Do you remember Ryan White, that kid who got AIDS from a blood transfusion or that woman who got it from her dentist? I do. Just last week a frigging dentist in New York, who had been an AIDS activist in the 80’s was caught purposefully trying to infect patients. He was also convicted of distributing child pornography and of having sex with a dog, but that’s beside the point. The POINT is the medical profession is a friggin’ scary place. I’m not a doctor myself. I’m a patient, newly a patient, in fact. I haven’t had health insurance since I was seventeen, so twenty years ago, I was what you’d call an upstanding citizen. I especially haven’t had dental insurance. I haven’t been to the dentist since I was twelve, one of the times my mother did the right thing.
I have an abscess. I have this festering, swollen, foreign bacteria eating up the root of my tooth and threatening my actual jaw bone. I’ve been staving it off for close to two years now, picking at it and rinsing with peroxide, trying to keep it clean and free of debris, but I’ve failed. Something got into the crater in the middle of it and knocked around in there and made it mad. I remember when I was in Los Angeles, toward the end, and I had a righteous throat infection. I was in the process of being evicted and had barely enough money for Dollar Store produce and cardboard shavings kibble for my cat. I got this infection. My throat closed up and I couldn’t breathe well. I took a flashlight to it and found that my tonsils were swollen like testicles and red like a burnt ginger who fell asleep on the beach. When I poked them with my finger it made me gag and they oozed. This is awful, I know. I know that you’re squirming and wondering why I’m telling you this garbage, but I need you to understand that it calms me. I’m in my head right now. I have to talk myself out of it, down from it, so forgive me, but you’re going to need to hear about how I poked a hole in my tonsils with a peroxide q-tip and how those fuckers drained until I was puking green bile and infection into in the sink in the bathroom. I had to do it. I had to be out and on the road back to New Hampshire in two days.
It’s been six years since I operated on my own tonsils. I’ve sucked on a lot of garlic since then. Did you know that garlic is a natural antibiotic? It draws the infection out. It’s also something I can afford. Besides, antibiotics kills your gut bacteria, like wipes them out. We need that bacteria to, well, I don’t remember why we need it, I just know that we do and I know that the antibiotics they’ve had me on for two weeks have crushed all of my bacteria army and the probiotics I’m taking to counter the insurgence, is only helping incrementally. My soldiers have been wiped out by a cloud of agent orange antibiotics and it’s causing panic attacks. Did you know a side effect of antibiotics is anxiety? No? Join the fucking club. Like I need more anxiety to eat away at my brain.
As soon as I have this surgery, as soon as I’m done with another week of this bacterial serial killer, Clindamycin, I have to take a 5-day super dose of probiotics and litter my gut with shiny, happy, new bacteria. I’ve learned a lot about my body and health on the internet in the past six years. I could be a fucking doctor myself, but I’m not. I’m a dog walker.
Listen, I’m not complaining; far from it. It’s a blissful existence. I work four hours a day and make more than I did as a production manager in Hollywood. I may own a house by the end of the year. Also, I’m not surrounded with vapid people anymore. That’s the biggest bonus ever. I have peace, you know. I have a peaceful four-hour stretch of — I feel guilty even saying it — work, where I listen to Stephen King audio books and talk to dogs. It’s my kind of isolation, man. I live in Boston now. New Hampshire was a little too slow — slower than I remembered, but Boston is just the right kind of hum. It reminds me of New York and New Hampshire combined. I think it’s perfect. That’s why I feel so frigging nuts lately. I’ve never understood it — the anxiety — or I guess I’ve never noticed it before, but it’s true. I don’t think life has even been slow enough for me to understand my own squirrel brain, but now that I walk all day and write all night, and don’t talk to anyone who can talk back besides the baristas and the Whole Foods clerks, I’m beginning to see the edges of neurosis. No. Surely neurosis is too strong a term.
