In the great applauseless, 3 a.m., early gray of suburban Maryland, there’s just the steady drone of the streetlights outside my hotel window. I’m only an hour ahead in time zone but I feel miles and hours away from home and Emily, who has stayed behind because she can’t fly because the baby will be here soon. A weird disconnect crawls across my body and gives me a chill. I shiver in the gray light, my bald head cold. I’m just awake. It was sudden and there was nothing to do about it. Eyes open. Body ready. “Fuck,” I told myself. I looked at my phone to see the time, and I asked, “Seriously?” to whoever was listening.
From my tenth floor window I see a small BP station going full glare and an ugly row of strip mall that rises three levels and cancels out, just barely, the pretty little white houses just beyond it. The strip mall is all ai r-conditioning units on its roofs from my position, but I can see parts of the doors where the white lettering of what each place does or sells, for example: “Wigs,” “Nails,” or “Tan.” Out in the distance the horizon blooms, like smoke furrowing up out of a volcano, because of what seems like a rolling explosion of hundreds of green trees. Sometimes between them one can see the steeples of churches or the tallest peaks of large homes somewhere in the gloaming. I think about pulling the shades open but cannot for some reason, so I stand there in my underwear, a blanket wrapped around my shoulders staring through the crack in the shades I’ve made, just enough for my face.
The air-conditioning unit at my knees hums. It’s very cold, blowing cold air up my crotch and dripping onto the carpet, the floor damp at my feet.
There are very few cars on the street, cabbies working late shifts, driving aimlessly through Bethesda to D.C., on Wisconsin Ave and back again, waiting for the sun to come up in their forlorn cars, windows rolled down because the place is like a swamp with the humidity already, even at 3 a.m. I can feel it at the window. Other than the drone of the streetlights, it’s a vast nothing. Like before the world came into being, some sense I have of otherworldliness that keeps me there watching and waiting. The room behind me is black. Like if I were to close the shades in front of me I’d be made dumb by dark; and so I wait like this. I think I’ll wait out the sun, which will come up on the other side of the building and send wonderful rays of pink light all across the early morning gray and then the sun will do its job and burn off the dopey gray that sits on us. I know I won’t make it because it’ll be at least another hour or more, and so I close the blinds and let myself fall back into what I perceive to be total darkness.
The day before I had tests all day at the National Institutes of Health. I had a 7:00 a.m. flight to Reagan National delayed out of O’Hare, and so I had to catch the very next flight out to make my appointments on time. When I finally found a cab at Reagan, I found myself with a cabbie who proceeded, after he asked me what my business in town was, to tell me every one of his family members who had cancer. It was a very long list — they were an unlucky lot — but there it was, everyone he’d known with too many cancer cells. He told me, “These were all very strong men, you see. Bulls, you must know. Bulls. All of them.”
I couldn’t totally understand him because his accent was thick — a still uneasy mix of American English and Arabic. At times his language was hard and others it was free and flowed like a great river. He was from some war-torn African country and had come here as a 19 year-old, I’d found out without asking, six years ago and had never left the area. He’d found a very good living driving cabs. “All of us. My uncle, My great uncle, my cousins. We make modest living,” he told me.
Anyway, he went on about cancer, “These men went through — how you say — chemotherapy?”
“Yes,” I told him. “You’re right. Chemotherapy.”
“Yes. Yes. These men lost all of their hair,” he told me as he re-adjusted his rearview mirror so that his line of sight was just me and not the road behind us. Occasionally he looked at the road, but it was mostly he and I. All the windows of the cab were rolled down to the max and he was yelling. The Potomac passed smoothly to the right as we rode up the George Washington Memorial Parkway and through what felt like a swamp land northwest of National Airport. I saw Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln’s memorials.
“So, all of them,” he yelled. “They lose their hair.”
I shook my head. I raised my hat to show him my baldness.
“Yes. Yes,” he yelled and pointed at my head. Then, “They get very sick, but they come out of it and live.”
“That’s great,” I told him, terrified to go through more rounds of tests, terrified there’d be new cancer everywhere. Like right then I was a dead man talking.
