NONFICTION: ISSUE #8

Borrow Bit, wood engraving by Josh Distler
*Image: “Borrow Pit,” three color wood engraving, 4″ x 6″ by Joshua Distler

Like Happy Birthday But Not Really

by Edmund Sandoval

 

This year your birthday falls in the weeks between the day when she calls you at work to tell you between sobs that they found something in her brain and the day she meets with the neurosurgeon for the final diagnosis. They is a radiologist whose name we never learn but who, after looking at the MRI scan of her brain, says there’s a lesion right in the middle of it. In the Turkish Chair, a saddle-shaped hollow where the pituitary gland reigns over its dense kingdom. The rough translation is: It could be nothing, could be a big deal, could be something in between. She got the MRI scan because she had a week-long migraine and her primary care physician said: This is a concern. So on your birthday, you lean over your cake and wish that it’s no big deal, that it’s not cancer, that they won’t drill a hole in her head and poke around with a metal straw, that she won’t die. This is harder to do than you would’ve thought: Wishing and blowing out candles at the same time. It’s because you’ve never wished for anything before. Not anything serious, at least. Usually you’ve wished for silly things. Outlandish things. Like a job. A million bucks. A Lambo. When your wish comes true, you’ll think you should’ve wished harder the past thirty years.

———

You’ve never cared for birthdays. What’s the big deal, you’ve always thought. Last week you learned why. A buddy and his wife, who is also your buddy, threw a party for their kid. The kid is a year old and change. There are gifts to beat the band. There is cake. There is a knitted crown with the number 1 stenciled on the fabric. He is the king, and all is fun and games. You think: But he won’t remember all this stuff. His mind is still a nebulous bog. Then you look at him. He’s happy. He’s holding onto a tiny chair, wavering just a bit on his tiny legs. He sees you and waves, and you wave back. Fine, you think. Happy birthday, you think.

———

You’ve got a friend whose birthday is on the same day as yours. As children you both thought: So cool. Or, since it was the eighties: radical/dude-ical/gnarly. For years your parents planned out these dual joint parties. The cakes always said: Happy Birthday Eddie and Richie. Or Richie and Eddie. You have one gift left from those parties—a very small green-and-black foam soccer ball that’s been collecting mildew in your mother’s basement for about twenty years. Whenever you visit, you give it a couple of kicks against the cinderblock wall for old time’s sake. You never wonder why she doesn’t throw it away.

———

You knew someone else who had the same birthday as you, as Richie. But she was a girl, and like four years younger, and kind of mean, so you never went out of your way to congratulate her on your shared birthdays. Like: Happy birthday, but not really. Like: You’re not in our birthday party club, okay?

———

Your Muslim uncle doesn’t celebrate his birthday. Says it is because of religion, his version of it. But he bought you a Rad Racer and a wireless Nintendo Entertainment System controller the one time he visited your mom and brother and you in Southern Illinois. Together you got that stuff at the JCPenney. He sat next to you and pressed the buttons as the boxy eight-bit convertible screamed across the Trinitron’s bubble screen. You learned fast that you had to aim the wireless controller at the little receiver box that was plugged into the NES. Otherwise you couldn’t steer the car, and it would crash into a palm tree and flip about eighteen times before resetting itself in the middle of the lane. The drivers were always unscathed. As was the car. The steering wheel never impaled the driver; the passenger never launched through the windshield. In short, no one died. Later that weekend you tried to learn how to ride a bike and your uncle steered you down the hill and once you were steady, he let go, and you promptly hit the curb, flew over the handles, and stopped yourself with your teeth because your mouth was open with surprise. Your teeth were unharmed, and you thought: I am at least partially invincible.

———

This year you get a bottle of George Dickel, aged eight years, and tix to the Neko Case show as gifts. You are so happy. You and she make some pasta, covering it with fake meat and bottled pasta sauce. You insist this is what you want. Because you are nearly paralyzed by fear of the unknown, you say this is what you want. And to watch Law & Order (season five, Det. Briscoe and Det. Logan, ADA Stone) reruns on Netflix. You want to drink whiskey until your mind malfunctions and is unable to think about the possible gremlin lurking in your partner’s head. The possible gremlin, you learn, has set up shop in the pineal gland. You read that if she suddenly has trouble looking up, the shit has begun to hit the fan in a major way.

