I broke my arm in 1992. It was stupid – I was riding my new-ish bike that I bought because my Volkswagen’s brakes went out and when I got it to Meineke, they couldn’t put it on the lift because the Indiana winters rotted through the floorboards and frame, and the hydraulic arms would have popped right through the bottom of the West German toy and snapped it in half. So I bought this bike, with the hopes of just using it instead of a car, although you can’t buy groceries on a ten-speed, and you can’t bring sixteen weeks of laundry to the laundromat, and you definitely can’t get laid if you show up for a date on a Huffy.
I headed home from work at Ballantine one day, and took the ramp that connected the two levels of the parking garage, which had one of those giant arms blocking the entrance, unless you had a magic cardkey or you were a pedestrian. As I rode downhill toward the two-foot gap between the gate and the wall, this dude came toward the gate on foot. So I slowed down and moved to the left, and he moved to the left. I should have just gotten off the bike, but this was a racing bike with toe clips, and I hated pulling my feet out of them, so I slowed down and moved to the right. Then he moved to the right. So I slowed down and moved to the left. Then he moved to the left. So I slowed down and moved to the right. And he moved to the right. And then BAM, I was flat on my ass, my feet still stuck in the pedals, because I had slowed down to zero and whatever laws of physics keep you balanced on a bike when it’s moving forward no longer applied, because I wasn’t moving.
Here’s the only saving grace: I never took my hands off the bars. Your first instinct is to put your arm out and stop your fall, and if I would’ve done that, I would have snapped all of those tiny little bones in the wrist, the ones that never, ever heal right. Instead of slamming 180-some pounds of weight into those little bones with names I will never know even if I go to Wikipedia and look it up (because I am sure some nutjob has removed all of the English names in a revert war, because they promote sexism because the 16th century doctor that named all the bones was a man, or whatever), all of my weight hit my elbow, which from a nerve ending standpoint is probably worse.
I got back up and pushed my handlebars back in place from the 40-degree angle they got knocked to, and rode my bike home. But the arm felt worse and worse, and this was an aluminum road bike that you pretty much couldn’t ride one-handed because it was way too balanced and stiff. So I got home at like 4:15 and called my then-sorta-girlfriend-but-not, and told her I thought I broke my arm. She worked for a year at a loony bin in Chicago, which made her a medical expert, and she asked if I could move it, and I could barely move it, maybe a sixth of its normal motion. So she said “you didn’t break it, you’ll be fine.” And she said she couldn’t make it over until later (which I later found it was because she was dating another guy at the same time) and so I hung up, and fretted and fumed and finally said fuck it and got my wallet and set off for the Health Center. But I couldn’t ride my bike, so I had to walk across campus, now holding my busted up left arm with my right arm in an impromptu sling.
Everyone called the Health Center the Death Center, and the only good reasons to go there were: 1) birth control 2) Prozac 3) antibiotics and 4) you could send your bill to your bursar’s account and not pay it until the end of the year. I didn’t even know if they could treat breaks and sprains, but the real hospital was miles away, and I didn’t have insurance, and I definitely didn’t have a credit card with more than $3 of open credit on it. By the time I got there, the pain seared through my body, the kind of thing where you fantasize about being tortured at the Hanoi Hilton by Soviet-trained Viet Cong interrogators, because that might take your mind away from the millions of flaming nerve endings turning your entire body into a throbbing vessel of pain.
I don’t remember what the hell I had to fill out or how long I had to wait or what decade-old issue of Reader’s Digest I got to flip through before they wheeled me into an x-ray lab with a machine that looked like it came off the set of a 1940′s science fiction serial. The radiologist wanted to hold my arm in 528 ways on this table, and of course 475 of the poses were impossible without moving my elbow, which wasn’t happening anymore. I sat and wallowed for another twenty minutes, then a doc came in with a couple of floppy translucent sheets of film that he slapped on one of those light-up glass things on a wall.
“See that shaded area on the radius,” he said. ”That’s a break. It’s just a compression fracture, but I bet it hurts like hell. You won’t need a cast, but we can give you a sling for it. Let me get you something for the pain,” he said, digging for a prescription pad.
“I’m allergic to aspirin, advil, and tylenol,” I said. I also rattled off the short list of various mind-benders the shrink was feeding me on a regular basis so he could get that Aruba vacation from Pfizer.
“Um, how about you ice it, and keep it elevated. Come back and see me in a month, okay?”
I limped home, the third time that day I’d self-propelled myself across the campus with a broken arm. I called the not-really-girlfriend and told her I went to the fucking hospital and the fucking doctor took a fucking x-ray and told me the fucking arm was fucking broken. No fucking painkillers. I think she came over, maybe with food, maybe not. I don’t even remember, I just remember trying to sleep that night, and not being able to get anywhere close to a minute of shuteye. I was a restless sleeper back then, and couldn’t stay in one position, so laying on my back with my arm propped up on sixteen pillows didn’t help the situation. Holding the arm above my heart and putting ice on it was like wrapping yourself in crepe paper streamers to prevent a flamethrower attack. I counted the minutes until 8 AM, when the stupid health center opened again.
