The people around me seem to think that I am winning. According to the narrowly defined Korean interpretation of ‘success’ (it is super-narrow), I am winning. From the stereotypical American frame of reference, I am also winning. When I walk into the office on Monday morning, people stare at me expectantly, waiting for exciting stories about the exciting weekend that I must have had. People associate me, rather wrongly, with the good times they wish they were having. The truth is, most of the time I do absolutely nothing but stare at the wall or the ceiling or the TV screen, trying to will myself into a catatonic state so that the time might pass more quickly. The money is mostly unspent, there’s nothing interesting on my reading list, the company email inbox is full of messages that I don’t want to read from people I don’t like, the good times are scarce and my Kakaotalk friend list has a grand total of eight contacts. My phone only rings when someone wants to borrow money or needs a favor (or when voice phishers dial the wrong number). It is Saturday night at 1:47am, and I am sitting alone at my keyboard after an 80+ hour work week. I’m winning.
Sometimes when I get bored I search the internet for other people who were born on the same date that I was. 1983 was a good year, according to Wikipedia, 1983 saw the official beginning of the internet and the first cell phone call. I share my exact birth date with a sumo wrestler, an actor, a serial killer, a singer, and a Polish footballer among countless others. With all the people around the world born on the exact same day as myself, surely there must be at least some who will die on the same day that I die as well. There must be at least one other person somewhere who will float through time and space and for exactly the same number of days, during the same exact time period that I do. Someone who took their first breath and will take their last breath on exactly the same days that I did/will.
When I was a university student, I worked at a company that provided off-site document and data storage for large companies. I worked this job among many others mostly because my parents refused to fund my university education, and that was largely due to me being what polite people might call “academically disinclined”. I basically got shitty grades for the entire duration of my school career, and I had trouble staying awake during classes that didn’t interest me. The very few teachers who took an interest in me must have had hearts of gold. Near senior year of high school, our school administrators gave or sold a list of under-performing students to the local Marine Corps recruiter, figuring it was probably our last chance to obtain a regular paycheck and basic healthcare. The recruiter called and visited my house relentlessly. Instead of joining the military, I got a job and slowly paid my way through school with loans and a meager salary. My parents even charged me rent.
Part of my job was taking physical hospital records and entering them into a database with the idea being that if there were a fire or disaster, and the physical copies were destroyed, alternate copies would be stored in databases scattered around the country for retrieval. I had at my fingertips literally millions of my fellow city dwellers’ most confidential and intimate records. Records of births, deaths, major operations, medical insurance claims that were approved or denied (most were denied), receipts from cosmetic surgeries, records of surgical malpractice, records of the utmost personal nature that one assumes are stored securely and locked away from all non-essential prying eyes. On my breaks and when the workload was light, I’d surf this database.
At first I’d search for people with strange or funny names, people who had gone out and had their legal names changed to things like “Sacred Mighty Master Dragon Slayer”. Sometimes I’d search for celebrity names (lots of people check into hospitals using fake celebrity names, it turns out, while real celebs check in using plain, average pseudonyms). Sometimes I’d search using my postal code and the records of people living in my area would come up. I’d find that someone had died in the house next to mine, or that one of my neighbors was fighting cancer and losing. Once I searched the database using my birthday and a list of about 200 names came up. Our company handled records for a few hospitals, but not every hospital in the city. Finding over 200 other people with the same exact birth date as me was compelling, so I scrolled down the list of names one at a time.
My own name was on the list because I was born in the largest hospital in my hometown. I scrolled and scrolled until I came across a name that I immediately recognized. It was a guy that I’d gone to high school with. The family name and spelling were so unique that I had no question I was staring at the medical records of my former classmate, who for the purpose of this post I will refer to as “Jeremy”. Jeremy and I hadn’t spent any time together in high school, he was basically just another person who I’d passed in the hallway or saw in a few shared classes. Jeremy was a letterman, a jock who did jock things and made people laugh in Spanish class with his (possibly intentional) butchering of every single word he was forced to read aloud. I was not a jock, and I mostly slept in Spanish class.
Jeremy’s world and my world were pretty different. His older brother was also a jock, and so I imagined that at home his father was probably a stocky, balding former quarterback who sat at the sidelines of football games cheering his sons on. Mom was probably pretty, but passive, stuck in a home bursting with testosterone. At least, that is what I imagined. Jeremy’s medical file was about 30 pages long. As I scrolled through the files, things like “intubated” and “tetraplegia” and “hospice care” appeared. Everyone who attended my high school in the late 90’s will remember it quite well because it happened the night of Homecoming in our 4th year of high school.
Our team had won the game. The crowds roared, the cheerleaders cheered, the band played a victory song and the players were heroes. That night, several players from the team all parked their trucks on the football field in a big circle with the headlights facing the center of the circle, and did what jocks do; drank from a keg of beer that someone’s older brother had probably procured. This was in September so the weather was cool but not cold, the skies probably clear. They drank and drank and one by one they put their trucks in reverse and peeled out, leaving tire tracks on the field. The following Monday there’d be hell to pay with the coach and principal but somehow all would be forgiven. After all, they’d won the homecoming game.
