Susan M. Silver
I'LL BE LOOKING AT THE MOON*
Just when it was that I started feeling dead, I don't know. My sense of time has been altered by the Illness. But the confines of this familiar room, an irregular box which constitutes my whole apartment and my only sanctuary, are starting to take on the colorations of a sort of peaceful death chamber, or a maybe a way station to another level, perhaps because of how I feel inside it.
I lie in a small, headboard-less bed adorned in ultra clean white linens, hardly moving, out of breath. The charcoal-ammonia-detergent taste that ebbs and flows mitigates my appetite. My feet are square, throbbing concrete blocks. Electrified birthday-party streamers of pain, originating from the back, simultaneously squiggle down my legs and shoot upwards in a multi-colored path through my arms, rendering the fingers stiff. My lower back, a treacherous trapezoid of shifting soreness, feels like a foundation with multiple cracks, unable to hold up the structure. My balance is tightrope wire-like; I seem to be wobbling even while prostrate. My vision goes grainy black-and-white; squid ink is releasing itself from the dental implant in my mouth, which is numb and throbbing, like frames from a film noir in which the hero is blacking out. I picture my face and brain wearing a Phantom-style black mask. My memory is numb. What's the name of the lanky Midwestern composer of "Stardust"? Macy's phone number? Oscar winner for The Good Earth and The Great Ziegfeld, with the teardrop eyes? Who wrote the theme playing in the elevator? Oh, where's Mom with her musical theme dictionary?
The space is navigable courtesy of the flickering light of the television, which offers the unlikely company of an old sitcom whose Midwestern working-class characters have oddly become my family: wiseacre mom, beer-driven dad, prankster kids. Across the room on the piano is a silver-sealed glam image of Mom at her professional zenith, seated at a shiny grand: valentine face with '40s cheekbones, shoulder-length chestnut hair, wearing a metallic-threaded, ruffled-bosom strapless concoction with a flowing skirt that accentuates her small waist. Her flirty eyes hint of fear of the camera and certainty of talent. She is set to press her quicksilver fingers on the keys, which will instantly produce a joyous explosion of sound in the strident style, mimicking an orchestra. I anticipate a rollicking "Old Man River," on the beat and modulating up, up, from key to key to key, breaking open the coffin walls…but there is only the low buzzing of the television family, bickering away as ever, while my numb life proceeds despite me, crablike.
Each venturing out is a pain-riddled ordeal in too-thin, mile-high air, one I'm almost too exhausted to experience. I leap like a mountain goat from symptom-free hour to symptom-free-hour, with protracted numbness in between. What ever happened to that stylish, laughing-dancing girl who loved dictionaries and Sinatra's music and genius boyfriends, and always took the Icarus flight to tomorrow? Transformed by the Illness into a woman whose form in profile, ironically, is now often pulled by pain into a curving question mark.
It is early spring, but the breathing mask filters out whatever minimal April-themed fragrances can be detected in the city air. I am grateful for the end of winter; my heavy coat causes me to stand as stiff as a playing card figure, unable to move my shoulders. Each step down 8th Street in my Reeboks forces my back to bounce, resulting in a gong-hammer effect. A depersonalized mask-face, I turn into a camera, albeit one with a blurry eye: A pink-hatted baby in a pink-canopied stroller moves its baby mouth into a position of repulsion; the young man with hair that looks coated with virgin olive oil and carrying what appears to be a cello quickly circumvents me, as though fleeing exposure to some deadly virus; a tri-color haired university student, holding a laptop and taking long strides in high-heeled boots, locks disapproving eyes with me, regarding me as though I am a fugitive criminal.
