This article was last modified on April 23, 2007.

Breathing Together, Part 1

One: Ryan: The Tapeworm

I have always been thinner than the average kid. Now at twenty-two, I still tip the scales well under 200 pounds at a height of six feet, three inches. Picture me as a Midwestern DJ Qualls — the actor from that movie The Core — except without the big nose. For years, I took this lankiness as an outward sign of my high metabolism, but as of late it occurred to me that I should be done growing. Yet, the metabolism stays going, burning off enough calories to cancel out the most greasy of cheeseburgers, double cheeseburgers and super-sized french fries.

Weight gain supplements have done nothing for me. I have tried them all, and nothing comes of this reverse dieting. For a while I think I spent more time at GNC than I did online. But you can only eat so much protein powder before that plan grows stale. I did weight training for a time and developed a small bicep, but this did nothing to solve the issue of my string bean physique and inverted pectorals. Maybe the key was a huge ice cream bucket loaded to the brim with pretzels? I have seen with my own eyes what kind of gut a young man can grow through the use of this president-wounding snack food. But pretzels were not something I think I could handle in large quantities. Maybe half a bucket of pretzels and a bowl of nacho cheese?

After these months upon months of trying everything I could reasonably expect myself to try, the question of a possible medical condition crossed my mind. I mean, no offense, but even starving children in Somalia have a bulging gut. Talking myself into a state of calm, I dialed Nurse Direct to seek professional advice. This was the best of both worlds — someone who knew what they were talking about without ever having to see them face to face. This was actually the second time I called Nurse Direct, so I knew what to expect.

The last time I called was under the persistence of my friend Landon, who was convinced he had prostate or scrotal cancer. Is there even such a thing as scrotal cancer? Well, for the sake of this story let us agree that there is. He found that often when he would masturbate, his semen would immediately be cold — or at least not as warm as his body temperature, which seemed unnatural to him. Now, you might be wondering how he knew what temperature his semen was. But really, if you don’t already know, some things are just better left to the imagination. Needless to say, the condition was not at all common, but was not a sign of cancer. She advised Landon to monitor his ejaculations for thickness and color as well as temperature, and just as she expected the situation corrected itself in a matter of weeks. What the problem was, we may never know. Look for Landon to appear this fall on a very special episode of “Medical Mysteries”.

The nurse I called this time, who had a very pleasant Southern accent I might add, maybe something Georgian and peachy, was about equally helpful with this predicament as with the last one.

“Nurse Direct,” she answered. No name given, just a matter-of-fact tone reassuring me that I can dial numbers correctly. For fun let’s call her Donna; that sounds like a nurse’s name.

“Yes, I have a question regarding body weight or metabolism or something like that.” I wasn’t really sure which was the problem, so I figured I might as well keep my options open.

“Yes, what might the problem be?” Still, very relaxed. No tone of irritation or urge to start laughing, qualities you really want to avoid in a nurse or doctor, if you ask me.

I explained the situation as best I could, giving her my measurements and my diet as requested. No, not those measurements. I’m not Samantha Fox or some other tabloid Page 3 Girl. And by the end of the interrogation, she could have easily tailored me a suit and sent me to the prom but I was unclear if this Florence-Nightengale-of-the-Phone could address the more fundamental issues I was concerned about.

In the end, you know prescription what I got? (Hint: It wasn’t more cowbell.)

“Just make sure you eat your minimum amount of daily calories, probably 2000 to 2500, and most likely your system will slow down in a few years.” Click. Good night, Donna. The moment we shared will stay with me forever.

But this dismissive answer — which equates to this entire conversation — did not quench my thirst for answers. I turned to my last resort — the family doctor.

I won’t lie to you, I distrust all doctors. They smile and offer their handshakes — with hands that were just coughed on by some flu victim. And what is a handshake if not a subtle way of saying “fuck you”? Hands that say, “I’ll treat you like my best friend while I talk down to you, embarrass you, keep you waiting, call you the wrong name or at least mispronounce it, and then bill you for procedures I never even performed.” Call me cynical, if you will. Roosevelt shook hands with Stalin, Rumsfeld shook hands with Saddam, and where did these friendships lead?

