The Best Time I Went To E.R.
The Best Time I Went To E.R. Without Insurance While Attending A Conference Inspired By A Facebook Group I Started
A photo posted by Anna Fitzpatrick (@dudguacamole) on Mar 29, 2015 at 11:11am PDT
I am in the lobby of UCLA’s Carnesale’s Commons building, having snuck out of the main conference room for the sixth time that hour to pee, only to be distracted by a very nice spread of sandwiches. At that moment my biggest concern is wondering how many sandwiches would it be polite to steal before anyone else gets to the table.
There is movement out of the corner of my eye. Francesca Lia Block, author of the cult young adult fantasy novel Weetzie Bat has just entered the room, looking exactly like she did in her author photo twenty-five years ago. I strut up to her with the false confidence of somebody who is on prescription painkillers and has been made to feel like she owns the place.
“Hey youuuu,” I say to her, extending my hand to shake hers. I am woozy, but in my defence, she looks woozier. “I am a children’s book critic and,” here I lean in to whisper, conspiratorially, “I started this.” She smiles politely and asks if I would like to be on her mailing list.
It was last summer, mid-June, and a friend of mine was going on tour to promote her new novel. Would I like to stay at her place in Brooklyn and feed her cats while she was away? I would like that very much. I brought my fellow Canadian down with me, a little lady you might know by the name of…HALEY MLOTEK. Haley and I both had day jobs at that point — I was working full-time in a children’s bookstore in Toronto, she was the virtual assistant for an American writer, but we were ambitious and very excited about having a free place to stay in New York for a week.
Our first night there we went to a party with a group of women writers of varying experience levels. The vibes, as they say, were good. We took a cab home together, discussing how lucky we were to be part of a supportive creative community.
The next morning, we were working side-by-side on our computers while Blue Crush played on the background on TV.
“What if I made something for writers to connect with each other?” I asked Haley. “Something where we can ask questions and learn from each other. We’ll invite our friends, and let them invite their friends. It might be helpful for people who don’t like, live in New York or Toronto or whatever, to network.”
“Yeah, that sounds nice,” she said.
I clicked “Create group” on Facebook, then paused. “Is ‘Binders Full of Women Writers’ a funny name?”
“Eh,” Haley said. “You can always change it later.”
I wanted a space where amateur writers could feel free to ask questions without feeling self-conscious, so I asked members in the Binders (as it was quickly dubbed) to please not publicize or write about what happens in the group. So, of course, a think piece was written about it on Vogue’s website less than two weeks in.
That rule still stands, so I won’t go too much into the details of the group. What I will say is this: after inviting a dozen or so people to join, I closed my Facebook tab to focus on some other work, and didn’t really pay attention to it for the rest of the day. It, ahem, grew. A week later, 20,000 people had joined, including a lot of writers whose work I had been obsessively following from a distance. My inbox exploded. I was lauded for “starting a movement” and I was approached with ideas on how to take the group off Facebook, to make it grow. I was excited, but more than that I was overwhelmed. I had zero experience with community organizing. I was not used to being the center of attention, not like this.
Haley had to leave New York before I did, and though I wasn’t far from home I still found myself alone in another country without my anxiety meds (I had left them in Toronto). I was a pile of nerves, hiding under the covers, scared of my computer. Eventually, I set up an autoreply on my Gmail saying that I would be away from my computer for the time being and deleted Facebook off my phone. I didn’t write a single thing that week.
In the weeks leading up to the creation of Binders, my career was on the cusp of — well, if not taking off per se, then at least going somewhere. I was getting some good gigs, notably when in the month prior Rolling Stone asked me to put together a list of the greatest young adult novels. I included what I believed to be a few of the essentials on the list, but mostly filled it out with more contemporary titles I believed to have flown under the radar. People disagreed, giving the list the clicks it was written for, but I got a little thrill watching writers getting genuinely giddy over the list.
One of these writers sent me a message on Twitter saying he wanted to send me a copy of his new book in paperback. His novel — Firecracker — was one of my absolute favorites that I included, and I put off e-mailing him my mailing address because I wanted to tell him how much the book meant to me. When I finally e-mailed the writer, David, I sent him a long message that rambled on about how excited I was to find a work of fiction that was so genuinely funny, because I secretly wanted to write jokes for a living, but that was still tender and honest. I sent that e-mail, incidentally, in the same sitting that I started Binders. I mentioned Blue Crush and everything.
