(1)-spoiled-loveMy hands clenching my abdomen, I emerge from the bathroom and drop to my knees at the crossroads. To the right is my husband; to the left, my mother. Some instinct I thought had left me when I married kicks in and I crawl toward my mother, asleep on the spare twin in my son’s room, and shake her awake. She is on her feet at once, taking my arm and guiding me to the car for the short drive to the hospital.

Inside, we wait for hours with half a dozen others behind thin curtains that barely contain our stories. I cannot stop reading the one directly in front of me on the other side of the nurses’ station: a woman stands outside a closed door that barely mutes the roars and cusses on the other side. Her husband shifts beside her. Inside is her man-son, whose matted black hair I glimpsed as they hurriedly wheeled him into the room. I am only making guesses, but I have plenty of time to piece it together. I make my way to the bathroom, filling a plastic cup with blood, then return to my bed. From behind the slit that parts in the breeze of nurses hurrying by, I note that she is dressed as if she has just come from a book club gathering in this tony neighborhood in northwest D.C. Only it is 3 a.m. Everybody else appears caught unaware, clad in pajamas or sweats or, like the old lady rasping in the bay beside me, housecoats. She appears as if she expected it to come to this.

I’ve been here once before with my two-year-old son. My husband and I brought him in when his fever hit 105 and we couldn’t get it down. I’d sat in a chair, cradling my boy’s hot body, sure that if I began to cry my tears would bounce and sizzle on his red cheeks. As I folded my son back into me, shushing the mews that escaped from his fitful sleep, I must have looked like the love and fear I felt. This woman standing stiffly on the other side of the ward looks like love and fear and something else that does not belong here. I teeter across the thin line of her lips that are clenched in a tightrope of anxiety, trying to figure it out—to understand why it is that anger—is that it?—or maybe disgust?—invades her sympathies, and love. Toward dawn, the doctor hands me a bottle of large white pills to drive out the infection in my bladder and sends us on our way. As soon as we are free to go, I shake her off and return to my own narrative, closing the door on her son’s mad cries, drawing a dark curtain over her grim face.

Two years later, I find myself in the waiting space of another hospital. I ride the silver elevator up to the seventh floor and make my way to a single brown plastic chair facing a glass box that holds my sister, a Washington reporter whose body returned from Iraq but whose soul is still on the loose somewhere in the Middle East. To my right is another glass wall and the floor’s male residents. I stare straight ahead, crossing and uncrossing my summer-tanned legs that sprout goose bumps in the cold, sterile air, trying not to look at the men pacing behind the glass. We have been hurtling toward this moment for the last two years as my sister struggled with booze and the pills they gave her to drive away the demons. In the last two years, I’ve been to other cold places I never imagined, said things I never thought I’d say, felt things I never thought I’d feel. As I sit there, a man with black hair and ghost skin creeps toward the glass on my right. I turn to him and we both look through each other for several moments before someone tugs him away. In the space where he has been I see my own face in the glass. I shrink from myself, from the anger and disgust in my eyes, from the love and fear that has turned my visage grim, from my lips clenched in a familiar, thin line.

Jenny Spinner is an assistant professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where she teaches creative nonfiction and journalism.  Her writing has appeared in Fourth Genre, Writing on the Edge,  Mid-American Review, and on NPR’s All Things Considered, among others.  She is co-author of Tell Them I Didn’t Cry (Scribner’s, 2006).  Her sister is alive and well and back working in Iraq.

Photo by Ryan Rodgers