Split Shift

After the Big Black Out, people looked at the towering office buildings and massive parking structures sitting empty all night and all weekend, and it no longer made sense for people to cram together during a ten-hour period and leave everything empty for more than half the day.

Out of that awareness came the idea of Two Shifts – splitting the workforce in two and running the world on a 24-hour basis. Originally, there were two, 12-hour shifts, Night and Day, but eventually they split into Night 1 and 2 and Day 1 and 2, each composed of three 12-hour days and six hours on Sundays.

People used to work nights on the graveyard shift but live the rest of their life during the day, because everyone else was sleeping at night. But as the night shift became our reality, we began to live our lives separately, and the night and day shifts and became separate cultures - each of us living and working only with others on the same shift .

I live in the city; 150 miles of roads, houses, offices, malls, and a wide range of commerce, entertainment and other structures required for daily life. The city is always under construction – getting taller, wider, and slower every day.

I am a night worker, on the Night 1 shift,  clocking in at 6:00 at night as the Day 1 people leave, and working until 6:00 in the morning, when they return. Today, however, was a day off and I was sitting in the hospital at 10:00 in the morning. My sister, was in the hospital for tests related to chest pains, which turned out not to be serious.

I’m sure it was an illusion, but when I saw the girl walk into my field of vision, I swear my heart skipped a beat. At least I was in the hospital if anything happened. There was something about her that caused me to stand up and approach her.

“Hi, my name is Eric,” I said and then awkwardly blurted out, “I am a night worker and you are the most beautiful day worker I’ve ever seen.” I winced inside as the words came out.

She looked at me for a second, gave me a non-committal smile, and said, “Well, aren’t you nice.” She might as well have told me to go crawl back into a rat hole.

But I couldn’t give up. There was something about her. So, I said, “Would you like to get a cup of coffee?”

Again, there was the non-committal smile and a little pause. She took a good look at me and said, “Sure.”

We talked in the hospital cafeteria for over an hour, ignoring the constant clatter of plastic trays and dishes being dropped onto the return carousel.

Her name was Rhonda, and she was in the hospital visiting her mother, who was dying. She told me she had a vague fear of night shift people, which left her a little guarded.

“I get that all the time,” I said, which was true. Night shifters were easy to spot during the day because we didn’t get a lot of sunshine, and day shifters tend to treat us like “others”. To be fair, we react the same way. Day shift people tend to be darker and have a slight air of arrogance when dealing with us that causes us to keep them at arm’s length.

“I like you,” she said with a slight giggle. The skin over her nose crinkled a little and there was a flash of warmth in her eyes. “But I don’t know if I could date a Night Shifter.” She was pale for a day shifter, but still had enough color to set her apart from us.

“I don’t recall asking you.” I said, a little too quickly.

“But you were going to.” She sounded confident, like she was playing with me and she knew she had the upper hand. There was a long pause and she smiled sweetly and said, “Weren’t you?”

Her vulnerability caught me off guard, and I replied, “Only if you were going to say yes.” It was cheesy, but it worked.

“How about Saturday at 7:00. I’ll meet you here.”

As I watched her walk off, I thought, What have you gotten yourself into?

The rest of the week took forever. Time always slows to a crawl when you’re waiting for something special. I’m not sure how the universe knows to slow things down, or how we all manage to get along when time is running at different speeds for all of us, but eventually it was Friday, and I was getting ready to close things out for the week. I was at the worksite for the new freeway interchange being built downtown, examining the structural integrity of the new support beams, when I fell off the face of the Earth.

In reality, the platform I was standing on gave way and I fell into the huge construction pit. But once you leave the field of light and slip into darkness, it feels like you are falling through space, almost floating, at least until you hit the ground.

When I woke up, I was in a hospital room. At first, with all the lights, and what looked like an angel standing over me, I thought I was dead and was being called into the light – somewhat ironic for a night person.

