10.31.2008

MY HALLOWEEN ESSAY ON "ROSEMARY'S BABY"

One of my favorite movies of all time is Rosemary's Baby.

Beginning today, Film Forum, my favorite movie theater in New York City, is running the film for one week, in a special 40th anniversary engagement. And I got to write about it.

Click here to read my essay in The Villager, which was truly a labor of love.

And click here to see me quoted on the Film Forum website like a real movie critic!

This is the kind of stuff that makes me happy.

10.29.2008

MY NEWSPAPER ARTICLE ON MR. MET

I'm in Philadelphia right now, working on the production of a corporate meeting.

By strange coincidence the Phillies won the World Series tonight. All the employees at the hotel were screaming and high-fiving.


In other baseball-related news, my feature story on the original Mr. Met appears in the current edition of The Villager. Read it here.

It's one of my favorites so far.

Original Mr. Met Dan Reilly and me outside of Shea Stadium (with Citi Field in background) on October 17.

10.27.2008

CHAPTER 54

On Christmas Eve my extended family gathered for dinner at my Aunt Margaret and Uncle George's house on Long Island.

It felt odd, celebrating Christmas without my grandmother, particularly in that house.

That was where she had her first stroke, where re-learned how to walk and talk with my aunt's help, where she cooked dozens of Thanksgiving turkeys and where she held court with her grandchildren for a quarter century.

My sister and I had grown up with only one living grandparent and, as we got older, it was Nanny who kept us and our three cousins together. People say that you still feel the presence of family members after they're dead, and I agree with that. But the lack of my grandmother's physical presence that Christmas Eve made the whole experience feel like a valedictory.

There were other absences that night that were strongly felt.

Mary and Ian weren't there, for the first time in a decade, and I felt a mix of loss and relief. My feelings for Mary had become poisoned by two years of toxicity, and by our ill-timed reunion in the supermarket. But I still loved Ian, and missed him. With Mary I had gotten two for the price of one: I had the comforting presence of a nurturing mother figure, along with the joy of a playmate who was only a dozen years younger than I was. Going to the beach on summer weekends, playing baseball in the park, traveling to Disneyworld on vacation -- it was always Ian and me, goofing around, having a good time. Sometimes it seemed like Mary was just along for the ride.

Ian had a father, and I had no desire to usurp or undermine his role in Ian's life. I thought of him more as a little brother -- appropriate, I guess, because Mary was in so many ways like a mother to me. Except for the fact that I was sleeping with her, which sort of puts a Freudian spin on the whole thing.

Maybe I should change my name to Eddie Puhl.

Christmas was always a blast with Ian around. It felt great to share with him the things I had grown up loving: cartoons like Bullwinkle, Underdog and Bugs Bunny, the Mets, old movies like the Little Rascals, Abbott & Costello and the Three Stooges. It was never hard to think of Christmas presents for Ian. I just bought him things I enjoyed when I was his age -- and still did.

Yet another familiar face was missing from the family table that Christmas: my sister's boyfriend Dave. They had met at the end of Missy's senior year of college, and had been together for the four and 1/2 years since, living upstate in Rochester -- not living together, of course. Remember, we're Catholic. We don't do that sort of thing.

With the loss of my grandmother, and the near loss of me, my sister had finally decided to move back to Long Island for good. A few days before Christmas, she called Dave to tell him about her decision and to invite him to join her. But her message was clear: she was staying, with or without him.

I know this because I was there when she made the call. I sat next to her, on my parents' bed, yellow legal pad in hand, feeding her lines like Cyrano. One thing you should know about my sister: she's not particularly fond of confrontation. This always struck me as a response to the home in which we grew up together. Just about every interaction between my mother and me eventually devolved into a confrontation when I was younger. My sister used to hide in her room until the shouting has subsided, for fear of catching friendly fire or a flying projectile.

To say that I orchestrated her breakup is to give me too much credit, and my sister not enough. I wanted it to happen, yes, and I did everything I could to facilitate it, but the final decision was made by my sister. And by Dave, as well, when he refused to move down to be with her.

"Now we can be single together," Missy said, when she hung up the phone and said goodbye to her now-ex-boyfriend.

The idea that I would be able to share this exiting new chapter with my sister made it a lot less daunting. I imagined Missy introducing me to her hot young girlfriends, acting as my wing man on dates, hookin' a brotha up. And that's exactly what happened, the Saturday after Christmas.

"I'm going out with my friend Vero tonight," Missy said. "You should come."

Veronique was from the city of Lyon, near the French border with Switzerland. She had met Missy in college in Rochester when she briefly dated one of Dave's friends. Missy and Vero had kept in touch when she went back home to Europe and renewed their friendship when Vero came to work as an au pair with a family out on Long Island.

"Where are you guys going?" I asked.

"Out to a club," she said. "The Dublin Pub."

"Thanks but I'd rather have heart surgery again," I said.

Going out dancing was never my thing, even when I was young. My first girlfriend Stacey loved to go out to clubs, but I would never go with her. I was content to wait for her to get home and then go over to her house and hook up on her couch. Isn't that why people go to clubs anyway? I just chose to cut to the chase.

Back in the summer of 1987, our first summer as a couple, Mary and I had gone to a place called Club California near the beach. I was 18 and had to borrow Mary's brother's fake ID in order to get in. We never went back again, though. I think Mary was a bit uncomfortable with how I gawked at the big-haired, chain-smoking, acid washed jeans-wearing
Lawn Guylund girls bumping and grinding all around me in their bikini tops. I had complete contempt for them, yet I secretly wanted to fuck every single one of them.

There is something about that accent that really does it for me. Maybe, in part, because I've tried so hard to lose mine.

Speaking of accents, Vero had a great one. I know that because my sister talked me into going out to the club that night.

It didn't take much convincing. All it took was a reminder that Veronique the French au pair was single. And so was I.

10.26.2008

NEXT CHAPTER ON MONDAY NIGHT

In the meantime, read my profile of bassoonist Rebekah Heller, featured in the current editions of The Villager, Chelsea Now and Downtown Express.

Two more published stories coming later this week, as I celebrate my second anniversary as an arts reporter!

10.22.2008

CHAPTER 53

The guy who was with Mary at King Kullen that night would end up becoming her husband ten months later.

I think they got married on Ian's 17th birthday. I didn't receive an invitation.

It was crushing for me to see her doing late night shopping in our supermarket, with some other guy. There was something so intimate about it, Mary and her boyfriend shopping for eggs, milk, juice and cereal at 11:30 at night. It was so domestic. It was more than just running into an ex; I felt like I had somehow invaded their private life.

At that moment, with my emotional state less-than-stable and my confidence at low ebb, it felt like insult was being added to my injury(s). But in time I realized that it was the best thing that could have happened to me, at the best time that it could have happened.

I had intentionally avoided contact with Mary when I went into the hospital. Whatever was going to happen to me, I knew I had to do it without her. Anything else would have created certain emotional risks for me.

But Mary was the one who chose to call me when I was in the hospital. Mary was the one who suggested that she come to visit me and, when I said no, allowed a dialogue to be reopened over the phone. And Mary was the one who spent weeks planning a Welcome Home Dinner with me that she knew was never going to happen.

I didn't ask for any of that. I didn't want any of that. But once it was placed before me, in an emotionally weakened condition, I wasn't strong enough or smart enough to turn it down.

My relationship with Mary was an addiction. It started out relatively healthy, but it rapidly became text book codependency. I think she was addicted to me, too, which was, in part, why she had such a difficult time during the extended separation before our final breakup. That was her grieving period, her methadone treatment. By the time it was officially over, she was already well on her road to recovery.

My withdrawal began only when the breakup became official, so I was about a year or so behind her. And I dealt with it in fucked-up, unhealthy ways, as you already know. But when I went into the hospital, I was emotionally prepared to never see her or speak to her again.

She interceded, and changed that plan.


