The Hernia Thief
(from Five Chapters)
My brother and I had hernia procedures on the same day, in the same city, at different hospitals. Brother as in Tim my younger brother and only sibling, procedure as in herniorrhaphy, or surgical repair of the hernia, where they slice your abdomen open, stick some mesh over the offending fissure, un-sedate you long enough to make you cough stitch and staple you and send you packing as soon as you can walk without wobbling. Matching limos ferried us from our respective hospitals to Tim’s commodious Tribeca apartment, where I was installed in the large second bedroom cum office and Tim in his bedroom, while his cleaning lady, a wraithlike Brazilian named Yara, waited in the kitchen to provide food and succor. During our convalescence she’d sleep in the third bedroom, a small room that Tim used mainly for storage.
By six o’clock we were both resting with frozen peas freezing our dicks and bottles of Percodan on our bedside tables. At seven o’clock I waddled into the living room, and we sat side by side on his enormous leather couch with matching bags of legumes numbing our midsections. Yara brought us trays of soup, toast and bars of chocolate, and we looked plaintively at the expensive bottle of red Burgundy, which in imagining our dual operations we’d seen ourselves drinking but now wanted no part of. We clinked glasses of Vitamin Water and raised our fists.
“We did it, bro.” Tim said thinly. “Let the healing begin.”
“Amazon Instant Video, meet Percodan.”
Olive-skinned and lithe, Tim managed a stylishness that eluded me. It helped that his clothes were expensive, even his casual shorts and shirts were well made—lustrous cotton or thick silk. Still, he now looked like a patient, pale and anemic in his jaunty green t-shirt, lost in a sea of brown leather.
We lay side by side on the couch and watched The Big Sleep, pausing once or twice to compare notes on pain, doctors, Percodan buzz, hospital efficiency and so on. Tim told me with a smile that his anesthesiologist had been a cute Irish woman in her late thirties and he’d rather enjoyed being sedated by her. I reminded him that she had then watched the surgeon shave the skin around his shriveled dick and dive a scalpel smoothly into the flesh below his potbelly.
We were both dozing off by the time the movie ended. I looked sleepily into my brother’s eyes and was reminded of summer nights when we’d build a tent in the backyard and listen to our favorite cassettes with the volume turned down—Zeppelin, Seeger, the Stones—looking at each other as if we might see the future in those familiar eyes staring back at us.
Tim patted me on the shoulder, then Yara helped him to his bedroom, and I hobbled back to my bed in the study.
There was something strangely comforting about being in the same apartment, both of us popping our pills at the same time in nearby beds, trying to get comfortable in the same feeble, pain-spattered way. I awoke from a dream of my stomach being eaten by fish in a murky river with the sensation of a rusty knife churning in my gut. The sky was black and the city hushed. I heard the toilet flush and Tim’s voice saying “Thank you Yara,” and it occurred to me he had become accustomed to staff. He was a successful, single investment banker with the obligatory drivers, cleaning lady, occasional cook, tailor, travel department, personal trainer, massage therapist. I wondered if little Yara had pulled his penis out of his expensive pajamas as he leaned on her to take his first post-operative piss.
An hour or so later I woke again with the urge to pee. Not wanting to bother the thin Brazilian or knowing how to rouse her (had he texted from his bed?), I made my own way to the guest bathroom, teetered a bit mid-stream, sat down on the toilet and promptly fainted. I came to on the bathroom floor with a slight pain on the left side of my head and wet boxers. I checked for blood or broken teeth, was relieved to find neither, and pulled myself upright. There was nothing to do but waddle back to bed. Under the stars in our fluttering backyard tents we didn’t speak much. We didn’t have to. A good song would come on. Or we’d look up at the night sky and smile, because the world was good.
You wake up. You’re groggy and your stomach/balls/groin feel chomped, like you had sex with a lawnmower. Welcome to the day after surgery. I had no idea if Tim was awake yet. I smelled coffee, heard music playing softly. The bed was warm. Standing up didn’t seem like a very good idea, so I stayed where I was.
