Fillmore Street, ten o’clock on a Saturday night, headed to a party. I watched the slow parade, people moving in clumps of four and five toward a nightclub on the corner. I’d finished college, and three weeks ago, I’d moved out to San Francisco, and in with Stephen. So far so good, the living together, though at the moment in the car he was trying to convince me to like Metallica. He put on their slowest song, which according to him, serious fans derided for being too soft, but which he hoped would be the gateway song for me. For my part, I hoped he wasn’t going to go off the deep-end, heavy-metal wise. As it was, we had just enough cross-over in our musical tastes to keep us happy in the car. But I had to admit, he knew me; in spite of myself I started humming. Stephen groaned, irritated. “You can’t rule out singing along and humming,” I said.
But then the car veered into a red zone, the tire bumping up against the curb. I turned to see Stephen leaning back against the headrest, eyes closed, tapping around on the right side of his chest with his fingers. “My lung just collapsed,” he said.
I’d been right about the groan - he sounded irritated more than anything. Meanwhile, the adrenaline started coursing through me; I gripped the door handle and tried to take deep breaths, which made me cough. He glanced over at me, one eyebrow raised and then we both smiled in spite of ourselves. For a second, it was funny, the healthy person sputtering while the person with the collapsed lung waited for her to get it together. I tried to think. Somehow I expected disruptions in life to happen one at a time. I’d only been here three weeks, my move was still happening. CF’s timing was bad. But I had to ignore that for the moment, I had to figure out what we were supposed to do. The hospital, that’s what you did.
“I don’t think I can go,” Stephen said. It took me a minute to understand that he was still considering the party.
“Don’t worry about it. Tell me how to get to the hospital, and I’ll drive us.”
“It’s Saturday night, the Emergency Room will be packed. I think I’ll just head over in the morning.”
“But you need to get checked out, see what it is.”
“I know what it is, it’s a collapsed lung.”
I felt like I was talking to a five-year-old, or someone on drugs, all logic out the window. Was I wrong that most people would consider a lung-collapse deserving of immediate medical attention? Somehow, he’d turned this around to make me feel like I was nagging, which he knew I’d sworn never to do, as a matter of pride.
“It’s not like all the air goes out at once. It’s hard to sleep in there. I want to get one night of real rest.”
This was how he was, always emitting competence, trusting himself so thoroughly it was hard to wedge yourself in. Usually this just made me argue harder and better; it made me win. But when it came to a collapsed lung, only one of us knew what he was talking about. He was probably wishing he were alone right now, so he could go ahead and do what he wanted.
“You better know what you’re doing.”
“Trust me. The CF doctors won’t even come in ‘til Monday morning.”
“I’m driving us home, at least.”
We came home to a quiet house. I called our friends to tell them we wouldn’t make the party. I mentioned the collapsed lung, and somehow it sounded worse than it had just between Stephen and me. I’m so sorry, our friend Eric said, and I tried to explain that it was reparable; it required a chest tube, but the lung would be okay. Stephen made peanut butter sandwiches and poured himself a glass of milk. I sat at the kitchen table, drinking a beer, listening to him fret about his architecture studio project, which was due next week.
“Just call the professor,” I said.
“I guess. I was hoping not to have to go into the whole CF thing.”
I sat cross-legged on our bed while he packed. Under the window was an upside-down milk crate, covered with an orange and black Turkish tapestry. On top, Stephen had set his miscellaneous small objects – a round malachite ball, the tiny crucifixion painting his Catholic cousin had given him, the plastic nun statue, the thin piece of metal with a Jim Morrison decal, the fragments of the bracelet I’d made for him in high school. In the dim light, their composition felt shrine-like. Stephen gathered clothes and books and magazines, the way you might for a vacation that promised lots of lying around.
At the end of the night we lay in bed, our legs intertwined. My mind wandered to a few days ago, biking back over the Golden Gate Bridge. We’d lost track of the day and it was dark by the time we made our way to the on-ramp, all the tourists disappeared. Cars streamed past us, separated from our lane by a shoulder-high metal barrier. They moved in our direction, their lights coming up from behind and illuminating the bridge, then floating away beyond us toward the city. I could not see the water below me but I knew it was there. I tried not to imagine falling in. I watched Stephen just ahead, leaning forward, his legs circling again and again. I loved those legs. It was funny that just the sight of them, in motion, could make me so happy. Now, I found myself memorizing the feeling of his leg over mine. It was something I used to do when we were long-distance. I put my head on his chest and listened. “I can’t hear the pop,” I said.
“It just happens once. But do you hear a leaking sound? Like air out of a tire?”
“You can hear that?”
“I don’t know. I can’t. But I always wonder if that’s how it sounds, if you can get close enough to hear it.”
I pressed my ear against him, getting as close as I could. Maybe I heard it, an extremely subtle hissing, the air escaping bit by bit, creeping into the chest cavity. I kept trying to listen for it, as his breathing got heavier, and I drifted off to sleep.