Perhaps it was the July heat or the unseasonable rains or the look of the tattered spiderweb in the corner of the window, but when the hospital knocked on Mona’s sill that night, Mona let it in through the screen without much hesitation. As though she’d been expecting this to happen (as if anyone ever could!).
Maybe a girl of nineteen living away from home and off campus for the first time is more open to strange hospitals slipping through her bedroom window. Or maybe it was something about this hospital in particular and this girl in particular, too.
Or perhaps sticky summer nights are well suited to strangeness and strangers. The hospital was large but not too large. It had multiple wings and an ample parking garage. The parking garage was the first thing Mona noticed about the hospital, how its levels twisted down into the earth and twirled up towards heaven. How its yellow and white lines were freshly painted though the parking garage itself was caked in layers of road dust. And though each level contained many, many parked cars it still wasn’t difficult to find a good parking spot. The first words Mona said to the hospital were, “I feel like your parking garage is too good to be true.”
Kissing the hospital tasted bitter like crushed aspirin while the smell of antiseptic and latex overwhelmed the unmoving air of the bedroom. It was not a warm kind of kissing but it felt good in the heat of the night. When she pulled away, Mona’s tongue was a little numb and she shivered with the chill of the hospital’s cool walls.
The hospital was an attentive lover and Mona had to slap a hand over her mouth more than once for fear of disturbing her roommates. She filled the hospital, too, coming in through its automatic doors and slicking its tiled halls with herself. When finally they both were spent, the hospital moved to leave.
“Stay,” said Mona.
The whine of far off sirens drifted in through the open window. The hospital could not stay.
“When will I see you again?” Mona asked.
The sirens got louder, closer, and the hospital promised to return the very next night. Mona lay naked in the still dark for a long time, listening to the downtown sounds. Her body felt the same but different, too. Like, maybe if she really focused she’d be able to hear the echoes of the hospital’s beeping machines inside of her. Eventually, the pitter patter of rain started up and Mona’s eyelids grew heavy. She slept.
In the morning, Mona wondered if it had been a dream. Hospitals didn’t really pay housecalls and even if they did certainly they wouldn’t pay that sort of visit. But, of course, there was that tell-tale hospital-green paint under her fingernails which still smelled of the hospital itself. All day at the cafe where she worked Mona would find an excuse to bring her hand to her face to breathe in the memory of the night before. Like all baristas, Mona was considered cute by many customers who would, in sometimes indirect and sometimes forward ways, tell her so. But that day these overtures of admiration were completely lost on Mona. The hospital had said it would come by again and the anticipation of that visit completely consumed Mona’s thoughts.
That evening, Mona’s roommates could sense some change in her. They suspected that she had a crush on a patron of the cafe and teased her and asked her for details. “Is he tall and handsome?” asked Darlene, who was a business and communications double major. “Is she butch or femme?” asked Claire, who was the coolest and most fashionable out of the four of them. “Are they rich?” asked Sam, who was the one who lived in the smallest bedroom because it was cheapest. Mona only smiled and demurred. She went to bed early, eager for the visit, and her roommates exchanged knowing looks even though they could have never guessed in a million years.
The hospital came again and Mona came, too. She caressed each of the hospital’s wings, whispering unit names through an open window on its north-facing side. “Emergency… Oncology… Cardiology… ICU… OB… Billing…” The hospital shuddered at that last one and pulled away.
“What?” asked Mona. “What is it?”
The hospital turned from Mona. She could see the path to its courtyard with its meditation garden. It looked peaceful in there, even in the dark of her bedroom and the oppressive heat of the night. She wanted to crawl in among the manicured bushes and sleep in the dirt.
“Did I say something wrong?” Mona asked.
The hospital didn’t answer. Many of its windows were opaque with closed blinds and pull-shades, though Mona could see shadowy movement beyond some of them. In one upper window a small face peered out, forehead pressed against the glass. The little face closed its little eyes and even though it was so far away and so tiny, Mona felt the weight of the figure’s worry and exhaustion. She thought of a lit candle in high wind.
“I’m sorry,” Mona said. “Whatever it was, I’m sorry. I won’t say anything else. Let’s go to bed.”
