A couple hours after my heart attack, I woke up alone in the University hospital. After the first few hours of panic and confusion, the first dew days were utterly miserable. ‘Cardiac arrhythmia’, they’d told me when I started pleading for answers. Desperate for some sort of magic wand to wave in the hopes of a cure, I asked for details, only for them to dispense clinical phrases like ‘Long QT Syndrome’ and ‘congenital heart muscle deficiency’ in a disinterested tone that suggested that I was wasting their time asking. What insulted me more was that something so... wantonly
destructive to my life was so banal
to them that all they had for it was jargon. At least if they had cared, or if they had never seen anything like it, I might have felt better; that this was something unheard of, or at least unheard of in my age group. As it was, it wasn’t, so I stayed miserable. What else was I supposed to do? My former life had ended that cold February day, and for all I know, anything and everything could kill me even when I finally leave this miserable place.
That misery only deepened when the torrent of cards and flowers and balloons and posturing people I barely knew started flooding in at the end of the week. By the end of the month, it had died down to a small trickle of supposedly concerned friends and family, and even those last droplets of faux-attention dried up altogether just two weeks later. My last visitor tried to peel an apple, cried, and just gave up instead. Where some might have felt abandoned, I felt like it was a weight
off my shoulders; their apparent concern had grown nauseatingly grating. Moreover, I had grown increasingly convinced this elaborate charade was less for my sake and more to assuage their own consciences. Most of their attempts to cheer me up were just attempts to downplay my situation, which wasn’t very useful when the best that could be said about it was ‘at least you didn’t die’. There was always an unspoken ‘…yet’ clinging to those words, though.
Still, even if those first six weeks felt long, the weeks after were interminable. It’s paradoxical that I spent most of that time being simultaneously watched like a hawk and bereft of almost all human contact. Which is not to say I haven’t seen people – just that those people are always nurses shoveling pills in my mouth or a doctor coming to prod at my chest with a cold stethoscope and a colder demeanor. Were I an optimist, I might muse that at least the isolation gave me a lot of time to come to terms with my situation. My condition
. But I’m not an optimist, and so I haven’t actually come to terms with my condition. At least I’ve had a lot of time to not bother doing that in.
I spent that time reading instead. I’ve been doing that a lot over the past ten weeks; frustrated at how normal
everything on TV looked, I swore off it entirely, and picked up a voracious reading habit in the hospital library. I’ve read over a hundred books since, each thicker than the last as I work through the library’s offerings. I read a lot of contemporary fiction to start, but I stumbled into Murakami somewhere in the pile and slowly drifted towards magic realism, then fantasy, and now most recently science fiction. Each fictional step further from reality felt comforting, as if I would one day look up, close this book where the boy with my name had a broken heart and go back to life as normal; where I’d never gone out to the woods on a snowy February day.
But I did, and a ghost of a ghost of that snowy day still sometimes sits by my bedside. The girl herself left a month ago, but her presence is still palpable. Iwanako, the not-girlfriend who clung on a full two weeks longer than any of my friends. Which was, on reflection, impressive, since we never really
knew each other; I just knew of her as a friend-of-a-friend, since she and Mai had been neighbors – and thus by proxy-friends in the way that children form such a relationship – since kindergarten. Me and Takumi had gone to kindergarten together ourselves, and when we wound up in Mai and Shin’s class in elementary school, we formed a tight-knit band. Iwanako herself wound up in another class, which might have been how she never mixed into our group. I’d honestly mostly ignored her except as just ‘Mai’s friend’, until I looked up one day and suddenly realized how staggeringly attractive I found her. If I had a normal heart, could live a normal life, it would have been a huge relief that she
confessed to me
, because otherwise I’d likely never have worked up the courage. But now, weirdly, after the misery that filled my room and the tension of our long silences…well. When Shin, Mai, even Takumi left, I felt bitter. When Iwanako was here, I felt heat, anger, resentment, tension, and now that she doesn’t come, I just feel empty. It’s a relief, I think. Maybe part of me hates her for, hah, ‘breaking my heart’, but I try and push that part down whenever I can. It wasn’t her fault, and I’d even liked her too before all of...this. But any hope of that is buried now, in the snow of a cold February day beneath a leafless tree.