My Gram, she’s a hypochondriac and a borderline hoarder. I’m neither of those things, though I will admit that fear has moved in and is making its vagrant ass welcome in my cells. I fight it every day. I’m fighting it right now. Every time I think about the dentist and what he’s going to do to me in one hour and eleven minutes, I get clammy and the rat wheel kicks up a notch in the depths of my grey matter. I start thinking about all the things I’ve done wrong, like how I stole two-hundred bucks from petty cash to pay my rent. I replaced it, but that’s beside the point. Or when I took out a payday loan that I couldn’t cover and they drained my bank account and then the bank closed my account because the fees made me into deadbeat. Or when I moved into my Gram’s trailer in the retirement community and I tried to clean out the toiletries in her bathroom, some of them ranging in expiration dates from 1992–2001 and she melted down in front of me and begged me not to, so I did it while she was out; the kitchen sink too and the pantry. I shoveled expired alphabet soup and kippered snacks into giant lawn bags and ushered them off to the dump before she could return. I didn’t care whether they were treasures to her or trash. I just threw them out to make space, to give us both some breathing room and then when I couldn’t take the piles of antique dolls or the vintage rooster figurines lining the walls of what I called the cock room, I left her there with her self-made burglar alarms, her butter knives stuck in the doors. I was tired of triggering her “butter knife alarm system” every time I came in from smoking under snowflakes, opening the front door to falling, clattering knives, and Gram coming around the corner of the kitchen in a tartan dressing gown, screeching, “Jesus Lord, you scared the piss outta me, Katie. Get in here, girl. You need to quit that shit anyway.” It was all too jarring and sad and smelly. I had to leave. I wasn’t ready to quit smoking yet.
I didn’t start feeling the pain in my tooth (teeth, really. There’s loads of work to be done in there) until after life became a steady, even keel of good. After I quit the cancer sticks and got to walking as a job, it’s like my body knew, was just waiting for the right time to be like, “Hey, I think you’re ready now. Do you think you are? Does it really matter what you think?” and then — bam! — an explosion of pain so ground shatteringly intense that I thought the tension in my neck would sever my spine and my head would fall right off and roll down the street.
It hit me one day while I was out with a pack of six dogs. We were doing pretty well, trucking along, no fights, not much pulling, just a good group of fluffbutts and me walking amongst them with three large bags of dog shit in my right hand. The pain hit me like I’d been shot through the face with an arrow, not that I know what that’s like, but can imagine it must feel similar to this chaotic sensation. I almost dropped the leashes. I almost smacked my head with my shit bag hand and it took everything in me to refrain. The whole world went blurry and I dropped down to my knees, the pack surrounding me and trying to lick the pain off my face. One of them stepped on the bags in my hand and tore it with excited claws. The shit smeared the ground and roots of the tree I was kneeling next to and the fluffiest of them, Cooper, the bouncing labradoodle, stepped right in it. I’m not sure if you know how difficult it is to clean shit out of a labradoodle’s coat, but let me tell you, it ain’t fun, especially with jaw pain that feels like it’s slowly digging a crater into your brain. I managed to get in the car, but I couldn’t drive. I called my wife and she came to rescue me with her car full of dogs.
My wife. Caroline. I haven’t told you about her yet. She’s the source of my peace and light and love. But more than that, she forgives me for being such a terrible shit for most of my life. She also lets me be. Oprah and the people who write the relationship guides don’t tell you that this small action, this one thing, is the key to love and relationships; find someone who lets you be completely yourself, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Oh, and also someone who threads the toilet paper in the right direction. That’s important too. Caroline is all of those things and more. I haven’t told her about the anxiety or the panic attacks yet. I haven’t told her that for two weeks I’ve been envisioning scenarios that are so far outside of the realm of reality, that I should be able to see it, the truth, and should be able to talk myself down from them. I haven’t been able to. That’s what scares me.
I haven’t told her that I think that the cop who just moved in next door and who can see from his second floor apartment into our dining room, has been planted there because someone in the neighborhood complained about our before bed ritual of two hits on the pipe and giggling conversations that pulse us to sleep. I’m convinced that he’s surveilling us and that soon our door will be kicked in by the Marijuana Task Force and I’ll be arrested. I can’t get arrested again. They beat me up the last time.
I also haven’t told her that I think I’m going to die under local anesthesia at the dentist’s office today. I’ve been dreaming of it. I’ve been thinking about it every time I walk, eat, drive, and fuck. I’ve scoured WebMD Wiki for similar cases and have found a few of them. People bleed out. Or they have a bad reaction to the anesthesia. Or they do a combination of both and the new dentist who is working his way through his hours at the practice clinic like the one I go to, doesn’t know what to do and they panic and do nothing and the woman with the sucking, gaping hole at the back of her mouth flat lines in a crappy, cracked, puss green vinyl chair that’s been bolted to that floor since 1987. I wish I’d told her. If I survive this, I will come clean about the anxiety.
