THROAT TOO SMALL
Ray and Jill had an open relationship, had had an open relationship the whole twelve years they'd been together, which sounds difficult, but wasn't, really. Their relationship was governed by a few simple, democratically established rules: Practice Safer Sex, Tell The Other Person What You're Up To, and Don't Leave Me For Anyone Else. But for some time, neither Ray nor Jill had taken advantage of their open relationship privileges. They were older, and didn't have the energy they used to. They had gained weight, and as a result had lost some of the self-confidence necessary to the enterprise. Their social circle had, like a game of Tetris, settled into a locked formation, resistant to penetration by other open people.
Jill, who had an active mind, filled the time she had previously spent dating with hobbies: making homemade soda, playing online role-playing games, and breeding fancy mice. She worked at crossing hereditary lines for traits she appreciated (marked coats and nice personalities). "It smells like pee in here," Ray complained. "It's not pee," said Jill. "It's the male musk." Ray didn't have the energy to initiate a discussion of possible compromises on the mice, such as moving them out to the patio, or extracting a promise from Jill to clean the cages more frequently. No energy was a serious problem that Ray experiencing. He didn't have energy for the mouse conversation, he didn't have the energy to exercise his open relationship privileges, he didn't have the energy for anything. He was so tired all the time, and alternated between outrageous crankiness and the deepest despondence, and dark circles had permanently settled under his eyes.
"I keep telling you," said Jill. "There's something wrong with your sleep. I think you have sleep apnea. You snore and gurgle and toss and turn. You really need to go to the doctor. Really. Really."
"I will, I will," said Ray. Jill shook her head and moved a male mouse from one cage to another. Ray was afflicted with that very commonplace male aversion to doctors. He wasn't going to go see any doctor.
Soon enough, though, Ray's hand was forced. His exhaustion, several years in the making, was causing his work to suffer. He fell asleep at his desk. He fell asleep in meetings. His outrageous crankiness was interfering with his ability to provide excellent customer service and practice teamwork. Ray's boss was sympathetic about Ray's health issues but ultimately not that sympathetic. One day he called Ray into his office, presented him with a document that listed his job responsibilities and specified a compliance deadline, and politely required Ray to sign at the bottom.
That night Ray went home to Jill. "Okay," he said. "What do I do?" Jill clapped her hands and jumped off the couch. Quite a while ago she had gone online and researched Ray's list of approved providers, and she had information at the ready. She gave Ray the number of a plan-approved sleep clinic, and he called and made an appointment.
Ray was recommended for a sleep study. He took his pajamas and his pillow and they put him in this room with a mattress with the firmness his choice (medium firm). They surveilled him while he was sleeping, and determined that he was waking hundreds and hundreds of times in a single night. Even though Ray had no consciousness of it, the hundreds of occurrences of waking were disturbing his REM sleep and resulting in fatigue, depression, irritability, memory loss, morning headaches, reduced libido, maybe even neuronal cell death.
"I told you so," said Jill.
Ray was referred to an otolaryngologist. It took the otolaryngologist just one peep down Ray's gullet to form a diagnosis.
"Your throat is too small," the doctor said. "It's always been on the small side, but it wasn't a problem until recently. The real problem is now, your throat muscles have become weak. They're not supporting the throat like they should, and the way they used to. You lie down, the muscles don't do their job, your small throat collapses, and your oxygen supply is cut off. After a few seconds of no oxygen, you wake up as a reflex action." He pulled out a brochure. "You need this machine called a CPAP. Does it breathe for you? It doesn't breathe for you. The machine that breathes for you costs way more. You don't want to know. This one just forces in air, inflating the throat. It's your best next option. If that doesn't work? If that doesn't work, we do an operation called a uvuloplasty. That's where we surgically widen the throat. Using lasers."
The doctor meant cored out, like a soft apple. Ray went home shaken.
"Sometimes the CPAP machine doesn't work," he said to Jill. "What if it doesn't work and I have to have the surgery?"
"I think it will work," Jill said. She was a rational person and, of course, would never presume to know the future. But she saw the apprehension in Ray's face, and wanted so much to make him feel better. "I really think it will work," she repeated firmly. "Think of all the people it works for. You can be one of those people."
