Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Break a Leg

It's what my family calls the Hyman Curse. I'm not convinced that we've been singled out. I hear too many horror stories from other people to consider my siblings and progenitors sole proprietors of the domain of self-inflicted misery. There's a faint tinge of victimization to wander that route of presumption. But I do believe to my bones in the notion that we relish in our misfortunes in a grisly way and I know I developed the knack of sabotaging a fabulous opportunity in my youth.

  • My mother visits the emergency room an inordinate number of times a year with a broken toe (from walking into furniture or walls) or a viscous wound inflicted by a carving knife. She'd prefer to bleed into the sink, but my sister insists on proper medical care.
  • My brother wandered into the path of three baseball bats swung at once by an on-deck little leaguer, bloodying his mouth. A trooper, he passed out only after safely at the hospital as the ER physician came forth with a syringe of pain killer, thereby crashing to the floor and knocking out his teeth.
  • And my sister performed a hideous dismount from a wet deck on a Mexican Riviera cruise, failing to earn a 10 from the Russian judge or a reasonable settlement with the shipping line.
And yet, none can hold serve against my unparalleled predilection for misfortune. There are accident prone people--and there go I. I'd hold my record of spoiling family vacations, sundering romantic dinners, or destroying formal occasions with spilt blood and bare gristle--my own.

You could blame it on karma, on self-subversion, on one drink too many, on the coriolus effect or --my preference--on others. Given a way, I gladly have the will.

When I was still a toddler, a nasty shard of wood from the Coney Island boardwalk sliced completely through my foot. It's a tale firmly rooted in the Hyman folklore.

In my fourteenth year, our family took a well-deserved vacation to a lovely resort in Goleta, outside Santa Barbara. We rented a cottage near the beach in a delightful grove of eucalyptus trees with a wide, rolling lawn in the shade. My father got the fire going in the hearth while my mother changed into lounging clothes and settled into the couch.

I went out and rented a moped for an hour. It was a simple vehicle, dramatically underpowered, and it was like piloting a bicycle. The resort staff recommended a trail that rose up from the sea and wended through a refreshingly cool pine forest. The trail darted between shadows and light, and bent around a corner where a boulder had rolled off the hillside and plopped itself in the path...

That afternoon my parents spent their long-awaited afternoon in the emergency room as a doctor took a stiff brush to my bloody leg, removing twigs and gravel embedded by my fall. And I spent the rest of the trip sitting outside in a lounge chair, my leg swaddled in bandages. A harbinger.

My first summer home from college I sold shoes for Kinney's and hung out with my buddies by night at a gas station where one worked in the garage. We talked late into the night, listening to music and trying to pick up girls, their hair half over their eyes as we pumped gas and checked under the hood. My folks had packed their bags for a week on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, a dazzling blue gem cradled in the mountains at the Nevada border. I was to stay home one night, finishing up my shift at the shoe store, then fly up the following day to join them.

That night my friend Dennis suggested I try a little white pill marked with a cross that he said I'd enjoy. It was the only time in my life I would try speed. But I did enjoy it thoroughly. I felt invincible, jolly, and filled with great ideas. My hands trembled. And we talked all night, blasting out Moody Blues from the stereo in the darkened garage long after the gas station closed.

We raced to the airport on motorcycles in the dawn and after my folks picked me up at the Tahoe airport, I couldn't wait to change into my trunks and dive into the water. This was in the days before jet skiis, but a local merchant was renting an early version of the craft and my father--reluctantly--allowed me to rent one for an hour.

I crossed the lake, grinning wildly, a rooster tail of spray gushing out behind the little boat as I stood in it bounding across the swells. From the shore, people were pointing at me, so I grinned back, took one hand off the wheel to wave back. But they were insistent, troubled, and I looked back at the rooster tail to see it had blushed red in my wake.

Blood pounded out of the open wound in my ankle where the engine housing had come undone and a sharp edge of sheet metal sliced into me. Dearest amphetamines. I dared not speak their name as I spent the following week in a camp chair on the beach, observing everyone else splashing in the lake, changing my dressings twice a day to drain the pus.

Then there are the screaming verbal exchanges between my father and I across countless weddings and bar mitzvahs as he struggled to maintain martial order and I picked fights to demonstrate my rebellion, or the times I took a cocktail to smooth out the ennui of professional appearances and ended up face-down in the bathroom after one led to another.

Recovery has delivered God's cornucopia of blessings, but has not abated the Hyman Curse. In my fourth year free of substances, I went ass over teakettle from my mountain bike, stopping too quickly to avoid a rock in the path, and broke my arm. Last fall, in my darkened home, I stepped on an upended, three-pronged electrical plug, plunging it like the devil's trident into my arch. It took more than a month before I could walk comfortably again.

My mentor James Hall once wrote a short story, The Claims Artist, in which the protagonist, a writer with a flagging career, finds it easier to make an income by cutting off a finger here and there, collecting handsomely from his insurance company. In the end, he's a famous scribe, with a legion of groupies carrying his foreshortened authorial body across the Southern California strand -- in a basket.

It sounds like a reasonable ploy, if only I could afford health insurance.


Starlene said...

Awesome Gabby. I was reading about hearts earlier, trying not to be squeamish and now I'm acutely considering what it feels like to have a 3-pronged electrical cord stab into your foot. I can't help myself, I always imagine what it feels like. I'm sick. I know.

When you mentioned a family curse, I was expecting a much milder story. It was certainly not mild and it's really almost too uncanny to be anything but a curse! I read once that clumsy people were born under a certain cosmic rhythm but I doubt your whole family was born in the winter. Wow. It's the sort of story that makes your imagination run a little amok trying to make up possible reasons.

Bill Stankus said...

I will not comment on another's misfortune but glad you still have hands and fingers for typing. I will also say this, there was time when I was on a first name basis with the ER crew. Sharp woodworking tools, you know.

Yoli said...

Here I am Gabby thinking that you were alluding to the stage. Oh you poor man. I think you are too distracted. Please take care, we do not want to have you writing us from the ER.

A Cuban In London said...

I have to admit that after reading your catalogue of disasters I did not know whether to laugh or to cry. You narrate your misfortunes so well, but walking through three swinging bats ain't no joke, man. Thanks for the anecdote. In Cuba we'd be sending you down to see a babalawo straight away.

Greetings from London.

PS: word verification is 'karnest', does this mean karma in earnest?

bb mcclain said...

I guess I'm overly careful because I get panic attacks, even when close to a hospital.