Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Reluctant Caretaker

Reluctant Caretaker

I grabbed the railing and tried to avoid letting the balls of my feet touch the loudest spots. But it was useless. Every step creaked, like the beginning of “Thriller.” The railing was made of thick rope.  It wasn’t nailed to the wall so it was actually a liability if I were to lose my balance.  In my haste I forgot the most basic part of the strategy: avoid the fifth step.  I imagined the crack of that step compressing beneath my parent’s bedroom door, then exploding like a grenade inside their room…. But when I stopped to listen, the entire house remained unaroused.

I slid my wetsuit on slowly, right in the middle of our living room-a space so expansive, we never really used it.  It remained adorned with things-Persian rugs, two full-sized sofas and a loveseat with a chaise-but always neglected of body heat or voice.  At the entrance to the room, there was a sitting area populated with the Louis XIV sofa (the most uncomfortable seating apparatus known to man) and the equally uncomfortable, matching lounge chair.  I stood facing the French doors that opened into the patio, resting my knee on the lounge chair.  I wasn’t worried about anyone seeing me: The nocturnal birds had finally sung themselves to sleep and the morning birds had yet to begin their songs ushering in the new day.  

The neoprene stuck to my leg hair.  I would have winced, but for the fact that pain had become a defining characteristic of my existence.  I zipped up the back using the long nylon cord.  My squandered thighs left a lot of room for water to gush in. I looked outside again.  The sun’s rays shone through the image of a bunch of grapes embedded within a panel of the French doors.  I picked up my oversized Michigan Wolverines towel, slid on my flip flops and grabbed the car keys from the granite counter top in the foyer.

As I turned the door handle, I was hit with a pain in my abdomen like a barbed rolling pin puncturing my delicate intestinal wall, moving from lower to upper abdomen several times per second. Reflexively, I ran to the bathroom, tearing off my suit.  My colon was totally empty-I made sure of that before I even came downstairs.  But the spasms paralyzed me regardless of whether I evacuated or not.  I hit the floor and grabbed what little flesh I had left on my abdomen and pinching as hard as I could with one hand; I cradled my knees with the other, rocking gently back and forth.  I closed my eyes.  I focused on my breathing, slowly, trying to calm the parasympathetic impulses. 

I did anything to distract myself during these moments.  I couldn’t pray with any degree of sincerity, since I was angry at God.  I often recited the lyrics to “Rocky Racoon,” without knowing why.  Most often, though, I whispered amma, over and over and over again, though I had never called my mother anything but “mom.”  Once I tried to make myself laugh by calling out for my dad.  It worked in some way, I suppose.  Sometimes I forced my brain to see the faces of girls I had dated, perhaps hoping that their collective affection for me would magically assuage the pain. 

The onslaught passed within a few moments, but the feeling of those spasms lingered, the way amputees feel the pain of a limb they no longer carry.

For whatever reason, that day I had the energy to continue.  I wouldn’t be scuba diving, of course, but just getting into the car and going somewhere…fuck, the day before, I barely made it from the den to the patio.  There was a quaint coffee house, Sufficient Grounds, a few doors down from our San Marino home.  I always told myself that if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere.  But it just turned out to be another bullshit optimistic lie I told myself.

I walked up the driveway, trying to avoid those little red berries (fuzzy on the outside, and sticky-like-tar on the inside) that never came off the soles of my shoes.  Aside from that trifle, there was calm throughout the neighborhood.  It was the first time that I could remember not hearing the incorrigibly loud Stanton kids next door; I noticed that tree in their front yard had much more toilet paper wrapped around its branches than it typically did.  

My arm quivered when I yanked open the door of my mother’s bright red Mercedes (why the fuck to Germans have to make cars with such heavy doors?)  I remembered the time she scared the piss out of my dad by pretending she was going to run him down.  That was in the parking lot of the hospital the time I had surgery - and he had a party the night before.  But back then it was just a sinus surgery.

Feeling slightly light-headed from all the movement, I slid inside.  I squeezed the unnecessarily large key fob between my right thumb and forefinger and turned the ignition slowly, as if it would make the engine start more quietly.  I pushed my left foot down hard, searching for the clutch, but then remembered I wasn’t in my own car.  I shifted into reverse and did my best to avoid the leaves of the pomegranate tree and the orange beaks of the birds of paradise tree as I pulled out of the driveway.

