I dreamt the world was washed away by a thousand storms. The waves crested over top of the buildings and flooded the streets, pulling houses into their riptide. When I woke up, it was already a bright, sunny day, but I brought a jacket to class, still convinced that the weather might turn at any moment.
I read in the newspaper that an earthquake struck a city not too far south, that dust and debris fell from ceilings for hours, no one sure when it would finally stop. I read that the stock market had fallen dozens of points that I did not know how to quantify into any real terms, despite a B+ in Econ 100. I read that my favorite baseball team had lost their third game straight, and would likely not make the playoffs. I thought about my dream, and called it a premonition.
Today I woke up with a pain in my shoulder, and I did not connect it to my dream, although perhaps I should have. The pain makes it difficult to carry my bag, to sit straight although I can hear my grandmother saying you’ll ruin your back, and most of all, the pain makes it difficult to concentrate. I go home and lie on my back until the pain gets too bad, and then I roll onto my side away from the shoulder that hurts. I stay there, staring at a stain on the wall that looked just a little like a dinosaur.
At night, the apartment across the street throws a party, forget that it’s a Tuesday. I can hear it loud and clear through my open bedroom window. It’s loud enough to make me get up, leave the room, make myself dinner. I eat with earbuds in my ears, on the other side of the apartment. The party rages on.
I tell my roommate that we are almost out of sugar, because I can’t stop putting it in my coffee, and I can’t stop drinking coffee. She tells me it’s because she can’t stop baking cookies to deal with the stress of midterms. Neither of us promises to buy sugar, but both of us probably will, and then we will use it twice as fast because we have so much of it.
My roommate and I are not dysfunctional roommates so much as we are dysfunctional people. We do have a lot of cookies though. I should ask her to stop making them with so many raisins, but on the other hand I should stop eating so many of her cookies.
We agree that an overstocked kitchen is better than an understocked one, and besides there’s a grocery store just ten minutes away. When we moved in together, we made a list of things we were agreeing to, things like cleaning schedules, people staying over, and sharing closet space. Those rules, which we wrote when we were strangers, are still hanging on the fridge, but I never read them. I take out the trash only when I remember, and her shoes tumble out of the closet next to the door. Sometimes when she does something like clean the entire kitchen or vacuum the bedrooms, I wonder if she is doing it according to the schedule I have long forgotten or according to the schedule in her head. But usually, I take it for the gift that it is, and don’t ask.
Every night this week I have dreamt of oversleeping my alarm. I have woken up in a borderline panic at 3 am, 4, 5, the sun just rising, nothing even close to my 8 am alarm. I have not been able to fall back asleep. I have woken up for the alarm, and stayed up for the pain in my shoulder.
It has not gone away. When it hits one week, I can no longer push off my anxiety about it, and I call my mother. She answers right before the phone hits voicemail, cheerful in her greeting so that I know that she was all prepared to ignore the phone until she saw it was me calling.
I tell her that my shoulder hurts, I tell her I don’t know why. This is all I tell her, and she tells me not to worry. This is not her fault, I had only said, my shoulder hurts. I had not said I have hardly slept for a week because of the pain in my shoulder. Neither had I said I can barely lift my backpack or sitting up straight through an hour and a half of class is nearly impossible or today I thought my shoulder would just straight fall off, although all of those were true.
She tells me, if you’re really worried about it, you can always go to health services. Anyone who has ever been to a university can tell you that health services is of minimal practical value, so I say, I don’t know what they could do about it anyway. I am not entirely sure that this is true. Possibly they could send me to physical therapy. Possibly they could tell me to take a medication to make the pain disappear. Possibly they could tell me I was going to die. But most likely, they would ask me if I was sexually active and then send me home.
Okay love, my mother says, keep me updated. I take this as the conversation shift that it is, and ask her if she’s learned anything about my cousin’s new fiancé, who none of us have met.
I dreamt of my roommate. Unusual, for me, to know in real life the people of my dreams. In the dream, we were sitting at our table, not talking, existing together. She was making a collage out of clips from National Geographic, which is not the kind of thing I have ever seen her do, but it is the kind of thing I imagine she might like. I asked her where the magazine had come from, but just as I did, the bedroom door slammed shut. It’s a wind tunnel, my roommate said, cutting smooth edges around a photo of a rainforest canopy. It’s because the window is open. I walked to the bedroom to reopen the door, because I don’t like how small our apartment feels with all the doors shut, but it slammed back shut.
