The Kidney Who Came to Dinner

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Scott Gerace

“I just had my third kidney transplant.”

He revealed this fact to me on our second date, as I put a forkful of the insalata di frisee in my mouth at the Italian restaurant he’d recommended for dinner.

“I’m sorry?” I said, trying to swallow without appearing overwhelmed by the kidney that suddenly arrived at the table.

“Yeah, I don’t like to get into this conversation so soon after meeting someone. But I wanted you to know what’s been going on with me,” he explained.

Rick, or Rican Rick as he called himself on the dating app where we met, was forty-eight, one year older than me, Puerto Rican, balding, bearded, and four inches shorter than my usual preference in potential suitors. Scootercrunch, my online moniker, was newly single after a two-year relationship that soured, dissatisfied with his corporate communications job, and searching for “the real thing” by finally swapping out drunken hook-ups for serious dating.

I hadn’t expected “serious” to translate to a man who spent most of his adult life on dialysis, dealing with one failed kidney after another.

“What else you got?” I joked in an attempt to unpack all his baggage before the entrees arrived.

“Well, I haven’t really worked in seven years.”

And there it was. This attractive man, obviously thin and dealing with a disease, played his whole hand as my roasted chicken and his pasta nudged in between me, him, his kidney, and his unemployment.

The big revelations in gay dating usually consisted of HIV status, recent STDs, favorite sexual positions, and whether or not one of you suffered a serious porn addiction. On a recent date, a middle school English teacher sipped Merlot and plainly announced, “I like to come home after work, smoke a joint, and watch porn.” I immediately sensed I’d be third in line behind weed and over-the-top orgasms. Now that I was confronted with real life problems, I was unsure how to address my feelings about them.

“This is not the man for you,” said my friend James, when I told him about Rick.

“There are some serious red flags going on here,” said my sister during our weekly phone chats.

“Absolutely not! We’ve already had enough death and illness from cancer, let alone bad kidneys.” That was my brother, who begged me not to take on someone with health problems.

Cancer lurked in the shadows waiting to take the next member of the family—at least that was our fatalistic outlook. First our father from brain cancer almost twenty years ago and then more recently our mother after a brutally quick three-month battle with lymphoma.

Our working class parents weren’t the care-giving kind. The sympathy gene never made it to the next generation. You had a cold; you tried your best to go to school. God help you if you stayed home with the sniffles and spent time whiling away the hours watching television.

“If I come home and find you had that TV on, you’ll get the belt,” assured my father.

And he wasn’t kidding. He’d march upstairs to press his hand on the back of the TV to determine if any offenders had snuck into our parent’s bedroom and watched afternoon soap operas. The trick? Only keep it on until three p.m. so it had an hour to cool before his arrival home.

When our mother struggled with cancer, my siblings and I badgered doctors, questioned nursing home administrators and attempted to rally my mother out of her own feelings of doom. But we already loved her. She wasn’t someone new entering our lives.

I often teased my brother that when we got older I’d move in with him and spend our remaining days as brothers drinking and helping each other to the bathroom. “Look pal, it’s bad enough you’ll live here when you’re old, but I’m not taking in some guy with a bad kidney,” he concluded.

For Rick, an ongoing battle with renal failure combined with fear of romantic rejection seemed easily outmatched by my battery of questions and confessions of uncertainty on entering this relationship. In his former working life, he managed a career in the mental health field, so I was on the defensive from his comebacks to my questions.

“What would I do if you got sick again?” I inquired.

“Well, Scott, you could easily get sick anytime too.” Touché.

I told him to watch out as both my parents died of cancer, and I was surely the next one to be afflicted. He found my sense of humor troubling.

“What happens when I come home from a tough day at the office and I say you don’t understand because you don’t work?” I hoped being up front and honest would win me points.

“So it sounds to me like Scott would have feelings of resentment,” he suggested.

“What about a year from now when you’re still not working?”

“You’re assuming things will be a certain way a year from now, aren’t you?”

He made valid points as I learned how Medicare and a supplemental plan covered his medical bills and how he maintained a living. What I didn’t like was his therapeutic approach in response to my honest hesitations.