Was that the right thing to do? I will leave it to you to make your own judgment. What is entirely without question, though, is how happy I was to hear that she was getting married. And yes, I know we're jumping ahead here in the chronology. Deal with it.

I think Ian broke the news to me at a Mets game late that summer or early fall. He didn't really "break it to me," he more just sort of mentioned it in casual conversation, while we were watching the game. It was nice of him to say anything at all, because there had always been this odd sort of information blackout with me whenever it came to his mother. Again, Ian showed maturity beyond his years in the respectful way in which he handled that situation.

But it still hurt. My stomach jumped when he told me. It felt unreal, like some sort of a joke.

At that point, I still felt an enormous amount of regret for what I had done to Mary. I believed that I had led her on for ten years, when I knew full well that we would not be together forever. I felt that I had strung her along as my surrogate mother and, when she demanded a return on her investment of time and effort, I rejected her, in this long, drawn out fashion that finally required her to be the one to pull the trigger. And I didn't let her go until she was just maybe too old to have another baby.

But somebody else marrying her absolved me of these "crimes," in the same way that somebody marrying your ex-wife absolves you from alimony payments.

Thanks to Tim, Mary would not end up as a spinster, ruing the day that she ever decided to fall in love with an immature, selfish, self-centered, unstable 18 year-old. She would have a happy life with a perfectly nice guy who probably wondered -- rightly so -- how a great catch like Mary could still be single at the age of 38.

Which brings me to my next point.

The fact that Mary married somebody 18 months after she and I broke up suggests one thing: she really wanted to get married. And if it wasn't going to be me, it was going to be someone else. Somehow that makes me feel just a bit less special, which also makes me feel a bit less guilty. I didn't deny her a life with her soul mate. I just postponed her marriage by 18 months, and made her take a different last name.

I'm sure that Tim is a very nice man, and I have always wished Mary and him nothing but the best. But the expediency with with Mary married after our breakup really speaks to the fact that she and I were at completely different places in our lives. She was ready to settle down, and I wasn't. So she found somebody else who was.

Good for her. And good for me, for getting out when I did.

Seeing Mary with someone else in that supermarket finally drove home the point that it was over. It was time for me to move on and do the things that I had always wanted to do, that I could never do while I was still attached to her.

That night I took the next stop on my Road to Salvation.

10.21.2008

CHAPTER 52

"You're going to go to mass with us tomorrow morning, right son?" my father asked on Saturday night.

How could I say no? Every parishioner at St. Joseph's Church had prayed their Yahweh-loving hearts out for me when I was sick, whether they knew me or not. At every mass -- 8, 9, 10:15 AM and 12:45 PM on Sunday, Saturday nights at 5:30, weekday mornings at 7 and 8 AM -- the entire congregation had offered up prayers especially for me, for my speedy and complete recovery. And it worked, I guess. Or maybe something else worked. Who knows? Whatever it was that saved me, my recovery had been both speedy and complete.

Okay, maybe not necessarily complete, at least not yet.

I was still getting fatigued very easily, and reluctantly taking naps like a petulant toddler. Naps have always been my father's favorite pastime, which is another example of how he and I differ. For me, taking a nap feels like time stolen, like the secret theft of a tiny little piece of my life. I wake up feeling disoriented and nervous. What happened when I was gone? What did I miss? What might I have accomplished in that time, now lost? Naps slow down the steady flow of nervous energy that speeds my plow. And when I wake up, I need to start again from zero.

I never felt that way during my hospital stay, though. I was okay with doing nothing, with resting, watching TV, being out of the flow of life for months on end. That was, at least in part, because the very act of being in the hospital, of being treated, of getting better -- that was an accomplishment far greater than any other thing I could have been doing.

But now that I was back in the real world, I was slowly being re-infected with that relentless, oppressive, exhausting need to accomplish, to fill the space of the day with activity, to be productive.

Thanks, Mom. That which makes you great can also be your downfall.

And so I was filling my time with business, like a poor player, strutting and fretting until the day was done. But I wasn't quite strong enough to handle it yet, physically, emotionally or neurologically. Like Danny, my grapefruit-tumored roommate, I would notice myself slurring late in the day, or when I was particularly tired. I was tripping over my words way more than I did when I was in the hospital. I had always been a sharp talker, a wise-cracker who got laughs --usually at the expense of others -- with perfect timing. But my timing was a beat off. I would flub my wise-cracks, which made me less inclined to attempt them.

My increasing tendency to trip over language made me extremely self conscious. And that self consciousness only served to make things worse, because I would scrutinize everything I said before I said it. Good timing is instinctual. It can't be vetted. So, in effect, I had lost my timing, in a misguided effort to save it.

I also found that I had to put more effort into the basic act of speaking. If I didn't, I would occasionally mumble, or slur or be generally inaudible. My face felt generally tired and sort of frozen in blankness. My mouth seemed to want to stay shut, not to have to go to the effort of contorting itself into difficult words.

So, before I would say something, I would focus my mind, take a deep breath, puff out my chest and work hard to eee-nun-see-ate every sill-lab-bull.

I felt like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. The rain in Spain, etc. etc.

Sharpness of thought, speech and action had always been my trademark. That was what got me into a position of authority at such a young age, and what earned me nicknames like The Pirhana. But I had lost that edge. I felt soft, round and weak.

Part of me wanted to recreate that edge, to attempt to recapture what had been lost, to reanimate the old me in this new body. Another part of me wanted to give myself time to recreate myself, to allow myself be reborn as someone different, someone more highly evolved than I had been. I had to fight the urge to fall back on my old ways of doing things, and work hard to give myself the time to develop new ones.

And, like any victim of a brain trauma, I had to give myself time to relearn. Or, in my case, to learn.

Sunday morning felt just like the old days; my mother sitting in the living room, sewing; my father drinking a cup of coffee and yelling upstairs for my sister and me to hurry up or we're not gonna get a parking spot!; Missy hogging the bathroom and me running late. Same shit, different decade. As usual, I was the last one in the car.

My mother, Missy and I walked in a minute or two late for the 10:15 AM mass, and sat near the back. My father joined us a little while later, after parking the car next door at the pizza place.

I immediately began scanning the congregation for familiar faces, old school friends, Mary. It was going on a week that I had been home, and I still had not seen her, even though she lived a short walk from my parents' house. (But you already knew that.)

I recognized plenty of old timers at church, but noticed plenty of young ones too. I had forgotten how hot Catholic girls look in their Sunday finery. And so, while I should have been following the mass, singing hymns and silently praising God for rescuing me from the clutches of death, I was instead playing a game of Who in this Church Would I Fuck?

It was not the first time I had played that game, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. The results surprised me. It's amazing how, as I aged, the goalposts of acceptability kept slowly pushing back.

I wondered if thinking of church through the prism of my desire to get laid would result in me being struck dead, right there in the third-to-last pew. I have always been convinced that my death would somehow be sexually related: either I will have a heart attack trying to fuck some girl who is way too young for me, or I will get shot by a jealous husband or boyfriend while fumbling to put back on my pants or I will mistakenly choke myself during a vigorous bout of auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Sorry. TMI.

That's why, at least in part, I always knew I would make it through my illness: because it had nothing to do with what Bob Eubanks likes to call whoopee. Thank God my bacterial infection came from oral surgery, not some other form of oral.

While I waiting on line for Communion, I began to notice that people were staring at me, like they were seeing a ghost. Some of them would lean over and whisper, others would point, or smile or give me a head nod. I would offer a little wave in their direction, like Miss America or Don Corleone.

After the mass, people swarmed around me like it was a papal visit. An impromptu receiving line formed at our pew, stretching all the way toward the front of the church. My parents stood next to me, introducing the people I didn't know. Most were older couples, who would warmly grab my hand with both of their hands and look up at me, misty-eyed.

"We were all praying for you," they would say.