Keeping everything in perspective, I should inform you that my family has long distrusted doctors. My grandfather was notoriously stingy when it came to hospital bills. My grandmother paid for his pride with her life, dying well before her time from colon cancer. Year after year of telling herself the blood she found on the sheets would go away by itself, quickly changing the linens daily to hide the awful truth from my grandfather. She wasn’t afraid of the stubborn old bastard, she simply believed that father knew best. Love will make you do some fucked-up shit and in cases like this, sometimes even literally sacrifice your entire being.

Family traditions are important, but sometimes they just have to stop. So I caved in, thinking of my grandmother wasting away with tubes sticking out of Christ-knows-where, and went to the doctor. Like everything else in this world, I have come to find doctors have their place, too.

Whether for good or bad, my physician is the same woman who attended my birth. Picture the absurdity of that. One day staring into my mother’s gaping vagina as my purple, placenta-covered face comes screaming out from the abyss, me kicking and screaming to be pushed back in. The next day she’s fondling my fully-descended testes as I turn my head and cough. She actually had the nerve when I was fourteen to remark on “how big I’ve gotten” since my last checkup. Maybe she meant well, but her timing wasn’t the most tactful thing.

So, I waited in the clinic’s rest area on the red, fake leather love seat, in a room which for some reason strikes me as oddly similar to an airport’s cafeteria. Why I make this mental connection, I have no idea. In fact, I can’t even recall the last time I saw an airport’s cafeteria.

Kids ran around the on the multi-colored carpet, a holdover from the 1970s, tackling each other and infecting everything with their childhood diseases and mucus-covered fingers. I tried not to breathe, but try as I might I couldn’t resist the instinctual urge to inhale, the other patients couldn’t resist the urge to exhale, and I found we were all breathing together in a room full of microscopic alien invaders. I’m not skittish with epidemics or anything, but I value my health as much as the next man — keeping in mind my goals of never returning to this place until they pronounce me dead on arrival at the age of ninety-five.

I scan the waiting room, looking for a magazine to read. As usual, there is nothing of any interest. The kids are scribbling in old copies of “Highlights For Children”, while obese women are ironically paging through “Fitness”. I know, of course, I’ll never find “The Nation” or “The Progressive” in a waiting room, but the least they could do is leave me a copy of “Newsweek” or the Appleton Post-Crescent, our local newspaper.

I say to hell with fitness, I’d rather read Goofus and Gallant. That crazy Goofus always forgetting his manners and not properly combing his hair. What a riot! But the kids currently have a monopoly on the “Highlights”, so I was forced to just stare at the secretary (chatting on the phone with her boyfriend, no doubt).

After an eternity of waiting in something vaguely resembling a line without any apparent sequence (did they think this was this the DMV?) I enter the small examination room, and a nurse asks me to strip to my shorts. I start unzipping my jeans, and realize she’s not leaving the room. This is ponderous, man, truly ponderous. She isn’t the most gorgeous woman in the world, you know, but I get nervous in these kinds of settings. And when I get nervous, I… well, you know what I’m saying. But she didn’t move, didn’t stop watching me as each piece of clothing hit the floor. What kind of sadist was she? Twenty bucks says there was some red leather thong hidden under that white, pristine lab coat. One moment a friendly part-time candy striper, and a Midwestern Carmen Electra the next. Just as this thought hit me, she quietly left. And not a moment too soon!

The doctor, who asks me to call her Francine, enters the room moments later. She taps a pencil against a clipboard, something like a lifeguard during swimming lessons. With a puzzled look on her face, she asks why I have taken off my clothes. Well, now that makes at least two of us who don’t understand basic health care. I don’t bother to answer and wait for the next question.

“So, you’re here about your weight?” she asks, peering over the clipboard that probably contains intimate details about my anatomy that even I don’t know. But I am somewhat impressed she knew why I was in the examination room. Somebody on “the outside” actually clued her in. Maybe we could do this without all those beat-around-the-bush questions and the rehashed small talk best left for someone who gives a damn. If she even thinks about coming near my knee with that rubber mallet, I’m kicking her square in the box.

“Yes, doc, I think something is wrong with my metabolism.” Granted, this answer is pretty redundant considering I wouldn’t be here if I thought nothing was wrong, but you have to play the game if you want to win.

