Michael Seymour Blake
I have this scar on the right side of my neck.
It’s at the middle of my neck. It’s about 3/4 of an inch long. It’s a faded, dull red. When I touch the area around the scar, I feel a tingling down the back of my shoulder. That’s from the surgery. Nerve damage, possibly. The scar is prone to irritation. Even now, six months later, when I catch a glimpse of it in the mirror I’ll imagine my body rotting away. I’ll start sweating. I’ll think, Maybe they missed something.
Two doctors told me the bumps I’d discovered on my neck were no big deal. Still, I needed another opinion. My girlfriend Chelsey said I was being ridiculous, that I was wasting my time and money. I told her she was probably right, then made an appointment.
See, I have anxiety. It kind of controls me in every way imaginable. When I was first “diagnosed,” having an anxiety disorder sounded so benign. In reality, anxiety can fucking ruin you.
Dr. Shelby had an Australian accent and shoulder length blonde hair and a thin face. She walked in the room and I squeaked out a “hello,” my voice breaking a little. She told me to relax. I shifted and squirmed in my seat, the exam room paper crinkling like a diaper. She squirted some shit in my nose, then stuck a camera up my nostril and down my throat. It didn’t feel great.
“See anything?” I said, but it sounded like gibberish and I choked a little.
“Don’t talk,” she said.
She took the camera out, then put cold gel on my neck and did an ultrasound.
“I didn’t see anything in the throat,” she said, “but you do have a lot of enlarged lymph nodes.”
I started to sweat. I sweat when I’m anxious about something. I sweat a lot. All the time.
“Could be nothing,” she said. “Let’s give it a month.”
I wanted to grab her jacket and scream “I’LL BE DEAD IN LESS THAN A MONTH YOU AUSTRALIAN FOOL!” but I said, “is it safe to wait that long? Am I in danger?”
“I think it will be fine.”
“A month then?”
Dr. Shelby looked confused when she saw me there a week later. She asked if something happened and I told her no, but could she check again in case anything changed. She pulled up a seat and felt my neck and said the lymph nodes were the same. I begged her to test me again.
My anxiety disorder overrides things like pride or embarrassment. You’ll say or do anything when you’re down the worryhole. People like me don’t have time to give a shit about making a good impression.
She did the test.
“Looks the same to me, hon,” she said in a soft, high voice, like she was speaking to a child. I cowered in the big exam chair, telling myself, You’re doing the right thing. You’re being thorough. Adults are thorough.
“Take it easy and I’ll see you soon,” she said.
She ruffled my hair a little, then scheduled a CAT scan for the following week.
I dry heaved in the bathroom a few times before leaving the building.
I didn’t do much besides watch TV and order shitty takeout. I did the bare minimum at work. When someone tried to converse with me, I’d give shitty one-word answers in a shitty tone until eventually people just didn’t bother anymore. They all decided that I was a shitty person, which I was. I was bitter and angry at their apparent good health. No one seemed to be going to the doctor for anything. At home, Chelsey and I fought like mad. She was sick of my damn obsessing and I was sick of her being sick of it and I was sick of myself in general.
All I talked about was cancer. All I read about was cancer. At night, I would stare at the ceiling for a while, then go into the living room and google cancer symptoms until morning. I researched blogs, medical sites, and even comment sections. Sweating. Nauseous. I would touch my neck in the shower, feel the little bumps under the skin, and repeat, “fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”
I sat in the waiting room shaking like a little shitty dog, huge black bags under my eyes. Then this young girl chewing gum brought me into a room where everything seemed to be humming. Even the chairs were humming. And cold. The whole place was cold and humming. She told me to take my clothes off and get into a paper gown.
A man about my age walked in. He seemed to be in a hurry. He smiled and nodded.
“First, I’m gonna give you a shot,” he said. “It may make your chest burn a little, but it’s OK.”
Burn a little? Why the fuck would it burn a little? What were the exact reasons my chest would burn a little after this stuff was injected into me?
“Why would it burn?” I asked.
“It’s just what it does,” he said. “It won’t harm you, don’t worry.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, staring at him all wide-eyed in my little paper gown, bare feet hanging over the side of the exam table.
“I do this every day,” he said.
“It’s just ‘cause I’m pretty nervous about having some kind of reaction, you know?”
Poor guy had no idea who he was dealing with.
“Yea, I understand,” he said, preparing the needle.
