- Leah Browning
"5150" and "Encyclopedia Britannica"
This time, I get to ride next to her
in the back of the ambulance.
It’s a short distance
to the hospital
but the only things they trust now
are the numbers on the form.
They wheel the gurney through
the back hallways of the ER
to finish paperwork and unbuckle
the straps that are holding her down
and set her free.
We are still standing around when
a young man walks into the room
and removes a piece of equipment,
then another man and another item,
until we are surrounded by young men
in scrubs, systematically stripping the room
of every curtain and cord,
and because it’s not really necessary
I’m slow to understand what’s happening.
She is sitting up on the bed, and when
she looks around and says
that the room is full of blackbirds,
it takes a second to realize
that she’s making a joke;
she has emerged from the fog
and is herself again—smart, funny—
making light of the fact that she’s now
on a suicide watch and the ER techs
can’t leave anything behind;
they pick and pull until nothing is left
but her bed and my chair.
We all laugh but it’s uneasy
until everyone else leaves
and it’s just the two of us again
(and the security guard, sitting
on a chair in the hallway, just outside the door
that we’re not allowed to close).
My husband has gone home
to put the children to bed.
All of us are waiting for the test results
to prove that this isn’t a bad trip
or a fever, and then the phone call
that will send her
wherever they can find a bed.
There was a time, during an earlier
hospital stay, when I saw a woman
sitting on a bus bench talking to herself
and I thought, that could be her
I almost couldn’t take
the pain I felt then.
Now, curiously, I don’t feel anything,
just tired. It makes me think of a long labor:
the hours of waiting, the exhaustion,
the medical tests, the night dragging on so long
that you forget, briefly, and then remember,
all over again, why you are even here.
She was at the clinic early this afternoon,
but it feels like another lifetime.
In the middle of the night, a new guard
brings me a heated blanket.
For months, that moment slips back
into my mind: the feeling of waking up
in the dark, slumped over on a chair inside
the emergency room, and a young man,
a stranger, placing a warm blanket over me.
He said quietly, you seemed cold,
and it’s true—I was shivering—
and every time I thought that I might die
of grief I thought of him bringing that blanket
as she lay in the hospital bed
next to me, asleep, with a band on her wrist,
and that was the moment I clung to
in the hours until daybreak.
Time was a languorous thing once—
a long summer day spent lying on your
side eating a chocolate chip ice cream cone
and pushing the porch swing idly with one foot,
listening to the hum of cicadas in the trees
or the similarly dreamlike sound of ocean water
lapping at the shore. We used to spend
hours lying on the couch in the basement
taking off each other’s clothes, the scent
of his neck the sweetest thing I could imagine,
and this is sometimes what I thought of
at night as I was falling asleep under the open window
and this is also what I am thinking of
when one of the kids pulls a cellphone
out of a pocket and asks me what in the world
we ever did without them.
Leah Browning is the author of Two Good Ears and Loud Snow, mini-books of flash fiction published by Silent Station Press, as well as three short nonfiction books and six chapbooks of poetry and fiction. Her writing has appeared in Harpur Palate, Flock, Four Way Review, The Broadkill Review, Oyster River Pages, Coldnoon, Tipton Poetry Journal, Watershed Review, The Petigru Review, Necessary Fiction, Newfound, Belletrist Magazine, Poetry South, The Stillwater Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Browning’s work has also appeared on materials from Broadsided Press and Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in anthologies including The Doll Collection from Terrapin Books and Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence from White Pine Press.