“Only one warning, Morgana: Stay as still as possible. Even with your eyes closed, you will see a blinding profusion of brightly colored lights for a few seconds. It will be painless but momentarily overwhelming—a little like being on a rollercoaster. This will happen twice.”
Dr. Valenzuela positions a flexible, robotic arm ending in a conical device at the top of Morgana’s head. Morgana can hear little, “squitchy” sounds as the robotic arm rolls the conical device over and around her skull as one might move a mouse on a mousepad, ferreting out just the right coordinates.
By the time Morgana mumbles, “OK,” her attention has been snagged away from Dr. Valenzuela, already tangled tightly around the sound of the tail end of “warning,” which reverberates through the dark, echoing hollows of her mind. “Warning, ning, ning, ning, ning, ning….Warning, ning, ning, ning, ning, ning…,” and now, each “ning” is accompanied by an individual flash of a strobe light.
“Warning: This is a high-speed roller coaster.”
“Oh, SHIT! I HATE rollercoasters! I’ve got to get out of here!” gasped Morgana in a thin, wobbly voice. Her older sister, Gwen, reached out and grabbed her arm to steady her.
She’d been laughing and motor mouthing with Gwen during their half-hour wait in line. At last, it was their turn, and then, and only then, did she finally read the sign, the last of many she’d somehow managed to ignore until this very moment. Instantly, she felt faint, weak, and dangerously nauseous while her bowels seemed to fill with ice water.
From behind the two sisters, an outraged reprimand shot through the frozen moment.
“What??? You’ve come all the way to Disney World and you’re NOT going on Space Mountain???” An observant, smart-assed, 10-year-old kid shamed the then-18-year-old Morgana onto the ride that she was, just that very moment, hell-bent on bailing out of.
The crowd tittered because, of course, who, in their right mind, would wait for half an hour on a line to go on a roller coaster and NOT KNOW IT WAS A FECKING ROLLER COASTER?
Too sick to respond or even to feel embarrassed, she practically crawled onto the ride, abandoning herself to her fate. As the rocket car ratcheted its way up into the inky darkness of the steep incline of the ride’s lift hill, Morgana acquiesced to the default decision to “just go with it.” Don’t resist. Don’t tighten your stomach muscles. Don’t hyperventilate. Take a deep breath. Don’t cry. There’s nothing like the paralysis of fear laced with shame to subjugate your persnickety ego into a Zen-like state of acceptance.
And…the payoff was huge. She’d been hauled, in an almost-lifeless state, to the very top of the lift hill. A searing strobe light assailed her eyes and scorched her soul. She could almost perceive the presence of God; instead, that not-quite-realized sublime moment was subducted by a violent and precipitous, almost free-fall plunge. Tortured by loops and twists and taunted by random flashes of scouring lights, the frenetic motion did its level best to wrest her spirit from its mortal tether. The best part was that not only did she survive, but she had experienced a full-blown out-of-body experience, thanks to a big-mouthed 10-year old and a little bit of public shaming. In triumph, she made her way out of the rocket car on rubbery knees, babbling somewhat incoherently to her sister about how glad she was that she hadn’t backed out after all!
“What do you have to say for yourself, Morgana?” asks Dr. Valenzuela, as breezily as one can, given the nature of this bizarre procedure.
“So far, so good!,” Morgana mumbles, somewhat stunned, lying face-down on an examination table with a cut-out for her face as she stares at a picture of a dolphin, strategically placed on the floor below, with a caption that reads, “Everyone smiles in the same language.”
Morgana feels slightly embarrassed when she sees that she has drooled onto the dolphin’s smiling face below. With any luck, she thinks, it will occur to no one to look at the dolphin picture until way after the drool dries.
Dr. Valenzuela gently rubs Morgana’s back. “The worst is already behind you. The BCI (Brain-Computer Interface) nano chip is now safely embedded in your cerebral cortex and the flexible polymer fiber neural implant has already been threaded into the three parts of your brain stem.”
“Really? I didn’t feel a thing!” At this point, she is only aware of the strange table, the dolphin with the drool-drizzled smile, and the smell of alcohol–rubbing alcohol, of course, and thankfully NOT that Boney Stalker Scotch sewer-swill variety.
“That’s because the MRI apparatus we use for this procedure also has a function to temporarily disable the perception of pressure and pain.”