"You're probably right," said Ray, although he didn't believe she was probably right at all. Jill didn't have a crystal ball; she couldn't see the future. But the worry in her face was obvious and Ray wanted to make her feel better, even while entertaining visions of hot lasers searing a yawning passageway of scar tissue through his too-small throat. "You're right," he repeated firmly, and he called and ordered the CPAP.
Things should have gotten better at that point, but then came three months of wrangling with the health plan. The insurance had to collect referrals and diagnoses from Ray's primary care physician, the sleep clinic, and the otolaryngologist. Then they lost the referrals and diagnoses and had to collect the referrals and diagnoses again. Then they took their sweet time processing the request. Finally they processed the request, and the result of the processing was a denial of treatment. Ray had never seen Jill so angry. She got on the phone and yelled at a great many people. Ray found angry, yelling Jill to be incredibly hot. After she got off the phone he had to make love to her, although it was necessary to wait a bit for her to calm down. The yelling did the trick and the plan finally approved the request for the CPAP. Then the medical supply company told Ray it would take a month for the unit to be delivered. All of it was a total drag. Other than the one sexy interlude, dealing with the many bureaucracies involved was enraging and ennui-encouraging, plus all along Ray was still not sleeping, and functioning less and less well.
The situation turned truly tragic when, while they were still waiting for the CPAP, Ray was fired from his job. He had been doing his best, but it hadn't been good enough. Ray's boss showed him the document that listed his job responsibilities and specified a compliance deadline, with Ray's signature right there at the bottom of the page in blue ink, and that was that.
Jill came home from work to find Ray curled up on the couch, a cardboard box of his personal office things on the floor next to the couch.
"I don't want to cry," said Ray.
"It's okay to cry," said Jill.
"No, it's not."
"Yes, it is."
"No, it's not."
"Oh, my gosh," said Jill. "I just thought of something. Will your insurance still cover the CPAP?"
Ray groaned. Jill brought him the phone. "Call your benefits person," she said. "You should call them now." Ray uncurled slightly and called. The benefits person was out. He left a message and dropped the phone on the floor.
He felt entirely lost and helpless and down, so truly down that the feeling was literalized in visions he had been experiencing of himself at the bottom of a deep hole in the earth. He did not intentionally create these visions. They just flashed on him, and they felt like messages and warnings from his animal mind.
"Can I ask you a question?" Ray said. "Why do you still love me? Take a close look. Really, I encourage you. I'm a disaster. I can't function. I just got fired. And there are about forty unwelcome extra pounds of me. Forty pounds more of me since we first met."
"I love you because you're Ray," said Jill.
"I think I'm going to kill myself. I'm going to kill myself, and you can find someone else and have the good life that you deserve and that I'm unable to give you."
"You stop it now," Jill yelled. "Stop it, stop it, stop it." She threw a Star Wars–themed couch pillow across the living room. The mice, taking alarm, skittered in their wire cages. "So we're having a hard time. Why? Because. Life has hard times in it, usually for reasons outside of our control, and almost everything is out of our control. Wouldn't you agree with that, Mr. Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy? And if you agree with that—and I know you do—then you can't respond to a hard time by going, ‘Oh, I'm a loser.' It's not logical."
"Well, thank you for that," said Ray, "but seriously, Jill. I've lost everything. I mean, I have you, for myself, I've got nothing. I've even lost myself. I'm not myself anymore. So how am I not a loser?"
Jill was silent. After a while, Ray lifted his face out of his hands to see what was going on. Jill was just sitting there and looking at him. But what eyebeams she was sending him, full of stern pity, as if she was a different and higher being from him. Right then she looked eerily like Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings, specifically the moment when she gives warnings and gifts to the hobbits in preparation for their perilous journey to Mordor. Ray had watched the DVD special features and knew that when they were shooting Cate's close-ups, they strung up Christmas lights behind the camera so her eyes would contain the tiny sparkling reflections of light. Ray knew he was in for it now.
"You just keep talking about losing things," said Jill. "What you had, what you don't have, what you want to have. Ray. A person is not an accumulation. A person is energy."
