Creative Nonfiction

EXPLORING THE BOUNDARIES

The human body: a horse gliding through a field. A monkey skipping between branches. A comet hurtling through the black moors of space. The human body can be these things, or anything, without pain.

Sontag famously declared that “everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick.” For some, illness is a visit to that other kingdom. For others, it is banishment, exile, a one-way ticket to a strange and unwelcoming foreign land.

The most famous debate about Darwin’s theory of evolution took place in 1860, at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. But the author was not there to defend his work. He was too sick.

It starts with a rash on her face, a florid rash that stains her cheeks and radiates outward like starlight. A doctor looks at her face through an enormous magnifying glass that turns him into a cyclops. He says it is nothing to worry about, but still orders a test of the immune system. The test is positive. She is referred to another doctor, Dr. A, a specialist, a doctor of the joints. Even though she feels well, even though she feels no pain.

The physician and scientist Paul Ehrlich, who invented the first effective cure for syphilis, insisted that the body could not harm itself. Horror autotoxicus, he called it, arguing that the immune system exists to make the body well. He did not believe that the body could engage in civil war.

Wildebeest were “discovered” in the eighteenth century by Dutch settlers in South Africa. Despite their fearsome name, they are not dangerous. They are antelopes! Why did the Dutch call them “wild beasts”? Because they did not know what they were.

Dr. A becomes her fellow traveler. On her first visit, he says, “You might get sick, or you might not. It is impossible to predict.”

Blank slate, black monolith, sheer cliff face. Sheer terror.

Her veins are small and difficult to find; they roll. The phlebotomist cannot get the needle in. She tries three times, and then gets someone else, someone older, more experienced. Apparently, the hospital has a rule about how many times one person can stick another with a sharp object.

Frida Kahlo’s art documented her pain. When she was eighteen, she was on a bus that was hit by a trolley. A metal rod pierced her pelvis and exited through her vagina; it broke her back. For the rest of her life, she had surgeries to relieve the pain. They failed.

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