In order for everything to run on schedule, it was important for me to be numbed seconds before the surgeon arrived. The anesthesiologist had already given me a shot in the spine, left, and come back to see if I was ready. Every few minutes he would touch my knee and ask if I could feel it. “Yes”, I said repeatedly, “I can feel it” – though I was beginning to think that I should lie to him.
In my pre-operative anxiety, it had occurred to me that I might be causing a hospital traffic jam. Maybe I was already costing insurance companies millions. Or, I panicked, if nothing else, maybe I was causing some person in the need of a doctor somewhere in the world to get rerouted to an HMO automated phone service. Perhaps, I thought, I should just brave the surgery without total anesthesia.
The anesthesiologist left the room once more and returned shortly. Again he put his hand to my knee and softly tapped it. Yes, I could feel it. And I was also beginning to feel more accountable for my unfortunate condition, as the operating room started filling up with surgical assistants and medical students, who were intimidating in their identical light blue scrubs and masks. I imagined, with a growing sense of guilt, that if the internationally acclaimed surgeon were made to wait, his schedule would become backlogged for the rest of the month.
Knowing that his timing was now off, the anesthesiologist decided to drug me up even more, rather than wait any longer to see if the drugs he had already administered were going to kick in. With a second sting to my lower back, he hit me with a double dose. The fact that I could have become paralyzed, gone into cardiac arrest, or fallen into a coma, didn’t seem to concern him. Given the value of the surgeon’s time, it was obviously worth the risk.
The anesthesiologist left the room yet again, giving me a third chance to go numb, while two nurses began to prepare my knee. I could feel everything they were doing as they applied a creaming lather to my leg and shaved me. I felt them lay a light sheet over my tingling leg, centering it so that my kneecap protruded through a small cut-away circle. I felt a chill on my kneecap as the nurses used spongebrushes to coat my kneecap with a mysterious syrupy liquid.
A few minutes later, back came the anesthesiologist. Once more, he asked if I could feel it, as he gently massaged the skin on my kneecap. “Yep,” I said, more ambivalently. “I still can.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” I answered in a monotone.
“Can you feel this?” he asked, pinching my knee harder.
“Ouch.” I guessed he had forgotten that was the knee I had just injured.
The anesthesiologist looked at me in disbelief. Was I the type who could drink a case of beer and still talk without a slur? We both knew had had shot me with enough drugs to deep-freeze me for the next five years. So why was my leg still sober? I began to wonder if he had missed the spinal chord altogether. But was it possible that he could botch the spinal twice?
Whatever had gone wrong, there wasn’t any more time to hypothesize, because at the moment the double door swung open and in came the famous, dopey looking, wall-eyed surgeon. He was the kind of guy who had learned to do one thing in life, and to do it well. He wasn’t simply an orthopedic surgeon, nor would he have been referred to as a simple knee specialist. Dr. Voekler was an all-out, self-proclaimed “meniscus man.” Every day for the past thirty years his job had been to cut, sew, and sometimes remove a single two-inch piece of cartilage from the human knee joint. That was all he did.
The surgeon gave me a wink, and wished me well. I stammered back a reply, but before I could address the fact that my knee was still sensitive to the touch, the anesthesiologist had snuck up behind me and placed a soft cloth over my nose and mouth. “Breath in,” he whispered in my ear – and I instantly felt my eyelids sag and my head tilt back. What was happening? Was I being kidnapped? It didn’t seem right to get mugged on the operating table, yet it didn’t seem to matter so much at the moment. For suddenly the operating room had the warmest velvety glow, and I could tell I was in good hands. I couldn’t see a thing below my shin, but that didn’t seem to bother me either.
I relaxed and enjoyed feeling my cotton hospital gown being lifted up over my baby-shaven knee and past my waist. I supposed it was necessary to pull back my garment in order to get the extra, messy fabric out of the surgeon’s way. Though I felt embarrassed for a moment, fearing that I might have an erection down there in full view, I reminded myself that the doctors and nurses, and even the med school students who were my age, were surely accustomed to involuntary patient arousals. Just to be on the safe side though, I decided to give myself a quick check. I lifted my heavy skull from the padded table enough to glance out past my shoulder. I couldn’t raise my head high enough to see over my chest, but I was suddenly able to see the television monitor to my right.
