Excerpt from Eminent Domain
Shiri and Ale had met at a neurological disorder support group; that much was true. Twenty minutes and a thousand years ago, by Shiri’s count. It was the first and last time either of them would ever go. Shiri’s mother and older sister had conspired to stage an intervention which culminated in Shiri’s assenting to the impossible request to “not go through it alone.” They were understandably exhausted from the worry she caused, with her frequent hospitalizations, her time spent in the fetal position, her shrieks of incomprehensible agony, her failure to respond to treatment, their own helplessness. Shiri’s mother, most of all, was consumed by the guilt of having brought the wretch into the world, only to suffer. Shiri held no one accountable. It was neither her fault nor theirs, nor that of the uncaring universe. But the idea that her pain, which inhabited her body and never crossed beyond the blazing membranes thereof, could be shared and somehow eased by communication with an inhabitant of an entirely separate body, was absurd. The very suggestion revealed how little they understood of what pain was. So she agreed to go, strictly for her family’s peace of mind.
Shiri flipped down her car’s sun visor and flipped up the mirror cover, revealing her eyes to herself.
The support group met in a consultation room in the neurosciences wing of Albany Medical Center. A handful of patients sat in a circle and shared experiences so similar that by the time they reached the end they were indistinguishable. Shiri spent the entire session rocking back and forth, doubled over on a folding chair with her fingers to her temples, rubbing rhythmically, pausing only to yank out the occasional eyelash. She didn’t say a word. When the meeting ended, she shot out of her seat and out the door.
Ale, on the other hand, had come to the meeting of his own accord. He had just been diagnosed, after an excruciating 4 years wasted on second, third, fourth and fiftieth opinions. His neurologist worked in the same practice as Shiri’s, and they both had a tendency to recommend that the freshly diagnosed seek the comfort of other patients. “Receiving a new medical diagnosis is an identity-shaking experience,” read the informational pamphlet distributed by the neurosciences institute, “We are accustomed to our positions as mothers, fathers, employees, friends, collectors and enthusiasts, but what happens when we also become cancer patients, arthritics, or diabetics? The experience can be isolating, and proper communication with our loved ones is key. Come to our neurological and neurodegenerative illness support group and meet other mothers, fathers, and patients just like yourself.”
She unscrewed the cap of a bottle of liquid eyeliner and dragged the brush along the edges to remove the excess fluid.
When the meeting ended, Ale allowed the automatic doors to open for him and glided out of the hospital and over to where Shiri was standing.
“You, now you have got the right idea,” he said, gesturing to her lit cigarette, which had accumulated an inch and a half of grey debris at the tip, evidence of her disinclination to ash it. “Can I bum one of those?”
His accent was tastefully understated but evident, as if the product of a recipe which called for just a pinch.
Wordlessly, she passed him her pack of Camel blues. She liked to smoke them past the point of no return, until the tiny camel printed near the filter of each cigarette burned before her eyes. It made her feel like a ruthless Arabian villainess, like Salome, causing needless savagery with her beauty alone.
“Are you in pain right now?” Ale asked, unsure of how exactly to pick up a chick under the circumstances. There was something about him that hinted at the ability to be smooth, but the smell of a hospital can temper even the most potent mojo. Each opening of the automatic doors was like an exhalation of the stench of unbrushed teeth and antiseptic.
“I am in pain all the time,” Shiri rasped. She was barely audible, but it was clear that even this amount of exertion sucked the life out of her. She slid down the wall and sat on the sidewalk.
Ale slid with her. “Me too.”
And suddenly they knew what it meant to not go through it alone.
She traced the thin brush along the upper lashline of her right eye, and its shape popped into focus.
They went to each other’s doctor appointments. One advocated for the other when words escaped them. And after a while, because even the most experimental treatments failed, they defected. They had heard of some patients in Scotland who had been successfully treated with low doses of LSD. Somehow, a quantity of the drug insufficient to cause hallucinations was proving miraculous for cluster sufferers on an enormous scale. American doctors considered it out of the question. For fear of a malpractice suit that could compromise their practice, Shiri and Ale’s specialists drew the line. They had children to feed, they reminded their patients. There were other forces at work.
So, when it became clear that she was running out of money and steam, Shiri dropped out of law school and used her final student loan refund to fund their experimentation. Shrooms and acid were in no short supply, and they supplemented their rogue methods with more medically sanctioned treatments. Oxygen tanks, caffeine drips, triptans, Botox shots to the temples. They acquired massive quantities of every possible headache remedy and haphazardly stuffed their mouths with fists full. They tripped regularly, and while the pain didn’t go away, it was certainly muted by the extreme sensitization of their near-constant imbibing.
She began to trace the upper line of her left eye, but a twist of her hand – slight, imperceptible – resulted in a much thicker line.
Shiri’s clusters hit regularly throughout the springtime, and then subsided for the rest of the year, with infrequent relapses at unpredictable times. Ale, however, had suffered daily for over four years. Shiri learned how her poor mother must have felt back when Shiri would still let her in. She was a powerless spectator in the theatre of her lover’s pain. When an attack hit him, language failed. He would lie prostrate on the floor, preferring cool, flat surfaces, and make demands in a primeval mixture of Spanish and English. He had grown up in Miami, a first-generation Cuban, and Shiri liked to think that this patois was his true native language, rather than one or the other. “Corazón, dame un poquito de ice,” he would command softly, and Shiri would go bring him some ice chips to suck on. She learned Spanish this way, piecemeal. Sometimes, in an effort to distract himself from the pain, a pathetic attempt to focus on something outside his body in crisis, Ale would ask typical first date questions. “What was the name of your first pet? Cuál era tu color favorito when you were little? What did you want to be when you grew up? Would you rather have wings or fins? Can you remember your visabuelos? ¿Cómo eran?” Shiri obliged, telling rambling and circular narratives about her childhood until she was silenced by the next wave of pain, an electrical jolt which rocked Ale’s entire body. Sometimes he screamed. Sometimes he tried to reason with it, “no, no, no no no, please.” The worst times were when he was silent.
