My breath felt ragged in my throat–as if I had lodged a crumpled piece of paper in my chest and only a few streams of air could travel up my esophagus from my lungs.
“It’s hard to breathe,” I croaked.
“Breath will feel good soon.” The Polish nurse patted my wrist and left me to rasp alone. His shift was almost over. It was a shame, really. He was the cutest one. Nose the curve of a ski-slope, smile bright as snow in the sun, eyes crinkled like wrinkles in a favorite winter coat. His English wasn’t as fluent as most of the other hospital staff, but he got his point across. Usually with a wink and a smile. It’s likely that he flirted with other patients to make them feel better too, but I liked to think I was special.
With every inhale and every exhale, my side burned like the tip of the very cigarette
I was dying to smoke. My fingers twitched for it. Would they care in Poland? If I tried to smoke in a hospital room?
The wallpaper was already yellow and peeling and it smelled like disinfectant and mass-produced meat. A little cigarette smoke could only help.
Every breath hurt; I wanted to soften the blow with nicotine. The nearest pack was in my backpack, and that was on a chair across the room. I couldn’t get out of the bed. The backpack’s zippers turned into a taunting smile. <i>Haha, you can’t get me</i>. I flipped it off and felt gravity pull at the corners of my mouth.
My phone beeped at me, pulling me out of my stare-down with the backpack. I had convinced Ski-Slope-Nose to set my cell within reach when I explained that I’d lose clients if I didn’t pick up the phone. I had my own medical bills to pay on top of mom’s medical bills, the house payments, and the student loans…every client was a god to me.
The call went on forever. Just like the wait for the ambulance did. Though I suppose every second feels like a million when you’ve just been hit by a truck. Broken ribs, eight different lacerations, a torn ACL, and an abrasion down the entire left side of my face. “You’re lucky,” they had said. Yeah, lucky enough to get hit by a truck. Black and blue, inside and out.
I had reluctantly come to find my phone-less, computer-less—in other words, difficult to contact—great grandmother. Mom had been asking for her more and more, and neither of them had a lot of estimated time left. But I had work to do, I always had work to do—how else were we going to pay for it all? Still my siblings insisted that <i>I</i> go to Poland, since Mom was already used to <i>my</i> absence. I only saw them once a year.
Long story short, I got hit by a produce truck on my way to Great Grandma Lewandowski’s cottage.
Ski-Slope-Nose’s shift relief arrived, and my phone was taken away. They drugged me up some more, and every thought still running around my head slowed to a crawl. It was all blurs and buzzes.
I never thought I’d crave American hospital Jell-O, but the dinners there proved me wrong. A stale slice of bread with a miniature square of butter, a piece of grey sausage no longer than three inches, and the stubby butt of a pickle.
It was repulsive enough to make me miss home.
Ski-Slope-Nose helped me back into bed after a very unsexy sponge bath. None of my pre-Poland work at the gym made a difference when I was discolored and swollen. Besides, it was a different dynamic between us. Men liked me back home because I was a classically cold, distant lawyer, an easy hit-and-run with no emotional attachment. Ski-Slope-Nose had to care for me every day.
He’d been avoiding my gaze as if eye contact would break his ribs too.
“Look,” I swallow, “I know that bathing patients is awkward-”
“No,” his snowy white teeth flashed in a smile that didn’t meet his eyes. “I’m not talking because…uh… I know bad news.”
Oh shit. Did one of my clients drop me? Did I make a payment late?
“Your Babcia Lewandowski is not here anymore.”
My brows knitted, and I could feel the familiar lines etched on my face. “What, like she moved away?”
Ski-Slope-Nose looked at the ground and rubbed his neck.
“Oh.” It clicked in my brain.
“I am sorry.” He held my hand in his large ones; his skin dry from frequent sanitization.
I heaved a sigh and then cringed at the pain in my ribs.
I couldn’t think of what to say, so I gave him a weak smile and then fixated on the wall in front of me as if it were the most interesting architectural success since the Colosseum.
“Have some time to yourself.” He gave my hand a gentle squeeze and left me.
When the last echoes of his footfalls faded away, I felt my face scrunch up. It hurt to breathe. It hurt even more to cry.
What would I do? My mother’s single dying wish was to see her own grandmother one last time, and I—the traitor who went to law school and left my siblings to take care of Mom by themselves—couldn’t even set foot in Great Grandma Lewandowski’s country without her keeling over.
I dig my fingernails into my palms until both of my hands are shaking. Maybe they were right about me.
“Miss, we need to know who we can call. Don’t you want to go home?” the doctor asked the question with more eloquence than Ski-Slope-Nose could fathom. She had a severe face accentuated by a tight bun and sharp, square glasses.
I longed for my lonely bed, my desk buried in cases. But then I thought of them. Of my siblings with tensed jaws and folded arms, and of mom—bony and pained, her eyes full of dull fog.
“There’s no one to call.”
The doctor shook her head, “You must have some family, if you could even give me a name or two-”
“There’s no one,” I hissed. They won’t want to see me. It would’ve been better if I’d died.
I just wanted a cigarette.
The messages were building up. Ski-Slope-Nose read my phone screen over my shoulder as he assured the extra pillow was fluffed up behind me.