The hard part is knowing that I’m spending a huge portion of my beautiful time worrying about things that don’t need worrying about. It’s eating away at me, layers of skins sloughing off every time I have a negative anxiety driven thought. I’ve been crying. I’m crying right now. I can’t stop. I can’t stop thinking, what if this is forever? What if I never come out of this? The traffic on 95 does nothing to soothe me. I used to sit in an hour of traffic in the middle of the day, just to cross town in LA for a lunch meeting where another of my scripts would be rejected. I used to accept that traffic was a part of my life. I used to be calm.
Until three years ago, I’d only ever been in two car accidents that weren’t my fault, minor accidents that barely needed reporting to the insurance agencies. In three years here in Boston, home of the shittiest, motherfucking “drivers” on the face of the scorched earth, I have been in three — THREE — car accidents. Every single asshole was looking at their phone and caused major damages. The first one tore my passenger door off, as Caroline was getting out. I still have dreams that the driver of the plumbing truck that hit us, tore her arm off. The feeling sends me down a rabbit hole of shivering, teeth clattering anxiety and fear. The second was this douchebag in a low rider Mercedes, staring at his phone while blowing a red light through an intersection with three inches of snow covering the ground. I was caught on that one. Normally I would have just sped up, gotten out of the way, but I couldn’t because a mother was jaywalking her screaming kid across the street in front of me. That one nearly totaled the Jeep. And the third, a cab driver, slammed me from behind while I was sitting at a red light. My knee is still screwed up after that one. I’d call it PTSD, but I wasn’t raped during any of these accidents, nor was I witness to my buddy’s legs being blown off while being bombed in a foreign land.
I have to remind myself that I am okay when I’m sitting in traffic now. I have to reign in the fear that turns to anger in the blink of an eye in. I have to remind myself that in twenty-five minutes I will be in that vinyl chair, with a chopstick sized needle stuck in the raw flesh of my jaw pumping me with a numbing agent so I won’t be able to feel the pain. If I’m fearful, or if the loads of antibiotics that have been killing off my bacteria don’t do their job, I will feel all the pain of my gums being sliced and teeth yanked from their sockets. I will feel the blood drooling down my throat and I will vomit and if I can’t feel it, I might choke, so I have to get a hold of the anger. I have to get a hold of the anxiety. I count to ten with deep breaths and turn on a walking meditation on my phone. The soothing Australian dude’s voice trickles into my ears and I feel my heart move out of attack mode and into just regular old heart beats.
I turn everything off from there.
It’s a funny thing to know that you’re wrong, to feel this overwhelming sense of gratitude that you just plain old had the wrong idea about something or someone. When I first met my little hipster friend, Janie, in a writing class, I thought, “Oh here we fucking go again. This kid in the high-wasted floral print shorts with the woven leather belt, second hand camisole with no bra, and grandma glasses bopping down the street is coming in here, isn’t she?” She did come in here, here being the bright orange room at the Writer’s Academy Boston, with the giant picture window that faced Beacon Street in not Boston, but Cambridge. I think they gave us that window so we could look out and observe our world, to find our subject matter, to find the answers to life’s hidden meanings in the grumpy passersby on the street. I was sitting there, observing Janie, scowling. She had ridden her bike all the way from frigging BU probably and she was sweaty and she didn’t care. And I thought, “You little asshole. Stop trying so hard.” Then she turned to me and smiled, waved, and walked in. The only seat available was the one right next to me, of course. Janie plunked down, the smell of her sweat preceding her, said, “Hi there!” and offered me the open and rolled paper bag she was holding. Inside were a dozen fresh baked donuts, in varying sizes, a plethora of toppings and succulent smells. “Want one? I snagged them from the bakery I work at, 4 Macaroons.”
“No, thanks. I don’t eat sugar,” I said.
“That is way unfortunate,” she said smiling, turning her attention from me, and offering the bag to the rest of our workshop-mates.
