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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 




 


 

 

 

 

 

HOW TO MAKE LOVE AND BREAK KIDNEYS
By Rachel A.G. Gilman 

 

 

 

 

“Do you think you’re in love with Ben?”

Charlie is seated next to me on the couch in the office at the college radio station where we work. His question is this warm, slightly awkward thing he’s placed between us like a Furby or an offbeat stuffed animal. “You know, this sounds dumb, but my mom says that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or for a lifetime.” I start laughing. “Yeah, I know, but it’s sort of true when you think about it. And I feel like you think about that stuff a lot, Rachel. I do, too, but... Actually, I’m going to stop talking, because I asked you a question.” Charlie clears his throat and ruffles his overgrown curls. His blue eyes are big when he looks at me. “Are you in love with him?”

It was one in the morning in Washington, D.C. on Donald J. Trump’s Inauguration Day and I was awake. My left side was hurting, badly. I figured the pain was only discomfort from a hotel bed, so I shifted, and when I ended up once again on my back with my hands clenching onto the aching area, I reached for my phone to search for “appendicitis.” I spelled the word wrong, but Google understood. The appendix is on the right side.

I found my eyeglasses and went into the bathroom. It could’ve just been a stomachache, but that was not where the pain was coming from. My stomach felt fine, other than being annoyed that its neighbor to the left was throwing a temper tantrum and disturbing all of the peace. When my stomach had had enough (about five minutes later), it lashed out. My body fell from the toilet seat and onto the cold tiles of the bathroom floor. I began to vomit, seeing all of the slightly digested food from Carmine’s reappear and float to the surface of the water in the circular bowl. I gagged with my throat burning and dry. The pain in my side didn’t stop. If anything, the pain got worse.

I started to sweat, clammy and sticky and anxious. Everything suddenly felt too close. I removed my pajamas so I could lie naked on the bathroom floor in hopes of taking my temperature down as the hot flashes continued. The cold surface helped a little but not enough to stop the cycle of illness. Nothing remained in my stomach but yellow phlegm, which didn’t feel unimportant enough to not make its way up my esophagus, too, out of my mouth, and into the toilet. There were towels wrapped around me soaking up my sweat, keeping me warm when the chills followed the heat. At one point, the vomiting took over so much strength in my body I found myself urinating uncontrollably. A few times I muttered a desperate, “Please, stop.”

I physically embodied the thing I am always comparing myself to, a situation or state of affairs that is confused or full of difficulties. I was a mess.

By 2:30 A.M. I texted my mother, over three hundred miles away. I can hardly move. I keep breaking into sweats. The pain won’t go away. I don’t know what to do.

Where’s the pain? she responded. Abdomen or stomach?

Like the back of my left side.

Did it come on suddenly?

I woke up with the pain. And I couldn’t get it to go away. It’s worse than stomach cramps. It’s like a cross between that and a backache.

My mother asked more questions about the symptoms. No, nothing hurt when I peed. Yes, I was still vomiting. And I was fine all day. I typed out and sent the word fuck as the pain seared.

No better since it started – right? she sent.

No. I couldn’t imagine it getting better.

Then wake Ben up.


About half of my time is spent at WNYU, my college radio station, and another quarter is occupied with trying to fix its problems. I have met two of my best friends there.

I thought Charlie was a pain in the ass when we met last year, but a loveable one. He was obsessive and creative and driven in a way that made me feel better about having the same characteristics. I liked Charlie’s passion for his work, how the interest kept him up all hours of the night, even if that passion also made me worry about him, especially when he called me so frequently during our first few weeks of knowing each other, requesting and valuing my opinion on his projects. Charlie really cares – about the station, and about me, too. I’ve never doubted his feelings. That’s why Charlie was the only person I felt comfortable taking over my job as News Director when I became the General Manager. Charlie was also the only underclassman I ever considered having join me to cover the controversial 2017 Presidential Inauguration. I love Charlie to bits, and I have since I met him. That’s saying a lot. I like virtually no one from Los Angeles.

Charlie tells me he initially thought I was a real ballbuster, but he eventually grew to cherish my friendship more than anything else, for which I am glad. Our love is platonic, familial. Charlie is the only person in my cell phone I don’t keep under their proper name, including my mother. He’s listed as “Lyttle Brother” – from his last name.

