Good evening, my non-existent legion of fans! I thought I'd entertain y'all with another clip from my spectacular life story! Nelson Mandela, Anne Frank, Helen Keller...you think they had it rough? I once lost 20 POUNDS! And one time I had to wear a dress shirt by VAN HUESEN!
Get ready, dear readers, for more jaw-dropping adventure about a white kid in a suburban bedroom...if you can handle it!
Context: the following passage is from Chapter 8 ("The Clink"). I have just been discharged from the hospital, my first bid in the joint, spring of 1996. I am convalescing at my folks' place in Newton, Mass, and catching up on my film school projects (more hardship!). Also I am not able to eat any foods (or drink water -- WAH!) so my nutrition comes through a portable IV. Last but not least, I am on a very high dosage of prednisone (steroids).
Which brings us to...
It was 3:30 in the morning as I sketched out the final frames of my storyboard. I hunched over my little bedroom desk and worked feverishly under soft lamplight. Next to me was a stack of white, 8 ½ x 11 paper, a dozen regular and colored pencils (sharpened to a fine point and laid out neatly) and a Snapple bottle half-filled with dip spit. Three days prior I had decided that all of my work would be done longhand and in pencil. It was one of several convictions I had made since leaving the hospital.
The only sound in the room was the slow, constant click-whoosh-whoosh of the battery-operated pump that controlled the flow of my TPN through the tubing and into my left shoulder. It relaxed me, that automated sound of recovery’s steady crawl. The TPN was housed in a gray backpack, harnessed in with Velcro straps. It delivered my daily calories over a twelve-hour period. I hooked up in the evenings and unhooked by morning. Which meant most of the infusion occured while I slept. If I happened to roll over in my sleep and kink the tubing an alarm would go off on the pump, waking me up so I could straighten the line out and resume the steady flow of life’s building blocks into my bloodstream.
Problems like that were rare, however, because sleep itself was seldom needed. I got between two to three hours a night during my first month out of the clink. Not because I couldn’t sleep, I simply didn’t need it, didn’t necessarily want it and wasn’t about to argue with my body over it. If I conked out at eleven I woke up at two the next morning, and I mean wide awake, catapulting out of bed like Dracula rising from his coffin. I was still NPO so there was no coffee, no tea, no caffeine. Only steroids and Skoal Long Cut tobacco. And a dozen finely honed pencils and a stack of blank paper.
I colored the trees in the final frame green, yellow and red (storyboards are never in color, by the way), dragged my thumb across the paper and blew on it, as if to dry the lead. I turned the finished page over and placed it face down atop the rest of the storyboard, straightening the edge of the stack. I was done, and it wasn’t even 4:30 AM. Now what? I drummed my fingers on my desk and looked out my bedroom window. I could go for a walk, watch the sunrise somewhere.
It would be the perfect occasion to wear the new clothes my father gave me when I got home from the clink.
My dad hung out with some low-level gangster types, guys with names like Sonny and Dominic, guys who could get certain things, like fake Rolex watches, knockoff Vuarnet sunglasses or cardboard stand-ups from video stores. Sometimes I inherited this trickle-down swag, random things I had neither any use nor desire for. In high school, while everyone had Dell or Apple home computers, I was the only kid with an Olivetta, with an instruction manual in French.
“Danny, my son,” he said, as though he were Jur-El. “Uncle Lefty got you something. On the chair, in the dining room. See if you like it.” I walked into the dining room. On the chair was a white plastic bag, and inside it were two button-down Van Heusen shirts, one white and one blue, two pair of Dockers khakis and two pair of Sperry Topsider boat shoes.
“Cool,” I said. “Just in case I have my first communion again.”
They were so plain they made me look like a Mormon. The shoes and pants were stiff and uncomfortable. The shirts were two sizes too big in the neck. I had never worn clothes like this, at least not since my mom dressed me for church when I was eight.
Even with the NPO order I had gained a few pounds from the IV nutrition alone. My skin had color. I was a different person, and I wanted to dress the part. I embraced my new, cult-member wardrobe.
I washed myself with a wet rag (showering was a weekly thing; the catheter was a bitch to wrap), dressed up in my khakis and boat shoes, courtesy of the mysterious Uncle Lefty, and went for a walk in the pre-dawn stillness of suburbia.
And there was still twenty hours left in the day.
A week later I was given the green light to start on chicken broth. Kafauver said broth first, clear juices the next day and then scrambled eggs in another five days, if all went well. He said it with cautious excitement, as though offering me a role in a movie. I practically fell to my knees. I called friends. “Dude, guess what, I’m on fluids…so suggit, bi-atch! I’m gonna go boil me some motherfuckin bouillon and shit.”
