It’s January, and everyone looks lumpy and strange in their winter coats. I fell in love on the train tonight for the fourth time this week. January looked perfect on her and she had the type of hands that I can’t stop staring at: the knuckly sinewy type that you can practically feel just by looking. I laughed at my book and looked up to see if she’d noticed, and she hadn’t, she was listening to music with her eyes closed. When you fall in train love no one opens their mouths, which is good because I talk kind of crooked and she might’ve said something dumb. Instead I watched her hands and fell more in love and we got off at the same stop but she was faster, up the stairs and out of sight. “I love you,” I screamed at the back of her beanie, in my head.
ICYMI: I joined my first-ever writer’s group, which we dubbed — somewhat unoriginally — the lonely writer’s club. We meet every other week, so every two weeks I’ll post my free-writes from the group on here.
This week’s prompt was simply, after the election: What now?
My response to the election of Donald Trump has been to dress gayer. And while the question, “What does it mean to ‘look gay?’” has many contentious answers, mine is a snapback. Combat boots. Baggy leather pants and aggressive jackets. No makeup, rap music, and a ‘don’t fuck with me’ face. I snarl at every white man on the subway, wondering if he’s the asshole who decided my basic human rights are less important than economic policy.
I continued this philosophy on Saturday night. And, sitting on the subway to 8th Avenue with my headphones in, I felt a man tap me on the shoulder. He was sitting right next to me, and while I fumbled to pause Rae Sremmurd and remove an earbud, he leaned in close, waiting. My whole body tense, one hand inching toward the pepper spray on the key ring in my right pocket, I addressed him.
“Do you know how to get to 59th Street?”
I wasn’t sold—we were on a Manhattan-bound L train going nowhere near 59th Street. And why, out of everyone on the train next to and across from him, did he ask me? Every synapse in my brain lit up like I was being held at gunpoint. Adrenaline coursed through my veins and pounded in my ears. I’d spent my week writing about hate crimes committed against black, Hispanic, and gay people by those who felt Trump’s win meant they could act with impunity. I was more than a little paranoid.
“You’ll have to transfer to the A/C/E,” I answered, a steely edge to my voice.
“Oh, okay. Which stop do I get off at?”
“The last one.”
I replaced the earbud. He wasn’t a particularly menacing man—his sweatpants and parka were clean, as were his shoes and fingernails. He’d stuffed a fuzzy beanie in his back pocket to reveal a fresh haircut. And I was used to men addressing me — asking for directions or tossing out an unsolicited, “I like your haircut” — without considering that I’m small, I’m female, and I’m traveling solo.
But I was wearing the hat and the pants and the jacket. And we were living in Trump’s America.
ICYMI: last month I joined my first-ever writer’s group, which we dubbed — somewhat unoriginally — the lonely writer’s club. We meet every other week, so every two weeks I’ll post my free-writes from the group on here.
This week’s snippet isn’t from a prompt; it’s the story of something that happened to me that I’d been itching to write about all week.
When I walked into the bathroom last Monday morning, I half-saw something flutter past my right cheek and land, with all the delicacy of a falling leaf, on the counter next to the sink bowl. It wasn’t a falling leaf, though. It was black and crumpled. It looked like a clump of dirty cobweb wound together into the shape of a lima bean. I had no idea where it had come from, but it seemed out of place against the marble. As I bent in to look closer, it began to move.
The chrysalis or sac or cocoon or whatever it was twitched, and out of it fell dozens of tiny worms. As I watched they wriggled forth like so many intestines, directionless and blind. They were about the length and width of the white crescent on my pinky fingernail and translucent, with pinpricks of darker pigment where the head should’ve been. They spread out, filling one corner of the counter, looking for dirt but finding only hard resistance. The sac sat still. My stomach turned, as though the skin of a corpse had been peeled back before my eyes to reveal a swarm of maggots underneath. A deep sense of dread washed over me. I didn’t know what was happening, but I wanted it to stop.
I’m used to killing bugs in our apartment. I’ve smushed spiders, stepped on centipedes, flattened roaches with my shoe, and even killed a bed bug I found crawling on my comforter, squeezing its flat shape between my fingers until it burst in a bubble of blood. (There’s still a stain on my sheets). The cat takes care of the horse flies. But the worms were different. I stood watching them, transfixed, not sure what to do.
