Our recent Longreads Member Pick by National Magazine Award winner Andrew Corsello from GQ is now free for everyone. Special thanks to our Longreads Members for helping bring these stories to you—if you’re not a member, join us here.
“My Body Stopped Speaking to Me,” is a personal story about Corsello’s near-death experience, first published in GQ in 1995.
“I was circling the drain in the spring of 1995—convalescent, out of money, literally within days of quitting the business—when David Kamp, a friend from college who’d become a senior editor at GQ, called to ask if I’d be interested in a staff-writing job. ‘You know I’m damaged goods, right?’ I asked. He didn’t, but made things happen anyway. The day I arrived at GQ, David introduced me to the mag’s longtime editor, Art Cooper, an old-school manly man’s man who’d have insisted on christening my arrival with a hard drink or three (even though it was 11:00 a.m.) had David not preempted it. ‘Now, Art,’ David explained as Art took my hand, ‘you can’t take it personally when Andrew declines the drink you’re going to offer him—he’s been told by doctors he can never drink again.’ Art asked why. Over the next 15 minutes, I told him the bizarre story of my near-death from liver failure six months before. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘That’s your first piece for the mag!’ At which point I reflexively wondered, ‘But what’s the angle?’ And, answering myself, said, ‘How about, “If I were in an HMO, I’d be dead”’? Before I could finish my next sentence, Cooper said, ‘Nah, just write the story.’ But what about, you know, the health care angle… ‘Huh?’ Cooper said. ‘Forget that. Just…write the story, like you just told it.’ But what about… We went back and forth several more times, with me burping up inane buzz-crap like ‘nut graf’ and ‘policy relevance’ and Cooper saying ‘Write the story.’ Finally, half laughing, half pissed, he growled, ‘Just write the fucking story.’ So I left his office, sat at my new desk, created a new file, sat staring at the screen for several minutes and then realized: The story was already written, and written as well as it ever could be (at least by me), in my journal. Creating this piece, which Kamp edited, was almost entirely a matter of splicing journal entries together.
“Even now it amazes and annoys me: that until the moment Art Cooper told me to write the fucking story, it had never even occurred to me to use in my published work the voice in which I had been speaking to myself for years. That is, it hadn’t occurred to me to publish work…in my own voice. How stupid is that? All this is to say that this story, or rather the editorial injunction that birthed it, taught me that a vivid writing voice is less a matter of talent—far less—than license. Dave Kamp’s headline for this piece plays at multiple levels.”
My Body Stopped Speaking to Me
Andrew Corsello | GQ | November 1995 | 26 minutes (6,489 words)
It is 5:30 in the morning on the first of June, 1985—my eighteenth birthday. I’ve just graduated high school and am now at a rich boy’s home, pacing about a guest room in my boxers. Though I’ve spent the past seven nights abusing myself—too much junk food and beer, too little sleep—my body has shown Promethean resilience, reporting for duty every morning at dawn: the marvel of a teen metabolism. Indeed, two weeks prior, three other boys and I ran a baton over the distances of 400 and 1,600 meters faster than any boys in our New England league ever had. My physique brings me a bliss that usually finds expression in trash talk and high fives; other times, it forms inwardly, as a sense of virtue.
I pass the other guest rooms, descend the curved staircase to the foyer and open the front door. A heavy fog has dropped through the treetops and settled on the lawn. As I stand there eyeing the ancient plane trees, the sculpted hedges, the gurgling Cupid fountain, a message comes quietly from within: Run.
It begins as a trot, my feet pattering softly on the driveways, then falling silent on the long lawns in between. Soon the homes become estates—great, open expanses—and I lengthen the strides, gaining height as I move up onto my toes. The arms close in, thinning me to the wind; the hands straighten into blades to cut the air. For a moment, my body quakes with strain, then, as if breaking the skin of a bubble, passes through. I’m all glide, buoyed on a cushion of air. I leap onto a stone wall, my foot ripping its beard of moss, and land in a fresh-mowed field. A man in a robe is watching. I see through his eyes: a half-naked kid running for his life, his chest hairless and lightly muscled—you can still see his ribs—hair blown back, mouth open, body aimed at some far-off point. I picture my legs whipping the low-lying tendrils of fog into upward spirals that quickly dissolve.