Jeremy peeled out that night and drunkenly sped towards his home. It was a slight miscalculation and a bit of loose gravel that sent his Tacoma rolling off the side of the road and upside down into a ravine. When they found him, they assumed he was dead. Turns out he was paralyzed from the neck down. The following week, the school administration even sent grief counselors to talk to students who were traumatized by the incident. Jeremy’s girlfriend stopped coming to school. To say that everyone got a stern lecture on the horrors of drunk driving and underage drinking would be the understatement of the century. The doctors put a tube down his neck, hooked him up to a ventilator and eventually, from what I read in his file, discharged him to a hospice. The hospice, as it turns out, was on a street that ran perpendicular to the street that I lived on. A normal looking house, outfitted with special beds, ventilators, and round the clock nurses to care for the 3-4 permanent residents who I assumed were in the same basic physical state as Jeremy.
I scrolled through his records for various years. 2001, 2002, all the way up to the current date (2005 at the time), Jeremy had been sitting in that same room, in that same hospice, hooked up to a ventilator, probably staring at a TV, or a wall, or a window all day long. I’d walked past that same house every day of my life from elementary until I graduated from high school, and then in university I drove past the house on the way to class or work every day. For several of those years, Jeremy had been in that house, possibly in a room facing the street. There were not many details about his day to day life in the hospice, but I imagine that a nurse came in to empty his bed pan a few times a day, and perhaps re-adjust his breathing tube. Someone probably came by once or twice a week to give him a sponge bath and adjust his withered body to prevent bed sores. One would hope that someone came by to read to him, or turn on a TV for him, or adjust his reclining bed into the upward position so that on a nice day he might be able to look out the single small window and see life passing by. I assume his family would visit from time to time, maybe on birthdays. I doubted that any of his former friends could handle such a visit.
When I graduated from university, Jeremy was still in the same hospice. When I got my first job, and as the seasons changed, and people went to watch the first Kill Bill movie in the theaters, Jeremy was still in that same room, staring up at the sky, or clouds, or trees from his bed. Maybe he had posters on the walls, or photographs. Girlfriends came and went, I worked to pay off my student loans, and eventually I got a job offer in Korea, and all the while Jeremy was still in that room, four walls and a bed, not much different from a prison cell with its occupant serving a life sentence.
Back in school, I’d never realized that Jeremy and I were born on the same day. If we’d been friends or teammates, perhaps sharing a birthday would have bound us together. Jeremy’s entire life was now and would be forever within those four walls, breathing through a tube, eating through a tube, shitting and pissing through tubes, watching kids climb the hill towards the same high school that we went to, year after year after year. He was one year short of graduating. Those four walls were his prison cell, but in his mind, he could go anywhere he wanted, he could travel. I’ll bet that in his mind, the truck never flipped, and he is married his high school sweetheart, and has two sons who will grow up to play football. They have a two story house with a two car garage and a big grass yard where the kids toss the football with dad. The children run into the house without taking off their shoes and mom throws up her hands in resignation at the muddy footprints.
What Jeremy has is not a bedroom, it’s a container. The TV, posters, tubes and nurses are not real. The wife and kids, cookie cutter house and tossing a football on the grass are his real life. As I passed the hospice house for the final time on the way to the airport, and to my new life in Korea, I looked towards the windows but the curtains were closed. ‘Goodbye’, I thought. By now Jeremy has lived in my own neighborhood longer than I have. He’s been physically closer to my parents than I have in over ten years, right around the corner all this time. In the past ten years, I’ve been through various forms of hell, depression, lawsuits, alienation from family, the loss of a loved one, the humiliation and financial destruction brought on by a failed business. I’ve also experienced and continue to experience what people call ‘success’, if measured solely in the form of financial or material gain.
But I also dream. What is reality, really? In my dreams I’m walking on the beach, like I used to as a kid. Everything that I hate and everything that drags me down fades away and the only immediate sensation I have is hot sand between my toes. Thoughts of having a one man charcoal party inside my car with the windows taped up momentarily vanish. No, I’m walking and walking towards the horizon with a bottle of water in my hand, the sea is to my right and the sandy cliffs to my left. I drink water from the water bottle until it is empty and I keep walking. The wind is blowing, the waves are crashing, and seaweed washes up on shore. The sand reflects the sun’s heat which rises in waves off in the distance. I can smell the seaweed and I can hear the seagulls.
Every once in a while, Jeremy’s nurse will be distracted, or stressed out, and she will re-insert his feeding tube or catheter tube the wrong way or with too much pressure and this will stir Jeremy enough to drag him out of his front yard, away from his wife and kids and back into the little four walled prison his body inhabits, with the Filipina nurse, and the table surfaces that smell like disinfectant and the TV that is always on the same channel. He will look out the window and see kids with backpacks walking towards our old high school. It looks like it might rain. The kids look smaller than usual with their giant backpacks. Freshmen on the way to high school for the first time. His nurse will come back into the room and re-adjust his piss tube so that Jeremy can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to sunshine and tossing the football with his two sons out on the grass while his wife bakes bread in the kitchen with the windows open, like she always does.