It took much longer for me to warm up to Ben. It wasn’t because he wasn’t nice to me. Ben was. Ben tried to get to know me, walked me home late at night and took me out for lunches and conversations, all outside of the duties of the station’s Business Director. Ben became the first person at the station to know about my crushes and the first to read my writing. But I have always felt I couldn’t allow myself to fully trust Ben. The reason behind it, admittedly, was primarily based on paranoia, on watching Ben tell white lies to people who didn’t matter in grander schemes. But the distrust has remained. It was especially present after all of the efforts he put forth to elect me as General Manager of WNYU. I thought Ben was being manipulative, though to what degree I could never quite figure out, even in a two thousand-word email I sent him at the beginning of winter break that insinuated he was a liar. I can never point to what Ben wants out of being friends with me, but I still feel there must indeed be something. It doesn’t feel like enough to just accept Ben has always been interested in me, since the day we met, the day he can remember but is blurry for me.

Ben doesn’t let me get away with harboring unwarranted feelings. He insists I don’t ghost him, as I tend to do in the face of discomfort and conflict. He makes me admit he’s never turned on me before. He holds my hand and tells me he’ll support me. Ben understands he’s callous and a little too forward thinking, but he says he’ll work on those things if I promise to work on my fatalism. So I don’t know why I’m still so skeptical, or why I don’t openly trust Ben in the way I do Charlie. Objectively, I can see ways in which they both care. There’s just something different about Ben. It’s something incomprehensible. But I do care about him, a lot.

I keep him in my phone as “Benjamin Shelley,” with that little emoji with the big teeth and dorky glasses I’m embarrassed to admit I’m vaguely attracted to.

I dried myself off, redressed, and stepped out of the bathroom. Ben was sleeping quietly in between the foot of the bed and the desk. I leaned over and placed my hand on his wrist.

“I really, really don’t feel well.”

Ben’s sleepy eyes looked up at me. “What’s wrong?”

My voice kept cracking as I tried to speak. I lost my balance and fell to the ground, my hands now clenching my side.

Ben sat up and put on his glasses. “Where is the pain?” he asked. His voice was all dry from the room.

“Right here.” I held on to the left side of my body. “It’s not like a muscle cramp. That’s what I thought, at first, but it isn’t. It’s just this steady, terrible pain.”

Charlie woke up with a start. “Who died?” he asked.

“Go to sleep, Charlie,” Ben said.

Charlie turned on a light. “Who died?”

“I don’t feel well, Charlie.”

“Do you want to go to the hospital?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know what to do.” If I could’ve cried I would’ve. I managed to sit up with the cold desk as back support and my head resting on my knees. “I just want the pain to stop.”

Ben picked up the hotel phone and dialed down to the front desk.

My mother called me. “Oh, thank God,” she said when I picked up. I told her we were going to the hospital. “Are you getting dressed?”

“I’m wearing my pajamas.” The joke I usually made about going everywhere in them suddenly seemed a lot less amusing when I couldn’t manage to put on anything else.

“Get one of them to help you put your shoes on,” my mom said.

“I can put on my own fucking shoes, mother!” Charlie was actually unlacing the yarn strings I’d looped through my Converse high-tops and trying to put socks on my feet. But I felt like I could’ve put my shoes on myself, if I hadn’t been on the phone, if I hadn’t been in a strange place, if the pain in my side would’ve stopped for five minutes.

“Okay,” my mother said, quietly. “Well, will you let me know where you’re going?”

“Ben will text you mom, I have to go.”

I sat down on the bed. The build up was happening again. I fell over onto my decent side and held the other, scrunching my eyes into a wince. Charlie stood beside me. He looked a little scared, like a kid seeing their big sister break down for the first time.

Ben was in the bathroom. I knew the painful sensation and I knew what would follow – the same thing that had happened nearly half a dozen times already. I somehow was able to stand next to the bathroom door, waiting for Ben to unlock it. His eyes caught mine as I went in. All I could manage to do was make a motion with my hand signaling for Ben to leave. But he didn’t.

I moved toward the toilet and vomited again, the pain in my side strong as ever. I bent over, making the motions of sobbing without actually being able to do so.

Ben shut the door so Charlie couldn’t see before bending down and taking the messy braid in my hair in his one hand to pull it out of my face, using the other to rub my back where my shoulder blades met. Ben rubbed in slow, soft circles until I finally stopped gagging and could stand up alone. I felt awful. I felt embarrassed and disgusting and I hurt so, so much. But Ben never stopped touching my body. Ben threw his arm across my shoulders as Charlie gathered my wallet and cell phone, and we went down to the hotel lobby. Ben only pulled away to get into the driver’s seat of the car, and even then, his right hand immediately fell on my left as soon as we pulled into the street.