Later, lying in a hospital bed waiting to die, I will conjure this flexing of my youth. Yet the fog, the field, the man, won’t seem as vivid as things happening beneath the skin. I will recall the roar of lungs, heart and rushing blood, amplified in my head the way it is underwater in a swimming pool. That is my body speaking to me: One of the superstitions I’ve retained from childhood is that objects—including parts of the body—are imbued with spirit, and that I should treat them as I treat people and animals. At 18, I am a person who actually talks to his body, who after crossing a finish line, seeks a quiet place to congratulate and thank his legs. It’s my childhood desire to beat death—to make my body a blood brother so that it can never, will never, turn on me.
My body has a voice, and as I fly over the field, it whispers to me. This is as strong, this is as swift, as you will ever be.
Saturday, August 20, nine years, three months later. Rocky Mountains, 11,000 feet. Caley, my sister from my father’s second marriage, curls up next to a log, crying. Her head hurts, the pack is heavy, she can’t go on. “Up you go,” I say, hoisting her onto my shoulders. She springs right back, pointing at birds and plants, taunting her younger brother, Nick, who laughs.
Caley is 9 and weighs only sixty pounds, but the exertion—later dubbed “the likely trigger factor”—is like an assault. My shirt soaks. Caley’s headache passes to me as if through the fingers she’s braced against my forehead for balance. Things get strange. The damp smells of the forest take on an acid quality. Even the clean, magnifying light at the summit seems oppressive. “Look!” my girlfriend, Jen, says as a cloud splits the sun into a giant, otherworldly fan, and all I can think is, unnatural, wrong.
By lunchtime I’m dry and weak, fading in and out. I remember my older brother, Jack, asking Nick if he likes the view. “Yep! Nope!” he responds. Jack bounces a blueberry off the kid’s forehead and says, “You’d make a terrible witness, pal.” Nick just smiles. Caley rolls her eyes and tells Jen and my father in a confidential tone that “Dominic is being very cute now.” Then the feeling of fever and constriction returns for good. But before it does, I laugh at my brothers, my sister, the expressions on my girlfriend’s and father’s faces—a great unburdened, unself-conscious laugh. Later I will look back on this as the last physically normal moment of my life.
A week later, Jen’s parents’ place in D.C. For seven days, I’ve felt smacked around, cooked in the skin. Odd things ache, like the ocular cords—as if the eyeballs have been pulled out and snapped back. Still, I pass it off. I’ve always conversed with my body, known long in advance when an illness is coming, what its nature is, how long it will stay. This feels different, but with a willful naïveté I trust my body and presume that I’m in the grip of nothing more than an off-season flu.
Jen dons her tights and says, “Let’s go!” Running, my thing. But the pace beats me up, and I’m grateful that her Walkman prevents her from hearing my labored breathing. The heat coming off my surfaces is unbearable. After, spread on the bedroom floor, as red and delicate as a tomato, I can actually see steam rising from my fingers. I lie there for an hour, the sweat pooling beneath me like blood from a gunshot wound. It has a waxy, chemical smell
My doctor, Michael Cirigliano, had been worried since January 1994, when the blood test accompanying my routine physical revealed unusually high liver-enzyme levels. Despite endless blood tests, Doc Mike, as I soon came to call him, a gastroenterologist named David Metz and a number of other specialists at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center were unable to explain the underlying cause of the abnormalities. Yet until late August, there was no pain—nothing, in fact, but mild fascination.
In the months leading up to the hike, I’d come to respect the liver. It may be an oblong crimson slug of an organ, with none of the robust shapeliness of a kidney or a heart, but its functions are far more diverse, far more complicated. It is an awesome factory that not only cleans and recycles blood, but manufactures the complex proteins responsible for hundreds of metabolic functions—from the processing of sugar to the coagulation of blood. Lose your liver function on a Monday morning and you’ve probably got until late Wednesday. Your body will fail to convert food into usable energy while choking on its own waste. And like a poisoned rat with its blood thinned by warfarin, you’ll begin hemorrhaging internally.
Though the rising liver numbers were mere ink on paper to me, they didn’t come without complications.
“What is this?” Jen had asked one day in July, looking through a stack of pink laboratory receipts left on a table.
“Routine stuff with Doc Mike.”
“Routine?” she said, rifling through the sheaf. “They’re testing antigens and antibodies and…HIV, and that’s routine?”
