The morning began in a hospital downtown: a sharp pain to the right of my heart. It wasn’t a heart problem, though that sounds very nice and dramatic. Something to do with my stomach. The gastric guy who did the upper GI told me an ultrasound might be in order. They had found a few things before. I don’t know what more they were looking for. It had all started about five or six years earlier, around the first time I fell in love. I didn’t know when it would end.
Entering the hospital, I stood for a moment in the glow of its lonely fluorescent light. I was a little early, so I stopped in the corridor to read three panels accompanied by pictures of a bloody red and white heart. The exhibit was called simply: Understanding the Human Heart.
The movements of the heart, explained the first panel, quoting an Italian physician and poet from the fifteenth century, are to be understood by God alone, not by human beings. This made me think of the Pascal quote I brought into my fifth grade class at St. Catherine’s: The heart has its reasons that the mind cannot know. Was that something similar? I wondered. I moved on to the next panel: The notions of pain and pleasure, it read, and generally of all sensations, have their source in the heart and find in it their ultimate termination. And on the last was a quote from Aristotle: The heart is the first organ to live and the last to die and the brain is a cooling mechanism to prevent the heart from overheating.
Maybe that’s what I’d been experiencing recently, I thought: some form of overheating.
Last time I had tests done, when I was eighteen, I had the nurses in stitches; that is, before I began weeping. My father came to visit me afterwards and asked what was wrong, at which point I wept some more and muttered something barely intelligible about dying young and the impossibility of love. I remember him standing over me looking baffled like he couldn’t believe he had a child that could say such things. He then tapped me on the shoulder and told me not to be so serious. The tears in his eyes, though, told a different story.
My mother took me out to dinner that night after the tests. She knew I had a hole in my stomach and didn’t say a word. Ever since I’d gone to college I’d become alien spawn to her as well. She desperately wanted me to preserve my student body president, prom princess, athlete of the year, life-of-the-party status, not my current intellectual, sexually ambiguous, hole-in-the-stomach one.
In a dream recently there was a picture of my mother and me. We are both done up in dresses and curls and she is looking at me, smiling and dancing. And the look on her face is one of total admiration, of full-blown pride, saying, Yes, this is the daughter I raised. She is my great hope, my pride and glory, my future, my past, my heart and soul. But this, her dancing happily, holding my hand looking at me, is only a vision in a dream. Was it ever like that? I don’t know. It’s not like that now.
Over dinner that evening, my mother told me a story about a boy I’d known in high school, Scott Davenport, whose mother she’d been talking to—she was always talking to mothers about their children: who had what job, who was pregnant, who was getting married. Scott, she told me, had had a best friend from childhood named Mike who lived around the corner. Mike went to UC Santa Cruz and Scott went to school back East, but every week they spoke on the phone. One day, Scott, not having heard from Mike that week, telephoned looking for him and his roommate said: Don’t you know he’s dead? The day after the big California earthquake Mike had taken someone’s “motorbike” to get a pizza my mother explained, and was hit by a car and died. After the funeral Scott went back to school and “wasn’t able to do a thing,” my mother said, fiddling with her napkin, a little indignant. He totally lost his zest for life, she explained. That was all she said. I don’t know why she told me that story that night.
In the waiting room, I sat down in a chair beside a man who couldn’t stop grinning. I ignored him and pulled out the postcard I’d received the day before from Jenny, my ex. It was a beautiful black-and-white picture: the Brooklyn Bridge crossing the dark rippled river, cables hanging down, cutting across the sky. In the foreground, the debris of piers once bustling with commerce, and on the other side, a bleak cityscape: rectangular boxes, smoke billowing up into the gray-striated sky. The postcard was a little worn from multiple readings:
Hello lady. Couldn’t sleep this morning so I get to watch the elementary kids march into school, Mexican men emerge with produce from the sidewalk, the crossing guards lipstick smile bun and white gloves—hoping that life is falling on you gracefully even though you were always graceful at “listening in with the mouth” as Celan says we must. I was just thinking how every blessing can be a burden and vice versa, how they can masquerade in a wave from moment to moment, but that we must not give in to the specific burden of relativity.
Which specific burden is that? I wondered, for the fifth time.
I hope life is falling on you with the strangeness of curiosity & not alienation—although you can feel alienated being curious & the pursuit of that pure strangeness that is so rare is the closest we can get to our origins: where our true identities really lie. I know I’ve said this before but I’m grateful for the strangeness we have had. I miss it.
As I finished reading, I spied the man who couldn’t stop grinning looking over my shoulder. I gave him a dirty look, covered my postcard, then slid it back into my pocket. The man grinned again before turning away.
He looked like he was sixty but was probably in his seventies—still handsome, his white hair sticking up, a more coifed Einstein, ’70s leather jacket, light blue and white dress shirt and tie. For some reason, from the way he dressed I guess, I thought maybe he was Italian. When the man turned back he still had the huge grin on his face and after a while I couldn’t help but smile back.
