Homo Sapiens

Monday, July 5, 2010

Homo sapiens have 78 organs. Homo sapiens have 660 skeletal muscles, 206 distinct bones, and 50 trillion cells. Homo sapiens have human skeletons. Homo sapiens reproduce internally through sexual intercourse. Homo sapiens have a head, a neck, a torso, two arms, and two legs. Homo sapiens have pubic hair. Homo sapiens have the ability to understand loneliness. Homo sapiens have friends. Homo sapiens drive different cars and live in different cities. Homo sapiens build satellites. Homo sapiens are able to experience both sadness and love, sometimes at the same time. Homo sapiens frequently work in office buildings and may spend up to eight hours each day sitting in office chairs.

Daniel finds blood in his underwear on a Monday. It happens in the eighth floor men’s room, during a restructuring meeting. The meeting has something to do with “capitalizing on human potential,” which is a phrase, after three hours of PowerPoint presentations, Daniel still does not understand. Daniel works in Human Management, a department that used to be known as Human Resources. But now everyone, everything, the entire office is being reoriented. Before another hour of odd explanations passes, Daniel has to go to the bathroom. And so he stands and hurries out. The bathroom smells like a distant pink forest, the kind of smell that exists only in a laboratory. When he looks down, he sees a faint spot in the white folds of his underwear. He does not know what it is at first, and then, staring at the off-redness, he understands what it is. It is blood. Is it blood? It is blood. Blood. Daniel is thirty-seven, single, tall, blond. Blood is definitely not what he wants to see when he looks anywhere near his penis. He inspects his genitals carefully, poking among the matted hair, his penis looking like something that has never been exposed to light, but there is no sign of harm. Only the single red dot soaked into the white fabric. It could be anything, or maybe nothing.

But it is. It is something. Because there have been other indications as well: a ringing in his ears. Apparent hair loss. A frequent urge to urinate. An inexplicable pain in his right side. A dull throb in either or both of his testicles. His sink has been gurgling up some unknown black substance. So has his shower. Some of it may have gotten on his toes.

As he drives to the doctor’s office that afternoon after work, he sees mile after mile of used car lots. Of manicured cemeteries. Of abandoned elementary schools. And graffiti that seems to be reading his mind. It’s like modern life has become so modern it no longer actually resembles living. The blood, the spot in his underwear is the only thing that seems remotely real. It’s the first time he can remember feeling alive in some time. This is what he tries to explain to the doctor. His doctor is a baby-faced Indian American, several years younger than Daniel, who refers to himself as Doctor J. This nickname gives Daniel reason to pause. Does he understand the joke he’s making? Daniel does not think so. The doctor also has a woven, purple friendship bracelet on his hairy right wrist. Daniel finds the bracelet more than a little unnerving. It’s the kind of thing people make for each other when they are twelve, in summer camp. Daniel tries to ignore the bracelet and goes on describing his symptoms as best he can. The young doctor nods. Then there is the moment when the young doctor snaps on a pair of white rubber gloves, and Daniel stands, fixing his eyes on the penumbra of the fluorescent lights overhead, and the doctor leans over, adjusting his glasses, poking at various organs below. Seconds later, Doctor J. makes a soft, surprised sound, tilting his glasses up to get a closer look. “Well, that’s not something you see everyday,” he grunts, poking at an awkward bump protruding from a spot somewhere Daniel can’t see. “What the heck is that thing?” the doctor asks out loud, just as surprised as Daniel. “It looks like . . .”

“What is it?” Daniel asks.

“I don’t know.” The doctor snaps off the white latex gloves, tossing them at a small black receptacle—the left glove landing on the floor, the right one hanging on the rim of the trash can like the fading gesture of some dismissible starlet. He asks, “Have you lifted anything heavy recently?”

“Like what?”

“Anything heavier than a dictionary.”

“Maybe. I mean, I really don’t remember.”

“We should probably run some tests. How does that sound to you?”

“What do you mean, how does that sound to me? I’m not a doctor.”

“Right,” the young doctor says and quickly looks away, jotting something down in Daniel’s folder.

