top of page

Short Story

Going to Antarctica

by Peter Gerrard

An eyeball and a nose. That was the first I saw of the model…before the familiar lips and trademarked poutiness appeared over the magazine she was reading. You’d recognize her, too, if you saw her. Once, she was a fixture in fashion marketing. Hair wafting in slow motion across your television screen and frozen in time in glossy print ads. But she never had serious name recognition. Her fame was more anonymous and fleeting, like last season’s “must have” look. Still, something about her stayed stuck in my mind. 

Maybe she didn’t have the right people to make sure she “Defined her Brand” with the right articulation. We do so well at dehumanizing ourselves.

I think I was drawn to her hospital room’s open door, and her humming. Hers was just another in a lock-step line of schoolroom-green doors. Most shut, some cracked a little, some open wide in greeting or lamentation. The latter were usually unoccupied.

I’d been doing laps around Floor 5, pushing my IV droid. Killing time. Up here on the fifth floor, there’s picture windows at either end of the wings and several more where they angle away from the central core with the elevators and Nurse’s Stations. You can see the local mountains when it’s clear outside and not smoggy.

A lot of waiting happens; for meds to work; for doctors, tests, and diagnostics; and for healing to get its complacent ass in gear. I’ve been here for a while, and I haven’t surrendered to the worrisome idea that this might be my new permanent normal.

I’ve heard there are wind farms in the valleys beyond those mountains. I’ll have to take that on faith for now. Giant windmills. I think of Don Quixote and his delusions and wonder if getting well is mine.


My best lap, by the way, is 2 minutes and 23 second. "Born to Run" plays in my head when I’m doing my routine.

Yeah, that's me, Baby. “Born to Run,” looking for an escape. Like the song says, there’s hope out there. Somewhere, someday, I’ll love someone with all the madness in my soul.

Rumbling down cold corridors, no looking back. Me and my faithful medicine-dispensing droid. At first, I called him Artoo, after Star War’s R2-D2. Now that I have windmills to consider I envision him as a sort of Sancho Panza. Maybe Artoo-Sancho. Wheels wobbling, faithfully dogging my every movement, our engines purring away harmoniously.


He talks to me. “Click, click, whir, beep.” Indicator LEDs flash. “Are we there yet, Señor?" is my translation. I affectionately pat the top of his readout monitor.


Sancho and I are inseparable, linked by the comradeship of a PICC line from his heart to mine. I don’t feel it. Not even when it was snaked an inch at a time through an incision cut in my arm, worming its way towards my ticker. I’m amused that it’s not okay for me to do the cutting. I was good at it a long time ago, but got cured of the habit. My therapist helped direct the anomie that pervaded my thoughts toward my parents. Estrangement from your parents was getting popular at the time. I should mention this brief flirtation with self-mutilation to her when I get out of here.


I blame Tanya, a nurse who was a brusque product of Soviet-bloc medicine, for reviving my memories of past bad behavior. I looked like a junkie by the time she gave up trying to replace the IV on the back of my right hand and called in the specialist. I’d have done a better job, or at least a more artistic one. On a whim I took a pair of surgical scissors she’d left unattended. She never asked about them.


The food I get is an exercise in tedium. I’m supposed to be on a full-liquid diet. There’s a warning sign on my door, “FULLIQ ONLY!” But yesterday they gave me the wrong lunch. CLEARLIQ instead of FULLLIQ. FULLIQ is less boring than the other. Trust me. There's some chewing involved with FULLIQ.


I imagine doing laps with a sign held high, "No More CLEARLIQ! FULLLIQ Now!” I would not care if my hospital robe was tied in back, if I could have Wolverine Underoos covering my butt. So far, I haven’t found any adult ones on Amazon. I wonder why I still have any semblance of modesty remaining.


The CLEARLIQ made the cocktail of pills and industrial strength shit Artoo was faithfully metering into my blood unhappy. I didn't die or anything, but I got pretty squirrelly. When I fell asleep, I saw myself lying in bed from somewhere above the ceiling, and I had this weird sense that I was seeing my life and talking about it as if I was somebody else trying to write a story.


The me in the bed became aware of this and, and, and flashed on the idea that whoever the Writer was, was Also Me, and Also Me called bullshit.  "Whoa there, big fella, time out," demanding a raconteur who spoke plainly and clearly in the first person. I was yelling, "Shut-up, shut-up!" and then I was falling back into the bed and into myself, opening my eyes, saying, "I'm fine, just a little nightmare" to a worried nurse who’d run in.


