Dr. Vampyre EXCERPT
Today, I woke up with nineteen spoons instead of twenty-two. Not literal spoons—figurative. I don’t go to bed placing utensils on my face or twirl the family silver from my extremities. Such behavior would insult my Mensa-acceptable 133 IQ.
The spoon theory is a fellow sufferer’s explanation of what it’s like to live with lupus. Spoons represent how much energy I have before I begin to deteriorate, and I am grateful to each and every one of them. Every spoon I wake up with means I can do that many tasks. Tasks like walking down the stairs, teaching my class, seeing patients. The type of things others take for granted.
When my students in the blood cell biology class at the University of Southern California inquire about my condition, I describe lupus as a life-sucking force in which you have to constantly balance your time and energy against the downhill spiral of lethargy and pain. My explanation usually stops anyone from asking more questions. As if not talking about my condition will make the disease go away.
The pain used to anger me. Succumbing to a body that jails my actions is a study in humiliation. Worse is knowing lupus affects more women than it does men. Some call it a woman’s disease. Being a man, you might think that is what bothers me. What bothers me is I don’t like to see women in pain. Knowing what they are going through helps me as a doctor, but as a man, it doesn’t help my psyche.
You see why I strive for a logical life. Emotion takes so much energy that it’s better not to feel. In fact, suppressing any emotion is key to my success. It doesn’t stop the pain lupus gives me. Nothing stops the pain except one unnatural addiction, and that only for a brief moment. So with my shield of apathy and my sword of cynicism, I venture forth into the morning to heal and teach as a doctor and professor.
You’d think I would slow down or take it easy today knowing that I’ve already begun without my usual amount of spoons, but today is the first day of a new semester and I won’t be late. Never, in my nine years of teaching, have I ever been late. Besides, I can’t let those beemer brats wreak havoc in my lecture hall, now can I?
The one indulgence that would solve my lethargy problems flits through my brain. I resolve to shove that thought out. Anything not normal, right now, is not in the plan.
I stroll into my lecture hall at exactly nine fifty a.m. and the whispers stop. Old and new faces attentively follow my shuffle as I round my desk to the dry erase board at the front of the room. I pick up a marker that could make any fifth grader swear off glue and write Dr. Tennison - Blood cell biology.
Thankfully, the counselors and older co-eds let it be known that I am “a real dick” and have an aversion to those who are not on time. So, I rolled my eyes when at ten minutes after ten, she of the model-thin body, sporting six-inch stilettos, tight jeans, and a frou-frou blouse, walked in.
“Ms. Tardy, don‘t bother.”
She gave me the oh-gosh-I’m-really-sorry face. “Are there any more seats?”
“Not for you. Please, don’t waste our time. I don’t take add-ons.” I reached under my desk for the medical book I would use to assist in today’s lecture.
“But, I registered for the class.” Ms. Tardy pouted.
“I don’t care. You’re late. No more room. Get out.” The slam of the thousand-page medical dictionary I tossed on my desk should have been enough articulation in my statement for her to leave.
“I got here as soon as I could!” Her whine climbed the scale into annoyance territory.
“Which is not good enough. You’re done.” I pointed at the door. “Get out.”
“Oh come on. What could I have missed in five minutes?”
“The point . . .” I flashed my Rolex from under my sleeve and checked the time. “. . . And it’s been twelve minutes.”
“That’s not fair!”
“What would not be fair is to make a pulmonary patient, lying open on the table, wait twelve life-or-death minutes for a replacement valve. I’m here to teach. One of those lessons I wish to instill is an appreciation for the value of time.”
Ms. Tardy stood there in her tight jeans and pursed lips with a hand on her hip. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. ”You can go now.” I waved a hand in a sweeping motion. “There isn’t room for you anyway.” There were seats in the back, but she looked like a front-of-the-class, I-want-all-the-attention kind of girl.
“But I pre-registered.” She used her hands for emphasis and struck a classic pose that probably got her into any club or out of any trouble she came up against.
