Smalltown bringdown, Cynthia thought, nothing ever happened and if it did, it never seemed to happen to her. Nothing special, anyway, just herself and her chariot, as she thought of it, herding the sick and the dead and the damned–to her it was all the same–on the graveyard shift. These slickened sickened streets, all smear-streamy lights in the rear view as they passed, gentle ox-like Rocky at the wheel and her partner Stephen on point. Her thoughts drifted to work to deflect Dawn’s smug intrusive conversation. She loved her sister, but…Dawn’s voice brought Cynthia out of her thoughts.
“When are you having one?” Dawn asked, endless self-image bolstering, yummy mummy, identity defined by toddler wails and bright blocks—time, toys, TV. She often called Cynthia somewhere between dancing cartoons and her rigorous Dr. Spock schedule.
“Let me have a life first,” Cynthia said, practiced response, repetitious. She sometimes felt a traitor to her sex; the way she saw it, her future didn’t include wiping snotty noses or poopy bums. How could she be so selfish, Dawn’s usual reply, but Cynthia couldn’t answer… except that she wanted to come home to an empty condo, unstained floors and furniture.
Each thought the other crazy, but sisters always do.
Leo understood. Her sunny brother-in-law was quick to laugh and counter to Dawn’s sturdy earthbound broodiness, but somehow the couple worked. Sometimes they’d escape, just Leo and Cyn, throw darts, get drunk, avoid subjects like kids or failed relationships or Cynthia’s job. They talked, long ramble amiable conversations—how about we convince Dawn to buy a hobby farm, therapeutic bunny-raising, blowbrush silky Angoras until you feel better? How about alpacas, and Leo would laugh while Cynthia thought it might be something close to heaven.
Transparent judgment, well-meaning button-pusher, Dawn snorted through crackly phone lines when Cynthia tried to discuss her career.
“I just don’t think,” Dawn said, “that driving around all night cleaning up other people’s crap is much of a choice.”
“I’m a Paramedic, not friggin’ DeNiro in Taxi Driver,” bristling brimming with annoyance, Cynthia replied, trying to hold back against well-meant criticism. Also well-aimed.
“Besides, I’d rather not go it alone like our mom. No disrespect to her or any single mom, but it’s not something I want to do.” Now or ever, Cynthia added, safe secret commentary she’d never dare share with Dawn.
“You’ll meet someone someday.” Dawn’s usual rhetoric, find a man and find yourself.
Cynthia rolled her eyes, glad Dawn couldn’t see through the receiver.“Maybe. Right now I’ve got too much on my plate. Working nights doesn’t exactly leave time to meet new people. And there’s no way I could take care of a kid with these kinds of hours.” Cynthia’s own rhetoric, excuses excuses.
“Fair enough. It’s just…I don’t like to see you alone all the time.”
Cynthia laughed. “I prefer it, hon…I can take care of myself.”
Lame way to end things, Cynthia thought, donning black standard issue uniform armour, service not servitude she sometimes had to remind the guys. Pulled a boar’s bristle brush through her snarl-tangled mop of black hair, tied back with a rubber band, scowled at her mirror self’s blue eyes, unplucked brows, square jaw pallor. Pretty but plain, Dawn and their mom’s refrain, cooing disinterest that always made Cynthia feel somehow less. Dawn had been Popular in school, but what did that get her? Certainly not more than Cynthia, more what? Rich, beautiful, married measure of a woman’s “success.” Hardly. Widening ass and boring conversation, was Cynthia’s most private opinion; unspoken glass house returned criticism. Cynthia kept it to herself and kept the peace.
Silvery keys jangled, brief trek down tan brown pile soundproof carpet hallway, elevator ding and she was in the lobby, then outside into chilly for April weather, just shy of sunset. Gathering dusk and the breeze anticipating the cool greens and coloured blooms to come. Anonymous street of identical cabinet condos, converted factories and mall sprawl, grey depressing asphalt and the last of the snow melting into spring. Sewing machine rattle of her little silver Mazda, next to no horsepower in this one, she thought, this one’s a hamster in a wheel and the image got her laughing again.
