I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen. At the moment it was pain but sometimes it was just a sensation. I sat down at the edge of the sidewalk and leaned over to puke. Didn’t. I stood, continued to walk. The twinge came back. I pressed two fingers into my abdomen. Pressed and pressed until I felt bone.
I googled appendicitis. Scrolled through symptoms. No excruciating pain. No vomiting. The pain wasn’t getting worse, and sometimes it wasn’t even pain. I wondered if I should stop weightlifting with my neighbor. I knew he had an anger problem. Weightlifting is no anger management strategy, but he also had a gym membership, so.
Did I work too much, masturbate too much? Too hard? I thought constructively about masturbating. Zoning out, I cupped my hand near my dick, deep in thought. Like this? I thought.
I thought about calling my doctor. Called my mother instead. She said to call the doctor. My doctor was a wonderful woman, looking good for almost fifty and coming out with another book on the joys and wonders of natural birthing.
I woke early for the appointment, took a hot shower, put on clean clothes. I moved gingerly, not because there was pain but because my senses were attuned to that spot deep inside my abdomen where the pain would be, if it was. At the moment it wasn’t. I stepped outside. Hunched my shoulders against the cold. Clenched my teeth. My dentist had mentioned clenching. She was a wonderful woman too, also looking good for nearing fifty, with a Bosnian accent and a glorious overbite. Her daughter worked reception, but her daughter wasn’t nearly as beautiful as she was. She said if I kept clenching, I’d need jaw surgery.
The doctor told me to sit on the paper bed. She lifted my shirt and placed her stethoscope on my belly. She told me to breathe in. Hold it. Let it out now, she said. She kept putting the cold mouth of the stethoscope to my body. Soon it was lukewarm. Again, she said, about the breathing. Again.
She unplugged the stethoscope from her ears and wore it like a necklace. Put its mouth in her breast pocket. Massaged my neck with the tips of her fingers. Palpated my lymph nodes. When does it hurt? she asked. She smelled like pine. I told her. She said Hmmm. How often do you exercise? I told her not much, but I started lifting weights with my neighbor recently. Oh? she said. I told her I walked to work. How far is work? she asked. One block, I said. She stopped touching my neck and said she was going to give me a hernia test. I’d thought of that, but the internet had mentioned an intestinal bulge. Turn and cough, she said. I coughed. No hernia, she said. Could you sit back on the bed? I did. She slipped her cold hands under the waistband of my jeans, about where I said I felt the—not pain exactly, but twinging, sometimes, like when I’m at work or walking or something.
Huh, she said. She kneaded with her fingers like my abdomen was pizza dough. Does this hurt? she said. No. Does this? She pressed hard, as hard as I’d pressed. She got to the bone and pressed and pressed. Ouch, I said. Was that it? she said. Or was that the bone?
I woke with a start. The pain pulsed. I laid a hand in the curve of my hip, probing. Trying to make it hurt more or hurt less. Trying to make it something. The doctor said it was strange there was pain when I was active—standing or walking—and not when sedentary. Well here it was, now, while I was sedentary. Sedentary. The word begged disease. Who gets strange pains that turn into cancer, into appendicitis? Who gets a hernia? Sedentary people who lift heavy objects. A desk. A guitar amplifier. Or in my case, a crate of dinner plates, not with my legs but with my back. Oops—maybe. But there was no bulge. And someone who works standing up isn’t sedentary. I was so, so young. I thought again about masturbating. It wasn’t like I was lying facedown on the floor jamming my dick into a warm towel—apparently that was how my roommate liked to do it. It wasn’t like I was doing it more than, say, once a day. And give me a break: my Ex was sending me all these texts out of the blue. Say she bought a new sweater. Kind of a small-talky, normal sort of thing to text about. But the accompanying picture would be her in the sweater, which was white, without a bra. And no bottoms.
What was I supposed to do, make a sandwich?
I thought about cancer again. Could I feel cancer, if it was tiny and inside of me? Cells are so tiny. I googled cancer cells. They looked like meat. This made me hungry. I made myself a sandwich. I took out some roast beef, but then remembered about red meat and cancer. Got out turkey instead. As I ate my sandwich I remembered something on the radio about cell phones and cancer. Something like: Using a cell phone makes a person three times as likely to get cancer! No, not so specific. More like: Populations with significant cell phone usage have three times the incidence of cancer as populations without significant cell phone usage! No, no, no. It had to be: Recent studies reveal that cell phone users, over a ten-year period, develop three times the incidence of cancer than do ordinary populations! That was it. But, ‘ordinary?’ What was ‘ordinary?’ Heavy cell phone usage for one thing. I vowed, eating my sandwich, to stop carrying my cell phone in my jeans pocket. I decided to keep it in my breast pocket. I never heard of anyone getting heart cancer.
I decided to test my theory about masturbation. I pulled up one of my Ex’s sexts and got my thing out. I worked with utmost caution. Didn’t tense up or go crazy. I was relaxed. It took a conscious effort. I felt like a woman being delicate and dexterous with her lady parts. There was some stuff in the Kama Sutra about relaxing during sex. Men in particular were supposed to take the hint. I thought about that for a second. When I was about to come, I didn’t tense up or flex or point my toes. I stood up and pushed and prodded the spot in my hip where the pain would be, if it was. Nothing. Maybe not tensing up was the way to go.
