Monthly Archives: April 2016

Unpacked and Alone, In Botswana

As I walked through the pre-dawn darkness past the mongooses dotting the fields of my new home, I remember thinking that it was cold. In my imagination Africa was not supposed to be this cold.

Forty-eight hours earlier I had been in New York, sweating through the late-June heat, packing up as much of my life as I could fit into three suitcases. The city had been home for four years, and though it and I were not quite done with each other, I felt that we needed a break. On the plane ride across the Atlantic I read Joan Didion, which was a terrible idea, and lamented the life and city I was leaving behind. Like her, I could remember, with a clarity that still makes something in my chest constrict, the moment New York began for me, but couldn’t figure out when exactly it ended. Like her, I fell in love with the city in summer and decided to leave several Aprils later to decamp for a warmer locale.

Looking back now, over three years filled with friendships and familiarities in a sleepy city that never offered the extremes of New York love and depression but did provide stability and a sense of belonging, I struggle to find the person that I was in those early days. Unsure of myself, dazed by my surroundings, desperately longing for the life I left, chilly mornings and dusty afternoons blend together leaving me mostly with snapshot memories: sitting on a bench beneath an acacia tree at 3 AM, staring up at the southern sky while talking to a girl eight thousand miles away; hiking a rocky trail to the top of a mountain on the outskirts of town and returning to the car parked in a nearby supermarket parking lot to find our phones stolen; standing in front of a classroom of students and feeling very out of place.

I wasn’t sure what I expected Africa to provide; it was enough at first that it was simply not New York. My first full day in Botswana was also my first day of work, teaching history at a high school in the middle of Gaborone, the country’s capital city. Arriving the afternoon before, while the students were away on holiday, meant that my first hours were solitary ones. I wandered the dirt paths of the campus, overwhelmed by trees I didn’t recognize and trying to adjust to air lighter, dryer, and dustier than what I was used to. I lay awake late into the night, unsettled by the time shift and the silence outside my window.

As I struggled through my transition and spent too much time alone, solace came, as I expect it does for many teachers, in the form of students. The great and terrible thing about teaching is that no matter what happens in your own life, the kids will always be there waiting for you. This was true for me in New York, and I found it true again in Botswana.

I had expected some sort of orientation period, a chance to get acclimated to the school and perhaps a slow handover of classes from the previous teacher. Upon arriving for my first morning staff meeting, however, I was handed a schedule and pointed in the direction of my first period class. I hesitated and asked what I was supposed to teach. “Didn’t you get the package we sent?” asked Abdul, the gregarious South African head of the history department. The blank look on my face must have been answer enough because he quickly continued, “Eish, damn BotswanaPost. It’s okay, we’ll get you caught up this afternoon. Don’t worry, hey? The kids are great.”

On the last point he was absolutely correct. As I stumbled through the first few days trying to get caught up, they were understanding, accommodating, and – as I came to know over the next three years – hilarious.

When I recently asked several of those students what they remembered about the beginning of my time in Botswana, I received a variety of answers with one common thread: my apparently hyper-American appearance. “The first couple of days you really looked like a tourist when you walked around campus. The wide-brimmed hat and the backpack and the red sunburnt skin didn’t help you fit in very much,” Nicole said. Onalenna went even further: “Ask every African about the American starter pack and they will give you the exact same answer. It involves a 1.5-liter water bottle, sun glasses, a pair of shorts, an old sports team shirt, and takkies (sneakers). They always look like they are going to go on some wilderness survival hike for twelve days. That’s how you dressed every time you weren’t working. So my initial impression was: Oh no, another one.”

In hindsight, their impressions cut deeper than they probably knew. For a long while, I did feel like a visitor there, and apparently didn’t hide it as well as I thought I had. One of the students I came to know the best said, “Your first few weeks I could tell that you really missed home. You often talked about how you couldn’t wait to go back.” Perhaps she was especially perceptive, but she was right. I had left New York, but hadn’t yet given up the idea of the city as home. It would take several lonely months for me to accept the decision I had already made.

