Early last week and late the week prior, I ate the following things, motivated in all cases by finances:
- Some Taco Bell
- A free chicken burrito from Chipotle
- A free slice of pizza that looked like it’d been sitting there awhile
- A sweaty old-fashioned donut from a donut shop downtown
- Some rotisserie chicken from the poorly lit Safeway by our apartment
- Some old halvah out of a can with a busted lid
Any one of these things could have been responsible for the odd sense of presence that quietly developed inside my small intestine early last week, but it was almost perfectly simultaneous with my ingestion of the very last morsel of rotisserie chicken–a morsel which I stole off wife-elect’s abandoned plate as I was clearing the table, continuing a long-established pattern of eating part of her dinner in addition to my own–that I first actually noticed the little weighted sense of imposition as though some small thing had set up camp in the dark warmth just southwest of my bellybutton.
At first I thought maybe the chicken was so dry that it was caught in some plumbing. I should have chewed better. I should have chased it with water. I should have prepared gravy to go with.
But that was that. I soon moved on with my life and went to bed.
Tuesday was fine. The little imposition remained, but only announced itself enough times in polite enough a manner for me to consider possibly going to the bathroom later, and then move on with my life each time. Tuesday was not particularly a day to remember. I am glad I didn’t waste any video tape.
Wednesday I drove to the East Bay in the afternoon to see friends. I dislike the drive to East Bay, but it is worth it every time for the friends. I dislike the drive because I dislike all highway driving and most other sorts of driving, because to drive is to put oneself in a suspended state in which simply moving one’s arm or leg wrong, or right but without accounting for the wrongness of other people, of whom there are thousands surrounding at all times, not only could but at every moment somewhere on Earth does lead to swift, gruesome death or slow torture and disfigurement. And because despite the tremendous pressure to perform thousands of complex eye-hand coordination tests perfectly at high speeds, the likelihood of any given fellow driver’s top priority being the preservation of life is only perhaps slightly higher than it being, say, “making good time” or sending a text message. Highway driving is the most dangerous thing most people do in their lifetimes by a large margin, and it’s weird to me how casual almost everybody is about it.
The drive to this particular area of the East Bay also entails a number of easy-to-miss highway exits, and each one missed extends the state of crisis by an unknowable duration, and also of course requires rerouting on my phone map, which adds considerable new danger. Normally when I make this drive, my esteemed partner acts as navigator to minimize this danger, but this time I was on my own. Just me and my iPhone 4. The thing audibly wheezes when running modern apps, but it’s a bad time to upgrade, given my frozen cash flow (I’ve tried to upgrade twice in the past, but those were separate trials for another time).
While I was tying my shoes in the front entryway of the apartment, I realized I didn’t actually know my friends’ address. I’ve made this drive dozens of times, but every highway along the way ends in the digits 80, so I get confused and like to check. Otherwise it’s all a swirl of half-memorized highway numbers, exit numbers, and distances. In 8 miles take exit 418 to highway 580. Or was it 18 miles, exit 508, and highway 480?
I sat in our foyer perusing a map of Concord, California for fifteen minutes trying to locate the apartment complex by memory, but Concord seemed to have warped around itself. What was east in my head was now southwest. That taco restaurant was on the wrong corner. I texted my friends to ask for their address, but conceded that most of the drive was pretty straightforward, and I could always pull over once I got close to them and enter the address once they replied.
Satisfied, I got in my car, started the ignition, pulled out the driveway, and promptly hopped on highway 101 going north instead of south. Oops. Dumb, but no matter. I took the first available exit, for Broadway, which funneled me straight into three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Broadway is under construction. Right. Okay, an inauspicious start, but I tried to be optimistic.