When he stumbled once in conversation, I joked, “You’re not stroking out on me are you?” A long pause filled the air.

“Don’t tell me you’ve had a stroke before?” I asked.

“Well, they’re not sure what it was,” he replied.

“Are you kidding me?”

He wasn’t.

During my last relationship with a guy six years my junior, we were dating only a few months when an evening of Mexican food resulted in him rushing to the restroom repeatedly with stomach cramps.

“You’ve got a sensitive stomach,” I proclaimed, chalking his boo-boo belly up to the spicy salsa we just ate.

“No, this is not salsa pain. It’s something more serious,” he said.

“You’re fine. Gosh, what are you going to do when you hit your forties like me?”

My poor attempt at a belly pain diagnosis backfired. The next day he summoned me from work as they wheeled him from the ER into the operating room to remove his swollen appendix. All the while he glared at me with an unspoken “I told you” from underneath the silly surgical hat crammed on to his head. Any ache or pain announced during the rest of our two-year courtship immediately ignited my fears, and I quickly encouraged him to see a doctor or head straight to urgent care.

Our love story already had begun taking shape when the appendix appeared right after that chips and salsa appetizer. And, that was not a chronic illness defined by stages and the possibility of failure. My former boyfriend’s appendix wasn’t making a comeback. Kidney failure, on the other hand, remained a possibility for Rick.

I started to question my goodness and whether I was a bad person for wanting to pass him over because of his maladies or lack of current career mobility. As a grown adult I confessed to ending brief affairs of the heart by ignoring calls or texts or coming up with transparent excuses. It was hard to hate yourself for following a dating blueprint adopted by millions of others. But meeting a truly genuine and honest person confronting real-life struggles and dismissing them outright seemed cruel.

I agreed to another date.

In between our meetings, Rick wondered aloud about sex and when we’d explore physical affection. I kept things strictly above the waist and insisted that somewhere between date three and date ten “something surely was bound to happen.”

But it didn’t.

Sunday brunch and casual shopping served as our third date’s agenda. He arrived fifteen minutes late, a pattern I noticed once the kidney and career conversations took a back seat. Before settling on a selection or deciding on a non-purchase, he subjected every waiter or retailer to a multitude of questions and follow-ups. He complimented my good skin repeatedly as if nothing else interesting about me stood out. My humor, Rick pointed out, wasn’t always necessary, and I needed to listen more and talk less.

I wasn’t a bad person, simply someone on a bad date … a third one of my own making. Forget the kidney, and possibly a stroke. No burning romance ignited inside my heart. There was a sense of emotional availability for sure; we certainly talked about his feelings and what he needed. What my brain forgot was why I started seriously dating again in the first place.

I yearned for a true meaningful connection with another man who complimented my late forties skin, yes, but also my wicked sense of humor and my ambitions. I didn’t need analysis—and while the thought of dialysis didn’t exactly excite me—I did need some stirring below the waist to know that sex wasn’t going to wait until date ten.

I agonized over how to tell Rick my heart just wasn’t in it. Friends told me to get over it and rip the band-aid off now, and early, before feelings took shape or sex slipped in to fill the expected next step I swerved to avoid.

We met a final time a week later, having already purchased theater tickets in advance. I waited between nervously devouring the guacamole and paying the bill to tell Rick that this felt more like a friendship than a budding romance. He listened, of course.

“How do you feel about it?” I prompted him.

He paused for a few minutes before replying. “You know. I think we have very different communication styles.”

It felt like the first real connection and mutual agreement we had since meeting.

After the show we chatted briefly on a cold, windy street corner and hugged goodbyes, promising to stay in touch. We haven’t. I watched him confidently walk down the street, moving on to the next adventure life held in store for him, and I did the same.

I was hung up on his physical ailments and lack of a job too quickly, which delayed my discovery of the real issue—our incompatibility. It wasn’t so much about health or career. Of course they mattered when taking in the whole of a potential mate. And yet, it really did come down to the fact that we simply had no chemistry. Rick wasn’t right for me or I for him. Someone needed to say it and save us both from grasping for companionship so blindly rather than patiently staying single.