Botswana does not compel immediate reaction. My love for the country began far more subtly than my experience with New York. The early days were rougher, slower, dimmer, than that first summer in the city. The beginning of my time in Botswana is filled with memories of dark, lonely evenings, balanced by brief moments of light in the classroom. At the end of one of my lessons that first day, three girls came up at the end of class as I was packing my things. “We just wanted to say welcome,” Saira said as her friends nodded. “We’re happy to have you here.” They seemed so gratuitously kind that I glanced around to see if they were being sent up by other students to sarcastically mess with the new teacher. But they were sincere. And, for a moment, I was happy to be there, too.

Day 73

We left on day 73. The familiar hallway, quiet and sterile was lined with nurses, doctors, social workers, other families. I felt a pang of guilt when I saw some of the other mothers and fathers clinging to their children, hooked up to the pumps that ran IV lines to their chests.

Still, a feeling of triumph filled the place that for the 72 preceding days had been serene, hushed, and respectful of the delicate state of all its patients. Unit 5200 at Duke University Medical Center – sixteen bedrooms total, each with children undergoing stem cell transplants. Everyone at the hospital knew it by number. The mention of those four numbers elicited a look of sympathy reminiscent of one extended at a funeral home.

She had survived this part. I looked around her room, 5205, and the walls were bare. The hundreds of cards that had been plastered across them just the day before were now neatly organized in a bag. The IV pump was turned off and the toys packed in a small suitcase. The sign on the door, drawn by my sister “shhh…Caterina is sleeping” was folded and tucked away.

I turned to look once last time. Part of me wanted to bolt out the double doors back into normalcy. Part of me was paralyzed with fear. My feet felt too heavy to move forward. We had been waiting for this day since July. It was now October. The seasons had changed but we had lost sight of all that. The large square window next to the caregiver’s bed I had slept in for most of these 72 nights was the only trace of connection to the outside world.

I had sat for days staring out at the one large tree visible from the window. I read “Siddharta,” “The Power of Now,” “The Gnostic Gospels,” “When Things Fall Apart,” some CS Lewis, and a dozen other books on adversity, suffering, and grief. I meditated, I called psychics. I had an energy healer come to our room. I drowned my grief in the sounds of merengue and salsa, Celia Cruz chanting “no, no hay que llorar, que la vida es un carnival, y las penas se van cantando!” You don’t have to cry. Life is a carnival. Singing will drown our pains.

We did not know whether she would survive the stem cell transplant she needed to save her life from the disease that would otherwise kill her most likely by age 10, Hurler Syndrome.

We checked into the hospital on July 27th, 2004. Caterina, my daughter, was 14 months old. Two months earlier she had been given a diagnosis that would alter the course of all of our lives. Ten days of chemotherapy would destroy her entire immune system in preparation for the infusion of stem cells from an unknown donor’s umbilical cord blood.

The transplant took place on what was coined “Day Zero,” August 6th. A small bag, the size of a Ziploc, containing the equivalent of half a cup of blood, held the key to her future, and mine. We then waited for 21 days to see whether her body had accepted the donor’s cells, a process known as engraftment. It was a waiting game to see whether she would she start making her own blood cells, whether her immune system would recover.

She would need to start making the enzyme I had never imagined I would need to know about: alpha-L-iduronidase. Chemistry had been my least favorite science class. I loved biology. I could comprehend red and white blood cells. This mysterious missing enzyme, I could not. She would die without it. Her organs would slowly shut down. Her eyesight would begin to fail, her liver would enlarge, her cognitive abilities would decrease over time. Her bones were abnormally shaped. There was some fluid surrounding her heart. The lack of the enzyme made her body slowly screech to a halt. The only hope was a stem cell transplant.

Who was there on that day? Who was with me? I went back to my journals. My mother was there. So was my aunt. This was all too close for my mom, who had lost a 31-month old son to cancer.

