Nothing Smaller than your Elbow
I look at myself in the mirror, and nothing can be done. I woke up fifteen minutes ago, and five minutes have passed since I should have left for work. Our air conditioning is disconnected due to “building construction,” and our thermostat reads eighty-eight degrees. I got very little sleep, woke up sweating, and have no time to shower.
As I brush my teeth, an unwelcome thought pops in my head: I wonder if my roommates have ever knocked my toothbrush off the sink and put it back like it didn’t happen. Would it have fallen in the trashcan? The toilet? I will start keeping my toothbrush in my room.
I spit. When I scoop water into my mouth and swish it around, my eyes fall on the rusty golden goblet in which one of the roommates hoards q-tips. It’s been a while, I think. Forgetting the pressing issue of my punctuality, I pick one up and stick it in my ear. I pull it out and look with a gross sort of anticipation (and if you say you don’t do the same thing, I’ll say I don’t believe you).
Nothing. There should be something, right? I am certain there is a medical abnormality involved. Web M.D. is mentally added to the day’s to-do.
I take the logical next step. I grit my teeth and go back in, pushing the q-tip a little farther, rooting around with wild abandon, like I’m playing a game of Operation with the alarm turned off. Something happens, an unseeable shift. My eyes lock onto those of my reflection.
I can no longer hear out of my right ear.
There’s no pain, only silence. I look deeply into the mirror, the q-tip still half hidden inside my head. I suddenly have the feeling I’m outside my being, watching myself from the doorway. How did I get here? What is next?
After a moment of horrified paralysis (the ticking clock is out the window) I pull the q-tip out. Again, nothing, but I swear it looks like some of the cotton is missing. I gaze into my own eyes, the terrible truth dawning on me. I know this without question: there is a piece of cotton lodged in my ear.
I panic and try to wash it out. I pool water in my cupped hands, pour it into my ear and, head tilted, hop on one foot. My ear hole has become a wind tunnel.
When I was seven, I accidentally gave myself a make-believe rash. Looking back, I am shocked anyone fell for it, but they did, and I sent the adults in my life into a spiraling panic.
I was sitting next to Matthew Cox, passing back and forth a sheet of paper on which we were playing a riveting game that consisted of connecting dots and trying to make squares. I had a strange fascination with this game and constantly prodded others to play it with me. When I made my winning move (I always won due to conveniently evolving rules), I held up the paper to gloat. My teacher, Mrs. Green, happened to be walking past, footsteps silent as a specter, and took the paper from me with an intimidating lack of interest. My scolding was silent, her teaching unbroken, and somehow that was worse than getting shouted at.
I became even more disinterested in our classwork after that. I began mindlessly pressing my pen cap against the skin of my forearm. I realize this is a weird thing to do, but I’ll admit I still do things like this when I’m not thinking. I’ll often hang up my desk phone after having been on hold for all of eternity and look down to see my hand covered in ink– doodles and dots–with no recollection of wielding a pen.
So, as Mrs. Green worked her way through Wordly Wise, I began idly putting little pen cap indentions on my skin. I created a kaleidoscopic pattern, a mesmerizing formation of overlapping circles.
I created a mystery rash.
I would never claim to be the picture of productivity at work, but I cannot get anything done today. My boss thinks I’m ignoring him, because for the third time he’s called my name, but all I hear is the Tell-Tale cotton rubbing against my eardrum. I wonder if this is the sort of thing that would drive a person bananas if left unaddressed. I press an ear bud into my right ear and turn the volume all the way up. It’s muffled, and I can’t really understand the lyrics, but I think it helps my concentration. The person sitting at the desk next to mine asks me to turn my music down, because she can hear it from five feet away. I am not proud, but I pretend I cannot hear her.
I take my lunch break early and race walk to the minor med down the street, finally having an opportunity to try out my shiny new health insurance. My gait is funny, and I catch myself leaning to the right. I burst into the waiting room and head to the desk. I try to play it cool.
