I used to work with a person who cornered me daily to relate horror stories of her Crohn's disease -- and while I tried to listen and be sympathetic, I also started inventing ways to avoid her. Sorry! Not now! I'm trying untangle all these cords going into my monitor! Or I would roll my eyes, apologizing for the fake phone call I was fielding just as she walked past my cubicle.
It was simply draining, listening to the sad litany of her complaints.
And so, dear reader, I sympathize with you. I doubt you've been thrilled by my tales of strep throat, toothache and Will's man-child illnesses. So I hesitated to write this post.
A week ago, S. asked me what was next for my blog.
I shrugged. "No idea."
"What about your abscess? You could tell all about your five-and-a-half hour tour in the ER."
Um, yeah. I laughed uncomfortably. Just thinking about it made me want to take a Percocet. (What's to tell, anyway? Innocuous-seeming bump on inner thigh quickly becomes horrific mass, the dimensions of which made me gasp when viewed in the bathroom mirror. "How are you feeling?" Will asked, and I burst into tears. "All you need is a pore-sized opening in the skin," the internist explained much, much later, when the waiting room had filled and emptied twice and all the serious cases had been dealt with, "and just a teensy bit of bacteria to get in there, and then, voila!" I languished in the trauma room, clutching the skimpy gown to my body and waiting for the painkillers to kick in. In the meantime, I pleaded with God. I promised to throw away my razor. I apologized for thinking a plague of boils wasn't as bad as a plague of toothaches. I wondered if euthanization was a better option than making small talk with a nurse during the painful "lancing and draining" procedure. And then I went home, sat for three days with a hot compress and downed 72 antibiotic pills "just to be safe.")
So it seemed logical to wait for other inspiration, something not abscess related.
Like a nasty bout of gastroenteritis, which struck just as my gaping wound was healing.
"Oh -- you're back again," said the physician's assistant at my doctor's office. "We didn't expect to see you so soon! What's going on?"
"Well, it's just that..." I hoisted myself carefully onto the bed in the examination room. "It sort of feels like something is inside me, sticking its foot in my ribs. Not a baby. Well, maybe an alien baby."
She chuckled, strapping the velcro blood pressure cuff around my arm. "I remember that about you. You always have such creative complaints."
"I'd rather be boring and healthy," I confessed, wincing as the cuff inflated, squeezing my arm.
"Blood pressure fine," she said, tossing me a paper gown. "I'll send the doctor in to see you."
There was nothing to do except stare at the ceiling, wait for my diagnosis and pray for an end to the summer of sick.
From my dad, I have inherited the ability to pack things really well. Every summer, he would pop the back of the station wagon (and later, minivan) and begin the slow process of cramming in the belongings of a wife and four daughters who would be traveling for a minimum of three weeks. My sister B, who also inherited this trait, recently confided that it had allowed her to become a master Tetris player.
For me, too, this skill has come in handy over the years:
I have no formal grocery experience, but I can bag like the best of them.
I have the belongings of a 2,000 square foot home but have arranged them neatly into 1,100 square feet.
I can fit two weeks worth of trash into our black bin, useful for those weeks when we forget to drag the can into the alley.
Last week, we had approximately 20 hours between getting an estimate on new carpet and having said carpet installed, which posed a time problem and also a slight geographical problem. We basically had to take the contents of three bedrooms and cram them into our living and dining areas, which are hardly spacious to begin with.
I rubbed my hands together, ready for the task. "Okay," I said to Will. "I think you need to let me take the lead on this one."
Will threw up his hands, conceding defeat before the battle began. (I obtained Will's permission to tell this story: When we moved into our first apartment, Will spent the day packing his belongings while I was at work. When I came over that evening, intending to load my car with his boxes, I found that he had packed all his clothes, books, CDs and bedding into one giant appliance box -- which was too large to fit into my car and too heavy to budge, even an inch.)
First, I took stock of the more troublesome items -- a six shelf bookcase with a few hundred books arranged alphabetically; three dressers; a massive CD unit, with CDs organized more or less chronologically; two desks; my beautiful cherry red file cabinet; a seldom-used treadmill and one bed that was too large to go down the hallway. Second, I formed a plan: If I had to live in a 400 square foot studio with all my current belongings, just how should they be arranged?
