It was a perfect day, and we paid for it. Out the ass, I wrote on hotel stationery later, before deciding to reject the easy joke; I was a tasteful person now, having passed through the refiner’s fire.
8 May. We had flown into LA from Savannah the night before; the city, from our hotel room, looked like a heat map of itself. The jacarandas were blooming. Everyone describes the jacarandas, but my husband, Jason, was seeing them for the first time, in that almost-blue intensity that floats low, a leap out of other colour. Possibly he was describing them to himself, but if he found the right words, I will never know, because he knows what I do not, how to keep things to himself.
David Sedaris had invited me to read alongside him that night at UCLA, but before that we had the whole day. We took a cab first to Venice Beach, so that Jason could pay homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger. ‘Remember when he says that he feels the pump and it’s like khumming all over his whole body?’ he asked wistfully. Then we stopped in a juice shop. A woman turned to me just as I was taking a shot of Irish sea moss and said she was ‘sorry to be weird’, but she recognised me. Actually she recognised my husband, from shirtless pictures I had posted on a blog I used to have. ‘Elegant Choice’, she said, pointing, and I hugged her; somehow I had forgotten that I used to call him that.
Time still hadn’t run out, so we called another cab and rode to Santa Monica, where we decided on sudden impulse to ride the Ferris wheel. Before we climbed on, a teenager tried to take our picture. Confused as I always am in such situations, I froze. Do you have to pay for it? I asked. You do, you always have to pay. It was Mother’s Day, so everyone else handed over their money, while we passed through the line and into our swaying seats like ghosts. But now I wonder what the picture would have looked like, what evidence it would have constituted afterwards.
The great gear began to turn. We rose backwards, with the flat sardine-skinned Pacific Ocean behind us. I looked at him. ‘Oh my God, I’m afraid of heights,’ I said, at the exact moment he gasped: ‘I think I’m scared of the Ferris wheel?’ Each revolution seemed like a year. ‘It lasts this long?’ we kept saying, clutching each other. ‘It’s going around again?’ But babies are on it – like life. ‘It must be safe,’ he said. The sky was a whole jacaranda, risen up. A cage along my spine carried a shaking passenger to the top.
That night, after we had both read, I sat next to David and we signed books. When someone in the line said something good, he repeated it, his voice taking on an inflection of delight. He liked that. He was keeping it. Under the light, he shone like something burnished, a stone tourists touch when they come to town. People brought him ziplock bags, a book by his partner Hugh’s father, backscratchers made out of alligator feet (hands? paws?). A lesbian had hand-tooled a piece of fragrant wood, which I breathed from deeply as our signatures got looser and which later permeated my whole suitcase. It is an outpouring. These gifts are given in exchange for something that is not yours to begin with and that you hand out to the crowd like $100 bills. But sitting next to David, as the cold air came in great cubes through the open door, as the woman from the juice shop walked towards me, smiling, it felt fine to write about your life.
The next day, thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic, eight hours into the flight from LA to London, it happened. ‘Something is very wrong inside me,’ Jason said on his way back from the bathroom, bending over my row with his face white and his arm held rigid over his lower abdomen. Secretly I thought it might be the world’s hardest fart; we had, in collaboration, eaten a whole head of cauliflower and an eight-ounce portion of toum before boarding the flight, out of what now seems a kind of shared death wish, a suicide pact in a place where there were only vegetables.
I hadn’t slept, despite the fact that just as the flight took off I had taken a draft of something that we refer to only as ‘Sleepy Powder’ and which contains a number of questionably legal ingredients, including one that was administered to Soviet cosmonauts to keep them forcibly relaxed as they were shot into space. It should have worked, but didn’t. I was not at my best. The cubes of cold air from last night seemed to have taken up residence in my chest, and the book I was reading moved slow and exotic as an aquarium before my eyes. I considered Jason, swaying above me like that Ferris wheel car, and tried to think what I should do.
It might surprise you to know that I am not good in emergencies. I’m not the person who barks: ‘Get my husband to the hospital in a foreign country even though he might just have a fart trapped inside him, STAT!’ Nor am I capable of directing a stewardess named Poppy to land a plane. ‘Where does it hurt?’ I asked finally, aware that this was something I should do. ‘Don’t worry, the appendix is on the left side,’ I assured him, bent over him like the world’s worst nurse.
The flight attendant brought painkillers and Pepto-Bismol. I sprayed Jason’s lower abdomen with magnesium oil, in case God was a hippie. He lay curled up in the empty row and continued to moan. I stood over him and occasionally patted his shoulder, while the sky slid through its colours, black to tangerine to blue – into a different kind of day that had been arranged for us too. Making the little noise of you’ll be OK, which felt unfamiliar in my mouth and which, by the time you’re making it, is never guaranteed to be true.