Twenty minutes later, I was back on 101 going south. The journey had begun. The exit for the San Mateo Bridge was coming up. The one where you have to be in the leftmost exit lane when the exit lane splits off, otherwise you could end up in the lane that exits left but not left enough. As I recalled, this meant I was currently one lane too far to the right. I moved over one to the left. Traffic was heavy for just a little past 2 p.m. on a weekday. A lot of people were exiting right. Foster City must have been having some kind of spring fling. Oh, nope. They were all exiting for the San Mateo Bridge. I was in the wrong lane, I noticed just in time for the correct lane to split off by way of a painted median. Had there not been so many people exiting for the San Mateo Bridge, I probably could have swerved into the correct lane, but rather than tempt fate, I chose to accept one that felt akin to kayaking casually toward a waterfall. Anyway, I missed my exit.
I tried to be optimistic. I took the next exit for Hillsdale Boulevard, not actually knowing how or where it might spit me back out onto 101 going north. This is where I might have pulled over and checked the map, but making good time was top priority. I took a few unconfident turns simply to avoid what looked like Definitely the Wrong Way, and ended up on a direct course for the exit back onto 101 south, with no indication anywhere of a north exit. Fine. I always hated Hillsdale Boulevard anyway.
The exit once again carouseled me onto the wrong side of highway 101 and I punched the ceiling of my car as hard as I could. What a wham. I thought about how loud an actual sixty-five mile-an-hour collision must sound if my knuckles against the padded interior were this loud. Maybe cars were designed to be percussive as some sort of safety feature. I hoped so. I took the next exit, for Ralston, and pulled into the first parking lot I found. My friend had texted me his address. Phew, that was one worry down. I entered the address into Apple Maps (the way my phone runs Google Maps, you’d think it were rendering raw 3D models of each location) and studied the directions. The part of the journey that I didn’t have down by heart–the Concord part–was routed in a way I’d never seen before, and there was no option to route it the way I half-knew. Whatever. I was no longer making good time, or even okay time. I was late. I searched the map for an exit onto 101 north, found it, and took it.
From there the ride was mostly uneventful, save for one near collision getting onto 880…or 580, I forget. I also came within about one second of missing the exit for Concord, but traffic was lighter here, so I was able to do the last-second swerve I hadn’t done in San Mateo. From there I even managed to remember the route to my friends’ apartment, and pulled in with a heavy sigh of relief. All that was left was to text them and let them know I had arrived so they could come down and let me into the garage.
My iPhone 4 sat dead in the cup holder. I’d tried. I’d refrained from using it for music, settling instead for the same sad Eels CD about the singer’s dead family that’s been in my CD player since the new year. I’d barely even used the phone for navigation. I certainly hadn’t made any calls. But it’s an aging phone with an aging battery, and it was gone. I considered my options. Currently, my car sit idling in a crowded drop-off area. I already felt like I was kind of being inconsiderate. I could have left the hazards on and gone up to their apartment and knocked, assuming there was a way into the building. I wasn’t sure there was. Worse, I couldn’t remember their apartment number or even their floor. This was because in the past I’ve always been so frazzled by the drive that as soon as they let us into the garage my brain shuts off and I simply follow everybody else up until I’m magically sitting on a sofa clutching a wine cooler.
Just as I was about to give up hope, a car pulled in from the opposite entrance and opened the automatic gate. It glided into the garage. I quickly put my own car in Drive and swerved around to gauge the possibility of piggy-backing. No good–the gate was already starting to close by the time it was fully in view.
With despair, I exited the drop-off area and decided to just pull into the first shopping center I could find. Maybe there’d be a place with wifi or, failing that, a place that sold iPhone 4-compatible car chargers. By this point I also had a fairly severe need to pee, so I would be easy to please.
About a mile up the road, I found a Walgreen’s. Perfect. I pulled in, almost hitting a jaywalker, then entered the store, used the bathroom, found an overwhelming selection of car chargers, bought the cheapest one, charged my phone for a few minutes with the car running, and powered up the phone to discover an ongoing thread between my friends and wife-elect, expressing concern that I had gone missing.