“Of course,” I laughed, as if being loud and direct would defuse her fear. “Negative! Like all the others.”
All true, yet I was soon flushed with a creeping feeling that I’d lied. Jen sensed this: July and August were peppered with conversations in which she’d lob her worry up to me and I’d volley back with cool reassurances. But then I got sick.
Doc Mike listened patiently as I explained how carrying my sister up two miles of Colorado trail had left me feeling porous and faint. Then, to my annoyance, he ordered yet another blood test.
Wednesday, August 31, the next day. Sicker, bewildered. In my office chair quaking with exertion, like a car with its accelerator and brake simultaneously floored. My breathing’s all wrong—the sharp, uneven gasps of an overworked dog. When I lumber off to the can, the urine is purple and oily looking. At three minutes after one, Doc Mike calls with the blood results. “Stop whatever you’re doing,” he orders. “Get in here now.”
“What about my wants, my needs?” I say, trying to make a joke. He responds by reading the latest enzyme numbers. Until now they’ve hovered between twenty-five and thirty units per liter above normal. But now, where alanine aminotransferase (ALT)—an enzyme released by damaged liver cells—should stay below forty units per liter, mine’s at 1,990. As Cirigliano rides the fine line between frank and frightening, my brain begins editing his words, cutting fat and leaving the essentials: “fulminant,” “organ failure,” “not much time.”
“Can I go home to get a toothbrush?” I ask.
At some level, I know that minutes count. But what I think is this: Doc Mike’s tone suggests this is a situation that will involve my mother and father flying from Denver to Philly, where I live, and Jen coming down from New York. Chain of thought: Parents divorced; Dad stays at hotel; Mom stays at apartment with Jen. Apartment is mess—unacceptable.
For two hours that I don’t have, I dust, clean out the fridge, wash dishes, vacuum stairs, sweep and mop, the arid smell of the Pine-Sol burning the back of my throat. A squashed reflection of my face appears in the porcelain of the toilet bowl. Thin wet licks of hair are plastered against my forehead, which is gleaming and protuberant. Best not look in the mirror, I think.
When I arrive at Doc Mike’s office around four, he wheels around his desk, braces his hands against my face and peers into my eyes. “Haven’t you looked in the mirror?” he asks, leading me to an examining room. “Look.” The whites of my eyes are egg-yolk yellow. How has this gone unnoticed? The look is bizarre but not entirely unappealing—I appear lupine and clever. But when I take a step back to view the rest of my face, I see that the jaundice has given my skin a sallow translucence, like the bruising on an old pear. “Jesus,” I say, “What’s that?”
There is an admission process, a wheelchair, a twelfth-floor room with salmon-colored walls. An IV is threaded into a vein on the back of my hand, a little modem making me compatible with every apparatus in the hospital. The phlebotomists descend on the room to draw about a dozen tubes of blood. Then the hours go blank. I remember calls to Jack in L.A., to my parents in Denver, to Jen at her Manhattan apartment. “Hi, sweetie!” she says. I tell her where I am and why. Her breath catches on something sharp, then she says “Oh” over and over. And then she is crying—the unstoppable crying of a person who has been betrayed.
Thursday, September 1. ALT at 2,116, accompanied by vertigo, blurred vision, violent nausea and skin as yellow as a summer squash. I’m peeing black and crapping white: Bilirubin, normally passed from the liver to the bowel—where it gives color to stool—is leaking into the kidneys. I smell weird. There is a biopsy—a metal claw shot between the ribs that tears off a chunk of liver and brings it to the surface. “Show me,” I say, taking the glass jar from the doctor’s hand. The little brown tatter floats in its solution like a tequila worm.
Docs Mike and Metz arrive together.
“We don’t know what’s happening to you,” Metz says.
I don’t, either; my body has stopped speaking to me. There are no messages from within as to whether this will end soon, or at all. I want to reach out, to reanimate my body’s voice. Then a thought: What if the disease is autoimmune? What if, instead of being allied with me against an invading virus, my body is the culprit, out to betray me?
