Friday, April 9, 2010

The Smile Line Scar

If you look closely at my face you can see a scar that runs from just above my nostril down my cheek ending roughly parallel to the corner of my mouth. When I smile it disappears into a dimple. For a three inch scar it is practically invisible. Once it is pointed out to you it will be obvious but if I don't call attention to it you'd never see it at all.

Our house on Paul Ave. was a beautiful little Cape Cod. Which might not mean anything to folks not from New England but the term Cape Cod refers to a very specific type of house, one that looks like it could be a beach house, natural shingles darkened by harsh winters and hot summers, with a sharply raked roof to allow the elements to slide off.

It sat in the middle of a rectangle of land, front yard slightly smaller than back, black bulkhead jutting out into the gently sloped backyard. There were two large glacier rocks on the property, one bulbous round one in the front yard and one square squat one in the back. The bulbous one was perfect for climbing on and the squat one perfect for picnics.

A swing-set rested at the very back of the back yard, up against the row of bushes that separated our property from the gulch behind it. For the first several years we lived there the gulch was merely the beginning of a sparse patch of woods. But then houses began to be built and the gulch became a border between back yards. My teddy bear spent a long hard winter out in a snow covered tree before the bulldozers came and tamed the underbrush.

The back right corner of the yard was divided by a short encroachment of rhododendron which created a little courtyard of sorts. This area was always where whispered strategy took place, where schemes were hatched, where imaginary kingdoms were plotted against and toppled. The open section of the yard was where all the action played out.

And it was also where whiffle ball happened.

Now, the shape of our yard was perfect for baseball. A square. Running along the left border was a tall row of chrysanthemum bushes that stood in for Fenway's Green Monster. Directly behind the bushes was a utility shed on our next door neighbor's property.

Two short digressions involving this shed.

First, in another infamous whiffle ball game, Billy Hodge went through the hedge to retrieve a whiffle ball from inside the canoe hung on the back of the shed. But he also disturbed a beehive and he came screaming back into my yard enveloped in a yellow and black cloud. We all started shouting "Run! Run!" as they stung him over one hundred times. He spent the next two weeks like a mummy, encased in baking soda.

Second, our cat had a litter of cute black kittens. My favorite we named Oliver. He went missing. A whiffle ball under the shed led me to his tiny curled up body. For one second I thought he was alive and petted his cold body while my feet poked back through the hedge.

Which would later carve the three inch line into my cheek.

I was six. Maybe seven. I was playing left field, already obsessed with replacing Yaz on the Red Sox roster. Brian Quinn was pitching to Billy Hodge. Billy took Brian deep over the yellow flowered hedge. I squeezed through the branches and found the ball. I remember that I was laughing in appreciation of the magnitude of the hit. As I came back through, a stray branch slid into the notch that my smiling cheek made. It swung through the groove like a bullwhip.

I came back through still laughing and threw the ball to Brian. Although this probably isn't accurate, I remember Billy and Brian staring at me like I had two heads. My face felt wet. I wiped my hand across my cheek and it came away covered in blood.

Only then did I begin to cry! I ran inside where my mum probably cleaned it with iodine and put a cold compress on it. The game was over for the day.

Looking at the scar now, seeing the length of it, I can only imagine how big it looked on a face half the size. Like my memory of my youth it has faded but if I look hard enough it will always be there.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Permanent Knee Bend, Or How I Go From Team- To Cheer-Leader

It is my freshman year of high school and I've successfully tried out for and made the soccer team. For me this is a huge deal. Steam is gathering in the soccer community of South Kingstown and everyone feels as if a State Championship is within reach. I hope to be a part of it.

Now, as I've previously discussed, I am not the most skilled of soccer players but I approach the game with the zeal of a suicide bomber. If I slide under you and take your legs out 72 virgins await. An elbow to your ribs as I target your shins with my cleats. A sly bump while the ref is following the action. I try to bait my opponents into frustration. They then usually try to gain revenge by overdoing it and then I have a tactical advantage.

Plus I wear big wrap-around prescription goggles and look like a sad extra sitting in the bleachers while the cool kids dance in a John Hughes film.

