by Eric Day
One midwinter’s night, when I was fifteen, I’d gone to bed with what I thought was a bug bite on the right side of my face. I’d scratched it casually, as a boy does when he is thinking of other things like girls and school and the next day, only to find out in the morning that that side of my face had swollen up twice the size of the other and grown tight as a thumb of a catcher’s mitt. My face as a ninth grader was already marginal, what with my long chin and pale skin, but that school morning of dark rain, the furnace coming to life warming the flesh and bones of our old furniture and my overworked mother, I stood before the bathroom mirror and beheld a monstrous crescent of shame.
My family was six members strong, and even with my sister on her own now, our old farm house’s one bathroom still wasn’t enough, and this without a lock. It was my father who finally barged in, blinking off the night’s deep sleep.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said, and then all at once he seemed refreshed, awoken by the sight of something strange and new. In my family this was always happening. Step on a nail, get stung by a bee, lose something, whatever, and your pain was everyone else’s slight gain as you became an object of curiosity, a spectacle, a distraction.
I gave him my best unable-to-go-to-school look, knowing full well that the only time a sick day was granted was when you were actively vomiting. I heard the coffee maker boiling in the background. I had one shot to be convincing before he disappeared into his caffeine and morning paper.
“How does it feel?” he asked, with a twitch of a grin.
“It scratches,” I said.
This blunder was further amusement for him. “You mean it itches,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, but in he came, shuffling me out the door. I had blown it—all further outcries were whining or fakery. I would have to go to school.
My mother was fixing lunches and breakfast all at once. She would certainly try and come to my rescue and fight the fight with Father, but I didn’t want to add to her already heavy burden, and so lurked in the shadows. My brother Mark, who was a senior at the time, laughed when he saw me. He began laughing so hard that my only defense was going right up to him with my huge face.
“Take that,” I said, charging. “Take my huge face!”
“Eww, Mom, Eric’s getting close to me with his huge face.”
“Mark, stop making fun of your brother.” She turned to me as I stood out of view in the half dark. “Honey, your chin is not huge, it’s noble.”
Mark grabbed a pancake off the griddle and headed out with his back pack—his ride was here. I, on the other hand, would have to take the bus.
Father was deep in his coffee and paper by now—sacred time when no one dared disturb him. I ate in silence and let my mother kiss the other side of my face before hurrying out for the bus.
It wouldn’t be light for another hour, luckily. The corner was crowded with the usual kids, all of them bundled up for the cold and rain and trying to wake up. It felt safe. But boarding the bus was a different matter. Going down that crowded wet aisle, the overhead lights blinked on and I had to dive into a seat before too many of my fellow bus riders saw me. I chose the front wheel well spot next to an already terrified girl with an orthopedic bar glimmering among a galaxy of acne. She stared forward and I stared at my feet, wishing I wasn’t headed to a high school with a thousand students and as many bright fluorescent lights.
My homeroom teacher couldn’t write a hall pass fast enough, and this he held out with an extended arm as though I were leprous. Maybe I was, I thought. I didn’t know for sure. The school nurse wasn’t much better.
“Oh, dear,” she said, and backed into the display skeleton before recalling her vows of decorum and smoothing her aprons.
She called home for me—again, my germs seemed to be in question here—and the only person home was my oldest brother Jeff. He was “in between” jobs at the moment, getting stoned and watching cartoons all day. He confirmed this when he showed up an hour later in his lowered Datsun with a cluster of Apple Jacks stuck to the front of his sleeveless sweatshirt.
“How’s it going?” he asked, his grin waning upon closer examination of my face. “Man, your cheek’s all like ballooned and shit.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Better see a doctor,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.”
I stayed home for a week and nothing happened—just my big fat face everywhere, beginning to flake as I scratched it during sleep and dreamt I was the man with the beard of bees. Finally, Mother convinced Father my malady was not just a school concern, that it was for real and I was taken to the hospital. As my parents admitted me I looked around and felt instantly at home with all the other suffering deranged people.
