Parallel Lives

Parallel Lives

Sometimes he thinks he’s living parallel lives.

He was reading about some kid, I’m sure, no younger than himself, who had died in a cave—what do they call it—spelunking? One local news channel reported that. Another said he and his friends were only exploring it. They just went in and never came out. Not until they came out as shrouded cadavers.

This is the thing with my husband and the internet. Staring at a screen keeps him awake, the whites of his eyes bloodying gradually, but he goes down these black holes and can’t keep from looking. He tells me there’s the possibility of finding something transcendent there.

This cave kid, he learned, documented freight train graffiti. He did a lot of benching, that is, he sat on a bench and waited for trains to pass. Hubby bemoans corporations when we have people over, but he drools over even the idea of seeing “BNSF” or “CSX” bold and big on the sides of those gondolas. As though intermodal transport isn’t corporate. Hubby found out the kid hopped freights, too—didn’t just look at them. He “rode the blinds” like they sing about in those crackling blues songs he loves so dearly.

So Hubby was reading about all this: blues, benching, and death by cave. Hyperlink after hyperlink after hyperlink. He was darkening them all. His eyes, I’ll bet, were bloodshot, but his chest just welled up like never before. And this is why I say parallel lives. Because he’s too much of a punk coward to commit to anything like that. He feels compelled to do it but can’t. He’s scared to death of the cave death, all that pitch darkness and chthonic swallowing up. Gulp.

I am a cave kid, he tells himself. Cave kid is me. As if to convince himself.

And this mantra-ing is interrupted, and therefore ends, as I call him to say I’m on my way home from the urologist. I call him to cry, to bawl like the severest orgasm he’s ever heard me heave. Because I’ve been brutalized, and I can’t help but tell him about it. Silent suffering isn’t for me, not here.

I don’t tell about it in full, though, not until hours later—home, children tucked, tea steeping.

“I don’t know how a UTI ended me up in this situation,” I tell him.

“What happened?” he presses. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

I tell him exactly what happened: piss in a cup (that warm, dark yellow from being held); a bladder scan; a catheter (that is, a brutalization).

“That’s not exact,” he says. And he’s right.

The bladder scan because they wanted to check my postvoid residual volume. “The leftover pee in my bladder,” I tell him. The catheter because the scan showed my bladder was still full—a reading which defied the logic of my insides. The quintessence of this botched examination was the catheter, though.

“The nurse had me lie back on the table and spread my legs. She told me it wouldn’t hurt, no more than inserting a tampon. But she had me moving up and down the table. ‘Move closer,’ she said. ‘Back up now.’ And she was just jabbing at me with that tube, excruciatingly, trying to find pee? ‘This isn’t right,’ she kept saying. ‘This is so strange.’ She forgot I was there. Forgot there was embodiment around that urethra. This was no tampon, trust me. Turned out my bladder was empty. I heard her in the hall, the bladder scan machine and its wires gathered in her arms like a garden harvest of fresh-picked vegetables, tell another nurse, ‘I told you this machine isn’t working right.’ I heard her say that. I was zipping my jeans back on.”

I tell him this but not like this. I’m not this articulate or structured. I’m crying, bawling. Hubby holds me, rubbing my upper arms, shoulders, and back. He’s putting me back together. He’s trying to make me, all my parts, me again. Wholly, fully, functionally me. It doesn’t work. I don’t tell him it doesn’t work because I feel it would be the wrong thing to say, to say that it doesn’t work. It would be like calling into question his ability to effectually love.

I look over Hubby’s shoulder—his hands and arms still doing that rubbing; he’s trying to erode me to a mental state more manageable. More befitting a marriage. It’s as if he believes friction will free me of my trauma.

Out the window I see a low-flying plane, the sort that would stir massive amounts of anxiety in Hudson County citizens in the months after nine-one-one. Myself, I’ve never been voided of that anxiety. Each of those planes, I imagine in catastrophic detail, is coming for my rooftop with the aim of making dusty human remains of me. They say in the extreme heat of wildfires bones burst.

I need some time to myself, so I go up to our bedroom under the pretense of a sleep. I cry again, smallish though—no bawling now. And I do, pillowed just so, happen to fall asleep.

The shallow dreams I have are clinical in the general sense: latticed and leafy stone urns down a long corridor. And I walk the corridor, approaching nothing.

Hubby, meanwhile, is typing in web searches. Oh! what he is gleaning: patient reviews for my urologist (no complaints beyond wait times); diameters of catheter tubes; sterilization protocol; numbing lubricants. He reads about what to expect when being catheterized. Not painful; slight discomfort at most. That’s a direct quote he jots down on a sticky pad and sticks to the corner of his computer screen.

I wake from sleep with the urge to empty my bladder. I look like a fleshy folding chair on the toilet, keeled over. The pain—I can’t.

