A Short Story (Part 1)
I believe I came to know him as well as any human being can know another, even though we never met face to face.
It was the night after my surgery in a double room at the Howard County General Hospital, and what I remember is spotty because of the anesthesia. But as my mind cleared and the pain in my back grew or subsided with my every turn, my perception of his presence strengthened, and our conversation filled the night with magic and unexpected trust.
My condition had a fancy name: hemangioendothelioma.
I didn’t know it was called that until days later when the results from the biopsy came in. In layman’s terms, I had a tumor inside one of my vertebrae, at the thoracic level, pushing on my spinal cord, and causing numbness in my lower body.
“It has to come out,” my surgeon, Dr. Amaris had said, describing with clinical precision how he would slice through my back muscles, chip at the bone and extract the growth to relieve pressure.
It didn’t sound good, so I asked about alternatives.
“There are none,” he said looking the other way. “And paralysis is your biggest fear, if I nick your cord somehow. Statistically speaking the success rate is ninety-seven percent.”
“Doctor,” I said. “If three out of a hundred planes fell out of the sky, would you ever go flying?”
“Most probably not, but I can drive to most places. You don’t have a choice.”
From the research I had done on my surgeon, I knew he was from Holand and had come to the US as a child, which made me like him, given my own immigrant status. He spoke without an accent and seemed cold as a scalpel. Had I known the scientific term of my illness, I would have used it in my discussion with him. I would have stretched the word with pretend erudition and divided it into parts: first hemangio, then endo, and finally thelioma. But I didn’t know it at that time, and although I was about the same age as him, in his presence I felt intimidated like a schoolboy.
After surgery, the first person I saw in the recovery room was my wife, Lucy. She wore a beige and white pantsuit and had a book in her hand. Her face was drawn, and even in the haze I was in, I could see she was worried.
Her full name was Lucille, which was all right over here, but sounded strange in our country of origin, Moldova, the former Soviet republic, where a French name raised eyebrows.
“Oh, baby, how are you?” she said leaning over me and bringing her lips to my forehead.
I must have uttered something encouraging because she nodded and told me I had been under the knife for the better part of four hours and had lost several pints of blood, which, according to the surgeon, was remarkable. While she spoke, I drifted back to sleep and found out later that Dr. Amaris had come in and asked me to wiggle my toes, which I did, apparently without waking up. The next thing I remember was being pushed on a gurney through a corridor and Lucy walking next to me, trying to keep one hand on my shoulder while with the other carrying her book, her purse, and a plastic bag with the clothes I had worn that morning. Then I found myself on a hospital bed in a narrow and dark space, the TV on a console above my feet, an L-shaped wall to the left, and a dividing curtain not too far on my right. If I lifted my hand, I could have touched the curtain, but at the moment I couldn’t move any part of my body. I learned that the hard way, when I decided to go to the bathroom. I started turning in bed, and Lucy asked me what I needed.
“Nothing,” I said. “Where’s the bathroom?”
“Do you need to go?”
“No, I’m just being inquisitive.”
She looked a little confused by my sarcasm and showed me a door I hadn’t noticed before in the L-shaped wall, six feet from my bed, or possibly closer.
“Do you need to pee?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” I tried to sit up, pivoting on my buttocks. My back hurt and the IV pulled at my arm. “I’m in pain. Can’t you get me unhooked and out of here?”
“I don’t think you should get up,” she said and offered me a transparent plastic container with an oversized neck and a handle. “Here, use the bottle.”
“I don’t want a chamber pot. I can walk over there.”
“Let me call the nurse,” she said and pressed the buzzer on the side of my bed, but I didn’t listen. I dropped one foot to the ground, grabbed the pole that supported the IV drip and tried to sit up while pain shot though my body. Right then the nurse showed up in the doorway. “Sir,” she said rushing in. “Don’t get up!”
I ignored her, thinking of myself as a strong fellow, reasonably private to want to pee without witnesses. I was confident I could walk six feet. Heck, in my youth, I had jumped longer distances.
I pushed down on my legs, the world spun, and the floor seemed to be made of Jell-O. The IV pole wobbled. My calves had no strength, and my back exploded. I saw stars, took one step and blacked out. I guess I fell back on my bed. I was lucky.
When I opened my eyes, the nurse was adjusting the dial on the IV, and my entire body was on fire. It felt like I was cut in half with a saw and stitched back together. I wanted to scream, but no sound came out of my throat. I was shaking.
“You’re supposed to lie still,” the nurse said pointing her index finger at me, “and if you need anything, call me.”
“You’re so stubborn,” Lucy said. “Do you realize you just fainted?”
She was nervous, Lucy, I could see that, but for the moment there were too many things that bothered me.