"We can't be things or experiences or talents or even our joy. Because all that can get taken away from us, and when it does, there's still something important left over. Like, our understanding. Our spirit. Our energy is left over. So don't think of yourself as all those things you think you should have, Ray. You're not those things. You're energy."
Ray was a little bowled over. How can you live with someone for twelve years, think you know them inside and out, down to the stains on the crotches of some of their older underwear, and suddenly they give you a treasure that you didn't even know even existed, and therefore certainly didn't know had been in their possession all along? It was like Jill had handed him a magic sword and said, "Go, my liege. You know what to do." Where had she gotten the magic sword from? Maybe she'd been reading her paganism books again. Ray resolved not to tease her about that anymore. He loved her so much. He rubbed his eyes with his pajama sleeve.
"If we are energy and not accumulation, then why do you have so many mice?"
"Shut up," said Jill.
The problem was, the next day the benefits lady called and with no human feeling at all, informed Ray that due to his termination the insurance would not cover the pending CPAP machine unless he got COBRA insurance. The COBRA insurance cost $498 a month. Ray went back to the dark place: on the couch in his pajamas. When Jill came home from work he told her.
"Thugs," said Jill. "Those thugs."
"I'll just do without it," said Ray, his voice sounding small and distant, coming as it was from the bottom of the dark place.
"You can't do without it."
"Yes, I can. Also, I don't think we have a choice. This is just one of those things outside our control. Almost everything is outside our control. You said it. Remember?"
"Who cares what I said," said Jill. "I have to think for a sec." She got up, fed the mice, and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for herself and Ray. They ate the sandwiches. Jill put the dishes in the sink and got herself a homemade root beer and sat back down on the couch. "There is something we can do," she said. She took a big sip of root beer. "We can get married. Then you could go on my health insurance. I know we've been waiting until we have money for a wedding. And for when you feel ready. But what we can do is, we can just go the courthouse and get married without doing the ceremony now. And not tell my mom and dad, because they will freak the fuck out. Later, when things are better, we can do the wedding."
She went to the mouse cages and took out her favorite mouse, a dutched orange and white boy named Pumpkin Pie, and came back to the couch. Pumpkin Pie, who didn't want to be held, scrabbled and lashed his tail. Jill cupped her hands around him and he settled, vibrating in protest against her fingers only now and then. "I guess I don't know if you really do think you'd like to be married. To me, I mean."
"Yes, I do want to get married to you," said Ray, and it was true, he did want to get married to Jill, except for the three percent of him that was terrified of getting married because that three percent just couldn't see marriage as anything but the end of the line, the end of youth, a giving up.
"I don't know," said Jill. "You still think that when you get married, your life will be over."
"No, I don't."
"Yes, you do."
"Well, fuck it. Fuck the three percent."
Ray was totally shit-scared. Once he had been equally shit-scared, while doing a three-point turn in a fourteen-foot moving van on a driveway with a forty-percent incline. He had been sure, absolutely certain, that when he maneuvered the van into a right angle to the incline it would topple over and even if he didn't die in the process, getting the van back on its wheels would be a task of breathtaking difficulty. They would probably have to hire a team of elephants to pull it upright, and how much would that cost? But all their stuff was in the van, and they had to get it to their new apartment, and it was all up to him. So he had gritted his teeth and pulled the van around. The pavement veered up towards the driver's-side window, he swore he saw every pebble and crack in it, but the van didn't fall over, and the lesson in this was, sometimes you're scared when you don't need to be.
"Jill," he said. "I want to get married to you. As long as you know it's not just for the health insurance. I want to get married to you because you're awesome. I think you're the most awesome person I've ever met."
"Really?" said Jill. She was as pleased and surprised as the first time he'd ever said that to her, about twelve years ago.
"Really," said Ray.
"But we'd still be open, right?"
"Yes," said Ray. "Come on. Let's get open-married."
"Well, okay then!" said Jill, smiling like a crazy clown. She put Pumpkin Pie back in his cage and gave Ray a huge hug and a big sloppy kiss. "That's what I want."
"What baby wants, baby gets," said Ray.
"Eventually," said Jill.