A pinch. He shot the stuff into my vein. I could feel it traveling down my arm.
“Now lay back. I’m going to turn the machine on and take some photos, OK? Just stay there and I’ll tell you when it’s done.”
“Is this dangerous?” I said. I was really letting him have it.
“Dangerous? Not at all. Come on, man.”
“It’s just all this radioactivity business. This stuff isn’t exactly safe. I mean, you leave the room for a reason, right?”
“It’s not enough to do any harm, man.” He was saying “man” a lot now. A sign of growing impatience with me.
“If you say so. How much you think it would take to, you know, really mess someone up?”
“A lot more than this, man.” His voice had some edge, and his lips curved into an annoyed grin. He was definitely going to joke with his technician pals about the paranoid psycho he dealt with today.
“OK,” I said, “but, like, could you give me numbers?”
He squinted at me. “You’re asking me for hard numbers on how many of these it would take to do damage to you?”
“Yes,” I said. No shame.
“Look, trust me, you’d have to do a ton of these for it to damage you in any way. Just lay back and sit tight.” He walked out of the room.
The table moved backwards until my head was positioned under a large, circular machine. The man’s voice came over the intercom. “You OK?”
“I guess,” I said. I couldn’t stop thinking about the radiation that would be pouring into my body or the shit he’d injected into me that may or may not cause a burning sensation in my chest for unknown reasons.
“Gonna start it now,” came the man’s voice.
The circular machine began to spin around my head. I closed my eyes, tried to stay calm.
“My chest is burning,” I said, sitting up.
The machine stopped spinning. A moment later, the door opened.
“Man, I told you that would happen. Why’d you get up?”
“Just need a second,” I said. Sweat had already soaked through my gown, leaving a body-sized stain of it on the exam room paper beneath me. Once the sweat starts, it’s all over. I become a slime monster.
“You’re killing me, man.”
“Sorry,” I said, wiping sweat from my forehead.
Dr. Shelby handed me a piece of paper. The results came back negative.
I pretended to review the words on the paper, nodding.
“So, that’s it then? I’m OK?” I said. I felt like falling to the ground and hugging her legs. I felt like doing backflips out of the building and throwing money at people while still doing backflips all the way to the subway.
“That’s it. We will monitor you for a few months just to be sure.”
“Monitor me?” Jesus. This wasn’t over.
“Well, there’s a slight chance the machine could have missed something.”
I left the building feeling the same as I’d walked in. Not a single backflip.
I tried not to think about my neck. I started talking about stuff other than my neck. I read a book. I started speaking to people at work again, started sleeping. Chelsey said she appreciated my progress.
Then I accidentally touched my neck one day. I had been avoiding touching my neck because I knew it would reactivate my anxiety. My lymph nodes were still there, big as ever.
I went into the bathroom, closed and locked the door. I felt guilty, like a Christian kid who just started masturbating or something. I fingered all around my neck, gasping for air. Were they bigger? I pressed around more. They were bigger. Cue the sweat. The machine had missed something for sure. Some submicroscopic infant of a disease was now stretching its infested limbs and yawning, ready to start its hysterical tantrum inside of me.
I dropped to my knees. My body felt light. Now that I thought about it, my pants had been feeling a bit looser than usual. I was losing weight, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it. I was sick, a goner.
The rational part of my mind, if there was one, faded into a fog. I’ll be dead in a week, I thought. I grabbed my phone and called the doctor.
The next day I was sitting with Dr. Shelby again. Good old Dr. Shelby and her Australian accent and her slender fingers poking at my neck.
“Have you been getting night sweats?” she asked.
I told her I’d been having them for years. Past doctors had blamed anxiety. She asked if the night sweats were getting worse. I said I wasn’t sure. I told her I was losing weight.
“Tell you what,” she said, “let’s just schedule a surgery and be rid of these questions once and for all.”
Surgery. Never had surgery before. I stared blankly at her. Life is messed up, and shit just happens to you and that’s it. There’s nothing you can do about it. All the death in the world lives inside of you. It’s in there, lurking between your organs, in your blood, in your DNA. There’s a disaster in every molecule just waiting to happen.
“Is this a serious surgery?” I asked.
“It’s fairly simple in most cases.”
“And you think it’s best that I have it?”
“Fuck. OK. Oh, fuck.”
“Don’t be nervous, you’re young. Everything will be fine.”
