It’s 1:30 in the morning. I’m sitting in the waiting area just outside the emergency room.
A friend’s inside. Terminally ill, with cancer, she’s been bouncing in and out of the hospital for what feels like a thousand times now over the last few months. Tonight, a combination of respiratory and excretory dysfunctions has led to a sudden collapse and yet another panic-laden trip to the ER. The helplessness, the uncertainty, the ignorance and fear, the heartbreaking fragility of it all—hospitals are bad enough, but is there any place more filled with despair and anxiety than an emergency room in the middle of the night?
Yet, despite its name, the emergency room often seems, as it does tonight, a place where things move slowly, glacially, a land of limbo, characterized mostly by interminable waiting. As tests are being conducted off in a corner somewhere (or are they?), you wait. As results are being assembled (or are they?), you wait. Not wanting to alienate the caregivers by appearing to be too demanding, you control your almost uncontrollable longing for clarity and stifle your questions. And you wait. And, in stark contrast to your diffidence, medical personnel—for whom crisis is as commonplace as a bus ride and who are understandably, though nonetheless infuriatingly, matter-of-fact—seem almost intentionally blind to your concern. So you wait.
Time stretches on.
And you wait.
And your friend—catheterized, on oxygen, IV’d, semiconscious—does the same.
There’s a limit on the permissible number who may wait by a patient’s bedside, so that means some of us—me—have to do our waiting in the adjacent “waiting room.”
I take a seat there.
And as I envision alternative outcomes for my friend and her family—not just for tonight, but, if she somehow manages to rebound, for however many more nights she may still have—my mind begins to drift, and I start to take in my surroundings.
The waiting room, I notice, is small. Crammed as it is with chairs much too large for the space, it feels even smaller. And—what’s this? there’s more to the world than just my friend and her condition?—I’m not the only one here. About half the seats are occupied by the similarly discombobulated, their inner clocks and compasses thrown all off-kilter by where, at this ungodly hour, they find themselves. Numbing their spirits still further, fluorescent lights glare down, making the room look like a laboratory and the people in it so many lab specimens. Their inner calculations—what time they’ll be getting home, the horrors and burdens they may soon have to bear, the what-if’s, the if-only’s—are almost palpable presences.
Also sitting among us are a few patients (those with less serious ailments, I guess), one holding a heavily bandaged right arm high above his head, another ceaselessly repositioning an oversized ice bag on her thigh. The disheveled crowd resembles those beaten and pummeled faces you see huddled in Red Cross shelters, refugees uprooted by hurricanes and floods—flotsam and jetsam unexpectedly washed up on a distant shore.
Apparently, no public space may any longer or at any time lack access to audiovisual entertainment in one form or another because, right there, affixed to the wall before me, is a large flat-screen television. One-thirty in the morning and the TV is on, though, with a slight bow to the venue, the volume is on “mute.” Even here, thank God, our constitutional right to be entertained 24/7 is being honored and upheld. Whether alone or in pairs, however, everyone who isn’t nodding off for a few moments’ sleep either stares absently into the distance or focuses silently on the space on the floor directly in front of their shoes. Not a single one of the dozen of us in the room is watching the TV.
Except for me.
I’m watching the TV.
What’s on is a reality show, London, Bachelor Calling. (Or did my droopy eyes misread Bachelor, London Calling?) Twenty or so 20-something women are all somehow living together in a humongous mansion, each competing for the affections of a 30-something guy who has the clean-cut generic good looks of the romantic lead on a soap opera. Transfixed, I watch as Mr. Bachelor, perched on a couch, holds hands and engages in what must be a very meaningful conversation with a miniskirted competitor leaning provocatively in his direction from an adjacent armchair. (“Ashley, 23, Des Moines, Church Marketing,” a helpful title card identifying her reads.) As their dialogue continues, Mr. Bachelor manages to remain completely unaware of what a series of close-ups intermittently reveals: the massaging of his inner thigh by another competitor’s insistent hand. That hand, we learn, when the camera eventually pulls back for us to see, belongs to “Tayisha, 22, Santa Monica, Hot Dog Vendor,” who, miniskirted as well, also leans provocatively in his direction as she sits beside him on the couch.
I sit and stare, open-mouthed, as if rubbernecking at the scene of a car crash.
