Probably the worst thing about being a hypochondriac is the incessant feeling that my penis is bleeding.
Why, I wonder, couldn’t that thing be like the rest of my organs, tucked safely away with other viscera in the hollows of my mid-section, swathed in warm blood and protective skin. It could still behave like it always has, popping out to say hello at inopportune moments. But inside, it wouldn’t be at the mercy of broken zippers or rough denim — the nemeses of the functionally insane. Instead it just dangles there, outside my body, exposed and fragile.
Dana and I were out to dinner the other night, and she noticed me lifting my hands from underneath the tablecloth and casually turning my fingers in the flickering candlelight light, as if to quietly examine them.
“Here?” she whispered across the table, “Do you have to do that here?“
She swiveled her head to see if anyone was watching, while I tried to explain for the 5,000th time in our relationship that I had just returned from the bathroom and could have sworn the zipper on my jeans had behaved in a really untoward way, and so I had to inspect for damage.
Dana put her fork down and leaned across the table.
“You know those people who put their fingers in their armpits and smell them?” she whispered.
“Oh yeah, those people,” I whispered back, shaking my head, “Jesus, those people are freaks. Anyway, why do you ask?”
Being a hypochondriac is difficult enough. Being an obsessive compulsive hypochondriac is downright frustrating. Because I never check on my penile condition just once or twice. If I believe some calamity has struck my under-regions, well, let’s just say paying so much attention to your pants in public can be a bit embarrassing.
The good news is I can usually make it through the first course by sheer will power, but by the time the second course arrives, I’m normally beginning to feel dizzy, sure that I’m silently bleeding out under the table. If I don’t check by the time dessert arrives, I’ve already moved on to goodbyes and the administration of wills and testaments. I start to sweat. My hands become twitchy.
“I’ve always loved you,” I’ll intone across the table, “I just want you to know that, if … you know.”
Over the years I’ve come to realize that the rest of our relationship must be something really special, because Dana has apparently decided that sacrificing things like romantic candlelit dinners and any semblance of pride is worth it.
“Oh fine,” she’ll mumble, dropping her dessert menu to the table in defeat, “Just check already.”
It pains me to imagine what other diners are thinking should they happen to glance over and see the tablecloth rhythmically dancing up and down, while my wife buries her head in shame. I always want to say something, maybe offer a clever bon mot to clear the air. But what can you say in a situation like that?
“Oh I’m not masturbating, I just think my penis is bleeding!”
“Don’t mind me! I’m almost done!”
Usually I find it’s best just to ask for the check and our coats, and then make for the car as fast as possible, being careful not to move too quickly lest my zipper becomes angry. Because then we’ll have to spend the next 10 minutes repeating the whole process on the sidewalk.
When I’m not bleeding to death through my urethra, I’m usually having a heart attack. So it’s fortunate that our house is located only two blocks away from a hospital. When we bought it two years ago, our Realtor went over things like neighborhood schools, walkability and access to public transportation but I stopped listening at “hospital,” my mind swimming with the possibility of an MRI machine mere minutes away.
“We’ll take it!”
At Thanksgiving, I ran over to the emergency room before dinner, just like someone might run to the grocery store for a forgotten pie.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, checking my pulse on the way down the stairs.
At the hospital, the doctor assured me that the nervous sweats, rapid pulse rate and unbearable chest pain were nothing more than a sprained ankle.
“Don’t you want to perform an EKG just to be sure?” I asked, while the doctor informed me that any damage located near the Achilles tendon is probably not a coronary event.
A “coronary event.” That’s what he called it, as if it was some party I had not been invited to.
I cursed him on the way out, wondering how he’d feel if I collapsed in the emergency driveway. I imagined a coterie of nurses and emergency personnel rushing me back into surgery, my gurney passing under the doctor’s nose just as my heartbeat faded to a strained bleating on a machine.
“If only,” I’d wheeze at him, “If only you’d ….”
At this point, I usually pass out in a dramatic fashion, my eyes lolling to the side just so, and I think the doctor and I both know who’s to blame.
But this never happens, of course. I make it out of the hospital door, past the emergency driveway, down the block and back home. A rational person would probably pause for a moment and think it silly. After all, how many people suffering from an actual heart attack manage to walk themselves to the hospital? And then back home again an hour later? But by the time I get home, I’ve usually forgotten about my failing heart and am too busy stuffing my hands down my pants over and over again. Hospital gowns are so rough.