What followed was a furniture moving marathon too tedious to relate here, with the AC cranked up to counteract a 106-degree day. We worked in 20-minute shifts, stopping to guzzle Arnold Palmers and comfort our pets, who were increasingly freaked out. The result was that every available inch was stacked with something, and by the end of the day, there was just enough space on the couch for two humans, one beagle, and two cats.
The next day, I had to leave the house for a few hours to meet with the dean for a new teaching gig beginning this fall. I returned with Taco Bell (the perfect food for when your kitchen has disappeared) just as the carpet crew arrived.
In the meantime, Will, unbeknownst to me, had invited some neighbors over to pick plums from our burgeoning tree. Now, the plum tree is actually located outside, but for unexplained reasons, it turned out that at least one neighbor traipsed through our home and out the back door that day, past the reassembled furniture, the heap of clothes from the bottom racks of our closets and the dresser dumped in the middle of our kitchen, which happened to be where it fit best.
I gasped, learning this. "Through the house? You mean, someone was in here?"
Will grinned. "Don't worry. He said he liked what we had done with the place."
I'm not afraid of going to the dentist. Twice a year I plop myself into the chair, allow my head to be lowered to an uncomfortable angle, and submit to a battery of abuse - scraping, scrubbing, speed flossing, sometimes drilling, strange tastes and the occasional freezing shot from the Water Pik. Maybe the worst for me is the X-ray - an odd-shaped piece of plastic wedged so awkwardly in my mouth that I instantly feel like gagging.
And yet, I know -- I'm one of the lucky ones. Plenty of people have no such luxuries.
Eight days ago, I started to feel a slight throb in my lower right jaw. Just a teensy throb, hardly consequential at the moment. We were in New York, a stolen two-and-a-half day idyll before Will's conference in Philadelphia. I pushed the throbbing to the back of my mind - I'm good at ignoring things -- and soldiered on. And then, that night, I couldn't sleep. I lay awake in our room on the 19th floor, listening to the city not sleeping below me, and tried to isolate the pain. It really did seem like my entire body was throbbing, and unaccountably so. We'd climbed some steps, sure, and walked quite a few blocks, but that's nothing I can't handle. My entire head seemed to ache, too, like my forehead had become a pulse point. Eventually, I took four Ibuprofen and slowly drifted off.
But the dang pain just wouldn't go away. I confessed it to Will the next morning over breakfast: "I think I might have a bit of a toothache."
"Oh, no!" Will dropped his fork, mid-bite. If anyone can sympathize with tooth pain/dentist phobia, it's Will, a man who did not visit the dentist for eleven years, a man who once lost a hefty chunk of porcelain to a piece of sourdough bread in Monterey.
"It's okay -- it's not too bad," I insisted. I'd brought along a Ziploc baggie of Ibuprofen, but needed to stop for more as soon as we made it to Philadelphia. I had a brief vision of the ulcer I was creating - first a tiny hole, then eventually the sort of fissure I could punch a fist through.
The painkillers took the edge off, and for two or three days this was remedy enough. I met up with friends, favored the left side of my mouth when I ate, timed my doses, and tried my hardest to fall asleep at night.
By the fourth day, I had to admit defeat. I'd toyed with the idea of calling a dentist in Philadelphia, but hesitated, not knowing if this were truly an emergency and not having the slightest clue what my insurance covered when it came to this sort of thing. Because at this point I was really thinking: Exposed nerve. Root canal. The pain was so intense that I couldn't bring the lower half of my jaw to meet my upper. I walked around the city slack-jawed, cringing if anyone or anything came within a foot of my face.
I called my dentist and explained the situation. The next morning when Will headed into a conference, I hiked myself down to CVS and obtained a five-day supply of Vicodin. I have a love-hate relationship with Vicodin. I love how it lets me forget, if only for a couple of hours, that I've been experiencing pain. I hate how it wreaks havoc on my stomach (nausea, anyone?) and my sense of equilibrium. Will was instructed not to laugh as I made my way to the bathroom by holding onto the wall in our hotel room.
