Septic Arthritis

Septic arthritis:

This severely painful infection is typically bacterial.”

Septic arthritis is extremely painful and can develop quickly. It’s a very serious condition…It needs to be treated in hospital as soon as possible as an emergency.

See your doctor if you have sudden onset of severe pain in a joint. Prompt treatment can help minimize joint damage.

“Symptoms of septic arthritis usually come on rapidly with…Severe pain in the affected joint, especially with movement.”

“The rapidity of joint destruction and consequent irreversible impairment of joint function…makes its diagnosis and early treatment an orthopaedic emergency. Cartilage destruction starts to occur as early as 8 hours after infection. Early administration of antibiotics helps to slow down the process, but even if intravenous antibiotic therapy is started within the first 24 hours of infection, significant glycosaminoglycan destruction and collagen disruption occurs.

***

It was Friday, July 19th, 2007

You’d just nailed your last cedar shake to the front side of the garage of the home you’d been framing all summer when you told your co-worker, Charles, that you were going to head up the hill to the toilet. You climbed down the scaffolding and began your march up the rocky dirt driveway.

Hmm, ouch. Weird.

You must have remained in a crouched position too long. Your knee hurt to bend.  Nothing serious. A little heat. Walk it off.

Walk it off.

Owee!

It hurt.

Walk it off, dammit!

You hobbled around the construction site for a half hour before you notified Charles, “Dude, I must have done something to my knee.”

“Did you fall?”

“No, not at all. It just started hurting all of a sudden.”

He told you that if you didn’t feel like you could work, just let him know.

“Nah, I can work.” It’s fine. “But maybe I should do something light—sit down for a while.”

He put you to work on a few short pieces of siding along the back deck. It was an easy-enough task, but you couldn’t concentrate. You botched the job three times, measuring and cutting the template backwards, or too short, or crooked. All you could think about was the rapidly augmenting pain in your knee. You started sweating.

Weird that you could blow out two discs in your low back and not realize it. So you must have tripped or tweaked your knee somehow and simply didn’t remember.

Each time you botched a measurement, or a cut, your awareness of how much you were sweating increased.

“I hate to do this,” you finally said to Charles. “But I can’t focus. I think it’s getting worse.”

If there’s one thing you never do, it’s call out sick. But you had to. You called Wife. Told her you needed her to come pick you up—that you were taking the rest of the day off—that the two of you could even leave early for her grandparent’s house two hours up north in Anacortes, WA.

Your boss arrived on the site before Wife could arrive to pick you up and saw your limp. “Uh-oh! Someone get hurt?”

You didn’t know what had happened. Couldn’t explain.

“Get some rest, kid.”

“I’m fine.”

But you weren’t, and both men began to realize it when you tried to climb into Charles’ truck, using both your hands to carefully—oh so carefully—lift your ailing leg into the cab. Charles drove you to the large grocery store at the side of the highway, where Wife knew to pick you up.

“Do you think you should go to the hospital?” Charles asked.

 “I didn’t do anything to my leg,”  you growled. “It’s probably just a stress injury.”

“Really?” Charles watched you bite your lip as you eeked your way out of his truck, scarcely able to bend your leg enough to clear it past the door.

Wife found you whimpering on a handicap cart in the grocery store.

“Are you sure you’re going to be alright?” she asked, after getting you into The Rig.

You snatched the bottle of ibuprofen from her hand and threw six pills down your throat.

Yes.

The medication seemed to alleviate the pain, but you could barely hop on one leg, so you stayed put while Wife packed your bags for the weekend with her grandparents, mother and mother’s boyfriend, siblings, aunts, uncles—everyone in the family.

***

The following day in Anacortes, you woke up and were happy to sense that your knee was on the mend.  Everyone in the house the night before had asked you what was wrong, why you wouldn’t get out of your chair, why you were hobbling so heavily when you did…

Just some kind of stress injury. You were trying to keep off it.

So when the group, that morning, wanted to dive into town to check out the flea market, you thought it would be fun—provided you moved carefully, which you did. But after about an hour at the market, a fire lit in your knee. You began to sweat again, to tense every fiber of your being against the threat of the occasional, sudden, acute pain.

“I think I should go back to the car,” you told Wife, whose face was wrought with worry. She held you by the arm as you worked your way through the crowd at a glacial pace.

Oh, Jesus…

You continued to try and walk.

Ow! Ow, fuck!

Impossible.

Wife could see that your mouth and eyes were rimmed with red, your jaw set firmly. Frustrated.

“I’m so sorry,” you said.  “I can’t walk. You’re going to have to bring the car.”

“I’m not going to leave you alone like this.”

You laugh to yourself when you remember. Wife carried you on her back for almost a half-mile—all 190lbs of you.

You were returned to the house and left in a chair. Wife’s Uncle slipped you a couple Vicodin. “You look like you need these more than I do.”

It was Wife’s grandfather’s birthday that day—her grandfather was the former C.E.O. of a very large and prosperous Washington bank. The birthday was a very serious affair. You did not want to spoil it by calling more attention to your injury. So you waited—doped up on Wife’s Uncle’s Vicodin—and did not budge from your seat for hours.

When the late hour arrived and it was time to retire to the guest house, you slowly pushed yourself out of your chair, into a standing position. One attempted step later, darkness came stampeding in. You gasped, hit the ground, and started shaking. You soaked through your clothes, felt nausea punch at your stomach with its giant fists. The room became so, so dark.

The family—your [secret] in-laws—rushed you to the hospital.

***

“Will you please indicate to me your level of pain?” the nurse said, holding a little scale of cartoon faces numbered 1 through 10—1 showing a smiley face, 10 showing that poor little cartoon screaming with tears jetting from eyes clamped shut.

You weakly lifted your arm and dropped a finger on 8.

“Do you have health insurance?” she asked.

Just your worker’s compensation insurance.

“Did you trip or fall on the job?”

No.

“Do you remember doing anything to your knee?”

No.

“Are there even any marks on your knee?”

No, no, no!

The doctor showed up an hour later. Same questions, same answers.

“Well,” he said, “The worst case scenario is that it’s septic, but that is highly unlikely. Generally, we know it’s septic if the patient cannot move the joint. Can you move the joint?”

Test those limits.

Wrapping your hands under your knee as though preparing to tear it down the middle, you held your breath, and squeezed out an inch of knee extension, refusing to produce a yelp. Piece of cake.

“Good. So it’s not septic, but I’m going to draw some samples from the site anyway, to see if you have an elevated white blood cell count. If that’s the case, then we know your body is trying to fight against something.”

You waited another hour, holding Wife’s hand, frowning childishly as she consoled you.

Your doctor returned bearing crutches, and explained that there was no change in your white count.

“I’m diagnosing this as bursitis—an inflammation of the bursa around the joint,” he said, and began handing papers to Wife. “Here’s a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medication, and another prescription for an antibiotic—just in case it is septic. If you’re not feeling better in two days, or it gets worse, come back to the hospital.”

A stress injury after all! You felt guilty about disrupting [secret] Grandfather-in-law’s birthday party over something so trivial. So what if you blacked out from shock back at the house, leaving you feeling so sick that vomiting might incidentally turn you inside out!

Wife drove you back to the house, and you crutched your way to the couch—laid down in exhaustion.

“Will you be okay here while I go pick up your prescriptions?” she asked.

You’re a soldier. Of course!

Actually, no. You’re not a soldier. You missed her during the short time she was gone. When Wife did return, she immediately fed you your meds and kept you company in front of the television until it was quite late—legitimately time for bed.

“Do you think you can make it upstairs?” she asked.

You thought about what a Herculean task that would be and said defiantly, “No problem.”

The staircase was steep and long, and you were so weak, you could only crutch at it one step at a time, with Wife spotting you from behind, step-by-step, with your heart rate mounting steadily. Cold, clammy, sweaty. Sick. Oh, god. Really sick.

“Wife…” you moaned.  “Wife, I’m going to boot.” You sagged in your crutches, started to lose your balance. Wife’s arms swept around you immediately.

“I’m going to puke!” you cried.

“Get a bowl!” Wife called to her sister. She couldn’t let go, or you’d tumble down the stairs.

Oh fuck, dizzy, sick, dark.

“Maria, please don’t puke all over my grandparent’s carpet,” she implored.

Stop the ride! You wanted off.

The bowl came in the nick of time. Wife thrust it under your face, arms still wrapped around you from behind, holding you steady.

You vomited violently. The frothy contents of the bowl sloshed every time you heaved and knocked backward into your wife.

“Oh my god,” you heard her say. “I can’t believe this is happening. I’m hugging you in the middle of a staircase at 1 o’clock in the morning, while you puke into a bowl. It smells terrible!’

It was kind of funny. You managed to laugh weakly, “I’m pretty sure I puked up the meds.”

***

You spent the next day in bed. Every time you took the antibiotics, you puked them back up, so eventually stopped trying. Members of the family warily ventured upstairs to check on your condition. You feigned stone-cold self-composure, gave them all a thumbs-up, and even set to work reading your grandfather-in-law’s business book—just for brownie points. No one in Wife’s family, barring her mother and her siblings, knew about your marriage. To the rest of the family, you were Wife’s outgoing friend—a former trainee of the U.S. rowing team and a Yale alumna like her aunt. To a family brimming with bankers, power lawyers, and Boeing C.E.O.’s, you were welcome.

So don’t blow it!

On the second morning, Wife’s mother came into the room to check in, finding you on your back, chest heaving violently, crutches sticking out from under your arms; it had taken ten full minutes for you to rally the energy and endurance to make the short trip down the hall to the bathroom.

They took you back to the hospital.

They detected a tiny—practically negligible—elevation in your white blood cell count.

“Have you been keeping off the leg?” the doc asked suspiciously.

You hadn’t touched it to the floor in days. Hadn’t gotten out of bed but to pee.

“I’m referring you to an orthopedic specialist. You have an appointment set up for tomorrow afternoon.”

They fixed you up with a dandy leg immobilizer so you’d have an easier time sleeping through the night.

Shuffling in and out of the car, the hospital, and along the stairwell worsened your condition. You slept fitfully that night—deliriously—as did Wife, who stirred with worry at every moment, afraid to touch you, but staying close nonetheless.

At the orthopedic clinic, the nurses found you slumped in a wheelchair, head thrown back over your shoulders, eyes lost somewhere in your skull. They brought you to the examination room, laid you to rest flat on one of those hard tables with the crinkling tissue paper on it.

You heard the door open, a man’s greeting voice acknowledged by Wife’s.

“Bursitis, huh?” said the voice, followed by the sound of a file flapping onto a counter. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”

Two hands placed themselves on your knee and tried to bend your leg.

You saw red. Gasped, jolted with the force of lightning striking through your body and exploding through your knee… your eyes had snapped open. You were sitting upright, fists ready to smash that motherfucker’s face in; you suddenly knew how animals behaved in bear traps.

“Jesus!” the man screamed, flying away from you—the rabid animal.

You said nothing, back, chest, shoulders heaving, fingernails cutting into your palms.

“You don’t need to overreact like that,” he said angrily.

You tried mightily to strike him dead with a look. It didn’t work. You fell back on the table.

The man left, and when he returned with your orthopedic specialist, you heard him say something like, “…really don’t think this is bursitis.”

Another series of the same questions. More of the same answers.

“I’m admitting you to the hospital,” your orthopedic doctor said. “I want you under observation. I’m ordering you an M.R.I., and if the results show some kind of activity in there, we’ll schedule an operation.”

Thank god.

Kady brought you back to the hospital for the third time, where you were led immediately into a spacious suite—by some brusque nurses. Somehow, after the X-rays and the M.R.I., you managed to smile, to laugh, to joke around with Wife as you awaited your results.

The news came at 2am—you needed surgery.

***

[14 July 2006

Princeton, New Jersey

Subject: i can’t stand how i’m thinking!

I’m tired, and stiff… back was feeling—eeehhhh—you know. And we have 4 x 20′ on the water in a four that rides slightly down to starboard.  I felt like I was in a bubble… I couldn’t raise my heart rate very high… couldn’t push very hard without it hurting my back and hamstrings. After the second piece, I thought, “You want to cry, you want to bail out of this boat and swim to shore. But you won’t. There are three other girls in this boat who want to be here, who need you… you’ve committed to this. You will endure this practice—this monotony—this discomfort for as long as you have to. Because you have no where else to go.”  At times, I wanted to break down crying, just because I felt so pathetic.

“I’m tired, and stiff… back was feeling—eeehhhh—you know.  And we have 4 x 20′ on the water in a four that rides slightly down to starboard.  I felt like I was in a bubble… I couldn’t raise my heart rate very high… couldn’t push very hard without it hurting my back and hamstrings.  After the second piece, I thought, “You want to cry, you want to bail out of this boat and swim to shore.  But you won’t.  There are three other girls in this boat who want to be here, who need you… you’ve committed to this.  You will endure this practice—this monotony—this discomfort for as long as you have to.  Because you have no where else to go.”  At times, I wanted to break down crying, just because I felt so pathetic.

I rolled out of bed… needed to stretch… put on some clothes…  and then the bed called me back.  I flopped down on it and didn’t move for 20 minutes, slipping in and out of this trance-like state.

If I quit sometime in the near future… how sweet would the relief be?  How much enjoyment would I feel before I began to feel immensely guilty?

I’ve been rowing for six years with this goal in mind. Suddenly I don’t want it? Like, there are so many other amazing things in life—like I can’t wait to grow up or something—that I’m willing to throw in the towel on an opportunity that so few get to dream about.”]

***

“Breathe.”

You can’t.

“Breathe.”

You’re underwater. You’ll drown!

“Breathe, Maria!”

You gasped.  Fire licked down your throat, but the cool air was soothing.  Your lungs drank it up greedily.

***

You have a way of hiding traumatic injuries from your family and loved ones, be it a catastrophic ankle sprain, or a hole blown open in your leg, or rolling a car at 60mph on a freeway.

Wife finally got you to agree to call home and explain your absence to your father, you felt immensely guilty.

“Where are you?” he and Caregiver asked.

Anacortes.

“How did you get there?”

Drove.

“Is Wife with you?”

Oh, Wife.. Your beautiful, sweet, adoring wife. She never left your side. She slept in the chair next to your bed, went out in the morning to buy fresh fruit and flowers, smiled and joked with you.

You loved her so much.

“We want to come see you,” Caregiver declared. “It’s just that Dad has been feeling awfully tired these days.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have drive all the way out here.”

“When are they going to let you out of the hospital?”

Not sure. A few days? They were trying to find out which antibiotics were going to kill the strep infection. Until then, you got to spend your time idly poking at the yellow-red goo in the drain pouch attached to your leg, and impatiently clicking your morphine button.

Categories: Illness, Injuries, Struggles, United States | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Everything was not going to be fine.

12 August 2020

Maria –

Good morning. My name is KW and I serve as the … at the USOPC. I read your personal statement this morning and wanted to say thank you. Thank you for sharing your experience and for shining a light on really important issues athletes face in their journey. I know that you have moved on in your life with the lessons learned and the experiences gained to serve others in the fitness world, but I wanted to say that your words will go a long way in also serving athletes who are currently in similar situations to where you were in college.

I’m not sure who you have shared your statement with… I was wondering if you minded if I shared it with the leadership at the USOPC to help them understand both the struggle and determination of athletes such as yourself? If you are okay with me doing this, I am happy to do so with or without your name.

Also, if you have suggestions for the USOPC, or for Rowing, in how to best drive excellence and well-being simultaneously, I hope you’ll feel free to share those. Feel free to share them with our office and we can make sure they are heard.

I appreciate your words and the time you took to share your experience. If you’d like to talk by phone, please feel free to call any time.

K.

***

13 August 2020

Hi K.,

…I know it’s a buzz term lately, but “mental health” is a big deal. Elite athletes are extreme, and often they use their sport to cover for other issues. I used fitness to help people recover from substance use disorder, and the pattern is similar… I do think a mental health department, a team-therapist/psychiatrist/social worker/etc. should be an element in elite athletics, just as Dr. ZZZZZZ  was the “team doctor.” Athletes cope with chronic pain, anxiety, stress of trying to secure housing, work part-time jobs, and more. It would be nice to see mental health check-ups written into training cycles.

Understanding the science of recovery is another suggestion. More training is not better training. Conscientious training, deliberate training, and giving the body time to calibrate optimally to a stimulus is ideal, and the bodies will last longer.

