REPORT A PROBLEM
It started again. I wanted a new physician, someone to float me an antibiotic every once in a while so I could stop pissing off the pharmacy with my inability to remember my own DEA number. The previous night was spent writhing, hopping to the toilet to pee out what felt like liquid nitrogen, back to bed, back to the toilet, and finally, around 3 AM, a defeatist concession to sleep on the toilet in lieu of catheterizing myself. The new physician was all too happy to hear my self-diagnosis, write me a script, and send me on my way.
The new physician, brunette and pert, had reminded me of Barbie’s Number Two, Midge. I had mentally checked into a Cozumel, Mexico resort when her office called two days later, to delineate the intricacies of my latest blood work. The sun was penetrating the deepest levels of my skin, warming without scortching, and the ocean was lulling me into what was probably a highly suggestive hypnotic state. Pedro, the brunette and pert cabana boy came around, and in a voice not unlike the new physician’s receptionist, asked me if she knew the last time I had an ESR this high.
Nineteen ninety-nine? I said. Mononucleosis. I got more than the Freshman Fifteen in college that year, if you know what I mean. It’s nothing, I continued, it’s been that high for, oh, say, going on seven years? I feel fine, other than the occasional affectionately termed Ring of Fire, if you know what I mean. But—and I had to physically restrain myself from calling her by the Mattel Moniker—Dr. ___ gave me some Cipro for that. That’s all well and good, the receptionist said, but we want to schedule another rheumatology appointment, if you know what we mean.
I filled my days between appointments with useless plans that seemed urgent. GO TO CO-OP FOR VEGGIES. MAIL NETFLIX. GYM PASS WHERE? It’s all written on my hand as a reminder, the dorsal surface serving as a parchment to my age-inappropriate Hello Kitty Glitter Pen. I have an overwhelming sense of accomplishment as I check-off the items; these are noble tasks, right? The Classic Rock station serves as background hum as I drive from task to task. “Nobody knows where it comes, and where it goes, and I know everybody says you got to lose to know.” Sing with me.
I once relinquished my latest CBC to my then-boyfriend, looking for a curbside. He was a cocksure, Johnny Medschool-type who once had envisioned himself as a surgeon but somehow found a higher calling in the banalities of dispensing pain medications and insulin. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy, that I hadn’t construed the values to fit a finals-week-induced hypochondria. I didn’t tell him it was mine; I wanted to preserve objectivitiy. He looked at it, then at me, rendered his diagnosis, and then suggested we go get Subway, because it was Wednesday, and the footlongs were half price.
They given me a transcript of antibodies, anti- this, anti- that. What I have, what it means. I know what they are, do, mean. I keep quiet; I don’t like wearing both hats at the same time. But they like not having to explain the details; it spares them the tedium of describing abstract science, spares them from having to come up with the appropriate euphemisms needed to soften the blow of a prognosis. I’m in an alternate universe now anyway, where the benignity of my past is colliding with the heartbreak of the present in one giant, cataclysmic clusterfuck.
They think I have scleroderma. They tell me this on a Friday, which I assume was premeditated. It was a lot like getting fired, only they didn’t take me to an Applebee’s to let me know that my blood work just wasn’t up to snuff this quarter, and that they’re going to have to terminate my life. I’m not sure why I didn’t I get a cooler illness. Like one with a ribbon. Or one that doesn’t need a detailed explanation. I’ve taken to using the words “protracted, lifelong suffocation”. This, I think, many perfectly healthy people can relate to.
I’m gossip now, and while it eclipses the many follies of my youth—the unconfirmed rumors of ___, the speculations about ____—it’s less scandalous and too obscure to cause the sort of waves that would provide any sort of measurable distraction. For me, at any rate. But these days I’m pretty unflappable, so perhaps I’m not the best gauge. I had hoped in my old age to bring more to the table than hushed whispers, awkward glances, confused faces, newly enlightened and empathetic head-nods compulsory tongue clucks, and circuitous changes of subject. I’m mummifying, and it’s not that exciting.
My best good friend had idiopathic thrombocytic purpura, and got her spleen taken out through her bellybutton, but not after blowing up from a strenuous round of steroids. She was always puffy in those days, and the demons from my envious childhood roared their heads. I had reoccurring visions of her snap, crackling, and popping in a bowl of milk. The taut, cheerleading midriff had morphed into a muffin-top, and her skin was slicked with a thin film of what I likened to PAM no-stick cooking spray; just some of my observations as we conversed over her breakfast hospital tray.
I wake up with a sweet, fermenting taste leeching from my cheeks and swollen tongue, and I know I’ve been drooling. There’s a puddle on the pillow, and a Yuengling bottle not far beyond the nightstand. Several, bottles, actually, and I started to remember how the first one went down so easy last night, a lazy night on the couch. How the second went down even easier, the third nestled somewhere in between the second and the fourth, the fourth being consumed in the apartment across the hall with Prem and Rakeesh. The fifth, I think, was an actual fifth.
