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Cellies



About five years ago I happened to read an interesting statistic in the newspaper. The article said that 1957, the year I was born, was the peak of the post-World-War-II “baby boom” in the United States. More babies were born in America in 1957 than in any year before or since, 4.2 million babies in fact. Divide that by 365 and you get an average of 11,506 babies born on each day of 1957, including the day I was born, November 6.

For a while I was obsessed with this fact. I called my cousin Daniel, who has his Ph.D. in medical statistical analysis, and asked him what were the odds that somewhere there was an American who was not only born on the day I was born, but was destined to die on the same day I will die.

He clicked a few buttons on his computer, chided me for thinking that medical statistical analysis was something that could be handled practically in a few moments over the phone, then pointed out that the Center for Disease Control says that about 20% of Americans die before age 65, and life expectancy for the rest of them is 80 years, so slightly less than 80% of my peer group, or about 9,000 of us, will likely die between 2022 and 2037, at a rate of about 1.7 per day. For the sake of argument let’s round both numbers up a bit and call it two a day.

There is a fair chance that somewhere there is one other American who will be alive in this world for exactly the same span of days as me. Not just the same number of days, but the exact same days. He or she will travel through the vast emptiness of space on exactly the same curlicue trajectory as me, stuck to the Earth on almost exactly the same spot. He or she will see the same sunsets I will, not just the same number, but the exact same sunsets, and awaken to the exact same dawns.

I spent hours Googling the search term “born November 6, 1957.” The only famous person I ever found who shared my birthday was an actress named Lori Singer, who played Kevin Bacon’s love interest in “Footloose” (and not much else). I found a few B-string professional athletes, a child molester and an embezzler, and lots of death records for the 20% who won’t make it to 2022.

And then Google petered out on me, with about 11,450 of my birthday peers still undiscovered. And there it stood until, one day when I was working as a HIPAA compliance officer at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, I realized that I could look up patients by their birthdates. With blatant disregard for the act of congress that I was being paid to enforce, that I had literally taken a vow to enforce, I entered my birthdate and came up with about 100 patient records.

Ah, bliss. Enough bliss that I thoughtlessly risked losing a cushy government job with excellent benefits, and theoretically risked jail time, to indulge an idle fantasy. That’s just the sort of person I’ve always been. A lot of people say I’m an asshole. I prefer to think of myself as operating on situational ethics. The medical term for it is “personality disorder.”

So when nobody was looking I would cruise casually through the most sacrosanct records any of us has, data more personal and precious than our bank records or our PIN numbers: the dry clinical details of our genital warts and our paralyzing anxieties and our adult diapers. I drank deep the biographies of rape victims, incest survivors, suicide attempters, as well as the victims of more mundane things like heart disease and cancer, falls in the bathtub, tripping over a barbed wire fence with a loaded shotgun in your hands, trying to clear a jammed wood chipper with your foot, and the inevitable hand gun fatalities. All just characters in a story in my mind that would lead me to my Doppleganger.

Of course, it was a fruitless quest. I couldn’t recognize my Karmic twin until the day of our deaths, and by then it would be too late to enjoy the experience. I risked my career at an age when I was too old to learn how to do anything new, but an age when I owed my divorce lawyer a year’s salary and had two children applying to expensive universities. I spent my union mandated breaks with my computer monitor turned away from my office door, in a compulsive, obsessive, pretty shameful and outrageously illegal digging around in other people’s secrets that could never, ever, end in satisfaction.

What finally stopped me was stumbling across the records of a woman I’ll call “Dorothy.”

Born the same day I was, in a little farm community called Lone Tree, Dorothy had been a popular blonde cheerleader until she went to the Lone Tree High Class of 1975’s graduation party. In those days a high school graduation party in Iowa meant all the fellas parked their pickup trucks in a big circle out in somebody’s bean field, and dropped three kegs of beer into three tubs of ice where the trucks’ headlights met in the middle of the circle. The guy who had the biggest speakers in the bed of his truck pointed his tailgate into the circle and cranked up the tunes. The weed was Mexican, the beer was Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the music was Charlie Daniels. You jus’ leave this long-haired country boy alone.

I know what Dorothy’s graduation party was like because it was just like mine, and just like every high school graduation party in the State of Iowa between the invention of the pickup truck and the invention of Ecstasy. It’s a certainty that our grad parties were on the same Saturday night and in every way identical.

But I made it home from mine. I had rich black Iowa topsoil in my underwear and I coughed up brown phlegm for a day, but I made it home. Dorothy didn’t. Dorothy’s long haired country boy rolled his pickup in a ditch on the way home from her party. I don’t know what happened to the boyfriend, but Dorothy’s third cervical vertebra was crushed. She was paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of her life.