“Hey. Who gave you that bracelet?” Daniel asks.

The doctor looks down at it, a little shocked, and then says, “No one. I bought it.”

“That’s not how friendship bracelets are supposed to work,” Daniel mutters, and the appointment is then over.

Returning from the doctor’s office that afternoon, Daniel stops by the fast-food restaurant closest to his house to get something to eat. This particular restaurant used to be part of a national fast-food chain, but the giant lettering and signs were taken down a month ago, although, somehow, the drive-through is still mysteriously open. He murmurs his order into the gray wire receiver, and the response is a high-pitched screech. When he pulls his small, foreign-model car around, Daniel notices that the cashier has an enormous black eye. It looks exactly like a plum; round and dark purple. The cashier is a woman—stout, shapeless, dark-haired, vaguely Hispanic, somewhere in her late forties. She has the stoic features of some ancient race but is now wearing a disposable paper hat. She takes his payment soundlessly. He finds himself staring at her bruised eye as she makes change. When she looks up, she notices he is staring. Instinctually, she covers her bad eye with her left hand and gives him his change with her right. Daniel feels his face go red. All he can think to do is cough into his hand in a way meant to sound apologetic. He quietly thanks her and takes his food items and then pulls his car into the far corner of the parking lot. Before he has finished opening the Styrofoam box, he feels a sharp pain in the center of his groin. It is so agonizing and so profound that he finds himself hunched over, elbows pressed against the false plane of the steering wheel, his milkshake tumbling onto the carpeted floor: one sad, gurgling volcano.

Tests, all of them, come back normal. There’s nothing wrong with any part of him as far as his doctor can tell. And so Daniel calls the only person in the world who he thinks will help: an ex-girlfriend, Elaine, who is an orthopedic surgeon and now newly married. He calls and asks her if she will take a look at the bump. He explains his doctor, his insurance company, how no one will give him any answers. Unhappily, she agrees. It’s decided that she will look at it in the front seat of Daniel’s car in a darkened parking garage on Wednesday. It’s also decided Elaine will not tell her husband, Pete. And so Daniel picks her up on his lunch break. She has a white lab coat on and a pair of sophisticated-looking black glasses. They are the glasses models wear in magazines—models who obviously don’t need to wear glasses. He notices she’s also wearing eyeliner. Daniel unrolls his window and says hello, seeing her standing there on the corner. He leans across the passenger seat and unlocks her door by hand, even though the car is equipped with power locks. The way Elaine folds her beige skirt beneath her legs as she sits down, suddenly seems fraught with erotic possibilities. All of it begins to feel like the first four minutes of a pornographic movie. The lights in the parking garage become so soft, so alluring, that Elaine’s face looks like it’s been covered in Vaseline. Daniel pulls into the deepest corner of the garage, into the most unoccupied row, and leaves the engine running.

“OK, how do you want to do this?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Maybe just pull your shirt up over your head or something.”


“It’s too weird having to look at your face,” she says.


Daniel unbuttons his shirt and pulls it up, trying to obscure his face.

“Tilt your seat back or something,” Elaine says.

He nods from beneath the shirt and reaches over, sliding the seat into a reclining position.

“OK, well, let’s do it,” she says.

He nods again, unzipping his pants. He feels Elaine slide down his underwear and it’s almost impossible not to be aroused, because her hands are cold and are moving so carefully along the contours of his groin, and then with the tip of her first two fingers, she finds the bump and presses on it slightly.

“Is that it?”

“That’s it.”

She presses it again, just with one fingertip, and it sends a strange thrill throughout the lower region of his body.

“It’s not red. I mean it doesn’t look infected,” she says. “Does it hurt?”

Daniel nods again.

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes. Pretty bad.” He listens to her breathing. “So what do you think it is?”

“I don’t have a clue.” She presses once more and then says, “I know someone. She does physical therapy. Maybe she can take a look at it.” Elaine fishes through her purse and finds a small white business card, then hands it across the front seat. “I have to go,” she says. “Please don’t ever call me again,” she says and then climbs out of the parked car so quick Daniel cannot stop her.

