The tube

[A snippet from a writing project in gestation, which will probably make very little sense if you haven’t read the preceding snippets on the the Zia page.]

In Spanish the word esperar means both “to wait” and “to hope.” Brings to mind a young woman sitting by the window, waiting for a word about her husband, hoping he’ll return from the war alive and in one piece. Or maybe you’re picturing a man lying motionless in an MRI tube, wondering when his tormentors will at last allow him to scratch the twenty-seven mosquito bites on his legs.

It’s been four weeks now since my knee gave out on the soccer field, four weeks of waiting and hoping, hoping and waiting. Although I knew before I hit the ground that I would need surgery, it’s taken four weeks of hoop jumping to procure the requisite slip of paper that makes it official. You see, they have a thing around here called “Mexican time,” which basically means that—if you’re an American anyway – you will feel like you spend most of your time waiting. This, of course, can be a good thing – a growth opportunity, if you will – for us hurried, stressed-out clock-jockeys, but it’s easy to lose sight of that when your leg is atrophying into a toneless slab of liverwurst right before your eyes. Whatever the case, around here you will simply have to wait, and that is that. Best to learn how to wait, if you want to hold on to your sanity. Lose touch with the hope and you’re toast.

When we arrived at the MRI facility, the lab techs told me to take off all my clothes. “Even the underwear?” Si. Wrapped in a thin gown, they taped my leg in place, stepped out of the room, and eased me into the MRI tube by some remote switch. When I was in up to my nose, a wave a panic rose up in my gut, accompanied by thoughts of being mistakenly shoved into a morgue vault and then buried alive.

Curiously, they left me without a word of instruction (not even “don’t move”) and without a clue as to how long I’d be in there. Fortunately, I had been through this twice before, back in the States, so I knew to stay completely motionless, keep my eyes closed and go to a happy place. Last time, it took about forty minutes, perfect for a long meditation session, so I pictured myself lying in bed and began following my breath as it came in and went out.

Feel the belly rise, feel the belly fall. Feel the belly ri – “Man it’s cold in here. Don’t they realize I’m naked under this gown? The AC is blowing right up my skirt and my boys are getting a little chilly down there. Oh yeah…” Feel the belly rise, feel the belly fall. Feel the be – “That ch ch ch noise sounds like a train chugging along, doesn’t it?”

Suddenly I’m living back in Little House on the Prairie times. I’m seventeen or so, decked out in suspenders and a hat just like Pa Ingles. I’m tired of life on the Prairie and want a fresh start, so I hop aboard an empty boxcar and head off to wherever. Leaning back on a bail of hay, watching the countryside rush by through the half open door, I’m abruptly catapulted back into the MRI tube as it kicks on with a deafening roar, making a pulsating sound, like a distress signal. “Goddamn, that’s loud! Sounds like a military distress signal, a warning that we’re under enemy fire.” And before I can catch the next breath, we are under enemy fire – me and the other soldiers. Incoming! Incoming! Everyone man your positions! The ch ch ch sound has become the oxygen flow into my tiny little quarters deep within the hull of a World War Two submarine, where I need to wait motionless for my next set of orders. One false move and the Germans will blow us out of the water. I lie in wait, spider-like, ready to pounce into action at the slightest shift in vibration. The MRI machine kicks off. “Where the hell was I? Oh yeah, shit…” Feel the belly rise, feel the belly fall. Feel the belly rise…

A few cycles later, the machine kicks back on. It makes a new noise this time – still deafening and skull shaking, but now somewhat more hypnotic. I start to hear words in it. WAL-rus, WAL-rus, WAL-rus… The words keep morphing into other words: RAW-fish, RAW-fish… FRIS-co, FRIS-co… COLD-dish… DIS-co… GOLD-disc… SHOW-us, ASS-hole… GO-to work… GIDDEE-up

Suddenly I’m back in Prairie times, galloping away on my horse. I can hear the train pulling away in the distance. I come upon an old house on the outskirts of town. There’s a girl, a beautiful girl, living all alone. We hit it off, and she takes me in. One thing leads to another. Sex. Love. I eventually find out why she lives alone. Syphilis. The whole town considers her a harlot. I don’t care. I still love her. I’ll take her away, I say, where we can start over. Next thing, we’re on the horse, galloping away, her arms around my waste, the train chugging along beside us. Time passes. A new town. Cured of syphilis. She starts to flirt with other men. Soon she’s sleeping around. Harlot! Just as my heart’s breaking, the MRI machine cuts off.

