Charles Louis Gabriel (1857-1927), medical practitioner and photographer.
Charles Louis Gabriel (1857-1927), medical practitioner and photographer.

The Hospital: A Game for Lovers

Jenny Bitner's latest yarn is a skewed but compassionate fantasy of love and convalescence, and of real life and death. It is a companion to her earlier contribution to The Fabulist, “Hansel & Me”; both are excerpted from her unpublished novel “Here is a Game We Can Play.”

Read this story in print as part of Jenny Bitner’s debut novel “Here Is a Game We Could Play,” available now from Acre Books/University of Chicago Press.

I came to the hospital because you are there. You with your hair falling out, you with your quick desire to live like a shot of whiskey going down your throat. You who I met when you leaned over the bar and whispered to me, Fuck me, I’m dying.

And I said, How do I know you’re telling the truth?

You told me you would show me the results later, just come to the bathroom with you now, and so I followed you into the bathroom and you slid your hands up my skirt. I was wet already and you pushed me against the wall.

You said, I could tell from looking at you that you wanted to heal me like this, as you pulled my underwear down my legs.

That was quick, but this is slow. That was quick, but like slo-mo instant replay, it happened again and again in my mind. Perhaps it is still happening now.

Here are the rules of the game: In the white room nothing will happen. We make the rules in the hospital. We will play roles like doctor and nurse and patient. When we are tired of playing a role we will switch roles.

There will be no psychiatric hospital scenes. All injuries are physical. All injuries can be healed by the doctor or the surgeon or the nurse or the patient.

If the patient does not want the injury cured because they are still attached to it, it will not be cured or it will heal very slowly. If the patient wants the injury cured immediately, this will be done.

Slow healing will be nursed to. Slow healing will include many layers of bandages, salves, time. At a certain time every day the nurse will look at the wound and see how it is doing. Pleasure will be shown for slow and fast healing.

Sometimes the nurse will smile and hold the hand of the patient and say things like, You’re going to be OK. You look so much healthier today.Your leg is really healing. I love the color of your throat, like a pink rose.

Death does not happen in this hospital. We have nothing against death, but that is in another play. If you want to switch to playing death, you must leave this hospital and enter another hospital or enter the home.

Childbirth does not occur in this hospital. If you want to switch to playing childbirth, you must enter another hospital, a home, or a birthing pyramid.

There are three kinds of nurses. One is very attractive and young. She is entirely at home in her body in an unselfconscious way. When she is not being a nurse, she might be skiing or scuba diving.

Two is the nurse who looks like a grandmother. She is very wise and seems to know things. You know that she is comfortable with death and that to her death is just a door opening. She probably walks through that door sometimes and turns back just to take care of you.

Three is the horrible nurse. We cannot leave out the horrible nurse. She is too archetypal. At times, her presence soothes the patient by reminding them of all that is bad in the world, an external pain, which can be held against the internal pain and provide comparative relief.

Mostly the patients hate the terrible nurse. She is important for their bonding, though. Without the terrible nurse, the patients would not be as close as they are. Think of the nurse in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She hates you and wants to torture you. When she turns you over in bed it is only to see your bedsores and make a sick-faced look. When you ring the bell and she comes you think she is going to yell at you. Sometimes she does, she says things like Don’t you know we have people here who are really sick?

You can choose the type of nurse you want. Perhaps you want different nurses at different times.

Today I want the young nurse. She has her limits. She is puppyish in her actions, but I, like so many who are sick, desire to see really healthy flesh. Looking at her robust flesh gives me a generally good feeling. I like looking at the skin at the top of her breasts. It has a slight peach shade to it and it is firm with tiny white hairs.

Her whole skin in fact is very much like a peach, even the smell which is fresh and smells of the outdoors. I breathe in the coolness and smells of fields and pine trees as she leans over me.

I know that she has many lovers and this pleases me. I live vicariously through her. She is never unhappy. She is always pleased and full of vitality.

I followed you to the hospital. After that night in the bar, I wanted to see you again. You refused to see me again and you went away to the hospital to play the game of being sick, and so I made myself sick to love you. You let me see you on certain days, days that you are not too sick or days that you are near to dying.

Today your family was visiting you and making you tell them long stories about what they all meant to you with their guilty stares. We call it death-warmed-over-eyes, the looks that healthy people give us.

While they were there, I came to your room and limped to the window to water a plant. Who is that woman? your wife asked and you answered that I was a ghost. I smiled and spilled the water on the windowsill.

We are ghosts and everyone else is alive, but being alive is so boring, really. They have to play the same games they have always been playing of trying to make sense of things all of the time, of trying to do enough for their family members before they die, of saying the right things. It must be so tiring.

Of course I could choose what I am in the hospital for. I am in the hospital for a mysterious disease. They will never be able to put a name on it as long as I am in here. At times I joke heartily with the doctors that perhaps they will name the disease after me.

No, my handsome doctor with graying temples responds, they would name it after the doctor who discovered the illness, not the patient. (I know that he is sleeping with the young nurse and this pleases me inordinately.) Yes, only famous sports stars get diseases named after them.