Traffic was light on the Expressway, still too early in the year for top-down, fast drivers; only responsible motorists were out on a Tuesday. Cynthia followed a tanker truck all the way to her exit, then turned off toward Regional yards. Not sure why, she wanted to keep following the tanker’s shiny cylinder, down the 401, off and away.
“Something might happen,” Cynthia said to her reflection in the rearview. Rearview girl scowled back with Cynthia’s features, broke into Cynthia’s wide grin.
The Regional Yard held all the vehicles for Regional operations, rows of snow plows like metal monsters and their alien sidewalk cleaning sidekicks. Hulking buses after hours, broken down cop cars, and in the middle, the ambulances, huddled like huge beasts around a watering hole. Hephaestus’ lightning-crafted metal army, sullenly waiting on a war on Mount Olympus.
Rocky was already warming up the ambulance. “Hey, Cyn.” Handed her a coffee, cool to the touch Styrofoam and welcome smell of chickory. Adorable Rocky, so salt of the earth.
“Morning, Rocky,” Cynthia replied, reminded of the cartoon with the coyote and the sheepdog. “How are you?”
“Any better, there’d be two of me,” Rocky said.
Rocky shrugged. “If he’s not here in ten minutes, we’ll leave without him.” Rocky always said, and Rocky never did.
“Always at the last possible minute,” Cynthia said, usual response, knowing their teammate would come jogging toward them, shirt untucked, hipster jokester. Dispatch cared. Cynthia and Rocky didn’t, they got going when they got going and they were never late.
“Speak of the Devil,” Rocky pointed as the devil in question trotted up, long limbs and puppy exuberance. Cynthia and Stephen greeted each other, then she climbed in the back, squatted amid dressing supplies, stretchers, oxygen masks neatly snake-coiled, ready for use.
Cynthia’s favourite part of the night, the swish sway of vibrating machinery, her stomach churning in anticipation as they moved toward their first call. Cynthia and Stephen took turns, one in back, one in front, until they were both needed to tend to patients.
Cynthia’s decision to be a Paramedic was part of a longer journey. Trained first as a nurse, Cynthia disliked the expectation, do all the work while muttering doctors signed the charts. Her college placements in retirement homes and hospitals reaffirmed her dislike of changing bedpans, washing sheets, calming down frazzled elderly patients, so she took the Paramedic training course and never looked back. Long hours logged at the fringes of night society; drunken bar brawls, OD’ing scarecrows, terrified heart patients gone into arrest. Cynthia and Stephen tended them all with cool politeness, swift practiced medical knowledge, and near-telepathy fueled by proxy.
Steel end stretcher bars burst through hospital wing doors, Cynthia’s own strong heart pumping adrenalin. This one was a bad one, knife-gut-wound from a domestic, efficient uniformed officers on scene and the paramedics black-clad specters. Cynthia tended the wound while Stephen took blood pressure and vitals. Rocky loosed the sirens’ wail; Cynthia never quite got used to the noise, wanted to cover her ears every time. At the hospital, roles reversed, Cynthia dealt with vitals while Stephen donned gloves and mask, to scrub dark blooms of blood in the ambulance’s hull. After the patient was admitted, it was back to the streets, rapid ostentatious rumble.
Last call of the night, no siren, just the desperation of late arrival, despite Cynthia’s furious CPR, Stephen’s defibrillator, no breath left to draw. Rocky parked the ambulance, all three stood together in the yard, silence spun out into the coldest hours of the morning. Cynthia nodded at her teammates, raised a hand as she unlocked the Mazda, sat behind the wheel for a moment to breathe in great gasps, lovely life. Went home and fell into bed, barely taking time to untangle herself from her uniform, blank welcome sleep claiming her.
* * *
Wednesday and Thursday were Cynthia’s mid-week weekend, when she allowed herself to be coerced to nightclubs, to lose herself in canned beats, stranger heat, stuffed into skinnies and stilettos that never felt right. On her days off, she preferred yoga pants and trainers, or sundresses and sandals in summer, forewent makeup and pomades as offerings to an Aphrodite who never listened, who turned attention to girls who needed it, wanted it. Overdressed Cynthia shot pool, downed shots of tequila and walked home, alone and emptied out some nights, knowing she was just going through motions, never feeling like she was moving in any direction. She’d tread water other nights, sometimes glide over smooth strangers and end with awkward hugs at the door. She’d be left with promises to call, whisker burns and the leftover smells of sex in the sheets. Never anything permanent, never anything more than lubrication, cologne, commingled sweat.
