You’ve had ten years to tell me everything you know about the Atchafalaya Swamp, the mangled devastation of its buffer marshes, the spectacular ascension of egrets and two- winged anhinga. Remember sliding shirtless into the hospital bed while I was circling the drain at Kaiser Permanente? The man in the gorilla suit driving the small convertible on TV was actually Robert Wagner, whose middling skills were noblized by the death of Natalie Wood, she of the alabaster hands and green bikini. Love cannot be our tragedy. Recall how, while cracking my cast like an icicle, the night surgeon said: The more you love, the more you turn into an object, a beloved horse standing in the rain.
I was bleeding profusely at Kaiser Permanente, sky-high on morphine like the sad vampire in Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla. Why must age and degradation always stick together like fungus on a rock? Thank god you came along to braid my hair and play checkers, just like old times, before the polar bears were dying and we all got poor without even trying. On clean hospital sheets, we re- enacted July 20,1969, where I was the moon and you were the lunar module. The night surgeon arrived with my missing digit in a soup bowl and said: Kids, we may not be able to see the stars from this window, but they’re there.
It was the fourth quarter of the Badger-Buckeye game and I smashed the neutrality rule eleven times in the psych ward at Kaiser Permanente. The QB landed a hook and ladder pass, I dissolved a little Librium under my tongue and the night counselor talked about emotions. Big or small, emotions were cocaine and I craved a billion while poor Vivian got pre-defeated by a group hug. Counselor said: The speaking is easy but the feeling is hard. I was stuck in throes of accuracy, unplugging my childhood with unimproved love. Man down! Man down on the field, Bucky oompahed a cute tuba player, one more field goal to go and the kicker’s toe rose like a flag, true north and beautiful. Night counselor said: It’s a gift from god, motherfucker, no two ways about it.
I was having my heart started with sizzling paddles in the pale sinister halls of Kaiser Permanente and I was feeling revived as an old steel mill on the first day of a brand new war. Then you blew in with pictures of Indianapolis and your Meyer Lansky trench coat and what could we do but snuggle? There is something about a hospital that makes it easy to redefine desire as the absence of wires. The night surgeon tied up my loose ends and said: It would have been fun to be in Havana while Eartha Kitt sang When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes to a roomful of New Jersey gangsters but even romance can be ugly and survive.
I was riding high on my slim artificial limb courtesy of the good people at Kaiser Permanente. The way the prophets tell it, I had nowhere to go but up although it’s just as easy to go down with a hinge in your fibula. While I was forbidden to operate heavy machinery we found fresh ways to tingle. We drank the apple juice provided and banned conversations ending in why. The remaining bones grew fidgety and shy, wary of the stranger in their lives. The night surgeon arrived with extra-long socks and said: Sure, getting old is a process of getting burned but there’re always new words to find the hurt.
I was being revascularized in the aluminum canals of Kaiser Permanente and it was just what I imagine cannibalism would feel like. John Prine says that blood looks like shadows in a black and white video but I say it looks like blood. Make me a vessel, lord, not a sieve. From out of the long hallway of our marriage you appeared as Lancelot with a comic book and a fifth of gin. You ripped open the gray industrial drapes to let the erotic sunshine prick my skin, all lemon gone metallic, my superhero cape clipped for good. The night surgeon arrived with a vial of me. He said: did you know that human blood contains albumin? We can paint a Sistine masterpiece or simply cook it like an egg.
One night after you told me that anything that moves is headed for destruction, I ruptured a muscle trying to imitate a brain in action. Propped on orthopedic boxes in the terrycloth warmth of Kaiser Permanente, distance was collapsing between me and the lives of people I had never been. When I was my mother, I smoked Kools by the community pool, trying to remember the music that summoned the monster. You smuggled in salami on rye just as the night surgeon arrived with my file. He said: Lady, a treasure hunt will soon begin. Then you will see something interesting.
I was hard at work on the next generation of parks that featured naturalistic plantings in the ruins of grain silos along the spastic Mississippi when I was struck by lightning. Airlifted to the vestibular therapy ward of Kaiser Permanente, I twisted and wiggled like fiddleheads in the wind. You brought me the book of Rilke, his inner ear so finely tuned to insular human music trying to get out. For old times’ sake, the surgeon arrived with a pack of Lamictal and a small chalkboard that said: (in the immortal words of the Norse god Thor) when the thunder roars, go indoors.
I was at the stadium protesting the new national sadness, cheering improved human relations and solar power when I was knocked cold by a pop fly and revived with ammonium nitrate behind the olive curtain at Kaiser Permanente. You saw the razor in all this rising and falling, my womanly loneliness caramelized in blood. No crybaby, no waiting for fastidious grief. I made a vow to give up my Chekhovian sense of loss and you promised to build me a miniature beach complete with pelicans and pirate’s gold. The night surgeon measured the lump on my head with calipers, decrying geometry and past times for the masses. Running in circles is not how to start a revolution, he said. That’s just how to hit a girl in glasses.
I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding Tolstoy’s heroine, exalted first then broken by a moment of happiness. Marriage is waxed with accident, contingency and birds that seem to mean more than what they are. I had just lost my hand building a makeshift village for ideological people; you opened your arms like a wound. Easily triaged at Kaiser Permanente, from my room we could hear patients cheering the new president’s motorcade on its way to the beach. The night surgeon placed a takeout order for some kung pao shrimp and another prosthetic. Hey, you want see some magic, kids, he asked. There’s nothing we can’t replace with something else.
Jennifer Willoughby’s poems appeared in Court Green, Rhino, Conduit, Spinning Jenny, Indiana Review and elsewhere. Her first collection—for which the “Kaiser Variations,” she says, “form a semi-steely backbone”—is seeking a publisher. She lives in Minneapolis and writes advertising copy “for anything that wants it.”