Finally, when I quit rowing, I had a body accustomed to 3+ hours a day of aerobic activity for years on end. It was my homeostasis. I ran up every mountain I could find in WA when I returned home to…nothing. I ended up taking a job in construction and demolished and framed houses, just to move. I fell into stimulant abuse. It was not an easy time. I think that a good idea would be to create an “Exit Strategy” for athletes who fall off the cliff from activity to no activity…

Cheers,

Maria

***

Your impromptu wedding in a Boston Starbucks immediately preceded your departure from rowing. Suddenly you were sportless, jobless, directionless. But at least you were married. She was still in college, and bound to the US Under-23 Team that summer, and then had her senior year ahead of her. And you? Nothing. Nada. Not a thing.

You couldn’t U-Haul it. Not with her roommates there. So you traded heartfelt goodbyes and packed yourself onto a plane back home to Seattle in order to find a job, with no idea what you were going to do.

Canvaser for Greenpeace? Work in an Italian tile store? Banking? You scoured Craigslist ads and your alumni network. Somehow, you had a difficult time imagining yourself getting a serious job doing anything. But after hitting up a few banking contacts through your alumni network, you were surprised by how quickly you were able to arrange an interview for a summer internship.

You had no idea what people did over those summers, but many of your collegemates had been through the summer banking gauntlet and came out describing it in only the vaguest of terms, stress lines etched into their young faces. It just didn’t feel right. No. You couldn’t see yourself working in a bank, at a desk. You just couldn’t.

The night before your alumni network-sourced interview with J.P. Morgan, you called in. “I’m sorry.  I appreciate your willingness to meet with me, but I’m afraid that it’s a little premature. I’ve decided to take another job.”

“Not a problem,” your fellow alumnus said. “What is it you’ve decided to do?”

“I’ve taken a job with a construction company.

“Oh really? Administration?”

“As a laborer, actually. Decided to use the brawn this summer, instead of the brain.”

He laughed. “That’s great. Do it while you’re young. I hope you have a good experience. Remember, any time you want to look into J.P. Morgan, give me a call.”

Your dad thought your new job was great. He thought everything you did was great.

Caregiver was not pleased. “Maria, you have a Yale education. Why do you want to work with a bunch of… of lowlifes?”

You were already well-accustomed to her judgments, and so didn’t waste your breath telling her why. But you’ll set the record straight here. You knew you liked the work!

During the summer of 2002, before you left for your first year of college, you and Big Dan decided to work for a demolition company, Demolition Man. (Note the derivation of your handle demogirl06, which includes your college graduation year). You were the only woman on the payroll. It was filthy-dirty, sweaty work with occasional hazard pay and overtime—work that sent you home with bloody scratches and black boogers. You were such an enthusiastic laborer that your fellow co-workers and temps didn’t want to work with you. “You need to slow down, kid,” they said. “You’re making us look bad.”

A month into the job, your superintendent approached you. “I read your file. It says you got accepted to Yale.”

“Yeah, I did.”

He blinked. “What the hell are you doing here?”

You shrugged and said, “Getting paid to break shit. Same as everyone else.”

He seemed almost embarrassed for tasks he’d given you earlier that summer–shoveling gravel and hauling blocks of concrete laced by chicken wire out of holes pounded by a Bobcat–and decided to make you the principal driver of the Genie Boom. Your job for the next weeks was take apart everything bolted into the ceiling of a warehouse the size of three football fields, 60 feet in the air. Occasionally you worked with one crazy sonofabitch who aggressively fought and yanked with his crowbar so that the Genie Boom rocked precipitously. The crowbar wrenched free and hit him in the face, splitting it open. More than once.

What a fun job. Every morning you’d wake up with a hangover, slide behind the wheel of your 1957 three-on-the-tree Chevy pickup, and pick up your new fifty-year-old buddy, Steve. The two of you carpooled to work. Steve didn’t have transportation, so he was grateful.

“You know,” he said in his gravelly voice. “You remind me of a prostitute I knew in Vegas. She had some looong legs.”

Most days at work you’d break into a sweat crushing and shoveling rocks. At lunch, the guys all piled into the bed of the Chevy and you’d drive them across the highway to the truck stop to eat. Afterward, you’d lay outside in the sun, head cradled in your hard hat, and nap to some good ol’ staticky country music.

***

The men in your post-rowing construction company, Built-Right Homes, were not the “lowlifes” caregiver had described. Your boss, Bob, was very successful and had made a more-than-comfortable living doing what he loved; your co-worker, Charles, was actually an incredibly well-educated, socially-aware individual with whom you spent hours every day, hammering nails and discussing the nature of the world. Together, over the weeks, the three of you framed a house from the ground up. At the end of every workday, you’d gaze down at the site with a sense of satisfaction—the ever-growing edifice helped to fill your hollowness.

***

The job wasn’t perfect the distraction you’d hoped for. Everywhere you went, you seemed to walk around with a rain cloud over your head. On some evenings and over the weekends, you disappeared into dark warehouses and basements to dive face first into piles of drugs—disappear for so long that your phone would die. You went missing from everyone for days—especially Wife. Worse, you’d gone missing from yourself. You were hollow. You stared at your reflection in the mirror and couldn’t recognize yourself. Pale, with dark circles around your eyes—eyes like a skeleton’s—hair limp, stringy, hands stained gray from packs of cigarettes. How did that happen? How did you turn yourself from a strong, robust, elite athlete into some kind of caved-in, translucent ghoul? Not a big deal, right? It was summer. You were “decompressing.” You’d straighten yourself out later.

***

In June of 2007, Wife had been rowing in her training camp for barely a week when she called you to tell you that her little finger had gone numb. “It’s so weird. I can’t feel anything in it.” Over the course of the week, the numbness traveled through her whole hand, and then it was accompanied by pain. Pain in her elbow, up her arm, into her neck. “The doctors don’t know what’s wrong with me. Nothing is helping.”

It was a matter of days before she was sent home. She couldn’t row—she couldn’t even hang onto the oar. She was heartbroken.

You knew exactly how she felt—to have your sport ripped away so unfairly. You picked her up from the airport and brought her back to your house. She crawled into bed. You kissed her, held her, and she started to cry. To sob.

It was the first time you’d ever seen Wife cry. You were terrified.

Wife was upset. So were you. Upset over the same thing, but for different reasons. You’d voluntarily quit; she didn’t get a choice. In the end, she handled her depression far better than you did.

***

All that’s left for you are blended memories of sifting, chopping, and scraping little shapes in white stuff. Sniffing, snorting, and sneezing. Tissues stained by yellows, greens, and reds. Little silver razors—gold and platinum cards. Straws, pen shafts, notes, spoons, thumbs, fingernails. Later, ribs, breasts, buttocks, even a penis. At the end, always, black circles, ashen faces, grayish-blue hands. The comedown. Anxiety. Hibernating. Then waking, blinking like a kitten opening its eyes for the first time. Rest and repeat.

Wife really began to worry about you. Months of self-loathing culminated after a Beerfest, geeked-out laser tag, and then an impromptu road trip to a vacant mountain condo. You were supposed to go hiking. Instead, you stayed up for two days and put the bulk of 9 grams in your face and engaged in the opposite of intimacy. Your later migraine was so intense that you thought your head had split open between your eyes. You rolled in bed, kicked, thrashed, ground your teeth, all the while screaming and holding the sides of your skull in an attempt—so it felt—to salvage what precious little remained of its structure.

“I want you to stop!” Wife yelled.

Stop the drugs. Stop the bullshit.

You weren’t yourself.

“Please, I’m begging you, take a break. I’m worried about you.”

You were worried too. What were you doing? Why were you doing it? What for? What mission?

You were destroying yourself. Maybe you didn’t realize how much at the time. You always felt like you were in control–barring one time when you took a bullet of MDA, which—after seven hours of other stuff—felt like a harpoon through your brain and left you in a waking coma for four hours, heart racing at 170 beats per minute, with Wife holding your hand, reminding you to “Breathe!” But moments like that were rare, and you could stop using “whenever you wanted to,” even though you’d been behaving like an addict carrying gear wherever you went, bumping in bathrooms, at family dinners, social gatherings, alone with Wife.

She was right. It was time to stop. Because you were ruining your relationship. Sweet Wife. She had been your only source of soothing. She helped you out of one misery, and she was trying to help you out of another.

But you didn’t go down without a fight. The details of your rows are mostly gone, but one stands out: the rumble of the monorail flooding your ears, the sick-yellow square of light on the white-plaster wall, the skin tearing off your elbows and knees. You were scaring her.

Scaring her, the girl you loved. The girl that changed your life—who’d lifted you up. Who’d been there for you, always, and looked after you. What were you doing? You wept your apologies. She held you, stroked your hair, wiped away your tears. Even though she was afraid of you.

***

You had to do something for her. She deserved it. She wasn’t supposed to be in Seattle with you, injured, mourning the loss of her sport and cleaning up your messes.

“I’m going to quit my job,” you said. “I’ll put in my two weeks’ notice and we’ll Establish Dominance early.” The dream of August ’07. You kept thinking about it—the sun-bleached highways, the two of you suspended in a moment of time stopped, together, happy, the way you’d been together when you met. “Let’s run away together! We’ll work on an organic farm in Kentucky! We’ll just keep driving.” 

Keep driving. Run.

***

“Maria, stop scratching.”

Huh, what?

It was early in the morning. You had to go to work, and by god, your leg was itchy.

You looked down at it, and—”Oh, Jesus!”

You were bleeding. A lot.

“Why did you let me do that?” you demanded incredulously.

“Don’t blame me. I was asleep.”

Me too!

There, in the center of your right shin, over the itchiest mosquito bite that ever occurred—ever, anywhere, to anyone—was an enormous self-inflicted abrasion. The night before, in an effort to do right by Wife, you’d arranged a picnic at the park. Some buddies had come by to toss around a football for good, old-fashioned, drug-free, clean fun—until the mosquitoes drove you home.

You glanced at the blood under your soil-caked fingernails. Casualty of the night.

Categories: LGBT, Struggles, United States | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Married in a Starbucks

[01 February 2007

12:30h

Newark, New Jersey, at the airport]

You have this amazing and beautiful girl who suddenly gives you a purpose. It is one thing to be good to others—for others. It is another thing to be good to yourself. She lifts you away from your typical self—the one that exists and strives to meet the expectations of others. It’s like she reminds you that you are so much more—that you have been boxed in for years.

The truest aspects of a person’s life are the ones he spends the most time censoring and obscuring. It’s as if he knows—rather than denies—that his behaviors are his clearest reflection—but he is too ashamed because he cannot see these muted aspects in others. They, too, are covering. He can’t see, but he should know that everyone behaves that way.

Now with Would-Be Wife—your incredible Would-Be Wife—do everything you can to release the rest of the world—just for moments, time-to-time—safely, responsibly, with unrelenting lightness. Go work on an organic farm with your meaningless Yale education. It doesn’t matter. Do what makes you happy. What else really matters?

***

You’d found impossible ways to see each other up until you relocated to the ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, at which point you and Would-Be Wife maintained your two-month “relationship” over the phone.

During that time apart, you dreamed feverishly of escaping with her on that road trip: Establish Dominance, ‘07. There were good days on the water, and many bad ones. Coach AAAAAA ignored you. Your body hurt. You went to bed hungry at night in fruitless efforts to lose weight. Avoided going out and drinking with the team. You did everything you thought you could do to gain a possible edge, but were told you weren’t fit. Self-doubt had crept in. You looked heavy on film. Your disordered eating practices escalated, and you increased your training volume–extra running, in an attempt to be thin. At night, you passed the time in longing, paused on pictures and video clips of you and Would-Be Wife together. 

In your last week and a half at the Olympic Training Center, after the longest sustained effort to be healthy—eat well, sleep, avoid alcohol, and focus on nothing by the training and maintenance, you started to do well. But your back was not well—perhaps a sign that you had dropped a significant amount of weight. But it wasn’t enough weight. You found yourself rock-bottom on the power-to-weight ratio. Poor old back couldn’t bend the oar like it used to.

On the last day of practice, AAAAAA switched your pair partner and threw you together with a new girl—a former Olympian—your boat bombed. Crashed and burned. The girl started sobbing when you got off the water. “I’m so sorry, Maria! I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”

Fine. Great. You understood. But while she had a silver medal from the 2004 Olympics and would always be in AAAAAA’s good graces, you had just been rocketed back to the bottom.

Two fruitless months.

But, at least you would get to see Would-Be Wife. You’d clung to the idea of her like a buoy.

***

The wheels of your airplane touched down in New Jersey at the end of March 2007. As soon as you were home, you dumped your stuff in your room, grabbed your keys, and jumped into your truck for the five-hour drive to Boston to see her. Your fingers drummed at the steering wheel in anticipation as your vehicle galloped up north.

You wish you could remember the feeling of the reunion. Doubtlessly epic. Would-Be Wife’s friends called up the night you arrived and invited you both out, so the two of you threw back shots of tequila and hit the campus bars. That’s where you ran into Would-Be Wife’s best friend, “Butterfly” Kisses.

For a moment, you relived the guilt of your awkward previous sexual encounter. She seemed jaded, but diplomatic, perhaps because she had failed where Would-Be Wife had succeeded. The manner in which she’d tried to steal you the previous November had been impulsive and rude, if not deliberately cruel to Would-Be Wife, and you certainly played your part. Enough of a part that Best Friend threatened to throw you out.

But that was in the past. Water under the bridge. “Butterfly” Kisses watched you and Would-Be Wife fawn over each other in a happy reunion, and decided to send Would-Be Wife a text message at the end of the night after the two of you had decided to stagger blissfully back to the apartment.

[nice girl u got there u should marry her]

Would-Be Wife’s face lit like a Christmas tree. “Yeah, Maria! Let’s get married!”

You could only laugh, “Married, huh?”

“We’re in Massachusetts. It’s the only place in the United States where it’s legal. Will you marry me?”

She’d asked you.

“You can’t be serious,” you said.

How could she have been? You were both completely wasted.

“C’mon! Marry me!”

“Don’t tempt me. I will. I’ll marry you, and you’ll sober up and wonder what happened.”

“Please! I dare you.”

 —and then, just like that, you said yes. After all, she dared you.

“When we wake up tomorrow,” you said, “I’m going to roll over, smile real big, and remind you that we have to get married.”

That is exactly what you did.

Neither of you backed out.

***

What began as a joke—a dare—turned into something much more serious.  Getting married was a complicated process, and you were supposed to drive back to Princeton on March 28th—that very day—in order to make it back for your first practice after California. As it turned out, City Hall wasn’t usually open for weddings on Wednesdays, and the judges all had some secret judgy pow-wow to attend. You hit a telephone book and looked at the names of people qualified to marry you, and after you finally reached one, said you didn’t mind if you could do it outside of City Hall. You chose a Starbucks Coffee shop, since you and Fiancee were native Seattlelites and had passed countless desperately romantic hours in those stores.

You were married “without delay,” with but one witness—Would-Wife’s dear Photographer Friend.

There you were, holding your fiancées hand in the corner of a Starbucks outside City Hall, before an absolutely ancient Justice of the Peace, who continued to stay Fiancee’s name incorrectly. Photographer Friend snapped a roll of black and whites until the manager of the venue, a tiny and assertive Asian lady, squawked, “You cannot take picture in here!” She seemed completely oblivious to the fact that there was a ceremony taking place.

The younger members of the staff began to catch on after you asked for a Starbucks cup sleeve and a pair of scissors for the baby cake, complete with pink-frosting roses, that Photographer Friend had procured as a surprise. You used the cup sleeve as a centerpiece and used the scissors to cut the cake. The three of you celebrated the event.

“Wait…” a staff member finally said. “Did you guys just like… get married?”

You dropped the cake-smeared scissors on the counter. “Sure did!”

The other members of the staff poured over.

“Do you want a free drink?”

You ordered the most lesbian drink you could think of: a Venti white chocolate raspberry mocha.

***

The celebration was short-lived, and then reality set back in. Time to leave for New Jersey to return to rowing. Suddenly you felt sick. Really sick. You returned to Wife’s apartment, crawled into bed, and wrapped up in blankets to combat the chills, breathed deeply to keep your nausea at bay.

You called one of your coaches to tell her you would be missing practice the next morning, but you would probably be there for the afternoon.

Of course, the next day, set on leaving, you found yourself in your Big Gay Truck, standing almost in the middle of a busy intersection, unable to get the vehicle into gear.  Your clutch had gone out, completely, just two blocks from Wife’s apartment. Your blood ran cold; there was no getting back to Princeton.