Things are supposed to carry on as normal, and for a while—after I’m sure I’ve convinced others of this—I start to believe this is the case. I settle back into pre-diagnosis life: I get angry at politics, cattily dissect the latest Hollywood starlets’ weight gains and drug use, passively-aggressively ride the ass of the beater in front of me with the bumper sticker that reads “Fuck With Me, Fuck With the Trailer Park”, all the while believing that all this is worthy of my strife and angst. The blissfulness of ignorance. If only I didn’t know so much.
At work, an infant lay prostrate under a portable X-ray machine, receiving the skeletal survey that for a number of reasons was way too late. The student next to me shakes her head several times, utters one of the many useless commentaries that have become her trademark. “X-RAY,” the tech announces, and we all round the steel corner. I mockingly place my hands in front of my reproductive organs as the lightening strikes. The student points out astutely that that’s not going to do much good. I say I won’t be needing them. This, however, is not a new development.
I’m aware that I’ve been blithely weaving in and out of the narrative with nary a warning of tense change. I could say that it was intentional, that it was subtly integrated, that it served as a literary device intended to create the illusion of ____. Linearity is a privilege now; what happened yesterday might as well have happened to me today, three years ago, or in utero. The only anchor is the Wednesday MillionBucks drawing, 7:23 PM, wedged between Wheel of Fortune and Entertainment Tonight. The hostess winks and says Check Your Numbers because You Could Be A Winner!
It’s been so long since I’ve been gone, I want to go home. I miss, I miss a lot, I’ve made a life, some sort of life with peripherals, with a lot of add-ons, with a lot of extra calories but no protein, some sucrose and aspartame and red dye #40, but I’m not even thirty and I’m not sure how much longer I can stack the eggshells on top of the compost heap, it’s so large, it’s going to topple, and worst of all it smells. It smells. I’m fevered, It’s cold, and I’m never really lonely just alone.
As we’re working, the cops are nearby, standing far enough back to ensure that their yellow gowns—the thin vinyl barrier, the only thing standing between their pressed blues and the spatter—aren’t christened. We move methodically, some gears better oiled than others, elbow deep in science, looking for the cause. “Yo, Doc,” one says, “Cause of death?” The other: “Gay love triangle! Gay love triangle!” The knives pause long enough for snickers behind facemasks. “Don’t mind the Rook, he guesses that every time”. “Yeah, well, one of these days I’m gonna be right.” This time, though, it’s an MI.
“It’s all a very noble academic pursuit,” he said. “A gaggle of highly-educated professionals gather around a table and tear each other to shreds. They’re off their rockers, the lot of them. About two hours in Terry, at some point, has probably called Marianne an ignorant slut (again); at least one inanimate object has been thrown. Possibly by Marainne, but Richard surprised us all last time. It’s always the quiet ones.” We approach the elevator, and he gets in. “If my conferences were like that, I’d be more apt to attend,” I said. “Nah,” he said, and the doors closed.
She’s snapping her gum, its tart raspberry essence wafting further into space with each word; I fight back nausea. “I shit you not,” she continues. “It was like a goddamn omen or something. I knew I’d get shit on today.” One ear is locked and loaded with a hundred dollar noise reducing bud. The other is perched between my thumb and index finger, itching to wedge itself deep enough into my ear to tickle my cochlea and silence the voices outside my brain for a change. “What sort of legit hearse has a license plate tagged ‘LUKY STIF’?” she says.
The beat thumped,
against my skin, much like the sun did
Earlier that day
When I lay
Face down ass up
On an Ibiza beach
Golden rays, bronzed skin
Now around midnight
In a bathroom, a
cuarto de bano
(Con lineas blancos en mis manos)
letting the beat pound against my skin
which I don’t feel
I make it back to the floor
pulling me along
giggling, handing me a concoction
bubbles in the air
our shiny sequined tops
mirroring the suds around our knees
“FART: I have to.”
This comment in direct contrast to the official-looking yellow legal pad on which it was scribbled. My comrade gives me a pensive looks, fakes intellectual curiosity, and searches the lines in my countenance that would give way to a snicker. I have him fooled for point-three seconds, my own serious demeanor mirroring the guest lecturer’s, who was totally oblivious to our back row antics. I break, and have to hide my nose in the collar of my white coat. “Asshole,” I whisper.
The next note: “Beer after this?”
I pause, recalling some prior engagement. “You buying?”
“Annabelle’s?” he says. The local dive is more proletariat than aristocrat, and I nod in assent.
One faked page later, and I’m in the hallway fifteen minutes before the lecture ends; my colleague soon follows.
”I should care more,” I say.
“If I were you,” he says, “I’d probably care even less.”
There’s a clumsy silence, heightened by the still autumn air, the kind that amplifies sound, if there was any. Now it was only my heels clicking on the pavement keeping my stomach from touching the back of my tongue.
All I can do is nod again.
“Tehrrewassasumpinyouhadtodo?” He’s slurring; some of the lager tipples onto his shoes.