Of course, my parents still come by. I’m not sure what motivates the visits, but if forced to guess, I’d say one part guilt, two parts love, and seven parts cloying, clingy coddling. Father maintains his usual distance and formality, save for when it extends to smuggling in small luxuries; a box of Pocky here, some milk coffee there. This is profoundly welcome; it tells me he at least cares without being smothering. Mother, on the other hand, is resolute in her maddening infantilization of me. Making matters worse, they only visit on Sundays, then stay six or eight hours at a stretch, with her fussing over every little mishap, flinching every time one of the machines so much as blinks, and generally making me feel miserably aware of my new condition, while Father mostly sits in a chair, asks a few banal questions about how the physiotherapy is going or small talk about the deplorable hospital food, and listlessly glances at the Nikkei Shimbun
. This weekly ordeal wears immensely on my patience, and frankly it must be just as miserable for them, since much of the time is occupied with painful silence. It often just consists of three people sitting in a room, reading uneasily, all the while feeling like they’re supposed to be talking, but never knowing exactly what about. I’m almost grateful their work hours are what they are; at least this restricts this ordeal to a weekly one.
It’s interactions like those that have left me so eager for anything else to do
that I considered finally getting cleared for physiotherapy – i.e. a chance to get out of this fucking room for a few hours a day – last month a minor miracle. It’s been an awful slog just getting myself feeling like I can walk a few minutes again, but I’ve little else to do save for reading and catching up on schoolwork. None of my classmates visit anymore, of course, but it's a standardized syllabus; I can just read the textbooks, which my parents happily brought by in hopes it would cheer me up (it didn’t, but at least suffering through English gave me an excuse for being irritable), and work through the problems. This isolation and self-improvement does certainly makes the parallels to prison quite obvious. I sometimes fantasize about those movies where the hero – wearing my face – emerges from prison, covered in rippling muscles and prison tattoos, ready to take revenge against the people that put him in here on false pretenses. Obviously, there are no false pretenses, I don’t much want revenge, and there probably isn’t a patient-inmate who’ll do a tattoo for me – even if it's to cover up this awful scar. As for the muscles… well, I’m not going to get out of here with a six-pack, I don’t think. But at least I’ll probably be able to walk to the neighborhood Lawson’s for a drink without hacking up half a lung or my legs feeling like they’ve been dipped in lava.
I manage half an hour on the treadmill today at a relatively fast pace before Dr. Satoyama tells me our session is over. I nod, and slow the machine to a halt, before resting in the suspension frame and kicking each my legs a bit to work out some of the acid. At this point, it’s no longer really the muscles in my legs that are the problem, but the one in my chest, and so rather than three long, easy sessions a week, it’s now maybe an hour of light exercise a day. Still, some precautions are deemed necessary – such as the rig the physiotherapist is now unstrapping me from. I was initially horrified by the setup, thinking it made me look like a geriatric, but after basically collapsing the first few days and only being stopped from slamming my chest against the machine by the straps, I grew to, somewhat begrudgingly, understand the point. I’ve been assured that this was just a safety measure until they were confident I wouldn’t be at risk of falling off the treadmill anymore. Both of those reassurances – or perhaps simply getting used to the routine – have made me slightly more willing to tolerate them. It is not so much that the workouts themselves are relatively hard or at all dangerous, but rather that I’m given that illusion by how frail my body has become in my extended convalescence. I am, as ever, told that this is all normal.
After I dismount, rather than dismiss me as she usually does, Dr. Satoyama calls out to me. “So, Mr. Nakai,” she starts in her usual formal tone. “It's my belief that your cardiovascular health has gotten to the point where, if you’d prefer, we can scale these sessions back a little bit. Put it at more along the lines of two or three times a week, just so that we can maintain where you’re at right now. From here on it’s really less about standard procedure, and more so about what you think is best to achieve your goals. If you find these exercises easy and think you can keep the pace up, we can continue the current routine. If these exercises have been tough, well, nobody’s going to fault you for slowing things down a little.” I can just about tolerate that last bit from Dr. Satoyama; she doesn’t emit a motherly aura so much as a grandmotherly one, and that, at least, doesn’t remind me of Mother’s coddling.