Fuck. Fuck!

Missing one practice was bad enough, but two was unacceptable. Lineups had to be shuffled, new combinations of rowers tested. You were going to lose your seat.

And you did—a reward for having your truck towed to a service station and for paying $1,100 to have the clutch fixed overnight.

You showed up to the boathouse and were isolated to a single, after which you returned home with eighteen new blisters on your hands.  That afternoon, you were made to row with the girl who sabotaged your last practice in California. AAAAAA followed your boat in his launch the entire practice, yelling into his megaphone that the two of you simply weren’t rowing well enough.

***

You and your father have never been close.  You were born last among his six children, when he was fifty-five years old. That being the case, he’d been fully capable of bouncing you on his knee when you were too young to walk. After that, he couldn’t keep up.  When you were five, your mother split, so there wasn’t much of a parental influence in your life. Larry tried earnestly to replace you mother—woman after woman came and went. Some were crazy, some had dependency issues. None became permanent fixtures in your life.

Couple your lack of parental influence with the fact that you were raised in a family full of Scientologists who disowned each other right and left, and made holiday gatherings tense. You learned never to rely on anyone for anything. You drew into yourself—screened out the world.

Hence, you shocked yourself when you called your father.

You cried harder than you’ve ever cried about anything in your life. You told him it was over—that you quit. That all the time, the pain, the meds, the surgery… the training, the eating, the commitment… the need for financial assistance, the lack of health insurance, the insistence to continue the sport despite your health—all of it was for nothing. You would never make the National Team. You were not going to go to the Olympics. You raised your white flag.

You’d wasted so much time, jobless, unable to support yourself. You had contributed nothing; you had only taken.

After you hung up the phone, you shook a few antipsychotics and Valium into the palm of your hand, clapped them into your mouth, and started to slide down, deep down, into the thickness of the sedatives.

***

You were back in Boston the very next day, sitting in the middle of Wife’s bed, arms wrapped tightly around your knees, rocking yourself gently. Your voice, your hands, your whole person trembled—even your sentences.

Across the bed, Wife regarded you cautiously, somewhat terrified. “Please tell me you didn’t quit rowing because of me,” she said.

You’d told her at dinner the day after you’d been married, while waiting for your truck to get fixed, that you were so happy with her in Boston and so unhappy all the time in Princeton, that it made you want to quit.

“No,” you responded. “It’s not because of you. There are a dozen reasons. You were more like a catalyst.”

She seemed relieved. “So what are you going to do now?”

Oh god. No idea.

One thing at a time.

“I think I need to go home to Seattle for the summer. Get a job there, and decompress.”

“What kind of job?”

Anything. You’d live with your dad, save up some good cash, and wait for your new wife to return to you.

Wife, like you, was a good rower. While she lacked your raw, superhuman strength, she made up for it in actual talent, which is why she’d earned herself a gold medal from the Under-23 World Championships that last summer—in the very boat in which you’d been denied a seat in favor of the puking friend.

You considered her athletic timeline. Wife had to finish her spring semester, then would travel to Virginia to train with the Under-23 team again. Provided she made the boat (which was practically a guarantee), she would surely receive an invitation to the elite team in Princeton for the following year. The elite team—the very group from which you’d just escaped.

The World Championships would be over by the end of July. Then the two of could meet again—in Seattle—and finally Establish Dominance in August ’07.  It would actually happen!

You started to feel better immediately, holding onto that dream.  It was only a few months away.  In fact, you felt happy, and relieved; so did Wife.

Everything was going to be fine.

Categories: LGBT, Planning, United States | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Prelude To A Wedding

CHEMICAL INTERVENTION

While still in college, struggling with performance anxiety and pain management, a campus psychiatrist prescribed you 2.5mg of Risperdal (used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and irritability associated with autism) whenever your emotions started to get the better of you. See, you’d taken to spontaneous crying—crying about anything, everything. Your cup was full. Brimming. No space remained for additional stress.

Dutifully, you’d snap one of those tiny pills in half and swallow it. Within minutes, fog and fatigue embraced you. Your spirit slurred like a drunkard, body drooping until you collapsed on the bed. You would skip class that day. The anti-psychotic had the power to take you down, even when bodily pain did not.

The anti-depressants made you want to run people over in your truck, and were swiftly taken away.

ON LONELINESS

In Princeton, living with two other U.S. Team trainees, you isolated yourself after practice while many of the women crowded in your living room for brunch. One of your roommates rode her stationary road bike in the living room for hours on end, watching replays of World Championship races, and the others would comment on the races animatedly—talk about the precision of the team, the oar placement, or gossip about the coaches. You sat in the back of the living room at a cluttered table, reading The New York Times Science section, wondering about the future, about technology, about medicine. After breakfast, you retreated to your room, lay down so your lumbar could decompress, and read books—all the books—and took yourself away from the anxiety of your sport, then hatched fantasies of running away. You thought about all the things you’d dreamed of doing—just as soon as your commitment to rowing was over. Travel, culinary arts, write a book, learn photography, volunteer for the environment, take up mountain climbing, work with queer youth, become a coach…

[PAUSES: the amazing thing about your life is that you ended up DOING virtually all of these things, in one capacity or another.]

You felt unbearably lonely in a meaningless, traumatic, and painful pursuit. For what? Because you had only one identity? Because you hate to fail? Because you had no direction otherwise?

Then your girlfriend from college dumped you for the fourth time, on the one-year anniversary of her dumping you for the first time.

Your National Team roommate found you in a pathetic little ball on the kitchen floor—crying, as blood gushed from your hand. You’d been trying to slice a stupid tomato, but you were so upset about that evening’s phone call from your girlfriend that… well… oopsie.  And since you were such a sputtering mess, rather than dashing immediately to the sink to wash the blood away, you just slid. Down. All the way down to the floor, and rocked in sobs.

“She dumped me four times,” you whined to your roommate.

Roommate stiffened. “That’s it. That bitch isn’t allowed to step foot in this apartment ever again! If she even comes near you, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll kick her ass!”

“Kick whose ass?” Roommate’s girlfriend asked as she emerged from the bedroom.

Roommate received her girlfriend’s arms around her waist. “Maria’s ex!  That’s who!”

They helped you to your feet, dressed your wound. Then you ate your dinner numbly as they cuddled on the couch, rubbing it in with their togetherness—that you were alone, dumped, abandoned. In pain.

ON BEING SHITTY: TO YOURSELF, AND OTHERS

You met your Would-Be Wife at a rower’s party in Princeton. She had randomly approached you for help. See, she had a friend puking in a bathroom, and she needed someone to help carry the poor girl to bed. You recognized the puking chick as an athlete against whom you’d won your summer seat race, but was still denied a spot in the Under 23 World Championship boat. You didn’t blame the puking girl. She wanted it as much as you did.

***

To everyone’s annoyance, you slept with Would-Be Wife and Best Friend’s best friend: a strange and competitive girl with allopecia.

You’d found yourself within the four small walls of her dorm room, listening to her ask you why you didn’t initiate the kisses with her; later, feeling the bizarre sensation of a “butterfly kiss” from an eye with only half its lashes; even later reading the signs—the scars—of suffering all over her body; and finally feeling the sting of loneliness—of those wounds after all—as she fumbled you, since you’d plainly alienated her to such an extent that there remained no possibility of recovering your initial drunken attraction for each other. What a waste. The whole time you dwelled on how much you hated yourself, hated that you couldn’t hang on to someone as stupid as recent four-times-dumping ex-girlfriend, that you couldn’t even pretend to be a good friend. Hated that you were allowing that girl to fumble you when you were really thinking about her best friend.

***

You hurt Best Friend by dissmissing her wants and needs from you as a legitimate friend. You were drowning so deeply in your own misery. Best Friend stormed into the bedroom two days later, flicked on the lights, and let you have it.

“We need to talk.  Right now.”

The bedroom lights were harsh, but not as harsh as your raging alcohol-and-depression-induced headache. Your eyes hung like bags of water, your shoulders shuddering. Anything. You would have given anything to disappear—fold yourself neatly in half, over and over, and slip between the cracks.

Best Friend went right into it. “You’re a shitty friend! I don’t know why I let you come here. What was I thinking? Of course. I’m your Number Two. You didn’t call me because you missed me. You called me because you didn’t have anywhere better to go.”

True. But false.

You had missed her. Would-Be Wife, that night on the stairwell in Princeton, had reminded you of something precious you were about to lose—someone you had nearly forsaken for a stupid, busty, blonde girl who loved to dump you before holidaysyour best friend.

“I thought you were here to see me. My mom, my other friends… they all warned me. But I said no, she isn’t going to behave like shit this time. And then what? You just disappear. Ask me to give you a ride downtown for a booty-call. And I did it! What was I thinking?  You aren’t here for me. You’re never here for me. You only care about yourself.”

Ouch.

“It’s the day before Thanksgiving, Maria. Either we figure this out now, or you leave and this friendship is over. And I mean really over.”

You didn’t say much of anything. Your head felt like it was trapped in a vice squeezing so hard that the pressure in your forehead and behind your eyes forced you to keep your head lowered, your gaze to the floor. But your jaw set in a firm expression of determined abjection. Fuck it all. Indignant as you were, she was right. She always was. 

***

You encountered some other people, too, including a current politician who bit you, shoved you into a wall, strangled you, slammed your head into a bathroom mirror, and then with two large hands wrapped into you hair so that you couldn’t pull away, held you gagged on himself for a minute at a party in Princeton. When enough people banged on the bathroom door, the two of you collected yourselves to leave (obliging you to look all over the floor to fetch torn-out jewelry), at which point you told him, “’Passionate…? Someday, someone might walk away from an experience like that with a feeling as though they’ve been raped.”

He replied, “You’d be surprised how women like to be treated.”

You wonder now… is that how you wanted to be treated, based on how you’ve treated yourself in the past?

THE ULTIMATE ESCAPE

You re-met your Would-Be Wife in Seattle over winter break 2007.

Would-Be Wife was the ultimate escape. She was the one and only source of soothing in your life. She was quiet, reserved, observant. To many, she seemed stand-offish. But to you, she was mysterious. Under the surface—that placid heaviness she exuded—there was quality.

Not a quality. Just quality. Some undefined and intriguing quality that acted as an adhesive, gluing your interest. She was Full Of Grace. You wanted to get under her skin, discover her. Ultimately lose yourself in her. Let her take your pain away.

The night you first kissed her is branded in your memory, along with many others. Would-Be Wife procured a friend’s leather jacket, wore it over her shoulders, and smoked outside that warehouse. Dark hair, dark eyes, stained fingers, smeared mascara—all wrapped up in black leather—a veritable smudge against the morning sky. You were smitten.

“Beautiful, wide, yet calming eyes that smolder. Her gaze, with its long dark lashes. The mouth that pouts and purses, hides, then ignites into the brightest smile. A smile that could win an Oscar. Symmetry. Balance. Her face is pure character. It’s a face that draws you in—quiet, still at first. It’s a timid face, a calm face—cool, relaxed, unassuming. You wonder what she is thinking.”

As that long night turned into morning, she, you, and a friend would pile into her Suburban—“The Rig”—and drive several hours to a Bavarian Village, Leavenworth, for geeked out sausages and beer with your unsuspecting family. On your way home from this completely random and reckless escapade, you slipped in and out of a thin sleep, arms wrapped around her—around her seat as she drove—and did not let go for two hours.

***

You cried after New Year’s Eve in Would-Be Wife’s arms. Cried yourself to sleep knowing you would eventually return to Princeton and her to Boston. You weren’t dating; you weren’t even sleeping together! It was a matter of having found someone who made you feel unbearably happy in her presence—a source of soothing—who made you capable of temporarily forgetting.

Your last days together were somber ones. Impulsively, you got matching tattoos on the backs of your necks: a silhouette of closed eyes.

“What are we going to tell people when they ask what it means?” Would-Be Wife wanted to know.

You shrugged. “They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Mine are shut.”  That’s right. No one could see in. No one could know how miserable you felt.  

THE DREAM & THE DESPERATION

You returned to rowing with the U.S. Team, and Would-Be Wife called you several nights a week. You gushed. Any phone call from her was worth the agony of your daily life.

She began to talk about something that made you happy.  

[25 January 2007

13:00h

In Princeton, New Jersey, in your bedroom]

“The very idea makes you overwhelmingly happy.  Maybe that means something.  Everyone dreams…  But finally you felt as though you have a dream which is truly attainable and just around the corner. A dream that you can really break away from the monotony of responsibility and live out loud.

You talked about August ’07, when rowing lets out for a couple weeks. A road trip in The Rig. Starting off in Washington, traveling all over the state, seeing all the landmarks—the parks, the lakes-—sleeping in The Rig, or outdoors—swimming in waters, fooling around in fields. Eventually getting down to Oregon—then maybe to California. Drive like beggars. See how far you can get. See everything. You want to see everything.

Is it too early for you to be making these kinds of plans? Should you not make long-term plans with her? She feels different. She feels safe. You get the sense that she really will stick around. As she always says, “It’s so simple. It’s perfect.” Keep it the way it is. No expectations.

Just love her as long as she’ll let you.

So for the moment you’ll live in your head and your plans for the August ’07 will carry you through the long and stressful months ahead. You will focus on rowing and dream. Dream… you can see the two of you sitting for hours in diners across the West Coast, drinking cups of black coffee. Rubbing the sleep from your eyes—lazy smiles on your faces. No cares. No worries. No agenda. No itinerary. You leave when you want to. The Rig is covered in dust and you write silly things on the windows. You drive and drive over sun-lit highways, feet hanging out the windows, singing out loud. You see all kinds of rest stops, take pictures, kiss in bathrooms. And cuddle at night. Hold each other so close because for those precious days—or weeks—you are all you have for each other in the world. That will be the feeling of freedom.

***

So fell so wholly and completely in love with Would-Be Wife—your source of soothing, your dreams, your hope, your escape. After you went separate ways—she to Boston, you back to Princeton—you resigned yourself to the misery of rowing again.

Two athletes under similar demands of their sport, separated by a five-hour drive….

You found impossible ways to see each other. On a weekend, you met in New Haven, Connecticut, the half-way point between your respective locations.

You and Would-Be Wife rejoiced in each other’s company. Went to a fancy dinner and racked up an eighty-dollar bar tab in Maker’s Mark, then impulsively paid for another night in a hotel. You stayed up until four in the morning, at which point you both climbed in your vehicles and drove in opposite directions so that you could each be on time for rowing practice.

On another weekend, you met in Milford, Connecticut, at the Red Roof Inn, for $63 a night.

[31 January 2007

22:30h

Milford, Connecticut, at the Red Roof inn]

The floor is littered with potato chip bags, a sour kraut can, an empty package of Tofu Pups—fake bratwurst slathered in kraut, “chased w/ a stout!”

You drove around until you found a diner. Sat for hours, laughing, singing into cups, playing footsie, attacking each other with ice cubes, talking about pie. You ran amok at Stop & Shop. Hot chocolate and a marshmallow treat! Defined the word “ping” as a “sudden and sexually electric moment of revelation.” Drank to “astounding” things. You could stare at her forever…  Bluegrass music is playing in the background. She says you are “heavenly.” A song is playing now, “In love with a blue-eyed girl…” Her eyelashes are so dark and long—so beautiful—they can sweep away all your worries. She just smiled. And then laughed. Your chemistry goes “ping.”

She said, “Wow, if this isn’t Heaven, then I don’t want to go.”

Would-Be Wife—from Seattle—so close to home—was the first person who had permitted you to unlock everything. You wanted to tell her everything, and she’d listen.  You wanted to do everything—she’d smile and say, “Hell yeah, let’s go.” 

It was so nice to hear the way she always answered the phone in that husky, casual tone. Drove you wild. It fit her. It fit like your head in her lap and her beautiful hands gently stroking the hair off your forehead. You kept dreaming. August ’07 is yours and Would-Be Wife’s Everest.

THE REALITY

[11 February 2007

10:00h

Chula Vista, California, in the dining hall at the Olympic Training Center]

Yesterday, at the end of the day, your back—the bad side—went into spasm.  Yeah, the scary kind. You got scared. Oh, and the row this morning sucked.

A member of the men’s team found you crumpled and self-loathing in the grass. He said to you. “Shrug it off.  Rub some dirt in it.” 