The whole thing seemed so much like a dream that it took me a few minutes to come to the logical conclusion: I couldn’t let the worms grow to reach their final form in my bathroom. They had to die.
So I killed them. By that time they’d spread out across the countertop, so it was tough to find them all. But I pulled a tissue from the box on the back of the toilet and went after each of them, smashing them into the marble until the twitching stopped.
I wiped up the stains and threw the tissue in the trash. The pod I flicked into the sink and washed down the drain. Maybe I should’ve saved it. As soon as it had disappeared, the scene slipped from reality into fuzzy dream sequence — I became less and less convinced that what I’d seen and done had been real.
As the week went on and I read the news coming out of Baton Rouge and then out of Minnesota, I became less and less convinced that what I was seeing and hearing was real. It was someone’s sick idea of a joke. CNN was running repeats. I’d inadvertently switched from the news to a dystopian film. Anything, except that it had happened again.
I thought back to the burst chrysalis in my bathroom and the deep sense of foreboding that had accompanied it. Maybe omens only exist because we connected unrelated events in our minds. But maybe we notice the connection for a reason.
This Sunday I joined my first-ever writer’s group. We met at a coffee shop in Williamsburg, dubbed ourselves the Lonely Writer’s Club (I know, I know — pause for a moment to allow your eyes to return to a forward-facing position), and opened with five minutes to free-write. These days I almost never free-write, so it was a lovely release to pull up a word doc and just type. We meet every other Sunday, so afterward — should I deem it presentable — I’ll post my free-write here.
This week’s prompt was: Imagine the people who will live in your apartment after you. My response was: poor souls.
At first, they’re happy. They see the high ceilings and kick the crown molding to make sure it holds and marvel at the counter space, the big kitchen, the morning light in their bedroom with a tree — a real tree — outside their window. That’s late August. By November they begin to notice things they hadn’t before: the way the far right kitchen corner crumbles in on itself, each time making a tinkling sound like breaking glass. They begin to feel the drafts around the shoddy windows, and the heat hisses through the pipes like a haunting.
The stove hasn’t been replaced in years, and when either front burner is ignited, it all but explodes. New fissures in the ceiling appear, snaking toward the center with almost imperceptible slowness. When spring comes in March, so do the centipedes, sneaking out from beneath the bathroom sink and skittering across the floor. They’re big — two inches long — with the exoskeletons of creatures extinct since the Pleistocene. They take ages to die when Jill squishes them, their legs twitching long after their tiny heads (or tails, she can never be certain) are smashed in.
Then, in April, Cass wakes up with a bite. It’s small at first, but as the day goes on it spreads, leaving a blotchy red rash across her left thigh. It itches. And Cass, the level-headed one, starts to crack. And the Bushwick apartment they were so proud of — where she and Jill had thrown parties and stacked books cooked elaborate dinners — begins to collapse inward.
So here’s what happened: I was on the L train around 5:45 p.m. on a Monday with an enormous tote bag slung over one shoulder and my cat slung over the other. She was packed away in her carrier, which resembles a mesh-sided gym bag. She wasn’t happy, but she wasn’t drawing attention to herself, either.
Eve (the cat) and I were headed back from a friend’s apartment in Williamsburg, where we’d taken refuge while our own place was fumigated for bed bugs. Five hours earlier I’d scooped some of her litter into a plastic bag, bagged up her food bowl and a cup of kibble, packed a cardboard box to serve as a kitty bathroom, steam-treated her carrier, and wrestled her into it. She’d put up a fight, snagging my sweater and grabbing a nearby power cord with both front paws in a disturbingly human-like effort to keep from being caged.
In the end I won the fight, and we were off to the L train. When we arrived at the friend’s apartment, Eve immediately peed in the tub, clawed the couch, and did her best to remind the friend why — although she’d been tempted to — she’d never adopted a cat herself.
It had been a long, stressful day for both of us, and by the time we clambered back onto the L train we were both worn out. There was nowhere to sit, so I stood near the door: a defeated girl and her defeated cat.
About halfway through the trip, Eve expressed both our moods by emitting a pitiable yowl, and two girls seated near the end of the bench turned to look at us. They were obviously sisters — I’d put their ages at roughly 10 and 7. They wore their hair in matching curly ponytails, and until a moment ago they’d been poring over a book I recognized from my own kid-hood: Dragonology. While the older sister read out loud, the younger sister drew on a notepad in her lap. When Eve meowed, both book and pad were forgotten as they giggled and cooed over the cat on the subway.