As my head cleared and I began to focus, I thought I saw Rhonda standing beside my bed. “You look like Rhonda,” I croaked.

“At least your vision is going to be okay,” she said.

“Did I miss our date?” It seemed important.

“Not yet,” she said, “But you’re going to.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. I didn’t. My vision was fading in and out as I tried to make sense of what was happening to me.

“You fell into a big hole at work and they brought you to the hospital and you’re going to be here for a while because you broke a lot of things.” She sounded concerned but was obviously trying to make me feel better.

“I figured that part out from the hospital bed and the pain,” I said. “What I don’t understand is why you are here.”

“I work here.” She said, as if there was not a huge cosmic coincidence going on. “I am a trauma nurse, and I was still on duty when they brought you in. It looks like you’re going to be living in my world for a while.”

She shot something into my IV line and the world started getting fuzzy again. As I faded out, I heard her say, ”Just relax now, and throw a sheep.” I realized later that she must have said “go to sleep.”

The next time I woke up, Rhonda was sitting in the chair by my bed and she was wearing a simple red and grey striped dress rather than her scrubs, looking more beautiful than I remembered, although the pain medication might have had something to do with that.

“Hi,” I said, wishing I could have come up with something more poetic.

“Hello,” she replied, “I’m here for our date.”

“I’m afraid we’re not going to make it to the restaurant.” Thank you Captain Obvious. At this point, even I didn’t want to be on a date with me.

“That’s alright,” she said softly. “It’s quieter here anyway. We can watch a movie and talk.”

Talking, I seemed to be a little challenged with, but I could watch a movie pretty well.

As we talked over the movie, I noticed that her eyes lit up when she was excited about something.

“I became a nurse because my brother got sick when he was very young. Watching him fight the illness made me want to help people get through the pain of being sick or injured.” Her eyes misted up slightly as she talked, and she seemed to slip back in time as she described her brother’s illness and his ongoing struggle to stay alive.

Through the light fog of the pain medication, I could feel my eyes misting as well, and I forgot about my own pain. I wanted to take her pain away, but there was nothing I could do.

 ‘What about you?” she asked as a menacing space ship filled the TV screen.

“I am a Transportation Engineer. I mostly build bridges for roads. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was growing up, but flying made me dizzy, so I decided to build things, and bridges always appealed to me – something about connecting people and helping them get to new places.”

“That’s very noble,” she said. “Bringing the world closer together and opening up new paths for people.”

“Until you fall in a hole.” I said.

She laughed and then realized that I hadn’t, and stifled her laugh but still had a faint smile.

“Well, this was a very nice first date,” she said when the movie ended. “We’ll have to do this again.”

“I’ll be here,” I said, lamely. I really had to step up my game.

I was in the hospital for six weeks before Rhonda first brought the subject up. “You’ll be getting out soon. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t. “I want to be with you, but my life is on the night shift. I don’t suppose you’d consider coming to the darkness?”

“And lose this beautiful tan? I can’t,” she said. “I have to care for my mother and my brother. Come to the light.”

“What would I do? My job doesn’t exist on the day shift. Besides, they would never let me go. I am considered as having special skills.”

“You could request a special exception,” she said.

“Based on what? They don’t consider love a valid basis for upsetting the social order.”

“Love,” she said. “Really?”

“From the moment I saw you sitting in that chair waiting for our first date,” I said. “Of course, I was heavily sedated at the time, so it could have been the drugs.”

“Be serious,” she snapped. “In a few days you are going to be released, and we live in different worlds.”

“Same world, different times.” I knew what she meant, but I didn’t want to admit it. “We can still see each other a couple of hours every day. A lot of couples don’t spend that much time together.”

“What about changing schedules?” she asked. “If we both worked the same days at least that would help. Right now, by the time I finish taking care of my mom, you are fast asleep.”

She was right. Maintaining a relationship when we worked opposite schedules would be almost impossible. I didn’t know of anyone who had done it. “We can work it out,” I said, not knowing how.

