May 24, 2008

“Salt, Pepper, Radioactive Isotope?”

He was the kind of middle-aged Jamaican man whom people can’t help but to refer to as “that Jamaican gentleman.” The accent starts it off and the follow through is the semi-official demeanor, the close beard well-tended, the straight back, the precise enunciation. He was a medical technician, so he got to wear a lab coat and this lent him, and probably gave him cause to produce, an air of authority. But he didn’t overdo it; he wasn’t pompous. A Frenchman, with his accent at play, might have taken it to the next level and gone over the top.

I was sitting in the tiny waiting room of the Nuclear Medicine section of the Radiology department when he walked in holding a clipboard.

“Hello, David? I’m Jeffrey. We’re almost ready for you.”

It was 9am. Jeffrey leaned toward me.

“We’re about to make your breakfast. How would you like your scrambled eggs?”

“What do you mean?”

“Salt, pepper?”

“Oh, just salt, please.”

“Just salt. Okay. I’ll be back for you. It should just be a few minutes.”

A woman wearing a hospital gown walked into the waiting room with her daughter. They looked remarkably alike, even their frowns.

In ten minutes, Jeffrey was back and I followed him down the hall into a room marked “Imaging.” Inside the room stood a machine — a beige metal box by a bed. From the box protruded an articulating arm that held aloft a squat cylinder. But what really caught my attention was the tray perched on a skinny stand.

“Have a seat, David. There’s your breakfast. Enjoy.”

There was a covered plate, a piece of whole wheat bread wrapped in plastic, and two small containers of juice. A napkin and plastic utensils, too.

I sat in front of the tray stand and uncovered the plate. It wasn’t scrambled eggs as much as a thin egg pancake.

“We have for you egg, some bread, and — I didn’t know which you liked — apple juice or orange juice.”

“Apple juice is great.”

“Wonderful,” said Jeffrey.

What is it about meals, preparing them, serving them, that brings out the inner caretaker in people? And what is that binds the people who eat the meals to the ones who cook them?

“So, it’s in there?” I asked Jeffrey, looking up at him.

“Yes. It has a half-life of six hours. So in six hours it should be completely out of your system.”

“Really?”

Jeffrey nodded, smiling. He knew people didn’t like radiation.

“Yes, don’t worry.”

Then he went to a console in the corner of the room. He entered data into a computer.

“So should I eat this quickly or … ?”

“Eat it as you would any meal. Take your time. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

So Jeffrey left me alone in the imaging room and I faced my breakfast. I peeled open the apple juice, unwrapped the bread. With a fork, I dragged the egg pancake over the the bread to make an open-faced sandwich. Somewhere in that egg was a radioactive isotope, but I couldn’t see it. There was one off-color little egg bubble that aroused suspicion. Without planning to, I ate around the suspected isotope, sipped the apple juice, ate around it again, until I had no choice but to eat that part, too. It didn’t take long. The meal was not unsatisfactory.

When Jeffrey came back, we went to work. He led me to the cylinder and adjusted it so its circumference covered most of my chest and stomach.

From his console, Jeffrey called out directions.

“Okay, a little more to your right.”

Jeffrey was watching a monitor. On it, the yellow and red flickerings of a weather radar, a cluster of them in the center. And below it, near the bottom edge of the screen a faint and sparkly blue mass that looked a bit like a sack.

“Just a little bit more, David, please, to your left. Perfect. Now hold still.”

Jeffrey recorded the results onto a form, on the first of many rows that ran down the sheet. He asked me to turn, and guided me into position, and recorded that data, too.

“Okay, you can go sit down now. We’ll do it again in a few minutes. You have something to read? You want the paper?”

“No, thanks. I’ve got something.”

I’d been meaning to finally finish reading the New Yorker from a few weeks back. I was down to the Annie Proulx short story. I had avoided it because she writes about cowboys.

Jeffrey took the tray and left. I started reading. A pioneer couple. Late eighteen-hundreds. A cabin built by hand.

