Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I Was Only Dancing: Personal History by Way of Injury

I was Only Dancing
Personal history by way of injuries

I am in terrible shape for a 25-year old.

In the attic of my parents’ house is a photograph of me. I am about 5 years old with blonde hair. I am in my underwear standing on the back porch of our old yellow house in Queens. It’s a sunny day and my left hand is slightly raised to block the glare. Or maybe I am waving, or preparing to catch something. In order to take the picture my father must have been up against the fence in the back yard. I have memories of standing there. Though it’s more like a memory of a point of view. I look at that photo and remember that I once stood in that place, looking in that direction. In one of the memories I throw a ball behind the garage. I hear bees swarming and one of them comes out and stings me on the neck. In the other memory it is my father who throws the ball to me, trying to photograph me catching it. Only I don’t see the ball and it hits me directly in the eye. I think that this photo must have been taken immediately prior to one of these memories. It is the only evidence I have that either one actually happened.

I broke the ring finger on my left hand when I was about 7 years old. I was getting into my mothers’ green Volvo station wagon – olive green – and somehow the closed the door on my finger. I have this image of my skinny yellow finger squashed in the seam between the door and body of the car. I don’t remember screaming. Our neighbor across the street was a nurse. She had ice and Popsicle stick splints. Eventually I got one of those U-shaped metal braces lined with blue foam.

I broke the fingers on my right hand the summer before 8th grade. It was the last day of the summer before school started. I was riding my bike home from a friend’s house jumping off the ramps made by the edges of driveways. After I had ridden down the entire block and jumped about 20 driveways I started to cut through a parking lot. It was then that the chain of the bicycle came off the gear. The bike stopped dead and I went head over handlebars. My wrist and three fingers on my right hand were swollen black and purple like an eggplant. My father said put some ice on it - it was just jammed. The doctor in the emergency room said X-rays showed fractures of my thumb and ring fingers and several snapped tendons. I was in a cast for about 6 weeks. In school I would give the kid next to me carbon paper in order to copy class notes. But after a while I stopped taking the notes at all. On tests and homework assignments teachers would always comment on my handwriting – “is this because of your hand?” It wasn’t. Despite the cast I still managed to jerk off. It was a little painful but my hand was almost numb which made it feel like someone else.

I tore my ACL apart playing basketball one summer afternoon. We always played in the street with one of those portable hoops. We would drag it to the 5-way intersection where the town changed from Nassau to Queens. We watched as the respective police officers would come to either end of the block and make a u-turn at the limits of their jurisdiction. Years later we decided that this was also an ideal place to smoke pot. The games were three-on-three and we played a modified version of the triangle offense, which was wining championships in Chicago and making Phil Jackson look like a genius. Although with the two best players in the game on your team the idea of having a particular offensive strategy seemed unnecessary. I was running toward the basket at full speed toward the pass that I knew my teammate would be rifling across the key. The pass was a step too far away and was thrown a bit too hard.

Lunging with my left leg, extending my left hand, the ball hitting my palm and my foot hitting the asphalt simultaneously. Sliding on the remnants of dirty sand deposited during the winter. Watching my thigh extend over my calf and then snap back. I don’t feel the so-called ‘pop’ that many people experience. My leg is limp like half cooked spaghetti. It feels like it is bleeding. I keep looking down and rubbing it but there is no blood. I continue to play for a few minutes; the game is to 21. I will ice it down when I get home.

A lump half the size of my fist swelled up on the left side of my kneecap. It was squishy. I would flex my knee and see how far I could push a pin into this distension. I wanted to pop it and squeeze the fluid out. I complained, but after a few days of ice the swelling went away. My knee always hurt but it wasn’t a shattering pain it was a dull throb. The kind you are told you can deal with. The kind that coaches say to walk off and the kind that you feel a little embarrassed bemoaning. It hurt, but the injury wasn’t obvious. A broken arm, a black eye, a gunshot wound. Those were things no one could argue with.

It only hurt when I stood. Somehow this was a rationalization for not seeing a doctor. I had the image of my femur and tibia sitting directly on top of on another; knocking about like a skeleton in a Laurel and Hardy film.

I called the doctor. It took two weeks for an appointment. He looked at me for five minutes and told me to get an MRI. It took two weeks to get an MRI appointment. It took two weeks for the MRI results to come back. It took two weeks to get another appointment with my doctor to review the MRI results. But after 8 weeks the swelling had gone down and I figured if it were anything really bad the doctor would call me.

At some point after that I would have my first surgery. I had something of a post-nasal drip that apparently caused me to huff when I was just breathing. This bothered no one so much as my mother. At first we thought the culprit was an excess of phlegm induced by drinking too much milk. We had a doctor in Hollis Hills. Dr. Gary had a voice that must have been the inspiration for every nasaly Jewish voice imitation ever. He told us that he had attended a conference addressing the milk/phlegm production phenomenon and they had concluded that there was no meaningful correlation.

