Ryan Heller
My fingers make their way through my hair, nails tracing my scalp until they find a scab to pick. A seventeen year habit. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror – pink, blood shot eyes, black stubble plaguing my face. Exhausted. Hungry.

I walk aimlessly through the beige sterile halls of Boca West Hospital. Gray spackled linoleum, applesauce walls, brain-melting fluorescent lighting. A perfectly neutral environment so as not to offend anyone, but certainly not make them want to stay any longer than their allotted hospital sentence. There is not another body on the first floor. I make my way through the deserted lobby and empty halls until I find the vending machine room. A small, claustrophobic shoebox that houses four machines dating back to 1993. Ice cream, candy, soda, and what looks to be prepackaged hamburgers, hot dogs and burritos. I throw up slightly in my mouth.

Peanut M&M’s and orange Gatorade it is.

I slide my debit card in the slot, select my numbers and watch patiently for authorization.

Waiting for authorization…
Fuck you ellipses. I’m hungry.

Authorization denied.
Apparently my card wasn’t good enough for either machine. The idea of walking all the way back to the ATM in the lobby seems excruciating. Unbearable. Each step was met by the pull of an anchor that sank me deeper into the cold, dismal laminate floor.

I just want to eat and go back to the room.
My fingers find their way back to my scalp. Careful not to mess up my hair.

I sit cuddled in a blue vinyl chair sent over from the Operating Room. I remove any thought about this chair having seated countless pre and post op patients in their backless gowns for the past decade. Now my bed for the night. A gesture of kindness. So tired. It is somewhere around midnight. The hands on the clock above me mysteriously creep along further, faster than expected. A nurse knocks gently on the door and simultaneously opens it. A triangle of light expands on the floor as she walks in, bleeding into a rectangular spot that shines directly on the hospital bed in front of me.

My mom lies amidst stiff white linen, a soft green and blue glow from the IV lights reflect on her pale skin, illuminating a clear tube that runs from the machine in to her left arm. Her eyes are covered by a sleeping mask while her mouth hangs gently open. A light gray hospital gown drapes her body, stars and moons scatter the fabric like constellations that remind me of my childhood blanket.

She is asleep. Knocked out by anesthesia.

“Can I get you a blanket and some pillows?” The nurse cocks her head to the side and furrows her brow affectionately.

“Please,” I say. “Do you have any food? The vending machine downstairs isn’t working.” The thought of spending a night confined to a hospital room with no access to food just made my stomach growl that much mightier.

“Sure. How about a turkey sandwich and some Jell-O?”

Slim pickings that sound perfect right now.

She returns with vanilla pudding and a white bread turkey sandwich sealed in a disposable plastic shell. I devour the pudding then douse half the turkey sandwich with a packet of mustard. Flavorless, generic, delicious hospital food at quarter past midnight. I toss the other half sandwich out and curl into the recliner. My throne for the evening.

The faint hum of machines breathing fills the otherwise silent room.

I stare at my mother, lying in her hospital bed across from me. She is strong but scared. A fighter protecting the little girl inside.

So tired.

My fingers make their way back up to my head. I fade out. The pain from picking each scab offers an indescribable sense of relief. Comfort. Raking through my scalp like a scavenger. Burning eyes, throbbing head, blood-laced fingernails.

At some point I drift off.

A nurse walks in at 3 A.M. to check on my mom. “Mrs. Heller what is your pain level? Are you ready for a Vicodin?” There was a time when my mind would be scheming all sorts of insanity. How to cop pain medication, which nurse to befriend. Sneaking in rooms, going through bags. Like someone turning on a light switch, the action was almost involuntary. Immediate. Put me in a hospital and my thoughts darken. Chat pain management and I become a hunter. A charmer. A thief. A liar.

Fortunately that is not where I am today. Fortunately that light switch stays off.
I fall back asleep.

Hospitals are unbelievably lonely. Life and death under one roof. People being cut open, diseases comingling, grief, worst-case scenarios, lost limbs, blood, hope. Love is tested, families united then pulled apart. A honeycomb of mortality. Nurses and doctors scrambling about, patients wheeled around, visitors rushing in and out, security guards pace halls. And us. A peon in the grand design.

Pull back. Hospital exterior. Midnight. Room 323 illuminates the night sky with dim light. Silhouette of mother and son. He types at his computer as she sleeps in bed, his face cast in blue shadow from the monitor glow. Right hand fixed on his head, picking almost ritualistically. Fade to black.


* * * * *


I wander back to the room as the sun rises. Moans from an eighty something year old man who neighbors my mom echoes the hall. As I approach, I turn my head to see him surrounded by three nurses. A skeleton of a man, porcelain white with brown spots that pollute his body. Sunken cheeks and bone thin limbs escape his hospital gown. Gray eyes meet mine as he expresses love for the nurses who clean his frail body. He is turned on his side after apparently shitting himself during the night. He moans and wails while lying as helpless as the day he was born. Dependent until we gain independence only to become dependent once more. The circle of life. Cue Elton John.