The phlebotomists return. By week’s end, I’ll have the withered veins of a junkie, with needle bruises like overlapping coffee stains along the forearms. There is a sonogram, an MRI. I’m deteriorating quickly. By late afternoon, I’m only intermittently aware of my surroundings. An escort wheels me to the ophthalmology department, where, in pursuit of one possible diagnosis, a doctor is to probe my eyes for copper deposits—the signature of a rare disorder called Wilson’s disease. Alone in the waiting room, I notice that my hospital gown has been improperly gathered and that the fly of my boxers is propped open; I’m indecently exposed. Fix that, I think. But fixing suddenly seems an enormous task, and I don’t really care anyway. My hands slide over the sides of the chair and my head slopes onto my chest.
Sometime later, I lift my head. Someone has cinched my gown. (Thank you.) Across from me in a wheelchair is a girl—she can’t be a day over 17—whose body has been monstrously deformed by AIDS. Kaposi’s sarcomas contort her face, stretching the right eye open into an angry maze of veins. It is wrong to stare. But already the illness has stripped me of my acquired mannerisms. The eye brings to mind an old Hot Wheels wristwatch of mine that accidentally wound up under my brother’s heel—and the way I kept it by my bed so that at night I could watch as its broken numbers continued to luminesce weakly through the crushed glass. She watches me watching her and then, from nowhere, smiles. Smiles. The gesture astonishes me, and I am grateful for her strength, which I do not have.
The man who mines my eyes for copper isn’t present when the nurse injects the chemical to dilate my pupils. He’s coming, she says, turning the lights off as she leaves. Twenty minutes pass as the chemical blinds me and the needle of light under the door swells into a pale, gassy oval. Then, without knocking, a membranous shape fills the doorway and flicks the lights on. I bury my eyes in the crotch of my elbow.
“Get into the chair, please.”
I try but fail. The nurse is summoned. When she’s gone, I listen: his breathing, the ping of steel implements, the oily gurgling of ball bearings as an apparatus slides into place around my head. He fits my face into a mold, securing my temples with clamps. Then a feathery nerve alert forms at the bridge of my nose and sings over the scalp: something sharp near the eyes.
“Open your left eye.”
The lash brushes against a glass slide. Touching the other side of the glass: the tip of a penlight. A click. My pupil, spread open like a satellite dish, amplifies the burst of light into sound, a cold shriek that barrels through the cord of nerves behind the eye like a golf ball through a straw. A mewling sound comes out of me as I try to free my head from the apparatus.
“Please, the other eye.” But the eye is clenched, beyond my command. He reaches forward. I begin to hyperventilate. The probe lasts several minutes, my head humming in the vise, his thumbs braced against the undersides of my eyebrows. And then he is gone.
“Are you having trouble breathing?” the nurse asks when she returns, helping me into the wheelchair. I say nothing.
“My name is Fran,” she says. Fran, my mother’s name.
“Thank you,” I say.
At the CAT scan, a nurse fits a tall plastic cup with a straw into my hands: liquid barium, to “light up” the bowel. The drink is white, cloying and dense—there’s at least a pound of it. “You must finish three of these,” she says.
Metz and Cirigliano appear. The ALT has topped 2,600, yet they still haven’t divined whether the hepatitis (a generic term for liver inflammation) is viral or autoimmune. I want this thing to have a name. Doc Mike is a first-year attending; he has lost patients before, but never one so young. He hasn’t yet developed the emotional carapace that protects veteran doctors from the death all around them.
“My friend,” he says unsteadily. “My friend.”
“You are…very sick,” Metz says. “Your immune system has mounted a massive attack that’s destroying your liver. We’ve alerted the transplant coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh. Your father will be here soon.”
My father (doctor, pulmonary specialist) will no doubt want me flown to Pittsburgh, a renowned transplant center. Already, the center’s flight-for-life jet is on standby. (I wonder: Does the Liverjet have an insignia on the tail—a disembodied liver transfixed by a lightning bold perhaps?) But time is running out; I’m nearing the point where the slightest trauma, even airplane turbulence, could cause my thinned blood to hemorrhage with no clotting function to stop it. So even if, like Mickey Mantle, I’m rushed to the top of the list, and if a liver with my blood and tissue type becomes available, a new organ may not “take.” Just over a week ago, I bounded up a mountain with my sister on my back; five days ago, Jen and I went picnicking; twenty-four hours ago, I laughed at the urgency of Doc Mike’s phone voice. Now I’m circling the drain and have, perhaps, hours.
“You should be…prepared,” Metz says.
