“Whoever has pneumonia anymore?”
The girl, sandy hair limp against her jaw, side-eyed me as she asked this question. She mashed yellow Play-Doh into a smiley face. Her forearms were so skinny my fourteen-year-old hands could fully encircle them. The dark, curly-haired Russian with appendicitis formed a pink heart on a purple circle. We were at Maimonides Hospital, in Borough Park, Brooklyn. It was summer break; I was going to be at the same high school with them that fall. I twisted a white swirl of clay against blue.
“That looks like Mary,” said the sandy skeleton girl.
“The Virgin Mary.”
It was rather abstract.
“You gonna put that on my record?” The woman sitting with us at the low round table made no reply. I don’t remember her face. I just remember the clipboard balanced on her knee. I remember that anorexic girl who told me she’d been hospitalized three times already. At school, she hid behind baggy fatigues, loping against the orange-and-brown tile walls, never acknowledging me. Maybe she’d only recognized me in a hospital gown. But I doubt it.
I thought about her stamping that smiley with calculation, and my thoughtless twisting of the white clay on the blue, five years later during another summer break, my first out of college. Moving on from the passé pneumonia (or was the anorexic girl subtly complimenting a retro-chic condition?), I was at the National Institutes of Health recovering from a mysterious hybrid bug. How cutting edge.
A woman with a husky Baltimore accent (I’d learned right then that there was a Baltimore accent) gave me a box of colored pencils and a notepad.
I made tiny things.
“Use the whole sheet,” she said. I drew a whale, its blubbery body falling off the paper’s edges. “Those eyes. They’re very scared.”
I drew her a green bull, its gold-ringed nostrils flared. A trickle of blood down its fighter’s forehead, smoke curling out of its nose.
“We’re gonna get you permission to draw on the walls. It’s too clean in here.”
My brother, twenty-one, joined a session, designing hatch marks, railroad tracks.
“Those look like stitches,” she said.
He stared at her. “It’s just an abstract design.” He didn’t join us again.
Before the surgery, there was a boy in the patient lounge with the same rare immune deficiency as me.
“Guess my age,” he said.
A baseball cap shaded his old-man baby face.
“Sixteen,” I ventured.
“Twenty,” he said. He sounded tired.
I told him I needed surgery and he showed me the half-moon scars on his neck.
“You’ll be fine,” he said. He sounded tired.
I didn’t get the half-moon scars. They didn’t want to risk repeated half-moon scars, surgery after surgery, bit by bit. They did it in one fell swoop, cut out the whole tangle of lymph nodes in my neck, preemptively, ear to collarbone to ear. Colombian necktie, my brother joked. Except my tongue stayed in my throat.
I was Frankenstein. I was bloated. Jon Lovitz, my brother said. I couldn’t find the boy or maybe I was hiding from him. I couldn’t read or write in that time; it was too nauseating, though I managed, once, to scribble down a few morphine-induced nightmares. And I drew. Sharp leaves curved like scimitars, bulbous flowers, and bulge-eyed, sheep-faced girls. For my mother’s birthday, bold-colored geometry. I couldn’t present it to her that morning. They wheeled me away for another CT scan before her arrival from the Children’s Inn. I imagined her picking a single blueberry off my abandoned breakfast tray. She wasn’t eating.
“You have range,” the woman from Baltimore said.
I don’t know why my father didn’t like her. Artist/adult figure rivalry? He would flip through my notebook and say “mhm” with approval. In the patients’ crafts room he sewed me scarves. Crinkly white. Gauzy lavender. I never did get permission to draw on the walls. But when I left, stitches replaced by red-purple stripes, I twirled a scarf around my neck, clutched my notebook under my arm and freshly sharpened pencils in my fist. Before, I hadn’t yet found a life direction; I was young; there was plenty of time to decide. Coming out, I knew that in order to live, I would have to create.