Chapter 27 / 2009
I Take the Fall.
My jaw stops throbbing on a Friday afternoon in late April.
Once again, I lounge like a Chekhov heroine on a hard and oddly contoured examining chair in the Orofacial Pain Clinic at UCLA.
“He had my mouth pried open for four hours, my jaw has never been the same,” I say to the three sets of goggle covered eyes looking down on me.
“That’s not true,” the dental student whispers. “That never happened.”
I open my “Frans Lanting Taschen Diary” to Thursday 9 October 2008.
“Four hour appointment at UCLA,” I read to the eyes.
The dental student tightens the straps of his goggles, where they meet at the back of his head.
“Why would I write this if it wasn’t true?” I ask the doctor.
Doc is tan, not the spray on routine, his is the real deal, his skin darkened from playing early morning tennis on the dew covered courts of Brentwood, his middle-aged muscles toned from laps swum in shimmering blue pools, his close cropped silver hair receding a bit at his temples.
“Why do you write all these details down?” Doc asks.
“I’m a writer, it’s about the details…they tell the tale.”
A literary fellow, Doc and I proceed to discuss “Shantaram.”
The dental student’s eyelids flutter like a silent movie heroine tied to the railroad tracks. Unlucky man, his deep blue eyes could not possibly read Gregory David Roberts’ words with this action going on.
“We’ve repeatedly told you not to keep your patients in the chair that long,” Doc says to the quivering dental student.
“I’ve been telling him all along how bad it is,” I say. “He left me hanging like this for the last six weeks.”
“I scheduled an appointment as soon as I heard,” the deep voice of the student’s supervising doctor says.
“That is a lie,” I say.
The three flourescent bulbs in the fixture above me wink their approval.
“I talked to you about this weeks ago,” I tell the supervising doctor. “You told me that no one could work on me until the pain stopped. And you expect me to pay for this appointment? It’s over three hundred dollars.”
The heaviness in the supervising doctor’s Eastern European shoulders pulls her down the way the concrete does when I drive home from work.
“Two hours in the chair tops,” Doc says to the dental student. “But four…four hours? What were you thinking?”
Odd, the dental student cannot open his mouth and flash his pearly whites.
Doc shoots lidocaine beneath both sides of my jaw, his strong hands milking my neck and massaging the masseter muscles on the sides of my face as the cold anesthetic eats through the pain.
Doc walks slowly around the examining chair, stopping to stare down at the dental student where he has planted his ass on the green vinyl of a round examining stool.
The dental student stands up, the yellow legal pad, on whose pages he has written down every word I spoke, falling to the floor. For a second, his carotids throb against his pale white skin, he moves to the other side of the cubicle, the unsteadiness of his body making me think he is about to crash head first onto the shining blue tiles of the floor.
At last. The dental student knows what pain is.
Doc hands me a can of Gebauer’s Ethyl Chloride, his clipped voice saying: “Do the mouth exercises I showed you. Use this spray at the slightest twinge of pain.”
“You the man,” I respond.
“You’ll be sure to take care of Mr. Epstine’s bill?” Doc asks his colleague.
My jaw never hurts after that spring afternoon.
I had forgotten about mandibular pain in a day, until three weeks later, when I find myself sitting in the circle of Gay Seniors at our weekly Friday support group meeting at the Gay & Lesbian Center.
That’s right, I am a senior now, my seen it all brown eyes looking unblinkingly at hitting fifty-seven with a wealth of senior maladies, twisted gut, swollen balls, roller coaster blood pressure and a twenty-three-year-old fuck buddy who smiles deviously when he calls me his “Go-to mouth.”
Don’t knock it lucky man, these are the only liquid assets you’ve got.
The fuck bud is gay, which limits our dialogue to his endless interrogations about why I have not dyed my greying temples, interrupted occasionally by his Blanche DuBois like reveries about the enormity of my balls.
“How’s your week been?” our group facilitator asks me.
I pull out my can of Ethyl Chloride and massage its cold comfort into my neck.
My pain free jaw wants to move, I want to talk about the pain running through my balls, the rebellion of my gut, about the fear eating into my skin whenever the sun of the City of the Angels hits it, about the terror pinching my fingertips as they long to curl around a drink for the first time in nineteen years.
I had told these old men my tale the day I entered their circle.
They smiled. They nodded their heads.
“Things will turn around,” their mouths said. “It will get better.”
They then launched into monologues about reverse mortgages, trips to Machu Picchu and the hot waiters at the new restaurant on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz.
Who can I tell my troubles to?
My man is gone, my friends are dead.
The odor of Ethyl Chloride hovers over the red carpeted room.
“I was late this morning because I was having sex with my buddy,” I tell the group.
The seniors lap it up the way Sunset’s pink tongue devours her hairball medication when I sprinkle catnip on it.
That evening, my masseters no longer fearful of the tsuris chewing a salted peanut can visit upon my jaw, I sit ten feet from a stage on which Alan Turing stutters and stammers through his life in “Breaking the Code,” the spastic jerking of Turing’s body hitting me like the notes my father blew out of his trumpet on Saturday afternoons in the den of our Long Island tract house.