I jumped. Even though I knew it was coming, even though I was saying in my head, there’s a wind tunnel and the door is going to slam. I still kept opening the door, still kept jumping when it slammed shut. In the dream, my roommate said to me after one of the times the door slammed, she said, it’s not mad at you, Mia. I told her that I knew the door wasn’t mad at me. She said, are you mad at it? And in dream logic, the question made sense. I was still thinking about it as I woke up.
The next day, my roommate has friends over, the first time in weeks that someone else had walked into our apartment. Usually when my roommate sees people it’s at least nominally to study. Usually she offers them her cookies and they decline, awkwardly, because it’s hard to eat in other people’s homes. Sometimes they accept, awkwardly, and tell her the cookies are good, but they don’t sound sincere, even though they should be, because I know first-hand that the cookies are good. This time, she tells me that they are old friends of hers, people she has known since middle school. They eat her cookies without hesitation. She tells me their names but I miss them, smile politely and hope I won’t have to use them. One of the friends says to me, your apartment is so clean! Which is actually true, but my roommate and I exchange a look, both of us thinking but not saying don’t let her look in the cabinets. It feels good to be on the same page as someone.
I call my mother again, because I never know if I’m going crazy unless she says I am. She tells me I am not going crazy. She tells me, if you feel pain it’s real, if it’s real, we need to do something about it. I am reassured by her use of we, but also resentful, because regardless of whether she helps me figure out what’s going on or not, I will be the one who sleeps at night worried my shoulder will have fallen off by the morning.
She tells me again to go to the university health services, and I say I will. And I mean it too, because we need to do something about it, she and I.
I dreamt I was taking an exam but the tip of my pen tore through the blue book. As I bent down to get something from my bag, and even in the dream I didn’t know what, the blue book slipped from the tiny desk I was writing on and under the desk in front of me. I couldn’t reach the book, no matter how hard I stretched, no matter how much I strained my already strained shoulder. Even in my dream, I thought to myself, I really should start studying for the next round of midterms, they’re only a week and a half away.
I feel like I am dragging myself across campus all day, every moment I think I have distracted myself with class, with my lunch, with earbuds pushed into my ears, I am brought back to the pain in my shoulder. I wonder if I make it worse, thinking about it, almost like I am summoning it. Like I can make it come, and also make it go away. I focused as much energy as I can on ignoring it, but my backpack strap digs in and I want to scream. I go to health services.
Walk in appointments mean waiting in a basement lobby with cold plastic chairs and copious tissues, in a way that seems to threaten that if you don’t come in with a runny nose, you will leave with one. I tear a tissue to shreds while I wait for the nurse to call my name, and then when she does, I have to scramble to shove the scraps into my pocket, because the trashcan is on the opposite side of the room.
I tell the nurse that I’m dealing with a pain in my shoulder and I don’t know where it comes from. She checks for bruises and doesn’t find any. She asks me where I would rank my pain, on a scale from one to ten. I want to say ten, because it hurts so bad I can’t think sometimes. I want to say one, because I am still not convinced that it isn’t a figment of my imagination. I split the difference, and say five. She tells me to take advil for a few days, and if it doesn’t make a difference, to come back and she’ll give me something stronger. I leave, with little more information than I came with, and pieces of tissue bulging out of my pockets.
I dreamt I was on a train, driving alongside a generic highway, little cars speeding along next to me, and then midway through the dream I found myself driving the train, except we were no longer on the highway, we were driving through a forest and I didn’t know where we were going, I just followed the tracks and prayed at every bend that I wouldn’t send us all off a cliff.
The advil doesn’t make a difference.
I call my mother again, because sometimes talking to her makes me feel like a kid again and other times it reminds me in every corner of my brain how I am not a kid anymore. And both of those things can make me feel good. So I call my mother, and she asks me how I’m doing, and I can’t think of a single thing in my life going on besides my shoulder hurting.