Her sweat offended me, but by the end of class she’d made me laugh three times with her goofy honesty and told me this very funny story about how she had been invited to a ball by her very Kennedy-esque boyfriend and since she’d never been to a ball, she had to do some research online about it.
“Don’t ever Google ‘hair for balls’,” she said and shook her head, stuffed a powdered donut into her big mouth, and smiled through the dusty air around her face. It made me laugh so hard that I forgot about the shorts and the belt I myself had worn in high school or the sweet donuts. It made me forget to judge her anymore and instead, I just became her friend.
I feel that same warm, fuzzy feeling about my dentist right now, Dr. Gupta. He made this ordeal quick and almost painless. They had to give me more anesthesia than usual and he said my face might feel numb for up to twelve hours, but at least I couldn’t feel the plucking of my molars. Dr. Gupta did have to yank so hard on the one farthest in the back that he smacked my top teeth with the metal plyers, but at least nothing chipped and I was in and out in thirty minutes. I didn’t choke. I didn’t vomit. I didn’t die. I can’t wait to tell Caroline. I was disappointed to hear that I have another week of these warring, destructive antibiotics, but maybe now I can use the good experience to meditate on when the anxiety washes over me. It was so easy. I’m driving again, almost home in fact, and soon I’ll be wrapped in a blanket on the couch watching a soccer game, just like when I was home from school sick when I was kid. I don’t get these moments much anymore, so I cherish them when they happen.
I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time. That’s the big regret I have. I wish I had been able to stop my brain before it took off on the rat wheel of chaotic thought and perilous paralyzing fear — Oh crap! Train tracks. Just up ahead. I hold my breath when I go over them. I have since I was a kid, sometimes imaging the train coming — from where? — out of nowhere, just like in the movies when the heroine, at the last second, sees the conductor just feet from her car from the driver side window and there is nothing she can do, but be driven into oblivion by an unmovable force. It’s quick and it’s terrifying and it’s over. So I hold my breath and go quick over the tracks. Surely I can get by without getting hit.
But I don’t want to waste my time on thoughts like these anymore. I don’t want to squander a life worrying about the future or slight misdeeds of the past. I haven’t truly figured out how to live in the moment, but I think I’m close. I have to be. I meditate on it enough that it should be ingrained in the cells of my being, which leads me to believe that my brain is a bright, giant, glorious orb that rules the planet at this point. It’s too strong for even a train. The tracks. Fifty feet away. I’ll be fine. I can’t help look both ways as I go. Nothing. I smile and shake my head at my repeated stupidity and think of Caroline, waiting for me when I get home and our beautiful, kind, and accepting life. I think of how ethereal she was on our wedding day, in flowing linen, her hair swallowing her milky shoulders and the smell of peonies all around us. I never imagined I’d marry. I never imagined I’d find someone so clean and good and yet, the Universe rewarded me somehow, gave me something beautiful and kind. She makes us breakfast every day. I hadn’t eaten breakfast in thirty years before I met her, but now I feel like something’s missing if —
It hits me out of the corner of my eye, that brief glimpse of something awful, followed by a sinking feeling that I am being threatened. My drooped cheek and mouth cann’t twist itself into a grimace, so I can only stare in slack horror at the bus. It’s less than ten feet away, close enough for me to see the big, blocky T in the middle of the yellow stripe lining its box face like a straight-lined mouth. I can see the number 0900 and make out the driver, frantic, turning a wheel that has given up. My hands grip my own wheel and brace for the impact. I’ve been here before. I’ve done this before. I have a driver side airbag for just this occasion. I can’t close my eyes. The anesthesia has crawled its way into my temple and made my hairline go numb. My left eye stays wildly aware of the mechanical, gas-guzzling dinosaur on a collision course with my Jeep. The car in front of me is blissfully unaware. The car behind slams on its brakes. I hear the slaughtered pig sound of squealing airbrakes and then the thunk of a stomped emergency brake. The crush is something like a symphony of glass all around me. I feel my neck snap to the side and then I am in a space of darkness where there is no time, only the smell of sunny side up eggs and green pesto on toast, the lilting tinkle of my wife’s Illoveyou kiss just above my ear, and then sleep and raining glass.
Copyright © 2016 by M.A. Barrett