Now, I adjusted the small blue mask around Caterina’s face. Her round face had grown fuller from the steroids. Her hair had fallen out, but she was beginning to grow some hair on her face, a side effect of the anti-rejection medication. Her body seemed sturdy. She was quiet, calm, happy. I grabbed the bag with her belongings. We had dressed her in cheerful clothes: striped leggings and a bright top.

“We’re leaving now,” my mom said.

“Ready,” I replied.

I looked at Andre, Caterina’s head nurse, the only male nurse on the unit. We had grown close over the past two months. He gave each of us a huge hug. How would I survive without him and all the other nurses?

Out there, in the rental unit where we would live for the next few months it would just be me filling syringes, administering intravenous medication, drawing blood. Daunting as it was, it was better than being in the hospital.

My aunt stepped behind my mother and me.

“Let’s do it, ” someone said.

We stopped by the door to the room to take a picture. And then we heard the cheering, and the clapping, accompanied by a rain of confetti. The entire unit marched up to us to bid us farewell. It felt like a victory parade. Everyone was crying. I clung to Caterina as the double doors to the main hallway flung open. The world was waiting.

“Please, I prayed as I held my daughter’s hand, “let us never have to come back.”

Cross Country

My family moved from Mankato, Minnesota to New York City in the summer of 1989. The four of us drove in a gray Pontiac 6000 station wagon that my parents had bought used. My dad had picked the neighborhood, Bayside, because it was considered safe, at a time when New York City wasn’t the safest place to be. In Mankato, we had never locked the house or car doors. In New York, we had to form new habits.

The house we moved into was the standard Queens immigrant apartment. But it had three bedrooms, which meant for the first time in my life, I had my own room! We lived on the top floor with two apartments on the 2nd floor, and a washer and dryer in the basement. At the time, it felt luxurious. Our living room was large, with a row of windows facing the street. My mom would peek out the window to keep an eye on us when we played outside.

In Mankato, we would wander around the apartment complex, dashing into the wooded backyard and down to the ravine, where my sister and I would spend hours playing by ourselves. In New York City, the new rule was: stay in front of the house and stay in sight at all times. New York City was not Mankato, my mom would remind us, here people went missing, got attacked and killed, on the regular.

A few months after we moved in, my mother’s mother, came to visit. Gran spent six months with us. That spring we went to see the Statue of Liberty. We parked the Pontiac 6000 at a lot in Flushing, and took the train into the city.

After a day in the city, we returned to Flushing exhausted and ready to go home. But the gray Pontiac 6000 was gone.

My father had picked Queens because it was considered safe. And it was safe, for people, just not for cars. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Queens boasted the highest rates of car theft in the country. Bayside in particular was a preferred hunting ground for car thieves, given its proximity to the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridge, leading out of the city, and the wasteland of chop shops in Willets Point.

My parents filed a report with the police, who let them know that it was unlikely their car would be found, and even if it was, was likely to be squashed for recycling, or in pieces to be sold. So, with the same determined spirit that brought my parents from India to the United States, they went out in search of their car. My parents employed the help of their friend Kalelkar, a father of two, who, like them had immigrated to Queens from India. Having lived in NYC a few years longer than my family, Kalelkar knew the lay of the land and where to begin the search.

They spent several hours patrolling different neighborhoods Kalelkar had suggested. Finally, they spotted the gray Pontiac 6000 station wagon parked outside an auto body shop in Willets Point. After finding an appropriate vantage point, my dad called the police from a payphone. My parents and Kalelkar waited. After fifteen to twenty minutes, the thieves started to make a move. My father and Kalelkar decided to follow them. My mother waited at the payphone in case the police showed up. Every twenty minutes or so, my mother called home to give us an update. My Gran would jump up and grab the receiver each time, “What’s happening Seraphine?” she’d ask. An hour and a half passed, no police officer showed.

