The hustle and bustle of the hallways finally ebbed. Lights in the rooms had been dimmed hours ago but the readouts from the thousand different monitors customary in a death ward supplied almost sufficient illumination in the room to read by if he had been so inclined. He wasn’t.
Avie lay in his bed, aware of the IV in his arm, the morphine and saline drip, the O2 tube in his nose, the catheter in his penis, and thought to himself that he was damn near a cyborg and wasn’t that about the funniest thing to happen to him in his entire life. He couldn’t feel sorry for himself; the other guy in the room, Mickey, came equipped precisely the same way. It’s what happened when you reached your 70s, semi-sort-of-traditional, like being led out into the forest but here you have an audience. That kind of thinking, he decided, was morbid; he needed to distract himself.
“Hey, Mickey,” he said loud enough for his voice to carry above the machinery to his roommate’s bed, “you awake?”
“Ain’t I always awake?” Mickey responded.
“You could ask for sleeping pills, dummy!” The words came out before he thought about them, a habit that he’d been ashamed of for quite a few decades now.
“You just wanted to bust my balls?”
“No, I wanted to ask you a question.”
“Are you scared?”
“Scared o’ what?” Mickey answered. The answer irritated Avie but he wasn’t precisely sure why that was. He wanted to take time to think about it but knew he was supposed to respond to Mickey so he didn’t have time. In a rush, his words came out with all his irritation attached making them much more sarcastic than he had intended: “Dying, of course, you dumb sumnabitch.”
They’d been roommates for two weeks now; Mickey was accustomed to Avie.’s ways. Didn’t like them any better but, at least, was accustomed to them.
“Ain’t any dumber a sumbitch than you are, Avie.” Then, he took some time before he answered the question. When he did, it came out as a whisper, as if saying it aloud was more shaming than the fact of the fear. “Yeah, I guess I am,” he said. Then, he added “you?”
“Been laying here thinking about that, Mickey. Been thinking about it off and on since I got here. I think I’ve decided that I’m not so afraid of dying as I am that it’s going to be painful.”
“You ain’t worried about the other side?” The tone with which he asked the question strongly implied that Mickey was.
“I made up my mind about that a long time ago and nothing has happened to make me think I ought to change it. No, I don’t believe I’m worried about the other side.”
“If you ain’t scared o’ dying, then, why don’t you just call it quits and get out o’ this place?”
“Not being scared is not the same thing as looking forward to it, Mickey. I keep thinking something’s gonna happen and I’m gonna walk out of here.”
“You talking miracles?”
“Put any name on it you want. I don’t think I’m afraid of dying; I’m just not willing to stop living.”
“Yeah? You’re a better man than me, sumbitch. I’m plumb scared of dying. I’ll put that off as long as I can. Must be nice to not be scared, though.”
“I guess,” Avie mused, “but, you know, it isn’t that I’m not scared of stuff. I already told you I’m deathly afraid of pain.” And then he laughed. “Isn’t that a neat choice of words: deathly afraid of pain. Maybe I’m not so damned smart as I think I am.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Mickey said.
“Screw you, Mickey!” Mickey laughed.
“Always been afraid of pain. Had enough of it, I suppose; always managed to survive it. Got it again. So why am I so afraid of it?”
“Somebody told me once it’s an involuntary response the body just does; you got no control over it.”
“That makes sense. It’s a survival mechanism like fight or flee.”
The quiet that dropped on the room as the two men considered this observation was broken by Avie.
“Mickey, what’s the most scared you remember being?”
“You mean other than the fire fight?” Patients in a Veteran’s Administration hospital established their credentials first thing. Mickey had been a Marine guard at an embassy in Central Africa during The Troubles. There had been a hellacious assault on the embassy that came and went like a bad wind. It was the only action he’d seen during his service but it had been enough to leave a lifetime of memories.
“You were scared then, huh?”
“Naaah! Not me! I was a goddamned Marine, you stupid shit! Of course I was scared. I thought I was going to die.”
“And that’s what scared you?”
“You are fucking unbelievable, Avie! Of course, that’s what scared me.”
Avie didn’t say anything for a minute. When he did, his voice was distracted as if he was pondering what he was saying even as he was trying to get it out. “I know some of what you’re saying, Mickey. Came close to a fire fight but didn’t actually get in it. Shit was happening down the street but it never got to our place. Remember the tightening in my balls, the sweat, the nerves. What I don’t remember is thinking I was going to die.” A few seconds pass before he continues, but Avie did continue.
