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Fear and Trembling by Maddy Raskulinecz /// New Fiction


This weekend there was a storm and the power’s been out all over the city for five days now.

     The storm itself wasn’t much. They always say it’s going to be so terrible, the storm of the century. I guess now is the moment for saying things are the best or worst or biggest of the century since it’s only just started. In 1999 that must have been very hard. Not much was going to happen in 1999 that could top two world wars, or AIDS, or airplanes or Picasso. Now we are in a young century. Everything is seminal. Everything is worth talking about and being afraid of. Everything is happening to you and me for the first and best and only time. But the power’s been out for five days and it’s starting to get a little weird out here.

     When I was a kid power outages were fun. We would hole up in our apartment on the 16th floor and play board games with flashlights and talk about how great it was that the TV didn’t work and eat all the ice cream before it melted. A good power outage should last one day and one night, so you can feel how the sun wants you to live, up at its rise, down at its set. One day and one night is just right to start feeling that boredom that feels good, like you’re stretching out your attention span. You start to think about everything that’s wrong with society today. You get back to basics. You feel good about yourself.

     On the fifth day without power it is not like that anymore. The city is going as sour as the milk in my fridge. The traffic lights don’t work and the subways don’t work. The Times still works. The photo on the front page four days ago was an artful shot of the comatose Times Square. The photo on the front page today is looters.

     All of that is Manhattan. Over here in Brooklyn where I live it’s just people getting out of their cars and punching each other, and fussiness over room temperature, and a lot of loitering because there’s nothing to do inside or outside but wait for the sun to take away our light and put us all to bed like pious farmers.
     

///

     
     I get up with the sun and walk to Kings County Hospital, which is where I am doing my residency in anesthesiology. The hospital is an okay place to work during an outage, good because we always have power and bad because everyone gets hurt more than usual. The only people dealing with more car accident carnage than us this week is the junkyard, getting piles and piles of twisted metal from everyone who tries to govern New York City intersections by silent consensus.

     This morning I am observing hyperbaric oxygen treatment. During power outages people always give themselves carbon monoxide poisoning using home generators. The guy they’re setting up when I get in is totally zonked, he’s probably been breathing carbon monoxide for days. He’s got wild hair and an aquiline nose, and would probably be pretty handsome if he didn’t have a case of the flu and the crazies: he’s gray in the face, throwing up every five minutes, can’t stand up straight, and will not shut up for a second. Listen, he says, listen: when the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual’s relation is reflected upon subjectively. The nurse shakes her head and starts yelling at him and shuts him inside the hyperbaric chamber, an outrageous clear pod that looks just like sci-fi. He’s still audible from inside: If only the how of this relation is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth.

     After that I mostly do propofol IV drips all day. Anesthesiology is sometimes a stressful job and sometimes a nice one, which is why I chose it. I’m like a fairy godmother, watching over sleeping children, or maybe Charon, bringing them through the underworld. Which isn’t to say that I let anyone die, because I haven’t yet, although everyone says I will eventually and that I should try not to get too upset about it.

     I get a text while I’m eating in the cafeteria. It says: bedbugs. It’s from Amnuay. He’s one of my roommates. I have two and a half roommates. Amnuay is from Thailand and he’s a gifted womenswear designer but he was kicked out of Parsons for sending a death threat to a teacher. I’m not supposed to tell anybody that. He is fastidious and pristine always, especially when it comes to clothes and linens. If we have bedbugs, he is going to kill himself.

     My other roommate and a half is Shelley, an art student at Parsons, and her unemployed boyfriend Kyle who lives in her room and doesn’t pay rent. Shelley and Amnuay and, I suppose, Kyle were already living together when I answered their Craigslist ad even though I am a little older than them and now we all live together in Crown Heights. Shelley has not been going to class in the last week because the subways haven’t been running and the traffic is too insane for her to consider biking. I am the only one leaving the house every day. Maybe Amnuay is trying to tell me he feels like a bedbug. They are all bizarre arty people and talk like that sometimes.

     Another text: shel found them in her bed. bet it was kyle

     Real bedbugs, then, in the middle of my life in the middle of the power outage. After work I walk home to them. There is a mountain of linens and clothes in the middle of the living room, which Amnuay says we’re burning and Shelley says we’re taking to the laundromat. I go into my room and look at my own sheets but I don’t see anything on them. Amnuay and Shelley yell at each other over who brought the bedbugs and Kyle taps his fingers on the radiator. He has been hit hardest by the boredom of not having TV or Internet; he is, largely, a moron. He calls too much attention to himself and Amnuay points at him and brings up the fact that we have a fourth roommate who doesn’t help with the rent and says Rachel and I have discussed this, haven’t we, and looks at me. Shelley gets rude and annoying. Kyle is only here until he gets back on his feet. He has a friend at Spin Magazine who is going to get him a job, but, like, nobody is getting anything done this week, or didn’t you realize?