The gray Pontiac 6000 pulled out of the scrap yard with two passengers inside, down some back roads and onto the Grand Central Parkway. My dad and Kalelkar followed a safe distance behind, leaving two or three cars between them and the thieves.

After tailing the thieves for awhile, they hit heavy traffic on the off ramp to the Long Island Expressway. My dad seeing his opportunity, jumped out of Kalelkar’s car, and ran up past the Pontiac 6000. Waving frantically, he informed the drivers of the cars in front that the car behind them was his, and had been stolen. He asked them not to move. They agreed.

As traffic started to move, the thieves realized they were stuck and panicked. They tried to drive up the embankment on the side of the highway, but the car couldn’t make the climb. The thieves jumped out of the car, and scrambled up the embankment, leaving the keys in the ignition, along with a copper pen knife they’d clipped to the ring.

My dad got in his car, and drove home, triumphantly. My dad had always been my hero, this solidified that.

Only years later, would I realize how dangerous my father’s escapade had been, and how badly it could have played out. But for him, it wasn’t just about getting his car back, it was about conquering a place.

An Afternoon at the Aquarium

The beluga whale show was so good that this man had traveled all the way from Singapore here, to Harbin, a desolate and frost-bitten city in the Northeastern-most corner of China, to see it. He convinced us that we couldn’t leave the city without catching the show, a beautiful encounter with nature. We were there to be marveled—our itinerary so far included massive snow sculptures, ice palaces, underground Russian clubs, and a tiger sanctuary with a literal herd of tigers (and one liger)—we felt it should be worked in, if possible.

We were a group of five friends, Allen, Mark, Sofia, Prerna, and me. We’d come from various parts of China, besides Prerna who lived in the U.S., and convened in this winter city, which hovers about 470 miles north of Pyongyang, to attend the Harbin Ice Festival. The festival runs for two months each winter and draws huge numbers of tourists, mostly from China and Russia.

On our last full day in town, we looked up the beluga show times before we left our apartment and then set out by cab. We could see the aquarium long before we were anywhere close to it. It rose off a stretch of flat, undeveloped land on the city limits, looking like an igloo mansion: several large white, circular structures with sloping roofs combined into one structure. As we joined the stream of taxis delivering visitors to the aquarium, we saw that the outside walls were covered with huge murals of killer whales and harp seals and penguins.

Large speakers flooded the parking lot and ticket area with ear-grinding, upbeat electro-pop. Allen, Prerna and Mark went over to the ticket stand that looked like some port of call ticketing booth. When they met Sofia and me by the entrance, they had news: the next beluga show wasn’t for an hour.

“So we’re seeing the sea-lions now,” said Allen, “and then the belugas!”

Inside there was no aquatic life in sight besides the stuffed dolphins and whales being sold by salesgirls with overdone make-up. Huge cartoony arrows led us through a maze of food we could buy, from fruit smoothies in plastic dolphin cups with crazy straws to meat dumplings or fish sticks.

We were ushered by the general flow of the crowd toward the auditorium where the show was about to start. I dipped out of the line to get a juice at the stand. “Oh, uh, I’ll wait with you,” said Sofia, stopping too. I mangled some Chinese fruit words and waited as the blender sounded off behind the counter. “Do you think this is going to be like Sea World shows?” she asked. I shrugged. I’d never been to Sea World.

By the time we got inside the auditorium, the host was already center stage, dressed in a toy soldier’s uniform, with oversized gold buttons and exaggerated epaulets. He was speaking emphatically into a headset, using sweeping hand gestures. The room was low-ceiled and packed, with people seated on tiered steps that surrounded the stage and the small in-ground pool that stretched in front of it. The whole place smelled like dank pool water.

By the time, Sofia and I had found our friends and sat, a tall, slender girl with a long blonde braid had also appeared onstage, and the ringleader was pointing the crowd’s attention over to her. She was wearing a girl-version of the cartoony soldier outfit and spoke a few words in Russian into her headset and waved to the audience.

