– Franz Kafka
In 2005, a couple of days after my girlfriend of a few months discovered that she was pregnant, I was rushed to a Prague hospital because a screaming golf ball-sized growth had appeared near the base of my tailbone.
Tumour or sympathetic fetus? Psychosomatic pustule? Metaphor? To this day, I don’t know what it was. Like everything else around me, it was in a language I could not understand.
I did not speak a word of Czech, but I didn’t need to to know the doctors were unhappy with me. Those fat men soaked with too much fluorescence, men who’d long since taken the side of malady, infirmity and perfect death. Why even pretend? Clearly, they’d seen it all and hated playing for the losing team. They put me on a table and crowded in. They made a Slavic play of breathing. Inhales meant ‘why bother’. Exhales meant ‘why bother’. Finally, they lanced the lump on my backside. They drained it. I was informed that in a few months I could return to their hospital for an operation.
My girlfriend was both Czech and German. She translated. She described something like an ice-cream scooper and something like a deviant cluster of fleshy matter. Yes or no, it was up to me. Come back or don’t. Apparently, my metaphor had worrying roots.
One doctor attempted English. ‘This like your President, yes?’
‘Bush. Is like this thing.’
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘It’s a fungus?’
‘No like fun,’ he said. ‘Is bush.’
‘It’s a bush.’
He gave up. I gave up. We looked at each other and gave up together. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, I think so.’
In two months I was to return if I chose to. My girlfriend explained that these men wanted to gas me up and remove a large chunk of possibly infected, improbably presidential material from my backside. They wanted to pull out the roots. Why bother? Why not bother?
‘Do they know you’re pregnant?’
‘What does that have to do with anything?’
That was exactly what I wanted to know.
I approached my operation and hospital stay they way I approached everything back then: with a distancing, monstrously privileged sense of absurdity. Unknown men were going to cut something inexplicable from my ass. I had never slept in a hospital before.
Part of me craved the ordeal. I have often daydreamed of being diagnosed with a terminal illness or becoming suddenly, painlessly crippled. Both my grandfather and my great-grandfather lost their eyesight. Retinitis pigmentosa. I was diagnosed as having their eyes when I was eighteen years old. I was told that ten, twelve, maybe fifteen years of light were all that was left to me, and I really don’t think I was entirely as grateful as I should have been when the misdiagnosis was finally revealed.
Checking into the hospital was like handing in the keys to myself – something I was only too eager to do. In six months I would be in every conceivable way an unplanned parent but I was not ready to be a father, let alone an adult. Which is to say, I half-hoped these Czechs would botch the operation and extend my stay indefinitely. I nearly got my wish.
The hospital resembled an abandoned Long Island public school. It was a building designed to suggest that all the body has to teach us is ugly, empty, futile and ultimately of only minimal concern to the State. Squares atop communist squares. Windows? OK, comrade, fine, some windows, but only because they’ll cut down on the electricity bills. The elevators were huge, big enough for horses. They buzzed like fat, torpid flies. There was a kiosk downstairs where you could purchase beer, flowers, hot dogs, cigarettes and condoms. The nurses wore the kind of mythological, miniscule skirts Western man long ago lost to health care pornography. Everyone smoked. Patients were allowed to get out of their beds and shuffle about half naked drinking warm bottles of beer. You got the sense right away that recovering health wasn’t as important as losing time. The giant institutional clocks clicked hard. They clunked.
My girlfriend was in Germany undergoing an unnecessarily disciplined barrage of prenatal testing that including determining if our fetus had a penis. (It did.) And so I arrived at the hospital alone. I decided this was romantisch. I had no girlfriend or friends with me but I had my orders, papers, everything stamped and re-stamped and signed. My suitcase heavy with books and cigarettes.
Every bureaucratic encounter in the Czech Republic felt like an existential interrogation. So, was I really this Tod so-called Wodicka? They were vigilant. I imagined the circumstances of someone assuming my identity, faking three forms of ID and a folder of papers in order to have a large chunk of flesh inexpertly carved out of his or her ass. I guess you could never be too safe.
I was shown to my quarters. The bedroom was basically a kitchen, or would be again soon. I will not discuss the layering of stenches; nor will I describe the stains on the floor, the bed sheets or the linoleum walls. There were four middle-aged men in this room recuperating, it seemed, from having had all the joy and happiness and desire to live ripped from their yellowing bodies. Our beds had wheels. There were no physical dividers between these beds; no TV or radio or windows. The trick, you quickly learned, was riding the room like you would a subway car: you could look through but not at anything or anyone. The ceiling was the cleanest thing I’d ever seen.
Nobody spoke English.
This, of course, is everybody’s right. In fact, I preferred it. Undeniably, this was part of my initial desire to live my life as a foreigner. As long as great effort is made to put as little effort into learning the native language as possible, it is the closest one can get to living inside a purely solipsistic fiction. It’s like meditation. It’s a means of distancing oneself and being able to unobtrusively observe, of childishly sneaking up on the world, of getting up close and having a good stare. You know that every piece of matter around you is also something else, unpronounceable and therefore unknowable; a cloak of new sounds and associations cover your reality and you’re both snuggled safely in and on an adventure. It might not even really be happening. Does anyone see you? Does it matter if they do? My hospital stay was the culmination of this phenomenon, maybe the logical end point. Finally, I was seen. Finally, I was reduced to a piece of matter, solid and real and mute and totally absorbed inside a foreign system.
My operation was scheduled for first thing the next morning. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything but that seemed extreme – I had a beer downstairs, then another. I couldn’t imagine that this would interact with the anaesthetic in anything other than a positive way. Before lights out, one very earnest young doctor approached me, shook my hand. ‘Frank Zappa!’ he boasted.