Snorting out my disgust, a glimmer of recognition hit me and I looked harder at Ms. Tardy.
This face before me belonged to Ylati Badashi, the recently “retired” model, and her million dollar Vogue body was in my lecture hall. She must have taken my fluster of disdain for admiration, because her supposedly non-collagen-filled lips curved. But it was that I-have-you-now twinkle in her eye that jostled loose my wrath.
I whisked my walking cane from under my desk. Quick as a turtle in sand, I advanced on her with my geriatric, cane-wielding old man shtick, trying to scare her off my lawn. The fear in her eyes fueled my words. “Get out of my hall!”
I was seething by the time she turned tail and bolted out of the room. She looked like a shackled cat running from the spray of a hose. The image brought tears of laughter to my eyes. It had been a while since I’d laughed that hard. I’m sure my students never see me so much as smile.
Even though I knew the price for expressing my emotion would cost me another spoon and wreak havoc on me later, I couldn’t help the satisfied feeling of living up to my so earned title among the students, Dr. Asshole.
“Dr. Tennison, are you alright?” One of my more faithful students, Ms. Phillips, actually sounded concerned.
I returned to my drab demeanor, leaned heavily on my cane, and grunted an acknowledgment to the third-year co-ed. My physical display allowed the monster of lupus inside me to seek retribution and sap away my energy. Disgruntled for wasting precious vitality on a fritter of a person, I forced down my angry self-reprimand. There was no use getting angry over getting angry.
I resumed my emotionless state and taught as I have for the past nine years—with ruthless abandon. No whining, no excuses, and if you’re late, you fail. If you can’t beat my turtle-ass to class, you’re wasting my time, your time, and everybody else’s time.
After teaching all day, I was down to thirteen spoons. Three spent starting my day: one for teaching class, one for each trip walking to the car, and one for the gallant ass-chewing I gave to Ms. Tardy. When I get down to five spoons, it’s time to think about calling it a day, but I wasn’t there yet.
Mitch, my butler and savior for most my life, picked me up in the blue BMW Alpina. I have never had the privilege of driving it. The DMV denied me a license because of my condition. I did have the honor of paying for it. If you were to ask me, Mitch had a damn nice car to chauffeur me around in.
I called Mitch not only my savior, but also jokingly, my wife. Without him, my life would be impossible. He cooked my food, did my laundry, dropped off and picked up the dry cleaning, scrubbed the house to the point of peeling off paint, scheduled my day, tidied the yard, took some phone calls for me, and made sure I take my medication. I did stop him from wiping my ass—occasionally. Okay, so I’m joking about the last part. He doesn’t wipe my ass, but what unmarried guy in his thirties is going to deny the rest? If sex weren’t involved, I’d marry him. Sure, he’s an adorable thirty-nine year old in a small stout package with dark hair and soft dark eyes, but that’s not how I roll. I’m pretty sure that’s not how he rolls, either.
Off we go to the medical center with Mitch at the wheel and me in the back seat orienting myself with the next class session. Mitch is quite the chatty type, but I’ve learned to drown him out as any good husband would do. Routinely, after the days I teach, he drops me at the hospital where I work. My assistant nurse, Mary, is the old battle ram of the team—wise enough to tell patients to be here an hour early, kind enough to be the matron of compassion, knowledgeable enough to know what to do if ever I seize from pain.
She leads me to the five-minute staff review and then my first patient of the day. I’m handed a clipboard and being a doctor, I read the case symptoms first. Yes, it’s bad to look at what’s wrong with the person before looking at the name, but we all do it. I wish I had looked at the name before I walked in the patient room, but it was too late to walk the other way when I opened the door.
“Ms. Badashi.” Smooth as a virgin dry-erase board, I did not give away one iota of the seething hate boiling through my veins to Ms. Tardy. “It says here you have all the symptoms of river blindness. What would you prescribe yourself?”
