This is the third and final installment of the Sinatra Suite trilogy. Scroll down for parts 1 and 2. You can start here if you'd like, but I always find things make more sense when I start from the beginning...
When do you first tell someone that you love them? I’ve asked this question several times over the years. The most common answer is this: When it feels right.
When someone tells me to do what feels right, my mind wanders into a nebulous place. In my experience, what feels right is the opposite of what is right. As a child it felt right to talk about my friends behind their backs because it gave me the attention I craved and the sense of worth I lacked. In high school it felt right to get my hair permed, even though it involved sitting under a hooded dryer in between two middle-aged women. With Kate, it felt right to tell her I loved her on the phone, early on a Sunday morning, after I’d been up all night, snorting cocaine with the comedian in 3F.
“I’m physically sick without you, Kate, like there's this smoldering andiron in the pit of my stomach and the longer we're apart it just absorbs all of my loneliness and hatred. It's about to burst. I can see it, my stomach, it's expanding right before my eyes."
“We talked about this, Danny. That's your Crohn's Disease, and you need to see a doctor.”
“I need you, Kate,” I said. “Once I get back to Boston I’ll be fine. Trust me, it’s gonna be great. Me, you, a new life, a new job, good health…Jesus Christ, I gotta pull it together.”
There was a long sigh on the other end. “We can’t keep having this same conversation,” she said, her voice getting firm. “I don’t want you waiting by the phone all day, and I don’t want you dropping your entire life and coming back to Boston just for me. I can’t make these big future plans with you all the time. It’s a ton of pressure and I don’t want to resent you.”
“Resentment’s fine, if it means we’re together.”
“It’s too early in the morning for this,” she said.
“I can call you back, say…one hour?”
“Good bye, Danny.”
My face twitched and my teeth gnashed together. “I love you,” I said, throwing it out there. In the silence that followed I envisioned Kate lying in bed, the phone against her ear as she poised herself to cross the threshold and tell me that she loved me, too. Instead I heard two clicks, followed by a dial tone.
* * * *
The following Tuesday I saw a gastroenterologist at Cedars Sinai Hospital for the pain in my stomach. To my surprise, the prognosis was not a “pit full of loneliness and hatred”, but likely a Crohn’s Disease flare-up. My belly was distended and sensitive to the touch, and the pain had grown constant, a steady burn throughout my entire midsection. I had lost fifteen pounds since January and my skin had gone from pasty white to translucent. I couldn’t get beyond the first two bites of any meal. My bowel movements felt like acid rain trickling out of my anus.
This was familiar territory. I’d had two prior Crohn’s flare-ups back east, both treated in the same archaic manner: starvation. In each case the pain proliferated, in spite of my fasting, and I was eventually admitted to the hospital, where I laid in bed for a week, hooked up to an IV, until things “calmed down”. Though I felt reasonably cared for, these hospitalizations seemed to be lacking something. That something was science. When I asked if there was medicine that could help expedite my recovery, or at least numb the pain, the doctor shook his head solemnly. “Your body needs time to heal, to work these maladies out of your system.” This was the kind of response one would expect from the Amish, not from a man with a white coat and a medical degree, and least of all not in Boston, a city renowned for its healthcare. I wanted to take a pill and feel better, not lay in bed for a month rubbing taro root on my stomach.
In Los Angeles, treatment for Crohn’s Disease is far more progressive. After pushing on my belly a few times the doctor went straight for her prescription pad. “We can either run a series of invasive tests,” she said, “or I can send you home on a high dose of steroids and Vicodin. You’ll feel better in a day or two.” Along with the prescriptions she handed me a CD, the cover of which had an illustration of the tree of life superimposed over Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. “Stress can often activate an inflamed bowel,” she said. “This is a guided Kireiki meditation, used for body healing and chakra alignment. Try this, along with the Vicodin and Prednisone, and you should pull out of this flare-up.”
This kind of healthcare was more my speed. Rather than rely on my body’s natural ability to heal, I placed my trust in a combination of narcotics and what the meditation referred to as “Positive Visualization”—essentially day-dreaming oneself back to health. I put the CD in my stereo, took three Vicodin and listened as a gentle English voice led me through a forest. I was told to listen to the sounds of the birds chirping and twigs snapping under my feet; to notice the rich color of the trees; to feel the moisture in the air and breathe in its sweetness. I added my own jungle-related touches here and there, like a friendly brontosaurus, raising its head from a patch of tall grass, and some Viet Cong snipers, who waved hello from treetops.
