THE OFFICIAL FIREWORKS DISPLAY was on the Rhine, but Takayo and I were searching for the real New Year’s celebration. What we found was a thousand or so people occupying a nearby square. There was no countdown. There were people shooting off fireworks one after the other. We stood at the perimeter beside a group of well-dressed men and women (suits, fur coats) lighting mortars and bottle rockets from beer bottles.
I had my camera out taking pictures. Little by little, I began to notice a distinct change come over people’s faces. Whenever someone stepped up with their bottle rocket, they were all smiles. However, once they’d squat down to light the fuse, their expressions would change; some went blank, while others appeared almost pained.
There was a flash of yellow light, and then the feeling of something hitting my eye. It was small, something you might brush off your shoulder, but in my head I imagined a hunk of metal, something that could be coaxed out with a strong magnet. That’s what it felt like, anyway. My first instinct was to wash it out, so I gave myself permission to cry. Had it worked, I probably wouldn’t have minded how sappy I looked: holding my half-empty champagne bottle, two minutes into the new year, tears coursing down my cheek under a sky filled with fireworks. By the time the police rolled in to clear the square, my eye was swollen shut and the appeal of this celebration had long since worn off.
Given the number of people on the street, I figured St. Marinus hospital would have been busier. It was more crowded than the first two hospitals I visited. There was a hospital three blocks from my house, but the woman at the desk said they didn’t “take people off the street.” She gave me directions to a hospital in Kaiserswerth, ten minutes north by train, but when I got there it seemed that I wasn’t their type of patient either.
“We cannot treat you because we have no eye doctor,” said the nurse in the ER.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Any doctor will do. At this point I’d settle for a podiatrist.”
“No,” she said, and then handed me a leaflet for a hospital back in Dusseldorf. “There are taxis out front.”
I’d been taking German classes for four months. I’m okay with remembering words, but full-blown sentences escape me. After the taxi dropped me off at St. Marinus, I walked up to the woman at the counter and challenged her to a surprise game of charades.
“Feuerwerk explod auge,” I said, which literally means “fireworks explode eye.”
I mimed an explosion, and then made jazz fingers over my left eye. To say that my eye had exploded was a tad excessive, but she didn’t need to know that: I’d grabbed my wife’s oversized sunglasses after dropping her off at the house. The woman looked at the lens, said something that I did not understand, and, upon hearing my exploding eye line again, pointed to a door and said “Room 9.”
My eye was burning. I walked past two waiting areas where ten or twelve people sat on padded leather chairs, poking phones or consoling babies. Room 9 was down a narrow, well-lit corridor which was empty save for a long metal bench occupied by five women, each one sporting a red, squinty eye.
I sat on the end next to an elderly woman. She was wearing a fancy black coat that seemed to have been drenched in White Musk. Whenever someone walked by, the saccharine scent of her perfume wafted over, making me wish a bottle rocket had shot up my nose instead. Every twenty minutes or so, someone would leave Room 9 and a voice inside would yell “Next!”
It was up to us to figure out who was next, a difficult task considering new popeyes were arriving every five minutes. Pain has a way of making people come across as rude. “Shut up, I’ve got a headache,” or, “Get out of my way, I’m on fire” – that sort of thing. I felt my body tensing up at the thought of someone cutting before me. Fortunately, the one eyed woman two seats down took charge and began assigning order. If I understood her correctly, I was next.
When the voice called “next,” I entered a dimly lit room roughly the size of a prayer mat. The doctor had slicked back hair and a cleft lip. He had me sit in a plastic chair, and I gave him a scaled-back version of my exploded eye story.
After probing my eye with a cotton swab beneath the magnifying glass, the doctor said I had a scratched cornea. “Nothing in the eye.” He squirted some analgesic gel into my eye, and taped a bandage over the top quarter of my face. He’d taken the pain away. For that I was grateful, but I felt bad that he had to spend New Years in that tiny office. In hindsight, a simple ‘thank you’ might have sufficed, but I was desperate to make a connection. I reached into my pocket and slipped on the shades, which now sat askew, hovering over the bridge of my nose.
“What do you think, doc?” I said.
“Please,” he sighed, “do not drive an automobile.”
From their cold bench, the popeyes exchanged cutthroat glances deciding who was next. It would have made an interesting picture. We may not have all been firework victims, but if one thing was certain, it was that we’d all been robbed of some other memory – an evening spent with family, the errant spark igniting a fur coat. Thinking about the things I might have missed left me feeling cheated. While stopping off to use the bathroom, however, it occurred to me that the image in the mirror was, undoubtedly, something that I would never forget. As new beginnings were concerned, I had nowhere to go but up. Staring at my novelty-sized eye patch reminded me how boring it would be if life didn’t step in every so often.