Fiction by Jake Edgar
The X-ray Technician Quits Her Job
I arrive early, which for me is a rare–almost unheard of occurrence, yet for some reason I couldn’t place just how I ended up at work at all. There were eight or nine patients being transferred for post-op care to our facility, and they were all just staring at the walls, not in apathy like one might expect a sick person to, but rather with an intentional and self-aware curiosity. What I mean is, whenever patients arrive from New Hanover Regional Medical Center to our facility (which is usually for overnight monitoring), they appear to be taken aback by the cleanliness and the overall feeling of new that washes over them upon their first glimpses of Cape Fear Hospital’s interior. Truth is, we (as a hospital) don’t have much to offer by way of equipment, nor by way of skilled surgeons and the like. It was this newness that gave the patient’s something to trust (granted this trust was misplaced) and it seemed to me that it was that alone that gave us the authority to remain a hospital / medical facility at all. I take x-rays for a living, which means I’ll get cancer one day for sure but doesn’t everyone these days? I don’t really mind the idea; I’ve seen enough cancer to no longer be afraid of it, or that way of dying. I am the night technician’s replacement. His name is José, and I’m always a couple of minutes late. Even today I found myself lost in the east wing, so I was still in a rush. He doesn’t mind, usually just pokes fun at me in Spanish a little. Until I see him, I am not a person. It’s like pulling the curtains open to a bright yellow sun when I see his face. He uses the same line every time: que pasa mi amiga, estás muy cansada, no? Yet, it feels like a new and unexpected thing every time I hear him say it. Lately most things seem unexpected. Even stop lights turning from red to green (there has definitely been an increasing number of people honking at me lately). It tends to just make me laugh, but also make me hate myself in this unnamable and immaterial way, like that feeling of knowing somebody on an airplane as it flies overhead. When I go on my lunch break, I generally head to the Starbucks in the west wing’s cafeteria first thing. There is a boy there, well he’s about forty, my age, (boy just feels like a nicer word than man), and he works the same shifts as me, but I can never remember his name. I was walking towards the cafe when the headache started, and the next thing I knew I was taking an x-ray of an older woman’s spine; it looked like sausage coming out of a meat grinder: spilling all over itself. When I got off I was honked at again, two times in fact. One in the parking lot of the hospital, and the other on Kerr Ave. near my bar (not my bar literally). I told Billy what happened and he said you been forgetin’ a lot lately, and asked do you want another beer? But Billy knows me well enough not to bother waiting for a reply, and before I knew it he had already poured me my third pint. Thanks Billy-goat I said. Living alone doesn’t mean sleeping alone, at least not every night, but sometimes even Roxanne my German Shepherd needs her own space. Good thing is, I find myself wanting my own space too, and (often) on the same nights. It all depends on my stumbling when I first get home, and where I pass out. Next day I wake up on the couch, not so much late for work, as in a big rush to be on time. Roxanne nods at me from my bed with deep empathy. I think she either feels bad for me, or knows something I don’t, probably both. At work José’s not there, so it’s a girl whose name I can never remember. I always get nervous when she’s there. Girls as smart and pretty as she is always make me feel obliged to be funnier than I really am, which I think is a reflection of the way I perceive myself. When I somehow get her laughing I feel like a bad person and a good actor; it’s maddening. All day afterwards I can’t seem to wash the feeling off. It’s as if I shaved only one of my legs, and the whole world sees/knows what I’ve done. Luckily she’s in a rush today, or at least that’s how it seems to me. Blurry interactions. Blurry Memories. I tell Billy about the boy at the cafe and the girl that takes X-rays. That’s Joseph and Brandi, he says, and then he calls me strange and getting stranger through an all gum grin. I’m thinking he’s right, and Roxanne agrees next morning when I wake up to her eyes piercing into and through me, from my bed, in my bedroom. I guess I fell asleep on the couch every day this week. As I’m eating my yogurt and granola, it occurs to me that my boots are still on, and that I can’t recall the last time I took a shower, or when I last took my boots off. So I take them off and take a shower. I start thinking about the way water can change temperature using this knob here, and then the man-boy from Starbucks. I think about how some boys smile because it’s their job to smile at customers, and through some feat of imagination I convince myself that he smiles, not only because he has to, but also because, when I show up, and tell him I need a nonfat mocha with half the sweetener, maybe that’s his drink too, and maybe he thinks that means we could maybe one day be together. Suddenly the water is cold, so I rinse off and get out. His lurid eyes still radiating