Bum Rib

I coughed for a month. I coughed until subway cars and restaurants emptied. I coughed until the parents of my charges came running into the room to find me doubled over, one finger aloft, wait, wait, wait. I coughed until one mother, regal, Indian, slippered and pashmina’d, came running with her two Thai maids, bearing a succession of silver trays. They gave me a shallow bowl of cough syrup, a glass of water, a mug of honey-lemon tea. “Swallow,” they said. “Sip.” I put the empty vessels on the trays and they carried them away.

I coughed on several occasions until a kind of incidental puke shot out of me, discreetly, into sinks and gutters all over the city. I’d given up my resistance to opiates and their side effects and chugged narco-syrup to no avail. I could puke from coughing or I could puke from cough syrup. I continued to cough and continued to puke but did it numbly, dumbly.

At night I fell into thick sleep, drifted dreamless through empty white rooms. Someone was always coughing in another room down the hall. It was me, Rebecca would tell me the next morning, coughing through the night. It was me, the neighbors told me when I saw them in the lobby, maybe I should see a doctor. I told them about the doctor, the syrup, the puking. They nodded and murmured. I apologized for the noise.

I coughed until I became religious. I went out and got drunk. The next morning Rebecca told me I’d come home spouting uncharacteristic beliefs. “You kept saying God had given you the cough to make you pay for your sins,” she told me. “And then you went into your room and prayed a lot.”

I coughed until something inside of me gave way. I coughed until I bruised, broke, cracked, strained, sprained, separated, dislocated or floated a rib, or pulled the muscles or cracked the cartilage in between. It was hard to tell. They all had one symptom, stabbing pain, and one treatment, control stabbing pain until healed. Do not bind ribs, do not suppress cough, do not breathe shallowly, or fluid could collect in lungs and cause pneumonia. Watch for signs of punctured lung.

I begged my parents for my father’s dental-surgery Vicodin. I hoarded and nibbled at it, metering it out. The pain would ease, go from searing to stabbing to sharp to just there. The Vicodin would wear off and it would come back all at once. It was like a broken heart. I wished all broken hearts felt this way, so direct, a knife in the ribs, instead of an ether that comes and goes with different songs and skies.

While my rib ached, I imagined different things. I imagined that I was a soldier, keeping my wound a secret so as not to be separated from my men. I’d finger it privately, consider the sticky blood on my fingertips, wipe it on my fatigues. My rib was only the most pronounced discomfort in a battle-battered body. There were also my ill-fitting boots (stonily yanked from the feet of a Nazi I’d killed myself on patrol), my frostbitten fingertips and the shrapnel that remained lodged beneath the skin of my shoulder. (I’d been hit during the jump on D-Day.) I kept my suffering even from the squad medic, refusing to leave my brothers in arms.

I imagined I was some figure of heroic solitude, a survivor of a plane crash or climbing accident, hauling my injured self over mountain passes, left for dead but possessed of a will to survive. I imagined I was an athlete of Jordan-esque caliber, playing through the pain. I was bleeding through my sock, my fever was a hundred and four, after the game I’d be rushed to the hospital for intravenous hydration.

I imagined the revolution had come and I had been shot by the army we rebels were about to overthrow. The wound was fatal but I had a few minutes to live. The last thing I saw was the flag of the fallen empire burning in the street. I died happy.

I imagined I was Eve and she was first, and I was lonely and naked in a garden paradise, and the pain in my rib was God fashioning me a companion who’d spring fully-formed from the marrow near my heart, and we’d have a damn good time until he bit into that fateful fruit.

2 Responses to “Bum Rib”
  1. Kimberly says:

    it’s been far too long since you posted this!! a whole month, in fact. i hope that you’re feeling better. more essays soon?

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