I smiled at them and they turned away, embarrassed. But a few minutes later I felt a tap on my right elbow. It was the older sister, and she strained upward to say, very quietly:
“My sister would like to know if you want to sit down.”
I blinked and had to repeat the words several times to myself before they made sense: “My sister would like to know if you want to sit down.” I stared, nonplussed, at the 10-year-old and the 7-year-old who’d offered me their seats amidst a train car packed with adults who hadn’t. They stared back. Finally, I said (truthfully) that they were very kind to offer but that I only had two stops to go. They nodded, and the younger girl handed me the drawing she’d been working on.
“For your cat,” she said, a little shy.
“Thank you so much,” I replied. “This is awesome.”
And it was; she’d drawn four different types of Pokémon lined up and labeled according to their abilities. I folded the page and put it in the pocket of Eve’s carrier. I was near tears, but the girls — oblivious — had gone back to their book. Two stops later, I got off the train.
Now the drawing is hanging on my fridge. I’ll live the rest of my life trying to deserve it.
Everyone else is already in the water, but I’m still on shore. I stand on a stretch of cool beach watching dozens of other people—some whom I know, some whom I don’t—writhe and splash and shout and struggle to come to terms with the fact that they don’t need to paddle to keep their heads above water.
It’s our third full day in Israel. That morning we’d hiked a mountain, toured an ancient fortress, descended the mountain (much to the dismay of my trembling inner thighs), and gorged ourselves on a buffet lunch as only those who’ve gone without breakfast can. Then we’d driven here, changed, and shuffled into the water. Well, everyone else had. I’d hung back, nervous.
“Come on,” Alex shouts, floating by on his back like an otter. Tanya has already waded in. I’ve lost track of Julia. My sister is in up to her neck. “Get in, Claire!” she hollers.
When we were younger, 12 and 9, she was the one who dove into the deep end of our backyard pool while I took the stairs on the opposite side. I enter the Dead Sea in a similar fashion, mincing step after mincing step, wincing when my foot scrapes a salt rock, shuddering at the cold.
“Come on, Claire!” The call comes from Isaac this time—he bobs in front of me, hands held out in encouragement as though I’m a toddler in floaties. Slowly, painfully, I creep along the sea floor until the water rises to my navel.
When my sister, Eleanor, first asked me to come to Israel with her, I thought she was joking. Then, I thought she was insane. But she wore me down with the usual little-sister pleas of, “I really want you to be there,” and in the end the thought of her spending Christmas in Israel by herself (well, with a bunch of strangers) was too much for my older sister’s conscience to bear. I paid the deposit and reserved my spot on the trip.
Then, I panicked. I cried. I called my mom. I cried some more. I didn’t want to jet off to a foreign country—a war-torn one at that—over the holidays. I didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of horrible college-age kids for ten days without respite. I didn’t want to risk getting lost or stolen or having an awful time or my parents disowning me because I wasn’t home for Christmas. (They both encouraged me to go on the trip, but I had my suspicions.) There’s a tenacity to my doubts. They seep in like water and take root like seeds, each one sprouting in the space of a few seconds: The ultimate chain reaction.
But by that time it was too late. I’d promised Eleanor, I’d paid the fee, and my relatives had preemptively forgiven me. I was going. I packed The Fellowship of the Ring to distract me from my misery.
Isaac is talking about a brick. He’s telling us all about the time freshman year he got so drunk that he smashed a full handle, pulled a brick out of a wall, and woke up cuddling said brick in his regulation twin bed. Julia almost falls off her own bed, she’s laughing so hard.
She, Tanya, Isaac, and I are sitting in our cottage-like room in a kibbutz in Gonen, just north of the Sea of Galilee. We’re about to attend Shabbat services—Isaac wears a button-down, and the rest of us are in dresses. It’s the first time I’ve looked marginally presentable all trip. We’re biding the time before dinner telling stories that should be way too personal to share with people we’ve known only five days. Somehow, though, they’re not.
By the time Isaac finishes I’m in hysterics, tears free-flowing down my face. I feel a dull, unfamiliar ache in my stomach: My abdominal muscles are on fire.
Then Tanya starts in with a similar story, and I convulse all over again. Soon it’s my turn, and I gasp my way through my own tale. I try to remember the last time I laughed this hard. I can’t.