On the way to the inauguration, we listened to the travel playlist Charlie and I had composed: “Two Jews and a Blonde Visit an Angry Orange.” It was playing “Till There Was You.”

“The Beatles are so great,” Ben said.

“This is my favorite Beatles song, and it’s a cover,” I said to him. “Drives Charlie nuts, but I think it’s the perfect wedding song.” Ben looked at me. “Have you ever listened to the lyrics? What it says? I think that’s exactly how I’m going to feel when I meet the right person.”

The song carried into the last chorus. Ben started to dance in his seat. He moved his shoulders up and down, wiggling his eyebrows, and he smiled when I did the same.

I thought about what my mother had said about seeing Ben and I together for the first time last spring, how she felt we embodied “simpatico.” We simply understood each other and were comfortable together for reasons out of our understanding. Although the Italian sounds pretty, I have always been skeptical, all while knowing when I’m with Ben, even in small moments like dancing to a song, I can never stop from smiling.

I threw up three more times at The George Washington University Hospital after we arrived at 3:30A.M. Ben remained rubbing my back as I puked into the little blue bag they gave me for that exclusive purpose. Ben smiled and shushed me as I apologized over and over again. Ben sat and listened as I told nurse after nurse after medical student after specialized doctor what the problems were, and answered the other standard questions.

“No, I’m not on any medication … No, I wasn’t drinking tonight … The pain is a 5, maybe a 6, but I’ve been told I have a low pain threshold … I’m allergic to ampicillin, penicillin, sulfa, and eggs … I have no idea if there was blood in the vomit because I ate Chicken Parmesan and spaghetti last night, so everything was red at first, but now it’s just clear.”

They asked for a urine sample almost immediately. “That doesn’t look right,” I said. There was clearly blood. I held the cup up to the nurse, and to Ben, who was sitting in the chair next to the hospital bed. I vaguely remembered the nurse asking if he was family, and Ben lying, saying he was my boyfriend.

“Are you on your period?” the nurse asked.

“No. It’s not even due.” I continued to look at the container. “Things have kind of looked like that for a few days.”

Someone mentioned I might have to do blood work. There was also talk about the possibility of a UTI, and antibiotics I would have to swallow. I had never experienced any of it. Ben offered to cover the co-pay when the insurance woman arrived to say my plan wasn’t sufficient, and completely frustrated, I told him “no.” Ben offered to let me hold his arm if they took blood and to buy yogurt to put my pills in and I said “okay.”

The nurse returned to ask Ben questions. “We’re here with a friend to cover the inauguration,” he said. “We went exploring yesterday, around to the museums, the White House.” The picture of the three of us on Instagram, all smiling, came to my mind. “We walked a lot.”

“And did she drink enough?”

“Well…”

“The dip test on her urine says she is severely dehydrated.” The nurse’s anger dissipated slightly when she said the doctors would be in shortly.

From the hospital bed, I turned my head to the side. Ben was still sitting next to me. I noticed how tousled his dark brown hair was under the fluorescent lighting. The light accentuated the blonde spot on the crown of his head I have affectionately dubbed his “God-given yamaka.”  His pants were unzipped and his shoes were knotted rather than tied, but he was there, awake, watching me. Ben smiled when I looked over. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“It hurts,” I said quietly. I reached through the bars of the hospital bed and placed my hand on Ben’s left thigh. He was warm and the fabric of his chinos was soft under my skin. The move was out of character for me. “Can you text my mother and tell her what’s going on?” Ben nodded. I gave his thigh the slightest of squeezes. “I’m really glad you’re here.”

Ben placed his hand on top of mine and squeezed right back. “Of course. I want to be here for you.” I leaned my head toward his and somehow, something, felt itself start to ease.

The gastroenterologists finally arrive and felt me up. They said everything was “benign,” and when my foggy morning brain asked what “benign” meant, they explained that all was well. The two men were as puzzled as I was.

“The pain is only on your left side?” one of them asked. I held the area of my abdomen that still ached and nodded. It was more like a four now. “And the vomiting?”

“It’s better, but they gave me something. It made me throw up, too.”