In the window of one of the few remaining specialty stores hangs a golden-spangled top, just like…Is that Mom, double-rowed black eyelashes mascara'd and perfect lips coral-rouged, filling out the stagey blouse, now paired with slim black skirt and black pumps, and smiling with matching sparkle? "See ya later, off to a job in a 'joint'!" No. The garment shrinks back to two-dimensionality, and the music remains dead. I'll be seeing you/In all the old, familiar places/That this heart of mine embraces/All day through…
"Hey, how've you been? Come right with me!" says the technician wearing electric watermelon-color scrubs. She is in the juicy summer of her health—thirty-anything, with enough strong blond hair for two heads and glossy virgin nails--and she has the requisite gracious but brittle cheeriness of one who ministers to the sick on an everyday basis. The chitchat careens from getaways to psychics to blood pressure to blueberries. As she holds the IV bag high in the air and leads me by the tubing like a toddler in a harness, I remind myself again that, although she seems to favor me, she is another hired-professional friend in my personal landscape, standing behind one of medicine's many glass walls.
We have crossed the great divide into the small intravenous treatment room, casually called the "drip room." The tech hangs my IV bag on a pole, seats me in a pillow-padded chair with my IV-attached arm draped on a lap pillow, and cheerily exits. In a tank to my right, green-eyed tropical goldfish in lamé sheaths gather in greeting, ogling me from their bubbly, wordless prison-paradise. Lingering as I tap "hello" on the tank wall, they seem to look to me for affection or food or company. Theirs is a glass penitentiary, but it's their own safe world, just as my room is mine.
"MEDICAL DISCUSSIONS PROHIBITED," says the sign on the wall facing me in this sterile, windowless enclosure the size of a large walk-in closet. But the warning is superfluous. There is no discussion at all among the patients, who seem isolated from one another by invisible cubicles, leaving their personal medical stories a taunting mystery: The Professor, in his mid-40s, with alert eyes behind timeless steel-rimmed glasses, who, taut-muscled in his leisure shirt, looks as though he was perhaps a youthful soccer player; the Nonagenarian, a corduroy bucket hat covering most of her ragged white hair, bent by decades and osteoporosis so that her head rests naturally on her lap pillow; the Audrey Hepburn Doll Woman, age indeterminate, hair coiffed tightly in a bun to showcase altered features, dressed in leather jacket and slacks for an imaginary outing in Vogue.
I study the sign forbidding medical discussions. This is the land of the sick and the healing-sick and the wisely health-preserving. Where such conversations are really treacherous, ironically, is the land of the well. Sickness is profoundly threatening to those with secret, deep-rooted fears they don't acknowledge to themselves, fears that their own bodies will unexpectedly betray them. In disclosing the details of chronic illness, the sick person has detonated the daydream of immortality, and thus must be banished.
There was that flabby-faced editor of a local paper, to whom I'd submitted some samples. "Ah, my dear, you really are a master of the written word. So, will you contribute once a week?" When I explained why this was not possible, he was silent. I explained more…and more…and more, until the hole was suitably dug. "Well, nice talking with you," he concluded. "You're half-dead, anyway." Click.
And the retired guidance counselor, a Jackie O aspirant in chiffon scarf and oversized sunglasses, whose new career is evidently walking her Toto-like dog around the complex at regular intervals. I had once taken her into my confidence while seeking advice about dealing with impending local construction work. "You should get out!" she exhorted in an impatient outburst when I ran into her on the midday run. "You're not doing well! Why don't you get out and go somewhere where there's less pollution?"
Pumped from the treatment, floating, infused with some stop-gap wellness, I pause in front of the Sixth Avenue tobacconist's, an old boys' club of cigar smokers, peacefully puffing while seated at tiny inlaid tables, presided over by a classic cigar-store Indian. The place strikes me as yet another prison, if a rather unhealthy one, some human variation of the tropical fish tank. A prematurely white-haired, white-bearded guy, a possible motorcycle enthusiast in a tee emblazoned with the flag, regards me with disinterest; I am merely blocking his view of flowing traffic. For a brief moment, I see my face reflected in the plate glass, the start of a ruin, and it is sufficiently disturbing that the reflection turns into only vacant, pupil-less eyes on a stick figure. In that small café/The park across the way/The children's carousel/The chestnut tree/The wishing well…
Who am I now, the me of me? Am I me, or am I the Illness? Or an Illness-colored me? In the best hours, there is hope, infinite hope, wistful fondness for the past, joyous visions of the future. The bad times see me as a collapsed telescope, a compressed Slinky toy: the future is crushed, there is no forward movement, I am numb. I am a one-person Dead Poets Society, one whose old dreams are dead, new dreams yet unformed.