“I need someone to look in my ear. I’m having trouble hearing.”
The receptionist gathers a clipboard. “Did something happen to it?”
“I think I got cotton stuck in it,” I say, revealing the panicked truth with no pressure at all.
“You use a q-tip?” she asks, chomping her gum. “Not supposed to do that.”
The wait will be over an hour. I will have to come back after work.
My mom came for lunch that day. She brought me Wendy’s (a spicy chicken sandwich with cheese, lettuce, and mustard ONLY). Those were the moments I loved her most–when she brought me food. I always tried to come up with reasons to leave early with her when she had lunch with me, because I hated school with a passion not often seen among second-graders. That day, however, I didn’t even have to ask. I noticed her eyes lingering on my forearm, and her face crumpled into a frown.
“What is that?” she asked, grabbing my arm from across the table and leaning close.
An opportunity blossomed in front of me. I saw it in her eyes, the worry, and knew the advantage was mine.
“I don’t know,” I said, adorning a tone of such shock that I sounded fake even to myself.
My mom is a nurse–a good one. At that point, she must have been in the business for around fifteen years. She’s won awards in the course of her career. I think it’s important you understand this. Tt makes this story that much harder to believe.
Brandon Stafford’s mom was there for lunch that day, too, and she was also a nurse. My mom marched me across the cafeteria. Her worry was replaced, at least partially, by something else: a hungry anticipation of a medical mystery to solved.
“Look at this,” my mom demanded of Brandon’s, interrupting their lunch. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Me neither,” Brandon’s mom said. Wonderstruck, she took off her glasses and leaned in close. She touched the skin around the rash but carefully avoided making contact with the indentions, as if I were a little leprous boy. In that moment, they both stopped being moms and morphed into nurses, studying me with clinical curiosity.
I had this in the bag. I looked at Brandon and grinned.
I’m on edge, distracted, and it’s obvious. No less than five people look at me warily and ask if I’m all right. One of them has never spoken to me before, because I’ve only worked here for a month and a half, and we’ve never had reason to talk, but still she is concerned enough to check.
Five PM rolls around, and I hustle out the doors like a student released for summer. I wait forty-five minutes to be seen. When at last they call my name, they do so four times before I hear them. I know you’re thinking I should have been able to hear them out of my left ear, but I found the sudden loss of auditory function in the right to be quite the handicapping experience.
I follow the nurse into the room and spill my guts.
“I got a piece of cotton stuck in my ear, and I know you’re not supposed to use q-tips in your ear hole, but I did, and now I can’t hear anything out of my right ear.”
“Doubt it,” she says. “How much do you weigh?”
Five minutes later, a doctor breezes into the room. She’s young and walks like she’s got tiny springs in the heels of her shoes.
“Impacted ears are my specialty,” she says.
“Impacted ears,” she says louder. “They’re my specialty.”
“Oh. Yeah, I have cotton in my ear.”
She gives me a doubtful, condescending look, then peers into my ear. “Nope, not cotton.”
“No. Wait. Wait.” That can’t be right. That’s abnormally gross, the sort of thing that doesn’t happen to me.
“Lie on your side,” she says. I am holding my phone, but she takes it from me and sets it in the chair across the room. “Don’t want it to get wet.”
I have lost every word in my vocabulary except “I’m” and “sorry”. What a terrible task this doctor’s been given. She puts hydrogen peroxide in my ear and says she’ll be back in ten. I’m left alone, on my side, with no phone. Staring at the sink, I begin to evaluate the steps I took that brought me here.
I maintained the pretend rash on the car ride to Uncle Rock’s house; he is a physician’s assistant, and my mom wanted his opinion. I maintained it all the way to the doctor’s office as well. I must have been panicked, at great risk of getting caught in a lie that lost my mom a full day’s work, but I still don’t understand how I did it. Was I sitting in the car, pressing the pen cap to my arm while my mom wasn’t looking? Indentions, you know, don’t last forever.
