The x-ray tech doesn’t drape a lead apron across my body. She doesn’t even fully leave the room. She only tells me to point my toes to the ceiling and then steps behind a fiberglass partition and instructs the machine to do its work, which I hear it do. She has me roll onto my side; the machine hums its single note again, and that is that. We will soon discover whether the bone in my leg has broken or held.
Left medial tibial stress syndrome is the physician’s initial diagnosis, a repetitive stress injury from too much running. I’d increased the frequency and duration of my runs not long after we strung white Christmas lights on our bushes in the warm Spring sunshine and let ourselves believe that we were cheered, and right around the time we ate our last meal inside of a restaurant, my wife and daughter and I crowded in among the college students whose parents had come to collect them and ferry them all home to safety, and right around the time I was informed that I would lose the job I’d held for fourteen years, teaching English as contingent faculty at the local public ivy.
At first, running was a way to kill some extra time, but it soon became clear it was also a way to descend into my thoughts or ascend out of them. I teetered on the brink, feeling isolated and dazed, unable to process so many quick, effortless losses. And because I internalize anxiety, running became a strategy for expelling that energy out of my body: I could accumulate fear, collect as much of it from around the house as possible, could squeeze it out of my daughter and eat it like paste, and then process and shed it, leaving it behind me on the road in oily yellow footprints.
It worked for a long time–or it seemed to. I achieved a kind of functioning equilibrium. But running is a high-impact activity, and the tibia is a weight-bearing bone, so there’s only so much stress that it’s able to absorb before it weakens and cracks.
“Is it broken?” I want to ask the x-ray tech as I step back into my shoe, though I know she won’t be able to tell me. She stares impassively at the image, her glasses two blue squares of light. She knows but won’t say whether the bone has borne too much.
When my daughter was born, she had a problem shedding bilirubin. This is essay is mostly about her, by the way—or it’s meant to be.
Bilirubin is a yellowish substance in the blood that gets processed through the liver and excreted. Newborns that struggle to shed bilirubin may develop infant jaundice, a fairly common condition and one that is not too much trouble to solve. For our daughter, the solution was phototherapy. She spent a few days in the light box, wearing a diaper and an eye mask, and at regular intervals they would check her progress by testing her blood.
To test an infant’s blood, you collect a sample by pricking her heel with a needle and then squeezing until you’ve managed to fill a small vial. Occasionally, to fill the vial, you have to prick the heel twice. As a new parent to a child whose first days were spent blindfolded in a box, this was difficult to watch. To see her face contract and turn scarlet. The little curled tongue. The bloodless fists. To watch it happen over and over. To always know that it was coming. This felt like the first betrayal. It was our job, after all, to intercept this pain and deflect it, or––failing that––absorb the pain into our own bodies. My wife had done her fair share and more, which meant that this failure seemed like mine.
Worse was day the nurse picked our daughter up and pricked her heel and instead of crying our baby simply didn’t, and this was worse because we understood that she had already adapted to the pain and had accepted it as a condition of the external world. The prick, like the blindfold, had become just another part of her day. This was the real betrayal.
The x-ray tech walks me down a corridor and out of the lab. “Does it hurt?” she asks.
“Only when I run,” I say. I’m smiling under my mask, but of course she can’t see it. She looks at me as if I haven’t answered her question, and I wonder if she wasn’t actually talking about my leg—I wonder what it was that she saw on the monitor, hidden beneath my shallow skin. I nearly stop walking and tell her everything. “I’m floundering,” I want to say. “I feel lost. And yes, it hurts,” I want to tell her. “It hurts just a little bit, but all the time.”
At first, our daughter burrowed. She found small spaces to climb into. We’d realize she was missing and then find her folded up inside a cabinet with the board games. We made forts and covered them in blankets, let her live in them for days. What she did inside those spaces was a mystery we’d piece together through the trash and stains she left behind, but if it made her feel safe to spend her day inside a box it was something we were prepared to let her do. We’d drop off snacks and clean clothes. Every four days we’d lure her into the bath and then raze the whole thing like a festering tent city.
This was early on in the pandemic, when we sanitized our groceries with Clorox wipes and then scrubbed up like surgeons about to operate: hands, nails, wrists. The danger was everywhere. The threat was school, so we stopped going; the threat was our friends, so we no longer saw them; the threat was her grandparents, so we didn’t get near them; the threat was in us, so we hid ourselves away, careful now about what we touched and how we breathed. It was this sudden instability, I imagine, that she was trying to manage by creating a space where it didn’t exist.
We’ve had challenging days since, just like anyone—just like everyone. So much grief, for so long, and with nowhere to put it. Some nights she can’t sleep; we find her standing in our doorway at midnight, crying. She says her mind won’t stop thinking and she doesn’t know why, and I understand exactly what she means. We navigate these things as best we can, which is to say helplessly.
Now, she mostly wants to be left alone with her tablet. This is phototherapy, or what passes for it—the blue screen illuminating her soft face, her big wet eyes. And because she tends to internalize anxiety, I can only hope that the light is strong enough to break down whatever floating yellow toxins might be bobbing like globules on the surface of her blood, can only hope that if there’s poison in her body she is able process and expel it. It seems to be working. She seems to have reached a kind of functioning equilibrium.
Mostly, now, the days pass without complaint. But this is the thing that grips me with fear—this is when I wonder if we’ve pricked the heel so much that she doesn’t even feel it anymore.
The next day, my doctor calls me with the results of the x-ray. He leaves the message as I’m driving my daughter to school, which she is lucky to attend once again in person. I don’t check it right away because I’m watching her in the rear-view mirror, sitting in her car seat with her hands in her lap, pointer fingers intertwined. Her snow boots dangle like barbells from the ends of her legs. The winter is in thaw and some of the pressure we’d felt in the atmosphere seems to have dissipated. I’ll drop her off and then go to my own new job, teaching English Language Arts at a startup Montessori High School, feeling glad and relieved to have regained this one thing that I’d lost. In many ways, it feels like we’ve made it; it feels like we’ve survived. Still, I worry about the long-term damage from all the repetitive stress.
For now, I simply study my daughter’s face in the mirror. She has put her own mask on without me asking. She stares placidly out the window, watching every fixed object slide effortlessly away, her eyes revealing nothing. She is a baby in a light box. She is a weight-bearing bone. I wonder desperately what’s going on beneath the surface–where the heavy things do their slow, quiet damage––and hope that whatever has broken in me holds firm inside of her.
Joe P. Squance teaches ELA at the McGuffey Montessori High School in Oxford, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and their young daughter. His stories have appeared in Best Microfiction 2019, Atticus Review, Cease Cows, Fiction Southeast, Monkeybicycle, Trampset, and elsewhere, and he has written essays for Salon and Runner’s World. You can find him lurking on Twitter @joesquance or walking through town at a brisk pace that isn’t yet quite a run.