Tim’s luxurious apartment boasted a glorious view of lower Manhattan and New Jersey and glowed in sunlight most of the day. Tastefully (and professionally) decorated in a comfortable modern style, the furniture was spotless, the couches and chairs comfortable, the pillows and rugs whimsical yet elegant. The floors were a dark radiant wood, the bathrooms pale marble and chrome, even the shower-heads looked like jet engines—sparkly and powerful. By comparison, my Lower East Side one-bedroom was dark, small and dingy, and while I’d painted once in the ten years I’d lived there, not even a faucet had been replaced, so it had a used, tenementy feel.
I was not an investment banker. I was not rich. I didn’t have an enormous apartment. I never traveled to places that spurred jealousy in others. On the plus side, I had a bit more hair than my brother, even though he was three years my junior. So I had more, better, follicles. And I had a girlfriend. Alessandra. A smart, sexy, foreign girlfriend. She’d offered to drop me off and pick me up from the hospital, suggested I recuperate at her place, but the idea of recovering in Tim’s apartment with my brother and a cleaning lady at our beck and call appealed to me, so I’d told her not to bother and told myself she’d appreciate not being called upon to minister to me. She’d phoned when I was in the limo headed home, and again about an hour after I got to Tim’s place. She’d pick up groceries or anything else we needed, we’d agreed, come for dinner the next night, and take me back to my apartment the following day. I picked up my phone and called, her, still safely in bed. It made me feel brave to tell her I was doing okay, not to worry. I enjoyed her concern. I figured it was good for a meal, the suspension of our intermittent bickering, maybe even a blowjob or two.
As for my rich, balding little brother, he had a steady stream of young, attractive, annoyingly smart women on his arm, so maybe he didn’t need a girlfriend or wife. Was I jealous of him? I wouldn’t admit it, couldn’t admit it, or the tenuous fraternal fabric would have cleft in twain. Okay, yes. We’d started out on similar tracks, side by side in sleeping bags, listening to crickets and watching the wedge of murky suburban sky through the tent flap. Engineer dad, homemaker mom, tuna casserole, summer camp. Mediocre at sports, good in school, good colleges, after which I chose LA and screenwriting. When Tim graduated a few years later, he chose the dullard’s path, working for a commercial bank, then moving to its investment banking group, then business school, then even longer hours, then good suits, limos, plenty of dosh. By then, I’d discovered what working your way up the ladder in Hollywood meant: driving hither and yon to pick up the famous producer’s dry cleaning, buy the hypoallergenic deodorant he was fond of and so forth. I was lucky to land a job working for a show runner, luckier still to get on the writing staff of a terrible sitcom that was cancelled mid-season. All of that lucking out got me a paltry salary and a moldy “vintage” studio in West Hollywood-adjacent, meaning not really anywhere.
Now I was in New York. Now I taught sitcom writing, not at one of the city’s prestigious institutions of higher learning. I taught mediocre kids at a mediocre college, knowing the closest that any one of us, professor included, would ever get to a sitcom was sitting in front of the TV with a remote and a beer. Oh, it wasn’t that depressing. Well, it was, but it was better than, say, prison or trench warfare. For one thing, the teaching gig was pretty easy. I got an office (shared with four other adjuncts) and moved around in academic-ish circles, which meant I met interesting people, numbered among my friends classicists and literature professors, attended lectures by rising academic stars, and went to grad school parties where we drank cheap wine and smoked pot and talked about things like neo-colonialism and social media. I mustered the right amount of disdain for television, combined it with what I remembered from college about Foucault and Derrida, and managed to impress, just enough. And at one of those parties, I met Alessandra Maria Maniscalco. A French literature grad student at Columbia (in her sixth year of graduate school, not the department’s poulet de ressort). Born in Milan, fluent in French, Italian, English, big tits, avid dark eyes, big, gravelly laugh. That was my Alessandra. And I was lucky to have her in my life and in my bed several nights a week.
When I heard the television, followed by the sound of Tim speaking quietly on the phone, I began my ascent, trying to slide to the edge of the bed without moving my abdomen, failing and feeling sore and glued together. I settled, waited, tried again. I got myself upright by swiveling, pushing down on the bedside table and swinging one foot onto the floor. I pictured those gymnasts who can hold themselves aloft on their hands, legs tucked above them, though no doubt I looked more like Gumby in a slow-motion hurricane. Still, there was something momentarily victorious about it. I was standing. Sore, out of breath, but standing.