Beyond that, he did not speak English.
‘Frank,’ he said. ‘Frank Zappa.’
Neither he nor I was Frank Zappa. He had only come to thank me for Frank Zappa. This man would return over the next few weeks and we’d continue a dialogue along those lines. I was thanked for Deep Purple, Erasure and the Cranberries, though I tried to deny all responsibility for the Cranberries.
That first night I barely slept. I was afraid of my roommates. I wasn’t frightened that they would hurt me, it was more the way the darkness dissolved the lines between us. The warmth of their cloggy digestive systems; their flatulence and inexplicable drops into invisibility. Every so often they’d go from a polyphony of Slavic snoring to silence, to depthless nothing as if they’d all been collectively dunked under water. I was also suddenly afraid that in a few hours I was going to be operated upon. There was no way that this operation would not involve blood, pain, risk and possible disfigurement. This wasn’t a metaphor for something else: this was something that was really going to happen. To me. To my ass. I started to feel alone, lost, and then I started to savour the feeling, this genuine lonesomeness, but it nullified the original feeling completely. Then I’d go back to the beginning again and try to all feel all alone and woe-begotten. I cycled through this a few dozen times. This, I decided, is why people count sheep.
They woke me before dawn and presented me with pre-operation pills. I was surprised to find that I’d been asleep and a needle was being jammed into my arm, then another angrier one into my backside. Then they left. I waited, watching the room with a suddenly inflating sense of well-being. I marked the gorgeous gradations of darkness, feeling the room smudge around me. The sleeping men, how grateful I suddenly was for their company. I felt myself protected, loved and it occurred to me that every single man is a father, though in retrospect I don’t think that this incredible revelation was either factually correct or all that incredible.
But then I was sliding through the halls on a bed. Then the elevator, then another hall. The linoleum was snow. Slow, then fast – the whole experience was ticklish, slippery. I was on my stomach. Weeeeeeeeee. I was a few inches above where my body was supposed to be. My backside was naked to the windy hospital halls, and it was hard to talk to the three or four nurses or doctors around me, though I tried. I wanted them to keep wheeling me around the halls, to take me everywhere, outside into the fields, and off into the streets of Prague. I wanted to see things finally for what they really were. I tried to ask the man I assumed was the head surgeon if he had children, too.
Someone touched the back of my head. I wanted to sob. Where was I?
Then I was in a space of clean, atonal light and steel. It was the loudest light I’d ever seen. I was given a mask and it filled me with weightlessness, it turned whatever remained of my concentration into cloud. But I tried not to let go. Then the doctors covered their faces, too, the doctors and their women in short, short skirts; and they spoke, began counting, all of them it seemed, as if it were a chant. Numbers. Numbers, when counted, always sound like numbers no matter what the language. And the surgeons had more physicality and belief in their actions, in their hairy arms and fingers, than I had so far mustered to shove into my entire life. I’d made a mistake. They had knives.
I was in the kitchenette again. I was on my side, perhaps I’d never left. I was staring at myself as an old man.
I made a noise. Then hands were on me and the world became clearer, if not any less dreamy. The old man wasn’t me, or not yet – and he said something in Czech, coughed, and look: I had a plastic tube in my arm. It was a blood straw, but I couldn’t see where it went, who was sucking. One of the old men? There were smells. The Czech being spoken around me sounded like the frustrated singing of deaf people. Then I remembered. The operation. My backside was tight; it felt heavy, electric, and another needle was jabbed into my leg; and before I could ask if I was OK, I was very much OK. I disappeared.
Three glorious days of this. Freedom without the slightest twinge of will. It was better than any prison fantasy I’d ever had. It was exactly what I’d needed, wanted, was possibly most suited for. In being a drugged-out, linguistically isolated patient I had found my true calling.
I had several visitors. Some of them spoke Czech and got me information which I waved away. Did I look like I wanted the spell broken?
Apparently, I looked like I was in trouble.
My backside was more distressing than they’d thought. They’d taken a lot out; far more than they’d planned. This was news to me if only because it implied that they’d had a clear idea of what they were doing in the first place. I’d always thought of this whole hospital stay as optional, like plastic surgery.
But the hole they’d carved out was substantial, like a gasping bloody mouth. They couldn’t sew it shut. It wouldn’t shut up. Then, after the third day, when I could sort of pull myself up and, with help, walk to the bathroom or the stairwell to have cigarettes with my nurses, the mouth started screaming. It had become seriously infected. My stay was extended for several weeks. More drugs. More days of laying on my side or my stomach; Frank Zappa and reading and inedible steaks made of hot dog. Soup with hot dog. Cold corn and beer. My pregnant German girlfriend was on her way, though I tried not to think about that. I had no idea that it would be a year before I would be able to sit in a chair again. Or that walking would prove difficult for many more months.
I had a phone.
I’d probably spoken with my parents in the USA early on, back when I shouldn’t have been speaking, because now they were threatening to fly out and save me.
There was no need. They were already there. It was the last time I would ever feel them so close to me, lying in that hospital bed at night, knowing I’d have to leave soon, but knowing too that my mother was downstairs doing the dishes. I could hear her. I’d close my eyes and listen to the hospital and it was Christmas again, snow falling beyond the walls, my entire family over, awake, laughing and talking downstairs. I was safe.
But the metaphor was removed. The hospital brought me back only to push me out again: the long fall through the window of my approaching fatherhood. It was really happening. In six months my son was to be born and I was to become the noise downstairs. I would join the adults whether I liked it or not. It didn’t matter that it was all an accident, that I didn’t really love my girlfriend or have any idea what love actually was yet. I would know soon enough. I would be OK because I finally had no choice.
Photo by arriba