In this issue of Banter M:
Why Rachel Dolezal’s Transracialism is Good For America Ben Cohen explains why cultural appropriation is not necessarily a bad thing
Someday You’ll Understand Chez Pazienza on why the killing of a child on Game of Thrones is so difficult for a parent
Donald Trump is a Crazy Bomb Bob Cesca on Donald Trump’s ‘disruptive’ presidential campaign and why it needs to die a painful death
Where is My Mind Part 2 Chez Pazienza concludes his harrowing, yet uplifting tail of overcoming a brain tumor
Why Rachel Dolezal’s Transracialism is Good For America
by Ben Cohen
While the outing of former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal’s as a white woman has angered many, there is an argument to made that her attempt to live as a black woman is actually a step forward for race relations in America, and a positive for the black community that has long suffered from damaging stereotypes.
The revelation that Dolezal had been lying about her genetic ethnic identity has captivated the nation and sent the US media into a frenzy. The never ending story of America’s obsession with race was given a new twist and the media wasted no time turning it into the biggest story of the week. Journalists have been tracking Dolezal’s every move, camping outside her house, tracking down relatives, and even her tanning salon in a mammoth effort to uncover and dismantle the identity she adopted for herself.
The ensuing social media furor has now successfully reduced Dolezal to a caricature – a hate figure for the perpetually outraged and the personification of crazy woman whose personality and professional accomplishments now mean nothing.
To be fair, Dolezal has brought much of this on herself. The list of fabrications about her life is extensive, and it is clear that Dolezal has consistently misrepresented who she is not just ethnically, but personally.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Dolezal’s adopted brother Ezra detailed the bizarre story of his sisters transformation over the past few years, darkening her skin and changing her hair to appear more African American. Ezra sated that he believes his sister was emotionally scarred from her time at Howard University, where she claimed black students were racist towards her. This in turn caused her to turn “hateful to white people.”
“She used to tell us that teachers treated her differently than other people and a lot of them acted like they didn’t want her there,” Ezra told Buzzfeed. “Because of her work in African-American art, they thought she was a black student during her application, but they ended up with a white person.”
Ezra also detailed other lies about her upbringing, countering her claims that they lived in South Africa, hunted with bows and arrows, and that their parents abused them. “She’s never been to Africa in her entire life,” said Ezra.
“She was treated really well as a child,” he continued. “I think I would know if I was abused growing up, and I definitely wasn’t.”
Dolezal’s parents have made clear that they vehemently dispute Dolezal’s account of her upbringing, the latest episode involving Dolezal’s revelation that at the age of 5 she was “drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and black curly hair.”
Now estranged from her daughter, Ruthanne Dolezal told NBC news that, “That didn’t happen…it’s disappointing to see that Rachel is still making false statements.”
It is of course impossible to know who is telling the truth, but it is difficult to believe Dolezal’s account of her upbringing particularly given we know that she is almost certainly lying about her racial identity. More disturbingly, Dolezal appears to want to maintain the lie, telling NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie that,”I haven’t had a DNA test. There’s been no biological proof that Larry and Ruthanne are my biological parents.” The birth certificate given to the media by her parents clearly states otherwise.
While we will never be able to fully understand Rachel Dolezal’s upbringing, or why she chose to identify herself as an African American, it is clear that she has some deep underlying psychological problems. It is not just the fact that she wants to be black, but rather the stunning lengths to which she went to conceal her true identity and the damaging lies she told to keep up the facade. Dolezal’s deeply religious family also appears to be highly dysfunctional, with escalating rumors that systemic physical and sexual abuse may have been a factor in family life. Her older brother Joshua Dolezal isawaiting trial for allegedly sexually abusing both Rachel and her younger sister, and Dolezal’s family implied Rachel Dolezal may have helped orchestrate the allegations of abuse to win custody of her black adopted brother, Izaiah. Izaiah accused his parents of physical abuse, and currently lives with Rachel Dolezal in Spokane, Washington. Rachel claims to be his legal parent.
Trying to unpack the complicated and highly toxic relationships within the Dolezal family is beyond the scope of not only this article, but most professional psychologists. The combination of racial identity, adoption, religious fundamentalism and physical and sexual abuse issues makes for fascinating speculation – but that is where it must end until further evidence emerges.
The issue of Dolezal’s racial identity does however have wider cultural implications, and reducing it to simplistic jokes or dismissing her seemingly sincere self-identification as an African American. She told MSNBC’s Matt Lauer:
I felt very isolated with my identity virtually my entire life, that nobody really got it and that I really didn’t have the personal agency to express it….I kind of imagined that maybe at some point I’d have to own it publicly and discuss this kind of complexity.
