I know my phone is ringing. I can’t see it. But I can hear it. For the last ten miles I’ve been hearing it ring – a non-stop, ring, ring, ringing. With one hand on the wheel I grope around with the other and dig the phone out of my bag. It isn’t ringing, and the touch screen is empty. There’s no “missed call” message, or even a voicemail. I toss it on the empty passenger seat and stare ahead down the gray expanse of Southern California’s highway system. Above me the sky is a light brown from all the smog and general crap that’s always in the air. The mountains, looming in the distance, are a parched brown and they seem to shiver in the heat of the afternoon.
I signal, then change lanes. A motorcycle careens by and I hear its engine whine. He’s got to be doing well over a hundred and ten to be passing me. Which is a little reckless in this afternoon traffic. But then I’m not exactly driving slow, so who am I to judge? Although for some reason this causes my thoughts to shift and I start thinking about my car. Wondering if that’s a new noise coming from the engine, and when was the last time I checked the oil, or even looked under the hood. Three months ago I had a fan belt adjusted to fix an annoying squeak I couldn’t fix myself. The guy at the repair shop told me one of my tires was going bald at a strange angle, like my alignment was off, or the tire defective. I asked him which one, and he just shrugged.
“Well, then how the hell do ya know?” I asked.
“The mechanic that worked on your car filled out this check list, and he put a zero for remaining tire tread. Or maybe it’s a six? I can’t tell, his writing sucks.”
“Can I talk to him?”
“He’s gone, he left for the day.”
So there it is. I may or may not be about to die. As my tire, any one of the four being the possible culprit, is about to, or in another year or two, is about to blowout and shred itself across the freeway. Sending me, and my car, end over end into an ugly scrunched up pile of glass and metal, and of course tires and a little bit of minced flesh. Not the best scenario for a small import convertible. Yet this doesn’t cause me to slow down. What’s the point? I’d rather just have that fact weighing at the back of my mind. Besides as soon as I get out of the car it’s forgotten, until the next time I’m on the freeway.
My phone is ringing. I know it is. I can hear it. Maybe it’s the mechanic finally getting back to me. He’s calling to say, “Hey fuck-head, that tire’s bald. Why are you driving on it?”
There’s a sharp turn in the highway, the traffic congeals as brake lights glow. I veer to the right into the empty slow lane to get around a bunch of idiots driving inexplicably under the speed limit. Through the trees and scraggly bushes on the embankment, I catch a glimpse of a mall and a couple of motels. A green station wagon materializes at the side of the road stopped with its hood up, and there’s a group of people standing off to the side. I change lanes to give them room and in a blur I see a woman in the center of the group, she looks worried as she clutches her child. I press down on the gas pedal, they’re in my rear view, and then they’re gone.
If I were a Muslim I’d probably ask Allah to be merciful and help them out. If I were a Catholic I’d make the sign of the cross and hope to hell one of the big three from the Holy Trinity would see fit to send down an angel or two, hopefully one that had auto mechanic skills. If I were a new age non-practicing wannabe Buddhist vegetarian I’d mediate for a few hours, sending them healing vibes, and then wish their fossil fueled polluting machine to wither into the dust from whence it came. Instead I continue driving, my thoughts lost in a whirl of rapid firing synapses. There’s a constant barrage of obscure and mainly useless information filtering through my brain: reported FBI surveillance using the GPS in cell phones, amp to ohm ratios and parallel speaker impedance, trace elements of anchovies rumored in cheese whiz, McCain’s daughter showing her tits on twitter, 97% of all paper money in the US contains traces of cocaine – it never stops, these thoughts never slow down.
In an effort to quiet my brain I concentrate on driving, feeling the road’s vibration through the steering wheel. Which works for a second until my hand itches and I start to scratch, but I stop myself. Yet it makes me think of that old superstition involving money and itching hands. Unfortunately it’s not my palm that’s itching, which is supposedly the sign money is coming my way. Well, actually it’s when the right palm itches, money is coming. The left is money going out. To stop the left palm from itching, you rub it on a piece of wood and you’re good to go. But there’s no wood inside my car, and besides I already know why my hand itches. Occasionally the skin gets really dry. The fingers get all flaky and peel and I think they’re going to fall off. They say it’s a slight case of eczema, or hand dermatitis, or… It doesn’t really matter, it’s safe to say my hands are real fucking dry, and I need this prescription cream to make it better.