The Junior Varsity is made up of mostly freshman and sophomores with the occasional junior. If you are still on the JV squad as a junior, chances are you won't ever see much Varsity playing time. You are low on the depth chart. Sophomores who don't start on the JV squad are looking at being backups in their Junior and Senior year.

There are freshman and sophomores who start for the Varsity but not many. Most of the starting Varsity team are Juniors or Seniors with the occasional phenom stealing a spot.

I am the starting left fullback for the JV squad so I've already vaulted past a few disgruntled upperclassmen on the depth chart. As far as I'm concerned I'll be a backup on the Varsity sophomore year, and starting Junior and Senior years. It didn't work out that way because of The Torn Tendon.

The Junior Varsity season opens. Like the Varsity we are a team to be reckoned with. We do not lose often. We scrimmage with the Varsity who are one of the best teams in the state so when we come up against other Junior Varsity squads we feel very confident.

The season flies by. I improve as it goes. I've gotten faster, bigger, stronger. I've faced the ridiculously fast upperclassmen in practice and held my own. I've shut down excellent opposing teams on a regular basis and am a vocal leader on the JV squad.

By vocal leader I mean that I yell a lot on the field. I am never negative. I encourage the offensive squad from my post. I warn my fellow defenders of sneaky encroachment from our opponent. I am respectfully strident with refs. I do not trash talk specific players but I do keep up a steady stream of chatter reminding my teammates that we are better than these guys.

Well, maybe I occasionally whisper a sweet nothing to whatever offensive player I'm assigned to, but nothing a ref could ever hear.

A yellow card is issued in soccer for fouls that go just beyond the aggressive innocent play. I am a frequent receiver of yellow cards. My signature play is a sort of all out baseball slide assault. I know that once someone gets by me I don't have the speed to catch them so I prefer to simply bring you to the ground. If I get the ball with my feet I don't get a foul. If I don't get the ball with my feet I tend to get carded. But I prefer a card to a goal.

It is the last game of our season. The Varsity season continues for several weeks after ours, with key members of the JV being placed on Varsity for the playoff run. I know that I won't be on that roster because the starting left fullback is All-State and there are two very capable junior backups behind him. But I'll keep playing in practice and trying to give those guys a run for their money.

So. Last game. First half. We are leading but it is a hard fought contest. Our offense keeps the ball on their half of the field much of the game.

At one point I put my hands on my knees while exhorting my guys to put the ball in the net again. The action starts to reverse and come back over towards our goal. I start to come out of my gentle crouch.

But I can't. My knee has locked. I cannot UNBEND my knee. Thankfully the play heads down the other sideline and I signal to my coach that I have to come out of the game. It is rather obvious as I am walking like someone just pulled the toilet out from under me while I sat on it.

I am taken to the local sports doctor who would later help me rehabilitate the torn tendon that effectively ended my soccer career. He tells me I have something called "chondromalacia of the left patella". What this means is that my kneecap is pinching the tendon underneath it and locking it into place. Turns out I'm slightly bow-legged.

My knee stays locked in place for a week, as if I'm perpetually leaning forward, urging the rest of my team to pick up the slack for me.

I watch the last two weeks of the season from the sidelines on crutches, as vocal as ever, needing only a pom-pom and a megaphone to cement the transition that I didn't know was already inevitable.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Post-Heartbreak Pre-Europe Trip Deer Tick Blues

For the first six weeks of summer I hobbled around on a cane from The Plum On My Heel. I reeled from the break-up that ensued when my girlfriend went back to Illinois and resumed dating another much older guy. I healed very slowly but while I did I took on a new job, helping care for adults with behavioral and mental disabilities in a string of group homes across the Southern part of the state.

I met a whole new slate of people, several of which I would form a band with once I returned stateside. My trip to Europe loomed. You'd think I'd be excited but I was so physically strained and so emotionally blasted that all I could sense was a deep unease at leaving home. I'd spent two of my four college years living with my parents so college was not for me the time when a taste of the real world helped prepare me for my post-college years. If anything I'd regressed.

But this new job? This new job was good. I was challenged. This is very difficult work that involves adhering to programs put in place by trained psychological experts. Training in physical restraint is required as you are often called upon to intercept violent behavior, either against others or, in most cases, self-directed, against the client themselves. At first I couldn't work with clients who required this kind of intercession because I was walking with a cane. But once I was cleared to walk I took on any shift I could get.

