The Daily

First Person

Chasing Away the Big Black Bird

May 21, 2014 | by

Common_Raven_From_The_Crossley_ID_Guide_Eastern_Birds

Image: Richard Crossley

My buddy at work—I call him my buddy, but really he’s just the guy I hate the least—turned to me and asked which would be better: having one testicle or having three. I rolled my eyes and gave him the same answer I gave him every time he asks: three. I’d rather be creepy than a little sad.

Then one night in the shower I discovered that my left testicle was the size and density of a small Cadbury Creme Egg. The doctor told me my testicle needed to come out immediately; it was malignant as hell. He probably did not actually say the words “malignant as hell,” but I went into shock almost immediately, and can only reconstruct events based on what happened next.

Twenty-four hours later, I was entering emergency surgery. The nurse asked if I’d like a prosthetic. “Would I!” I said. “Can I get two?” I was thinking of how awesome would it be to really double down and commit to this joke, surprising my work friend in the men’s room.

I also have a difficult relationship with my Virginian heritage—it would be perfect if I could have an actual Civil War–era musket ball put in there instead, to literally carry a heavy, awkward, and slowly poisonous reminder of our nation’s tragic past that I only talk openly about with my black friends when I am drunk.

But none of that happened. As it turned out, I wasn’t going to be creepy. I was going to be sad.

That first night after the surgery, I lay there in the dark next to my sleeping girlfriend. We met at an art gallery in Washington, DC, two weeks before I moved to New York. She is a forensic accountant, the sort of person who professionally pieces together evidence of systemic white-collar crime one e-mail at a time, except those e-mails are in Mandarin or Spanish. When I periodically complain that our lives are overly scheduled and I’d like to make room for some spontaneity, she says, “We can be spontaneous on the weekends.”

Now she rolled over in her sleep, clutching the pillow tight. Not me. That tumor snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking, and I’ve got to stay vigilant.

I thought it was going to be a soft, firm implant—like a miniature breast implant, artificial but at least a little squishy. Instead, it’s a dense silicone wad that pulled like a fishing sinker. I could feel what I imagined to be rough, angular edges on it, like a complicated die for the world’s saddest role-playing game. It hurt, scraping its living neighbor and the inner walls of my scrotum as I rolled over in bed. The doctors told me that my body would eventually encase it in tissue, giving it a more natural feel, but it could have used another trip through the rock polisher. Every jab and scrape was a reminder that something strange had happened—a private, alien footprint that only I could sense.

My girlfriend said “You know, we—women in general—never really care that much about the balls anyway. I’m probably not even going to really notice at all.”

She meant to be helpful and reassuring, but the terror transformed it, twisting her words into “It’s silly of you to be so sad about losing something so useless in the first place.”

The change was much more Freudian than physical. You don’t realize how much deep cultural programming you’ve absorbed about your testicles until you lose one. “Hey, don’t cut that guy’s balls off,” takes on a much more significant meaning, as does “man, that guy’s got a lot of balls.” I’ve always tried to live as boldly as possible, but was I just going to be a pretender now?

I lay back and looked up into the darkness. All my fear, doubt, and terror swirled, soaring like ragged ghosts in a tight circle emanating from my heart. They accelerated, blurring together and forming a black emotional waterspout with its tip in my chest. The other end of the spout bobbed up and down tentatively, then surged upward and opened a dark portal that seeped across the ceiling like a giant stain.

A giant black bird swooped down through the open portal and landed on my chest. It shuffled forward to put its dark beak into my ear and whispered:

“You’re not going to die tonight, but your life will never be the same. You have moved through a doorway, and it’s weird on the other side. You will never relate to other people the same way again. They’re going to try to talk to you, but you’ll never be able to connect. It’s going to be this way for the rest of your life. You’ll get used to feeling lonely, but it will never go away.”

I’ll be damned if that bird wasn’t right. My girlfriend is a cancer survivor, too. But she went through chemo and radiation, and I didn’t—she didn’t have any body parts chopped off, and I did. Our suffering is more or less the same size, but shaped very differently.

On the night that we met, I was wearing a fragrant T-shirt with a Pushead illustration of a fetal skeleton inside a bottle on it, while she had on a Christina Hendricks–esque wrap dress in a deep blue that set off a blood-red hair waterfall pouring down her back. I said, “Oh, hang on, you’ve got something stuck to your forehead there,” and she replied, “It’s probably just lint, stuck in the glue for my wig.”

“Oh,” I said, “is that not your real hair?”

She said, “Well, it grew out of somebody’s real head and I paid a lot of money for it, so I’d say that it’s my real hair now.” That’s how I found out that she was finishing radiation for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

It’s not always that easy to communicate what I’m feeling, or to understand her when she says, “Everyone’s going to die, Jeff. Cancer patients just have more data.”

* * *

When other people learn you’ve had cancer, it makes the baggage that rattles around in their skulls fall right out of their mouths. They mean well and they want to comfort you, but the end result is much worse. People think that their favorite thing can cure your cancer, as long as that thing sucks a little bit: “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that! Have you tried yoga? It can prevent all kinds of diseases, and it’s really good for you spiritually, too.”

A friend from high school sent me a text message—“Srry u hd cancer. U OK? Have U tried wheatgrass juice?”