David replied with his own lengthy reply a couple of days later, and what followed was a detailed correspondence between the two of us. David and I became genuine friends. He mentioned his wife, Allis, was a taxidermist, I asked if he could connect us so I could interview her for some website, and then she and I became friends too.
Eventually, I made my way back to the e-mails in my inbox I had been avoiding because I didn’t know how to deal with them. I skimmed through them and I still didn’t know how to answer them. Websites wanted to partner with Binders, people were volunteering their time to create databases of contributors, and there were a whole lot of other requests that had a lot to do with me organizing and problem-solving and nothing to do with me writing.
I did get one e-mail that had been fermenting in my inbox for weeks which seemed to have an easy solution. A writer named Leigh Stein (whose book, The Fallback Plan, was already on my shelf) was inspired by Binders and was at work organizing a conference in New York City. She explained the ways in which she was planning to make it diverse and inclusive, she wanted to respect the original group’s privacy, and was already planning an impressive lineup with a team of volunteers. All she wanted from me, it seemed, was permission to use the name: she wanted to call it BinderCon. Seeing as I had stolen the name from Mitt Romney, I gave her my blessing. BinderCon 2014 took place that fall at NYU. It was so successful (I was there! I had a great time!) that plans had already been made for a BinderCon L.A. in March 2015.
We are almost caught up, I swear. Leigh and her co-director, Lux Alptraum, offered me a free ticket to attend the second BinderCon. David and Allis, who lived in Los Angeles, offered me a place to stay. By this point I had quit my bookstore job, finding enough writing work to get by: I wasn’t rolling in it, but I could definitely plan a flight to L.A. Everything was coming up roses.
There are a lot of direct flights between Toronto and L.A. It is also possible to fly through Vancouver — a layover that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense, unless you, ahem, have an ex-gentleman companion who recently moved to Vancouver. The last time I went out to visit said Gentleman Companion, I almost immediately got food poisoning, and spent the trip spewing chunks. I wanted a do-over (do-over). I made plans to spend the night in Vancouver and see him on my layover (layover). He had moved again in the last month, now renting a grody little bachelor apartment downtown with a mattress on the floor serving as his bed. It was a dirty setup. We were dirtier.
I got into LAX late Thursday night. David picked me up from the airport.
“Allis just left this evening to go on a last minute palaeontology dig in Mexico,” he said matter-of-factly, because of course she did. “She said she’s sorry, but she’ll be back later this weekend.”
I spent Friday working from my laptop and wandering around Hollywood while David was at work. Later that night, we went for dinner in Koreatown with another writer friend of his. It was then that I started really, really feeling the familiar burning of a UTI. I had a busy weekend planned, and this would definitely get in the way. I made a mental note to get some cranberry pills later and make an appointment with my doctor for when I got back to Canada. There was nothing else I could do. I didn’t have health insurance.
I woke up at about 1:30 a.m. that night needing to pee again. The burning had gotten to be unbearable, and I notice there was more blood beyond the spotting earlier that night. I Googled my symptoms and they were definitely those of a UTI. “You just gotta power through this,” I thought, but before I could even finish formulating that thought I had to go to the bathroom again. This time, only blood came out, including big clumps of it. I went back to my computer, intending to Google “too much blood in urine super gross what’s the deal,” but by this point I was shaking so hard, overcome by chills and nausea. I went back to the bathroom. The blood kept coming.
I had two options, I realized: I could drink lots of water and try to wait out whatever was going on downstairs, or I could wake up my platonic male work friend at two in the morning to tell him I couldn’t stop pissing blood and have him take me to the emergency room without health insurance in a country not exactly known for their affordable medical practices.
I could get through this alone, I thought. I reached a trembling hand out to the nightstand for my glass of water only to knock it over, splashing everything.
“I hope there is really something wrong with me,” I said to David in the car ride to the hospital, still in my pyjamas, “or else I’ll feel really bad making you get up at two in the morning for nothing.”