“That’s usually what happens with Zofran.” The doctor chuckled. That seemed more ridiculous than hilarious to me, an anti-nausea medication that makes you nauseous to start. “Hm, well, we have pain, and blood in the urine.” The doctor looked to the other doctor before he said, “Do you have a family history of kidney stones?”

Three days before leaving for D.C., Ben and I went to nearly every classroom building on the campus and hung flyers for my feminist arts journal. Though he teased me about only being useful because of his height (jokingly whisper-chanting, “let men write!”), Ben spent his entire day helping me in the rain.

We finished at his apartment, a few blocks from where we started, with takeout Chinese. Ben had me take off my shoes because he didn’t want rain tracked in, but I didn’t have socks on. I had fresh blisters the size of silver dollars on the inside of my heels.

“Put your feet up,” Ben said, moving the ottoman closer to his couch.

“No, they look gross.”

“Who cares? As long as they’re comfortable.”

It took me a few minutes, but I placed my bleeding, swollen, horribly worn down feet up on the piece of furniture. Ben never made a comment. All he did was try to rub them (which I profusely refused) and to give me the cash for a cab home. He thought the idea of saving a few bucks was not worth further destruction of my body. I guess, I’ll admit, because he cares.

I woke up around 6A.M. with another doctor in the room. Ben was still seated next to me. The two of them were talking. The doctor handed me some apple juice and a package of crackers. The pain was maybe a one or two, but that felt more like exhaustion.

“I think you passed a couple of small kidney stones, Rachel,” the doctor said. “That’s what the blood has been over the past couple of days, and the reason for the pain and the vomiting. We’re going to see if you can keep something in your system. Make sure to drink a lot of fluids to wash out whatever is left. I’ve told him to watch you.”

The doctor pointed at Ben. As she left, he helped me open the package of crackers.

“Did I fall asleep?” I asked Ben.

“For about an hour. I let your mom know. Charlie also got yelled at. He came in here with McDonalds and fell asleep on a patient bed.” The image was humorous, more so than any other image from the morning.

“How awful does my hair look?” I asked, feeling my squished bangs. I had pushed them off my sticky forehead. They were crunchy and confused.

Ben looked just as confused. “Your hair looks great.” He was full of bullshit. “You seem to be feeling better?”

“I’m ready to leave.” I started looking for my clothes and my shoes, only to see my pajamas folded in the corner and to realize Ben had heard everything about my medical history. Ben now knew when my period was due, what I was allergic to, and about how I wasn’t having sex. The image of Ben watching me throw up felt so vivid and vulnerable. The pajamas were only a symbol.

But Ben seemed calm, almost happy. He stood up and fetched me my clothing. “Drink some of the juice, and then we’ll see if you can get dressed.”

I did as I was told and felt fine, though I sort of wished I’d worn a bra. I felt presentable enough, throwing the privacy curtain back. Ben asked me to sit down, to wait while we found the nurse with the discharge papers. I threw my arms around him in a hug instead. Ben pulled me in, too. I wondered if there was something wrong in the way I felt as we walked out like that from the emergency room, something wrong in the sensation I had to never let go.

Last spring, Ben and I attended the Cannes Film Festival for WNYU. On the plane over, we had to sleep if we wanted any chance of fighting the time difference. Ben leaned over to me and said, “You can sleep on my shoulder, if you’d like.” I refused. But in the night I ended up with my legs pressed against his anyway, the warmth of his body working to heat mine, too. Somewhere along the line, Ben moved, and we were no longer touching. When he did so I woke up. I was cold and feeling strange, thinking about how such a small interaction could mean so much. It was almost unsettling to have to accept that I was a little dependent on something outside of myself and that it wasn’t the worse feeling in the world.

By evening, Ben and I were exhausted. We flopped next to each other on the hotel bed. I moved closer to him, putting my arm around his waist, my head on his chest. We were still dressed in our nice clothes, which inadvertently complemented each other. Somehow, the three of us had managed to obtain access to a media luncheon with CNN. I had spent the morning trying to digest apple juice and saltines, and the afternoon having no trouble with open bar cocktails and lamb cutlets while watching our new President on an enormous TV as he signed numerous pieces of paper, documents I doubt he actually understood. Being in such a political hotbed scared Charlie, and the country’s status should have sunken in to scare me, too, but all I could manage to focus on was Ben’s left hand being inches away from mine on his stomach and his right one moving through my hair, softly stroking my head until I stopped thinking altogether and fell asleep.