“Fuck. OK. I’m a goner, huh?”
“You’re not a goner.”
Every day and night leading up to my surgery seemed to linger. The sun hung around in the sky, forgetting to go down, then the moon overstayed its welcome. I kept count of the hours, minutes, seconds. I hated me. Sleep hated me. Everyone hated me.
My mom drove me to the hospital on the day of the surgery, and they prepped me and told me to take my necklace off. The thin, black cord met in a tight knot at the back of my neck, made tighter by eight years of water, sweat, and grime. It felt like a part of me. I tried uniting it with shaking hands. No good. After a few minutes one of the nurses gave it a shot. No good. She cut it off, put it in a Ziploc bag and handed it to my mom.
A few minutes later, I lay on the operating table surrounded by nurses and doctor’s assistants and whoever else, tube sticking out of my arm, wires attached to my chest. Everything seemed white.
A cylindrical piece of equipment hung from the ceiling and I stared at it without blinking for a long time. The heart monitor went beep, beep, beep, beep… People moved things around—metallic things that clinked and clanked. I shivered under the thin blanket covering me. It wasn’t cold in the room, but it felt like I had just stepped out of a shower during winter and the door was cracked open and I didn’t have a towel.
It took about five minutes to realize that the people in the room had forgotten I was there. Or maybe they just didn’t care. Or both. They began talking about personal things, non-surgery related things.
“Ben had to put his dog down yesterday.”
“I’m going out with Lisa again tonight. This could be serious.”
I stayed as still as possible, deciding not to make any noise or bring any attention to myself at all. Don’t cough, I thought when I felt I needed to cough. Don’t sneeze, I thought when I felt a tickle in my nose. I wondered if by lying very still and quiet in that white room for a long period of time, I could disappear and I wouldn’t need to be put under anesthesia and get surgery because I wouldn’t exist. Maybe somehow I would retain my consciousness and project it into the cylindrical piece of equipment hanging from the ceiling. I would be safe there, without a body to worry about. I would watch other people have their surgeries and I would look down into their nervous eyes and think, better you than me.
I wondered if I would have a heart attack. “Monitor stopped working,” someone would say. They would fuss with the machine a moment, not yet feeling any panic. “Weird, it seems fine.” Another person would look at me. I wouldn’t look right. “Are you OK?” they would ask. I wouldn’t say anything because I had died of a heart attack. The quietest heart attack in history. I wondered how they would explain it to the doctor. Maybe they would sound alarms and a bunch of people would come running in and my mom would be in the waiting room, only semi-aware that all the fuss was about her son who had just randomly had an anxiety-induced silent heart attack.
“What should we do with him?” someone asked, snapping me back into reality.
“Jesus,” someone else said. “Should we shoot him up? He’s been laying there a while.”
My heart pushed its way up my esophagus. I didn’t move.
“Doctor should be here soon, just do it.”
A woman in a white mask bent over me. “I’m going to give you something now,” she said. “I want you to count for me. Count to ten, OK?”
My voice came out in a childlike rasp. “I’m kind of nervous,” I said, feeling stupid.
“Nothing to worry about, just start counting.”
“How many people die from anesthesia? Has anyone had, like, complications while you’ve been in the room?”
“No, never,” she said, messing with something behind me. Probably getting the anesthesia ready. “Start counting,” she said.
I started counting. I saw stuff going into my arm. I felt a little woozy. I wondered if I could fight it. I tried.
I woke up surrounded by other patients in varying states of drug-induced confusion. My right arm was extended above my head—except it wasn’t. It only felt like it was.
I said, “Mom, my arm got stuck up over my head.”
“It’s at your side,” she said. “It’s fine.”
I tried to move my arm. Nothing happened. I looked down and saw my arm at my side and felt confused and kind of angry. I felt angry at my arm for not being where I thought it was.
I had to vomit. My mom helped me stand and I stumbled around asking where the bathroom was. I almost fell three times and said “sorry” out loud to no one. Then someone pointed to a door and said, “Hurry now. Hurry!” I must have looked awful.
In the bathroom, I vomited. Then I vomited again and one more time. I looked at myself in the mirror, saw thick gauze on the right side of my neck where they removed some lymph nodes. I poked at it, feeling nothing. I shrugged. I vomited some more.
