By Jesse Sensibar
She introduced herself as Wendy, a nurse practitioner. She seemed like a pleasant person, fast smile, blond, athletic, and about ten years my senior. “What brings you here today?” she asked.
“I’m here because I fucked up,” I said. She cocked her head.
“I’m still alive. I’ve lived my whole life as if I was never going to see forty. You know, live fast, die free, leave a good-looking corpse, all that good shit, but here I am. And not only am I now forty, but I’ve realized I’m not quite finished yet, there are a few more things I’d like to do. I’ve seen what happens to people who live like I’ve lived and it’s not pretty, it’s not how I want to die.”
She laughed, “Nothing like a little brutal honesty for a change. I love it, very succinct of you.”
“I know that sounds pretty chicken-shit after all I’ve done to deserve that end, but I don’t want to go out like that if I can avoid it. I think I’m probably in pretty bad shape, I know I’ve done a lot of damage, but I’m hoping it’s not too late.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I own and operate a towing company here in town. We move everything from motorcycles to big rigs. It’s a seven-day-a-week, twenty-four-hours-a-day operation.”
“Lots of stress?”
“Yeah, I guess so, it doesn’t ever really stop. I’m busy all day and then I answer the phones most nights.”
“When do you sleep?”
“Between phone calls, but I don’t sleep very well since I quit the methamphetamines.”
“When did you stop using methamphetamines?”
“How long had you been using them?”
“Close to twenty years.”
She looked up from her notes, “That’s a pretty long time.”
“Yeah, it is, and you gotta’ understand, I’m not talking about recreational or casual use, I’m talking all day every day. If you gather any ten long-term speed-freaks together, I’ve done more dope than all ten of them combined.”
She looked at me doubtfully. “How is that even possible?”
“I don’t really know,” I said, and the words sort of hung there in the silence. “There is something wrong with me. I’m a freak. I’m not like other people, meth affects me differently, there is something wrong with my body chemistry or how I’m wired. It just makes me feel normal. I don’t fall apart on it like other people do. I eat, I sleep, I function pretty well. I have all my teeth. I make a lot of money. I just don’t feel anything. I don’t mean I don’t feel pain, I mean I have no real emotions. I work, I eat, I have sex, and I do dope. That’s all I have done for years.”
There was a long silence.
“And now?” She asked.
“I eat and I work and I feel like shit all the time. I’m getting bigger and bigger. I’m exhausted, but I can hardly sleep. I can’t even walk around the block my house is on without running out of breath. And it’s a really small block.”
She smiles at me. “Well, I see some improvement; at least now you feel something, even if it is just shit.”
I shake my head but grin, “That’s pretty witty even if it’s not very nice.”
“I’m just trying to find a bright side in all this, which is pretty difficult after everything you just told me. You didn’t leave me much to work with. By the way, how much do you smoke?
“Depends, three or four packs a day.”
“And you say you’re out of breath?”
She shook her head, “You don’t think the two could possibly be related, do you?”
“Well, my days are pretty long.”
“Why don’t you take of your shirt off and hop up here and let me have a look at you.” She pointed to the exam table.
“I don’t really hop up anywhere anymore, not at 340.”
She laughed. I did as she asked. I could hear the rattle in my chest when she asked me to breathe deep. After a few minutes of poking and prodding and listening and asking if this or that hurt she asked, “Have you ever had any chest pains?”
“Yes, sometimes, I figured they were just stress-related. I just smoked a little more meth to calm down.” She shakes her head as she listens to my heart.
After looking me over, Wendy said, “I’ve seen people in worse shape than you turn it around, but I have to tell you it’s not that easy. I’m more than a little concerned about your well-being, especially your heart after what you have told me. I want you to get some lab work done and I’m going to make you an appointment with a cardiologist. I’m also going to give you some prescriptions to fill but before you start taking them I’d like you to go get your blood work done so we have a baseline to work from. I’d like to see you again in a week and, in the meantime, don’t do anything foolish like trying to start exercising. I’m not sure that would be the best idea at this time.”
“Wow” I said, “That doesn’t sound very good.”
“Well, Jesse, as I said, I’m more than a little concerned. The truth is, you don’t sound very good.”
“Yeah, well I guess I wouldn’t be here if I did.”
“You might consider trying to stop smoking.”
I saw doctors and technicians. They ran tests and took samples. They wanted me to run stress tests. They hooked me to machines and asked me to walk but stopped the test before it was finished. I think they were stressed. They looked scared. I drank the radioactive dyes and isotopes. They took three-dimensional pictures of all my organs. In many of their faces I saw the same look, it said, “If you’re gonna die, please, please, just don’t do it here.”
I found a personal trainer 1/3 my size and started working out. She told me she liked a challenge. I told her that every other woman named Roxanne in my life was a stripper. She said she would pray for me.
Somewhere along the way in a darkened room, a young guy was trying to take three-dimensional pictures of my heart. I was telling him about being sick and not really knowing where to start to change things.
“Quit smoking,” he said.