“FRIENDS,” I wrote. “I’M ALIVE. PHONE DIED. There in two minutes.”
I put the car in Drive again and pulled back onto the main road.
After about three miles, I noticed that I hadn’t passed the Grocery Outlet I should have passed, nor the Peet’s Coffee which had given me hope for wifi in the first place. In fact, nothing looked familiar. How?! It was a straight shot from point A to point B!
At a red light, I texted my friends: “Sorry, a little lost. One minute.” I pulled a U-turn at the next available place and rerouted Apple Maps with one hand, working in short bursts of precise screen touches, making sure to account for the one-to-five-second delay between any input and the phone’s reaction. With a wheeze, my phone brought up a freshly routed map and I reclaimed my sense of direction. I needed to take a left up at the next light and then I’d be home free. I got in the left lane with the confidence of a native Concordian.
A siren, near enough, rang out. Please don’t be behind me, I prayed. I peeked at my rear view mirror. The siren crescendoed. A red flash.
I swear my car exchanged awkward glances with the car next to me as I wedged it into the right lane. I gave the Thank-You Wave. My car rolled its eyes (and wheels). The ambulance barreled through. I crossed back across three lanes of traffic, driving almost perpendicular to the road, making it safely into my turn lane without a foot to spare.
When I pulled back into the drop-off area of my friends’ apartment complex, they were standing at the curb waiting for me. I let out a sigh of relief so heavy it’s now a microclimate. I clicked the passenger-side window control so I could communicate with my friends. No response. This was a known issue–sometimes the windows form a line of gunk where the glass meets the rubber insulator, causing them to get stuck shut–but had never mattered until this very moment, when it was the last straw. Just before passing out, I took a moment to curse not just the passenger-side window, but indeed all of my car’s windows, and all windows everywhere.
When I awoke, I was sitting on my friends’ luxurious sofa, wine cooler in hand. My better half joined us later in the evening and we basked in the comfort of each other’s company and enjoyed a fine Italian dinner. Twice over the course of the night, a little voice in my abdomen peeped, “Hey, Greg. Hey.” And I said, “Maybe I shouldn’t have held my pee so long this afternoon, because now my abdomen talks,” and that was Wednesday.
Thursday, I had more diarrhea than there are states in the union. Nothing could stop it. Any attempt to ingest anything–even water–resulted in the same knotting feeling just southwest of my bellybutton, followed by a prolonged argument between my small and large intestine in the bathroom. Every twenty minutes, a trip to the bathroom was guaranteed. This continued through the night. Whatever sleep I managed to get before giving up on the concept was low-quality and ended in a cold sweat.
Friday was a repeat of Thursday, except that this time I knew it was coming. This knowledge provided no benefit. Every twenty minutes the same urgency visited my bowels, compelling me to to hold my sputtering exhaust pipe over the facility’s watery maw until every last droplet of matter had drained from my insides. Saltines, wads of plain bread, and oatmeal all did nothing to allay the upset. Eventually I stopped trying to eat anything. I drank water and Pedialite, which still made me have to go every twenty minutes. I spent the rest of my time in bed watching Netflix’s Daredevil. It was only okay. Around noon, with no end in sight I decided I should think about seeing a doctor. I’d just joined Kaiser Permanente, and discovered through their website that you can set up phone appointments with doctors. This would eliminate the need to stray from my toilet or do any driving, so the decision practically made itself. The doctor I spoke to said to try drinking a lot of water or, say, Pedialite, and asked if there was any blood. I said there wasn’t.