"What was it?" the nurse asked.

"I was in Sweden and the Nobel Committee was giving the Peace Prize to the entire Kardashian family. I think I need a drink."

But she just wiped the sweat from my face and took my vitals, even though that data were streaming across Artoo's face. The nurses don’t think I’m funny anymore.


I didn't get that drink. I had to buzz just to get some water.


Like I said, I was doing laps when I first saw the model. Her door was one of the wide open ones. I'm not nosey, but I looked.


She was sitting up in bed, looking at a Time magazine. Even in her hospital gown she looked like the persona we know, or knew, before she suddenly disappeared publicly. Perfect hair, great posture, skin rosy and smooth. I thought her expression suggested I was only seeing a carefully created surface image. The TV was on just for music.

Scrawled on the whiteboard was her name, “Dhalia M.,” and under that a series of uninteresting hospital notations. The odd spelling was part of her identity and trademark, a bit of trivia that had stuck with me. Magazines were piled up on the bed and scattered on the table next to it.


Dhalia ripped out a page, humming. A thin line of blood appeared on her thumb. Paper cut. Absently, she started sucking on it. I suddenly felt invisible but naked. Or just another leering voyeur, which bothered me for some reason. I left quietly, or as quietly as a person wheeling an IV machine can.


Remember those nice sharp surgical scissors I told you I nicked? I passed them along the next morning to Dhalia. Her door was open but this time she was dozing. Artoo and I tiptoed in like novice criminals. I snuck the scissors under a magazine on the table, leaving one stainless-steel handle showing. I thought I caught her smile. Slightly.


Later, on my next set of laps, I peeked into her room. Dhalia was sitting cross-legged on the bed, humming opera, cutting away at a newspaper. She motioned for me to enter.


“What’re you clipping?” I asked.


“Everything that’s not content. All the ads, especially the fashion ads.” Dhalia grinned. “Anything superficial.”


“Isn’t that your life?” I blurted out. Her image was everywhere for a time, eyes still the same deep dark blue gracing the clearest mountain lakes. Eyes you could drown in, their depth far beyond anything I’d ever know.


“Was. Not anymore," she said, “It was only a veneer.”


Then a doctor knocked perfunctorily and entered, trailed by a nurse. The nurse pulled-up Dhalia’s chart on the computer. Muted wallpaper graphics became a login screen. Her fingers flew. The doctor looked at me impatiently. I said goodbye and rolled out, softly pulling the door mostly closed.


A tug: my IV line was around one of Artoo's wheels. I had to fix the snarl of tubing before Sancho/Artoo started screeching, "Danger, Danger!"


Behind the door I heard the doctor say, “I’m sorry. Dhalia. You’ve run out of tomorrows.”


Artoo/Sancho chirped. I inferred he softly said, “Goodbye, Dulcinea.”


I still have tomorrows, I think. The antibiotics just have to work at some point.

Back in my room, I heard a podcast about a cancer patient and the doctor who helped her. “Going to Antarctica” was how it was introduced. I deduced the title was serving as a metaphor for exploring new treatment possibilities. As the narrative described, she had a good result. Cancer “beat,” she and her doc actually went to the South Pole in triumph and celebration.


They decamped from Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost edge of the civilized world where you push off toward Antarctica, and into the mysteries shrouded in all that cold and antiseptic whiteness.


Inspired, the woman studied and became a nurse. She embraced helping others with illnesses as her calling.

And she ended up on her savior doc’s oncology team, supporting his work with enthusiasm and a terrific sense of mission. Then the good doctor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Antarctica didn’t work for him.


They were going to delve into the details after breaking for a pledge drive opportunity. I turned off my phone and fell asleep, thinking about Dhalia.

*Photo: Zee Evans/National Science Foundation


Peter Gerrard grew up in Southern California, and ended up “Behind the Orange Curtain,” specifically Irvine. While he attended UCI for graduate school (which he never finished), his wife Kim and two sons are Anteaters with degrees. He likes to ski, and ride bikes that are embarrassingly expensive but at least environmentally justifiable. Classes and seminars at IVC and Chapman keep his interest in writing fresh.

bottom of page