I went to a party that night with my roommate and my neighbor. Ordinarily I wouldn’t go, but I thought being social might help lose the hypochondria. Not that waiting tables wasn’t social. I had to be social or else I wouldn’t make any goddamn money. Also I would be fired.
The party would be social but not work-social. Maybe that was the trick. Maybe the pain was some pea-sized epicenter of my body trying to tell me work was unnatural. Heh, well. I didn’t need a vestige to tell me that. My body had evolved to tell me the only sensible activities for a human being were foraging and reproducing. Eating and fucking. Working for money, in theory, met the same basic needs, but working in a restaurant I sure as hell wasn’t making the kind of money that translated into a steady stream of reproductive work. So my body was in protest, and my appendix, maybe, or the pain, or whatever, was crying out: Hey, stop doing all this shit and go live in the woods and eat berries and snails and wild roots and sleep on dirt and defecate in holes and wipe yourself with leaves and make love to the moon and to Jupiter, when it’s in conjunction with the moon, for good luck!
The party was lively. There was a microbrew drowning in icewater. I rescued it. There was a mess of people dancing in the living room. I stood in the corner, clenching my teeth, clutching my beer. I realized I was clenching and stopped. Massaged my jaw. I opened it and it clicked painfully. What are you doing? a girl behind a laptop said. She was the DJ. I could barely hear her voice over the music. I yelled, Nothing! Then I yelled, What’s your name?
She yelled, What? I waved Nevermind and left the room. Went into the kitchen and saw my neighbor there. He was talking to a drunk stranger who was grasping for words to make a point. Hey, I said. My neighbor acknowledged my presence then turned back to the stranger. I knew why he was listening so hard. He was going to absorb what the stranger had to say then refute the shit out of him. He was going to deploy platitudes like ‘You’re missing the forest for the trees,’ and ‘Throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ and work himself into a frenzy over a point with which, chances were, the stranger probably agreed. It made me clench my teeth. I finished my beer and left.
Hands crammed deep in my pockets, I walked home. With one hand I pressed and prodded the pain until I wondered if I was causing the pain with all the pressing and prodding. I arrived home and called my Ex. Her voice was unexpected.
As in, What do you want?
She said, I’m studying for a Chem final, what do you need?
I thought hard, for a second, about need. I pictured her trying on sweaters and taking pictures of herself, like that was her life. I had the pictures already, so did I really need to talk to her? If she wanted to talk, then the pictures made no sense. The pictures were fooling around, and talking, well, that was what people who still love each other do. Not people fooling around. Did I still love her?
Um, I said. I hung up.
The next day the doctor called back. She wanted to do an ultrasound. When should I come in? I asked. We can’t do it here, she said. You have to schedule an ultrasound at a radiology center. I can recommend you one. Do you have something to write on? Yes, I lied. I scrambled for paper.
I made an appointment for an ultrasound the next day. If that didn’t reveal anything the doctor wanted to do a blood test. I don’t like needles. The last time I had blood drawn, the nurse couldn’t find the vein. Oops! Looks like it moved on me! the nurse had said, jabbing the fat needle into my arm until he found the vein. Make a fist to help the blood pump, he’d added once the needle was in. I looked at the nurse like he was crazy. The blood test throbbed like a headache the size of a pin in the crux of my arm.
The receptionist said, Can I see your referral? I said I didn’t have one, but told the receptionist the name of my doctor, the one with the books about natural birthing. Yes, she’s very well known, said the receptionist. I took a seat and stared at the other people in the waiting room. They were old, sick or pregnant. With two fingers I poked myself, trying to see if the pain was there. It wasn’t. It hadn’t been for a couple of days. I hoped I wouldn’t have to pay for the procedure. I was beginning to think an ultrasound was unnecessary. The pain was turning into another hypochondrial symptom scared off by sheer proximity to medical professionals. The receptionist said, Please go into the changing room and put on a tunic. She pointed. The tunic was paper-thin. It stayed on by hooking around its own left sleeve. I went into Exam Room 2. I sat on the bed. The technician came in. She was pretty. All business. Lie down, she said. She said, Are you wearing boxers under there? I said No. The technician grabbed a sheet and told me to lift up the tunic and cover myself with the sheet. She rubbed goo all over my stomach. She said, Exams usually run ten minutes to half an hour. She turned the machine on and began to knead me with the ultrasound wand. I relaxed and closed my eyes. It’s good to relax, the technician said. Have you had anything to eat in the last eight hours? A beer, I said. No, said the technician, to eat. No, I said. She kept kneading. She moved from the top of my belly to my sides, then down to my abdomen. She nosed the wand under the sheet. She got more goo. I’m about to fall asleep, I said. Please don’t, said the technician. She replaced the wand on my abdomen. She began the gentle kneading again. I opened my eyes and watched her work for a long time. She was glued to the computer screen. Her eyes were large and bright and intelligent. I wondered if all her patients watched her work. The concentration she wore was enviable. She guided the wand entirely by feel. I closed my eyes again and said, I’m so relaxed. Good, said the technician. Tell me if anything hurts.
Caleb True lives everywhere and nowhere. He holds a Master’s Degree in History. His fiction has appeared in The Madison Review, Yemassee and some other cool places. He exists online at Calebtrue.tumblr.com.