Thursday, July 4, 2013
“Your arm will look very bad,” the nurse declared, her head turned toward the door of the consultation room. It had been five days since my spectacular fall from a moving bus, and my body tensed at the mention of any lasting damage. I wanted to believe I didn’t hear her right.
“My arm,” I asked weakly, having propped it up awkwardly on the operating tray. My palm was flat against the aluminum pan and my punctured elbow was suspended lopsidedly in the air like a grizzled old flag.
“Your arm will look very bad after I apply this,” she said, alluding to a small vial in her hand. “It will turn the color of your shirt.”
I breathed out slightly. I was wearing a maroon dress shirt over a pair of gray slacks and nodded as she turned to face me. "At least it will match.”
Christine, my nurse, approached the table holding a wad of gauze the color of fresh lavender. She wore her hair twisted back in two thick braids and had a dark birthmark over her right eye that looked almost like a bruise. It reminded me of my ex-stepmom who had a birthmark in nearly the same place, and my dad, who lamented having to constantly face down stares from strangers who assumed he had hit her. Christine’s face looked young—not much older than my own—and had a sweetness to it, like she had trained to become a nurse because she genuinely liked people. Her smile, when I got her to laugh, was broad and unashamed.
It was the second time I had met her. The first was just hours after the accident, when I ambled into the university medical center after lunch, my arm held together loosely with a sheet of cling wrap and some adhesive. She flushed out the wound with peroxide and bandaged it in a cloth brace that gave my forearm the appearance of a taut bicep.
The medicine she prescribed was called Gentian Violet. When I asked her, she said she didn’t know about the ingredients of GV so much as she did its effect: it stains everything purple. Using the lavender gauze, she pressed down on my exposed skin. Each pulse sent a surge of pain through my arm but it was tempered by the restraint she showed, like she knew exactly how much pressure to administer. Her hands, when she was through soaking the wound, adopted the same amethyst glow as my forearm, like we had been through something together.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” I said, staring at the fresco with water lilies painted across my lower arm.
“The GV will help the wound scab,” Christine replied, washing her hands in the sink. “Or did you want to look that tough forever?”
I admitted to her that I half-liked the feeling of having a big open gash on my arm. It wasn't bravado so much as it was stating a fact. On a crowded street, at any time of day, I was confident that no one was going to give me trouble.
Next, she drew her attention to my shoulder. “And now for your tetanus shot.”
I was already pushing a week since the date of the injury and it was the last time I could get the shot for it to still be effective. In a few hours, I would board a night bus to Busia, a small town bordering Uganda in the west of the country and would not be back in Nairobi for five more days. It was a combination of work and time off, culminating with a full day of white water rafting on the Nile. I thought about my arm and how it would fare being tossed around and roughed up by Class 5 rapids, and then, just as quickly, about how much worse I would feel if I didn’t go.
Unable to roll the sleeve of my shirt up past my shoulder, I began unbuttoning it, slowly at first, because I wasn’t familiar with the cultural norms, and, moreover, because I wasn’t sure if Christine would object to my getting undressed in her office. With the door closed and my eyes fixed on Christine, I unbuttoned my still-tucked shirt to the waist and hoisted the fabric over my left shoulder so that the entire left half of my torso was exposed. She didn’t bat an eye the entire time.
I waited as she unsealed a package of the vaccination and walked over to my left side. “This will feel a little funny,” Christine said, before piercing the needle into my shoulder and pushing down on the plunger.
When she was done, I asked her if she could log the shot in the yellow book that I used to record all of my immunizations, the very same one I had been given at the travel clinic in Elyria when I first got my vaccinations for China. She wrote it down in the blank directly below the previous entry—a tetanus shot dated just over two years ago. I remembered the incident almost immediately—having to get seven stitches in my chin at a county hospital in China after doing something even more illogical than jumping out of a moving vehicle. I looked over at her signature and the one next to my shot from China, and imagined that every two years I might record another tetanus shot from a new far-flung destination – like a repository of my misadventures.
“You know, I told you to buy the GV two days ago,” Christine said as she handed the yellow book back to me and saw me to the door. “Your arm would have already scabbed by now. Why haven’t you bought it yet?” She had a teasing quality to her voice, but I could tell she asked me the question in earnest.
“I couldn’t find any chemists,” I replied back, the East African equivalent of pharmacies, which was a lie, since I pass more than three on my walk home from work every day.
She scoffed and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Why do I even bother with you,” she spouted, a bit of her Swahili accent coming out. And I could already see a smile forming at the creases of her mouth.
“I’m the worst kind of patient,” I admitted, rising to my feet. “But that’s why I need your help even more.”
On the overnight trip to Busia, I woke up every time our bus came to a screeching, juddering stop, or the woman next to me bumped her elbow against my arm. I never thought it was intentional but the roads for nearly all ten hours were atrocious and for most of the ride we couldn’t help colliding into each other. At times I felt like we were intentionally off-roading, that there was a perfectly smooth highway running parallel to the dirt road, but that our headlong driver insisted on using the bumpy, eroded path, the bus itself throbbing with African music blaring out of the overhead speakers. In the moments when I was jolted awake, I looked out the tinny glass windows and saw a dense fog encompassing my entire field of view, ours the single pair of headlights cutting through the haze.
At other times, I looked over at the woman to my right. She had a small frame and folded up neatly in the reclining chair; her entire body fit effortlessly into her seat. She had remarkably cool features: round oval eyes, wavy black hair, skin as dark and smooth as dawn. And irrationally, I kept thinking about how nice it would be to edge up to her, to bury my head in her shoulder, to wrap my arms tightly around her and not let go. I missed Alexandra, missed the bus trips we took together while traveling, and how at certain points she would just slump her body against mine and I would hold her there for as long as it took to get to wherever we were going. I thought back to the afternoon at Christine’s office and how before her it had been a long time since anyone had applied me with even the slightest touch.
It was almost 3:00 in the morning when our bus pulled into a rest stop. The bus stopped perhaps ten or twelve times before our eventual arrival in Busia at 5:30, sometimes just to let a person on or off, and at other times to idle in a lot while passengers went inside to get food, stretch their legs, or use the bathroom. Not knowing when we would arrive, I crawled off the bus, my body aching from being pounded and jostled against the seat, and my arm on fire.
The rest area was a cavernous den replete with a few lopsided restaurants and a bar still pumping music well into the early morning. It was nearly pitch black inside and my vision was still fuzzy from the bus ride. In an almost ethereal state, I walked along a checker-tiled floor and saw a group of four men sitting to a candlelit dinner at a table outside of a closed restaurant, their hands joined and their faces bowed so that I couldn’t make out any of their expressions.
When I reached the bathroom, my eyes first settled on my arm in the mirror. The GV had set in and, as promised, the wound began to scab, taking on the flat, crispy texture of a Terra chip cut from blue potatoes. Then, instinctively, my eyes settled on the center of my chest, where there was a gaping space in my shirt where a button should have been fastened. I rubbed my eyes and stared again. Sure enough, the buttons to my shirt were mismatched. I wondered how I could have possibly let this detail escape me, and then it dawned on me.
Standing in the rest stop bathroom, I remembered buttoning up my shirt in Christine's office, giving pause at the last thing she told me before I left. “You should come back and visit me,” she said, “even after your arm is healed.”