"It worked!" I would respond, wearing a politician's smile. "Thank you so much. It's so nice to meet you."

After while, the faces became a blur and my stump speech was repeated time and time again. Then the church deacon brought his youngest daughter over to meet me. She was maybe 6 or 7 years-old.

"This is the guy we were praying for?" the little girl said. "He doesn't even look sick!"

"That's because you did such a good job" I said, as everyone around us laughed.

It was the kind of heartwarming, after-church, Christmas Season family moment that might have ended an episode of Little House on the Prairie back in the '70s. I guess that would make me Laura, which is too bad. I always associated more with Nellie.

As the well-wishers finally filed out, I stood there -- in the church in which I had been baptised, where I received my first Communion and my Confirmation, where I had been an altar boy for six years, where I had gone to school for eight years, where I first met Mary's son Ian and where my parents were still among the best known, most active and most loved parishioners -- and I felt genuinely touched, moved, even blessed.

I also felt strangely horny. Catholic girls have always had that effect on me. And so, when I got home, I called Mary.

"You missed my big homecoming at church," I said.

"I'm sure it felt great," Mary said. "You've been a big topic of conversation there for the last few months."

"I know. I met Deacon Tom's youngest daughter, who told me that I didn't look sick enough."

"Ummm..can I call you back later?" she said. "I'm heading over to my mom's house."

"Sure," I said. "Just page me. And please give my regards to your mother."

She never paged me back. And I would soon understand why.

On Tuesday night I was alone in the house, watching TV downstairs in the back room. My parents were asleep upstairs, and my sister was somewhere out East visiting a friend, a French girl who was working as an au pair. I was bored and feeling antsy. I wanted to go out and nobody was around to drive me, so I decided to drive myself in my father's station wagon.

It was quiet on the roads, after 11 PM on the night before Christmas Eve. I ended up at the King Kullen supermarket in Lynbrook, which had always been a popular late night destination, due to it's 24-hour schedule and its plentiful stock of Jiffy Pop in the hard-to find, Natural flavor in the blue package.

I parked out front, walked inside and grabbed a basket. Then I saw her. It was Mary.

I couldn't believe it. What were the odds of us meeting like this, alone, late at night in the store in which we used to shop together? It was the perfect spot for a tearful reunion.

I was obscured by a display of Holiday decorations near the entrance, so I could see her but she couldn't see me. I stood there, watching her through the fake Christmas trees, just like I had done six months earlier when I camped out in the parking lot across from her apartment.

I took a minute to catch my breath. I thought about what I would say to her. I wanted it to be special, memorable. Should I bring up my Welcome Home Dinner, or should I wait for her to mention it? Maybe we could shop for the dinner together, like the old days, when we used to race our shopping carts up and down the empty aisles at all hours of the night.

I watched her pull a box of cereal off a display at the end of the aisle. And then she turned to place it in her cart. But the cart was moving. Someone was pushing the cart. It was a guy.

It was 11 o'clock on a Tuesday night and Mary was in a supermarket, buying breakfast food, with a guy. He was wearing sneakers and a puffy ski jacket. I froze, dropped my basket and backed out through the front door. Then I walked over to the car, got in and started it up.

I began to back out, and then I stopped. Why was I running from this? What would I achieve by doing that? Is that why I had come back, so I could pussy out, sulk back home with no Jiffy Pop, watch TV, jerk off and then go to sleep?

Nope.

I pulled back in, turned off the car and walked inside. My heart was practically beating out of my Polartec. I walked past the cereal aisle, but didn't see them. Was it possible they had checked out already and left? I headed for the snack aisle and picked up my Jiffy Pop, and then I saw them, heading toward the register. I briefly considering turning back into the snack aisle, and hiding there until they left. But I decided against it.

As they began to load their groceries onto the checkout counter, I walked over. Mary was standing behind the cart, and the guy was next to the conveyor belt, lifting items on to it. He saw me first, then Mary turned and looked. I've never seen shock like that in someone's face.

"Hey," I said.

"Hey," she said.

"Merry Christmas," I said.

"Merry Christmas," she said, as she looked at the guy, who continued to unload the cart. "This is Will. Will, this is Tim."

"Nice to meet you," I lied. I don't remember if I shook his hand or not.

"You look great, very healthy," Mary said awkwardly. "Picking up some late night Jiffy Pop I see."

"Yup," I said.

"You go ahead of us," Mary said.

"That's okay," I said.

"No please," she insisted, almost begging. "Please, go ahead."

I handed my Jiffy Pop to the salesgirl while Tim continued to silently unload the cart.

"So is your Mom all ready for Christmas?" I asked, breaking the silence.

"Oh yeah, lots of cooking. Always plenty of cooking, with so many people."

The clerk handed me my change. Mary continued to smile her frozen smile. Tim continued to attempt to bury his entire body into the shopping cart. Then I gave both of them sort of a half salute, with my right hand. I have no idea why I did that. It just came out that way.

"Have fun, guys," I said.

Then I turned and left.

10.20.2008

CHAPTER 51

"So I'm going to have to do this every week, for my entire life?" I asked the cardiologist, as the nurse extracted a vial of my thin-but-hopefully-not-too-thin blood.

"Initially, yes," Dr. Sisfein said. "But once you're stable you won't need to test as often."

Stable. That is something I most definitely was not in the days following my release from the hospital.

I was scared, constantly, of what might happen next. It wasn't a paralyzing fear that made me want to hide under the covers, or a nervous panic that made me pissy and short-tempered. It was more of an emotional rawness, and a dull, constant sense of vaguely impending doom.

If your body has betrayed you once, it can do it again. And every time I noticed something out of the ordinary, I feared that it was a sign of something awful. I had missed -- or chosen to miss -- so many of the warnings when I first became sick, but I was certainly making up for it now.

Every time I experienced dizziness, or a twitch, or saw "floaters" before my eyes or felt numbness or tingling anywhere in my body, I became paranoid that I was having a stroke. Or even worse, I worried that the glue in my head was dissolving and that my brain was slowly being flooded with thin-but-hopefully-not-too-thin blood.


In retrospect, I think I was dealing with a case of Post-traumatic stress disorder when I got out of the hospital. I was a like soldier who had survived my own little war, and nobody knew how hard it was for me to come home.

Part of me just wanted to put it behind me, start over, forget all the crazy shit that had happened and get on with my life. Another part of me wanted to play it safe, take it easy, keep close to home and spend lots of time in the company of doctors, just in case something terrible happened. It felt like I was in an old cartoon, with the cigar-smoking devil on one shoulder and the angel playing the harp on the other.

And it didn't help that my family was still treating me like a patient. My father was the worst offender with that. Every time he saw me he asked how I was feeling, wherever I was, whatever I was doing. It was almost like a nervous tic, like a symptom of autism or Turret's Syndrome. Instead of yelling out curse words he would ask, "How ya feelin' son?"

Sometimes, when I wouldn't immediately respond, he would answer his own question: "Good? Ya look good. Ya look healthy. Thank God. You're a very lucky boy."

This drove me up the wall, even though I understood that it was well-intentioned. My father is a simple man, and I don't mean that in a condescending or disrespectful way. He has always been a regular Joe, a hard-working, blue collar, neighborhood guy who doesn't necessarily engage in nuanced intellectualism. In that sense my father and I have very little in common. For me, it's always been about the nuances, the angles, weighing situations, holding back, manipulation, reacting thoughtfully, being in control. He and I couldn't be more different in that way, or in just about any way.

But I couldn't get mad at him, at least not outwardly. How could I blame him for saying exactly what I was feeling, expressing the concern that I was suppressing? I know there were times when I was in the hospital that he thought I might die. He told me that, years later. I can't imagine what that must have felt like, the powerlessness he must have felt, particularly for a father, a man, a problem-solver. On top of that, I know he felt somewhat responsible for allowing me to be sick for so long before Dr. Hirschberg forced me into the hospital.

