I didn’t expect to end up at the hospital. We didn't hastily plan our overnight trip to Atlantic City earlier that week to wait for an X-Ray of my boyfriend’s meniscus. Our hunt for the only Bank of America ATM within walking distance led us to two security guards who pointed out two destinations: ATM on the second floor and emergency room down the corridor. What was meant to be a small inquiry—A had fallen on his knee at work about two weeks prior—turned into a small army of nurses checking his blood pressure before slyly tagging him with a plastic wristband. I have a small collection of these hospital tags, of the Do Not Resuscitate wristbands that lived on my grandparents' wrists before they died.
We had booked the Greyhound tickets on a whim and arrived early Sunday morning. I wore my winter parka even though it was the last weekend in April. I had not thought of Vivian Gornick or my slim copy of her book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative in over a year. I was first introduced to her essay "Letter from Greenwich Village" in a nonfiction craft class. I remembered being skeptical of the opening sentence: "For nearly twenty years now Leonard and I have met once a week for a walk, dinner, and a movie, either in his neighborhood or mine."
Who cares, I thought, until Gornick addresses why she and Leonard do not meet more than once a week: "Either he is registering loss, failure, defeat, or I am. We cannot help ourselves." I might care, I thought, and then she revealed a few pages later: "I grew up and moved downtown, but nothing turned out as expected. I went to school, but the degree did not get me an office in midtown. I married an intellectual, but then got divorced. I began to write, but nobody read me above Fourteenth Street. For me, the doors to the golden company did not open. The glittering enterprise remained at a distance." Implicit in these sentences is the disillusionment Gornick experienced at significant milestones in her life. Disillusionment too feels like a kind of loss. And by the time she repeats the word "I" fifteen times on page 53 alone, I am invested in how she registers loss.
Writing rooted in the personal, writing that relies on anecdote, memories and family histories to uncover emotional truths, often feels like a spell. How did they make me care? I think to myself. When I am asked how was your weekend, what did you do by a coworker or close friend, my memory is wiped clean of the intimate details of what transpired and how it made me feel. I think, but who cares and give the abridged version.
Like Vivian and Leonard, I too am always registering loss. I have learned to ground my identity as a writer in grief and rituals of mourning. My life is divided into 2014 and Post-2014: Before My Grandparents Became Terminally Ill and What Came After. I went to school, went back to graduate school, went back to graduate school again, but my degrees, while indicative of privilege and access to spaces a disproportionate amount of people are shut out of, have not given me financial stability, a place of my own or peace of mind. I register loss when I think of my mother sitting down alone with a team of palliative care doctors for the first time to discuss "options" for her dying parents while the 1 train carried me to a class I could only half concentrate in. I register loss on my Instagram account. I record video of empty spaces, places of absence like the wet outline on the sidewalk of a potted plant where it once sat, abandoned objects, half empty clotheslines, balloons, or a strip of fabric flying away.
This is all to say that when A suggested we take an overnight trip to Atlantic City I said yes without hesitation, already registering the loss I thought I would encounter in what Lonely Planet informs was once a vision for Vegas on the East Coast.
What is the thing I want to say about visiting Atlantic City at the end of April with A? What can I say about a place I know little about? I believe every place that has inspired a piece of writing carries the stories we tell on its back. It can become a burden on that place and the people who actually live there. In The Situation and the Story, Gornick writes “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
This is what I have come to say. The walls of the hospital are the same color as the shore outside. There are framed photographs of sand and beach tumble weed lining the walls. What’s remarkable about the photographs is how forgettable they are. AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Atlantic City campus is located on 1925 Pacific Avenue near Caesars Casino and Bally's. We spotted it when we hopped off the bus. Grief smells the same in any hospital. Like something stale and bleached. Latex smells like a cousin of rubber. I remember it burning my nose and bringing me closer to, yet farther away from the ghosts of my grandparents.
As we walk to the room where a technician will take an X-ray of A's knee, I notice his back is exposed. I hurry to tie the back of the hospital gown and it feels like something more sinister than deja vu. For him it wasn't a big deal that it was untied, but it brought me back to the care my mom would take in smoothing out my grandmother's gown, tying it neatly and making sure she was comfortable in it. Small acts of intimacy protect the humanity of a loved one in a hospital room.
It takes two or three years and a last minute Greyhound ticket to realize that a version of me haunts hospitals across Queens and Manhattan. I can’t really be the Nadia I was before my grandparents died to anyone else. Grief possesses a stamina that I envy. It does not sleep. It dictates even this weekend getaway.
