Nurse For A Night
By Eleanor Strata
Edited by Mo McGee & Elyssa D. Perkins
Like most stories, mine begins with an exercise in curiosity: a hypochondriac’s curiosity, which the internet unfortunately indulges. Every week, I chase my symptoms down a winding path: stinging, dull, or stabbing pain; discoloration here, an odd growth there. Almost always, the search ends with some type of cancer.
On this day, I stumble into a rabbit hole of medical journals about the progression of Barrett’s Esophagus.
“Mamsie, I might get esophageal cancer.”
“No, you won’t.” My mother folds a set of her newly laundered scrubs. “You spend too much time looking up illnesses you don’t have instead of searching for work. Wait for the specialist to tell you what’s wrong. That’s his job, not yours. How did you even afford an endoscopy?”
“I have COBRA.”
“How do you intend to keep paying for that, hmm?”
“I still have my savings.” For another month or so…
She raises her eyebrows and clicks the steam setting on her iron. “You wouldn’t have gotten laid off if you listened to me about your major.”
I want to growl ‘screw this’ and storm off. But I’m not in high school or college anymore. Probably shouldn’t be living under her roof anymore.
Mamsie neatly piles the last set of scrubs in a basket. “Why don’t you hang out with Kakai? Isn’t it her birthday?”
Ahhh, my cousin, the nurse. The one who owns the suburban four-bedroom split-level. Or is she a Nurse Practitioner these days?
“Mamsie, Kakai and I haven’t hung out since college.”
“Well, maybe if you spent more time together, you’d be a Nurse Practitioner by now.”
Ahhh. And there it is: Nurse Practitioner.
“I’ll greet her on Facebook.”
“You either ask Kakai to hang out tonight, or I kick you out of the house.”
“That’s a bit dramatic.”
“You’re home way too much. I can’t catch up with my K-drama if you keep hogging Netflix.”
I’m tempted to say it’s impossible to hog Netflix on multiple devices, but it’s her widescreen TV and her Netflix account, after all.
“I’ll text Kakai after I see my gastro.”
“You have a bit of intestinal metaplasia, my dear. Barrett’s Esophagus, it’s called.”
The gastroenterologist adjusts his glasses up his nose bridge and squints at his laptop screen for the same biopsy results I’ve read and re-read off an online health portal all morning.
“Should I worry about cancer?”
“Oh.” He smiles like a teacher, impressed by the diligence of an A-student. “Do you work in healthcare?”
“I thought you were a nurse.”
“You’re so knowledgeable during these visits. I could’ve sworn you were a nurse.”
“I was going to be a nurse. It just… It didn’t pan out.”
“Yes, it’s not for everybody, my dear.”
He scrolls over to one of the pictures taken from the endoscopy and points the cursor to red splotches encroaching on lighter pink tissue. “Intestinal metaplasia means the cells in a section of your esophageal lining mimic that of your intestines. The chances of Barrett’s turning into cancer is quite low, only half a percent. We will just need to monitor and perform an endoscopy every three years.”
Bad cells are shifting, mutating, multiplying, and taking over my good ones. And half a percent is like one out of two hundred. Two hundred is not a whole lot of people.
How do I not have cancer already?
“Are you still feeling any pain?”
“Upper abdominal still?”
“Yes.” And sometimes, in my entire being.
Along with a low-acid-diet cheat sheet, he hands me another free box of Prevacid for esophagitis and sends me on my way.
I drive to the city and take the obligatory half-hour to find parking. After walking two blocks, I reach a bar boasting of exposed brick, vents, and piping; clunky metal chandeliers; and outdoor seating. Kakai and a handful of her friends are already there.
“There she is!” She cheers as if I am her guest of honor. “Everyone, meet my cousin Leah.”
Kakai parades me around, introduces me to her new boyfriend Steve, another couple—Dory and Jeff— and a guy named Mack.
At our table, I am the darkest. Kakai used to be browner than me. But soon after college graduation, my Tita Silvie put her on a glutathione regimen.
“Glad you made it.” Mack sits too close; his breath reeks of onion rings. “I was afraid I’d be fifth-wheeling again.”
“You’re still fifth-wheeling. I’m sixth-wheeling. People have to have an actual date not to be anything-wheeling.”
Mack’s grin is more grimy than charming. “Not sure if you’re trying to be repulsive or if you’re hitting on me.”
“Neither.” I want to be as repulsive as his breath is to me.
“Damn. Loosen up. It’s Friday night. Okay, maybe you got work tomorrow. KK usually does. You’re a nurse, too, right?”
No. And ‘KK’ is a Nurse Practitioner. But I probably won’t see this guy again. So, what the heck.
“Yup, I am a nurse,” I mumble and scan the one-page menu. “That’s what I do. Yup. That’s definitely what I do.”
“You’re a funny one, aren’t you?” He snickers and downs the remainder of his IPA. Then, he yells at Steve and Kakai at the far end of our table. “KK! Your cousin is funny.”
Kakai stops nuzzling Steve’s chest. “Oh, she is super funny! Leah, do that thing you used to do.”