I was the only one on the road, this being the first day of the new year.   I could go as fast as I wanted, but it was hard to break 75mph on the 110S and stay in my own lane with my biceps begging for a break.  The 110S lived up to its name of being the windiest freeway in the country.  The irony of my own circuitous path in life was not lost on me. I smiled that new smile at the irony.  It was my way of telling the world to fuck off, but simultaneously acknowledging its sick sense of humor.

I thought of all the times I had driven this route in the past…in my own car…all the times I smoothly passed through traffic after late nights with friends, a just under-the-limit amount of alcohol pulsing through my bloodstream.  I liked to hold the wheel gently with just three fingers, downshifting from sixth to fifth at 80mph, enjoying the twists and turns like a kid flying down a water park slide.  But now I was concentrating as if I were taking a standardized test.

As I approached downtown LA, I looked at the sleeping industrial buildings and corporate skyscrapers alike.  There wasn’t even a light on inside the Staples Center.  There was a single CD in the changer.  I pushed play and immediately remembered it was my 80s rock mix.  “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac came on…an captivating Stevie Nicks solo.  I loved the song, but never really paid much attention to the lyrics.  Nevertheless, I always felt in Stevie’s voice that she was coming to terms with her life...or maybe some part of it.

I crossed over to the 10-W toward Santa Monica, and twenty minutes later I was at Venice Beach.  I was the only one out there.  Even the surfers, ever-present as conch shells, remained snoozing in their bungalows…or wherever they slept.  I set my towel down and ambled quickly-and awkwardly-toward the water.  The sand was cold, like a greeting received from a best friend’s ex-wife.  I thrust myself into the icy water.  (I stuck my tongue out ever-so-slightly, the same way I did in all those pictures my dad took of my sister and I at whatever beach it was when I was three.)  The ice water seeped into my suit through the too-large holes where my once robust biceps and thighs were flattered by recoiled neoprene.  I floated there amongst the waves; they pushed me back toward land.  Perhaps, they too, were overwhelmed and eschewed the responsibility of caring for me.  But I kept pushing forward, and for the first time in seven months, I was autonomous.

I was a world away from my bi-weekly visits to G-money (my affectionate moniker for my GI doctor); days spent putrifying in bed or on the sofa; sifting through photos of best friends grilling on the tiny hibachi at our legendary Rosslyn pad; staring at my clinical anatomy book and remembering how I was asked by the Dean of Students to get my classmates to have more fun; smelling the letter Atasi wrote to me in on sky blue paper with silver scented pen; bitter moments grasping the shiny Médecins Sans Frontières internship certificate of completion.  For those thirty-some minutes the reluctant ocean agreed to care for me.  I tasted its salt while it blanketed me in blue-green algae.  

When the ocean and I both agreed to end our embrace, I paddled back to shore.  Approaching my towel, I saw a seagull. It was grey and white, like every other drab bird of its kind.  Its feet webbed and orange, it had no expression, which is what troubled me so much about animals of its low evolutionary stature. 

Can anyone tell the difference between an angry gull and a curious gull?

I had long ago developed an inexplicable, intractable fear of all avian creatures, so I kicked some sand in its direction.  But instead, that damn whitish-grey bird merely stood there, observing me.  I tried to ignore it by turning away, but this gull, which was actually much larger than I had originally perceived it to be, wouldn’t leave.

“What the fuck do you want, bird?  There’s five miles of beach here and you have to loiter over here? I don’t have any damn bread crumbs, so get the fuck outta here.”

I grabbed my towel and began to dry off, shivering throughout the entire exercise, but unaffected by the proximity of that bird.  I slipped on my flip flops, staring it in the face.  “You know your brain is the size of the tip of my thumb, don’t you?”

I dried my back and arms with anemic vigor.  I looked back and saw that the bird was still there, looking straight at me with that expressionless expression.  The morning rays of the sun made a sharp line in the sand between the bird and me.  I picked up a sharp rock and looked at the bird again.  It had made itself quite comfortable resting on the part of sand now being warmed by the sun.  I finished drying my hair with the “M” part of the towel, then bent over to pick up a half-eaten Fig Newton that I eyed a few feet in front of me on the wooden sidewalk. “Fuck you, you garbage-eating scavenger,” I said as I tossed the cookie sidearm without turning back to see where it landed.

I slid back into the car.  My arms and legs hurt, but not nearly as much as my core muscles.  The back of my ankle pulsated gently as I pressed the accelerator.  I turned onto I-10 E and accelerated hard to 80mph.  It was a bit sluggish compared to my sports car, yet respectably reached target speed in about 9 seconds.  I turned on the stereo and placed the index finger and thumb of each hand on the steering wheel, loosely gripping it as I pushed the gas a little further to 85mph.  

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