From what we understand, Dolezal has been extremely active in the black community, working as a the President of the Spokane NAACP and working diligently to advance black causes. At Howard, her art focused on the black experience and racial reconciliation, and from the looks of her personal website, she appears to be extremely talented.
It is impossible to look at her art and not see a heartfelt connection to African American culture – a connection that appears to be well understood by those who know her. The New York Times spoke with Ronald Potter, a brother-in-law of Spencer Perkins, who taught religion at Belhaven in Jackson, Miss. where Dolezal went to school. Potter’s description of Dolezal is fascinating:
He described Ms. Dolezal as someone who was “extremely” socially conscious, much more so than the other students seemed to be. The first time he met her, he said, she reminded him of “a black girl in a white body,” like “hearing a black song by a white artist.”
White people have had a long history of ‘appropriating’ black culture – from Jazz to Hip Hop, and from language to fashion. ‘Appropriation’ is a funny word though, and while it has been used to condemn those ripping off other people’s culture in denigrating or inaccurate ways, adopting another culture is often no more than a sign of respect. European settlers in America routinely left agricultural life to live with Native Americans, ‘appropriating’ their culture because they found their own to be devoid of joy and meaning. Immigrants often adopt the culture of their new country, making integration easier for themselves and their offspring. Despite the connotation, cultural appropriation is not necessarily a bad thing.
Rachel Dolezal’s cultural and racial appropriation is not conventional, but it is worth remembering that she has not misrepresented or denigrated the African American experience. She has not portrayed herself as a negative stereotype of an African American, and has used her talents to further causes that are hugely beneficial to the African American community. When Dolezal resigned from the NAACP, she said:
Many issues face us now that drive at the theme of urgency. Police brutality, biased curriculum in schools, economic disenfranchisement, health inequities, and a lack of pro-justice political representation are among the concerns at the forefront of the current administration of the Spokane NAACP. And yet, the dialogue has unexpectedly shifted internationally to my personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity.
While Dolezal’s race and ethnicity is certainly an interesting issue, the issues she has dedicated her life to are certainly more important. The vitriol and anger shown by many mortally offended by her actions would no doubt be better used fighting tangible racism affecting the lives of millions of Americans. There is also the issue of race itself – a bizarre construct invented by 17th century Europeans that has no biological basis. And as Melissa Harris Perry pointed out, the construct has not exactly benefited black people:
For me the concern particularly for people who self identify as black in this country, who are black in this country, when we are asked ‘so what makes you really black?’ If our response and answer devolves to an essentialist and biological notion, then all I would say is for most of human history, an essential and biological notion of race has not served the material interest of black people very well. And we just might want to be careful about employing that ourselves as we police the boundaries of blackness.
From a biological point of view, human traits related to ethnicity and gender are not fixed – they are fluid. People from different regions in the world move, marry each other and have children. Sexual orientation varies by individual, and gender cannot be defined by neat categories. The human spectrum is broad, and as we continue to mix with one another, our culture reflects the ever blurring lines that define us. Being ‘black’ in America often has little to do with skin color, particularly since most African Americans have European ancestry themselves. Just look at Colin Powell (who is Jamaican) or Rashida Jones – figures who identify as black but have skin color no darker than a Mediterranean. In Brazil, famous black singer Neguinho da Beija-Flordiscovered that 67% of his genes are European and only 31% African.
Who decides how they should define themselves? While Dolezal’s case is a little more extreme, if she wants to be black, who is to say she can’t be?
Someday You’ll Understand
by Chez Pazienza
I once argued, in mixed company, that the death of a small child wasn’t as meaningful as the death of an adult simply because the child hadn’t gained enough life experience to make his or her death a true tragedy. It was merely a matter of mathematics, I contended: the number of years upon this earth and the amount of what a person both gleaned during those years and provided to the world were what instilled value in a human life. How could anyone really mourn for someone they hardly got the chance to know and who gave so little and got so little out of his or her short time being alive? It’s the kind of argument only a monster would make — or in my case a contrarian asshole who delighted in pushing people’s buttons just for the hell of it. But misanthropic amusement notwithstanding, I really did find it irritating the way adults — particularly parents — deferred to children as sacred creatures in need of protection at all times, often at the expense of the wants and needs of other adults. It was my experience that any attempt to make the world safe for the children usually wound up trampling the rights and privileges of the grown-ups — and, well, fuck that.
The response that I received to this position, over and over again, was, “You’ll understand when you’re a parent.” And when I say “this position” I mean my take on ceding the world to kids. My argument against the value of the lives of kids was typically met with an expression of pure horror as well the occasional threat of physical violence. It’s a good thing I wasn’t actually serious.