Morgana meditates, if that’s what you could call it, on disabling the perception of pressure and pain. The meditation lulls her into a sound sleep. As she snores peacefully, Dr. Valenzuela ejects the insertion needles from their little carousel at the tip of the conical device, catches them in the palm of her surgical-gloved hand, peels off both gloves, deftly stuffing one inside the other, and tosses them into the hazardous waste receptacle. With well-practiced efficiency, she tap-types a command onto her nearby laptop, which instructs the robotic arm to “squitch” itself back into a recessed wall panel just a couple feet from the top of Morgana’s head.
Dr. Valenzuela rouses Morgana from her meditation on the dolphin’s smiling face and helps her to her feet.
Morgana is slightly confused. “What about the Initialization process?”
“Oh, that doesn’t happen until we actually have your tenem printed out. Remember, the printing takes up to three days, and now that you’ve undergone the Adaptation, we can begin the printing.”
“So that’s it? All I have to do now is wait three days?”
“Yes, Morgana! That’s it! I’m so excited for you!”
Just about fully awake, Morgana takes a few careful steps. Dr. Valenzuela escorts her out of the pink lab, through the hallway and back into the reception area where Calliope is seated at her desk. This time, Morgana barely notices the whooshing doors.
Dr. Valenzuela gives Morgana a farewell hug and a sweet smile. “Just to play safe, don’t take a shower or wash your hair until tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, take good care of yourself, read up on Switzerland, and we’ll see you back here in three days, OK? Call us and we’ll arrange a pick up!”
Calliope takes over, leading Morgana towards the drone pad on the other side of the wall from the reception area. “Well, you’ve had a full day! And no worse for the wear!”
“Thank you so much, Calliope. Oh, and thanks for those blueberry scones! Guess I’ll see you soon!” Morgana walks through the whooshed exit where she steps up into the waiting drone. As soon as the little armchair secures her in its automatic embrace, the pilotless drone spirits her away. After the short, other-worldly ride, the silent, sky-camouflaged drone lands gently on the roof of her apartment building, completely unobserved once again.
Back in her apartment with the door locked behind her, she heads to the room where Jack lies in his hospital bed. He’s awake, sort of; his eyes are open and he’s staring at the ceiling.
“Hi, Jack! How are you doing this afternoon?” She kisses him on the cheek, and he looks at her, but doesn’t respond—not that she expects him to.
She lays her head on his chest and listens to his heart beating—a good, strong, steady thump. Dare she hope that all will be well, despite everything she knows?
“It’s a nice day out! Let’s get some fresh air in here.” She opens up the window and breathes in deeply, hoping to displace the staleness that feels like a third person in the room. She looks out the window, telling herself to start seeing the world with new eyes. She notices how pretty everything looks in the afternoon light—the streets, the trees, the houses, the buildings, the rooftops, the clouds and the sky. She adjusts the blinds so that the afternoon sun doesn’t shine directly into his eyes.
“There!” she says, looking to Jack for his non-existent approval. Not much difference between then and now, she thinks. His approval was always in such short supply. She feels silly for having thought that she ever needed it in the first place. A recent memory of Jack’s face, just before the stroke, flashes across her mind. Was that an admiring glance and was it really meant for her? She had been putting on lipstick, standing in front of the hall mirror. He came up behind her and looked into the mirror at her face—for just an instant. Yes, come to think of it—had she thought about it, had she been receptive to him, had she met his eyes with hers for just a fraction of a second more. Hmmm…maybe she’ll have to roll that one over in her mind again, she thinks, as she tries to ignore an aching pang of regret.
She grabs a comb off the dresser and runs it through his thick, salt-and-pepper but mostly black hair, raking it in different directions and then smoothing it neatly to the side. Ever since the hospital “off-loaded” Jack back into her custody here at home, she’s been cutting his hair herself. At first, she wasn’t very good at it, but she got progressively better by watching youtube videos. Jack, bon vivant that he was, had a standing appointment with a fancy-schmancy stylist for fifty bucks a pop every two weeks. He insisted that he had to look professional in his job as a claims evaluator for Betna, a company that insured commercial and residential property along with motor vehicles and water craft of all kinds.
Stepping back, she exaggerates an appraising look for his benefit. “NOW you look extremely handsome again! Oh! It’s almost 4:00, and you know what that means!!! Rocky’s coming!” Jack’s eyes seem to twinkle. Morgana makes a mental note.
Rocky is not only a home health caregiver, but is also a nurse and a wonderful physical therapist. With the proper encouragement, he talks non-stop about sports. When Morgana was making arrangements with the home health care agency for Jack, she specified that whomever the agency sent had to be a sports enthusiast. Whether or not Jack could understand him or follow what he was talking about, it was clear that Jack loved Rocky. If anyone could bring Jack back from the brink, Morgana thought, it would be Rocky, with his expansive, generous nature.
