By Michael Benharroch
Looking back, I never stop being amazed by the fact that it took me so long to realize that my back hurt. But, yes, I have back pain. I tried telling myself for some time that it was the plain discomfort of sleeping on a rather sagging mattress, or a temporary effect of overexertion, the result of making false moves, or even the logical outcome of having taken occasional wrong turns in life. But I was cheating myself, it is my body’s pillar that is sick, the nucleus of myself that is coming apart; my stem that creases, the center of my being that suffers. Especially in the ninth vertebra, the building is falling down.
When in bed, I move my arms in desperation trying to find a comfortable position. I stretch my body and search for the other side of the pillow again and again, seeking the treasure of sudden relief. But there is no comfortable position — it is too late for me now. In vain, I rotate on my axis; in vain, I execute the right movements, the recommended posturing, the healthy exercises. Who do I think that I’ll be able to escape from in my turns? Myself?
Destruction lives in me and resignation builds itself healthily, as the most noble building, next to my column. My back hurts, and I sit, and I stand up and walk, but the clock in the living room doesn’t draw for me any fitting hours. In the void of time that my predicament has created, I manage my limp affairs the best I can, like the simplest shopkeeper, and mutedly mind my mowed mobility. Yet even this involuntary introversion has been probed and breached, as I’ve fallen prey to the murky divination and nefarious bets of modern medicine.
In this nightmarish hiatus, I’ve dared fantasize at times that there is nothing wrong with my back, and attributed my malaise, instead, to an uneasiness — to a sort of anxiety — like the sudden realization that there is something in me that is lacking, or the suspicion that I suffer from of a type of vital clumsiness.
My back…! Hm… So easy to fall in the trap and look only at the flat pictures that radiologists make, and to religiously go to the doctor, take painkillers and sleep in an orthopedic mattress. But I’m not stupid. It is my back, but it could have been my heart, my lungs, my head or my stomach. That is what matters the least; it is just a symbol, a living metaphor that walks by my side, a cruel joke with which I lie to sleep every night, like a book that always opens on the same page, like a past heavy-handed remark that lays in memory as a wound.
Tomorrow will be another day, and it will be my ribs, my liver or my throat — other symbols, another unbearable tasteless prank.
Back pain… How could I describe it to you? As an electrified fire spear that slides in between two vertebrae? As a bullet stuck between two teeth after a long indigestible meal? As an irretrievable maligned rock that has sunk to the depths of my torso? As a brick that free-falls time and again to a still body? Or just let the two words vent out for a while and allow its clouds to rumble? For what is the point of my describing it to you, anyway? I am the one who has back pain, it is my breast the one I hear crying at night. It is pointless: my back is not your back. We have not carried the same weight on our shoulders. At the end, it is that knot on the other side of my rug that has the last word, that juts out ridiculously in my day-to-day, and this tirade is just a meager attempt to recover a sense of logic, to save face, to put things in place, to get my ducks in a row, to get my mental vertebrae aligned, so to speak. And all this a type of superstition, like a futile séance, thinking that your health may rub off on me, as if I lie in the garden and observe butterflies long enough, I will grasp the lightness of their movement, the grace of their flight, the secret of good positioning and the savoir-faire of inhabiting the discreet part of an instant.
But I snidely laugh at myself when, after only a few hours have gone by, most butterflies lie dead on the grass, in that position I know best.
Pain does not forget me, nor do I forget it, my constant companion, my best friend; When between two shooting pains two or three painkillers dilate and I do not feel pain for three or four minutes, usually mid-afternoon, a fabulous melancholy invades me and I sourly miss pain until its return, when my dorsal spine hurriedly welcomes it, and when, ten or twenty seconds after its return, I recognize it as someone who finds a familiar face amongst a crowd, and I tell myself in comfort: Oh, there is my back pain!
Calm does not belong to me any longer. On certain occasions, I’ve carefully observed my vague shadow among the cobblestones in the street, distorted, walking falsely and semi-erect, half-free and selfish, and I have seen in its looks and in its fake half-smile how it asks me to liberate it from seeing my pain, from walking at my feet, from having to imitate my erroneous wandering, my daily wavering. But I ignore it, even though I hear its stretched sob at night when I turn the day’s last corner, turn off the last light, and it noticeably slithers to mingle with the rest of the dark. (Is the night something more than an oversized shadow?)
Tomorrow will be another day and the same back pain. I will do my morning exercises once again: stand up from bed and walk to the kitchen. My routine is condemned to me and I am condemned to my routine. May everyone else go to hell! It is me who carries the load of my pain day in and day out.
But what am I saying? I know well that I am the pain in my back, I am the one that wakes my body up every night when it finally reaches sleep after a hot pursuit in the desert of my sheets, and then it is me who runs frightened from my body when I realize what I have provided it. Haven’t most of my years been but a circular escape? I do no longer know if it is me who is running from my body or my body who is running from me. More than once I have found myself facing my aching frame and I have lowered my sight and turned away. I am the pain and its cause, I am that shameful sharp pressure on the ninth vertebra, I have deliberately planned the pain and have placed it with great care on my back. I have introduced to my back that poor wretch that inhabits the most lugubrious corner of the brain, that motherless bastard.
So . . . I’m still juggling words in the air. Is there another occupation left for me other than to play with the words of my destiny? I’ve tried to put my life back together, but it feels like building sandcastles at the water’s edge, knowing full well that the cards have already been drawn, and that it is only a question of time until the sea will lick the towers of my castle, procuring its fall.