Which I don’t say, because I don’t want her to worry. I tell her about something I read for my psychology class, explaining it as best I can, even though it is already slipping straight out of my head. At the end of the conversation, I tell her I’m not feeling well. She could have thought I was saying that I was getting a cold or a stomach bug, but I think she knows.
The new medication comes in thin white bottle, not the transparent orange kind I am so used to. The pills are big too, the kind that you can’t swallow without drinking water like a fish. For a moment, I think it must be a mistake, not for me, so I read the directions on the bottle. My name is bold and clear on the top. The bottle tells me that I should eat food with the pill, and that I should take it in the morning. I cannot remember the last time I ate breakfast, and I cannot imagine starting now. I eat another one of my roommate’s cookies (oatmeal raisin, again) and swallow the pill.
I am tired in the afternoon, and I think, of course I am tired, it’s the new medication, it’s high-strength, it has side effects. And then I think, that’s ridiculous. I remind myself that I am looking too hard for symptoms because the man at the pharmacy said this medicine was stronger, because he said to look out for anything that made me feel different, because he said to be careful. This is an overreaction. And then instead of thinking anymore, I collapse on my bed. I watch east coast baseball. When it ends, I consider getting my work done. I consider that my shoulder might fall off if I move. I watch west coast baseball.
I am tired all week. I have headaches, some days it sounds like a bell is ringing faintly in the back of my head. I convince myself a hundred times that it’s the medication, and then a hundred and one times that it’s my imagination. I eat more cookies without asking. I try to focus in class. I try not to move my shoulder too much.
I have told my roommate only in the vaguest terms why I have been tired, distracted, and strangely-tempered. It has occurred to me to wonder, a few times, if she has noticed anything off at all. I fell asleep at our kitchen table. When she got home she played music, out loud, maybe not realizing I was asleep. The songs infiltrated my dream. I dreamt I was walking to class when I heard the music, and it made me want to dance, which was so out of character, even for dream-me who is stupider and bolder and more instinctive than actual-me, that I woke myself up.
I ask her how her day went, trying to be polite and also to give my brain a second to wake up. She looks at me, sitting at our table and trying to cover my yawn. She says, you’re tired, that’s okay.
I think about how she was right, I am tired. I think about how she’s wrong, it’s not okay and I hate it, but then again she might be right, it’s just that I don’t quite know what she means. I want to ask her, is it okay to be tired because it’s not a big deal, or is it okay to be tired because it’s not my fault? But I don’t say it out loud. I am sure my voice would crack on my fault, if I could even get that far. She puts her earbuds in and begins to make dinner.
The doctor, the one at health services who I trust minimally more than anyone else at health services, says the next step is physical therapy. Physical therapy seems safe. Physical therapy makes me tired too, but a real tired, a tired from work, not from hazy medication. Physical therapy doesn’t work either. My shoulder strains and strains and strains but it does not break, and it does not fix itself.
I go back to the doctor, because I have nothing else to do. He tells me, maybe you don’t have muscle strain at all. He tells me, it could be some sort of chronic inflammation, do you know what that means? I do not. I often do not know what he means. Like an arthritis, he says.
I remember what my grandfather’s hands looked like, in the years before he died. I do not think I have arthritis. However, he is the doctor, and I am the idiot whose shoulder cannot stop hurting. Every time I go to talk to him, I am shocked he sees me at all. I wait for the day that he throws me out of his office, saying there’s nothing wrong with you, just ignore it.
I ask him how I would know if it was a chronic inflammation, like arthritis. He tells me I would need to get an MRI. He tells me my insurance will cover it. He does not ask me, do you know what that means? and I wish he did, but instead I go home and google it.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a technique using magnetic fields, magnetic field gradients, and radio waves to create an image of organs in the body. Some parts of an MRI machine include: a cryostat filled with liquid helium, a superconducting primary electromagnet coil, and magnetic gradient coils. In my imagination, I will be going into a nuclear reactor. I attempt to understand what all of these parts do, but the words exhaust me.
I dreamt I could smell brownies baking, the sweet smell of fudge melting over the pan. I dreamt the batter spilled over the side and began to drip down towards the grate on the oven and I dove to pull the pan away and clean it so it would not burn, I would not have to smell burnt brownies every time I turned on the stove for the next month. In my dream, the brownies were delicious.
