First, drink six beers and smoke three joints. Since it’s a Saturday night in the 1970s and you’re in college, this is what you’re supposed to do. Be delighted that by midnight, your room is packed. Like you, everyone has been consuming various substances, which makes such things as the guy playing air-harmonica to a J. Geils record extra funny. One girl’s eyes still look like saucers even though it’s been seven hours since she started tripping. In fact, drugs of all kinds are so common around here that when you run into your friend Lynn in the hall and she says, “I think my sister just swallowed a bunch of pills,” at first you don’t get it.
Focus on her face. Note that her eyes are scared, her skin pale, as she says, “She was in the bathroom stall for a long time and wouldn’t come out. I heard her doing something. She had all of Marty’s leftover medicine, his Percodans. I think she swallowed them all.”
Stare at her as you try to figure out what to say. All you can manage is, “Holy shit.”
Continue to stand there stupidly as she looks toward her room at the end of the hall and then turns back to you, saying, “Will you help me?”
Even though your heart thunks, say, “Yeah, okay, sure.” Try to walk straight as you follow her.
In Lynn’s room, observe her 17-year-old sister lying in her makeshift bed on the floor, dressed in her pajamas, the blankets pulled up to her chin, looking as peaceful as a five-year-old who’s been tucked in for the night. Think back to when she arrived for her weekend visit yesterday, how normal she seemed for someone whose boyfriend died of cancer two weeks ago. Watch Lynn kneel next to her now and say, “Cindy.” This is your name too, a coincidence that’s no longer amusing. “Cindy,” Lynn says again, louder this time, her voice panicky. Wait forever before Cindy lets out a long breath and, without opening her eyes, mutters, “I’m going to be with Marty now.”
Go cold all over. Lock your eyes onto Lynn’s as she looks up at you, her head right next to her sister’s. Notice that they have the same ash-blond hair and thin lips, the same heart-shaped face. Feel them sinking together. Although the room is spinning and you can’t think, understand that you have to act. Focus on Lynn’s helpless eyes and tell her, “We should call an ambulance.”
When she says “Okay” in a voice that quavers like a child’s, accept the responsibility she has given you and hope you don’t fuck it up.
Lift the receiver off the wall phone and will the numbers to hold still as you dial 9-1-1. Count the rings while at the same time noticing that you seem to have left your body, that you’re hovering above the action and watching from a safe distance. When the operator’s voice jolts you back to yourself, regret the loss of this brief bodily escape; immediately feel guilty for wanting anything right now. “What is the emergency?” the operator asks. Hear yourself slur about a possible OD, and silently curse your numb lips and heavy tongue. As you hang up the phone, pray that the operator doesn’t send the police.
While you wait for the ambulance, help Lynn try to keep her sister awake. Get down there on the floor, put your hands on Cindy’s shoulder, her arm, and say, “Don’t go to sleep” over and over. Notice how limp she is, how unresponsive, and wonder if she has crossed some threshold. In the distance you can hear the siren. As it gets closer, feel relief flood you, even though you’re not entitled to it yet.
Hurry down the hall—palm the cinderblock wall for balance—and then down the dorm’s stairs. Chant to yourself, Don’t fall. Arrive at the front door as two paramedics burst through it with their stretcher, a walkie-talkie squawking. When you tell them to follow you, try to leave some space between yourself and them so they can’t smell what you’ve been up to. Calmly but quickly lead them up the two flights to where the girl might be dying. Your friends and fellow partiers have formed a small crowd outside Lynn’s room; glance at their fear-filled faces and ask them to clear the way.
Stand back as the paramedics squat down and loudly call Cindy’s name. When she mumbles something, be relieved that you can hear her voice but then horrified at how it fades. Listen to Lynn answer questions about exactly what has been swallowed. In the next moment, as the men strap Cindy into the stretcher and Lynn searches for her coat, notice that time is bending in strange ways.
Since you don’t know what to do now, whether to stay or leave, whether you’re still a help or you’ve become an obstacle, linger uselessly by the door. Catch Lynn’s eye as she looks up; when she asks, “Will you come with me?” feel weirdly grateful.
Dash down the hall to find your own coat, your shoes. Sense the eyes of onlookers on your back as you step deeper into this bad dream. Tell yourself you’re sober enough to handle it, or at least that you can pretend to be sober, and then flatter yourself with the idea that you must be exceedingly competent if Lynn has chosen you to help her through this crisis. Don’t stop to consider that perhaps you were simply in the right place at the right time.
Outside, the night is freezing. Climb into the warm ambulance; squeeze in next to Lynn and this stranger with a life in his hands. Watch him place first an oxygen mask over Cindy’s fine features and then his ruddy fingers on her pale wrist. As Lynn leans in close, be struck once again by how strongly these two resemble each other, and think about your own younger sister—how fiercely you hate her and love her. Years from now she’ll have her own journeys to hospitals in ambulances on too many nights like this one, but you don’t know this yet; you don’t know what good practice this is. For now, simply watch Lynn hold her sister’s hand as she pleads with her to hang on.
When you arrive at the hospital in what seems like seconds, recognize that your sense of time is completely shot. Squint in the glare of white lights and white coats as you once again try to walk straight. It’s so bright here, so electric. Step aside as Cindy is wheeled through swinging double doors, Lynn disappearing with her, and wonder what the doctors will do to her back there. When the doors flap shut, stand like a lost child on the turquoise linoleum and puzzle over what to do now.
The waiting room is empty, the luckiest thing that’s happened to you tonight. Slowly, carefully, walk to a far corner and lower yourself into a hard bucket of a chair. Reach for a Time magazine and pretend to read it, even though the words are swimming, so that the nurses at the desk won’t catch on to your true condition. Keep flipping through the pages but see only the pictures in your own head—doctors hovering, a tube through the nose pumping out poison, Lynn standing by and watching it all. Understand that whatever happens, she’ll have this burden to carry. Ask yourself: How does a person do that when she’s 20 years old? How does anyone? You’re only a witness tonight, and yet it feels as though you’ve been catapulted out of college and into a world you’ll never be ready for.
A pain starts behind your eyes; dread what you know it will become, a head-crushing, stomach-flipping hangover. Scan the room for a water fountain but fail to find one. Think about getting up to search, and even asking the nurses for aspirin, but then realize that you’ve used up all your nerve.
Abandon the magazine and try to get comfortable in this awful chair. Close your eyes and wait to go on living in the brutal world.