Prompt: So here's an exercise for practicing the creation of a complex consciousness that I've asked my students to do, often with amusing results. I call it Two Spaces, One Time (Two Spaces, One Time, by the way, is the inverse to Two Times, One Space, which is a flashback). To begin, place your character in one physical space, but force that character to simultaneously process sensory input from two or more spaces.
Ben pressed the button on the vending machine. As it whirred and gurgled to life, it hissed like an angry cat, all spit and strain and inconvenience, to slowly fill his paper coffee cup with tar-like liquid. He imagined it may not have been a fair assessment of dollar-fifty coffee—that, despite how he’d come to expect more from a cup of Joe after meeting Ronnie and her family, perhaps people found solace in a drink as bitter as the truth they faced in an Intensive Care Unit. “Six months to live,” or “complications,” were hard facts to swallow. Or, as in his case, “severe internal bleeding.” He added the some creamer from the small plastic cups in a nearby bowl, warm despite the inherent chill of the hospital. He wondered how many warm, healthy hands had dug through this very bowl, imagined the heat of their desperation seeping into the half-and-half he let bleed into his coffee cup like an open wound. After placing a plastic lid on the cup, he swished its contents into a marbled mixture. He left the vending alcove to return to room 502.
They would be wheeling Cal off to surgery again soon, they’d told him. He remembered hearing the words as if his ears had been stuffed with cotton. Now that he was stable, because Cal hadn’t been stable when he’d first arrived. Fractured pelvis, severe bruising. He crashed, as they say in all the TV dramas, within an hour or two of arriving, and Ben had borne witness to it. The ground had lurched beneath his feet, and cresting wave of nausea burned his throat with bile. The staff had shoved him away, prevented him from trying to help Cal himself; he remembered none of it. That’s when they’d found the “severe internal bleeding.”
It had been one thing to hear about Cal over the phone, through Ronnie’s voice as she’d pulled herself together and let herself fall apart in turn. It was bad. Another to hear it from the doctor and the nurses, the staff whose empathetic sterility made Cal’s life seem like a business transaction.
“I don’t know when we’ll be able to get there,” she’d said. There was a storm. All the flights were delayed. Can he be there with him? She was sorry for putting him out.
“Jesus, of course,” he’d said, because there was ever any doubt. “What hospital?”
Ben sat in the chair beside Cal’s bed, rusty springs beneath threadbare blue fabric groaning beneath his weight. His was cold despite the sweat pooling at his lower back and made his shirt stick, so he wrapped both hands around his coffee cup. When he brought it to his lips, he could smell its cheap roast dryness and the acrylic paint still under his nails. It tasted as bad as it smelled and coated his tongue in chalk.
Through the open door, nurses talked to patients, talked to families, talked to each other. It was always in the same clipped tone: half condescending, half pitying, and completely monosyllabic. Ben had wanted to choke them when they’d spoken to him that way about Cal. The commotion came to an abrupt halt when an alarm sounded—another patient must have crashed. Sneakered feet squeaked on the hallway tile, and blurs of pastel scrubs stampeded past room 502. Ben heard the soft grind of a stretcher being rushed to an O.R. or E.R. or some other R where urgent medical things happened. Staff members were shouting information to each other in a language of Latin derivatives, units of measure and chemicals. The canned laughter of a sitcom on a television next door scraped like a shovel against asphalt, sending sparks of irritation down Ben’s spine.
He got up from his perch and closed the door to the room with more force that he’d intended. It clattered loudly within its frame, but Ben just flexed his hand against the icy burn of the metal handle and returned to his seat.