“The Western Wall feels like cold soap,” I write in my journal on December 29. “Touching it is like touching time. The currents coursing through it also run through human fingers; we can jump right in without breaking the connection.”
I’m not sure if the jolt in my fingers when I touch the wall is real or imagined, but as soon as it happens everything else melts away. My surroundings blur out like fogged-up glasses until the wall and I stand there, alone, holding each other up. I trace a dozen of the thousands of tiny bits of paper shoved into its cracks, each one representing someone else’s blind hope. I press my cheek up against it. Without warning, I begin to cry.
I walk backward away from the wall (no turning your back on God in his country) still crying, and that’s when Eleanor finds me. I lean into her shoulder and she envelops me in arms and long red hair, some of which lands in my mouth. When I stop crying, we walk backward the rest of the way holding hands.
Elad and I race each other up the stairs of our hotel in Jerusalem. We don’t know it at the time, but there are only seven floors—we stop at the sixth, winded. We climb slowly the rest of the way and laugh when it’s only one flight. It’s freezing out on the roof; I cinch the hood of my thin sweatshirt tight around my ears. In front of us stretches New Jerusalem, modern and boxy. Old Jerusalem lies behind. I turn and look at it. “That’s what I thought it would look like,” I say Elad laughs.
He’s always laughing. He laughs at my horrible Hebrew accent and at my funny way of describing things. He also laughs when he tells me about the time his father visited Jerusalem. Orthodox men there hand out strings of red thread in exchange for a few Shekel. If you pay them, they tie a string around your wrist—a blessing of sorts. Elad tells me that when he was drafted in the army (a commander in charge of his own unit), his father came to Jerusalem to pray. “He got one,” Elad says, gesturing to the men handing out strings. “He still wears it. When your son goes to the army, you do everything.”
He tells me that his friend died in front of him. He tells me that he doesn’t care what happens between Israel and Palestine, who controls which pieces of the country, as long as the fighting stops. He tells me about the time an explosion in the field lodged a piece of shrapnel in his right thigh. He tells me about calling his mom, who was frantic, from the hospital. He tells me he’s killed someone, and then asks me if he’s still a good person.
“Of course,” I say, and I believe it.
He says that a shadow hangs over Israel—there’s a feeling among the people who live there that something big is about to happen. He thinks it will happen soon.
The water is up to my chest and I’m still creeping along the seafloor, afraid to trust it with my weight. My friends churn around me, beckoning, backstroking farther out, then swimming back to where I still stand in the relative shallows. “Lift up your feet,” Isaac says. “Just lean back.”
I can’t lean back. All around me is proof I’ll be fine if I do, but I doubt my own eyes.
“You’ll be fine,” Isaac says. “Trust me.”
I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
“Okay.” I inhale sharply and lift my eyes to the surrounding mountains. I remove my feet from the seafloor a single toe at a time. My legs feel weightless; they rise up to meet the water’s surface like helium balloons.
They were right—I’m floating.
“This time of year most of us are busy feeling like shit because a whole year is almost over,” the great Delia Cai wrote on our group wall. “We’re supposed to plan exactly how much better we’ll be the next 365 days, which seems to discount all the amazing things we accomplished in the past 12 months.”
This was back in December when, indeed, I was feeling like garbage for exactly the reasons she’d proffered. Sure, I’d accomplished some of my goals, but others still seemed distant. A whole year had gone by, and I still wasn’t editor in chief of the New Yorker or something. What had I been doing for 12 months? But, because she is a magical form of fairy godmother, here was Delia giving me a chance for redemption:
“The prompt is: List 10 things from this year that you’re proud of. There have to be at least 10 because you guys are impressive no matter what you say.”
Three of those things are NSFW, but here are seven things I did in 2015 that I’m proud of. (And if you’re feeling similarly dejected about your achievements this past year, I recommend writing to this prompt; you’ll impress yourself with your own greatness.)
I kept my cat alive. I own a tiny, furry creature that depends completely upon me for survival. If I don’t come home, she doesn’t eat. If she gets sick, I take her to the vet and subsequently shove little tiny pills down her little tiny throat. There’s no safety net; I’m solely responsible for her happiness and her well-being.