“You ever been to Hawaii, Mickey?”
“Never had the pleasure.”
“There’s a hotel there, a Hilton I seem to remember, that has an elevator outside the building, so you get in it and going up you have this incredible view of Honolulu.”
“I got that same tightening of the balls being in that elevator. I get that same tightening watching a friggin’ movie where somebody is standing on top of a building or a cliff. I got that same feeling sitting in the middle of a Huey’s passenger seat with the damned doors open.”
“Heights,” Mickey agreed.
“That’s no explanation, though, Mickey. That tells when it happens but not why. And it doesn’t tell me a thing why it’s the same thing I felt waiting for my fire fight to happen.”
“C’mon, you idjit, that’s fear. That’s all that is.”
“Fear of what, damn it? Fear of what?!
“Just plain old garden variety fear. People get it, that’s all. Just the body sayin’ what is happening may be dangerous to your health.”
“Oh, yeah, smart ass, then, explain this to me. The first briefing I ever gave to the management of my company, I got the same damned reaction. Half hour before I go before them, I’m sweating; I’m pacing. I enter that conference room and my balls squeeze so tight I’m surprised I make it to the podium. I came so close to panic and getting my ass out of that room.”
“You was scared, of course.”
“Of what? This was long after my damned miss of a fire fight. What the hell was there to be afraid of?”
“Got no clue, ole buddy; no clue at all. But, I’m pretty sure you know the answer.”
Avie thought for a moment, examining the circumstance of that day, remembering the preparation, the advice and bullshit his peers gave him, the encouragement his boss had rendered. “Just know your material,” his boss had said. “That’s the best way to overcome any nervousness.” Which was exactly what he had taught a few thousand soldiers in Techniques of Military Instruction. Yet, he had been scared almost literally shitless going into that conference room.
“Making an ass out of myself,” Avie told Mickey. “I was scared of making an ass out of myself.”
“Ain’t we all?” Mickey said.
“Yeah, but, for me; that’s what scares me most, that people will discover that I am a phony; that I have been bullshitting my way through from day one, as far back as I can remember.”
“I hear that,” Mickey said. When the words sunk in, Avie’s first reaction was total embarrassment that Mickey agreed, that he had seen through him. “You knew?” Avie asked.
“Shit, no!” Mickey laughed. “Just know what you’re talking about. Been there, done that.”
“All the things I’ve ever done, Mickey; all the things I remember doing was like I was playing some role on stage and watching to see how the audience reacted. Once described myself as a chameleon, able to fit in anywhere. You want to be high and mighty cultured; I can do that. You want to be down and dirty, pool shooting, whiskey drinking bums, I can do that. You want to be program managers guiding million dollar programs, I can do that. But none of that shit is me. It’s just shit I can do.”
“Comes the $64K question, then, doesn’t it? Who are you?”
“Whoever I am, I’m afraid it’s not good enough. I’m terrified people will find out and laugh and laugh and laugh.”
“Didn’t answer the question, dude; who are you?”
Avie tried to think of an answer. What he came up with was: “I don’t know! All I can see is who I am in terms of other people. I’m my parent’s son; my wife’s husband, my children’s dad. Without defining a situation and the people in the situation, I can’t tell you who I am.”
“And this is a bad thing?”
“Isn’t it? Aren’t you supposed to be able to know who you are, be comfortable with yourself, able to stand on your own two feet? Isn’t that what a man is supposed to be?”
Mickey didn’t answer. While Avie waited, his body seeped into his consciousness to inform him that things were not all that good. Something was happening in his chest, something was happening in his fingers and toes, something was happening in the roots to what was left of his hair. Didn’t seem really significant but it did seem something was going on.
“You know, Mickey; one of my favorite things to say was that I wonder what I’ll be when I grow up. I never saw myself as growing up; always thought I was still a little boy looking at the world wondering how I was going to fit in. “
“You’re getting maudlin, old man. Why don’t you zip it up and get some sleep.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Am getting maudlin. Next thing you know I’ll have us reaching for the hankies. Sorry ‘bout that. Get some sleep, Mickey; I’ll shut up now.”
And he did. He stopped talking; closed his eyes; and thought about sleeping. He realized then that whatever was happening was getting stronger, getting to the point that he began to recognize it as pain and thought maybe he ought to punch the call button but that was going to take more energy then it was worth. “Nuts!” he thought, “I wonder what I grew up to be.”