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Dis/comfort

By Kristen Arnett

Essay

 

arnett1

 

I don’t know what’s inside me, but I’ve got ideas. Discomfort is not a word I’d thought to associate with the egg-sized lump in my guts, but after the lump arrived, it made me uncomfortable to understand I knew so little about my own body. My body, I thought, was a private place. The lump arrived without my knowledge or consent. I had no control over it.

 

***

 

MRI machines create a non-rhythmic thumping, a kind of kunk-a-chunk-chunk-kunk-kunk-ing that never settles right in your brain. I’ve got on headphones that a hundred other people have worn. The oversized pleather cups dig into the soft space behind my ears. It’s clear in the unkemptness of the technician, a man well into his fifties who wears a white lab coat covered in dark stains, that these headphones haven’t ever been cleaned. His coat is the kind I might wear, if I were a tech. This is how I know the headphones still hold the residue of everyone who came before me—I’d have never cleaned them.

Before he slid the headphones over my ears, right before he tangled his hands in my hair and accidentally pulled some out, straight from the root, the technician asks, “What kind of music do you like?” He holds my thigh in his ungloved hand, cupping the soft place near my ass, positioning my knees over a cushion other people have already put their legs over. He maneuvers me into the tube. My elbow bangs against the narrow rim. Staring up at the plastic overhead just three inches from my face, I try to regulate my wild heartbeat. I fail. A navy line runs down the tube’s center, a positioning indicator improperly aligned with the middle of my body.

He’s going to tell me when to breathe.

He’s going to tell me when to hold that breath.

He’s going to tell me when to finally let go.

***

 

Over the past few years, I’ve had falling-outs with two people. Two friends gone, two people who shaped my life into the structure it now holds. Although I’ve lost them, both are present in my life. One lives close by. We share the same group of friends. The other was a previous professor. We work at the same college. There is no way to avoid the discomfort of running into them. I longingly remember the times I didn’t have to think of them; thinking of them fondly was a reprieve I took for granted. I wonder when I’ll have the comfort of not knowing them again.

 

***

 

arnett3The first time the MRI tech tells me to hold that breath and to keep holding it, Drake’s rapping through the headphones. The body needs distractions when it’s put under stress. Music combats panic, so you won’t flail inside the tight quarters of the machine and mess up the images. I let out that breath and suck in another just before the machine clanks and rumbles, turning over like a backfiring car. Like wet sneakers tumbling in a dryer.

 

***

 

How does a person discover something new on their body after thirty years of the same arms and legs? The same ass and thighs and underarms? I was showering while my wife was in the other room, already under the covers. My hand slid down over my soapy breast, crossed over my ribs, and landed on the firm ridge of an unexpected object. It had been an unremarkable shower until then. I encountered a part of myself that before that moment had never existed.

 

***

 

The friend who lives close by knew about the lump. We’d sat together at a bar and I pointed to the place under my ribs where I felt it jutting. I joked about it, comparing it to the chest-burster from Alien. Flippancy makes it easier for me to share something serious, helps to deal with all the complicated emotions that come wrapped in the dialogue: love, pain, loss, regret. He asked why I’d feel scared to tell him about something so intimate, and I admitted that it wasn’t fear that kept me from sharing things. It was confusion. It doesn’t feel right to tell people things that I haven’t curated and I don’t understand how others do it so willingly. Mostly I’m scared to open up because I’m certain I won’t say the thing that’s actually true. Now that close friend is gone, has become a silence in my life, has been replaced by every stranger I pass when I’m driving my car.

 

***

 

In the time between my MRI and the follow-up with my doctor, I’m given a CD that holds over 600 pictures of my abdomen. I think of that MRI, of listening to Drake, and wonder if the technician added any music for me to listen to while I watch my lit abdomen flit across the screen. Music is something personal, though there are a few times I’ve chosen to share it with people. It’s an attempt to reciprocate feelings. Here’s a small glimpse of my heart, I think, carefully selecting tracks and writing my name on the front of the disc, like I’m handing over a portable, vulnerable part of me. I sometimes think about the CDs I’ve made for the people in my life that I’ve lost. I wonder if they threw them away or if they sit like detritus in their home, the obsolescence of a compact disc staring up at them like a radiant eye.

