I sorta loved my Art teacher and I really loved Art so at first I thought Heather was talking about raku, which I remember from a graduation party that my Art teacher hosted at her house for all her Art kids. She’d set up a kiln and some tables with clay so that we could create raku pieces. I don’t really remember the process. I remember that it was cold out, despite it being late June, and that even with my sweater on, I stayed near enough to the kiln that I at least believed I was getting some heat off it.
But Heather, my companion, my date maybe, was talking about chakras suddenly and the colour of the root chakra, which was at the base of the spine, and I started to understand that she wasn’t talking about some Japanese technique for making cool looking tea cups. Near Bloor and Christie, maybe right across from Tacos El Asador, there is some diagram of a silhouette in lotus position with seven circles of colour from her crotch to the top of her head. The red one always looked, to me anyway, like it was censoring her labia or anus, though I knew enough not to vocalize that thought and if I even had, I knew enough to do it apologetically, like, I’m sorry to be ignorant of these ancient understandings that I just don’t get, but.
And Heather was still explaining about the chakras and about her understanding of what each one was, and we were still waiting in line for the Ferris wheel and the CNE was crazy this year so there were families and groups of other teenagers and kids running around, seemingly supervision free, playing maybe tag or something, then breaking the illusion that they were unattended and racing back to nag their lagging family to hurry hurry hurry off to whatever, the cotton candy place or the food building or that ride there or there.
There was this big guy who was giving me the creeps a bit, standing against the temporary fence that kept people out of the area around the Ferris wheel. Something about the way he was still and watching for something. Of course I reasoned that he could just be waiting for someone, that even some dude with sausage hands and sagging sacks of skin under his eyes was just as likely as me to have someone to meet at the Ex. There was a blob of mustard on his chin and he was trying to wipe at it, but his dense bristles of facial hair seemed to want to keep it there. I imagined him scrubbing at it with a toothbrush.
“Yellow is the colour of power,” Heather was saying. She touched me at the base of my rib cage. “It’s associated with right here. Your solar plexus.”
There was a terrible coughing, then people were shouting for help. The man who’d been creeping me out had dropped to the ground.
Heather said, “I have first aid training,” then left the line.
I stood there for a bit. The Ferris wheel had stopped and the people on it were looking over the edge of their little eight-sided pods with the eight-sided roofs to see the fallen man. After a few minutes, during which people’s compassion quickly became irritation at that guy for being so inconsiderate as to come to the CNE to collapse, it became clear that Heather would not be coming back from the ring of people around the man and I couldn’t see her head at all, so I looked behind me at the impatient faces and braced myself to squeeze by. I employed a steady chant of “excuse me, pardon me,” as protection against the stinking eye.
The same chant worked as a wedge so I could drive myself to the center of the thick donut of people which had, at its open heart, the unseen man and, I hoped, my date. She was holding the man’s head on her lap, her hand against his chest, and speaking to him quietly. The man was holding onto her forearm.
The mustard spot was gone.
A second man with the consciously relaxed face, the bedside manner brow, of a doctor, was on his cell phone. He stood up and stretched onto his tiptoes to see over the now thinning ring of people. When he started waving, I looked where he was looking and saw people parting for a slowly approaching ambulance.
I started saying, “Heather, Heather,” but I was speaking quietly, not wanting to disturb the people beside me, so of course she couldn’t hear. I tried to move into a spot where if she looked up she would see me, but I was conscious of not wanting to obscure anyone’s view either. When Heather looked up, it was at the sky. It was as if she, as if all of what was happening, was underwater and that seeing that sky was what she needed to breathe.
By the time the ambulance arrived and the paramedics broke through the congregation of onlookers, my eyes were wet with admiration and overwhelming affection for Heather. When the man was forced to let go of Heather’s hand so the paramedics could put him on a stretcher, he moaned and reached for her, his hand flapping desperately. I knew before it happened, that Heather would get into the ambulance with him.
The paramedics closed the door on Heather and the collapsed man and the ambulance started to move. I followed along behind it, keeping pace easily with the honeycomb bumper. My plan was to walk the ambulance all the way to the hospital, but as we neared the borders of the fairgrounds and the crowds thinned it picked up speed and I began running, realizing that of course I couldn’t keep pace with it.
“Where are you going?” I shouted. The siren’s scream lowered in pitch as the vehicle moved away. “Which hospital are you going to?” The ambulance disappeared over a hill up Strachan Avenue. The busy street didn’t answer my question, though a few passersby turned, looking over their shoulders and hoping, I suppose, to be able to acknowledge, to recognize, that I was shouting at someone or something real. As I trotted up Strachan, I nodded at people and smiled with tight lips, a sort of Thanks-for-checking-on-my-sanity-type nod and smile. One lady stepped into the bike lane and nearly got hit by a cyclist, so eager was she to get out of the way of the crazy guy that was, of course, me.
At the top of the hill, I had to rest. The siren’s cry blended with the sound of a GO Train passing underneath me. I strained by eyes to try and see the ambulance at the lights by King St., but it wasn’t there. If the ambulance had turned right, they’d be going to Toronto Western. If they’d gone left, they’d be going to St. Joe’s.
My watch wasn’t helpful on the subject of where they’d taken Heather, though I checked it anyway. I texted Heather, “Which hospital?” though I didn’t expect a response. I stood there looking at my phone as an irritated woman in a designer tracksuit discouraged her pug from sniffing my stationary feet.
