Fiction

National Health

Pin it

 FICTION


National Health by Alicia Erian

  

In England, you can buy codeine over the counter, keeping in mind that you’ll spend the afternoon passed out on your typewriter while the blood oozes from you faster than your tampon can soak it up. That codeine is something else. You awake dazed and cramp-free, if a little wet. Then suddenly it’s five o’clock, time to punch out. What are you doing in London anyway? you ask yourself on the tube.

promotion

You convinced your parents to give you a trip to Europe for graduation, but now you just work, get your period, fall asleep, catch the train, walk home, eat dinner, go to bed. You sure as hell don’t take advantage of the culture. The problem is, you’ve been seduced by loneliness. You hope only to recede, to fall backward into the arms of something certain not to catch you.

    
The sight of you reduces the Indian man at the corner shop to giggles on a nightly basis. “What are you doing here?” he asks in a crisp English accent, and you’ve stopped telling him, “Working.” It only makes him laugh harder, that someone would leave America to find a job in England. “That would be like me leaving Mumbai for Cuba!” he once told you. “You’ve got your countries mixed up.” Despite his perfect complexion and the dreamy thrust of his nose, you hate him. How he knows he’s getting your goat. How his shop sells the best Greek yogurt in your neighborhood, and Greek yogurt is what you eat for dinner every night.

    
You’re not Greek. You’re Arab-American, which means you check WHITE on any and all race questions, even though most whites assume you’re a card-carrying member of Hamas. It’s funny to you that, despite this, you get to be white anyway, and you wonder when your country will wise up and give you your own box. In London, you don’t feel so separate. Britain was once like a big stinking drunk, wandering the town and impregnating every dark-skinned girl in sight. The result is a bunch of swarthy kids knocking at the door all these years later, looking to crash with Dad. He knows that if he tries to complain, they’ll only tell him, “What did you expect?” so he minds his manners when they’re around.

    
America, on the other hand, eschews the taking of responsibility in favor of a self-help approach. When confronted with its own tawdry past, phrases like “Get over it,” “You have to move on,” and “Let’s forget about slavery” rise to the surface. The reality is that if you’re a person of color and have any quibble over prior treatment, your only recourse may be daily affirmations.

    
So it’s England you prefer, with its guilt, its nail-biting, the wretched nobility of its terribly long memory. And the British seem to like you, too. Initially they might imagine the standard dealings between their ancestors and yours, but then you open your mouth and you’re American and they’re instantly relieved. You may be a darkie but you’re someone else’s darkie. You claim no injustice against them. Let’s have tea.

You think, I might as well start taking the codeine when I don’t have my period, too. You begin to lead a dizzy life. You never feel pain, not even when you remove too much of your cuticles with your teeth and it takes five or ten minutes to staunch the blood. You bite the insides of your cheeks, too. Your mouth is always moving at top speed, an active participant in the national pastime of ripping oneself to shreds. If you weren’t taking so much codeine, you’d feel that your jaws are sore at night; you’d notice in the mirror how something is beginning to block the view of your left ear.

    
People speak to you in Hindi, Spanish, Italian, Arabic. They think you’re from anywhere except the U.S., which you, a poor excuse for a honky, find encouraging. You begin to dream in an English accent, then start using one in real life. “What are you playing at?” the Indian man at the corner shop asks when you try it out on him. “Who are you pretending to be?”

    
“No one,” you laugh, handing over your money.

    
“Well, it won’t work,” he says bitterly, tossing your change on the counter so that you have to pick it up coin by coin. It occurs to you on the short walk home that you may have just entered a competition with a lousy prize.

    
The only place you haven’t changed your voice is at work, where you’ve always been a Yank. This pains you and you contrive to establish a new identity. “Teddy,” you say to your young supervisor one day, putting your accent on in the question, “what do you think of me now?” He sits across the room from you in a university office filled with study packets to be sent abroad. Your archaic job, eight hours a day, five days a week, is to type address labels for them. Often the students are named Snoopy or Cinderella, reflecting their Asian parents’ flustered attempts at westernization. Teddy’s forever favorite will remain the more traditional Yu Kam Fuk.