At Heathrow, I felt myself rushing him for the first time in our lives. He passed like a piece of paper through customs, bracing himself on our bags. It was the warmest it’s ever been in London, and I was wearing three shirts and a pair of fuzzy leggings underneath my jeans. I began to have the Liam-Gallagher-thought-he-had-coronavirus-but-it-turned-out-his-house-was-just-too-hot feeling (‘confusing and scary,’ he had said). In the cab, Jason was on all fours like a horse trying to give birth. If I concentrated, I could almost see the hoof emerging from him. His forehead was clammy and his hands were cold, and he was making sounds that would later be identified as words of a recognised language. But it wasn’t until he started saying, ‘I don’t know what to do, Tricia, I don’t know what to do,’ that I understood he had put himself in my hands. ‘Where’s the nearest hospital?’ I asked the driver.
Twenty minutes later we pulled up to A&E at Charing Cross. ‘I can’t sit down,’ Jason whispered, as a man abandoned his ambulance with its doors open and ran to bring him a wheelchair. There were no stretchers to be had, so we had to fold him down into it. His eyes, tracking back and forth, seemed to be seeing something else, terrible and horizontal: a red steppe where figures were being wrestled to the ground. On admission, when they asked what his pain level was, he said seventy, not bothering to clarify the scale. It seemed both true and obvious, in that instant, that seventy was the highest number.
I was installed in an antechamber by the sliding doors, where I sat on one of the suitcases and waited. And waited. Eventually a nurse came to tell me that it was almost certainly appendicitis, a sitcom illness that no one in real life ever seems to have. They would operate, but I could not stay, because of Covid protocols. ‘God, God, God,’ Jason was saying mindlessly when they ushered me in to say goodbye. ‘Jesus CHRIST, Jesus CHRIST. Can you help me? Can somebody please help me?’ I gave him his phone and his glasses, said a bewildered ‘I love you’ that would never have held up in the event of anyone’s death, and was escorted out by one Dr Khalid, who assured me that an appendectomy only took fifteen minutes. He made an eloquent gesture, of an airy shape being plucked up and out, so that I saw again the jacarandas. He thought I would be better off at the hotel. ‘Ah, you’re too delicate,’ he observed, as he helped me to the kerb with our four bags. ‘You should play sports.’
If anything like this ever happens to you, pray that you find yourself in the care of a hot Italian ex-marine Uber driver called Claudio, who will get you to your hotel, help you with your bags, and distract you the whole way with fatherly stories of his time trading uniforms with American seamen to see who was more handsome in them. He will ask you to write down what your book is called so he can buy it for his daughter. Halfway through the journey, I looked down at my phone and saw that Jason had texted me a picture of his face turned in profile, having just thrown up something green into a bedpan. This was either one of his little tricks – I hoped it was, I thought it might be – or else the last image I would ever see of him. ‘Oh, Clowdio!’ I found myself wailing from the back seat. If this pronunciation is correct it was on purpose; if not, it can never be explained. Spurred on either by the urgency of my tone or the more general danger I posed to the Italian language, Clowdio sped on.
In the hotel room, alone with our bags, still under the influence of the cosmonaut drug, I began to see what was happening at the hospital as if I were still there. ‘Why haven’t you given him morphine?’ the doctor asked the nurses, as soon as he saw Jason, or as soon as he heard him. The circle of doctors and specialists who had gathered at his bedside all agreed that it was his appendix, except for one hero who will henceforth be known as Bowel Guy. When the others said appendix, Bowel Guy shook his head. ‘He’s making the bowel sound,’ he explained. ‘When you hear it, it’s always the bowel.’
A sort of deep and hollow sound, as if he were a woodwind instrument – the vowel a continuous open ‘O’. They continued to investigate. A man had come into the room, Jason texted me to say, and ‘extensively groped my psenis and balls’. They rushed him in for a CT scan, and when the results came back, it transpired that Bowel Guy was right. It was no appendix, either ruptured or on the verge, that could be plucked out with an airy motion. Jason’s bowel had folded on itself in a way that the doctors had never seen before. ‘Book bowel, book bowel!’ one man ran back and forth exclaiming. He was a medical student and wanted desperately to have invented a new kind of bowel, but the older residents cautioned him to be precise: it’s hard to invent something new that the body does. It’s almost always been described in the literature. It was useful to me, though. In our writers’ group, which was disbanded because no one besides me took it seriously, Jason had once proposed writing an S&M romance set in a gym, where sadistic trainers pushed crying doughgirls to their physical limits – telling them, one assumes, that they should play sports. ‘I’ve invented a whole new genre!’ he insisted, something of a bowel guy himself. Along the spine of his book bowel was perhaps printed the name of that manuscript, a one-word title in the bowel language: PUNISH.