In a few minutes, there was Jeffrey again.

“Okay, let’s go.”

The front, the back. Jeffrey recorded data on another row. I went back to my seat, and read some more until Jeffrey called me.

“Let’s go again.”

The front, the back. Jeffrey recorded data on another row.

A man in a lab coat came in, inquiring about some equipment stashed in the corner.

“Did you hear about Daniel?” he asked Jeffrey.

“Yes, yes. Terrible.”

“What happened?” I asked. I stood at my position in front of the imager. The sparkly blue mass had grown brighter. We were about halfway down the rows on the sheet of paper.

“He got mugged. In Times Square.”

“Really?”

“Yesterday,” explained the newcomer. “He got cut by a knife. They took his camera.”

“He was carrying his camera over his shoulder,” said Jeffrey.

“Right, and they came from behind and cut his camera strap. When the camera fell, Daniel turned around. And they cut him on the forehead. He’s okay, though.”

Jeffrey shook his head.

“Crazy, crazy.”

“Six-thirty,” said the man.

“In the morning?” I asked.

“At night! In broad daylight.”

“Unbelievable,” said Jeffrey, still shaking his head. “Very bold.”

Another man in a lab coat walked in. The Colonel. That’s what he looked like. White hair and a white beard with curlicues.

Jeffrey said, “This is him, David. The one who got mugged.”

I could see the band-aid on his forehead, placed at an angle.

“Yes, that was me.”

He sounded like The Colonel, too. Like a Southern Gentleman.

“I can’t believe it. Six-thirty,” I said.

“In broad daylight,” said The Colonel.

We all shook our heads.

Eventually, Jeffrey and I were alone again, doggedly working our way down the sheet.

“Two more times,” Jeffrey announced.

“Thank God.”

“Boring, isn’t it?”

“I hope you don’t have to do this all day long.”

“No, no. I have other things. I did one yesterday, though.”

The blue sparkles had grown quite pronounced by now. The radioactive egg had finally worked its way down toward the small intestine.

When we finally finished, Jeffrey pointed at the clock on the wall.

“Look at the time,” he said.

It had taken an hour and a half. But I had finished the short story. The pioneer couple dies, one after giving birth to a still-born, the other from pneumonia, in a snowstorm.

Jeffrey told me to go to the waiting room until the radiologist, who would interpret the results, called me.

We said our good-byes. Although likely we would never see each other again, we had just spent close to two hours together with food and his friends. It amounted to something, but who knows what?

Before I left, Jeffrey turned to me and smiled.

“Thank you for choosing Lenox Hill Hospital.”

May 10, 2008

The Middle-Age Erotic Grotesquery

My next-door neighbor, Naomi, the self-proclaimed “blowjob queen” (though I’ve never found out if this is in fact true), was having a little party it sounded like, when I stomped up the stairs to my apartment carrying take-out curry. Shouts and laughter. The smell of exotic food. Naomi is Korean. And Jewish.

I’m not going to lie: I felt the sting of the uninvited. Still, Battlestar Galactica, curry, and ice cream wasn’t the worst way to spend a Friday night. It was just the penultimate worst way to spend a Friday night. The worst way to spend a Friday night would be in jail.

I ended up playing poker online first. I lost. I played again. I lost. It was beginning to get late. If I didn’t watch Battlestar Galactica now, I would have to try again tomorrow.

I got through about half a pint of the ice cream and forty minutes of the show when the phone rang. My stomach gurgled. All that dairy. I have that Jew stomach. Jews suffer from a continuous state of low-level food poisoning. We obsess over our stomachs. The phone rang again. My stomach gurgled.

“Hello?”

“It’s Naomi! Your neighbor!”

Naomi talks and writes with exclamation points when she’s nervous or is trying to change the direction of a conversation.

“I’m just having a few people over and we have lots of food! And beer! So how about coming over and having some food and beer!”

“Oh well, gee, I just walked in the door. Long night. I’ve already had a few. Well, okay.”