The hospital groaned softly but assented. Mona rubbed her naked skin against its rough stone facade, liking that it hurt a little. She twirled her fingers through the hospital’s manicured bushes. The bedroom filled with the smell of greenery and Mona soon put the hospital’s momentary discomfort and the face in its upper window to the back of her mind.
Things continued on as wet, hot July turned into steaming August. Night after summer night, the hospital would come to Mona’s room and they’d make love. Sometimes, it was a short visit and the hospital would slip back through the window almost as soon as it had come in. Other nights, the hospital stayed at least until she fell asleep and Mona would swoon on the hospital, in the hospital, and even, once, underneath the hospital, in the quiet, dim hallways of the morgue. For the first time, Mona had a lover who felt as familiar as a home.
And then, three nights before the start of her sophomore year, the hospital failed to show. What could she do? It wasn’t like she could call 911 and leave a message for the hospital. Mona lay awake for hours. At first, she hoped that the hospital was running late. Then, as the city began to quiet down as much as a city can, Mona found herself imagining all the terrible things that might’ve happened to delay the hospital: fire, bomb scare, shooting, mass casualty event, building collapse, a very localized tornado, a supernatural portal…At some point, Mona dozed off and it rained while she was sleeping. She knew because she awoke in the lonely hours of the early morning to the hiss of tires on wet pavement. The hospital had visited her every day for over a month and now, without hint or warning, it had skipped a night.
Mona went with her roommates to hit up the back to school sales. They stopped at a sandwich place midday for lunch.
“You’ve been quiet,” Sam said. “Mona? Are you all right?”
The three girls stared at Mona with naked worry on their faces. She wanted to tell them. She wanted to spill and tell them everything. They would tell her to forget the hospital. They would call an emergency roommate meeting with ice cream and those weird fancy potato chips from Trader Joe’s and romcoms. They would…no, they probably wouldn’t understand. Mona chewed at a cuticle and ripped off a little too much skin with her teeth before saying, “Yeah, you guys. I’m just tired.”
Claire and Darlene exchanged looks while Sam breathed out through her nose but nobody pressed Mona. Still, she made a good effort at pretending to feel better and, by the time they were on the bus back to the apartment and arguing over what takeout to order for dinner that night, Mona found that she did, in fact, feel a little bit better.
But alone in her room, later, stomach tight and heart thumping, Mona sunk back into her low mood and lower still. As the night ticked on, her thoughts spun and twisted. If the hospital would not come to her then maybe she could go to the hospital? She did not think about walking up to the visitors’ information center, or going to the cafeteria, or wandering the halls with a purposeful face on. Instead, she considered wandering into traffic, jumping from a height not great enough to kill her, or maiming something vital enough to call an ambulance over but not enough that she would pass out before being carried through the doors. These thoughts wormed their way through her, so vivid that it was as though she could touch, taste, and smell each experience. Meanwhile, her body felt heavier and heavier, like a large animal was lying on top of her chest, pressing her into the bed, preventing her from moving.
If Mona could have gone to the window and gazed at the late August moon’s setting, she might have intuited a truth that would have shaved some time off of her period of grief over the loss of the hospital: even in a smallish city such as hers, there are far more people in need of loving care than a single hospital can provide late at night.
Mona’s start to her first semester of her sophomore year of college was rocky. She skipped the first two weeks of classes. Her despair was so large that she could barely leave her room to pee. Her face took on the slack, gray look of someone who hasn’t been eating properly and her hair was in such a state as it had never been before. The other girls were unsure of a best course of action (and they, too, might have benefitted from a long look at the moon and a contemplation that what most people need is some form of love and care that not everyone is equally trained to give).
And then, on the fourteenth day of the new semester, Mona woke up and the weight was gone. The grief that had wracked her body was still there: things hurt, but the hurt was better than the immovable numbness she’d been experiencing. Her throat was cracked and dry. It was still early enough to recover in her classes and save face. For months afterward, Mona would think about her time with the hospital as a life-defining period. She came to accept that the grief would be with her, always. That she would think of the hospital weekly if not daily. She was wrong.
Fourteen years on and she barely remembers what the hospital looked or sounded like. Time has smoothed down the memories to nubs of feeling or image. There’s something about a parking garage, there’s heat, there’s pale spiders and summer rain, and there’s a wisp of a memory of heartbreak that doesn’t hurt at all anymore. Not even a little bit.