I gave him a synthetic laugh and kept conversation short so I could stare at the message number in isolation. I scrolled through some texts—each of my siblings alternating between scolding me and pleading with me to call them back.
How could I? I could barely tell my mom I was leaving for law school twelve years ago, now I’ll have to hear her voice in the background of the call—coughing and hacking and asking for her grandma.
A few weeks passed, and my oldest brother, Garret, threatened to report me missing if I didn’t respond that day. He’d do his very best to make me a national news headline. He always was the dramatic one.
I finished up a call with one of my clients and spent another two hours giving special instructions to my office staff. Then I closed my eyes.
My fingers went through the motions of making a call at sloth-pace.
Garret answered after one ring. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Why do you always pull this shit, Cassandra?”
“Grandma Lewandowski is gone.” The words came out flat and empty. I don’t know if it was grief that warped them, or guilt, or fear.
Garret was too flustered to say much, and when he did he could only muster a, “What?”
“She died. Heart attack.”
Garret hung up.
A few minutes later he texted me.
<i>Don’t come home.</i>
“Your eyes are red.” Ski-Slope-Nose’s eyebrows knit an expression of concern.
I nod. “I’ve been crying. Because you won’t let me smoke.”
He rolled his eyes, “You cannot have cigarettes when breath is already hard.” He pulled a chair up to the side of my bed. “And they make cancer.”
I wouldn’t look at him. I was emotionally comatose—physically too, as far as Ski-Slope-Nose was concerned. A client dropped me, Great Grandma dropped dead, Mom wouldn’t be far behind, and my siblings wished I was the one dying. It was illogical to blame me for Great Grandma’s death, but logic wasn’t a concept my siblings had a firm grasp on. I was a demon for leaving them, my reasoning didn’t matter. We needed money if we were going to have any chance at saving Mom and I was fine being the one to sacrifice time with her, time with them. They thought it was easy for me, but what they thought wasn’t important, saving Mom was.
But Mom was going to die, Great Grandma was already there, and now this asshole won’t let me have <i>one</i> cigarette?
“Pouting is no help.” He reached to my face and directed my chin toward him. His hand stayed. There was this worry in his face. It looked so consuming that I must’ve actually meant something to him. But I was done with people. I’d broken myself bending over backwards for them.
Still, I was desperate for relief. I supposed if I couldn’t get a chemical reaction from the nicotine, I could try to get it from Ski-Slope-Nose. But I was too broken and bruised for sex.
I grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him to me before I kissed him. His lips were soft and there was coffee on his breath.
It wasn’t enough.
I pulled back as he started to run his hands through my hair. His eyes searched my face, begging to know what he did wrong.
“I just want one.” My eyes darted to the backpack.
Ski-Slope-Nose’s face contorted into a mixture of disgust and disappointment. I hadn’t seen it on him before. I’d seen it on my family though, my brothers and my sisters. When I left for law school, when I had to miss Christmas dinner <i>again</i>, when I argued with them about being the one sent to find Great Grandma Lewandowski.
He shook his head and left.
I sat propped against the wall, like the homeless people on the street outside. Instead of a cardboard sign next to me, I had my backpack. Everything carelessly dumped out of it – the various clothes and travel gear strewn across the tiled floor. The wallpaper scratched my skin, but at least the lights were off. My eyes could rest.
My favorite white shirt was turning red. I’d thrown it, by mistake, into the small puddle of blood I’d left on the ground when I fell getting out of bed. Turns out it really is hard to walk with a torn ACL. I’d disturbed the stitches from some laceration somewhere, and my hospital gown, hands, and face were sticky with the consequence.
It was agony, but it didn’t matter.
I had my cigarette between my teeth, the middle and index fingers of my left hand holding it steady. My missing limb, my most loyal best friend. I used my favorite lighter, something I stole from Mom’s dresser when I was eleven or twelve. It was silver with an engraving of a sinking ship, and the familiar scraping click of the spark wheel was a better comfort than any person anywhere could provide me.
It only took me one try to get a flame—it had been years since I had to fight the lighter. We had gotten too close. Using it was easy as blinking.
I felt the small, warm glow illuminate my face. As I lit the cigarette and took my first deep inhale, it felt like I was letting the truck hit me all over again. Combined with the nicotine, the feeling was euphoric.
The smoke blew out of my mouth with a soft whoosh, my breath sounding as natural as wind. I watched as it swirled and curled through the air like it was professionally animated. My expertise was unrivalled. I stared straight through the emptiness of a perfect smoke ring and saw city lights shining through the hospital window. Was there anything more beautiful than smoke and city light?
I was finally breathing.
I took another drag.
Sara Quenzer’s piece “Drag” has a unique voice that allows the audience to sympathize with a protagonist that is not only bitter and stubborn, but masks her troubles behind addiction. Quenzer demonstrates a character study that handles intentional isolation and attempts to justify the character’s own guilt. We found this story to be near impossible to put down.
About Sara Quenzer
Sara Quenzer grew up in Redding, California with the best family in the world. She’s been writing since she was eleven years old and has no other practical ideas about how she could be of use to society. Sara loves paddle boarding, hiking, reading, and traveling. She’s majoring in English and potentially journalism as well. She’d like to give a huge thank you to everyone who helped her with this story and to her ever-supportive family, friends, and dog! Love you all!