I weigh my options. On the one hand, I want nothing more than to get out of this prison they call a hospital. On the other, frankly, this exercise sucks
. I hate how exhausted it makes me feel when I’m doing it and how pathetic I feel afterwards for being so exhausted, and I despise how stupid it makes me look in this idiotic suspension frame. Besides, I’m…well, I’m not happy
, but can I be content enough stuck reading in my room until they’ll finally let me out?
(Base Game) I can be content with less exercise and more time to myself.
(KS Premium: Expanded Story Pack) No, anything to get out of here sooner.
“No, let’s keep it daily,” I say, forcing a smile on my face as I tell her. “I’d like to be out of here as soon as possible, and I’m sure you want me out of your hair too.”
She laughs at that last line. “True enough! It’s no good for a handsome young man like yourself to be stuck in here rather than at school chasing skirts!”
A biting remark comes to mind, but I bury it. She’d have no reason to know how I first came to the hospital. Why would she? I’ve never told her, and I can’t imagine most of the hospital staff would know either. I can’t look her in the eye anymore, so instead I just turn away, wave and leave. I have this old book to finish anyway, some ghost stories by an improbably Irish author with an equally improbably Japanese name.
A month later, I’m forced to conclude that some small mistakes were made in my therapy. A little bit by Dr. Satoyama, but mostly by me. The first time I’m allowed outside, unsupervised, to go for a walk, I spontaneously decided to make it a run – well, a jog – instead, to test the improvements I was so sure I’d made. Instead, I have a flutter, a bad one, one that leaves me sprawled on the concrete pathway, clutching my chest and convinced I’m about to die. I obviously don’t, but it makes for almost two full weeks of setbacks in my progress. She’s furious at me, of course, but doesn’t do much about it apart from finger-wagging and a little nagging during our next sessions together. She’s just as aware as I am that the flutter was punishment enough; no need to add anything else onto it. However, I’m never again allowed to exercise unsupervised.
This and a hundred other tiny slights add up. I’m furious at…at my circumstances, at my irresponsibility, at my being stuck here, so I suppose in a roundabout way I’m generally furious at myself. I take this anger out on my textbooks, on the treadmill, on dark and miserable thoughts lying awake at night, and at some point it turns to a growing rage at the hospital itself. The rational part of my mind is well aware of how stupid and pointless what I’m about to do is, but that part of my mind is no longer in charge. I make a break for it when Dr. Satoyama is distracted with the complaints of a young girl, at first casually walking off the treadmill and out of the room, then spri– well, powerwalking, anyway – down the corridor. I manage nearly thirty glorious, unsupervised minutes outside, simply walking around in the late spring air before an orderly finds me and drags me back into that coffin I’ve been immured in for four months that they politely call a room.
My parents arrive rather quickly, for all that it’s a Tuesday afternoon. Their expressions tell me they’re not thrilled at my attempted prison break, but I avoid any scoldings by pleading with them the moment they arrive to ‘Get me out of here,’ and responding to any of their other attempts to say anything with ‘No, get me the hell out of here.’ Their expressions swiftly change after a round or two of this game. Maybe they just didn’t realize quite how miserable I’ve been here. Although if they couldn’t realize that, then they must not have been paying how I felt any attention at all. After ten minutes of that, they leave, and I’m left alone again with a half-finished book about some utopian society and their attempts to deal with some sort of problem they don’t have the context for. It’s not bad, but the pregnant woman infuriates me.
It’s the next day before my parents come back. I’m embarrassed after my outburst yesterday, and only nod to them as they enter, but at least Father offers me a weak smile in return before starting to speak. “We’ve...talked to your doctors about getting you out of here. We didn’t...we didn’t realize how trapped you must have felt here in the hospital...”
“Hicchan,” Mother blurts out during his pause. “Why didn’t you say anything earli-”
Father cuts her off. “He said everything he needed to,” he tells her in a voice almost too low for me to hear, then returns to me. “They were originally going to let you out this weekend, and...we were going to have a talk with you about your future when they planned to tell you on Friday. But we’re going to make that happen today instead.”
My future? “What? What do you mean, my future? I thought they were going on and on about how I could expect to live for quite a while? Am I – oh my god, am I…” I don’t finish my sentence. I just sag back into the bed.