Nobody comes up to me and says, “I’m so sorry to hear about your struggle. Have you tried getting really stoned and watching Pootie Tang?”

I did that like it would cure cancer. It didn’t, but it was very good for me spiritually.

My girlfriend sleeps so hard that she smiles. While she sleeps sweetly next to me, the black bird comes back. It says, “You know, you’ve lost a lot of drive and energy. You’ve been skipping Muay Thai a lot lately, and when you do go to sparring class, you just kind of stand there and let people punch you in the guts. What’s going on with that?”

“Well,” I say, “It just doesn’t seem to matter if I block any particular punch or not. The blows are coming out of nowhere whether or not you’re ready for them, so why fight what’s coming at you?”

“I don’t know,” the bird says with a little smile, “it’s like you’ve been half-neutered or something.”

If this is all death is—lying in the dark, floating, forever, not warm or cold, just floating—then I could do that. I might as well. At least I wouldn’t have to hear about it from that stupid bird anymore.

It was CT scan day, a few months after my operation, and I was sitting in a waiting room at Sloan-Kettering, sipping a pinkish fluid meant to saturate my tissues with a contrast dye in order to provide the best possible image. It was mixed with Sunny Delight, in a halfhearted attempt to disguise the taste—instead, it tasted like the sweetened squeezings from an android’s gym shirt.

A couple entered. The man had hair that was perfectly silver at the temples and an anus-colored suntan, leading his stride with his sternum like the prow of a very expensive yacht. He looked personally responsible for the entire financial crisis. The woman, I could tell, had been gorgeous at one time, with flowing hair like a chocolate river flecked with gold foil. It absorbed the grim fluorescent light in the basement waiting room and excreted it as a honey-colored light. She had two fresh iceberg chunks for eyes, but cancer had ravaged her tanned body into a bathrobe wrapped around a pile of brown clacking antlers. Her breast implants had lost their body-fat camouflage and jutted out like twin thermostats in an old apartment.

They sat and she nestled into his chest. He fell asleep immediately with his head back and his mouth wide open.

“You know,” she said, poking him awake, “you might not be so tired if you weren’t out until all hours doing drugs with God knows how many other women.”

He harrumphed. “We discussed my habits very early in this relationship … I don’t think I should have to explain myself any further than that. I’m here to support you now, and that’s what’s important.”

“Your habits have other habits, you know,” she hissed. “You’ve got another nasty habit of not respecting my space, too. Like when I was at the apartment in Italy last month. You know I can’t think for myself when you’re around, and when I go there I need to be alone. But what do you do? You show up the very next day with all your friends and wreck my space, and the next thing you know, we’re all just doing blow and skiing like we always do. It never changes.”

He drew himself up, pushing her back, and said, “I’m really getting tired of all these accusations. I have never done a single thing I didn’t tell you I was going to do, and after all”—he paused to add a noble inflection to his voice—”I am here now to support you while you … fight cancer.”

“Well, good news, buddy, you’re free of that chore. Because we’re done—get out of my life, goodbye!” She turned and stomped out, slamming a door behind her.

As all this unfolded, at least four nurses appeared in the waiting room, pretending to peruse their clipboards. Now, another nurse shoved the woman back into the waiting room: “We’re not ready for you in here yet, honey. Just sit with your boyfriend until we call you.”

They sat there across from each other, seething through their nostrils.

And me, I just felt amazing. My heart soared. I had a touch of cancer, I’m short one testicle. But these people have money poisoning, and that shaves the buds off your heart’s tongue and it can’t taste excitement the same way that it used to. All you can do is rub cocaine and designer handbags and smoked salmon all over yourself, just to feel like you’re doing anything special anymore.

I ran up to the sidewalk as soon as the appointment was over, feeling the sun on my face for the first time that summer. I called my girlfriend at work, the same woman I’d been complaining to every day about feeling so lonely and alienated. She answered, and I said, “Oh my God, you are not going to believe the breakup that I just saw in the CT scan waiting room.”

“Try me,” she replied, “you see some great stuff in there. Let me shut my office door real quick and I want you to tell me all about it.”

And then, for just a little while, that big black bird flew away.

Jeff Simmermon is a writer, storyteller, and standup comedian in Brooklyn. He has appeared on This American Life and won The Moth's New York GrandSLAM in March with a version of this story. He produces and performs in “And I Am Not Lying,” a show featuring stand-up, storytelling, and burlesque, at UCB East. Follow him on Twitter @jeffsimmermon.

7 COMMENTS

5 Comments

  1. Tom Cowell | May 21, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Jeff is a very talented comic, storyteller and writer. I’m thrilled the Review published him. I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

  2. Eva Vita | May 22, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Great story…well written. Is the black bird like the black dog?

  3. Benedict | May 24, 2014 at 5:04 am

    Potentially misplaced pedantism:

    Third-to-last paragraph, first sentence: ‘I ran up to the sidewalk as soon as the appointment is over…” should, surely read, “I ran up to the sidewalk as soon as the appointment WAS over…”

  4. Dan Piepenbring | May 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Thanks, Benedict! It’s fixed now.

  5. Benedict | May 24, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    I feel like I can enjoy it now.

    (please can I have a job)

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