People with multicoloured veins and swollen bellies sleep on the streets, recover from back-alley surgeries in gutters.
Content warning: illness, surgery, blood
Ter stirs. Their arm stretches towards me across the covers, refracting the morning light. It could almost be beautiful if it weren’t so alien. Shadows pass over our bodies, and their veins dim. They need a clean transfusion soon. Or a stent if we can’t afford it. But first, my surgery. My hand automatically moves to my swollen abdomen. Ter opens their eyes at my movement.
“How are you feeling? Nervous?”
Their arm flashes with colour when they move to stifle a yawn. I avoid wrinkling my nose at their morning breath.
“Not too bad. Actually, yeah, I am. Doing surgery? Fine. Being operated on? No thanks.”
Ter wraps their arms around me. I sit on the edge of the bed. Close my eyes. No time today. I can’t miss this appointment. I blink the commands that open the blinds fully and give Ter a quick kiss before I pull on my clothes.
I’ve strained and filtered the water for tea by the time Ter comes downstairs. I blink the steam hood open and set the kettle to boil. I have to fast before the surgery, which is a relief. My appetite has dwindled as my stomach has grown. Limm shuffles in and joins us for tea.
“Do you know who is operating on you today? Would it be weird if it was one of your workmates? Or is that a conflict of interest? I’m gonna look it up, hang on.”
Ter shakes their head and exhales a small laugh. I nudge them to shut up.
“I’m not sure, Limm. I probably know them, it’s a small hospital. But it’s a routine surgery and I’m not in a relationship with any of them, so no conflict there.”
I blink slowly, check the time on the display and pour the rest of my tea into a travel cup. I kiss Limm and Ter goodbye before I attach my mask and goggles for the walk to the car. They wave and call wishes of good luck as the air lock closes and the grimy filter slides into place behind me. I take a deep breath and notice my free hand has fallen to my stomach again. I wonder how hard it will be to break the habit. I blink the car open and let the filters recycle for a few minutes before I remove my mask to finish the tepid tea.
It’s a short drive to the hospital, situated in one of the poorest sectors of the city. People with multicoloured veins and swollen bellies sleep on the streets, recover from back-alley surgeries in gutters and scrounge filters from dumpsters. I stop at the first traffic light outside our home sector, and people swarm between the idle cars, their faces covered with faded government-issued masks or frayed fabric, eyes obscured with safety glasses or swimming goggles. A man knocks on my window, but I indicate the filters are active. He swears at me while I look straight ahead. I recognise him, his scars. I’ve stitched hundreds of people like him back together. He sliced his flesh so deeply he nearly died of blood loss, then sepsis. A bandaid over his attempt at fixing his blood, congealed with specks of multicoloured microplastics. Decades ago, people who could no longer afford hospitals started to experiment with bloodletting, draining their blood through filters and reinjecting “purified” blood into their veins. Or inserted homemade stents that theoretically allow the blood to flow despite its increased mass and density. Neither yield successful results.
I walk through the emergency department to sign in. I keep my protective gear on, because the filters that block the airborne plastics are ineffective due to the constant coming and going. No time for airlocks. The waiting room is packed despite the early hour. People sit and clutch vomit bags, hold damaged limbs with tenderness. The woman opposite stares blankly, bores into my mind with no feeling behind her eyes. Her partner rubs small circles on her hand. She is blind, her tear ducts clogged from the poison that floats in the air. The inner city has enclosed ventilation, so she must have grown up in the poorer districts. Her partner notices my gaze and I smile at them. It’s strangely beautiful how we have adapted to see the crinkle of eyes from behind goggles and glasses as a gesture of kindness, toothy smiles long hidden by masks.
A small child is rushed through the doors on a stretcher. They cough bright blood over themselves, stomach swollen. My hands curl around my belly and my throat lumps in sympathy. People drink dimethyl ketone in hopes of dissolving the masses of microplastics that form throughout the body, most commonly the stomach. The acetone eats away at the flesh and tissue throughout its passage through the body and does nothing but more damage in the acid soup of the stomach. Removal is not an uncommon surgery, but it’s easier to see the bottle of acetone they use to dissolve plastic at work as a cheap fix for their bodies than to see the hospital bill.
I’ll be awake when they cut me open. When they reach inside my body, extract the congealed mass of multicoloured specs of nondegradable waste. It sneaks in slowly, inside food, water, air. Despite our strict cleansing regimen, particles are inevitably consumed. We can’t afford to live in the inner city, breathe fully filtered air, or eat high grade food with minimal plastic content. My belly began to swell with each bite, sip, and breath I took. The particles do not pass. They don’t belong, so they stay.