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46| House of Pain

Jeffery Berg

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Before I knew it was ruptured discs in my lower back that was causing a debilitating pain in my leg that made it nearly impossible to walk a block or stand for over a minute, my doctor thought I had a pulled muscle. In between work shifts and on sun-drenched weekends, I often found myself dazed on my futon, with ice packs and Icy Hot, my laptop open to the live feeds of Big Brother. In Big Brother a group of strangers are cut off from the world and put in a house together on a Los Angeles CBS backlot where they are filmed every day. The only book in the house is the Bible. They are made to do competitions which they can win for power positions, and they plot, ally, turn against each other and evict a houseguest a week until someone wins $500,000 in the end.

Fans of the show refer to some live feeders disparagingly as cat ladies. I felt, in my physical pain, alone in my apartment, that I was becoming one, except I didn’t have a cat. Cat ladies are prone to obsess and rally together on social media over showmances between houseguests. Showmances usually bloom with flirtations in the hammock and escalate to whispery romping under sheets — tinted green — from the night vision cameras. Cat ladies vehemently despise anyone in the house who gets in their favorite houseguests’ way. I quickly started to despise one of the girls on the show, Aaryn, who was introduced on her Texas ranch in cowboy boots and denim daisy dukes on top of a dirt bike saying, “I might come off like a girly girl, but I have no problem getting my hands dirty.” She called her black cast mate Candice “Aunt Jemima” and flipped her mattress. It was difficult to watch these moments without feeling enraged and slightly sick, as Aaryn laughed about it, while Candice, the only black girl on the show, cried in another room.

It’s the searing scent of Icy Hot, which used to be reminiscent of the paste I used to dab on my tongue in elementary school art class, that reminds me now of the solitude and suffering of the summer of 2013. My black t-shirt quickly went wet with sweat, as I made it to the corner market, to buy spinach, Diet Pepsi, and pain relievers. I didn’t like other people squinting at me and staring down at my legs as I shuffled past. Suddenly I was more alert and sympathetic to the elderly or anyone else I saw who was physically compromised out walking the city, like the squat, unsmiling old woman in floral housedresses one building over who walked one foot at a time without extending her knee out, in a similar motion to the brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence in Fantasia. With my groceries, I unsteadily moved up my 5 flight walk up, collapsed on the futon and opened my laptop to “Big Brother” cast member and fitness guru Elissa wrapping her tight torso in Saran wrap and doing yoga on the sunny astroturfed backyard of the house. It was amazing to watch her moves, I sometimes gasped at her fluidity, and the chat room chimed in, “her body is sick.”

On the 13th of July, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin. I was in bed, lying in the dark in my picture-less box of a bedroom, when I read the news on my phone. People started posting hoodie selfies. I felt angry and nauseous, turned my phone off and tossed it to the side. I took a swig of Nyquil, tried to fall asleep, woke again around 2 AM, looked at my phone, seeing the news that Glee star Cory Monteith had died.

When my leg worsened and my foot went completely numb, I went back to the doctor and he recommended a pain management physician on the floor below. He was handsome, a bit like Richard Gere, in an office cluttered with plants, stacks of paper, and outdated-looking manuals, he called me “big guy,” and asked me to try standing on my toes. When I couldn’t on my bad side, he tapped my knee, asked about my pain and said it was “classic sciatica.” I went to get an MRI, which felt a bit like a Big Brother competition of who could lie the longest, without moving, in a coffin.

On the night that Aaryn was evicted, I ordered pizza, and watched the CBS live show, with a little bit of glee as she emerged out of the house and stepped onto the stage in Jimmy Choo heels, a strapless black high-low hem dress with a gold sequin-encrusted bust to little audience applause and a smattering of boos. The show’s host, Julie Chen, who had been personally offended by Aaryn’s remarks on Asians, grilled her in the post-eviction interview. “Being southern is a stereotype… and I do not mean to ever come off racist,” Aaryn said, a bit shaky and furtive. Julie shot back, “Let me just read back some of things you said, referring to Candice you said, ‘Be careful what you say in the dark, might not be able to see the bitch.” The audience jeered, as Aaryn plaintively responded, “That hurts me that I would say something like that.” Months from that night, Aaryn would say in an interview that she felt so much remorse for the way she talked about people in the house, that after that eviction, she went into a holding room, and had a breakdown. I finished my pizza, turned to the news of fast food worker strikes, turned the TV off, and went to the window and stood for as long as I could to stare at a sliver of Alphabet City in the night.