Even now, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City are the only long term tertiary care facilities in the State. Anybody gets hurt real bad out in the bean fields they come to Iowa City for treatment. Somebody hurt as bad as Dorothy comes to stay.

But not as an inpatient. A patient like Dorothy gets parked in a nursing home close to the sixteen huge buildings of the UIHC campus, close enough to get to the ER quick if she vomits Ensure into her tracheostomy tube and starts to choke. There are a couple of dozen nursing homes within half a mile of the big hospital, and Dorothy got put into Briarwood Manor, which happens to be on Greenwood Drive, right across the street from the house I grew up in.

It’s also the house I moved into when I brought my Thai wife and my two luk kreung back from Thailand in 1997. (I can hear you. “Finally,” you’re saying, “I thought he was never going to talk about Thailand.”)

I was doing pretty well on Phuket in the 1990’s, in fact I have just finished doing my 2014 taxes, so I can tell you that I made 6,000 more dollars on Phuket in 1997 than I did in Iowa last year. But even making as much money as I did in those days I could never have afforded the international schools on Phuket, and I did not want my kids to grow up in the Thai public schools. And truth be told, after seven years I was getting just a little tired of living in Thailand. In 1996 my Mom retired to New Mexico and left the house on Greenwood Drive standing empty. In 1997 Chavalit Yongchayut floated the baht, everything I owned lost half its value overnight, and I knew it was time to go home to the house on Greenwood Drive. There’s always good government work at the big hospital, and if the kids were going to go to school in Iowa they needed to learn English.

So we came “home” and every day from the fourth-of-July, 1997 until the fourth-of-July, 2014 I would leave the house I grew up in and walk down the street I’d grown up on to the place where I got my first after school job when I was 13. And every weekday, once in the morning and once in the evening, for most of two decades, I walked past Briarwood Manor.

The first day I had my way with Dorothy’s medical record I stopped on Greenwood on the way home and stared across the street at Briarwood Manor. The windows were filmed (that’s HIPAA too) but I could imagine what the dim, tiny, Lysol-scented rooms were like. And in one of them, maybe that one at the end, was Dorothy, the woman born on the same day as me, in a bed she’d occupied since the night of our high school graduations.

There were bird feeders outside some of the windows, so I assumed that it was easier to see out those filmed windows than see in. I wondered if the nurses would sometimes raise the head of Dorothy’s bed and face her to the window, so she could watch the birds, and the seasons change, and the people who came and went on Greenwood Drive. If that was the case, Dorothy had to know me. I walked the same path at exactly the same times every weekday, year after year after year, as my hair turned white and my belly grew, trudging along through shoulder-deep snow drifts or clouds of mosquitos the size of sparrows.

Dorothy was already in a bed in Briarwood when Jimmy Carter was elected, and I spent the years of Mr. Carter’s administration living in my Mom’s basement as I attended the University of Iowa, one year an art major, one year a literature major, two years a theatre major, already trudging up and down Greenwood Drive every day, and every day Dorothy was flat on her back in that bed.

The Reagan years, which I spent in New York City, a prop man in the film industry, making 100,000 dollars a year and snorting every dime of it up my nose, Dorothy was in that bed. Motionless. Able to speak, able to hear, able to see, able to taste, able to feel when her grim-faced, bible clutching relatives brushed her lips with theirs, an event which probably happened less and less as the years went by, as the older ones died and the younger ones just couldn’t face the creepiness of spending time with Aunt Dorothy. She could feel it when her Mom, whose eyes I’m sure held just as much pain at her last visit as they did that night in 1975, washed and brushed Dorothy’s hair for the last time. But she was unable to feel anything, anything at all, when the nurses clipped her toenails, bathed her, inserted her tampons, or wiped her ass.

The year Bush 41 was elected, when I read and loved a book called “A Woman of Bangkok,” and thought that was reason enough to give up a city I loved and a job I loved to move permanently to Thailand, she was still in that bed. The year I spent living in a grass shack on Kata Beach, smoking anything that grew and screwing everything that moved, she was in that bed.

The five months and ten days I lived on Chalong Bay with Neung, the best days of my life, the days that changed me forever, Dorothy was still in that bed.

The day I married Mem at Wat Getho, because I thought if I didn’t love her she couldn’t hurt me, Dorothy was still flat on her back in Briarwood Manor on Greenwood Drive. In the ten years that followed, years Mem spent gleefully proving that she could certainly hurt me, Dorothy was in that bed, being turned left and right every hour on the hour to stave off the inevitable bed sores.