Five years ago, she started having dizzy spells. Was that the first missed sign that something had burrowed into her glial stew? When the dizzy spells were happening, her doctor strapped this gizmo to her chest in order to monitor her heart for 24 hours. You want to look him/her up and tell him/her: You were looking in the wrong fucking place, you fucking quack. You should have scanned her brain. A CT scan. An MRI. An x-ray? You want to blame someone. You look up breathing techniques to help her relax. You use them yourself. In, two, three, four; out, two, three, four.

———

On your twenty-first birthday you were already familiar with alcohol and saw no need to go the bar and get blotto. You hung out with your brother in your apartment in Chicago, where you were both attending school. Maybe you bought a bottle of rum, some diet cola, some limes and had a few Cuba Libras. You’d read a story where the two characters drank them. They were sitting on the beach in Galveston in the dawn and drinking Cuba Libras and fishing for redfish. They had a huge driftwood fire going on. The description of diet cola and lime and rum sounded like the best thing ever. Through your window, you saw not the Gulf of Mexico but the coast of Chicago. The buildings were black and brown, and perfect in their geometricity. The sky hues down as the night draws on. From blue, to purple and lilac, to indigo. But never to black. The zillions of electric lights are why. You can see Chicago from far off at night. A bulb of white hovers over it. You had a couple drinks and watched the sky and the buildings. You listened to some music on your Compaq computer then went to bed. At some point before bed, your girlfriend at the time called you for a perfunctory happy-birthday chat. She knew you were in the not-caring-about-your-birthday phase. Thanks, you said to her. It wasn’t a bad day.

———

Your dissonance about birthdays might have come from your father. First, as a kid, when you always wanted to celebrate birthdays and have your mother buy you something to give your father, he’d say, I don’t need anything. Everything I need I already have. He probably meant your brother and you, and your mom, but you didn’t understand that at the time. You just wanted to wrap some cheap gift (a tie with Tabasco bottles printed on the silk one year) badly and present it to him with shy anticipation. Or, maybe your father had given you the real key once or twice when he mentioned that, on his coming to America from Nicaragua, the bureaucrats screwed up his birthdate when they processed his papers. How that diminished his cumpleaños was beyond you. Having two cumpleaños would be way better than having one, you thought. The two birthdates thing has led you to not remembering which one is correct, so you aim for the approximate date and wish him a happy birthday each year. You also send a card and, as a gift, you transcribe a poem. Last year it was Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”: “No one ever thanked him.”

———

Because you are terrified/worried/etc. that there is an outside chance that this will be the last year you spend your birthday with her, you begin thinking obsessively, compulsively about other peoples’ birthdays and birthday-related tragedies. You recognize fairly quickly that this is a very strange coping mechanism, and you won’t share it with anyone else.

———

You recall the sleepover party at Frank’s when you were in grade school. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was the feature, and you got scared when Pee Wee was in the semi truck with the big rig driver, whose name was Large Marge, because it reminded you, for some reason, of Judge Doom’s eyes coming out of his head in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (a scene that so terrified you that you needed to be escorted out of the theater in tears and consoled in the lobby, to be convinced by Mom and Dad that it wasn’t real, that it was just Christopher Lloyd, the fellow who played with such jovial aplomb the happy mad scientist Dr. Eliot Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy). You recall this birthday slumber party because another kid who was there peed his pants that night. Pee-Wee pee pants, someone probably said. You were not friends with this kid, but years later you would see Jurassic Park together at the Varsity Theater. While watching, you yipped when the velociraptor charged. Some years later, you’d hear that this kid got stomach cancer and eventually died. A friend who’d visited him described his abdomen as having swollen to the size of a beach ball.