The shift that altered the next twenty years of my physical well-being involved clearing the side of a hill that blocked a view from a luxury house that was being built. The owner of the house had heard about the work programs that the clients were involved with and hired several of the clients to aid in clearing the land. A work crew was scheduled to go out into a wooded plot of land in Western Rhode Island and cut down a slew of trees and remove the wood.

Now, during this time, I'd begun to date again, a girl I'd been introduced to by an old friend. Jennifer. She lived in Newport and I would drive my Karmann Ghia over the tiny Jamestown Bridge dreading our awkward lust-less interludes. Every second I spent with her my hands were enveloped in a cold sweat and the specter of my ex hung over every second. The cane didn't help either. We had weekend plans to go see a friend of mine perform in an evening of one-act plays in Providence.

Now, we'd been on a few dates before this but they'd been to parties with other people, bars where crews gathered, etc. This was sort of our first date even though we'd been out several times over the course of two months.

At the beginning of the week I got a terrible rash on my groin. Hip/groin, but close enough to the good stuff that I immediately became certain that my rotten ex had given me some terrible disease.

Since I was still officially a college student I made the dread trek down to Health Services who seemed hellbent on making my life miserable. But this time the doctor took one look, assured me that I had no sexually transmitted disease, unless you counted the deer tick who'd taken a bite out of my inner thigh.

I had Lyme's Disease. It was a Friday morning. I was prescribed a round of antibiotics. When I got home Jennifer (the girl I was going out with) called. I told her my diagnosis. She said it would be fine if we canceled that night, if I wasn't feeling well. I said I felt fine. I wasn't lying. But the shit hit me quick.

A mere hours later as we filed into our seats in the little black box theater, everything started to disintegrate. The chair felt like a torture device. I was sweating bullets. Walking from the car to the theater, the bottoms of my feet had hurt, as if I'd been standing in line in the cold, instead of taking a short stroll in comfortable shoes in warm weather. I had difficulty getting my wallet out of my pocket to pay for the tickets.

By the time the first short one-act was over I knew I'd have to leave.

I had trouble walking out of the theater, so sore were my legs. Jennifer had to drive my car.

I no longer had sufficient energy to be able to make it through a grueling shift at work, tackling and restraining grown men and women who had no restraint of their own. Bright light hurt my eyes.

Now, remember, I was leaving to go live in France for NINE MONTHS in little over a month. The prescription lasted until the day of my departure. Looking back, I marvel that I went through with it, that I left to go live in a foreign country for the better part of a year when I was having trouble functioning here in the good ol' US of A. But go I did.

The last month of the summer I spent in seclusion and began obsessively watching 'Crimes And Misdemeanors' and 'Goodfellas' back to back in some sort of twisted high-brow/low-brow double feature. I must have watched them every other day for a month, bundled up in my parents living room, shivering even though it was August, forcing myself to eat because I had no appetite from the massive doses of antibiotics I was taking daily, and occasionally hanging out with Justin over at his house.

At the time, Lyme's Disease was still something of an under-reported mystery. Most people upon hearing what I had, didn't even know what I was talking about. Pre-Internet, pre-Lyme's epidemic, I was like a guinea pig in a sadistic unregulated study.

If Lyme's Disease is left undiagnosed it can kill you. For some people Lyme's Disease is like a bad cold. You take your medicine and it goes away. Then there are people like me who walk away with something resembling arthritis. I've never felt the same. Aches, pains, discomfort at even the slightest contortion, my body feels DIS-jointed, disconnected, something patched back together after having been disassembled.

I didn't know any of this at the time. All I knew was I was going to live in Europe where I wouldn't be able to scrutinize the masterworks of Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese on a daily basis anymore.

And Jennifer? Well, it turns out that the old friend and I had a lot more in common than she and I did. One of the few nights I had enough energy to be out, the three of us went to a bar down near the ocean. As we were leaving, my old friend and I naturally held hands as we walked out of the place. Jennifer didn't see it. As our fingers meshed we looked at each other. Twenty one years of history was instantly transformed. Their friendship ended and ours changed.