The days my children were born in Ranong, the day we flew back to Iowa, their first days of kindergarten at Roosevelt Elementary School (across the street from Mom’s house and next door to Briarwood), Dorothy was in her bed. Motionless. By now eating through a tube, breathing through a tube, shitting and pissing through tubes. But awake, alert, and oriented to person, place and time. Maybe looking out her window at the side yard of the house I now thought of as mine and not my mother’s, watching my kids on their swing set or in their tree house, watching them climb the driveway to Roosevelt each morning, Hello Kitty book bags giving way to Sponge Bob and finally Harry Potter, growing bigger year by year.

The horrible years of the divorce, when Mem showed me that she could not only hurt me, she could cripple me for life. The years I got to see my kids only 8 days a month. The years of crushing debt, of unemployment, of therapy, of the shame that made me avoid contact with my family, of self loathing that made me walk through Iowa City’s streets at 3 in the morning night after night because I was afraid of what I would do if I spent another night alone in that house on Greenwood Drive. Dorothy was right across the street, in her bed, every dreary day and horrifying sleepless night of it.

When my youngest child guaranteed that grandma would pay for college by announcing that she’d committed herself to a study of Judaica, and in the same breath crushed her mother’s heart by declaring she had “less than no interest” in anything Thai, Dorothy was in her bed across the street.

When my oldest child, my movie-star beautiful boy, my Eagle scout, went to jail for dealing weed, a drug he had smelled on his father’s breath, hair and clothes since the day he was born, Dorothy was across the street, lying in her bed, looking out the window.

And finally, on the fourth-of-July, 2014, the day I packed everything I owned into a 1993 Honda Odyssey with room to spare, and left for New Mexico to be with my 80-year-old mother, who was living alone with a one-eyed cat in a trailer on the edge of the desert, Dorothy might have been looking out her window to see me back the van out of the driveway and roll down Greenwood drive, to cross the railroad tracks and disappear from Iowa City forever. Maybe she mouthed a silent, “Goodbye.”

Now I walk for miles in the desert almost every day. There’s fuck all else to do in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I walk past the wind-blown plastic shopping bags caught on cactus thorns, past the piles of beer cans and shotgun shells (I guess that’s what a graduation party is in New Mexico), out to where there are no roads and no signposts, where it’s just me and the sand and the silence. Another wandering Jew in the empty desert.

I walk for hours, until the sun is on the horizon and I’m dehydrated and exhausted, and then I turn around and begin to walk home. Some day I’ll misjudge, and I’ll be too dehydrated and exhausted and the sun will go down too fast and the temperature will drop and I’ll be out there under the unbelievably brilliant moon and stars in a sweat-soaked T-shirt that will freeze to my body in fifteen minutes. Another old man who misjudged the desert and paid with his life. Once his face was on billboards over Sukhumvit, now his face is a pile of coyote turds.

But until then, as I lay my boot prints down in the dust like Neil Armstrong in places no man has gone before (judging only by the lack of beer cans), I am living in my head in a nice little brick bungalow on Kata Beach with a woman named Neung. The most important five months and ten days of my life has become the place I’ve gone when the past two decades have gotten too rough to handle. In my head Neung and I have done amazing things, we’ve travelled the world and made hundreds of friends, we’ve raised children and retired and grown old and wise together. Together we wrote a book about the tsunami in 2004, which became the seminal volume of that event and remains in print to this day (in my head). But mostly, in my head, Neung and I have spent the last 20 years sitting on the living room floor under the ceiling fan, eating somtam with our fingers from a shared bowl. We’ve watched her favorite soap operas on the TV and we’ve walked on the beach. We’ve loved each other, in my head, every single day, without exception, for 20 years now.

And out here in the desert with chapped lips I mumble my contributions to conversations I have in my head with the faceless, nameless knuckleheads who contribute to Stickman’s blog. There are places in Thailand that exist only in my head, The Pension Grilparzer, the Wooley Gastropod. I sit in those imaginary bars and I talk with those imaginary men (without faces and names, how can they be real?) and I tell them what’s what, I set them straight, by God, I let them know exactly where they got it wrong.

It’s pretty wonderful. I like the Thailand in my head. I like it a lot. It’s way better than anyplace else I’ve ever been. It’s better than the Bright Lights, Big City disco paradise of 1980 New York. It’s better than the real Thailand that I remember, better than the current Thailand that the knuckleheads (who, to their credit, are really there) describe. It’s better than the house on Greenwood Drive, and it beats the living hell out of the hot, empty Chihuahua desert that I blindly stumble through now.

