Breath In The Afternoon
The day was bright and clear and the sun stood proudly in the sky as if to remind those below that once it too had been a god, a god in the days before social media and smartphone apps and the unbroken noise of endless tweets turned everything into gods and all those gods forever clamoring for attention from their screen-staring devotees. Ernesto squinted up at the sun and acknowledged its ancient splendor. He felt his heart swell. Such a bright god was a good thing, a noble thing. But such gods were forgotten now by the many who stroked their devices and kept their heads bowed low. A man had to look up to see such a god but today there were no real true men. Today the day was bright and clear but the streets were empty, empty of real men whose hearts beat truly in their breasts and whose eyes turned upward to squint at the sun.
Ernesto was walking toward the local hospital. In his soul he felt the trouble of a man who had not truly struggled, the trouble of a man who had not faced the ultimate challenge of the virus. Like all of his friends, like his publisher, his agent, the women whose names he could not remember after a night of heavy drinking in his favorite bar, and the girl who came twice each week to clean and bring fleeting order to his apartment, he had contracted the virus but like 93% of all those who were infected he had experienced no symptoms. He had not experienced even the inconvenience of a day or two with symptoms akin to the common cold, which around 5% of people felt briefly. Not for him the statistically rare adventure of struggling to breath, of confronting potential death in the afternoon. Or confronting it in the morning, or confronting it just after lunch before the second cup of espresso when one’s soul cries out for a quick post-prandial nap before the caffeine kicks in and one may once more return to the endless battle with words, the unceasing combat in which man and typewriter do combat with the blank unworded pages of life. Ernesto felt uncomfortable in his soul.
He was walking to the hospital because the hospital was now the corrida where the battle of life and death was being staged. The sand and dust of yesteryear had transformed into sterile floors and bleached surfaces. No more the scent of blood in one’s nostrils; now reigned the smell of antiseptic that went deep into the lungs and touched a man’s very soul. Here were the stories beloved of the media: the tales of the very old, the very weak, and the very sick, whose few remaining days were stolen from them by the fearful virus, the virus that every journalist now wrote about and every story featured in some compelling way. He was walking to this arena because his soul cried out for danger, or at least danger at arms-length that could be transformed by typewriter and carefully chosen words into a novel or at least a mid-length article suitable for publication in one of the USA’s more reputable literary journals. It was in the hospital that he would do battle with the terror of the virus.
Inside the hospital building the sun’s majesty was dimmed by the heavily-tinted windows. White-coat-clad figures moved importantly down long sterile corridors while the sick and aged sat inert on hard plastic chairs, the obese spilling over each side, all waiting their turn to be granted a few minutes with a doctor or a nurse. This was not a good place, Ernesto knew. A bull was an adversary a man could see. A bull could be goaded, guided, forced to yield to the matador’s blade and then expire upon the sand. But antibiotic-resistant superbugs could not be seen. No doctor could wave a red cape to divert the attention of a bacterium against which no compound had efficacy. Perhaps if doctors had not for five decades handed out antibiotics like candy, and perhaps if patients had not been non-compliant with their treatment regimens, resistance would not have arisen so quickly. But no man can live on regrets. A man must face the present as it is, not as he may wish it to be. Ernesto understood that the affairs of man are often confused, tangled, and frankly a total mess. But such truths must be faced, such truths must be accepted within the soul of a man if he is truly a man and can truly accept the burden of existence.
The corridors of the hospital were long and the illuminations were unyielding, making white faces pale and draining the life from skin hidden too long from the power of the sun. Ernesto wished he had brought his hipflask, his repository of good bourbon, the kind of bourbon a man drank during the day when he was in need of a little comfort, in need of something to ease the burden of a life lived in a world of clamoring smartphone apps and sensationalist stories screaming from ultra-high-definition widescreens in every home, bar, airport, and shopping mall. But he had left his hipflask at home and so there would be no comfort, not even that small thing to ease his soul in this place of sterile death.
He came to the Covid ward. He felt at home, for like him all the doctors here were earnest.
Nurses attached O2 monitors to patients. Doctors anxiously consulted the monitor readings. It did not matter to the doctors if a patient was breathing easily and felt no pain; if the O2 monitor announced that the patient was below 90% saturation threshold then the doctors knew beyond all doubt and certainly beyond the evidence before their eyes that the patient was poised on the very threshold between life and death. It was this moment that Ernesto had come to witness. An elderly woman sat conversing easily with a doctor, untroubled and calm. The doctor, agitated and evincing all the signs of stress that Ernesto knew so well from the years when he too had battled stress without the comfort of bourbon, shook his head. Not for the doctor the easy road, the road of looking at the patient and seeing she was not in danger. For him was the standard procedure for the O2 monitor could not lie, the O2 monitor was not a human being who could sit and talk and laugh but instead it was a machine, cold, dispassionate, always truthful in the readings it presented in small red integers: 83.2% hemoglobin saturation.