I also couldn't deal with the fact that he seemed invested in turning me into an invalid, when he should have been pushing me to get better, get my strength back and get the fuck out of his house.

I'm pretty sure he thought I was moving back in for good. It was going to be one happy family again on Singleton Avenue and, if we could convince Missy to break up with her boyfriend Dave and move back from Rochester, the family would really be back together again.

It was sort of nice, at least at first -- all of us in the house for the first time in a decade or so, with the Christmas tree up and the decorations all over the house. It was almost like one of those TV reunion movies they used to make back in the '80s, where the aging cast of an old sitcom (usually from the '60s) would reunite for one more adventure.

We could call this one A Very McKinley Christmas.

I did hope that my sister would come to her senses and move back home permanently. Her friends and family were here and the only thing keeping her away from us was a guy I didn't particularly like, and didn't think I ever would.

This clouded things even further. Once I got better, and could get around on my own, Missy would most likely return to her life upstate. I wasn't looking forward to that. The concept of living in my parents' house again, even for a little while, was difficult enough. Doing it without an ally seemed impossible. The faster I got better, the faster my sister would be gone.

In those first few days that I was home , my father tried to help me do everything, questioned me every time I was planning to leave the house and demanded that he or my sister drive me wherever I needed to go. It was like living in a halfway house, and I had no idea how long I'd be able to put up with it.

My mother, on the other hand, had no interest in babying me. There was no question that she was happy to have me healthy and home from the hospital, but she didn't want home to be her home, at least not forever.

My mother had a nice little thing going after my father retired from the bus company. She had been diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's Disease a few years earlier, but had very few symptoms. It was the perfect situation for a lifelong hypochondriac: she was genuinely sick enough for my father to feel compelled to care for her, but not sick enough that she was prevented from doing the things she wanted to do.

At least, not yet.

I'm not saying that she felt competitive with me when I got home, or that there was jockeying for who would be the center of attention. But my mother had become accustomed to my father's full-time attention since he retired, and any time he spent on me was less time spent on her.

They had their own perverse little arrangement going, my mother and father. And the last thing I wanted to do was get in the middle of that.

"What about the dizziness that I felt at the mall today," I asked Dr. Sisfein, as the nurse was drawing my blood.

"Are you kidding me?" he said. "You were at a shopping mall eight days before Christmas. I would have gotten dizzy too."

"So it doesn't mean anything?"

"I'm not saying it doesn't mean anything. I think we've learned not to rule anything out with you. But you were in the hospital for two months and it's going to take time to get your sea legs back. And two days is not enough time. If you're concerned about it, why don't you call Dr. Raggone? And it's time to start thinking about getting some physical therapy. Getting your strength back will help you in every way."

Physical therapy? That sounded like it involved exercising. I wasn't big on exercising. I had been a mildly athletic little kid but when I got to high school, that all came crashing down. I spent all my time watching soap operas and reading and writing, I started smoking when I was in college and my overall, candle-burning, caffeinated existence in the years since had led to a slight, out-of-shape, 29-year-old body and a total aversion to physical activity.

I did join Bally Total Fitness when I first moved to the city, but that turn of the new leaf was short-lived. My membership, unfortunately, was long-lived, and I continued to pay my monthly dues for years. Bally's is like the mob; once you're in, you're in for life.

So I called Dr. Raggone.

'Why don't you come in for an appointment?" he said.

"When? At midnight?" I asked.

"No, I function on a slightly more traditional schedule here in the office. I'll put you on with my office manager and you can set something up."

The next morning I was sitting in an examining room in his office, unable to figure out how to put on the paper dress the nurse had handed me.

"You've got that on backwards," Raggone said when he walked in. You're supposed to wear it like a smock, not like a blazer."

"Sorry, I'm a little slow," I said. but "Brain surgery will do that to you."

I told the doctor who had saved my life all about the other doctors who had saved my life -- about Columbia Presbyterian, the brain surgery ward, my fellow patients. Then he did a thorough examination of me and the familiar tests.

"You're fine," Dr. Raggone sad. "It may take you some time to stop worrying about every little thing, though. How are your emotions otherwise?"

"They're all over the map," I said. "One minute I'm depressed and the next minute I'm optimistic. I think I generally feel hopeful about things, but everything is right at the surface. I noticed that I've been crying a lot. Everything makes me cry -- songs, movies, TV commercials. I hate crying at TV commercials. I feel like an idiot. It's not a boo-hoo-hoo, convulsive crying, it's more of a silent, tears falling down the cheek thing."

"You used to see a talk therapist, right?" he asked. "I mean, before you got sick?"

"Yup."

"You should do that again, whether it's the same therapist or a different one. You should talk about everything that you're feeling. As for any neurological problems, I don't see any. But you can always call me if you're concerned about something. And I know we talked about this, but have you looked into a rehab facility yet?"

"Not yet."

"You should. There's one at St. Charles Hospital. I'll write you a script for it. You should have no problem getting your insurance company to cover it, considering what you've been through."

What he didn't mention was that I also could have gotten a handicapped sticker for my car. As far as the government was considered, I was now disabled. I could have gone on welfare and sat in my parents' house watching reruns of Dark Shadows and eating Chicken McNuggets until I died. Instead, I called my friend Jody, who was subletting my apartment, to remind that it was only a sub-let.

"Have you even changed the sheets once since you've been there?" I asked.

"I change the sheets every week, you ass," she said.

"Good, because I'd rather not sleep in your menstrual blood when I re-take possession of my apartment which, by the way, will be happening in the very near future."

"It's good to see that illness hasn't changed your sparkling personality," she said.

"How's things at work. How's my friend Elaine?"

"Same old shit. Nothing's any different."

"Do people know that I'm out of the hospital?"

"I think so. I know Patty knows, because I talked to her about it."

"Patty actually came to visit me at Columbia Presbyterian. She talked about giving me some writing assignments when I got out. I took that to mean that producing work was still out of the question."

"You'll have to ask the boss about that," Jody said. " I have no interest in getting between you and Elaine."

"Can you imagine that? You, between me and Elaine? That might be the only three-way I would refuse to participate in."

"Me too," Jody said. "I'm gay, not blind."

"Anyway, I think we're going to come in this weekend to pick up some of my stuff, like my computer."

"You dog. Now what am I supposed to do when I get home from work?

"I don't know. How about going out and trying to get some pussy?"

"Been there, done that, got the t-shirt," she said.

On Saturday afternoon, Missy and I went to the porn-ishly named Fantasy Theater in Rockville Centre to see Titanic, a three-hour movie that had opened the day before. The movie completely destroyed me emotionally. I sat there, silently weeping for three hours, like a housewife watching a Lifetime original movie. I don't know if my sister noticed my near-collapse or not.

I knew what James Cameron was doing, with the schmaltzy music and all the drama. He was manipulating me, and it was working. I hated the fact that I was falling for it. And the part I fell hardest for was near the end, when the old lady goes to sleep and the camera pans over to the pictures on the table next to her bed. There's a framed photo of Kate Winslet on a horse on the beach. From what I remember, she had told Dicaprio's character that someday she wanted to go horseback riding on the beach. And she did it, even though he was gone.

Oh my fucking God. I cried and cried at that scene. I felt like such a pussy. What the fuck was wrong with me?

10.19.2008

NEXT CHAPTER ON MONDAY NIGHT

I promise!

10.15.2008

CHAPTER 50 (double-length!)

Supposedly, a lot of ex-cons end up back in lock-up because they miss prison life; they miss the structure, the camaraderie, the sociologically unique ecosystem that exists behind bars.

And they miss the hot gay shower sex.

At least I assume, they do. Having never been in the big house -- at least, not yet, at this point in our story -- I can't say with certainty. But I can say that a part of me missed being in the hospital when I awoke on my first morning of freedom. I missed it like an abused wife misses a good slap in the puss from her drunken, mullet-headed, redneck husband.