And every day that I robotically pace the flat, monochrome, iron-hard floor of the desert, Dorothy still rests motionless in her bed in Briarwood Manor, where she’s been since 1975. I assume she’s still alive. I’ve looked for her obituary on line, but the little farm town she grew up in hasn’t had a newspaper since the 1990’s.

I no longer have access to the medical records at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, but something just tells me she’s still alive. I’m certain of it, in fact.

And I’m just as certain that she lives in her head just like I do.

If my dreams are the dreams of a 33-year-old man who gave up a rent controlled apartment on Broadway for a grass shack on Kata Beach, then Dorothy’s must be the dreams of a 17-year-old farm girl on the last night of her childhood, leaning into the shoulder of a young man fishtailing his Ford F-150 down the narrow ribbon of gravel between two bean fields. She’s certain she loves him, but the young man has had too much PBR and he is only a minute away from flipping his truck in the ditch.

I think that in Dorothy’s head he never flipped the truck, and now she lives with that young man in one of those two-story Montgomery Ward kit houses that sprang up like milkweed across the Midwestern prairies in the 1930’s. The house sits on a thousand acres of soya beans and corn, with a thick windrow of poplar trees on the north side and her kitchen garden on the south. There’s a big sheet metal equipment barn, a concrete corn silo, a long low cow barn with attached milking shed, and a sowing house. It’s a lot of work, but both of her sons chose to stay on the place and help their Dad grow the business. Her long haired country boy is older now, thicker, but steadier and more responsible. He carefully scrapes the pig shit off his boots in the mud room before he comes into her clean kitchen to eat the pork chops from last December’s butchering and the snap beans she grew in her garden.

While I’m dreaming of the yachts motionless on the glass-smooth water of Chalong Bay, of the cool humid air that blows in off the bay with dawn, and as I dream of Neung standing in a wet sarong in front of her closet choosing her first outfit of the day, Dorothy dreams of white linens drying on the line outside the kitchen window, of the smell of a year’s worth of corn drying in the silo, and her grandmother’s quilt on the day bed covering her napping grandchild.

The Buddha says that what we see of the material world is an illusion, a shadow of reality brought to us by a mere five woefully inefficient senses. Cats see more than us, dogs smell more, bats hear more, snakes taste more. The universe that we cannot see, hear, feel, taste or touch is exponentially larger than the one we can.

What’s real, says the Buddha, is what’s in the mind. My life with Neung in our bungalow on Chalong Bay is more real to me now than the years of my life I spent with my ex-wife and children in the house on Greenwood Drive, and certainly more real than the years of terrible lonely nights I spent alone in that house. The voices of the knuckleheads in my imaginary Pension Grilparzer are more real to me than the silence of the desert. I know every cigarette burn on the old teak bar in the Wooley Gastropod. I barely see the desert. There’s not much to look at, anyway. Just rocks and dust, the stuff that dreams are made of.

There is less still to look at in Dorothy’s room in Briarwood Manor. Nobody sends Get Well Soon cards to a quadriplegic. No furniture because the nurses need lots of room to move around the bed. No TV because she can’t change the channels and the nurses are too busy to come in every half hour and ask her what she wants to watch. It’s not so much a bedroom as it is a container.

I’m sure that her little farmhouse, her strong, capable husband, her grandmother’s quilt and the sleeping grandchild tucked under it, are her real life.

We are all, every single one of us, a prisoner in a cell made of the eight bones of the human cranium. Dorothy, born the day that I was born, who had a high school graduation party just like mine, who has spent more years than me living on the street on which I grew up and raised my children, is not my Doppleganger.

She is my cell mate.

And on this day maybe the nurse who turns her is new, she gets flustered and rolls Dorothy on top of her urostomy tube. There’s a tug deep in her bladder that Dorothy can not perceive, but the nurse’s curse and rather rough readjustment of Dorothy’s withered torso and contracted limbs are enough to bring her out of her cozy kitchen and drag her attention back to the bitter smelling room in Briarwood. She sees that it’s spring outside her window, and there seem to be new people living in the green house across the street, where the fat man with the white hair used to live.

For a moment, she wonders whatever happened to that guy. She thinks, “He never looked happy.” Then the nurse has got her settled on her right side, she’s put fresh bags on the ends of Dorothy’s tubes, sprayed a little air freshener around, and left her alone. Dorothy smiles, and goes back to rolling out the cookie dough in her warm kitchen. The little one will be hungry when he wakes up.