I met Rudy on my first call shift in the newborn ICU. That morning, early on Wednesday sometime in December, I remember joining the single-file march of employees between the parking structure and the hospital, all of us hesitant and stuttering across slick patches of asphalt. I remember feeling the contents of my backpack jostle loosely around—ziplocked bags of snacks, a square tupperware of leftovers, my John Irving novel—acutely embarrassed at how utterly unprepared I was for the day ahead.
I wasn’t even through the sliding doors yet and a woman brushed past me taking deep, dramatic, Lamaze breaths. Her phone teetered on her domed belly as she sped by in a wheelchair, pushed from behind by a tight-lipped man with an over-stuffed Jansport slung over his shoulder. They rolled into an open elevator. Outside, another minivan screeched to a halt. Another woman, another tight-lipped man.
I took the stairs one at a time.
The third floor of the hospital’s east wing faced a cluster of administrative buildings in various states of construction and demolition, so the early morning sunlight came in through a tall window for moments at a time, the L-shaped hallway intermittently brought to life in brief, glancing miracles of geometry. When I reached the landing, however, the hallway was dark, the walls tea-colored, splashed in orange and brown. I turned at the tall window and headed toward the back workroom. My oversized scrubs brushed softly against the scuffed wooden floorboards. And on either side of me, photographs of sleeping newborns—in a miniature clawfoot bathtub, on the open pages of Alice in Wonderland, curled in the palms of two large, supplicating hands—lined the walls, in their perfect slumber taunting my inadequacy, daring me to misstep just once and forever disrupt their precious state.
I knew Rudy was gay immediately. He was mid-conversation with a nurse wearing Dr. Seuss scrubs, a ponytail of highlights bobbing frantically. The back of his wrist pressed deep into his hip. He hardly stopped to take a breath. His voice was thin and reedy. Hoarse when he got excited, breaking through layers of phlegm. Like an ex-smoker.
“So I tell him, ‘Tito, honey, get a fucking grip on yourself.’ Oh, and you know Tito, he hates getting his buttons pushed, so, of course, he goes and flips the guy off…”
I watched his free hand gesticulate. Five fleshy fingers in a blur. Ponytail made a remark. Rudy laughed, gave her shoulder a soft push. She was pretty and thin, with long eyelashes and a soft, peach lipstick.
Rudy spotted me in the doorway.
“Hi,” he said with a wave. He walked over to me. And then, reading my badge around my neck: “Looks like you’re with me all night. Hmm. Lucky you.”
I didn’t like the way he said ‘hi’, so long and exaggerated, spelled with about fifteen ‘i’s. Like I intrigued him, even though all I did was stand there. He didn’t shake my hand, either. He just gave a quick flash of a wave from the wrist—the one from his hip—and then went right back to his story with Ponytail. Her name was Darby.
Rudy was an older man. White. In his fifties, maybe. It was hard to tell—he looked like he could have gone either way. I didn’t dare ask his age. He seemed like the kind of gay who’d be offended by the question. Deeply. A real queen, I thought. He was short and stocky, shapeless beneath a set of scrubs, so I felt cartoonishly tall and delicate whenever we stood next to each other. He never went anywhere fast, either, which was either a product of attitude or anatomy. He had this slow, shuffling gait—even during stat codes—always caught up in the middle of a drawn-out story or joke while the rest of us tried to pull him along, looking anxiously up ahead to the room bustling with chaos and ‘push, push, push!’’s and impatient, beeping monitors.
Rudy had been working here for years, which went without saying. I could tell by the way he walked through the unit and bantered with the nurses (even the older, unapproachable ones with icier personalities—Deb or Barb or Ida with the flappy neck and short, scalloped hair dyed auburn red), how he asked about their husbands and children by name and how their vacations had been and the way he said “oh, honey, now, c’mon” whenever they said something he didn’t agree with. Again, with that hand.
Our first delivery was a Caesarian, and we entered the operating room like a couple of characters in a carnival mirror, donning identical scrubs with matching bouffant hairnets and masks with splash guards. Rudy taught me to set up the resuscitation table, turning on the warmer and resetting the timer, twisting the green dial on the wall to release a whoosh of oxygen that settled out like white noise. I learned to set up the blankets and prepare our suction. I took the umbilical clip from its packaging and flicked on the overhead lamp. I found the hat. There’s always a hat.
The surgeons made their first cut over at the operating table—a perfectly round belly floating like a marooned beachball in a sea of sterile blues—and started moving fat and muscle around, digging deeper, radiating a near-panic in silence. The operation itself was a quiet one—for most of it all we could hear was just the steady rush of oxygen—but, looking at it, you could feel what it sounded like in your head. Squishing and sloshing and the high pitch sound of things pulling tight, stretched tight, torn.
