe. I don’t want to wake her, but I know I can’t sleep without her in the bed next to me, so I ease my way alongside her on the couch. I put my arm around her. I feel her heart beating against my palm.
Alie is apologizing when I jolt awake, sorry to have to wake me for another inspection. I swallow my urge to tell her all about us and instead let her know I need to make a bathroom trip. She unhooks me from various machines and helps me stand, her voice coaxing as she holds me gently by my forearms. She lets me shuffle most of the way alone after I scold her for underestimating me. It’s a stupid joke and probably unsafe to boot but she laughs, just to be nice.
I negotiate the toilet without incident—a fact I’m inordinately proud of, not unlike a toddler—and scrutinize myself in the mirror as I wash up. That’s when I hear Alie gently inform me through the crack in the door that, from the look of my sheets, some blood ran down from my groin during the operation and dried in some “unfortunate places.” While I’m in there I can use a wet towel to clean it off—if I feel up to it. I can tell she’s trying to keep her tone casual and unobtrusive, doing everything she can not to embarrass me.
I freeze, standing weakly in my ill-fitting hospital gown and baby blue traction socks, legs shaking, cheeks burning. Suddenly I can feel the whorls of fuzzy hair, matted with blood and caked to my pasty behind. I clamp my teeth together to keep my mouth from quivering. I wonder which of the drugs I’m on made me think I could be something to this poor girl who’s just trying to get through another work shift. It’s too much for one day—heart surgery and a girl, back-to-back. I thank her, my voice ragged and sheepish.
I barely manage any small talk with Alie after that. As dawn approaches we recap the movies I’ve watched during the night (Crazy Stupid Love: Ryan Gosling, what a dreamboat) but that’s all I can muster now. I know we could’ve whispered to each other all night, sitting up under the covers like kids at a sleepover, our heads acting as tent poles. But she always leaves the room the moment her duties are done. She doesn’t notice how desperately I’m trying to keep her with me, get her talking, catch her eye—or doesn’t care. I’m being completely unfair to her. I’m as bad as a guy falling in love with his waitress just because she’s friendly. But I don’t care.
The air in here is cold. Clinically cold. It prevents the spread of bacteria, disease, feelings. Physical boundaries and modesty may have been suspended—the normal social order put on hold by necessity—but intimacy is still as far away as it was when I first walked in. Young and virile as I might think I am, I have no identity here—romantic, sexual, or otherwise. And so Alie inspects the most intimate part of my body, a part no person I’m not related to or in love with has ever seen. She does so again and again and again throughout the night, without so much as a blush of color in her face. Just a part of the body, after all. Just a patient. I’ll never see her again.
The pain and sadness keep me from getting back to sleep, but before I know it it’s 7 a.m. Alie waves to me from the doorway, kind and warm as always, and wishes me luck. The day nurse comes in. She erases Alie’s name from the whiteboard in the corner of my room, changes the date, writes her own name (which is Miriam, spelled exactly how you’d expect) and then scans my barcode. To make sure I’m the right person.