I took the last antibiotic pill right before I got in the car to drive to Boston to catch my flight to Paris. Working on my nervous system were so many factors that there was a kind of blackout. I cried for what I was leaving behind, I cried for what I might encounter across the pond, I cried for all that I didn't know.

Today I can still feel the weight of those factors. The antibiotics didn't erase the imprint of the Lyme's Disease and there was simply no antidote for the remaining drags on my constitution. Those I'd have to endure as well.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Hospital Marlboro Medium

Easter Morning 1993.

The night before I'd been out to see a play or a movie. I have no memory of what I did that evening. I know that I had a beer and a burger at around 10 PM. I went home around midnight because I didn't feel all that well.

I was living in Providence in a three-bedroom apartment that cost $450 a month. I had two roommates. Yes. My rent was $150 a month. To this date I have never lived in a larger apartment.

I was acting for Looking Glass Theater, performing shows in elementary schools all over Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I think I was making about $325 a week which meant that I had plenty of money to spare. I had a silver diesel Rabbit that got unbelievable gas mileage and I was in love with a married woman.

I eventually quit Looking Glass and moved to New York, started dating the now-divorced woman, stopped dating her when I went to New York, resumed dating her after I'd gotten there, married her in 1996, had Cashel with her in 1997, and divorced her in late 2001, having moved out in late 2000.

But in 1993? Around Easter? I was a mess. This was before the advent of internet or cell phones so we wrote tortured letters to each other. We met occasionally but did not have a full-blown affair. I knew I wanted more than that. I was also smoking cigarettes, smoking pot on a regular basis, and probably drinking to excess more than was good for me.

Anyhow, back to Easter eve. I felt profoundly disassociated from my own life so the fact that I would cut a Saturday night short and go home was not unusual. I sat and watched television for a bit, thinking that I might try to catch SNL. One of my roommates was already asleep.

I became sick to my stomach. I had diarrhea. Then I settled back in on the couch thinking that the worst was behind me. I got sick again. And again. I tried to go to bed. At some point I began to think that maybe I'd had more beer than I remembered...had I gotten wasted and forgotten? I was pretty sure I hadn't but things were getting hazy.

I spent the next five hours shuffling between my bedroom and the bathroom.

At around six Easter morning, my poor roommate who slept right next to the bathroom stepped out of his bedroom and suggested that we might want to take a drive next door.

We lived right next to Roger Williams Hospital, tucked on the top curve of a horse-shoe shaped drive which hugged a middle school. I remember being vaguely shocked by the suggestion that something might be wrong. I mean, I'd just been puking for almost six hours, what was the big deal? But some dim corner of my brain that was still functioning assented and Tom helped me into his car and drove me the 100 yards to the emergency room.

He assured me that he would call my parents who were probably just waking up. A family church visit and jaunt up to Massachusetts to visit relatives was planned.

Once at the emergency room I was put through a battery of tests. By this point my abdomen was red, swollen and hot to the touch. I was pretty certain that my appendix was about to leave my body. So were the doctors. But they can't give you anything to mask the pain until they've put you through your paces. Which took about four hours.

Every so often a doctor would come into the room, poke me in the belly, note the volume of my scream, and say, "Yeah, it's probably your appendix" and then leave. Agony began to gather inside of me.

My parents arrived. It seemed as if it had been days since I'd gotten there but I was still surprised at how quickly they'd traveled the length of Rhode Island.

By this time I'd been awake for almost thirty-six hours and I'd been vomiting for almost ten. It was almost 11AM when they finally could officially pronounce what we all already knew. I had acute appendicitis and was about to have my first ever surgery. They shot me with something and within minutes I could barely feel any existential angst, let alone physical pain.

I don't remember any of the surgery. I don't remember being wheeled to the operating room. I don't remember being put under. I know they must have done the old 'count back from 100' thing but it is NOT in my brain.

When I came to the pain in my gut was worse and I actually asked a nurse if they'd performed the operation yet. She assured me that they had and that the pain I was feeling was just because, you know, I had a huge wound. I was skeptical and asked again. My folks were there and they sat with me in my room. I think they might have gone up to Massachusetts but I'm not sure.

Anyway, I was in the hospital for a few days.

I don't remember how but I got word to Maria that I'd been hospitalized. We'd been in regular enough contact that I didn't want her to think I was blowing her off.