“Yeah, quit smoking and everything else will eventually fall into place”
“You think so?”
“That’s just what I see man, the ones that get better, the ones that live, they all quit.”
The last cigarette I ever smoked was my 4 am cigarette; I’d already had my midnight cigarette and my 1:00 am, 2:00 am, and 3:00 am cigarettes when I realized that this was the day I was supposed to quit. I’d been taking Chantix to help me quit, letting it build up in my system for a week, and I realized that this was day number seven. I stubbed out that cigarette and emptied the ashtray into the trash and tossed the pack of Camels in after it. Then I went back to bed.
I was supposed to take the Chantix for three months but a skinny little pill freak named Woody who is the worst tattoo artist I ever have seen was over at my house and, thinking they might be something he could get a buzz from, stole them.
My cardiologist, a huge black guy named Dr. Carter, was not much older than I am. We met in his office. He sat behind his desk with my folder open and the reports spread out in front of him. I sat on his couch chewing on a mint flavored toothpick. He looked at me over the tops of his black-rimmed glasses. “Jesse,” he said, “Do you like canned soup?”
The question surprised me.
“Yeah, I guess so, canned soup is OK.”
“How about canned vegetables? You like canned vegetables, Jesse?”
“No, I’m not real partial to canned vegetables.”
“Jesse, canned soup will kill you.”
“Canned soup will kill me?”
“Yes, Jesse, canned soup will kill you.”
“How about dried soup?”
“No, dried soup is ok.”
“Then I guess I’ll eat dried soup.”
“Jesse, that is what I was hoping to hear.”
“Really?” I gave him my raised-eyebrow, you’re-fucking-bullshitting-me look.
“Yes, Jesse.” We looked at each other for a few moments. Dr. Carter stared at me over the tops of his glasses. I put a fresh toothpick in my mouth and wondered where I could toss the wet soggy splinters I was holding in my hand. Finally, he pushed his glasses up on his nose and leaned back in his big swivel desk chair. His voice became more conversational.
“You are a sick man, Jesse, but you are doing better than more than fifty percent of the people in the United States with heart disease.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because for fifty percent of people with heart disease in the United States, the first symptom is fatal. But you are sitting here in my office talking with me about heart disease.”
“Ok, but why more than fifty percent?”
“Because, Jesse, when I said canned soup would kill you, instead of questioning me, you simply found a way not to eat canned soup. This means you might live.”
“I might live?”
“Yes, you might live. Have you quit smoking?”
“And how is that?”
“Pretty bad, I’ll never quit again. I’ve gone through so many of these goddamn toothpicks, the trees hold their breath and hope I don’t notice them when I walk by.”
“Good. Nobody dies from splinters in their tongue.” Dr Carter slid a small trash can my direction with one of his long legs. “If you don’t smoke and you listen to me you might live, Jesse. Right now, you are a very sick man. In fact, I would say that at this second you are in imminent danger of sudden death. In fact, it would not surprise me at all if you dropped dead right now right here in my office and there would not be a thing in the world that I or anybody else could do about it.” He pauses of a moment to let that sink in.
“Taking into account your own self-reported history and the results of the tests and images I have here in front of me, I cannot think of a single reason why your heart should not simply explode at any second. The fact that it has not already is something of a minor medical miracle. Looking at the images of your heart I’m not even prepared to guess at how many minor heart attacks you may or may not have already had in your life.”
This was a little shocking. “No shit?”
“So I’ve done permanent damage? The kind you can’t fix?”
“Yes, permanent damage. No fix.”
“Can I come back from it? Can it get better?”
“Yes, you can come back from it, the damage can’t be undone, but you can get better if you don’t die first. Your heart, your whole body in fact, has suffered a great deal of stress and a great deal of damage from that stress. You can’t undo the damage. You can do things to reduce future stress and strengthen in a healthy way what has been damaged. This might allow you to live a longer life.”
“So you think I may still have a choice?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“Well that’s good because I realized I’m not quite finished yet. If I ever feel better I’ve still got a little more ass to kick, some strippers to fuck, and a few more kids to finish raising.”
Carter shakes his head and tries to hide a grin. “In your condition I’d stay away from the ass kicking and the strippers, for now at least.”
“So it’s just kids and dried soup?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“You said that twice. What are you so afraid of?” Carter slides his chair back from his desk, puts his huge black tasseled loafers up on his desk and crosses his ankles. I’ve never seen such big feet. He leans his body back in his chair and clasps his hands behind his head. He must be over seven feet long.
“What,” he says slowly and deliberately, a pause between each word, “Am… I… Afraid… Of…” It is not a question. He stares hard at me. In spite of myself I begin to grin.
“You know very well what I’m afraid of.” He reaches out with one big hand and picks my two inch thick file up off his desk. He lifts it six inches, shakes it my direction once and lets it fall back onto the desk.
“Choices, Jesse, your choices are what are most frightening to me.”
“But I can go down another road?”
“You may go down another road if you choose.”
Copyright Sensibar 2020