I sink back into my chair and stare at my mom. Still asleep. Still hooked to a machine.

Fingers crawl up to my hair. On my scalp. Pick. Blood. Relief.

Earlier that night I told her I listened to the song “Time and Tide”. That it brought me back to us dancing in the living room of the old townhouse. She said she does the same. One of many songs that connect us, unite our past with the present. Shared moments that can be accessed together the instant those first few chords start to play.

I struggle with feeling. With sympathy. Understanding emotion is one thing, seeing it and emulating it. But to feel, to live from the heart and not solely in the mind is something else entirely. And I feel like a wide-eyed sociopath, blank, a deer in headlights when faced with emotion beyond my own inner bullshit. A tinge of resentment, of panic or annoyance sets in when I realize I have to face someone else’s life. Their joy or despair. Because it bounces off me like a racquet ball smacking against a wall, leaving a faint blue imprint against a white surface, but never penetrating to the other side. Deflected. I was oblivious for so long, thinking that everyone else was overly sensitive or emotional. But the realization set in that it was me. That I wore armor. That the day my ex told me his father may be dying, my first thought was, “Fuck. I’ll have to deal with that.” The idea of mass sadness to a degree that spans beyond my comprehension. A sadness outside of me, that doesn’t revolve around self turmoil and stems from love not angst. I knew how far that death would resonate within him. I knew there would be tears. Family in mourning. I would have to offer embrace, words of encouragement and condolence like, he’s in a better place or I’m so sorry, I’m here for you. But really it just becomes a hassle. And I wanted nothing to do with it. I dreaded the day his father would finally kick it.

Cut to white paint chipping off distressed wood. Old, weathered, cracking. Exposing the brown grain beneath. It means something.

An overwhelming urge to understand my lack of sympathy, the vacant being, consumes me. It is what I think about, question in my life today. Am I a good person? Am I true to myself? Do I do enough?

Is it ever enough?

I am looking inward so much, to the point where I don’t have an answer anymore. Like saying a word over and over until suddenly it loses meaning, it becomes an abstract sound. I ask these questions repeatedly, reflect on my intentions, my sincerity. Until I become a Pollock.

“Horses” by Tori Amos enters. I see purple. Black light. And I go to Raychel’s house in high school. All of us together in a room flying high on ecstasy. I feel something. I feel something that hits my heart. Purple and black fills my head, it is the color of the room. We are all cuddled in the darkness of purple black light and shadow. This song playing. I hear the lyrics for the first time.

I got me some horses
to ride on,
to ride on.
As long as your army
keeps perfectly still

I was so lost. Senior year of high school. But the drugs kept me open. They allowed me to access a freedom and happiness that I did not know otherwise. Drugs to open me up turned into drugs that would shut me down.

But why is this memory important? Why now?

This music was the soundtrack to a time that fostered incubation. A time when I crawled into oblivion to escape pain. “Little Earthquakes” plays now. Those first few piano notes trail in my head, hold my hand as they lead me further back. To me and Lauren hanging out in my bedroom freshman or sophomore year of high school. Both discovering ourselves simultaneously. My best friend, a soul mate who battled life with me early on. We listened to this music together, lying on my bedroom floor side by side. Kindred spirits with parallel angst and a mutual detachment from the world. Artists, budding homos, wrapped in self-doubt and insecurity. Creative beyond our own good. Inseparable and united by a deep melancholy. We were beautifully connected.

I travel to that time, to Lauren, and something fills me. Loss. Nostalgia. Longing. I miss those moments of having absolute security and the world within reach. Everything so big and unknown. So many dreams. A time to fuck up with no consequence. To explore. To get lost. A time of so many firsts. First car. First drive. First love. First kiss. First sex. First drug. First taste of independence. It was one of the most creative and self-destructive times of my life. The transition from girls to boys. Solitude to friends. A time when I began to pave a path for myself. When I developed a voice. When music entered. Words began to flow. Ideas formed.

The night before I started high school, the night before everything changed, was my first real encounter with another man. I met him online. I was fourteen. I probably lied and said I was sixteen because that sounded so much older to me then. He was in his late twenties, early thirties. The excitement, fear, mystery made the anticipation of meeting him overwhelming. I was watching Muriel’s Wedding alone in my room when he arrived. I snuck him through the window. He was tall, taller than me by several inches. The smell of his cologne was strong, like he had just sprayed himself before coming in. It is a scent that makes me nauseous to this day. Cheap drugstore cologne that only conjures images of online perverts.

We sat on my bed as I nervously talked to him. I shook. Trembled. The butterflies flew feverishly in my stomach while the combination of his cologne and close proximity to my body became intoxicating.