She returned to her right eye and traced the brush over her previous work, thickening the line to match the mistake on the other side. But she thickened it too much.
Shiri would watch him with wonder, feeling close to him and entirely distant at the same time, separated by the incomprehensible expanse of his pain. His left eyelid drooped minutes before the pain began, a horrific palsied aura, and he would lie on the ground in preparation, babbling like a toddler. It added thirty years to his face and subtracted thirty years from his mind. Lines appeared where they had never been before, and disappeared when the pain subsided. She often wondered what she looked like when she was in the same state, but never dared to ask, knowing that, however she looked, it wasn’t good, and likely bordered on the inhuman. Ale’s pain took on an arachnid quality. His long limbs branched out in every direction.
In resignation she drew a squiggle down the side of her face and chucked the bottle of eyeliner over her shoulder.
They never spoke about their pain because they didn’t need to. Their implicit understanding was only deepened by their countless hallucinogenic travels in tandem. With each attack of pain, they were returned to an infantile, pre-linguistic state, and with each pain’s subsiding, they were born again to the world of the living. Shiri knew what it was like to die. She did it all the time. And she knew what it was like for Ale to die, because she watched him over and over. So when he finally did what surprised only the heartless fools who thought he’d been faking it all along (his entire family, god help them) she was not surprised. But she was betrayed.
She blinked at herself in the mirror and flipped the sun visor back up.
What she could never tell anyone, knowing they could never understand, was that Ale's killing himself was just like a breakup. It was unspectacular. Banal. He had, abruptly and without providing adequate notice, forfeited on their love. Just like a breakup, she mourned more for herself than for anyone else. She felt betrayed and bruised and draped her mirrors in dirty towels to avoid the sight of her own face. She stopped showering and marinated in her own filth and cast aspersions on those who carried on as if life could possibly continue. She smoked herself stupid and speechless. Her shiva was self-debasement.
Her body, however, was on traditional autopilot. When the police arrived to deliver the news of his death, she said nothing, but, looking at them sadly, grabbed the skirt of her dress in her fists and attempted to tear it, in compliance with Jewish tradition. The conveniently black polyester blend was too tightly woven to give, however, and she ended up walking calmly over to her junk drawer, pulling out a pair of scissors, and slashing through the fabric. The poor goyim police waited in the doorway, uncomprehending, to be dismissed.
She stood speechless at the church, her curls pulled into a tight bun, a black tichel wound around her head, as an endless queue of Cubans who had never shown their faces while Ale was alive filed past her, kissing her on the cheek and observing that, with her dramatically sloping features and the slight olive undertones in her complexion, she could pass for a Latina.
They had been lovers, yes, but theirs had also been that most elusive and precious of relationships: a friendship. More than that, as comorbid sufferers of the same obscure ailment, they were each other’s therapist, support group, doctor, and patient. They had spoken a secret twin language of primitive groans and fragments of words. They had built a world together out of an understanding, a spiritual wavelength created by intense bodily pain. And he had bailed. He had violated the unspoken oath that held them together and held them both to life, the Hippocratic promise to do no harm. That was not part of the deal. It was a direct betrayal. He knew that. He knew there was no excuse, which was why he didn’t bother to leave a note. What was there to explain? He knew she would understand every part of his thought process except the part where he actually went through with it.
She did not mourn him the way you mourn a lost loved one. He was not a dearly departed kindred. She hated him for it. She ached herself inside-out with the sheer force of her own hatred. And when the hate subsided — which it did quickly, because she was at her core a reasonable person, and if anyone knew how good death looked from the depths of excruciating life, it was she — Shiri was not left numb, or empty, like everyone told her she would be. She did not feel a sense of loss, and she did not feel alone, because by some cosmic consolation she still had her pain. She woke up each morning that Spring with the sledgehammer inside her head pounding as it had done for what seemed like always, and with one eye twitching closed, she came as close as she could to a smile.
Her pain was a separate person, distinct and defiant. A petulant kid sister, devoid of guile, popping out of corners, insisting on being paid attention to in a constant game of peek-a-boo. Never realizing that that shit gets old. Not understanding what it means to get old. Her pain knew no mortality. Like a child, her pain thought itself immortal. Even when she managed to escape it, a brief sip of solitary grace brought by a babysitter – a painkiller, a panacea, the turning of the seasons – the knowledge of its existence was always there, waiting behind her eyes, seeing the world with her.
Her pain was her double, her shadow. She did everything in her power to rid herself of it, but when it resisted, she felt a strange relief in knowing that it wouldn’t abandon her because it was an essential part of her. She was fearful of the unknown possibilities of a world free from pain, because it had dominated her life for so long that she had grown to depend on it. (For example, without a baseline consisting of crushing pain, how could she handle the business of everyday life? How else could she avoid confrontation? How else could she justify her shortcomings? Were people who lived without pain allowed to have shortcomings? She didn’t think they ought to be.) What was it like to actually hear silence, without the constant low hum of background pain? A painless world seemed empty and open and intimidating in its possibilities. She feared a life without pain because she had never lived one. And because of the same filial Stockholm syndrome that causes us to love our siblings, she loved her pain, because it was always there.
She was kept so occupied by tending to her pain, by the extraordinary energy expenditure required to pat it down inside of her like so much gunpowder just to get the goddamn machine to run (just to get out of bed, just to leave the house, just to hold down a job, just to pay the bills) that her stores were too depleted to expend emotion on anything else. And this, the business of staying alive, kept her safe.
Until she was cured.