There is only one song I downloaded twice last year. On the evening of May 28, a friend and I watched a two-week-old episode of Saturday Night Live on which Kacey Musgraves was the musical guest. I thought for her second slot she might play “Space Cowboy” and was disappointed when she began “Slow Burn.” By the end of the song I was hooked and it stayed in my head and later that night I torrented it, diligently transferring it to my phone so I could listen during my bike ride the next morning. Except somehow this didn’t work, as over-air transfers sometimes do not. One week later I downloaded it again, this time purchasing it through iTunes. In the interim, I died.
Other things happened as well when I was hit by a truck on the aforementioned ride. They mostly involved broken bones, the pelvis, the scapula, like that. The ribs are designed to sacrifice themselves to protect the chest organs and for the most part they did this with the exception of a lacerated and collapsed lung. Still I had to be defibrillated by the ambulance guys as I lay on the county road and when I came back they hauled me to the medical center in the next town and held me in suspended animation for a couple of days while, I suspect, the surgeons researched what to do on the internet. Later a CT scan tech, whose job would have made him familiar with many sorts of damage, would look at me in puzzlement and say, You have a . . . metal rib? I looked at him in equivalent confusion, perhaps just about life in general, and said brightly, Titanium, I have five titanium ribs.
In that week of acquiring the titanium ribs they asked me to measure my pain every three hours. It did not feel measurable. How is your pain on a scale of one to ten, they asked, with ten being the worst and one being no pain? They asked this over and over. Anyone who has been in this situation will know that this is metaphysics in the bad sense and there is no serious answer to the question. At one point I was on oral oxy, a morphine drip, Dilaudid push as needed, and a fentanyl epidural. I yowled piteously every time I had to move. Slowly I got down to just oxy and Dilaudid. And then just oxy. I was more ready with the chitchat by that time and I would say, That is a hard question. Compared to five days ago my pain is less than zero. Compared to before the accident it is in the millions. I don’t know how to answer you.
I developed an elaborate discourse about this at least in my head. I don’t know if I ever delivered it with the scope it deserved. I may have been a Bad Patient. Eventually a night nurse leaned in and said, with a mix of annoyance and generosity I will not forget, If you say seven or higher, we give you oxy.
By then I was on the ward where the nurses are dramatically overburdened, managing a series of rooms each with four fucked-up people. I had one roommate who had diabetes but would have his brother sneak him chocolate
After six days there I was able to move enough to ask for my phone and have a nurse’s assistant put my headphones on and I downloaded “Slow Burn” because it was the song I wanted to hear. I am not sure I have gone six hours much less six days without listening to music since I was ten and discovered that no one would stop me if I went to bed with the radio on. You might think this essay is about “Slow Burn” and how soothing it was at that moment but that is only partially true. It was soothing. Once in the nineties when I was also feeling quite poorly my housemates had watched the movie Foxfire, and “Into Dust” came on the soundtrack, I was lying on the floor, and I who had never quite fallen for Mazzy Star thought, Oh, I get it, this is really designed to match a very specific phase after you have shot some medium-quality dope, wow it’s so good. “Slow Burn” was like that, it was precisely right for oxy with a Dilaudid push, I mean, I get that it is about patient sex and smoking pot, but its mood is just right for the lull that is inside life but does not feel that way, and in that sense it is a perfect song. There are very few songs that are perfect in any sense. I was grateful.
But I had meant for this essay to be about something else. I am not sure what. I know what I remember best from my time in the hospital. One day I asked the nurse apologetically where her accent was from. Ah, she said, accepting that it might be hard to figure out. I am from Lebanon, she said, but I learned English in France long ago, I went to school there before I came here. I stared at her to decipher her age, a skill I lack. I tried to do some calculations in my head but couldn’t stabilize the numbers. She asked if I spoke French. Sort of, I said. We spoke in childish French. Later I would see that she was trying to get me to make my brain work, just as she would eventually get me to sit up, to stand, to walk with her just down the hall and back.
By one measure the Lebanese Civil War lasted from 1975–90. Its peak was in 1982–83, the time of the Israeli invasion, of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It would have been around then and around there that she learned her skills as a trauma nurse. I know of that war only from books. There was a lot of mortar fire.
I do not want to imagine her life too much at 19 or whatever she was, just as I do not want to name her, it’s her life. I asked her if she had read much Mahmoud Darwish. Yes his poetry, she answered with an implicit Everyone has you idiot. Have you read Memory for Forgetfulness, I asked. No, she answered, and I said, It is his journal from Beirut, 1982, you would like it.
I am not sure this is true. It is not a perfect book. Also I do not know the nurse’s politics for certain. I didn’t ask. I could guess certain things from the flight to France and the United States, just as I could guess things from her admiration for Darwish, but they are only guesses. I have always wanted to discuss this early passage about coffee, hilarious, probably sexist, which devolves into an increasingly absurd series of propositions concerning what you can know about a person by the flavor of the coffee they serve, including the claim, Coffee that feels like moss in the mouth means its maker is an infantile leftist. Coffee is geography, it concludes.
I think often of the fact that Darwish, the poet, who died in 2008, sat on the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee before resigning against the Oslo Accords. I think often, since last year, about the nurse. These are two of the tiny tick marks in the secret ledger in my head, so secret that I don’t really know that much about it, the ledger that means to calculate even though calculation is impossible whether it matters what you do, when alive.