“These days, there are angry ghosts all around us. Dead from wars, sickness, starvation, and nobody cares. So, you say you’re under a curse. So what, so’s the whole damn world.”
~ Princess Mononoke
“Christ almighty, life is a sh*thole of an experience!” I thought as pain pulsed from my ankle up through my knee. I gingerly stepped down from the elliptical machine, eying the timer which indicated that I’d only been going for 15 minutes.
For the millionth time, I let me eyes sweep the crowded Gold’s Gym hall and felt envy burn and churn inside me like a 2 a.m. taco truck burrito. Tawny guys with rippling muscles and necks like tree trunks performed feats of athleticism with seemingly little effort. They exuded pure, unadulterated health and I f*cking hated them for it.
Stepping into the pain, I limped my way over to my gym bag, popped four advil, and stood for a moment massaging the scar tissue on my leg which clung to the bone like it’d been super-glued. My belly, though not huge, made a nice hill out of the front of my t-shirt and my arms had lost the firm curvature of muscle which had been present only two years earlier.
“Twenty six years old and I’ve got the body of a fifty year old man,” I muttered while gritting my teeth and hobbling back to the low-impact machine. I managed to eek out another 15 minutes of cardio and a couple of sets of sit-ups before my flabby body and sore leg let me know I was finished.
Back in the locker room, I hurriedly undressed—embarrassed by my own physique—and nearly toppled over when my foot snagged on my underwear. Cursing, I wrapped a towel around myself and entered the dimly lit sauna. Steam and heat enveloped me like an embrace and I felt sore muscles begin to ease almost immediately.
In the opposite corner sat an overweight, 40-something Mexican man. Even in the dim light, I noticed a raised scar which ran from his shoulder to his waist and I wondered what type of accident had caused it. I don’t know if it was his sagging gut, his droopy jowls, or the long scar, but he reminded me of an old bulldog who’d weathered a few too many fights.
I used to chat with strangers all the time, but since my accident, I just hadn’t been in much of a conversational mood… which is why it surprised me when I suddenly said, “You’re the first person I’ve seen in a while who’s got a bigger one than me.”
The man looked up, peering at me with angry suspicion over a slightly crooked nose. He grunted “Eh?” I stammered. “I’m sorry, that didn’t sound right did it? I was talking about scars.” I extended my leg and gestured towards the puffy line which ran from my knee to my ankle.
After an awkward moment of silence, he leaned back and laughed. His whole body shook for a moment and I couldn’t help but grin myself. “Oh man!” he said, “I’m still getting used to being around dudes naked, and when you said that… oh man, I wasn’t sure.”
“Yeah, my bad,” I chuckled. “Sometimes I speak before my brain has a chance to review my words.”
“It’s all good, no worries.” He glanced back down at my leg. “So, how’d you get that?”
“Well, I was living in Spain for a year, when I got hit by an old man driver one day while I was jogging. They clipped me right in this leg,” I gestured towards my scarred limb, “and I rolled up the hood of their car and shattered their windshield before flying about fifteen feet ahead into the ditch. At first I thought I was okay, until I looked down and saw my leg bone sticking out.
“Jesus,” the man said sounding impressed.”
“What’s worse,” I continued, encouraged by his reaction “was that when they got me to the hospital, two doctors reset my leg without any pain killers other than some Valium… which meant I was calmly in unbelievable pain.”
I finished telling Manny—I had learned his name—an abbreviated version of the rest of the saga and ended by saying, “And now, I feel pissed off all the time because I can’t do the things I used to be able to do and whenever I do exercise, the pain kicks in.”
He nodded sympathetically, “Oh yeah, I get that for sure.”
“What about you?” I asked suddenly, realizing I’d been doing all the talking.
He smiled slightly and without much humor. “My story’s not as exciting as yours, but it fucked me up all the same. You know where Big Creek Lumber is down in Watsonville?”
I nodded, “Sure, I grew up in this area.”
“Okay, well I used to drive a fork lift for them a couple of years back. So, behind that tall, green main building, there’s a big deck where we’d sometimes stack special orders—hard woods and shit like that. Well, one day I had a full load of oak—one of the heaviest lumbers—and had to drive up on the actual deck to position it just right for pick-up. I should’ve known better because that deck was a piece of crap, but I’d been up on it and needed to get the job done. So, right before I could position the load, the deck collapsed beneath the fork lift.”
It was my turn to register surprise. “Damn! How far did you fall?”
“It wasn’t all that far—maybe seven feet—but the problem was that it didn’t fall straight down. The rig tipped sideways and wedged me between the metal frame of the lift and a concrete support beam.”
Manny paused to wipe sweat away from his eyes and I noticed that I was getting overheated myself. He continued, “It took them almost an hour to get me out of there cuz my back was broke and the medics didn’t want to cause permanent damage.”
“That’s way more intense than my story!” I said.
Manny shrugged, “It was pretty bad… and still can be. Walking hurts and I have to use a cane most of the time. Even sleeping hurts if I don’t lay on my stomach and with this thing,” he patted his round gut, “that’s not easy.” He laughed again and I felt amazed that he could seem so relaxed about the whole disaster.
“That really sucks man,” I said starting to think that maybe I didn’t really have it so bad after all.
He shrugged, “It gets slowly better with time and I guess that’s just life. I gotta play the cards I was dealt.”