“Ivermectin.” The big brown eyed lost puppy look of hers could have cracked a walnut. That’s when the pain behind my right eye surged. Was the eye torture from her annoyingly correct answer, or lupus? I couldn’t tell. “Do you have river blindness?”
“Please let me into your class.”
The audacity! “Am I to believe that my staff bumped you to my first patient when there are real people in need of my services?”
“Hey!” She actually looked put out. “I am a real person. I am in need of your services!” Again she was wasting my time. You’re late, you fail.
“You, young lady, are a fraud. Get out of my office.” I pressed a palm against my pounding eye. It relieved some of the pressure.
Her whining made my eye worse. “What I need is for you to teach me Blood cell biology.”
“Why me?” I said more to myself than to anyone else.
“Because you’re the best.”
Mitch says flattery will get you anywhere. Yes, there is appeal to being called the best. My ego did flutter a little, but not enough to forgive her cardinal sin number one. With my one hand still pushing back my right eye, my index finger pointed at the door—hard to do with a clipboard still in my hand.
She leaned forward; just enough so her frou-frou top’s fringes hung lose. “I’d do anything to get into your class.”
“Anything?” I smiled and suggestively touched my chest. I did not fail to notice the pink bra she had on.
She nodded and accentuated, “Anything.”
“Sign up next semester and be early.” I threw the clipboard on the counter and tried to slam the door on my way out. Too bad hospital doors didn’t slam. Amazing how my eye felt better after I left her sitting there, but dealing with her cost me yet another spoon. I had eleven spoons left and I needed to get through the rest of my five-spoon work day. Fortunately, I didn’t see her again. I figured that was that.
Mitch picked me up from work at six o’clock. He mentioned Puzo, the dean of students, called. Randolph Puzo is a good man. Works hard, cared about the students, and had gone to bat for me in front of the board about my special condition. He’s the kind of guy you wanted on your team because he did anything to get the job done right.
“John, how are you?” Randolph’s voice came through my iPhone as clear and crisp as a new Benjamin.
“I’m fairing well. What can I do for you?”
Now, Randolph knows I can’t waste energy on chit-chat, and being the good man that he is, he gets to the point.
“John, I have a student that says you chased her out of the lecture hall.”
“Ah, Ms. Badashi. I was afraid she’d fall in those stilettos for the vertically challenged.”
“John,” Randolph chuckled, though I was quite serious, “can you please let her into the class?”
It’s tough and unpopular to be a hardnose, but principles are principles and I refuse to compromise. “She was late, Puzo.”
“It was the first day of the semester.”
“All my other students arrived early. Even before I did.”
His comment was barely audible. “They got the asshole alert.”
To Randolph’s credit, he was as gracious as he always is. “Mr. Tennison, I would greatly appreciate it if you forgave this one transgression and allowed an eager student access to your lectures.”
I should’ve been grateful to Randolph. He’d done so much for me. If I couldn’t make it to class, he would cover for me. He makes sure my lecture hall is the closest to the parking lot. I never had to move desks, books or arrange my classroom during the off season. He’s probably going to catch hell for me denying a student what seems like her dying wish. But when I thought about her suggestive comment, thinking her womanly guiles would work on me, my temper rose to boiling.
“Mr. Puzo, I abide by the school’s program, requirements, curriculum, and every rule and regulation your fine institution implements. Please abide by mine.” I hung up and thought the next call would be a request for my resignation.
Mitch eyed me briefly from the rearview mirror as he was driving. “Sounds like women troubles.”
“Student issues,” I corrected. I wished he wouldn’t call them “women troubles,” as he knew I never had so much as a girlfriend. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been promiscuous. I went to college. Don’t think that lupus affects one’s sex drive, because it doesn’t. I just never had time or the energy to have a steady girl.
“Tim called. Said he’d come to collect you at seven.”
I only had six spoons left for the rest of the night. But I know what Tim would say if I tried to get out of going with him tonight. Just come with us to Loon’s and have a shot and you’ll be fine. Tim wasn’t the type to let me break routine. The schedule never did me wrong. I had a good life, just a limited one.
