The gurney is hard, the fluorescence above it humming. Nubbing legs dangle over the side of the frame, an IV port pinching the tender skin on top of my hand every time I forget not to move it. A single, nearly square corkboard on the wall beside holds a smattering of 9×12 memos, one of them hot pink. I stare at that one, mesmerized. How many among this newest crop of strangers will have seen their memo, that day, and would they be ready for the moment of my death?
The half hour preceding, high drama. Arrival, gasping with terror, the creeping itch encircling my face and crawling between my bosom, around, under my arms and across my back, and then the rear of the tongue rising to meet the pharynx, daring to close entirely, heart racing, skin clamming, the lights, lights so icy bright, the smell, always the smell of sterility.
These are the minutes over which nobody has any control. The roughly twenty odd ones after the puncture of Epinephrin and IV push of Benadryl, during which our father, Time, the only sure indicator of ongoing life vs. cardiovascular collapse. And, after four of these in one year, again left alone by strangers in the ER bay to ponder the outcome, mind attached to body gradually succumbs to the antidote of semi-coma.
Strangers. At the moment of theoretical death.
This is the realm of the anaphylactic.
Unlike those stricken with terminal illness or even massive stroke, the anaphylactic cannot feature the luxury of familiar faces, phone calls, cards and letters, even bedside caregivers who’ll call us by our name. If we’re lucky as well as fastidious, we’ll carry with us the proper packet of antihistamine or the Epi-pen, provided we are also completely able and willing to inspect every ingredient contained in every appetizer, entree, salad, and dessert offered by anyone beyond the scope of our own, protected kitchens.
Were we to be anybody outside of our actual selves, we might observe the scene at the neighboring table on a Friday evening – server, hunched over the menu, squeezing a pencil, forehead pinching, corners of the mouth twitching neurolinguistically to mask cursing annoyance, fixated guest rattling on about oils and additives next to a bewildered date mentally reviling why he’d been so determined to know this woman.
We’d not have been able to enjoy our own meal, what with the server hastening off to the chef’s lair to consult, report back, consult again, report back, smile assuredly, take the order, bring the order, take it back, the date leaning in toward the anxious female, arms folded across the table’s edge, eyes sucking into his head behind a smile stretched to its breaking point.
We might have left the restaurant with a social checklist ticking across our own foreheads. We’d have recognized the woman from having seen her on the various pages, she with her dubious references to multiple former lives. We’d have concluded many things. Clearly a narcissist, judging by the texture of her dark hair and the angle of her nose the spoiled daughter of he who sold back room numbers, she would just have to be spending everyone else’s time in public grasping for singular attention. Yes; siphoning the entire room of its last particle of energy, in her own mind she would be exceptional.
Exceptionality. The curse of the oblivious.
Cosmopolitan life renders a certain mass anonymity. When merely dozens are displaced by hundreds of thousands, that which is distinguishing fades from immediate view. Blending is both habit and practice; that which doesn’t easily finds enough of its own kind to forge new criteria for acceptability. By contrast, in small towns anything or anyone who is unavoidably different can become quickly pigeonholed, marked, recognized, and not in a good way. Traits borne by these are subconsciously dismissed as, ultimately, forms of weakness. Exceptionality becomes a force which both pulls and pushes, and that against itself.
The coronavirus has at once rendered every civilized center, regardless of size, homologous. All are flanked according to appropriate distance, masks obviating familiarity, no one a stand out by either class or station.
All, that is, except we anaphylactics. Our fears are inextricably distinguishing. Virus, or vaccine; we face the threat, of death, whether we do or we don’t. Statistically a tiny minority, exceptionality neither our excuse nor our defense, we remain the stranger.
© 2/26/21 Ruth Ann Scanzillo All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. No copying, in whole or part, including translation without written permission from the author. Sharing permitted by blog link, exclusively. Thank you for your respect.
3 thoughts on “The Exceptional Stranger.”
I got a little lost. Was it you who went into shock or were you an observer of an incident, RA?
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Judy! Thanks for pointing out this very important potential for confusion. It was I, the patient, in near-anaphylaxis. Tell me where/how you became confused? I must edit. Thnx again, for reading!
Judy, after revisiting the piece I really struggle to find where identifying anybody but me as the patient would occur. The first person is consistent, throughout. Let me know if, after a re-read, you are still not clear on it. Thanks, again, for reading!