The voice led me to a clearing in the forest, where a lagoon magically appeared. “Wade into the lagoon,” the English voice instructed. “Notice the water is neither warm nor cold. Feel your body get lighter with every step. Now submerge yourself,” the voice continued. “Swim down to the lagoon’s floor. There is no resistance. The deeper you dive the lighter you will feel. Notice the bubbles in your wake; these are your body’s negative energies, cleansed by the purity of the lagoon.”
The bottom of the lagoon was dark and murky. Gradually a form took shape: an arm, reaching out toward me from the nothingness. In its clenched hand was a rose. Streams of light cascaded down, illuminating the rose, casting a halo around it. “Take the rose and swim back to the surface,” the voice said. I did. As I ascended, the water got lighter and clearer, until finally I emerged through the lagoon’s surface, rose in hand. Next the voice instructed me to float on my back and stare up at the sky. “Now, place the rose on your chest. Feel the sun’s warmth on your face,” the voice said. “Feel yourself being reborn, becoming whole again.”
Sitar music faded up, along with gently lapping waves, signaling the end of the meditation. It was an odd place to end, me floating on my back, so to bring a better sense of closure I put the rose in my teeth and swam ashore. Then I walked through more woods until I arrived at the edge of a lake, where I stood and waited for a rubber raft filled with commandos to pick me up and give me a lift back to reality.
Whenever my stomach pain got really bad at work, which was every few hours, I meditated, locking myself in a storage closet on the Sony Pictures lot, my portable CD player in hand. I’d sit on a stack of copy paper, shut the light off and transport myself to the same oasis, diving into the same lagoon and reaching for the same rose. With each journey I got a clearer glimpse of the person handing me the rose, and each time it looked more like Kate, her yellow-blonde hair floating around her head like tentacles. I became obsessed with the mystery and everything it entailed: the stomach pain, the Vicodin, the imaginary escape. After a week I was using the Kirieki CD ten times a day.
“Are you on something?” Kate said, half-asleep, her voice muffled by a pillow. I’d called her at 2:30 AM her time, after taking a dozen Vicodin over a four-hour period. I told her about everything: the forest, the lagoon, the rose, the friendly dinosaurs, the Viet Cong. Everything.
“I’ve found a metaphysical channel that connects us,” I said, pacing around my bedroom, scratching my legs so vigorously that my fingertips were bloody. My heart thudded against my breastplate in triple time. “Have you seen the lagoon, Kate? Have you? That’s me at the bottom, Kate. Me. I’m the guy…I’m the guy…you give me the rose. Me.”
Kate begged me to go to sleep. I tried explaining that the lagoon only appeared when conscious, but I couldn’t complete a full sentence. I had taken so many painkillers that my throat was closing, which made swallowing difficult. I’d speak a few words and then stop to gasp for air. “If I drive…straight through…I can be in…Boston...in forty…hours.”
No response. “Kate?” Silence, then two clicks, followed by a dial tone.
I hit redial until dawn. The line was busy. The pain in my stomach mushroomed out to my ribcage. I took more Vicodin.
I slept for a few hours and starting calling again at dawn. At nine Kate’s phone was ringing, and by mid-afternoon someone finally picked up. It was her roommate, Maura. She told me Kate was out, but refused to elaborate when I asked where she was, who she was with, or how she was dressed.
“Fine. When you see her, tell her my flight lands in Boston at eight, and the town car will take me directly to your apartment,” I said, slamming the phone down and realizing that 8:00 PM was in two hours.
An hour later Eric poked his head into my bedroom. He and Frank were going to a 7:00 showing of The Matrix and, keen to my recent isolation and despair, asked if I wanted to join. “I’m good, but thanks for asking,” I said, curled up in the corner of my bedroom with one hand on my stomach while the other counted out my remaining Vicodin.
I spent the night waiting by the phone, biding my time by chain-smoking and tearing random objects to shreds. I started with the covers to all of our paperback books. Next were the wall posters: The Who, Reservoir Dogs, Pamela Anderson. I followed this with a box of Band-Aids, removing them from their individual packages, tearing them up, and then finishing with the box. All shreds were stacked in neat piles on the floor, like rock cairns. My bedroom looked like an ancient Indian burial ground. Once all the paper-based objects were torn up I moved on to different materials, finally tiring myself out on a pair of flip-flops. The phone never rang once.
