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It didn’t hit him until he got on the plane to go home. What had been a dull ache, a sort of friendly gnawing, as if an anxious little animal had taken up residence in his gut, twisted and morphed, hatched into something wicked, something that wrapped itself around his intestines and gave a cruel twist. It unmoored him, pushed him out from icy shores onto midnight blue seas, and then as soon as he adjusted to the ocean’s rocking, upon his creaky bow landed a dozen flaming arrows, setting his little ship ablaze.
His seatmate saw only a quiet gentleman sitting stiff and upright in his aisle seat, staring straight ahead, graying hair shifting just slightly as he turned and politely refused a beverage.
By the time the drink cart rattled on he had become separated from himself, watching from above his wracked journey. As the plane hurtled through the sky, sun glinting off dirty wings six miles up, catapulting him west in parabolic agony against the Earth’s rotation, he settled into a dissociative melancholy. When finally he stepped outside the terminal, blinking back Los Angeles sun, it seemed like the worst had passed.
And for 33 days it looked like it had. He settled easily back into his routine, waking up at 5:43, grinding two spoonfuls of coffee beans in four three-second bursts, hovering over his little Italian espresso pot and watching the golden brown liquid trickle for 21 seconds before dunking the base in cold water. He still smelled deeply before the first sip, and sighed after. The leather on his steering wheel felt the same on his palms, his desk chair still exhaled when he sat, his office phone rang in the same three-tone chime from the same northeast corner of his desk, and in its bottom right drawer the little bottle of shit rye whispered in his ear as it always had.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
Somewhere inside him there was something out of the ordinary, though whether something added or something subtracted was an open question. He felt like he had never descended from that flight, like a crucial part of him was still winging its way around the Earth at thousands of miles per hour, fighting gravity and time and nature, and he had been walking around with something else in its place, something hollow like the skeleton of a bird.
He floated for weeks in amniotic complacency, content to press through his chores, anchored by routine and an ascetic dedication to the bit of earth immediately in front of his toes. He saw the world as through a pinhole camera, and was able to engage with it as such. It suited him, and the vacuum in his abdomen inhaled no further.
Until one day.
He walked under textureless grey sky past squat little shops, a café with apartments on top, a menagerie of youth spread out across rickety tables. Next to the café was a parking lot, mostly empty at this point in the afternoon. In the parking lot was a man, light-skinned Latino in a blue ballcap, the parking lot attendant. The man picked up a full bucket, took a few steps towards the sidewalk, spilled its contents onto the ground. He went back to his stand, grabbed a large push broom, and began to sweep. The rough bristles scraped across jagged asphalt, picking up abandoned dime bags and soda cans, a banana peel and a dented tub of something awful. The smell was suddenly overwhelming, rotting food and crumbling cardboard and automotive runoff coated in noxious faux-lavender cleaning solution.
But it wasn’t the smell that buckled his knees; it was the sound. The scratching of the broom across rough parking lot concrete hit him with a staggering wallop both excruciating and familiar, and then he was spiralling back into agony. He was six years old and alone on the curb at his elementary school, the clamour of other children fading into the distance with the school bus, a rapidly dissipating wisp of black smoke and kids’ voices trailing behind it as it chugged down the hill and around the corner, his lunchbox and his purple sweatshirt flung by bigger kids over the fence into the neighbouring yard, irretrievable. There was no silver station wagon there for him, no sky blue SUV. He tipped backwards onto the sidewalk, bereft and deserted on top of a web of old gum and crude graffiti. Behind him in the yard the janitor pushed a broom across filthy pavement. He wept.
He was standing on a basketball court, 13 years old, holding his saxophone in a minor state of shock. She walked quickly in the other direction, her long black hair just reaching the hem of her white polo shirt. A man dragged a broom back and forth under the nearest basket, and empty Hot Cheeto bags pirouetted in the dust. He had said no, too scared to say anything else, constitutionally incapable of pushing out the thing he so badly wanted to say – yes, yes, yes, I want to go out – and already he felt the iron-grip anguish of regret kneading his chest cavity. He turned toward the chain link fence that separated school from street, three courts distant. She and her friends would boo and holler from the orchestra pit as he crossed the stage at graduation the next week. This time he made it home before the tears came.
