The last thing they took out of me was the Hickmann line, a tube that had been tunneled under my skin, through my collarbone, embedding itself within the superior vena cava in the right atrium of my heart. (I have always thought the medical jargon used to describe the heart is so poetic, but that’s rubbish really because the heart is already so encased in metaphor that, in a way, it itself becomes nothing more than a trope. Side note: I have a benign heart murmur and as a teenager loved telling strangers I had been born with a broken heart. This statement went well with the dark eyeliner and Nirvana blasting from my Walkman.) My surgeon, with the Greek name he had anglicized to Harris, came in with his shadow of students and informed me it was time to have it removed. When I asked if it would hurt, he said the same thing he had told me before I went into surgery only to come out with an epidural that “didn’t take” and a third trip to the ICU, the same thing he had told me before removing 27 staples from my abdomen (which to this day looks like a bad tattoo of a centipede), the same thing he had said as he stood over my withered imitation-of-a-body with four inch needles he planned to stab into my side: “No pain”. Laughing in his face, I pulled down my shirt so he could access the “exit site”, where two large lumens hung from my right breast. I was wearing a Sainsbury’s cotton shirt and my sister’s bright red University of Wisconsin sweat pants at this point. I had shunned the gowns I had been ordered to wear for the past two months about a week earlier, so this current ensemble was a mash up of readily available items. I was adamant that I would not return again* to the pink paisley gown, even though the waistband was uncomfortable around my gored abdomen, the t-shirt hung too tightly as I fidgeted in bed all day/night, and both got damp too quickly from my series of daily fevers. These ill-suited clothes aided in convincing me I was doing a decent impersonation of a human. With a barely perceptible look of shock at my immediate willingness, he proceeded to yank the line that hid labyrinthine-like underneath my skin and then announced I had been discharged. A few hours later I was limping towards my parents rental car and a fragmented future.
Although I am almost fully recovered at this point, nothing feels steady anymore. I used to devour nihilist philosophy and existential novels, and always found myself regurgitating their dramatic remarks about the state of existence and it’s fragility, the impermanence of everything, the fallibility and vulnerability of the human body. I did so in what I thought was fervent devotion to and comprehension of what these words, these sentences, these thoughts actually expressed. It is only now that I truly understand them, but uttered they sound contrived and cliche.
I have tried endlessly to make sense of being defined as normal after almost dying, of being expected to return to some kind of objective reality after months of living in a hospital. It’s like when you are in a foreign country and you hear the a siren go past your window and you know what it means, what it speaks to, but there remains an instant of dissonance as you translate the sound in the form it presents itself to you. Although it is a universal signifier, its song is slightly off key. Therein lies the moment of suspension, as you try to make sense of that noise. This time, although immeasurable, points to the fact that you are now in a different world, which, to everyone else is real, is fluid, is consistent, but for you, will forever remain confused, alien. The subtle variation of the fire siren and the millisecond of incognizance it produces reminds you that you are no longer in the same world you used to inhabit. You have been cast into something wholly other, yet, are still expected to abide by the same signifiers as everyone else. If only for a second, you become aware that you are now part of this world but not of it.
Returning is like continually embodying that moment of suspension, of dissonance.
* This outfit had been tried and tested earlier with a zealous hope that real clothes=recovery, but was quickly discouraged when I was informed I required my sixth and seventh drain
Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife
It’s early which makes the fact that she’s pulled over onto the side of the road and crying lack the romanticism it should and instead it feels too sober, too strained. Tom Petty is playing on the radio, well, she doesn’t actually know if he is because the radio is on mute but she just knows that if she was to turn up the volume it would be him singing Free Fallin’, she just knows this to be theoretically true, because that would be just so perfect, just so right, just enough to push this moment over the edge of the sincere and into the realm of the absurd. The velocity of the passing cars shakes her own decrepit vehicle and it’s like being rocked in a cradle, she thinks, and the neon glare of the liquor store next to her could be her childhood night light because if she squints her eyes slightly (easily enough as they are already swollen and wet) those fluorescent lights refine into something less jaundiced but incandescent and subdued. Only seventeen minutes earlier he had been inside her and he had mistaken the colour of her eyes and, afterward, when he asked what was wrong, “you like watching me lose my mind,” she had said decisively. He thought it was a joke and, laughing, they both got dressed, she, vacantly turning to face the imitation Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife that hung limply but with overt poignancy on his bedroom wall. Coldly, knowingly that couple had gazed at her every night, their harmonious and delicate intimacy leaving her convinced that the creeping sense of inadequacy that had been growing within was not only affirmed but had been fixed by her lover himself, or even (she had a propensity toward extremes, of calling upon the language of the religious when it suited her) destined. All good things must come to an end, she had always told Ann and, in solemn response, she had always nodded in silence. But when, in paranoid defeat, she had finally admitted aloud that these neoclassical scepters had been haunting her for weeks, Ann had broken her automaton-like trance and coldly warned her not to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And so this time she stared back, refusing to allow their virtuosity to intimidate and bruise her own attempt at love. Leaving his labyrinthine apartment complex, the elevator led her to the basement parking lot and it was all too clearly an expulsion, and so she saturated her vision with images of exile in a feeble attempt to convince herself of its reality. Driving home she was drained and vague, the car seemingly moved of it’s own accord and, once again evoking the jargon of the divine, she imagined something external and premeditated had pulled her towards the side of Wilshire Boulevard. There she sat debating going inside and getting a flask of whiskey even though she hadn’t drunk whiskey in months, since before the accident even, it just felt like the right thing to get, to seep this moment in the poetry of the desperate and insane. Ann calls her and she’s sobbing too and tells her to come over. But they have the same name, she remembers, the same first two names, and the thought of the two of them with the same two names crying in the same room together in the dark is just too much, she knows. “It’s about time we spent one night together with no drinking involved,” Ann says, and smiling in agreement she barely hesitates as she mutters into the phone, “Just not tonight, Ann. Not tonight”. She hangs up and with ten dollars in her hand she enters the expectant liquor store but as she asks for the second cheapest bottle, the man behind the counter starts talking about the last time he was in vegas and she knows by doing so he is securing her status as a companion alcoholic, a fellow good-time-girl and he doesn’t know she needs the whiskey to stop her mind from it’s incessant animation, to pause the endless narration and be languid for just a minute, even a few seconds maybe. This is not sexy behaviour, she wants to scream. This is medicinal, this is like getting a massage, this is not an invitation to tell me about how drunk you were in Vegas last year. Convinced of his intent and determined to deflect it, she leaves a dollar on the counter and grabs a snickers, running back to the safety of her cradlecar. Cursing mother Eve and the apples and snakes that destroyed the possibility of oblivion, she holds the bare candy a moment too long so that it melts ever so slightly in her hand. Licking the chocolate off the fingers she still hasn’t washed since giving him her signature half-hearted hand job, she is all too aware of the performative quality with which she must entrench everything. She sits with her bare thighs on the tan leather interior, contemplating the calorific content of the recently devoured confectionary, and again the portrait of Lavoisier and his wife eclipses her attention, and it’s mostly his gaze, she realizes, that she wants, that lingering burn of some other, of the cobalt stare with its hint of submission. And now understanding this she knows that she has no desire herself, except the desire to be desired. In his gesture there is powerlessness and it is this that she identifies with, as her own man has been camping inside her head since the moment they met. But maybe it is better this way, her whiskey-less mind thinks. To have him stationed there, diverting the continual banter within. Better than the alternative, she thinks. Better than a mind unmanned. And so I will allow this specter, she thinks, for at least it means I am not in there alone.
Hannah Denyer is a writer and photographer from Los Angeles, based in London.