“Great! There’s a little bit of self-interest involved here, though.…”

“Oh no.”

Like most women, Naomi is all about self-interest and self-absorption. Like most women she can justify almost anything. She wants men, but she also is a bit contemptuous of them. She’s got issues with almost all of them. She’s pretty though, and that goes a long way to getting what you want.

“You want my weed, don’t you?”

“Could you bring some over?”

What choice did I really have? I could watch the last 7 minutes of Battlestar Galactica, eat the rest of the ice cream, and fall farting into bed. Or I could see what was going on next door.

“Okay, I’ll be right over.”

They were brilliantly drunk. Naomi greeted me, shouting. There were two others, a man and a woman. The woman was Naomi’s nutty friend from DC, Terri. I’d met her once before and Naomi’s told me many a story of her escapades. Terri’s face was flush. She wore a tight dress. Hovering near her, a man. He had that latin lover look about him, if only of an over 40 latin lover. He wore his graying hair in a ponytail; a thin mustache curved over his lip; his pants were of the high-waisted variety. He grooved to his own beat, eyes closed, hips swaying. I could already see that he was over-sexing it. It looked forced and insecure. His name was Miguel.

“David, come meet Terri! You know Terri, right?”

“Hi, Terri!”

“Hi, David!”

She extended a hand.

“Come sit by me and tell me what’s going on with you!”

And Naomi said, “Go sit next to Terri!”

I had already sat down on a little bench that had rollers on it. Naomi pushed me toward Terri, whose nipples, I could now see, were poking through her dress. And I saw that Miguel held a camera. I had stepped into the middle of a photo shoot and Miguel was preparing to shoot some more.

Miguel took his job seriously. He talked the women though various poses. Most of these involved showing breasts. Now, my neighbor Naomi is, in actuality, a private woman. In our eight or so years of living together as neighbors, our sleeping heads within inches of each other every night, she has never dropped bra for me, though I have tried to encourage it. I once offered her ten to show, but she declined. She might have even hit me.

But now, I was in nipple paradise. Out came my cell phone.

We drank, we smoked, Miguel obsessed over the camera, developing more elaborate poses for the ladies. He seemed interested in getting them together.

“Okay, now kiss,” he suggested.

“Terri’s nipple needs to be erect,” wailed Naomi. She procured a cube of star-shaped ice.


That taken care of, Miguel got Terri and Naomi on the coach, on which Naomi wagged her panties at the camera while she lightly kissed Terri’s iced nipple.

The women then went into Naomi’s bedroom to change. Miguel and I made small talk. I felt the first welling of disquiet.

Out they came. Naomi wore gray pajamas, Terry a luau costume: grass skirt, coconut bra. I have no idea where that outfit came from; Naomi and I haven’t talked about it since that night. Pretty soon, though, Miguel was wearing the coconut bra, dancing in that weird self-conscious way that he had when I first got there, except this time, of course, with the coconut bra.

“Miguel!” This was Terri. “Miguel. Use ten adjectives to describe Naomi.”

Miguel was dancing right next to them now, clearly trying to get something going on. He began to enumerate in a deep voice he didn’t seem to have before.

“Sexual, sensual, seductive.”

Terri cried, “seductive!”

“Beautiful, potentially seductive.”

“Ah, potentially seductive!”

Naomi looked at me. She suddenly realized that I was her neighbor. A kind of pall descended on the apartment. She went to the couch and sat, complaining that the mixture of alcohol and weed had knocked her out.

The evening was over for me. Nothing else would happen. The longer I stayed, the harder it would be to climb out of the hole Naomi and I were digging. I announced that it was time for me to leave. Naomi leapt off the couch and rushed me out the door. She didn’t look at me when I said goodnight.

Since then, only a few spare words have passed between us.

So, it turns out that it’s not watching Battlestar Galactica in the company of a pint of ice cream that’s the penultimate worst way to spend a Friday night.

It is seeing your neighbor’s naked nipple.