In ContactZone

By Victoria McCaslin

I don’t like hospitals. I don’t know if I know anyone who does. Maybe you’re reading this, thinking indignantly, “I like hospitals. I love hospitals.” And I hope that you do. But I don’t. They’re grim and stale. Even when I was a kid and I visited my mother and one of my freshly-born siblings, I would walk through the tiled hallways and think, “Why on earth would anyone want to experience the miracle of life here?” But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Now that we’ve established the bleakness of hospitals, let’s sprinkle in some more unpleasantness. Picture this: you’re a female college student abroad without your parents for the first time, and you’re sitting in an ER in Siena, Italy. You’re in the ER because you hurt your foot, so you can’t walk. You’re being pushed in a wheelchair by your professor and trip leader’s husband, George. You’re wearing a bathing suit (still damp), slightly sun-burned, exhausted, hungry, and, to top it all off, you had to be carried to your wheelchair by a cool girl on the school’s frisbee team and the frat boy you have a crush on. Your cool-girl-persona completely crumbled, you’re lightly crying, tears streaming down your pink cheeks. 

The story of how I ended up in this predicament is as pathetic as it is tragic. There I was, strolling happily along the beach, gazing upon the glistening Mediterranean. I thought about what kind of gelato I would get later (chocolate, probably), and whether or not my professor and her husband would let me get a cocktail (no, definitively). My friends and I had just taken pictures on some large rocks a few yards out from shore that were sticking out of the water, close enough to wade to. We joked about how we had all almost slipped and fell on the slick stone, but luckily we’d all made it back safely. Amused by this, my feet decided to betray me.

The transition from standing to crawling was so quick that I don’t remember it – I was simply standing and then I wasn’t. My friends were cackling too violently to help me up, and I was laughing and waving off their phones as they took pictures of my sorry state. I managed to get up soon enough, brushing it off, and continued back to our beach chairs with only a slight pain in my foot. This walk was the eye of the storm. 

When we reached the rest of our classmates, posted up on plush blue lounge chairs that our trip leaders had rented for us, I sat down to shake some sand off my feet before we headed to the restaurant right behind us. Since I was a kid on the beaches of New Jersey, I’ve always slapped my feet together like a seal clapping its flippers to rid myself of sand. This is where my day went sharply downhill – I immediately felt a sharp pain in my foot, accompanied by a disconcerting pop. 

“Owww!” I yelped (embarrassingly). I’ve always prided myself on having a high pain tolerance, but this hurt. I tried to stand up and found that I couldn’t put any weight on my foot without intense pain. My friends crowded around me, examining my quickly-swelling appendage. 

“We should go tell Madonna and George,” Marly offered. She’d had her fair share of sprained ankles and assumed that was my diagnosis. Not great, but could’ve been worse.

“No, no, I don’t want to bother them.” Sure, my foot hurt, but it seemed a minor thing to interrupt our trip leaders about. I didn’t want to seem dramatic. “Let’s just go eat and then I’ll see how I feel.”

With the assistance of my friends, I hopped and hobbled my way up the beach. When we reached the open-aired restaurant’s entrance I had to pause to catch my breath. At that moment, George, waiting for his own lunch with his wife, walked up to us to express his excitement about the lunch options. He translated it for us as I stood conspicuously on one foot, leaning on my roommate, but he must’ve been distracted by his soon-to-be-arriving prawns, because he didn’t notice. 

Once seated (right across from our trip leaders), I propped my foot up on a spare chair and managed to ignore the throbbing in my foot long enough to enjoy my meal of gnocchi with shrimp. Our meal was peppered by occasional visits from George, all of which were accompanied by pointed looks from my friends who were growing more concerned by the second. 

“I’ll tell them when they’re done eating. I don’t want to interrupt.”

“Victoria,” Amber said, “they’re not gonna be mad at you for being hurt.”

“No, I know! I just don’t wanna bother them.”

The meal ended too soon, as all great meals do. As gracefully as I could, I hobbled up to my professor’s table. 

“I don’t mean to intrude,” I began, “but I kinda fell earlier and now I can’t walk. I didn’t want to ruin your meal, but my foot really hurts quite a lot.”