Castles, cards, water . . . nonsense, fleeting words! The only word that remains is pain. Everything else seems temporary next to it, everything else loses importance by its side; all else dies, but pain survives. Now. In the middle of my back. In my body’s half. Yet tomorrow it will be somewhere else: under a tooth, traveling up an arm, colonizing a vital organ!
You, doctor, you own most illnesses and a house on the beach; you, that the same would thrust curare in the heart of pain than just tell it a tasteless joke and give it a pat on the back.
You, doctor, you want to talk to me about pain? You live from the pain of others. Don’t I know that the leather seats on your new car are the direct fruition of my back pain? Mmm… let’s see… take the basic AM/FM radio or the top-of-the-line stereo with eight speakers and the works… but, what am I saying? If Mr. Garcia has pain in the liver, give me the biggest stereo available to mankind! –
I believe I know pain, but you are the one that has enough intimacy with him to go to a baseball game or out for a drink. You are the one to finally admit to him that, after all, you’re no less than partners that have just recently learned to be on familiar terms last week with Garcia’s liver crisis.
You, doctor, you are the owner of the intellectual property rights of so many pains you’ve never suffered, and of a red convertible. You know the place where pain tickles to touch and its favorite colors, you know him personally, even though he’s never visited your waterfront house. Haven’t I seen with my own two eyes that next to the desk of your indolent secretary lies the clean and efficient desk of that merciless being?
But I am exhausted from pointing at the truth! My body does not rest. I inhabit that long-lost link, my spinal column. It is futile to seek rest! I fold and unfold in my bed, in vain seeking peace. I find more repose in the certain distress of constant suffering. I see myself reduced once and again to no more than a superfluous being bearing a profound sorrow. Hasn’t suffering taken up a sublime place that my soul used to defend with tenacity? Isn’t pain now a sour candy that I have accepted to lodge in my mouth permanently?
But I should probably stop complaining. Does anybody listen to my moans? Isn’t it only my own echo that faraway anonymous voice that I take as being someone else comforting me? Isn’t that resigned being that visits me on Sundays my own reflection disguised as hope? Isn’t my voice a sordid internal dialogue that nobody listens to or wants to hear?
Even these gray words don’t belong to me any longer, it is my back pain speaking through me, repeating itself. However, I listen attentively. Hasn’t pain otherwise plunged me in the longest silence? The noise of my moaning comforts me, it reminds me that I am alive. I collect the hues of my shattering with the patience of a stamp collector. I distribute my cries as someone who sends out postcards.
I have tried group therapies: a sordid herd of souls trying to explain our different pains, clutching for words. Wretches that with a handful of metaphors and a pinch of similes try to make others understand our misfortunes — How could I explain it to you? To be blind is like being trapped in an eclipse — We usually leave crestfallen, dozens of bitter adjectives spread out over the floor, the harshest ones kicked under a carpet, or quenched between the chairs like ugly cigarettes. We each carry our pains back to our homes and to their intense, dark, internal purgatories, where they belong: to the obscure caves of the liver, to the humid tunnels of the intestines, to the curved labyrinths of the brain. All returning defeated, with our pockets full of wrinkled moans and dry tears. Returning only to be reunited with our solitude, with our hush, with the pain of silence and the silence of pain.
At this moment I close my eyes, obeying to tiredness. It is no longer me giving the orders. To fall on the floor? Why not? A hundred hours lying on the sofa, comfortably numb? Without a doubt! I do not dictate my destiny. Pain happens and I take notes. Against the light, in the orange transparencies of my eyelids, I read my future and it terrifies me.
You, pain, you live everywhere. You have the keys to all the houses of the world. It is only a question of time until you’ll also reach the doctor’s home by the sea. How do I know you and how I abhor you! Nevertheless, come to think of it, how many hours spent together! How many shared memories! How many common causes! While all the others have abandoned me to never return, you have stayed by my side. All those beautiful faces that I’ve seen come and go in my life! Faded away to never return, never to be found; but your macabre face is carved in stone. How many human silhouettes of ample grace, how many beings of sweet imperfection, how many minds of peacefulness like paths in the forest, how many trees of knowledge to be explored, how many patches of abandoned honey! But all that’s left for me is to contemplate your hard silhouette when I peek out my window. Only your company for the saddest nights of the planet, only you next to me in my empty caves, together you and I in my dreadful years, in my mute hours at the bottom of the well: quietly observing how the outrageous storm discharges its violence in the back of my body.
Michael Benharroch was born in Morocco and grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. In 1989, he moved to the U.S. His book-collage The Operation Has Been a Success, but the Patient Has Died was selected for the ArtsEdge Festival and exhibited at the Seattle Center. His short story “First Date” appeared in the Main Street Rag anthology Crossing Lines in 2015 under the pseudonym Ben Harroch. He is currently working on his second novel.
Image: “Outside My Box,” watercolor on paper, 7.5 x 5.5″, 2018, Kerry Hugins
Kerry Hugins, a stay-at-home mom and lifelong artist, lives on the edge of the Hill Country in Austin. Her childhood was spent in the cities of Miami, Mexico City, Cape Town and Washington, D.C. The color pairings of native wildflowers she and her daughter find on hikes and imprinted on her memory from childhood in Mexico are reflected in her work.