“What?” The wind whipped through the whole cab, shaking the car nearly out of our lane.
Louder, “Great. Great they lived. Good for them.”
“You know how this happened, yes?” He looked at me in the mirror. He had turned very serious. The whole mood in the car had changed all of a sudden.
He waved his hand away like my answer was a mosquito. He grew very animated. He turned around to tell me, “Ok. Three things. Eat well. Right action. Prayer. This is how they beat the cancer. It is the three things. It is so very easy to get caught up in what doctor’s say, their — how do you say? — I don’t know — what they tell you you have, how many months you have to live and on and on. But who are these men? Where do they come from, and how did they get here to you with such news? Who has sent them? They are not God.” He checked his mirrors and looked through the windshield then turned to me.
“I know it. I hear you,” I yelled. “They are not God.” I shook my head yes.
As we rolled on, in what seemed like a great easterly curve up and down hills, and deeper into what seemed like a jungle, the humidity choked me. I took off my sweatshirt that I wore on the plane to avoid the air-conditioning.
“You want air? I put on air.”
“No. No. This is fabulous.”
Out of nowhere, “So, you are Christian, right?”
“What?” he yelled at me.
“Baptized Catholic. But not Catholic anymore. Disagree. Long story.”
He looked at me sadly. “Then what? What are you? What do you pray?”
I tell him, “Listen, man. My wife, she’s Presbyterian. I do what she does. I like that church. It’s more liberal. It makes more sense to me.”
“Sense? What does this mean? What does this mean, liberal?”
The gray was being pushed out, and the sun was coming out. It was getting very hot. He was barely driving the car now. Somehow we were in and out of turns and moving forward. We were in the far right lane, maybe doing 50 miles an hour. Cars passed us and honked. Someone gave us the finger.
“I’m a little late for some tests,” I told him. “We need to go faster.”
“Traffic.” He waved his hand in the air.
“I don’t see any traffic.” The road was clear. At times we were the only ones on the road.
“What do you mean, liberal?” He asked again.
Fuck me. In an hour I’ll be sitting in some phlebotomist’s office getting massive amounts of blood drawn. A half-hour later I’ll be drinking a bitter, salty contrast drink for a CT scan, which, if you don’t know, is a test where they put you half naked on a board and then run you through what is essentially a large mechanical donut hole that takes radioactive pictures of your insides. They’ll shoot me up with IV iodine about halfway through the test, which will make me feel like I’ve pissed my pants and make my mouth feel like I’ve got a sack full of nickels in it. After that I’ve got to get a brain MRI, which is the real hell. They’ll lay me down again on some board and give me ear plugs. Then they put on those noise reduction headphones that airport workers wear to guard against the jet engines. They lay me back and then slide a steel mask over my face like we’re in the 11th century and I’m a heretic and some kind of imaginative torture is going to punish me and cleanse me of my sin. They push me into a deep tube, only about as big as the circumference of my own body. That’s when the pounding sounds and the high-pitched noises, like feedback from a Jimi Hendrix song, begin. It’s almost so intense in the forty-five minutes I’m forced to endure that I want to scream, “Get me the fuck out of here you masochistic bastards!” It’s enough to try, in those first forty-five minutes, to wiggle out and find the tech and kick his ass up and down the hallway screaming the whole time, changing pitch and tone, some feral scream, as I beat his brains in looking for some kind of impact, some kind of containment for the craziness that’s taking hold quickly. This all happens just as you hear a very far away but nonetheless sane static, which sounds like a human voice say, “ Only ten more minutes, Mr. Torch. You’re looking good. We’re headed home.” You laugh. You close your eyes to get through the rest.
And now I had a cabbie who wanted to go theological with me. I told him finally because he wouldn’t let up, “Like, for example, I’m not a fan of the ban on gay marriage or their views on homosexuality. It’s bigger than that, but let’s count that as one reason. How’s that?”
I’ll spare you the details, but he ran me through the logic of the Old Testament, God’s Law (“man should not kill other men and lay with another man’s woman, yes?”) and Jesus as Messiah, and how the Bible forbids man sleeping with man (“It says it. The Bible is Law. If you believe God you must follow God’s Law and God’s Law is the Bible, yes?”).