My father skimped on a lot of things, but health insurance wasn’t one of them. He expected doom to descend on all of us sooner or later and wanted to be ready. I was shown to my very own room, and after my family left, a male nurse who was over six feet tall with large hands massaged my lungs and listened to my heart with a tenderness I had never known. He even warmed the stethoscope’s cold disk with his breath before placing it on my bald chest and obscenely bony back.
“It’s super to hear healthy lungs around here for a change,” he said. “And a big, strong heart, too.”
I blushed. “Thanks,” I said, not sure what to say.
He told me all about the tube they put in my arm and how the dripping that was happening was cleaning me out and conquering the infection, slowly, drip by drip. Then he made to go. “If you get hungry,” he said.,“just push that little button and we’ll bring you whatever—a chocolate shake or some fries or something. Just lie down and get comfy. Here’s your remote for the TV.”
I smiled in my solitude. Besides my face, I was in heaven, free of peering and teasing, and I adjusted the bed to get comfortable for a good, long stay.
My family kept their distance visiting the next evening. This was not because of my condition, I thought, but because I’d left the pack for a time and they didn’t quite know how to deal or what to expect. It gave me a feeling of power over them that I wasn’t quite comfortable with, and I didn’t know how to bring them back to me or to exploit it.
I had the TV tuned to the hospital lobby channel with no sound. Black and white figures passed in and out as well as the occasional gurney. This was a temporary antidote to the awkwardness as we speculated on who we saw and why they were there.
“Flowers,” Father said. “Classic guilt scenario.”
“That one’s certainly dazed and confused,” Mother said.
“Probably checking himself in,” Jeff said.
“Every nurse is fat,” Mark said as two went out with huge thighs clad in absolute white. “Every single one I’ve ever seen, ever. Huge.”
“I wonder if anyone ever dies on screen,” Father said, and as we all were laughing, I saw the male nurse stick his head in the door and give me a familiar look. A bolt of panic shot through me. Nobody seemed to have noticed, though. I took a deep breath and gave him a smile that was meant to say across that great distance, all is well, please move along. Please! But then the door opened further and in he came, striding towards us all. “Visiting hours are almost up, you guys,” he said, putting on a little frown. “Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you’re going to have to leave your prince with me.”
After he checked the tubes and listened to my heart, he scribbled on the clipboard and left. His drawstrings swinging and white clogs clicking, frozen went my family. I didn’t know what to say. They all looked at me, their “prince,” waiting for my reaction.
I did what I thought they wanted me to do. I pulled the sheet over my head and said, “Save me!”
And all at once my family became happy again. Jovial even. They drew near, smiles of relief on their bright faces. They touched me and listened to each other speak. Anxiety and confusion, after all, lay in a bed connected to tubes, and visiting hours were nearly over.
“You’ll be okay,” Mother said, making it a point to kiss my afflicted side.
Father patted my leg proudly. I’d mocked a sexually ambiguous man and now lay invalid, out of both the house and his hair. Jeff said, “Adios, Elephant Man,” adding that he’d see me when I got “better,” actually using the air quotes. Mark, the last to leave, gave me a funny look. “Keep your eye on that screen,” he said, and winked.
I kept watching the lobby channel, half-hoping it had all been a dream and they wouldn’t appear, or at the very least I’d see them pass by into the night like ghosts.
First my parents presented themselves, both waving up at the camera, struck dumb even there by the glamour of Hollywood. I wondered how many other patients were watching, and I feared for the dying who might have taken their grim waves as the final goodbye. Also I imagined the orphans who may have taken their waves as waves of hello, we’ve come to love you forever, and then watched them exit.
When my brothers shortly after appeared, turned around and dropped their pants, my laughter was immediate and hysterical. Tears poured down my cheeks as a side of myself tried in vain to suppress the mirth boiling deep down inside of me. I also knew this was a sign only for me, a pact between brothers who hated each other almost as much as we loved each other. Two bare asses and a swollen face sodden with tears stamped a permanent seal on the fact that this absurd family would be a part of me no matter how many books I read or crafted words I typed. There was nothing I could do about it that night hooked to those dripping tubes, and for nights innumerable since, as visions come and go regardless of my will, pulling me closer to the screen and back again.