by Noah Stetzer
Measure of a Man
Numbers crowd this room: T-cells, viral load,
telephone, clocks, oxygen, and the day.
Longitude and latitude place us here
in the ICU. Chalk on the blackboard
graphs numbers on the axis, show the curve
of my distinction. A barcoded wrist
band spills out my story with laser beams.
Impugning, indicting numbers push up
mercury, rise under pressure, scarlet.
The height and width, the breadth of me; the weight
of my temperament and disease marks me
with indelible Sharpie black magic.
Strangers count my T-cells, like tagging cars
at an impound lot they use wax crayons
on my shoulder to mark results; they weigh
each clean T-cell like a charm bracelet bead.
Shoulder-slumped ladies in a lab with low
desk lamps, bend over dishes of my blood;
pick through my leavings—a forensics team
reconstructs the crime from wisps and hair, small
piece of fingernail, a tootsie roll
wrapper—they write the number on a slip
of skin and burn it. Black smoke: no answer.
White smoke: you’re below two hundred, and
protocol says they call in that bad math.
Wobbly on your feet, this is careful work, a spilling
hazard and circus feat with siphoning chest tubes
strung up to the wall and down to the floor,
and IV drips fastened from your wrists to the rack;
a web of wires stuck with epoxy onto your hairy
chest sending signals down the hall. You’re what’s on TV
tonight at the nurse’s station: a marching blip and
line. They decode you from vital signs. It is very
dark and very late and you are standing
next to your hospital bed peeing into a plastic jug
that reminds you of a milk container.
Earlier your sister came to sit with you.
She took stock of the room’s equipment,
cracking jokes about nozzles and readouts,
the alarm bell and light outside your door
as if you were a mental patient or maybe radioactive.
While subdued clipboards and quiet gloves
came and went, you told her the doctors
start to smile when they talk about test results,
that manageable is the last thing you would
call this, and that you’re sure everyone is thinking
of anal sex and bathhouses. The nurse drawing blood
only frowned at that, but the X-ray technician laughed.
You are standing in the dark because your body
won’t let you pee lying down. The system inside
that keeps you from rolling out of bed while you sleep,
the fail-safes built in just won’t let it happen. Like a high
wire walker you have climbed carefully from the bed,
each wire and tube accounted for, your breath’s now
a little short, the jug in one hand the other gripping
the rail when all the lights flash on and the nurses rush in.
After recovering from Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia five years ago, Noah Stetzer went back to school and last summer completed an MFA in poetry. He has been selected as a poetry fellow for the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Writers, and has also been awarded a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.