———

Your father is a doctor and he gives you advice, translations, his take on what her diagnosis could mean, what it could not mean. You feel lucky, fortunate. Your stepmother is in the radiology field. They say: We’ll help. We’ll get second opinions from the other doctors we know. Call the radiation clinic and request the transcript, they say. The slides. The records. Your partner calls the clinic; you get the records. They’re in a tidy cardboard envelope. There’s a disc that contains the slides. It looks like a music CD, a DVD. The transcript is just a piece of paper with typewriting on it. Like your high school grades. The two of you read the transcript. You’re newly terrified. You put the records in the mail, send them to Southern Illinois, to your father, your stepmother. They call in a few days. It looks like a cyst. It looks like a plain old cyst. This is a comfort to you, but it does nothing for her. It is just more of what she already knows. It does nothing as her primary care doc has said: Maybe they’ll do a lumbar puncture. Maybe they’ll want to biopsy the growth. Your father says that sounds very invasive. He waffles on the benefit of the lumbar puncture. The spinal tap. The biopsy. Trees get tapped, you think. Oil wells. Not spines. They shouldn’t be. Again and again she says her life is over, that the end has come and so soon. Not yet thirty, that wobbly first marker of full adulthood. No, you say. Not yet. She’s always wanted to be an old woman, you remind her. One of those shimmering old women with iron gray hair and loose khakis and heavy hiking boots and volumes of knowledge of the world. That’s what you’ll be, you say. No doubt about it. Okay? Okay?

———

You have visions during the two-and-a-half weeks that you and she wait to consult with the neurologist. Consult—what a word, as if you and she know anything or have any authority or agency in this matter. You look up the neurologist on the Web: Dr. Deshmuk, who studied medicine at the U of Illinois. U of Illinois is in Champaign-Urbana. You once lived there, in Chambana, and did so very poorly. You painted houses for a living, even though you, too, had gone to and graduated from the U of Illinois (the Chicago campus). Your girlfriend at the time was some kind of secretary in a university accounting building, and she, too, went to the U of Illinois. The school’s rep was not giving you confidence in the doctor; it was depressing you to no end. You piled the bottles of pills, and she stared off through the warped windows of your giant, shitty house of asbestos shingles and heaving floors.

———

Your visions run the gamut. You see her as you’ve always seen her. Generally happy though somewhat lonely, having not met the right people here in Madison. Or as you say: Too Badison. Or: So Sadison. You say this because you feel victimized by the town. Because you work for the department of military affairs while being a semi-vegan, half-Nicaraguan, jaded liberal without insurance or, so it would seem, any real prospects beyond temp work that never ends. Because you just want to be a writer and have a job doing writing things. Like writing manuals or copyediting something or coming up with clever content for the town’s “what’s happening” magazine. Instead, you learn the intricacies of hazardous chemical reporting. You think of how to get out of it. You think of targeted, self-inflicted injuries during WWI. You dream of the day you will quit. You realize that day may never come.

———

You see her propped on the couch with no hair because of the radiation they will pump into her skull if they find cancer in there. If they find a gremlin instead of a gizmo. You pray for a gizmo. A baby bunny. A teddy bear. What you really pray/hope for is a cyst. A cyst you can live with. A cyst they’ll leave alone. A cyst can stay. A cyst is not even a tumor but a tiny sac of fluid. A cyst is a water balloon, and water balloons are nothing but fun and games. That’s what you’ve read. What you’ve been told. When she’s propped on the couch in your vision, you see yourself enter your front door and see her wave at you and smile. The way she waves is wonderful. She has long, strong, lithe arms. When she waves, she fully extends her arm like a flagpole, her wagging hand a flag being whipped by the wind. You love this vision, even though it is fraught with sadness. You’ve always thought she would look great with no hair. You know she would look great with a Jheri curl or a Mohawk or a whatever.

———

The other birthday you start thinking about all the time is the pool party at the Knight’s Inn. That one when you were in seventh grade. The girl who threw the birthday party was known for throwing big parties. The previous year she’d thrown a dance party and you’d danced with a girl for the first time. You’d danced to Whitney Houston. You’d danced to Boyz II Men. You’d entered the wonders of adolescence. The Knight’s Inn party was a swimming pool party. You wore Nautica trunks. Or Yaga trunks. Or Ocean Pacific trunks. You swam in the pool, and while you swam, underneath you and your friends, a kid was drowning. When they pulled him up, you were there to bear witness. You knew he was dead. You think, sometime afterward, that you had something to do with this. You swear to yourself for years that someone, something, yanked you down under the water as you were swimming, and to free yourself you kicked and splashed away fast. You thought then, when you were swimming, that it was a prank. But now you think it was the kid who was drowning. Who grabbed blind from the floor of the pool and clutched your leg and pulled as though you were a fleshy ladder to climb. You knew him, kind of. You’d played Life Force with him at the Pizza Hut and drawn pictures with him next to the junior high’s maintenance shed.