I went to several specialists until one of them told us that I had adenoids the size of golf balls and they should come out. And as long as we were going to do the adenoids the tonsils should come out too. Or maybe it was the other way around. I found it impressive that I had two of anything the size of golf balls somewhere in my head. I saw nothing strange in my requests to have my excised glands saved and jarred.

Tonsil and adenoid surgery is the best diet you can find. My throat was dry for weeks with that feeling of having fallen asleep in front of a fan. Eating only pastina and sugar free J-ello, I lost about twenty pounds. I was out of school for a few days, which meant that I had to produce a doctor’s note. My family was always lackadaisical about such things and so I did not have one. The morning I returned to school my mother wrote a note on a greeting card picturing a bunny carrying a wicker basket, asking the principal to excuse my absences. Later that day when I was called into the principal’s office I knew he would be waving that card. He told me to open my mouth, which I did. He said this was the silliest doctors note he had ever seen but since there was actual physical evidence of my ailment I was excused from detention.

One night I became Lactose intolerant. I don’t know how else to explain it because I drank milk constantly. I had cereal every day, a glass of milk with cookies at night, chocolate milk as a snack. But one night my mother made macaroni and cheese and I became violently sick. I refused to believe that it could be true but a few days later a plate of penne alla vodka had the same result. For a little while I would use the Lactaid tabs whenever I wanted to eat some delicious dairy product, but the pills were expensive and I always forgot. Now I just eat very little dairy and I’ve learned to like the floury taste of soy-milk

A few years later I went to some chain restaurant for dinner with my girlfriend. I got coconut shrimp and rice. I don’t know why because I never eat shrimp and now I have an even greater aversion to them. My girlfriend and I never really talked much. We would sit silently the car, eat silently at dinner, of course we were silent at the movies, then go back to her apartment and because her parents were in the next room, silently make out for a few hours. She never said that she didn’t want to make out.

The rice seemed insufficiently cooked, and I woke up the next morning with an awful stomachache. I drank a glass of orange juice and threw up. It was painful enough that I was able to convince my mother that I did not need to go to school that day, which was a moot point because I was in college and I was not going anyway; refusing to attend as a point of adolescent rebellion. Later that night my mother made me tea, which I promptly vomited. In addition to my complaints of pain, manifested in a facial expression that felt like I was twisting my eyes and mouth in opposite directions, and a mild fever, if I had thrown up tea I must really have been sick. She called the doctor who said: “He has appendicitis, bring him to the hospital; you want it should burst inside him?” At the hospital the doctors could supposedly tell that I did not have appendicitis because I was walking. Several interns got to place their fingers up my ass and I was X-Rayed. The doctor placed the X-ray on the lighting board and asked when the last time I had a bowel movement. Who keeps track of that? Pointing at the mass of gray clouds on the X-ray, he explained that I was merely severely constipated. My father had figured that this was so because I was so fat. On the way home we stopped to buy a Fleet enema. There were a couple more mentions of how if I weren’t so fat and how much do you have to eat. The amount of cloudy refuse in the X-ray proved their point, even I was amazed - there seemed to be at least a foot of it. It would surely be an epic shit when it happened. But the enema did nothing and I spent the night breathing shallowly and groaning slightly. My mother called my doctor again in the morning. “What, tell them he as appendicitis he has appendicitis it’s easy oy vey”

We went back to the hospital. Dr Gary had called ahead so they knew that I had appendicitis when I walked in. They pulled the X-ray from the night before. Look at that, of course you have appendicitis they said, this time though the blockage was on the right side of my body. Last night the doctor had been holding the X-ray front to back, so the sides were reversed. Far from being constipated, my enlarged appendix was pinching the large intestine and preventing that foot and a half of shit from moving. I spent three nights in the hospital. Luckily Dr. Gary was a pediatrician, which meant they had to give me a certain amount of recovery time, and I got to stay in a nice room with video games, brightly painted walls, and a 6 year old with bronchitis. The problem was that they kept pumping me full of glucose or something that made my pee smell like I was on a steady diet of asparagus. Being unable to walk to the bathroom due to the 3-inch slice in my abdomen, I would try to line up the bottle hanging over my bed with my penis and piss into it, always missing the first and last few drops. So when my girlfriend and her friend came to visit there was a really undesirable smell hanging around, which I think is why they stayed pressed up against the wall the entire time. Her friend wore a shirt that was barely there, and though I knew I was not supposed to, in such a state I could not prevent myself from staring and being too distracted to converse with my girlfriend.
That was pretty much the end of that.

A few years later, again playing basketball, this time in a gym in Brooklyn, I tried to take a charge and fell back and twisted, this time I heard a grinding tearing sound as I went to the ground. Again I limped around for a few days and went back to the normal constant throbbing.

So I knew that things were not good. But at this point I was only marginally employed and did not have the benefit of health insurance. I figured that any problem would cost me a lot more money than I had. I was also concerned that it would be considered a pre-existing condition. I really had no idea what this meant but I had heard the same insurance horror stories that everyone else has and figured that no one would be eager to pay for my care.