I am as lost as my patient is when his tiny body stands in front of his sixty inch television screen, his black eyes mesmerized by the over saturated blues and reds swirling before them. The stage which holds my gaze is situated in the back of a narrow store converted into a theater, located in the dead center of, of all places, a strip mall in North Hollywood. The lucky plus one of my play reviewing bud Steven, my senior and his middle-aged eyes cannot break free of the web actor Sam R. Ross has spun, his lungs gobbling up the air of English refinement, his blood beating with the intricacies of Turning’s heart, Ross’s awkward moves pulling us into this tormented soul.
“That’s what artists do,” my father whispers into my ear.
Ross’s fingers curl into the palms of the man he has become, a English mathematician who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma Machine before life turned a 180 and shattered him to the bone. Ross’s feet leave earth the moment he hits the stage, his cracking voice expounding on mathematical theories, his skin feeling forever the loss of his teenage love, his throat unable to understand the impact his words have as he spits his truth out of a body so consumed by science and mathematics that only the presence of a lover can steady him, can allow him to be happy when his feet stand on earth.
I breathe in and out with the audience in the tiny room giving witness to this tale, my hands move to my mouth with the audience’s fear when Turing holds up an apple laced with cyanide, tears fall from our eyes as we applaud the cast, everyone in the room knowing that, even in a Valley strip mall, whose tenants are a Karate school and a donut shop, saying the wrong thing to the wrong person can bring any one of us to the moment when we must gladly take the poison.
For the first time since I sat in the Frolic Room weeks ago, my fingertips do not want to embrace a drink, instead they curl in toward my palms, patiently waiting for 1 AM, when the lost boy sleeps and I can pound my tale into the keyboard.
I am a writer after all, a lucky man whose father taught him about flying.
Every Saturday afternoon, Father practiced his trumpet, first polishing its golden body for ten minutes before his thick fingers dropped the needle on a Louis Armstrong record, Father’s lips breathing into the horn, he and Armstrong pushing the same notes into the air. Father could play every one of his idol’s songs, his face puffed up and as red as my 69 Chevy Malibu, the notes bouncing against the brown wood paneling of our den, wailing up along the stairs, floating into the tiny attic above the living room, as the record spun at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.
“That’s what artists do,” Father said. “They make you feel like you’re flying. That’s their gift.”
“This Armstrong guy, he’s like singing ‘Hello Dolly’ with Barbra Streisand…that’s your hero?”
Father laughed, his brown eyes watching as I carefully slipped the shiny black discs into their white paper sleeves, Satchmo’s eyes looked up to the sky from the discs’ cardboard covers, his trumpet pointing its yellow metal fingers at me.
“People aren’t always what they seem,” Father said. “You have to look behind their eyes to see what’s there. Your real friends are going to do that with you.”
“Did you ever fly?” I asked.
Father sat next to me, tapping my head with his fist, touching me so softly I could barely feel the strength of his hands on me.
“You know I can never hit you,” Father said. “I was a boxer, my fists are lethal weapons.”
“Yeah…that’s when you were Little Izzy…when you boxed so you and Grandma could have a place to live.”
“Sometimes you have to, you have to hit back. I flew every time I was in the ring. I knew it was wrong to beat on men, but I could see where they were weak. I got to them, I knew where to hit them. I just knew. The crowd screamed for me to go after them, that’s how I flew. My feet weren’t in the ring. Not ever. Listening to Satchmo is like flying, but it’s not the same. I’ve been lifted off the earth, I know what it is to live in the sky.”
Father laid his trumpet on the thick purple velvet lining of its dull black case, his fingers gently securing the case’s leather straps around his flying machine.
“You’ll find what makes you fly. But your time in the sky never lasts long. No one’s does.”
The lost boy sleeps a few feet from me, his Grandma Zsa Zsa snores on a mattress on the floor. Mother and Dad stagger into the kitchen every hour or so for a belt of Coke or a handful of Doritos. The vent rhythmically pushes air in and out of its guts, the G tube belches when it feels the need to let off steam.
Everyone sleeps but me.
The notes Ross blew out over my skin a few hours earlier fall off of my fingertips onto the blue elephants running across the green carpet which has miraculously reappeared beneath my feet.
It is time to pick up the horn and blow my way out of this cage.
I take the fall ten days later.
I arrive at work to discover Mother has taken a powder and hit the sheets early.
I wipe down the Ikea folding table and, after placing a Target plastic bag in the wastepaper basket with the world-weary expertise of the German caretaker, I move it as far away from my nose as possible. I clean off the crust clinging to the top of the stove, wash the dishes abandoned in the sink, cover the rectangular basin on the floor and stack the tabloids on the kitchen table in neat piles. Like Dad’s head after a few brewskis, the picture on the television screen bounces spastically. Having checked to make sure Mother is asleep, I exercise the lost boy’s legs as he smiles and stares into the emptiness of his palms. He watches two episodes of “Policewoman” before his thick eyelashes pull his upper lids down for the night.