If anyone asked if she was happy, Cynthia didn’t know how she would answer. No one ever asked.
At the bar for another round, heavy dance beat thud through long oak and laminate, edge-trough of quarters. Make a wish, this one would be soaked with bar mix. Cynthia squeezed lime into her drink, licked sour-sticky fingers.
“How are you doing?” A voice beside her at the bar. Close enough to her ear to feel warm whiskey breath.
Cynthia looked not to her left, but at the mirror behind the bar, the voice’s trapped and grinning doppelganger.
A beautiful man, face and body so pure he could be something out of a Greek statuary, stood beside her. Blonde, blue-eyed, smiling with obvious intent, but still unlike anyone Cynthia had seen before. What the hell. She turned and rested one elbow on the bar.
“Great, and you?” Widest white smile, smoky eyed. Cynthia ran the tip of her tongue along her lower lip. Cynthia introduced herself, asked his name.
“Damien.” Handshake, of all things, warm and lingering. Cynthia felt the tingle in her hand move through the rest of her, willed her heart to a normal b.p.m.
Another hour of small talk, their real communication in little brushes against each other, secretive smiles, whispers of clean sweat scent. Cynthia backed against his body, felt each lean curve against her own as she lined up a shot, striped sphere found its target.
“I’m playing with a shark,” he said.
“I suspect you’re letting me win.”
“You got me.” Raised his hands. Adorable.
Cynthia took a breath. She’d been leading up to this, so why wait? “Do you want to get out of here?” Coy tip of the head, sheepishly cursing herself for being a girl.
Damien smiled wide, a warm look into her eyes. Cynthia felt the tingle again, much deeper. He wrapped a strong arm around her and she leaned against him, breathed his humid, musky scent.
Chilly walk home, starry night pin-pricked diamond constellations in the sky, but Cynthia only noticed what was right there with her. Another dream-like encounter, silken skin on skin, explosive sensation. Morning coffee, light conversation about jobs and friends, another hug at the door. Cynthia closed it after him, knew she’d see him whenever, wouldn’t call him for a month or more. The same old merry-go-round, it got tiresome.
Cynthia tossed Damien’s cell number onto her bookshelf and headed for the shower. The water needled her skin, rinsed the smoke out of her hair, ran the last of her mascara down the drain. Renewed, Cynthia slipped a robe over her damp body and sat down at the computer. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, exactly. It’s not like all of his records were online or anything, but a blog history, social site profile, something. He hadn’t asked her to look him up on Facebook, either. She couldn’t help herself. Damien Sheppard, hometown same as hers. It had to be the right one; his perfect face stared at her from the screen.
“Snap out of it,” Cynthia muttered to herself, her voice too loud in the room. Gawds, one night and she was already ghosting his Facebook page. She forced herself to shut down the computer before she was tempted to friend-request him.
* * *
“Well…Then something just kinda…Happened.” Cynthia tipped her head, cupped the phone closer to her mouth. Silly to hide her grin. It wasn’t like Dawn could see her.
“Aaawww…And?” Dawn’s voice that grating honey-tease, Pavlovian. They could be in high school again, the way Cynthia was starting to blush.
“I guess we’ve just kind of seen each other almost every day since then. He called me a few days later and we had lunch, then he showed up with a DVD and flowers. He’s….sweet.” Trying to keep the surprise out of her voice, Cynthia tilted her head down and smiled. Drummed fingers on the little phone table she kept by the door with the cordless’ charger. His number on an eggshell white card, propped up, letters slight raised smooth black below her touch.
“Good for you.” Dawn’s approval sounded genuine.
“Well, I’m not getting my hopes up. These things have a way of going to hell after a while,” Cynthia added.
“Ye of little faith. I say go for it.”
“We’ll just have to see.”
