As the subway doors unlatch, someone shoves me in the back, hard. This is more than the usual L train jostle. It is especially aggressive even for the Union Square stop, where the “I’m ignoring your humanity to make my commute slightly easier” brush-by is standard operating procedure. This move must have sinister purpose behind it, I assume. And so I pivot from my 7:30 am perch on the overhead bar and turn to face my aggressor. I have nothing planned other than a dirty look. I do this all the time even though it’s a move with no upside whatsoever. At best, I will get to see the face of someone who regards me as little more than an insect. At worst, I will find myself in a fistfight.
When I turn, I see the man who shoved me. Shaved head, black windbreaker scuffed with sheetrock dust and eggshell paint. He has the lumbering gait of a drunk launching himself from one parking meter to the next on the long walk home. He may very well be drunk, for all I can tell. This wouldn’t be the first guy I’ve seen stewed to the gills at this early hour on the subway. Then he careens into a woman much smaller than him, his shoulder stooping to her height. It doesn’t look intentional. He’s fighting something, and losing. His knees buckle beneath him, and his head begins to twitch and jerk.
“He’s having a seizure!” a woman yells. It sounds like dialogue from a script that doesn’t trust its director to explain things visually. I almost laugh, and yet I understand the urge to yell out something the second it hits your brain at a weird moment like this one. The crowd parts around the man, and the sudden lack of bodies speeds his descent. However, he has enough control of his facilities to lower himself, first sitting, then prone as he continues to shake.
The train remains paused. Not to address the man’s condition, but to let out the large crowd of people who depart at Union Square. Some of those who remain stare, while others look away, embarrassed. No one is quite sure what to do. We’re all spooked, myself included. But I’m spooked for a different reason. This all feels too familiar to me.
My dad drank through most of my kid-hood. He made many attempts to quit of varying lengths and degrees of sincerity. All failed. His desert islands of sobriety were inevitably wiped out when his brain, unable to deal with a sudden end to the nonstop flow of booze, induced violent, shaking seizures. There is a medical explanation for this, I’m sure. In fact, I vaguely recall having it explained to me in clinical detail, but the particulars escape me now. I could google it, but please excuse me if, having seen it up close starting at the age of 6, I’m not all that interested in brushing up.
Dad’s seizures were not like that of the man on the L train. They were loud, violent, and prolonged. The first time I saw it happen, I was terrified. But after that first time, the seizures came with such frequency that terror was no longer an option. If horror happens every day, it ceases to be horror, because it has to. Otherwise, it will drive you insane.
Out of necessity, I came to see the seizures as petty annoyances, like mosquitoes or bad TV reception. The seizures only bothered me if they were witnessed by someone outside the family, because these people weren’t equipped with my calloused eyes. They would see a seizure for the horror that it really was, and their reactions would force me to recognize that I was living in the middle of something that was monstrously wrong.
Once, my dad had a seizure at the local community pool. He was very close to a wall in the shallow end, so he didn’t drown, but he did crack his head open on one of the pool’s harsh concrete borders. My mom wasn’t there, and so the moms who were present took it upon themselves to try and comfort me, which was the last thing I wanted. Allowing myself to be comforted was an acknowledgment that this was a horrible thing and therefore I needed comforting. I didn’t want to stick around and wait for an ambulance while various moms wondered how best to pity me, or how best to push their own fear and horror back into faraway corners of their minds. I wanted to disappear.
One of them, a mom I barely knew, parent to a kid I thought was a bit of a creep (if eight-year-olds can really be creeps), grabbed me and squeezed me tight and told me it was going to be okay. She never bothered asking if it was okay to do this to me. I didn’t need her to tell me things were going to be okay. I knew this wasn’t okay but had moved the goalposts in my head so the sight of my dad twitching and stretched out on the community pool concrete could fit into my own personal definition of okay. This mom, on the other hand, was freaked out at the sight of a grown man gripped by a seizure. She was trying to reassure herself, not me, and she was lying to me to make herself feel better. I hated her for using me as a prop.
Dad once had a seizure while a classmate was over at my house. Again, dad cracked his head, this time when he plummeted from consciousness onto the dense wooden hexagon-shaped table that dominated the living room. This table was so huge and pointy, it was impossible to enter the room and not hit some part of yourself on it, even if you weren’t in the midst of a seizure.
The kid who’d come over to play started screaming. Somehow I’d been drafted into friendship with this kid. He was a weird kid. I was weird too, but not like him, I told myself. I had the sense that it was best to hide my weirdness. This kid was not blessed with such self-awareness. He talked weird, he had weird hair, he admitted liking weird things. He owned his weirdness thoroughly, whereas I held on to the vain hope that I could somehow un-weird myself. And so I always feared that associating with this unabashedly weird kid would cause my own weirdness to become known to the world at large, fooling myself into thinking this weirdness wasn’t screamingly obvious already.
Whenever this kid came to my house, some strange accident would befall him. Like the time a huge swarm of bees exploded from a hive under my back porch and chased him howling around my house. Or the time he was nailed in the head by a golf ball hurled by my baby brother. I have no idea how my baby brother got his hands on a golf ball, let alone had enough arm strength and accuracy to wing it at this kid’s head. The universe was telling this kid not to come to here. Only pain awaited him.
The seizure was the last straw. He didn’t come over to my house anymore after that. Neither did any other kid. The part of me that felt lonely was overpowered by the part that felt relieved. Hiding was no longer an issue. No one would look for me.
* * *
I wish I could be one of the kindhearted folks attempting to assist the man in distress on the L train. But I see his flails and twitches and become a child again. My first impulse is to shrink. I back up several feet, not realizing I’m doing this until I step on someone’s foot. I look toward the far end of the subway car, where I believe the conductor’s booth might be, telling myself I should inform some authority about what’s going on. But my hunting is halfhearted. Please let someone else take care of this, I beg the silence.
By the time I can bring myself to look back toward the man, he is up from the floor and sitting on the nearest row of seats, now empty of all other occupants. He face is ashen, but he appears to be more annoyed than anything else. He has the look of someone who left the house to go to work and found his car suddenly won’t start, and he can’t believe that the thing he needs to get where he needs to go, the thing he needs to earn a living, today of all days, has decided to give him trouble. Except that his car is his brain.
People ask the man if he wants to get off the train, if he has someone he wants them to call, if he would like some water. People think they’re helping. The man says nothing, just holds out a hand, waving away all good Samaritans. The doors close and the train lurches forward. People leave him alone and give him the space he wants. The man doesn’t want any help from the outside. He wants to vanish. I’ve never had a seizure, but I’ve been where he is now.