I now have a young daughter, Inara. She’ll be seven-years-old next month and, as anyone might expect, she’s the bright light at the center of my universe. Her arrival and the circumstances surrounding the first few years of her life — with her mother and I splitting up and me being separated from her for months at a time sometimes — changed me fundamentally. This is undeniable. I’m not who I used to be thanks in part to details of my last relationship that aren’t worth going into but also, maybe more so, because my daughter is involved and I was never given the chance to have a “normal life” with her. Someone once said that when you have a child your heart becomes separated from your body, that it lives apart from you. The point is that suddenly the one thing you can’t live without is exposed and moving through the world independent of you. Your own suffering or death would be meaningless compared to that of the heart that’s destined to always be out there somewhere beyond your reach. Your attitude becomes that as long as your heart continues to beat, it’s all that really matters.
To some extent I do, in fact, now understand the thinking I used to chide years ago. To some extent, I really did change in the way so many predicted. I still appreciate the notion of kids used as punchlines on occasion, only because I’m a big fan of violating taboos and as far as humor goes there’s no bigger or better taboo in our culture than children. But having a little girl, and having my particular relationship with my little girl — the one I’ve had since she was six-months-old — is enough to turn anyone inside out and even I’m surprised sometimes by the way parenthood has contorted my emotions.
When it comes to Game of Thrones, there’s really no sense in warning of spoilers. The HBO hit packs so many shocks and such a continuous fusillade of infuriating brutalities that you’d have to literally unplug from the internet entirely to avoid learning of them. Even people who don’t know a thing about the show had an idea what the Red Wedding was when Facebook and Twitter practically melted down in response to it; the screams of the fans could practically be heard from space. This season of Game of Thrones, in particular, has produced a steady outcry across the digital landscape as the show gave viewers one cruelty after another. It was tough to imagine any one piece of pop culture spawning that many hot takes and think pieces — that many shouts of “enough” and promises to abandon it once and for all — but such is the suffering Game of Thrones fans have become used to. Although, it should be said, that even a show that pushed a child out of a window, massacred an entire family and sanctioned the rape of a woman by her brother — who happened to be the father of the woman’s dead child whose body he was assaulting her in front of — found new extremes in savagery to reach over the past few months. Almost everyone knows by now that it all culminated in a season finale that saw the unceremonious deaths of several key characters, including the show’s one truly sympathetic protagonist. Bottom line: You don’t watch Game of Thrones unless you have a constitution made of Valyrian steel.
For several episodes, I managed to write off most of the usual depravity. The Red Wedding was a genuinely upsetting sequence, maybe the most viscerally disturbing thing I’d ever seen in a scripted drama on television, so I figured that if I somehow made it through that back in Season 3 and was still watching I could handle anything. By the penultimate episode of this season, I wasn’t sure what was to come, given that the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, were varying wildly from the books the series is based on and the second-to-last episode of every season was where the most horrific tragedies were usually dished out. That’s how it goes on Game of Thrones: the penultimate episodes of each season give viewers a bloody, painful wallop and the season finales provide the come-down then set everyone up for what’s ahead. Something bad was going to happen — it was just a matter of what that something was.
The show began telegraphing what it had in store almost immediately. There was sweet Princess Shireen, the daughter of Stannis Baratheon — an adorable young girl who’d managed to keep a positive outlook on the world despite being cursed with a disease that turned her into an outcast — in the sites of the ruthless priestess Melisandre. Stannis wanted a victory in battle and the only way to get one would be to catch a break from the brutal ice and snow bearing down on him and his troops. Melisandre knew the answer: royal blood to appease the Lord of Light, blood that at that moment could only be found coursing through Stannis’s daughter’s veins. Stannis sends away Ser Davos, whom he knows would never let harm come to Shireen, then asks innocent Shireen if she would be willing to do whatever it takes to allow him to be victorious. Ever trusting, she of course throws her arms around her father and says yes. Moments later, we see her being led by guards through a crowd, still unaware of what’s happening. Slowly, though, a look of uncertainty begins to form on her face, her eyes darting around as she realizes something isn’t quite right. That uncertainty gives way to sheer terror as the crowd clears and she sees the stake and pyre directly in front of her — what she’s being pushed directly towards. She begins crying out for her father, demanding to see him. Then calling out to her mother, who’s never been much of a mother to her at all. Stannis, removed from having to face his child directly, simply nods and the screaming Shireen is tied to the stake as Melisandre lights the pyre beneath her. She shouts, she screams, she begs — and in the end, she burns.