“Whoa. Guess I drifted off there. Shit, how long have I been in this tube, anyway? Let’s see… Each cycle lasts at least ten minutes, and I’ve been through at least six or seven cycles. Eight maybe. Must be at least an hour by now. Almost done, I’m sure.” Feel the belly rise

More cycles. They shift my position in the tube, using the remote switch, once, twice, three times. Each time, I think I’m about to be set free. The sense of restlessness is getting unbearable. “Fuck my breath.” Now I’m just waiting and hoping. Hoping each cycle will be the last. Waiting for the techs to pull me out of this wretched tube. “Maybe they left for the day, went home and forgot about me. An hour is one thing, but there are limits to how long a human can remain perfectly still. Fuck! Another round. You gotta be kidding me.” I hear words again in the deafening pulse. “WHEN-WILL-THIS-FU-CKING-SHIT-END-YOU-STU-PID-MO-THER-FU-CKERS-YOU-BET-TER-LET-ME-OUT-OF-THIS-FU-CKING-TUBE-OR-I-WILL-KILL-YOU-YOU-SAD-IS-TIC-BAS-TARDS…” It eventually morphs into a steady KILL-KILL-KILL-KILL-KILL

I try praying. I try going back to my breath. At this point, I can no longer feel anything from the waist down. My hands are still folded and resting on my chest, I think. I can’t feel them either. They could just as easily be down at my sides or wrapped around my frozen package. I keep thinking: “There are limits, there are limits…”

At some point just shy of a freak-out, they pulled me out of the tube. I asked Molly how long I had been in there. “Two hours” she said. I guess I didn’t know my limits after all. They must have been working with a dial-up connection and a Commodore 64. No matter. The important thing was that I was no longer in the tube. “Whether I have syphilis or the Germans invade or the sun goes out – none of that matters, so long as I’m out of the fucking tube. I’m out of the tube!”

We returned the next day for the results, which confirmed a badly damaged meniscus and probable ligament tears. We took a taxi back to the bus station, where we had to wait ninety minutes or so for the next bus to San Pedro. By this time, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself and my knee was badly swollen and inflamed from all the bouncing around on crutches and buses. I was just about to launch into my usual litany of complaints, when we noticed several men in wheelchairs roll through the gates. Molly cleared her throat telepathically, urging me to attention. A kid, about seventeen, rolled past us, glanced down at my leg, and then made eye contact with me for what must have been a solid second. For all I know he was thinking: “Now there’s something you don’t see everyday – a white guy on crutches!” Whatever happened on his end, his eyes hit me like a pair of cannon balls, knocking me back in my seat, leaving a giant crater in my chest.

Now, it wasn’t one of those “It could be worse” or “There’s always someone worse off than you” kind of moments. That makes it sound lame. Or maybe it was that sort of thing, I don’t know, but I always hate it when someone responds like that to a good tale of woe. Of course it could be worse! And yes, it could be raining, too! Acid rain! “Some people are born without arms and legs,” my friend Doug was fond of saying, usually after having just suffered some sort of defeat or humiliation. But this kid, the look he gave me, he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself at all. He looked happy, hopeful even. That’s it, I think. That’s why I felt so pierced by his gaze. He caught me with my pants down and my shirt up over my eyes, hopeless, killing time, being killed by time. I was just waiting for a bus, a bus that would take me to another bus, then another taxi, then more taxis, then airplanes and operating tables. Then what, the hearse? I had completely lost touch with the driving force behind it all, namely the hope that I will be able to walk again and return to an active life. For me, this is a solid, realistic hope – one founded on good fortune and privileged access to advanced healthcare. It’s the kind of thing that should not be taken for granted, that’s for sure.

The folks here on the Pueblo don’t seem to get why I’m going through all this rigmarole: doctors, MRIs, travel, surgery. Why not just go to the local Huesero (traditional healer) and have him straighten your leg out for a few pesos? That’s because, around here, it would never occur to someone to have knee surgery. It’s not an option. No one can afford it. You heal up, and if your knee locks or pops out of place once in a while, so what? At least you can walk, right? Maybe that’s what the kid in the wheel chair was thinking. Maybe it was one of those “gratitude moments,” nothing more, nothing less.

Hey, whatever man, as long as I’m out of the tube.

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