Trumpets blared from somewhere off-stage and out of a back pool six black, leathery seals came bounding onto stage, one after the other. Techno-carnival music started and a wet-suited trainer came out from the wings and began tossing rings at the seals, who each caught them on their snouts and then dove into the front pool, becoming a black streak for a moment before peaking out of the water again, ready to catch another ring or bounce an inflatable beach ball. The ringleader didn’t seem to take a breath as he continued to talk and clap and wave his hands wildly. Mark, who was seated to my left was cheering loudly with the rest of the audience. Allen was laughing and grabbing swigs of the baijiu liquor that Mark had pulled out of his coat pocket.

I clapped for the seals, but found myself distracted by the pretty Russian girl, who stood watching the seals off to the side with a stiff smile. We’d met a lot of Russians the night before at a club. Like us, they’d left their country to soak up some of China’s excess. But this girl, getting lightly splattered by smelly aquarium water kicked up by seal flippers— Who had she been in Russia that this was better?

The seals were making their final lap, their black heads raised in synchrony out of the water. They hopped back up onto the stage with grace and slid back into the other pool. More trumpets sounded; the ringleader was practically screaming in excitement.

From the wings, the sea lion appeared, his blubber rippling as he shimmed his massive body across to center stage. The ringleader went over to him and they high-fived. The crowd burst with applause and laughter. Then, in a moment of surprising agility, the animal pulled himself upright, so nearly his entire body was erect, and his fleshy pink penis poked out from his blubber. “Oh my god, look at its cock,” Mark said loudly into my ear, laughing.

The ringleader let out a long groan into the microphone and then began shaking his head at the sea lion and pointing to the exposed organ. The lion bent his head down, like he was looking at his body and then raised his flippers up to cover his face in embarrassment. Waves of laughter were shaking the crowd.

Sofia made a slight movement next to me, and I looked over at her. There were tears streaming down her face. “Sofia?” I touched her arm. She shook me off and said she’d wait outside. She turned around and grabbed her jacket, stood up and walked out.

Mark was still cheering next to me. I sat there, unsure if I should follow her or just let her be. The rest of them hadn’t really noticed. The sea lion was in the pool now, doing a swim routine to a new track of pounding music.

Finally the intermission came. “Where’d Sofia go?” asked Allen. “She left,” I said. “I think she’s upset.” Nobody wondered why.

Outside we found her sitting in the closest seat to the exit. When she saw us coming she gave us a little, weak smile and stood up. We all walked out together, silent. Nobody mentioned the tickets in our pockets to the beluga show.

The New Year Solution

New Years Eve, 2014 I was lying in my bed. I could hear the street laughter, the “Happy New Year!” shouts and horns as if they were marching through the window.

Earplugs did nothing. My hearing had amplified, what felt like ten times the normal.

After the festivities ended I listened the rest of the night as my mom snored next to me.

Instead of a resolution I came up with a solution.

I had laid there shaking. Every day for 3 weeks.  It’s not even right to call it shaking, it was more like convulsing. I slept an hour a night. I woke up every morning tasting my gums juicing blood into my mouth. My hair fell out in clumps in the shower which I would place on the tiles in a pile.

Everyday, I couldn’t do anything.

My mind raced with thoughts: my parents were going to die within the next 10 to 20 years, or even sooner. They are older than most parents and I am an only child. Would they see me married? Would they be grandparents? They would be great grandparents. Then I realized I was afraid of their deaths when all those fears didn’t even matter since I would probably die before them.

I hadn’t and couldn’t even cry.

Focusing on anything else was impossible. I couldn’t eat. I had lost 30 pounds. I became agoraphobic. I had multiple sweaty panic attacks a day.

It was the same thing every day.

When the clock hit 5 PM, I knew I had made it one more day. I would wait for the one hour of sleep and the next day to come, even though it would be all the same, again.

