Jacob C. Connerly
Jacob C. Connerly is from Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has a master’s in teaching from Trinity University. He currently lives in San Antonio, Texas, where he teaches world history and helps diverse learners to look at history as their own story.
by Jacob C. Connerly
“Well, the good news is that you’re going to be perfectly fine.”
The sharp tang of disinfectant and fecal matter stung in Charlotte’s nose. She sat baking under the halogen lights, bunching up the sheets of her bed in her fists, not looking the doctor in the eye. Doctor Tam sat at the foot of the bed, hunched over.
“It’s a very common assistance device that many people benefit from. It’s only natural to feel embarrassed or upset. I’m here to tell you that it’s not the end of the world.”
Charlotte sniffed loudly. The doctor cleared her throat.
“Charlotte, you’re lucky to be alive. Colorectal cancer-”
“Is no joke. You say that. A lot.”
Charlotte wouldn’t look up from the contorted sheets. Her knuckles were white. Neither one said anything for a time. Then, Doctor Tam got to her feet.
“You’ll be staying here some time to heal and to learn about your new lifestyle. Of course, we’ll have one of the nurses give you some information later. For now, just get some rest.” She turned, then turned again, walked over to Charlotte, and put a hand on her shoulder. This time, Charlotte looked up, her eyes puffy and clouded.
“It doesn’t feel like it right now, but it’s all going to be okay.”
Charlotte said nothing. Doctor Tam left the room. Then, Charlotte peeled back the twisted covers and looked down. She stared at the bag and the tube fed through the hole in her stomach, and began silently sobbing.
“And how are we doing today, Charlotte?”
Charlotte tried her best to put on a smile as she sat down in the chair for her examination. She had spent two weeks with the thing, the odious, fetid, disgusting thing.
“I’m doing okay. How are you?” she almost forgot to add.
“Every day is a new day!” Nurse Gretchen gave her a warm smile, and Charlotte knew it was genuine but didn’t care. Gretchen brandished her clipboard.
“Okay, now how are we feeling? Any discomfort?”
“Oh that’s so wonderful sweetheart. Now, have you started taking any new medications recently?”
“No, still on the same stuff.”
“Well keep at it, we don’t want an infection. Have you been eating any cabbage, beans, or nuts?”
“Good, and have you experienced any pains or skin irritation?”
“No, no pain.” The pain was not real pain. The pain was a different kind.
“Okay hun, that’s all the questions I have for you. Would you kindly draw your gown up so I can take a look?”
She did so. The nurse, humming, disconnected the bag to take a look at the stoma, the shit hole, the thing, to make sure there were no leaks or infections. There were none, so she reconnected the pouch and had Charlotte pull the gown down over it, concealing it once more.
“No hernia, that’s very good to see! Have you thought up a name for it yet?” Gretchen asked, smiling and bright.
“No.” She had a name for it, but it wasn’t what Gretchen meant.
“Well, I know it sounds like the last thing you want to do right now, but I always tell my patients that they should name their stoma something cute, like Eva, or Jo! It’s much better than calling it a ‘hole,’ trust me, and it makes you start thinking of it as a part of you. It’s saving your life.” She raised her eyebrows at Charlotte, but Charlotte was looking at the floor. As Gretchen began to take her gloves off, Charlotte looked up.
“I was reading online about something called irrigation? I read that it means you don’t have to wear the pouch.”
Gretchen sighed and turned.
“Sweetie, I’m really sorry, but with colorectal cases, irrigation just isn’t the best option. There’s a much higher risk of infection, and we can’t take that chance right now. Your body is still recovering from the cancer. We can always reevaluate once you’ve had some time to adjust and heal.”
“So there’s a chance that I won’t have to wear the pouch forever?”
“Well… Yes, there’s a chance. But not yet.” Her smile wasn’t warm anymore, it was pitying. Charlotte looked down at the ground again.
Charlotte stared out the window at the hazy grey sky as Craig drove her home. He didn’t know what to say to her for some time. Then, he cleared his throat.
“How was the visit?”
The sound of wind rushing past.
“Did the nurse say anything about the, uh, irrigation, thing?”
“She said I can’t do it.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”
Wind for the rest of the drive home.
Three weeks after getting the thing, Charlotte returned to work. She walked to work just like she used to, taking in the blue skies and the bustle of the people, but it wasn’t the same, not when she could feel the bag strapped against her abdomen under the compress. A man who looked wiry like a greyhound held the door open for her. He looked familiar. She thanked him and didn’t notice him walk away instead of following behind her. She took the elevator up to the fourth floor of the building, kept her head low, signed in, and sidled to her desk. Despite her best efforts, Paul noticed her and walked over to the door, hands in his pockets.
“It’s really good to see you. How are you feeling?”
“Ready to work.”
“Good, good. Hey, do you mind following me for a second?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.”
She got up and followed Paul as he walked towards the break room. Her co-workers congregated around the table in the center of the room wearing smiles. There was a large cake in the middle of the table that had the words “Welcome Back” written in big green letters on it.
Charlotte didn’t know what to say. She smiled as she was hugged over and over again and welcomed back into the office. At first, she felt small and scrutinized, but the warmth of the crowd changed her mind some. After the initial celebration settled down, they began cutting the cake.
