The Treatment

A short story

Here is what I do each morning. As soon as I wake up, barefoot and still in my nightgown, as though I were on the way to my lover, I go downstairs to the darkened kitchen. I'm alone in the house: my husband leaves early, my daughter is away at college. I don't bother to turn on the lights. I go straight to the refrigerator and open the door to its icy glare. From the refrigerator I take a chilled golden globe, the size of a small orange. It's made of firm and springy plastic, and it's solid, with some heft. The pearly outer sheathing is translucent, obscuring the glowing interior and giving it a muffled shimmer. I set the globe, with its neat coil of attached tubing, on the kitchen counter. For the next three hours it will lie there, slowly warming, so that when the fluid inside enters my vein, it will be not cold and torpid but swift and potent. What's inside the radiant globe is Rocephin, a powerful antibiotic, which will cure me.

When you are not ill, when you are well, you think about yourself in a particular way. You take being well for granted: that is who you are. You are someone who does not have to think about her body. Not having to think about your body is a luxury, but since you have always had it, you aren't aware that it's a luxury. When you think about sick people, you think of them as different from you, set apart in some unspecified way: they are Other. They are beyond a mysterious divide. They are branded somehow, in a way you don't consider much. Even if you do consider it, you can't get very far. Why are other people sick? Why are you not? There are no reasons; there is no logic. Things are the way they are. In some interior, subliminal place you believe that you deserve your health. The person you are, it seems, deserves to be healthy, just as the person you are seems to deserve two legs, a nose. I had two legs, a nose, my health.

Ten days ago the line was introduced into my vein. I lay on a narrow examining table at the doctor's office, waiting while the nurse assembled her instruments. She was pleasant and perky, rather glamorous, with long blonde hair and gleaming red fingernails. I lay perfectly still. I was prepared for everything, anything; nothing she did would distress me. This was the initiation ceremony, the start of the healing. It was frightening, but I welcomed it, whatever terror it held. I was embracing the source of my fear. The treatment would be my salvation.

The nurse pulled up my sleeve and exposed the white skin on the inside of my left elbow, the sacrificial site. She cleaned it and laid it down, bare, beside the row of instruments. She took up a length of tubing, like a long, transparent snake. Casually she measured this against me—from elbow to shoulder, across under my collarbone, and then down to just above my heart. Here the mouth of the snake would dangle for six weeks.

When the nurse was ready to begin, she paused and looked up at my face. "You're going to feel a pinch," she warned.

I nodded. I knew that "pinch" was code for pain. The nurse looked back down, and I turned my head away. I stared at the square white tiles in the ceiling while she worked, piercing my skin, invading my body. I could feel her movements. I didn't look.

"I hate when it spurts," I heard her say crossly. "Now it's all over the rug."

I said nothing. I didn't turn to look. No part of the treatment would trouble me; this is what would save me. I stared at the cross-hatching on the tiles while she slid the snake into my vein and sent it up the length of my upper arm, through the widening veins across the top of my chest, and down to the great thunderous vessel directly above my poor heart. I said nothing. This would save me.

Taking pills three times a day is meaningless. Anyone can do it; people do it all the time. The act has no implications. You are simply correcting something, an aberration. Having a plastic tube inserted into your bloodstream, dangling over your heart, is different. It is a violation of your deepest recesses. It moves you into a darker, more dangerous place. It means you are ill, and helpless.

After three months the oral antibiotics had stopped working, and I went back to my doctor. We sat in his office, which is pleasantly cluttered in a domestic way. It has a bright hooked rug on the floor, a tall standing bookshelf, and a big ficus tree with glossy leaves in front of the window. Dr. Kennicott has no desk; he sits in a brown-plaid wing chair. When he wants to write a prescription, he sets a polished wooden board across his lap.

Dr. Kennicott is a quiet man with a kindly manner, slightly bohemian. He has mournful brown eyes and shaggy graying hair and sideburns. He wears a white lab coat, khaki pants, and black-leather running shoes. He sat in the wing chair, and I sat in a smaller chair across from him.

"My neck is stiff again," I said. "I can't turn my head any further than this." I had more to report: the symptoms were back. As I talked, Dr. Kennicott frowned sympathetically, his sad eyes attentive. His elbows were set on the arms of the chair, his fingers steepled just under his chin. When I finished, he nodded slowly. "That often happens," he announced.

This puzzled and disappointed me: then why had we used that treatment? I'd never before been to a doctor who prescribed something that he knew often didn't work. I'd never been to a doctor who didn't just fix what was wrong.

"Then what do we do now?" I asked.

Dr. Kennicott pushed out his lips thoughtfully. "I'd suggest moving on to intravenous antibiotics."

"No," I said at once.

I knew about intravenous—he'd mentioned it before. I didn't want it. It was too serious, too alarming. I told him it wasn't justified: I wasn't that ill. I was basically healthy, I told him. Other people have this disease and are treated for it and recover completely. That happened to my daughter: she was treated for it at once, and now she seems fine. I am basically fine, I told him.

The doctor said nothing while I explained this. He said nothing when I stopped. He sat in the wing chair, his hands steepled under his chin. He watched me quietly, waiting for me to understand. Finally I stopped and looked at him, alarm dawning.

To understand that you are seriously ill is to cross over into a different country. You are apart from other people now. Something separates you from them, something you cannot change. The realization is like a fall from a great height. You are silenced. You have no recourse. You cannot help yourself. Your body has failed you, and you are helpless. You must change your expectations of all things. You must put yourself in the hands of the healers. They may fail.

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