Buying Safe Passage at the Rendezvous Café
You begin building mythologies before you enter the sliding doors, stories that you tell yourself and hold uncomfortably close. Close is important. A hospital is a strange land, but if you respect their customs, perhaps your husband will make it out — of course he will come out alive.
Last night you got on him about the amount of sodium in what he was eating and he said he could die on the operating table tomorrow, who cares if the dressing in his Potbelly salad was not the most health-conscious choice, if this is his last meal he wants the good vinaigrette. You snapped that this was not some fucking Last Supper, and if it was you would not go to Potbelly, you would go somewhere actually good, Jesus, and you both laugh a little too hard before going to bed early because you have to be there at 7:30 the next morning, so he can get his neck slit open to remove a tumor in his submandibular gland that may or may not be malignant. They have to take it out to find out, and while that happens you will sit in a space somewhere between hell and a small cafeteria that closes for a couple of hours between breakfast and lunch.
Purgatory makes you hungry. You eat the snacks that you brought with you. You did not bring that many. Bringing your own snacks is thrifty and logical, but bringing a lot of snacks is an acknowledgement that you will be there for a while, that you are in this (whatever this is, whatever the nature is of the lump in his neck) for the long haul; crunchy things in Ziplocs and pieces of fruit and multiple granola bars remind you that you have a reason for being there, that he might not be okay, that life is random and fragile and sometimes young, healthy people get salivary gland cancer. You brought a single apple, two sticks of beef jerky, and a small bag of crackers; you cannot deny the reality of the situation, but you refuse to lean into it.
The hospital is several train stops from your house, near the center of the city. There are several fairly decent food options close by, less than five blocks away. You have no plans to patronize any of them. You have said many times that one of your least favorite things is paying for an unsatisfying meal, and that is exactly what you are going to do. You are going to pay for the best the hospital cafeteria has to offer. This new country of orange chairs and generic, powdered creamer is not a place you leave, eat, and come back. You watch three women in pink T-shirts and head wraps cry as they enter the operating room. It’s just you and an elderly man who stares into his hands. You hope everyone has insurance — this is hellish enough even with a beefy PPO — and know that they do not.
Your stomach makes sounds. Leaving is not an option. This is the opposite of the fairy kingdom; you must eat here. If you leave and eat the food of the mortal world you can never come back. If you leave, you might miss information about his condition, and that is unthinkable. You would wire your body into his surgeon’s if you could, sci-fi style, get real-time updates through his eyes, mainline every visceral detail because that feels like safety and control, something of which you have so very little.
Inhabiting your very good surgeon’s body is not an option, and probably unsanitary. Plus he’s Jewish, like actually practicing, not the hasn’t-been-to-synaogogue-in-a-decade-plus-your-mom-is-Catholic-so-beyond-a-Birthright-trip-are-you-even really? kind you are, and he probably does not want to share his physical form with a) a woman who b) leans hard to the cultural end of this thing you have in common or honestly c) any human, ever. Fair.
You stare at your empty plastic bag of cracker crumbs, then walk reluctantly to the Rendezvous Café. You do not want to engage with this place, but if you do you will follow the rules you have set out: don’t bring in too much from the outside, don’t leave, don’t miss a thing. The café is the essence of nondescript: there are chairs and booths and soups and sandwiches. You order a chicken salad sandwich, a bag of housemade chips, a cup of coffee: the coffee is free in the waiting area but it also tastes like water haunted by the ghost of the Arabica beans shown on the front of the machine. It all comes out to less than ten dollars: the rulers of this land are kind, or maybe they know that institutional food that is both mediocre and expensive is too big an insult to bear.
Buying things is normally something you enjoy on some level, even when it is something boring and needed: there is some small pleasure in a new tube of toothpaste, a pair of socks, groceries — the promise of clean teeth, comfortable feet, good meals. You do not love how much you lean into the promise and comfort of consumerism, but have generally made peace with it. Until now. These purchases are a different manner of necessity. You are buying things so you do not have to leave. You are buying things out of fear. You wonder what else you can buy here. You could online shop, a thing you do for comfort sometimes, but the idea makes your stomach lurch. You think about the stack of bills sitting on your coffee table. Even with good insurance, this is expensive. You walk to the gift shop.
Flowers in teddy bear vases, actual teddy bears, overpriced personal care items. A cowboy costume. A princess costume. Candles that smell like a headache. The gift options are not even good enough for a gag. Despite this, the line stretches past the entryway. You get it. The spell of this place is strong.
Back in the waiting area the sandwich sits heavy in your gut, a mass of mayo and bread. You stare at the television screen that uses bars of color to tell you your loved one’s status. Pink. He is still in surgery. Two hours to go. You get another cup of free coffee. It sloshes in your guts but using the restroom is something to do and you are too afraid to get up again.
Later, you sit next to your husband in his hospital bed, looking at the staples that hold him together from ear to chin. The surgery went well, but the tumor was malignant, but his prognosis is good. The doctor tells you all this while you nod and try not to throw up your $9.89 of lunch. It did not matter how close you stayed, whether you stepped out to the great Thai place a block away or brought an armada of string cheese or starved yourself. That chicken salad sandwich did not buy you the answer you wanted. There is no enchantment, just doctors and medicine and everyone waiting and praying however they pray and doing the best they can with stuffed animals and candy bars and oddly chewy bags of chips made somewhere within the gray and sterile walls.
The nurse tells you that his dinner will be there soon but you can come back in, just flash your sticker at the front desk and suddenly, the enchantment is broken: you step out without fear, come back with a shawarma wrap, chicken and cauliflower and French fries stuffed in a lavash blanket. He gets his tray of chicken parmigiana and soft vegetables and you unwrap your foil meat tube, and for a while you feel nothing but glad to watch him eat food in small, careful bites.
Rosamund Lannin reads and writes in Chicago. You can find her @rosamund most places on the Internet, or in digest form at tinyletter.com/rosamund.
Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash.
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