The waiting room is awash in the ominous glow of the overhead lights. I can hear them flickering above me, the little zaps of electricity moving from one light to the other.
The walls are a brilliant white with patches of yellow in between. It’s supposed to evoke a sense of calmness. Instead, it looks like smudges of finger paint done by a kindergartener high on his newfound Picasso fame. For a hospital owned by a billionaire, they sure skimmed on the decor.
A nurse walks up to me looking all work and no play. She peers over her much too large glasses and then at her file.
“Miss Dell?” she asks impatiently.
I nod yes, and she motions for me to follow her. She leads me through a cavernous corridor, her heels clicking on the floor as I follow behind.
We stop at a room with the words “Kidney Dialysis” written above the door. Inside is my brother, Skylar, connected to a dialysis machine. Beside him stands his doctor, a large man with bulging eyes and a waistline to match.
“Ah, Miss Dell,” he says as he firmly shakes my hand. “I’m Dr. Mason, and I’ll be Skylar’s physician while here at Saving Grace Hospital.”
I want to laugh in his face and shout, “Saving who? Not my brother!” Instead, I greet him curtly.
“As you know, the dialysis doesn’t seem to be working for Skylar. And you don’t present as a suitable donor seeing as you are not related by blood,” Dr. Mason says as he motions to some imaginary chart before him.
“So, what do you recommend as the next course of action, Doctor?” I ask while looking at Skylar.
He seems pale, almost iridescent; it feels like if I were to take a magnifying glass and hold it close to his skin, I would be able to see the blood pulsing through his veins.
“I suggest we get him started on a course of antibiotics and then undergo surgery to remove the cysts. Hopefully, after surgery, we will have found a donor.”
Dr. Mason feigns genuine concern, but the smirk is a dead giveaway.
The thought of Skylar undergoing surgery frightens me. He’s only 17, and for most of his life, he’s had to deal with shit no kid should. I remember his 15th birthday. Instead of going out with his buddies, he ended up in the emergency room, complaining about headaches and a swollen abdomen.
After months of not knowing what was wrong, a series of tests confirmed he had polycystic kidney disease. Doctors told us it was genetic, and because Skylar joined our family as a foster kid, we had no idea about his medical history.
Now, two years later, we’re here once again. Him tied up to a machine, and me at my wit’s end. I feel like he’s reading my mind when he holds out his hand for me. I take it and silently send out a prayer to the universe.
“Nina, please don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” Skylar says with a parched voice. His lips are cracked and his brown eyes plead with me. “We’ll come up with a plan,” he adds.
By ‘plan’, Skylar means we don’t have the cash to pay for his procedure. Our health insurance ran out months ago. The kidney dialysis alone killed us. And now, we’re sitting with a mountain of bills and final demand letters. It’s not like my waitressing job is enough to carry the both of us—we can barely keep the power on in our ‘penthouse’ apartment.
I’m only 22 with no formal qualification. I dropped out of college while studying for visual arts, thinking I’d find my way back again. It’s been two years, and my dreams and funds have run dry. Besides, Skylar is my main priority now.
Dr. Mason and the nurse excuse themselves. I go over and stand by the big bay window. It overlooks the New York skyline. The irony of this view from a hospital window isn’t lost on me—I look down on the hundreds of people going about their day like diligent little worker ants, bumping into each other, not bothering to say “sorry” or “excuse me.” That’s the thing I’ll never get about New Yorkers; they’re rude, opportunistic, and self-absorbed.
The sun starts to set, illuminating the sky with a brilliant blaze of orange. I always used to love this time of day. Now, it reminds me only of despair.
I close the blinds and sit beside Skylar. He’s fallen asleep, his shallow breaths willing his chest to heave up and down. He looks smaller, as if he’s reversing in age like a real-life Benjamin Button.
That night, as I make my way to the subway, a slight wind picks up. It’s autumn, but the night is unusually warm. Throngs of people are on their way to meet up with friends at bars and clubs. It’s Friday night and there’s electricity in the air, a mounting anticipation of what the night will bring. I remember those days… Although I didn’t exactly party with reckless abandon. It was more like “Okay, I’ve had one drink for the evening. I’m done now. Bye!”
While walking up the narrow stairs up to my apartment, my phone rings. It’s Frances.