In the kitchen I found Yara sitting on a thin metal chair in the kitchen, apparently waiting for me.
“Mister Tim he’s awake,” she said. “You want coffee? Juice? Eggs?”
Almost immediately she handed me a glass of deliciously thick apricot elixir, which I drank down in two gulps. Then I padded down the hallway.
“Come in,” Tim called when I knocked.
He still didn’t look his normal lustrous self. His eyes were red and puffy. Even his fuzz of balding hair looked patchy, marbleized. He held a small pillow on his gut with one hand, cradled the remote in the other. His slender fingers seemed sickly, breakable.
“How d’you feel?” he asked.
“Never better,” I said.
“Liar.” He smiled. “Sit your post-operative ass down.”
We spent the better part of the morning in the living room watching Tim’s flatscreen HDTV. Yara brought us scrambled eggs with a bit of tomatillo salsa mixed in and strong coffee. Every half hour or so she brought us drinks, helped us to get comfortable, moved or replaced cushions, refreshed ice packs, then drifted back to her kitchen perch. From time to time Tim checked his Blackberry and swore under his breath, but for the most part we were like an old couple side by side in front of a television, channel surfing CNN, a classic basketball game on ESPN, Ellen DeGeneres. We’d compared notes. He’d felt faint in the middle of the night and, yes, had texted Yara to help him to the bathroom and back. He couldn’t believe I’d fainted and seemed oddly impressed that I had flopped onto his bathroom floor. Sleep had been difficult. We were both a bit disappointed with the painkillers, which made us groggy but not happy. Nor did they seem to eradicate the pain. Dampen yes, but we’d been hoping for more.
“You know what?” he said at one point. “We should have taken a day off just for the fuck of it, not because we had hernia surgery.”
“I know. What are you doing a month from now?”
“Taking a long lunch or a weekend trip with your ambulatory ass.”
We shook hands. When we were kids we used to shake hands a lot for some reason. We got it from Quincy ME.
I turned to look at Tim and smiled. I was trying to think of the words to thank him for the limo, the bed, sharing the pain. But all I could manage was a smile and a brotherly pat on the thigh. He smiled back and said simply, “Fuck.” Brothers. Through thick and thin. We didn’t need to say anything.
Later I called Alessandra. She sounded geniunely concerned. “No big deal,” I told her. “Just got to get on with it.” “Tough guy,” she said.
Lunch consisted of soup, cold salads, bread and carrot cake. Roughly enough to feed six people. Every time Tim checked his Blackberry he muttered about incompetent junior analysts. “Fucking client knows not to bother me,” he said at one point, “but some dipshit twenty-five year old can’t scratch his asshole without emailing me.” We walked together into the study aka my bedroom, where Tim checked email on his very sleek laptop while I settled into bed. Later we napped. When I woke up I could hear the TV playing softly in his room.
Back in the living room. Painkillers, CNN, Earl Gray. Our phones rang a few times. Once I could tell it was one of the dipshit junior analysts from Tim’s office. He was quiet and impatient, hung up without saying goodbye. Our parents called. We promised them everything was A okay. Alessandra said I sounded much better and asked if we needed anything. I said there was nothing really. Between FreshDirect and Yara popping out to the chemist or bodega, we had supplies to last a month. Sill her dedication and concern cheered me up.
“Va bene,” she said. “See you soon. I’ll Florence Nightingale you boys.”
“Thank you baby.” And my heart went mushy with gratitude and painkillers.
I checked email on Tim’s shiny laptop. Nothing urgent. A course description form I had to fill in and return to my department head, who was nice enough to throw in a “hope you’re feeling better.” We’d had our run-ins but I no longer bore any malice toward Eva, the dour former screenwriter who presided over the department like a Soviet bureaucrat—steady, boring, obdurate and frequently drunk. An email from Alessandra. “Sweet boy,” she began and reminded me not to overdo it.
