Life is a Gift (Shop)
Anyone who thinks a cemetery is the most depressing place to be hasn’t been in a hospital gift shop. The claustrophobic aisles of squashed biscuits and glossy magazines, the thrum of the fridge. Give her the wide, organised rows of headstones any day, laid out pretty against the grass with purpose. Lines and lines of full stops. Wavering like stuck film in a video cassette, she stares blankly at a question mark, fading into static.
She catches her own eye in the tarnished fun house mirror of the coffee machine. It gleams with the air of an oasis, thirsty patrons becoming parishioners at its feet, begging for resilience and gratefully receiving their blessings. The bags under her eyes wouldn’t be allowed as carry on, but somehow aren’t quite big enough to hold onto the misery wending its way through her system. A Lethe and Styx of the blood.
She stares at her options. There are some stuffed animals, large heads tilting over plump red hearts reading get well soon, and feel better! The exclamation point seems garish to her, but then so does being so preoccupied with punctuation when her friend is above her somewhere, hooked up to IVs and machines, and why didn’t she notice, why –
She looks back at the flowers. Normally she would choose something simple, closer to a daisy than something bedecked in flamboyant ruffles and fronds. She surveys the bouquets, eyes immediately skipping over roses in fierce colours, opening like violence in the water buckets. They suck colour from the room, like a picker tool on computer programmes. They blister against the gift shop’s pallor. Not to mention the thorns. Would she be allowed to bring her friend anything with thorns? Is that a thing?
Daffodils are too loud, bright little trumpets promising Spring, promising more days like a slap in the face. Lilies make her sneeze, the soft white petals spreading like swan’s wings across more modest bunches. Hydrangeas are God damn ugly –
She laughs. It burbles out of her, abrupt as if she’d been shot. Her palms fall to cradle her upset stomach, the acid burn of anxiety there a volcanic, dangerous thing she has no time for. She touches a fingertip to her bottom lash line, expecting it to come away wet, and surprised in a dull, muted kind of way when it doesn’t.
What a strange place for her to be. Standing under the piss yellow lights of a hospital gift shop trying to find the right flowers to convince her friend it’s worth it. Being alive.
She closes her eyes. Breathes.
She points in a random direction and flutters her eyelashes open, following her finger to a cluster of poppies. She immediately thinks of Sylvia Plath, and takes it as a sign. A morbid sign, but a sign she can follow, a sign that doesn’t say something like exit or stop. The teller smiles as she dispenses her change, and she supresses the urge to smile back for a reason she can’t quite grasp. It feels like when the dentist makes small talk when their hands are in your mouth. What are you meant to do with that? What are you meant to do when responding is choking?
She clacks her way to the lift, pushes the button and climbs on. The doors shut in front of her and reflects her face back as her stomach swoops. The poppies are wrong, she can see that now. As violent as the roses, full of remembering and poetry and close calls. The petals pool like blood in her hands, feather soft and iron heavy.
But she holds them in her hands. Hands that will tremble and shake and fail, that have already. Hands that have been known to clasp in prayer, hands that have flipped off a cosmic whatever perched in the sky. Hands for supporting. For holding. For care.
She steps off the lift. Throws the poppies away.
She searches for the room number and flexes her pale fingers, prepares her palms. The machines bleep faintly through the door as she stands outside. After a moment she knocks gently and follows her own sound inside, moving straight for the bed.
She reaches out. Takes hold.
Shannen Malone is a queer Irish writer living in the west of Ireland, about to embark on her Masters in Library and Information Studies. She tweets @ shannenmalone