After seven years of marriage to an anxiety-riddled sleeptalker, plus four months of parenthood, I should be used to being suddenly awakened in the middle of the night… but this is different. I’m deep asleep and dreaming when suddenly your voice, harsh in the silence, cuts across my consciousness—
“I need help.”
I open my eyes instantly—one side effect of parenthood. You’re standing in the bedroom doorway, sidelit from the bathroom across the hall. The light and the fan are both on full blast. Our four-month-old baby sleeps tucked into my side, blissfully oblivious to all of it.
“I need help,” you repeat, and I get up obediently, immediately, tucking the pillow down to fence in the baby, while making sure that her face is tilted up. I follow you into the bathroom.
“I swallowed my night guard,” you say, rasping, speaking around an obstruction.
“Oh my God,” I say. Am I still sleeping? Is this an anxiety dream?
“I can’t reach it. I need help,” you say, squatting down, opening your mouth toward the light. “You need to get it out.”
I look down your throat, past your molars, tentatively tilting your head more toward the light. “I can’t see anything,” I say. “Can you breathe?”
As a response, you make a painful hacking sound, grinding your throat, trying to bring it up. You sound like a metal spoon in a garbage disposal. “I can feel it,” you say, and there are tears in your eyes, pain on your face. You keep coughing into the sink, and cutting through my fear is that ever-present but somehow insensitive nagging worry, Shhh…You’re going to wake the baby.
I look deep into your mouth again, willing myself to see the ridge of your night guard, hoping that it might be high enough that I can pull out. I’m afraid to stick tweezers down your throat. I’m afraid it will twist and lodge itself more firmly and you won’t be able to breathe. “Should I call 911?” I ask, and you nod vehemently at me, and I say, “Don’t shake your head around too much.”
I swallowed my night guard, you say, rasping,
speaking around an obstruction
On the phone, I try to give the 911 operator a complete picture of the situation, but by this time you’re on your hands and knees in the living room, coughing. She asks me for your age and I say thirty-two. Later I realize that was wrong…but it doesn’t really matter. She asks me to ask you if it’s painful and when I do you say, “Yes, it hurts, it hurts!” and there are tears on your face now and so much fear in your eyes. I’m just so grateful you can still breathe around it.
You throw open the front door and stand there, hunched slightly, keeping your head stretched out, your chin off your neck. “Where are they?” you say. “Where are they?”
“They’re coming,” I just keep repeating.
“I swallowed it,” you say miserably. “I can’t feel it anymore. I swallowed it.”
When the EMTs show up, you’re on the floor again, on hands and knees, and I’m rubbing your back, helpless to do anything else. They ask you the same questions: can you breathe? Do you feel it? You just keep repeating, “I swallowed it.”
Finally one EMT, who introduces himself as Greg, says, “Well, the ambulance is here—do you want to go to the hospital?” You say yes on your way out the door, no hesitation. You’re wearing pajamas: plaid pants and a video game tshirt, and you have no shoes on. I offer you your flip flops as you leave but you push them aside and hurry to the ambulance parked in the middle of the street. You somehow grab your phone, but that’s it.
I keep waiting for neighbors to stick their heads out of their doors and ask us if everything is okay. I think of all the times I’ve peered from behind the blinds at the flashing red lights reflecting off of the houses, and wondered who the response teams were here for. This is a strange, alarming experience, but one with an odd lack of urgency. Even your walk to the ambulance is just a walk, the men around you unhurried. You climb into the back by yourself. They close the doors on you.
I keep waiting for neighbors to stick their heads out of their doors and ask us if everything is okay
I watch from the front door for a few minutes, but the ambulance doesn’t leave. Then I pace back and forth on the sidewalk outside the house. The EMTs are nowhere to be seen; the ambulance doesn’t move. I get closer. An EMT—not Greg—comes around the front and says, “Did you need something else?”