My professor immediately jumped into doctor-mode, checking my foot before embarking on a mission to find me an ace bandage. George left to call our driver to find out when he could get here. Amber left to buy me a (virgin) piña colada, and I shooed off Marly and Libbie and told them to go enjoy the beach. I sipped my piña colada and iced my foot, trying to remain positive. 

Me, my Pina Colada, and my foot

Our next mission: getting me off of the beach and onto the bus. 

Step 1: I had to go to the bathroom, so a girl in my apartment held my hands as I jumped up the beach, across the street, and into the building with bathrooms. The resort’s workers chuckled at my condition, which made my slightly flushed cheeks burn red. After I relieved myself, I hopped back outside and plopped down at a table right outside the door. A waiter brought me a glass of water. I thanked him. 

Step 2: Gelato. This one was easy. Some of the people on my trip brought me gelato to make me feel better. 

“I didn’t know what you wanted, so I guessed chocolate,” Will said. He was right. I tried (in vain) to pay him back, but he laughed it off. 

Step 3: The bus. The driver had to park a couple blocks away, and George, Madonna, and my friends huddled around me, trying to think of the most painless way to get me there. 

“I can just try to jump,” I offered, feeling ashamed of the attention.

“Don’t be silly,” Madonna responded. “We’ll carry you.”

“What? No, I – I think I’m too heavy-” My protests went unheeded, with Madonna calling for a sturdier chair from a waiter who stood on the outskirts of our group. He brought one, approaching with a flurry of Italian to Madonna and George.

“Oh, great! Victoria, he’s going to help carry you.”

Something about being carried by a handsome, tanned Italian man didn’t sit right with me, and I once again began offering to hop there myself. The waiter took one side of the chair, and Madonna called in the trip’s resident frat boy to take the other. Other than my gelato melting onto my fingers and feeling bad when they had to set me down to take a break, the journey could’ve gone much worse. 

At least the view was pretty.

After dropping off most of my classmates in Siena, Madonna and George called a cab to drive us outside of the city’s walls to the hospital. After depositing me in a waiting wheelchair, my classmates got back in the taxi to head home. While Madonna and George paid the driver and gave him instructions, there was a brief period of time where I was alone. Sitting in a wheelchair outside of the hospital’s ER, I glanced down at my feet. There were drops of something (presumably blood, from the color and location) leading into the hospital’s doors. A man stumbled out, looking flustered. There was a bloody handprint on his shirt. My stomach dropped. I’m a big fan of horror movies, but this wasn’t looking promising. 

The next few hours was a flurry of Italian and feeling helpless, as my trip leaders translated for me and spoke to the doctor. The news was bad – I had a fracture in my foot and would have to be in a cast for the last week of the trip until I could see a doctor at home. I knew it was coming; I had a feeling in my gut that it wasn’t a minor thing. I used my professor’s phone to call my mom (mine had died) and cried in the parking lot. 

The next few days were rough. My entire time in Siena I’d tried to blend in. I relished the opportunity to explore the city on my own, finding new places to get a cappuccino or lunch. My freedom was gone, as was any chance I had of blending in. Siena is a medieval city – its streets are cobblestone. I had to be pushed in a wheelchair over the bumpy, crowded city, staring at my hands in my lap, humiliated by the eyes on me. My last week had been stolen from me. All the things I wanted to do, the places I wanted to go, I now had to rely on other people to get to. 

If anything, the wheelchair just made me more aware of how I couldn’t blend in before it, not really. I could try – could mimic the local fashion, move with confidence through throngs of people, have my favorite places to go – but I was still intrinsically American. I was an outsider. I couldn’t speak more than a few words of Italian, I relied on a map to get around the city, and I didn’t know the customs. My new wheelchair was only a bulkier representation of what I already knew: I didn’t belong there. 

A few days before departure, my roommate was pushing me through the city as we picked up final gifts for family members. I noticed a man walking toward us. As he approached, he removed his sunglasses and I recognized him. He owned the bar across the street, where every morning we would shuffle in before class and get cappucino and cornetto. He teased us in broken English as we struggled through broken Italian.

He clapped his hands together. “What happened?”

“I was walking, and I fell,” I said, using my hands to mimic the folding of my ankle.

He held his hands together and bowed. “I’m so sorry.”

“Grazie, signore, Grazie.”

As he walked away, I felt myself start to cry. 

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