She came on a lunch break and sat with me. I was still quite drugged up but they were forcing me to walk regularly. We took my IV and wandered slowly down the hall. We didn't talk about much. Any in depth analysis of our situation was not feasible for me in my condition and we simply enjoyed each others company.

She had brought a pack of Marlboro Mediums with her and we sat (in the hospital mind you and if that doesn't show how much things have changed I don't know what will) and smoked quietly and studiously didn't talk about our future.

It took me longer than expected to recover and I wound up missing about 8 weeks of work, almost the rest of the school year. By the following Easter Maria and I would be living together and headed for a breakup of our own, the penultimate.

I'm pretty sure they don't let you smoke in hospitals anymore.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Cadillac Fridge

My high school drama club experience was, I believe, not your ordinary high school drama club experience. I've already outlined the Diary of Anne Frank snowstorm defiance which led to me being embedded in a Catholic school girl production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat aping Elvis in gold lame debacle/triumph. Another highlight was an adaptation of the Hitchcock film 'Rope' in which my buddy Tom DeVincke was murdered in the first scene and then spent an hour and forty minutes stuffed into a trunk, but that's a story for another day.

Another full production that somehow made its way past the censors of public school education was 'A Hatful Of Rain', the famous Michael Gazzo play that dealt with the trials of a morphine addict struggling to readjust to society after WWII. I played the morphine addict.

This play, for those unfamiliar with it, is still shocking TODAY. If you saw it you wouldn't be snickering at the 1950's version of addiction. It is BRUTAL. The main character is in love with his brother's wife. He is a junkie. He is in trouble with loan sharks. And none of this has the Damon Runyan sheen and pep that colors most portrayals of the underworld from that era. The edges are blurry, the cigarettes stink, the scabs are real.

In our high school there were two kinds of production. There were the mainstage drama club productions and then the productions that came out of the actual Drama Class. 'A Hatful Of Rain' was directed by Tom Hull who is now something of an origami genius. I think, as amazing as his origami structures are, that he may have missed his calling, because he was a hell of a theater director.

Class time was taken up with rehearsal. I can't quite recall the difference between a Drama Club production and a Drama Class production because they seem equally well prepared in my memory. But this show was extra ready because Tom knew exactly what he wanted. He had blocking ideas, staging and lighting ideas, ideas that not only served the play but also clarified it, honed it to a sharper edge, removed whatever anachronistic tendency that might still linger around the edges.

Which is why he needed a refrigerator.

Much of the play took place in the squalid kitchen of a cramped New York apartment. At one point I got a big laugh merely by closing the door at an appropriate moment. So Tom wasn't joking. We needed the fridge.

Through behind the scenes machinations we found someone who could loan us an old broken down 1950's fridge, the kind that you could stand on end, put wheels on and get 9 miles to the gallon with. We had to go over to a warehouse behind the old mill to pick it up.

Someone had a pickup truck so after school we drove the half mile or so from SK High School to the warehouse. The fridge was on a loading dock waiting for us and man was it a mother of a fridge. It towered over us. There were five or six students in the truck because we'd been warned that the thing was big. Even so we were shocked.

We started the awkward process of trying to lower it into the bed of the pick up. We had no equipment, just five or six teenage brains. Clearly it was not enough gray matter, because somehow I wound up on the bed of the truck as the giant monolith creaked down on top of me. I was the only one aware of my presence in the bed of the truck. It backed me down like an aggressive jock pinning a cheerleader to a couch. I began to yell but there was a moment when my two hands took the whole weight of it as it bounced down on top of me.

They talk about women being able to lift cars off of their babies. Well, I don't know about that. But I do know that for one second I bench pressed in the vicinity of what I can only guess to be at least 400 pounds.

I was immediately sore all over. Of course we'd waited to get the fridge until the very night of the play so I had to go onstage that night aching from head to foot.

Much later when I was forced to get chest X-rays due to a bout with pleurisy or pneumonia or bronchitis, the doctor said I had a crushed vertebra in the center of my spine. This was fairly common. I could have had it since birth. Or it could have happened later. Had I been in any kind of an accident?

I told the doctor, no, I'd never had any kind of a car accident. Sitting there I somehow failed to recollect the Cadillac refrigerator slowly enveloping me in its loving embrace.