All of this is headline news. But the trademark symptom of hepatitis is fatigue, and mine is so profound—Cirigliano has to steer the straw of the second and third barium shakes into my mouth—that the information is registered with a matter-of-fact resignation. Fear requires fuel, and I have none.
“All right, OK,” I say quietly, even pleasantly, and then, “I just wish I could see you guys.”
The CAT-scan technicians lift me onto a slab, the barium as heavy in my gut as a cannonball. An iodinated compound is pumped through the intravenous knob atop my hand. “You might get a metallic taste in your mouth, like pennies,” someone announces. More like a fistful of coins shoved down the gullet. The skin of my throat goes dry and stiff, and for the first time since childhood, the nausea is impossible to control. When I mumble that things will be coming up, the technician rolls me onto my side, shoves what appears to be a laughably small, peanut-shaped dish in front of my face and says, “Here! Here!” I want to explain how the dish is woefully inadequate, how the contents of my distended stomach could fill and refill it seven or eight times. But things are happening too quickly. Though I am blind to all but rough shapes, I can see the liquid barium as it bursts from my mouth—a wide, white tongue of fluid that travels through space without arc until it strikes the technician square in the smock and fans out in a radiant aureola.
Afterward, the escort wheels me to my room. Jen has arrived from New York. I still cannot see, and for a moment she says nothing. Normally, I might pick up her perfume, which is mild, like marigolds. But the offal spangling my sinuses has deadened my sense of smell. Still, my radar indicates that she’s right in front of me. Over the phone, I have told her—and, in effect, myself—not to worry, that this is just a funny little adventure. But now I have been presented to her in a wheelchair, blind, covered in my own slop, my skin discolored, my body racked and bent from the stomach contractions. I attempt, ridiculously, to smile. For a moment, her breath snags as she tries to contain her reaction. Then there is a wail. The sound of my name escaping from her is sickening, as if a vital part of her body has flown irretrievably into the air. It somehow articulates two things that until now have been beneath the threshold of awareness. The first—that no matter what comfort others offer, the disease and I are alone together. The second, more simply, is that things will never be the same.
That night the membrane between dreams and consciousness is as sticky and arid as sap, and for hours I remain trapped in it like a bug. The air fills with pinwheels of color, then the room begins to travel through the universe like Willy Wonka’s elevator. Here I go, I think, curiously feeling only mild fascination. This is it.
And then, somehow, I will myself to another place, into another, better body. There I am back in New England, racing through the fog at dawn. I remember that morning inside and out. I know that I ran until I could run no more, then stood gasping with my hands braced against the stone wall at the edge of the field. But there in the hospital bed, half dreaming, half remembering, I revise. This time there is no physical limit: I reach the middle of the field at top speed and simply stop running. I have fifty meters more of this marvelous speed in me, but choose instead to stand perfectly still with the chill of the grass on my toes. There, lying undisturbed in front of me, are the final fifty meters—a pleasure deferred for another place and time.
Friday. The latest ALT reading is 3,325—nearly 100 times the upper limit of normal, and the highest reading Cirigliano has ever seen. My liver is nearly dead, and me along with it.
That morning a nurse wheels me down the hall. This is not a critical ward, but many people here are dying. Near the front desk is a special room with a large plate-glass window for overlooking the hall—a room for those on the brink. It seems more a frame than a window, giving the little boy on the other side the appearance of being presented. I almost expect an engraved brass caption under the sill: “Black Boy With Wasting Disease” or perhaps something simpler, like “Sickness.” It’s hard to believe he will see October. Being beyond self-consciousness, he wears nothing over his chest and never closes his curtain. He is hollow eyed and deathly yet he has a tranquility about him, a look of curiosity. I do not believe that he has fear.
In the afternoon, there is a timid knock, and then my father enters, stooped under the weight of his suitcases. He’s pleasantly surprised to find me standing, but his face reveals a full awareness of what is happening. I’m in better shape than when Jen first saw me, but watching him watch me is equally upsetting. There is, I realize, nothing crueler than having a sick child and being powerless to stop it.
By my father the doctor hasn’t come 2,000 miles to panic or grieve. He immediately confers with Metz, Cirigliano and then half-dozen other doctors now involved. With the biopsy results pending, there is debate over whether I should be sent to Pittsburgh. Some believe that transplant or not, I should be sent while my blood can still coagulate. My father is with those who believe that once I’m in Pittsburgh and the process of organ procurement has begun, there may be no turning back.
