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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St.

Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Back Pain

James was at work when it set in, a hot line running from the base of his skull down the left side of his neck, then left around the bottom of his scapula. He tested it by rolling his head, lifting his shoulder and dropping it, and it only worsened. That night he took Advil and wore an ice bag while he watched T.V. The ice made it subside, but when the numbness wore off it was the same as before. The next day at work it was there again, and by noon it had already grown old and frayed. He tried adjusting the height of his chair and keyboard tray.

After a week his girlfriend Megan convinced him to try an acupuncturist. He didn't believe in it, but she'd found a training school that charged $20 a session. The acupuncture trainee looked at his tongue ("dusky," he said) and felt his pulse ("slippery"), bent James's neck back and forth and rubbed his shoulders, and then had him take off his shirt and lie face-down. "Good points," the trainee said of his back, and even though James didn't know what that meant he was flattered. His shoulder and arm tingled when the needles came out, but his neck and back hurt the same. The trainee said he should start feeling better within three days, and that if he didn't he

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

should go see a real doctor. Although he didn't say "real doctor," he said "internist." When he went home James made fun of the trainee to Megan, and she laughed even though it'd been her idea. He liked that about her.

James didn't have an internist, he had an HMO, so that's where he went after three days. The HMO doctor told him to use ice and Advil and to reconfigure his workspace. James said he'd tried all that. "How'd it happen, then?" the doctor said. James said it had happened in his chair at work. "Describe it to me exactly," the doctor said. James tried. In fact, he was nearly florid. He talked about a "snake" wrapping its tail around his shoulder blade. But he could sense that all the same there was something missing from his description. The doctor produced a card with the numbers 1 through 10 printed on it in a line, and asked James to point to the one corresponding to his level of pain. James put his finger on the "7", although 7 didn't necessarily seem righter than 6 to him, or 8. The doctor told James he'd probably pulled something, and gave him a prescription for muscle relaxants, carisoprodol with aspirin—brand name Soma. They knocked him out and did nothing for him when he could manage to stay awake. His concentration at work was already bad because every thought had to shout over the constant static of his pain, and adding the drone

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

of narcotics made him downright stupid.

If it was a muscle strain, the doctor had said, he should start to feel better in another two weeks. So when those two weeks elapsed James went back, and the doctor sent him to get an MRI. He lay in the tube for half an hour and listened to a CD of the most insipid bits of Beethoven. The MRI showed nothing. The doctor looked perplexed and asked James to describe his pain again, and James tried to answer novelly. Maybe it was his fault the doctor couldn't figure out what was wrong. Maybe he'd be healed if he were able to describe things better. The doctor said that since there was nothing mechanically wrong with him the problem might be in his brain, so he sent James to a pain specialist.

The pain specialist said that maybe James had had an injury at the start, and somehow his brain hadn't gotten the message that he'd healed. He sent James to get a CT scan. James lay with his head in the halo for an hour and listened to a CD of the most insipid parts of Mozart. The CT showed nothing, but the pain specialist decided to try James on an anti-seizure drug anyway, gabapentin. It made him dull and witless, and neither helped him sleep nor helped his back.

He stopped taking them and instead ordered more Soma over the Internet. Every morning he

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

stayed in bed, trying to ignore his morning-full bladder, knowing that as soon as he moved, his pain, not yet fully awake, would come lashing back and not for the rest of the day would he feel like his old self again. The man he recognized as himself. He didn't know what to make of the man he was now. Mostly he could ignore his pain's mutter, but it took effort, like ignoring the hum of a fluorescent light. He was tired, and that made him irritable. Worse, the constant ache was punctuated by spasms he couldn't ignore, which exploded through his concentration in a red flash, always at inopportune times: while he was driving, or taking a glass down from the cupboard. He was helpless against these. All he could do was try to avert them by not exerting himself, by not sitting too long in his chair, by not turning his head quickly to the left. So he couldn't sit through a whole movie or walk around the gallery district looking at art. He couldn't cook. He couldn't read whole books, or even long chapters. He couldn't be on top when making love. For a long time, the only moment when he truly felt like his old self—his old, fully awake self, not the half-awake, half-measure self of early morning—was when he was resting in Megan's arms. He loved her skinny arms, and the way their thin ring seemed to hold all of him; lying there he felt almost clearheaded despite the pain. Megan must not have thought that was enough, though, because she left him, confirming that he was no longer the same man. She said that when he was still going to doctors she could believe that eventually he'd get better and revert to himself, but now he no longer seemed to be interested in getting well.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

She was right. His old self—what he had so long persisted in thinking of as his real self, against all evidence—was lost. He was no longer even sure he wanted it back, the complacent self that had hidden its body behind a veil, when it only took a little pain to rip that tissue through.