“The impressions. Do my mom’s accent, please, oh please!”
“Come on! It’s so, so funny.”
“I don’t do that anymore, Kakai.”
Dory spits a bit of her mojito and dabs her face with a napkin. “Who in the world is Kakai?”
Jeff covers his mouth and snorts. “Is that your real name?”
“Childhood nickname.” Kakai palms her cheeks, now a hot shade of pink, embarrassment fusing with her Asian glow. “Nobody dare call me that!”
I close my eyes and struggle to picture Kakai from our teenage years. The browner one with faint traces of my Tita Sylvie’s accent. Where the hell is she?
“What’s wrong with it, Babe?” Steve paws at her tiny waist. “Kaw-kai! I love it.”
Kakai and her pals share a hearty chuckle. My cousin returns to nuzzling Steve.
Mack offers me some of his onion rings, and I politely refuse. He shoves one in his mouth. Almost choking, he thumps his chest with his fist.
“So, Leah. Maybe you can help me.”
“Uh… depends on what you need help with.”
“I have this weird wart that won’t go away.” His face draws near, magnifying a small bloody bump tucked in the crease of his nose.
“You should see a dermatologist about that.”
“Why? What is it?”
“I’m not a doctor.”
“But you’re a nurse, right? Surely you must have a clue.”
“Ask my cousin. She’s a Nurse Practitioner. She can even prescribe you something.”
“Nah. I don’t want wanna bother KK with my health complaints.”
And yet, it’s okay to bother me with his health complaints.
“Basal Cell Carcinoma,” I tell him in a whisper.
“Ha! I called it. That’s cancer, isn’t it? No matter how much I claw at it. Just keeps growing back.”
I had the exact wart in that exact location before. After going down the usual late-night rabbit hole of self-diagnosis, I scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist. It was just a wart.
I turn away from Mack and his wart and his onion-ring breath, and catch Kakai watching me intently. Her eyes light up with the same curiosity that I have for all illnesses, real and imagined. The luminosity in her eyes doesn’t last very long.
She swipes Steve’s hand and jumps to her feet. “Oh my god, how rude of me. Leah! Why didn’t you say something?”
“You don’t have a drink yet.”
“Oh, it’s alright…” Nothing on the menu is cheaper than seven dollars, plus alcohol is nowhere on my low-acid-diet cheat sheet.
“Come on, cuz! It’s my treat tonight.”
Ahhh. Of course. Tita Sylvie keeps her up-to-date on my employment status.
“Fine…” Maybe she’ll be too plastered to notice if I don’t touch the drink.
“Rum and coke?”
“Leah, Leah, Leah. You haven’t changed one bit!”
She clings to Steve’s arm and flips her flat-ironed hair over her shoulder. Through open doors, they disappear into the bar’s vast indoor area.
Beside me, Mack stuffs his mouth with more onion rings, muffling his words. “Whadem I gom do bow dish cancer? Muh surance ish not…” He pauses. Hawking sounds escape his throat. Soon, he is mute, like an actor in a creepy black and white classic. Except his face turns an ominous purple.
Time and space stretch as his fingers claw into my arm. His eyes double in size; his mouth stretches wide, desperate to scream: ‘You’re a nurse, right? Why aren’t you saving me?! Do a Heimlich, CPR, whatchamacallit, something! Don’t just sit there looking as horrified as I am.’
Jeff rushes to our side of the table and pulls Mack off the chair to administer back blows.
The blows do nothing to dislodge the onion ring.
Jeff wraps his arms around Mack’s middle; his hands lock over the abdomen, pumping below the ribcage to eject the blockage.
The mangled piece of onion ring shoots out of Mack’s mouth and flies across the sidewalk. Kakai and Steve dash past the crowd to rejoin us, a half-spilled glass of rum and coke in my cousin’s hand. Mack slumps back into his seat; Jeff retreats to his, exhausted.
“What the hell happened?” Kakai kneels next to Mack.
“Choked on an onion ring,” Dory nonchalantly reports, as if Mack massively choking in public is a common enough occurrence.
Mack massages his chest and throat as Kakai inspects him up close, close enough to see the bloody little wart in his nose crease. Making no mention of the wart, she checks his pulse.
The moment she deems him safe and stable, Mack pushes her aside and yowls at me, his onion-ring spit raining between us, “What the hell? You said you were a nurse like KK!”
They all stare— “KK” and pals— bar patrons and staff, all awaiting what I have to say.
The earlier curiosity in my cousin’s eyes is gone, a wave of hurt rushing in to replace it. It’s the same look of disappointment rising from my hazy memory of her old college parties—ones where shots and beer flowed until morning, where her dorm mates and friends vomited heaps of onion rings, where she and I were always the two brownest people in the room, and where my major was often presumed even after my transfer. Parties where not once did she stand up for me. For us.
Years later, I’m still in the same spot: a nurse by association, still ruining her parties. She’s still in the same spot, standing at the opposite end of wherever I am, still an object of my dread and fascination… Metaplasia and carcinoma personified.
And the words come out, constricted at first, then angry and proud.
“No. I am nothing like KK.”