Stockholm, Sweden – May 2008
The narrow cobblestone passages of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, are a claustrophobic’s nightmare. It is here that my husband and I find some shelter from the biting, damp wind that chased us out of the modern part of the city. Spring takes its time arriving in this latitude. We didn’t think we’d need our winter coats in May.
Impeccably decorated shop windows display antiques and other unique curios. The shops, however, are too small to loiter in long enough to dispel the chill. We linger over beers in a medieval subterranean pub, trying to psych ourselves up to venture back out. My husband suggests that we try out the sauna and hot tub at our hotel. Maybe by tomorrow the wind will have subsided and we’ll be able to explore more of Stockholm.
On our way back to the hotel, we stop by H&M and buy some bathing suits. As soon as we get to our room, I strip off my boots and jeans. I notice that my legs are covered in bruise-like marks from the top of my thighs to my ankles. A tremor moves through me. Something is very wrong. My husband rushes out to the reception to call for a doctor.
The hotel receptionist’s eyes widen when she sees my legs. She calls us a taxi, because it’s quicker than an ambulance. I pace back and forth, because if I sit my body will start to quake. I try to slow my breathing. I’m having a panic attack, but this time it’s really possible that I’m going to die.
On the way to the hospital, my husband holds my hand and tells me that everything will be alright. I’m shaking so badly that the taxi driver glances at me in alarm. I prepare myself for the worst. Everyone has to die eventually. I shake my head. After all of the dangerous places I’ve been in the world, it would be almost laughably ironic to die in Sweden.
The emergency room is quiet. I’m immediately led to a small examination room. The young nurse frowns when she sees my legs. “They’re covered in hematomas,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” She covers me with a blanket and tells us that the doctor will be in as soon as he can, but that it will be a while. She squeezes my shoulder. “We’ll take care of you. Please don’t worry.”
The nurse checks on me every half hour. Gradually, I stop shaking and my mind clears. I lift the blanket and look down at my legs. I touch one of the spots. A thought occurs to me: could they be stains from my newish jeans? It would be strange, because I’ve worn and washed them a couple of times and this hasn’t happened. I go into the bathroom and wipe them with a wet paper towel and soap. They disappear. My relief soon gives way to embarrassment. I tell the nurse that they disappeared on their own. She tells the cashier to reimburse us, because I didn’t see a doctor. Then she gives me a hug. I’m stunned by her genuine kindness. The one and only time that I went to the emergency room in Los Angeles, I was charged a ridiculous sum for the privilege of being treated worse than a dog.
On the taxi ride back to the hotel, I lean my head on my husband’s shoulder, exhausted. It was nothing but a panic attack. It’s been years since I’ve had one, and this one was the worst. The slightest of tremors moves through me, an ominous reminder of what lurks in the hidden corners of my mind.