- The Deserter
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[End Page 22]
I never thought I'd end up here, some sucker looking for hope. But then, who really plans on being desperate? Who plans on home invasion or diabetes or falling on your ass after you've stepped on a bad patch of ice? All I know is that desperation got me on this plane to Toronto, where I sit quietly in the middle seat in row fifteen, rubbing a piece of lamb fat across my lips.
I make one slow, greasy swipe over my upper lip, then rest the fatty scrap for a microsecond on my chapped bottom lip. There. I do this furtively, my head bent toward my lap so that no one will see. Still, I can't help noticing that the woman on my right shifts discreetly away. "What the hell?" I imagine her saying. "What's this nutcase doing?"
What can I say? I put the lamb fat in a baggie and go back to reading my book.
It's 6:30 A.M. on January 1, 2004. The people around me look tired and hungover, their faces gray and creased with exhaustion. I imagine [End Page 23] they celebrated into the wee hours of the morning, kissing their partners or sweethearts—or maybe someone new—squeezing in a few hours of sleep, then rousing themselves for this early flight to Canada. Instead of kissing, I did my prep: I baked sweet potatoes and grilled lamb chops, the only two foods I can eat for the next three days. It's a special diet for an experimental allergy treatment I'll have in Toronto. I should be glad it's not turnips and tofu or something equally weird, but why be grateful when I'd rather have steak and champagne? Or a big hunk of coconut cake. Besides having to eat the odd foods, I look like a ghoul: dark circles ring my eyes, and all the pores on my nose are saying hello. In preparation for the treatment, I can't wear makeup or use lotion of any kind, can't wash my hair or touch newsprint, can't use deodorant or hairspray or toothpaste, as if I'm undergoing a ritual cleansing, casting off my former life. Yesterday I leaned in close to the mirror, fingering a flat, red, freckle-like spot, shiny as a sequin, under my left eye. I wanted to scratch it, then got ahold of myself and snatched my hand away. Jesus!
But that was yesterday. Today I'm abandoning my ordinary life in Iowa for a European treatment with a Canadian doctor I've barely talked to over the phone. Even though I've researched the treatment and talked to other doctors, this trip suddenly seems crazy. Loony. I wish I were high on Fruit Loops. I wish I were hungover and crabby and munching airline pretzels. Instead, I'm trying to keep my wits, trying to act like I know what I'm doing: crossing the border so some medicine man can sprinkle me with fairy dust. Just thinking about this makes me queasy. What if he's a quack? What if he's a hustler who's only taken a weekend course? What if I die in Canada? Stop! I tell myself. Just stop!Don't think about that. Think instead about Toronto, such a sophisticated city, so clean, so liberal, so kind to the arts.
Within three hours I'm actually in Canada, rushing to the doctor's office in a taxi, the Toronto sky as bleak and flat as a sheet of tin. Mountains of dirty snow border the highway. Only the tall, icy buildings glimmer, almost dream-like, in the stale noon light. Otherwise, Toronto looks glum, deserted. A winter pout. Though I'm nervous about this treatment (two tiny shots that include an enzyme supposed to activate T-suppression cells), I know I'll settle down once I arrive at the doctor's office, once I sit on the requisite upholstered chair, see [End Page 24] the requisite spread of outdated magazines on the glass-topped...