That particular grief yanked him forward again, and the smell of coconut oil and sunscreen surrounded him. He was sitting on a patch of foreign grass in a quiet jungle, perched on the edge of a little pond cut out of jagged rock. Her hips swished as she walked towards him, smiling. He knew she was doing it on purpose, who would ever walk like that otherwise, but that did not deaden the impact. He was caught, snared on the graceful slope of her jaw, wrapped around her bikini like the strings tied into a showy little bow on each hip. It was cruel, really, the length of her, slender calves flexed as she tiptoed through the grass, her smile, sweet with the faintest trace of wry. He looked up at her, made eye contact, smiled back, blasted through his brain at light speed, reaching, grabbing, hands scraping at loose stones as he slid backwards, desperate for any purchase, anything interesting he had ever done, seen, thought, god, jesus, fuck, anything at all to say to her, to buy one fragment of one more second in the white-hot radiation of her gaze. He opened his mouth, desperately willing his terracotta tongue to twist his breath into clever shapes, into pointed vibrations, but what he got was a crack and a dull burble, a familiar whimper. She glided past, joined her group of Aussie friends, and he collapsed backwards, wrung out by failure and desire. He held his tears, flat on the outside, but in the pit of his stomach a lake of acid turned to a boil.
He found himself on one knee on the street corner, 61 again and casually waving his hand at gawking passersby, telling the kind-enough girl in her vintage dress and ballet flats that he was fine, that he just needed a second, that she could go on her way. And thank you.
He stood up, drained. He was wholly himself again, but somehow his whole meant less than before.
How fast does a man shrink, and why? He decided it was time to see the Doctor.
He left the windows up on his drive even though it was a beautiful day. He liked the cold air blowing gently, conditioned. It was easier to appreciate the blue sky from the other side of shatterproof glass.
He crawled west over pockmarked streets past stores with bigger and bigger dreams. Liquor marts and laundromats and bright orange taquerias melted into the neon swirls and perfumed smoke of Koreatown which sharpened focus into mammoth estates and elfin boutiques in Hancock Park which sloped gracefully down into the jumbled curls of Hasidic Fairfax before crashing roughly against the walls of the Beverly Center, surrounded on all sides by a gridlocked moat of asphalt. He skirted it gingerly. The doctor was just beyond.
He parked in the lot and waited a long time for the elevator. He rode to the 8th floor alone. The doctor’s office was like every other, magazines and hotel art and gas station plexiglass window with tattered clipboard and pen attached by fraying white string, fat Latina woman talking loudly on her cell phone in the armchair by the door. The grisly texture of the clipboard nearly dislodged his fragile peace, its chapped cardboard and peeling laminate rubbing rough against his thigh and fingertips as he fumbled with his ID, wrote out his social security number, catalogued his allergies, focusing hard on the details to hold onto what was left of his brain’s dull thrumming. He was right to be there.
He sat on the tall exam bench instead of the short plastic chair while he waited in the office. He parted the tightly shut blinds to look at the roof of the adjoined parking garage. He counted four luxury SUVs, three hybrid sedans, two ‘90s era Civics, and then there was a knock on the door. He allowed the blinds to close as he turned.
The nurse came in, measured and classified each little piece of him. She attempted to contextualize out loud the numbers she jotted down, this seems normal and that feels about where it should be, this is in the 72nd percentile and that is in the proper range considering your height, weight, and age. It was empty babbling, filling his head with knowledge he didn’t need, forcing him to consider not only his own incredible frailty and the spectacularly complex systems required just to keep him upright but also his precise shape and standing in comparison to every single other being, here in this room, in this building, in this city, and in every place he had ever been, every other place he wanted to be, every other person he…. He became keenly aware of his beating heart, felt it reverberating throughout his body, pounding faster, faster, and then the nurse was done, gone.
He paced the room for a minute, shaking his head, picking out little pieces of the posters on the wall and reading them over and over, focusing on shapes, slowly allowing the shapes to be letters, letters to form words, words to form phrases. His heartbeat slowed, faded, and was gone.
The doctor came in with a practiced smile. He was older, late sixties and shiny bald on the top of his head. He had a jumble of gray hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck and he wore an all blue suit of scrubs instead of a white coat. He was full of energy, bouncing in and grabbing the manila folder in which the nurse had left her notes. He spoke sharply, in clipped little fragments as they chatted for a minute, hollow air pinging between them, and then the doctor asked why he was there.
He explained in rambling half-sensible circles about his miserable flight, his empty feeling, the dull grayscale of his days, and just as he was getting to the tipping point, the episode on the street corner, the doctor cut him off.
“You’ve been abroad, right?”
“What? Well, -ish. Closer than here. Equatorial I guess would be fair.” “Tropical? Comparable climate? Lifestyle? Cuisine?”
“Oh. Yes, sure. I think. I’m not much of an expert.”
“Right, well. That makes this easy then. It’s a parasite.”
“It’s not common, but it’s not rare either. It’s a funny thing. Just a little worm-like
organism, it lives in your digestive tract, but it plays with your body chemistry. The primary symptom is a sort of mild depression, a general malaise. Shitty game, really. But it’s totally fine, totally treatable. Simple antibiotics.”