His nonchalance, instead of being reassuring, is annoying. “I just—what do I do now?” I ask him. He looks puzzled, so I say, “Do I just wait for someone to call me? I can’t drive to the hospital. I have a baby sleeping in there.” I point at the house, as if he needs clarification.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “I have three kids.” Then he opens the driver’s side door and gets in the cab. I’m not sure what that was supposed to mean, or what I’m supposed to do now. The ambulance lights go off, and it pulls out into the street and around the corner. I’m left standing on the sidewalk completely lost.
I go inside. The baby is still asleep. I sit on the couch in the living room.
I call my parents but they don’t answer. I leave a weird message on their machine, where I tell them what happened and that I’m now sitting on the couch. I end the message with, “What am I supposed to do now? What do I do?” and then a long pause, before I just hang up.
I wonder whether they would have answered had there been a real live emergency happening here. Is this a real live emergency?
I wonder if I should call your parents and wake them up. But what would I tell them? Is there someone else I should be calling?
Finally I text you. If you can, tell me what’s going on. I don’t even know where they took you.
You reply quickly. I’m at Kaiser in South City. My phone has 8% battery.
Are you okay?
You tell me you had an X-ray. That they said they can pump your stomach to get it up. Or that you can try to pass it. I think of the size of the night guard and wince at both options.
Then you say, They keep asking me if I’m sure I really swallowed it. They keep asking me that. A speech bubble on the screen indicates that more is coming. Can you go check in our room? Is it on the floor? I’m not making this up, am I?
I go into our room. The baby has never slept this deeply before. I turn on a low bedside lamp and check the floor. I text back No.
Then I throw the covers back and there it is, clear plastic and benign, a crescent moon of bite marks. It’s pressed down into the mattress pad—you must have been sleeping on top of it. I realize now how mammoth it is, how colossal, how titanic… and how there’s no way you could have swallowed it, accidentally or not.
I text you, It’s here.
Seriously? The whole thing?
I send a photo.
There’s a long pause in texts now, and I’m afraid your phone died. Finally there’s one last message.
I’m so embarrassed. My dad is coming to pick me up. I don’t have any shoes. Go to sleep. I’ll be home in 20 minutes.
I realize now how mammoth it is, how colossal,
When you get home, I know you’re hoping I’ve somehow fallen back to sleep, but I’m wide awake. You tell me about the hospital. About how you debated if you should just let them pump your stomach, rather than have to admit that you dreamed the whole thing. It’s somewhere between five and six in the morning and I know neither of us is going to go back to sleep today. I know this is going to be an expensive trip to the hospital for no reason, and we’ll have to deal with that later. On the other hand, I’m immensely relieved that you don’t have to have surgery to remove a piece of hard plastic from your alimentary canal.
You blame the whole thing on stress at work, a lingering plasticky taste in your mouth from something you ate at dinner, and new baby exhaustion—all true. But honestly, I’m not blaming you for this at all.
We’ve been married for seven years, and living together for longer than that. I know about your anxious, restless sleeping. And I think had I not been suddenly awakened and thrust into a high-pressure situation, I would have stopped for a second and said, “Wait. What? Are you crazy?” and at least had a look around before blindly believing you.
It doesn’t matter. It’s over now, and the sun is rising, the baby is finally stirring, and that ambulance bill is coming. And your night guard is sitting, harmless and silent, in its protective plastic case on the windowsill. It will be weeks before you’ll wear it again, both of us avoiding it as if it could bite you.
Art by Gonzalo Navarro
Gonzalo Navarro is an illustrator, sculptor, photographer, writer… thing-maker, based in New Zealand. He is also an award-nominee author with his graphic novel Aotearoa Whispers. He works with different media, mainly ink and watercolours, and enjoys the magic of delivering a message without words. www.heygonz.com
Syche Phillips lives outside of San Francisco and writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and plays. Her work has been published in The Penmen Review, Mused, and Mash Stories, among others. Her short plays have been produced throughout the Bay Area. www.sychela.com