That night I woke up with my brain on fire. I tried to touch my neck but pain shot down my right arm. I rolled out of bed, sweating and dizzy. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. A pale, slimy face stared at me and it was me and I was afraid. I looked at the egg-sized lump protruding from behind the bandages, which were almost coming off. A deep, alien redness flowed out of the lump, spreading across my skin like tendrils from another world. This was some Lovecraft shit.
I looked at my right arm hanging by my side. When I tried to move it, the pain brought me to my knees. I called my mom. 3 a.m. I told her what was going on and she said to try and rest. She said that we would handle it in the morning. I took four aspirin and lay in bed for a few hours, moaning and sweating, but most of all worrying.
I realized how little most of us know or understand about the human body. This could be a blood clot. This could be some kind of allergic reaction. This could be a killer bacteria breeding inside my cancerous lymph nodes. Chelsey would find me in the morning and my neck would be twice the size it was supposed to be and I would be her traumatic life event—the story she told future boyfriends. “I once dated a paranoid lunatic who died of neck-eating alien bacteria. And also cancer.”
I called in sick at 8 a.m. and waited in bed until about 9, then called my mom. Chelsey went to work so I was on my own. My mom said she’d call me right back. I stood in place staring at my phone, hands trembling. I thought about the results of the test. I thought about how long it would take to find out if I had cancer or not. Every second lingered.
I started reviewing my situation. If I wasn’t sick, then how was I going to pay for the surgery? Had I met my deductibles for this year? Would the anesthesia be covered in my plan? I was already in medical debt for other procedures—procedures that everyone told me weren’t necessary. They all felt nice and safe in their little biological potato sacks, but the human body can turn on you in seconds. The human body is not predictable. Other things are predictable. Like milk. Milk is predictable. If you leave it out or let it age, it turns sour. The human body can turn sour without warning.
My mom called about five minutes later. Dr. Shelby told her what was happening to my neck wasn’t normal. She said the pain I was feeling was probably due to her having to “move the muscle around more than she thought she would need to” during surgery, but the redness and swelling weren’t a good sign. She said to go to the emergency room.
Chelsey met me at the hospital and we waited there for a few hours. We ate sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria.
“Stop talking about your neck.”
I had been talking about my neck since we arrived at the hospital.
“But what if it does turn out to be cancer?”
“Doubt it’s cancer. You need a head doctor more than anything.”
“You always say that.”
“And I’m always right.”
“Few times you weren’t right,” I said, looking at the sandwich crumbs in my lap.
“Remember when you had Parkinson’s?”
“I still get twitching,” I said. “I’m not convinced those tests were accurate, and it’s really hard to diagnose. Look it up.”
“What about skin cancer?”
“That mole was fucked up looking and you know it.”
“How was I supposed to know a back injury could lead to crotch discomfort?”
“Candida blood infection.”
“I’m still looking into that.”
“Whatever,” she said, “it’s your money, I guess.”
Someone came and brought us up to a seemingly abandoned floor of the hospital. We walked into the only occupied room. The person who brought us there disappeared. A man with thinning gray hair sat behind a desk. He didn’t look up. He just kept furiously writing stuff down on a bunch of forms. Those forms were damn important. I never saw what he looked like, so I will always remember him as thinning gray hair with arms. That gray hair with arms was busy saving the world or something. I dared not interfere.
“Every functioning part of a hospital should have people doing stuff in it,” I said to Chelsey. “People should be running around or sitting down or lying in beds or walking around on cell phones looking worried. Otherwise, it’s just weird.”
I peeked out into the hallway. Nothing. A light on here and there, but not a sound. Not a soul. We waited for almost an hour, hot and miserable in that stuffy room. I gotta hand it to the thinning gray hair with arms—he was a damn good worker. Never stopped for a second, never even produced a single bead of sweat.
A pale woman appeared, seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Probably lived on this floor or something and was rarely exposed to direct sunlight. A ghost nurse. “Follow me please,” she said. She brought us to a different room with a big exam chair.
I got on the big exam chair and the Ghost Nurse removed my bandages and did an ultrasound. Every touch, even the air itself, was like a hell-shower on my neck. I felt naked without my bandages and I worried about infection.
I asked Ghost Nurse a bunch of questions, none of which she had any answers to. She just kept saying, “The doctor will review that with you.” I think she only knew the phrases “follow me please,” and “the doctor will review that with you.” I guess that’s all she needed to know to get by. When she was done she said, “follow me please,” and led us back to the waiting room downstairs.