My mom was preparing to retire and was working during the day. My dad sat by my side throughout each day and my mom slept in my bed at night.

They had their shifts.

It had become our everyday.

I kept my new bamboo lamp from Ikea on, as if the light would keep me alive throughout the night.

New Year’s morning, 2015 wrapped in multiples of blankets I sat with my parents in the kitchen. My mom and dad would periodically yell at me to “stop shaking.” I tried, but I couldn’t.  I would attempt to hold my legs down with my elbows with the little strength I had.

“Lay on the floor,” said my dad, who thought the yoga “corpse pose” would cure me. Sit-ups became the only way to stop my muscles, for just one second, a moment of steady peace.

They, my parents, bundled me in layers and took me for a walk around the block. Every person we passed only made me wonder how people were “so normal.” I was not even close to normal anymore.

The three of us had stopped talking to friends and family.

I was sure this was my last New Years.  I didn’t know what was wrong but I knew I was dying and this is how it felt. I told my parents.  I told the doctors. I knew this is how it felt to die, and I had accepted it and was ready.  Any past fear of death didn’t seem so scary anymore.

I lay in bed and watched multiple TEDTalks.  I watched one where Sam Berns sat on stage deformed, surviving a disease called Progeria. He discussed his “Philosophy for a happy life.” Till H. Grob discussed “How to become more confident,” explaining the benefits, relief and freedom after laying down in the street for 30 seconds. Nick Vujicic, with no arms or legs, paced, discussing his suicide attempts and how to “Give up or keep going.” He learned to keep going.  I watched as Karina Hollekim talked about “Life beyond fear,” after her near death experience ski jumping and being told she could never walk again. She stood on the stage pregnant and strong.

But they were able to control their fates.  I wanted to govern mine.

I had planned my suicide a few days before the New Year.  I didn’t want to die rather in the one hour I slept a night.   The Ted Talks helped, but none of the speakers were about to die. They were living. They had found ways to live. They were inspiring but they weren’t me.

I was deteriorating before my own eyes.  I didn’t want to wait to die. I had accepted my coming demise, I wasn’t scared and I was ready.

I hoped my parents could be as strong as the Ted Talk speakers after I was gone.  I hoped they would even look through my chrome history. I told my parents my plan. They made me call the suicide hotline. No one answered the phone.  I was put on hold and a half hour later hung up. My parents were the angriest I had ever seen them. They yelled but they didn’t understand; nothing they said made sense. Their voices were amplified even filtered through the ear plugs I had been wearing.  I felt sorry, apologized, yet I made my decision.

I wanted to leave notes on my hard drive on how to finish my documentary, write letters of love and appreciation and say good bye.  I wanted to control my own death.

I realized how alone I had become. For the first time in my life I was okay with that feeling. No matter how many days my dad sat next to me in bed or my mom slept with me at night, I had never been so alone. I was the only one who understood I was dying. I was the only one who could feel it and could handle it as a plain fact.

After the end of an toxic two year relationship I had been put on a high dose of Klonopin, a benzodiazepine, 4 milligrams a day. It was “just to take the edge off.”  I was diagnosed with being bi-polar, anxious and depressed. Three months later, I was taken off of the Klonopin and put on two other antidepressants, again “just to take the edge off.” That’s when the shaking began. But I didn’t realize this is why I was dying.

I would later find out I had been expiring from a benzodiazepine withdrawal.

My Mom now says, “I didn’t know if it was psychological, I didn’t know. But I never thought it was what it was, a withdrawal. I think, I kept thinking you would wake up the next day and it would just be over.”

My dad remembers me only being sick for one week. He also blames my ex for all of it.

They were surviving.

“In retrospect, it all seems clear,” says my mom. “But when something like that is happening, you just try to figure out each moment, in the moment.”

My dad says, “The doctors should have known. They should have known even just by looking at you, the mistake they had made.”