After work that day, Daniel pulls into the drive-through of the fast-food restaurant again. Tonight there is no line. He places his order and drives up to the cashier’s window. This evening, the woman’s bruised eye is less purple and more black. She is looking at a stack of flashcards. When Daniel pulls around, she actually seems a little surprised that someone should be waiting there in their car. She sets the flashcards down, opens the small, foldable window, and takes his money. When she hands back his change, Daniel asks, “Are those flashcards?”

She nods and smiles, a little embarrassed again.

“What are you studying?”

“English. I’m taking for my English class. For my GED. After I finish work here.”

“Nice. That’s great,” he says.

She holds up one of the cards. Amputate, it says.

“It means to cut off,” she says. “To chop.”

“It does,” he agrees.

She smiles and hands him his large soda.

“Here you are,” she says. “Your drink.”

He sets the container beside him on the seat and stammers a little. “Your eye. It looks better,” he says, offering a slight smile.

The woman presses her fingertips to her bruised eye and then smiles back, as if she is remembering some wonderful and far-off play. She looks up at Daniel and then turns her head and sees two or three cars lined up. She smiles again and says, “Thank you very much. Have a nice night. Next window please,” and he nods again and pulls away. He parks in his usual spot in the corner of the lot. It’s becoming dark. The parking lot lights stumble with electricity, suddenly switching on. Daniel finds the business card for the physical therapist in his pocket, and holds it before his face, inspecting its very small font.

The sink, the bathroom faucet, the toilet all leak mysterious black sludge. He stares at it and then undresses, sleeping with his socks on. In the morning, he makes an appointment to see the physical therapist.

The physical therapist’s office is situated in a small building in a strip mall in a suburb named Schaumburg. The office is located between a Chinese food take-out and an evicted tanning salon. He gives his name to the receptionist who smiles at him sadly, knowingly. The receptionist is young, blonde, with two large eyeteeth, the kind of girl who looks like she might bite you before kissing. From her pitiful look, it’s clear she has instantly decided that he is not a viable mate and regards him as such, silently handing Daniel a hospital gown, leading him into a small examination room, leaving him standing in the dark.

And then the physical therapist, Jill, enters: she is probably the smallest woman he has ever met. She has short blond hair and does not wear rubber gloves. She is chewing gum. It smells like cotton candy. There, on the far wall of the exam room, are three framed photographs of a trio of blond boys. Daniel can see the resemblance. He feels uneasy about having his pants off in front of them.

“OK, let’s take a look,” Jill says, as if this is nothing, as if she looks at strangers’ groins all day.

He nods and stands before her, pointing to the bump on his groin. He notices then that the hospital gown does little to accentuate his positive naked features. She leans over and pokes at the lump a few times, squints a little, pokes it again, and says, “What do you do for a living?”

“Excuse me?”

“What do you do for a living? Where do you work?”

“I work in an office. I’m in personnel. Human resources. Human management. That kind of thing.”

“I knew it when you walked in,” she says, popping her gum. “OK, I want to see you sit down.”


“I want to see how you sit down.”

“Sure.” And he smiles and sits back down on the small blue examination table.

“Do it again,” she says. She leans over and watches him stand up and sit down once more. “Here’s the problem,” she says. She places her hand along his hip and then describes a small circle with her fingertips.

“What is it?” Daniel asks.

“You don’t know how to sit.”

“What? I don’t know how to sit?”

“I see this all the time. How long do you sit at work?”

“I don’t know. All day, I guess.”

“You don’t know how to sit right. Which is why you have the problem you have. The pain, the lump. It’s your body sending you a message. Human beings weren’t built to sit in a chair for eight hours. And not the way you’ve been doing it. Well, we’re going to have to teach you how to sit all over again. You can do it, if you want. Start over.”

Daniel does not know what to say to this.

“We have a class on Wednesday afternoons at the public library. Are you free Wednesdays?”

“No,” he says. “I work.”

“Right. Well, it’s something we can focus on here, together. OK, stand up and let’s give it another try.”