The biopsy confirms that my liver is on fire—what Doc Mike calls “acute fulminant failure.” The Liverjet is ready. Pittsburgh’s transplant coordinator is prepared to begin the organ search. My mother has even flown into Pittsburgh because of my doctors’ predictions. It’s time to decide. If the disease is autoimmune, Metz says, a massive dose of an immunosuppressant steroid like prednisone might work. If it’s viral, the drug might backfire, eliminating my only line of defense—my immune system—against the infection in my liver.
“Keep him here,” my father says, clutching his head. “Go with the steroids.” The decision feels as random as roulette.
It’s past midnight when the bag of liquid steroids is attached to the nodule on my hand. By then, the storm-eye calm that began the day has passed and the full roaring heat of the sickness is upon me. In the next room, a woman weeps her way through the pain. “Oh, Lord Jesus, sweet Jesus Lord,” she cries for hours on end. The rhythm of the words reminds me of a tree swing (“Oh, Lord Jesus, sweet Jesus Lord”) and may, I think, remind her of a cradle. When she sometimes stops for a few minutes, the silence is rattling. Her voice has filled the hospital, increased the air pressure until I can feel a counterpressure—an attempt to maintain balance—within my body’s own cavities. When she goes quiet, I feel I’m spilling out of myself. As she nears exhaustion before falling from consciousness, she moans, “Take me, Jesus. Why won’t you take me?” I mumble an “Amen” in response, not quite sure whose prayer I’m punctuating.
The drug works. I wake Saturday with only a memory of pain, as if the last ten days were something I watched on television. Nobody knows why the prednisone succeeds, since the illness remains undiagnosed. The doctors will never conclusively prove that it does work; it’s possible, Metz says, that my body has ended its assault on my liver on its own. Either way, the enzyme levels decrease.
By the time my mother arrives from Pittsburgh at noon, the doctors’ mood is one of cautious celebration. She lights up the room, embracing me, joking (“You look good in yellow, kiddo!”), telling funny stories about her adventure in Pittsburgh. I ask what she thinks of my apartment, where she’s staying with Jen.
“Like it,” she begins. “But boy, do you need to dust!”
I laugh. Laughing: nice.
On Monday, my father gets permission to take me outside. It’s a glorious fall day, and as he rolls the wheelchair through the U. Penn campus, he begins to jog, then run. Jen runs alongside, laughing and warning the newly arrived freshmen to make way. I am reminded of a similarly bright day, twenty-two years before—the first day I got up on a bike. The Schwinn wobbled horribly at first, then began to glide as I picked up speed. My father ran behind me then as he does now, cheering and laughing and yelling, “Here we go! Here we go!”—both instances imbued with the sense that the kid is all right, the kid’s gonna make it.
Late that night, I ask to be wheeled through the ward. The room with the window is now unoccupied. The bed is made, the balloons are removed, the air is thick with the smell of antiseptic. Though the nurse tell me not to, I fold the footrests of the wheelchair, gather my gown and stand before the window. The child is gone, gone. It seems to me that his absence is somehow due not to his dying but to his being erased. Here is a picture frame, I think, emptied of its contents. Perhaps if I’d come earlier, I could have watched him fading away, like a Polaroid in reverse. Here on the twelfth floor, death—my own and others’—seem a matter-of-fact thing, as quiet as a sigh. The boy’s is like any other—a slow vanishing act in which one’s body and then one’s mind undergo a kind of painless dry rot, losing resolution, turning grainy and finally dissolving into a clear, odorless gas.
Thirty days later. Convalescing. I waddle off to the pharmacist to refill the steroid prescription. The first reason I waddle is that my immune system inexplicably continues to spit out antibody proteins by the billions. They’ve been depositing in the joints, causing severe arthritis. Walking produces a feeling of broken glass in the knees and ankles; the three blocks between the drugstore and my apartment are all I can manage.