Was that insensitive? Sorry rednecks.

But, I did somehow feel perversely nostalgic for the captivity from which I had just escaped. Even though my two-month stint in medical lock-down had been about as fun as being trapped in a building collapse, even though I fought long and hard to get the fuck out of there, I did find there to be something comforting and safe about the predictable routine of hospital life.

Back at my parents' house, I could do anything I wanted, whenever I wanted -- which was both a gift and a curse.

I woke up that first morning, tried to sit up in bed, winced with pain, and instead rolled over and lowered my legs to the floor. Then I climbed down the creaky staircase of our century-old house and was immediately overwhelmed by the multitudinous breakfast options.

There were fresh bagels, English muffins, eggs, Entenmann's Donuts (the crumb ones, my father's favorite) and multiple brands of cereal with whole, 2% milk and skim milk.

"Have a donut, son!" my father said. "There are plenty!" My father never met a donut he didn't like, and I think the feeling was mutual.

I missed the easy simplicity of my plastic orange trays, with their finite lukewarm portions of bland, heavily-gravied foods. They were meant to be savored because, once they were gone, they were gone. At South Nassau and St. Francis, patients had no access whatsoever to food, other than the three hots that were brought to our cots by the Dietary Department or smuggled in from the cafeteria by family and friends.

It was different at Columbia Presbyterian, I imagine, because they had New York City rents to pay. Soda and snack machines were strategically positioned right by the corridor to the patient rooms on every floor.

Attention heart bypass patients! Get your Little Debbie's and Mountain Dew -- right outside your hospital room! Cigarette machines coming soon! But no menthols, because that shit is bad for you.

There was even a restaurant for patients, and it was fancy too, with large glass windows and a beautiful view of the Hudson cascading below the George Washington Bridge. One night, a few days after my brain surgery, my sister took me "out" to dinner there. She was wearing a skirt. I was wearing a hospital gown, and dragging an I.V. pole behind me.

That was the first time -- and hopefully it will be the last -- that a piece of medical equipment accompanies me to a restaurant, unless there's some sort of discount involved. If it's an all-you-eat-buffet for survivors of serious illness, I'll be glad to wear an oxygen tank, or something. I never turn down a gift, unless it's a blanket filled with pox. (But even those can be dry cleaned.)

Now that I was a free man again, food was first and foremost on my mind.

"Are you ready for National Fast Food Day?" I asked my sister, between bites of a donut (it runs in the family).

One thing you should know about me is, as an adult, I've never been a fast food eater. I loved it when was a kid, but what kid doesn't? The whole concept of fast food is just like cigarettes, "get them hooked young and you've got an customer for life*" (*however short and unhealthy that life may be). The fast food "restaurants" even build playgrounds to attract children, which is ironic, considering that kids who eat their food every day are too fucking fat to fit on the slide. Maybe they should use the French fry oil to grease them down.

I did love McDonald's when I was little, though. There were three locations within a ten-minute drive from our house, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. Each time we went we chose a different location, which was relatively pointless since all three of them looked exactly alike, inside and out, and had exactly the same menus, with food served by the same minorities to the same white people.

I had a birthday party at the McDonald's in Oceanside when I was in second grade. I don't remember what I got present-wise, but I do remember the black guy who played Ronald McDonald. He had completely covered his face and ears with white clown makeup, but I could see the black skin on the back of his neck and on his wrists, between his gloves and the sleeve of his costume. It was a whiteface routine, a reverse minstrel show.

But my juvenile love for fast food extended far beyond Mickey D's. When I was 9, my father's union staged a strike against the bus company where he had worked since high school. For three months, our family had to get by on government Unemployment checks and a $100 weekly stipend from the Union's strike fund.

"I got an A in Home Ec!" my mother announced, as she seized control of the family budget. She made a series of white, business-sized envelopes, each marked in pen with a particular household expense -- "groceries," "gas," "phone bill," "Richie Rich comic books," etc. Every week she filled the envelope with cash and, when the cash was gone, that was it. No robbing from Peter to pay Paul, or to pay anyone else.

For my sister and me, the whole experience felt like sort of an adventure. It was fun to have my father around the house when we got home from school, although my mother quickly grew tired of it, and my father, who never took a sick day that I can remember, didn't really know what to do with himself. He just sort of hovered, which I'm sure drove my mother crazy.

I never felt deprived during the strike, except when it came to eating out. I lobbied for an envelope that said "Jack in the Box," but my mission failed miserably. Clearly, there was a disconnect in the McKinley Family Strike Strategy. Finally, suffering the effects of extended fast food withdrawal, I offered to treat my entire family to dinner at Jack's -- paid for with my own hard-earned Communion money.

I remember this all very clearly because my father had the absolute gall to ask for a second hamburger at dinner.

"Sorry Daddy," I said. "No seconds. We have to tighten our belts! And from the looks of things, your belt could use some tightening."

By the way, "daddy is fat" jokes were totally okay in our house. Missy and I liked his fat stomach, because it made for a nice pillow to lie on while watching TV.

By the time I was 29, I hadn't eaten fast food in a decade or more, probably since college. But the relentless barrage of TV commercials I endured in the hospital had reawakened that insatiable addict's craving that had been buried deep inside. Now that craving needed to be filled.

My sister and I started our Dia de Cholesterolia at the local Burger King, minutes away from St. Joseph's Church and the parish school that both of us (and later, Mary's son Ian) had attended. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast of Croisandwiches, hash browns and exceedingly sweet orange juice in little plastic cups. And more hash browns.

I don't know who came up with those hash brown patties, but he or she should get a Nobel Peace Prize. Golden brown flakes on the outside and hot and tasty potatoes on the inside? And is that just a bit of onion in there? Oh my God. They are yumtastic.

After breakfast we headed back home I called my Aunt Margaret.

"Do you have any of those meringue cookies left?" I asked. "The ones with the cherry and chocolate chips inside?"

"Yes we do. And we have plenty of Mrs. Tobin's chocolate chips. How would you and Melissa like to decorate our Christmas tree?" she asked. "I've been too busy to put it up and Christmas is only 9 days away."

I stammered a bit. Then my aunt added a vitally important detail.

"I'll pay you."

"How much?"

"Twenty."

"Each?"

"No. Twenty total."

"How about 15 each?"

"Okay."

"Deal!" I said. "We'll be right over."

The last day I worked at my freelance job had been some time in the beginning of September, and I didn't know when -- or if -- I would ever be going back. My parents had been helping me out with my pager and credit card bills (all those phone sex calls had really mounted up, to the tune of thousands of dollars). My co-worker and friend Jody had been subletting my apartment on 85th Street and paying the rent, phone and utilities, until I could come back to the city.

But I didn't have a penny in my pocket, so the idea of $15 that I had earned, in my wallet, was extremely enticing. Plus it seemed like a beautifully capitalistic concept, getting paid to do Christmas decorations. Maybe it would lead to a new career.

"Let's go," I said to Missy. "I just got us a job."

My aunt had tea and cookies waiting for us when we arrived. Cookies were always a big part of the Holidays for my family. Each year my mother or one of my aunts would host a cookie exchange, where participants were required to bake dozens of cookies and to "exchange" them with family and friends.

This was the first year the cookie exchange had happened without my grandmother -- or Mary -- but it had happened nonetheless. And I got a chance to pig out on my favorites, my aunt's meringue cookies, and the Tollhouse chocolate chips made by the mom of one of my grammar school friends.

"Okay, break's over," Aunt Margaret said. "Now it's time to get to work."

When we were little, visiting my aunt and uncle's house had always involved chores of some sort. Aunt Margaret had an amazing ability to turn mundane housework into some sort of tournament or game or contest. Every trip to her house was like a Tom Sawyer fence-painting party. She should really write a book, or run a seminar, or sell CDs on late night TV.

"I bet Billy can polish the silverware faster than you can, Melissa," she would say to my sister.

