The pain doubles on my way to the emergency room. I twist my torso like a pepper grinder to force my legs out of the car. Every movement threatens to snap me in two at the hips while the same thoughts stream through my mind like ticker tape: you’ve been through this before. Don’t exaggerate. It’s not that bad.
It is that bad, or at least bad enough to land me in a hospital gown with an IV sticking out of my arm in under 20 minutes. In all of my trips to the emergency room over the years, I’ve never been this close to screaming. Perhaps that’s because this time, my pelvic region feels like it’s imploding black hole-style. The nurses tell me the pain meds are flowing, but all I can feel are half a dozen knives threatening to puncture me from the inside out.
I should call somebody, but I’m barely conscious for the ultrasound. When a flushed doctor I haven’t seen before enters the room already out of breath, I assume the worst.
“Sophie?” Her voice is like church bells in the distance. I summon all of my focus to hear whatever news she has to break. “I’m Dr. Peters. I looked at your ultrasound and – well, I’ll just get right to it.” She perches on the stool beside my bed. “I’m confident that you had an ovarian cyst burst tonight, and I think it caused your ovary to torse – twist, that is. I won’t be sure until I get in there, but I am certain that we need to get you into surgery as soon as possible.”
I groan and struggle to prop myself up on my elbows, but a fresh wave of pain flattens me again.
“I saw on your chart that you’ve been into emergency three times in the last year for pelvic pain. Is that right?” She’s watching me intently, waiting for some intelligent response I’m not capable of.
“Yes.” I squeeze my eyes shut. I want to tell her how the doctors have written me off every time. They were all confident like Dr. Peters, confident that my agony was just cramps or gas or stress. The last doctor patted my shoulder, told me some women are more sensitive than others, and reminded me that they sell heating pads at Safeway.
Dr. Peters nods. “I’ll do a biopsy during surgery to check for signs of polycystic ovarian syndrome. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that you have it.”
“I’m going into surgery?” I manage, three steps behind.
“As soon as possible. And I want to make sure you understand the gravity of the situation.” Time presses on me from all sides, and her slight hesitation lasts an eternity. “Based on your pain level and the ultrasound images, I may have to remove the right ovary completely.”
Dr. Peters must not understand how badly I need this torture to end. I would rip my abdomen open with my bare hands if the very thought of moving didn’t trigger a thin layer of sweat on my upper lip.
“Take them both out.” I beg her. I study Dr. Peters for any sign of empathy, but she’s blank as the gray wall behind her. “If there’s any chance this could happen to me again, please take them both.”
Slowly, she stiffens and folds her arms. “You need a consult before I can perform that kind of irreversible procedure.”
“Consult whoever you need to.” I’m sure she can see the tears in my eyes, but my dignity is the least of my worries at this point. “Please just don’t make me go through this again.”
When she leaves, another nurse comes in to change the IV bag. “This is going to make you sleepy,” she tells me. I start to tell her it won’t work – none of the medication has taken effect – but before I can, the fog of pain blurs my vision.
I’m frozen in the dark. I wonder wildly if I’m in the morgue. My limbs are wet paper. I can’t move, but I hear voices.
“Her heart rate is too low.” That’s Dr. Peters, standing somewhere to my right.
Have I woken up in the middle of the procedure? I want to scream and warn the whole room, but I can barely move my lips.
“I don’t know what I was expecting, but this is worse,” a surgeon whispers from the foot of my bed.
No, not a surgeon. It’s a whisper from the depths of my memory, from the back of an old Dodge Neon. I straddled him that night, pulling my face away as headlights flashed through the darkness of the Target parking lot off I-5. “Do you want to stop?” he whispered in my ear, sending goosebumps down my bony arms. “We can go home.” Maybe it was the flood of hormones raging through my body or maybe it was the earnest look in his dark eyes, but I shook my head and kissed him harder.
It’s been almost 15 years. I want to see him. My eyelids flutter.
“Quickly,” Dr. Peters hisses. Shuffling footsteps and groaning plastic chairs encircle my bed.
“Is she going to die?” another voice asks. My heart squeezes; I would know him anywhere. We shared too many memories, so they all play against my eyelids like a slideshow: in my dorm room on the desk. In his mom’s house. Pressed against the window at our hotel in New York-
“Her heart rate’s up,” a nurse murmurs.
“She’s going to be just fine,” Dr. Peters assures the room. “But we need to minimize the risk of infection, so a decision must be made now. She’s asked me to remove both of her ovaries at once to avoid a similar situation in the future. Obviously, her judgement is impaired right now, and a double oophorectomy would prevent any childbearing potential in the future. Sophie trusted each of you with her body before, so now it’s time for you to make this decision on her behalf.”