And when they did it, standing up together at the courthouse, wearing the nicest clothes they had which frankly weren't too nice, Ray took his magic sword and slayed the three percent of him that didn't know its ass from its elbow, and said "I do" with real feeling. And then they went to Midway Molina's for beers and a cheese crisp and beef enchiladas, and then they went home and Jill talked to her benefits person, and got Ray onto her insurance. And then they were going to have sex, the first married sex of their life, but all the Mexican food they had eaten and the beer they had drunk was making them feel heavy, and sleepy, and so instead of having sex, they just took off their pants, and stretched out, and feel asleep.
Finally the CPAP came in. Ray put the box on the bed and unpacked the components while Jill cleared off his bedside table. He set the main unit on the bedside table, plugged in the power supply, screwed the hose into the fitting, and attached the mask to the end of the hose. He turned the pressure knob to HIGH and pressed the ON button. The CPAP blinked, a series of quick LED blinks, and came to life. As air began to flow through the hose, it crinkled gently.
"Let's give her a try," said Ray. He placed the mask, edged with flexible gray rubber, over his mouth and nose. He pulled the elastic band attached to the mask over the back of his head. The air pressure made his mouth feel strangely spacious, like an archway or atrium. Ray looked at Jill. Her face was arranged in a neutral expression.
"Oh god, oh hell!" said Ray. The mask muffled his voice.
"It could be so much worse," said Jill. "You could have leukemia. You could have been hit by a drunk driver and paralyzed from the waist down."
Ray took off the mask and turned off the machine. "It better work," he said. "Stupid motherfucker that caused us so much grief."
"Let's think about it later," said Jill.
That night, Ray put the mask back on and lay down. Jill bent over him and located an area of his face not covered by the mask, and kissed him there. The CPAP whooshed.
"It's like sleeping with Darth Vader," said Jill.
"Thanks for that," said Ray. Under the covers he reached out and touched her hip. She reached out and touched his soft belly. Then they withdrew their hands and moved apart, creating a berth between them for the purposes of better sleep.
Ray hoped. The hope was an anxious and insomnia-inducing emotion, but fortunately, the fatigue of months was stronger than hope. Without noticing it he began to feel less hopeful, more sleepy, and more sleepy yet, and he fell asleep. When he woke, he felt so rested, for the first time in years, that he almost didn't care that he had reached the stage of life where he needed medical equipment to stay alive.
"Now that you're feeling better, I'm sure you'll find a job," said Jill.
"I'm looking," said Ray. He was. He was sending his resume all over the place. No one was calling back. Ray and Jill had been poor before, between the car payments and student loans and credit card payments, but now they were really poor. Poor the way the American middle class is poor: paycheck-to-paycheck poor. They started shopping at thrift stores, the bakery outlet, the discount grocery, the dollar store. They turned it into a game. Whenever one of them scored a really good deal, the other person gave that person the Daily Dollar. When Ray brought home a one-dollar chicken, Jill said, "You get the Daily Dollar!" When their laundry basket broke and Jill found a replacement at a yard sale for twenty-five cents, Ray said, "You get the Daily Dollar!" No actual dollars were exchanged, however.
Ray kept not getting a job. Finally Jill said, "I think we should think about selling them," and Ray said, "Yeah, okay, you're right."
They were talking about Ray's collectible Star Wars action figures. The figurines were the only things of value that Ray and Jill owned. Their furniture was the same cheap particle-board furniture they had acquired when they were undergrads. Ray set up an eBay account and a PayPal account and started listing the action figures. They sold, and the payments of forty and fifty and more dollars did much to lift their spirits. The biggest lift came when Ray sold his prize piece, an ESB 45 Back Boba Fett AFA 80 mint in box, for $1138.95.
Jill smiled. "That's the car payment, the rent, and part of the credit card they keep calling about."
"I'm almost not going to miss this guy," said Ray. "I'll be back soon. Coincidentally the buyer lives at Speedway and Craycroft, so I'm driving it over."
"When you come home I'm going say, is that money in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"
"It'll be both," said Ray, and kissed Jill and went out the door.
The problem was, between when he left and when he returned, Ray slept with a woman named Rumer, who was the housemate of the guy who bought the Boba.
When he got home, Ray told Jill about Rumer. She was frying herself two eggs for dinner.
"Wow," she said. She was standing there in her yellow apron, holding a spatula. "It's like a car commercial. From zero to a hundred fifty in twenty seconds. Did you have fun?"