You don’t feel like talking to anyone today. So here you are, writing in your journal at lunch, avoiding everyone. Maybe you’ll grab your book, head over the hill, and read out of sight.

Categories: LGBT, Struggles, United States | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

A Letter to XXXxxxxx

“To All Who Are Concerned,

I received an email requesting that XXXxxxxx Women’s National Team trainees add their voice / share their experience with XXXxxxxx and others, in light of allegations of physical and emotional abuse.


Attached is a personal statement about my experience rowing, highlighting my perspective and concerns.”

____________________________________

11 August 2020

When I read that allegations of physical and emotional abuse had been made against coaches AAAAAA and BBBBBB, I was stunned. My initial response was, “I may have had a miserable experience during my time with XXXxxxxx, but not once, and I mean it, not once did it ever occur to me that either AAAAAA or BBBBBB was abusive, physically or emotionally.”

I began to consider all the possible ways in which this statement could be construed, and I grappled for more context. It seemed perhaps there could be a generational difference in perception of how athletes are and ought to be treated. The more I thought about my experience, the more uneasy I felt. I did not want to add fuel to a fire that could very well have been started by a group of women whose expectations about life and outcomes are, frankly, scarcely recognizable by my own generation. On the other hand, it would be wrong of me to not comment on a system that I think can be profoundly unhealthy. So I have decided to write this statement without any information pertaining to the case, in order to identify ways in which XXXxxxxx and athlete experiences can improve.

Rowing has a pipeline. It begins by identifying talent in high school. This talent is recruited to top rowing universities, and then that talent is communicated to AAAAAA. Because of rowing, I gained admission to a prestigious university that would never have admitted me otherwise, and my coach there, CCCCCC, was always a phone call away from AAAAAA. 

The summer after my freshman year, I participated in a short two-week development camp, but never met AAAAAA. When I returned for my sophomore year, CCCCCC explained to me that I had the potential to go to the Olympics, and that the US National Team would recruit me, but I would have to lose 40 pounds and do “90 additional minutes of steady state cardio every day, on top of daily 2-3 hour team practices.” When I first heard this, I seemed like an outrageous amount of work, but he was dead serious, so I actually did it. Later, CCCCCC told me to go to CRASH-Bs, and said that if I did well, AAAAAA would recruit me. So I did what CCCCCC told me, went to CRASH-Bs, and won by 13 seconds. And just as CCCCCC indicated, AAAAAA asked about me. That was a moment of pure elation. The pipeline worked exactly as described!

The summer after my sophomore year, 2004, I lived in Princeton and had one of the greatest times of my life. I was still very young and not in particularly good control of my body, but I made some incredible friends and rowed and trained hard. I also ate very little, caught up in the fact that no matter what, I was always 10 pounds heavier than my teammates. An obsession with weight would lead me and several of my peers into disordered eating practices. By the end of that summer, through overtraining and under-nourishing, I had whittled my body down. That was the summer I began to feel chronic soreness in my tailbone and irritation around my ribcage.

I returned to college my junior year untouchably fast, light, and compressible. Every athlete’s journey is a little different, but rowing was a sport that saved me from a darker possibility of my life, transported me to an amazing school, and offered me potential for the future. It was everything to me. I was all-in, with no back-up plan, and no guidance other than, “Train more, be faster, be lighter.” And never take strokes off.

The morning I felt the first hot muscle spasms is a morning I’ll never forget—I’d bent over to pick up my shoes, and a searing sensation spread across my lower back. When I told CCCCCC, he described what they were, and suggested I see the campus sports doctor, who explained lumbar disc issues to me. The interesting thing about my condition was that I could still sit in a boat since the wave of pain occurred only when I straightened from a bent position. The pain occurred over a short threshold that I could avoid. But that threshold grew bigger and bigger over the months, and the pain that accompanied it required me to dramatically change every aspect of my life from the way I slept; to skipping class to avoid additional sitting; to typing all my papers standing up. I spent 60-80 minutes a day stretching and rolling to relieve pain and tension, and lost additional hours to athletic trainers friction-rubbing my hamstrings, icing me, stimming me, ultrasounding me. I had an M.R.I., X-rays, epidural injections, painkillers, ibuprofen, cyclobenzaprine, voltaren, and benzos. I was high all the time. My doctors switched my medications every three weeks so that I wouldn’t build a tolerance to the Valium and the Soma. The result was a regular sensation of dizziness, fatigue, and even sensitivity to sunlight.

I rowed until the act of getting out of bed and using both hands to lift my useless leg shot lightning down to my foot and fire through my core. I remember sobbing—gasping and sobbing—as I took ten minutes upon getting out of a boat in Florida just to straighten into an erect standing position. I remember the pain during those last days up until I actually lost the ability to walk. The official diagnosis? Three desiccated lumbar discs, two of which had herniated, and a fourth “extra” desiccated disc in my sacrum also tapping on a nerve—probably caused from rapid weight loss and overtraining. 

The astonishing thing about this experience is that CCCCCC encouraged me to keep rowing, and told me not to get back surgery until at least NCAAs were over–and then, wait just a little bit longer so I could row in Royal Henley! But this was the same person who seemed to sneer at women who dropped out of the sport for back injuries, treated them like they were weak, or like they wanted to quit in the first place (and some did). This was the same person who told me to “tape it up, get in the boat,” when I approached him with my right middle finger infected and swollen like a sausage; but hey, at least it wasn’t streaking with real sepsis. This was the same person who, after I got back surgery, yelled behind my erg, “You have to pull harder than that, or AAAAAA will never want you on the National Team!” This is the same person who told me to get in the boat for the NCAA finals of my senior year, dehydrated after I’d suffered food poisoning from a team dinner at the Olive Garden, and spent eight hours vomiting up bile and shitting in my pants.

It’s not easy to write about this without spinning off into petty details that ultimately don’t add to the greater narrative of how miserable I made myself rowing. I was surely to blame, because I didn’t know how to quit. But I finally came to terms with my injury when my legs quit in the middle of a race and I flopped uselessly up and down the slide like a liability.

I remember the emotional afternoon I told CCCCCC that I had decided to not train with the US Team that summer after my junior year so that I could get back surgery. He said, “You’re only crying because you can’t train with the US Team.” It was the most offensive thing anyone had ever said to me, and I replied, “No, CCCCCC, I’m crying because I’ve done irreparable damage to myself, and I won’t be able to pick up my kids when I’m 30.” CCCCCC called AAAAAA, and AAAAAA immediately insisted that I drive two hours to Princeton to consult with Dr. ZZZZZZ to “make sure it was necessary.” I did. And Dr. ZZZZZZ did not hesitate to recommend the surgery, “While they are in there, make sure they get that disc, too.”

To my knowledge, at that time, I was the only trainee with XXXxxxxx who had undergone a double lumbar discectomy and returned to the sport and managed to continue to PR on distance pieces. But my power was never the same again, and pain followed me the whole time. The tightness that accumulated in my hips, hamstrings, and QLs was so intense that when I took strokes, I often imagined a baseball shattering through a plate glass window. When my teammates racked their boats and went to brunch, I waited and made sure no one could see me struggle to get out of my single, or limping my first steps on the dock.

My memories of XXXxxxxx are almost exclusively pain management, and lying on my back in bed trying to convince myself I wasn’t depressed. AAAAAA made very few comments to me. He had a clear group of favorites, and it did seem to me that he was waiting for me and a handful of other women to weed themselves out of the mix. He just had to continue to neglect us.

Sometimes he would flatly tell me, “Your core is weak.” A 22-year-old has no idea what this actually means. More sit-ups? More trunk flexion? “You need to work on your fitness,” he later said, and relegated me to a single in Chula Vista. It had nothing to do with fitness. It had everything to do with excruciating pain and tightness, coupled with malnourishment because he was also examining the weight of athletes and despite everything I tried, I could not be eight to ten pounds lighter.

I do not recall a single time AAAAAA ever approached me and asked me, “How are you? How is your back feeling?” or “Here are some resources,” or “Let me explain how to strengthen your core.” What I recall is a constant feeling of dread and anxiety, and an inability to tell the days apart. When I arrived on my bike some mornings in the dark, I wondered if it was actually night time. How long had I been there? Oh my god, is this morning or nighttime training? I felt very alone, and to be fair, I think I kept my suffering pretty private. I’m sure to others I could be emotional and frenetic, or withdrawn. Pain and the threat of loss does that to a person.

I did everything I could to stay on the water and not lose what tiny amount of standing I’d achieved. One morning I thought I had a urinary tract infection, and I was so fearful of “losing my seat,” that I paid $1,100 to go to the emergency room to pee in a cup. When the clutch pedal in my truck broke, I told BBBBBB and then I paid another $1,100 for an emergency repair so I could get back to Princeton in time—but I ended up missing practice. When I finally showed up to the boathouse, I was isolated to a single again, after which I returned home with eighteen new blisters on my hands from the humid New Jersey climate after two months of dry California. That afternoon, I was made to row in what could only be construed as a punishment pair, and AAAAAA followed our boat in his launch the entire practice, yelling into his megaphone that the two of us simply weren’t rowing well enough. That was my last day of practice.

My decision to quit rowing was the hardest and most painful decision of my life. I had dedicated seven years to my sport, and the last three of them were a blur of chronic pain. I arrived to practice the next morning and walked up to AAAAAA with my face tear streaked, swollen, and bloated. I told him that I’d spent the night thinking it over (clearly) and that, “I’ve decided to stop rowing.”

“Ok,” AAAAAA responded.

“Yeah, I…” I continued, but trailed off. AAAAAA literally only said one word to me when I quit. All those years culminated in a single word—“Ok”—and can be described as the most invalidating experience of my life.

What I learned from that experience is that XXXxxxxx is the end point of a system that can destroy a person and their body. It starts in college, with coaches like AAAAAA and CCCCCC who rowed under similarly punishing circumstances. When CCCCCC slipped his own disc jogging by the boathouse and spent months coaching us while lying down in his launch, only then did he seem to soften his approach with me. Coaches do to athletes what their coaches did to them. The cycle repeats itself.

Since my experience in the pipeline of XXXxxxxx, I have struggled with back pain for 16 years. I have radiculopathy in my right foot and recurring sciatica down both legs, and there were occasions when I couldn’t lift more than 25 pounds. I have also now worked in the fitness industry for 13 years, have interned with a physical therapist for over 2 years, and now specialize in corrective exercise, orthopedic event recovery, and mobility. I wish I had known someone who could have helped me understand how to protect my body back then. I wish that the athletic trainers at the ARCO Olympic Training Center weren’t utterly perplexed by my hips, the problems of which are glaringly obvious today. I have often imagined offering to volunteer my expertise to wounded athletes who don’t know any better, and whose hyper-competitive personalities won’t allow them to take time to recover.

When I look back at my experience, I am the one at fault. I am 100% to blame for my own misery. Rowing was always a choice. But it’s a choice that can feel like coercion because we can’t allow ourselves to quit, and this area of vulnerability is where sensitivity among coaches matters the most. This is the area where coaches should seriously consider whether more training is better, whether they should schedule one-on-one meetings with their athletes to genuinely ask how things are going. Instead of isolating an athlete, talk to her. Invest in the longevity of athletes, schedule guided work-in “recovery/mobility” days rather than more work-outs, maybe check to see that the correct muscles are being activated during lifts. I can remember only one time when a form of recovery was scheduled, and it was a yoga class taught by a teammate. 

Do I think AAAAAA or BBBBBB should still be coaching the women’s team? I cannot say. I never ever thought they were abusive (CCCCCC included). But as I have reflected long on my experience, I must say there is certainly room for improvement in the system—in the pipeline of XXXxxxxx—that has a culture of unapologetically exploiting and discarding young bodies; a culture that selects for and develops a mentality that “I should just be tougher,” and discourages whining. Even today, as I write this, I feel shame. Am I whining? Was my pain valid? Did I really have to quit? The fact that I even have these thoughts illustrates the problem. 

I think it’s important to remember that elite athletes have a hard time coping with failure and willingly engage in systems longer than they should, often to their own physical, mental, and emotional detriment. As a fitness professional now, I have counseled dozens of individuals whose need for achievement continues to harm them. I know from experience that telling them to “take time off” from training is useless, especially when their sport’s culture demands more, treats pain and suffering like a virtue, and it reinforces personalities geared towards extremes. It’s been 13 years since my last strokes. Maybe things have changed. The drive of the athletes certainly has not, but the way in which coaches handle that drive can certainly use some improvement.

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On Being Vulnerable

[I’m having a moment right now.]

[I’m really emotional and going back and forth.]

[And I think I am terrified of sharing pain with other people. Because I’m supposed to be bulletproof.]

[So I share salacious facts.]

[But salacious facts aren’t the pain.]

[They are a response to pain that I don’t share.]

[Because I’m afraid people won’t think I have anything to complain about.]

[You can share pain with people who care. You’re not invincible and tomorrow is not granted. The people who love you, we love you because you’re a human who tries so hard… But I see there are some things missing… You’re not perfect and you don’t have to be. You’re loved. Love on you if you won’t let anybody else. But I bet you’re still figuring out how to do that even.]

***

It was Alexis who first said, “Salacious facts are your defense mechanism.” And, “Telling is not the same as showing.”

***

Levi said recently, “You are always going to change! And you will always go through waves of deciding to share or not to share. Filter, or don’t filter. But have a standard filter system in place. If you are going to drive yourself to destruction, do it with consistency and style! But remember, when you write for the public, you barely write the truth.”

***

You write the truth, but never the whole truth. You’ve also discovered that the truth is endless. It comes streaming out of you like chaos.

Through the woods on a frosty night–and you found yourself crouched in a little ball on a logging road, pulling frantically at your soul like a clown pulling a never-ending line of handkerchiefs from his sleeve… you find yourself with a sore jaw from violently gnashing your teeth over stale chewing gum. Maybe if you keep pulverizing it, some juicy secret will squeeze out.”

As you become more lucid, you continue to remember the moments of your initial wailing—when you turned into the little girl—the clawing at the walls, the collapse into misery. That memory of complete loss of control haunts you. You bottle your nausea. Push it back down. You’ve never looked at your inner child before. Ever. She is screaming; but nobody can hear her. She screams and cries as you have never screamed and cried in your life. She screams and cries and thrashes in all the bottled up poison you have never let out. You’re just too fucking good at swallowing things.”

***

So you are screaming. Screaming. In your head you are screaming. And no one can hear you. It’s about admitting you’ve been poisoned and being dropped and abandoned in a bathtub. It’s about losing the people you love too soon. It’s about rapidly changing names, faces, circumstances, “siblings.” It’s having water poured on your face in the morning, and the lights flickered on and off. It’s about grinding your teeth to a pulp. It’s about telling when someone hurt you, and not being heard, then later having it ignored–and being called a liar. It’s about being branded, and stigmatized. Hypersexualized. It’s about being physically traumatized, and then being threatened with a steak knife for breathing. It’s about a constant state of wariness and fear of your caregivers, and then being told the situation is in your hands. It’s about being blamed by your caregiver for things that aren’t your fault. It’s about broken dishes and doors shutting in your face, or being locked out of the house. It’s about being publicly embarrassed by caregivers, mishandled. It’s about being shoved into the wall, or physically intimidated for trying to be heard. It’s about being accused of hiding something when all you wanted was a normal life–some stable relationships. It’s about having violent food poisoning and being screamed at and threatened. It’s about suffering and being told to “Shut the fuck up!” It’s about being terrorized in the car and staying late at school so your caregiver won’t pick you up. It’s about the psycho woman with raptor nails that burst into your bedroom with a broomstick. It’s about being in the middle of a merry-go-round, watching the anger everywhere around you. It’s about listening to the doors slam, the “Fuck you’s!”, the “Goddamn biches!” and the “Do somethings!” It’s about listening to dishes shatter and objects getting knocked off their shelves, and the phone ringing off the hook, the dog barking, the engine roaring–and you trying to drown it out with running bathwater and crying. It’s about seeing your caregiver suffer and withdraw, and feeling the neglect. It’s about an overwhelming book that should never have been found the way it was found. It’s about modeling emotional immaturity. It’s about being sick in the hospital and having money thrown at you. It’s about divisive holiday dinners. It’s about communication breakdown and emotional neglect. It’s about needless disconnection. It’s about living in solitary confinement. It’s about being isolated. Beating your dog because you don’t know how to cope. Biting your knuckles. Drinking yourself sick several nights a week. Going to school drunk. About wrestling the car keys away when he swallowed a bottle of aspirin, and trying to talk reason into your caregiver–“He needs to go to the hospital.” It’s about being told you need a man, even though you’re gay. It’s about hearing your friends and home and family members constantly being trash-talked, devalued. It’s about crying out for attention and nobody noticing your pain. It’s about being told you have to be more careful, nicer, so bad things other people do don’t happen again. It’s about being taught that pain isn’t a big deal, because everyone else had it so much worse. It’s about being trained to shut up and watch chaos around you, since stating how you feel makes no goddamn difference. It’s about feeling helpless. And then, when you help yourself, when you get away from all that immaturity and madness–it’s about being told you are ungrateful. It’s about not being allowed in your house. It’s about nonsense, and con-artistry. About death and forgetting. About violations of privacy. 

