My shrink is on the fifth floor of this modern, medical high-rise, so I tell that number to the back of the guy’s head who is standing near the elevator buttons so he can push the number for me. The elevator is so crowded that I feel like a single fry in a super-sized carton of French-fried potatoes and I can’t move or see anything except backs of heads, and I can’t tell whether or not my floor has been rung.
The elevator stops and I can hear the doors open and a scurry of people move out. I can now see that we’re on the third floor and I don’t see number five lit up on the panel so I say to the head again, “Number five please,” as loudly and sweetly as possible.
We keep going up and the next thing I know we’re on the seventh floor. I feel miffed at the head, didn’t he hear me!?
“Hello?” I say, “can you please hit number five for me?”
“Oh, sorry,” the head says.
Up to number twelve now and at the fifteenth floor we’ll start to descend again. A few more people exit and at the seventh floor, going down, only the head and I are still on the elevator.
All of a sudden there is a loud thunk, actually more like a krrrrrrrrrrr-thhhhhuuunk and ssccraaaping sound, and then the elevator stops and the lights go out.
“What the hell?” I yell-speak-state all at once.
“I don’t know,” the head says.
“The elevator has stopped,” I say.
“Yes, it seems so,” says the head.
“What should we do?” I say, trying not to panic.
“Perhaps try our cell phones,” the head says. “At least that way someone will know we are here.”
“Good idea,” I put my hand in my purse and weed through its contents until I feel the shape of my phone and pull it out. I press the button to turn it on and see light illuminate the screen.
“I’ll try my mom,” I say. I select my mom’s number and nothing happens. I can see the phone trying to connect to a signal but there is not even one bar registering on the connection. “Shit,” I say. “I can’t get a connection.”
“Probably all the metal around us is blocking it,” the head says. “Do you have a flashlight function on your phone though? With that, maybe we can find an emergency phone or button in here.”
As I search for the flashlight app, I can’t help but think that the head’s voice sounds distantly familiar and I try to place it. I’m running through likely places where the familiarity originates when I find the app and turn on the flashlight. It isn’t a brilliant light, but a dim light that I shine on the panel near the head.
“Ah, here it is,” says the head and he pushes the emergency button.
We wait, and nothing happens.
“What does that button do anyhow?” I ask.
“I believe it sends a signal to an alarm company or someone like that,” the head says. “But, if the power is out, we can only hope there is a back-up to send the signal.”
“Okay, so I suppose we just wait now,” I say, unsure of what else to say.
“Yep,” says the head as he lowers himself to take a seat.
I keep my flashlight on and sink down to sit too, my back resting on the side of this metal wall that envelops us.
Where do I know that voice from? I ask myself. I go through a litany of options. Work? Former coworkers? People at the gym? Grocery store? Friends of friends? Veterinary office? Dog park? Old school mates? Friends of my parents? Nothing manifests.
“You should probably turn off that light and save your battery,” the head says after a while.
“I suppose you’re right,” I say.
Travel? University? Dating? I run through the dates I’d had years ago before I met my husband. Dinners, dances, blind dates, bars, matchmaker dates, dating websites. Nothing registers.
The head is quiet and I’m not sure what to say. I continue going through my mental list…people I’ve seen at coffee shops, is he a barista? Restaurants? Doctor’s visits? I pause. Doctor’s visits? Surgery? That’s it. Several years ago, I battled cancer and I feel like the head belongs to something from that time.
“Your voice sounds familiar,” I finally say. “Do I know you?”
“It’s possible you may have heard my voice,” the head says, “Could have been on WXDU at Duke where I DJ’d for a while, or you could have counted backwards from one-hundred at my command while going under anesthesia.”
“I think it’s probably the latter,” I say. “I had breast cancer surgery and treatments at Abramson’s several years ago.”
“That’s me then,” the head says and continues, “Okay, let’s begin to count backwards from one-hundred. Sound familiar?”
“Yep, that sounds familiar,” I say.
“I trust you are doing well now?” the head asks.
“Very well, total remission. My oncologist says they got all the cancer.”
“I’m glad. I’m flattered that you remember my voice. Putting people out typically isn’t very memorable.”
“Quite the contrary,” I say. “I’d say most people feel it’s the best sleep they’ve had in ages.”
We both laugh.
It’s quiet for a few minutes and then I ask, “What made you want to get into that line of work, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“That’s a good question, and no, I don’t mind,” the head says. “Two things really. I lost my wife at the age of twenty-six to the carelessness of an anesthesiologist. She went in for surgery on her appendix and never woke up. The autopsy showed she was in pain while under, so the doctor sedated too heavily to counteract and she reacted to the drugs. It could have been prevented if the doctor was more attentive. I was devastated. Ruined is probably a better word for how I felt. I was useless for quite some time and then one day I woke up. I joined the living again and decided to use the money I was awarded for the malpractice to gain my medical degree,” he pauses and considers.
“And, I like knowing that I can help take away someone’s pain, make them feel comfortable in a safe way, even if it is just for a short while.”
“I never thought about it that way before,” I say.
We’re both quiet for a time and then the head says, “Did you ever see that movie The Green Mile with Tom Hanks?”
“Yes,” I say, “I liked that movie.”
“Me too. I think about Michael Clarke Duncan who plays the role of John Coffey, the black man falsely accused of murdering two young girls. He is despised and convicted but he is anything but a guilty murderer. Rather, he is a man of divinity, a man who can exhume another’s pain. I think about that every time I put someone under. How can I help someone who would otherwise hurt, not feel the agony and discomfort? I don’t say this to sound like a hero, I say it because I, well I just want to help and I want everyone I put under to wake up. That’s all.”