Ray was thinking about when Rumer pulled her dress over her head and her brown curls lifted up and he saw the nape of her neck for the first time. He was thinking about Rumer's heart-shaped bottom. He was thinking about how Rumer kept her condoms in a Mr. Potato Head. He was realizing that he might not be able to spend the night with Rumer because he needed the CPAP to sleep and the CPAP was here at home, but maybe he wouldn't worry about that now.
"Yeah, it was fun," said Ray.
"Are you going to see her again?" asked Jill.
Ray took the spatula out of Jill's hand and turned over the eggs in the frying pan. "I have her phone number."
"I'm glad," said Jill. "I want you to have fun." She got a small plate out of the cupboard and put her eggs on it, and she took a fork out of the drawer. She sat down at the kitchen table and began to eat.
When they were just nineteen, Jill had been the one to bring up the whole concept of open relationships. "This is what I believe," she said. "I believe there's not enough love in the world. So when love comes your way, hold onto it tight, and treasure it. For as long as it lasts." When she said that she had been sitting on a rock under a vast pine tree in the middle of Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon. Her clear blue eyes had looked straight into him, and he had felt he was in the presence of a wise one.
Jill was jealous about Rumer. Ray could see that from the way Jill was eating her eggs: extra-gently, so as not to give away her emotions. Jealousy was just a normal part of the open life. Jill and Ray had a rule about it: Understand and Manage Your Own Feelings of Jealousy, Making Unmet Needs Known If That's The Underlying Problem.
Ray knew what Jill had done. She'd shared his burdens. They hadn't expected the burdens, but when the burdens fell to Ray to carry, Jill had helped carry them. Additionally, she never complained about the jet of air that came out of the mask part of the CPAP and blew on the back of her head all night. Ray thought of giving up Rumer for Jill. Jill would never ask him to do it. But if he did it, it would be taking a small burden away from Jill. It was one thing he could do. But when he looked all over his heart, inside and outside and in each corner of it, he didn't find the desire to do it. Rumer had given him this look that happy new lovers give each other, the look that says wow, I never expected something as good as you to happen to me, and even though Ray knew that look doesn't keep coming, and frequently is followed by looks that mean the exact opposite, he needed to have someone look at him that way, with that love for him, because, at that time, he couldn't feel enough self-love to get through the day. Not at that time.
Jill and Ray cleaned up the kitchen. Ray watched TV and Jill got online to play RPGs. They got into their pajamas, and got into bed and read their books until they were falling asleep. They switched off their bedside table lamps, and went to sleep.
In the middle of the night, something strong grabbed Ray's throat and choked him. He called out. Jill was already out of bed, switching on the lamp, checking the CPAP.
"It's on, working," she said, peering into Ray face.
"Oh, no," said Ray. He pulled off the mask and sat up. "It might be working, but I don't think it's working for me anymore."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm going to need the operation."
"Oh, Ray," said Jill.
She gave him this look, not the usual Jill-loves-Ray look or the hypnotizing Galadriel look or the new-lover look he'd gotten from Rumer, but something new. The look made a big impression on him, and he thought about it a lot through the events that followed: the doctor's appointments and the next stage of insurance hassle and the uvuloplasty and the fact that his voice was permanently really different after the operation, which was unsettling for everyone. The look Jill gave Ray that night was a look of compassion which poured out of her not because she was Jill and he was Ray (she wasn't, that night, particularly psyched about the whole Jill-and-Ray-thing), but because he was suffering and she was there to see it, as simple as that. Her witnessing of his plight engendered a love in her that was almost arbitrary in nature, but no less strong for arising independently of particulars. Ray thought about all the different kinds of love there are, and how many of these diverse loves he was unaccountably fortunate to be the recipient of, despite being such a pitiful and unfortunate creature. You had to take the love that came to you and hold onto it tight. In bed, Ray and Jill held hands. Just look at them now—on a particle-board bed, in a sheetrock house, in a row of old apartments, in the middle of the night, everyone around them sleeping.
For a while there, me and everyone I knew was experiencing money trouble, and love trouble, and health trouble that generated further money trouble and love trouble. This story is about us.