I figured out what networking is. My dad (a businessman) used to nag me about networking. He’d tell me to play the system—to spin things in my favor as much as possible. I’d push back: “What’s wrong with just submitting an application and letting it go? That’s what everyone else does; I’m just following the rules.” But I wasn’t—I was making things harder for myself. I’ve come to understand that networking isn’t leeching off other people or being manipulative; it’s asking for small favors and connections and always always offering something in return.
I accepted my own face. For so long I carried around a false image of myself that most closely resembled Twiggy. Then, when I glimpsed myself in some reflective surface like a spoon or a dark window, I’d be profoundly disappointed. This year I took a hard look at my actual face: big nose, thin lips, big eyes, butt chin. I came to terms with what I actually look like, so much so that I also chopped all my hair off. This is my final form. If you don’t like it, leave.
I wrote a lot, and I wrote long. This year I wrote two 3,000-word features, one for Vulture and one for Slate. Both were about pop culture, both took months of reporting and re-structuring, and both were widely shared. I’m proud of that kind of work. I’m also proud of the sheer number of stories I’ve produced this year—not just few-paragraph write-ups but actual worthwhile pieces with analysis and insight.
I went to Israel. One day in mid-November I got a text from my sister that read, “Come to Israel with me!” My immediate response was, “That sounds like a terrible idea.” “It’s free,” she replied, which swayed me a little, but I still though it was too dangerous and too last-minute, not to mention I’d be hanging out with a bunch of college kids for 10 days in a foreign country. But she called and begged and I paid the deposit and boarded the plane. The “bunch of college kids” (albeit the older ones) ended up being some of my closest friends. I fell almost as much in love with Israel as I am with New York. I saw dozens of Israeli cities and landmarks, slept in a tent, rode a camel, floated Buddha-style in the Dead Sea, climbed some mountains, drank cheap wine, and did not sleep. I miss it already. (More to come on the trip itself.) Going was completely out of character for me and also one of the best things I’ve ever done.
I cooked. These past few months were some of the busiest of my life, which made it difficult to resist buying lunch every day or eating out all the time. Nevertheless I can honestly say that I consistently brought lunch to work and dinner to my night classes. I’m not saying I cooked a wide variety of things (my repertoire consists of things like lentil soup, chili, hard-boiled eggs, banana bread, a few casseroles, and spinach salad), but I did cook consistently and consume my creations, however inadvisable.
I finished graduate school. With good grades even, although let’s face it: no one cares about your grades in grad school. I also realized that I’ve been working full-time this semester while taking two of the most difficult courses of my graduate career (yes, there are only two, but they’re both four hours long). I’m proud of myself for dragging my exhausted, battered corpse over the finish line.
If I had my priorities in order I would write something profound about what a beautiful, emotional Pride weekend it’s been, particularly due to the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. Instead, I’m going to write about my cat because I need a mental holiday and this supplies it.
Here are some strange things my cat does: Nap in the sink (bathroom or kitchen, either will do), launch brutal, unprovoked vampire attacks on my arms and legs, meow like she’s being tortured for no apparent reason, lick the insides of the chicken packets, plant her ass in my face, vindictively swipe magnets off of my fridge. I like to think that with each trial she’s teaching me a valuable lesson. Here are some things I’ve learned over the course of owning her for almost a year.
1. Scream until someone notices you.
And if they look at you and then look away, scream louder. Scream until they’re staring. Don’t stop, and don’t draw breath.
2. Get in people’s faces.
If screaming alone fails, combine it with this tactic.
3. Sleep whenever possible.
In addition, master the art of staying asleep and/or sleeping in the most inconvenient location possible. On someone’s leg, for example, or on a keyboard.
4. Unless it’s night time.
There are so many things to do at night! Do them all!
5. When it comes to entertainment, innovate.
Who needs the fancy cat toys that litter the floor when you have twisty-ties or bubble wrap or boxes? Who needs a scratching post when you have a whole couch?
6. Stay cryptic.
Never tell anyone what’s bothering you. If they really love you, they’ll figure it out.
7. Mark your territory.
Excrement and fur balls work equally well.
8. If you see something clean, mess it up.
Clinically tidy spaces are no fun.
9. Take some time each day to stare out the window.
It’s meditative. (For best results, increase the amount of time allotted to this activity each day. Build up to hours.)
10. Look cute all the time.
It’s the one fool-proof method to get away with anything.