Supposedly it’s a condition that’s very common, occurring in about 10% of women and 4% of men. So here I am once again suffering like a large percentage of women in the world. Over the course of my life I’ve endured various bouts of anorexia, bulimia, and rosacea. All of which the medical community considered primarily women’s health issues. So I guess I should’ve been born a woman with all the shit I’ve got going on. Maybe I was supposed to be a woman? But then I’d be a lesbian, which would be fine. Unless as a lesbian my skin was still dry, and then it would suck just as bad as being me with dry itchy hands.
But anyway, the shit had gotten bad again and I needed help. So earlier in the day I’d paid a visit to my nationalized healthcare threatened HMO. Only instead of being able to come right in and see a doctor I had to first deal with the administration and all its bureaucracy. With my recent move from San Francisco to LA I’d transferred my coverage and because of that I was considered a new patient. At some obscure office off to the side of the clinic I had to show my ID and fill out a ton of forms, and generally it was like the first day of college, or maybe more like central booking at county jail. When I finally did get to the clinic the nurse insisted on taking all my vitals and typing any history of past ailments into the computer. After checking my blood pressure and taking my temperature, she had me stand on a scale.
“How tall are you?” she asked.
“Five nine and a half,” I answered. Throwing in the half like a teenager padding his age.
“Five nine, a hundred and sixty seven pounds? You’re fat!” she said and pointed to a chart on the wall. It was a height to weight ratio chart and I was clearly in the shaded area, which wasn’t the dark area of impending death, but it wasn’t the bright white area of smug good health.
Being told you’re fat is always good news for someone with dueling eating disorders. Clenching my stomach muscles I mentally checked off every single fattening thing I’d eaten in the last year. I could remember a candy bar or two, that gelato I had last June, and a couple of deserts I’d eaten at restaurants. I felt my stomach growing, the fat cells multiplying. I was suddenly so overweight I didn’t know if I could move.
Then I looked over at the nurse. She was four feet tall and had to weigh a hundred and fifty or more. On her desk a giant cinnamon bun, and some frothy Starbucks drink that had enough fat and calories to feed a carload of crackheads for a week. Confused, a tad self-conscious, and clutching the yellow patient’s copy of my offending stats, I slunk back into the waiting room and sat down to wait for the doctor. Seated in the row of chairs in front of me were two gigantic fat women, across the room was a guy who had to weigh at least three hundred pounds, and he looked like a midget. A teenage kid walked in and he was the same height as me, but at least sixty pounds heavier, and he hadn’t even started shaving. I was the skinniest person there.
I looked at the ceiling to avoid staring at all these obese people and wondered why I was so fat. I exercise, I eat healthily, I… I could hear my phone ringing, even though I remembered I had turned it off before entering the building. But I knew it was Weight Watchers, or Curves, or that bitchy nurse in the other room calling to tell me I was fat, so I didn’t answer.
Gripping the steering wheel I nudge the car into the next lane, cutting off a BMW who honks his horn. Glancing in the rearview mirror I see the driver give me the finger and then change lanes to try and get around me. I’m not even sure why I cut him off. But I push down on the gas and make him sweat a little as he tries to pass.
