Authors: Elle Lothlorien
For my mother, Linda Loy, who selflessly and lovingly put the pieces of my life back together while I slept.
Sleeping on a sidewalk isn’t as uncomfortable as you might think. Besides, when I come to, it’s not the lack of a comfy mattress or fluffy pillows that I notice first. It’s always the voices.
No, not those kinds of voices.
Here’s the thing: When people fall asleep, their senses slip away from them one at a time, like tipsy guests creeping out of a party once all the good booze has run out. The first to go is the sense of taste followed by sight, touch and smell. The last to go is hearing. When a person finally regains consciousness, all five senses come home to roost in reverse, with hearing making its appearance first.
This is why your alarm clock makes lots of noise in the morning rather than dropping Brussels sprouts into your mouth.
So even though I'm a little groggy, a little disoriented, I'm not uncomfortable lying on the pavement.
I take a deep breath as my other senses come back online one at a time. Even when I’m sure I’ll be able to see I keep my eyes closed, because I know my vision will still be a little blurry–“Embarrivision” my younger brother, West, calls it.
“Embarri-what?” I’d asked when I first heard him say it. It was months earlier and I was in the middle of An Episode, half-conscious on my couch with the top of my head butted up against my brother’s thigh as he sat and plucked on what sounded like his ukulele.
West stopped playing. “Embarrivision. I started doing it in high school whenever I got embarrassed–a kid tripped me in the lunchroom, or someone made fun of me in math class—I’d force my eyes to go out of focus.”
“Errrrrn?” I was fading fast, but he knew what I meant.
“So I’d forget about it quicker.” I’d felt his long, blonde hair tickle my face and opened one of my eyes. “When a memory is blurry,” he said, leaning over me and staring into my one open eye, “there’s really nothing interesting to reflect on.”
I’d thought about it for awhile. It might have been a really, really long while because when I opened an eye again there was a different show on TV, it was dusk, and West’s ukulele had vanished. “I don’t fall asleep on purpose,” I mumbled. “It just happens…like the paralysis.”
“Yeah, but you’re embarrassed, aren’t you?” God love him, he’d acted like there was nothing abnormal about picking up a conversation where you’d left it three hours before.” So maybe it’s a good thing that everything’s all blurry at first when you wake up, right?”
West had a point
, I think, still lying on my back on the sidewalk. Even without moving my legs I can tell that they’re a little rubbery and weak yet, like a baby foal’s. The medical term for this is Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis. Translated into action, it means I’d look like a spider on roller skates if I tried to get up now.
I can hear people nearby, talking about me.
“I saw her. She didn’t fall, just sat down.”
“She didn’t sit down. She laid right down like she was gonna take a nap or somethin’.”
“Shouldn’t we call an ambulance?” says one, an older woman by the sound of it.
“No.” This is a man’s voice. He sounds self-assured. “If she didn’t hit her head or fall, she’ll be fine. She’ll wake up in a minute.”
Other voices are muffled and further away, their tone of hushed concern eventually fading away altogether. Beyond it all is the occasional hum of a car engine, slowing as it gets closer.
Rubberneckers, I think, and slowly crack open my left eye. A circle of heads peers down at me like a ground-view shot of a football huddle. “You okay, honey?” says an elderly woman. Her voice is kind but not alarmed. This is good. It means that I haven’t been splayed out here on the sidewalk long, which in turn means I probably wasn’t robbed or assaulted. Doesn’t sound like anyone called nine-one-one, and no one in the circle of heads looks particularly panicked, so I’m guessing that I’m not bleeding or broken anywhere either.
Suddenly I feel warm breath on my ear. From the smell of it–damp rawhide–I’m certain it’s not a handsome prince coming to wake me. I roll my eyes to the side just in time to see a tiny red wiener dog stretch out his neck and tentatively lick my cheek. Someone above me yanks its leash, and the puppy abruptly disappears like a performer yanked off a stage with a cane.
From above me someone says, “We saw your bracelet.”
My bracelet. I automatically touch the bracelet on my left wrist with my opposite hand. (
Hey! Arms are working!
) On one side is the blood red “snake and stick”—the classic medical symbol of a serpent twisted around a wooden staff. On the other side are words engraved into brushed titanium:
I have narcolepsy and cataplexy. These conditions can cause me to fall asleep unexpectedly and/or appear disoriented.
I sigh and sit up. A teenager with one of those awful trucker hats–this one includes a pithy saying (“Ask Me About My 401 Keg Plan”)–offers me his hand and pulls me to my feet. Without thinking, I touch the back of my head for any debris that might have collected in my hair while I was out cold. Once I’d fallen asleep on the Newhall Metrolink platform after going with a friend to Six Flags. When I woke up I had a piece of a partially chewed hotdog—relish, mustard, the works—and grape Pop Rocks stuck in my long, blonde hair. The saliva from the one acted as a catalyst for the other.
My impromptu Snap! Crackle! Pop! hairdo really brought on the stares from my fellow passengers. Also, it taught me that yellow mustard stains are impossible to remove from platinum hair. At one point I’d cropped it to a short, pixie length, which made it much easier to wash and style (and flicking chunks of food out of it was a cinch). It’s not as long now as it once was, but nostalgic for summertime ponytails, I’ve let it grow back to just past my shoulders.
“You were walking in front of me,” says the 401 Keg kid, “and you just stopped walking and got on the ground. Right here.” He points at the sidewalk as if the location of my spur-of-the-moment nap is somehow critically important to the story.