On the last visit the doctor’s supervisor tried to justify the treatment and why they called him a doctor when he was really a, P.A, a physician’s assistant.  They knew nothing about me.  My files had not been monitored. They appeared nervous and threw out excuses, ones I can’t even remember since their voices were blurred and my shaking was overwhelming. My dad told them he had experience with malpractice but that we weren’t there about malpractice. He just wanted me fixed.

Two days after New Years I saw a new psychiatrist who put me back on the Klonopin.  She couldn’t believe I was still alive. “You maybe had two to four more days,” she said.

She saved my life.

A year and a half later I still take Klonopin only because my body needs it. I still can’t sleep without the help of five pills at night and two to wake me up in the morning.

The Ikea lamp is soothing but I sleep in the dark. I “corpse pose” at yoga classes. I feel content instead of confused when I take a moment to people watch.

I still get billed for the $35 copay for my last office visit at that clinic.

; – “The semicolon symbolizes that the difficulties people face are not the end but a new begging.” (semicolon project)

If you are worried that you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, please call your local authorities (911), contact a mental health professional, or call and talk to someone at The Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK(8255).

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After the Crash

“The two assholes were racing each other,” said L. “I heard they were on drugs or something.”

He was standing in the non-Euclidian circle we had created, incessantly tapping his right thumb on the filter end of the cigarette. L. was one of P.’s closest friends. I had to like him because he was dating one of my closest friends.

“I heard he was still alive when the ambulances arrived,” said F. “They were all still alive, but the ambulances took too long to get there.”

F. came to be known as “the one who hadn’t cried.” He was always the confident, borderline cocky one, with his blond hair and angel voice. He was fervently texting when he spoke those words. In that field of stones and graves, it seemed that P.’s death had left F. unmoved.

I, on the other hand, was shaking. My legs trembled. My fists clenched. My body was fighting the urge to pour out my lunch – if there was any. I wanted them to stop talking about it. I couldn’t understand why they were even talking about it, why they were looking for a culprit, for someone to blame.

“Who the fuck cares?” I whispered. “It’s not like it’s going to change anything.”

I stood up and began to walk away. When I realized what I had said, it was too late. Things were not going to change. There wasn’t any magic time-turner or machine in a police box.

P. was dead. He died. He is dead. A collision, a moment, an instant and, then, boom – gone.

Police disabused us of what we thought had happened. The drivers weren’t racing. Of the three cars involved in the accident, only one was speeding.

In the Alfa Romeo 147, there were two friends, both in their 20s.

In the other Alfa Romeo 147, there was a couple of newly wedded Swiss tourists, driving down the coast.

In the red Renault Clio, there was a family of four.

When the driver of the first Alfa Romeo decided to pass the honeymooners just to prove that he could, he probably wasn’t thinking about how a family of four could turn into a family of two in a split second. Or could stop being a family at all.

“What can I do? It’s not like I can bring them back from the dead,” the guy said when he woke up from a coma in the ICU of a small town hospital.

And he was right. What could he do? What could we do? What could I do?

On August 19, 2013, the day we were gathered in the cemetery, I thought about a lot of things. I remember thinking about the last time I had seen P., a day before the accident. I remember thinking about the sound of his voice and the way he would call my name loudly in the street. I remember thinking about our first kiss and our last one. I remember thinking about all his talents and his potential. I remember thinking about the promises we had made to each other and the ones we had broken. I remember thinking about how alone he must have felt, lying down in that field of olive trees, his blood rusting under the afternoon sun.

On August 19, 2013, I don’t remember ever asking myself how it had happened. I don’t remember ever wondering the technicalities of it all – when the cars had crashed, why the cars had crashed, who had made the cars crash. I don’t remember feeling angry at whoever was responsible for it – that came later. I don’t remember even caring about the person responsible for it. Because what could he do now? What could we do? What could I do?

On August 19, 2013, I walked toward the exit of the cemetery with cold sweat dripping fast down my forehead.

It was the first day of the rest of my life.

