At the Time
I sit where I was flung, my body supported scarecrow-like on a fence rail. My senses are straw-filled, my vision and hearing blurred, fuzzing. Through the haze of white noise, I take inventory; I was riding, then flying, then propped here, against this strong fence.
I am in an indoor arena in a strange barn. It feels surreal: the indoor dirt, my indoor flight, the cloudy darkness, the crashing static in my ears. My right arm rests on the lowest slat, casual, as if I was just relaxing here, waiting for a bus or a train.
I start again. Think riding, flying, propped. This all makes sense, more or less. There is cause and effect and natural order. What doesn’t make sense is the way my legs are bent under me. The angles do not feel natural. The knees and ankles are all wrong. I need help to pull them right.
I realize I am shaking.
There are feet coming, rushing to where I sit. Something in my shoulder is coming, too. Coming to. A pain that’s just waking up, with stretches and yawns, a pain like a flame-colored lion shaking itself from sleep.
The running people ask if I’m OK. I don’t know the answer to this question, so I ask them to get my legs out from under me. I lean right, and they pull thighs and calves left and around until my legs are lying straight, two logs of legs. I can’t feel them through the pins and needles, but they appear unbroken. The barn looks less cloudy now, and the static is quieting. Pieces of me are starting to send signals.
“My back stings,” I say. They lean me forward slightly, not enough to move my arm from the fence slat, but enough to lift the back of my shirt.
“You have one hell of a raspberry back there,” I’m told. It is a hot raspberry then, burning and sugary. I feel in danger of becoming all burning, of letting the raspberry heat spread like fire, consuming me, so I try to concentrate on things that are real: the soft footing below me, the solidity of the strong wooden fence that’s holding me.
My job, I realize, is to pull myself together and get back on. That’s what riders do. Fall off. Remount. Ride.
A curly haired woman asks if I want something to drink. A Pepsi? I nod, not knowing if I want a drink, just wanting to give an answer. The ache in my shoulder is becoming louder.
I try telling myself that pain is imaginary. It’s all in my head and nerve endings. It is not tangible like wood and dirt. It’s a floating thing, an abstract noun. If I can just get my brain around it, I can control it, herd it into the back of my conscious so that I can think clearly.
My shoulder hurts. Something within, a ligament or tendon, is screaming a tea kettle scream. I think, shh, shh.
The people standing around me look down from impossible heights. How did they become so tall? I say, “I think my shoulder’s either broken or dislocated.” My voice is flat and even, a distant thing. I am not sure how my tongue made the words. My body is pieces, and they are working independently of one another.
A woman I don’t know says, “If it was dislocated, you’d be crying your eyes out.” Such a strange thing to say, as if our eyes could be washed away from our body with the flood of their own tears. Her voice is gruff and matter of fact and brooks no argument.
Somehow, my tongue makes more words anyway. I say, “it hurts pretty bad,” in the same flat voice, a voice that sounds too thick. I don’t care if they believe me. I’m not trying to make a case. I don’t want to convince them. I want to convince myself that if I keep my voice steady and concentrate on real things, tangible things, dirt and fence, dirt and fence, I will not become all pain.
The curly-haired woman is back, handing me a soda can, putting it into the hand of my good arm. I wrap my fingers around it, sense the coolness of its metal. She puts one hand over mine, a warm thin hand, steadies the can and pops it open. As I lift it to my dry lips, my hand is shaking again. I almost spill.
The soda is sweet and cool; its bubbles fizz against my tongue. I am not usually a Pepsi drinker, but now I’ve never tasted anything so good. I pour it in, imagine it flooding through me, like oil into a combustion engine, soothing and smoothing the running parts, allowing them to function as one whole again.
The fire in my back has settled; a slow burn, a broad, dim flame. But that fire has kindled something. In my shoulder, somewhere deep, between humerus, scapula, and clavicle, the scream I couldn’t silence has become an inferno.
The women peels back the collar of my shirt. I look the other way, at the guilty horse at the end of the arena who stares back at me with soft, quiet eyes. The mare seems to pity me. She appears remorseful and sad; the stirrups hang limp by her side. I was thinking of buying her. This was our test ride.
“We’ll need to get you to the hospital.” The women say.
I clear my throat and nod. The nod sends off a shower of sparks in my arm. Gritman is the nearest hospital; it is two towns away. Two towns and fifteen miles of gravel road. I’m not sure how I’ll ever leave this fence, the only thing that’s propping me, my only support, my bones.