     I poke through the pile of sheets in the middle of the room and I don’t see any bedbugs, or at least I think I don’t. Amnuay says we can’t take the sheets to the laundromat because the laundromat has no power, so eventually Shelley throws them in the alley dumpster.
     

///

     
     Things are tense in Crown Heights on the morning of the sixth day of the blackout. The Times says the subway won’t be working for another week, so my roommates will have to figure out a way to go to their classes, or else they will stay home and kill each other or be eaten by bedbugs. Without air circulation Shelley’s art projects are starting to smell. She was going to present her new project, entitled there are two kinds of hats with brims and without, this week, but has not gone to class yet. It is a historically accurate model of Nefertiti’s headdress made out of found chicken bones. Shelley’s room smells like chicken and the smell sticks to Kyle when he walks around the apartment. Amnuay says Shelley is a dilettante. Shelley says Amnuay is what happens when you have good technique but no soul. Both of them think being a doctor is admirable but can’t imagine devoting their lives to anything besides art. I think they are both nuts.

     I have to wear my lab coat all day at work because there are welts coming up on my arms from getting eaten in the night. The handsome man is still getting treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning, and he is still crazy. Truth is subjectivity, he says. Truth is subjectivity. He reminds me of someone but I couldn’t say who.
     

///

     
     My mom actually lives in Brooklyn also. She still lives in the apartment where we always lived on Ditmas Ave. There are almost no Jews in the neighborhood anymore she says but she doesn’t care about that. We never went to synagogue. Actually we are not very Jewish. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah which at the time I thought was bullshit because I was giving everyone I knew $18 if I didn’t like them and $36 if I did what seemed like every weekend for two years, but religion is the opiate of the masses so whatever. Actually my mom and dad said I could have a bat mitzvah if I wanted but I didn’t believe in God and I still don’t so I was pretty sure he’d be mad at me if I got in it for the money. Anyway my Hebrew is really bad, I can only get as far as baruch atah adonai eloheinu by memory.

     For a long time I didn’t really understand how we were Jewish at all but my dad sat me down and told me that Judaism is a culture and a history and we cannot forget. I’m still Jewish enough to go to Israel for free because my mother is Jewish and my name is Goldfarb. It has to be one of the ugliest sounds, I think, farb. Maybe in German it sounds nice but around here it just screams Hi my name is Rachel goldFARB and I’ll be your Jew doctor today.

     My mom hasn’t left her apartment in six days because it’s on the 16th floor and the elevator is out and she has a slipped disk. There are no bags of ice left anywhere but I bring her a 12-pack of bottled water from the hospital and a flashlight and a nice scented candle and some energy bars. I lug this handful up 16 floors of stairs to get to her. On the ninth floor landing I notice on the wall a circled A in Sharpie, A for anarchy. My mom told me once that when she met my dad he was an anarchist, a lot of young radicals start that way, especially men, she said.

     My mom hasn’t changed our apartment too much. Different layers of my life are all over the place, pictures of me at every age, the books and movies I liked best when I was a teenager and bought for my parents, some still unopened, an 11th grade report card that got put on the fridge at random and will never come off. Nothing ever gets cleared away. The new will just pile up on top of the old, I think, until there is no more room left in the place.

     I ask my mom what she’s been up to today. I say it’s so hard to find things to do without electricity, isn’t that pathetic. I ask if she can get any work done. She’s a freelance writer and she publishes mostly online.

     She says no and asks have I heard from my dad lately.

     I say no although he did call. He left a message which I haven’t listened to yet. I keep forgetting to call him back.

     She doesn’t say anything then and it’s a kind of quiet I am not used to in New York. I’ve lived here my whole life, traffic noises and adjacent apartment noises and low booming bass of indeterminate origin are part of the landscape. The outage makes everything sound dead and this conversation sounds dead. I ask my mom what she thinks about the looting.

     She laughs. Racist garbage, she says.