Truthfully, the kidney mattered too. I wasn’t ready to love someone who brought renal failure as a possible third wheel in our relationship. But with Rick, I hope I did my best to take care of his heart while I practiced stretching mine.

  • ••

SCOTT GERACE is a corporate writer by day and an essayist by night. He currently resides in New York City. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post and Purple Clover. Read his work at www.scottgerace.com.

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The Rest of the Story

leg
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Lee Gulyas

My first date with the man who would become my husband was a disaster.

It was August, and the San Francisco fog rolled across Ghirardelli Square where we both worked selling things to tourists. As we walked, I noticed Ed had a slight limp, and in that optimistic way of seeing one thing connected to everything else, I thought about my friend who had just sprained his ankle and asked my date if he had sprained his.

“No,” Ed said. “I have a fake leg,” as he tilted his head and gave me a smile, leading me to think he was toying with me.

“Yeah, sure. That’s a good one,” I said, not about to let him, or anyone, play me for a fool.

We drove for coffee in the Mission, away from the water and fog, past the War Memorial Opera House, past the fortune cookie factory and into the sun. Light streamed onto our table and illuminated the twisted branches of the sidewalk trees, sad dogs on leashes, motes of dust revolving in the air. Ed talked about folk art, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Hungarian food. I told him about my love for classical music and punk rock. He didn’t blink, didn’t think the two were incompatible. After a moment of silence, I motioned to his leg and asked how it happened. “My friend shot it off when I was thirteen,” he said, smiling.

“Great, great,” I said, always the cynic. “Do you tell everyone the same story?”

After coffee, we agreed on dinner and more conversation. We talked about landscape and trains and music and literature as the sun disappeared and lights framed the city skyline. I lingered over my calzone and asked him to tell me more. “We were camping in the middle of the desert and my friend got the gun out of the truck and it just went off.” He flashed the same, sly smile, and his eyes gleamed.

“Wow,” I said. “Your story just keeps getting better. You’re really good at this.”

We decided to go for drinks. I took him to a dive bar close to my apartment. He was impressed with the extensive taxidermy, year-round Christmas decorations, dim lighting, and ample margaritas. I selected music on the jukebox—Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Ranchera. We sat on red vinyl-covered swivel stools and sipped drinks under the glow of Christmas lights draped over deer antlers. After a few drinks, we planned for a weekend hike on Mt. Tamalpais.

Later, while I described the mechanical beauty of vintage Italian motorcycles, Ed sat his drink on the bar, leaned over, raised his pant leg, pulled up his sock, and stuck it to the Velcro square on his hard, plastic leg.

I remember my stomach turning, growing tight. I felt queasy and it wasn’t the margaritas. I don’t remember the rest of the evening, what was said, how we parted. What I do know is that at the age of twenty-five, for the first time in my life, I called my mom to talk about a man. After blurting out the story, panicked that I couldn’t go hiking with him, that I’d made such an ass of myself, she set me straight. “It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.”

How could I argue with that?

•••

I’ve never been known for my social grace, yet this blunder had my head spinning. I didn’t want to face Ed after spending the whole afternoon, evening, and night making fun of him, but I couldn’t figure a way out of our next date without making myself look worse. The awful thing was that I was falling for him, and it had seemed so long since this was possible. San Francisco in the eighties was a playground full of sex, drugs, and music, and I had played for years until my circle of friends became smaller (and more responsible). The party was winding down. We no longer danced till four a.m., heading out for breakfast after, tearing through the streets on motorcycles to get home to our beds before the sun came up. Now we worked at our jobs or went to school and met for breakfast on Saturday mornings. I hadn’t been on a date in years, but I was content enough with my job and my friends that being “dateless” didn’t bother me. And I never thought that I was missing anything until the possibility of missing my next encounter with this man outweighed any chance for the salvation of my pride.

The next day was sun and shadow, redwoods and ferns. I wondered if I should say something—apologize for my disbelief, my arrogance—but at first there didn’t seem to be a good time, and as the day went on an apology seemed irrelevant. We sat on a rock in the middle of a rushing stream. We feasted on pistachios and dried figs, listened to woodpeckers and ravens. We scrambled up hills and down ravines, stood above the fog line and peered across to San Francisco.

