The next morning one of the beefcake male nurses at St. Paul’s toted an impossibly large, old fashioned scale into the communal hospital room. Once he had the scale situated, he cleared his throat and said, “Good morning, boys and girls. It’s time for your morning weigh-in.”
The male nurse’s voice was somehow deep and chipper at the same time. Counting the constipated old woman, there were six of us who resided in that room, all recovering heart surgery patients. Each of us clutched the makeshift pillows, made from folded bed sheets, against our still-healing sternums. The irritated looks on our faces, plus the absurd pillows—even the Sikh in the corner bed had one underneath the drape of his black beard—made us appear as if we were all enduring a dreaded hazing ritual for an oddball fraternity.
The weigh-in scale itself was the sort that we had in the locker room when I was wrestling in high school. Brief digression: I was an uninspired wrestler, to say the least. Some of the greatest failures of my life happened out there on wrestling mats. I loathed the intimacy of the sport, the way that we had to grab onto each other and squeeze, and continue to squeeze until one of us quit (usually me). I lost most of my matches in an embarrassing fashion, like hyperventilating from fright—that actually happened a few times.
I stepped onto the scale in my polyester hospital socks. Small increments of weights were knocked back and forth along the scale’s various racks until the teetering stopped.
His tanned arms rippled underneath his aqua-blue hospital togs. His eyes were the colour of flat root beer. I wondered if old Beefcake had worked a stagette the night before and was paying for it this morning. Beefcake, you lucky bastard, I thought. All those desperate women, hurling themselves at you? Rending their Nordstrom’s blouses? Oh, to be you, my friend! I’d later discover the truth about Sgt. Beefcake. He was a quiet, introverted gay man. In addition to his nursing duties, he was training to be a notary public. I always concocted these types of lurid fictions for the nurses at St. Paul’s; my brain did this involuntarily. I did the same thing for airplane pilots.
Sgt. Beefcake didn’t like what the scale was telling him. “Eighty kilograms,” he announced.
I’m from the U.S. where they teach the metric system in schools but don’t actually use the metric system anywhere except the schools. I asked Beefcake how much 80 kilograms was in easy-to-understand U.S. pounds. “About 175 or so,” the Sgt. replied. He looked at my chart again. “Considering your height and age, that’s low for you,” he said. “You need to gain some weight. Gain weight, or else they’re never going to let you out of here.”
Beefcake was right: eighty kilograms/175 pounds was low for me. I usually weighed 205 lbs., so I was almost 30 pounds underweight. How did I lose all this weight?
STEP 1. QUIT BUYING GROCERIES. Prior to the heart surgery, back when I was still waiting for the doctors to figure out what was wrong with me and frequenting walk-in clinics, I’d stopped eating almost entirely. I quit buying groceries outright. I skipped meals. I didn’t consider food at all.
STEP 2. DO NOT EAT ANYTHING—NO, NOT EVEN A SALTINE. After I was finally checked into the hospital, during the week I’d spent there prior to the heart surgery, I ate nothing—not even a saltine. Nurses would bring the meals each day. I never looked at them, never even took the lids off the tops of the meals to see what they were. Food didn’t register as food anymore. As far as I knew, from the point of view of my sick brain, the nurses were bringing me used, coiled up bath towels underneath those industrial-looking cloches. Why would I look under the cloche to see a bath towel?
STEP 3. IF YOU DO EAT ANYTHING, MAKE SURE IT’S ICE CREAM. One night before my heart surgery, Dr. Ali, brought me two jars of Earnest Ice Cream. She knew that I needed to eat, and she knew my one weakness.
She opened one of the jars for me—salted caramel. I took a spoonful, and stuffed it into my dry, sick mouth. It was so cold and good. Then I tried to pass the jar to someone else. “NO, JONESY, THAT’S FOR YOU. ALL OF IT. YOU EAT IT,” Dr. Ali said. “IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY, RIGHT? WELL, THAT’S BIRTHDAY ICE CREAM. MMM, GOOD.”
It had, in fact, been my birthday: I’d turned 45 yesterday, hadn’t I…? Or maybe I would turn 45 tomorrow…? I honestly didn’t know when my goddamned birthday was. Hell, I barely knew who I was. Either way, birthday or no birthday, I did what Dr. Ali told me to do: I start shovelling it in. Everyone always did what Dr. Ali told them to do.
My mouth was full of ice cream. “You sure about this, Ali?” I asked.
“STOP TALKING WITH YOUR MOUTH FULL, JONESY,” she said. “AND, FOR THE RECORD, I’M SURE. NOW SHUT THE HELL UP AND EAT.”
Dr. Ali can be very charming sometimes.