You’ve already forgiven everyone. But it doesn’t lift the scars.

Those scars would haunt you. They are what drove you. Stay at school and take on more extra-curricular activities so you don’t have to interact with Raptor Nails. Excel. What happens to you as a child has no bearing on your success. You choose. Don’t complain–it doesn’t get you anywhere anyway. Work. You don’t need anyone’s help. Be Randian.

Work was distress tolerance. It was a distraction. You worked feverishly, and you pushed your body so you didn’t have to feel. You drank. Huffed. Blew. Drank some more. Woke up in strange places. Threw up in the bathroom at work every Sunday. Passed out in the rain. In the middle of the street. Woke up with your head in another toilet. Woke up next to… people… again. You had problems with intimacy. Too much cross-wiring, being a lesbian with mommy issues. A friend would encourage you to see a drug-alcohol counselor. Your family never knew–oh wait, your caregiver did know, but there were no boundaries. “You don’t ask me my business, and I won’t ask you yours.” He knew you’d fish that bottle right out of the trash.

You will always remember the first time you tried to share your feelings. You froze. You physically could not push the words out. Ultimate vulnerability. What did you need? Love. The normal kind. But you never learned how to receive it. Instead, you learned how to be quiet, alert, and watchful–hopeful. Always let them move first, and follow their lead. Don’t rock the boat. Stay distant, always. Don’t inconvenience them with your feelings. Don’t say what you need to say. Expect them to just see that you’re suffering because actions speak so much louder than words. But you keep your private life too private. Or they were just that blind? Or maybe they weren’t blind, but just incapable of parenting. Another family would “adopt” you; see, they had parenting all figured out!

You taught yourself to interpret the negative experiences in your life as meaningless. And because you never gave them any weight, you didn’t understand the load it seemed like you always carried. What load? Something felt heavy, but you were incapable of putting your finger on it. Move along. Nothing to see. Even when you sometimes collapse under the weight. Share some salacious fact.

SOME SALACIOUS FACT

You ran out of the room crying while sleeping with your best friend. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this!” Grabbed your keys and drove shitfaced to her house at 2am. Climbed the trellice, made a racket. She whispered harshly, “Jesus, what are you doing here?” You were sobbing and spewing incomprehensible feelings. The lights in her mother’s room suddenly clicked on. You panicked. Leaped off the roof. You landed hard on your feet and made a run for your car, but couldn’t find your keys. You kept running down the street. Veered into a drainage ditch, accelerated down it, ran into a fence and knocked yourself out. She arrived minutes later. “Get in the car!” she ordered, then drove you back to your house. “You’re daughter,” she said, as she presented you to your caregiver. Caregiver said, “I can smell your liver rotting.” Best friend had left at least a dozen tearful messages on your answering machine, wondering what he’d done wrong! Nothing. He hadn’t done anything wrong. It was all you. You were wrong. Two days later, she would say, “My mother says I’m not responsible for your crazy.”

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Face your own hypocrisy

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”  These words were scrawled on a piece of cardboard in Levi’s flat. Where was that flat, anyway? Warsaw? You shudder at how much of your life has passed–at how much you don’t remember. Why blog? Why not? At the end of your life, you’ll have something to remind you. This blog is both who you are and who you were. Everyone grows, changes, struggles, and of course has juvenile online rants. But seriously, it will help you remember.

***

ONE MEMORY, ON MEMORY

“Scratch my back, will ya? Scratch my back.” In 2011, your father’s body had been reduced to skeletal dimensions. His skin was paper thin. The pain medication he was on for his cancer made him itchy. He scratched at himself, but dared not break his own skin. You knew fingernails were out of the question, so you rubbed his back through his sweatshirt with your palm. He begged you to go under the shirt, so you let the calluses on your hands do the scratching.

“It’s so good to see you, Honey. I’m so glad you’re here,” he said. “When did you get here?” It no longer mattered if you were coming home from college, or years of being abroad. The conversation repeated itself every five minutes because of his Alzheimer’s–a place of permanent forgetting. He still carried a few precious notes–or reminders–or rather, clung to them out of paranoia. They were contained in his “wallet,” a collection of credit cards wrapped in bills, wrapped in notes, wrapped in paper towels, wrapped in a ziplock, tucked in his shoe. Even the few precious memories he carried, he buried.

***

In How to NOT get into medical school, you wrote “On that day, it transformed into a destination. The journey ceased to matter. The traveler—the discoverer—in you died.” You’d written those words deliberately. 

From June 2014 to November 2017, you’d had one heck of an adventure. Three years was the longest you’d stayed put in any single location since high school, but you didn’t mind because your life was still technically on the move! Every semester, there were new subjects to take you on a mental journey. You traveled from SF State University to UC Berkeley Extension. You traveled from a physical therapy clinic to UCSF Parnassus hospital. You traveled all the way to the UCSF Cardiovascular Research Institute. Talk about new experiences! No regrets. The knowledge that you accumulated, the perspective you gained, the way the material trained your brain to consider and solve problems. It was a gift. And the more you accomplished, the thirstier you became for additional knowledge and experience. You were ready! Poised for what a medical education would bring, along with a new city, or state perhaps.

It was the end of 2017. Bitcoin hit an all-time high of $20,000. You owned a rental property. You had two progeny up in Washington. You’d earned your blue belt in Jiu Jitsu. You’d even begun to run a fitness program for junkies. Everything was at your fingertips. Wherever you turned, good things seemed to happen from ye old fashioned blood, sweat, and tears–just how you like it–and you’d been learning along the way. Life is sweet like that. Always full of lessons.

So when medical school didn’t happen, you were crushed. You remember the evening at home in Oakland on the couch, with a beer dangling between your fingers, drawing slow long breaths that escaped in shuddering sighs. The tears ran freely.

“I’m so tired,” you said to the lady friend. “I’m exhausted.” Then you practically wailed, “I’m so f-fucking tired!”

It was true. You’d been burning that candle at both ends–60 hours a week–for three years. You knew lots of applicants didn’t get into medical school the first time they applied, but you weren’t in your twenties. You weren’t fresh out of college. You hadn’t been armed with a handful of science courses. You had started from scratch, at 30, with no role models, no master’s degree, no pre-paved path. Nothing. Just you and your reigned-in wanderlust aiming at the career that made the most sense to you as a personal trainer literally obsessed with health, wellness, metabolic disease, cancer, nutrition, corrective exercise, sunshine. Shit. Was it any surprise that you’d volunteered at so many wellness destinations across Ireland, France, Belgium, and Spain? Was it a surprise that you wanted desperately to get into medicine after learning not once, but twice, what it was like to not be able to walk? Couldn’t the schools see that? 

Could your friends and family see? Did they? You aren’t sure.

Many would ask, “Why do you want to go to medical school?” Because medical school isn’t a light choice. It’s commitment. It’s work.

You’d say something cheeky like, “I want to suffer for the rest of my life,” or “Why not?”

Medical school was the logical extension of your passions, but it also represented an endless series of doors and opportunities. And if there was one thing that was irresistible to you, it was new possibilities. From 2014 to 2017 you’d merrily gone along and discovered all there was along the way, gaining more and more momentum…

…and got clotheslined.

“So what are you going to do?” the lady friend asked.

You felt like you were dripping with venom. “I’m going to feel like fucking garbage for the rest of tonight, and tomorrow I am going to wake up and keep doing what I have been doing.” Organic chemistry, cell biology, pharmacology, calculus, more research, more MCAT, more, more. More. You would split yourself in half under the load.

Medical school became the destination. You no longer pressed on happy to see what you might see. You could only–would only–see what you had come to see. The periphery of your vision blurred. There was only a single track down which you marched indefatigably.

***

Where did this version of you go?

“You have too-often witnessed willful imprisonment from the quest for fulfillment.

And should you unexpectedly lose that thing you needed for fulfillment, then what? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t let your happiness hinge on one thing, one goal, one person, one job, one city, one great moment, one Kodak family photo.

…because change is guaranteed.

You better know how to surf the tides. Don’t keep treading water, remembering that one great wave. It’s gone.

And for God’s sake! Try not to take yourself so seriously! This sweet, beautiful life you lead is absurd; wonderfully absurd.”

How old was she? 27? There you were, at 33, graying at the temples, with creases at the corners of your eyes, even worse, around your lips–which pursed constantly in a state of focus.

It’s okay. Everything is going to be fine. You can’t rush a medical school application. That’s what everyone said. So do it right this time.

Your memories of the next two years are blurry, in part because you’d taken up drinking with… renewed enthusiasm. You still volunteered at the lab; you had begun a health, fitness, and vocational training program for individuals with substance use disorder; you were on the Board of Directors for the recovery center; you pounded out coursework between clients, sprawled on the floor of your gym with textbooks and papers. When at long last, you finished organic chemistry II, you were no longer beholden to sitting in class, and the big bad world of online learning became available. It was a tremendous relief, but the hours of studying required were no less rigorous, and your involvement with the junkies increased.

***

Karen returned to the group fitness class and energetically, though asymmetrically due to a frozen shoulder, pumped her arms in the air. Fortunately, it caused her no pain. She grinned ear to ear. A quarter-hour later, she had to sit down. Fatigued, perhaps? No, she felt woozy, nauseated. She burped something minty and requested an escort home. Later you got the stunning email that Karen was back in detox. That was the day you learned about Disulfram’s interaction with alcohol; that was the day you learned to police your gym’s mouthwash.

Working with your junkies was definitely the highlight of 2018. You call them “junkies” affectionately. They came in all kinds of flavors: ex-cons, housewives, burned out athletes, veterans, gangsters, gays… The amphetamine addicts were “shifties.” They squirmed a lot, their eyes darted, they spoke quickly, often in a fractured cadence. Opioid addicts seemed far more mellow, sometimes a little far away and unreadable, deliberately mysterious. Cocaine addicts were as normal as anyone else. Marijuana addicts–yes, there is such a thing–smiley and pleasant. And everyone circled having problems with alcohol.

You arrived at the rehab center and begged the director to let Karen out of detox and back into your program. Drinking the mouthwash? Surely it was a one-off! The director made an exception and, against all odds, let Karen back into your program. Five days later, Karen was at it again with the mouthwash.

You never in your life could have imagined a state of desperation for alcohol so pervasive that you would willingly chug mouthwash–while on a medication that you knew would make you violently ill if you did.

“Alright, listen up everybody!” You announced to your third junkie cohort. “Being in this program is a privilege! Here are the rules. I want tidy little rows, like a school room. I want you seated in your rows on time. Do not take advantage of this program so you can be selfish; I don’t want to find out you’re calling your boo on a secret cell phone in the men’s room. This is your opportunity to leave your rehab center and exercise. To hang out an hour a day in the real world. To learn about your health. Maybe end up with a job by the end. I do not want to see you hanging around the front desk or the cafe. I want you in this room on time! No exceptions. No excuses. Bring your own water. Go to the bathroom before our session starts. You do not, and I repeat, you do not need to take two shits in one hour! Ever! If you have ‘food poisoning’ or some other nonsense, all-to-convenient-easy-to-fake excuse, I better see a hospital bracelet. Don’t drag your heels, tell me you need more water, or that you need to tie your shoes again. I’ve been watching people exercise for over ten years, and trust me, I have seen every version of fuck-offery you can imagine! So don’t even try it.”

One guy did. Claimed he sprained his ankle skateboarding and took himself to the hospital, which is why he wasn’t able to participate that day. He produced a hospital bracelet from his pocket.

You threw him and his stale old hospital bracelet out of the program because no one at the rehab center takes themself to the hospital without notifying the director.

You loved working with addicts. Loved it. First, as a personal trainer dialed into watching people accomplish their goals, even in incremental ways, you were always elated with them. Junkies have hit rock bottom. The only place to go is up. Second, they had thick skin. The thickest of skin. See, junkies have been through the shit. There’s very little externally that phases them–it was the internal. The rehab center they lived in, “Beats prison,” one guy said. He loved to do dips and pullups–and he taught you about prison yard fitness.

Yes they had thick skin as far as your interactions with them went, but you do not mean to diminish their pain, and there was plenty of it. Parents separated from their children, people battling cancer, remembering war, escaping an old identity, remembering rape and abuse.

“I’m sorry,” one woman said to you after she requested that one of the male trainers leave the room so she could divulge something personal and painful. “I don’t think I’m ready for this.” You assured her she didn’t have to apologize. “I think it’s the stress. I’m so stressed out. Like, I see cats.”

“Cats?” you echoed.

She wiped below her eyes at her anxious tears. She gestured across the group fitness studio and elaborated that she knew they weren’t real, but it was a problem that she was seeing them. She was an absolute doll, and you were sorry to see her go.

Their stories were mesmerizing, and there were so many. The stories were told in their bodies–bodies that had been thrown out of moving vehicles, fallen off roofs, stabbed, shot, violated, beaten, irradiated too many times. And the most powerful thing they did every single day was get up, not use, confront their demons, and try to heal.

You felt, genuinely, that you were being a force of good in the world. That program taught you not merely what it was to build something, but to put down roots and grow a community. You celebrated the news of each participant’s graduation, welcomed many of them to positions in your company, wrote letters of recommendation on their behalf, supported them in whatever way you could. The program had started as a hobby, a side-project, a potential answer to the question of “why are there so many former addicts in the fitness industry?” In your attempt to leverage it as a way to impress medical schools, it grew into something much better than you could ever have expected. You may have done your best work, even though your life was falling apart during that time.

Working with the junkies felt close and personal. The self-destructive tendency in them was palpable. You thought often about how twisted your thinking had been in the past, and how it was becoming again. Members of your program became your friends–some of them your best friends–and you felt reassured, surrounded and armored, and warned. Perhaps they didn’t realize it about you, but you imagined them in a circle, each holding a mirror, showing you your own reflection. No matter which direction you looked, you were forced to see yourself, see your own bullshit, face your own hypocrisy.

Categories: Random Musings, San Francisco, Shifties, United States | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

I am bike: on rage, wipe-outs, crime fighting, and bones

ON BIKER RAGE

You have no idea what was on your mind. None. You were probably wondering if you would get to work on time, probably hungry, indisputably tired! A vagrant was crossing the road slowly, in the crosswalk, and the light had turned green. Without thinking, you gently steered so that you could pass behind him. He must have anticipated this, watched your trajectory from the corner of his eye. Just as you were passing, he threw his arms up and jumped towards you to scream in your face. 

Your heart jumped into your throat and exploded like a grenade as you screeched to a halt.

Holy shit! What the fucking fuck! FUCK!

“I’m walking across the street!” the vagrant cried.

—against a red light, and technically he jumped deeper into the street just to scare the living shit out of you.

You straddled your top bar, gripping your handles with white knuckles. You stood ready to strike him down like Zeus with a thunderbolt! BOOM! Obliterate him! And then settled for something lame, “What is wrong with you?” 

The vagrant spit something garbled about walking and finished with a cascade of “Fuck yous!”

No joke, you looked like you had just emerged from the wilderness and were about to get into a street fight outside an REI… but hey! You’d gladly settle for a crosswalk! In one long arc, you swung your leg around backwards in the universally understood gesture of: I just got off this bike, and shit’s about to go down. You decided this gesture should be just as intimidating as when you honk at a car in front of you and see those little white parking lights go a-flickering–oh crap, he’s about to get out of his vehicle!

emerged from the wilderness and were about to get into a street fight outside an REI

That’s right, you were coming after him, and you couldn’t be sure if he ever suspected some basic white Amazon bitch to step into his nonsense. To your surprise, he did not recoil in fear. He stepped forward and measured right up to you and the screaming match began. You both devolved into hurling “fuck yous!” in the middle of the street while a line of cars piled up and–astonishingly–didn’t honk. 