“If you don’t calm down,” the nurse said, “we’ll have to put restraints on you and give you a catheter.”
“What the hell, I am calm,” I said.
“Here,” the nurse said, “this is your morphine pump. Keep it at your fingertips and press on this button, but only when you hurt badly. It drips through your IV, and I’ve increased your amount already, so try to stay calm and the pain will diminish. Did anybody tell you about the pain scale? No? In that case, listen to me: the sensation of pain is a continuum.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed.
She talked about a line that connected these imaginary dots all the way up to ten, or to some other maximum number. I was supposed to estimate my pain level and use the small morphine pump accordingly. I didn’t understand her too well. How would I know if I was at four or six or eleven on the scale, since I had never been in serious pain in my life and had no frame of reference? The pain might well be a continuum, but in my case, it was a well-defined singular thing that just ripped at my back muscles. The good thing was it was easing.
I fell asleep and when I woke up the surgeon was talking to my wife in a whisper.
“Hello,” I said, “Dr. Amaris.”
He approached the bed, lifted the cover off my feet, and asked me to wiggle my toes. I did and he nodded.
“You have an eighteen-centimeter incision,” he said to me. ‘You need to sleep on your back and move as little as possible. Tomorrow, after I examine you, we’ll have you start physical therapy. Slowly at first, and when you go home, they’ll give you some exercises. And please, no heroics.”
Suddenly I was in no mood for a conversation. I needed to pee very badly. After he left, my wife gave me the bottle and turned around discreetly. The nurse came, took the bottle and emptied it in the toilet.
“Do you want to eat?” the nurse asked, and I felt I was hungry.
They raised my bed almost to a sitting position, and while I ate, Lucy told me that our children had called and would visit tomorrow. Both were away in college.
I smiled the way I always do when we speak about our children.
“Dr. Amaris said that during surgery he performed a frozen section on your tumor and that it came out negative,” Lucy told me. “Now we need to wait until another biopsy is performed in the lab, to be absolutely sure.”
“This is good,” I said, “isn’t it?”
“Yes. Very good, and I’m very happy.”
I pointed at the curtain. “Who’s in there?” I asked.
“Another man,” she said in a low voice and came closer. “They didn’t have any private rooms for tonight, but they promised us one for tomorrow.”
“Did you see him?”
“No. There was somebody with him until a few minutes ago, a white-haired woman. She left while you were sleeping.”
“What time it is?”
It was nine o’clock and we agreed Lucy would go home, and come back first thing the next morning. She asked me if I wanted to watch some TV. I didn’t. I thought I would sleep through the night.
As soon as my wife left, the nurse came in and took my temperature. Then she returned with some medication. The man behind the curtain started coughing, and, I swear, he coughed for what seemed like a half hour. The nurse came in and they talked, then she brought him a pillow. Two other nurses showed up, turned on the lights, and jovially introduced themselves: one was Gail, the other Amanda. Or maybe her name was Amelia, I couldn’t remember.
It was the shift change at eleven.
At eleven fifteen one of them took my pulse and my blood pressure and asked me if I had any allergies. I did want to tell her that I had provided that information at least twice before, but I realized it was easier to just answer the question. As soon as I did, she disappeared behind the curtain and went through a similar routine with my roommate. When she left, I tried to fall asleep, but I felt wide-awake and angry. It wasn’t clear who I was angry with, and in my mind, I could have strangled somebody.
“You in pain?” I heard a voice, and I moved, and I adjusted the morphine, trying to find my bearings.
“Let’s talk if you can’t sleep,” the voice continued. “I’m not able to sleep either.”
A smoker’s voice, I thought, deep and husky. Or maybe it was the voice of a sick man who’d been lying in bed forever. Clearly it originated from behind the curtain. I felt sympathy toward him and an awkward desire to share.
“Yes,” I said, “I’m in pain, but I guess I’m supposed to. Why else would I spend any time here?”
“Good,” said the man behind the curtain. “You still have your sense of humor.”
“I don’t know if it’s humor,” I said. “I’m angry.”
“We all are.”
“No, I mean what’s wrong with these nurses, and why can’t they let us sleep? Why do they need to come in every fifteen minutes?”
“That’s the way it is in hospitals,” he said with a certain amount of authority.
“Let me tell you what’s stupid.”
I listened, and he proceeded to relate to me how two months ago he had gone through hip replacement surgery followed by physical therapy and how his therapist had pulled too hard at his hip and caused him damage to a point that he needed a second surgery. “So they cut me again this morning,” he said, “to fix what the therapist had broken.”
“Did they fix it?”
“How the hell would I know? I’ll find out at physical therapy.”
“Boy,” I said. “You are one calm individual. In your place, I’d be all over them with rage and fury.”
“And it wouldn’t help. Believe me, my whole life has been a battle.”