Daniel sighs. It’s pretty ridiculous. He does not say anything but feels extremely humiliated. By the time he has stood and sat for the fifth time, he does not think he’ll ever be coming back.

On the way back to his apartment, he pulls into the drive-through of the nameless fast-food restaurant for a “fish” sandwich. The word “fish” is appended by quotation marks on the light-up menu for some reason, as if it is only the idea of fish, which gives Daniel some concern, but he ends up ordering it anyway. The silver receiver crackles with static.

“Hello?” he says.

“Would you like to place an order?” comes the metallic voice in response.

Daniel says yes, yes he would. He says, “I’ll have a fish sandwich and a cola. Does the fish sandwich have cheese on it?”

“Yes,” says the voice again.

“I’ll have it without the cheese. And some fries. Do you have onion rings?”


“I’ll have onion rings then, instead. That’s it. Did you get all that?”

“Yes,” says the voice.

He looks around, into the rearview mirror, sees the parking lot lights casting perfect circles, sees no one is waiting behind him, and then leans out the window, murmuring, “I think I’m sick. I think I’m sick, and I’m afraid I’m dying and no one will help me. Everyone thinks it’s a joke. But it’s not a joke. My body, it’s saying something, but no one is listening. And I don’t have anyone I can tell about it. When I was a kid, I had my father. We did everything together. One time I lied to him, and he took me down to the basement. He took me down to the basement, and he had these two pairs of boxing gloves, and he took them out, and he put one on me. And then he put his own pair on. They were purple, I remember that. They were all worn in. They had been his father’s. And he looked at me and said, ‘I know you lied to me. And this is how we’re going to settle it,’ and then he told me to keep my gloves up but I didn’t and he gave me a good one on the chin. And now my dad is gone, and I don’t know where those boxing gloves are. They belonged to his father and they were my father’s and now I don’t have them. I don’t know where anything is anymore. My old house is a parking lot for a computer store. And it’s like there’s nothing in my life that I recognize. I don’t recognize any of it. When I was a boy, I thought the world—the future—was going to be different. I thought it was going to be bigger, more open. I thought there’d be people living in houses on stilts. And underwater. And on the moon. And everything was going to be weightless. I thought we’d all be made of vapor, you know. We’d all be chemical equations. But now I feel like I’ve gotten so far, and is this is all there is? All these television shows, and movies, and magazines—and I don’t recognize any of it. I was thinking about calling my dad the other day, and I know I can’t. And my mother doesn’t even recognize me. She’s in a nursing home. And so where can I go? Where do you go when you feel like this? Do you know? Does anybody know?”

And the static drone of the receiver crackles with electricity as he turns his head away. He does not wait for a response. He drives up to the window, hoping to see the bare outline of the cashier’s soft, womanly face, but instead there is the stubbly chin of a boy, some teenager, a black kid, looking at him a little shocked, holding his soft drink in one hand and a bag of onion rings in the other. And the sadness he feels then is so exquisite, so intense that he blows the red light at the corner and keeps on driving.

But then it’s Wednesday afternoon, and he takes a personal day and drives out to the suburbs, pulling into the rectangular library’s parking lot. He sits behind the steering wheel, looking through the windows at the shapes of people moving behind the streaky glass. There are nine or ten of them, all in jogging outfits, and then there is Jill, and she has a whistle around her neck, and there is a row of folding chairs, and the people in the class are all sitting and standing, sitting and standing, all with their narrow arms extended, each of them smiling, as if this repeated movement is one of the most interesting activities in the world. It has to be one of the weirdest things Daniel has ever seen, a roomful of people sitting and standing over and over again, as if by learning this simple movement again all the questions they have about their lives will be suddenly flooded with meaning. And then it becomes beautiful, the repetitive movement, a mottled choreography: the unmatched jogging pants, the group of rare, smiling faces, the most tremendously profound of human situations. We sit. We stand. We sit. We stand. A civilization, a species, all contained in one singular movement. Daniel watches them a while longer before finally making up his mind.

And then, going inside, he hears:

OK. Let’s begin again.

Thursday, July 1, 2010