“Fuck me,” I think. “Seriously? Now?” The heavens open up outside the windows of the cab and suddenly we are cloudless.
Finally, as we near NIH, I told him, yelling, but not because of the highway, since we’re off of it, but because a whole day of tests is dawning on me, and I’m late, and I’ve got some strange cancer, and I want to kill someone most of the time these last few days, and I don’t want to know the results of the goddamned results, I told the Muslim-born now Born-Again-Catholic, the son of decades of colonial war, as he circles around looking for the entrance because the place is Federal and so heavily fortified, post 9/11, it seems they’ve hidden the entrance or made it seem like their deal is “We don’t want outsiders here,” I tell him, “Listen, man, and this is just my opinion, but here me out: I find that there’s no fucking moral equivalence between killing someone, like, you know, ‘thou shalt not kill,’ and some guy wanting to marry another man out of Love. That makes no fucking sense, and it goes against everything I think Jesus probably taught. But I’m no fucking expert.” My guy basically wasn’t driving anymore, and we were in a stare down as the car slowed to some bright orange cones that were blocking our path to the campus. A man with a clipboard and high impact glasses approached our car writing down the cab’s license number. “You know what I mean? We’re going to have to disagree on this one. You got me, captain?”
He stared at me in the mirror.
In a matter of minutes his whole cab was being searched. Dogs, teams of guys with guns and badges. Very serious men with poles that had mirrors attached to the bottom of them that were being used to look under the car for contraband or bombs or both. My guy had to go inside with a black bag they found in the trunk of his car, and I was like, “Motherfucker.”
I threw my hands up. I got out of the car and walked up to one of the search party’s members, a small black guy who was maybe 5’3” with the right pair of sneakers, wearing a bright yellow vest and a dark, foreboding black Federal outfit underneath. He was very wary of me as I walked to him. I had my hands up for some reason like I thought he’d think I was coming heavy, and I told him, “Listen, man, I usually don’t throw this card, but I’m a cancer patient here.” I raised my hat for proof — the bald head again. He looked, made a look, like despair (a family member? A passed friend?). He was deeply uneasy. I told him, hands still up in the air, “I’ve got appointments. I’m late for them now.” I pointed to the window of the room they got my guy in.
“And you want your cabbie. You need him now. You need to get to building ten stat. This is what you’re saying.”
“You got it.”
“Let me see what I can do.” He turned to go into the building.
Moments later my cabbie walked buoyantly out of the room wearing an ear-to ear grin like they had told him the secret of the world in the little, cramped place and the secret is just too chowderheaded not to grin.
We began our descent and out ultimate ascent to Building Ten where all the machines and the needles and the intensive care units and the cancer wards are.
“I’m sorry about all that,” I told him. “I didn’t know.”
“None of us know anything, yes? No worries, brother. This is the life.” He moved his hand across his cab but meant everything outside of it. He moved it slowly to really draw out hi point. It was both an epic and sweeping gesture. Every tree, every rock, every person, every park bench, the sun, the powder blue sky. He was blissful. I was confused. Ten minutes earlier we were in full theological debate. I looked at him in the mirror and he looked at me and then back at the road and smiled. Yes, that’s it, he was full of bliss. I smiled back.
Together we looked for the signs that said, “Building Ten.” We pointed this way and that. We were traveling evangelists or something. I was leaning forward, having broached the line between the front and back seat. If someone saw us they’d think I was telling him the oracle, I was so close to his ear and he intent on my vision, he blinking and smiling in the pale blue light. We found it together. Building Ten. We saw it high up at the top of the campus.
When we pulled up to the front entrance, he told me, as he ran my credit card, “You remember now. Eat well. Right Action. Prayer. God is All.” He handed me my receipt.
I nodded, tipped my hat like guys in westerns do, grabbed my bags, turned, and walked into the massive revolving door into the innards of NIH, as if sucked in by some Higher Power. It was a day of tests to see what the hell my cancer was doing 28 days to the day after a team of doctors gave me back my modified white blood cells, T-cells made crusaders.
to be continued …