    
Occasionally the students call the office from Malaysia or Korea to complain that they have not yet received their materials, and you watch as Teddy willfully perpetuates the stereotype of Brits raising their voices to foreigners who don’t understand them. Once he tells you proudly that Hitler planned to make your office building his headquarters after conquering Britain, and you believe it because anyone can see that the woodwork is fine, not to mention the view of Russell Square. You find Teddy a capricious racist — which allows for the fact that he’s clearly in love with you — and suspect that he kisses your head while you nap.

    
As for your accent, he says, “It’s fucking brilliant.” Then he says, “What do you think of mine?” and he attempts an American drawl, and it’s terrible. “It’s fantastic,” you say, at which point he becomes John Wayne; you, Miss Moneypenny. This reversal gives him the swagger to overtake you one lunch hour as you stand hunched at the window ledge, enjoying a tempest of leaves. “Just keep a-lookin’,” he whispers in your ear, his belt-buckle a holster jangling behind you.

           

  

©2000
Alicia Erian and Nerve.com

 FICTION


Besides Teddy, you’re also having sex with your landlord, a Viking of a man with a key to your bedsit. It all starts when you lie to him about the communal bathroom floor, since your perpetually dozy state makes it impossible to aim that foolish pot directly onto your head as you sit in the tub each morning, rinsing shampoo from your hair. “Look at this mess!” Trumbull says, catching you on your way to work. “Can you imagine it?” He’s standing amongst a slew of soppy towels on the black and white tiles, fearful as the next English homeowner of extraneous indoor moisture.

    
You shake your head and Trumbull apologizes for the inconvenience put to you, a hardworking English girl (he seems to have forgotten that you signed his lease with an American accent some months earlier). “I’ll catch him,” Trumbull warns, supposing the culprit to be one of the two men in the house — a Trinidadian and an Algerian. “I’ll catch him and give him a wash myself!”

    
The next morning you take your bath as usual, except halfway through it, there’s Trumbull, peeking at you through the crack in the door. He’s not pretty, like Teddy, but his blue eyes have sad, heavy lids and you become addicted to the notion that it’s you who lends them this quality. You try not to toss so much water out of the tub, but your motor skills aren’t what they used to be, and anyway, Trumbull isn’t looking at the floor.

    
It goes like this for a while. Then one day he cracks the door a little wider and actually steps in, seating himself on the john. Not long afterward he moves to the edge of the tub. “Why not let me do that?” he asks, taking the small pot from you as you prepare to rinse your hair. He continues his work even after the shampoo is gone, dousing you back and front, lifting each breast lightly in search of suds that might be trapped underneath. He worries about the possibility of infection without a thorough intimate rinse, and even though you know this is his way of getting a look at you, you can’t help but feel his concern.

    
Trumbull’s wife is a heavy sleeper, so he begins slipping out of her bed at night and into yours. You’re a heavy sleeper, too. You’re addicted to codeine. In the mornings, when you awake, you find grateful notes from him describing all the positions he was able to fold you into, and the degrees to which you seemed to enjoy them. He’s meticulous about this, as if you keep some sort of sexual inventory, and he doesn’t want to be responsible for you coming up short at the end of the quarter. Though you have no stock to account for, you’re fascinated by the idea that you lead a double life. You hope to learn something from your alter ego, who, according to Trumbull, uses a fake American accent and is happiest on her stomach.

    
On weekends you’re drawn to the neighborhood elementary school, where an Indian group practices their music in the evenings. From the back of a sloping auditorium, you notice the man from the corner shop playing sitar. You wave to him and he turns up his amplifier in response, sending out an offensive whistle of feedback. Quickly you press your fingers to your ears, and that’s when you feel it, the difference between the right side of your face and the left.