Mesirow / Track / 7
“A worm-like organism in my digestive track?”
“T.” The doctor almost spat the hard T sound. “Tract. It’s a part of your body, not a place for racing dogs.” The smile that followed was as worn and rehearsed as the line itself.
“Oh. Right. Tract.”
“At any rate, I’ll write you a prescription for an antiparasitic. Shouldn’t take long. Please take every dose even if you’re feeling better before the end of the course. And then come back and see me afterwards. Bye now.”
The doctor left.
He showed himself out, back through the antiseptic hallway, through the waiting room, now empty. He thanked the nurse at the desk, told her he’d set his return appointment later.
His mind wandered on the ride home. He couldn’t focus on the road, and he coasted along in a daze, drawing horns from hopped-up kids and buttoned down men. He thought about Merlin, the giant golden retriever he grew up with, and the time Merlin had a tapeworm. He remembered his mother screaming at the sight of something wriggling in Merlin’s shit. He thought of the time he got ringworm in his 20s, a bright red circle on his left forearm, and the weeks he spent itching with embarrassment in long-sleeved shirts. But that wasn’t really a worm, was it? He thought about stopping for a sandwich, but then he didn’t like the idea of feeding his parasite. And he couldn’t decide what he wanted anyway.
He stopped at the pharmacy. He stood waiting, zapped into stupefaction by fluorescent light and elevator music, by the image in his mind of his little stowaway, coiled around itself in his guts, alone, unknowing, unseeing, unable to anticipate the chemicals headed its way in short order, the thing – whatever it was – inside the capsule inside the bottle inside the hand of the pretty young Korean woman who filled his prescription, walked over and handed him the medication, the poison, the medication, and broke him from his navel-gazing paralysis. He admired her long black hair, pulled back into a ponytail, in sharp relief against her bleach-white lab coat, and stole a glance at her breasts. He thanked her, hand on his pills, then felt a twinge of guilt. Or maybe it was hunger.
It was dark when he got home, and his house was silent, stuffy from a long day of still air, a day without even the gentle circulation of breath. He walked in, clicked on a light, and felt his chest tighten. For 25 years he had lived alone, and always he had taken pride in his cleanliness. He never left dishes out, never tossed a sweater onto a chair, never let his book stay where it fell as he drifted off into blackness. Tonight, coming home, his fastidiousness felt like death. He didn’t wish for a mess, didn’t hunger for chaos or unpredictability or spontaneity or wild outside energy, but he thought about it, turning over in his head the idea of a mess, playing out in his mind a life of disorder, what it would have felt like to walk in to shoes in the foyer, to a hairbrush on the mantle, to toys on the dinner table. It was a little beyond his reckoning, now. He walked to the sink, turned to his right and took his water glass from the cabinet, filled it from the tap, unscrewed his little bottle and took his first antiparasitic. The pill was big and a little sticky. It tasted slightly sweet when he first put it in his mouth, but when he swallowed it left a bitter trail down his throat. He set his half-full glass down, turned away and started toward his bedroom and his book. He paused, feeling the inexactitude, for a beat. Two. It was enough; he turned back, emptied and washed his glass. He dried it, then replaced it in the cabinet next to the other one.
At 2:42 AM something burst. He awoke to find himself twisted in his bed, tangled in silken sheets, drenched with sweat despite the chill in the air, his open window. The moon shone in through the screen, casting a white-blue glow across his sparsely furnished bedroom. In the moonlight he burned and boiled, bitter acid searing him from the inside out like he was spinning circles in a microwave. His jaw ached from clenching, his teeth felt rough, mangled from hours of grinding.
But instead of forcing himself to go numb, instead of letting things fall where they would, instead of detaching himself he focused his attention. He isolated his suffering, thinking hard about what it was, what it meant. He visualized the pill he took before bed, the way it slid past his esophagus, landing with a splash in his stomach. He thought about the capsule dissolving, chemicals leaking out, being absorbed into his body, transported through winding tunnels of flesh to his digestive tract and to his parasite, wherever it was hiding. He thought of the parasite, under assault by foreign substance, lashing out, shredding his abdomen and setting fire to his nerves.
He thought about how far the parasite had come, from the tropical food in which it was born up thousands of feet into the air and around the globe at unimaginable speed, over and above a world it would never see and down into one it could never comprehend, carried across this vast city back and forth for weeks. Or maybe it had always been in him.
He thought about its death, the life to which he would return, and his life now. He thought about the pill, its payload. It wasn’t worth it.
This wasn’t the life he expected, not really the one he wanted, but it was a life. A life could be lived this way. And once again he honed in on his pain, letting it wash over him. He thought about her laugh, the curve of her hip, the soft skin at her waist, and he shoved off again, adrift on a sea of longing.