And there they stood – a little gathering of people wearing scrubs, all peering gleefully into the monitor’s shifting blue glow. It reminded me of an Academy Awards party I had recently attended. Earlier, one of the nurses had mentioned that the monitor would be used to televise a close-up interior view of my knee’s herniated meniscus cartilage, which would make it possible for the surgeon to view fine microscopic handiwork on the enlarged screen via a tiny fiber optic lens. I felt proud to be on display to this friendly group of voyeurs, all of whom, seemed at the moment to be entirely entertained. I looked more closely. There was the surgeon, guru-like, right in the center of the adoring group! I was doing great.
I strained harder to get a glimpse of the monitor, and finally I was able to lift my head enough to get a view. To my surprise the image was not of my knee’s interior. Upon the screen, I saw what appeared to be an amateur video of a deer scurrying around the interior of a thick forest. “See it?” Dr.Voekler shouted. “Right there…THERE. That was the deer we were tracking.” To my silent amazement, I intuited that everyone was actually watching Dr.Voekler’s weekend hunting trip – as he held the crowd’s attention with a short play-by-play!
Bambi, I thought, happily. That deer looks like Bambi. I watched the vulnerable creature dart about from tree to tree, innocently looking for a way to slip into the instant camouflage of the forest as the group waited for me to go numb… or was I in mid-operation already? Was it possible that Bambi was actually my meniscus?
When I awakened in the recovery room there was a cheerful staff of people on hand to care for me. I was hooked to an IV, and my hospital gown lay flat against my lap – no pitched tent, thank god. The nurse came over to check on me and told me that the operation had gone well. Dr.Voekler, she informed me, thought I’d be walking on my own in a week. I wasn’t to worry about the fact that I had no feeling below my chest. I had gotten a rather large dose of Spinal, and it would take a little longer than usual for it to wear off. As she told me this, she removed my empty IV bag and hooked on another full one. She explained that my bladder should be full, having taken an entire bag already, and that as soon as I was ready to relieve myself, I should feel free to crutch over to the men’s room. Once I released my bladder, I would be free to leave the hospital. However, until then, it was regulation that I stick around the recovery room.
After lying in bed for a few minutes, I realized the ball was in my court. So I awkwardly threw my numb legs over the edge of the bed and grabbed the crutches. I felt my hospital gown part slightly, and had the by-now familiar sensation that my penis had jumped out. But this semi-erotic fantasy was immediately interrupted by reality. I was putting pressure on a freshly probed, diced, and sewn meniscus, propped up on a slippery floor, on crutches which I didn’t know how to use, in a robe half-open, in front of a room of strangers. It occurred to me that if I feel, I would be in worse shape than I’d been in before the injury.
So I wobbled with the best coordination I could muster towards the bathroom across the room. Once there, I stood in front of the toilet and pulled my gown open. Looking down at my penis, I whispered to myself, “There it is…but I can’t feel it.” I then looked straight ahead at the tiled wall. “It’s OK,” I reassured myself, “the piss will come on its own. I’m sure it will.” When nothing happened, I reminded myself that such delays were very common. Then I remembered Dr.Voekler’s Bambi video. Did that really happen? I got caught up in the erotic memory, until, after about five minutes of waiting without a drop of pee, I just gave up. Slightly dizzy, I trekked back across the recovery room to my bed, pulled myself under the sheets, and promptly went to sleep.
When I awoke the second time, there was a small wet mark forming on my blue nightgown hanging down in front of me. The stain had grown to an 18-inch, slightly irregular oval with a small tinkle arching out from its wet center. I was pissing on, and through, my gown, and all over the floor – and I still wasn’t able to feel it.
My pissing muscles were still anesthetized, which meant that I didn’t have the ability to flex my bladder. Instead the piss leaked out on its own, like a water fountain that continues to run. When I finally reached the bathroom, I simply aimed my penis at the toilet. It wasn’t a strong explosive geyser of urination. It wasn’t the kind of piss that makes a loud noise in the water and proves one’s masculinity by pitch and octave. It was just a steady, mechanical, unfilling of the bladder. It went on, and on, and on. After several minutes I finally had an inspiration. I pushed my stomach with my hand, and sure enough the stream got harder at my penis. I kept clutching and squeezing. I was a piss-filled bagpipe with a deer in my knee. And I was just beginning to feel it.
Jeremy Sigler is a poet, critic and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. His long-awaited analysis of the poetry of Carl Andre is forthcoming from Sternberg Press.