When it was time, Rudy glanced over at the rosy pink uterus, now exposed, and turned to me. He rolled his eyes. I gestured a laugh. He turned back around as amniotic fluid went everywhere and I smiled to myself from behind my mask. Our first day together and we already had an inside joke—who cared that I didn’t know what it was.
It was a boy.
And then another boy.
The rest of the day passed in a similar fashion, time dividing itself into two camps: a long, watchful calm and then, heralded by a chorus of pagers, a sweaty frenzy of screaming, fluids, and soft, furious cries. At some point in the day there was a change of shift. Suddenly, there were new nurses on the floor. New respiratory therapists. A new charge. A new clerk. Rudy knew them all, of course, had a catty remark for each of them. We ate dinner over our keyboards, stealing glances up at the grease board between bites of food, tracking our laboring women.
Aside from the steady flow of commentary addressed to no one in particular coming from Rudy as he went about his work, we didn’t talk to each other all that much. But when we did, I got the sense that Rudy was kind, albeit selectively so. Because whenever there was a group of us, he had this other side, this outrageous, over-the-top side. It was dressed in barbs and a wit, that flapping hand of his moving about like a venomous tail. He had a savage edge, which I noticed he kept aimed safely away from me. And as mean as it was, he brought it out so casually, in passing, in otherwise unexpecting conversations with nurses. He dropped these cruel remarks like a forgotten afterthought. They were harsh and merciless, tossed around without a care, which somehow made them harsher still.
“You get a load of her in there?” he said while we were leaving a delivery, throwing a thumb back at the door. It was a DOC baby—an ambulance transfer from the Department of Corrections (“Jesus, apparently they can get pregnant too,” Rudy said. “Whoever thought that was a good idea?”)—and she was already pushing behind the curtain by the time we arrived. Two steps in the room and she gave a sudden, full-throated cry. And then we heard another cry. Feeble, comparatively, but still. A cry. We looked behind the curtain. Her knees were still at her ears and there was a messy splash of fluids and blood below, out of which writhed a scrawny, wrinkled four-limbed thing covered in cottage cheese. Rudy glanced at the vigorous baby and nodded to the obstetricians. I handed over a hat, and we left.
And then, just outside the door, hands still wet with anti-bacterial foam:
“You get a load of her in there?” Rudy drew his face in a sickened grimace. “All tatted up and huge.” Rudy was referring to the mom, I realized. I didn’t remind him that she had only just very recently become un-pregnant. “Jesus Christ, who would ever fuck that?”
Darby laughed and batted a hand at him.
And later, while he sifted through her chart and showed the rest of us on two hands how many times she had been treated for chlamydia: “Honestly, honey, it’s like a fucking petri dish down there!”
Rudy reminded me of a boy I knew in middle school. We had gym class together and would walk on the outskirts of the yard by the wire fences while the other boys played basketball or teased groups of girls to make them shriek. He talked a lot, too. He used to tell me about all the R-rated movies his older brother let him watch when his parents weren’t home, describing in detail every lewd scene. I never said much, mostly balked at everything, which just egged him on more. One time his parents were out of town and his brother let him watch the Victoria’s Secret fashion show on television. I remember how excited he was to tell me. How he went on about it for days.
I looked him up recently. Still a pale redhead with a round, freckled face. I recognized him immediately. He turned out to be gay, too. Just like my best friend in grade school. And in middle school. And both of my college dormmates. There are too many to be a coincidence, I’m convinced, because we found each other somehow. And the saddest part is, with all of them, there wasn’t a word while we knew each other. That’s how terrified we were. We knew each other and about each other and still, despite that, we were so scared, the bravest thing any of us could do was inch just a little bit closer than everyone else.
“So where are you from?” Rudy asked. It was late in the night. Our pagers were silent. Suspiciously so. We had finished notes and orders and I was making slow circles in my chair, adjusting the armrest up and down. Up and down.
I told him that I had grown up in San Francisco.
“Really?” He said it the same way he said ‘hi’. Fifteen ‘e’s. Sinking his teeth into me. “I used to live there, too, back in the day.”
Of course you did, I thought.
“What a fun city.” He gave an exasperated cry. “Ah! But I was there probably decades before you were even born.”
Rudy had actually lived all over, I learned. After San Francisco, he moved to Chicago—like me, I thought, but I kept silent—and then a small town in northern Vermont and then L.A. and then Kabul.
He saw my surprise. Afghanistan?
“It was just for a few years. At a small local hospital, mostly nursery work. Man, it was hot as balls,” he said. “It was a good gig, though—paid a shitload—but then my dad had a heart attack and I had to come back and, oh, you know.”
I didn’t know. I only had the chance to let out a short “oh” before he went on.