 

***

 

I am writing this in a way that indicates I know what is going to happen to me. I don’t know what will happen.

 

***

 

arnett1In the library, I open the MRI files on my computer. Up pops my stomach, displayed in slices. I stop randomly on a middle image. The mass. I thought I’d need guidance, a professional to lead me, but it’s as clear as a full moon. The lump resembles an oversized chicken egg. I’ve been describing it this way for weeks, and there it sits: the exact thing I’d pictured, as if I’d swallowed something from an Easter basket.

 

***

 

Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers was one of the first books I read and loved without immediately understanding why. There are so many patterns; myriad voices answering the same questions until the larger group of voices swells into one. It’s a lovely kind of confusion. Bhanu comes to perform at the college where I work. I’ve been looking forward to the event for months, but when I arrive there are people in the room I’ve been actively avoiding. One is the friend who knows about the lump in my guts—we look away the moment our eyes meet. The other is my ex-mentor’s wife, someone I’ve always liked who now dislikes me. I am struck by this sudden zoom out: people who were close are now so distant they’re hazy shapes on periphery of my life.

 

***

 

Before the MRI there was a CT scan. The first time I got one I worried they wouldn’t find anything. I’d spent the weekend re-reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, dwelling on the essay where she visits those individuals who find aberrations in their skin and inside their bodies. The close inspection of flesh reveals these strange anomalies: our skin is porous, home to bacteria and all manner of organisms. I related this to my phantom lump, the one my general practitioner didn’t believe existed, even when I placed her hand on the egg-sized mass and pushed it down, deep, my nails digging into her skin. Looking down at our combined hands, I asked, “Do you feel it? There, right there. Do you feel it?” She gave me a concerned look and said she thought she might, but couldn’t be sure. Her expression said I might only feel what had already existed, that perhaps I had created my own organism out of nothing but stress and fear.

 

***

 

The library where I work houses a large collection of Florida history books. I take them home and read them pressed over the lump in my stomach. The spines are heavy and dig down into the mass, pressing it under the lip of my ribcage. As I read, I wonder why Floridians never talk about our history, but maybe being Floridian means we’re trying hard not to remember. My own body is such a site: I won’t discuss the thing inside me. It sits bundled like a forgotten relic.

 

***

 

Bhanu’s performance involves audience participation: she asks a group of men to either strike or compliment her. They stand in a line at the front of the room, nervously swinging their hands. She throws rose petals at their feet. Nobody knows where to look. Everyone wonders what will happen next.

The performances are meant to cause discomfort, to rupture the bubble that surrounds our psyches. I’m already uncomfortable. I’m outside my body watching how the other people watch the performance. Watching how the other people watch me. The lump, pursed just under my ribs, is the only thing anchoring me to my own body. I go out into the hall and turn toward a piece of artwork, a mask. Its tongue sticks out longer than my forearm. My insides feel unmoored and I want to sink into the building, hide behind the mask so I no longer have to worry about talking to anyone.

 

***

 

I walk to a bar for drinks. Even after three beers the discomfort of the performance lingers. A friend orders a flight of wine and we sit outside. Strangers walking past ask my companion why she needs so many glasses; a woman tells her that she looks like she’s “double fisting it.”  My friend and I make the same irritated face at each other and it’s the only thing that’s made me feel good all night: looking at another person and knowing they understand what I’m feeling, even if it’s only for a second. It happens so infrequently to me, a bare moment of human connection. I blush. The intimacy of it is like holding hands.

 

***

 

I’m not sure that I’m supposed to be drinking with the mass in my guts. They’ve only told me what the lump might be: a hemangioma, a mess of coagulated blood cells attached to my liver. It might be typical. Perhaps. It might be abnormal. Maybe. But no one’s told me not to drink and I don’t ever feel comfortable staying sober.

