Steroid Dreams – 1 October 20, 2016
The following is the story of mine chosen as third-place prize-winner in the 2016 Bridport Prize.
Phil heard the specialist say cancer. The words probably and cancer. She was temporizing, saying something like, It probably isn’t cancer, but Phil knew they led you toward it gently, steering the discussion from maybe to probably to set your affairs in order. Not that it could be called a discussion with Phil pinned to the dental chair, Dr. Chin’s latex-covered fingers pitty-patting over his bleeding gums. Mouth cancer. Which he’d had to mention himself.
“I understand your concern,” she’d said, “but it probably isn’t cancer.” Bowing out his lower lip with one latex finger: “I’ll be doing a biopsy, a little snip, but I think what we’re going to find is a nice ripe case of lichen planus.”
Biopsy. There it was. Phil considered the operatic irony of the host of a national radio show being diagnosed with cancer of the mouth. Freud had died of it, father of the talking cure. Like Phil, Freud had been a smoker, which not only explained the cancer, but gave him an additional authority when pointing out that addictions like smoking were a substitute for masturbation. The line through Freud, talking, smoking, masturbation, and from there to allegations from Phil’s few, embittered and demonstrably sociopathic critics that he tended to wank on during his opening monologues—Phil had to admit it wasn’t a clear line, not precisely diagnostic, but the word cloud undoubtedly had cancer at its core, and contained an element of divine justice. He probably had cancer and he probably deserved it.
On the other hand, he’d never heard of lichen planus. And surely nothing could be more absurd, more undignified, than growing a crop of lichen in your mouth.
He was rehearsing for his friends, of course. Years of interviewing politicians had sharpened Phil’s ear for the lie. Dr. Chin didn’t think he had cancer. If she’d shown even the faintest hint of worry, he would have been terrified, been gibbering. One time his GP had prodded his prostate and looked grim.
Of course I look grim, he’d said. I’ve got my finger up your arse.
“Oral lichen planus is a chronic inflammation of the tissue on the inside of the cheeks, gums and/or tongue that is thought to be auto-immune in nature.”
Phil left the periodontal office with his lower lip pouting like a model’s. In his hand was an info sheet handed him by the hygienist, an inexplicably pink piece of paper topped by a smiling cartoon tooth.
“For reasons we don’t know, our immune systems sometimes attack our own bodies. In this case, the attack can cause lacy, white raised tissue and/or red patches in your mouth. Its resemblance to lichen is why we call it lichen planus. The condition is most common in middle-aged people, and associated with stress. It can be successfully controlled by the use of topical corticosteroid ointments and/or mouthwashes.”
The former copy editor in Phil wanted less and/or. He wanted a definition of controlled and successful. These were important words. His professional success was tied up in his ability to control himself on air, letting out calibrated puffs of empathy, irony, curiosity or anger as demanded by his million-plus listeners, whose needs he intuited minutely; his audience an itch he was bound to scratch.
On the other hand, his marriage to Mei Li felt increasingly out of control as she demanded more empathy and curiosity than Phil could muster after seven years and the birth of twins. Graham and Corbett had emerged in a heroic labour four years ago looking like wrinkled Chinese versions of Phil. Since then, he’d parented his boys with an abject and uncomprehending pride that Mei Li was prone to call inept. Lack of control, lack of success: home had become the opposite of work. At least if you left aside Phil’s growing urge to scratch a familiar itch.
“Lichen planus can be successfully controlled with corticosteroids.” The quote burred in his head as he pulled into traffic. In dictionary terms, successfully implied a lesser victory than conquered; controlled a lesser success than eradicated. Both were second best, Phil thought, wondering whether he had a second marriage or a second-best one.
He pictured his two children with Lorraine. Counting on his mental fingers, he made Nora twenty-two and just about to graduate from art school. Bobby was eighteen and a male version of Lorraine, who was as beautiful as ever. He had once thought Mei Li beautiful. She still was.
“My God, that’s awful. Chronic? What’s it going to do to your teeth?”
He wouldn’t mention his cancer fears to Mei Li. She looked him over with big darting eyes, her pony-tail swinging. Mei Li was seventeen years younger than he was. A third-generation Canadian, although she and her brothers were given Chinese names after their father, a statistician, had gone from Wayne back to Bing Wen: what he called a regression toward the mean. Mei Li’s brothers were now Gord and Duncan, but she’d kept the name her father had chosen. Her mother had been implacably Evelyn, at least until she’d died in a car crash when Mei Li was ten years old.
“The periodontist said I’ll be fine. Back eating curries before Christmas.”
Mei Li sat down abruptly, as if things had got too much. The final nudge over the edge; the straw and camel’s back. The twins were ominously quiet in their bedroom. Something was ready to give.
“It’s actually quite funny,” Mei Li said, a smile fighting its way to the surface. “The radio host with hoof and mouth disease.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is ironic,” Phil said, sitting down beside her.
“I need to go back to work.”
“No, but I’m getting boring. I was sure it was cancer. I never catastrophize.”
“I’ve never been able to pronounce that.”
Mei Li was a physiotherapist. Phil had put out his back at a low point in his first marriage.
“My salary would barely cover the cost of day care,” she said.
“Why your salary? They’re my sons, too.”
Who were far too quiet.
“You’ll have to stop breast-feeding,” he said, picking his way onto egg shells.