You have a National Health card and you use it. Before examining you, Dr. Plumridge makes a speech about how if he were a visitor in the U.S. (the gravity of the matter seems to call for your American accent), he’d pay thousands of dollars for the care you’re about to receive for free. You listen to him closely, respectfully. You offer him money. He says no, that’s not the point. You do your English accent for him and he laughs. He tells you you’re charming and that he’d very much like to take a CT scan of your head.

    
The film reveals a tumor in your left salivary gland, located directly in front of your ear. On a subsequent office visit, Plumridge sticks you twice with a needle, trying to get a tissue sample, then lets his freckled otolaryngology fellow take a turn. Blood leaks down the side of your face as a result of Dr. Harry’s inexperience, and a nurse steps in to apply pressure. Though this hurts even more than the punctures, your daily dose of codeine allows you to bear up. “I like the stiff upper lip,” Plumridge tells you, winking on his way out the door.

    
A week later, still high off the notice for your inadvertent display of patriotism, the pathology report comes back benign. “It’s got to come out anyway,” Plumridge informs you, explaining that this particular type of tumor can grow to be the size of a grapefruit, or, even worse, turn malignant. “No sense mucking about with that,” he concludes, scheduling the operation for two weeks.

    
You’re finally going to do something in England. You’re going to have surgery. You call your parents to share the good news and they insist that you come home at once. “Just kidding,” you say quickly, and they say, “What?” and you say, “British humor,” and they say, “Not funny.” Teddy grows equally morose, convinced that you’ll be killed by a foreign anesthesiologist who earned his medical degree through the post. Trumbull, feeling completely useless, installs a new tub. When you try to thank the Indian man for leading your fingertips to the abnormality, he confesses that he once cursed you and asks for your forgiveness. You can’t understand any of them. Why is no one happy for you — you, who are about to become an honorary citizen? It’s all well and good to chew at one’s exterior, but soon a deep part of you will be expertly removed and buried on British soil. You’ve begun the process of perishing abroad, the ultimate in assimilation, and no one can stop you now.

D
r. Plumridge, an elegant man in his sixties, can’t stop talking paralysis. “The trunk of the facial nerve,” he explains before surgery, leaning over your gurney in his scrubs, “is located in the salivary gland. You’ve got seven nerves extending out from there to various points on that gorgeous face of yours, and my job is to keep away from each and every one of them. Following?”

    
You nod. You’ve heard the story before and wish he’d stop talking about losing your blink and your smile and waking up drooling. You need your looks to compensate for your nationality, after all.

    
The anesthesiologist, who is indeed Korean, shakes his head at the opposite side of the gurney. “Ignore him, miss. He’s a genius. He’s never paralyzed anyone.”

    
Plumridge turns stern as he addresses his colleague. “Listen to me, Seung: you never can tell with these Americans. They could be completely different from us on the inside. We won’t know until we open her up.”

    
You think you’re laughing, but it’s actually coughing, because the whole thing is over just that quickly and now you’re in recovery with a badly dried-out mouth and a bandaged head that feels twice its normal size. You try to say words to the effect of It hurts and a nurse flipping through a magazine injects morphine into your I.V. “Are you nauseous?” she asks, and before you can answer she lifts your bed sheet and gives you a shot in the thigh. “No,” you say finally, but the word tumbles out the left side of your mouth like a gutter ball.

It’s Plumridge’s fellow who has permanently paralyzed you. You know because the next time you wake up, he’s there at your bedside, crying. “Dr. Harry?” you mumble.

    
“Just Harry,” he says, wiping his eyes on his shirtsleeves. He wears no medical attire which makes him look like a visiting friend, though as soon as you can get up the energy, you will tell him that he most certainly is not.

    
“Mirror,” you say now, trying to enunciate.

    
As if he were your husband, he reaches into your purse and pulls out a powder compact, opening it and holding it shakily in front of you. All you can see is the drainage tube sticking out of the base of your wound, so you say, “Higher.” His hand shivers upward from your neck to your chin, where you pick up a trail of saliva that leads directly back to the droopy left corner of your mouth. You look like a woman who is partially dismayed and will never make up her mind to become truly furious. From this point forward, no matter what kind of happiness the right side of your face is enjoying, the left will always be there to wreck it.