"No he can't!" my sister would reply. "I'll show him!"

We fell for that the first few hundred times, but at a certain point I caught on.

"No, I can't polish the silverware faster than Missy. I forfeit. She wins. I lose. Can I watch cartoons now?"

But getting paid to do my aunt's chores was a different story. It was nice to sit there, amongst many of the ornaments that had been my grandmother's, helping to decorate the tree for the first Christmas without her.

"I wish Nanny was here to welcome you home," my aunt said.

After our fee-based tree-trimming party, Missy and I collected our cash and headed over to the very same McDonald's where I had celebrated my 9th birthday more than 20 years previously. Unfortunately there was no sign of the black Ronald McDonald. Perhaps he had managed to find other work in the intervening two decades.

"I'll have a double hamburger, a 12 piece Chicken McNuggets and large fries," I said to the woman behind the counter. "And a Diet Coke. Because I'm watching my figure."

By the way, at this point I had maybe gotten back up to 140 lbs or so. I could have eaten three Fudgie the Whale ice cream cakes each day, and washed them down with quarts of whole milk, and I still would have been falling out of my clothes.

Here's the thing abut McDonald's. The food does taste really good, but that should be no surprise. There are teams of highly paid engineers locked in laboratories, adjusting the recipes and formulas to get you hooked and keep you hooked.

But, at a certain point, if your system is not accustomed to being assaulted with good-tasting yet fundamentally poisonous food, you will begin to feel sick. But the food smells so good, so you want to keep eating, which you do, until you begin to slip into a
fast food-induced coma.

Wouldn't that be a great ending to my story?

I nearly die from killer bacteria, get my heart fixed, and then nearly die again from a brain aneurysm, only to succumb to a 12-piece McNuggets. A heartwarming Holiday story, indeed.

After sleeping it off at home for a couple hours, I got up, went to the bathroom and noticed something truly horrifying: my pee smelled like McDonalds. I'm not sure how, or why, but my urine smelled like hamburgers. This is totally 100% true. And totally 100% disgusting.

And that was the end of Fast Food Day.

With Christmas rapidly approaching, and my parents giddy over my return home, they agreed to give my sister and me $250 each to shop for Christmas presents. But we couldn't buy things for ourselves. We each had to buy things for each other.

Back in the '70s I would sit down every early December with the Sears catalog and make my Christmas List. There were plenty of toys, of course, but also baseball gear and sports-related fashions. One Christmas (I think it was 1979) I developed a temporary crush on the Miami Dolphins and asked for a ski jacket, woolen cap, ski mittens and socks with the Dolphins insignia. The colors were bright orange and teal. Mercifully, my interest in football was short-lived.

Some how, I was convinced that I could pick things out of the Sears catalog, but that Santa Claus would still be the one to bringing those things to me. I thought of Santa as something akin to a regional distributor, acquiring items in bulk (at wholesale, I hoped) and dropping them down the chimneys of all the good little boys and girls (but not the Jewish kids, because they hated Baby Jesus).

That whole story had about as much credibility as OJ's alibi, but it worked with me for years. I'm not kidding when I say that I got to high school still believing in Santa. Yes, I said high school, when most other kids are getting drunk and fucking. That explains a lot, doesn't it?

But this year was going to be different. My sister and I each made a list and then left it to our sibling's discretion as to what we actually got from that list. It was a very efficient process, I thought; there was still the excitement of not knowing for sure what you were getting, just without the absurd fairy tale of fat guys flying around dropping presents into your fireplace.

On Wednesday, my second full day at home, my sister and I decided to go shopping at Roosevelt Field mall. If you've never been to Roosevelt Field a week before Christmas, you don't know what fun you are missing. The parking lot alone would make you lose any semblance of Holiday spirit and want to beat someone with a lead pipe.

It was a Wednesday morning, but the place was packed. I wondered why all of these people weren't at work or school or somewhere other than a shopping mall. "How can people not work and still have money to spend on presents?" I wondered. Maybe all of them had just gotten out of the hospital.

Oh yeah. I had just gotten out of the hospital. It had been less than 48 hours and, even though I was no longer getting car sick, I was getting mall sick. The thousands of people scurrying around, desperately running past me to this store and that,their bags trailing behind them and slamming into me -- the whole thing began to overwhelm me. I covered my eyes, like Ian used to do when he was in kindergarten and scared of something. I began to feel dizzy, light-headed, unsure of my footing. I started bumping into people. I started sweating under the weight of my heavy winter coat and the putrid stale air of an over-crowded shopping mall.

"I gotta sit down for a minute," I said to my sister, as she parted the red sea of Holiday shoppers to get me to the food court.

I didn't really faint, because I never technically lost consciousness. I did, however, hit the deck hard, somewhere between the water fountains and Auntie Anne's Pretzels.

"Oh my God" my sister said, with wide-eyed panic. "Do you want me to get help?"

"I'll be okay. I'm just gonna sit here on the floor for awhile," I said. "In the meantime, there's Tower Records. Why don't you go buy me that Star Wars Trilogy boxed set."

And so I sat there, on the floor of the Roosevelt Field Mall, wondering if this was temporary, or the way it was always going to be.

10.13.2008

CHAPTER 49

When last we left our dashing young hero, he was about to ride off into the Manhattan sunset in the backseat of a 1988 Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon.

I suspect that some readers thought that might be the end of our story. They were right in one sense. It was the end of the easy part.

It's easy to be depressed, pessimistic, hopeless, scared and passively suicidal. It doesn't take any particular effort. You just lie back and let the bullshit wash over you like a wave, until you drown in it. It's not fun or pleasant or healthy or fulfilling, but it's also not hard. It's the opposite of hard. It's lazy and weak. Strike that. I was lazy and weak.

And if I had died I would have deserved everything I got. And the world would have been better for it. Clear out the dead under brush so the flowers can grow.

It's easy to be forced into a hospital by a doctor who is ultimately afraid of a malpractice lawsuit by grieving parents. I just did what he told me to do.

It's easy to be in a hospital (or three) for months on end. Somebody rolls you around to wherever you need to go, brings your meals right to your bedside, fixes three of your organs.

And if you're really lucky, somebody blows you in the shower. Sadly, in that regard, my luck ran short.

I'm not saying it was fun to be locked up for two months, like a prisoner. That's what I was. Essentially, I was incarcerated. If I had chosen to leave on my own accord -- like I nearly did at Columbia Presbyterian -- it would have cost me (or rather, my parents) tens of thousands of dollars. So in that sense I had lost my freedom, my autonomy.

But all I really had to do when I was in the hospital was be patient. That's why they call them patients. Or should I say, us? Patience is fundamentally passive. I was an active participant only in the sense that I had to agree to not leave, and to accept the help that was being offered. My only job was to let people do their job, and to try not to get in their way.

When I tell people about my killer bacterial infection, open-heart surgery, brain surgery and being probed and poked in every hole, their eyes usually bug out. Sometimes I wonder if they're afraid it's contagious.

"Oh my God," they say (or something of that dramatic ilk). "That must have been so hard for you."

Actually, it was a breeze. I never found it hard to be sick. In many ways that two months I spent in the hospital was the easiest two months of my life, because there was nothing I could do about anything. Maybe I was going to live, maybe I was going to die, who knew? Someone else was always driving the boat. I just had to hope the S.S. McKinley didn't wash up on the shore of an uncharted desert isle.

For me, the hard part came after everyone else had done their bit: the doctors, surgeons, nurses, technicians, my mother, my father, my sister Missy, my Aunt Margaret, my Aunt Pat, Mary, my friends, my extended family, the priests and all the parishioners at St. Joseph's Church who were praying for me to get better.

For me, the hard part came after I walked out the door of the hospital and was forced to re-take active control of my life.

For me, the hard part was the part after the happy ending.