My reaction to the death of Shireen Baratheon on Game of Thrones was like nothing I ever could’ve predicted. It was nothing I even imagined I would one day be capable of. True, Game of Thrones is a TV show and the young girl who plays Shireen, Kerry Ingram, was always safe and sound — because she’s an actress and not actually the daughter of a power-mad would-be king. But at that moment I wasn’t really processing all that. Good fiction transports you into its world — and Game of Thrones is very good fiction. And so, as Shireen marched to her doom, before she even knew what was happening, I had already jumped forward to sit on the edge of my couch and was literally saying out loud to my television, “No, no, no — you can’t do this!” By the time she realized that she was going to be burned alive, my face had gone flush and I was beginning to cry. And as she shouted out to her uncaring father, I completely lost it. I was bawling, practically howling in the middle of my living room as she was lit on fire. All of this happened because, while I was never so sociopathic or inhuman that a child in jeopardy didn’t have an impact on me, since the birth of my little girl I simply cannot handle violence against children. Not in reality, obviously, and not even a depiction of it. The death of Shireen Baratheon is far and away one of the most legitimately traumatizing things I’ve ever seen in a scripted piece of entertainment; it’s something I hope to never see again.
When I learned about Sandy Hook in December of 2012, I was standing inside a busy office where I was doing some freelance work. I had gone in for a closed-door meeting and just before had read the alert on my phone about a shooting at a school. When I emerged from the meeting a couple of hours later, 20 children just a little older than my own child were dead. I’m a grown man and I couldn’t even begin to try to compose myself as I watched the news along with others in the office. Certainly, this doesn’t make me special, but there’s no denying that when it comes to children now, in the years following Inara’s birth, I’ve become one hell of a raw nerve. Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe it’s exactly the kind of change people who have kids are supposed to go through. Maybe it’s too debilitating, though. It was good to be both glibly cynical and impervious to real pain. It was good to not have my heart separated from my body and to know that the worst thing that could happen to me would involve something bad happening to me rather than someone I loved far more than myself. All of that is the way it used to be but it’s not how it is now.
Still, I wouldn’t trade this vulnerability. It’s terrifying, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to melt at the sight of a little kid. It’s worth it to feel as strongly as I do for my own little kid. It’s worth it to be able to hurt so deeply. It’s worth it to finally understand what it’s like to be a parent.
Donald Trump is a Crazy Bomb
by Bob Cesca
The title of this article for Banter M isn’t just another attempt at political internet snark. He really is exactly that. There’s a neologism that’s cropped up recently online and, frankly, I can’t wait until it and what it means dies an agonizing death — the kind of death that can only be inflicted by Ramsay Bolton from Game of Thrones. Lots of flaying ending in castration.
The word I’m talking about is “disruption.” It’s a form of nihilistic internet activity that’s simply meant to, well, disrupt other activities simply to observe and, I assume, masturbate to the ensuing chaos. For example, hack-fraud conservative blogger Chuck C. Johnson is all about disruption. By way of quick recap, Johnson famously outs alleged rape victims via his ridiculous online publication. He’s also suing Gawkerbecause they reported that he shit on the floor. He has no interest whatsoever in the truth or ethics or, for that matter, behaving like a normal human being. His goal is toss crazy bombs into the discourse, even if it makes him look like an idiot, and then sit back, snort a line of coke and watch the bodies scatter.
Trump is the disruption candidate. He’s the Chuck C. Johnson of the Republican primary field. And he’s already injecting sweet, sweet mayhem into the festivities.
During his bizarre, stream-of-consciousness announcement speech Tuesday, Trump dropped his first crazy bomb when he referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”
The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. [Applause] Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Not only are they rapists, according to Trump, but Mexico is “sending” them here. I’m sure this will go over well when a would-be President Trump (shudder) has to negotiate with Mexico’s president and foreign ambassadors. Then, on Wednesday morning, he refused to retract his remarks. When asked if he’s standing by the “rapist” comment, Trump said:
Absolutely. They’re sending us not their finest people. And it’s people from countries other than Mexico also. We have drug dealers coming across, we have rapists, we have killers, we have murderers. I mean it’s common sense. What do you think they’re going to send us—their best people, their finest people? The answer is no.
Now, if the press does its job (that’s a big “if,” admittedly), they’d ask the other Republican candidates whether they agree with Trump’s “rapists” analysis. After all, immigration is a front-burner issue and the GOP is notoriously militant about it. Why not find out if the “rapists” nonsense is a common point of view here? So, if the press questions the other candidates, the crazy bomb — the disruption — will ricochet all around the clown car. Couple all of this with the fact that Republicans have a really, really difficult time talking about rape, and they’d do well to stop it. So, if they’re asked, it’s going to sting.
The real question is this: if Trump is in this to disrupt, and it looks like he might be, is the disruption intended to kerfuffle the other Republicans, or is it meant to distract the Democrats and make the rest of the Republican field look less goofy?