“Drive you home?” I suggest.
“Hey, I can drive my Lexus.”
“Yeah, into a tree.”
“HA!” He says, “That’s why you’re my work wife.” He goes to give me a noogie, but for the sake of sparing myself a drunk cliché, I maneuver his arm over my shoulder to help him stand instead.
“Troy, I already blew off my godson’s Little League tonight. I need to get home before Ben leaves.”
“Pssht. Yeah. Last time he left he ended up in Spain.”
“I meant before he left for work.”
The night shift in the intensive care unit requesting his vigilance, he’s left a note on the refrigerator:
Tofu Shitake Special in Tupperware, Brutus asleep in cage, pay no attention to stain on carpet in front of TV; merlot versus laceration (don’t ask); call nursing station when home, I’ll be there assuming no one crumps and gets you business. Love, B.”
It’s midnight. I grab seltzer water and a sponge, and head toward the stain. It’s oblong, dark and damp. I kneel on all fours, and rest my head on the fibers. It smells sweet, bitter.
You don’t get to come and go out my car, when I’m on I-89 speeding, 80 miles per hour trying to keep pace with those fucking crazy Vermonters, the ones who will lap you twice so you get a real good look at their bumper sticker that says “Tree-Hugging Dirt Worshipper.” You don’t get to come and go out of my bed, when it’s a wet summer’s night, the airbourne water droplets smothering stifling saturating the linens, sticking to my legs like a soggy band-aid. You don’t get to come and go, because you’re not invited. Because you’re not welcome.
And the only thing keeping me awake is the underlying gnawing, the hypervigilance, the Police State in my mind where drastic measures are taken to keep the peace, to keep the order, to keep the tranquility at the expense of the innocent. I sift and scratch, stand sit bend contort. The humidity is deafening and the silence is soft. My senses, the cables, the wires have been crossed and it’s three AM and the last thing I remember, before the shitake tofu and after calling the ICU nursing station is Sunday church services, the ones during but not after 1985.
The choir and all the angels in heaven (all the angles in heaven) and on the angels on earth and the demons in the corners, hand in hand, the choir sings, icons listen, the gargoyles aloof, perched, stoic, each a flip book that moves otherwise static characters. The preacher, demanding fidelity from the pulpit, no less from his parishioners but on a sliding scale for the alter boys. I shift in my gingham dress, white tights itching my girly bits, off in a land where I’m a grown up, and I get to do what I want, when I want.
Ben arrives home some time around 7 AM, awake but exhausted. He finds me near the window, in my skivvies but wrapped in a buffalo afghan. The window is open, and I’ve been there most of the night. The clouds finally purged, a steady stream of raindrop emesis keeping me company much of the night. He approaches wordlessly and tucks my head into his soft underbelly, stroking my matted hair. I think Brutus has been barking for a while, I say, but this is only a guess. I’ll call and let them know you won’t be in today, he says.
He’s preparing steel-cut oatmeal, with the perfect ratio of brown sugar to raisins. He does this silently, methodically and effortlessly tending to the tea kettle, the toaster, and to Brutus simultaneously. I have seen him do this at work, pushing a bolus of Ringer’s while drawing up a med, steadying the intern’s hand against the subclavian while changing a dressing: a machine. The meal is presented on a tray, on the windowsill. He slips away, not wanting to see what will not transpire. He knows that when he comes back, it will have been untouched. Brutus is at my feet.
“So I said, ‘I know I use you but you fucking work for me, and if I want to chain you to the fucking counter-top and whip you with Udon noodles until your thighs are bleeding vegan tofu, I will.’”
This is Chef.
The name’s not creative, but he works the moniker solo. Like Cher.
They’re both Queens.
He’s offered me a vintage merlot, spits at the mention of the movie
, and keeps generally entertained as I sit backstage in his kitchen.
“I tell her to go back and try again, and not to come out until I’m straight.”
While most eleven-year-olds are concerned with riding their bikes, giving wet-willies, or jumping into calm summer lakes with the help of a make-shift rope-swing, I was reading
and submitting my picks for the Oscar race.
“Dear Editor,” the first letter began, “While I concur with Reviewer O___ G___ on the likelihood of
Silence of the Lambs
taking top prize, I feel that
should be ostensibly considered as a serious contender. Also, I think Jodie Foster is neat, she was a teen actor too like I want to be, and do you think I could meet her?”
Belle is standing on a packed commuter train that left the North Brunswick terminal at 6:45 and doesn’t realize that it will reach the city eight hours later. She’s next to a schoolgirl, clad in argyle and and grey, with an embossed, fine stitched golden emblem over her right breast that reads “Madison Preparatory”. Feeling Belle’s scrutiny, the girl snaps her pink gum, queries Belle’s interest with an expletive, turns on her heel, and sits down in the back of the train near clonal girls, who simultaneously turn their heads in Belle’s direction and with a fair amount of eye-rolling.
The Tip Jar