“That’s a good reason, and I’m sorry about your wife,” I say. And then add, “I’m Rebecca by the way.”
“Antonio,” says the head. “Thank you, and nice to meet you Rebecca.”
I switch my cell phone on to check the time. We’ve been in here forty-five minutes now. The elevator is horrifically quiet except for the occasional groan of metal. We’re suspended in the dark, somewhere above the fifth floor, and the elevator feels stuffy and airless.
“I wish we knew if this is just an elevator malfunction or something bigger?” I say.
“I’d suspect at a minimum it’s a building malfunction, this is a huge medical building so at some point the staff, or responders if that is the case, will know there are probably people stuck in the elevator. Don’t worry, we won’t be here forever,” Antonio says.
I hear some shuffling noises and then the rattling of a wrapper. “I’ve got a Toblerone here, you hungry?” A hand reaches out and touches my arm and I reach for the section of chocolate pyramids Antonio is passing my way.
It feels weird to be sucking and chewing on chocolate candies in the elevator’s stony silence with an unfamiliar person. Somehow the shared space of intimacy, the knowing that this point in time is isolated, and finite, lends itself to quick friendship, like one felt on a plane ride or at a concert with strangers.
“I lost my husband too,” I say. “Our son died. It was SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome. One minute I was feeding him and he was smiling at me, the next minute in his crib, his breath had stopped, and he was gone. It was a terrible time. I found out I had breast cancer not long thereafter and my husband just couldn’t cope with the possibility of more loss. Rather than offering support, he just left. Up and gone like that,” I say and click my fingers together.
“I felt so helpless and directionless for a while. Like you, I work to find ways to channel my grief into something that can help others, though I don’t have a sleeping potion in my bag of tricks,” I say with a snicker to mask the residual pain with humor.
“Losing a child. That’s really a tough one,” Antonio says. “You’re one strong lady to survive all that.”
“I don’t know about that, but what else can we do but press on, right?” I say. “And now, we just need to survive this elevator ordeal. “
“You know, if you had pressed number five on the way up, I wouldn’t be stuck on this elevator, and based on the fact you went up and were coming back down, I’m wagering you missed your floor too,” I add.
“You’re right, and I’m very sorry. I’ve been trying to work something out with someone and I guess I was distracted. You know, running the conversations and scenarios through my mind. Not a good thing to admit, the distraction piece, especially in light of what I shared with you earlier.”
“It’s okay, I was dreading my appointment anyways, my psychiatrist is on the fifth floor and she feels I still have things I need to focus on letting go, but I feel a step ahead, like I’m moving past the painful pieces. I just want to move on and quit talking about everything. Enough processing. So, I was going to have to tell her this was to be my last appointment and now I don’t have to have that conversation, at least not today anyway,” I say.
“Sounds like we’re in similar boats. Can I tell you something in confidence Rebecca? “
“Of course, I’m all ears, plus sitting in this dark elevator feels conducive to sharing secrets, don’t you think?
Antonio laughs and then says, “My fiancé is on the fifth floor as well, also in the psychiatric wing. I’ve been feeling like she’s so focused on analyzing me, and everyone else as of late, that we don’t seem to connect anymore. I was hoping to catch her after her last appointment because quite honestly, I don’t think I would be happy if I actually married her. I’ve been trying to work out what I actually wanted to say so I suppose we’re both getting a pass on tough discussions this afternoon.”
I can’t see Antonio, but I can hear him smiling.
“I think we’re cut from similar cloth,” he says. “The loss of loved ones, resilience, the desire to be helpful, and challenging psychiatrists in our lives I might add.”
“That sounds like a toast,” I say and we both chuckle. “When we get out of here, we ought to go for a drink. I think we’ve earned it.”
“Deal,” he says.
“Maybe our shrinks conspired and created this power outage so that they didn’t need to have the conversations with us. Did you ever think of that?” I offer with a giggle.
A moment later we hear a voice outside of the elevator, it appears to be coming from a place overhead. “Hello, can you hear me?” the voice says. “This is the Pittsburg Fire Department.”
Antonio and I both jump up, knocking awkwardly into each other as we do so.
“Yes, yes,” Antonio answers. “There are two of us in here.”
“Okay, hold on,” the fireman says. “We’ll have you out of there in a jiffy. You both okay? Either of you injured?”
“We’re both fine,” Antonio says.
A moment later we see a shaft of light coming from above, the top of the elevator has been removed and we see the first responder’s face.
“Okay, I’m going to get you first ma’am. We’ll get you harnessed in and lifted to safety in a moment.”
A vest is dropped and I loop my arms through the straps and secure the buckle. The ascent is a bit frightening, dangling there is space, but it’s brief and I feel my feet hit the building’s interior floor in the span of a few moments.
While my eyes are readjusting to the light and a responder checks me over to make sure I’m okay, they hoist Antonio out to safety too. There, with him beside me in the light, I finally get to see the face affixed to the head I’ve just spent the last several hours getting to know. I can’t help myself and I reach across hug him.
“Thank you for keeping us so calm in there Antonio,” I say.
“Of course,” he says, “You game to go get that drink you talked about?”
“You bet,” I say. “My favorite place is just a few blocks from here, ironically it’s called The Sleepy Tavern.”
“Sounds right up my alley.”
“Maybe we can get them to name a new drink after us, something like The Elevator Drop or The Shrink-ing Finale, get it?”
He laughs, “Or The Blackout Heart to Heart or….”
I look at Antonio and think how happy I am that he was so distracted this once, and that he made me miss getting off on the fifth floor.