Finally, “You’re a blue-eyed whore!”

You paused momentarily, wondering if it was worth him spitting in your face and maybe giving you tuberculosis. You thought how, after all the nastiness exchanged in that street, you’d managed to bedazzle him with your whorish blue eyes.

“Wow… you are so crazy,” you said, and (belatedly) decided to walk away.

Whore.

ON BREAKING THE LAW

Yes okay, biker rage is a thing, but you’re mostly pretty chill on your bike. Years of walking on highway shoulders with your thumb out and feeling the woosh of traffic has calmed your nerves. The bike is nothing. You’re so comfortable on it. You are too comfortable on it! Texting, talking on the phone, checking email… One time a policeman actually pulled you over on your bike.

When you saw the flashing lights of the cruiser reflecting on objects in front, you couldn’t believe it. You obediently pulled your bike over to the shoulder of the Inner Richmond.

“Officer,” you said obediently.

“I pulled you over because I saw you riding against the flow of traffic, riding with no hands, and making an illegal left turn.”

At the same time?!

He continued, “Do you have a death wish or something?”

“No, officer. Definitely not!” you continued obediently.

He sent you away.

ON HANDLING AT-FAULT DRIVERS

One time in West Seattle a guy made a right turn as you were rolling slowly through a crosswalk and collided with your bike. You were quick to get your body out of the way, but he pinned your front wheel under his car. He was mortified, particularly because he was clearly on a date. A witness approached you, “I saw everything! He hit you! It was his fault. Do you need me to make a statement?” No. Nah. You calmly asked the driver for $100 so that you could replace the bent wheel.

***

And there was the time you were biking home down Turk Street in San Francisco, la-la-la-ing, minding your little old biker business with a large paper sack of groceries in one hand and your other tending to the handlebars when all of a sudden the door! The driver’s side door of a parked car threw itself proudly open in front of you and…

Blam-kkkcczzzz-thwomp-bump-skid!

…your right hand and handlebar collided directly into that door. You flipped over the whole situation and somersaulted before crashing on the pavement.

“Oh my god! My god! Are you okay?” the middle-aged Asian lady culprit cried.

You laid there on the ground in stupefaction. In the dim evening light, you could see that your grocery bag had exploded, and your food was everywhere in the street. Your hand hurt. Your neck hurt. You’d landed pretty hard on your… whatever you landed on.

“Hey, seriously, are you ok. I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” the lady continued.

You sat up slowly, trying to figure out if your body was intact. Your backpack, which had also been brimming with food, broke most of your fall. But your little grocery sack… You saw a puddle of lemon juice and soy sauce from the two glass bottles that didn’t survive spreading out over the street.

“I don’t know what to do right now,” the lady said. “I feel terrible. Should I call someone for you? Do you need a ride anywhere? Should I call an ambulance?”

After what must have been an insufferably long silence for her, the first words you spoke were, “Do you… have a bag?”

“A bag?” she blinked. You waved your hand in little circles to gesture to the groceries on the street. She got the point. “Yes. Of course. I think I have a bag.”

She pulled an old Lululemon bag from the trunk of her car, and helped you pack your spilled food, since your right hand was defective.

Then you said, “Umm… do you think I could have ten dollars?”

She stared at you for a moment. “Y-you… want… ten dollars?” Then she repeated, “Ten dollars?”

“My, ugh… my lemon juice and soy sauce. The bottles broke.”

“Ten dollars?” again.

“Yes.”

She rummaged in her wallet and extracted a bill.

“Thanks,” you breathed, feeling all the shock of what would eventually be diabolical whiplash and months of ensuing back pain.

“You’re sure you’re alright?” she said. And when you nodded, she followed up with, “This is my fault, right?”

You calmly confirmed it as you left the scene.

ON STUPID MISTAKES

Like that one time you assembled your bike yourself, and thought you could finger-tighten the pedals, since you didn’t have a wrench.

That’s okay. I’ll just gently ride it to the bike shop, and then they can crank everything down for me.

Nope. In the middle of Market Street, while you hammered upright to gain speed, your finger-tightened pedal stripped right off the bike and you went down in front of a bus. Three people dove into the street to stop traffic and pull you out of the road.

Idiot.

***

One late morning in the rain, you took that turn just a little too fast–a little too confidently–and BLAM!!!–you slipped on the wet brick outside MacArthur BART and ate shit. You landed on your hip and cracked your shin against the pedal. You felt the swelling start–the same kind of swelling when you miss a box jump. You were annoyed with yourself, because it was the second time you had slipped in that spot, only this time, it hurt worse. 

One on-looker came up to you and, “Hey, you okay?” He helped you collect yourself.

“Yeah, yeah I’m good. Ugh.” 

Your shin and hip throbbed so much, you didn’t dare attempt to ride on the wet brick again. You picked up your bike and limped in the direction of the turnstiles. Another “gentleman” asked if you were alright, then promptly declared himself a much safer ride–that he was soft and gentle and wouldn’t let you fall off, and that climbing on wasn’t so scary.

You legitimately laughed out loud. You supposed a more sensitive lady would have taken offense, and as you laughed you wondered if you were “part of the problem.”

***

Like that time you tied your hiking boots together and hung them off your backpack. You pushed your bike off the BART train and onto the platform. You did that thing where you side-ride with one foot on a pedal and the other foot pushing like a skateboarder.

Your dangling boot caught in the wheel and you went down like a mousetrap. You were actually pretty drunk, and it took several minutes to solve that mystery.

ON FIGHTING CRIME

“Help! Help! Somebody help me!” a lady screamed. It sounded like something straight out of a movie. You’d just crossed Market Street in the crosswalk by the Civic Center BART station so that you could burn down 8th and get to a first appointment with a new client.

The damsel in distress was being chased by a couple men. No, wait, she and a couple men were chasing some fellow! And the fellow! He had a handbag, a phone, and a clutch.

Hark! That’s not his bag! It was the only thought that occurred to you before you went on auto-pilot. Without looking for traffic, you crossed the three lanes of 8th street. The perp was running fast, looking over his right shoulder to see if he was creating distance between himself and his pursuers. 

He had no idea you were coming at him from across the street from the left, gaining speed with every pedal turn.

You imagined yourself heroically leaping from your bike with the grace and majesty of an antelope. Antelope? No! A panther! You were a panther, and you leaped, yes you leaped from your bike and tackled him to the ground.

…actually, you kinda sorta caught a little bit of air in your “leap” and really just ended up ramming him like… really, really hard on that downslope.

Oooohhhhhh god! Raaaaaarrrrrh! You went over your handlebars again. But you were a panther! Aaahhhhh fuuuck!

Your 190-lb body with its 30-lb backpack strapped to it had collided with the perp at around 10 miles per hour, and you landed on top of him, backwards of course, because of the somersaulting-twisty business over the handlebars.

The two of you scrambled to your feet immediately. You could see he had already dropped the lady’s handbag, but he still held her phone and clutch. There you were, down and crouched, weighed down by 30 pounds of backpack. The pack was too heavy. You knew you couldn’t beat him in a footrace. You locked eyes with him in a way that must have signaled, I’m about to leap on you and take you down again. Because it was now or never. He immediately dropped the phone and clutch on the street, then bolted away to reach a get-away vehicle.

“Oh my god,” the damsel said as she reached your scene. “Thank you!”

You were shaking. The shock of the collision had started to set in. Your head moved in tight vertical and horizontal lines as you surveyed the crash site. “Okay, I’m shaking. Did you get all of your stuff back? Great. Ok. I have to go to work now!” you said in stilted choppy phrases, then turned robotically to pick up your chariot and began to ride away. Three blocks later, you saw the broken derailleur that would end up costing $180 to fix.

You arrived to work bleeding, and trained the new client who was 6’7”. Whatever manic state you were in…  whatever damage you were wearing that day… well, he never came back for training, and told the friend who’d recommended it that you were “intimidating.” Wonder why…? It’s not the first time you’d met a stranger at work bleeding. (You are reminded of that time you split your face open cutting timber in the forestry behind your farm in Ireland. Blood gushed from your nose and poured into your mouth, and you walked back to the farmhouse carrying your gore in your hands. You staggered across the threshold, looking for, “Angus!” The two new Canadian wwoofers, Justin and Emily, had arrived only minutes earlier, had just put their bags down on the floor, while your bloody mess of a self stampeded in on your best first impression).

***

There you were again la-la-la-ing, minding your little old biker business. Actually, no. You weren’t. You were staring.

See, there was a guy standing at the driver’s side door of a tan Toyota Camry, jiggling the keys, trying hard to get into the car. The whole thing looked very suspicious. 

As you coasted your approach along the back-streets of your neighborhood, hands stuffed in your pockets, per usual, you watched this fellow attempt the backseat door by the same means: trying to force the key. 

Warp!

Because you’d been utterly fixated on what looked like someone trying to break into a car, you failed to see the pothole. Your front wheel hit, causing you to gasp and desperately reach for the handlebars. But the front wheel was wobbling to and fro! And the handlebars! You could not quite–catch–them!

You. Ate. Shit. HARD.

You hit your knee and went down on your side, then skid six feet across the road. You lay there. Twitching. Breathing. Plotting your next move against the universe. The pavement was still too high-def. You didn’t want to think about the big bad world beyond it. Just let me die here. I’m ready.

You finally decided to lift your head, and look around. You watched the guy walk to the passenger side and jiggle that key in the hole. He took a moment to look at you and… smiled.

Smiled? Fucking smiled?! No… ‘Holy crap, are you okay? Do you need help?’

Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep!

The car alarm went off after he managed to force the passenger door open. He began rummaging through the glove compartment. Hit the button to pop the trunk.

Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep!

“Oh yeah, don’t worry about me! I’m fine!” you shouted miserably. You pushed yourself onto your hands and knees, regained your feet slowly, like Bambi. Stood in the middle of the street and glared at the insensitive bastard while he rifled through trunk stuff.

Oh… your leg hurt. You limped something awful, collected your twisted bike, and moved closer to the sidewalk.

Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep!

So annoying. You began to gimp away from the car thief, feeling rage at the City of Oakland for the pothole. Feeling rage at the thief. Feeling just plain stupid. Why can’t I just hold onto the handlebars like, ever?

After walking 100 feet away in shame and despair, the rage caught up with you, and you realized you should like… do something. You called the police.

“Hi yes, I’d like to report someone breaking into a car.” You named the cross streets. “I watched him force entry. The car alarm is going off right now. And I crashed on my bike while watching it happen. Any decent person would have asked if I was okay.” The dispatcher asked you to get the license plate. “The plate number? Hang on, I have to walk back.” So you did. Limped and pushed the twisted bike back toward the car. You stood in front of the car and read off the plates.

“You calling the cops on me?!” the guy yelled.

“Yeah man, I am.”

ON HOW YOU WILL NEVER BREAK A BONE

“I swear to god, I’ll never break a bone. Not unless I get hit by a bus.” Famous last words.

Well, okay, they weren’t your last words, but you’ve uttered them many times because you figured that by now, after all the accidents you’ve had–jumping off a roof; falling out of trees; rolling a car; falling through a ceiling; getting hit in the face by a baseball, and later a log; having your ankle twisted around by the revolving restaurant floor of the Seattle Space Needle that you might, you know, actually break something. That would sure be nice, because you are running out of ligaments.

You were bombing down 3rd street in Mission Bay, on your way to the UCSF Cardiovascular Research Institute. Headphones in, as usual, but YouTube shut off and there was only silence. It was still early. You were making great time. Up over on the left, you saw her–a beautiful green mermaid. Lady Starbucks–luring you with caffeine like a Siren.

There was time! The streets were completely empty and you were flying down the road. Why not make a left turn and get yourself a coffee?

As you made that left turn, you scarcely had time to register the sound of a blaring train horn, so reminiscent of India. You looked over your left shoulder and realized a train, a two-car steel muni train, had stealthily been overtaking you on that long stretch of brand new track.

There was no time to panic. You immediately tried to veer right, but the nose of the train collided with your upper back. The sound? Like being bludgeoned by a club. A train-sized club. In that moment, you thought, I’m okay. It only hit me in the back, and the gray street spun in your field of vision like a record. You landed like you’ve landed half a dozen times: with a triumphant crash and clatter, somewhat padded by your backpack, and on your side.

Whoa. Holy shit.

Unlike the car thief pothole incident, you did not lie there stupidly. You sat up almost immediately. Your upper back felt a little dull and numb. You immediately looked at your body for signs of blood. You patted your hands along your hips and legs, your organs, your chest. You hugged yourself and slapped at your upper arms, then stretched them over your head, rolled little shoulder circles, felt your neck, moved it about.

Yeah, muscle! Fuck yeah!

Nothing broken! How many times had your body armor–your embarrassment of muscle–protected you? You felt invincible.

“Hey!” someone yelled. A UCSF physician came running over to you. Not a bad place to crash, at UCSF. The place was literally crawling with doctors. “Can you hear me? Can you see me? Quick, let’s get you out of the street!”

“My bike!” you said.

“Don’t worry about your bike, we’ll get it for you. Come over here.”

“No… my bike.” If there’s one thing you never did, it was turn your back on your unlocked bike, much like you’d never left your backpack unattended while on the road. It was your life.

“It’s fine. We’ve got your bike. I’ve called an ambulance.”

I don’t need an ambulance. “I’m fine, really.” You pulled out your phone and texted your lab supervisor, Stephen. [Hey. Had an incident on my bike. I might be a little late to lab.]

Stephen: [Where are you?]

[Just outside.]

You heard the sound of the ambulance almost immediately. Why? Because you could see the station two blocks away.

The ambulance pulled up and around the corner you stood on. The EMTs got out and approached. They asked what happened.

“Oh, I made a blind left turn in front of the train,” you said. “But I’m okay. This isn’t necessary. I didn’t ask for this ambulance.” Thoughts of outrageous medical bills and your crummy health insurance went through your mind. I can’t afford this

See, there’s a reason why you don’t seek medical attention. A good one. Your European friends never understood your stubbornness surrounding it–like that time you went to the hospital in Bosnia, or that time in Spain, or that time in Ireland–when you actually did have to seek medical attention.

“People seem to have a hard time understanding why you don’t want to go to the doctor. It’s simple. In America, getting sick = bankruptcy. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration for a case of gastroenteritis, but once you were charged $1,100 by a hospital just to pee in a cup.”

“Ma’am, can you walk over with me to the ambulance?” the EMT said. “We can take you to the hospital.”

That hospital? That one right there? UCSF. Three blocks away?!

“No, I don’t want the ambulance. I didn’t order it. I didn’t call for this.” You insisted. The EMT urged you to follow. You continued, “No, I don’t want any part of that ambulance! I can’t afford this.”

The EMT sighed. “Can you at least sit on the bumper so that we can take your vitals?”

“Do I have to pay for that bumper!?” you sneered. You must have looked wild.

Stephen arrived on the scene. “Jesus, Maria. When you said there was an incident. I didn’t think you meant this.”

“I didn’t order the ambulance!” you cried. “Stephen! I didn’t order it.”

“Ma’am. Just sit on the bumper so we can take your vitals,” another EMT said. “You won’t have to pay for the ambulance as long as it doesn’t move, you know, as long as it doesn’t take you anywhere.”

“Show me the keys!” you hissed.

The EMT disappeared behind the vehicle, then came back into view and dangled the keys. You deflated in relief. “Okay. Just the bumper.”

“Just the bumper,” the EMT assured you.

And so they took your vitals and went about putting stupid little band-aids on the cuts you had on your ankle. The back of your hand looked purple and bloated. Blotchy. Like an old person’s hand when it gets banged.

“My back hurts,” you muttered, feeling very tired. You shrugged your left shoulder and looked at the lady to your left, who was fixated on your hand. “My back. It’s sore. Where the train hit me.”

“Are you sure you were hit by a train?” the EMT said. “Your blood pressure is 95/70.”

“Uh-huh,” you said. “And?”

“That seems really low for someone who has just suffered a traumatic accident.”

“I guess I’m just… calm.” It’s true. You are remarkably calm in emergencies. One time you even accidentally set yourself on fire and still managed to… handle it well.

“Ma’am,” the EMT with the keys said. “I know you don’t want to go anywhere in the ambulance, but you should go to the hospital.” You were already shaking your head before he could finish. “It’s for your own safety.” You insisted you were fine. “You might be bleeding internally. You don’t know.” 

