I am on the floor.
My back is flat against the ground, and so are the soles of my feet, and my knees are up and swaying. Someone is holding my head at the temples. “Jessica, it’s Ilana.” She says it the Canadian way, with a flat first a. Lavish, lamb, Atlantic.
My knees are swaying.
I turn my head and vomit into her lap. The hotel gym guy comes with orange Gatorade. He is tall and waxy with a bird face and dark hair that’s more thin than thinning. He wants to know if I’ve had any breakfast. “A banana,” I tell him, and he nods as though he suspected as much. He bends at the waist and wags the bottle over my face for me to take it. I vomit again. Ilana doesn’t flinch.
I’m at a graduate student conference in Stowe, Vermont, a town wedged deep in the valley between the Green Mountains and the Worcester Range. I am twenty-eight years old. Ilana is a colleague. I’ve seen her at these conferences over the last couple of years, and we’ve shared meals, but that’s all. I’m grateful for the pad of her thigh.
I see my friend Or. We’d planned to run together along the country roads that morning, but a crack of thunder had sent us to the gym instead. He stands over me now in a tank top with a bandana tied low across his forehead. He looks like a pirate and says he’s going to call. The gym guy insists it’s not necessary, but Or calls.
An ambulance is coming.
It’s August and the sky is dark from the storm. I don’t try to get up. I don’t even think to try— it will be years before I realize the oddness of that— and no one offers to help me. Ilana is talking to me, and Or is talking to me, and Or and Ilana are talking to each other about me, and the girl who was on the treadmill next to mine is talking to someone, the gym guy maybe, about “what happened.” I can hear the spit moving around in her mouth as she speaks. She sounds breathless and scared and I want her to be quiet. Someone at the opening session the night before had mentioned that he was training as an EMT and they bring him in. He looks me in the eye, expressionless, then steps away.
My knees are swaying.
I’ve had migraines before. The pain feels similar, so I assume that’s what this is. I’ve never fainted, though, and it has never come on so fast. A flash migraine, then. Is that a thing? I can’t decide if I’m supposed to be scared.
Or is asking me whom he should call and I tell him my dad, no, Eli. I give him my husband’s number and watch him dial. My head hurts so badly, and I think that if I can relax my body, get really quiet, I can make it better. Ilana says, “She’s not talking anymore.”
The paramedic arrives. He shines lights and asks if I remember the fall, and I do.
I was running on the treadmill, when I felt a painless click in my head. There was an odd trickling sensation along my skull like a rolling bead of sweat, but on the inside. Then the room went gray and the earth sucked me down. I knew I was about to faint. The red stop button seemed suddenly far away. I swiped at it, but there was no time to step off the machine. Someone says I hit my head on the way down, and I wonder if the belt was still moving when I fell. I can no longer sway my knees; the paramedic’s in the way, so I start rubbing his leg instead.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m rubbing your leg.”
“That’s all right. You keep rubbing.”
He tells me to fold my arms across my chest, that they are going to strap me to a board and carry me to the ambulance. It’s very important, he says, to call out if I need to vomit so that they can flip me over in time. The thought of that, of hanging facedown in the air and vomiting, the thought of being dropped, is at this moment the most terrifying thing in the world.
I start this story here, on the floor of a conference center gym, because it now seems the most obvious place. But it wasn’t obvious to me then that a start had occurred at all. I thought my fall from the treadmill was a dot on a plotline already under way, the one about the literature student at a conference who fainted, missed the morning’s events, got checked out, and returned, red faced and sheepish, in time for lunch. I didn’t know then that when I slipped from that moving belt, that dot had also slipped and become its own point A.
What a click in my head, and a moving belt, and a headache that knocked me down might have to do with butter, and flour, and eggs at room temp, and hunger, and love, and a kitchen with something to say, I couldn’t have known that day. How a detour could become its own path, I would never have believed.
[Excerpted from Stir by Jessica Fechtor. © 2015 Jessica Fechtor]