“Wait here please,” she said, surprising me with this latest addition to her repertoire.
Chelsey and I sat in the most uncomfortable chairs in the universe.
“What’s it look like?” I asked Chelsey, sticking my gross neck in her face.
“Gross,” she said.
“But, like, is it open? The wound, I mean.”
“It looks like a huge red thing with a slit in the center. It’s really disgusting. Please get it out of my face.”
“What if I catch an infection and die?”
“I don’t think you will.”
“But what if I do?” It was still in her face.
“What if the doctor, like, really messed up my neck muscles and I can’t ever turn my head to the right again, or what if there’s some kind of internal bleeding that doesn’t manifest until next week and I die in my sleep?”
I was starting to freak out when someone came for us. They said the doctor was ready now. We went into a room where a thirtyish-year-old man stood. He said hello. He seemed annoyed and tired. His eyes were empty. Kind eyes that were just out of gas.
I asked him what was happening to my neck.
He said, “Could be your lymph node is irritated and swollen.” I had no idea a lymph node could get that big. He put gloves on and touched my neck. He put a finger on my neck, but it was like a knife and he stabbed it into my throat and sliced it up and down and cut my head off and roundhouse kicked me in the stomach. He said, “I’m going to squeeze just a little now.”
His hands turned into sharp teeth that tore at my neck. He massacred me. I gripped at the chair, feeling my fingers go numb. I made little noises like I was lifting something heavy.
“Looks like seroma,” he said. “Odd. We’ll have to drain it.”
“What the hell is seroma?”
“It’s basically bad inflammation and liquid buildup from your body. Not very common after surgeries like yours, but there it is.”
“Is it serious?”
“It can be, but we’re going to take care of this right now.”
He asked a nurse to get gauze, “plenty of it,” and began kneading and squeezing. The pain spread until the entire right side of my neck felt raw and red hot and wet. Hell-shower. Little black-out dots started swarming around the corners of my eyes. He went at it for about ten minutes saying things like, “oh yea, you have a lot in there,” and “almost finished.”
Chelsey held my hand, her face all messed up as she watched, then she turned away. By the time he finished, a pile of sopping, bloody, plasma-soaked, body-fluid-covered gauze sat on the tray next to him. A giant volcano of slime and gore.
They re-bandaged my throbbing neck and sent me home. I slipped into bed, lying in a weird, shitty position, too exhausted to move. I fell asleep despite the pain. I slept through the night in a weird, shitty position.
Here are some things that happened over the next few days:
Talked about cancer to Chelsey.
Pissed off Chelsey.
Obsessively researched cancer.
Felt guilty about never doing anything important to be remembered by.
Lost a ton of sleep.
Looked like a crackhead.
Unsuccessfully tried to move my head around.
Felt intense pain when trying to move my head around.
Called my mom ten times a day to talk about dying.
Pissed off my mom.
Had panic attacks.
Sweat. Sweat a lot.
Called in sick to work.
Went to work, but didn’t do much and got in trouble.
Looked at my neck in the mirror for an hour or so a day.
Had intense, bizarre nightmares when I did fall asleep.
My phone rang. I let it ring a few times, not recognizing the number and knowing it had to be the doctor. I swallowed hard, answered.
“Michael? It’s Dr. Shelby. Results are negative. Benign. You’re in the clear.”
“Are you totally sure? Like, this is it?”
“This is it.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. We talked a little. She told me to see a therapist. Yeah, yeah. Sure. We said goodbye. I sat down on the floor. I called Chelsey. Told her. Called my mom. Told her. Called my dad, who I had only somewhat talked to about all this shit. Told him. I breathed a few times. Felt the oxygen go in my lungs and come out. My chest loosened up. The dusty apartment air felt clean and good.
I got up, walked into the bathroom. Looked in the mirror. My left eye seemed a little red, the lids a little puffy. I poked at the tender flesh. A drop of sweat slid down my forehead.
I shut the door.
Michael Seymour Blake is the author/illustrator of 12 Days of Santa Crying. His work has appeared at Entropy, Corium, Paper Darts, People Holding, Autre, and Reality Beach, among others, and he has work forthcoming from Fanzine and Hypertext. He has painted various murals around NYC, including one that was prominently featured at Silent Barn in Brooklyn, home to the new Mellow Pages Library. He lives in Queens. www.michaelseymourblake.com