“It was the most ridiculous thing. I’ll never forget,” he said. “My dad drank and smoked his whole life. There were probably some other drugs in there too if I had to guess.” A sly tap to the side of his nose. “He did everything short of beat my mother and me. Jesus, what an asshole. Anyway, we were on the phone one day, it was international so the line was shit, and I could hardly hear a word he was saying. We were talking about, oh, who knows what we were arguing over that day, but I just remember hearing all of a sudden, clear as a bell: ‘Jesus Christ, son of a bitch!’” Rudy clutched his chest dramatically. “And the line goes dead. Took me thirty minutes to get someone else to pick up the phone, but he was long gone by then. Jesus, that must’ve been, what, fifteen years ago today.”
Today? My heart slipped.
“Had to tell my mom, too, over the phone. She was hysterical. I get her on the line and she won’t stop talking about some petty feud in her Bible study group so I just have to cut her off—’Mom, listen, dad had a heart attack. He’s dead.’—and she stops for a second and then, like it’s nothing, ‘So should he be taking an aspirin before bed?’”
He laughed while I sat there, picking at my armrest. When he was finished, he just shook his head.
“She died a year later, poor girl.”
He looked at me and then past me, over my shoulder, reading the grease board. Someone was pushing. Everyone else was dilating.
“Unfair, isn’t it,” he said, still smiling, absently now. He kept his gaze just above my left shoulder. “How much more it hurts, you know, like it’s my fault I never forgave them.”
He told me he quit his job after his father’s funeral.
“I just needed a break, something new,” he said. “I needed something fun.”
So he became a flight attendant.
What is it with gay people and flight, I thought, angry all of a sudden.
“Oh, I loved it,” he said, like he knew what I was thinking, waving me off. “The long ones were my favorite, the international red-eyes.” He brought a hand to his chest. “Australia, ah! I used to go to Melbourne all the time.”
I heard a tiny wail outside our door followed by a round of earnest shushing. A few, stuttering hiccups and then a longer wail. Rudy didn’t seem to hear.
“We called it the Melbourne Turn. See, we’d fly L.A. to Sydney—stopping in Paris or Frankfurt on the way, depending on the air traffic, no more than a few hours, though—and then coming back from Sydney, we’d swing down and stop in Melbourne for a few days to refuel, do maintenance checks, technical stuff like that. Long enough that we had a chance to get off the tarmac, explore the city a bit before re-board and takeoff back to the States. People hated working the Turn. It took forever and was hard if you had kids or a family. But I didn’t mind one bit. It’s where I met Tito, actually.”
He had never mentioned Tito to me, personally. Everything I knew about him I had pieced together from what he told the nurses, picked-out bits of rambling while we made our way down the L-shaped hallway to deliveries. But he didn’t seem to care, or notice. He talked to me with such indifference, I didn’t know whether to be insulted or touched.
He had met Tito at a bar, Rudy told me, a narrow, seedy, hole-in-the-wall establishment in the heart of St. Kilda. Just a counter and row of vinyl stools stained with butt sweat, the music selection limited to oppressively loud Scandinavian techno.
“It’s a real shithole,” he said, laughing, “or at least it was. God, I hope they tore the place down. I was out back one night for a smoke and I swear he was going to jump me when I saw him. Big black guy coming out of the shadows like that, you can imagine. Almost shit myself. Turns out he just wanted to bum a smoke.” Rudy’s cheeks flushed. “Well, that was his pick-up line, at least.”
I tried to picture a young Rudy smoking, his favorite brand between his lips. Him, blonde and thin. Well, thinner, maybe. His voice, crisp and attractive. Tight pale jeans and fancy shoes. A Henley.
Tito was an architect. A traveler as well, which impressed Rudy. He’d been all over: South Africa, Canada, Saudi Arabia, most recently Brazil, having just finished a row of townhouses for a wealthy family in Espirito Santo. He was in and out of Melbourne, naturally, he told Rudy, depending on the job.
“It was real hit or miss,” Rudy said. “Sometimes we’d have three, four days together and it was paradise. And other times I’d land and he’d be gone, off doing god knows what. ‘Working here and there,’ was what he always said. Vague enough that I was never sure if I was allowed to ask anything more. It was god awful when he was gone. Just wandering the city, bored out of my fucking mind, counting down the days until takeoff. I mean, I was still single, and young at the time,” he shifted in his chair, “so there were other things, tons of things, I could do. But, you know what it’s like, when you meet someone like that, a man who just finds his place in your head and you can’t get him out. You don’t realize until it’s too late. One day you meet him and then, well, nothing else really feels right. Unbelievable, isn’t it? Without even asking, and the rest of the world loses its flavor.”
Rudy was looking at me now. The grease board behind me blinked and refreshed, more women in triage, deep-breathing women and their tight-lipped husbands.