Here’s the thing. It could very well be both. Even while we bask in the comedy gold he’s already provided so far (Exhibit A: the Vine of Trump riding the escalator), there’s another layer to this that could actually work in the favor of the other Republicans. It’s going to be really, really difficult for the wackiest of the GOP wack pack to achieve Trump-level doofery. I mean, would it have been as funny to see Dr. Ben Carson riding down an escalator? No way. Just the sight of Trump riding a common escalator was a pretty big deal — considerably more shared and discussed than much of the vileness that gurgled out of his bloated face on Tuesday. Will it be as funny when Jeb Bush’s hair gets tussled by a gust of wind? Not in a million year.
In that regard, the rest of the clown car suddenly looks more, well, grown up. Meanwhile, the memes from the left will surely be more Trump-centric than the others. And how could they not be? I can assure you that the name “Trump” will come up a lot more often on the Bob & Chez Show for the next six months or so. Well done, Trump.
Meanwhile, there’s currently no real threat in Trump actually winning any primaries, so, electorally, he’s safe. But if he continues to blurt out crap like he did during his announcement, and if it forces the other Republicans into similarly regretful gaffes, then it could actually cost some candidates votes — if their subsequent gaffes are brutal enough. Again, Trump’s first shot had to do with rape and racism. Republicans can’t talk about rape without blurting out all kinds of new devilry, and racism is a constant mine-field for these guys.
At this point, I’m especially hoping that it’ll come up during one of the debates. Best case: it not only comes up, but maybe Trump crazy-bombs the debate with something about Jews or a wild conspiracy theory about Benghazi. Fingers and toes crossed. But while we’re pointing and laughing at the dumbfuckery, it’d be smart to keep a close eye on what the other clowns are up to.
Now can we kill “disruption,” please? It must die.
Where is my mind (Part 2)
by Chez Pazienza
(Part one can be read in issue 3 of Banter M)
The Next Morning
“Well they encourage your complete cooperation. Send you roses when they think you need to smile. I can’t control myself because I don’t know how, and they love me for it, honestly, I’ll be here for awhile.”
I’m counting the holes in the ceiling tiles.
I’m listening to the quiet pulse of the heart monitor.
I’m desperately in need of sleep.
About an hour ago, the heavy bed that’s held my racked body since the faster-than-light jump that swept me from the terror of the operating table to the Neurosurgical-ICU was wheeled up to what they call the “secondary” intensive care unit. My picturesque view — the glowing bridge and highway — is gone, replaced by an immeasurably less picturesque view of a man named Miguel. My bed has been planted — monitors and all — directly across from his so that we now face each other. It should be easy to stare him down should it come to that, being that whatever happened deep in the recesses of Miguel’s brain has left him unable to open his right eye. It remains folded shut in an eerie, perpetual wink.
I realize that I’ve lost count of the holes.
I feel my eyes close and try one more time to drift off to sleep, knowing full-well that it’s impossible right now. If the half-dozen tubes restricting my movement weren’t enough to prevent me from getting comfortable enough to truly rest, then the hydraulic wraps around my calves which inflate every sixty seconds to push blood through my legs would do the trick nicely. The pressure from the leggings prevents my blood from clotting and me from consequently going into cardiac arrest and dying in this bed — with Miguel giving me one final devilish wink to send me on my way to oblivion.
I silently wish to be back in the quiet ICU room with the astonishing view. I’m going to be in pain either way; better I be in pain in near-silence.
I don’t know at what point it dawned on me exactly what it was that was spread out so beautifully outside of my window — at what point I regained even a sliver of true lucidity. I now know though that from that room I watched as the darkness enveloped the 59th Street bridge. I watched the headlights of the cars speeding under it along the FDR — watched them thin as time passed and New York City fell deeper into the night. I counted the minutes until dawn, hoping that at some point sleep would come — but it never did. Instead I stayed awake throughout the entire night, terrified and alone — the steely taste of my own blood dripping down from my punctured brain, through the cotton compresses plugged deep into my sinuses, and into my parched mouth.
Every half-hour or so, the young nurse — Piper — would enter my room from a door I couldn’t see, take my vitals and ask me if I needed anything. I asked for water. I asked for morphine, despite the frightening reaction my body seemed to have to it. At one point she placed a warm blanket over me and I realized that it did nothing to stop my uncontrollable shaking; my entire being seemed to be spasming, and wouldn’t stop. I asked her for another blanket — and another. I was cold. I was shaking and shaking and shaking and nothing would stop it. Nothing. I was scared. I was terrified. I wanted someone to hold my hand. I wanted someone to tell me that everything was going to be alright. I wanted to close my eyes, get up, and slip through that giant window like a ghost and float away into the night — over the city, to someplace far away. I wanted to fly. I wanted to disappear.