    
“That’s enough,” you slur, and Harry nods somberly, clicking the compact shut. You’re ugly, to be sure, but for now it’s his remorse that most captures you, a new way of hearing that you’re worth something in this world. “Codeine?” you say, and he brings you some pills. You take them and begin to feel yourself again. “Try to smile,” he says, leaning over you with pink, wet eyes. You think you’re trying, but it feels the same as not trying. He starts crying again and you reach out a hand to touch him. It’s startling to you both that the rest of you still works.

  

           

  

©2000
Alicia Erian and Nerve.com

 FICTION


Plumridge arrives the next morning to remove the drainage tube from your neck. He eyes his fellow in the chair at the foot of your bed — head resting on your mattress, hand gripping your ankle — and barks, “Wake up, Dr. Harry!”

    
“It’s just Harry now, sir,” the fellow says, letting go of you and jumping to his feet.

    
“Nonsense,” Plumridge snaps. “And you,” he says softly, leaning over the bed, scrutinizing your ruined face. “Try to smile.”

    
You do and he says, “Are you trying?”

    
“I think so.”

    
“Right, then,” he says, “you can stop.” He plucks a tissue from your bedside and dabs at some spit on your chin.

    
“Thank you,” you say.

    
“You’re welcome.” He adds, “Please know that your suffering is not in vain. This hospital compiles a list of accidental deaths, less than stellar surgeries, misdiagnoses, etcetera, which we then gather to discuss in hopes of avoiding such disasters in future. We consider every person on this list to be one of Britain’s heroes.”

    
You start to cry a little, both for the honor and the unfairness, perhaps even in that order.

    
“Yes, I understand,” Plumridge says quietly, gripping your wrist as if he were about to check your pulse, though he counts nothing and doesn’t refer to his watch.

    
“I should never have gone to medical college,” Harry laments from the corner, where he’s banished himself behind the chair.

    
“Dr. Harry,” Plumridge says, without turning around, “you will take comfort in me and others later. Let us now shift our full attention to the young lady.”

    
Harry nods at Plumridge, then looks at you and says, “You should sue.”

    
“It’s certainly an option,” Plumridge says. “Only bear in mind that under the National Health system you’re actually suing the government, and tort law is notoriously tricky.”

    
“I don’t want to sue,” you tell him.

    
Plumridge nods approvingly. He then says, “In my view, it is insufficient for us to apologize to you due to the gravity of our error. That said, it is equally insufficient not to. Therefore, we apologize.”

    
“I’d like to apologize again,” Harry adds.

    
“That’s fine,” Plumridge tells him.

    
“I’m leaving now,” Harry says.

    
“Don’t be a coward, sir.”

    
“Good-bye,” Harry says.

    
Moments later, as Plumridge yanks the plastic tube from inside your neck, you feel a deep, lasting burn, yes, but there’s also an astonishing internal gurgle, as if you were the office water cooler and someone had just taken a drink. It’s really true, that you’re ninety-eight percent fluid, and once again you feel bound by your assessment of yourself as inconsequential.

  

           

  

©2000
Alicia Erian and Nerve.com

 FICTION


B
ack at work, Teddy is frustrated by your inability to close your mouth around his penis. He asks repeatedly if your surgeons were English, and when you assure him that they were, he says, “Not foreign with an English accent — white English.” It strikes you then that you were once foreign with an English accent, but now your slack mouth has made it difficult to look or sound like anything but an Arab-American stroke victim. “Use your serviette,” Teddy admonishes as you eat a Scotch egg from the tea trolley, and you dutifully pat your chin dry.