This sounded like the beginning of a confession, so I waited for him to continue but he didn’t. After a while, I told him about my tumor and the operation I had had that morning.
“You’re OK now?” he asked when I finished.
I could have told him about having to wait for the results of the biopsy, but I chose the cute answer. “Tell you what, I’ll know after my physical therapy.”
He didn’t seem to get it.
“I worked my entire life like there was no tomorrow,” he said. “Then I turned sixty, and all went to pieces. I mean this part of my body began to hurt, and that part, like this machine, this body of mine, wore out and started breaking down. To be honest, I’m at fault here. I allowed myself to get sluggish and heavy. If I told you I weigh over three hundred pounds, would you believe me? No wonder my old bones cannot take it.”
I was fifteen years younger than him and one hundred and thirty pounds lighter. In my hospital bed I felt nimble.
“I’m six foot two,” he continued. “In my youth I was as hard as a rock and quite feisty. My name, by the way, is Rick Vernoulli. You see? I’m Italian-American. Rick is the American part.”
I wasn’t sure. “Bernoulli?”
“No, Bernoulli’s the guy with the liquids. My name starts with a V, as in viper.”
I liked the fact that he knew who Bernoulli was and, instead of a sixty-year-old obese guy, I pictured a well-built young man with a thin dark mustache and long hair. He must have come of age in the late sixties and early seventies. He could have played the guitar and perhaps had traveled to San Francisco. I imagined him walking with a light swish, not unlike the silent sound a snake makes when sliding through marshes. I saw a cheap pendant dangling at his neck, with the peace sign on it.
“Rick, what do you do?” I asked him.
“Me? Not much. I’m retired.”
“OK, that is now. In the past, didn’t you have a profession?”
“Oh, I did many things. If I were to pick one, I’d say I was a union organizer.”
“A union organizer. I helped the guys get together and fight the exploiters. You know, at the steel mills, in Dundalk.”
I thought this was a rare and somewhat controversial occupation.
A friend of mine had dealt with union construction workers, and he told me they twisted every situation to their advantage. As the joke went, if you asked one worker to pull a simple wire on the second level of a scaffold, he’d say that the location was risky and that two people were needed, one to do the work, and one to ensure safety; but since more than one person would be involved, they’d also require a supervisor.
When Lucy and I took a trip to Arizona, we visited a copper mine in Bisbee and the tour guide related to us the story of two union leaders in the nineteen twenties who were loaded into a truck by the mine bosses, driven deep into the desert, ordered to get off and left there.
“You know,” I told Rick Vernoulli. “Where I come from, the idea that the working class is exploited by the privileged few is considered communist propaganda. Do you really believe that in this country people are being taken advantage of as they were during the industrial revolution? Somehow I don’t see it.”
“I thought I heard an accent,” Rick said. “Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?”
I realized he had changed the subject and although I would have preferred to continue the conversation about unions, I’m always eager to tell people about my past, so I jumped at the opportunity. I said I had left the Soviet Union as soon as it disintegrated at the end of the Gorbachev era. I said I had grown up bilingual, speaking Romanian and Russian, had studied mathematics in college in Moscow and had come to America for my postgraduate degree at Hopkins. As a computer analyst with a government contractor in Fort Meade, I was able to bring my wife, my son and my daughter, who had initially stayed behind, to join me in the States. Almost ten years ago we became American citizens. My wife, who had been an English teacher in Moldova, found a job at a local high school. I told him that her name was Lucy, my first name was Ilia, and our last name was Petkov.
Rick had never traveled outside the United States and I detected a faint sadness in his deep voice, as if he realized that he had missed out, that he might have wanted to travel, and couldn’t. “I’ve spent my entire life on the East Coast, in and out of Baltimore,” he clarified. “I didn’t see much of the world, but I certainly know my way around here.”
I took his admission as a good sign. My unchallenged worldliness created an opportunity for me. I felt bright like a light bulb, and, with nowhere for him to run, I thought I could lecture him and debate him until he surrendered.
“Say, Rick,” I said sweetly, “what do unions really do? I mean nowadays, that the fight is over. All I see on TV are the legacy costs and the demise of the auto industry.”
“TV?” he laughed. “Don’t you go by TV. They’re bastards, and the fight is ongoing. If they could, the corporations would peel the skin off of us and sell it for profit. Do you think they’re nice people, the muckety-mucks at the top of the corporations? Let me ask you: how do they make their millions? Their billions? Are they that much smarter than us, and what is it that a CEO does, to justify his earning five hundred times as much as his workers? Let me give you a simple truth about organized labor. How much vacation would you get if there were no unions? And you work only forty hours a week. Why do you think that is? Ha? Tell me.”