But then there would be the rhythm of the monitor — the whisper of the leggings inflating. There would be the sudden awareness of the painful needle shanks in my veins and arteries and the taste of the blood and the feel of it on my cracked lips and the fear would return, and I would return to the bed that held me trapped. I’d ask for more water, and more blankets and more morphine. I’d ask Piper to talk to me — to reassure me. I’d once again be able to make out just the slightest hint of her smile in all that endless darkness — with just the electric light from outside to bathe the room in a hint of color — and she’d tell me that I was doing fine.
She’d tell me that the operation was a complete success.
The tumor that had been eating away at my brain was gone.
“How are you feeling?”
A nurse’s voice brings me back to this moment. I’m in the secondary ICU. I can’t sleep.
“Peachy,” I manage — barely. “I’m tired.”
She whisks around my bed and begins checking the readouts on the various machines to which I’m hooked.
“Do you know where you are?” she says as she adjusts my IV.
“Nowhere I want to be,” I say, then thinking the better of it — “Hospital. Cornell Medical Center.” Despite the languid ebb and flow of my awareness, I’m congnizant of the fact that this woman deals with enough shit — figurative and literal — that antagonizing her is neither fair nor wise. Thankfully, when she comes back into my field of view again, I notice she’s smiling slightly.
“Do you know what day it is?” she asks.
I glance slightly to the left of her as she picks up the chart attached to the foot of the bed.
“It’s April 28th, 2006.”
“Yes it is,” she says without looking up from the clipboard.
“I know that because it’s written on the rotation board to your right.”
She smiles — checks off points on the chart.
“Very good,” she says. “Can you tell me who’s president?”
“Fucking idiot,” I say, actually managing a hint of a smirk.
“I’ll count that as a yes,” she responds, placing the clipboard back on the hook at the foot of the bed and — in the time it takes me to slowly close my eyes and reopen them — appearing at my bedside.
She shines a bright pen-light into my eyes; it feels like it’s burning a hole through to my sore and damaged brain. She clicks it off and I can still see the purple and black sun seared into my retinas. Somewhere behind it she holds up her index finger.
“Follow my finger without moving your head. Eyes only.”
I do as I’m told: side to side, up and down.
“You seem to be doing well,” she says. “Are you in any pain?”
“My head’s pounding.” I whisper now. “Needles hurt.”
She pushes past another nurse who’s come to fill a tiny styrofoam cup on my sliding table with water. Before I can even react, she’s pulling the surgical tape from the heavy IV line which was inserted into the tender skin of my left wrist just before the surgery — before everything went white. I feel the soft hairs being ripped away. All I can manage is a pained whimper.
“Okay, hold on tight,” she says. “We’re going to pull your A-line. This runs directly into your artery. You shouldn’t need it anymore.”
I have nothing to hold on to, but I close my eyes tightly and try to will myself away from here. In one sudden motion, I feel the shank deep in my vein slide out and the excruciating pressure from her thumb as it flattens a cotton ball into the open wound. Flashes of color dance behind my eyelids. I exhale stale air through clenched teeth. She wraps new surgical tape around my wrist.
I allow my eyes to relax without opening them, and the strange shapes projected against the inside of my eyelids seem to diffuse, then vanish. I finally fade away.
“So give them blood. Blood. Gallons of the stuff. Give them all that they can drink and it will never be enough. So give them blood. Blood. Blood. Grab a glass because there’s going to be a flood.”
I feel something gently stroke the inside of my palm — a light touch. I slowly open my eyes to see a face. It’s glowing bright white. As it comes into a wet focus, I realize that it’s my wife. The light is coming through the window next to my bed and illuminating her soft features. She smiles.
“Hi baby,” she says. “How are you feeling?”
What begins as a groan evolves into actual words: “Better now.” I smile as best I can.
I can see tears beginning to pool in her eyes. I reach up and touch her face; her skin is soft — even softer than I remember. I look over her shoulder and realize that my mother and father are standing behind her; they’re both wearing reassuring smiles. Before I can even find another word, my eyes drift downward. The room blurs. Sound tunnels away. Everything goes black.
The next thing I hear is a voice. It comes from somewhere in a dream.
“Chez,” it says. “Chez. You have to wake up.”
A slightly darker room than the one I remember emerges from the pitch blackness. To my immediate left, the sun is setting over the East River. My wife is still at my side, but it’s the nurse’s voice that’s dragging me — kicking and screaming — back to the waking world.
“I have some bad news,” she says. “The doctor wants us to begin taking blood from you every four hours. We need your arm.”
Before I’m even awake enough to know what’s happening, I feel the latex strap (they asked me if I’m allergic to latex, didn’t they?) tighten around my arm; the cold swab of alcohol is rubbed into the crux of my left arm; the needle slips in. I wince — curse — awaken fully.