“Well, we’ll soon find out. Fill this cup for me.” She reached firmly into her coat pocket, heading towards a bulge I had failed to notice until now.

And there it was. The classic plastic cup, a legend in its own time, the little bastard that was always too small for its purpose. Or maybe my engorged bladder was a sign that I should stop drinking coffee… who knows? Not that anything short of a coma could get me to stop drinking coffee, mind you.

I filled the cup, and there is really no need to get into much detail on that. You don’t need to know how I walked to the bathroom, what color it was and who else was in there. That’s not important. I mean, I could tell you the details, give you the play by play, but in order to do this properly I’d have to explain Urinal Theory, which is more complicated than we have time for right now, trust me. That just opens up a whole tangent we don’t need to go off on. If you’re lucky, I’ll attach an appendix later or something. (You like how I did that? Avoided an unnecessary rambling with an even less relevant one?)

The waiting process is much more relaxing the second time around, despite now being anxious for possibly horrendous results, in my opinion. In the first place, you have already endured one waiting session, so you’re now experienced and have practiced the routine and know where the nearest exit is should you decide to bail. And second, now I had the privilege to wait in the examination room in solace rather than with the rabble in the lounge. (If there was a career that revolved around the art of waiting, I think hypochondriacs would be bringing down six figures in that industry.)

This time in the examination room, though, something occurred to me I never noticed before. All doctor’s offices have medical charts — the kind where some organ is dissected and labeled with technical names you’ll never hear outside of these sacred walls. Usually it is an ear, nose and throat. Sometimes you’ll get a chart telling you the name for the flap of skin between your thumb and forefinger. But I suppose if you were getting a vasectomy you might find something a little more disturbing. But the real question is this: what purpose do these charts serve?

My first assumption is that the charts are there for schmucks like me to study while waiting for the doctor to get back from their afternoon golf outing. The bright colors, the complicated Latin words and the ominous presence of these posters simply scream hours of fun. But if these posters are here for the patient, then the bigger question is why are they always positioned behind the patient where they could not be plainly observed?

This leaves open the option of the posters serving the needs of the medical practitioner. Now, maybe it’s just me, but if my doctor needs a chart to know what she’s probing into, I don’t think I really want her spelunking on my time in my body. So maybe this is just best left unknown and staring off into nothing is the most productive use of my time. So, of course, that’s exactly what I did, not even having a secretary to look at. I tried the tongue depressors as a target, but that was literally depressing. Apt label, tongue depressor. And after somewhere between a few minutes and a small eternity, the diagnosis came back on that same clipboard which had endured a good tapping.

The doctor — or Francine — peered over the print-out and nodded to herself knowingly, apparently just now reading the results for the first time. “Ryan, you have, um, a tapeworm living in your stomach.” This was spoken in a stern but unsure tone.

She gave me a small card, like you might find at a zoo, explaining the straight dope on the creature we call the tapeworm. This parasite, a member of the Cestoda family, is a flatworm that lives in the digestive tract of large vertebrates, usually dogs. While the vertebrate — in this case, me — digests their meals, the worm steals the digested food. If the worm approves of this home, they will dig their hooked mouths deeper and deeper into the side of the intestines. The tapeworm grows to a length of 20 meters and when large enough is considered harmful to humans. The source of a tapeworm? Eating greasy, poorly cooked cheeseburgers. Thanks, reference card. And thank you, Burger King.

“Oh, shit.” I like short, succinct sentences.

“Do you have your insurance card with you?” Again, right to the point, and as expected the inquiry concerns my financial situation.

“No, no card. I only work part time hauling automotive parts around.” I think this response begs the question: is it more pathetic to have no insurance or to be employed part time working with mufflers?

“Well, here’s the deal. I assume you want the tapeworm gone. And there are only two ways to get one out. There’s the obvious answer, surgery…”

“… which I can’t afford.” (This was more of a complementary finish and less of an interjection, although we’re no Abbott and Costello.)

“Right. And then there is option number two.” My face went pale as she relayed this arcane method to me… if only I worked for some corporation with integrity.

That night, I prepared for the oral adventure of a lifetime. There is only one way to get a tapeworm out of your body apart from surgery. You can’t crap them out, because they refuse to become digested. A tapeworm will only come out the same way he goes in — up the throat and through the mouth.