I hadn’t told him about me, about us—hadn’t had the chance to, honestly, he filled up space so effortlessly with that fast talking of his, and those dirty, mean jokes—but he was speaking to me in a way that I recognized. Like he knew me and saw me, familiar with my slow walk by the fences.
“Anyway, we went on like this for months,” Rudy said, spinning his pager between his palms, “meeting up every now and then, grabbing dinner and drinks, take-out, going to shitty clubs, never knowing when the next time would be. It was great when it was great. But then all of a sudden it wasn’t.
“There was this long stretch of time when we kept missing each other. We didn’t plan it, obviously, but that’s just how things worked out. Every time I landed, he’d be off somewhere else. Calls wouldn’t go through, voicemails piled up. It was frustrating, and it fucked with my mind. I thought, seriously thought, that that was the end of it. That he had left Melbourne for good and just forgot to tell me. Or worse, he didn’t forget. That this was just a fling to him, a ‘see you when I see you’ sort of thing. Or that I did something wrong, annoyed him somehow. So I try to forget about him, too, and I stop doing the Turn as often. Maybe once a month, if that. Part of it was spite, fine, but it also just hurt too much to be there alone—asshole ruined the entire southern hemisphere for me.”
Rudy took a few moments to breathe, slow and deep. He was speaking from memory, now, here-but-not-here.
“But then, just when I think it’s over, sometime in May, I think, I do the Turn one night and finally I catch him while he’s still there. Just for a night, though, because he has a red-eye to Rio the next morning. So I pin him down, stop him on a random street corner in Southbank, and spill my fucking guts, tell him how I can’t stand not knowing the next time I’ll see him and how I picture him traveling the world and it kills me because every time I miss him just barely in Melbourne, even though I’ve been here more times than I can count, it feels like I’m stranded in the middle of the fucking desert and I can’t take it anymore.
“I ask him to come to the States with me, and his eyes get as big as saucers, so I tell him I can get him back here no problem. Like it’s nothing. I tell him about the Turn. I start backtracking, embarrassed all of a sudden, flustered and tripping over myself. It was pathetic. But then, I’ll never forget, he stops me, blurts out ‘yes’ so fast I don’t know what to say, so I say the first thing that comes to mind: that I can get him into first class for free!”
Rudy rocked back in his chair in a fit of laughter. His dry, wheezy laugh joined the low electric buzz from the fluorescent lights overhead. His voice no longer high and affected. His words, the most abundant thing in the universe.
A month later he was back in Melbourne and—they had planned it this time—Tito was waiting, packed and ready to go. “Thinking back, he had packed quite a bit,” Rudy said, cleaning his glasses on his scrub top. “For a short trip, that is.
“And I remember it so clearly: I’m walking him through the airport that day and the place suddenly feels different. I’m ecstatic, practically dragging Tito by the hand to the gate, but somewhere else inside I’m moved almost to fucking tears because I see the specialness of what’s happening. Shit, it’s almost sad somehow, like a weird mix of mourning and euphoria. And I think it’s because I know. I know, somehow, that this is it, that I won’t be coming back here again. I don’t know how I know, but I do.” Rudy scooted his chair closer to mine and leaned forward, lowering his voice. “And so I get him on that plane, and I bring him to his seat in first class, just like I promised, and as I look at him, this man who’s here, finally here, no longer just a daydream or a destination but a man—my man—who’s real and staying and actually fucking here, I can’t help but smile, and so I lean close, bring my face right up to his, and I tell him—” Rudy’s knees brushed up against mine. It was the only time we ever touched. “‘You even think about pushing that call button and I’m leaving your black ass in Frankfurt.’”
Rudy’s laugh was interrupted by our pagers blaring in unison. It was like we got shocked out of our chairs. On instinct, I sped-walked out of the workroom, surging with adrenaline. And as I came down the L-shaped hallway, I saw the early light chance through the tall window—a pale, starless sky, a grid of office windows slowly waking up with desk lamps and briefcases and sluggish, sleepy commuters.
It was morning already. My shift was almost finished.
I heard Rudy’s slow shuffle and noisy breathing behind me, so I slowed down, allowing him to walk ahead of me the rest of the way. At the window, Rudy turned to pass through the double doors. I paused to take a better look outside. It was a clear morning, one promising dazzling and changing colors. The street below was dusted in sunlight. And, for a moment, I saw myself up high in that pale sky, looking through my small, plastic porthole across the Atlantic, riding the slow arc around the world.
Rudy was out of sight. In the room already. Where I needed to be. A few moments more, I decided—for as long as this glimpse of sunlight lasts—and then I’ll go. Go down the hallway, through the double doors, to Rudy and pushing mothers and new babies with stockinette hats, always with hats. A few moments more and I’ll find some way to turn away from this tall window, from this quick breath of light, from this morning and from this beautiful, endless sky.