    
Only Trumbull, your night visitor, still wants you, since you’ve always drooled in your sleep. He has a harder time with your face in the brightly lit bathroom, fixing his eyes on your torso where you remain elastic and nubile. “Turn that frown upside down!” he jokes occasionally, a new smell of alcohol floating off his breath. Suspecting that it’s actually symmetry he’s after, you offer a full pout instead of a half-smile. “That’s my girl!” he crows, and you’re touched by him, that he’s so overwhelmed.

    
You hear the Indian man’s band at the elementary school one weekend and walk over to show him what happened. “What are you doing here?” he asks, and for once he seems to be referring to the place where you’re standing, as opposed to the country in which you live.

    
“I like this music,” you tell him. “I like the song that goes —” and you hum a few bars. He smiles at you and you half-smile back. He reaches out a hand to raise the left side of your mouth, holding it there for a moment before letting it drop down. “Classic Bell’s,” he notes.

    
“What?” you ask, thinking he’s saying something lovely about your singing.

    
“Palsy,” he says. “Classic Bell’s palsy.”

    
“Oh,” you say, suddenly remembering that there’s an official name for your new mouth besides droopy.

    
He slips a soft hand inside your shoulder-length hair and lifts it away from your head. You watch his face as he examines the fiercely red scar that starts in front of your ear, then hooks around the bottom of the lobe, continuing down the side of your neck. “The wound is nice,” he offers, removing his hand from your hair, “but the rest…” He shrugs.

    
“Are you a doctor?” you ask him.

    
“A resident,” he says, adding, “I only help out in my uncle’s shop.”

    
You nod. “It was a fellow that did this to me. Dr. Harry.”

    
“Who was he working with?”

    
“Dr. Plumridge.”

    
“I’ve heard of him.”

    
“I can’t do an English accent anymore,” you admit.

    
“You sound sad about that.”

    
“I am. A little.”

    
“You must really want to be like them.”

    
“I guess so.”

    
“Even after what they did to you?”

    
“They apologized,” you say stupidly, and it all comes back to you, what Plumridge said about this being insufficient.

    
The Indian man smiles meanly. “Well. How polite.”

    
“Wouldn’t you apologize if you paralyzed someone?” you ask him.

    
“Of course,” he says.

    
“So what makes you so much better than them?”

    
“Ah,” he says, “pigment.”

    
His name is Sudhir and he invites you for Greek food (since you seem to enjoy their yogurt so much). A tabby cat weaves among the restaurant’s tables and Sudhir shoos it lightly with his foot. “Don’t you like cats?” you ask him.

    
“I like animals who are capable of liking me back.”

    
“Like dogs?” you say.

    
He shakes his head. “Like people.”

    
When you drool a little into your hummus, he reaches over with a piece of pita to catch it, waving away your thank you as he returns the bread to his plate. Moments later, he takes a bite from the same pita. You wonder if you should warn him, but then he smiles as he’s chewing and you imagine he likes the taste of you.

    
Back in your room, Sudhir’s approach is initially clinical. He questions you about your sexual history, methods of contraception, results of any AIDS tests. You’ve had a few, you say, all negative, and you definitely try to use condoms. Still, he wonders at your passivity, your misassigned trust. Why so many men? he wants to know. Especially the two English ones? You attempt to explain it to him — how you feel like a part of the culture as you hold its people inside of you. You describe the rush of being wanted by white English seemingly in spite of themselves, and Sudhir looks at you, stunned. He says that everything you think, every way you act, is dangerous; that it simply isn’t desirable to be tolerated. He worries then that he’s much too safe for you, and you assure him that he isn’t, of course he isn’t, you’re scared out of your mind. “Scared?” he says, putting his hand inside your pants, using his classroom skills to pry you open. “You don’t feel scared at all.”

    
But you are, you think, as you lie down beside him. Scared, scared, scared. He’s your color, he’s angry, he’s an affront to every native of this land. If you join his ranks you might as well go home, find a real job, try to make something of yourself. Only how can you be special without a nationality box to tickĂ‘without an accent that doesn’t distract from your skin tone, not to mention the left half of your face? And where might you locate some pride? Or codeine, for that matter? You’d have to explain to a doctor that everything hurts all the time, when in reality there’s no such disease.