“I have all these tubes in me; there isn’t one you can just plug into?” I seethe.
“Well, that’s the bad news. We removed your A-line, so that means that we have to find a new vein each time. The rest of your lines are for putting fluids in, not for taking them out.”
I turn over slightly, attempting to bury my face in my pillow but unwittingly pulling my IVs taut — putting me in even more pain.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” I moan into the pillow.
“I wish I was.”
The nurse folds my arm, squeezing a fresh cotton ball into place. “Motherfucker,” I whisper. I glance over to see my wife’s face; her expression is a concerned pout.
By this time tomorrow, they will have practically run out of places to insert a needle into me. I’ll overhear the nurse saying that several of my veins are in danger of collapsing.
“A celebrated man amongst the gurneys. They can fix me proper with a bit of luck. The doctors and the nurses they adore me so, but it’s really quite alarming ’cause I’m such an awful fuck.”
I’ve devised a plan; I’m going to get out of here.
My arms are bruised black and blue from needle punctures. Last night at around 3am, I was awakened by a large black man with a picnic basket full of test-tubes and needles and the bedside manor of Ed Gein. He attempted to physically roll me over and put a syringe into my arm, but I managed to knock it out of his hand. “I can get security in here if I have to,” he said. “You better hope they’re armed,” I returned with a furious sneer. This exchange was promptly followed by a blackout, which was promptly followed by my coming to just in time to see a nurse inserting something into my IV.
“What is that?”
Before she could even answer, I felt my arm catch on fire — felt it spread throughout my body. I was being burned alive from the inside out. I opened my mouth in a grisly, tormented silent scream. There was molten lava flowing through my veins — boiling my blood as it consumed me whole.
“Magnesium,” I heard her say over the sound of every molecule of my being, exploding, one after the other.
Now it’s morning again and I’m being allowed to shower for the first time in four days. I’m unhooked from the monitors — wondering for a moment if the nurse’s station will suddenly light up like a pinball machine at word that one of the patients’ hearts has apparently stopped cold — and am marched off to the bathroom, along with my IV stands and catheter. If there’s a more pathetic or embarassing situation short of shitting yourself, I’m unaware of it.
I somehow figure out a way to shower and shave, ridding myself of both the smell of stagnation and the ratty castaway-chic beard I’ve been cultivating for the past several days, then return to my bed to find one of my nurses — unfortunately, a young, attractive one — waiting for me with a forced smile on her face.
“What’d my payment not go through?” I say as I lie back down.
“Nope. Time to take your catheter out.”
One of the few true blessings in all of this is the fact that I was knocked out when they inserted both a lumbar puncture into my spine, and a catheter into my penis. For this, I will always be thankful.
“You know, I haven’t looked at it once.”
“Nope. God knows if there’s one image I don’t want lingering in my brain, it’s my shriveled wee-wee with a tube sticking out of it,” I say. “Couldn’t they have at least sent one of the seventy-year-old nurses to take this thing out? Spare me the embarrassment?”
“Sorry — I’ll have to do,” she says with that synthetically sweet smile. She reaches down along the side of my bed as I close my eyes and begin thinking about kittens and butterflies and long, white beaches and star-filled skies and Liverpool’s 2005 victory over AC Milan in the Champions League finals and the new Shelby GT and Maria Bello in leather pants in Coyote Ugly and Pearl Jam’s cover of the Who’s Baba O’Reilly and my wife stepping out of the shower in the morning and any other goddamned thing I can call to mind to distract myself from the twelve inch tube and deflated balloon that’s about to be pulled through the end of my dick.
I hear her say the words, “Hang on,” then feel razor wire shred my urethra.
My pelvis jolts forward and I muffle a scream which degenerates into a cruel laugh.
“Oh you’re fucking evil,” I hiss.
“Had to be done,” she returns with a look that borders on satisfaction. “Now comes the fun part. If you don’t urinate within the next few hours, we have to put the catheter back in.” As I furiously try to rub the pain out of my wounded penis, she looks right into my eyes — no doubt to lend the necessary gravity to her next statement. “That’s going to hurt — a lot.”
I reach over and grab a plastic bottle which is now hooked to my bedside, put it under the covers and begin pissing like I’ve just downed a gallon of iced-tea. It burns like hell.
“I guess that settles that,” I say, looking directly at her.
“I gave you blood. Blood. Gallons of the stuff. I gave you all that you could drink and it has never been enough. I gave you blood. Blood. Blood. I’m the kind of human wreckage that you love.”
