Issue No. 19 • Spring 2018
*Previously published in Kristen Alexander
During the summer of 1988, I turned sixteen and had my jaw broken and reconstructed. Having been, I suppose, an interesting kind of pretty (the kind of girl that people said would grow into her dramatic looks), my face had taken a decidedly unfortunate turn in the last few years: my jaw was growing downward and none of my molars came together. In short, I had a nasty overbite. According to the oral surgeon, if I didn’t have surgery, I’d lose all my teeth by the time I was forty. My mother and father looked over the X–rays, received second and third opinions, and decided surgery was the best option. So, at the end of my sophomore year of high school, after eating nearly a whole pizza in a hospital bed before somehow going to sleep, I woke the next morning, took my first Valium, and headed into the OR. I should say that I always knew I was lucky. I was the kind of kid who understood the privilege of being able to have jaw surgery in the first place, worried in my journal that if I was poor, if I was born a century earlier, I’d have to simply work on my moral character and live with my long – and eventually toothless – face. I understood it was a fluke (because my kind of God did not divine such horrors) that I was not the boy in the neighboring room, the one bandaged from head to toe.
I was lucky.
But let me tell you that the first night spent in intensive care, when I woke with a catheter in my bladder and tubes running down my nose into my throat, and felt as if I was suffocating, I didn’t feel lucky. I still remember the sensation of not being able to breathe and the acute pain in what seemed like every nerve from my collarbone upwards. I remember hitting the call button and begging the nurse for relief, getting a shot of morphine. And I remember the Indian nurse who sat by my bedside – how kind and calm she was. I think of her often; she taught me not only how to behave around someone in pain but how essential that behavior can be.
Days later, when I was released from the hospital, my jaw was wired shut and would stay that way for six weeks. I couldn’t speak. If I needed to express myself I had a yellow legal pad and several pens. I was swollen and unsettled but basically fine. Though I started out drinking protein smoothies or broth and variations on smoothies and broth, by week two I was drinking three delicious milkshakes a day. They were my only source of pleasure; I never tired of those milkshakes: cookies and cream, coffee, black and whites; Haagen Daz, I still love you.
My memory of that summer was one perfect sunny day followed by another. It was the exact backdrop to be young and physically active, outside. This was not my reality. Though it was only my jaw that was broken, my whole body felt frail. I was supposed to stay out of the sun, as heat intensified the swelling. Plus, my mother enrolled me in typing class, which was such a solid, pragmatic suggestion that I couldn’t even bring myself to rail against it. Every day I dressed in the denim-batik ensembles that today I might call ‘hippie-depressive,’ and she dropped me off at the secretarial school. I filed into a windowless room with hundreds of older women (all women, not one exception) all dressed in appropriate secretarial attire. And while the teacher called out nonsensical sentences meant to familiarize us with the keyboard, and while the other students whizzed through these dictations, I let the sounds become white noise: teacher’s stern voice? Gone. Long nails clicking on the keyboard? Industrial fan? Nothing but the crashing sea. I started typing stories.
After about a week of this, after completing a story about a doomed small town summer romance in the mid 1950s,and several stabs at (unsurprisingly) percussive stream-of-conscious prose poetry, it was the St. Rocco festival– my first social foray since the operation. Dark sky, festive lights, the breeze spiked with fried dough; my friends were on the Ferris wheel. As they went round and round, as the sounds of giggling and shouting blended into the canned top forty blasting from speakers and cars, I neither related to my friends, nor was particularly bothered by this. They seemed to be part of a different, more innocent world. With whom I did suddenly identify as that wheel made its age-old rotation, were the senior citizens on the periphery. The ancient gnarled woman waving to her grandchildren; the man whose pants were falling down. I felt what I imagined was the fierce exhaustion that accompanied old age and also the wonderment at witnessing the seemingly boundless – even pointless – energy of youth. I couldn’t wait to get home to write about it.
I still have the story. It’s – as one might imagine – overwrought. But there I was that night and through most of that summer: speechless, set apart, with my new face that was terrifically swollen but also looking more and more like the face I’d left behind with my childhood. There I was with my legal pad and my typing class and the man at the coffee truck during our break time each and every day saying: come on honey would it kill you to smile?
There I was when my mother’s estranged brother appeared at our door, stepping out of what I remember as a visible cloud of pot smoke. He had a duffel bag and a very large dog. My parents – both decidedly conservative – were out for the night.
Jaw surgery, I scribbled.
Bummer, he said.
I offered him cookies. Gave the dog some water. We sat outside by the pool while he smoked a joint. As the crickets crescendoed and the pool lights cast an eerie green glow, I scribbled down questions and showed them to him.
My uncle talked, the dog panted, and I listened. There I was, that summer, starting to write it all down.