About a year later I began attending NYU, and as a full time student the university insurance plan only cost about $1,000 a year. So I had insurance but no real impulse to go the doctor. I felt that I needed another instigating incident.

During my junior year at NYU I developed a floater. It’s as though a comma became unstuck from the page and got lodged in my left eye. At first it was omnipresent. Sometimes it followed my eye along the page just like Max Fleischer’s bouncing ball. Other times it would reach the end of the line and bounce back like an old auto return typewriter. Now I barely see it. But if my mind could learn to ignore that what else is it ignoring?

In the summer before my senior year I was playing softball with my company team and was simply running to field a ground ball when my leg gave out from under me. For the next few days I could barely put any pressure on the knee. I went back to the same doctor I had seen after the first basketball injury. “You need ACL surgery,” he told me. “Why didn’t you ever come back?”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me that I needed surgery?”

After an additional MRI it was determined that my ACL had completely dissolved. I had snapped it during that first basketball accident and the natural juices of my knee had been eating it away ever since. I also had a bucket-handle tear of the lateral meniscus. That would explain the feeling of my bones grinding together.

I arrived at the hospital at 8 a.m. on the morning of November 3, 2004. The results of the election were not yet official, but I had a bad feeling. I was given an epidural for the surgery – I wanted to stay awake. My ACL was going to be replaced with a ligament from a cadaver. I though this was really cool. The anesthesiologist administered some sort of drug that would induce sleep for about an hour at a time. I was awake for about half of the surgery. I felt like I had four legs. I could feel my legs laid out on the table - straight and side-by-side. The problem was that even though I could feel that my legs were in one position I could see that they were elsewhere. My right leg was bent and pushed to the side so that it was hanging off the table. My left leg was straight and raised at a steep angle so the surgeons could more easily access it. I was aware of these limbs as well. I could feel the vibrations of scalpels and retractors inside my knee, but in my mind I was still flexing the toes on the invisible leg that was still flat on the table. Visualizing my leg hanging off the table must have caused my brain to manufacture the sensation of my leg hanging in air, yet I was still somehow connected to the phantom limb on the table.

This was confusing and exhausting, and I asked to sleep for a while. I blinked in and out of consciousness for a few hours. I blinked and someone said, “We’re almost done; do you want to go back to sleep?” “No.” I wanted to remember as much of this as possible.
Someone entered the room and reported the results of the election, “We have a new president…” I sat up. “No, actually Kerry just conceded” I laid back down, tilted my head so I was looking behind me, “Put me under.”

One night in July I was hanging out in a Soho bar with a group of friends. They were discussing the Motherfucker party, which was going to take place on July 3rd – a pre-Independence Day Freak-Out. I briefly considered going though I felt that it was one of those things that you talk about but never actually do. Something about the reports of rampant nudity and swinging was a little too libidinous for my puritanical upbringing. So I made a simple off the cuff remark that I should go as Uncle Sam and point at people while shouting, “I Want You on the Dance Floor Mother Fucker.” My friends rejoiced at this. The next day several of them called me at 3 a.m. to inform me that I was in fact going to the party as Uncle Sam.

On the day of the party I left work early, bought a pre-made Uncle Sam costume at a store in Manhattan, and took it to a friend’s house in Brooklyn for customization. I decided that my character would be “Bizarro Uncle Sam.” This character would embody the exact opposite of what the character usually embodies, though in this case the Bizarro Uncle Sam is actually the “real” Uncle Sam, if you want to get idealistic about it.

I applied all the standard modes of rebellion. Slashed the pants and jacket, applied a large anarchists’ “A” to the back of the coat, painted black stars all over the place, and wrote phrases like “100% pure Iraqi blood” in the red stripes.

One friend represented Freedom of Speech. A white star painted on a blue sock stretched around his right shoulder. A red shirt ripped up with singed bits of white t-shirt underneath. Left hand wrapped in white and conceivably bloodied bandage. Another friend was a sort of all-purpose disco patriot. An old red white and blue polo shirt with stars painted and slogans scrawled. Glasses worthy of Elton John, red white and blue fish tank gravel crazy glued to the frames. A third friend wore the skimpiest of shorts and a skin colored bra slightly covered by a star spangled bow.

At some point when the DJ mixed between Bowies’ “John I’m only Dancing” and Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses” I stepped into the exact wrong area of sound wave convergence. The dissonance blared like a thousand snapping steel cables. And injected into my ear the sonic burst that frayed bundles of nerves.
It is a common occurrence after a party or a concert. On the subway home your legs bounce and feet tap reflexively Your ears still hear the echo of the music a million nerve endings so accustomed to the reception of noise they seem to be making up their own. And there is always the faint high- pitched ringing, steady and monotone. It’s your favorite note of the song. It’s the sentence that you didn’t quite hear when someone placed their lips to your ear. It’s the barely audible unintelligible record of the night. And from what the doctors tell me I will be forever hearing this subliminal message left over from that night.