Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

There is an elephant in the room

David Valentine
Rochester, New York, United States


“I’ve lost my erector spinae,” my husband said to me.
“They make pills for that now,” I told him.
“No, not that,” he said. “Here.” He pointed at his back. It looked more floppy than usual, but only a little. “See? My back muscles went away.”

I went over and felt his back. “I still feel muscles here, dear,” I said.
“I know. But the ones beneath that, you can’t feel them. But they’re gone. I can feel it.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said.

The next day he got out of the shower and looked at me with a slightly panicked expression.

“My pectoralis minors are gone now,” he said.
“Probably because you haven’t been inside a gym in six months,” I said.
“I’m being serious. They’re gone.”
“Muscles don’t just disappear,” I told him.
“Maybe they’re going somewhere else then, but they aren’t here anymore,” he said, pointing at his chest.
“See how they feel after work.”
“They won’t feel like anything after work. They aren’t there.”
“Goodbye, dear,” I said, and shut the door to the garage behind me.

When I got home, he was sitting on the couch.

“I didn’t go to work. My quadriceps are gone,” he said. “I can’t stand up.”
“Stop being a lazy ass,” I said, “and help me make dinner.”
“I can’t be a lazy ass. I’ve lost my gluteus maximus, too.”
“This is getting tiring.” I went over and felt his thigh. Beneath his jeans I felt a bone.
“It’s my femur,” he said. “You shouldn’t be able to feel it like that. Your rectus femoris should be there.
But it’s gone. All my quadriceps are gone. I told you. I don’t have a butt either.”

I didn’t say anything. I was frightened. Muscles don’t just disappear. But his had. I looked around the room as if a hunk of my husband’s flesh would be lying on top of the newspaper on the corner table. It wasn’t.

“Well, where the hell did it go?” I was a bit frantic.
“I don’t know! It’s not like I’m slicing them off and organizing them in the Tupperware, dear!” he cried.
“I’m going to bed.”
“It’s seven o’clock!”
“I’ll deal with this in the morning.”
“I don’t know if there’ll be anything left of me to deal with in the morning.”
“I’ll deal with that when I have to.”
“You’re heartless.”
“I think that’s more likely to be you.”

Silence cut across us.

“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I know you are.”
“What if they don’t come back?”
“I don’t think they will.”
“You should go to the doctor.”
“I don’t think the doctor knows how to replace things like this.”
“They know how to take them away . . .”

We sat together on the couch, quiet, for a long time. I felt empty inside—behind my bellybutton. I’d been avoiding it for the past few weeks, but I suppose that when one part of you that is not you disappears and begins to feel empty, then your own emptiness serves as a reminder of what is missing.

“We could look for them,” I said.
“They’re gone,” he said, “it wouldn’t help.”
“Where did they go?”
“I’ve just lost my dorsalis pedis artery. I don’t know where they’re going.”

I got up to get water for us. The sink was filled with dirty dishes from the past few days. I hadn’t felt like washing them; neither had he. The trashcan was missing its lid—we had thrown it away the month before. Someone had dropped a hot pan on it, melting the plastic. It had reeked for days, filling the kitchen air with a thick and heavy sulfuric aroma that seemed oppressive.

When I got back, he was biting his lip and fiddling with the hem of his shirt.

“I’ve lost my metatarsals. And my phalanges. Look.”

He picked his legs up. Both were normal until you came to his feet. Their proximal halves were entirely normal, but the distal halves were amorphous and hanging down slightly, as if the bones inside of them had completely evaporated. This, apparently, was exactly what had happened.

“We’ll have to get you different shoes,” I said. I held the glass in front of him. “Would you like some water?”
“Yes. I still have my kidneys.”
“What if they disappear?” I pulled the glass back.
“I’ll deal with that when I have to,” he said.

I handed him the glass.

“Why is this happening?” I asked.
“I think I know,” he said.
“Me too. But you would think—”
“That it would have happened to you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I guess not everything is fair like that. Not everything is neat and tidy and forgotten in an hour.”
“I know that.”
“I’ve just lost my liver. And my gallbladder.”
“Do you think it’s speeding up?”
“I do. What do you think will be next?”
“I don’t know. Maybe your stomach.”
“Why is that?”
“Well you always seem to lose it on car rides.”

He laughed. I wondered when he would lose that, too. Lately laughter had been rare, escaping us like giggles echoing from a naughty child in a church pew.

“What will you do when it’s finished?”
“Don’t say ‘it.’”
“Fine. What will you do when I’m finished?”
“Don’t say finished.”
“Fine. What will you do when I’m gone?”
“Don’t say gone.”
“Not saying something doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
“. . . Or did happen.”

He sighed and picked at the skin on his knee, and I could see that his hand was losing its structure.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Across the street, perhaps.”
“You’re funny today. I don’t want to think about when you’re not here.”
“You never know. Maybe now you can finally plant those hideous flowers from that magazine in the front garden.”
“You would have let me plant them if I’d really wanted to.”
“I wouldn’t have.”
“I thought we’d be together for longer.”
“I did too. I want to be here with you.”
“We never named it.”
“I’m tired. Let’s stop talking.”

He didn’t say anything else. I sat on the couch next to him and pushed my hand against his stomach, feeling for something that wasn’t there. I continued across his body. Sometimes I got lucky and felt a bone or a lump of muscle beneath the skin that was, miraculously, still as present and warm as the day we first touched.

We sat together in silence, and suddenly I wasn’t sure if he was quiet out of desire or necessity but I was afraid to ask. We stared out the window. Outside, the man across the street was mowing his lawn, and his wife was washing the car in their driveway.

The neighbor from next door walked by with his dog and paused momentarily at the mailbox. The little boy from three houses down tripped on the sidewalk, brushed off his knees, and went on as though nothing had happened.

I inched closer to my husband and squeezed his hand in my own. His fingers melted through mine, deflating into my palm like near-empty balloons. As the light began to grow long against the pavement outside, I wondered if his eyes were still there or if they were just two empty holes in his head.

I was too afraid to turn and look.



DAVID VALENTINE, MS1 grew up in Mars, Pennsylvania and attended Allegheny College, where he majored in creative writing and minored in chemistry and psychology. David is currently studying medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2016 – Volume 8, Special Issue, and  Winter 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 1

Winter 2012   |  Sections  |  Fiction

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