I called them up at exactly 8:00:00.00 and said “I BROKE MY ARM YESTERDAY AND I AM EXPERIENCING PAIN OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS.”
“What did the doctor prescribe for the pain yesterday?” the phone-nurse asked.
“PITHY ANECDOTES AND WORTHLESS ADVICE ABOUT ELEVATION AND ICE.”
They said to come in. I got there (I walked again, except this time at least I had a real sling) and a group of four or five residents all converged and flipped through a big book of pills and potions and finally decided on something that would not give me seizures or cause my throat to swell shut in fifteen seconds. ”Okay, I’m going to prescribe some codeine cough medicine. I know you don’t have a cough, but it doesn’t have any aspirin in it, so you can take a higher dose and it should help.” Sold.
Man, I love me a good opiate. I’d never taken one before that, and didn’t take aspirin or any of that stuff, because I had a weird allergy to it, and my eyes would puff up for days and I’d wheeze like an asthmatic at a Cypress Hill concert, so when I got a headache, I’d just think peaceful thoughts, and maybe drink 19 Cokes. I sat in the pharmacy on the second floor, arm in sling, waiting for that magic bottle, and checking out all of the people waiting too. (The only two prescriptions they really filled there were birth control and Prozac, and the place was always crawling with hot co-eds and I constantly wondered if they were loose or batshit crazy or both.) They gave me this brown glass bottle that looked like it contained an old-tyme remedy formula, and I walked home (again!) and doubled up the suggested dosage. The syrup tasted like an industrial adhesive mixed with something you’d wash your dog with when he contracted an outbreak of a strain of African disease-carrying lice. So I hit the syrup, then downed half of a Coke, and put in a CD on repeat, and went to lay down in bed, and it felt like that three foot drop from standing to prone took about 45 minutes, like a slow escalator ride through a wall of clouds.
Suddenly, every lyric on every Black Sabbath album made perfect sense. (“‘sleeping village/cockrels cry’… of course! of course!”) I stared at the half-deteriorated suspended ceiling patterns for a few minutes with visions of Ozzy dancing through my head, Mr. Francis Anthony Iommi’s fingers sticking out of the air ether emanating from the speakers, manipulating the molecules in my brain with his detuned zombie notes. Then the girlfriend-not-girlfriend walked in to check up on me; I thought ten minutes had passed, but I’d listened to the titular first Black Sabbath album nine times and it was lunch and she wanted to bring me to Subway or something. (She was on Nutrisystem or one of those things where you eat their food, although she was at her goal weight, but she wasn’t into my diet at the time, which consisted solely of whatever meal at Burger King cost $2.99 that week. So Subway was the compromise lunch place. Of course, the first time we go to Subway, this friend of mine who happened to also be a stripper comes in and sits on my lap and starts asking me about my summer and flirting with me and playing with my hair which freaked the fuck out the not-girlfriend, who was the jealous type, although as I mentioned, I don’t know how many people she was dating when we were “dating”.)
The arm healed up fast, and I was back on my stupid bike within a month. I think the sling did more damage to my neck and back than the fall did to my arm. It always felt like I was one of those GI-Joe dolls where the torso was attached to the pelvis with a piece of elastic, and if you didn’t turn it the right way, the torso would be dislodged and stuck at like a twenty degree angle off center until you pulled the whole thing apart and let it snap back together the right way, except this was the arm-ribcage joint, and I had no easy way to pull my arm four feet out of the socket for the correctional manipulation. I didn’t need to take the codeine after about a week, although I then found out that in addition to stopping the pain of a broken arm, it stopped that horrible overwhelming feeling you get when you’re absolutely sure your girlfriend is not really your girlfriend and she’s probably fucking that guy in her study group she keeps talking about. Things completely fell apart with the not-girlfriend around the time I got to the bottom of that brown bottle, and I didn’t do a Rush Limbaugh and get a hundred different croakers to write me scripts to different pharmacies; I just went on to the next potential dating disaster.
So that’s the opium story. I was thinking about this and realized that my old roommate Yusef also broke his arm, maybe a year before I did. And when he came home, I told him it probably wasn’t hurt and he shouldn’t be such a pussy. Key differences: 1) he was stoned out of his gourd when he rode home; 2) he fell on his wrist because he was carrying home this $800 classical guitar he hadn’t paid for yet, and he wanted to protect the guitar; 3) he really, really broke the wrist and had to be in a cast for the rest of the semester; 4) he was a guitar performance major, so this totally screwed him up for the better part of the year. I could still fart around on the computer with my arm in a sling (this was before the conquest of the mouse, and everything was either DOS or unix), but he had studio and recitals and stuff he had to reschedule. And 5) he had to pay for that guitar even though he couldn’t play it. (Or maybe he returned it – I don’t remember.)