Saturday was a repeat of Friday. Daredevil fought a never-ending string of people pretending to speak Japanese, the Punisher massacred a bar full of “The Irish” (you could tell it was them because there was corned beef in the frame of every shot), and I lay there, gaunt and writhing like the “Sloth” victim in the movie Seven. My brain stem hurt, and couldn’t tell if it was a viral symptom or the result of days of inactivity. In the afternoon, I saw something in the bowl that could have been called “reddish,” noticed I was too weak to even freak out about it, but called the doctor again anyway. She prescribed an antibiotic and said I could either go ahead and take it, or have a stool analysis and wait for the results, which would take no more than a day. “Oh, just a day? Better safe than sorry, then,” I said, and determined that tomorrow I would go in for an analysis.
Sunday, I went in for the analysis. It’s important for me to stress this part of the story, because this is the slice that, isolated, is such a comical exaggeration of real-life misfortune and misery that it couldn’t possibly be taken as anything other than a trial proctored by the cosmos to spur me forward on my journey. So it’s important that I first stress the acrobatic challenge imposed upon me in my most atrophied, wobbling state, in trying to even obtain the sample. Because you see, one cannot simply spoon the sample out of the unsterilized toilet bowl and into a to-go receptacle–it must be caught directly from the source. This means spelunking one’s arm–receptacle in hand–into the bowl between one’s legs and contorting one’s wrist in such a way that the receptacle is firmly bullseyed beneath said source without touching the horrid water beneath. Then one must exercise an unprecedented degree of precision and control over organs that are in their most unpredictable, uncontrollable state, in order to produce a deluge of just the right magnitude, such that there is no run-off or collateral. Once I moved past the fact that this was all for the sake of gathering poop, I started to feel like Tom Cruise bungeeing between laser beams in Mission: Impossible, and indeed my flawless execution carried a comparable sense of satisfaction in the end.
I examined the specimen sealed safely within our now ruined piece of Tupperware. That morning I had been experimenting with a flavorless rice gruel of my own concoction, and noted that it seemed to be making my insides congeal, which was better than whatever had been making them liquefy. But there was definitely something in there that, viewed at certain angles in certain light conditions could be disputed as “possibly within the quadrant of the spectrum that also contains the color ‘reddish.'”
The internet states that poop samples have a Tupperware life of about thirty minutes, so we rushed the sample to the Kaiser Permanente facility with the urgency that one might rush a found plutonium cache to one’s man cave mini-fridge. It’s important that I stress the high-pressure driving situation created by this cup of poop.
When we arrived, Kaiser was mostly deserted. It was Easter Sunday. A receptionist took my forty-dollar copay, handed me a piece of paper with the details of my poop analysis order on it, pointed us toward the poop analysis lab and told us to “just see if someone is around,” as though they didn’t work in established shifts. “If not,” he said, “I’ll be around for another ten minutes.”
Luckily, someone was around. They took my form, handed me a different form, and pointed us toward the real poop analysis lab. There, another receptionist told me that my patient file couldn’t be accessed because a guy whose name I’d never heard before had left it open on another terminal somewhere. It’s important for me to stress that no two people I dealt with at Kaiser Permanente seemed to be at all in sync, because it’s a reminder that one day I will be dying and Kaiser Permanente will probably not be able save me if they can’t even tell me if they’re staffed or access my patient file.
The receptionist fiddled on her computer for a bit, asked a colleague if he knew how to fix the issue (he didn’t), and finally gave up and just handed me an official stool sample kit with instructions. I wondered if providing a raw stool sample without the context of my patient file might prove problematic later on, but I was desperate to ensure that I hadn’t flawlessly executed Mission: Impossible for naught.
It’s important for me to stress how ridiculous the process of transferring a stool sample from one’s own personal receptacle to the official lab receptacles was. The lab gave me two plastic, screw-top vials. The first was filled less than halfway with a clear liquid. Attached to the underside of the screw-top was a little plastic trident utensil, like something you might use to enjoy cocktail weenies. I had been instructed to use that to spoon enough poop into the vial to make the clear liquid rise to the level indicated by a black line. It’s important for me to stress that the only available work surface available in the lab bathroom was a spring-loaded, pull-down metal sliver of a table attached to the wall. It was like a miniature ironing board, only big enough to iron, say, a child’s necktie. The spring contraption was worn out and I couldn’t get it to lie perfectly flat. As I worked, gingerly escorting forkfuls of reddish-brown, rice-congealed sludge from one container to the other, the table slowly began to retract, making little upward lurches toward the wall. Each time it did this, I stopped forking and pushed the table back down, gently so as not to slingshot the open feces straight up into my face. I could tell the table really wanted to be a slingshot.