But I kept it up, and my uncle had never seen anything like it. The doctor hadn’t either. I had woken up that morning a regular, charming, seven-year-old boy, and I had transformed into a medical marvel. And it wasn’t nature that had caused this; I had done it, on my own. I truly understood that day the sort of power that was at my disposal. I could do anything, become whatever I wanted. I could create a new rash, never before seen in the scientific community, if only I put my mind to it.
Ten minutes becomes forty-five, and when the doctor returns, the lights are out in the room. I am nearly asleep. The first two times the lights went out, I flailed my arm to wake them up, but the third time I asked, “What’s the point of anything?” and let them be.
When she enters, she’s too casual. The lights flash on, and she doesn’t acknowledge their having been off.
“I’m really sorry,” she says happily, “but I completely forgot you.”
“I forgot you,” she says louder, with a suspicious lack of shame.
I find this embarrassing, and I realize I shouldn’t. I should be angry at being left for forty minutes in darkness with hydrogen peroxide hissing and popping in my ear, but instead I feel humiliation. Am I so easily forgotten? Even when I show up with a problem as disgusting and embarrassing as this, I am overlooked. It is a deep fear of mine, being the one no one notices, and whenever I feel like it’s happened, it brings me shame. I’ve never been to this doctor, and I’ll probably never see her again, yet I feel like I’ve been left behind somewhere by someone to whom I should matter.
She shoots water in my ear with the power of a fire hose. Over and over, and water is everywhere.
“You’ll have to go to an ENT. I’ve done all I can. Don’t be embarrassed, I see this all the time.”
I stand up in my soaking wet shirt and grab my bag, red-faced and humiliated.
“You shouldn’t use q-tips in your ear, you know,” she says. “Nothing smaller than your elbow.”
I realize there is a lot of evidence of some serious underlying issues in this childhood tale, and it’s not with ease that I post this story. This isn’t just a weird thing kids do, and I know that. It’s peculiar. There are things to unpack.
My appetite for attention was substantial. There’s a lot of stress involved in maintaining the sort of lie I had told. But I hated school and loved my mom, and that made it worth it. My mom doted on me the entire day, and I reveled in listening to her recount our doctor visit to her friends over the phone (make no mistake, she relished in it, too).
Something was certainly going on with me, but it wasn’t the rash. Even before this incident, I was prone to faking sick, guilting my parents into letting me stay home with such forceful manipulation that I remember eventually receiving a letter stating I could not miss even one more day of school. I think I hit a record that year.
My time as a poor and sickly boy whose skin was being ravaged by an unknown rash screeched to a halt the next night (after, if you can believe it, I’d been to another doctor, this one drawing blood and sending it off to specialists). My mom walked into the kitchen and found me sitting at the table next to the darkened window, pressing a pen cap against my leg. She screamed like never before (I’ve heard worse since).
I had made her miss work.
I had missed school AGAIN.
I had LIED to EVERYONE.
I had cost her fifty dollars.
For the next seven years of my life, I thought the thing she was really mad about was the money.
Why had I sat in the most obvious place in the house to work on spreading my rash? My mom was sure to come in, and I had to know that. I wonder now if what I really wanted, more than another day of staying home from school with mac and cheese and Rugrats, was to get caught; if what I wanted was a different sort of attention than I was getting from the doctors and a curious nurse-mom. I wonder now if I wanted the real issues to be heard– if the thing I wanted most was to be seen.
When I get home, I spend three hours putting drops in my ear and washing it out. Finally, what looks like a rock too big for my earhole comes out, a bezoar that can cure any poison. I think about taking a picture of it to gross people out, but it disgusts me, too, and I can’t tell if I find the whole experience hilarious or excruciatingly embarrassing. A little of both, I decide, like so many things that happen to me. I drop it into the trash and go to bed.