Christ, Not Now. It’s March, I’m at home in San Diego and getting ready to teach my Monday evening class. It’s strange: in the hour prior, I’m hot, sweaty. Constipated. Confused. Breathless, having just lumbered up the stairs to Suzanna’s and my bedroom. The second story — how many times have I done that? I tell myself it’s work, it’s stress, nothing else. I’m out of shape, easily winded. Indeed, for months, I’ve been trudging on the treadmill, a lot slower than usual. But I’m not sick. I’m older. What age? I have to remember. Fifty-six. Driving to class, I’m heating up, rolling down the window for a breeze. At class, I’m no better. I give my flock a writing assignment, which I check, moving from student to student. Ten minutes pass this way. Then I excuse myself — a quick bathroom stint, I think, should dispel this acidic burn in my throat. I lean into the toilet, try to vomit. Nothing. I crap, blow-it-out like bird shit. That’s got it. I rush back to class, wondering what’s happening? I don’t know. I do know I don’t want to suffer in the way I’m suffering right now. How will I make it through the next three hours? I’ve never left in the middle of a class, and only twice in 15 years have I canceled — the day my mother died and the day one of my twin sons left home, leaving a cryptic note that terrified Suzanna and me. I rationalize it — tonight’s lesson needs completing. It’s amateurish to postpone the work. Maybe I can do ten minutes on each essay we’ve read and let them go. From my notes, I outline on the board the writing strategies in each piece. And here it gets strange. The taste of reflux soils my mouth. I feel as though I’ve just plunged off a cliff and halted midair. Afloat, I sense there is no future: however many years are telescoped into these few minutes. Years into minutes. A spiral appears, widens, pinwheels, and sucks me in. I recall how I’ve told students it’s a copout to say, “It felt like an eternity” or “Time dragged on” or “Hours rushed by.” Clichés, I’ve called them. How do you capture trauma, intensity, in words? There’s no other side to this thought. I discuss one essay in two minutes, the next in a minute, the next, in 30 seconds. My words are boggy, slow. Then I hear myself speak — as though I’ve been called on — “I’m afraid I’m not feeling well. I have to leave.” In my bag, I stuff books and papers. My hands sweat. My legs quake. “For next week,” I say — and stop. Everyone is looking at me. “I have to leave.” I’m running.
Clothes Off. A nurse takes me to an emergency-room bay. “Symptoms?” she asks. “I think I’m having a heart attack,” I say again. She tells me to get undressed. I’m sitting on the bed, and begin taking my clothes off — peeling, that’s the word. They’ve been stuck on me like a soiled diaper for half an hour. My body is leaking its insides. It’s not the soul coming out, wet and furious. It’s my skin, like packaging, trying to strip itself of the invader. These goddamn clothes nag because they curtain my fat, a lifelong source of shame. For several years I’ve gained weight (again) — in the 1980s, a runner, I was svelte; in the 1990s, I got so sedentary and lazy teaching full-time I put the pounds back on; now, in the 2000s, a full-time writer/journalist, and I procrastinate getting back in shape, my belly jellying, a midlife bulge pushing me to 220. I hate the weight. I hate unbuttoning the faded pink travel shirt I’ve worn for years. I hate unclasping the stretchy waistband pants, size 40, all this so pungent, so whiny — I don’t want to see the tumescence over my too-tight underwear: how often I hide behind a T-shirt prior to sex with Suzanna (What sex? It’s been months). Why don’t I stop worrying? “Stay here,” the nurse says, “I’m coming right back.” As if I’m going anywhere.
Where is the drug to curb or redirect this avalanche?
Where are my saviors?
I put on the gown. To hell with the ties. I get back on the long plastic mat.
An orderly enters, wires me up to the ECG machine, prints out a graph-paper page on which I espy its Himalayan-like peaks and valleys. He hustles out. He returns. With a well-groomed pro, the Doc, in crisply tailored whites, who tells me what I’ve known now for an hour: “You’re right, Mr. Larson. You’re having a heart attack.”
I’m Sorry. Is it then that the nurse asks the mandatory questions: my name, my address, my date of birth, my cardiac history (do I say, father, brother, both dead of heart attacks, or the less volatile heart disease?), my symptoms (I’m dizzy, I’m hot, my chest aches.) Have you ever had angina before, a sudden name for the pain that keeps washing through me? Does she lean over next and smirk a tad wickedly and say, “Please try and relax,” and I laugh? Does it happen a minute later that she rifles a medical bag for aspirin and a sublingual nitroglycerin tablet, and asks, almost like an afterthought, who to phone, and I say, Suzanna? While I wait, harried and calmed by the theatrical flurry, the pinging machines, the seismic readouts, you appear, curtain-parting and padding your way up to the bed where I lie and where on your face I see two women, you who are unafraid to approach me, indeed, desire my trouble, and you who are shocked to come any closer.
To both of you I say, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” you reply.
“But I am.”
Good question. I’m sorry that this dread wants you, as well as me, to bear it.