Gerald, my bladder technician, has become my skin buddy. He calls me by name without looking down at my chart. "How are we today," he pluralizes, as he leads me into Cubicle #4 of the urology offices.
After several weekly visits, I have come to think of Cubicle 4 as my home away from home. It has all the amenities a fellow could want: An examination table with its rolled out waxy paper covering. A HAZMAT receptacle. Some nice charts, from which I learn that the bladder is a decent sized organ. Nothing small and nutty like its neighbor, the prostate. It is a roundish, resilient, elastic repository, a spongy and absorbent reservoir catacombed with inlets and fjords. There is nothing subtle or elegant in its operations. It is a prehistoric blowfish, designed for the sole purpose of collecting, storing and releasing urine. Its soft vulvatious musculature is protected with a harder core around its perimeter. This is where my cancer resides. Oh, and there is a nice picture window in the room as well.
We talk a little sports, Gerald and I. Isn't this what any two guys would do when one guy is pulling his pants down around his knees and the other prepares to daub the tip of the bared penis with sterilizing ointment? He snaps the mucus colored polyethylene gloves onto his young black skin. Is it me or the substance is about to inject into me that he is reluctant to touch?
"Here we go," he says, and undulates, jimmies, snakes the device up into my ancient infrastructure. He looks away as if his hands were doing something the rest of his body was unaware of, like a car thief, sliding his thin metal probe down the driver's side window, alert for witnesses.
Despite my zenlike approach to lower all my resistance, to surrender, to be undefended and welcoming, my muscles clutch and tense. He's going the wrong way on a one-way street. Up the down staircase. The probe emerges out into the wider cavern. A nozzle, a one-eyed worm popping up through the surface and peering around like a character in a cartoon. Its purpose, to seek out and siphon out any remaining liquid.
He compliments me on the emptiness of my bladder. He seems not only pleased but impressed. (Oh mister Yankowitz, you've eaten that whole cup of apple sauce without dribbling.) But I should not diminish the compliment. My technician is not some layman merely glancing at the surface and being fooled by its apparent emptiness. This is a man who knows emptiness and has seen it in me.
Après moi le deluge.
After the emptying, comes the filling. My arid, gasping, fish-wide mouth of a bladder is now infused 80ccs of liquefied, attenuated live bovine tuberculosis bacillus. The how and the why are unknown. But it appears to prevent recurrences in up to seventy per cent of cases of superficial bladder cancer. So I close my eyes and imagine an exotic aquarium. Beautiful deep purple coral in luminescent water. And in this glowing grotto, embedded to its sides with long persistent taproots are these dancing arms of seaweed, these butterfly wings, these tumors, these undulating cancer angels. Whatever kills them makes me stronger.
His work is soon done. The vial is emptied, mine is filled. He withdraws the implement, tosses a few tissues for me to clean up the salve or lube between my thighs I do feel just a wee bit invaded, infected, discarded and used. I gingerly pull up my pants, take one last look around for sentiment's sake before leaving.
The walk past the waiting room is bowlegged and slow. The way an amputee feels his phantom leg, I still feel the piping inside me. If the same people watch me leave as saw me go in they will surely think the purpose of my visit was to come out looking thirty years older-- hollow-eyed, convex-chested, slack-skinned, paper-boned, held together by the grace of mild winds.
Later at home, just a few minor indignities. After two hours of sloshing, begin the evacuation. Gorge on water. Flush it out. Pee sitting down. Bathe the bowl with chlorine bleach. Let marinate for fifteen minutes before discharging it to the public sewage. Rinse and repeat.
This is not the first cancerous organ whose infection and treatment and bludgeoning into remission I have written about. A few years ago it was the prostate. I am becoming a regular commuter to this archipelago. Island-hopping the Carcinomas. Am I a battalion of Marines advancing from Tarawa to the Philippines to Iwo Jima? Recapturing lost territory? Or the dark inkspill of Russian Communism spreading across Europe in the 1950's? Is Cancer my writing territory? My Yaknapatawpha County? My Madeleine? And these, the sweet uses of my own adversity? It occurs to me that if I am eating myself alive for inspiration, before I go too far with this I ought to find out how many organs it takes to make a book.
Hal Ackerman has been on the faculty of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television for the past twenty-two years and is currently co-chair of the screenwriting program. His book, Write Screenplays That Sell...The Ackerman Way, is the text of choice in a growing number of screenwriting programs around the country. He has had numerous short stories published in literary journals over the past two years, including New Millennium Writings, Southeast Review, The Pinch, Storyglossia, and Passages. His play, "TESTOSTERONE: How Prostate Cancer Made A Man of Me" concluded its premier theatrical run in Santa Monica, CA, and won the William Saroyan Centennial Award for drama. It is currently being mounted for a New York production.