Days later, your friends and you, and your parents had to go to the police station to recount the events. You said it was normal at the party. That it was fun. That then someone saw something in the water. Someone said: Is that a towel? Your friend Jay jumped in. A seventh grader but big. He dove. He had a swimming pool in his backyard. You used to play Legos together. He came back up: There’s somebody down there! His voice shrill as a cartoon character’s. Adults jumped in. They brought the boy out and pumped his dead chest. All of the sudden, you say the something you’ve been troubled about. You say you think you kicked him and knocked him out and caused him to die in the goddamned, fucking bullshit pool water of the Knight’s Inn in Carbondale, Illinois. The police officer said: No, he couldn’t swim. The water was not clean. It was too murky, and no one saw him go under. It was the water, not you. You started to cry again. You had been crying a lot. You had never seen someone die in front of you before. Your mom asked if they were going to file charges. Maybe, the police officer said. Or maybe she said no. Or she didn’t know.

The Knight’s Inn closed after that, and the girl never threw another party. Like: No, duh. Like: How do you get over being the kid who also caused one of your friends to die? Even if it was indirectly. There are other questions. Like why didn’t anyone think it was a big deal that the water resembled a stagnant lagoon? That you couldn’t see to the bottom. Even with your hand just underwater.

Even now, you cannot decide if you kicked him. If you imagined it. If you were pranked. If your own bad swimming caused you to dunk down and suck water instead of air. You developed a fear of water after this, and when your brother made fun of you for staying in the shallow end while on summer vacation, you punched him on the cheek. This is something you’ll regret for the rest of your life. Because you were too scared to tell him: I’m so afraid that I’ll drown too, Jimmy. Though that is the only thing you wanted to tell him.

———

After hanging up that day, you leave work immediately, saying nothing to anyone. You think of screaming: Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! You think of crying. Of bashing someone’s car with your fist. Of running over one of the jerk security guards who’d given her a hard time when she came to pick you up after a day of work. You dial her phone over and over again, but she does not answer. You will learn that she didn’t answer the phone because she was curled up and weeping on the black-and-white vinyl checkerboard of your bathroom floor. When you come in the door, she is seated on the couch. When she sees you, she starts crying. Crying hard. She lists on the couch like a half-sunken ship. You go to her and envelop her, and say, It’s going to be okay; it’s going to be okay; it’s going to be okay. This is something you believe as an unalterable truth. You have to believe it. Nothing else will do. Nothing else is allowed.

———

You come to distrust her primary care physician. Dr. Magoo, you start to call her. At best you think she’s careless, at worst you think her a fool. Despite her probably having helped countless people at the crappy clinic where she’s employed. Despite having followed protocol for people who have week-long debilitating headaches like your partner had. You come to distrust her because she keeps saying: This is rare. I’ve never seen this before in all my years of practice. Which—fine, fine—may be true. But, you think she is parsing things wrong. What is rare, you come to find out, is cancer of the pineal gland. Accounting for one percent of all cancers. Most regularly, these lesions turn out to be cysts and benign tumors. Often, folks go their whole lives with a growth in there and are none the wiser. Often, something has sprouted up in situ, before the eyes have opened, before the first breath has been drawn. The cancer, you want to explain to this doctor, is rare. But not lesions. Lesions are common. Like colds. And crushes. And death and life, and everything that exists, has ever existed.

———

The interim is excruciating in that things start to resemble normalcy. A quivery facsimile of what traipses around as normal. This interim period is too long. Nearly three weeks from the first phone call to the meeting with the neurosurgeon. People say we should be heartened, that she should take ease, some comfort from this. If there were a real problem, they say, they would’ve hauled her in and gotten to slicing. It’s not a medical emergency. So what’s a lighter word than emergency? There’s still something in there that should not be. The only synonyms for emergency you can dredge up have to do with danger and peril. There is no inkling of stasis or equilibrium. They say the neurosurgeon will probably recommend a watch-and-wait approach. You think of what that means when it comes to weather. Watch indicates conditions favorable to a storm’s developing. Warning says that the tornado will touch down somewhere. The hot balmy Southern Illinois summer day has been replaced by low pressure and a tidal push of cold air, the skies turning yellow-green, the thick winds lapping the roofing slate. How this relates to treatment decisions, you cannot factor or fathom.