My fingers still itch and I want to scratch my hand, but I know I’ll regret it if I do. It just irritates it more. So I suffer in silence, like 10% of the women in the civilized world. Which makes me feel like Buddha, or Gandhi, who both supposedly suffered a shitload. But then I’m thinking maybe it’d be better to indentify with Mother Teresa. Which isn’t that farfetched, as in her early days when she was just a sister, Mother Teresa knew a thing or two about bad skin. The poor woman had lepers crawling all over her. And I know leprosy really isn’t funny. It’s just that with my skin on the verge of mutiny, and my fingers threatening to fall off, I’m feeling like a borderline leper. And the truth is there hasn’t been a lot of advancement in curing leprosy. But still, I’m damn lucky not to have lived in the thirteenth century when lepers were considered the living dead. Civil tribunals declared them deceased, and all their possessions confiscated. The Catholic Church, in a rare display of compassion, would dispatch a priest to perform the Mass of Separation. In front of the entire village the priest would force the leper to stand in an open grave and then the priest would chant, “I forbid you to ever enter a church, a fair, a mill, a market or an assembly of people. I forbid you to leave your house unless dressed in recognizable leper’s garb. I forbid you to eat or drink in company, unless with lepers.”
The BMW is in the next lane over trying to pass me. I’m doing about a hundred and twenty, but I’m not really thinking about him. I’m busy thinking I don’t want somebody to get my laptop just because I’m a leper. And then after ten seconds of mentally checking off which possessions I’d hide, my attention wanes and because I got ADD like a motherfucker my mind wanders. Suddenly I’m thinking about the other day, which just happened to be my birthday, and please, no congratulations, as it has always been a day that sucked. Chock full of minor disappointments, ridiculous expectations, excess, excess, excess, and once or twice an arrest, and let’s not even mention incarceration. But anyway, I was walking to get my morning coffee and it was raining, and I had my umbrella, but it was coming down in pathetic bits – what they call rain in LA. And there was this huge ugly woman in a wheelchair screaming, “Sir! Sir! Sir!” So I looked at her and raised my free hand up in the universal gesture of what-the-fuck?
She said, “Please, please, please push me down the block. I’ll give you a dollar.”
I hesitated and looked at her. She was clutching a dingy wet blanket and there was a greasy sheen to her skin, like junkies have when they’re kicking dope, and I just didn’t want to push her wheelchair, or touch her, or even be near her. And it was my goddamn birthday and I really didn’t think this much of a present, or worse, who the hell knows where this would lead. What if she asked me to push her more than just the one block, or to be my friend, or if she could come over to my place for snacks and watch my TV? So I said, “no.” And kept walking and halfway down the block I knew my karma was now fucked and I turned around. But she had made the block in less time than it took for me to walk thirty feet, and was already turning the corner onto Sunset. So any chance I had to redeem myself was gone.
Of course as I stood there in the rain my phone started ringing, but I didn’t answer it, I didn’t even look to see who it was. Because I knew it was the Grim Reaper, The Toll Keeper, or Calcabrina – the one who walks on brine; calling to tell me the gig is up, it’s all over. That was your test dude. You fucked up, and on your birthday even. Karma, karma, karma – and now I’m going to be a leper, or worse, although, at this exact moment I can’t think of anything worse. What woman’s going to want to date a guy losing his skin?
The BMW has finally gotten past me, and I let up on the gas. Then he swerves, cutting into my lane and slams on his brakes. I stop thinking of lepers and the fat woman and the ninth circle of hell, and quickly change lanes and look over at this guy as I pull up along side of him. He’s red faced, screaming obscenities, and shaking his fist at me. “I’ll kill you,” he mouths above the roar of our motors, and then abruptly swerves into my lane. In the passenger seat is a little white haired old lady. She’s so small I can barely see her. But she’s giving me the stink eye like nobody’s business. I’m thinking like mother, like son, and step down on the gas and leave the grumpy couple to breathe my exhaust.
My phone is ringing. I ignore it. At this point I don’t even care who it is.
Ten minutes later I pull off the freeway at Los Feliz, and downshift as I circumvent Griffith Park. Rows of tidy apartment complexes line both sides of the street and I wonder if they manicure the lawns with nail clippers. At Vermont I take a left and immediately get stuck in slow-ass traffic as it crawls past the cafes and insufferably hip clothing stores. Stopped at a light I reach over and pick up my phone. There’s a missed call message, a voicemail, and a couple of text messages. I slip the phone back into my bag. When the light changes, I shift into first, and drive through the intersection towards home.