Allow me to wander in my thoughts for a moment. A lot of rumors float around on the Internet and also through urban legends that tell you all kinds of ways to remove tapeworms. Why rumors exist about a thing most people will never experience is beyond me, but they exist nonetheless. You can check them out on a site called Snopes if you are so inclined, though I will summarize some of the stranger ones for you here.

First, there is the idea that a raw steak will lure the tapeworm out of the mouth. This is completely false. Some variations are even more advanced, saying you must set down the steak in front of you for several days, about an hour each day, each time a little farther from your mouth. Eventually, the worm will have to crawl so far out that you will be able to easily remove it in its entirety. But even if a tapeworm could smell a steak, why would it crawl out for several feet when it knows the food will soon be coming its way? If that were true, it would try to escape every time I drove past a Wendy’s. So, obviously, this is ludicrous.

The other variation involves the worm crawling out the anus, which I have already said is not possible. Some versions have milk, some have steak and some even have that aforementioned idea you must repeat the process for several days. Because, yeah, a tapeworm is going to hide in my rectum for a week waiting for a new steak each night. Anyone who believes this is a damn fool.

The real method is quite simple: one bowl of milk, one night. No steak, no repetitions — a homesick tapeworm in one fell swoop.

So, that night I poured the bowl of milk and set it on the counter top. Out of habit I almost grabbed a spoon and some Trix. Almost. Let me repeat so we’re clear on this point: tapeworms cannot resist the smell of warm milk. The warmer the better, a few days old if possible. I think it has something to do with the scent of mating, but I really didn’t look into it very much.

I sat down at the counter, waiting and watching the clock tick the seconds away. My elbows firmly on the tile as my feet dangled below in their Airwalks. And then I felt the indescribable wriggling. I gagged, but relaxed my throat. I had to do this right. And I had to do it right the first time. All the way out. The doctors estimated my tapeworm was over three feet long, and all three feet must be removed. If you try to pull them out after the first six inches, they will snap like limp spaghetti and the rest of it will regenerate. Trust me, you don’t want to do this more than once. Actually, you really don’t even want to do this at all. Remember kids, cook your hamburgers thoroughly.

Slowly, the parasite crept up the back of my throat inching towards my voicebox. I felt my stomach go uneasy and the need to puke was all I could think about. But I held back. Zen moment, I thought. Think of nothingness; the sound of one hand clapping. Soon I saw the worm slime its way out of my mouth. All I wanted to do was grab the little fucker and yank on him. Staring at him leaving the way he came, once more invading one of my favorite orifices. The nerve!

Two feet out, I leaned back so he could advance further for the milk. The smell of the milk and the acrid taste of the worm were overpowering and I had to drive my nails into the counter top just to keep from passing out. And then, the ordeal was suddenly over, the worm entered the bowl of milk with a subtle splash.

I went to the bathroom, falling to my knees and clutching the toilet as you would a steering wheel, at ten and two. The floodgates were busted and I was throwing up all over. Why does the food in my puke always look whole no matter how much I chew? And how come no matter what I eat, it always comes back as potatoes? And why orange? (These are the “life questions” that intrigue me most.) But I didn’t get the time to think much before the door sounded with a thunderous rapping.

Although I wanted nothing more than to pass out, or maybe watch War Games and then pass out, I spit the bile from my mouth and staggered to the kitchen.

I opened the back door, and in from the rain stumbled my brother Grant and some other woman I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen before. They were both soaked to the skin and piss drunk. The woman, her moderately-endowed chest covered in what appeared to be blood, stood there in shock. Had he beaten her up? Was she on drugs? What the fuck was going on?

“Grant, what the fuck is going on?” I tried to shout (this seemed the best question to ask first), though my voice was coming up a little chunky.

“Ryan… um… can we borrow your shovel?” I thought I sensed desperation in his voice, but it could have just been the effects of some strong liquor. The strain was uncommon, that is the one thing I can say for sure.

I had a brotherly loyalty that compelled me to honor his request. Bad move, Ryan, bad move. Because making that decision was precisely when my troubles began…

Also try another article under Poetry and Fiction
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “Breathing Together, Part 1”

  1. ED Says:

    Great content which I found very useful – will surely come back again.

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