Mother looks stricken. Father is not quite so expressive, but he keeps talking. “No, nothing that…dire. It’s just that your doctors don’t think it’s safe for you to return to your old school. Aside from the fact that you’ve missed close to half the trimester, there’s…well, there’s a lot of lifestyle changes you’re going to need to make, and they suggested it would be easiest to do that at another school. We agreed.”
Another school? Away from my friends, my life, my – I cut myself off. Those friends abandoned you. That life is over. What exactly would you even be going back to? Teachers constantly walking on eggshells around you, afraid that any stress or strain might be what does you in? The same looks of pity in Mai, Shin, and Takumi’s eyes? You weren’t even in any clubs, so those three were all you had. Well, them and…
A small, traitorous part of my mind surges maliciously to the forefront, the question like a knife to the heart, punching through my sternum like the doctors already did.
‘The girl who almost killed you?
’ it asks.
I force it down.
“I’ve been keeping up with schoolwork,” I note halfheartedly. “I’m caught up on the syllabus in…well, every class that matters.” This is technically true, because English does not
“Hicchan, that’s…not an option.” Mother says, slowly.
Father chimes in. “The principal was not willing to…take on the risk. She…she helped advise us of other options.”
“Risk?” I panic, slightly. “No, I – I won’t run off like I did yesterday, I’m sorry, I just couldn’t –”
“It’s not that, Hicchan,” Mother swiftly reassures me. “This – this isn’t punishment, we just thought this is what might be best for you. Your condition, it’s very…”
“There’s liability concerns, and the school doesn’t have the equipment on-hand or the budget to get it. This new school on the other hand, well, they already have it.” Father finishes for her.
“Where.” It’s not really
a question. I almost don’t care to know. Just…not here. Anywhere but here. If it can’t be back to school, a school I worked myself halfway to death to get into only to now be cast out by teachers, principals and even old classmates and friends, then I suppose it doesn’t really matter where I go. At least it won’t be a viper’s den of false friends and girls who break your heart.
“I think you’ll really like it, Hicchan,” Mother chirps. “It’s a boarding school with a lovely campus, out in the – well, not really the countryside, but as close as you can get to it and still be in Sendai. We paid a visit last week and found it to be quite delightful.”
“Where.” I state again, flatly. Her obviously forced happiness is grating on my already strained temper.
Father cuts in. “The ‘Sendai Aoba Mountain District Academy’ if you want to be formal, but even the staff called it ‘Yamaku Academy’ in casual conversation. They have a full 24-hour nursing staff, and the faculty are all trained in dealing with disabled youths, so we’ll be confident you’ll be safe. Not to mention it’s near a hospital in case of –”
I choke. “Disabled youths
?” The words are bitter venom in my mouth, because I know now that as far as my parents and doctors are concerned, I’m never going to be ‘normal’ again. I’m spoiled goods now, ‘disabled youth’: a label almost as toxic in this country as ‘mentally ill’. “You’re packing me off to some…special needs school? After – I – you…” I’m sputtering now in increasingly ill-suppressed rage. “You both always told me schooling was paramount, that’s why I worked so hard to get into Chiba Prefectural in the first place, and now I’m just relegated to some…katawa
school for rejects
. My future was bright, mapped out; I was going to Todai. I was going to become a doctor like you wanted. And now that’s not a…” I trail off, blink back a tear. Mother looks horrified.
“You should have just let me die
,” I spit.
Mother scurries out of the room. I think I saw tears. Father is stronger, he just turns away for a moment before turning back to me, face red. It’s not with anger. “If…” his voice strains, cracks. He opts to stop, coughs once, reaches to the table near the door for a glass of water, tries again. “If we had known how…bitterly you resented being here, we…” He’s fidgeting with the empty glass, opts to puts it down. His empty hands fidget more, reach back for the glass, but settle on the table instead. He straightens his body up, posture rigid, continues in a firm, formal tone. “I am sorry, Son. Hisao. We have…If you cannot forgive us for what you see as this betrayal, I understand. But as your father, I must insist, and only hope you can come to terms with your new environment.”
He wrings his hands together, reaches into his pocket for a slip of paper, and unfolds it. “This is a list of the medications you will be taking while you’re there,” he continues. For all that his words are an attempt to dictate terms to me, this is not the forceful tone he’s always taken on those few occasions in the past he’s felt the need to scold me. There’s only one explanation: he knows he’s in the wrong, and he’s ashamed to speak to me.