Eventually, I settled into a sort of rhythm, designed to last until Tuesday morning, when I could see my dentist at home. Every three hours I dosed myself: 1 Vicodin, three hours later 4 Ibuprofen, then 1 Vicodin and so on. If I missed a dose, I was alerted by pain radiating down my neck -- my own built-in alarm clock. There's a quote I half-remember from somewhere: "A headache? I had the kind of headache God smote you with in the Old Testament." I had the sort of toothache that could easily have been swapped for one of the ten plagues. Bring on the locusts, the flies, the hail, the boils (okay, maybe not the boils) -- they had nothing on this toothache.
This morning, I was twenty-five minutes early for my dentist appointment, a Paula record. I thought I held it together on the outside, chatting about my trip through teeth that didn't meet, although inwardly I was begging: Me next! Call me next!
I submitted to the wedging of large, sharp-edged plastic into my tender mouth and waited anxiously for the results. "Hmm," my dentist said, "Nothing there."
I dug my fingernails into the plastic armwrests. Look more closely! There must be something wrong!
"Why don't we take a look at your bite?" she suggested.
Was she insane? I couldn't bite. People in the throes of pain should not be asked to accomplish such unreasonable tasks. But I submitted again, grudgingly, to a series of "tap, tap" and "side to side" instructions.
"Are you biting as hard as you can?" she asked, skeptically. "It doesn't seem like you're biting at all."
I estimated that I was a good thirty seconds away from crying.
"You know, this might be the problem. Head back," she instructed, and before I knew it, sans any sort of numbing agent, a tiny silver drill was whirring away in my mouth. Only, it didn't hurt. It actually felt ... okay.
Here's the problem, as it was explained to me: In March (yes, four months ago), I'd had a crown installed. It didn't seem to fit exactly right at first, but after a day or so, I got used to it. Nothing hurt, nothing seemed problematic. In fact, it was ill-fitted, meaning that I hadn't been biting down correctly for months, and the entire area around this crown (basically, the lower right section of my mouth) was inflamed. It might take a week, but now that my bite was corrected, the pain would gradually subside and I would soon be back to normal. With any luck, I would be able to chew something more complicated than a piece of gnocchi or cereal completely saturated by milk.
"And if it's still hurting...?"
She snapped off her gloves, then gave me a pat on the shoulder. "Then just give me a call."
Famiglia Italia - 8th Avenue, New York City, 2 a.m.After a full day of travel and fine dining on Southwest's peanut and Cheez-It packs, we arrived in the city ready to eat. This pizza was fantastic, especially when seasoned by terrific hunger. We got it to go, and practically ran across the street to our hotel, kicked off our shoes, and feasted on a buffalo chicken pie on top of the bedspread while an episode of Law & Order played in the background. Bliss.
Tick Tock Cafe, 8th Avenue, New York City, 9 a.m.
I went for the bowl of fruit, already feeling that my arteries were clogged. It was basically a chopped up grapefruit with a few bruised grapes. Yummo!
Street Vender, 5th Aveue, New York City, 1 p.m.We took a walk down Madison Avenue and eventually ended up in the Reading Room at the New York Public Library (yes, the Ghostbusters room, as one of us recognized). Then we hit the streets again and oh, the humidity. Needing a refreshment, we bought drinks. Will scarfed down a dirty water hot dog and I bit into the hardest pretzel of my life. It literally needed to be submerged in my Diet Pepsi to be palatable, and once submerged, it was disgusting. I date my raging toothache to this horrible brick.
Somewhere near the post office and Madison Square Garden, New York City, 8 p.m.
Cheese pizza = a thin crust, a swirl of sauce, and easily two pounds of cheese. A teensy-tiny bathroom. Once I was enclosed in it, someone immediately began pounding on the door. "You'll have to wait!" I called, contorting my body to reach behind me for the toilet paper. Pounding persists throughout the flushing, zipping, washing, and drying. "Sorry," a twenty-something girl says when I step out. "I just really couldn't wait." Pizza grease gets me, too.