“I am not going to the hospital. Look, man, I’m fine. The train hit me in the upper back. Nothing broken. If I want to go to the hospital, I can walk there. But I’m not going to a hospital.” They insisted someone should evaluate you, so you agreed you would take yourself to urgent care. They made you sign an affidavit, declaring yourself fit enough to reject medical attention, and that by doing so, you absolved the city of all responsibility and waived your rights to sue later. Stephen, who agreed that you were in your right mind, albeit dumb and stubborn, co-signed as a witness.

A policeman approached you. “I really feel like a dick,” he began, “but I have to… give you this ticket. For an illegal left-turn.” $175

“That’s okay,” you said. “I made a lot of people late to work today.”

Stephen escorted you up to the lab and fixed you up with a bag of ice. After a cup of coffee and about an hour of deliberation, some frustration with how inaccessible so many urgent cares in the city were, you finally settled on one. Your back was really hurting then, and you had taken to letting out very long sighs. You downloaded the Uber app and was forced to use it for the first time in your life.

In the back of the Uber, you were panting. The shock of the accident had begun to wear off, and you had begun to tremble. Surreptitious tears slid down your cheeks. When you entered the urgent care, you were able to produce a whisper.

“Can I please see a doctor? I need an x-ray.” You explained the accident.

The nurse left you in a room to undress yourself. Your back hurt so much that moving your shoulder had become a painful challenge. You went down your blouse, button by button, and slid it—

Oh JESUS CHRISTMAS!!! What is that?!

Your shoulder was protruding. An inch-high bump stuck out. You immediately felt like throwing up. That’s not normal. That’s not normal. Did you break it? Oh god, gross. Then sudden apathy.

No. Turns out it wasn’t broken. You had a grade 3 acromioclavicular separation. The two different ligaments–one which held your collar bone to your humerus, and the other which held your shoulder blade to your collar bone–had completely ruptured. No, your shoulder wasn’t broken. No bones were broken. Your collarbone, liberated from two ligaments with a boing, was free to float above your shoulder indefinitely.

This is quite technically a sprain. A sprain that would permanently ruin your shoulders–your best feature! No wait, second best–second to your whorish blue eyes.

Urgent care sent you off with an X-ray and a sling. You threw your bag over your good shoulder and walked a mile and a half to the physical therapy office where you used to intern. You banged on the door. Liz opened it, and saw your pale, sweating figure. “Maria, what have you done now?”

“Can you please tape me up?”

Liz confirmed the sprain, and evaluated your neck and spine for any additional damage, but none was found. You told her you would come back when the swelling had gone down, to do some rehab with her.

That afternoon, you went to work for your only scheduled appointment that day: your little Mexican gangster girl with a gold grill. She had been climbing a ladder to a second story window. Mid-way up the ladder, she saw that it was just about to slip off the sill. She decided to dive for the edge of the window, and missed. She fell 20 feet and shattered her ankle. She was tough as nails. It wasn’t her first accident. She’d also pushed out three kids without drugs and not a single scream. You’d tried for weeks to get her to grunt, or moan, or make sounds of distress while you worked her out, but the only thing she ever did was giggle. At you. It was actually very disconcerting!

When she saw you in your sling and asked what happened, you told her the story.

“And you still came into work?” she said, then sucked her gold grill. “Respect.”

Categories: Awkward Situations, Injuries, Safety, San Francisco, Struggles | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

How to NOT get into medical school

Your last post, Online Dating & The Union Of Two People In An Impromptu Road Trip, was published 6 years ago. You spent as much time away from this blog as you spent actually writing it. So what happened to you?! Where did you go?

The seed to this blog entry was planted almost three years ago, but it finally germinated when you read the words: “You made a Faustian bargain.” A person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance, such as personal values or the soul, for some worldly or material benefit, such as knowledge, power, or riches. Bingo. You made the bargain, and your vibrant, if not restless soul flickered out on its wick.

When you read about the person you used to be and compare her to the person you are now, you’re not happy with it. You used to be alive.

You began to read through the stories of your life etched, yet ethereal and weightless on the internet. You think of the miles you put into your stories. Cold nights, brutal winds. Leering faces, hot fires, laughter and tears, bars, people, men and women–losses and euphoric moments. You think about the 200 kilometer hitchhike for the 90 minute run under a Norwegian summer sunset at ten o’clock at night, just to get a picture on a massive stone wedged tightly between two rock faces towering over a fjord. Oh god. Who is even here to take this picture?! Answer: a little Chinese tourist. Some version of one-upmanship is everywhere.

People in your life looked over at you with concern. They wondered whether you would ever settle down, stop Peter Pan-ing, grow up, get serious, get stable. “A person who is always running from where he lives is not a happy person.” Who said that? You have no idea. Is it even true? You sure felt happy at the time.


When you settled down for the normal life, it was ill fitting. You were feral, undomesticated, living in such a poverty mindset, guts churning with what was probably giardia, and wrapping a fried fish croquet in a napkin to slip into your coat pocket on a date. Classy. No wonder she almost walked out on you. More than once. You’ll say it again: ill fitting. But you are intrigued by the novel, and here was a novel person who wasn’t remotely interested in you, or your travels, your stories, your adventurous spirit. In sum, the whole of your identity–the set of characteristics by which a person or thing is definitively recognizable or known–seemed to be of no interest to her at best, and alienating at worst. Over time, you would train your mouth shut about your former life, and pivot hard to another version of yourself–the one of extremely intense, dedicated, and punishing work ethic.

And why? Maybe it was because she said, “You’re kind of a mess.” It was true. You were an anxious mess, with teeming frenetic energy after two solid years on the road and thousands of bone-rattling India rail-miles. Don’t forget the ‘giardia.’ “Is that a sexually transmitted disease or something?” You laughed. Technically, no. But maybe ask Aldo. Wonder how his weed jar business is faring.

Now wait just a second! Not so fast. You weren’t a mess! You had goals! You were going to become a physical therapist, because… well… what else would a personal trainer with a philosophy degree decide to do when they were 30? Made sense. You hit the pavement with your CV and found yourself a job and an internship in two days. This was after, of course, your plans to become a dominatrix were nipped in the bud.

“What would I tell my mother!” she’d said. The relationship was too new. You decided to walk away, but by the end of the car ride, after she locked the car doors to prevent you from extracting your pack from the back seat, she convinced you to stay.

Ill fitting. Like petting the cat backwards. Better yet, like trying to put a cat in a carrier. Claws out, your paws aligned with the edges of that box in protestation. Not the box. Not the box! You learned about indoor clothes, and different and specific kitchen towels that all looked and felt the same, and window opening-closing, shade raising-lowering rituals for climate control and light pollution. Cooking didn’t have to happen all in one pot. You learned all about the dogma of “cozy.” You learned that Waterford champagne flutes were insensitive. You learned how it felt to be simultaneously compared to an abusive parent and an obstinate child.

You enrolled in school after ten full years of being out of it, first with the goal to be a physical therapist, but shortly later decided that medical school was your Everest. You always sat in the front of the class. Your teachers mistook this for earnestness, but the truth is that you had become near-sighted in your older age. And yes, you suppose you were earnest. Some of your habits from high school stuck. Assignments scribbled, sometimes in crayon or highlighters, submitted with a cautionary note at the top: “Sorry it’s messy, but my answers are complete.” So sorry for being a mess, world! You had to talk your way into your first summer class, since you didn’t have any of the pre-requisites under your belt. “Yes, hi, Ma’am. I was the student who wrote you…” the email. The email that convinced her to kick out a couple younger kids at SF State University but let you stay. That same professor later told you to do research, and your brow furrowed at the thought–or really, the familiarity of the statement. You were 23 the first time you heard it. Hmmm. Oh well, after all was said and done, you earned your first A as an adult.

“Getting a 4.0 in STEM is hard,” the lady friend said. You stiffened competitively, resolute in your goal to prove to her you were something. Something more than a road junkie. Than a bum. Yes, you did and still often do have the appearance of a homeless person, and this always made her uneasy. But goddammit! You could be something. Medical school! How was that decided, anyway? Because you kept sitting with the smart kids. Maybe you weren’t as dumb as you thought you were. The imposter syndrome imposed by your Ivy League education began to ease–just a bit. There you were, tutoring the pre-med kids in shit just as foreign to you.

The A’s kept coming. They felt good. They felt like high school all over again, except they took way more effort. The other thing that took effort? The competition for classes. You rode your bike 10 miles to the school and camped in the hallway outside of the classroom, shifting against the chronic ache of arthritis in your back, in hopes that another kid would get tossed out of a class, making a seat available to the winner of the war of attrition–which was you. Over the hours, over the days, the other kids left, and you got your class. If there’s one thing you were a fucking expert in, it was camping on the ground and killing time. You’d done it hitchhiking, for ferries, trains, buses, fuck… even camels. Those young kids with their smart phones didn’t have the patience. Score a point for being old and road-weathered.

Your brain hurt. Like really hurt. Science words: Avogadro’s number, stoichiometry, hypertonicity, osmolality, specific gravity of… urine. You’d never ever, ever had to take science before. Your algebra was rusty. Like really rusty. You lost hours taking the long way to find variables. You had no tricks. You didn’t even know where to look for them. That’s what 6 years without technology will do to someone.

You slammed your books shut and stuffed them into your backpack, wrinkling your assignments underneath, probably damp from your leaking lunch. Speaking of lunch… there were times when you spontaneously and violently vomited. The ‘giardia’–whatever it was that chased you through India–loved to act up. You texted your clients at the gym to let them know that something unexpected had come up, that you might not be able to make your session in an hour, but please stand by, you’ll have your official answer soon!

Bllaaaarrgh!!! 

You collapsed on the bath mat in the fetal position and focused on your breathing. One more bout. Maybe two. You’ve got this!

Bllaaaarrgh!!! Bllaaaarrgh!!! 

You flushed the toilet for the final time and confirmed with your clients that yes, you’ll be at the gym. You were too poor to miss work. 7-10 training hours a week was pitiful. You earned $1,400 a month in the Bay Area, of all places. It was barely enough to cover your highly subsidized rent, BART, and food. And, most uncomfortably, your new lady friend had very expensive tastes.

Your best friend Chris worked across the street at Zynga. You were so grateful for the opportunity to shoot across the street from work to grab a free lunch–to pile on the veggies, to make salads like mountains. You pulled books and a laptop out at the table and studied while you ate, not sure how to read dihybrid crosses, or recall the purpose of the Loop of Henle. Chew, chew, chew, and furrow!

Then back to the gym, often hobbling, because that old back of yours, that disc that blew in India, wouldn’t quit. Your back had a way of speaking to you. Sometimes a subtle electrocution that shot down your buttcheek, sometimes it would cause you to forget to pick up your foot–force you to trip. Your back was being a veritable bitch, trapping you in a muscle spasms.

Ignore the pain. Move on. Wrestle three or four giant 200-pound gay dudes on a massage table–like a form of slow motion Jiu Jitsu–sweating profusely. Oh god, I can smell them. The stale sweat of their gennies smells like wet tennis balls, but hell, you can smell your own, and everybody is ripe because it’s 5 o’clock! “Kay, I’m off, bye!” you called back, and limp-jogged down the SOMA gym’s catwalk to get your stuff out of the locker room. Hopefully my stuff is still there! Not like that time some obese hood rat jacked all your stuff–your laptop, your medical records, your scientific calculator, your kindle, fucking everything of value–while she was talking to you. “Oh, is that your locker? Man, you sure look fit!” She’d set you back $500.

You’d jam onto your bike (which would eventually be stolen and set you back another $1000), pedal through rush hour traffic, squish onto rush hour BART with your bike and giant backpack, and ride to Berkeley–all to make class by 6:00pm, one of four for that week. Yes, you were in school 16 hours a week. Almost double what you were able to work. 

But don’t forget! It wasn’t just 16 hours of class and 10 hours of work. It was easily another 20 hours of weekly study, 3 hours of volunteer work at a physical therapy clinic, and 3 hours of volunteer work at a hospital, plus all the godforsaken commuting. Yes, you went to bed at midnight and got up at 6am to get to the gym early for work, or to pedal 30 minutes uphill to UCSF Parnassus hospital to push a coffee cart around to visitors.

Oh, your back hurt so much. On several occasions, you moved the wrong way, and the sudden pain took your breath away. Your eyes welled with tears and you’d think, Oh god, I’ve finally done it. This is the worst. I’ve irreparably ruined myself. And I can’t afford another back surgery. All the frustrations of the Camino de Santiago and India were nothing compared to the terror of losing your job because you couldn’t even pick up weights for your clients. You wore a back brace at work, and limped around with a Gandalfesque stick, shouting orders to clients over the clanging of weights and booming exercise music.

Mornings were the worst. It took time to get out of bed. Bending forward at the waist to make the bed, to spit toothpaste into the sink… to put something on the bottom shelf of the fridge… felt impossible. Lifting your leg to swing it over your bike seat at 5:30am before you pedaled all the way up that steep hill to Grace Cathedral at the top of the city for your two favorite cash client ladies was–charitably–memorable.

Press on. You crushed statistics, microbiology, human physiology, general and organic chemistry, physics, genetics, biology, and biochemistry. You did this while managing two volunteer positions, a job, a relationship, and long commutes first to Berkeley, then later to North Oakland.

“You need to do research.” It was your biology teacher who told you so. God, not again. “Seriously, most medical schools want to see research experience.” 

But how to get a research position?

If there’s one thing years on the road taught you, it was how to earn trust—it was how to convince other people you were legitimate, even when you weren’t. Much like your human physiology teacher allowed you into her class after reading your assertive email, much like you managed to push your way into SF State without actually being a student, you managed to push your way into a UC Berkeley Extension-affiliated lab without being an actual post-bac student. What was the point of shelling out hundreds of additional dollars to join a post-bac program when you could just pay as you go?

Your would-be supervisor, Stephen, was from Ireland! You heard your voice slip back into its old sing-songy rhythm whenever you spoke to your Irish mates. After your phone interview, he invited you to meet his P.I., Dr. Coughlin. “It’s really just a formality,” Stephen said. You sure hoped so. You hoped Coughlin wouldn’t see right through you—see that you were green AF.

“You impressed the hell out of him,” Stephen said later. You glowed… and joined the lab as useless as a newborn kitten still trying to open its eyes. Stephen spoke a dense and technical language, and you felt just as uneasy in the UCSF Cardiovascular Research Institute as you did in your science classes—the ones you’d stupidly taken out of order for convenience’s sake, only to find your lack of prerequisite knowledge highly inconvenient. Listening to Stephen’s instructions made you feel like you were in Europe all over again, straining to translate what was being communicated with the fragments of your forgein languages. Science is just another language, but you were still learning the words. The translation delay was real. Once a week, there was a pizza talk, where you sat in a presentation room with the other lab members and listened to PowerPoint presentations on science journal articles, mind blank, absorbing nothing. One week you leaned over and whispered to the histologist, “Psst, what’s this paper about?” She whispered back, “I have no idea.” Maybe it wasn’t just you. Maybe everyone used that time to eat pizza and mentally check out. But gosh, you tried. Each week you told yourself, I’m going to really focus this week. I am committed to understanding this week’s topic. And failed every time.

Okay, fine. You were bad at pizza talks, but you were indisputably masterful at mouse intestinal dissection. Not exactly something that needs to go on your resume, but your hands were steady, and you artfully rolled your finger along the intestines, mimicking peristalsis, zen-like, gently coaxing out the poo so that you could then cut along the length with your shears, just like wrapping paper. Then Stephen counted the tumors.

The mouse house was fun, too, but Stephen was over it. “I basically manage a mouse brothel.” Daily, the two of you donned PPE—smocks and booties and hairnets—and entered the secure area. Room after room of mouse cages, thousands of mice—aggressive and jumpy black and brown ones, stupid docile albinos, obese and torpid 2-year-olds, hairless anxious ones that over-groomed to the point of baldness, limping anemic ones with their asses literally falling out, insane ones that ran laps around the cage doing back flips, and the babies… always so many babies. Little pink jelly beans that sometimes got eaten, but most went on to live.

Stephen taught you how to catch them, sex them, pair them, label them, and euthanize them. Some weeks, you sent hundreds of little mouse souls to their afterlife. Pumped their cages full of carbon dioxide and watched them start to run about in panic, then jitter, then wobble like drunks, fall over, and eventually reflexively full-body gasp in a final miserable attempt for any oxygen at all. But of course there was none. After two minutes, you turned off the gas and pulled out their bodies one by one, breaking their necks between your thumb and index finger, just in case any one of them was alive. 