After that moment I remember little. From us speaking, to him on top of me. His mouth on my skin. His sweat. That fucking cologne.

I shut down.

I had little option as to what would happen next. I remained silent while he proceeded to scar the next fifteen years of my sexual life. Single handedly eliminating any trust for older men. Especially gay men.

He left just as quickly as he came.

I showered, trying not to wake my parents. Trying not to cry. Trying to believe that the blood I wiped clean was okay.

I was fourteen.
My first day of high school started a few hours later.

I felt disgusting. Alone. Uncomfortable. Pain. The fear of starting a new school, of not knowing anyone, was mixed with the degradation of what had just happened hours earlier. But I walked those halls with a smile. With a face that didn’t crack for a second. I had practice in middle school, wearing masks. Showing no fear. Exterior cool to hide interior crumbling. Bridges burning. Buildings imploding. But this mask was very new — a level of emotion, of guilt and shame — that I had not experienced before. So my skin got tougher. My ability to push it away got stronger.

It was months later that my grandmother lost her battle with fallopian tube cancer. A woman who could put me in a state of comfort just by placing a hand on my back. One of the most beautiful, enigmatic people I will ever know. Donna. My momom. My Yityl Dityl.

Those last days in hospice were the hardest. When she knew she had done all that could be done. That time was slipping away and options had been exhausted. I was fifteen and existed mostly in the background while we went to and from the hospital day after day. The severity of what was actually happening had not registered, she was not going anywhere. The lack of hair, her frail body, the collective sadness was temporary. Death was just as incomprehensible as the concept of infinity. My little mind could not grasp the idea of losing someone who was that close. Who I truly adored. This permanent fixture in my life would cease to be within a matter of days, and that truth was foreign.

I walked the halls alone or sat in a hospice family room. A dimly lit, partially decorated space with books, television, dated magazines. A pamphlet that outlined the stages of death and grieving, which I read countless times to try and identify each phase. In the corner was an old record player, a few vinyl’s resting against it. One of which was a Barbra Streisand album. I sat and played those tracks over and over until it burned a place in my memory. A sort of requiem. Waiting for death or a miraculous cure. Whichever came first.

Her last night arrived. Family gathered in the room and slowly faded to sleep as hours slipped away, waiting. Lights were off, my chair sat directly next to momom. I held her hand in mine as she slept, breathing with congestion in her lungs that became a rhythmic rattle. I played with the gold watch around her wrist, a timepiece she wore always. I was the only one awake. Her breathing became heavier, the fluid in her lungs grew louder. I stared softly at her arms, skin thin and porcelain. Her features, her face, a faint shadow of the woman I remembered. Who played restaurant with me as a kid and brought me to musicals. Who drove around endlessly if I fell asleep in her car until I woke. Who made the best chocolate milk and eggs in the morning while I watched episodes of Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch. We had dances, our own songs.

I wish she were here now.
Maybe she is.

Those next minutes were impulse driven. The rattling in her chest turned to heaving. Then choking. It was a steady build that became increasingly worse until her body began to convulse. I jumped up, yelling for help. The lights flashed on, panic stirred the room. Someone called for a nurse. I got in bed and supported her body as she continued to choke on fluids, brown liquid now streaming from her mouth. The nurse came, efforts were made. But she passed in my arms.

I heard cries, voices, a blur of noise that became a tornado. My momom. Lifeless, no longer struggling, no longer moving. A shell. A body.

She was gone.

And then it hit. Flooded with emotion that brought me down to the cold hospital floor. I gasped for air between tears and sobs, crippled in the corner. I had never felt this degree of pain, never seen life disintegrate like the turning of a page. I heard my grandpa say, “Take him out of here.” But I wouldn’t move. I couldn’t.

Even as I write about her, about her death, I feel detached. Her memory is locked away, kept safe somewhere even my conscious mind is unaware. Because I’ve pushed it so far back that all I feel is a faint spark, a diluted pinch of how I truly felt.

Fifteen years later and I am callous. My body wrapped in a cocoon of armor. A thick shell that has protected me from years of bullying, of self-loathing, sexual shame, abandonment, rejection. Years of wondering why I’m not good enough. When I’ll receive my spotlight. Labeled as depressed, addict, paranoid, gay, bipolar, ADD. Medication after medication. Guy after guy. Drug after drug. Thing after thing. Failed attempt after failed attempt.

The armor got stronger.
My fingers comb for scabs.
I zone out.

I have been hiding. Avoiding. Shut down because it’s easier than feeling and requires no thought. It is the absolute dismissal of thought. The absence of self.

Moments of clarity pierce my cocoon like little beams of light through a pinhole.

I watch my mother confined to a hospital bed. I sit by her side while she sleeps. I stare. I stare and I wait to feel something.

And I do.
It’s transformation.

Thanks for reading