You Look Fine to Me
by Khalym Kari Burke-Thomas
I called my job and requested the day off. I had a personal and urgent matter to attend to, I told my boss, which wasn’t untrue but wasn’t entirely the case, either. Through much trial and error I’d come to learn that being too specific with one’s reason for missing work only made the person missing work sound like a liar; it’s much more efficient to be dramatically vague.
To be fair, bloody stool isn’t necessarily symptomatic of stomach cancer. WebMD classifies stomach cancer as a rare and very unlikely cause of bloody stool and advises that all other possibilities be ruled out first, like drinking beet juice. But I am a staunch believer in Murphy’s Law and thus could not abide by WebMD’s careless optimism. Furthermore, if I were to have told my boss the truth he, like me, would have sought the counsel of WebMD, but unlike me, my boss, a Murphy’s Law nonbeliever, would have fallen for WebMD’s deception and insisted I come into work because I had probably just had too much beet juice and no matter how many times or ways I’d try to explain to my boss that I had not drunken beet juice the previous night nor had I ever, he would still insist that the beverage was somehow involved.
In the end he would have guilt-tripped me into coming into work since my job involved working with at-risk youth. All he had to say was think of the kids.
Luckily I was able to bypass all this with my not entirely untrue excuse.
What I should have done next was schedule a doctor’s appointment. But midway through searching for the number of what I would later come to learn was called a gastroenterologist and not a “butt doctor”, I remembered that I had no health insurance and thus could not afford a doctor’s visit. Though my job did offer health insurance, there was a lengthy registration process that was easy to keep putting off. One morning, hoping to motivate me, a co-worker described the process to me as “nothing more than a survey”. While her intentions were good, what my coworker did not know was that I was allergic to surveys. It was a trait I had in common with my mother’s mother. Not being allergic to surveys, but allergic to things that the medical community had not yet recognized as allergens, like slipping on ice or being shirtless in public.
Someone had once told me that my allergies were actually phobias, but this someone was not a doctor and so there was little to no value in anything this someone had to say.
Without any hope in sight, I figured I should inform my roommate of my prognosis so that he may begin the process of looking for a new roommate in advance.
I walked into the glorified corridor that was my roommate’s room. Before moving to New York I had no idea that such places existed, these “railroad” apartments. It was criminal what landlords in the city got away with. They were like cops in this way, above the law.
My roommate, a fashion designer and performance artist who worked for a company that designed vanity cell phone cases out of Swarovski crystals, was editing a video of one of his performances on his computer. In the video he wore a short blue wig with pink face paint and was lip syncing to a song I hadn’t heard before, though if I had to guess the title it would probably be “Do What You Want to My Body” because that’s what the singer on the track kept repeating over and over again. I told my roommate I was dying.
You look fine to me.
I’m dying from the inside.
It could just be gas.
No. There was blood in my stool.
Oh my god—did you just say “stool”?
You might want to start looking for a new roommate now; I don’t know how much longer I have.
Have you had any beet juice recently? It might just be beet juice.
I don’t drink beet juice.
Hmm. Maybe you are dying.
I decided not to eat anything for the remainder of the day and maybe for the remainder of my life, lest the morning’s horrific scene were to be repeated. In the process I was also hoping to reap the double benefit of becoming more svelte, though I realized I might not live long enough to see these results in my lifetime. Like many black homosexuals throughout history I had already come to terms with the fact that I would ultimately die alone; what I had not, however, come to terms with was that I would die alone and out of shape.
I made a mental note to make a real note to make an addendum to my will, which, coincidentally, was also mental. The note would forbid my family from displaying my corpse to extended family and friends until my body had decayed to at least four percent body fat. Then and only then could I be exposed in an open casket—it didn’t matter that I would most likely be clothed.
I took advantage of my day off and headed into Manhattan. I had some clothes I had been meaning to sell and though there was no shortage of thrift and consignment stores in Brooklyn—indeed, if one were to visit Brooklyn for the first time one might believe these were the only establishments in the borough—I jumped at any opportunity to escape the area, which had become suffocating in a way that only people who had actually suffocated (and survived) would probably understand.
Because my job was located in Brooklyn and because my job made its employees work an average of eighty hours per week, I rarely got to see what Manhattan during the week. When I did I was always surprised that the city was as crowded during the weekdays as it was on the weekends. How was it that in a city so expensive that even people with children had to have roommates in order to pay the rent, others could afford to walk around at all times of the day? It was a question I often asked myself. Not because I was perplexed by the phenomenon, but because it was the kind of life I wanted to lead.
Inside the consignment store there were only a few people circling the racks, women all dressed in a way that suggested they either owned no mirrors or got dressed in the dark, or both. The employees of the shop were similarly dressed—overall shorts, knee-high socks, plaid tennis skirts. This patchwork “style” was what passed for fashion in the city.
I took three shirts out of my bag and placed it on the counter. A woman wearing a flannel shirt over a skintight dancer’s leotard inspected my clothes. This combination despite the fact it was summer, the store was unconditioned, and her physique was unlike that of any dancer I had ever seen.
My shirts were made out of a sheer tri-blend material and had all been purchased last winter in anticipation of a summer body that never arrived.