For a while, I didn’t want to see anyone. And no one saw me. I read stories online of people with sciatica who wanted to die. A few remarked that their pain was a permanent part of their life. For a full afternoon and half of an evening, I lay in bed and got lost in Harry Beston’s The Outermost House: a 1920s document of a year spent in a small, remote cottage in Cape Cod. His descriptions and meditations on nature were lovely, charged and mysterious. I kept picturing the house — the Fo’castle — perched on its windswept dune, as Beston wrote away in the cold dark, listening to the music of the sea.

The Big Brother finale and the onset of autumn was approaching when another doctor saw me, said my options were surgery or steroidal injections.

I hobbled to Best Buy and purchased the Blown Away CD by Aaryn’s favorite singer, Carrie Underwood. The purchase brought me a greater intimacy with a part of me I wanted to be, and perhaps, what Aaryn thought of herself as — Underwood on the album cover: spray tanned, lacquered eyes, grayish taffeta dress and blonde hair wind-fan-swept, silver stilettos anchoring her on a grassy knoll with a storm-cloud backdrop behind her.

What were these miracles, bound by hope, technology, plastic, metals and digital imaging, being created while I tattered away at my day? Shatter every window til it’s all blown away. I winced at the pain center in Union Square as I lay on my stomach and felt the needle go in and linger there in my back. I imagined the punctured nerve having the appearance and texture of grilled salmon. Out the door, the waiting room waited hours for their own miracles, sweating — I tried not to look at a frail man alone and shaking in his chair — as the TV above showed the wheel on The Price is Right in a clattery spin.

Red-haired Andy won Big Brother, the first gay to do so, in pastel blue shorts and pinkish bowtie, running out of the house in his navy boat shoes onto the studio stage to audience applause and a shimmery burst of gold tinsel. The show was over until next season. I had to move on.

I went to the movies, watched Sandra Bullock breathe with gratitude against the wet earth, her fingers clawing and caressing brown sand. She pushed herself up slowly to stumble, to straighten and finally balance herself. An escalator took me down out of the half-empty theater out to sunshiny 3rd Avenue. I squinted, tried my best to walk back to my apartment, foot starting to heal, but still dragging against the sidewalk.

The autumn would come and then the onset of a long, weary winter. Within those months and into 2014, I was healing and could finally stand on my toes, could move freely and miraculously, could slowly start running again, despite some sharp jags of pain here and there. In the spring, I took a trip out west. I felt a disconcerting, almost overwhelming feeling of insignificance after being cooped up in an apartment for months as I looked down out the plane window at the expanses of farmland, divided up so neatly like a floor plan.

Somewhere around September of 2013, I watched Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, speaking until he could no longer stand, to shut down the government in protest of the Health Care Act. I thought of the faces I tried not to stare at of the people writhing in pain the Union Square waiting room. I was bewildered as he filibustered, as he read Green Eggs and Ham to his daughters of which the broadcast flashed a picture: two giggling blonde girls in PJs, in the glow of CSPAN2, their father onscreen in his navy suit with one hand out. A churning furious part of me that was as heartless as him wished that his family had no insurance, and his girls were sick. I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere. I turned off the TV and hurled my paperback of The Outermost House at the wall.

Jeffery Berg grew up in Six Mile, South Carolina, and Lynchburg, Virginia. He received an MFA from NYU. His poems have appeared in Court Green, the Gay & Lesbian Review, Map Literary, Assaracus and Harpur Palate. He has written reviews for The Poetry Project Newsletter and Lambda Literary. A Virginia Center of the Creative Arts fellow, Jeffery lives in New York and blogs at jdbrecords.blogspot.com.

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