Irrational Thinking

When I left the hotel bathroom, the welts on my arm were redder than blood. I sat down on crumpled sheets of my bed and quietly pulled on the elastic waistband of my boxers.

“Shit,” I mumbled as I looked down. There were red bumps on my dick.

For the past five months, I convinced myself the two reddened oblongs on my shaft were the result of me having some rough unprotected sex. But they were still here. They continued to stare at me angrily every time I looked down. There were bright scabs scattered across my arms and legs, my back, feet, hands—pretty much everywhere on my body. And they were getting worse.

This wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to come to terms with during a spring break trip in Spain with my mother, Debra, my high-strung, slightly overbearing travel companion. She was lying on the other bed during my self-examination, flicking through the TV station and pestering me about those damn bumps on my arms.

“I remember that we thought you had bed bugs and you called the school and they said you didn’t have bed bugs,” she told me over the phone a few days ago, reminding me that this event had been a growing development.

Debra reminded me prior to that night we had taken a few pictures of the bumps on the arm, legs, and the shaft of my penis. “We were sending pictures to Howie [the family dermatologist back in Texas] and he wrote back, ‘It’s bed bugs.’ Except the school checked and said you didn’t have any.”

I thought I was a giant walking cesspool running around Spain with some unidentifiable disease.

“They got worse and then they got worse, and then they were covering large portions of your body in certain areas,” she said. “And so you were getting a little hyper sensitive.”

Wait, I was hypersensitive? I remember Debra bat shit hysterical, screaming, “You could have AIDS! Herpes! Syphilis! Ebola! HIV! Cancer!” along with 10 other possible life-altering diseases, interrogating me on “just what the hell [had I] been doing all this time in New York,” and dogging me with questions about my social life and making me confess about having “a lot of unprotected sex” with my girlfriend and that “I had been ‘experimenting’ with drugs aside from weed.”

We quickly hopped in the cab, and sped down the empty Ramblas to the hospital. I thought it was her idea, but apparently, it was mine since I was more sensitive and the freaked out one in this sit-com-esque narrative—go figure considering there were red scabs literally all over my body).

“Before we were going, I said ‘If you have any disease or something, name it. They could throw us out of the country,’ ” Debra later told me over the phone. “I said ‘Just remember we might have to leave tomorrow,’ so we agreed and said ‘Okay, but we’d feel better going.’”

At the hospital, Debra and I were taken to the less crowded front desk of the lobby and filled out paperwork, struggling to describe my condition in Spanish. Suddenly we were whisked into a room with three young doctors who I attempted to communicate through my broken college-level Spanish what had happened.

“That’s when I flipped out, in front the doctor,” Debra told me, admitting she was actually trying to help by listing off possible diseases that could have explained my immaculate venereal conception.

Guttate,” the lead doctor said to me, trying to stifle his laughter at my mother and I going back and forth about my condition while my pants and boxers were around my ankles. I couldn’t make out what he was trying to say, although he was gesturing a teardrop-shape. A quick Google search of the keywords “guttate” and “teardrop” on my mother’s iPhone translated the doctor’s symbolism: I was essentially suffering from a mild case of a genetic skin rash: psoriasis guttate. Not at all like the string of life-altering and death-affiliated diseases Debra had suggested. Although she was spot on that my condition wasn’t curable, I had the glimmer of hope that my disease could enter remission. And that I wouldn’t die from it.

“Well, this is better than AIDS,” I jabbed cheekily at Debra.

Pulling up my pants, I shook the lead resident’s hand with my free arm, laughing at the absurdity of the night. We left with a prescription and without paying—I still have no idea how free healthcare works in Europe—and took the cab to the nearest open pharmacy. Within six months, the psoriasis receded thanks to cream and UV light treatment. But to this day, I check every morning to make sure there are no red bumps on my dick.

Matthew Sedacca is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and a freelance writer. Originally from Houston, Texas, he has written for publications like Eater, VICE, and the Diplomat.