“That may just be the most Canadian thing you’ve ever said,” he replied. We were both incredibly groggy, and I was trying hard not to cry.
We got to the emergency room and I went to check in, answering “none” when they asked me who my insurance provider was — the first time of many I’d have that exchange that night. I guess I was assuming that because of the high cost of American medical care, hospital wait times would be way lower than they were in Canada, but David and I spent hours in those little metal chairs.
The waiting room had issues of WebMD, the magazine. And when I say “issues” I mean, multiple copies of the same months-old issue with Kristen Bell on the cover talking about her diet, in case patrons of the waiting room thought, “Well, I’m about to see a real professional, but what does WebMD: This Time, We’re Offline think?” My reading was put on hold when I was asked to give a urine sample. I complied, returning a jar full of blood.
“Ah, yes,” they said. “There may be some bacteria in this.”
I returned to my seat, ready to resume my dramatic reading of Web (But Not Actually Web) MD. Another hospital staff member called me back an hour later — it was maybe 3:30 a.m. at that point — but it was only to sign paperwork, a stack of contracts saying that I promised to pay my medical bills. This was new to me. I hesitated before signing anything.
“Do I have to pay tonight or will I be billed later?” I asked.
“We’re not allowed to discuss money before you see the doctor,” the staffer replied.
I needed to pee again. I signed the papers.
It was another couple of hours before I actually saw a doctor. I spent this time in the waiting room with David, reading more crappy magazines, peeing, going on Hollywood Tinder to see if I could find any famous people, peeing, making up backstories for the rest of the patients in the room, peeing, texting Haley a picture of the hospital sign in the middle of the night with absolutely no context because I am a monster [ed. note: I never received this text], peeing. Finally, another hospital staffer came out to call us back.
“Has it been especially busy tonight?” David asked as we made our ways down the hall.
“It was a little hectic earlier,” he replied, “But it died down.”
Why not just say, “There was a lot of activity but we pulled the plug on it” or “There was a spark of life but then we misdiagnosed it and it suddenly expired before getting a chance to say goodbye to its loved ones”?
We were shown to a room. Another half hour passed. A nurse came and took my blood pressure and asked if I had any pains in my kidneys. I said no. A doctor came in and said, “Yep, UTI. We’ll get you some antibiotics and something for the pain.” Another half hour passed. Another nurse came in to give me my prescription, then we were dismissed. On the way to the exit, we were told that I needed to check out. What does checking out mean, I asked. It means I will have to give them a $500 deposit, they told me. They would bill me the rest later.
I missed the first day of my conference. I spent all day Saturday sleeping and peeing, and then David drove me to get my prescription filled, taking me to In-N-Out on the way home. We watched Sunset Boulevard and I went to sleep at 9:30.
I don’t know if the combination of the (mild) painkillers with my (mild-ish) anxiety meds made me that high, or if it was just a placebo effect. Either way, I arrived to BinderCon on Sunday feeling fully zen. Gone was the giddy anxiety I always associated with Binders (I cried in a sort of proud joy at least three times at the New York conference last fall). Claudia Rankine was the keynote, and I am obsessed with her latest book, Citizen, but watching her speak, all I could think was, “What a nice lady. Boy, I really need to pee again.”
It was around this point that I met Francesca Lia Block. I told her how much Weetzie Bat changed my life when I was a teenager, which wasn’t even a little bit true? I had read it for the first time when I was twenty, and at that time it had already been too overhyped for me to get into, but in that moment I decided that meeting Francesca Lia Block was my calling. The whole conference, though meticulously organized by Lux and Leigh with an all-star roster of speakers, passed as a beautiful loopy blur. That night, Allis came home, and the three of us stayed up comparing stories from our respective weekend adventures. She held a scorpion. Ask her about it sometime.
I don’t know how this story ends. I am still trying to process it. I am at the airport right now and I haven’t had any coffee today. I just wanted to write all this down before I left Los Angeles. It feels right to write about it in this city. I could write another thousand words about visiting Allis’s taxidermy studio, but I should probably wrap this up. They are boarding my flight now. California was a trip, but I am ready to go home.