I couldn’t help peeking. Tim’s emails were more plentiful than mine and when I opened a couple what struck me first was the length and vigor of the legal disclosures at the bottom of every email. Legally privileged blah blah no addressee shall forward blah blah. I could see why the junior asspoke was pissing him off. Three emails about a possible meeting in Akron with a company called Haeckel. Mr. Google told me Haeckel Pharma made a drug called Mezenia, hailed as a breakthrough for stroke treatment. Tim was right about the junior doofus: he apparently couldn’t wipe his ass without permission. Taxi or rent a car, he asked, which P & L to send and so on. When I asked him, Tim said only, “Dog and pony show. Pain in my ass.” He’d never been very forthcoming about his work, although on the few occasions that I met his younger co-workers they were rhapsodic about his analytical skills and what a good guy he was. He wasn’t such a good guy, I thought, but they were all wimps and dorks, so he was no doubt a star by comparison.
Alessandra buzzed a few hours later. She brought some groceries, supermarket OJ, tea and cookies, which Yara took from her, staring at the D’Agostino’s bag with mild disdain. The three of us sat in the living room, and Tim and I talked about sedation, post-op recovery rooms and hospital orderlies, which made Alessandra laugh. After a while Tim excused himself and returned to his bedroom, where we heard him talking business on the phone. Alessandra and I chatted about her colleague whose book was finally being published, friends who’d had a baby, the BBC sex scandal. She leaned over me and gave me a big kiss before she left, and I ran a hand through her silky hair and across her breasts. I hoped the stitches and bruised balls wouldn’t put her off the welcome home blowjob.
Tim ordered dinner from an Italian restaurant in the neighborhood and opened an expensive bottle of wine. “Best to let it breathe for a while,” he explained.
“It’s all very boring,” he said when Alessandra asked about his job. As for her career, Allessandra confided that she had an interview the following day for a part-time job doing curriculum development for an online learning company. He asked about my job, was I working on a spec script. I was not but assured him there was something in the works. His job was like mine, he mused, neither of us working at the top notch place. True, they paid him stupid amounts of money, but we were both better than the institutions where we toiled. In the end his sense of fraternal unity became my own, and I found myself saying, “You’re right,” and promising to apply for a post at NYU or Columbia.
Succulent lamb chops, expensive red wine. Tim and I were loopy on our painkillers but were both feeling sufficiently recovered to eat at the table and sip the Barolo. Alessandra ate with more gusto and drank most of the wine. Tim opened a second bottle. Ferrying plates of roasted potatoes and pear-arugula salad from the kitchen (Yara had disappeared to her little bedroom), Alessandra stopped beside me, put the plates down and stroked my face and neck rather elaborately. She was drunk. Possibly even happy. She nuzzled my ear. My slightly numb, somewhat withered penis tingled a bit. Back at the table Tim swore in French, which made her laugh like a giddy schoolgirl. I didn’t know where he’d picked that up. My brother was at least fifty per-cent a mystery to me, and I wondered when that had happened.
Alessandra drank most of the second bottle of wine, Tim made a big fuss about eating the cherries and blueberries because they were good for us. We laughed; we loosened. Tim turned up the volume on the stereo, and played Schubert and John Lee Hooker through his chest-high virgin rainforest mahogany nine-million-watt audiophile wankfest speakers, and Alessandra’s eyes went wide with wonder and excitement. The room throbbed. She actually put a hand to her chest.
We were all drugged or drunk, happily loquatious. Alessandra was no doubt relieved that this wouldn’t be one of those evenings when Tim and I bickered and I told him he was a jackass. We didn’t see him very often, but when we did, half the time it ended in barbs and accusations. Like the time he said a quarter of a million dollars a year could hardly be considered rich. We tried not to talk politics or money and tonight at least it was working. We jointly made fun of Alessandra for not knowing anything about baseball or basketball. We’d both played basketball in high school and though I’d given up long ago, Tim played in a softball league with hedge fund managers and bankers. Now he spoke about how the game was changing, especially the college game, caught himself and said, “Listen to me. I’m turning into that idiot who can’t stop talking about his high school sports team.” And he grinned widely and we all laughed forgivingly, indulgently. We took turns in damning the pope, commending our doctors, praising the wine and organic berries. Tim and I worried aloud about constipation that painkillers supposedly caused.
“Don’t shit,” I said.
“I don’t even want to sneeze.”
I invited Tim for dinner later in the week. “We’ll finish recuperating together.”
Alessandra promised to make her mother’s bucatini all’amatriciana. It was the first I’d heard of her mother’s famous pasta.