We were quiet for a second. Finally I said,
“Maybe this is too personal of a question considering I just met you—so tell me to piss off if you don’t want to answer—but you seem so accepting and relaxed about your accident. Doesn’t the pain make you angry? I mean, I feel like I got screwed by life and you’ve obviously been hurt worse… so how do you deal with all that frustration?”
He mopped at a stream of sweat with the corner of his towel and said, “It’s funny man that you’d ask that, ‘cuz there’s actually a story behind how I see things now. If I’m gonna tell it, though, I gotta tell it real quick, ‘cuz I’m starting to feel like a turkey in an oven.”
“No problem. Yeah, I can only handle another five minutes or so myself.”
“Well, about a year ago,” he began, “I went to the beach in Santa Cruz with my wife. I’d been a real asshole lately because of all the shit you were talking about… the pain and how things were unfair and all that. I’d been taking it out on my wife too; I think more than anything I was jealous because she was the same as she’d always been and I was like some old man with a cane and getting fat.”
He patted his belly before continuing.
“But, anyways, she wanted me to go to the beach with her and I agreed even though I didn’t want to go. So, when we get there, of course there aint no parking spots left and we had to circle around for like twenty minutes. By the time we found a spot pretty far from the beach; I was really mad and I’d already yelled at my wife. So, she was upset and I was upset and we started walking a long way to the beach, me with my cane.”
“When we finally got there, I saw that a van had parked and taken up two big’ol spots right in front of the beach. Man!” Manny laughed, “I was so f*ckin’ pissed that I wanted to find the driver and just beat the shit out of him.”
“I hate that,” I interjected with disapproval. “Makes me want to key their car!”
“Right!?” Many said. “Yeah, so we went on our walk and the whole time all I could think about was how messed up it was that I had to use a cane and that my back hurt and that assholes like the van driver just did whatever the hell they wanted.”
He leaned forward and his voice lowered slightly. “This is where the story got kinda crazy for me though. When we got back to the parking lot, I was so angry at everything that I couldn’t even think. And that’s when I saw him.”
Manny raised a thick black eyebrow at me and I, of course, asked, “Who?”
“The Van driver,” he said softly.
At this point, I expected Manny to tell me that he’d beaten the man senseless, been arrested, and then learned his lesson or something of that ilk.
“So, I see this guy getting into the van… except he’s not stepping into the van, he’s hoisting himself in from a wheelchair using a special hydraulic lift. He had a whole system which was damn impressive to watch.”
“So, I’m standing there with my mouth hanging open in disbelief… all my anger gone. And my wife, she comes up behind me and puts her hand on my back. She didn’t say nothing, just put her hand on me and I knew right then how crazy I’d been acting.”
“Wow,” I said, “I guess just seeing the guy gave you a new perspective on your problems, huh?”
Manny smiled, “Wait; it gets better. So, after the guy positioned himself in the driver seat, he reached down and grabbed his wheelchair—it was one of those lightweight, foldable types—and dragged it up into the van. Totally slick operation man, except a water bottle fell out of a pocket on the chair and landed on the ground.”
“Before I even thought about what I was doing, I walked over, picked it up, and handed it to the guy. Next thing you know, this guy, Michael, and I are talking about my accident while my wife went back to get the car. Even though I’d just met Michael, for some reason I told him how angry and resentful I’d been lately but that I felt stupid about all my complaining now that I’d seen him in his wheel chair.”
Manny looked up at me, “It wasn’t really a polite thing to say, but it was honest and came out of my mouth before I thought about how it might sound to him. But the guy, Michael, didn’t get offended or nothing. He actually laughed, which surprised me, and then started telling me about his own accident.”
“It turns out that him and two buddies were coming back from a snowboarding up in Tahoe when they hit some black ice and slammed into a rock bank. The guy on the passenger side was killed instantly. Michael, who was driving, was paralyzed from the waist down and his other buddy had a bunch of broken bones and a really bad head injury.”
I shook my head. “That’s horrible!”
“Yeah it is,” he said, his eyes meeting mine. “And here’s the crazy part of the story in my opinion, man. So, I ask Michael the same questions you asked me, ‘aren’t you just angry at the world’ and all that kind of stuff? You know what he told me?”
“I’ve got no clue” I said.
“He says to me, ‘Manny, nearly every week I visit my buddy that survived, the one with the head injury. He’s got brain damage now and his personality is aggressive and pretty mean at times. He lost his wife and even his own kids are afraid to see him. He can’t work no more and has to live in a halfway house.’”
Manny paused for emphasis. “Then he tells me how he’s got an amazing wife and full use of his mind. Sure, he gets frustrated with not being able to walk but he’s still able to do his architecture work. The craziest thing was that he told me that in many ways, he lives better and healthier now than he ever did before.’”
Manny shook his head.
“So, here’s this guy who I was feeling sorry for and it turns out that he’s grateful that he didn’t end up like either of his other buddies. It’s all relative, it’s all relative…”
I sat quietly for a minute, letting the story sink in, my own frustration with only being able to exercise hard for 30 minutes at a time, paling in comparison with what I’d just heard. Finally I nodded, “Thanks Manny… I appreciate it.”
“I thought you might,” he laughed. “I can’t take anymore of this heat though; nice to meet you and good luck.”
With that, he hoisted himself up, shook my hand as he passed, and hobbled out of the sauna. After a few more seconds, I stood up and walked gracefully out into the cool air.
Editor: Andrea B.