Ben and I woke up to find Charlie had left for dinner with his other friends in town. I could only imagine the conversations Charlie and I would have to have in the near future, about mine and Ben’s intertwined limbs and sleepy, smiling faces, a position we didn’t move from willingly.

Leaning into Ben, I kissed the area of his face that wasn’t quite cheek or chin but somewhere in between, and said, “Thank you for everything you did today.”

Ben put his glasses back on. “My God, you’re going to have to have a near-death experience before that moves a couple inches over,” he said, motioning at his mouth. I buried my face in his chest, half in embarrassment and half in laughter. “I’m really too tired to go out for dinner. Would you mind if we got room service and watched TV?” Ben pointed to the television, the thing that took up nearly the entire wall space, and then at the menu, sitting across the room. I agreed. We ordered food to share off the children’s menu, put on the hotel bathrobes, and made fun of the inaugural ball dances. As it got late, I found myself weaving my hands through Ben’s dark hair in the same way he had done to mine earlier in the day. Charlie came back and found us in the same positions, but did nothing outside of switch the television from an orange man to a Laker’s game with an orange basketball before taking a shower and crawling onto the couch.

“I think we’ll both sleep better if you stay in the bed,” I said to Ben. I never could have done so without the combination of exhaustion, a slight-alcohol buzz, and frankly, knowing Ben had already seen me at my worst. It’s also how I managed to kiss him. “Please?”
The only movement Ben made was to throw an arm around me.

According to parts of the Internet, something that can catalyze the creation of kidney stones is the repression of emotions and feelings, which causes the body stress. That is a problem for my entire generation. We feel obligated to repress everything. Not caring is seemingly “cool.” We think romantic partners are interchangeable and relationships are unrealistic because they don’t lead to career goals. We’re made out to be ridiculous if we put our hearts before our heads. Emotional burdens seem frivolous when compared to other daily issues like the economy, or health insurance, or the giant, angry orange man taking over the country and likely planning to destroy both.

Honestly, there’s no time for love when we’re worried about things that feel so much bigger, so we swallow those emotions down until we’ve had our absolute fill. Eventually something breaks. The repression becomes anything but benign.

I think of this when Charlie asks me again, “Rachel, are you in love with Ben?”

“I don’t think I’m qualified to make that decision,” I say. That’s probably true, but I also know I have been repressing some strong feeling for Ben, a feeling that has always been there and that I have been told by people not to ignore because it’s special. It is a feeling I assured myself was not important since it couldn’t be controlled, since I couldn’t see the direct benefits. It is also a feeling I could only ever muster to also associate with something pessimistic while assuring myself I could do without. But the feeling never disappeared. It was this feeling that helped to alleviate my pain in the hospital.

“I know that when I’m with Ben,” I continue, “that I feel a sense of happiness I have never been able to feel with anyone else. It’s there when I know I’m going to see him, or when he winks at me from across the room and smiles. I love that when I’m with him, I feel like I can be exactly who I am and not worry about him thinking any less of me, and I love that I have always felt this way with him, even if I still don’t know why.”

I feel messy and honest in also knowing (but not sharing with Charlie) that Ben feels the same sort of confusing comfort with me. Ben likes the way he finds strands of my blonde hair on his coat after we’ve spent the day together. Ben loves my sassy comments because he reads them as honesty. My silly anecdote text messages are his favorite parts of the day, he claims. Nothing makes Ben happier than seeing me succeeding and supporting me in whatever ways he can. And even if I’ll never believe him, Ben thinks my eyes are beautiful. Ben told me all of this when we returned from Washington, when my body started to feel a little bit better in hearing and admitting what had weighed it down.

“Wow,” Charlie says, “that’s big.”

I guess I would agree. It’s certainly something, even if I can’t think of a better way to describe it. I can only epitomize it: in the warmth that radiates within me when looking at the moles on the backs of Ben’s hands and how perfect things momentarily seem when one of those hands is bent and connected with mine.

 

 

 

About the Author:

rachel

Originally from Woodstock, NY, Rachel is a junior at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study concentrating in creative writing and gender studies. She is the General Manager of WNYU, NYU's student-run radio station, where she produces the award-winning talk show "The Write Stuff." She is also the Creator and Editor-in-Chief of NYU's first feminist arts journal, The Rational Creature. Additionally, she is a staff columnist at Washington Square News's arts blog "The Highlighter" and a staff writer for Popdust. Find out more at rachelaggilman.com.

 

 







 

 

 

     
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