“My hands are killing me,” you said. Hours of jamming your thumbs into knots on your gym clients’ bodies, compounded on hours of pipetting tiny volumes of liquid into eppendorf tubes for PCRs, compounded on 100 mouse necks per week created a painful and shooting tendinitis. Stephen said he could get you the guillotine from the other room, but the idea of severing and later collecting mouse heads… “Ummm, no, I’m good.” You hated it when you accidentally ripped off the head in a mere attempt to break the neck—hated the sensation of your thumbnail jamming into the still-warm bloody flesh. It always made you gag. So, instead, Stephen taught you how to use a blunt piece of metal on the neck while pulling the tail, and—whoopsie—you learned the feeling of a mouse’s back breaking.

You began to love the lab. It’s hard to adequately describe the feeling you got when you rolled up on your bike to the beautiful building on the UCSF Mission Bay campus. Reverence. As though you were arriving for church. In that edifice contained some of the world’s most high-powered minds, sciencing the shit out of esoteric topics and publishing research that would probably end up forgotten. But now and again, something amazing gets discovered, so the world must not stop research. Still, you began to apprehend that just about every PhD you’d ever met seemed unhappy, stuck in academic purgatory because they were too good at school. 

You imagined Basic Research, as opposed to Applied Research, like a dark vacuum—a universe full of potential questions. All you had was a flashlight, able to illuminate a small, uncertain, decontextualized mechanism of reality, and the darkness beyond the edge of the light was so consumingly black that looking for answers actually just felt pointless. Some people dedicated their lives to wandering in darkness.

Speaking of that darkness. It reminds you of studying for the MCAT. Except maybe it’s the opposite. Instead of being able to see nothing, and wandering about aimlessly, maybe you could see everything! So much information, where to start? Studying for the MCAT is like drinking from a firehose. It can blow your whole face off. You remember sitting down confidently to the diagnostic exam, which would help you predict your score. You got this. You had been literally killing it in school. The classes were fresh in your mind. How hard could it be?

Diagnostic score: 500. Average. So average that you would be considered in the bottom 20th percentile if you applied to medical school with it, once the scores were normalized. You were devastated. You’ve always been a cryer. But crying took on a whole new element: terror-shaking. In hindsight, once you began studying for the MCAT, you began to change, and the changes were not for the better. You became a more anxious person, stony, frustrated, maybe bitter. Your ill-fitting life pulled at the seams. Ignore it. Stop dreaming of running away! Confront your goals.

You scratched at your face, tore holes in it. Anxious study energy. Anxious. Anxious. Anxiety. Ill fitting. Keep focusing. Stop crying. Keep moving. Drill-drill-drill. You’re not stupid. You’re not stupid. Coffee? Yes! Oh no… too much coffee. Can’t focus. Fuck! Why the coffee? You’re wasting time! Focus, focus. That was stupid.

In the end, you got a 512. 85th percentile. Respectable. But. You were… well… not unhappy about it, but not happy either. What the fuck is a 512? On every medical school table you’d ever read, it seemed to be some in-between score. Where did those kids end up?

You know what? Cheer up! You’ve done it all. Move on. Forget your weird in-between score. You’re a unique applicant! You got this. Here it goes! Time to apply. Feel confident! Three years of effort. Three years of part time work, volunteer hours, homework, night school, sweating, biking, limping, cramming, crying, whooping, kicking ass and taking names! You checked those boxes on the medical school application, you went over your personal statement with a flea comb. You checked and double checked every detail. You hit submit, pleased that you earned the low fee discount because you’d been so poor for so many years. Medical school. It costs money. Not just the school, but trying to get into the school. You dedicated three years to preparing your application. That was three years of lost income. Three years of opportunity costs. And you weren’t getting any younger.

You will always remember the first response to your 19 submitted secondary applications. Columbia. The Columbia College of Physicians & Surgeons invited you to interview! The first school to respond was ColumbiFUCKING-ya!!! Hell yes! All the med schools would want to interview you.

Wrong. As the rejections came in over the months, you began to feel less and less easy. But… Columbia? It didn’t make sense. 

Turns out, Columbia only wanted to interview you because… you were weird. That is the only rational explanation you could produce. You didn’t have the numbers for Columbia. Hell, you didn’t have the numbers for Yale back when they let you in, but at least you were the fastest high school senior rower in the country. Maybe Columbia thought you had the weirdest sounding life of any med school applicant?

After the last med school rejected you, you held onto your thread of hope. It only takes one school to get into medical school—the one that accepts you. You were told that the majority of Columbia interviewees would be wait-listed. 

Not you. You remember the moment well. Columbia didn’t waitlist you. They flat out rejected you. You thought bitterly about how you’d paid all that money to fly to New York City just so they could meet your weird face to face. Assholes. It’s not like you bombed your interview. It went as well as it possibly could.

After reading their decision, you turned off your phone screen and sat quietly like a hollow pipe. The winds of emotion would overtake you at any moment, you just knew it. Hollow. Hollow. Your best gym buddy Mullaney would peer over at you on that day, with knowing concern. You could not look him in the eye. You could not look at anyone. The world blew past your hollow, soulless body, blew across the open top of your bottle.

So what of this Faustian bargain? You didn’t trade your soul for knowledge and accomplishment, per se. But in effect, whatever remained of your vibrant, if not restless and pained, little soul was taken that day. Med school had begun as a harmless journey of self discovery, growth, development, excitement and challenge. On that day, it transformed into a destination. The journey ceased to matter. The traveler—the discoverer—in you died. All that remained was the destination, even if it took you to hell.

Categories: Medical School, San Francisco, Struggles, United States | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Online Dating & The Union Of Two People In An Impromptu Road Trip

[I can’t promise I won’t want to sleep with you, but I would like to buy you dinner.]

The message arrived to your OK Cupid inbox in early April. You couldn’t help but smile. The messenger, a gentle looking fellow approaching his sixties, had a warm, innocent smile and a profile that spoke of his love for his children and the desire to be the best father that he could be. He had taken the time to read your profile in it’s entirety–an Homeric Odyssey of rules and regulations for how to manage ones expectations if sex were his or her primary incentive.

You responded to him and said that dinner was entirely unnecessary but that you would glady meet him. You were impressed that he had reached out to you at all through your gauntlet of filters, and you couldn’t help but wonder what kind of man he was.

The restaurant he’d suggested was Zagat-rated, on The Embarcadero, and pricey. You felt obliged to dress up like a girl–walk the one mile from your apartment in your new girly leather ballet flats, feet barking, pre-bunions forming. March had been a fascinating month for such girly enterprise. You’d returned from India and Nepal a full 25 lbs lighter than you had been when you’d embarked your trip. Weight loss plus sever dehydration and a lack of appetite rendered you a shocking 170.5 lbs at one point. You’d joked and said that if your saw the 160s, you’d check yourself into the hospital. You were tired, weak, breathless, and sick. Your external appearance to others, however, did not betray your gut-wrenching condition; to them, you appeared a tall, lean, lovely, and feminine creature. You thought, however, that were it not for the bronze of Indian and Himalayan sun, you would have appeared consumptive. Regardless, your online dating profile did not betray your illness; only your first impression did that.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” you began. “I’ve just returned from Nepal and I think I may have a parasite, so if I suddenly start making faces at you while you’re speaking–” you demonstrated for effect “–don’t take it personally. It’s just my gastric distress and it usually passes in a minute or so.”

Hot.

Nice first impression. It’s a tactic: gross them out of the prospect of sex with you.

Apparently the disclosure of sever diarrhea is not enough to dissuade hopeful men from a sexual prospect.

Robert, your gentle older date, was a fine fellow. He was your average guy in most respects, save his insatiable desire for life. He’s just emerged from a second marriage and was enjoying the freedoms that came with being unattached. He felt like he’d missed out on a lot–like he’d spent his whole life working and supporting his family and being the good husband that he’d let life pass him by. But he was not discouraged. He felt he had ample time to begin experiencing the world anew. He’d been raised very conservative and religious; it was a life that didn’t suit him at all. He’d felt the need to break free from his family’s religious norms. He’d felt the need to break free from a lot and challenge conventional expectations. He was, you might say, a diet-hard relativist. 

You weren’t drinking, but were glad to sit at the bar and sip a lemon water as he ordered cocktails. Naturally the conversation turned to sex. You were under no illusions that Robert had wanted to meet you purely for your fine personality or conversation. By virtue of your having agreed to meet him, he’d managed to get his foot in the door. The next step would have been to get you a little drunk and let the conversation become flirtatious. And then… maybe after another cocktail, you might change your mind.

This didn’t happen, of course. You were very clear about being queer. You were also very clear about being somewhat smitten with a woman you’d recently begun seeing. Sex was completely off the table, but you were happy to indulge him by talking very openly about the subject–a thing older men just love about you. By the end of the night, Robert had begun to speak to you in lurid promises. You listened to his declarations patiently, with amusement.

With your eyebrows lifted, “You’re going to dominate me? Tell me more. Are you going to gag me, beat me, strangle me?”

He seemed momentarily shocked. “Well, no…” and then followed with a PG-13-rated threat.

The two of you laughed together over the conversation. He was drunk and delighted to have the freedom to speak so freely; you were sober and simply amused.

When you left him at the bar, you doubted that the two of you would meet again.

*     *     *

But Robert was persistent.

Were it not for the fact that he traveled to San Francisco almost weekly for work and had been staying in hotels that were 15 minutes walking from your front door, you probably wouldn’t have agreed to another dinner with him. But you have great difficultly ignoring earnest people. Robert, furthermore, had offered to receive a massage. You were still unemployed, very poor, and struggling to make 300 bucks a month stretch in San Francisco.

You met Robert for dinner (comped by his company), and told him what you’d been up to lately. A lot of dates–or as you like to call them, “conversational adventures.” A lot a walking around. A lot of gut episodes.

This weekend I’m hitch hiking to Seattle,” you mentioned.

Robert’s eyes flew wide open. “Seattle? I wish I’d known. I could have driven you there. We could have taken a road trip!”

It seemed a bit eager on his part, but you went with it. “Hey, no reason we can’t take a road trip in the future.”

“I’ve got a bunch of time off, too. Vacation days I’ve been saving. Hell, we don’t need to go to Seattle. We could just get in the car and go anywhere. I love the idea of just getting in the car and going with you. Have an adventure!”

“I’m good for that kind of thing.”

“Hell, we could go to Arizona, or Texas, or New Orleans!”

You chirped. Or yelped. Or some combination of the two. The noise–of girlish surprise–startled you. The noise indicated your realization that he was dead serious.

“Oh my goodness, this isn’t just mental masturbation, is it?”

Robert shook his head. He was dead serious.

You told him your reservations about a road trip. It’s expensive. The cost of fuel. The hotels. You had nothing to contribute. He didn’t care. “I want to have an adventure.”

“Okay, listen,” you began. “When you sober up you have the chance to back out. But if you don’t, and you really are serious about taking this road trip, then I will keep my word and come with you. And I promise to do everything possible to keep your costs low.” You began to hammer out logistics. Possible routes. Time frame. Budget. And more.

All on the second date.

*     *     *

You may have been less than forthcoming about the details of how you met Robert when you announced that you would be going on a road trip with a “friend.” Yes, you met him under the most lurid of hopeful circumstances. So what if he PG-13-promised you? What did it matter if he probably harbored sexual fantasies? Maybe had some hope that you would change your mind during the trip… These things you considered, but you failed to muster feelings of concern for your safety. Maybe you understand men too well by now. Maybe you’re too lenient and should be enforcing the “oughts” of behavioral expectations on them; slap the backs of their wrists when they objectify you. But you don’t. You can’t fault men for being men. You’re extremely liberal on this subject. As long as people are polite and honest, what’s the harm? (How one succeeds in politely PG-13ing a liberal lesbian is beyond the scope of this entry).

Men have their motivations, be it for sex or for company–for adventure or spontaneity. Whatever Robet’s reasons were (you decided he needed to do something radical with a partner in crime), you felt no judgement. As for you, you would get to travel through the southwest United States; it was a small goal you’d off-handedly made for yourself while still in Nepal, which you never suspected would be accomplished. So the official version of the story goes: two people met; each stated his or her conditions; the other agreed to the terms and a road trip ensued.

If there’s one thing you’ve learned about people since beginning your travels, it’s that if you treat them kindly and are honest and genuine with them, you can cut through the majority of sexual tension and potential for exploitation pretty quickly. You showed Robert your hand: you were enamored with a woman, had no desire to be experimental with men, intended to come back from the trip and immediately start school, a job, and an internship all in the same week. You would be studying biology and chemistry (and Swedish) while on the road. You would talk to him, help him find hotels, be a good navigator, suggest an itinerary, and make sure he got on his feet and saw things he might otherwise pass up. You would happily sit with him in bars and objectify waitresses, offer him moral support, and talk about sex and porn and music and movies and everything else. Bar none.

“This is really great, Maria. You’re like a guy, but much cuter.”

So you’ve been told. You have a monopoly on friendships with older, single men who want to talk about things they can’t normally talk about with their guy friends. Not without judgement; you had none to offer.

In your days of preparation, you idly wondered if you daft for saying yes. You barely knew the guy!  Maybe your character assessment had been all wrong and it was a ploy? What if…? What if…? Cue some modest level of pre-trip paranoia.

While travel has gotten you accustomed to trusting people and believing that their intentions are usually good, you do not trust people perfectly. You later told Robert that, no offense, you had a sleeping bag and a camping tent with you and could easily hitchhike your way back to the Bay Area if something untoward occurred. Maybe this hurt his feelings; maybe he accepted it at face value. You didn’t ask. He didn’t seem bothered.

Well, it turned out that you and Robert got along like fish in water. He was a most excellent travel partner, despite your differences in age, energy, and experience. The trip began on your birthday, May 23rd, which you spent sitting at the bar of Red Robin. You ordered a veggie burger and a devilishly “modest” ice cream sundae. It was then four hours to San Luis Obispo, where Robert lived when he wasn’t traveling to San Francisco. You spent the weekend lying about, eating your hormones, and watching hours and hours of The Walking Dead. Turned out you and Robert shared a passion for zombies. All was off to a great start.

You practically had to kick him out of his front door on Monday when he suggested not leaving for another day (he didn’t want to leave his daughter alone in her mother’s house in SLO.) It was endearing but frustrating. The delay made you nervous because if you lost another day you wouldn’t have time to get to Austen and back before your job started. You were ready to throw in the towel on the entire trip, nervous about your time line as well as frustrated by the voluntary separation from the new lady you were dating (yeah, you were pretty into her).

 You packed a box of snacks and made Robert get his shit together, which took him all of twenty minutes because he was, after all, a seasoned traveler for work. He later thanked you for spurring him into action. “If you weren’t here, I probably wouldn’t have gotten out the door at all.”

But you did! And the two of you drove from San Luis Obispo, CA to Austen, TX and back in fewer than ten days.

You learned that you and Robert were extremely travel compatible. He was a chilled out, easy-going guy. Always happy to check something out at random. You were appalled by the price of the petrol (turns out it is cheaper to fly and rent a car than for two people to drive). You did everything you could to keep his costs low, first by scavenging coupons and local deals on dive motels, then keeping your entrees under ten bucks whenever possible–sometimes under five (a baked potato in the southwest is not only the cheapest option, but the healthiest!). You split coffees with him, never ordered alcohol, and was simply content to be along for the ride. Robert often laughed at your impromptu lunches out of the car boot–the way you could chow down through pounds of raw vegetables. He was, like everyone else, impressed by the amount of food you can eat. You encouraged him to join you in your tail gate lunches–to shop from supermarkets for fresh fruit and veg and make sandwiches. He liked the savings and the added perk of knowing he’d made a healthy choice, but it didn’t keep him from caving to the temptation of a hot evening meal.

It was a standard American road trip. Nothing crazy happened. Everything went off without a hitch. You rolled though the desert on cruise control, took turns reading out loud to each other (A Billion Wicked Little Thoughts–a book about what pornographic web searches say about human sexual desire; and the autobiography of Rita Moreno, of all things!). The trip unfolded with no plan other than to head east. One night you were crashed out in a dimly lit motel, the next you were wined and dined at a Kimpton resort hotel! And then everything in between.

But the pictures tell the story better.

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