“So when do I get to meet this mystery man?”
A jinx of some kind. Cynthia wanted to be sure, to keep Damien to herself but also to shout it out, deep in “like” if nothing else just yet, and always the question, gossamer anxious bloom in some unexplored place, drifting. Would this one be real? Would this one stick around? And when was he going to “turn,” the way they all did?
“Or is it that thing you have, again?” As if Dawn could read minds.
Slight pause. “I just want to be sure.”
Dawn sighed. “You have to take a chance sometime, Cyn.”
“Maybe. But with him?”
“Why not with him?”
Cynthia’s answer-pool was scraped empty. “You know, Dawn, I don’t have a single thing to say about it.”
“Really? Usually when this topic comes up you see the person for a while, then you have a list of excuses not to keep seeing them. Maybe he’s different.”
That would be nice. “We’ll have to see.”
Cynthia could picture Dawn rolling her eyes.
So it went, Cynthia would think much later. Weeks passed as early spring warmed into late, and as two grew into “Couple.” Time spent with each other’s friends, family, enduring the assessments, long talks, nods of approval, but time spent alone was best. Walks in the park, perfect sundown kisses by the river. With its stink of goose poo and raw human sewage, the Grand was hardly a romantic hideaway, but Cynthia supposed the picture might be pretty, half-moon bridge lined with bright lantern globes, snowfall of mayflies as dusk deepened. Mayflies only live twelve hours. Why would they want to hang around under a lamppost beside the Grand River?
They didn’t have anywhere to go, and it wasn’t a bad life if you knew nothing else.
* * *
If days belonged to Aphrodite, or to Helios driving the sun across the sky, the nights were Cynthia’s. She put up with the teasing from Stephen, the blustery arguments and gradual acceptance from Rocky, but once they met Damien, they seemed to like him.
Cynthia smiled to herself, inhaled his scent in her clothes from a quickie before work.
“Oh, someone’s gotta secret,” Stephen said, poked Cynthia’s arm.
“Shut up.” Cynthia looked at the small patch of darkness visible from the small windows in back of the ambulance. She couldn’t help but grin, chin tilted down to hide it.
“There it is,” Stephen said. Mouth open to chide her again, when Rocky turned on the siren.
Cynthia grabbed the side of the stretcher to steady herself, felt the rush of excitement and wondered if there would be a day she wouldn’t want this.
Bag in hand, Stephen leaped out the back on arrival, Cynthia close behind. Full mode, no time for thought, just a quick look at the officers already on scene. A pool hall, acrid smoke in the back of the throat and all Cynthia could see was a spreading puddle of blood under one of the tables.
“Cyn, get back,” Stephen trying to push her away.
“Get off, Stephen, what’s your problem?”
“You don’t want to see this.”
“What the hell?”
Time slowed to treacle, but it didn’t stop her feeling like she’d been punched in the gut. Stephen’s ashen face, Rocky bringing the stretcher, nothing for her to do but stand and look.
Damien, his beautiful face weirdly divided by a knife handle, poking out between his eyes but still breathing, sprawled across the pool table. It was impossible, but Damien blinked, his mouth gaped. Like a hooked fish. Blood, so much blood, clot-coppery and so dark it was nearly black. That’s going to ruin the felt, Cynthia thought, had to suppress a hysterical laugh.
“It was a fight,” an officer’s gruff report. “We don’t have details yet, but we think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Come on, Cyn, we need you.” Stephen’s voice, gentle.
Possibly it was a conflict of interest, but Cynthia didn’t care. She tended to Damien as any other patient. Stanch the bleeding, tourniquet the wound, oxygen mask. The ride to the hospital the longest of her career, Damien’s hand warm in hers, begging him to hold on, stay with us.
“You can’t leave me yet, you asshole, I love you too much.”
Furious, shameful tears as she tried not to look into Stephen’s face. The sirens wailed.
Slam through the emergency room doors, Rocky radioed ahead and they were prepared for Damien. The dam broke as an orderly took the stretcher, moving fast like Apollo’s Hours, to a waiting operating table. Cynthia’s knees buckled, Stephen stopped her from falling and she turned her face against his shoulder; he half-led, half-carried her to a chair in the ER. She’d never cried like this before, deep wrenching sobs, Stephen helplessly handing her tissues. Finally, she got herself under control.