I tried to use the Kireiki meditation and revisit the enchanted forest, but my mind transported me to a darker place, where it was cloudy and bleak instead of bright and clear. Rather than chirping birds, I heard creaky screen doors and howling wind. The friendly dinosaurs were gone, and the Viet Cong snipers were replaced with junior-level studio executives.
At eleven I took the last of my painkillers, crawled into bed, and faded out. When I woke up, at four-thirty the next morning, I called the doctor’s emergency service. The stomach pain seared throughout my entire torso. I had vomited up two bowls of Ramen noodles, and I had a fever of a hundred and two. The doctor’s office told me to get to the ER. Immediately.
Eric dropped me off at the Cedars Sinai Emergency Room. I was triaged, examined, scanned, heavily sedated and admitted. When I woke up that afternoon, I thought I’d died and gone to a West Elm showroom. My hospital suite was bigger than my apartment. It had two rooms: one with a dining set and bookshelves, the other with a double-size bed, leather chairs, a desk, and a mahogany armoire that housed a plasma TV and an X Box. Once I realized I was in Cedars Sinai I thought of Frank Sinatra. He had died the previous summer while staying at this same hospital, so naturally I assumed this was his suite.
“Maybe. But regardless, everyone is treated like a celebrity at Cedars Sinai,” the nurse said, injecting my IV with forty milligrams of Demerol.
Tears streamed down my cheeks. The Demerol was instantaneous, like a warm blanket over my entire nervous system. “You people are so kind,” I said.
He patted my wrist, packed up his tackle box and left. I looked out my window at the sprawling hills of West L.A. The sun was beginning its descent, casting an orange glow over Hollywood. “Jesus Christ, this is good shit,” I said, a snot bubble popping in my nostril.
Every three hours a nurse would come in and inject me with Demerol. By the time the doctors arrived to outline a plan, I was drooling. They told me there was an obstruction inside my ascending colon, along with acute inflammation of the intestinal wall, and that surgery would be required to remove ten inches of colon and my appendix. “Sounds good,” I said, nodding off.
On my third day in the hospital, I called Kate. “She’s out, Danny, and I don’t know where she is,” said Sara, another of Kate’s roommates. She sounded irritated. Normally I would have taken offense and considered it some kind of coup, but I was too stoned to take anything personally.
“Okay. Just tell her I’m in the hospital, Cedars Sinai, and I’m having surgery on Friday. Tell her I hope she’s doing well. That’s all. Good bye.” The phone slid out from my hand and dropped onto the bed.
The next day Kate called back. “Danny? Oh my God, what happened? Are you okay? I came home last night and saw DANNY-HOSPITAL written on the dry erase board and I freaked out! I went to sleep and called you as soon as I woke up, after I got back from the gym and ran all my errands.”
She apologized for being distant over the last few weeks. “There’s been so much drama at work, I just don’t know how to handle it,” she said, sobbing. “I was selfish. I didn’t consider your feelings. I’m so sorry if I hurt you.”
I forgave her. We talked for another hour. She told me how much she missed me and that she’d pray for me every day. She insisted I call her regularly while I was confined to a hospital bed, which would likely be another ten days. Neither of us mentioned love, and that was fine. It wasn’t the right time. But that time would come, months from now, once I was back in Boston, healthy, amongst friends and family. I pictured Kate and us on a late-spring day, sitting on a blanket in the Boston Common, sipping red wine from paper cups, staring into each other’s eyes. Starting over. Building something true. Being our best selves. That is love.
I hung up the phone and smiled. The nurse came in and shot me up with more Demerol, and then I wept. After two months of corrosive uncertainty, of physical and psychological torment, order had been restored. I laid back, turned on the TV and flipped through some channels, but they all showed the same thing: an aerial shot of a building in what appeared to be the middle of the nowhere. “How awful” the nurse said, referring to a mass shooting that had just occurred at a Colorado high school.
“Yes. Awful,” I said, thinking of Kate and I, lying next to each other in bed, on the other side of the country.
* * * *
The surgery was successful. I woke up with cottonmouth and a row of titanium staples running vertically down my naval. The next five days were spent recovering in my suite, slowly reintroducing solid food and tapering off the pain meds. I was downgraded from Demerol to Dilaudid, which is like substituting Tylenol for heroin. The withdrawal was severe and sent me into fits of sadness and rage. Whenever the nurses checked my vitals I’d beg them for one more shot of Demerol. “I won’t bother you ever again, I swear,” I’d say, a song-and-dance that became routine behavior in the years to come.