You’re very happy, I said to him, waiting to be X-rayed.
You have to stay positive, he said. He no longer sounded Italian but instead Middle Eastern, Israeli, maybe. There is no point otherwise, he explained. That’s why I’ve stayed alive so long. He looked around as if to see that no one else was listening. If we have time, he said, I will tell you a story. I was in a place—sixty-six people died. Only I was left alive.
Just then, a nurse came and poked her head out, calling my name.
Good luck, he said. I see you later maybe. My name is Eli, he said, shaking my hand.
Susan, I said, shaking back.
The nurse was a tall blonde Canadian with short-ish hair and glasses. She took me down the lonely fluorescent hall asking how I was. I thought this was, under the circumstances, a loaded question. Did she want to know that I had become like a child, that the only foods I could digest were applesauce and oatmeal? Did she want to know about sex and God and adolescent grief, about love?
When we reached my room she pulled the curtain separating me from an older woman with a tube down her throat and told me to undress to my underwear and put the green gown on, opening in the back, she’d be right back.
While standing in my underwear I stared up at the wood cross and metal Jesus above the door. (This was one of those St. hospitals with nuns and priests running around everywhere.) Looking up, I had a very un-Catholic moment, in which I thought: This wounded skinny white guy nailed to a cross with sunken eyes is meant to comfort us? I went through an atheist period when I was fourteen, after a friend had been murdered. Maybe, I thought, since the break-up with Jenny, I was leaning that way again. When another friend was killed eight months later, I came back in a big way: Marx’s opiate or Kierkegaard’s leap—who can really say—but I like to think that it was the latter.
After a few minutes, blondie, my nurse, returned. Only twenty-five, she said, looking at my chart, sitting herself down at a large rolling machine with a keyboard and screen. You shouldn’t have erosions. You should be having the time of your life, right? she asked, looking at me.
Did she want me to tell her that the two times I’d been in love I’d developed a hole in my stomach, that there always seemed to be people dying young, that that had a similar effect: First there was Janice when I was fourteen. Then Cary when I was fifteen, also a death. And in the love department: Esme when I was eighteen and now Jenny.
First it was Janice, then Cary and Esme, and now it was Jenny, I wanted to tell her. But “Yeah, well,” was all that came out.
Go ahead and lie down and relax, she said, I’ll be right back. I was now looking directly up at the crucifix and metal Jesus. That was the first time they stuck a camera down my throat, I thought, lying there: in college, with Esme. When I went to the infirmary the doctor told me to avoid cigarettes, alcohol, and junk food.
Are you Irish? the nurse asked, startling me when she returned. I saw your Claddagh ring.
My parents are Irish, I told her. I was born there.
I just got back from Canada, she said. My girlfriend there is Irish.
What did she mean by “girlfriend”? I wondered. I hated when people used that word. It was always so confusing.
I forgot how many Irish there are in Canada, Blondie continued, lifting up my gown. This is going to be very cold, she warned, and shot a green sheen across my stomach. Okay, relax, she said, rolling what looked like a garage door opener with a wire attached to it across the wet surface of my belly. On the screen a transverse shot of my spleen, my name, and the date. She pushed the machine over so I could see. Deep breath. Tummy oot. Hold that. Good, she said, pressing a button to take a picture of my insides. That’s your aorta, she said, pointing to the screen. Brings blood to the heart. That’s your vena cava. Brings blood away from the heart. Relax. Tummy oot, deep breath. Right there. Good. I watched her hands on the keyboard occasionally looking up the screen to try to see what I looked like underneath. Any signs of overheating? I want to ask, but don’t.
In the cafeteria, waiting for my X-rays, I watch a man sitting at the table across from me. He has an oxygen tank like a thermos you carry for tennis: see-through tubes running through his nostrils. He coughs. He looks at the nurses sitting and chatting. He coughs again. As he walks by I can hear the shots of oxygen, every two or three seconds. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax, I think. Then in comes grinning Eli.
He shouldn’t smoke so many cigarettes, Eli says looking at him. May I join you?
Yes, I said.
I’m supposed to tell you a story, he said, no?, setting his tray down. He sat down and took a spoon full of hot Quaker Oats, same as me, and then on his napkin drew a map of Israel: Tel Aviv, The Gaza Strip. He drew a square in the middle and wrote Egypt across it.
I was in the Israeli Army, he said. I will tell you a story about that. There was a time when Egypt attacked Israel—I will not go into it, he said, raising his arm in the air, they had no right—but they did, he said, shrugging, so we went in and surrounded them. Unfortunately, not long after, they were surrounding us again. We were in bad shape. I was the medic in the unit and after a while I told the commander we would not survive without any bandages and only a few grenades, that we must retreat. The commander refused, he would not leave but told me I could go on my own. So I did. I escaped running through a ravine hidden by cactuses. The Egyptians were right beside me. I don’t know how they did not see. When I reached safety I was told every man had been killed. Sixty-six men dead. Only I was left alive.
