Apr/May 2006 Nonfiction

Pain Principle

by Jeff Tannen

My pinky finger feels swollen and out of place, and although I can't move it, I really don't see any need to call my mother at work.

"Would you like me to dial for you?" the nurse asks.

"I can do it," I say.

When my mother picks up, I tell her I'm in the nurse's office. The nurse nods, providing silent encouragement.

"Are you all right?"

"I hurt my finger."

"How bad is it?"

"The nurse says it's fractured."

"Oh my God. I'm going to have to take you to the doctor."

"What for? At least it's not broken."

"Fractured means broken, Jeffrey."


By small degrees I begin feeling something I didn't think this incident would bring: pride. This is my first broken bone. It doesn't hurt too much, but it looks pretty ugly. All my classmates will be asking me about it tomorrow.

"Are you going to tell me what really happened?" my mother asks, once we're driving away from the nurse's office.

"I punched a kid in the head."

"You got in a fight?"

"Well, not really."

She looks over at me as much as she can without taking her eyes off the road.

"It was Brandon. He wouldn't leave me alone. So I went to pop him one, but he ducked."

Brandon Jarl had been my best friend in the fourth grade. We hung out off and on through the fifth and sixth grades. Once we got into junior high, I made new friends. He couldn't take the rejection, so he harassed me between classes.

About how I broke my finger, my mother doesn't say anything else. She never did like Brandon. She's probably wishing I had clocked him a good one.

When we finally get in to see the doctor, he smiles at my hand. He turns it this way and that and tells me I'll need x-rays, but he knows what the problem is just by looking at it.

"This is a boxer's fracture," he says.

I make a mental note. I will tell every single kid who asks about my finger that this is a boxing fracture.

"After I set the bone, you'll wear a cast for a month, then keep it wrapped for a couple of weeks. It should heal with no problems."

I can't believe my good fortune. I try to sock a kid in the head and get a battle wound I can gloat about for the next month.

Of course, it hurts a bit when he sets the bone, but not enough that I can't stand it. Not enough that I try to pull away or cry out or anything. At most, maybe I wince. It's all worth it. There's no shame in this injury. And hardly any pain. That makes it the best kind.

Unfortunately it's the last of the best kind I'll ever have.


My left foot is broken in half, the toes pointing inward at a ninety degree angle. The last thing I want to do is call my father, but my date has driven me to the emergency room, and it could be hours before I'm released.

I write down the number and dig in my pockets for some change.

"He'll know what to do. Just tell him which hospital," I say, dumping the coins into her hand.

My date has been wonderful. She drove me across town after I refused to be admitted in the nearest ER, and she's calling my father for me even though I myself wouldn't want to break the news to him.

When my father gets there, he asks how I am. This is his way of asking: "What the hell did you do?"

"I was hopping a fence."

"What fence?"

"At mom's condo complex. We snuck in the rec room to play pool."

At this point I really wish my mother wasn't on a cruise line. Not just because she would have let us in the gate, but because she's much more sympathetic than my father, who feels only anger in times of suffering.

I watch his expression as he glances down at my injury. Few things have pissed him off more than the sight of my misshapen foot. He'd like to give me some kind of lecture, but I'm in too much pain to listen.

"I'm taking your date home. Don't go anywhere."

I'm in the exact same spot when he returns. I can see that having been forced to converse with an innocent bystander has decreased my father's level of anger.

"How bad does it hurt?" he asks.

"A hell of a lot more than it did two hours ago."

"Can't they give you something while you're waiting?"

"The nurse said no drugs."

"On a scale of one to ten, what's the pain?"

"A nine."

He gets up and storms into an area he shouldn't be in. I hear him exchange words with a nurse. He comes back and paces a while before leaving again.

A half hour later he's wheeling me into a room. The nurse stabs me three times in my right hand before she gets the IV right. I'm in so much pain already I don't even feel it.

The doctor looks at my foot and orders X-rays. He then looks at the X-rays and examines my foot.

"I've scheduled you for surgery tomorrow morning. Try to get some sleep. The nurse will give you some morphine to reduce the pain."

I tell my father to go home; there isn't anything else he can do here.

After the nurse administers the morphine he leaves. I wait for the drug to kick in, but it doesn't. I call for more and she gives me more. When that doesn't do anything I call for more. Again, she gives me more. She tells me how much each shot of morphine is costing me: thirty-eight dollars and some change. I tell her to keep it coming. At some point she says that's all she can give me.