Years ago, after I dropped out of school and started work as a professional reporter, I had a series of panic attacks that sent me to the hospital. I said I couldn’t breathe and the doctor gave me an inhaler. A few hours later, I returned and said the inhaler made my heart race. So he prescribed a sedative and a few hours later I returned yet again, complaining that the sedative made it difficult to breathe. It was a cruel cycle that went on for hours, and it occurred to me that the doctor had probably just diagnosed me as a hypochondriac, prescribed placebos and sat back with his clipboard to enjoy the show. Then I wondered whether too many placebos could be fatal and went back for the fourth time that day, only to see that asshole doctor doubled over in laughter.
By the time I finally arrived home, Dana welcomed me into bed, lifting the covers back so I could slip in, and then she rubbed my forehead until my chest relaxed and I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
It sometimes makes me feel guilty to think of her tenderness. I get a cold and call in the World Health Organization, shouting into the phone, “I don’t care if there’s an outbreak of leprosy among orphans in the fucking ‘Pacifique Occidental’ — just send Sally Strothers now!” When I contract any sickness that’s actually serious, I park myself on the couch, coughing and wheezing demands for juice or soup or blood transfusions. Dana hardly ever complains of sickness. Sure, she’ll moan over an occasional cold or gripe that a cough just never seems to go away. But she handles these things with a measure of fortitude, as she’s never been on WebMD only to discover that yes, the common cold can be deadly. She reminds me of a prairie wife, made of stronger mettle, and I imagine her on the farmstead bravely coping with small pox because the nearest doctor is a three-day covered wagon journey away.
“Oh who has the time for that?” she’ll ask, reaching her hands under the cow again.
I get the flu and start ordering hospital beds, mentally rearranging the furniture. Dana starts to cough in the morning and by the evening I’m asking, “Jesus, still?” The limits of my patience are tested easily, while Dana’s appears boundless.
So when she does come down with something serious and suggests that maybe she should go see a doctor, a lightning bolt of panic shoots through me, and it makes me realize how fully dependent I’ve become on another person. In a few years, I’ll have known her for half my life, and sometimes my selfishness frightens me. She gets sick enough to seek help, and I wander around in a momentary daze, lost and wondering, “What would I do without her?” If a measure of true love is discovering someone’s weakness and remaining anyway, isn’t it also knowing you’ve been made a better person by the other and your world would crumble without her?
People get married and take vows about “in sickness and health” and probably have visions of occasional ailments or some distant time when one of them trips, breaks a hip and starts yammering on about how “That Matlock — he really gives it to ’em.” Probably no one signs on for daily heart attacks, bouts of bleeding penises and a constant need for reassurance that no, hangnails cannot kill you.
Half my life. How can one person be so lucky, and another so cursed?
A few hours before a date night last week, with the sitter on the way, I could bear the pain in my chest no longer. I thought it must be a cold passed on from our daughter, but I didn’t have the same coughing and wheezing, and so naturally I checked in with Dr. Google and the prognosis was dire.
“I’ll be back in a bit,” I shouted over my shoulder, grabbing my coat, while Dana started a bath for Emmeline.
“OK,” Dana shouted back, “Hey, grab some milk home on your way back, huh?”
I ambled down the sidewalk, checking my pulse at the same time — grateful I had at least decided against jeans. On the corner, waiting for the light, I grabbed my chest and doubled over. If this actually was the Big One, you can bet passing traffic was going to hear about it.
At the hospital, I greeted the receptionists by their first names and fell into an ongoing, casual debate with the triage nurse about which Law and Order franchise was the best, while he stuck the EKG octopus tentacles to my naked body.
“Normal,” he pronounced after a few minutes, “OK, well, see you next time!”
Neither Dana nor I had called the sitter to cancel, and we ended up seeing a movie that night. I think we both assumed I’d be back in under an hour and life would resume as it had that day and the day before and the day before that. On the way home, stray beams of moonlight hit the sidewalk under my feet. The sound of slow footfalls on the concrete matched the sound of a measured, healthy pulse echoing in my ears. I couldn’t help but feel depressed.
Part of me always holds onto a glimmer of hope that maybe there’s something seriously wrong — that maybe this time it’s not a false alarm. I don’t want to suffer. God no. And as much as I’d like to point a finger and gloat — “See?” I’d be able to say, “And you said this one wasn’t serious!” — the rest of me just doesn’t want to feel so god damn crazy all the time, wracked by phantom ailments and guilt for being so weak.
I make it home and gently unlock the door. Our sitter is waiting on the couch. Dana is in the living room, gathering her purse to go out for the night.
“Well,” she says, “Are you going to make it?”
And standing there in the foyer, moonlight coursing silver and luminous through the window, I nod silently, feeling all at once exposed and fragile and grateful for more time with this woman.
Half my life, I think — it is not nearly enough.
“Come here,” she finally says, opening her arms and quietly folding them around me.