A quick swivel toward him, Mei Li’s eyes hardening, then going soft. She kissed him and fixed his collar, which the dental torture had no doubt crimped. The freezing was wearing off and the snip in Phil’s gums was throbbing like a lighthouse beacon. She must have seen the grey of his face behind his greying beard. Her sick old husband.
“You’re right. You’ve probably been right for a while.”
Phil brightened. So there were advantages to illness.
“Of course, you’re going to have to quit smoking.”
Mei Li really ought to go back to work. She was getting boring. For some reason, he’d assumed when they met that a physiotherapist would have a simple, open, physical personality. She would be a relief from the elusive and maddening Lorraine, whose artistic career had been taking off at the time, along with her ego. He had overlooked Mei Li’s obsessive qualities and been flattered by her jealousy. Like her hair, she was often coiled.
“The boys are far too quiet,” he said.
“I murdered them.”
Phil’s heart jumped. Curtains parted and he saw her as being capable of murder, a lurid vision that didn’t quite dim when Mei Li laughed at her joke and leaned against him. Phil knew he was being absurd, but he couldn’t relax until he heard the familiar sounds of brotherly love from the bedroom. A crash. A scream. “Mommy! He bit me!”
“You rest,” she said, when Phil made to get up. It was true: she was exhausting. He loved his beautiful young wife. He was getting old.
In his dream, Phil was running. The world was hyper-real, the buildings on either side of the road solid and subtly coloured, pale poured concrete skins that ballooned toward him, rounded and swelling toward the sunken black ribbon of road. Then they breathed in, turning concave as their skins withdrew toward their elevator spines before swelling out again.
Buildings breathing on the edge of the road, and Phil knew they were not only buildings but dinosaurs with leathery pockmarked skin, beasts so huge he couldn’t see their heads, only their enormous trunks half sunk into the earth. This was remarkably beautiful, the world burnished and alive.
But Phil was running away from something, and he had to run faster, forced along by the piston action of his mechanical knees. He had no idea where the knees had come from. Steel knees forcing him to run, panicking him as the buildings rumbled and started to rise, shaking free of the earth…
Phil jerked awake. Bolt upright in bed, heart pounding. He was having a heart attack. No, he’d had a nightmare. Heart attack. Nightmare. He took his pulse, finger on his neck, pound pound pound pound. Rapid heartbeat: tachycardia. In his job he picked up random words. Vocabulary. He picked up random facts, his knowledge broad but shallow. He was a shallow man whose heart wouldn’t stop pound-pound-pounding.
A shroud of pressure tightened across his shoulders. He was having a heart attack. Certainly not panic. He hadn’t had a panic attack in years. He checked his heart rate on his phone, one hundred twenty beats per minute. Mei Li slept deeply beside him. Both his wives were deep sleepers, Lorraine at peace with herself, Mei Li exhausted by the twins. He didn’t want to disturb her. Felt too foolish to disturb her: a panicky old git with 4 a.m. fears. Instead he padded to the bathroom, slumping down on the toilet, a smooth porcelain chill through his Y-fronts.
It would be an indignity to be found dead on the toilet, but men were, at least in Philip Roth novels. Was it Roth? Phil felt a Pavlovian reaction: toilet, sitting, drop your drawers. He didn’t strain but there was a howl of agony from his haemorrhoid, Hubert. It hurt far more than the pressure across his shoulders, when surely a heart attack would be excruciating. His heart rate was down to ninety beats per minute, although his knees were shaking uncontrollably. That and his bowels: it was a panic attack. Phil breathed in and out like the buildings in his nightmare. Wiped blood.
In his study, he typed steroids nightmare panic attack into his laptop and pulled more than a million hits. Reading through the misspelled howls of agony, Phil got on top of himself, his knees going still, the tightness across his shoulders receding as his muscles relaxed. He’d started the steroid cream ten days ago and had been elated not only by the effect on his crop of lichen but by a hit of energy so pristine it had to be chemical. Now the steroids had thrown him into overdrive. “Lichen planus can be successfully controlled by…” He still wanted a definition of success. A cigarette. One day he’d quit.
Heart rate: seventy-two. The worst was over. It was 4:19 in the morning and he’d had a panic attack, his first since the year of the divorce. It was probably caused by the medication, confirming his status as a soulless bag of chemicals. Sitting at his desk in the penumbral gloom, Phil took a long fall into the emptiness of life. A breeze blew through his ribs, the knowledge of mortality, of Death in his skinny black suit leaning against the tree outside, or maybe waiting in the long-closed video store down the block, screening old Quentin Tarantino movies.
Phil was a household name, beloved across the country (especially in the small-town demographic), sitting atop a skyscraper like the huggy cousin of King Kong. He had a beautiful wife, a beautiful ex, four children so handsome his genes would be replicated unto future generations, rendering him immortal. His children’s beauty came from his wives, but at least he got to pass on his Y chromosome, and to his daughter Nora’s kids, if he’d got the genetics right, his lack of male pattern baldness.
And that was it. Phil was fifty-one years old and that was it. He couldn’t afford any more offspring and wouldn’t rise any higher in his profession. He’d seen what happened to friends who’d tried their luck in the U.S. and couldn’t fool himself into believing he would do any better. He was a national icon in a small, unimportant nation. A radio host, for God’s sake. All he could look forward to was trying to hold onto what he had, and ultimately failing, and that was the definition of life.
To be continued….
Copyright Lesley Krueger 2016