This mystery disease also brings me a great deal of attention. Young doctors often come to visit me and look at my charts. I am proud that I have something so arcane and mysterious. My charts are lovely scratches of words and graphs and pictures that tell the real story of me. I always thought there should be a graphic representation of me that I can show people when first meeting. The charts come in handy for that.

My charts contain weird line drawings and x-rays of the food that I eat. There is a complete record of all the food that I have eaten since I arrived here. There is something inside the food that is making me sick. I have a theory that we can find this out by x-raying the food. The hospital staff patronizes me and so I have x-rays done of all my meals:

Lamb chop with peas and peach cobbler
Mushroom risotto and crème brule
Whole sea-bass with passion fruit beurre-blanc and wilted greens
Spaghetti (thick as worms) with thin sauce, canned green beans and apple sauce
Corn dog, Fritos and ho-hos

I should mention that the kitchen is an oddly unpredictable fare. So as to seem like any other hospital, they offer traditional, bland food at times, but at other times they have gourmet food, cooked by top chefs. Some people prefer the gourmet food, but the hospital food gives us an odd feeling of institutional affinity with elementary school children, prisoners and the mentally ill.

One of the most mysterious side effects of my disease is becoming randomly poisoned by food that I eat. I seem to develop food allergies that rise and fall within me. One day I can eat rice and feel fine and then the next week I eat a small amount of rice and it’s like I’ve eaten arsenic. There is vomiting and weakness and sometimes they have to pump my stomach.

If I didn’t have these symptoms before I entered the hospital, I would think perhaps I was being poisoned by the night doctor.

We are all afraid of him. We think that perhaps he is a poisoner, like that famous case in England — the doctor who put elderly women to rest with heroin shots. He killed over 200 people. They say he wanted to be in ultimate control, to decide who lives and dies.

We have a warning system set up. If the night doctor ever comes into someone’s room at night and offers them an injection they ring a little bell and one of the other patients comes into the room. Usually he withdraws the offer of medication when he sees he is being watched.

Actually poisoning is quite common in the medical field. There are nurses who kill their patients. I wonder if there are patients who kill their doctors.

I recently requested a fourth kind of nurse. Everyone was surprised. They felt that the three nurse varieties pretty much covered the field.

No, I said, these nurses aren’t giving me what I need. I want an I-don’t-take-no-shit-from-anybody nurse. I want a woman from the heartland who has suffered and can look life straight in its shitty eye and still have some warmth in her. I want an I-won’t-lie-to-you-here’s-the-facts nurse.

Yes, they said, that kind of a nurse is necessary. Yes, they said, that is in fact the heart of nursing and they provided me with one.

Really the kinds of relationships that I can have in the hospital are so much deeper and sweeter than in life that I don’t want to ever leave. In addition to my rather fond relationships with the nurses, I form strange friendships with other patients. I am especially fond of ones who are dying.

They cannot die here, of course, but they can be very near death and they have a wonderful quality to them. We laugh about everything. As their hair falls out, their humor sharpens.

We could leave at any time really, if we wanted to, if we decided that our disease doesn’t really exist or we invented a doctor that has a cure for it, but we like being here. You have a kind of disease that makes your skin more and more sensitive. That’s why I followed you here. It means that the less and less that we touch, the more and more you feel.

That’s why you wanted to fuck me in the bathroom before it was too late. Before that kind of touch would be too much. Our relationship has progressed backwards since then. We moved on to heavy petting, groping, tongue kissing, holding hands.

Now it is enough sometimes to put my little finger at the tip of your earlobe. At night, when I sneak to you in your bed and touch you so quietly and gently that I won’t damage any of your organs, I feel more alive than I ever have in my life.

You whisper in my ear, What is it about death that makes us so alive?

I whisper back, I am touching you for the last time. Last time I touch your belly. Last time I touch your eyebrow. Last time I put your penis in my mouth, so gently, as if it will melt against my tongue.

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Reader Interactions


  1. Mardith Louisell says

    This is the best paragraph ever. And so true.
    “They have to play the same games they have always been playing of trying to make sense of things all of the time, of trying to do enough for their family members before they die, of saying the right things. It must be so tiring.”

    I heard you read this at WTAW, it was great and it still is!

  2. Emma W. says

    I am wet to know so much more of the world where this piece lives.

    There are way too many lackluster new novels for this to not have a publisher.

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Jenny Bitner

Jenny Bitner

Jenny Bitner’s fiction has been published in Mississippi Review, The Sun, Fence, Corium and PANK. Her story “The Pamphleteer” was selected by Dave Eggers for Best American Nonrequired Reading and incorporated into an opera by The Paul Bailey Ensemble. Her nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, To-Do List, The San Francisco Bay Guardian and Men’s Health. She organized Irrational Exuberance, a cross-genre series combining music, visual art, writing, performance art and lectures, and a literary reading series, The Basement Reading Series. Pine Press published a chapbook of her poetry entitled Mother. She has finished a novel, Here Is a Game We Can Play, and is seeking a publisher. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia.

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