Academics of a Certain Age

A tale of new colleagues.


September 8, 2013

The curtain in the prep bay won’t close completely after they say take it all off and get in the gown. Lying there waiting for The Procedure, it occurs to you the birthdate on your plastic bracelet is so far back in history that it’s more curiosity than embarrassment. I grew up during the Punic Wars, you want to say to the nurse but don’t; there are social conventions here that remain mysterious. When she yells across the room that she’s “destroyed” two veins in your right hand, trying to start a line, that she’s “made hematomas,” you allow yourself a comment about being stoic and she leaves in a snit to find the anesthesiologist, who chides you or maybe her by saying stoic’s not good.

Everything on the bed is operated manually; there’s a little wooden bureau from somebody’s bedroom to hold the prep supplies; the sharps container hangs open and fluids have spattered the wall. It’s like looking at the past, where you have come from. It’s the way most places were until very recently. Maybe you deserve this, having gotten yourself born so impossibly long ago, before computers, internet, many useful drugs, fiber-optic cameras, current procedures and understandings. There were no cell phones then to text these thoughts to people in distant cities, or on which to read Moby Dick while you wait.

“The drug they give you right before is awesome,” Big J texts from the hospital cafeteria, where he waits. “Try to enjoy it as long as you can. The memory of it will be a happy place. Hey, since I’m giving you ass-istance today, you could help me move two bookcases to campus tomorrow. ????”

Big J is a medievalist, an Emerson scholar, a Milton lecturer, and as of this semester a degree-seeking student of classical guitar. He says on the drive over that he likes big butts. He calls your procedure The Allegory of the Cave.

There’s the unspoken feeling it's an intimate occasion, and Big J shares some things about himself you didn’t know: I used to get my dad’s lumber out of the shed, make a crucifix and drag it around. I wasn’t performing for the kids in the neighborhood so much as they’d just happen to be over. I cut the big canes from the roses, the ones with the biggest thorns, and rubber-band them together. I liked to push the crown down into my head just a little, so I could really feel it, but I didn't do it hard enough to draw blood. Then I stood on my uncle’s green MG and preached. You know, “On Christmas morning…God’s only begotten son….” The other kids didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

Big J quit school at 16 and ran off to New Orleans, actually at first to a trailer in Fat City that he doesn’t want you to tell anyone about; it’s the one story that makes him feel he’s not a nice person. But you know: Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Street kid. A hair band that toured from Dallas to Daytona. Now he has two adorable kids and smokes some sort of organic cigarettes he says are better for him because they don’t have all the chemicals that big manufacturers add. He says his speech isn’t random, it’s free association, the mark and curse of his brilliance. When you wake from your twilight, Big J will be there. Hello, sunshine, you expect to have to endure. Maybe in German: Sonnenschein.

The man in the bed just on the other side of the curtain is being chided for not having eaten enough fiber, which has resulted in inflammation. The woman two bays down had a polyp removed and another area biopsied, but the doctor has nothing more to tell her for now. The person three bays down has a rather severe hiatal hernia but there’s nothing to be done about that, short of surgery, which we try to avoid at all costs since it’s not a small thing so until then antacids. The elderly woman four bays down slips her blood pressure cuff and the machine beeps shrilly, confusing and frightening her, and everyone rushes to assure her she’s okay.

The nurse returns. Her mood has not improved. Sign this paper, she says, it’s to say you got these papers. Sign this paper, it says we’d normally put an X on you with a marker to indicate where the work will be done, but you only have one, so there’s no way to get it wrong. They wheel you into an OR and say to get comfortable. I’m going to give you just a taste of this, the anesthesiologist says. Big J was right: it’s awesome.

The nurse pokes your shoulder, hard. Hey, wake up. As foretold, it’s over and you didn’t even know it happened. Big J is a dimpled grinning cherub with smeared eyeglasses and a pink polo shirt. The nurse hands him a sheaf of papers to sign for your release. A color inkjet has printed a photo on the paper of a swollen red donut with a coax cable running through it. There are two views, actually, paired.

Hey, I get to see your rectum! Big J crows delightedly to the whole room. He winks at the nurse, who laughs.

To thank Big J and to celebrate your health, you take him to lunch at the 24-hour diner with a gaming room through swinging doors like a western saloon’s. Sit where you want, Sweetheart, the waitress tells him. Things are rarely what you expect anymore, and his Philly Cheese Steak is what you’d call a rib eye sandwich. But your sloppy eggs, hash browns, bacon, biscuit and gravy, washed down with steaming coffee, are fantastical, legendary, after a 38-hour fast.

Big J is in the booth across from you, chewing largely and bragging about grad students liking his Plato. He says he likes Wales, maybe the only place he’d consider moving if they had a job for him. Then he’s back to flamenco. He’s played for years but has such performance anxiety in this one new context of being a student again that his hands, he says, turn into crab claws, even in front of his teacher and his wife. It’s ridiculous, bizarre, he’s addressed dons at Cambridge with no problems whatsoever. He asks you to sit and listen soon, even if it takes him several flub-ups before he can play it right, so he can work up to a bigger audience. You’re happy to do so. Friendship at a certain age in the new millennium.



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