Eventually I’d displaced enough liquid to hit the black line. I quickly screwed the trident-lid back on, said a silent “godspeed,” then filled the second receptacle with the remainder of my sample, as instructed. It’s important for me to stress how much this was like trying to pour stubborn ketchup. As I stood there carefully slamming the corner of the Tupperware container of against the plastic vial, I thought about how long it had been since I’d done something special for Easter. Then I wondered if all the slamming sounds might attract concern, or if that was typical.
I brought my sample back to the receptionist, whose job, I then appreciated, entailed being handed bags full of diseased poop. She told me the lab should have my results in three to four days. It’s important for me to stress that this was different from the one day my doctor had promised me, which was the only reason I was bothering to do this instead of just taking the antibiotics straight away. In another three to four days, I might be dead. I wasn’t sure Kaiser Permanente appreciated that. But I did.
On Monday, we went and got the antibiotics. My flavorless rice gruel concoction seemed to have a slowing effect on my symptoms, but it was clear they had no intention of disappearing on their own. The reddishness also seemed to be intensifying. I figured it was only a matter of days before my stool would be composed entirely of ruined internal organs. The antibiotics came with a packet of instructions and warnings. They were to be taken twice a day, once in the morning, once in the evening. Severe side effects were known to accompany even just a single dose, and included both diarrhea and swift death. Under no circumstances were the pills to be chewed, as chewing could produce a bitter taste.
On Tuesday morning, I received the following note from my doctor through Kaiser Permanente’s handy intake system:
Salmonella test came back positive. The antibiotics should take care of it, but let me know if anything comes up. I’m going to contact the Department of Health about this and they’ll be giving you a call to get some information.”
The Department of Health did call, administering a ten-minute interview about the things I’d eaten and restaurants I’d gone in the week prior to getting sick. The interviewer told me that the gestation period for salmonella is five to six hours. I calculated backward from the time I’d felt that very first little baby-clutch just southwest of my bellybutton. That indicated the Chipotle burrito as the prime suspect. The Chipotle burrito I’d received with a Free Chipotle Burrito coupon, which the restaurant had mailed out as a make-good following the recent e. coli outbreak. The Chipotle burrito I’d eaten against my better judgment solely because it was free, and in spite of the fact that downtown San Mateo is home to both La Cumbre, the birthplace of the modern handheld burrito, and Poncho Villa, the goddamn Meryl Streep of California salsa awards. The Chipotle burrito I’d eaten after thinking, “Wouldn’t it be funny if this free Chipotle burrito made me sick?”
I’m not saying Chipotle gave me salmonella with their “We’re sorry we gave a bunch of people e. coli” burrito–I’m just saying that it might have been worth the expense to just buy lunch that day.
Also, all of my driving woes, and indeed most of my woes in life, are caused my a preoccupation with worry. I should try to let this go. In 2008 I broke my face in public because I was preoccupied with worry over something less severe than breaking my face, and now I have two false front teeth. I should make a renewed effort to internalize this lesson while I still have all my limbs.
Also, the forty-dollar copay Kaiser charged me to have my poop analyzed was pretty much exactly how much I short-changed the mom ‘n pop music store people who fixed my guitar. Maybe if I’d paid them in full I wouldn’t have gotten sick. Or maybe if I had paid them in full I would be forty dollars poorer, and when I reach my final forty dollars it will become apparent what I would’ve missed out on. I think the critical takeaway here is that you just don’t know.