It’s 10:43 a.m. and I’m late. I’m supposed to meet a friend at the Brooklyn Museum at 11, but my cat was needy this morning, and today’s dour sky doesn’t invite pedestrians.
Nevertheless, I grab a beige shoulder bag from the door hook and make a mental list of what I’ll need: Wallet? Yes. Keys? Yes. Headphones? For sure. Book? I’ll probably get bored on the train. Water bottle? I’m always dehydrated. Comb? Compact? Mini lint roller? Advil? Each item sails into the bag. By the time I’m finished it’s the close cousin of a bowling ball, both in size and shape. I grab a jacket too, just in case. And a granola bar. And an umbrella. And then I leave.
My mid-sized bag, the aforementioned beige one, is meant to limit the amount of stuff I carry with me–for really massive hauls I have the Big Black Tote. Ideally, I’d carry as little around the museum as possible because bags are heavy, and shoulder strain can really distract from the paintings. Intellectually I know this, but some inner compulsion demands that I prepare for every foreseeable circumstance: dehydration, starvation, boredom, lint. I blame myself to some extent, but mostly I blame bags.
It’s rare to see a woman without a bag. Especially in New York, The Bag is as much fashion accessory as it is utilitarian carry-all. The perfect bag cherry-tops the perfect outfit; ideally, it coordinates with your shoes. (“Goes with” is the term What Not to Wear‘s Stacy London prefers, never “matches.”) Entire design houses–Coach, Birkin, Burberry, Louis Vuitton–became household names thanks to handbags and still rely on handbag sales as revenue cornerstones. (Prada just released the Inside Bag, retailing at $39,760, in hopes it will reverse declining leather goods sales.)
It’s difficult to pinpoint why bags irritate me the way they do. Perhaps it’s because I’m always cramming too much into mine. Perhaps it’s because they seem inherently sexist–a frivolous accessory designed to make up for the lack of substantial pocket space in women’s jeans. (Sure, plenty of dudes carry briefcases to work, but when they’re not packing laptops and paperwork their keys, chapstick, and phones fit fine into their roomy pockets. Even though handbag sales for men are reportedly on the rise, the fact remains that bags for men are seen as extraneous, while bags for women are akin to an extra limb.)
Perhaps it’s because of the sheer weight, both physical and psychological, that handbags impose on their carriers. A stuffed bag is a restriction. When I’m carrying a heavy shoulder bag, I tire easily. I sweat more. I can’t accomplish side tasks; it’s straight to my destination and straight home lest I keel over from the effort of keeping my heavy bag aloft.
My bag holds me responsible. If someone near me needs Advil or a comb or toothpaste or lotion or dental floss or a nail file or deodorant or gum (but no moochers) or contact solution or a tampon or powder or lipstick or an umbrella, I’m their go-to gal. (Note: That’s not even the full list of things I regularly carry with me.) I am a mature, responsible adult, therefore I carry supplies. If I’m caught without any of these items, it’s my fault. I have been careless. I have failed.
My bag makes me vulnerable, not only to the accusatory voices inside my head, but also to flesh-and-blood people. It’s easy to grab a purse or cut its strap or nick a trinket from the yawning mouth of a tote. Carrying too many things screams abundance, and flashy hardware is austentatious. An expensive bag is a status symbol. Heavy bags make running difficult.
For a while I simply tried to pack less, but that never worked. So I went drastic. Yesterday I left my apartment around noon to buy eggs at the corner deli. I slung a jean jacket (pocket level: 4) on over my summer dress and grabbed my phone, keys, and $10. And then I left.
Bag-less, I descended the stairs in minor crisis mode. What if my lips felt chapped? What if it started to rain? What if I wanted to listen to music? My over-preparedness instincts screamed at me to about-face, to pack at least a few extras, just in case. I ignored them. My arms hung loosely by my sides.
I wrote this essay a while back and, because lately I only have time for half-formed thoughts when it comes to blogging, am posting it here in lieu of actually coming up with new content. Please forgive me for taking the easy way out, and enjoy.
My mother’s first serious surgical operation was two months ago. Appendicitis isn’t cancer or heart failure or a stroke—about 7 percent of the world’s population (roughly 50 million people) will develop appendicitis over the course of their lives—but when my sister and I received a group text that read, “Going to the ER with excruciating abdominal pain,” we freaked.
Strangely, she didn’t.
“Is anyone going with you?” my sister asked.
