We lived next to a hospital. I looked out
the window, treating it like a TV screen.
I was the show, and the blades of grass: millions of men watching me
peek through the blinds after I heard sirens. My feet were hot.
The ﬂoor was lava. The games I played involved pain
when I didn’t know the secret on how to fall asleep—How fast
could I pick a scab? How many hairs could I remove
from my scalp? What it would be like if I tore off
a tuft of my teddy bear’s fur, shoved it up my right nostril,
and dug it out with one ﬁnger? Past my bedtime in the winter,
his hair got stuck. I walked to my parents’ locked door—
a drawbridge sealing in questions like what were you thinking
and what got into you. Answer: some method to calm me down.
I knocked near the hinges that squeaked, twisted the knob—
my code of language trying to convey urgency.
Mom let me in, looking confused. And so was I—
a stalemate of shyness, which is what
a parent and child eventually must break apart;
the one too terriﬁed to ask, one too ashamed to ask for help.
I confessed that I couldn’t stop myself. Mom gave me a new word:
obsession: it’s like a windup toy that doesn’t stop
making that buzzing noise; an over-and-over stress:
a bad guy we couldn’t catch. Dad woke up and they led me
to their bathroom I wasn’t allowed in. Mom couldn’t bear to look,
so Dad became the surgeon. He used a nasal aspirator, which left me
more congested. My tears were no longer of shame, but now
fear and pain. Dad got out a long pair of scissors, the blades
like knives, like ﬁngers, and he held my head down on the rug
in front of the toilet bowl. He said scalpel and Mom handed him
a nose-hair trimmer after the scissors couldn’t reach. I can still feel
the cold steel, buzzing and snipping, nothing working. Parenting,
I learned, is trial and error. And failure. They said, son,
just blow your nose. But using Kleenex was a skill to me
at that time, like tying my shoes or swimming in a pool—
I was no good. I started hyperventilating
louder than the furnace clicking on, a familiar sound
that helped me sleep. We went to the ER: a waiting room
full of dead ferns, out-of-circulation magazines,
and hurt people hurt by hurt people, my mother recalls.
They quickly called for us to enter one of the curtained-off rooms.
An intern came, heard our story, left,
and came back with a skinny pair of tweezers
the size of two spoons stacked on top of one another.
Up my nostril it went, and he pulled out a six-inch-long hairball.
A child can hide so much in secret,
accumulating blockages that restrict breathing,
the mass of the problem shocking their parent. This wouldn’t be
the last time I, embarrassed, held something
for long enough to put me in a doctor’s care right before it was
too late. For ten years I held an orb in my abdomen
only visible to who sought it out—me, my lover, and the doctor
and his two interns, staring at my naked body.
When I told my mother, she was furious
my pediatrician didn’t notice in the past, feeling like she failed.
And that made me feel guilty—the neediness of my body
resulting in another medical bill, another worry
for my mother, who had to drive down to Chicago for my surgery.
The procedure took half an hour, but it felt like I was asleep
for three days. And for three days, we stayed in a hotel
as I recovered, swapping out ice packs on my stomach,
trying to describe the feeling. It was exactly like what it was—
like a cherry tomato was taken out of my belly before it turned cancerous.
And the stitches weren’t healing. Mom also used to have scars
on her midsection. From the C-section when she
had me. I asked her how it felt and she replied
relief. I was born three months early,
she said. I was glad we both made it out
alive. Parenting: deriving from the Latin parēns:
to bring forth.
Or: to go ﬁrst.