Every once in a while I will feel so comfortable with my body’s outward appearance that I’ll buy such clothes on a whim. How does this happen? I’ll tell you how: Temporary insanity. It was a term I had up until recently only associated with a catchy pop song before I learned it was a real thing and that it didn’t relate to love, at least not exclusively.
The woman in the flannel shirt and leotard asked me whether I wanted cash or store credit.
Which do you recommend?
Well, you get three dollars if you choose cash or seven if you choose store credit.
What can I get for seven dollars here?
The saleswoman pointed to a wall of hats and told me they were having a sale, two for one. I told her thanks, but I couldn’t wear hats on account of my birth defect. I explained that I suffered from a rare and underrepresented condition that made it impossible for me to wear a hat without looking dowdy. Like my allergies, it was a condition that the medical community had yet to recognize as a real ailment.
I was met with a vacant stare by the saleswoman—the usual response explanation of my hat dilemma elicited from most people.
She then suggested a pair of sunglasses, but I couldn’t wear those, either. For I was amongst a select group of black men who, instead of looking like Isaac Hayes or Wesley Snipes in Blade, had the misfortune of appearing to be blind whenever they wore sunglasses. It was a phenomenon I had come to call “Ray Charles Syndrome”.
I didn’t explain all this to the woman. In part because I knew she wouldn’t understand, but mostly because I knew she wouldn’t care.
In the end, I decided to take the cash instead.
Because I hadn’t consumed anything but water all day I was able to keep my bowel movements under control as I made my way through the city. Nevertheless, I was careful not to stray more than a block or two away from places I had designated as SRA’s, or Safe Restroom Areas. These included Trader Joe’s, DSW, and a buffet-style restaurant in Koreatown. Whole Foods had once been on this list, but one day, on my way to the men’s room, I discovered that they now require a person to purchase something first, after which the code to access the restroom would be printed on the receipt. This was the same sort of injustice Apple customers had experienced in the company’s early years and the reason why I pledged a lifelong allegiance to Windows as a child despite their clearly inferior technology.
There wasn’t much a person could buy in Manhattan for three dollars besides street food of questionable origin, so my options for what to do with my newfound cash were limited. In the past, I would have considered donating the money to the homeless or a subway performer (no matter how mediocre) but constant exposure to both had not only begun to jeopardize what little of a stipend I received from my job; it had made me numb to the plight of others.
It was easy to understand how New Yorkers had come to earn a reputation for being heartless and rude, but the truth was that they were merely victims of their environment.
When I got back to my apartment the sun had already begun to set and my roommate was gone. It was around this time that my roommate answered most of his booty calls.
Out of the many ways my roommate and I differed from one another, our sex lives were the most dissimilar. Simply put, his was vibrant and alive, while mine was non-existent and continued to be even though I had come to lower my standards for sexual partners so drastically I would often catch myself wondering what had happened to my dignity, or if I had even had any to begin with.
With my roommate absent, I could freely walk from the kitchen-slash-living area through his room into mine and back instead of stepping out into the hallway. Though I had quickly become accustomed to this arrangement, and though it was a small sacrifice to make since my room had windows and was thus an actual room, there were times when a more conventional living arrangement would have been ideal. Such times were when I’d forget my hallway slippers either in my room or the kitchen-slash-living area and would be forced to walk barefooted across the dirty hallway floor. To avoid being infected with MRSA-causing bacteria I had to walk on my tippy-toes, shuffling side-to-side like a geisha.
I opened up a Word document and titled it “My Will”. Besides the stipulation about my corpse, I also included a part about my material belongings, how I wanted them to be buried with me. Not for any religious or spiritual reasons like the ancient Egyptians, but because amongst my material belongings was my external hard drive, which contained unspeakable material of the pornographic variety.
Once a friend had asked me what my last request would be if I were dying right then and there. I told her it would be to have all remnants of the aforementioned hard drive destroyed. Unsatisfied with this answer, she asked me what I would wish for if I were granted a second request.
To be reborn as an attractive man with a speedy metabolism, I said.
This was not the first time blood had shown up unexpectedly in my waste. When I was younger, around five or six, I had a similarly life-threatening scare while urinating. Once, in place of my usual pineapple-yellow pee—a result of the steady diet of artificial sweeteners my mother had me under that would eventually lead to a short bout of debilitating dehydration—was an alarmingly long stream of bright red liquid.
In true West Indian fashion, my mother did not rush me to the hospital; instead she told me that I should stop putting my hand down my pants. This was a habit that I would never break, but one that would evolve significantly over time.
Years later, when the symptoms showed up again after a violently traumatic spinning class, and back when I was still under my mother’s health insurance plan, I went to see a doctor. After a series of blood tests I was told that it was most likely idiopathic. This was before I knew the meaning of the word. I asked the doctor, one of many men in my home state who bear an uncanny resemblance to Tony Soprano, what this meant for my future.
Don’t worry about it—stuff like this happens all the time.
People urinating blood?
More or less.
But what should I do if it happens again?
Does it burn when you urinate?
Well then, just wait for it to pass.
But what if I die?
Who said anything about dying?
Khalym Kari Burke-Thomas is an MFA candidate at the University of Wyoming. His work has previously appeared in Guernica.
Image: Sharla Sava via Creative Commons.