She believed that wasn’t very likely, though, since Jack’s massive stroke was not merely a massive stroke. He had slipped into a coma that lasted a whole month—and that was the good news. No one wanted to break the bad news to Morgana, but there it was: “Locked-in Syndrome,” a neurological disorder characterized by complete and permanent paralysis. Jack’s condition had attracted a lot of attention—the medical university’s professors, doctors, interns and medical students came to see him every day during his hospital stay. Even at home, there seemed to be a steady stream of professionals who came to monitor and record his progress, or more specifically, his lack thereof. Morgana had to sign all kinds of papers to allow his case to be studied, to permit the administration of new and promising (“experimental”) drugs and therapies, and to release this information for eventual publication.
Rocky’s been coming every day for the last two months or so. Each time, he stays for two hours. He’s so perceptive. He can tell if Jack is in pain, which amazes Morgana, since she can’t seem to read him very much at all.
Funny how life has a way of putting us on different paths that cross each other, and how our needs make us dependent on strangers who quickly become a part of our lives. Rocky is one of those people who can take something awful and recalibrate it to something a little more manageable. Maybe there’s an upside to misfortune—maybe the gloom of disappointment makes the little glimmers of joy, happiness, hope, possibility, love, and all the things that propel the human spirit onward, all the more recognizable.
Just yesterday, she had been in the room watching Rocky massage and move Jack’s limbs, when she realized that she knew him from somewhere, but she just couldn’t put her finger on it.
“Well, actually, you DO know me! I don’t often tell my patients about this, but I’m a transgendered man now. You knew me as Roxanne—remember? From five years ago!”
Morgana broke into a laugh of complete surprise, recognition and wonder, and gushed, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this! Good for you! And Rocky? You look fantastic!” Then she looked at Jack, searching his face for some kind of clue, and back at Rocky. “I wonder if Jack realizes this!”
“I don’t know—I’ve never mentioned it to him.” He continued to bend and knead Jack’s arms, and addressing Jack now, said in a soft voice, “What do ya think, Pal? Remember me when I was that fast-talking, wise-cracking tough girl who talked sports and kicked ass?”
Jack’s eyes continued to twinkle. It was so hard to figure out if Jack was lucid or not. So far, the tests hadn’t shown much one way or the other.
Rocky—then Roxanne—had been Jack’s physical therapist five years ago, when Jack (under the influence of his good friend, that bastard, Boney Stalker Scotch) had fallen down the stairs, breaking his knee, shin, and ankle. Morgana, self-admittedly naïve by nature, thought that the fall would have convinced Jack to stop drinking, but it didn’t. He and Boney continued their love affair. It had been a long, miserable recovery, made much more complicated by Boney, and made a lot more bearable by Roxanne, who worked at a rehab clinic close by.
The doorbell rings. “I’ll bet that’s Rocky,” she announces as she leaves the room to go answer the door.
Morgana hugs Rocky. “Rocky! Other than Jack, you’re the handsomest guy I’ve seen all day long!” Rocky laughs and hugs her back.
Although she tries to be upbeat for everyone’s sake, Morgana’s heart is somewhat heavier than usual this afternoon. She feels conflicted about her arrangement with The Our Little Secret Travel Agency, especially because, as of today, it’s officially too late to back out. She is beginning to realize how much Rocky’s presence is a comfort to her, not only because he is helping Jack, but because she can relate to how Rocky must have struggled to make the transition to being the person he really is.
Morgana walks ahead of Rocky, leading him into Jack’s room and says, “Rocky’s here, Jack!”
Rocky struts into the room with a big, toothy smile. “Ready to get pummeled, Big Guy?” Jack’s eyes sparkle and seem to acknowledge Rocky’s exuberant entrance.
“Well, Rocky, after you finish getting Jack ready for spring training, feel free to join me for supper, if you’ve got the time. As usual, it’s nothing fancy—just throwing a few leftovers together—you know, another one of my infamous ‘melanges.’”
“Ha! ‘Infamous’ and ‘melange’ are two of my favorite things! Thanks, Morgana! It’s a date!”
“I’ll leave you two guys to it!” says Morgana, gently closing the door behind her.
Photo Credit: “Breezy,” by Suzanne Cummings (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sleecphotos/4802848928/in/gallery-whatsmostimportant-72157625115729236/)
To Be Continued in Chapter 6: Melange a Trois