I sighed and rubbed my temples. How could I deny my best friend since high school? If I didn’t go with him, he’d take every opportunity and every one of his ambulance-driving skills to annoy the fuck out of me at work the next day. Anastasia, fellow lupus sufferer and Tim’s girlfriend, would call me relentlessly and whine in my ear all night. Ever since I can remember, Wednesday nights belonged to the three of us. It’s hard to break tradition.
By six forty-five, I sat ready in the kitchen of my two-story house. Tim usually managed to get Anastasia dressed and ready to go out almost on time. His secret was telling her they had to be there half an hour beforehand. I could have waited upstairs lying down, but going up and down the stairs costs me a spoon. I should have moved to a one-story house, but I’d never sell this home. I’d never be able to replace childhood memories and nostalgia.
Mitch was wiping down the swirled-granite counters while I sat at the four-seat mahogany dining set. His time off was Wednesday night and all of Sunday, fitting perfectly with my schedule. Wednesday I went out with my friends while Mitch went—wherever he went, and on Sunday he left after breakfast and returned on Monday before dawn. But he always made sure I was in safe hands or he could be reached by cell phone before leaving.
I looked at the hundred-year-old Simplex grandfather clock that hung at the opposite end of the entryway to the kitchen. The hands read seven-o-five. My fingers drummed on the table as I counted every second that ticked away. From outside, the sound of Bach booming from distorted speakers was a sure sign Tim’s Tercel was speeding to my driveway.
Mitch raised his head and folded his towel. “Ah, well, here they are.”
We both sauntered out of the kitchen to the rap of Tim’s knuckles on the glass of the window. Mitch grabbed his overnight bag, opened the door, and nodded a greeting to Tim. I scowled and pointed at my Rolex.
Like me, Tim was white bread. But where I had brown hair, he had jet black. I wasn’t as pale as he was, though he tended to stay out of the sun like me. He wore lots of brown and brass and occasionally topped all that splendor with some hat bearing mechanical constructions. Opposed to my daily suit and tie tonight, I lost the jacket and noose, but my slacks were pressed and my button-down collar was appropriate for where we were going.
Tim smiled nervously. He lived up to his nickname of “Jackrabbit,” bouncing on the balls of his feet. Heavy eyeliner accentuated his shocking blue eyes, which pleaded forgiveness. “You know Anastasia.”
I gruffed at Tim and waved at Mitch. I always told Mitch he could take the car, but he insisted on taking the bus. Public transportation was a block away and he never seemed to mind. I didn’t argue. It would have been an exercise in futility as “he was always right.” Just like asking him where he went on Wednesday and Sundays, it was pointless to ask. I stopped wondering where he spent his time off long ago.
Tim bounded to his four-door Tercel and opened the back passenger door for me with a flourish. Anastasia hung over the open window of the front passenger seat. Hourglass figure, impressive chest, thin lips, a strong nose combined with Bette Davis eyes set wide on a heart-shaped face—Anastasia was beautiful. Though I couldn’t understand why a natural redhead dyed her hair auburn. Probably to reap as much attention as possible from her cardinal red strands. Most men would lie down just for the pleasure of saying she stepped on them. But she was as crazy as monkey-flung feces. I had no idea how Tim puts up with her.
“Hi, John.” Anastasia greeted me with a breathy smile and hungry eyes.
I smiled, took her hand, and kissed it lightly. “Good evening, Anastasia.”
She giggled and swatted her free hand on Tim’s butt. “How come you aren’t so charming?”
Tim pivoted around and gingerly took my hand, mimicked my knuckle-kissing gesture and nailed my professor voice perfectly, “John, how lovely to see you. Won’t you please get your ass in the car?”
“Whatever, Jackrabbit.” I said, climbing into the trusty Tercel. I noted that I was down to five spoons and was leaving the house. But it was unlikely we’ll be out too late.