I want to write about Atlantic City, but I return to grief. I register loss.
The nurse who checks A out recommends buying a knee immobilizer at Rite Aid instead of taking the clunky one the hospital offers him. She does not hide her disbelief when we tell her why we’re in Atlantic City.
“Vacation? Vacation somewhere else next time,” she says laughing.
Before we ended up at the hospital A and I scoped out the boardwalk. We had a few hours before we could check into our hotel. He spotted an empty red chair with black sunglasses near its foot. I took a picture of it. Nestled between an abandoned boardwalk shop and chain link fence was a man sleeping on the ground. I did not take a picture, but I registered the loss.
Hotel counters give me anxiety. It's like opening up a mystery box--you're never sure what you're going to get. Something I hear often is I didn't pay for that, I paid for this. We were, of course, assigned the wrong room, one A didn't pay for. And, of course, hotel management could only shrug their shoulders at us because It was booked via a third party, we're so sorry. You can step aside and make the call over there.
Something I learned in Atlantic City: Groupon provides “customer support” via an online chat with a live agent who addresses you by your first name before describing all the ways they cannot help you. “how to talk to a live person at groupon” is a popular Google search and I want to be mad, but sometimes I wish I was that unreachable too.
The view from our room—the one A paid for—at the Claridge Hotel overlooked an empty beach and Atlantic waves the color of slate. Marilyn Monroe once stayed at the Claridge which has been around since 1930. According to the hotel's website, Atlantic City was occupied by the U.S. military during World War II. Guests of the Claridge at this time included the U.S. Air Force. I google "the decline of atlantic city."
Dig deep enough and The New Yorker's short web documentary, "The Death and Life of Atlantic City", will pop up. The documentary features a writer and small business owners in Atlantic City. Each one recounts the up and down trajectory of what the write-up of the video calls the "build it and they will come" city. The dominant narrative of Atlantic City is a long register of loss. And I wonder where joy is located in the places we define solely by loss.
Atlantic City is the sound of bikes, rolling chairs, and jitneys rolling over the boardwalk’s loose planks of wood like a xylophone—each one a loose vertebrae in the spine of something covered in generations of footprints, each sound echoing what washed it away in the first place.
Atlantic City is a spinning Ferris wheel with no one on it.
Atlantic City is where a sunny summer storefront came to die: WOW, HOLY CREPE!! OMELETTE CREPES SAVORY CREPES SWEET CREPES DRINKS FRUITS. It is a storefront that is sure of itself and its use of excited punctuation. I want to use two exclamation points, too. A red FOR RENT sign greeted us at the window. Abandoned storefronts make me think of abandoned words and letters, which makes me think of a discrepancy between what is written and what is real, between what was and what could have been.
Losing my grandparents gave me the language to articulate who I am as a writer. Perhaps this is why I register loss and color the places I move through with grief and mourning, why I seek out spaces that scream absence or there was once life here.
What I’m trying to say is this: I’m guilty. I’m guilty of mining the deaths of my grandparents for things to write about. I’m guilty of turning their deaths into stories, line breaks, metaphors, letters of resignation, Instagram stories and captions, Snapchat stories, rhetorical devices, symbols. I’m guilty of romanticizing my loss. I’m guilty of invoking the cramped, harshly lit space of their hospital rooms for dramatic effect on the page. It has become a kind of shorthand I use to explain to people why I am the way I am. I am, because this happened to me.
It is a burden no ghost should carry. I wake up everyday feeling haunted. Walk around thinking about the rare times I dream my grandmother without a nebulizer attached to her nose. But without loss, my origin story is blank. And I’m trying to figure out if that is dangerous or not. I can’t articulate my sense of self anymore without attaching it to their deaths, without using it as a narrative device to communicate the story of who I am. I can’t write fiction because all I write are thinly veiled accounts of what actually happens.
I will always feel guilt that this loss is one that gives. And I can’t help but wonder if they receive a notification every time I call on their deaths for a draft or at a poetry reading or in a process paper or in an application to writing residency or in the application I wrote for this MFA program. How do you ask a ghost consent to write about an experience you shared together?
It feels the way winning a few dollars on a dollar spent on a slot machine feels. A cheap win. In Atlantic City, A and I had the most luck on the Lucky Koi slot machine. True to its name, it featured giant koi fish swimming up and down a giant touch screen. No handles or buttons. To rack up points the player has to touch as many floating koi fish as possible. It blinded my eyes, felt like a second sun in the back corner of the casino floor. I took a photo of the empty seat in front of the screen, but I deleted it before the security guard walked over to us. We left $74.75 richer.