The more brazenly Ashley and Tayisha struggle for fame, glory, and Mr. B’s attention, the more my sense of outraged self-righteousness grows, exceeded only by my inability to tear my eyes away from the screen for any sustained period of time. When it comes to what is perhaps the lowest common denominator of televised programming—scenes of sexual flirtatiousness by young, attractive, scantily dressed women—there’s no doubt I’m easily hooked. No doubt at all. But there’s something more than sexual titillation that makes this garishness so irresistible: it’s the cynicism underlying the vulgarity that’s engaging me and enraging me at the same time. T & A’s attempt to exploit the situation by exploiting Mr. B, even as they seem utterly delighted to be exploited by him, by the show, by the audience, which in turn, is being exploited by the producers, is as confounding and infuriating as the composure of the emergency room staff. Instinctively, I want to share my incredulity with someone, but I see once more that nobody but me is watching. For the rest of the room, the empty air and the grayish-blue carpet beneath our feet exert a far more powerful attraction than whatever could be happening on TV.
This thing unfolding on the wall in front of me, I remind myself, is a “reality” show. Whenever I can manage to, I break the hypnotic trance it induces, peel my eyes away from the screen, and think, “This?!?!? Reality?!?!! This hyper-color-saturated, perfectly coiffed and made-up alternative universe whose hallmark is the stubborn refusal to let in even the slightest hint of the harsh and painful facts of everyday life? Reality!?? No, sireebob. Nope. No way! But,” I think, taking in my surroundings, “this right over here—what’s sitting in front of and behind and to the left and the right of you? This is reality. Your zombied-out companions waiting along with you here in this room? They are reality. The loudspeakered voice you occasionally hear asking Dr. Sedgwick to please call 8-4-7-6′? That’s reality, too. The moans wafting in from the room next door? Reality. The nurse- and doctor- and patient-filled emergency room itself? The very room where your friend may be dying? The ambiguous tidbits of news (she’s stable,’ we’re still waiting for the results,’ they still don’t know’) brought in by the sad and exhausted keeping vigil in there? The sad and exhausted who, having delivered their non-informative information, gaze at the TV screen as they return to their emergency room posts and see absolutely nothing? Reality. Reality. Reality. Reality.
“And this absurd adolescent fantasy I can’t stop watching? Surreality. At best. How can the hospital authorities allow this dreck to contaminate the atmosphere while we brave souls are being forced to confront reality—the real reality—at its harshest and starkest? Are they blind? Stupid? Is this another sign of institutional indifference, like the wrongheaded bulk of the chairs they’ve chosen to clutter up the room?”
Then, as “Jennifer, 22, Omaha, College Senior: Communications Major” wriggles onto the Bachelor’s lap, laughing with exaggerated gusto at something he’s just said to her, my friend’s brother walks in and reports that my friend’s condition has stabilized, and if she manages to remain that way for another hour or two (that is, until 4 a.m.), they won’t have to admit her and we can take her home. Meaning? More waiting. We smile. We shrug shoulders. We say nothing. Relief and frustration at the same time: she’s dodged another bullet, yet plenty more await her. For sure. He returns to the ER to wait some more.
I return to the unforgivable sin called Bachelor Calling, which, magically transformed by the good news about my friend, has somehow turned into something completely forgivable. Even fun. So stupid, it’s fun. An escape. The beautiful women, the colors, the transparently calculated ploys, the fairy-tale house. For the first time in several hours, I start to relax, even smile. The show that had just made me rant and rave is now making me smile, not with admiration, no, but at least with some diversionary pleasure. While the others in the waiting room remain oblivious to its charms, I settle in. Jennifer and the Bachelor are making out on the couch. Ashley, observing from the doorway, is definitely not enjoying what she sees. What wince-inducing gambit will she try to pull off next?
Fifteen minutes later, as the episode is winding down and it appears, to my delight, that the sullen and devious Ashley is being thrown out of the house and off the show, my friend’s brother taps my shoulder and plops into the giant chair next to mine. New news. Yet another U-turn. Her heart has suddenly started to beat irregularly, and they’ve decided to admit her after all. He parrots back some medical jargon that neither of us understands and I can’t even listen to. All I do understand is that she stays and we go home. I think. Why they had to make us wait here for hours until they reached what to me was the obvious decision the moment we rushed in here remains a mystery to both of us. As he speaks, he looks vacantly at the TV, but it’s clear he isn’t seeing what his eyes are resting on. In fact, no one in the room but me notices that Ashley, unconsolable, is crying. Or pretending to. The credits roll. One reality show is ending, its conclusion clear, maybe even just. But the other one we’re all stuck in, the one whose resolution we continue waiting for in vain, just keeps going on.
Fred Wistow is a former contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and lives in New York City.