The second reason I waddle is that I’ve gained thirty pounds, up to 220. By November, I’ll be up to almost 240, and the fat will have changed the appearance even of my fingers. Prednisone is not an anabolic steroid, the kind that pumps you up to he-manly, Arnold-like proportions; no, the ‘roid I’m on more or less doubles fat and water retention. My appetite knows no bounds. A few days before, out of curiosity, I tested it. In the nine waking hours my body allowed me, I ate continuously. The food was as blurred as rush-hour traffic, but I remember the scrambled eggs, the spinach pie, the six bananas, the mayo on a spoon, the squash soup, the bagels, the tortellini, the box of Lucky Charms (no milk), the succotash, the grits, the lentil-stuffed pita, the hoagie from Pine Street Pizza at noon, the snapper soup, the stromboli from Pine Street Pizza at two (“Hey, Mistah Spruce Street, what kinda game ya playin’?”) and the sixteen slices of Wonder Bread toast topped with chili sauce. I have taken to addressing the stranger in the mirror as Shawn, after Tonya Harding’s Brobdingnagian bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt.
My initial horror at the physical changes wrought by the ‘roids—the way I must prop pillows under my head to see over the bowl of my belly when watching TV in bed, the dense, grainy acne rash that covers my trunk like a shawl, the so-called Cushingoid ballooning of the face, as if someone stuck a hose up my ass and pumped me full of helium—has thinned to an amused fascination. Though a younger version of myself strutting his stuff on a beach would eye what I’ve become with smirking contempt (another fat American), I am resigned to it.
A block from the drugstore, I bark at a girl in a halter top for tossing a cigarette butt in the gutter. “GODDAMNIT,” I scream. “PICK IT UP!” She gives a stunned look and scurries off. Steroids, which can induce severe mood swings and psychosis, have made my behavior pure and unfiltered; every angry thought that forms in my brain finds instant expression. When I leave the pharmacy, there’s a thick curdled feeling about my heart that, as I shuffle from stoop to stoop, starts to swell into a ‘roid rage. At 12th and Spruce, a six-pack of teens is trying to crush a sick pigeon with a brick. The bird scampers in a little circle, bobbing its head and listing to its left as the ringleader hoists the brick above his shoulder with his right hand while pointing with the left for aim.
“GET OUT OF HERE YOU PIECE OF SHIT!” I shriek.
He freezes, looks at his boys, looks at me.
“What you yelling at, white motherfucker?”
The others snicker as I hobble up to him and the pigeon hobbles off to safety behind a window grate.
“NOBODY PULLS THAT SHIT IN THIS NEIGHBORHOOD!” I yell, not even considering the underlying sentiment.
“What you gonna do about it, bitch?” He heaves the brick against the grate, setting the metal rods humming. The bird bobs its head spastically. More snickering from the others. And then knuckle to septum, crunch of bone—my balled left fist rising right to left in a round-the-world backhand swipe that spins the boy over the rail of a stoop and onto the sidewalk. It’s been sixteen years since I struck another person. He wobbles to his feet, cradles his face. The rage just seems to spill from me. I point a finger at the sky and begin to yell “Out!” but the word erupts from my mouth before it’s formed, as “AAGHHHHHH!” The boys, suddenly aware that they’re dealing with a freak, gather into a ball and back away.
Halloween. Metz, Cirigliano and my father have sent my chart to hepatic heavy hitters all over the country: still no diagnosis. The uneasy consensus points to some bizarre, unknown autoimmune disorder, something worth a journal article. Meanwhile, the ‘roid dosage has diminished slightly; the anger has been replaced by a depression as sourceless as it is profound. Prednisone, like Prozac, has the power to transform one’s emotional profile almost instantly. I’ve been down before, but not like this; this depression is uninformed by my history or personality, and I find it incomprehensible. The skein of my consciousness has been guillotined, with everything behind the blade nothing but dead memory and everything ahead of it nothing but high-octane pharmacology. Like Frankenstein, the thing in the mirror has no roots.
There is a solution: I lie in bed, let the muscles of my eyes go loose and disappear into a thought vacuum. This, in fact, is how I now spend my waking hours—in an open-eyed nap where I’m disassociated from any emotion. (I’m still forbidden to return to full-time work.) Six weeks into the convalescence, my mental landscape has come to resemble a Dali painting: slow, without structure or gravity, and with my life’s things—job, friends, hobbies—suspended in the air, awaiting inspection. It’s a strange way to exist, but not unpleasant. My escape into stillness every day is a warm, wet wrap, as heavy on the skin as a hug; this, I imagine, is what it’s like to grow too old and surrender. I may be physically decrepit, sore on the eye, devoid of pride. But in my floating spell I am also alone. With the curtains drawn and all witnesses removed, I feel curled up and safe. It is possible, in such a state, to believe that nothing is wrong.
