Where do you draw the line?
Years ago, a friend told me about an entertaining party trick. When you’re at any kind of social gathering, she said, walk into a random group of people mid-conversation and say, at the next pause, “But where do you draw the line?” No matter what, she insisted, it will always make sense, and the discussion will coalesce around it.
I have spent more than a decade trying this, and I have found it to be true every single time.
Why does it work? Because we humans spend our entire lives drawing lines. They give our lives contour and form. Without them, there is only this giant glop of existence with no rhyme or reason. The world hands us its riot of color, and we draw the borders.
I learned recently about a term I’d never heard in most of my first half-century on this planet — the “vermilion border.” It is, another friend informs me, the place on your mouth where lip segues into plain flesh, where something delicate becomes something workaday. The term resonated with me, not because I love lips (though I do) but because I have always looked at borders with an abiding interest. To me, they represent a distillation of endings and beginnings, or beginnings and endings.
When I was younger, I believed in distinct borders in life. I believed that everything was until it wasn’t. I believed that things were smooth and mild and calm and neutral — until they were scarlet and bee-stung and swollen. I believed that there was one place, and then another, and a distinct line between them.
I know better now.
There are borders that are gradual and borders that are abrupt. There are places you cross and places you don’t. And at the crossroads of our lives, like a particular one I faced recently, there aren’t always tollbooths to usher us coherently from one highway onto another.
Centuries ago, cities had gates or walls. It was clear when you were entering, and it was clear when you were leaving. Armed sentries stood formidable guard. Undesirables were kept out. Most importantly, though, you knew where you were. You knew if you were in, and you knew if you were out. At least, that’s what we believed.
Our world isn’t like that today. Downtown melts into neighborhoods, neighborhoods melt into suburbs and exurbs, and eventually the countryside asserts itself, gap by grass-green gap.
And the passage points of human life, too, are generally not like city walls. They are far more like the gradual vermilion borders that separate lip and face.
I learned this in excruciating fashion over the past decade as I watched my father fade away. Bit by bit, a disease spirited away his brain, his memories, his life. Ever so slowly, he became who he was not, until the human he had spent his life being was gone. There was no delineation point to speak of, only fades and fits and starts — preposterously nuanced border crossings that were unrecognizable as they were happening.
Two months after he died, I came across this quote in a piece of fiction by Neil Gaiman. Never before had something so aptly described what I went through caring for the man who gave me his name:
“Death’s a funny thing. I used to think it was a big, sudden thing, like a huge owl that would swoop down out of the night and carry you off. I don’t anymore. I think it’s a slow thing. Like a thief who comes to your house day after day, taking a little thing here and a little thing there, and one day you walk ‘round your house and there’s nothing there to keep you, nothing to make you want to stay. And then you lie down and shut up for ever.”
This is not universally true. If I shoot you in the head with my Kel-Tec semiautomatic, or if I run you over with my Jeep, I cause only something horrible and abrupt. Death comes instantly, and there is no border to be crossed gradually. But many times, death is demarcated by the same vermilion border that I see when I gaze at my wife’s beautiful lips: It approaches us, or we approach it, and the high scarlet hue of life edges into the who-cares pallor of death, until pallid is all we know.
On the morning of Tuesday, April 19, 2016, I sat in the waiting room near Counter №. 5 in Samitivej Sukhumvit Hospital. Counter 5 has the fortune of feeding patients to both the general surgeon and the urologist, which was fortuituous for me on that particular day.
For six weeks, I had been noticing a dull, barely perceptible ache in my left testicle. Earlier consults and checkups pointed to a hernia, and I had been stepping around gingerly for nearly a month. I believed I had a hernia; I hoped I had a hernia. Because if I didn’t, I was certain that I had something worse.
First I went in to see the general surgeon, Dr. Pakpong, the one who had told me, four weeks past, that I probably had an “early hernia” but to come back in a few weeks for more tests if the ache didn’t go away. He did his manual examination as he had the first time, feeling around and asking for coughs as he probed the border between my abdomen and my — what is the proper term here? — my junk.
“I really don’t see any evidence of a hernia here,” he said. “The pain would be getting worse if it was a hernia, and it would be more tender. I’m afraid I don’t think you have a hernia.”
My mind raced. If it was not a hernia, that left only one thing, something I didn’t want to contemplate. I did not want to cross the border into that terrifying territory. That was not a land I wanted to explore, under any circumstances, intrepid though I consider myself.
“Can we get an ultrasound to verify?” I asked. He seemed reluctant but agreed. And, he added, somewhat soberly, would I like to see the urologist afterward? I answered affirmatively.