    
Sudhir rises from the bed and takes off his clothes, then lies back down and says it’s your turn. You get up, unzip, and unbutton, while he reaches out to stroke your flanks. When you’re nude he opens the covers and you slide in on your stomach. His probing fingers make you feel as if he’s making love to you in the course of a medical exam, and the combination fells you. When the conditions are right, he dips himself inside you a couple of times, then slowly, carefully, begins pushing his way into your bottom.

    
He asks if this is dangerous enough, and you say, yes, don’t stop, that you’ve never held anyone there before. You cry a little, not so much because it hurts, but because he makes you wish you had your old face back, even if it was brown. “Shh,” he tells you, stroking your hair, and you can’t believe how good it feels to be heard above the din of sex.

    
Once you’ve absorbed all of him, he caps you off by lowering his body onto your back. In the ensuing stillness, you’re certain that you can feel your insides grafting onto him. It’s this — being truly locked together — that excites you most, with all its attendant dryness and lack of give. To separate now would require as much as effort as coming together, which is why neither of you budges at the sound of the key in the door.

    
“Trumbull,” you say quietly to Sudhir, who’s already heard about your landlord.

    
He tenses above you and whispers, “Let him see us.”

    
“What?”

    
“Let him see what we can do.”

    
Trumbull walks in and at first he doesn’t look, just closes the door behind him and turns the lock. He puts his keys in his pocket then bends down to untie his shoes, and that’s when he sees you, eyes open and staring back at him. “Mr. Trumbull,” you say, “this is Sudhir.”

    
The room is dark but a street lamp outside casts enough light to reveal that there are two of you in the bed, both far from white. “Good evening, Mr. Trumbull,” Sudhir says now, not in his normal British clip, but in an exaggerated Indian replete with rounded consonants. It’s not an accent you can imagine anyone wanting to put on — least of all in this country — unless, of course, they were feeling in the majority.

    
Trumbull stands there for a moment, his breath filtering down in sweet waves of bourbon. “Sorry, sorry,” he whispers, moving away, and suddenly you wish he would pull up a chair and stay. Not to make love, since you only want to do this with Sudhir or nobody, but to try to figure out how you got in such a tangle. “Sorry,” he keeps whispering, and soon he’s got his back up against your bedroom door. Moments later, when neither you nor Sudhir has asked him to leave, he inches his way forward again. “Have I seen you before?” he asks Sudhir hoarsely.

    
“Yes,” Sudhir says, though he doesn’t mention the corner grocery.

    
“Sit down on the bed, Mr. Trumbull,” you say.

    
He shakes his head from a couple of feet away. “I’m all right here.”

    
It’s like a game of Canadian tennis, with Trumbull shifting his gaze nervously from you to Sudhir, while the two of you have the landlord pegged. At one point, Sudhir reaches back and removes all the bed covers, raising himself up slightly so that Trumbull can see. Accepting this invitation, the older man leans in, scrutinizing the link between you. He maintains this politely inquisitive stance as Sudhir eases himself back into you, then gently out again, at last resuming the business of making love.

    
Eventually you both turn from the strange foreigner who won’t go away. In this new country of yours and Sudhir’s flesh, he’s no kind of threat. He wasn’t born here; his accent is wrong; he finds your ways shocking, to say the least. Clearly he, too, knows that he’s out of his depth, leaving your key on the nightstand when he finally walks out the door.

    
Later, Sudhir jokes about the mess he imagines in Trumbull’s pants. He calls the landlord a pervert and outlines a plan to share the events of the evening with his wife. You listen to this, but all you really hear is Sudhir’s true accent, the English one, the one he can’t shake. And you understand why he once got so mad at you for trying to steal it. It’s worth less than nothing, as far as he’s concerned. Just the sound of an old drunk having his way.

  

           

©2000
Alicia Erian and Nerve.com