Later, after stuffing my face like a sow, I descend into sleep. Over the past six weeks, as the drugs have imprisoned my body, dreams in which I shed the sheath of fat and relive past moments of speed have come to me with increasing frequency. Sleeping, in fact, has become synonymous with speed and flight; it has become freedom.
But that is changing. Last week I dreamed that in the middle of a quarter-mile race, I was transformed into an exaggerated version of my steroidogenic self. My trunk became gnarled with acne and encased in fat, and my limbs took on the color of burnt meat. I scampered sideways in my lane like a crab, hooting like an ape and pierced with fear. Two nights earlier, as I entered the homestretch of the open 400-meter leg at the league championships, a masked man jumped from the crowd and gunned me down before I could pass the baton.
Now I return to an actual night in Maine, ten years gone. As if for the first time, four of us, two girls and two boys, undress wordlessly and run through the forest to the water. Again, the woods seem gentle and imbued with spirit, as aware of us as we are of them. There are deciduous smells, the bed of needles beneath our feet, the moon casting a dappled, underwater light through the trees. We swim to a rock some 200 yards out, then sit, slick as seals, watching the constellations drift.
I wake abruptly with parts of the dream still clinging to me, like the caul of water that divers briefly retain after they’ve risen from under and broken the surface. For a moment, the smell of chance is all around me in the dark, alive in the air like ozone. I have a heightened awareness of my skin and a fulminant desire for wings. Then it is gone. That was me, I think. That was my life.
It is then that the realization comes: The failure of my body has happened. It is real. Until now I’ve tried to convince myself that I am as I’ve always been: honed, hungry, willing to give anything to win. But now I know. This thing has stolen my beauty, my strength of spirit, even my desire. My body, which I have loved, nurtured and talked to, has betrayed me, and I am outraged. And I cannot believe that some psychiatrist will be able to return my desire to me the way the doctors have returned my liver function. How strange—to want one’s desire back.
The first of it comes in a quiet and simple way on the eleventh of November. Just after 7 A.M., I stop in at Rocco and Elmer’s barbershop off South Street for a beard trim ($5). There are few things in this world so fine as sinking into an old chrome-and-leather barber’s chair on a bright fall morning and having 76-year-old Elmer Santaguida lather your neck while telling you about the spicy eggplant pasta dish his daughter-in-law is coming over to fix that afternoon. (“Yes!” he proclaims, “I can ah-see you get hungry just by ah-listen!” On the way out, I pause for a moment on the sidewalk and think, That was good.
At 7th and South, the light turns just as I reach the curb. Once I was a savagely aggressive pedestrian. Go, the inner voice would say as the yellow light gave way to red. But the demineralizing effect of the illness has left me so very cautious, so aware of my limits. Today the voice says what it’s been saying for two months: Don’t even try. I obey. As others rush in front of the cars, I remark inwardly on how unaware they are of their own fragility, how fine the thread is that tethers them to this world.
But then I smell the aftershave on my neck, and my head fills with the image of eggplant pasta. And with that, a long-dormant voice bubbles to the surface. Turn right, it says—toward the Delaware River. The water is half a mile away, a formidable distance given my dilapidated joints. But when I shift my weight back and forth on my ankles, there is no pain. “No pain,” I say, both as declaration and command. And then I walk—slowly, with a little, listing shuffle step—to the river.
When I get there, I take in the Ben Franklin Bridge to my left, the Walt Whitman to my right, the fat black tankers nudging their way to port. There is a coolness on my legs and back and on the upturned plane of my face. And inwardly, an awareness of something newly hatched and breathing. This is where it starts, says the voice of my body, referring to the process of returning from spectator to actor. How does one mark this? I speak aloud the names of my girlfriend, who has stayed, my mother, my father, my brothers and sister, my doctors. True, my illness remains a mystery; true, I may always be less than I was. But I am here, at the riverfront, with the smell of brine and the overlapping sheets of light on the water. Already, the time of dread feels far behind. I see it as a mashed, singular thing, like a past geological era—important, but no immediately so.
Well, here I go, I think. Off and running.
Originally published in GQ, November 1995.
Illustration by Kjell Reigstad