The doctor explained to the elderly woman that she would be placed into an induced coma, a tube would be inserted down her throat and into her lungs, and she would be ventilated artificially by machine, a machine that also had small red integers that would tell the doctors and nurses all was well. The elderly woman began to cry. Ernesto felt her pain for he too had known the pain of being told bad news, the pain of knowing that his throat would not be comforted by swallowing bourbon. Her throat would be swallowing a rubber tube. But she would be insensate, unconscious, and perhaps she would dream of bourbon flowing from a hipflask as the machine pumped air into her ancient lungs.
Ernesto knew the old woman would die. Perhaps the old woman also knew she would die. Today she was alive and able to breath unaided without difficulty or pain. Tomorrow, or the next day at the latest, she would be one more body in the hospital morgue, saved by the ventilator from the horrors of living further into old age, saved by the doctor’s conviction that the ventilator was necessary. It was a strange thing that the doctor should have such a conviction for all the data showed without doubt, should doubt be a thing to be entertained in such a sterile place, that ventilating patients killed 80% of them. Perhaps the doctor had a performance target to meet, or rules to adhere to, or perhaps he was too tired and too afraid and too subservient to those in authority above him to question the standard procedure.
Ernesto wished he could see into the doctor’s head, see the tiny darting electric thoughts that rushed through his brain. What would he see, if he could see those thoughts? Whatever they were, they all converged on the word ventilator. This magical word, this incantation, this expensive marvel of modern engineering, was at the center of the doctor’s consciousness. Of what concern to the doctor in his white coat the fact that ventilators can kill even perfectly healthy people? Ernesto knew the doctor only wanted to do the right thing. And who can blame a man who only wants to do the right thing? Even when the right thing is absolutely and completely for all time the wrong thing? The elderly woman continued to weep. Ernesto could not meet her eyes, her eyes now filled with the knowledge of her own impending death. The doctor moved on to the next patient, to give that next patient the equally good news.
Ernesto wished now with all his soul that he had not forgotten his hipflask at home, perhaps half-hidden underneath a crumpled shirt or buried beneath sheaves of discarded first drafts. Perhaps he would have offered the bourbon to the elderly woman. What human being would not wish for some small comfort at the very end? Perhaps if he had brought the hipflask he would have been able to meet her eyes.
Ernesto eased himself slowly back out of the ward. The hospital no longer reminded him of a corrida. The hospital now reminded him of the day when, as a young boy, his father took him to visit an abattoir. In that place the animals lined up passively, waiting for the blow that would end their lives. In this place the patients were lined up on hard plastic chairs, waiting for the standard procedure that would end their lives. The men who ran the abattoir were not bad men. They worked to earn money to feed their families. To them the cows were already meat, meat to be sold in small slices in supermarkets to shoppers rushing home to make dinner for their own families. To such men the death of a cow was nothing. Now, here, in the hospital, the doctors were working to earn money to feed their families but they did not see their patients as meat. The doctors saw their patients as symptoms, as one-of-many, as tomorrow’s corpses. Conditioned by their profession and conditioned by fear, by the fear generated by the small screens that fed them a constant diet of panic and sensationalism, the doctors saw only an endless precession of bodies on their way to the morgue. A morgue fed by the shiny expensive ventilators of which the hospital was rightly proud.
Outside once more, his feet feeling the impersonal hardness of the concrete sidewalk underneath his shoes, Ernesto walked slowly. He knew his heart should be light for he was returning to the place where his hipflask lay half-hidden under castoff clothing. The bright sun blessed him with its unfiltered rays and his skin felt warm underneath his shirt. He breathed in the fresh air, his pointless facemask stuffed into a pocket in his trousers, his mouth and nose unconfined by ineffectual fabric. Yet he was not light in his heart. The vision of an endless stream of patients passively filing to their deaths, the vision of exhausted doctors feeding their patients into the ventilators as if to satisfy an always-hungry mechanical monster, left Ernesto feeling empty in his heart.
What if men had not abandoned the old gods of sun and moon, had not transferred their allegiance to smartphone apps and social media and ad-driven news organizations and had thereby lost themselves in an ocean of shrill but empty noise and entirely misleading sensationalism? Would then there have been some small space in which thought could have arisen? Would there then have been some small opportunity to behave rationally instead of rushing to mindless destruction? Some small chance of dealing with life’s challenges without making everything thousands of times worse because of media-created panic and opportunism?
Ernesto shook his head. He was a man and a man does not ask questions that are foolish. A man must accept reality as it is. A man knows that no matter how bright the sun may be as it ascends into the sky to shine its rays on forests and plains and on the animals that live and die in such places, the sun also rises on folly and ignorance for this is how the world exists and why the productions of men are fashioned so poorly. A man must seek comfort where he can. Sometimes, if a man is fortunate, comfort can be found in a hipflask.
Ernesto breathed in the fresh air and felt the sun on his shoulders and made his way home.