With my shower and shave behind me, I now look presentable for the various doctors who see me intermittently throughout the day and night — the doctors I’m now trying to actively convince to allow me to leave the hospital so that I might be able to go home and get some real sleep. I’ve memorized their rounds and make sure that I’m always chipper and alert when they show up at my bedside — typically in small packs — to stare in fascination at their prize monkey. In the moments before they make an appearance, I sit up straight, open my laptop and slip in an episode of Firefly on DVD. I smile wide when I see them. I tell them the truth: I feel surprisingly good — especially for somebody who had brain surgery four days ago.
Across from me, I see the typical lethargic movements of Dead-eye Miguel — his right eye now held open by a piece of surgical tape which secures his eyelid to his brow. Across the top of his head — running from ear-to-ear — is an unbroken line of dull metal staples. Next to him is a newcomer to our little melting pot of brain stew. His name is Mr. Yu. He’s a diminutive Asian man who smiles constantly and doesn’t speak a word of English. His family tends to visit in groups of seventeen at a time, which means that at least twice a day, the secondary neurosurgical-ICU at Cornell Medical Center is transformed into an episode of MXC, complete with the requisite high-pitched squealing and howls of surreal laughter. All that’s missing is a monitor lizard and young girls in bikinis with raw meat taped to their legs.
“You’re going home in the morning,” Nurse Cockripper says as she suddenly appears at my bedside. “Doctor Schwartz just cleared you. We’re moving you to a private room for the night.”
“But I’ll miss happy fun sexy recovery party!” I say with a deliriously exaggerated smile.
She reponds to my obvious sarcasm with a wan smirk and begins unhooking my monitors, eventually leaving only the saline drip which is plugged into my right arm.
“Can I ask you a kind of personal question?” I say as she begins to walk away. She turns around and faces me, putting a hand on her hip like a greasy-spoon waitress who wants to rid herself of a last, loitering customer.
“I couldn’t help but overhear you yesterday, talking to the other nurse about some problem you were having with a guy you were dating — how he didn’t understand your job.” If there’s one thing I have plenty of time to do, it’s listen to what’s going in the world beyond the partially-drawn curtain that separates my bed from the others. I’m not sure how to specifically ask what I want to ask, so I make a quick decision that I should probably just spit it out. “How can you even look at someone in a sexual way?” I say.
Her face softens. Her posture seems to relax.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” I say, sitting up slightly, “you deal with every type of gruesome bodily function there is. You witness every horrid thing the human body can do — and you’re usually the one called on to clean it up. You stand waist deep in death and decay every day. So, how can you possibly leave this place at the end of each shift, go out on a date, watch somebody take off their clothes and put all of this out of your mind? How can you think of the body as something beautiful — something you actually desire?”
Her eyes widen slightly. I’m fully aware that the line is at least a good ten to twelve steps behind me. It feels as if all the ambient sound has been sucked out of the room — the single act of such impertinence creating its own vacuum. She tilts her head slightly — her hand reaching up to reassuringly touch the ends of the long blonde hair which rests gently on her chest. She hesitates, then speaks.
“It’s capable of all that awfulness — it can break down completely — and then it can heal itself. It’s the most incredible machine there is. You don’t think that’s beautiful?”
Sufficiently put in my place, I smile.
As if on cue, there’s the squealing sound of sneakers on tile — the chaotic tromp of young feet across the hospital floor. I look past the nurse to see two children — a boy and girl — plow into the ward with unruly abandon. “Papa! Papa!” they shout as they make a bee-line for Miguel’s bed, jumping onto it and wrapping their arms around their father from either side. It’s now that I notice that Miguel is wearing a dark, pirate-style patch over his uncooperative right eye and an oversized Yankees hat on his head to cover the grisly row of staples. He moves slowly and carefully — his reaction to the presence of his children delayed by several seconds. It seems to take an eternity for him to fully comprehend that he’s at the center of an epic group bear-hug.
Finally, a weak and sluggish smile spreads across his face. He says something in Spanish. His words are a slurred jumble.
A woman about Miguel’s age comes into view and takes her place at his bedside, pulling up a small chair. After a moment, he turns to her — acknowledging the loving touch she gives his hand.
“What happened to him?” I ask without taking my gaze away from the strange and heartbreaking sight directly across from my bed.
“He had a brain tumor,” I hear the nurse say. “The same kind you had.”
I immediately turn my head and face the young nurse, looking at her with an intensity I wasn’t sure I was capable of right now.
She says nothing.
I say nothing.
A few feet away, Miguel’s little children laugh for reasons all their own.
The next morning, I’m released from the hospital. I walk through the revolving door and out into a brisk morning in Mahnattan. I look up to see the sunlight being split apart by the fresh spring blossoms as they begin to adorn the trees along the street.
I close my eyes and take long deep breaths.