Hollywood never shows us what happens after the happy ending, and that's too bad. That's the interesting part to me. Think about the final scene in The Graduate. After Dustin Hoffman rescues Katharine Ross from her ill-advised wedding, they race from the church, hop a bus and plop down in the back seat. Most other directors at that time in history would have faded to black, or freezed the frame and rolled the credits. But Mike Nichols holds the shot of Hoffman and Ross just a bit longer than he should. This allows the viewer to see Ben and Elaine staring blankly into the distance, with this look on their faces that clearly says "What the fuck do I do now?"

That's the question I asked myself when I finally got out of the hospital: What the fuck do I do now?

It's great to get a second chance -- or, in my case, a second chance at a second chance, which might be considered a third chance -- but what if you fuck it up? Now that would be the real tragedy. Part of me felt that pressure from the moment my long-johned ass hit the back seat of my father's car. I was now someone who had come back from the brink, a survivor, with all the pressure that goes along with it. At the same time I was also self-involved, narcissistic and a perfectionist. It would never be enough for me just to have survived. I was going to have to do something with it.

But first, I had to get home without throwing up.

Dr. Pyle-Spellberg had warned me about driving, but he didn't warn me about being a passenger. As we headed south on the West Side Highway I stared out the window at the Magic Hour sunlight dancing on the white crests of the choppy Hudson River. Then I started to turn green.

"I think I have to lay down," I announced to my parents, as I sprawled out on the back seat under a blanket.

"I brought a pot just in case," my mother said, as she handed it back to me. Apparently, Girl Scouts are equally as prepared as their male counterparts.

I never made use of the pot, but I also never raised my head again until we hit the driveway at 986 Singleton Avenue in Woodmere. It was dark and cold when my father helped me out of the car, and the bracing air helped me regain my equilibrium.

"I'm okay," I said, determined to walk in to the house on my own.

"Welcome home!" my sister yelled, holding up a little hand-made sign as I stepped through the door. "Whoo hoo!"

"Thanks, but you might want to hold off a bit on the yelling," I said. Only I could feel hung-over without ever having taken a drink.

I had requested a sumptuous feast of grilled prime rib for my triumphant arrival. But there was no fatted calf for the long-awaited return of the prodigal. What there was was bowls and bowls of Chinese take-out.

"I didn't know what you wanted so I got one of everything," Missy announced, as she busted open a container of scallion pancake.

And so, after I took a few moments to compose myself, the four of us sat down at the family table, the same table we had shared for 30 years, and celebrated my return.

"How about you say grace, son?" my father said.

Yes, grace. That's how we roll in the McKinley household. Even as a kid, I hated these command performances of pre-dinner prayer. It seemed so contrived. Was God really going to hear my voice and say, "Wait a tick! Is that young Master Billy McKinley I hear offering thanksgiving to moi? What a pleasant surprise! I shall reward him with a bottomless bowl of roast pork fried rice from Chen's Kitchen, as my only Son did with the loaves and the fishes at Bethsaida!"

"How about I say the Advent prayers instead," I suggested.

My mom had this circular ceramic candle holder with hand-carved angels that she placed at the center of the dining room table every year in the month of December. Each Sunday before Christmas we would light another candle, and say a prayer from a yellowing pamphlet that sat inside the circle. I pulled out the prayer book and started reading. I started with the third Sunday in Advent, which had just happened the day before.

"O Key of David, Jesus Christ, the gates of heaven open at your command," I read, as I lit the candle. "Come and show us the way to salvation."

The way to salvation -- preservation from destruction, deliverance from danger or difficulty. Clearly, that was what I was looking for.

After dinner I went upstairs to take a bath. When I moved out after college, the one thing I missed about that old house was the bath tub. It was huge -- deep and wide to accommodate my father who, at his largest, was 6'2" and nearly 300 lbs.

When I was little and that tub was full it felt like my own personal resevoir. There was room for the Batboat, a dozen rubber guys, the G.I. Joe raft and probably about five kids (although we never pushed it to more than two). In my teen years the tub became famous for the dining room floods I caused below the bathroom by falling asleep with the water running. This happened more than once, and each time required the removal and repair of the ceiling below. After the third flood my father just installed a drop ceiling with removal panels.

In retrospect I would not have blamed him if he had removed me in addition to the panels.


As I filled the tub that night I thought about all the fun and adventure it had seen - from childhood playtime, to my teenage backache/flood dramas, to soapy hook-ups with Mary in the early days of our relationship, to giving Ian baths when we would leave him with my parents for a night of free babysitting.

I lowered myself in to the deep warm water and was reminded of something -- I had been gutted like a deer only 3 weeks ago. It was easy to forget that my chest had been split open until I tried to do something with the muscles therein. Then I remembered. Fuck, did I remember.

And so instead, I knelt down and slid into place, with the water still cascading from the powerful steel spigot that sat in the middle of the tile wall. And then I heard it. With the door closed, once the water had stopped, the ticking of my valves sounded like the fevered beating of ceremonial Japanese Taiko drums.

"You have got to be fucking kidding me," I said, to no one in particular.

Seriously, you would not believe how loud it was. So I slid my whole body under the water, hoping to muffle the sound. But what that did was mute it. And now, every beat of my heart sounded like a torpedo being launched from a World War II-era submarine. The water gave it presence, resonance, reverb.

So much for my relaxing bath.

My mother had prepared the back bedroom for me, because it had a door directly to the bathroom. That room had been mine when I was little, but it was now dominated by a gigantic king size bed that was high and hard to get in an out of. Being in the hospital with the adjustable Craftmatic-style beds, I had sort of forgotten about my heart surgery, and the overall soreness of my chest muscles. But the bath and the bed reminded me that, although I was back home, I was a different person than the one who had grown up in that house.

But in the grand scheme, I was okay with that.

Would I rather that my heart beat not sound like a carpet bombing raid? Sure. Would I prefer not to wince every time, I got in and out of bed, or coughed or sneezed or breathed? Of course. But I wasn't about to lament the loss of the old me. That person was gone for a reason. It was Darwinism, basic biology. He couldn't make it, so I evolved past him. I grew a new heart and a new brain and left him behind. Will v. 1.0 was a biological relic. And it was time to celebrate what I had become, for better or for worse.


And what better way to celebrate than with my first jerk-off session in more than 60 days.

I locked the door to the bathroom, placed a towel on the toilet and did my best to ignore the echoing ticking sounds. I wondered if this was okay to do and then didn't care anymore. I thought of every hot sexy dirty disgusting thing I could conjure, from that first hardcore porn magazine I discovered under my uncle's radiator to the loud, life-affirming fucking that Danny and his wife did in the bathroom at the hospital.

And finally, two months of pain, fear, anger and frustration was expelled was a force that threw me back against the toilet and produced a whiny groan that was far louder than I had expected.

"Everything okay in there?" my father asked, as he lightly tapped on the bathroom door.

"Okay!" I gasped, as I caught my breath and listened to my valves feverishly tick.

I had just taken my first step on the Road to Salvation.

10.10.2008

I'M BACK

I'm back home after a long, successful and lucrative week at the Boca Raton Resort and Club in Florida.

I have to work on a newspaper story this weekend, but the chapters will resume on Monday!

10.07.2008

UPDATE FROM FLORIDA

I'm in Florida, working on the production of a corporate meeting at a resort hotel.

Guess who else was at the hotel today? Sarah Palin.

No kidding. There was a rally here with both Palin and traitorous senator Joe Lieberman. And no, I didn't get a chance to see her in person. But a few of us went out for dinner and noticed that protesters were lined up along the road -- McCain's supporters on on side of the street, Obama's on the other, all screaming at each other.

God bless America!

In other news, I will re-start my chapters later this week when I get back to New York. So stay tuned.

10.06.2008

WELCOME HOME 2

This is the second picture of me taken the night I got home from the hospital. Note my mother's beloved Christmas tablecloth, dishes and placemats.