Then he found he couldn't seem to grieve properly. His sadness wrapped itself around his stalk of physical pain so quickly and tightly he couldn't separate them. He dragged himself around in undifferentiated misery, and his only relief was sleep. He went on disability leave, something his employers had been hinting at for a while, and slept prodigiously. Twelve, even fourteen hours at a stretch. Awake for only ten hours he ate less, and lost weight, and wondered whether he could really still think of himself as a waking creature when more than half of him lived in sleep. He grew curious about that sleeping part of himself, and one night went to bed with a notebook, intending to write down what he could of his dreams. The next morning he awoke already writing (the first time in a very long time that he hadn't woken up trying to stay motionless), in the middle of a sentence, not sure how he'd been about to finish it. In a script that started spidery but grew firmer as it neared the end of its say he'd written: "The worst thing that happened this year, his arm lifting—him/me?—when she..." He was encouraged. He hadn't expected to write anything the very first night. It wasn't obvious what the fragment meant, but he couldn't expect coherence all at once.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

He noticed, too, that although he was propped against the wall, nothing but his crumpled pillow under his back, his pain was only now starting to smolder.

The next morning when he woke up mid-sentence he'd written a little more: "When I met her at the alley and we ordered the same beers, I told her why I couldn't swing my arm to bowl since…" Although the writing still began shakily, it was noticeably less so than it had been the night before and steadied more quickly.

The following morning yielded this: "each kiss since the first has been longer, and this one she traced down the nape of my neck with her fingernail, the top part of my spine, sending electric..." Then the next morning, this: "A physical contact not erotic but warming, like a glove— knowing on the subway that the knee pressing my knee, the shoulder pressing my shoulder, are not, for once..." And then this: "There's a hum up my neck to vibrate my palate when I watch her saying 'I love you.' I've only felt that once before this moment. Every step from our first kiss to now had taken courage, forcing myself through a little excited fear, but to say it back came like a spring released, no fear at all..." and finally: "It was the first time we stayed in her apartment. Ever since we knew we were

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

in love we've kept up the formality of going out beforehand, pleased with the innocence of dating. Tonight we just watched T.V. together and had Thai food delivered, and it should have been sweet and easy except that I couldn't—I can't—stop feeling that we're being spied on. That bristle up my neck, from deep between my shoulder blades."

James hadn't been jealous of his sleeping self before. After all, it was only a secret part of himself, something absurd to envy. But now his sleeping self had conjured love, and he had to imagine that Megan must be the woman in his dreams. He missed her. Maybe in his dreams she could tell him how to be someone he wanted to be instead of the huddled somnophile he'd become, if he could only—not meet her, because of course he already had, to the extent she was meetable—be conscious in her presence.

He bought a book on lucid dreaming and learned that in order to wake his conscious mind and remain in a dream, he had to ingrain a habit beyond consciousness. For example, the book said, if he made a habit of checking his watch, eventually he'd check it while dreaming, generating a moment of realization that startled his conscious mind awake. Even better than watches, the book said, were mirrors. He liked the idea of mastering his habits, if only in a small way, rather than remaining entirely at their mercy. He checked his watch as close to every five minutes as possible, and all day long went in and out of the bathroom to look in the mirror.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

He took it as a positive sign when the mirror grew disorienting. He began to suspect that the cold, pain-free image it held couldn't be him, and that made him feel unmoored, drifting away even from the idea of a self. He had limbs he could see and a body that hurt, but no recognizable face. Eventually that alien feeling tainted the sound of his voice, too, and for days he spoke very little.

Meanwhile his notebook continued to fill, night after night. "That feeling of being watched has turned out to be premonitory. There almost certainly were spies here when I felt that tremor: tonight we learned we've been invaded. We don't yet know how far away the enemy is, nor how much strength he has, we only know he's coming. He must have sent his spies in advance. She and I turned off the T.V. after the news and found we couldn't speak. We held each other and made love silently."