“Listen, Cyn, I don’t think you can go back to work tonight,” Stephen started.
“I don’t think I have a choice.”
“Rocky called dispatch. You can go home, if you want.”
“And do what? I’d rather finish my shift and take tomorrow off.”
Cynthia shook her head and went to the washroom. Nose and eyes red and swollen, Damien’s blood on her uniform, Cynthia was enough of a mess to consider Stephen’s words, but couldn’t bear rattling around her condo alone. She knew she’d be useless in the waiting room.
“Get it together,” she said to her reflection in the mirror. “You’ve wasted enough time.”
Fingers tented against yellowed faux-wood, quick shove and she was out of the safety of cool tile and chrome faucets, back into the ER with its rows of hard chairs. Waiting patients, souls for Hades, Cynthia thought, whose string will be cut today? She felt her face melt like warm wax, tried not to think of Damien.
For the next hour, Cynthia and Stephen assisted the triage nurses, bandaging wounds, checking blood pressure and vitals, wrapping sprains. Busy work, a desperate attempt to ignore the deeper wounds Cynthia couldn’t cover. Dazed rides in the ambulance, Cynthia on auto-pilot, then finally the shift was over, a race home to change then back to hospital. Damien’s family was still there, a tear-streaked chorus that told her what she already knew.
“I’m sorry,” the head surgeon said. “We couldn’t save him.”
* * *
What she was contemplating was crazy, pure insanity. Cynthia shut the door, wiped her raw nose, then looked around the room. They’d set Damien up in a small post-operation room. The story in hysterical soundbites. At the bar with his buddies. Two guys got in a knife fight, Damien got in the way. The surgeons tried, too much brain damage to sustain him; other patients had lived after the same injuries, but not this time. They could keep him on life support long enough to harvest his organs, but the family was coming in the morning to pull the plug. Cynthia hadn’t been given a vote. The nurses looked the other way when she asked for a few minutes to say goodbye.
She pulled the sheet back. Damien rested against the pillows, wearing only a cotton hospital nightie. His head lolled slightly to one side. Cynthia picked up one warm, dry hand, let go; it dropped back onto the bed with a soft thump. The respirator wooshed. She felt the pulse in his neck, false and machine-steady, like a clockwork bird. She slid her hand up to his cheek, to the skin there, drawn taut as a paper lamp. Pressed back one eyelid; no muscle response, not even pupil dilation. Cynthia drew back, took a deep breath. Almost without thinking, Cynthia raised her skirt, slipped off her panties, and in one swift movement, straddled Damien’s prostrate form. Slick slippery skin, but no response. Damien could be a wax work, this act purely clinical, functional.
Fast forward. Nine months of pregnancy, the clucking wonder whose it was. Beautiful baby girl with his eyes and her mouth, pink strawberries and cream complexion. Working to pay a sitter once maternity leave benefits were up, night work more expensive. The constant worry, a tiny life to care for and keep safe. Good things, too. Tiny fingers that grasped at her hands and hair. Coos and laughter. Half of him.
Cynthia blinked, her hand still at the elastic waistband of her panties. Still standing beside Damien’s hospital bed, the machines’ birdcall beeps and her own ragged breaths the only sounds in the room. Quick glance down at herself, legs apart, ready.
“This is desperate, even for you, kiddo,” Cynthia said out loud. “Besides, would it even work?” Cynthia figured she’d need some sort of electrical stimulation, at least the prostate, and that was somewhat beyond her grasp. Cynthia laughed, a natural, real laugh without the tinge of hysteria she’d been biting back.
Almost immediately, it came over her again, the grief like a tidal wave, this feeling like drowning, everything but her nose submerged, floating without hard ground for reference. Cynthia leaned against Damien’s unresponsive body in a last embrace, cried until his hospital nightie was damp and crumpled under her cheek. Emptied out, she kissed his warm forehead.
“Goodbye, love,” Cynthia whispered.
She turned and left the hospital room.