I had intended to send this picture out as a thank you card to all the people who came to visit me, prayed for me or otherwise supported me during my hospitalization.

That plan changed when my mother pointed out that the hungry face I was making could be misinterpreted as a brain surgery gone wrong face.

10.03.2008

WELCOME HOME WILL!

12/15/97 at 8 PM -- Back at home, eating Chinese takeout

10.02.2008

CHAPTER 48

"Really? I can go?" I said to the doctor. "Are you sure there's not something else wrong with me? Have you checked my appendix recently? Maybe it's going to rupture."

My body was like a car that you take to a disreputable garage in a bad neighborhood. It doesn't matter how much the mechanics fix, there's inevitably still something wrong.

"You can't drive outta here with that broken tail light!"

"What broken tail light?'

"This broken tail light." CRACK! "Yeah, that's gonna need to be replaced..."

I half expected the doctor to slam me in the knee with a lead pipe, Tanya Harding-style, just so I'd have to stick around for another week or six. All I knew was, at nearly $1,500 per night for a shared room, I better be getting frequent flier miles for all this.

"Your pancreas is fine," Dr. Pyle-Spellberg said. "Everything is fine. Just a couple things before we let you go. Remember you have to get a PT/PTT test on Wednesday and on a regular basis after that, probably weekly. You can arrange that with your cardiologists. Take your Coumadin exactly as prescribed, as well as the Digoxin, Vasotec and Prilosec. And you should be careful about driving. It's going to take some time for you to get your bearings back. You've been in the hospital for a long time."

No shit, I'd been in the hospital for a long time. Thanks for the reminder. Three hospitals, 55 days and two life-threatening surgeries later, nobody needed to tell me that I had been in the hospital for a long time. It was still relatively warm out when I was admitted to South Nassau, and now we were approaching Christmas. Almost two months of my life were gone, and what did I have to show for it?

I mean, other than a new heart and a new brain? But those are minor details.

"And what about sexual intercourse?" I asked the doctor.

"You have no limitations in that area," he said.

"You guys don't offer any out-patient assistance with that, do you? Like a visiting nurse service, or a home healthcare aide? Or maybe some sort of telephone helpdesk..."

"Sorry, you are on your own with that one," he said. "And remember, I know you're excited to get out of here, but we need to see you again in three months for a follow-up. You can arrange that with Audra or Ginny in our office."

The idea of going back to the hospital was the last thing on my mind at that moment. Maybe I'd go back again when I was 80, but only if I was terminally ill and knew my stay would be brief.That wasn't going to be until 2048 anyway. I had a lot of time to emotionally prepare.

"Right now I'm just going to focus on getting home, if you don't mind."

"That sounds like the right decision. Good luck with everything."

"Thanks for putting up with me. I know I wasn't the easiest patient to deal with. Oh, and thanks for saving my life, and all that stuff."

"You're welcome," Dr. Pyle-Spellberg said, as I shook his hand.

My father answered the phone when I called the house.

"Come and get me," I said. "I'm getting out of here."

"Wait a minute now, wait a minute," my father said. "Just who exactly said it was okay for you to leave?"

"Dr. Pyle-Spellberg."

"Are you sure about that? Did he sign you out? You know, you can't leave there if he doesn't sign you out, William. They're gonna make Mommy and me pay for everything and we can't..."

I interrupted him. "Don't worry, you're not gonna lose the house. Everything is signed, sealed and delivered. Just come and get me."

"Okay. It's 1:30 now. Mommy and I should be there by 4 o'clock."

"Just hurry," I said. "I want to go home."

I hung up the phone and dialed Mary's number at work.

"What time is dinner?" I asked her.

"What do you mean?" she said, confused.

"I mean, I'm getting out of here. They're letting me go home. Fucking finally."

Mary gasped. "Oh my God, that's great. That is such good news. Congratulations!"

"So what time is dinner?"

"You have to give me time to go shopping first," she said. "I want to make sure everything is just right. Plus it's been really busy at work lately. It's crazy, with the end of the year coming up."

"Okay," I said. "But I'm warning you, you may need to use your Christmas bonus when you go to the supermarket. I am hungry enough to eat the entire contents of Key Food. The first thing I'm going to do when I get home is eat, and I'm going to keep eating until there's nothing left. And then I'm going to McDonald's, and Burger King and Wendy's and Taco Bell and Arby's. I don't even know where to find an Arby's but I'll find one, I promise."

"Great. You'll eat all that crap and then you'll have a heart attack and you'll be right back in the hospital."

"Wrong wrong wrong! The doctors told me I can eat anything I want, and I intend to take them up on that."

Mary clucked her tongue. "Okay, but within reason. Listen, it's crazy here. I have to go, but I'm so happy they're letting you go home."

"Me too. Tell Ian, okay?"

"I will. Bye!"

"Bye."

It probably won't surprise you to hear this, but my big Welcome Home dinner with Mary never happened. She never made me a steak, or mashed potatoes, or salad with the homemade Good Seasons dressing.

I kept calling her and dropping hints, but she kept putting me off, blaming it on work, or the Holidays, or something or another. After awhile I stopped asking, and after a slightly longer while, I stopped calling. She had been lying to me all that time in the hospital when she acted like she wanted to be close again. She knew all along, but I didn't. I thought she meant it.

I tried not to be hurt by it, or to hold it against her. I know that she was just trying to help me, to give me a reason to keep going, to give me hope. But it was false hope, and I didn't need false hope. It turned out that nothing was different between Mary and me, nothing had changed.

Actually, that's not true. Something big had changed, but it would be a little while before I found out about it.


Half an hour later a Caribbean-accented social worker came to my room with discharge paperwork. She wrote down all my medications, and all my special instructions. Next to Diet she checked off Regular and next to Prosthesis she checked Not Applicable. Of course that wasn't entirely accurate. I had two prostheses, and that was something I wasn't about to forget any time soon, even if I wanted to. All I had to do was listen.

My parents finally got the room at about 4:30 PM. My mother gave me a hug and my father shook my hand.

"We brought some clothes for you," my father said, handing me a plastic Key Food shopping bag.

I reached in and pulled out a pair of long underwear.

"Are we skiing home?" I asked.

"Don't kid yourself," my father said. "It's December 15. You can catch a cold out there just walking to the car."

"Okay, if it will make you happy I'll put on the long underwear, just as long as we can leave. Now!"

An orderly came by with a wheelchair to take me downstairs. I know better than to argue with him. I had rolled in here and I was going to roll out, whether I liked it or not. I waved to the nurses as he pushed me past the station, yelling "thanks" to everyone I recognized. Even though I was at Columbia Presbyterian for 12 days, I never formed the kind of bonds with the nursing staff that I had at St. Francis.

I think a lot of that had to do with the size of the hospital and the location -- New York City, where people ignore you all day vs. Long Island, where neighbors actually talk to each other. I also think it had a lot to do with the floor I was on. There were a lot of patients in the neurosurgery ward who were in pretty dire straits -- people like Jesus and Danny and the lady who yelled out Pino! all night long. I can see how it must be difficult to make friends with someone who might not remember you in the morning, or might not be alive in the morning.

But that was just fine with me. I wasn't there to make friends; I was there to get better and to get out.

The doors of the elevator opened and I was blinded by the late-day sunlight streaming into the glass-enclosed lobby. After almost two months in small, quiet rooms, it took a minute to get used to the cacophonous buzz of the crowded ground floor. Doctors, nurses and visitors whisked past me, all rushing to get to where they were going.

The orderly wheeled me to the security desk, where a guy in a blue blazer signed my discharge form and time stamped it. It was 4:48 PM, December 15, 1997.

I got out of the wheelchair and stepped through the electric turnstile. I was now back on the other side. This part of the story was over and the ending was happy.

"You need some help walking out?" my father asked.

"No thanks," I said.

Whatever was coming next, I had to get through it on my own.