———

Together you meet with the neurosurgeon on a Friday. The day before you’d gone to a bar you both like and ordered wine. You’d gone someplace else for pizza. The skinny ones cooked in a wood-fired stove. Then you’d bought some more wine. Once at home, there was a tectonic shift. The normalcy you’d become accustomed to was built on a fault line you’d convinced yourself was dormant. It was not. The pressure had been building. The normalcy was like one of those toothpick bridges you’d built at the science fair as a kid: your confidence grew as the bridge held one five-pound weight after another, then dismay overtook you when the bridge shattered suddenly and completely into a heap of shredded wood. You realized your normalcy had been flimsy, a slipshod construction, when, just like that, she drove the car of her mental well-being into a yawning void of helplessness. She was certain the neurosurgeon would tell her that she was dying. That there was nothing to be done. That it was sayonara time, the sun had already set and she would soon ride after it, forever chasing the friscalating dusklight. She took up this dirge, this mourner’s wail; she was mourning herself, the future dead self she was certain she would soon become. You were at a loss.

Hours passed. Her eyes became red and stoned-looking. You took a slug of Dickel. Another. You looked outside. There was no coast, no briny sea, no smoggy skyline. Just the liquid dark of your neighborhood. You wanted to despair with her. You are good at despairing, at scraping barrel bottoms and coming up with thick, tarry gunk. You think. You go for a eureka type of action. You rummage around and find your Niño Fidencio candle. She barely watches you. She has become part of the couch, lifeless foam and tweed upholstery, and the small pillows she’d made a year or two ago. You make up the bed, crack the bedroom window, light the Niño Fidencio (who you will learn after the fact was a healer of sorts and was thought to work his miracles through what are known as Little Boxes). You help her shuffle into the bedroom and onto the bed. The Niño Fidencio’s flame flickers, casts shadows on the wall. From the sideboard at the front of the house you retrieve a box of thirty-year-old Trivial Pursuit cards. You ask the questions, starting at History, working down through Science and Nature, finishing with Sports and Leisure. A calm comes down. Little Boxes.

———

And like that, it is over. Nearly over. Never over. The neurologist says: And don’t worry so much. He shakes her hand again and again. As though she were a winning contestant on a TV game show. He shakes your hand, too. He smiles. Is friendly. Comfortable. He does his dictation right there as the two of you sit and listen. Stunned into a place that is not quite relief, though you feel it, relief, unfurling in your belly. The heavy clay that had settled there begins to come apart, dissolves into rich, riverine silt. He says: Nothing in life is one hundred percent but I would be very surprised if this ever became anything to worry about. It is a cyst, okay? He pulls up the MRI slide, and there before you on his monitor is her brain. Her eyes are hardboiled eggs.

You know if she tried grasping your hand, it would be pigeon weak. She is squeamish of all things bodily, internal. You look at the image before you, and it is aqueous and perfect, saving the tiny dot of the cyst. And even that is perfect, as it is a cyst. It is not cancer. It is not a tumor. I don’t want to do anything more than a few follow-up scans, he says. When she asks whether a biopsy will be performed, he screws his face as though he’d bitten down on a heap of Sweetarts. Morbid, he says. Extremely morbid. Invasive. No, this is a cyst. He points at the scan. No biopsy necessary. Come back in six months, we’ll scan, and it will be the same. Then a year. Then three. Then you can forget about it. There’s no such thing as certainty but this is as close as it gets. I see this four, five times a week. It was probably there since before you were born, he tells her. He shakes your hand again. He’s wearing a nice tie. He opens the heavy door. You walk through, pad down the industrial carpet, and then the two of you teleport to the car. You go into this sob-laugh-hyperventilate thing, and then stop. You stare, the bland gray of hospital garage before you. You put the key in the ignition, back up, and drive away.

Edmund Sandoval

Edmund Sandoval lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in the minnesota review, The Common, and Fourteen Hills, among others. He earned his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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