This is part 2 of a series.
The infected root canal was a ridiculously minor trigger, but as a tipping point it definitely had its precedents.
On May 25th, 2010 (the same day I had a flarf poem published in the Wall Street Journal — yes, a flarf poem in the Wall Street Journal!) I received news that my Fulbright Specialist candidacy was about to move to the next, much-desired, level: a school had requested me. I would be teaching in a small town in Russia called Orsk, on the border of Kazakhstan, thirty miles west of Siberia. On my original grant application I was asked to pick two global areas where I’d prefer to teach, and I chose Eastern Europe and Asia. Teaching in Orsk would be a dream gig because of its location on the Ural River, across which stretched a famous bridge with signage indicating “Europe” on the western side and “Asia” on the eastern. I was ecstatic, and started making preparations, even though I wouldn’t be traveling for a year: I researched Orsk, Siberia, got a Rosetta Stone Russian course, began formulating my lecture series and started drinking vodka to raise my admittedly wimpy (for a writer with an Eastern-European ancestry) tolerance for the “little water.”
By September, though, the details of the gig began to get convoluted and the preparations frustrating. First, the date of my teaching stint, agreed upon by the school and myself, had to be moved up (the wording on the grant summary regarding the start date wasn’t very clear), and so instead of traveling to Orsk in April, I’d be going in mid-February — yes: almost-Siberia in February. Next, my travel agent refused to sell me a plane ticket because she didn’t think flying over the Ural Mountains in the dead of winter on a regional airline she’d never heard of before was safe.
“And they just had that big Aeroflot disaster,” she whispered, “right over the Urals . . .”
Her voice put the fear in me for the first time. It felt like a cold fluid moving quickly up my spine and spreading out inside my brain – the first presentiment of the anxiety that would soon take over my life. I seriously decided (for about ten seconds) that I would tell my American program officer, Alice, that I couldn’t reschedule for February because my school wouldn’t allow it. But who turns down a Fulbright? Riddled with anxiety but determined, I explained the situation to the school, and found a Russian travel agent by half-jokingly asking the students in my fiction workshop (on the day that a tornado touched down in Brooklyn, by the way), “Anybody know a good Russian travel agent?” Not only did someone have a ready answer, but the agent she knew turned out to be a practicing Buddhist. I had taken refuge as a Buddhist the year before, after my sister’s death, and so I figured this was a sign — not only would everything work out, it would work out Buddhistically! But it took the agent, Izabell, a week and a half just to get a purchase confirmation for the plane tickets — she’d actually tried to buy them when she was in Moscow — and I spent my 50th birthday anxious and worried that the whole thing might fall through, but trying not to dwell on it because I was on a three-day silent retreat at a Zen monastery with my husband. Things got even more complicated when I got back: my Russian program officer, Natalya, mentioned in an email that the school I was to teach at, a local branch of a state university, hadn’t gone through the proper channels or done the proper paperwork to procure a Fulbright Specialist, and that was why, a month before my scheduled departure, the “Letter of Invitation,” which I needed in order to apply for a business visa, still hadn’t arrived. Visa processing, I learned, could take up to eighteen business days, and the Russian Embassy would be closed for the first two weeks of January, for Orthodox Christmas. Natalya told me not to wait, but to just go ahead and apply for a tourist visa instead. “At least it’ll get you into the country,” she wrote in an email. I took her advice, but when the school found out I had a tourist and not a business visa they said I couldn’t legally teach — or even stay — on the campus. When I put the emails between Natalya and my contact at the school in Orsk through Google Translate (Natalya hadn’t bothered to delete them) I discovered the only place I’d be allowed to stay legally was “the infirmary” of the campus sports complex. I’d already spent a considerable sum on warm clothes appropriate for a Russian winter (not reimbursable by Fulbright) and the Rosetta Stone course (also not covered). And then there were the five months spent researching and writing my ten lectures on “What American Literature Shares With the World” — and how was that time to be adequately reimbursed? When the letter of invite finally did arrive — a week before my departure — David suggested that I say nothing about it; if they didn’t know I had it, I wouldn’t have to go. But, again: who turns down a Fulbright?
“I’ve known you for twenty years,” he said, “and I’ve never seen you this anxious. I thought this was supposed to be a positive experience. Are you just doing this to have something to put on your CV?”
At this point, yes, I thought, as there certainly was no joy left in the project. On the other hand, I didn’t want my five months of preparation to be for naught, so I applied for the expedited $350 business visa (also not covered by Fulbright, per policy), which wouldn’t be ready until the day before my departure. Izabell, sensing how stressed-to-the-breaking-point I was, suggested that I go with her to her weekly meditation session and dharma talk with a well-known expatriate Tibetan monk, Pema Dorje, on the Lower East Side. I agreed, and we met for dinner before the session at an Indian restaurant on First Avenue.