There were four cans of Tyson chicken broth my mother had left on the kitchen counter. I heated one up and served it in her finest bowl; it wasn’t really fine, just a little bigger than the rest and had these little curlicue designs on the rim—a stray from a different set. I ladled it out and placed the steaming bowl of broth on the breakfast nook table, then set a spoon and a napkin next to it. I brought a spoonful of broth to my mouth, blew on it softly and took my first sip. It was salty and delicious and warmed my belly. Sweet rain make arid desert fertile. I pictured the broth splashing down my gullet like a rear-projection flood in some 60s adventure movie, chasing a poorly superimposed hero through my intestine.
I took three Saltines out of the pantry and fanned them out next to the bowl of broth. Crackers were never discussed nor approved, but I planned to store them in the back of my mouth and let the broth turn them to mush. Would it sill be considered a solid? It was worth the risk.
I tilted up the bowl and slurped down the last bit of broth. My first meal in twenty-six days. And before that…I couldn’t remember what it felt like to not have stomach pains immediately following a meal. I felt fortified and sturdy, the broth tickling my insides and sating me. I burped and carried the empty bowl to the dishwasher. Leaving the kitchen I spied an unopened bottle of Motts apple juice on the countertop and rubbed my hands together.
Tomorrow the apple juice and I shall tango. Oh yes.
Over the next three weeks I introduced all the food groups—starting with soft things, like scrambled eggs and white bread, all the way to chicken and some lean red meat. As a precaution the doctors kept me on the TPN, and the prednisone was still at full tilt, 40 mg per day. Regular diet, plus 2,500 intravenous calories and steroids? That’s like using six DD batteries and plugging into a wall outlet. I was boundless. I completed all my missed schoolwork in a week. The steroids gave me superhero everything, especially superhero appetite. I gained weight rapidly, two to four pounds a week. I ate four poached eggs over toast in the morning, two baked potatoes with butter for lunch, two bowls of pasta for dinner. Then one of those meals repeated again at night. My face swelled from the steroids, as did my whole body. By June I weighed 177 pounds—twenty-seven pounds in two months. For the first time in my life, I looked like a man.
I was hungry. I was as ravenous as one could be while wearing a shirt by Van Huesen. I hadn’t had a cigarette since before the hospital (I substituted with dip, granted) and my marijuana consumption dropped significantly as well. I avoided dangerous foods and kept the alcohol to strict moderation. By summer Uncle Lefty’s Sears catalog outfits fit me well, the stiffness of the pants and shoes adapting to my burgeoning heft. The prednisone had an amphetamine-like effect on me, motivating me to organize, to air out cluttered spaces, to turn over stones and deal with things. I created all sorts of lists of things I wanted to do—from chores and cosmetic things to life goals and creative pursuits. Early one morning, after a hearty forty five minutes of sleep, I made lists of all my friends and acquaintances, sorted the lists into groups based on closeness, seniority and personality, then retro-fitted them into new categories based on some wacko mathematical equation I made up. By sunrise my bedroom floor was covered in paper—diagrams and charts and random notes mapping out my entire network of friends, a utilitarian Sabermetrics for my social life.
I finished spring semester with two As and two Bs. Two weeks later I met with Kafauver for a follow up. He was pleased with my progress, but the ever-cautious doctor insisted on a gradual taper of the prednisone, to which I happily obliged. He also wanted me off the antibiotics and to replace them with Immuran, an immune suppressant that would keep my white blood cells stoned instead of bouncing up and down like a flea circus on crystal meth. He felt the salivary glands under my chin and reminded me that the swelling of my face and neck would subside as I came off the prednisone. He told me to hang in there for a little while longer.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “This is great. I love it.”
“Now,” he said, looking up at me, over his bifocals. “What about the tobacco, Daniel?”
“Done, no more,” I said. It was kind of true, since I wasn’t smoking it, but rather packing it in my lower lip. The Skoal was temporary, like the nicotine patch, to help ease me off completely. All part of the plan, probably mapped out with its own proprietary diagram in the corner of my bedroom somewhere.
By June I was back at the apartment in Allston. Eric spent the summer in Cape Cod, scraping barnacles off boats and shacking up with his girlfriend, who had a place in Brewster. Frank and I had our own bedrooms for the summer. It was if we had grown pubic hair overnight. I picked up a couple extra shifts at George’s and suddenly I had a little cash. I’d take the bus to work or ride my new bike—another kickback from my dad, a restored Shogun street bike that weighed as much as a baseball bat. It befitted my new, healthier, clean-cut image. And as my weight ticked up toward 180 I could stand to sweat out a pound or two.
One day, on the bike ride to work, as I leaned forward and gripped the handlebars, I felt something beautiful, triumphant and slimy with sweat, spilling over my waistline.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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