"I feel as if someone is watching me in particular. I see a doubleness in my actions, as if I were performing them for someone else. Tonight the streets were as empty as they only are in dreams, and still I was sure of being followed. I spent the whole night trying to get back to her, but because of the war there are unending checkpoints and detours, and I didn't have my papers so I had to go around and around. When I did finally get home to her it was if the whole labyrinthine chase had been a building foreplay, and the relief of seeing her was as intense as an orgasm."

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

James woke up writing that morning, feeling melancholy, and saw that at some point during the night in fact he had had an orgasm. A quarter-sized patch of hair was matted together on the upper-right edge of his pubic bush, and the smaller hairs on his thigh there were painted to the skin in surprised little curlicues. An inch of sheet was stiff as a notecard. It had been a long time since he'd had a wet dream, and when in the past he'd had them he'd woken right at the critical moment; the terrible shock of falling from a world of love into an empty bed had accounted for the melancholy he felt. He didn't know what explained it this time.

"None of us really understands war but we know we're losing. In fact, we are losing so quickly that there is no point in rationing our stocks. We are not going to be besieged. We will be occupied in a matter of days, and when we are, who knows what will happen to us? Our propaganda tells us the enemy is barely human, and although deep down we suspect he's really not too different from us, it's hard not to be frightened. I say 'we.' I should say 'I.' I have been making love and consuming wildly, splurging in provisions and in her because so soon they could be gone. She has only followed me, seemingly confused, as if she didn't recognize the threat, or didn't see the change we face as a threat, as if she were so confident of her own unwavering nature that she knew she could withstand any change—or as if she were so variable that one more external change meant very little. But she is neither. She is a lovely, ordinary girl, no more or less constant than I."

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

"Tonight might have been our last night together. The enemy will be here by tomorrow, and I fear that she and I will be separated, and that once we are separated we will never be reunited. We lay next to each other naked, crying a little. I tried to be aware of every piece of skin that touched hers, and every piece that didn't touch but was close enough to catch its heat. I wanted to say something as wrenching as the first time I told her I loved her, but there was nothing of that order to say. I felt empty, and helpless."

The night after that last passage appeared in his notebook, James awoke inside a dream, looking at himself in a mirror. His shoulder hurt, but differently. His pain was in the nature of the world here, because this whole world was a part of him—he was inside his pain, moving through it, instead of having it inside him. It made it easier to bear. He went to a window. As he'd expected, the streets were empty. He didn't choose to puzzle over whether they were empty because he'd expected it. After all, everything here seemed to be featureless, acquiring characteristics only when he focused his attention somewhere. He looked at the couch and it existed; maybe it hadn't been there a moment before, when he wasn't looking at it. It was blue when he noticed it was blue. So was the sky, and so on. Now he had to find her. He knew she wouldn't come to him because he knew she wouldn't come to him. He went down to the street and started walking. Soon he came to one of those checkpoints

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

he'd written about. No one manned it, he could have walked right through, but he let it turn him aside because turning aside gave him a twitch of familiarity, one that grew stronger as he turned at the next checkpoint, and the next, following his own scent. Then he was home. His dream girl was there. She wasn't Megan; she had the features of every woman he'd loved, whether she'd loved him back or not, from the hair of his first crush to Megan's sense of humor and thin, awkward arms. But she had more, too: traits he admired in himself and unknown qualities he yearned for without knowing their names. She kissed him, and then they were making love, and at a moment like climax he looked up at her and said "What is wrong with me?" and she leaned to his ear and whispered everything he wanted, and selfknowledge filled up his spine like cold, cold water.

He was not writing when he woke up. The things she had told him were wordless; there was no use even trying to write them down. He got up, took a shower, shaved, and was well into his cereal before he realized his pain was gone. For the first time in a year he pointed his elbow to the ceiling, rotated his shoulder in its socket, rolled his neck around. He was ecstatic. He wanted to tell someone, to celebrate. But he didn't have anyone to tell. He'd been alone and asleep so long now—had it been months?—he was a Rip Van Winkle. It would take time to re-establish a normal life. It would happen eventually, though. He was back to himself again. He would go back to work, go on dates and perhaps fall in love, see art in

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

museums, watch movies all the way through, read a long book. But for now the only person he had to tell was his dream girl—not-Megan. He wanted at least to thank her. So that night he went into his dreams again, woke to find himself checking his watch in the middle of a pain-free city. Its streets were crowded with faceless people and it took what seemed like infinite time to search through them, but eventually he did find her. She was stuck to his own back. He detached her and set her on her feet and smiled at her. She looked straight into him, her eyes red with tears, and it was obvious she didn't recognize him at all.

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