The actual term for what was happening to him was caecal bascule, a rare kind of intestinal obstruction where the caecum flops closed and creates a volvulus. It represents about 1 to 1.5 per cent of all intestinal obstructions, and there is no known cause. In these cases, the bowel generally ruptures within five hours; we had got him to the hospital within four and a half – almost by chance or whimsy, it appeared now, like spores carried by the wind. If the plane had had to taxi … if we had got stuck in customs … if I had been sent to the rejects’ line by that mean Irish guy like last time, because of a kind of passport dyslexia that renders me unable to put it through the scanner the right way … Against my better judgment, I looked up caecal bascule and saw something like a dark haggis, lying on a table as if it had been born, and then shut my eyes to all research for ever.
Emergency surgery was the only option. (‘Oh my God,’ I thought when I heard, ‘but he’s completely full of Lebanese food.’) Depending on what they found, they might have to remove his entire colon. Jason called briefly to talk me through the procedure, and spoke neutrally, in that tone from which pain has been temporarily removed, of fatality rates and colostomy bags. Even if the surgery went well, he would have to recuperate in Charing Cross for at least three weeks, and we would have to stay in London for another month beyond that. I heard it in his voice: he saw no future in which he ever left that hospital, as I saw no future in which I ever left that hotel room.
I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. Someone had brought Jason a charger – God bless the NHS – so we could text each other, but all my calls to the hospital failed to connect, since I failed to understand something fundamental about dialling out. Should I take a cab back and demand to see him before surgery? What would a capable person do, or a cosmonaut? I know I talked to my sister several times that night, but all that remains is the timbre of her voice and a vision of her blonde hair tucked behind her ear and cascading over her shoulder, like a pale fragment of statue I felt to be attached to the phone. I do not know if I cried. I hardly knew where I was or whether I was there at all; there was a huge mirror on one wall that I never seemed to appear in. I felt my phantom hands shuffling for cards and papers, the twist of the suitcases in my shoulders as Dr Khalid told me that I should play sports. ‘This is sports, Dr K.,’ I thought, seeing again the red field where figures were wrestled down. I could not be here because I was trying to be there: the body simply goes away when you are trying so intensely to project yourself into someone else, blinking in and out, in pain and on morphine, on the verge of being wheeled back. ‘All of it is so unreal and so convergent,’ I wrote on the hotel stationery, ‘that I feel I am about to invent Surrealism 2.’
They were going to wheel him back … they were going to wheel him back … I cursed the patient in front of him, for being so internally complicated. The Bowel Men of London were gathering like magicians, to witness his grand opening … and then my phone buzzed on my lap.
‘Tricia, the craziest thing just happened about ten minutes ago.’
The book had opened. And the timing was inexplicable; a nurse had placed a blood pressure cuff on his arm and left it there a moment too long, while she turned round to do something else. Seconds later he felt a pop, and 90 per cent of the pressure in his abdomen vanished. ‘Come back,’ he called, to someone, anyone, to his own body that was halfway down a long white hallway. The surgeon, on re-examining him, was baffled. If he had never seen a caecal bascule – no one that Jason interacted with, either then or later, had ever actually seen one – he had also never seen one spontaneously unbascule itself. They would postpone surgery and watch him overnight.
He spent that night on the bowel unit, and it was not until the emergence of the phrase ‘bowel unit’ that we became able to laugh at any part of it. ‘I spent the night on the bowel unit with the other bowel men,’ he texted me pridefully the next morning. ‘Let me tell you about them. One is the Polish guy who just watches really loud Polish Netflix all day on his iPad. One is a sweet silent Kensingtonite who just stares hopefully out of the window towards Kensington. One is a cool Muslim dude with dreadlocks who makes mummy sounds constantly.’ (I had no idea what this meant – like, yummy sounds? – but it turned out to be the sounds a mummy makes as he lurches toward you: every so often the man just went ‘OOooOOooOO.’) ‘And one is Vincent, the poor man in agony who had a similar surgery to the one they wanted to do to me. He talks to himself, and about all the rest of us, and about the nurses. He’s constantly whispering things in this cool creepy voice, like the whisper of a mischievous Disney monkey. He says: “Look who’s coming! And, I hear that Jason is doing better!”’