behind mine. The water has been getting cold much faster than it used to, so I make a mental note to call the landlord ASAP, dry off quickly, get dressed (put on new socks!) pat Roxy on the head and walk out the door. When the sloshy southern air hits my face, I start to sweat instantly, just a little, but it never fails. Although, even that seems to be worse, if not today, at least some of the days in a set of recent days. Since it’s been getting worse, I have started keeping a handkerchief in my glove compartment at all times. I search for it in my car, and hum that one song about glove compartments, and then come to the conclusion that the dang handkerchief is nowhere to be found, great. Despite my sweaty armpits, I decide to ask Joseph out (he is wearing a nametag today) and to my utter shock, he says sure, I’d love to go out with you, when and where did you have in mind? So I say what about that fondue place in downtown this Friday, and he says he’s always meant to try it, and that would be perfect. I smile like there’s no tomorrow and get out of there before he can change his mind. It was Friday at the restaurant when I had my first of what would be many bloody noses (it was however, by far the worst one.) First we were having fun, trying to talk while jointly ignoring the volume of the other conversations, and despite my sweaty armpits, he kept smiling that same smile. I knew I had to be, at least at some level, correct in my earlier assumption. He speaks a lot faster outside of the cafe (can you call a Starbucks a cafe?) and I can’t seem to follow, so I keep saying what, can you repeat that? And to his credit, he patiently does, repeat himself that is. Things were honestly going really well. But then like I said, suddenly I was struck with this bloody nose like no other, like an upside down geyser, or an actual waterfall–a bloodfall! It was horrific. It splashed all over the table, into his wine, and all over his shirt. He (for obvious reasons) left shortly after that, and I remember somehow convincing him, that specifically because of the blood, that that was in fact why I should pay, and according to my bank statement (which I watch over hawkishly) he eventually conceded, and let me pay. Two hundred and thirteen dollars. Over the past few days I find myself going back to this one brief moment. It was before the host took us to our table in the middle of the patio, and before we sat down and decided on the spicy cheese (since it would make the best first course), and before we ordered the two glasses of their nicest mid-tier wine: it was when we first saw each other– from just a few feet away. Joseph had pulled me in for a melancholy embrace, and whispered something wordless into my ear. It may have simply been a breath, like normal breathing to be alive, but I heard it like it was meant for me. After that I stopped going to the cafe (if you can call it that), and I never called him again, or even sent him a text. In fact, shortly after that I quit my job as an X-ray technician at Cape Fear Hospital, and got a job as a receptionist for a clinic closer to mi casa. I miss José already. Unfortunately that position didn’t last long, because my headaches were growing with intensity and my punctuality (which was already, as I’ve said, not great) got even worse accordingly. They eventually fired me, but in spite of everything (in a gesture of unexpected kindness) they promised not to contest my case if I filed for unemployment, which they strongly suggested that I do. But I just kept forgetting and the next thing I knew I was on my last few hundred dollars with no job, no plan, and rent, was already far past being late.
I was doing laundry when I saw the lady X-ray technician. She screamed from across the room: Jess! Jess! It’s me Brandi! She seemed really happy to see me, and suddenly it became very clear to me, in my innermost self, that I didn’t have the energy to make her laugh. Where have you been? she asked. I said nowhere I guess. And I think it was the first thing I said aloud in weeks. The words stuck to the roof of my mouth like a rusty coin. Then she went on to complain about my replacement and about how nobody makes her laugh quite like I do/did, almost like you know just what to say, she said. She went on to tell me that it felt intimate to her and very special, almost motherly. She said since my mom died just last year, it all began to mean that much more to me, and I miss that part of you, of us. I never realized we were close in any respect, and I think at that point I was supposed to take her lead– make her laugh about something trivial, but as I mentioned, I didn’t have it in me. Moments later her eyes sobered and her mouth straightened. She walked away– turning as she reached her machine and gave me a look like, hey you okay? But I just kept rolling the coin around in my mouth, letting the bits flake off inside.
Jake Edgar lives and writes in Portland, OR, with his wife and four amazing kids. He studies applied linguistics at Portland State University, and is the Prose Editor for the online arts journal Structural Damage. He thinks poetry, essays, and fiction can be super cool. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bellwether Review, The Pointed Circle, Structural Damage, as well as Concis, a Journal of Brevity.