On my way to the corner of Strachan and King, I thought about what Heather had done and my legs felt wobbly, maybe because of all the running I had just done, I guess, but I think because of the surge of admiration I felt for her. I mean, reiki I didn’t give a shit about, honestly, and Heather was too calm and levelheaded and nice to really rank amongst my greatest all-time crushes, at least up to that point. But here was someone who would hold the head of a stranger, a kind of gross stranger, one of only two people in a crowd of at least hundreds who was even willing to help. My heart beat fiercely at the thought.
The siren’s song had disappeared beneath the city’s sounds by the time I got to the intersection. I went over to the streetcar stop where there was a cluster of people waiting. “Hi, uh. Um, did anyone— Did any of you see an ambulance come through here?” There were a pair of short ladies with buckets of cleaning supplies who looked Filipino and maybe legitimately didn’t know how to answer me, but, I mean, there were a lot of people, the rest of the people, who looked at me for a second, then made a point of staring past. “Which way did the ambulance go?” It was actually one of the Filipino ladies who pointed east.
“It went that way?” I held out my arm.
“Thank you, thank you.” I left quickly because I was crying again, this time with gratitude. Toronto Western, then.
I checked my phone. Still no texts from Heather. “Coming to Western,” I wrote and sent.
It’s really not that far a walk, you know? My phone says it’s under two kilometers. My phone also says it should take 20 minutes, but I made it in, like, 10.
There were two ambulances parked outside and I stopped behind the bumper of the one with the same markings as the one Heather went in and I knew that it was the ambulance I was looking for. I went and stood in the waiting area for longer than it took me to see that Heather wasn’t there. I panicked. If I hopped on a streetcar, I thought, maybe I could get to St. Joseph’s in 20 or 30 minutes. I texted, “At Western. Where are you?”
She wasn’t in the bathrooms, either. A woman in scrubs approached me. “Hi, can I help you?”
“Yeah, um,” I said. “It’s sort of weird. My girlfriend, or my friend or whatever—”
The woman in scrubs was nodding for me to go on.
“—Heather is her name, she came here, at least I think—”
“Was she hurt?”
“No. She was with a big, older guy with thick fingers and all this dense stubble. He collapsed at the Ex.”
She kept nodding, though she was looking off at other people now and didn’t seem to notice that I’d finished.
“Are they here?”
She was still nodding. “From the Ex, yeah. They’re just,” she held up her arm and was about to tell me where to find Heather when there was this horrible screaming.
“My fiancée!” Two ducking paramedics wheeled a bloody person right past the reception. “That’s my fiancée!” A police officer had his hand against the chest of the screaming man. “Let me go with my fiancée!” He had a bike helmet in each hand. One helmet was a mess of red and road grit, its plastic shell peeled like an orange skin as if by some absentminded monster. Suddenly, the woman who’d been talking to me was standing behind the policeman and speaking quietly, trying to soothe the screaming man. “I need to be with my fiancée!” He grabbed the policeman’s wrist. “Why don’t you go out there and find the fuck that did this to her instead of keeping me from my fiancée?”
No one noticed me come in. There was a station in the center of the large Emergency Room with computers, the nurses and doctors moving in private purposeful orbits. Most curtains were closed. The bloody fiancée had been swallowed up by the quiet order of this place. I was walking around looking for Heather’s purple Converse under each curtain, when I was again asked, “Can I help you?” by a woman in scrubs.
“My grandfather,” I lied, “he fell at the Ex. Collapsed. They said he was brought here. With a girl.”
“One minute,” she said. I stood there while she whispered something to another woman in scrubs, this one wearing reading glasses. “Okay,” the woman said as she approached and held out a hand. “This way.”
The collapsed man, his eyes closed, looked much less disgusting under the hospital’s sheets. Heather gave me a tight smile and put her phone down in her lap. “You found us.”
I opened my mouth because I was here now and I thought I should say something. “Is he okay?” I asked.
“Well, you know.”
The man coughed and shifted in the bed.
“I can wait outside,” I told Heather.
“You don’t need to. My parents are coming.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” I looked at my watch again.
“I’m sorry,” Heather said. “I was having a good time.”
“I’ll text you. When I’m free again.”
I nodded. “That’s great. Yeah. Thanks.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“No. I don’t think so. Thanks.”
I nodded again. “I’ll see you.”
“Kay.” She picked up her phone. Why hadn’t she texted me back?
“Later,” I said.
I wasn’t ready to leave, though. I sat down in the waiting room. There was a baseball game on the TV. I hadn’t followed the Jays since grade eight. They were doing great I knew. I pulled my phone out and called up my texts to Heather. They had all been delivered. I texted, “Sure you don’t need anything?”
The shouting man with the bike helmets was gone and everyone was quiet like he’d never been there.
My phone buzzed. “No. I’m fine thanks. Thanks for checking up on me. I’m really fine. I can’t wait to see you again.”
I smiled and my diaphragm bounced a laugh past my lips. I looked up at the TV feeling overwhelmingly happy. I stayed to watch two innings and focused on taking deep breaths and keeping an eye on the Emergency entrance, hoping to see Heather’s parents arrive.
When I left, the sun was still warming the north sidewalk along Dundas so I walked home as happy as I could remember being in a long time.
Toronto, October 2015
Emoji sequence: Harmony Trowbridge, whose idea it was to combine the two sequences.
Story: Lee Sheppard