I’d never met Izabell, only talked to her on the phone. She had a soft, measured, thoughtful voice. And so it was a delightful surprise when a gorgeous, dark-haired woman my age (her birthday, in fact, fell on the same day as my sister’s death), entered the restaurant in a swirl of beige and ivory wool scarves and delicious perfume, and embraced me like a long-lost friend.
“I was thinking,” she said as we sat down, “when I was driving here — and I drive from New Jersey, so I have lots of time to think — that I just do not understand why you’re having so much trouble with this. When I travel to Russia with my husband — he’s American — they treat him like the Dalai Lama or something. They fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other to make an impression on him. And this is a government agency? There’s something wrong here. Can you back out? Or will you lose all your money?”
“At this point,” I said, “I don’t even care about the money. It’s the time. I have literally spent every day — almost all day — for five months writing these lectures. I can’t just give up, with all that behind me. I could’ve been writing other things. But there I was, you know?”
She sat back in her chair, and looked at me intently through narrowed eyes.
“Okay, listen: after the dharma talk, and when the meditation is concluded, I’m going to introduce you to Pema and we’re going to ask his advice. He is very wise. He’ll tell you what to do.”
The dharma talk took place on the third floor of an unprepossessing walk-up on First Avenue and Second Street, next to a McDonald’s. Who knew that secreted away in that dull grey building with the fire escape on the front was a shrine room decorated with icons and thangka paintings, a tall, golden altar at its center? As I got comfortable on a cushion on the floor next to Izabell, seven or eight people came in, greeted each other with bows, settled onto their meditation cushions and waited until tiny Pema Dorje entered and began the session. After the meditation we chanted prayers, and then Pema gave a light-hearted talk about the significance of the night’s new moon. When the session concluded, Izabell took me by the hand and introduced me to him — he was no taller than my shoulder — and explained my situation.
“Ah, you know,” he laughed, mischievously, “we always fear our obstacles, don’t we? We want to fight them — overcome them! But our obstacles are also there to teach us. You understand?”
“Yes,” came a deep male voice from somewhere behind me, “obstacles have often saved my life. Pay attention to your obstacles.”
“That’s right,” a woman said, from another corner in the room. “Your obstacles are serving you.”
Again, the cold fear up my spine. But still, and even against the advice of a monk (and everyone else in that room, it seemed), I remained determined.
At the eleventh hour, the school in Orsk generously agreed to pay for my expedited visa, and as our plane skimmed a patch of very Russian-fairy-tale-looking snow-tipped fir trees near Sheremetyevo Airport, I was relieved and ecstatic to actually be in the country with David by my side (traveling at his own expense, to make sure I actually got there). We checked into our hotel in Moscow — a Marriott! — and took a nap. Afterward, refreshed and happy and looking forward to seeing some of Moscow before dinner (despite the 10 degree temperature), I got into the shower and promptly slipped and hit my head on the back of the porcelain bathtub. I didn’t see stars, didn’t lose consciousness, but the pain was incredible. When David called Natalya, my program officer, to get a reference for a doctor, she told him rather diffidently there were a couple of clinics I could go to, but didn’t provide phone numbers, or any Embassy or Consulate medical contacts. I wasn’t surprised, actually; this was the same woman who’d instructed me to get the wrong visa.
“She’s no help,” David said, disgusted. “I’m going down and asking at the desk.”
The hotel concierge, more helpful, called the paramedics, and they came to my room — a thin, dour, Harry Dean Stanton-looking man, and a husky, efficient woman — and checked me out: it didn’t look like I had a concussion, but I’d have to watch for symptoms (nausea, headache, vomiting) during the next twenty-four hours. Naturally, Natasha Richardson came to mind. The woman touched the bump on the back of my head and declared, gently, “маленький” (“small”). As I signed my name in Russian on the medical report I asked (via the hotel translator) if they thought I’d be okay to fly to Orsk the next morning. The woman laughed and said (via the translator), “If you can sign your name in Russian you’ll probably be okay! But just keep watch over yourself, especially if you have symptoms.”
The flight to Orsk the next morning was at 6 a.m., and at 6 a.m. I was, of course, in the cab en route to Domodedovo Airport with David. The concierge packed our complimentary breakfasts up in plastic “lunch boxes,” so we’d have something to snack on while we waited at the gate.
“So where are you traveling to so early in the morning?” she asked, cheerfully.
“A place you’ve probably never heard of, even though you’re from here. It’s called Orsk, and it’s right above Kazakhstan.”
“You’re right,” she laughed, “I don’t know it. But I do know that it’s very, very far. Very far, indeed. So be careful, you know, because of your head.”