Cooper's Tavern, 8th Avenue, New York City, late
We decided to stop here for a nightcap, since we were approximately 10 feet from our hotel and thus would not have to worry about stumbling down the street afterwards. Will ordered a margarita that was heavy on the triple sec and tequila, and I went for a Midori sour that came not in a tumbler, but in something more like a pint glass. I couldn't let it go to waste! Besides, I was fine to walk through the lobby to the elevator bank! Life was good! And it wasn't until the next morning that I realized I'd left a hand-scribbled outline of my novel at the bar.
Beck's Cajun Cafe - Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia, 8 a.m.
Beignets! Heaven dusted with confectioner's sugar. De-lite!
Muffuletta! This for Will, who kept tempting me with bites. Would you like a little olive with that sandwich?
Chinese Restaurant, Arch Street, Philadelphia, 8 p.m.The sign in the window boasted that this was the 8th best Chinese restaurant in the US, and as we appeared to be the only white people (read: authentic cuisine), we went inside. We ordered two iced teas. "In a can?" the waitress said. I grimaced: "How about brewed?" We were then served two massive tubs of tea; the sort of large take-out containers that usually hold a quart of soup, except pierced through with a straw. Every other person in the restaurant was drinking out of a glass, and I tried to figure out where my ordering had gone wrong. Paige arrived when I had picked out all the chicken from my kung pao plate, and demanded to know why we were drinking tea out of a tub.
Will ordered the sweet and sour chicken, which arrived as tiny bites of chicken minus any sauce. A few minutes later, he got the waitress's attention and asked if his order included any sauce. "Yes," she said, confirmed in her belief that we were mentally challenged. She seemed in no hurry to rectify this situation.
Capogiro Gelato Artisans, various locations around Philadelphia, various times of night.Yum. My favorite combination: Sea Salt and Nutella. Will, always braver, went for the Avocado.
El Vez, 13th Street, Philadelphia
Fried plantains (not for the bananaphobic), corn on the cob slathered with chipotle, mayonnaise and fresca queso, guacamole that could convert the avocadophobic, red chile and chicken enchiladas with crema fresca and cotija cheese, more than my share of a pitcher of margaritas which left me feeling I could pronounce any of the terms on the Dia de los Muertos montage on the wall. El Mercado! Amor Eterna! Excellet company: Paige, Beth, Rick and Will.
Portofino, Walnut Street, Philadelphia
Bottle or two of pinot grigio, fried calamari, spinach salad with walnuts and gorgonzola, fettucine alfredo (toothache persisting with some urgency...), 17 glasses of water.
Dunkin Donuts, Market Street, Philadelphia, 8ish a.m.Large iced coffee with cream and sugar, vanilla creme donut, loads of guilt.
CVS Pharmacy, Market Street, Philadelphia20 Vicadin tablets for the low low price of $4.95! I haven't cured my toothache, but I've forgotten to care.
Vending Machine, Downtown Marriott, Philadelphia, 2 p.m.
After a day of the Constitution Center and wandering downtown, I'm parched. A Diet Pepsi at the vending machine will cost me $2, but I decide the expense can't be avoided. Exiting the elevator, I head left to the machine. "Excuse me!" called a hotel maid. "Excuse me, but you're going the wrong way! Room 1915 is to the right!" I explain about my urge for overpriced cancer-in-a-can, but the conversation stays with me throughout the trip. 23 floors in this hotel and thousands of guests, but somehow this person knew exactly who I was and where I should be.
Le Cestagne, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, 6:30 p.m.Sarah's pick, which ended up having just the menu for a girl who was suddenly subsisting on a mooshy-foods-only diet: flan di Parmigiano con crosta di pistacchio and gnocci di patate alla Sorrentina, which translates to high levels of food coma deliciousness.
Home, Modesto, CA, 6 p.m.
Will and I realize we have no food in the house. Lamely, I offer to call for a pizza, but it's the wrong choice by a mile. Finally, Will heads to the grocery store for what sounds like heaven: cereal and milk.
Paula Treick DeBoard