I wake up craving brownies, so I buy a box (Duncan Hines, no chocolate chips) on my way home from class. I have to buy vegetable oil too, since I never cook with it. I throw a notebook in on top, to remind myself that I am a student who has to respond to needs other than brownie cravings. The notebook is bright red, and too big to ever be useful to me. It cost three dollars.
I tuck everything into my backpack, because years of half-hearted environmentalism has yet to stop me from taking twenty minute showers, but I never use plastic bags. By the time I get home, the box is a little squashed around the corners. I bake the brownies instead of writing my paper, sitting on the (dirtier than I’d like to admit) floor of our kitchen with the oven light on, watching the batter bubble on the top, and then harden. I take it out when the smell became unbearable, eat three generously cut pieces while they are still burning hot, then cover the pan with tin foil and leave it for my roommate. When the brownies cool down and the smell dissipates from the apartment, I lose interest in them all together.
The imaging center is a thirty minute walk from my apartment. My appointment is early in the morning, early enough that the sun is just rising when I leave. The whole appointment borders on surreal, this strange machine that seems almost alive around me. Getting inside is like getting in a coffin, and I close my eyes, briefly and ridiculously convinced I’ll be able to sleep, except I hadn’t counted on the noise. The machine creaks and screams in my ear. It says bow bow bow like a dog and so I say bow bow back which is when I hear movement from the other side of the machine and remember that there are people there, I have not been left alone locked in a plastic grave forever, and I pray that the technicians on the other side of the machine didn’t hear me talking to the machine. I lie there thinking about what the inside of my body looks like and whether it will be warm when I leave the building because it is cold in the room, so cold, when did it get so cold the technicians had offered me a blanket but I said no because it hadn’t been so cold when I got there and now I will spend the rest of my life, or at least the rest of this hour, regretting that, freezing cold and mechanical banging in my ear. And then sometime later it is over and I climb out, feeling rather satisfied with myself, like I have done anything at all. I take my insurance card back from the desk and the woman asks me if someone is waiting for me. I tell her yes, which is not true, and then I walk home. I tell myself it’s okay, I feel fine. Except that my shoulder hurts.
It’s still morning when I get back to the apartment, and my roommate is just waking up. She is making pancakes and it occurs to me that I never told her what I was doing this morning, but she hands me a plate like she knows how badly I want something sweet. Something that tastes real, and lets me know that I’m awake. She washes the dishes more efficiently than I could dream of doing, and waves to me as she locks the door on her way out. I eat the pancakes with maple syrup that my roommate must have just bought and strawberries that have miraculously not gotten moldy yet. They are delicious.
They had told me at the imaging center that I might have to wait a week, but the call comes in just two days. A nurse who I have never met but has seen more of the inside of my body than I ever will tells me that there is no chronic inflammation. Whatever is causing the pain, it doesn’t show up on an MRI. She reminds me that this is good news, because things that show up on MRIs are things that can hurt you. I believe this is true. My shoulder shows up on an MRI, and my shoulder is hurting me. The pain does not show up on an MRI, and maybe the pain is not hurting me. I wish again that someone would accuse me of faking. I believe that if someone did, I would be so insulted I would know for sure, in that moment, that it was real. I believe that if someone did, they would be right, and it would go away. Instead, the nurse tells me that I can get more information from the doctor in a follow-up appointment.
I dreamt that I was getting an MRI again, except instead of the machine the technician put me in a locker like the ones they have at the gym, and closed the door. It was loud like someone was banging on the metal, echoing and horrible, and even as it floated through my unconscious mind that this was a dream, I could feel myself stretching towards the open slats in the door, trying to get free.
I could see that the lock was being turned from the outside, but before I could know who was opening it, whether to help or to hurt me, I woke up, about to yell. Thank god I didn’t, my poor roommate has to deal with enough. I didn’t yell. I didn’t fall back to sleep.
There are oatmeal raisin cookies on the counter again, but they sound unbearably sweet. I have no food left in the refrigerator, and neither does my roommate, although I try not to eat her food. Only the cookies. Oftentimes the cookies, but in my defense, she makes so many of them. And I buy the sugar, sometimes.