“Well,” she said with a touch of frustration in her voice, that I assumed was driven by the same anxiety I had bottled up inside. “You have until Thursday to figure it out.”

As it turned out, that wasn’t enough, and when I was released on a Thursday, I still didn’t have a plan, except returning to my job.

“It was terrifying,” I explained to her a couple of days later when I stopped by the hospital. “Walking out on that construction platform for the first time. All I could think of was falling back into that hole.”

“Shouldn’t you be sleeping now?” Her concern seemed a little clinical.

“I can’t sleep. Every time I doze off, I dream about that hole.”

“You need to see the doctor,” she said, obviously slipping into her nurse mode. “He can give you something to block the nightmares and help you sleep.”

“I can’t do my job if I’m taking sleeping medication.” I paused, trying to figure out how to say what I needed to say, and then blurted out, “I’m going to stay on my uncle Charlie’s ranch for a while.”

She seemed shocked and disappointed. I understood. “Your uncle that lives out west?”

I stared out the window absently, not wanting to face her. “He lives in Durango, Colorado. There are no shifts there, and no construction sites. I need to get away and sort things out.”

“What about us?” She was looking at me almost defiantly. “How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I came here. I want you to come with me. No shifts, No days on or off, just a quiet ranch in the mountains where nature is a reality. I used to go there as a kid, and I never wanted to leave.

She looked off into the traffic surrounding the hospital and took a long time before she said anything. Then, still staring, she said, “I can’t.” She turned to look at me and her eyes were barely containing her tears. “I have too much to do here.”

“I know, but…”

She cut me off. “But you should go. You need to go. Just promise me that you will come back.” She stood up and said, “I have to go.” And she walked off. The sadness in her voice made me want to go after her and beg her to go with me. But she had her mother and her brother to take care of, she was needed here.

I whispered after her, “I love you.” But she was too far away to hear me.

“Nothing like the noise of nature to fix what’s wrong with you,” Uncle Charlie said as we stood on a cliff overlooking is ranch. “But, I think it’s time for you to get back to your life, and quit hiding out here in the mountains.”

He was right, of course, and I was ready. Over the past four months, I had overcome my fear, and the dreams had gone away. They had gradually been replaced by dreams of Rhonda. We were doing all of the things we never had a chance to do. But each dream faded away into a reality that we couldn’t actually be together.

Standing outside the hospital, I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to her. I had decided to surprise her, rather than have to deal with things on the phone.

She seemed surprised to see me, but also a little uncomfortable. “You’re back,” She said, scanning the room as if she was looking for someone. “Why didn’t you call?”

“I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t. I just needed to see you. You’re all I think about.”

A tall, handsome man in an expensive, dark blue suit appeared, and said to Rhonda, “It’s time, we should get going.”

She was obviously anxious about the situation and as she stood to go, she said, “I need to go, Eric, I’ll call you later.”

Time moved slowly as I watched them walk away. I had obviously interrupted something I wasn’t meant to see, and now my world was slowing to a crawl as I tried to think of some explanation that didn’t involve her telling me that it was over. I couldn’t.

For the rest of the world, it was just a few hours, but for me it seemed like forever, like the world was rushing past me but I was unable to move, except for my imagination, which was setting new records for how many bad possibilities I could create. I was a fly, trapped in a web, watching the spider slowly approaching , stopping periodically to adjust it’s web and consider it’s victim before closing in for the kill.

The ringing of my phone didn’t register at first. It was just a sound in the distance, like a plane flying overhead, or a truck passing on the street. When I realized it was my phone, I snapped back into the present, temporarily immobilized by the fear that I had built up.

“Hello, stranger,” Rhonda’s voice on the other end of the phone sounded happy. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.

I couldn’t get my voice to sound happy. “I’m sorry about earlier. I obviously interrupted something. I should have called.”

“You should have.” She paused briefly, and then said, “Eric, there’s something I have to tell you.”