Her words so did not offer comfort, and the familiar chill arose. And halfway to the airport I began feeling nauseous and headachey. And panicky. There was no way to tell if it was because of what the concierge had said, the overheated cab, the lack of a proper breakfast, an attack of nerves about flying over the Urals in the dead of winter on a regional airline that my travel agent mistrusted, Pema Dorje’s advice, or because I really did have a concussion. I looked at David and said, “I really feel sick. I don’t know what to do. What the hell am I going to do?”
“Alright, I’m putting a stop to this nonsense right now,” he said, and the decision to turn back was made, on that dark, empty, snowy Moscow highway. Natalya had never suggested helping me reschedule my flight so I could rest up for a day, so I knew that turning back would be forfeiting a Fulbright — the thing I most did not want to do, the one thing I had pushed and pushed against for all those months. After we arrived back at the hotel and rebooked our room I called Natalya to tell her what happened. She was sympathetic but not helpful, though she did suggest I try to get a free dinner from the hotel since I had fallen in their bathtub. When I told her I didn’t feel right doing that she said, “Yes, they are probably accustomed to American tricks.” We flew back to the States the next day and the day after that I saw my doctor. Everything seemed okay by then.
Disappointed but resigned that the Fulbright was obviously never meant to be, but happy to have five months of pressure and worry behind me, I got back to what I’d been working on before I’d had to spend every spare moment on grant preparations: a very emotional “prose poem story” about my sister Renee’s death in November 2009. On Wednesday, February 16 I read it at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan. The response from the audience was unexpected and overwhelming, and some people came up to me with tears in their eyes.
“I envy your ability to expiate,” one friend — a journalist-commentator for National Public Radio — said. It had been immensely difficult to write, and twice as difficult to read in public, as I was revealing the secret that lie at the core of my family’s own “breakdown”: that my father might’ve molested my sister. Back in 1984 I walked in, after work, on a “family meeting” that she’d called, to make her announcement. (Why did she do it while I was out of the house? I always wondered.) Renee and our parents had been sitting around the kitchen table, and as I walked in the door my mother had said, “Your sister says Dad molested her when she was little.” The discussion ended with her saying that it actually never happened. Later, I told my parents I didn’t believe it, and I told Renee that I did. Because I had seen something, when she was eight and I was ten, that had remained with me: as I was coming into the living room from the hallway I saw Renee and my dad on the couch, and he was whispering into her ear. She had an odd, unidentifiable look on her face, a combination of boredom and annoyance. Our dad was always sneaking up behind us and saying “Boo!” or whispering goofy things in our ears like, “Hey, how did that wheelbarrow get up there?” There was no way of knowing what was happening, so I stopped and tip-toed backward to the bedroom and sat on the bed, scared. As an adult I couldn’t help but wonder if molestation was the reason, along with abandonment by her birth mother (Renee had come to us as a foster child in 1968, and we adopted her two years later), for her nightmarish life of addiction and homelessness. She’d died in a nursing home, and I didn’t find out until three days later, by which time one of her natural sisters, with whom she’d been reunited years before, had had her cremated.
The evening after the reading, while eating granola cereal before bed, I felt a sharp pain in my tooth. I knew I’d probably broken an old filling. The next day I went to my dentist, and she said I’d fractured the tooth and would need a root canal, which she wanted to begin right then. I have no idea why, but I asked her if it could wait until Monday — I needed to take antibiotics before dental work because of a mitral valve prolapse diagnosis. I don’t know why she didn’t just write me a prescription, have me fill it at the drugstore down the street, pop two pills and get back in the chair — maybe she had appointments the rest of the day. Whatever, she said she’d see me on Monday and to take ibuprofen if the pain got to be too much. And it did indeed get to be too much because she never told me how much ibuprofen I could take. As I drove to our house in Pennsylvania on Route 80 a day later the pain was overwhelming; it was that singular, nightmarish, deeply acute dental pain that feels like the suffering of all beings focused tightly on one tooth. When we got to the house David called the dentist’s office and spoke to her partner, who gave me better directions regarding dosage. Finally, with a combination of 3 Advils and deep breathing, it abated. The procedure commenced when we got back to the city that Monday.
By Wednesday I noticed that the lower left side of my face was swollen, but figured it was because of the root canal. I called the dentist to ask her what the best way to bring the swelling down might be because I was starting to look like the Lady in the Radiator from “Eraserhead” (at least on the left side).
“The swelling is on the bottom?” she said, sounding surprised. “Well, it’s probably infected. Can you come in now? I have no appointments the rest of the day.”
And that was what set the two-year breakdown off, at about 2:30 in the afternoon on March 23, 2011.
Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.