I go to the grocery store. It’s brightly lit in a way that I usually find exhausting, but today it seems almost cheerful. It’s crowded, Saturday morning, kids being pushed around in the baskets of grocery carts. I take my time in the aisles, letting myself forget things, double back, get stuck in line behind a toddler trying to eat a cheese stick, still in its package, behind a young-ish guy with a cart that holds only basil and apple cider.
I buy the ingredients for pasta salad, which is the most elaborate recipe I know. Cherry tomatoes, broccoli, mozzarella cheese, the most brightly colored grocery basket I’ve had in a long time. It’s a lot, but I probably owe my roommate a dinner. Probably more than a dinner.
I hold the grocery bag on my shoulder, the one that hurts, until it becomes unbearable and I switch it to the other side. With no weight on that shoulder, the phantom pain is almost as bad. It beats in time to my footsteps.
When my roommate walks in, I have pasta salad filling up our largest mixing bowl on the counter, and the kitchen is only halfway cleaned from the whole undertaking. I say, hey, I made a lot of pasta salad, if you want any, we can eat it. I try to sound casual, and fail. I try to make it sound like a question, and fail. It sounds instead like pleading, or maybe like a command. I notice then that she is holding a takeout container, clearly meant to be dinner, still steaming. I wish so viscerally that I had never opened my mouth, never made a stupid-lot of pasta salad, that I feel like I could maybe open up a portal to another world, or at least to the apartment below us. I could fall straight through the floor and everyone would be so surprised and horrified that no one would remember my awkward attempt to make my roommate eat dinner with me. Then I picture my roommate at the hospital, looking at me in bed with my foot or arm or hand in a cast, but in the back of her mind she’s thinking about how I made her dinner and then tried to pretend that it wasn’t really her, she didn’t have to eat it, when she had bought perfectly good takeout that was getting cold.
This is my mind spinning out of control. It occurs to me, for a moment, to wonder if one those medications, as benign as the doctors had claimed they would be, has ruined me for good.
That looks really good, my roommate says. Do you want some dumplings?
I say, sure, even though dumplings don’t go with pasta salad. Even though I only really like vegetable dumplings, and I don’t know what kind she has. Even though I’m really beginning to think I might go completely crazy before sundown if we eat dinner together.
We eat dinner together.
She asks me how I’m doing. I say, good, which feels like a lie, but a nice one. Not malicious, but the kind you’re aspiring to. I’m worried she’ll challenge me on it, because I doubt she really thinks I’m good. I don’t think I’m good. But she accepts my answer, tells me about her TA who had worn the same pair of shoes every day, old ones with a hole in the heel, so that the other people in her class had started to talk about buying him new shoes. Not because they didn’t think he could buy them for himself, but because they like him, and they think he’s embarrassing himself. I laugh when she tells me that. It feels like being in on some inside joke. I tell her about some of the people I saw at the grocery store. I don’t tell the story well, at points not sure if I’m making any sense at all, but we laugh. It’s loud, louder that I had been in a while. It makes my head hurt, and my shoulder. I laugh harder, because that’s stupid. Laughing can’t make your shoulder hurt.
We eat my pasta salad, which is decent. We eat her take-out dumplings, which are excellent. When we finish, she offers me an oatmeal raisin cookie. I take it, and tell her that I don’t like oatmeal raisin cookies that much. And then I say, but I eat a lot of yours. She says, I know, and I say, I’m sorry about that, and she says she didn’t mind. I eat the cookie. I say, maybe I like them more than I thought. You can get used to a lot of things.
I dreamt of water again. Those tides that had brought skyscrapers crashing into the ground finally receded. They pulled further and further from the shore until I could no longer see the water, just barren land stretching before me, dry as if the water had never been there to begin with. When I woke up, I thought this might mean it was the end of the pain in my shoulder. For a moment, I was so sure it would be gone. It continues.
Eva Shapiro is a student at UC Berkeley, where she studies political science. She will graduate in Spring 2020. Eva is from Washington, DC, home of the country’s best sports teams.
© 2020, Eva Shapiro