I called Kate every day but she was never home. The night before my discharge I called every two hours. Finally someone picked up. It was Sara again. “Dude, what the fuck is your deal?” I heard laughter and Top-40 dance music in the background. Sara shouted into the phone, her words slurred together. “You are the reason we keep our phone off the hook. Do you even know that?” She told me to hold on, then screamed, then broke out laughing, then claimed she was going to piss herself. She came back to the phone. “I gotta go. See you tomorrow, Greg.”
Greg? Did Kate have another stalker? What was happening tomorrow? Was she in some kind of danger? I had to get back to Boston, fast. First I had to get out of this hospital. Then I had to quit my job. Then gain some weight. Then get the staples out of my stomach. Then pack up the Acura and leave. Two weeks, tops. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too late. My breath quickened. My heart raced. The walls of the hospital suite closed in on me. Panicking, I hit the nurse’s call button. “I think I’m having an anxiety attack,” I told her. She injected me with twenty milligrams of Valium, and a half hour later I was asleep.
I was discharged the next day. Since I didn’t know anyone who could give me a ride I took a cab back to my apartment. When I got there, Howie was sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette, resting a bag of ice on his right hand. He told me he beat up a pimp the night before on Hollywood Blvd., then asked if I had any weed.
“I just got out of the hospital, Howie,” I said.
“For what?” he said.
“Never mind. Did I get any calls today?”
“Yeah. That chick. The one from Boston. She called twice.”
“She did? Jesus Christ, Howie. What’d she say?”
“That she misses you and loves you and can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Are you serious?” I said, gooseflesh breaking out over my body.
“No, you asshole,” Howie said, standing up from the steps, flicking away his cigarette. He laughed, then turned and went back inside.
I decided not to call Kate until I got back to Boston, where I could talk to her face-to-face. I felt less helpless now that I was out of the hospital and taking actionable steps toward my departure. After some convincing, Frank agreed to drive back to Boston with me. We discussed it on the way to the bank one afternoon. “I don’t know, things are finally starting to pan out for me here,” he said as he handed the teller a Ziploc bag filled with coins in exchange for nine crisp singles.
“Frank, nothing is going to pan out for us,” I said. “Not for us, not for anyone. This city is all make-believe. It’s fun for a little while, but it gets old.”
“I haven’t even tried acting, yet,” he said. “What if I’ve got that special something?”
“You don’t,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder.
For the next week I focused on my diet. Every three hours I ate some combination of peanut butter, eggs, potatoes or pasta. My cheeks and temples filled out. The bones and tendons in my wrists faded. My clothes fit better. I cut back on cigarettes and only smoked weed twice a day: at night, before bed, and first thing in the morning. My determination was unshakable.
I went back to the hospital for a follow-up. The surgeon plucked out the staples from my stomach and cleared me for travel, so long as I wasn’t flying. He said air travel posed a threat to a newly repaired intestine, something about the change in pressure causing the colon to crinkle and implode like a soda can under a boot heel. “I had one patient whose stitches burst open on a flight to Vancouver, poop splattered all over his insides,” he said. This stopped me in my tracks. Hearing the words “splattered poop” is drastic enough; adding the image of it dripping from a gallbladder seemed gratuitous.
Frank and I made it back to Boston in three days. We slept outdoors in Colorado the first night, splurged on a Motel 6 in Indiana the second night, and drove straight through the third night. I was on a mission, commandeering the Acura with grit and purpose and sheer will. The sun rose as we crossed the New York state line, and I charged at it like an astronaut rocketing toward earth. Somewhere I took a wrong turn and wound up in morning traffic on the Long Island Expressway. By the time we reached Interstate 95, my eyelids started sagging. Once we got to the Mass Pike I was falling asleep at the wheel.
Early that afternoon I pulled into my parents’ driveway. No one was home, which ordinarily would have been nice, except that I no longer had a house key, so I curled up on the front steps and fell asleep. Four hours later I awoke, my father standing above me. No “welcome home”, no “great to see you”. Instead he just shook his head at me, the universal expression of disgust.
I slept for a few hours and then called Kate. Maura answered. She told me Kate was working late but suggested I come over anyway. “We can meet up with her later,” she said. On another day I might have noticed the apprehension in her voice, but I was too giddy.