Me: “How are you driving?”
A later progress report from mom read, “Blood drawn, IV in, urine out. Had CAT scan with IV injection of dye to photo guts. Overnight stay.”
Sister: “Should we come home?”
We’re both far from our native Texas—she in Colorado and I in New York.
Mom: “Nah, I should be home tomorrow.”
Two months later, staring up at an ugly tile ceiling in a gown patterned with blue paisley, I marveled at her blasé hospital texts. That night a thin, flexible tube was maneuvered into her abdomen. One of her organs was carved into teeny slivers and sucked out of the cavity of her torso, string by string, like jack-o-lantern goop.
Now, I lay awaiting a verdict on whether my ovarian cyst (“That’s a big one!” the ultrasound nurse had exclaimed) would need a similar procedure.
Just thinking about the process—the tube, the scalpel, the slivers of tissue extracted like parasitic worms—was enough to sink a cold lead ball into the pit of my stomach. I started hyperventilating. I called my mom. “One second,” I said when she answered. “I’m lying down and there are tears flowing into my ear. They’re getting my phone wet.” A pause to wipe them away. Then, “I’m scared,” I said.
“I know,” she replied. “I was, too.”
Her only other surgery had been the extraction of her wisdom teeth. She’d had them yanked in her 40s when I was just ten. To me and my sister, mom’s bed rest was free entertainment. We knotted the waist of a pair of panty hose, filled both legs with ice (to reduce swelling), tied the toes around her head, fashioned a construction paper top hat and called her Abe Lincoln.
I’d been too young then to understand the gravitas of surgery—to realize that the slight tremor in her voice pre-op meant she was on edge. She hid her fear 12 years ago as she did two months ago, to keep her footing as indelible matriarch.
Granted she didn’t want to worry her two far-flung children—didn’t want to inconvenience us by suggesting we travel to be with her—but she also played the hospital visit off to her co-workers and students. “I’m fine,” was her constant refrain, and she was back at work the next week. Minus a few sympathy bouquets, her absent appendix was soon forgotten.
To be ill is to admit, shamefacedly, to weakness. If we do fall ill, some ingrained vein of stoicism keeps us from admitting to what extent the fever, the cough, the vomiting, the surgery, the tests, shake us.
When a friend of mine got the flu in January, she refused all deliveries of soup and offers to accompany her to a nearby clinic. “I’m fine,” she insisted, citing the 40-minute ride from Manhattan to Williamsburg to encourage me to stay home. It didn’t matter that her body was rebelling against her in every way, returning her to a state of childlike dependence and even to a childlike diet (broth and soft foods only).
Worse, our gut reaction is to apologize to others for our illnesses. “I’m so sorry if I cough at you,” an interview subject told me recently. “I’m just getting over a bug.” Last week, one of my professors did the same as she took her seat at the head of class, “I’m so sorry, but I seem to have gotten another cold.”
We do our best to cancel out the burdenhood of illness with stoicism, and if that doesn’t work we fall back on a constant flow of apologies. “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I found myself repeating to the ER nurse as she drew blood from my arm. I was crying, and I was embarrassed. No one says of the sobbing 22-year-old, “she was such a good patient.” That label is reserved for the jovial happy-go-lucky types who don’t put up a fuss.
Feverish, sweating under piles of blankets next to our overcrowded nightstands (somehow they always fill up when we’re sick: thermometer, tissue box, magazine, half-drained lukewarm vat of Emergen-C), we nonetheless perch laptops on our knees to answer emails and G-chats. Somehow the struggle justifies staying home. Such dedication! Such vigor! Dear co-workers, you are not abandoned!
But your undertakings are more for you than for them. “I was in the ER all day today, so I might be in late tomorrow,” I emailed my supervisor, never dreaming she’d reply with, “Stay at home! Rest!” In other words, we’ll be fine without you.
Whether grave or glancing, illness forces us high overhead until we’re looking down at the puzzle that is our life, and the piece we occupy in it. When we’re sick, who notices our absence? Who looks worried? Will someone feed the cat? How will the life we’ve built around ourselves continue while we’re sidelined? Quite simply, it will continue. And that’s scary.
My convalescence only lasted a day during which I caught up on emails, called worried family members, wrapped up a few assignments, bought cat litter, and swept my apartment. The next day I was back in class, fervently apologizing for sending a pitch in late.