“As I told you, I’m in computers. I work as much as I need and forty hours don’t mean anything in my line of business.”
I felt proud of my work ethic. An immigrant, a newcomer to this country, and I didn’t need his protection. I didn’t need anybody, for that matter.
“I guess you like what you do,” Rick said. “I guess you enjoy it. How about your less fortunate brothers and sisters? How about the blue-collar workers? The good people who didn’t go to college, who don’t have PhDs from Moscow, or Harvard and Hopkins?”
“What about them?”
“Well, they need our help.”
I let a few seconds go by, and then I asked quickly, realizing I had to do it while I dared, “Rick, did you go to college?”
“No, I didn’t have the privilege.”
I detected his regret again, and I liked that he called going to college a privilege.
“You know,” I said, “I don’t think that it matters. The common sense that a person possesses — that’s what matters. His passion, his drive. His com-passion. What you chose to do in life shows your concern for others. You care. You give a damn. You sweat and you suffer. What gets me upset, and here I agree with you about the pundits on TV, is the disdain they encourage against the liberal elite; and by elite, I mean the highly educated. I mean this attitude that if you are regular folk, you’re better than the professionals and the academics who are nothing, just a bunch of idealists born with silver spoons in their mouths who are convinced they know everything, but don’t understand real life, isolated in their ivory towers. I mean, how stupid is this, this anti-intellectualism? Tell me, who do you want to lead this country, the experts or the regular folk?”
“I don’t hate the elites,” said Rick Vernoulli.
“No, of course not. Why would you? You’re a smart guy, and to tell you the truth, I’m convinced that all those who criticize the liberal crowd, all those who criticize Hollywood, the media, the politicians and the academics, in fact envy them secretly and aspire to be like them. Have a voice. But they can’t because they don’t have the goods, and that kills them.”
“You’re funny,” Rick said.
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know, I guess it’s your passion.”
Passion wasn’t the right word to describe how I felt. I would have called my feelings intense or combative. I hated that the term liberal had taken on a negative connotation, rather than remaining synonymous with humane values, progressive, accepting of new ideas, inclusive. To me liberal meant an open and flexible mind, moving forward. By contrast, being conservative was being anchored in the past, stubborn and rigid. The more educated people were, the more they realized there was no absolute truth, and no end to knowledge. They understood that change was unavoidable, so how could they be anything but liberal?
I was about to voice my opinion when the nurse showed up to check on us. My mouth was dry and I asked her for a glass of ice water. She nodded, went behind the curtain and talked to Rick for a few seconds. As soon as she left, his voice came across loud and clear. “What do you say? She’s a beauty.”
His comment was unexpected and far removed from my train of thought. “I don’t know,” I said. “Couldn’t see her.”
“Ilia, Ilia, you need to be paying attention. You’re a cultivated man, an elitist who appreciates the finer points in life. Don’t let this one pass you unnoticed.”
“I don’t even remember her name. Something starting with an A, I believe.”
“Angela,” Rick said.
The nurse returned with my ice water and left the door to the hallway open.
“Here you go,” she said leaning over me and pressing the button on the side of my bed to raise me to a sitting position. “Is this better?”
The light from the corridor illuminated her beautiful face and the front of her gown. I could guess what resided in there.
“The air is very dry in here,” she said. “Hon, if you need anything, anything at all, just let me know. You know how to get me.”
I took a few sips and placed the glass on a small rollaway table.
“Thanks, Angela, I feel much better.”
She smiled, then walked out and closed the door behind her, leaving me sitting in darkness. The pain was a sharp laser cut through my back, and my mind needed refocusing.
“If you need anything, hon,” Rick mimicked Angela’s words, “you know how to get me. Ilia, she digs you.”
“Yeah, right! An older man she doesn’t know, tied to a bed.”
“Don’t underestimate the naughtiness of some women. They like the experience, you know, the thrill of the action. They like variety. And nurses, oh, nurses, they’ve been through some stuff, believe me.”
“They know men are pigs.”
“Well, they do, but it’s not the men’s fault. We’ve been programmed that way, haven’t we?”
“And who programmed us, God?”
“C’mon, Ilia, you know what I mean. Look, this thing with the nurses is well documented. Just remember Garp’s mother in The World According to Garp, and Catherine in A Farwell to Arms.”
“Oh, you read Irving and Hemingway. Rick, I’m impressed.”
“And why shouldn’t I read them? Because I’m from Dundalk?”
I didn’t like that. He didn’t know me from Adam and was making assumptions, so I decided to challenge him by breaching a topic befitting a true union leader. “OK, Rick, have you read Karl Marx?”
Come back for the second part next Monday. Your questions, comments, lots of claps and shares are much appreciated. On Medium the number of claps reflects how much you enjoyed the piece.