“Here you go Charlotte, have this big corner piece,” Paul said as he extended a paper plate with a piece that had half of the “W” on it.
“I’m really sorry, I… The doctors gave me a list of things I shouldn’t eat, and cake…” Paul looked around, but the rest of their coworkers were looking down at their shoes.
“Of course, I’m so sorry about that.”
“But don’t let me stop you. Please, everyone else, dig in.” She tried her best to smile, and Paul handed the slice of cake to Jenna. They stood around chatting as everyone enjoyed the cake, asking her about Craig and talking about George’s new dog. For a while, even Charlotte was enjoying herself, but it didn’t last.
Charlotte, still smiling from George’s story about his chewed up loafers, turned to see Paul’s face. His eyes were on her stomach. She looked down. There, a small circle of brown had formed on her white blouse. No one spoke. Jenna, closest in proximity to Charlotte, hurried out of the room towards the bathroom, hands over her mouth. Someone retched. Aghast, Charlotte hurried out of the room and into her office. She shut the door behind her, and before she retrieved the wipes and the ostomy ring from her purse to replace the bag, she began to cry.
After three weeks, Charlotte felt no better about the thing. She hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since before the surgery, since it needed its bag changed once every night like some hateful child soiling its diapers. She hadn’t had a leak since the party, apart from at home where she could clean up in private, but she kept catching Jenna and Karen standing close to each other in the hallway at work whispering and glancing in her direction. When they noticed her, they walked in separate directions.
At first, she took her break from the bag when showering, but the thing was so active that she involuntarily shit all over the shower. She hated cleaning up after it any more than she needed to, so she never took a break from the bag, hating the sight of it every time she took her clothes off and looked in the mirror. When she did take it off to clean, the stoma sat there on her lower abdomen, a red eye, always watching, never sleeping. Craig had been as supportive as any boyfriend could be, but when she came out of the bathroom after sitting on the toilet and screaming from the pain of forcing out the mucus ever-forming in her unused and atrophying rectum, he never seemed to look her in the eye. They had sex, but it was infrequent, and she caught him looking at the bag each time, as if it would burst open and drown him.
She kept working, and it helped, but not much. She kept walking to work, and that helped too. She caught the wiry man watching her as she walked in to work each morning, and sometimes as she left, but he never said hello, just stood at a distance and smoked his cigarettes. One time, she caught his eye as he slouched against a nearby building, but he looked away from her quickly, as if the sight of her burned him.
On this particular day, she didn’t see him in the morning, but thought nothing of it. She and Paul needed to spend overtime this evening tidying up several accounts before the long weekend, and the stress was enough to keep her mind occupied. She spent the rest of the day making phone calls, drinking coffee, and writing emails. She called Craig and let him know she would be late coming home. Even after Paul yawned, stretched, said goodnight, and left, she sat working. When the sun had fully set, she decided to return home.
She took the elevator down, said good night to the security guard at the front desk, and began the walk home. The night was cool and refreshing, and for a moment, she didn’t think about the thing. She had been walking for some time, and was a good distance from her work building, when she heard him.
A bolt of electricity shot up from her stomach and into her throat. She turned and saw the wiry man, quickly stubbing out a cigarette with his shoe, across the street. He was staring at her. She stood, frozen in the spot, looking at him, unsure what to do.
“What do you want?” The nerves had made her throat seize, her words unsure and timid.
He said nothing. She willed her legs to move again, and she began walking towards her apartment, still ten minutes away. She had her head down, but kept her eyes on him.
He started walking, matching her speed. She began to run. He did too. She ran as fast as she could, not bothering to look back as she darted around the far corner of a laundromat three streets down. She hunkered down behind a dumpster and bit her own fist to keep from crying. She tried to quiet her breath and listened.
She heard nothing. She stayed low to the ground and pulled her cell phone from her purse. She could feel her heartbeat in her throat as she held the phone close to her, trying to hide the brightness of the screen as she dialed 9-1-1 with shaking fingers. She connected with dispatch, but before she could speak, the wiry man was standing over her, breathing hard.
He grabbed her wrist and wrenched her upwards, the phone flying out of her hands. She screamed and twisted in his grasp, but he was stronger than he looked. He clamped his other hand over her mouth. She bit down hard. He cursed and drew his hand away quickly, but didn’t let go with the other. She smelled the smoke on his breath as he began tearing at her blouse, ripping buttons away as he did so. The tear revealed the bag underneath. In her terror, Charlotte acted upon impulse.
She reached her free hand down to the bag and disconnected it from the cannula. She kicked down hard on the foot of the wiry man, who howled and released her captive wrist. With the hand now free, she aimed the bag at the wiry man’s face and brought her palm down hard in a clapping motion. The bag expulsed its contents violently, covering both of them in shit.
“What the hell?” he sputtered, reeling away from her. He wretched, then vomited on his own shoes. When he stood, he looked into Charlotte’s eyes. There, he saw fire. He ran, not looking back.
Charlotte stood there, covered in her own feces, for quite some time. Then, she began to laugh. She laughed so hard her eyes watered and her stomach hurt, and when the police arrived, she was still doubled over, whooping. When they asked her why, she told them in between breaths that Jo had saved her.