As I have for my last eight shifts, I breathe in Ross’s notes and watch my words run across the white pages in the center of my computer screen, my fingers punching my tale into the keyboard.
“I’m going to the airport to pick up a friend,” Dad says at 4 AM.
The lost boy’s eyes move beneath his closed eyelids. The infusion machine whines as it pushes the thick brown feed into the G tube, the red LED lights of the vent flash a thumbs-up.
“Who changed that string?” Dad asks.
“I did two weeks ago…it was coming apart.”
“And the oxygen tank? You moved it by his crib?”
“You know how I am…I like to rearrange.”
“You should clear it with the missus before you do that kind of shit.”
Gotcha, Big Boy.
This explains Mother’s recent pained silences, her going to bed early, before the evening’s reality shows break the silence of their tawdry tales.
Dad’s eyes glance at the table next to the inhospitable chair I sit on, my nursing notes, complete except for my last entry, stare back at him, wanting only Mother’s John Hancock before I head out through the morning mist to Beachwood Canyon. My supplies for the last respiratory treatment of the shift laid are out on a white paper towel, five alcohol wipes wait for my fingers to clean the G tube after it has forced the last of the gooey nutrients into the boy’s belly.
Mika babbles silently on the ever moving screen a few feet away, the elephants, who watch over the boy and I, never once daring to get within spitting distance of her wrath, which this morning opened the show with a full-out wail about the nuclear tests North Korea has allegedly carried out. My flying fingers silenced Mika, leaving my eyes to alternate between the words tearing across the screen and the lost boy’s chest as the breathing of the vent moves it up and down.
“Quite the setup you have here,” Dad says. “You write all night, rehearse your plays, you…”
“What time will you be back?” I ask Dad.
“I’m going down to LAX, who knows?”
The lost boy sleeps.
I change the boy’s diaper, straighten his sheets, put a soft pillow under his head, my ears ignoring the false alarm of the vent as I clean his trach. I sit yoga still on one of the filthy round throw rugs, not wanting to stand up and feel the walls of the lost boy’s cubbyhole closing in on me, imagining every morning at 4:30 AM that if there is an earthquake, the chest of drawers next to me will explode out onto his crib.
My eyes look out through the iron mesh door, as they have done every early morning for the past eight months, searching for the shadows who throw the broken furniture into the street. A chair, sliced straight in half, lies beside the blue handicapped painted curb, which Dad has peeled away from a mere fifteen minutes ago.
How does this happen?
Same way I sat for years in my spot at the Frolic Room, on a wobbly barstool toward the back, where my eyes watched the comings and goings of the only people in the City of the Angels I have ever been truly comfortable with, my throat hungering for the sting of an Absolut Cranberry to soak into me.
And then another to lift me up off the bar stool.
Another to take me to the sky.
I am flying, but down, down fast towards the eyes of the elephants, to the snicker on Joe Scarborough’s lips.
My body cannot find its center, my left foot is wedged beneath the base of the vent, the LED lights smile at me to grab hold, but if I do the vent will crash to the floor, yanking the trach out of the lost boy’s throat, the vent breaking in half and shattering, the G tube crashing down on me, ripping out the tube sewn into the boy’s gut.
There is no backup vent. I will hurt the boy if I grab on to the smile an inch from my left hand.
I take the fall.
My arms spread out, my opened palms hit the floor with a dull crack, shards of ice cold pain pulse through my body, I shiver against it, my gut heaving to vomit out the bowl of rice I ate for dinner, banging inside me with the tingle of misshapen ice cubes.
I am damp with sweat. My back lies on the carpet. My eyes look up to the ceiling, it is surprisingly clean, but then again the only light in the room is that of “Morning Joe’s” nastiness. The cold stabs into my shoulders, hustling its way down to my fingertips, so cold with the ice beating beneath my fingernails I cannot breathe, my left calf throbbing with blasts of razor edged pain so intense, my kneecap will pop out if I try to stand.
The vent rhythmically pushes air in and out of its guts, the G tube belches angrily, the lost boy sleeps beneath the string pulled to a tight straight line above him, Mika and Joe jerk against the television screen. I look out through the iron mesh door, the dirt in front of the house is wet and grey.
A white plastic toilet seat is in the middle of the street.
“Have you been sitting in that chair the whole time?” Dad asks.
In his right hand is a small brown paper bag, sans the grease stains all of the other bags he carries into this cage have.
“I fell and hurt my leg. I tripped over the wires under the rug.”
“How did that happen?”
“There’s no backup vent, that was all I had to break my fall.”
“Maybe He Who Must Be Obeyed will give us one when he forces his healthcare plan down our throats.”
Dad opens the fridge and pops a lager.
Back and forth to LAX in under an hour?
As per jammies clad Mother, her sleeping son is left tethered to the vent as I limp out the door, my Docs snake around the bathroom accoutrements scattered about on the pock mocked street.
The icy numbness in my fingers telling my body this gig is finito, I have left my “Policewoman” DVDs on the nightstand next to the crib.
I hightail it back to Hollywood, knowing that with Angie to guide him, the lost boy is bound to get lucky.