Yes. I will tell you another story. At fifteen, I went to Auschwitz with my father and brother. We worked for BMW first, then later, when we were moved to Dachau, I was the medic. My father died in my arms because I did not have the proper medication to give him. I was seventeen. I was remembering today, in the waiting room, how these new prisoners came in saying: Do you know they are burning people? And how we did not believe them, my brother and I, and how we beat them. I don’t know why I am thinking of it now.
I lived with two children of survivors once, I said, and this one guy, Todd, told me a strange thing. He said when he was thirteen, the same age as his father when he entered a camp, he became very depressed. He hadn’t been told. It was like he just knew. It was like the memory was in his genes.
Yes, he said, looking down at his tray. This can happen. This is why I did not want to talk to my children or grandchildren about this when they were young. But recently my granddaughter asked me to go and talk to her school. I tried to stay positive, to tell them about the things we did, stories, not all the bad things. You know, he said looking away, shaking his head, I look back and I never believe it was my life. I’m sorry, he explained, I am so full with it today, I don’t know why. But I must not forget that in Dachau, this is where I met my beautiful wife, and that later I will go to see my son. He is in California. He is vice president of some company there. He was supposed to come back to Israel two years ago but the company is doing so well. He says three more years and he will come home. Family must be together, he said.
I guess, I said.
Where is your family? he asked.
And you are here?
I might go back.
You must, he said, and turned then to watch a nun as she passed, staring at her.
Do you believe in God? I asked.
What a question. Do I believe in God? Hmmm. Let me think for a moment. Let me say that I think religion was good 5,000 years ago when people were primitive. It was nice. It stopped people from killing each other. But now? . . . You know how the Jews say they are the chosen ones. I know we are not the chosen ones, he said, shaking his head. If God chose us then he chose us to suffer. He took another spoonful of oatmeal. Do I believe in God? Let me put it this way. Every day as a child I prayed. But I didn’t really pray. I listened to the stories. I liked the Talmud. It made my mind sharp. I liked the story of Solomon.
Let me kiss me with kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine. Is that Solomon?
You know the story.
So you like the erotic religious stories? That doesn’t really count, I said.
Of course it counts. These are important stories.
I’m just teasing.
This is an essential part of life. It keeps one going.
You will see. You have a boyfriend?
You will. You’re a nice girl, not bad-looking. You just have to relax a little bit, I think.
That’s what the shrink said.
Nothing. You were telling me about whether you believed in God.
Oh, yes. Why are you asking a question like this, Susan? You know, I haven’t thought about it in awhile. I don’t know. I get confused sometimes. I do not want to say “No.” Let me tell you a story, Miss Susan. Last week my brother died. Not this week, but last week, last Wednesday. In our religion we grieve for seven days: no shaving, no bathing. My family in Brooklyn is very religious so I did not want to upset them, so I didn’t shave or bathe. I looked horrible all week—all hairy like a monster. And yesterday, the day before I’m going to see my beautiful grandchildren, that is the end of the seven days. And today, he said, after these tests, I will leave. I wonder when things like that happen.
What are the tests for? I ask.
An irregular heartbeat.
An ulcer, I think.
An ulcer? At your age? What age are you?
That is not right. What are you in the waiting room with all these old people for at that age? Me, I’m seventy years old, it makes sense, but you? What could you be so upset about? What? he said, raising his arm up. You are young. You are free. It’s not right, he said, shaking his head. Why aren’t you out enjoying life, experiencing life? Susan, you must not be in your room memorizing the Bible thinking about God all the time with a pain in your stomach. You must experience life: fall in love, go live with your family in California. I’m going to give you some advice, my dear, because I can see you need it: You must be in a leading position in life. If I go somewhere to a lecture or something, to a reading, I always sit in the first row because I want to see, I want to hear. It can be a joy to be hidden, I know, but let me tell you, my dear, it’s a disaster not to be found. He looked at me then glanced up at the clock on the wall. I must go. But remember what I told you now: front row.
Waiting for the A train, I am sitting next to a Japanese woman who is looking at a book with Japanese symbols for captions, a book that is a comic in which the protagonist looks like an older Little Prince. I used to have a thing for the Little Prince, for his boa and elephant, his rose. Before he went off to die in his constantly flowing scarf, he consoled his friend, telling him in one of the stars he would be living, in one of them he would be laughing. “And so it will be as if all the stars are laughing, when you look at the sky at night. You—only you—will have the stars that can laugh,” he said. I read it to a ballroom of people when I was fourteen, after Janice had been murdered. That morning, there was no rustling of coats, no coughing—only a startling silence I’ve never heard again.