When Alessandra came to pick me up the following day, Tim gave her a tour of the apartment while I packed my t-shirts and sweatpants into my crusty duffel bag, and they embraced warmly at the doorway.
New York City assailed me with its rush of sights and sounds, its high volume and speed. Alessandra hailed a cab and folded me into it.
She helped me up the stairs to my second floor walkup, and we heated soup and opened a bottle of crappy wine. It was a pale imitation of Tim’s house, made crappier by the temporal proximity to his Xanadu. My repaired hernia felt tingly, like some kind of mild electric shock experiment. Alessandra seemed distracted. She stayed the night, sans blowjob, and didn’t return the following day.
A week later I was off the painkillers, but I popped one after Alessandra called to tell me that she though we should see other people. “Be in the world again,” was how she put it.
“Why now?” I asked.
“What now? It’s just time. Let’s see. One step at a time. You know how it is.”
Nothing she said made much sense. One step at a time was not the kind of thing she said. You know how it is. Actually I didn’t.
That night I drank whiskey and ordered Chinese food and felt miserable. The wan glow of my crappy TV provided little solace as evening became night, and night became lonely, and lonely became a dim hungover morning.
Back in my life again. Whoopty fucking do. Absence from it had served mainly to remind me of its not-gloriousness, my bourgeois—not even—trap. Tim called. He was back at the office and apparently feeling tip-top. He’d gone to the gym a couple of times for a light workout, and reminded me that we were having lunch when we he returned from Ohio. “That’s the thing about going through something like this,” he said. “Afterwards you feel better than before, better than fine, because you’re fixed, improved.” I wasn’t better than fine, wasn’t feeling improved. Then he said he’d seen Alessandra. Tried to make it sound like a detail. Like: I picked up my laundry. They’d had coffee apparently. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t ask if he had a bit of a crush on her, or she on him, or if by “better than fine” he meant he was boning my girlfriend. Or ex-girlfriend. Whatever. My health plan was covering less of the hospital and surgeon’s fees than I’d thought, my course-load had been dropped by Mrs. Stalin from three classes to two, meaning a third less of my miniscule salary, and despite what the doctor or Tim said, it still hurt to climb stairs and take a crap.
Alessandra phoned a couple of times. I watched the phone, cursed its loud Nokia melody, waited, then listened to her message. “Hope you’re feeling better. I want to talk, okay. Call me.” I glowered at the phone, then listened to the message again, a knife twisting in my heart as something caught in her throat just before she signed off. Call me.
Va’ fa’ un culo. I should have seen the signs. Love isn’t blind. Stupidity is blind; love is just gullible. The sudden friendship during our convalescence, the Schubert, the French jokes. She was on the inside. I’d been kicked out of the tent, and I hadn’t even known it.
For a while all I could think about was the two of them, in bed, fucking. It was always the same in my imagination—Tim’s big bed, elaborate blue and white patterned sheets, Alessandra naked, rearing, offering herself to him, her plum-nippled breasts heaving. And when I thought about it, which was pretty much all the time, my hands went sweaty and my heart pounded moronically; even my hernia stitches seethed.
My brother was a bit more forthcoming, eventually. “I didn’t want you guys to break up,” he said. “And I told her that. But once she was, you know, a free agent, I figured me or some other bozo, what’s the difference.”
Yeah. No. He was my brother, that was the difference. But I went with a more dignified sotto voce, “You’re a fucking jackass.”
Even the thought of the money I’d made did nothing to banish the image of Tim fucking Alessandra. The money being the tidy sum in my bank account from Haeckel Pharma stock I’d bought and sold. I’d borrowed from everyone I knew—my college roommate, Alessandra, our parents, Tim, even Mrs. Stalin—and put it all into Haeckel stock with a bit of Apple on the side lest the SEC saw fit to investigate. The stock soared. In the end Hoffmann-La Roche, owner of Genentech, bought Haeckel. Lazard handled the deal, not Tim’s firm. I made money off the acquisition and Tim didn’t, which was not revenge exactly, but you take what you can get, right? I wasn’t rich, but even after paying people back (all except Tim), I netted more in eight weeks than I’d earned the previous two years teaching smug zitfaces how to write comedy for television. Not that I know much about that anyway. It’s all in the timing I tell them.