“Hey, how did it go?” she asks in a deep, sultry voice.
No matter how many times I hear her voice, it always takes me by surprise. It reverberates against the walls, against the ceilings, making grown men offer to buy her drinks while making plans for her to have their babies.
I push open the door to the cold, empty apartment and sink into a worn-out armchair.
“Not so good.” I start crying. “He needs surgery, and he needs a donor, like, yesterday. I really don’t know what to do,” I say while needling the threadbare throw my Aunt Miranda bought as a housewarming present.
When she gave it to me, it was bright emerald green. Now, it resembles the color of barf. Smells like it, too.
“And your health insurance? Can’t that cover some of the costs?” She already knows the answer before I can respond. “What if I come over? We can drink some cheap wine and I’ll get some sushi from the place around the corner,” she suggests in her booming voice.
“I don’t think I’ll be great company,” I say as the tears threaten to swallow my words. “You should go and have some fun. Hang out with your fun friends, not Debbie Downer,” I joke. “Go and get laid. Make bad life choices and live with regrets.”
She laughs. “Na, I did that last weekend. Wasn’t that much fun, I even have the STI to prove it.”
We both start giggling, and she tries one last time to coax me.
“We could get shit-faced drunk, find a dingy bar, and you could lose your virginity in a toilet stall with the words ‘Johnny came here’. It will be epic,” she mumbles before breaking wind.
By the sounds of it, Frances already has a head start and is probably two drinks in.
“Na, I’m fine. I need to clean up the place and take out the trash. You’ll just be in the way,” I say.
“Okay, but promise not to mope. When you mope, your mind goes crazy and then you start panicking,” she pleads.
I whisper back that I promise, and I end the call.
Now I’m sitting alone with my thoughts. The one that weighs heavy on me is how I’m supposed to pay for Skylar’s surgery. When extra shifts at the restaurant come up, we’re like dogs that won’t let go of a bone. Everybody’s in the same boat, and we’re all trying to make ends meet.
The front room is a mess. Skylar’s clothes are strewn across the floor and on the kitchen table. I start picking up things as I head to his room. Well, it’s not really a room—more like a partitioned-off part of the main bedroom, which happens to be mine.
The first time we saw the ad for the apartment, we were giddy with excitement. Fresh off the bus from Minnesota, we saw a rental ad that read:
“Penthouse apartment in a well sought-after area in downtown Brooklyn.”
We were convinced we had hit the jackpot. Only after paying the rip-off of a down payment did we realize it was a rat-infested piece of shit at the top of a four-storey building.
A few months after moving in, we laughed at our naivety. Living in New York taught us to grow up quickly—maybe too quickly. Sometimes I wonder if he regrets moving to New York with me. I know I regret taking him away from his old school, his old friends, and Aunt Miranda.
Every so often, I wonder if he may have gotten better treatment and a better chance at life if I had left him behind. If I lose him, then I’ve failed him as his big sister. I’m the one who’s supposed to protect him and keep him safe, and I can’t even do that.
The new normal is late-night visits to the emergency room or me holding him in bed as he writhes in pain.
A memory surfaces of him standing in front of the small kitchen sink with me trying to put blonde highlights in his hair. It ended up being a disaster, with him looking like a young Johnny Depp on speed. If you take a closer look, you can still see the telltale signs of a dye-job gone wrong. Good thing he didn’t hold it against me for long.
I pour myself the last of the chardonnay left over from last night and open my laptop. There has to be a job out there that can at least keep us afloat for the time being. Scrolling through Craigslist ends up being a headache-inducing chore… Or maybe it’s the wine.
By the time I get through the “escorts wanted” listings, I’m already two hours in. And then I see it—an ad saying:
“Surrogate wanted. Will be handsomely compensated. Complete discretion is a must. Apply below.”
The blood starts racing to my brain, and I get a tingling feeling as the synapses start to connect. Who would list something like this? I start laughing and think out loud “Universe, is this you playing a game on me?”
The email address is from a Gmail account, so surely it must be a joke? But there’s a part of me that thinks “What if it’s real?”
A moment ago, I was searching for jobs as an escort. This is basically one step below the heights of desperation I will go through.
With nothing to lose, I compose a short email and press “send.”