     My mom and my dad met in a Marxist-Trotskyist group in the 70s. They are radical Jewish leftists. They almost devoted themselves to the cause forever but then they had me instead. I voted for Kerry and Obama. Once I tried to tell them they had a duty to vote for the lesser of two evils, and it was one of the worst arguments I ever had with anybody. They were so mad and disappointed that I wasn’t like them and sometimes I think they are still ashamed. I don’t talk politics with them too often. I’m waiting for a picture of the cops beating on those poor people, I say, but I’m not holding my breath.

     My mom smiles. Talking shit on the police is a surefire way to make her happy. Right as I’m leaving she says Rachel you need to call your dad back, which annoys me and so I don’t. My dad lives in Boston now, he has since I left for undergrad. My parents had been married for 21 years and I had been alive for 18, and two months after I left for college they split up. I would have stayed in the city if I’d gotten into Columbia, but come on. I guess I should have gone to City College, that’s what I always think now when I go by it. There’s no way to know whether I really could have changed anything but that’s the way things seem when you look back on them, like it was on you and it was obvious.

     I settle into a rhythm going back down 16 flights of stairs, lobbing myself down each step, practically falling. The landings and the stairs all look the same. I could do this for hours except my knees will start to buckle and complain after too long. At the ninth floor landing I pass the anarchy A again and this time I think of this boy I took a class with in college named Henry, he was a redhead and his profile picture on Facebook was him posing next to some anarchy graffiti in Europe. He thought it was funny. I thought he was funny but we never spoke. Once I went to a party at his ex-girlfriend’s house and she said some mean things about him. She had a box of love letters he had given to her and she burned it at the party. We all watched and got excited about the fire and about being drunk and young but really it was all very antagonistic towards this boy I knew from a class and kind of liked. He was a poet, I think. The class I had with him was a poetry class. I don’t know why I’m thinking about him now but he’s good company from floors nine to zero and then he’s gone again. I’m sure he is doing well nowadays, maybe he is still a poet, I would like to think so.
     

///

     
     I learn that the man in the hyperbaric chamber is named Lawrence Oswald. His girlfriend Jessica is here visiting today. They don’t live together so she is not in danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. She doesn’t understand what he was thinking with the generator. The chief resident tells her it’s something we see every outage. The chief resident is named Dr. Helen Nguyen. She has an excellent bedside manner. She is gregarious. I have been criticized for being too standoffish towards patients but now that I am focused in my specialty in anesthesiology it doesn’t matter so much because I only deal with patients when I put them under and after that they’re just asleep. Dr. Nguyen says I should work on it anyway; anesthesiologists have a high rate of malpractice suits and I ought to be able to earn a jury’s trust. I get nervous when I think about being sued for malpractice. It happens to doctors. The hospital has lawyers to deal with it.

     Jessica is working towards her PhD in continental philosophy at Fordham. Lawrence Oswald is an associate professor of philosophy there and he specializes in Kierkegaard. Jessica specializes in Hegel which she assures me makes it funny that they are dating. I agree that it’s cute even though I don’t know what either of those people signify because talking about it makes her smile, and I am trying to improve my bedside manner, and I am trying to make her feel better about her boyfriend laying ashen in a glass tube for days.

     There is a two-way communicator set up in the hyperbaric chamber. Jessica wants to talk to him. Dr. Nguyen warns her softly that carbon monoxide poisoning can have a disorienting effect and that Mr. Oswald is disoriented. This is part of her bedside manner; actually, he is not disoriented, he is off-the-rails crazy.

     Larry, Jessica says. Can you hear me? How are you feeling?

     Lawrence Oswald says: The individual’s eternal happiness is decided in time through a relation to something historical that furthermore is historical in such a way that its composition includes that which according to its nature cannot become historical and consequently must become that by virtue of the absurd. Jessica nods. Dr. Nguyen nods. The word absurd is the only one that sticks with me, that’s what this is, absurd.

     Everywhere the hospital is getting a little scary. People are pouring in with trauma from car accidents and fights. The diesel generator running the hospital does not turn all of the lights on, so everything is dim and some places are dark. I try not to walk down hallways that aren’t well-lit. It’s not unsafe in the hospital but it just gives me the creeps. Lawrence Oswald’s hyperbaric chamber is hooked up to the emergency power system so it lights up bright in the dim room, like he is a god or a museum piece on display.
     

