St. Peter's College, Jersey City, New Jersey, United States
I saw before me a nightmare where bodies lay in a heap. Fixed like statues, their immobility belied their carnal appearance. I asked a nurse, why are these people piled like garbage? The nurse replied that it was a still from a homemade video. When these patients were in the hospital, they signed a petition requesting to be released from their misery. Behind them a huge sign read: BIG LIQUIDATION SALE—BODIES FOR SALE! What does that mean? I asked. She told me that at first she could not figure it out either. Then, she said, she understood. You see, we give them morphine for their pain, but what we offered them was not enough. So now they are in this video, almost like a museum exhibit, with visitors looking curiously, powerless but to pity these bodies on display. As you watch the video, you can still hear the patients’ moaning. You might try to ignore them, but the intensity of their voices goes like this: loud, louder, loudest. Silence. Then again: loud, louder, loudest. Bodies fight to adjust pain to an acceptable level. Boom! Their moaning is like a bomb exploding in my ears. It’s surreal.
But what do they mean by big liquidation sale? The nurse said that this idea came from a retired corporate sales manager. He had been confined to the hospital for so long, he could barely remember how it was to wear plain clothes, walk freely on the streets, laugh with friends and drink beer, or leisurely watch his children play in the park. He told me that the idea came to him during a sleepless night, after the doctor had given him two to three more months to live. That night, he could not sleep. I remember it because I was on call, and he kept turning the call light on and off. I asked him if he needed anything. He said he wanted a vanilla pudding and some extra time to live. I told him that I could certainly deliver his first wish. As for the latter, I encouraged him to wait for the next exit towards the end of life’s road, also known as eternity. He loved my answer, pleased that I did not use clichés, like “Everything is going to be alright” or “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” For him truth did not hurt. It was the perfect panacea. We had been sedating ourselves with lies, he said, and this was why we could not live freely. As he approached the end of his life, he continued, he became obsessed with leaving something material behind. He kept repeating that he needed to make his pain visible to others.
His face became illuminated as he said he had an idea … a morbid, but truthful idea. What is it, dear? I asked. Let’s allow terminally ill patients to be metaphorically sold in exchange for freedom from pain, he proclaimed, donating their bodies for a video where they could be viewed lying in a pile. Then he explained how he missed work more than anything, even more than his wife or kids, how he wanted to give his life meaning, to benefit society in some way. I told him that this was a great idea, theoretically speaking, but that many people might find it offensive. How could anyone in his admittedly right mind pile people upon people? If he dared in any way to produce such a visual nightmare, people would be outraged. He laughed loudly. When the laughter subsided, he remarked that there would be no time for consequences since he had only seconds to live.
He then explained how his video would evoke the image of bodies in pain in “the Land of No Return,” his nickname for the ward for the terminally ill. More exactly, he said that he wanted the healthy, the outsiders, to see how challenging it was to get out of bed, pick up a glass of water, or chew a morsel of bread. He insisted that he was morally obliged to share these images because his pain had been unbelievably harsh, drilling a hole in his body. After a week, as his body grew weaker, I gave in. I promised him that we would shoot a video in an abandoned area of the hospital.
I have watched the video several times, continued the nurse. Bodies in pain elicit some sort of eerie fascination. They project a raw feeling that eliminates trifling, mundane worries. Bodies in pain sicken the retina on sight. Bodies in pain beg us to live and enjoy life. Bodies in pain are a community, mostly isolated.
Last time when I saw him, he whispered to me: Do you remember that children’s story, Jack and the Beanstalk? That kid, he reminded me, is fooled into exchanging his cow for five magic beans. His mother goes berserk and throws them out of the window. The next day, when he wakes up, he notices a huge beanstalk. He did not have to do anything. Everything happened magically overnight. It’s almost the same with my body. One day it was healthy. The next day, it breaks down. Oh my God, my body has grown cancerous while I was asleep! I wish I knew some tricks to reverse its ill course, to restore its vigor. Nurse, could you please bring me a glass of fresh water? I am so thirsty. Perhaps some healthy beans still remain inside of me. When I came back, he was dead. His face was luminous. His deep blue eyes were wide open.
Ever since he magically disappeared, I have envisioned him somewhere climbing with Jack on the beanstalk. He never gets tired, and all his pains have gone, because he now lives on in a realm of magic, wonder, and fiction.
Dedicated to the memory of my irreplaceable parents, Rodica and Florin.
CATALINA FLORINA FLORESCU earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from Purdue University in 2007 with a dissertation entitled, Transacting Sites of the Liminal Bodily Spaces. During the academic year of 2007-2008, she worked at Rutgers University as a lecturer of Expository Writing. She is currently teaching at St. Peter’s College. She has been recently awarded an MLA’s International Bibliography Program fellowship. Dr. Florescu is interested in the multifarious manifestations of the writing process, with a special emphasis on the idioms of pain and suffering, and has published book chapters, essays and articles. Her most rewarding sources of inspiration are the loss of her parents and the joys of Mircea, her five-year old son. She dreams in Romanian, but writes in English.