I slap the sidewalk grime off the back of my pants and look around to get my bearings. A Metro sign marks the bus stop directly in front of the University Hospital entrance. Adults young and old pour in and out of its main doors. Through the stylish lobby windows, I can see a guy tinkling away on grand piano next to the information desk. A blue-smocked volunteer pushes a cart of designer coffee through the plush waiting area. Every time the doors whoosh open I hear the strains of a poorly-played Clementi sonatina.
“Do you want me to call your mommy for you, sweetheart?” says the old lady. Her dachshund has honed in on one of my feet and is licking my exposed toes. I jerk my foot back, right out of my flowery, sparkly, ridiculous pink flip-flop.
“Thanks, I’m fine,” I mutter. I bend over to retrieve my stupid little girl shoe, a test of balance I probably shouldn’t be performing quite yet.
Next time why don’t you wear a bow in your hair and carry a baby doll?
I scold myself.
Once they see proof of life, most of the crowd begins to disperse, but the lack of blood and death is too much of a letdown for some people. Every once in awhile a disappointed bystander turns on me.
Today is one of those days.
“Shouldn’t you be wearing a protective helmet?”
I turn around. Mr. Disappointed is a pale, brooding guy dressed in layers of black save the silver metallic stitching on the black vest and the silver tie tucked into it. A shock of thick hair the color of unsweetened, dark cooking chocolate creates an interesting contrast against his fair skin. His moss green eyes flash with arrogance. Unfortunately, he’s also crazy good-looking, with two or three days of stubble offsetting his boyishly high cheekbones and Cupid’s bow lips.
I scowl and push past him and the rest of the rubberneckers. With a last, longing glance at the University Hospital entrance, I cross the street and head in the opposite direction towards the pediatric hospital, the one with the two-story-tall teddy bear affixed to the side of the building. I’ve almost reached the doors of the hospital when I realize I’m being followed by Mr. Disappointed.
I want to spin around and scream at him. I want to tell him what it’s like to fall asleep and not know when you wake up if minutes or weeks have passed; how traumatizing it is to keel over in random places in front of total strangers, what it’s like to never be able to wear dresses or skirts, or carry anything besides a tube of lipstick; how at twenty-nine I can’t get a driver’s license, can’t hold on to a regular job, and can’t keep a boyfriend.
But when I go through the front doors and head for the check-in desk, Mr. Disappointed becomes Mr. Departed, breezing past the security guard and getting right into the Willy Wonka-style glass elevator without so much as a glance my way.
“Kids don’t need badges, sweetie,” says the woman behind the desk, smiling broadly.
I don’t even fight it anymore, I just hand her my California-issued walker’s license and wait for the inevitable response.
“Oh, I’m sorry. You look so...young,” she says cheerfully, trying to turn our encounter into a morale-boost for me.
As if being mistaken for a fifteen-year-old is looking on the bright side.
I get my badge and queue up in the line for the elevator. Then I stare down at the pink, sparkly flip-flops that I found in the little girl’s section of a department store this morning. I usually special order my size four and a half shoes from Petite Feet, but the rain finally stopped, it was suddenly blazing hot, and I was desperate for summer footwear. I blame myself. Put glittering flip-flops on a five-foot, three (and one-quarter) inch woman with the gracile body and the petite facial features of a Celtic Faerie, and you’re just inviting bad outcomes.
Once I’ve check in at the Neurology desk, I take my place in a waiting room full of babies and kids under the age of ten with their parents and wait for the Proto Nurse. When Tabitha Proto, RN, finally calls my name from the door leading to the exam rooms, it’s hard not to smile just a little.
This is the second time I’ve been here in this particular clinic, my first appointment a week ago being canceled after the doctor was called away to perform emergency surgery. The nurse in question emailed me a terse explanation afterwards (not an apology, mind you), her name reading as “Proto (Nurse), Tabitha” in the “From” line on the email.
She’d sent a few other surly emails requesting medical records, or reminding me of my next appointment, and since then I’ve been forming the idea in my head that she’s not a real nurse, but a prototype that is being beta tested and will, in time, be improved upon. I imagine her successor will be rolled out at something equivalent to an annual car trade show.
In short, Proto Nurse has the bedside manner of a bedpan, and I wonder what those poor kids waiting out there feel like when they’re summoned back to her lair.
Her lips tighten as she peruses the wad of forms I was given when I checked in—all of them still blank. With pursed lips but nary a word, she measures my height, weighs me and jots down my vitals. “How can we help you today?” she asks, once she has me perched on the exam table in a room that’s decorated to look like the inside of a lunch box. There’s even a six-foot tall inflated celery stick in the corner that I plan to shadow box as soon as I’m alone.
“Sorry,” I say, matching her use of the Royal We. “We don’t do this.”
She looks up from her clipboard and raises a wiry, graying eyebrow.
“I had all my medical records sent from Dr. Oakes’s office,” I say. “When I made the appointment, I specifically asked that the doctor seeing me today call Dr. Oakes to discuss my case prior to my coming in.” When she doesn’t respond I add, “Of course I’d be more than happy to answer the specific questions of the neurologist here.”
She stares at me and then glances at her clipboard. “You didn’t fill out any of the intake forms.”
“Sorry. I don’t do that either. I looked through them and there’s nothing in the forms that’s not already in my records, or in the information I gave to the receptionist when I made the appointment.”
She mashes her lips into such a vacuum-tight circle of disapproval that I think she could suck a brick out of a wall. Without a word she sweeps out of the room, leaving me with the man-sized celery stick.
I’ve barely had time to read the first few pages of that perennial child’s classic
when there’s a tap on the door. I gird my loins for Round Two.
And in walks Mr. Disappointed, aka Mr. Departed, who is apparently Mr. Doctor. He stops short and we stare at each other for a few seconds before he attempts to salvage the train wreck that has become my office visit.