 

***

 

My doctor and her staff recently moved from an office space they couldn’t afford to a much smaller place upstairs from a Tex-Mex restaurant. During the transition, they accidentally threw away half the patient files.

“I’m sorry for the mix up,” they say, over and over again. Staff repeat it into the telephone and to most of the people who walk up to the desk. They don’t sound sorry. They sound exhausted.

 

***

 

A nurse takes my blood pressure and directs me into a room. I’ve met this nurse three times and she still can’t remember my name, but I’m the one who always apologizes for it. When the doctor comes in, she reads my file on the computer, prints something from it, and with a ballpoint pen sketches a picture on the back of the paper. It’s my liver, topped with something scrawled, shaped like a tulip.

The flower-like drawing at the top represents my mass, but it looks too delicate. “It’s atypical,” she says. Her tone is light and unconcerned, but she’s moved her chair close to me. She says she can’t help me and advises me to see a liver specialist. “There are plenty in Orlando because there are so many alcoholics,” she says, printing out another list. “Florida is one of the best places in the country to get a liver transplant.”

When I return to the front of the office, the waiting room is packed. Restless patients. Ringing phones. The receptionist accepts my copay and hands me a list of numbers to call. Glancing down at the sheet, she notes some of the numbers might not be in service. She smiles and asks me when I’ll schedule my liver transplant.

I tell her I’m uncomfortable with the conversation. She puts her hand on top of mine and applies pressure. Her face is very soft in that moment, mouth pressed into a tender line. I want to stay and lean against her body, accepting hugs that I normally can’t take without stiffening. “Sorry,” I say, apologizing for my feelings, my reactions, the myriad ways I can’t accept intimacy. Then I leave the building with a referral and a list of scribbled instructions that make as much sense as anything else that’s happened.

 

***

 

Bibliomancy is the art of posing a question to the universe and then pulling a book for the answer. As a librarian, this appeals to me very much. We do this with Bhanu at a dinner party the day after the performance. I don’t say anything out loud, but think everything strongly in my head: questions about what I’m doing with my life and my writing, anxiety about what the thing tucked inside my body might mean for those plans. Resting my hands on the shelf with my eyes closed, my fingers trail and select randomly.  The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Out of the hundreds there, I hand Bhanu her own book. She reads to me from “Who are you and what do you love?”

 

***

 

Bhanu’s reading loosens the stranglehold I have over my emotions. I excuse myself to go cry in the guest bathroom, emerging once my face loses the blotchy red streaks. I don’t want anyone to know what’s happened. Crying makes me more uncomfortable than anything – both the act and the thought that someone might know what’s going on inside my head. There’s no one at the event I’m avoiding, but I feel those losses stored up inside my body. I drink a glass of red wine, adjusting the tight band of my jeans over the lump in my stomach. I have more wine and laugh at someone’s terrible joke. I decide that the discomfort I’ve been waiting to pass is entrenched inside me. That living with the discomfort is perhaps what I learned from all of this. That maybe I learned nothing from it, and I have to be okay with that.

 

***

 

Leaning against my car in the parking lot of my doctor’s office, I palpitate the mass under my ribs. It feels larger than ever, the size of a goose egg. Nesting has engorged it, made it ready to exit the womb of my body.

I call numbers from the list: transplant specialists, surgical wards, hospital answering services. So many numbers and none of them give me what I need. It’s confusing and stressful. On my last call, I’m finally routed to an operator. Her voice is the first I’ve heard that’s not a machine. I start to cry.

“What can I do for you?” she asks. “Are you okay?”

I hang up because I don’t know.

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Kristen Arnett KRISTEN ARNETT is a fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Tin House, Kenyon Review, and Lambda Literary Foundation. She was awarded Ninth Letter's 2015 Literary Award in Fiction and was runner-up for the 2016 Robert Watson Literary Prize at The Greensboro Review. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, The Greensboro Review, OSU's The Journal, Catapult, Portland Review, Ninth Letter, Grist Journal, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her debut story collection, Felt in the Jaw, will be published by Split Lip Press in 2017. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett

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