///

     
     Today it is Saturday and we have to clean out our refrigerator because it isn’t cold anymore and will start to leak soon. We’re throwing out: three quarters of a quart of 2% milk, a wilted handful of baby spinach, two cups of Stonyfield yogurt, deli sliced turkey breast, a bowlful of leftover rice and beans, a half-drunk beer with tinfoil crushed onto the mouth, a small jar of mayonnaise, a bruised apple, a sweating hunk of gouda, half a tomato in saran wrap, and six eggs. We actually don’t have to throw the cheese out, I say, but unrefrigerated cheese is apparently the limit for Shelley and she insists. I’m eating the ice cream, which is strawberry and more like soup by now. Amnuay says he doesn’t want any, it will make him fat, but he has a few spoonfuls anyway. Shelley takes 75 high-quality pictures of there are two types of hats and makes a video recording of herself wearing it and staring unblinkingly into the camera and then throws it away.

     She and Kyle have retreated guiltily into her room because of the bedbugs. I imagine that they are two bedbugs behind the closed door, biting and humping each other, growing heavy with blood and mutual obsession and laying a thousand eggs in that bed. I stick a towel under my door in case that’s enough to keep them from getting into my room. They are kind of big. I thought they were like fleas but they aren’t, they’re real horror bugs. All night I keep imagining them crawling on my legs and I barely sleep at all. In the morning I find one in my bed. It’s dead, pancake flat which is how they are when they haven’t fed. Amnuay says if he finds bedbugs in any of his fabric he is moving out. I spend my whole Sunday looking for the rest of them but I can’t find any, and then the sun starts to set and the whole endeavor is plunged into obscurity.
     

///

     
     I call my dad on the way to work on Monday but he doesn’t pick up. I even try his 617-area code home number although it is impolite to call this early. He doesn’t pick up there either. Maybe they are sound sleepers, him and his wife and their son. My dad has a new family now, in Boston. His wife has a Boston accent, she is a Boston native. She is a centrist Democrat and an open-minded Christian. You need different things when you get older, I guess. I wonder if they talk about Israel and Palestine ever or if she wants him to get out the vote. My dad has a son in Boston whose name is Jack. Little Jack Goldfarb who is not Jewish, who’s only six years old. We’re brother and sister. Jack Goldfarb doesn’t grasp that concept. I’m a grownup to him. He struggles to remember me, I think, between visits. I definitely need to get in touch with my dad so he knows I’m okay. The power outage is probably big news in Boston and everywhere. Maybe I’ll do it tonight when I get home from the hospital. Maybe I’ll do it while I’m walking home. It’s good to talk on the phone when you’re walking by yourself at night and it’s so so dark at night these days.
     

///

     
     I am in Lawrence Oswald’s room when he dies. He drops off motionlessly. It is a shock to the staff; he had been getting better as far as anyone could tell, but carbon monoxide poisoning is very serious and has very serious sequelae. That is how Dr. Nguyen explains it to Jessica, who cries a lot. Jessica is not in the room when Lawrence dies. Someone calls her and she rushes over to the hospital but in the bitter traffic it takes her an hour and he’s cold and he’s been taken out of his chamber and put under a sheet. Did he say anything? Jessica asks. She doesn’t ask Dr. Nguyen. She asks me. Did he say anything before he died? I want to lie and tell her something nice from him which makes me a bad doctor I think, but I don’t know the first thing about the kind of stuff he was saying so I can’t make up anything convincing. I shake my head. Dr. Nguyen gives me an angry look for being unable to speak to a bereaved loved one. This will go on my evaluation.

     Now I know what people meant about getting upset even though I didn’t even have anything to do with him except for observation and I never understood anything he was trying to tell me and he probably didn’t either. I have three procedures in the afternoon and as I lead my patients through the underworld my fingers twitch at the IV and the intubation and I wish I had more to clutch onto them with. I think of Jessica and wonder what she understood from her boyfriend’s ramblings. I wonder if he passed her any veiled secrets of the nearly dead or if she just liked to hear his voice. The generator lights surge and flicker as I watch my patient’s drowsy heartbeat, and the surgeon looks up, startled, and I think the lights will come on, but they don’t, and then I think the generator will fail, but it doesn’t, and we bow back down to our work and try to anchor ourselves. In my locker my phone is filling up with texts, the bedbugs have mutated to the size of dogs, haven’t heard from you in a while Rachel, are you hanging in there but I’ve got a long dim week ahead of me with no power but the diesel generator and the churn in my heart.

 

–––––––
Maddy Raskulinecz lives in Baltimore, where she is an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins. Her work has appeared online at Word Riot, Thought Catalog, Moire Mag, and elsewhere. Enjoy her publicly @littleraskul.