When it ends, I lift the seat to see what the hell happened. The bowl is a swirling blood bath. Dark red and what I can only guess is tissue—black ravels of cells. It’s like the look of things after a rape, I think. The feel, too.

Hubby runs up the steps—two, three at a time—and finds me on the edge of the tub, crying into and at the bloody urine.

He kneels before me, and I know his devotion. Hubby’s a neat freak who hates the hair and dust of the bathroom tiles. Still, he’s right there with me.

I reach to flush, because I just want this all to be gone. Hubby says Don’t, and he fetches his digital camera. “For documentation,” he says.

“This isn’t right,” I say, not then noticing I was mimicking the words of the nurse who wielded the catheter. My mind goes to my gran with the switch in her hand when I do notice it. She, always old, came from the Carolinas and believed discipline was something to be done unto a body.

“Why did she do this to me?” I get out.

“She clearly didn’t know what she was doing,” Hubby says. Not in a way to excuse her. I know what he meant, but he quickly clarifies anyway. “I mean, she’s incompetent, clearly. Incompetent or criminal.”

I have to pee again.

More blood. More tissue. Even more painful than the previous. Now my nerves are triggering it, too. Subsequent pissings. The red, though, runs pinkish.

Hubby calls the answering service, and the connection is so bad he needs to spell my name no less than four times. It sounds like a cipher. My cellphone number becomes a lotto drawing. Hubby’s face looks like heatstroke happening.

The urologist doesn’t call me back. Two more calls through the answering service, and I guess it’s a case of squeaky wheeling that I finally get her on the line.

She’s drowsy; I can hear the somnolence in her voice. She has no answers. Maybe, she says when I ask if this is normal, if it could be the result of the catheter. “Blood and tissue,” I tell her. “Tissue or clotting?” she asks, and I, for the first time, let my imprecations be heard. Evasively she answers my questions, unwilling to finger the nurse.

“Bleeding through the urethra will stop on its own,” she says, “unless it doesn’t. In which case, you should go to the ER.”

And, as we both hang up, I feel like phones should still have coiled cords—for gnawing, for strangling.

I sleep fearfully, feeling the razory cutting sensation intermittently.

I know Hubby’s not sleeping. He’s plotting. He tells me his plans. The next morning I know he’s holding himself to it, mainly, maybe, because he thinks I call him a punk coward to my girlfriends. Which I do.

A banana is sliced into his cereal bowl, the dull butter knife doing the trick, and then he’s gone.

He arrives at the urologist’s office not long after they open the doors.

Hubby’s prone to agonistic behavior. He’s there to make a scene: full-chested, erratic, shouting. He shouts curses, demands to speak to the doctor. He wants to see the face of the nurse. His head is swelling with thoughts. Hubby’s thinking of me telling him not so hard, only easy, or to stop altogether. He’s thinking of me telling him I’m too tired. Not tonight, I tell him—it seems like all the time. He’s thinking of calendar pages flying to the sky, of days on days of no intimacy. He’s thinking of us getting older, colder.

Or at least this is what I think he thinks. It is possible, I know, that he’s just mantra-ing protect, protect, protect. It’s possible that he’s not making it about him at all. Possible that he’s only trying to help my healing.

I can’t be helped.

So he shouts, and he wants them to think he’s nutso. The call to the cops: he wants that. He knows he’ll have this all wrapped up before they get there, their cruisers aslant against the parking lines. He wants his voice to be heard, my pain to be acknowledged. He wants them to know what they’ve done. He uses words like assault and violation. He puts his maleness on full display, posturing in an office where only women are present.

Down the corridor and out the front entrance, there are no cops. The morning humidity combined with his adrenaline gives him a headachy swell. Androgens route through his body.

He looks to the cloudless sky and thinks of me, I think. And so he barrels his shoulder brutishly into the leafy stone urn beside the entrance. The urn crumbles and the soil and touch-me-nots and marigolds contained within spill onto the pavement. Hubby gets into our family car and drives off.

There’s a railroad crossing between the urologist’s office and our home. Hubby has to pause for the flashing lights as the boom barrier comes down. He watches the train pass, nothing romantic. It’s not a freight car. No hoboing there. Just a NJ Transit passenger train, window after window refracting the faces of working class zeroes. And he hopes, I hope, for a transcendence that won’t destroy him.


About the Author

Joseph Rathgeber is an author, poet, high school English teacher, and adjunct professor from New Jersey. His story collection is The Abridged Autobiography of Yousef R. and Other Stories (ELJ Publications, 2014). His work of hybrid poetry is MJ (Another New Calligraphy, 2015). He is the recipient of a 2014 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship (Poetry) and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship (Prose). His novel, Mixedbloods, is forthcoming from Fomite Press.


Photograph "2/2 BNSF 1455 & 1792 Lead SB Spring Hill Local Lenexa, KS 4-14-18" by Tyler Silvest