"Do you drink alcohol?" she asks.


"How much a week do you drink?"

I think to myself: I'm twenty-one years old. How much do you think I drink?

I give her a conservative estimate: "Thirty beers."

She smirks like something's funny and shakes her head.

"The morphine's not going to have any effect. You're in for a long night."

An hour later the pain has gone from a nine to a twenty-three. It's the most torturous thing I've ever felt. I can feel splintered bone pricking the nerve endings inside my foot. I imagine the meat surrounding the metatarsals to be minced and spongy and soaking up loose blood. Never before have I been more aware of the network that is my nervous system, the sensitivity of the fibers throughout my body screaming at me that something is wrong.

The pain extends to the rest of my body. If I have a soul, it hurts, too.

All night I drift in and out of consciousness. In the morning I'm hardly aware of being wheeled into the operating room. When the anesthesiologist asks me to count backward from ten I start to recite the alphabet.

Next thing I know I have a cast on my leg and I'm not well rested, but I feel really, really good. My date has come bearing a gift. She hands me some stationery that reads Foot Notes across the top. There's a cartoon foot printed on the background of the notepad.

I don't get it, but I tell her it's a great present. And she's sooo pretty. And we should do this again sometime. She kisses me on the cheek and leaves.

Sometime after she's gone my father arrives. He's not nearly as pissed off as he was last night. In fact, he's sympathetic now and willing to help me go to the bathroom.

"There's no way I can get up," I say.

"That's fine. Use this."

He hands me a bed pan.

"What do I do with it?"

"Turn on your side. I'll empty it when you're done."

I try and try, but I can't go. Every few seconds I get out a squirt or two. My father waits patiently behind me as I make a drugged attempt to urinate. This is definitely not the best kind of injury. I feel shame in a hundred different ways.

At least the pain has subsided.

Oh, the pain.


The vehicle is still coasting. For some reason I unbuckle the seatbelt and open the door. I step out just as the car rolls into a ditch.

I look down at my body. My knees and hands are shaking, but functional. I brush bits of broken glass from my sweatshirt. Scoop handfuls out of my hood. My bones appear to be intact. I try all of my joints just to make sure. Everything works.

I don't know what else to do, so I start walking back toward the scene. When the other driver sees me he walks my way.

"What happened?" I ask.

"I don't know."

I ask him again. "What happened?"

"I wasn't paying attention."

He looks at me like something's funny. Is he really smiling or is it just me? I can't yet tell if this is funny or not, but I get the distinct feeling that it isn't.

I look down the road, at his truck parked on a curb; it doesn't have a scratch on the front bumper.

My car is crumpled and torn, the hood smashed into asphalt at the bottom of a ditch. It looks like someone set off bomb in the trunk of my car.

Cal Trans is already sweeping the metal and glass to the side of the road. The grating of their push brooms, the sound of glass grinding pavement makes me feel nauseous. Sirens wail from around the corners. Police, paramedics, and firefighters will be here in minutes.

I squat down on the roadside with hands on top of my head.

A woman asks me if I'm all right.

"I don't know," I say.

When the paramedics arrive they ask me the same thing.

"I don't know," I say again.

I provide an officer with my license and registration and he takes my statement for the police report.

"I was sitting at a stoplight," I say. "I looked into my rear view mirror and saw the guy trying to swerve. I thought I was going to be broken in a hundred different ways." When my father arrives he looks at the car and he's pissed. He looks at me and he's concerned. He looks at the car again and he's pissed.

This isn't the first time he's had to pick me up from an accident. I was eighteen; it was his car and my fault. Here we are again, ten years later, only it's my car and not my fault, but that doesn't matter. I've still been involved in a serious collision and my father has to deal with it and I have to deal with it.

While I call my insurance company to report the accident, my father finds out from the tow truck driver where he's hauling my car. Glass is still being swept off the road. My father is removing my personal items from the trunk of my car. The policemen are asking passers-by questions. The driver who hit me heads back to work. It feels more like striking a set than cleaning up an accident.

Once all the officers and paramedics and bystanders have gone, leaving me and my father standing beside the ditch, he turns to me and asks if I'm ready to go. I look for my reflection in a broken mirror. The glass is too busted up, and I can't make out anything.

"Sure. Let's get out of here," I say.

I distinctly feel the absence of pain, and yet something about the accident hurts more than if I had been seriously injured. Part of me wishes I had broken a bone or been cut by shattering glass.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why, but some kind of pain would make this moment make a lot more sense.


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