by Patricia Perry
John Anderson reached into his medicine cabinet and as he did, the skin on his right arm pulled so tightly that it felt as if it might split open. He stopped in mid-air and tried to grip the bathroom sink, but with only partial fingers on both hands, trying to grip anything anymore was useless. Instead, he leaned against the sink and braced himself by using his palms. John had become adept in finding ways to adjust. He had to.
Once the searing pain passed, he tried again. He had to get his meds. Using what remained of his thumb and pinky finger on his right hand, he pulled out one of the many amber colored plastic bottles that contained his prescription drugs. He carefully opened the pill bottle with his teeth and held the plastic cap in his mouth while he gently sprinkled three pink pills into his left palm. He dropped the bottle cap into the sink and tossed the pills in his mouth. He picked up a short round glass with both hands, and chased the pills with a large gulp of vodka, so he could get them to work faster. John cautiously retrieved the plastic cap, snapped it back on the Dilaudid bottle and exchanged it for a bottle of anti-depressants. Using the same method, he managed to get two blue capsules down too.
Pleased with his ability and determination to complete the task independently made John remember how good he felt when he accomplished his goal of becoming a Medic in the United States Air Force. After his discharge, he had big plans to parlay his training into helping him get a scholarship to become an Ophthalmologist, like his father. That’s fucked now, he thought, angrily. Purposely avoiding looking in the mirror, John gently closed the glass door and left the room.
He crossed through his bedroom to the stairway that led downstairs to the main floor. As he descended the steps, he could hear the distant roar of the vacuum cleaner coming from the living room. So much for watching t.v., he thought. He took a detour through the kitchen and out the sliding glass doors to the well-tended backyard. After positioning himself on one of the chaise lounges near the swimming pool, he laid his head back and tried to relax. He thought about when he was in the hospital getting shots of Dilaudid and how quickly they brought relief. Goddamn pills. He took another sip of the vodka, and wished that he had refilled his glass before coming outside.
His need to get out of pain led John to start the relaxation exercises he had learned. Relax and let go. Take a deep breath through your nose, and blow it very slowly out through your mouth. Relax and let go. Take a deep breath-
Just as John was beginning to get into rhythm, his mother interrupted him.
“John, are you asleep?” she asked.
“No, mom, I’m just trying to make it through the pain,” he replied.
“Oh, my poor boy, is there anything I can do to help?”
“Would you pour a little more vodka into my glass?” he asked.
“John, you know you’re not supposed to be drinking alcohol with those pills. Dr. Ludlow expressly said-”
John cut her off before she could begin lecturing him. “I know, mom, but Dr. Ludlow doesn’t know shit about the amount of pain I’m in and how long it takes for those goddamned pills to work.”
“Still, she continued, “If you have to drink, how about if I bring you a beer instead?”
“Mom, please. I know it can be harmful. Remember, I am….I mean, was a Medic. I know how much of what is dangerous. I’m just in pain and I need help to feel better.”
“Maybe you should call Dr. Ludlow and make another appointment to talk to him about increasing the dose or going back to the shots,” she suggested.
“I’ve already asked Dr. Ludlow about increasing the dose. He said ‘no’”.
“Okay, I’ll bring you a little more, but before I do, you’ve got to promise that you won’t drink any more vodka today. If you absolutely have to have some alcohol to make the pills work, then you’ll only have a beer.”
“It’s a deal,” John replied. He tried to pick up the glass to hand it to her, but Joan grabbed it first.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
“Thanks, mom,” he said.
“Oh – before I forget,” she said, “The reason I came out here was to tell you that it’s almost time for your massage.”
“Already?” he asked. “Well, I sure hope the pills kick in before that!”
Joan disappeared into the house to get the refill. As he laid there, John’s mind drifted to his former girlfriend, Patti. He could see her face as clearly in his mind as if she was standing right in front of him. She was beautiful, but not in a conventional way. She had the most incredible deep-set gray eyes, but behind them, there was a deep sadness, that made him want to protect her. Her smile was crooked, but lovely; and when she smiled, it lit up her entire face.
John felt the all too familiar sting of sadness as he found himself remembering the wounded expression on Patti’s face when he confessed that he had been having a fling with one of her close friends. Instead of apologizing, he told her that he needed “a break” and the next morning, he left for a weekend fishing trip with his best friend, which led to the car accident on Highway 12 that forever changed his life.
When Joan returned, she could see that John had closed his eyes. She didn’t want to disturb him again if he was doing his relaxation exercises or wake him if he had managed to dose off. She set the glass down on a small round table and waited to see if he would acknowledge her presence. When he didn’t respond, she returned to her duties inside the house.
John wasn’t sleeping but he didn’t want to speak to his mother. The Dilaudid had finally started to work and he wanted to experience the feeling of being without pain, even if it was only for a short time.
He had been asleep the day his friend rolled the car though. When he awoke, he was surrounded by flames, and his shirt was on fire. He knew he had to escape. It was when he tried to open the car door that he burned his hands. John almost gagged as he recalled the stench of his own flesh burning inside the wall of thick black smoke. The rest was a blur until he woke up in the Burn Unit a few days later. After months of painful operations and therapy, he was finally released to come home.
Patti came to visit him every other day; and would have spent her life with him in spite of his injuries. One day, after a particularly emotional visit, John lied to her and told her that he didn’t want her in his life anymore. Why should he hold her to him when he would never be the man he was?
John turned on his side so he could use both hands to lift the fresh glass of vodka to his lips. He could feel himself choking back his anger when he once again caught sight of hands with fingers that were removed down to the knuckle. He took a big gulp of the drink and carefully returned it to the table. He turned back over on his back and closed his eyes. He knew his mom would be coming out soon to massage his arms and shoulders to keep the grafted skin pliable. He hoped the Dilaudid would keep working at least until that was over.
This was his world now. A constant cycle of pain, and the memories of what might have been. He didn’t know if he could survive it much longer.