“Does it have something to do with the man you were with?” I was hoping for a “no,” but I knew what was coming.

“Yes,” she replied. “Eric. I have cancer. It has been in remission for three years, which is why I didn’t tell you. But it has returned.”

“Rhonda, I’m so sorry.” Lame, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. This was not what I expected, and I felt stupid and selfish for my thoughts.

“That man yesterday was Dr. Mulvaney. He’s a cancer specialist. We were going to get the results of my compatibility test. I applied to be a member of a research study for a new treatment that might eliminate my cancer completely. Without the treatment, they project that I have about six months to live, but I was accepted, and I begin the treatment next week.”

“That’s great,” I said, still a little confused about everything that was going on and why she sounded so positive.

“And that’s not all,” she said. “Because the medication makes you photosensitive, I am being transferred to the Night Shift … so, we can be together.”

My heart felt like it turned over in my chest. “Rhonda, I’m so happy for you.”

“Don’t you mean us?” she asked, sounding suddenly serious and hurt. “I thought you would be happy for us.”

“Rhonda, I was coming to tell you that I have been relocated to the day shift.”

“What do you mean?” she sounded as confused as I felt.

“I submitted a request to change shifts, when I was released from the hospital, and based on my injuries and the need for on-going therapy, it was granted.” There was silence on the other end of the line for a long time.

“Permanently?” Her voice cracked slightly on the other end of the line.

“Yes,” I said, thinking of the irony of the situation.

Time seemed to stop, and the world around me faded away, until finally, she spoke again.” Then I will withdraw from the treatment program and we can be together, on the day shift.”

“You can’t do that. What about your cancer?”

“I’ll just have to deal with it. I beat it once, I can do it again,” she said quietly.

“What if you don’t?” I said. “I can’t let you do that. You would end up blaming me.”

“First of all, it’s not your decision,” she said defiantly. “And, secondly, I already blame you. You made me fall in love with you.”

“In love?” She had never said it out loud.

“I need to see you,” she said. “Meet me at the cafeteria at 10:00.”

I agreed, not knowing what I was going to say, still reeling from the combination of cancer and love. At 10:00 I was already sitting in the cafeteria when Rhonda walked up with a younger man who looked a little under the weather.

“Eric,” she said, “This is my brother Richard. He has been studying the situation, and he has an idea.”

Richard pulled some rumpled papers out of a folder he was carrying and put them on the table. “I have been studying the rules regarding shifts, and you two can apply to work a Split Shift. It will allow you to have a lot more time together.”

“What’s that? I thought we were already on a split shift, that’s the problem.”

“No,” Richard answered. “You are on different Assigned Shifts. A Split Shift is where two people share one shift. It’s for situations where two people can’t work a full shift due to medical reasons. If Rhonda withdraws from the cancer study, with your therapy needs, you will qualify.”

“That sounds perfect, but a little too easy. What’s the catch?” I asked.

Rhonda replied, “It’s only for six months, and then we would have to go back to our regular shift.”

“Six months isn’t enough.” I could feel my future with Rhonda starting to slip away.

“It’s the best we can do,” said Rhonda. “I’d rather spend my last six months with you than spend a much longer life resenting the fact that we couldn’t be together.”

“There’s got to be another way.” I spoke too loudly and everyone around us in the cafeteria turned and looked at us. Reaching out and taking her hand in mine, I said, “I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t lose me,” She looked deep into my eyes and squeezed my hands, “I will always be with you … in your heart.”

She was right. She knew. Standing by the gravesite, looking down at the headstone, I think of the six months we had together. Knowing it was so short forced us to make each minute special. I’m not sure we could have enjoyed life any more if we had spent twenty years together taking for granted the fact that we could do things whenever we got to them.

“Happy anniversary, Rhonda,” I said as I placed a bouquet of red, yellow, and white roses by her headstone, “And, thank you.”

Above the roses, I read the inscription on the headstone again: Split Shift - One Heart.