He should be.
He hands me the list. I glance at it once. I comprehend nothing, and try again. A numbered list, one through seventeen, but a sea of unrecognizable words mixed with others like ‘side effects’, ‘dosages’, ‘contraindications’, numbers here, milligrams there, and in bold, frequencies. Every single one says at least ‘daily’, if not ‘twice’ or even ‘two pills, twice daily’. My vision blurs, at first with what I assume are tears but then I realize is frustration. “All this, every
day, for the rest of my life
A doctor chooses this moment to rush in. “Mr. Nakai!” she begins to call out, before slowing to a halt as she sees my father in front of me. It takes me a moment to realize the machines have been having a panic attack of their own, which must be the reason she came in here. I force myself to calm down, take a deep breath. I’d hate to have another heart attack just as I’m about to get out of here. “I – well, I see you’re alright, but try to keep from overstraining yourself, eh?” she offers in a tone of forced joviality. I’ve never heard this tone from Dr. Takeda before, but then again, the tension in the room must be palpable. “I see you’ve got the list of your prescriptions in hand there. Do you have any questions?”
I wave the sheet around slightly, now somewhat embarrassed to have been interrupted now that I’m calmer. “As I was…asking my father earlier,” I begin, more formally to cover my embarrassment, “are these all…necessary? Forever? To keep…this
,” I say, gesturing vaguely at my chest, “under control?”
Father now seems to have slumped into a chair. He and I know the argument is over. Not that there was much of an argument. I couldn’t have gone against what he said, in the end. He is still my father.
Dr. Takeda again forces a smile. “Well, you know, pharmaceuticals are always improving. It wouldn't surprise me if this list got halved in the next ten years. You know, if you manage your symptoms correctly, you’ve easily got several decades ahead of you, so always bear that in mind!”
I glance down at my chest. Back up at the doctor, whose smile is fading. Down again. Back over to Father. “And this…Yamaku,” I begin to ask him haltingly, “it – they’ll have the… they’ll know about all this? I won’t have to go and tell them myself, right?”
The doctor seems to genuinely
light up at my question, despite how obviously I’ve not directed it at her. “Oh, Yamaku?” she cuts in before father can answer. “My nephew is a student there, he had a – well, he’s basically blind, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him on a ski hill! He’s an aspiring parathlete; he hopes to be in Canada in 2010.” She’s glowing with pride. I’m…less enthused, but…this place is clearly not the dead-end I first thought. “You know, that’s the sort of student Yamaku is for, the kind that not only can but wants to still get around and learn, only needing a little help to do so. The medical staff is excellent, I’ve heard no complaints about the faculty…Well, other than the usual ‘they give too much homework’ or ‘they work us to the bone!’” She stops to laugh at this. "Not to mention, the school does a lot to promote their independence. It’s –” she seems to suddenly realize how much she’s been gushing, and loses a bit of her enthusiasm. “Well, it’s a good environment. You’ll enjoy it,” she finishes, a bit lamely.
I have my doubts. I won’t express them where she can hear them – I’d be mortified at the thought of possibly insulting her nephew, especially if he winds up my classmate – but I nod. “I, er, I look forward to meeting your nephew.” Oh, damn. ‘Look forward to’? About a blind boy? I’ll have to work on changing my language a bit. “I can only hope the school is half as good as you say it is; after all, if it is even a quarter as good as that, I will be in excellent hands.”
She laughs, and tells me to keep an eye out for a ‘Junichi Moriya’ in class 3-2, before starting to check me over. “I’ll just make sure you didn’t strain anything earlier, then I’ll get a nurse to bring you your meds and you can be out of here in an hour or two.” She’s actually whistling as she does this. How is the mere mention of this place enough to so elevate someone’s mood? I’ve never seen Dr. Takeda with anything but a dour look on her face, and now she’s smiling, whistling, making small talk. Mother came back into the room at some point, tentatively, but regained a lot of confidence when she saw the dramatic shift in the room’s mood.
It is only after Dr. Takeda has left I realize how blasé she was about her nephew’s disability. ‘Keep an eye out’? I suppose she was a very casual person in most of her conversation, but even so, you would think she would know better than to use terms like that about or around a disabled person.
Or perhaps I’m just overthinking it. I’ve done that a lot these last four months, after all.