In total, it would be three hours from the time I hit the fence until I arrived at the ER. I didn’t see my shoulder until then. By the time I arrived, the roaring in my shoulder was so loud, it was all I could do not to roar myself. I held my right arm up with my left, trying to hold it as steady as the fence had, and failing.
The nurse refused to cut off my shirt. I first asked then begged her to, but prim and practical, she insisted I’d want it tomorrow. I wouldn’t. It was an old shirt, a shirt to wear to a barn, something to get dirty in, but she worked it up my torso and off my good arm, before pulling it gingerly over the screaming one.
Until that moment, I had never understood my bones, never thought about the framework that determined the shape of my body. Until then, I had understood that I had broad, straight shoulders, like my mother and her father, and that these shoulders were not just one body part but a contribution to my whole. If a friend were to spot me on the street, for instance, even if I were turned away from him, he might recognize me by the shape and set of my shoulders, the way they fit into the rest of my body.
But now, instead of my usual shoulder, the one that was always at the edge of my peripheral vision, there was a disturbing sag. What had looked so solid, the uppermost right corner of me, was now a drooping jellysack of skin. There was no corner of me anymore.
They stuck a needle in my hand, and I slept while they x-rayed and made me whole again. Later, the doctor would tell me that I dislocated my shoulder in the wrong direction. He doubted the tendons and ligaments would tighten enough to hold my bones in place. “If this pops out again,” he warned, “you’ll have to get it surgically pinned.” I inwardly vowed I wouldn’t tell him if it did.
I found out, too, that “raspberry” was a nice way of saying that I had taken all the skin off of my lower back—the shoulder immobilizer would rub against it, keeping my back electric with pain for weeks. The nurse gave me a thick, antibacterial goop to slather on until the epidermis re-grew. A full two years after the accident, the shadow of that fence rail still darkened my back.
Fifteen years later, it is a silly thing to be thinking of that day. As injuries go, a shoulder dislocation is fairly banal, and within a few months, I had the use of my shoulder again. Only now, I am prone to dislocating. At inconvenient times, the bone of my arm will slide away from its shoulder socket, sending out sparks from the embers of a fire that won’t extinguish.
The dislocations were, of course, to be expected. The doctor had forewarned. What went unpredicted was my tendency, now, to run into doorframes and walls, always and only with my right-hand shoulder. At one sickening glance at the dislocation, it seems the map of my geography irrevocably shifted. It is silly to bump into fixed and visible objects, how do I explain this?
And it goes deeper- before the accident, I would have said that the body made space for the mind and gave it home. Anatomical diagrams showed the brain, its grey folds protected by bone. I understood synapses, the electricity of thought, sensation, movement, and emotion.
But on the fence that day, my mind had cast its shroud. My body, the loam I sat in, and the fence at my back were foreign things. In medicine, this is called a vaso-vagal response. Extreme pain stimulates the vagus nerve (the tenth cranial nerve) resulting in a drop in both heart rate and blood pressure. Often, this results in fainting, or, as in my case, a sense of estrangement for one’s self and the physical world. Radio static. Fog.
The science only goes so far. I knock myself over and over against its rigid frameworks. On the fence, the dislocated body felt no pain. For fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, ache was only remotely present, threatening at the edges of the cotton world that swathed me. The mind contained the body.
The medieval Latin word vagus means “wandering.” Vagrant, vagabond, and vague share this root. When the vagal nerve was overcome by the synaptic deluge, I was not unconscious, but could I be called conscious? My mind, like bone, unhinged.
When the clouds wore off, newly aware of my skeleton, I was a body and a mind, but those two things were distant entities. Only the pain arched, electrically, from one pole to the other, from mental to physical. My bones had betrayed me. They broke their monastic promise of silent and unrecognized existence, the covenant of stability and solid form, and forced the mind—its tenth cranial nerve—to speak as well. It wasn’t a question of mind over matter; mind was matter—the only matter—until matter returned in pain too severe for thought to permeate. This circling begins its next loop: mind, matter, matter, mind, container, contained, or the reverse, and fifteen years have not been enough to bring understanding. Mind and body loosened in their sockets, stretched too far for an easy, elastic return. Perhaps it was always this way: the vagrant mind, the vagabond bones.