At the end of the day when his car stopped in front of my apartment, Ed leaned over, stared into my eyes and asked, “Can I do something?” I nodded tentatively and he reached around to the back of my head and took my unruly hair into his hand. He lingered, then let go.

In the coming weeks we walked all over the city to restaurants, movies, and cafés. At Point Reyes, we hiked two miles with full gear in the blue moonlight and made camp on a bluff overlooking the ocean. On a weekend trip to Squaw Valley, he taught me how to downhill ski and never laughed, even after the chair lift knocked me down. We backpacked our way through steep canyons and valleys in the Southwest, swam in cold, spring fed waters in Oak Creek Canyon. I was in new territory—I usually spent my time in restaurants and bars and my idea of outdoors activities took place on a motorcycle. Still, I was hesitant about Ed’s handicap, uncertain of how his disability could change my life.

•••

I couldn’t figure out exactly what I was afraid of. It wasn’t that his prosthesis was limiting—he was way more active and daring than I was. It certainly wasn’t the idea of disability—my aunt had polio, my dad had a permanent tracheostomy, and I have friends with a range of conditions and array of medical apparatuses. So what was my problem?

That’s when I realized that I was my problem. I wasn’t afraid he would need me. I like being needed. I was afraid that I would need him.

•••

It took years for my husband to tell me the rest of the story. How his leg blew open in front of him, how his friend’s father threw him in the back of the truck and drove like hell to the nearest hospital, miles away over rough desert roads. How he waited in the emergency room for hours while the hospital tried to locate his parents so they could authorize emergency treatment, so the doctors could do more than just resuscitate him each time he slipped away. How he spent months in the hospital enduring surgery after surgery, taking away more of his limb because of the spreading gangrene. How a young resident told him to leave the hospital, that he had been allergic to the antibiotic, but the attending doctor wouldn’t even consider allergic reaction a possibility. How leaving the hospital not only saved what was left of his leg, but also saved his life.

Over twenty years later I won’t lie. I won’t say that Ed’s leg has been problem free. Since he is active he often breaks his prosthetic foot. The costly legs have to be replaced every few years, the silicone liners every few months, and insurance doesn’t always cover the expenses. There are times when his skin gets irritated or chafed and then he can’t wear the leg at all. He’s undergone corrective surgery that required him to stay off his leg completely for two months straight—no prosthesis, no walking, no driving. He suffers from back problems; there are days at a time when all he can do is take muscle relaxants and lie flat on his back until the pain subsides. Then there’s the frustration and subsequent depression, a symptom of all the imposed inactivity. He experiences chronic pain, not phantom ones, though he gets those too. But he rarely asks for help; he hates being immobile, reliant on others for his basic needs.

Ed seldom slows down unless he has to. We visit relatives in Hungary. We’ve trekked through rural Mexico, traveled through Romania and Ethiopia, and lived in Yemen—all difficult places to get around. He gardens, bikes, swims, and has a long list of interests and projects, too many for me to keep track of. I’m content in the house, with a book. Ed’s the one that makes me get off the couch and out into the world.

Now he jokes that I married him for the parking space. I laugh, but I have to admit that it is convenient. The state we live in calls the rectangular blue placard that hangs from our rearview mirror “a privilege.” I see it as a courtesy, a small gesture that can only help make this single aspect of his life a little easier.

In the meantime, we’re proof that normal is relative. Sometimes our daughter, now a teenager, has to be reminded why we often can’t go skiing or for a hike, or why we get directed to the front of a crowded parking lot at Disneyland or the fair.

Sometimes I forget too, even though I know my future will include a long parade of orthopedic surgeons, dermatologists, prosthetists, physical therapists, and the accompanying bills. We’ll have to move from our cozy Victorian home to a more practical one-story house, ready for wheelchairs, accessible design, and all the accoutrements of “independent living,” even though there is no such thing, even though in the end it could be me who has to rely upon Ed for care. I suppose this is the rest of the story: nothing is certain—so we go forward the best way we know how.

•••

LEE GULYAS lives in Bellingham, Washington, and teaches at Western Washington University. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals as Prime Number, Event, Barn Owl Review, and The Common.