Once in a while, a piece of the kaleidoscopic cityscape breaks through the numbness like an ice pick. Emerging from the 14th Street subway station on Union Square, I am startled by what looks like a tropical urban mirage. Vaguely obscene in three-quarter view, a life-size Banana Man is playing two recorders, one with each nostril, and as the sweet, innocent sound is produced, I feel the implicit lyrics: "I'll get by with a little help from my friends…" Though jaded by the perennial feast of street performers, from the quirky to the virtuoso, passersby are charmed by the novelty and toss bills into the instrument case at his feet. On closer inspection, the jeans-clad inhabitant of the costume is a sweet-faced, reed-thin, sprouting boy of 16, wearing tortoise-shell frames.
"I'm a classically trained musician," Justin Goldfarb informs me confidently between sets. "I taught myself the recorder. Really, I'm trying to earn enough to buy a violin."
What manner of life force is this? I wonder. This gifted boy, a child-man with the touching tenacity of his indomitable will to explore all the wonder his future has to offer, has captured the very chi of the city.
The bookend ice-pick blow: Staring at me with inner-lit emerald eyes is the Lost Boy, whose juvenile pop star-quality image appears on a ripped poster taped to a Waverly Place lamp post. Jason Curtis, also 16, has a leonine head decorated with dense black curls, distinguished black brows, and a saucy, urbane smile with perfect teeth.
"SPECIAL CATEGORY MISSING," warns the title, in red letters, like a traffic signal. Resuming the motif, the description below the photo continues in more subdued black font: "THE MISSING SUFFERS FROM DEPRESSION AND HAS THREATENED SUICIDE. LAST SEEN ON 3/25 ON WEST 72ND STREET NEAR CENTRAL PARK. LAST SEEN WEARING NAVY SWEATSHIRT, DARK JEANS AND SNEAKERS, CARRYING A GUITAR."
How dare you have gotten yourself lost, Jason? How could one with your promise be that depressed? Jason, here's my hand; I'll lead you out of your Lincoln Tunnel-in-a-blackout. Why, oh why, have you given up this early and cheated us of yourself? I'll be seeing you/In every lovely summer's day/And everything that's bright and gay/I'll always think of you that way…
"It's the biggest moon we'll see in twenty-five years! Get up and look at the sky!" It's Carol phoning from Arizona—Carol, whose flying mane of orange-red hair seems to derive its color from the red soil of Sedona, and whose calm and confident tone could gentle a herd of wild mustangs. She doesn't fool me, nor I her: We both know the Illness can be a wild mustang.
Out on the terrace, I shiver a bit from the shock of being outdoors after a few days' bed rest. Was Carol's promised moon limited to the Southwest? In New York City, there is no moon at all tonight. The air is thick, and the sky has a cloud cover like cream poured into Turkish coffee. Below, the earth, redolent of the sickening-succulent green fragrance of late April, is breathing, breathing, fairly atremble with the burden of bringing forth spring. My favorite tree, the weeping willow, many-armed dancer-goddess of the courtyard garden, moves minutely to the music of the universe in the midnight air. She would happily embrace me.…But, privately reconciled among the stars, the moon is secure in its secret circular path. It is already poised for its inevitable next rising. I close the terrace door behind me. I'll find you in the morning sun/And when the night is new/ I'll be looking at the moon/But I'll be seeing you.
* "I'll Be Looking at the Moon" was reviously published in Breath and Shadow.