I force my eyes open, and the sight is more shocking than the subsequent pulse of pain. Four men sit around my bed with visitor badges stuck to their jackets. Thomas is first on my left, somehow matured but identical to the boy in the back of the Dodge Neon. Dan is next to him, looking paler and more drawn than he had on our last night in New York. His face still makes me tense up; I imagine we’d already be at each other’s throats if I had any strength left.
That pairing alone is jarring, seeing their shoulders touch. I’d never imagined they would pass each other on the street, let alone sit in the same room.
Lucas is there, too. We’d met at a work conference a few years earlier and spent most of the weekend in my room avoiding the other attendees. Lucas was easy to smile and the most eager to please of any of them, but we’d lost touch as soon as the weekend came to an end.
Finally, there’s Joe. Poor Joe, the barista, the Slayer superfan, the one I’d meant to never see again. He fell for me hard. Even now, after I moved two towns over without saying goodbye, he watches me the way you watch a broken little bird beneath its nest.
“She looks peaceful,” he says with his crooked smile. He and the others are facing me, but no one seems to notice my pathetic excuse for consciousness. “Is she in pain right now?”
“It’s hard to say,” Dr. Peters replies.
“Jesus. It’s been a while,” Dan sighs as he rests a hand on my blanketed foot. I wish I could shake him off. I wish I could kick his chair over. “She’s looked better.”
I have to be dreaming, but no dream of mine has ever been this vivid. The spice of Dan’s cologne, the tap-tap-tap of Lucas’ boot against the linoleum – it’s all as real as the agony I’m in.
Dr. Peters clears her throat. “Your votes, please.”
“God, this is tough,” Thomas says, running a hand over stubble I don’t remember. “Because she’d be such a good mom, you know?”
“She’s so great with little kids,” Dan agrees. “They love her. Once, a little boy in the park held her hand until his parents physically peeled him away from her.”
“Why can’t you take out the … ovary that’s broken?” Lucas asks, wincing at the word. He’s the least interested of all of them, leaning back in his chair like he’s watching Sports Center. “Then she’ll have the option later.”
I struggle to sit up but all I succeed in doing is sending a cloud of black dots through my vision.
“That’s the best solution,” Joe says earnestly. “She’ll want kids later, I think.”
The others murmur in agreement, but then Thomas says, “What about freezing some eggs? That’s a thing, right?” He looks to Dr. Peters for confirmation. “You could take some out while you’re in there and then remove both ovaries like she wants?”
“That’s not exactly how it works.” Dr. Peters folds her arms. “She would need hormone injections first, preparation-”
“There’s no time for that,” Joe says, brows knitting. “Look at her. She’s suffering. Just take out the problem and let her keep the other one.”
Dan shrugs. “That seems like the best decision.”
“I agree,” Thomas says reluctantly.
Lucas slides down in his seat and crosses his legs at the ankles. “I don’t really care.”
“It seems the consensus is to only remove the problem ovary today,” Dr. Peters says. The men nod in agreement. “Then the decision is made. Thank you for your time, gentlemen. I’m going to get her into surgery now.” One by one, they stand to leave. “Don’t forget to validate your parking at the front desk on your way out.”
“Wait.” My word is lost over the sound of the rails of the gurney snapping into place. No one even looks my way. I try again when the nurse wheels me into the hallway. “Wait.”
Dr. Peters catches up to the gurney as they push me toward the elevator. “Everything’s going to be just fine, Sophie. Just rest now, okay?”
No, I won’t rest. I want to refuse, but the torture inside me sucks me toward the darkness like a drain. I let my eyes close against my better judgement, and when I reopen them, rough blankets have been tucked snugly up to my chin. The knives inside me are gone, replaced by a deep echoing ache. I scan the room for ex lovers, but only a nurse returns my gaze.
“Hi, Sophie.” She rests an unfamiliar hand on my shoulder. My parched lips twitch but I can’t open them. “Dr. Peters is on her way down to talk with you.”
“What…” I blink to clear my watery eyes. “What happened?”
“Dr. Peters had to remove your right ovary,” the nurse tells me, her voice soft and smothering. “But don’t worry, you’ll still be able to have babies.”
I lift the blanket gingerly. The sight of the bloody, bruised incision makes my stomach turn. The rest of my skin is gray, ashen, a blank slate. Somewhere beneath that canvas on my left side, the stabbing will return. It’s only a matter of time. The tears of rage and weakness burn my skin, so I angle my head down. The effort is futile; I can’t hide from her in this empty, sterile room.
The nurse tsks as she rubs my arm. “Don’t worry, honey. Someday you’ll be in a bed just like this holding your baby.” I squeeze my eyes shut, the tears plastering my eyelashes to my cheeks. “That’s when life makes sense. That’s when everything just…clicks.”
Elle Hurley received her BA in Literature from Oregon State University. Her fiction has been featured in Asymmetry, (mac)ro(mic), and more. She lives in Oregon, where she writes stories weird enough to keep herself up at night.
© 2019, Elle Hurley