Jason was doing better. He sent me a picture of an institutional coffee cup filled to the brim, dangerously so. I could almost tilt my head to see my reflection in it. Or his? Surely his. It was his first cup of coffee since it happened, and I thought of Lydia Davis’s story ‘Happiest Moment’, about a man in a beginners’ language class. ‘At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.’ Imagine waking up in a foreign country after a night on the bowel unit and being told by a doctor you could have as much coffee as you wanted. Deep blue curtains parted behind the cup, as if it had been handed down by a ray of light.
Back when the writing group was in session, I often urged Jason to write a book called 720 Feelings, a collection of (largely urogenital) feelings he secretly harbours that are always a surprise to me when they come up in conversation. (‘I can’t wear a kilt, because I wouldn’t like to have an open pathway from my balls and anus to the ground.’ ‘I couldn’t have a vagina, because I would always be thinking about animals getting in it while I was camping.’) The bowel unit must have been hell for such a man, I thought – strangers popping in at all hours to grope you extensively. ‘No, I’ll never care about that again,’ he said. The queen could walk toward him snapping a latex glove (RIP), and he wouldn’t care; too much had happened to him.
They released him the next evening, in part because of his gift for persuasion, in part because of a lack of beds. He didn’t even call me to meet him in the hotel lobby, just appeared at the hotel room door, looking like he had been replaced by a version of himself that had been through the Second World War, and said he wished that he could burn his clothes, that he had never wanted a shower so much in his life. No wonder, I thought – yesterday you gave birth to a horse.
There passed the strangest week of our lives. We were staying in a hotel whose primary impressions were black and brown, a leap out of colour in the other direction. At one point, naturally, a pack of Tories checked in. Jason floated through a sea of politicians, in slippers and soft pants, to pick up his smoothies from delivery drivers in the lobby. One of them might mention it in a future speech – that foreigners in soft pants, who eat baby food, are taking over Britain, wearing slippers so we won’t hear them coming.
All of the people who had been told, in the direst terms, that my husband’s asshole was going to be directly connected to his mouth, and that we would live in England for ever, now had to be told something else. We paced back and forth over the hotel carpet, taking turns to throw our voices. ‘It’s … fine!’ we said. ‘It seems to be fine, for the moment!’ ‘I feel like a dog story told by your brother,’ Jason lamented. About every six months my brother calls to tell me that his dog has been kidnapped, or has eaten an American flag, which will likely prove fatal, and the next day everything is always somehow fine. The future, restored to us, lay in wait. Would it happen again? We had no idea. Was he safe to fly home on a plane? No one could say. For the moment all we felt was the firework of that last-minute burst of luck, long lines sizzling into the sea. We were here, in this hotel room that protected us as long as we did not leave – as long as we lay on the bed together, surrounded by unseen Tories, looking in the mirror which gave back both of us again.
I was by this time ill – as far back as the plane ride I had cleverly been developing bronchitis, from those cubes of cold air that tumbled through the doors of UCLA – and I kept rising out of myself not through fever, but some supersession of the subtle body that watches things happen to us down on earth. It watched as I bent my head to Jason’s stomach, listening to his inner workings to hear whether he still moved. A frightening Build-a-Bear arrived from my publicist. The ceremony I had come for (the Dylan Thomas Prize) came and went without me; I actually won, which seemed like the funniest outcome. Caspian, my agent, showed up in the lobby one morning with a crystal book and a cheque, and Jason and I laughed at our reflections in the gold elevator as we carried them upstairs. Was the Heathrow we had landed at not the solid and substantial one, but a dome of the fantastic, where we found ourselves with crystal books and unexpected cheques and second acts in our hands?
‘You saved my life,’ Jason told me, and I couldn’t blame him for sounding genuinely surprised. Don’t worry, I saw myself saying, bending over him, the appendix is on the left side. Still, carried by either chance or whimsy, he was alive – and more, he was back inside himself, capable, always knowing the thing to do. He spent a whole afternoon drafting an email with the subject line: ‘What to do if Jason dies’. ‘Marry someone nice,’ he told me. ‘You’re the only person I would ever marry who was nice,’ I said.
We often spoke of Vincent. Maybe narrating everything was part of his bowel sound. ‘I loved Vincent,’ Jason would say, reminiscing about the bowel unit. ‘I hope he’s doing OK.’ Whispering still, all day and all night, talking to himself and about everyone else. His story comes again around the corner: I hear that Jason is doing better.
The flight awaited, the ocean, the future. Tomorrow, in my hurry, I would forget it was Jason’s birthday, and the man at the airport would mistake my crystal book for a bomb. But for now, we lay on the bed together and were protected. ‘You can write about it,’ he said, though I hadn’t asked. Maybe he saw the piece of hotel stationery on the desk that read: ‘His eye is on the sparrow (my husband’s ass).’ He folded his hands over his chest solemnly and closed his eyes. ‘Call it Bowel Guy.’
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