Off I was shepherded to Imaging and Radiology, where I was told to strip and don scrubs. In a small, darkened room, I was instructed to remove my pants. Both sets of them. A Thai doctor presently arrived, her eyes peering from above her surgical mask. With a few riffs of synth music added, it would have made for a great opening scene to a low-budget adult movie. But there was nothing scintillating here, no frisson of possibility. Only me, exposed and trepidatious, armed with no travel documents, waiting to cross one of those one-way borders that could forever alter — and shorten — the rest of my life.
She pushed the cold wand into my casually Vaselined groin for what seemed like an hour, capturing image after image. I found out afterward that only 20 minutes had passed. I decided that I would not look at her while she worked. It was not born of embarrassment but of my fear that I would overinterpret her eyebrows and her squint, and persuade myself that yea, I was about to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Greased and chastened, I was reclothed and returned to the seats outside Counter №. 5. It was at this moment that I felt reality bubble and a new, unwanted border approach. I contemplated my life an hour from now: What would it feel like? In which undiscovered country would I find myself?
Minutes passed. A nurse ushered me in to the urologist, who was also a familiar face from four weeks ago. “I have seen you before,” he said, looking over my chart. “It is apparently not a hernia.” My heart sank. “The ultrasound images should be posted in about five minutes,” he said. “Let me examine you.”
And he did, asking questions along the way. The only new thing I had to tell him was that the sensation was sometimes worse in the late afternoons and evenings. “Hmm,” he said, without elaborating. He concluded his examination of me with a single unsettling sentence — informed, I suspect, by his second-language English: “I don’t know what’s wrong with you.” (My wife has said this numerous times.)
We went back to the doctor’s desk, and the ultrasound imagery had come through on his computer. We paged through the PDFs. One showed some bright red pixels against the black-and-white scans. He looked at me squarely.
“These make it clear,” he said. “You have something called a varicocele. It is a varicose vein at the base of your testicle. It is quite, quite common. It is — how do you say it? — uncomfortable but harmless.”
I was dumbstruck. “So I definitely do not have testicular cancer?” I asked. He laughed — a little bit with me, a little bit at me.
“No,” he said, pointing back at the ultrasound image on his screen. “You don’t have any kind of cancer. This is clear what it is. Besides, no one over 25 usually ever gets that. Except for Lance Armstrong. And that was because of the steroids.” We both laughed, together this time. (Editor’s note: Armstrong actually was diagnosed at age 25, in 1996.)
I went outside, where my wife was waiting. She could see the emotion on my face when I emerged, but she wasn’t sure what it meant. She went ashen. I didn’t want to lose it in the middle of the Counter №5 waiting room, so we walked to a more secluded area of the hospital.
“I’m fine,” I told her, and I started to cry. As I suspected, I had stepped across a border. But it was a gentle one that led me into a welcoming new land of continuing health, and I was right where I wanted to be.
Adobe Photoshop has a handy feature known as “feathering,” in which you can soften the transition between an edited area of the photo and the rest of it, so that the border becomes less abrupt and the image looks less doctored. It is a feature of subtlety, something gradual. Much like a vermilion border.
On that day, I emerged from the hospital feathered, for lack of a better term.
I could have come out of that doctor’s office having crossed a starkly demarcated border much like Caesar’s Rubicon, leaving behind a place — health, happiness, confidence — to which I could never return. Some of our life’s transitions are sudden like that. The birth of a child. A cancer diagnosis. Death, sometimes.
But as I look up across the dining-room table at my wife’s lips illuminated by a setting Southeast Asian sun, as I see the tiny steps that colors take from the creamy flesh of her face to the red of her lips, it seems clearer than ever to me that life is far more populated with feathering — as in transitions of the vermilion-border variety — than it is with abrupt hairpin turns.
Maybe the mortal coil is mostly a heat map of countless vermilion borders, ebbing from calm to scarlet and back again. We negotiate them as a sailboat nearing the shore would navigate perilous shoals. And as we approach each, we hope that we can see both the scarlet and the calm — and notice when something, ever so slowly, is becoming something else.
Our world is overflowing with simplistic dichotomies — visions of black and white, us and them, here and there. In reality, though, most things are much more gradual. Often it’s hard to recognize that there are any borders at all. And sometimes — well, sometimes the pencil is right there in our hand and we don’t even realize it.
Sometimes we really do have the power of our borders, if we can only learn to exercise it — if we can simply decide, with focused eyes and an open mind, where we draw the line.
Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.
©2017, Ted Anthony