“I can’t believe how nervous I am,” I said, sitting in Maura’s living room that evening, fidgeting with my hands. “This is the room where it all started. I was sitting over there, and I remember Kate coming through the door but moving directly into the kitchen. I only caught a glimpse of her at first. But I knew right then that she was the one.”
Maura’s face went pale. “Danny, Kate is seeing someone. They’ve been together for a couple months. I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but it’s true. I’m sorry.”
My body shut down. My blood stopped flowing; my organs went on strike. My extremities got cold. I looked down at the floor, covered my eyes and nodded. In spite of the pain and humiliation, something about this moment made perfect sense, as if the story couldn’t end any other way. “She could have told me this earlier,” I said, massaging some feeling back into my face. “It would have spared me a long drive from Los Angeles.” I groaned. “Who is this guy?”
Maura gave me the broad strokes. He was a lawyer in his mid-thirties. They met the previous fall, when Kate was a paralegal in his department. “He doesn’t have much personality,” Maura said, trying to cushion the blow. It didn’t help. I had already formed a mental image of this man, something one might see on the cover of Fortune magazine. The big smile, the Rolex Submariner, the ten thousand dollar suit, the cigar. And a caption underneath his name that read MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING. How could I compete with that? I couldn’t even afford curtains from Target.
“I’m supposed to meet them later, at the Black Rose,” Maura said. “You’re obviously welcome to join, but I’m sure it’s the last thing you want to do.”
I couldn’t just walk away. I had to see Kate’s face. More importantly, she had to see mine. “Fuck it. Let’s go,” I said.
An hour later I was in a crowded bar in downtown Boston, squeezed into a booth with Maura, Kate, her asshole boyfriend, and four of their coworkers. The group laughed and drank pitchers of beer and told lawyer stories. Kate and her boyfriend, Greg, held center stage. Someone asked them how the show was last night. “Springsteen was great,” Greg said, “but I’d rather be on the floor instead of up in the luxury box.” Someone else asked them if they were excited about snorkeling in the Bahamas this weekend. “So long as I can close those Morgan Stanley contracts!” Greg said, prompting howls of laughter. Someone said Kate was “absolutely gorgeous” and called her and Greg “the perfect couple”. At one point Kate and I made eye contact. She gave me a sympathetic smile and mouthed the word “sorry”—our last piece of verbal discourse, ever.
One of the coworkers turned toward me. “So…Dave, right? What do you do for work?”
I nodded. “I write for a magazine.” It was the first thing that came to mind. “An op-ed column, actually.”
“Cool. What was your last story about?”
“I’ll tell you what the next one’s about. You know that girl?” I nodded toward Kate.
“Kate? Of course. She’s a sweetheart.”
“Yeah. She is.”
The guy looked confused. “Are you writing a story about her?”
I smiled at him, then pulled a wrinkled five-dollar bill out of my pocket and dropped it on the table. “Would you mind if I snuck by so I can use the men’s room? I just had a piece of my colon removed, and I think I just shit myself.”
I slid past him, walked through the crowded bar, past the men’s room, and out the door.
* * * *
I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I stayed in Los Angeles. Maybe I’d be running a studio. Maybe I’d be an award-winning screenwriter. In all likelihood, I’d be working some shit job, living in a courtyard-style apartment complex, wearing shorts and flip-flops all year long, sitting on my couch, watching movies, eating frozen yogurt. I would have gotten comfortable, and that, I now understand, is the worst thing. Whether it was my fool hearted love for a woman I barely knew or a tyrannical movie producer boss or a rotten colon, the forces of nature wanted me out of Los Angeles and back in the miserable east. I think about that sometimes when my stomach hurts, or when the January wind blisters my face, or when I’m sitting in the back row of an A.A. meeting on a Saturday night. I think Life Sucks, and then I thank God for it. I thank God for pain. Without it there’d be nothing to laugh about.
There was a forty-dollar parking ticket on the windshield of my Acura. I threw it in my back seat, and then I grabbed the rose I bought on my way into the city. Originally I planned on presenting Kate with the rose, laying on some sappy bullshit about destiny and then consummating our love. Obviously that’s not how things turned out. I walked across the street and laid down the rose on a random doorstep. Maybe someone would find it and make up their own story.
That concludes the Sinatra Suite Trilogy, folks. Thanks so much for listening, and remember this: behind every epic injustice looms the shadow of an even greater fool.
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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